Year 3000 of the Third Age
Impassable and absolute stood the gates of the city of Azkahar. Strong wood was reinforced by stone carved with the exploits of its past Kings and champions, and at the centre was the depicted scene of endless forces from Gondor unable to overcome the might of the city defence. Impassable; but not so for Kharid Drozhna.
For many a scorching day and freezing night he had travelled to Azkahar, his will solely and primarily bent upon the mission tasked to him personally by the head of his order – to assassinate the rebel King. The command of the Myr Unghal left him with the feeling that this quest would elevate him into the elite of the Hasharii, and he was loath to pass aside such a chance for higher glory. But before he could even come into contact with his prey, Drozhna had to deal with the gates that stood before him – the gates that entire battalions had failed to open.
The city guard had seen his coming for a long while, for though the skills of blending and secrecy of the Hasharin were renowned, all about Azkahar was barren earth but for the road that ran by the gates. Drozhna could descry dust billowing from the city, and soon saw a pair of riders galloping towards him. Azkahar itself was eerily quiet, as if it was poised on a spring for some force of vengeance to come marching from Umbar, and the road of trade on which it had prospered on had become dead and ghostly since the King had declared his independence.
The two riders soon approached Drozhna, who patiently remained still as they circled about him, inspecting him like scavengers verifying whether the beast they sought to feast from still maintained a threat. At length they eventually stopped, one a couple of yards from Drozhna and the other a distance away from his companion, ready to ride back to the city to report any possible foul action.
‘You are Hasharii, are you not?’ inquired the closer horseman, not troubling himself to dismount. ‘The agents of the Lords of Umbar are no longer welcome at Azkahar.’
Though the stalwart soldiery of the city were no fools, over the five years of his service Drozhna had acquired a curious, yet unpeered ability among his order – a way with words that could seduce the most wilful to his influence; and pettier men whispered that with thought alone he could summon to himself the tongue of a serpent.
‘Well met, brave warrior of Azkahar, esteemed city and kingdom of greatest renown! There is indeed no fault in your shrewd observation; I am of the order you suggested I hail from. Yet I have travelled far with no evil intent hidden within my cloak, as weaker men have accused of us, but to speak with your mighty King in peace and with reason, in regards to his wise and just negotiation for independence – which the rational Council of Umbar has agreed to with no qualm. For men of such lineage that can still be found in high count in Azkahar, I deem, are truly knowledgeable not to believe the rumours of tyranny that circulate about the port-city, and that the Lords of Umbar do not take with great force but honestly give with open arms, at least, to those who have earned the respect and gratification they are deserving of.’
At this the horseman paused for a moment, doubting the sincerity of this strange messenger, but the sweetness of his words overcame his suspicion. ‘You will follow me into the city, where you will wait for an audience with the noble King.’
‘I am glad, good soldier; you are truly a just and honourable servitor of your esteemed lord,’ said Drozhna, his words as transparent as thin air.
The horseman shouted to his companion, who rode back to the gates with haste as he trotted a few paces in front of the following Hasharin. With several short, harsh cries the undefeated portal to Azkahar was opened, and as the horsemen and Drozhna passed through the wood and stone, assembled by the interior walls were several dozen men, ready on duty should any opposing army come to devour them. They looked at Drozhna in doubt, though as the Hasharin passed he bowed to many of them, and men wondered at that, though only few were untrustworthy of his motives.
One of these few was the young captain Hagraz, a champion of the King’s favour. He gathered a retinue of followers to him and spoke to them in low whispers, fearing the eyes of the Hasharii to be everywhere. ‘You men,’ said he, ‘I advise you – however silver that serpent’s tongue is, do not be fooled by that honourless assassin. Let us follow him to the lord our King’s chamber, and perchance we shall see any hidden mischief he plots.’
After little waiting, Drozhna was greeted solemnly by the infamous King of Azkahar, watched over by a small detachment of guardsmen. As he spoke, Drozhna found that this was not the venerable, self-righteous, chauvinistic man he had thought of in his head, but more like he was a hollow shell, a mask of uprightness and monarchy with a void of something missing perhaps long lost inside of him.
‘I must tell you, Kharid Drozhna, messenger of Umbar, I am surprised by your visit,’ he said. ‘I would sooner think that the Lords of Umbar reach for their armies than attempt to converse reason by negotiation.’
‘Appearances can be deceiving, my royal King,’ replied Drozhna. ‘As can pre-perception.’
‘Indeed. Very well, let us speak more formal matters. You have no longer need to be here, await me outside the chamber,’ ordered the King to his guards, who promptly and formally left, the King tapping the sheath of his own thick curved sword to put them at ease.
‘I must reveal something to you, stranger Drozhna,’ he spoke again, now a little more emotionally. ‘The reason for my declaration of independence was not driven by ambition, or lust, or arrogance. It was by lost faith.’
Drozhna intended on butchering the fool as soon as the guardsmen left the room, yet his interest was momentarily picketed. ‘Lost faith? How so?’
‘My father, the king before me had a strong belief that he carried to me in the days of my childhood. It was a near-religious philosophy in the utter trust in fair and equal rights, in democracy. Have you heard of Iluvataism before, Kharid Drozhna?’
‘I have heard talk of such a thing before, yes,’ answered the Hasharin, internally amused by such a simple-minded concept.
‘The Council of Umbar is a democracy, of sorts, and so my father could only put trust in its handling of the Haradrim people, and as Azkahar has never been affected heavily by them, I could only believe in him. I followed his belief past his final breaths on his deathbed, and carried the idea into my rule. Yet, something has happened of late that has shattered my regards of such a conception.’
‘And whatever could that be, King James?’ falsely asked Drozhna, now highly disinterested in the man.
‘There was a Hasharin involved, one of your order, an apparent servitor of Umbar, of democracy – his name was Javitakh, I discovered. Do you know of him?’
‘Yes,’ answered the assassin. ‘Venmal Javitakh is an elite agent among the Hasharii, my King.’
‘He slew my sister, Kharid Drozhna. I remember fresh the final screams as he took her for his own, and remember all too vividly her cold body when I found her. And then I realised amidst my limitless grief; this was not democracy we were in. It was tyranny.’
‘Perhaps, from one point of perspective. Tyranny for you maybe, but liberation for us,’ stated Drozhna without pity or remorse, casually drawing a sword from his robes as the King only now realised his folly. ‘Rejoice, for you are to be reunited with your beloved sister. For you too are about to be slain by a Hasharin.’
Captain Hagraz and his retinue climbed up the stairs and through the towers of the inner palace of Azkahar, beginning to run in their anxiety. Hagraz soon came to the door leading into the King’s chamber, only to find it shut with his guardsmen outside.
‘Guardsmen of King James, why are you not at your lord’s side?’ he asked, desperately.
‘He speaks alone with the messenger of Umbar, Captain Hagraz,’ they answered.
‘No! Do not trust to leave our liege alone with that snake!’
Unhindered by the confused guardsmen Hagraz and his men ran to the door and bolted it open immediately. As he came into the room however, the Hasharin was gone, an opened veil showing he had escaped out the window; and the slain body of their King James lay lifeless on the floor.
‘Alas, King James! Why did you trust the faithless of Umbar?’ mourned Hagraz. But even as he spoke he noticed a curious, dull silver device by the lord’s body, emitting a vastly-spreading fume of an unwholesome, sickly green.
‘What devilry is this?’ men asked, astonished.
As the pungent smokes closed in creeping towards him, Hagraz suddenly realised. ‘Gas! Poisonous fumes! Get out, get everyone out! Save everyone you can!’
Almost all the men immediately fled at Hagraz’s notification, though a few stood inanimate, frozen by the image of their fallen king, and soon suffocated in an honourless and painful death of pallor and fog.
Kharid Drozhna, however, was bolting and sliding down the perilous rooftops of the Azkahar royal palace. As he made to make the killing stroke on the King, he felt the weight of the bizarre, circular-shaped lamp device in his robes that Vashnir had gifted to him before his departure to the city – supposedly a treasure from the Shadow Queen herself, and definitely a ploy to win him over to the Cult of Sauron. ‘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,’ Drozhna remembered the accompanying note read, and so doing what was instructed he leapt from the chamber window. His daring escape had worked well in his favour, and he soon found himself landing in the courtyard before the gates.
Leaping from a balcony, the preternatural Hasharin cut away one of the horseman and landed in the saddle of his steed, and crying harshly galloped through the throng of alarmed guardsmen. With a few deft strokes of his sword Drozhna made it out of their grasp and raced through the still-open gates. In less than two hours, one man had brought low an apparently indestructible city, and yet it was not siege engines or armies to do so – it was flattery. But now was too soon to be thinking fondly of his recent achievement – something had finally settled in Drozhna’s mind, and he had an undeterrable course of where he would now go to.
The smouldering fires burnt in the chamber below the city of Abrakan where the Cult of Sauron conferred and worshipped, illuminating the pale faces of the dark acolytes assembled; among them was the impassable face of Talvir Vashnir, her eyes locked in adorement with the shadowy, terrifying and ancient figure sat on the throne-dais before her – the Shadow Queen, Adunaphel.
Today was a great ceremony among the cultists, and so the vassal to their demigod Sauron, Adunaphel, had joined them for their zealous love. The abhorrent Nazgul caught the face of one of her subjects, the Vashnir woman, and saw what she thought.
‘Do not be troubled, girl,’ rasped the Shadow Queen. ‘I sense your doubt. Yet fear not, for something glorious is to transpire today, on this most holy of gatherings. A decision has at last been made.’
Barely after she had spoken, the iron doors of the secret chamber burst open. Striding confidently and victoriously through them and through the shocked cultists, was the chosen of the Shadow Queen; Kharid Drozhna.
Though he had never seen his deity before in the flesh, Drozhna bowed with unshaking commitment and respect, and spoke to her with confidence; ‘Most adored Shadow Queen, three years ago to the day I was asked to put aside loyalty to the Myr Unghal and join with the Cult of Sauron. For three years, my senses of duty and religion have grappled tirelessly, but no more. Recently I have looked into the face of a man I was to kill and saw a mighty man become a shell, because he had lost his faith. And though true honour can only be achieved through unbowed duty, what ambition can a man have who has no religion, an empty vessel, a ghost of glory? And so I say to you, most glorious Shadow Queen, take me into your arms and place me by your side in the Cult of Sauron!’
A low cheer went up through the assembled cultists, and a fulfilled smile shot up on Vashnir’s face. The Shadow Queen looked down upon Drozhna, though beckoned him to stand, and though she stared straight into his eyes he did not stir, but simply looked back into the dark void of the eye-slits in her shrouding helm.
‘Arise, Kharid Drozhna, my chosen son and champion. Come with me, we have much to discuss.’
With that the proud Hasharii followed the wraith down to the other side of the dais, speaking at the back of the chamber as the cultists spoke excitably among themselves.
‘I thank you for the gift, most loved Queen,’ spoke Drozhna.
‘A mere trinket for my proved agent,’ rasped Adunaphel. ‘It was concocted from the sickening auras given off by another of my order, the Tainted, as he is known. It will move throughout all the city of Azkahar and swiftly suffocate any it touches. I doubt there will be few men left to speak of your wrath, if any at all. But let us hope there is enough to spread your fear. Yet now, I have a task for you to perform. During your mission, the current Myr Unghal has been assassinated.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Drozhna. ‘How can this be? This must be blasphemy.’
‘I deem it so. The venom of the Hasharii has not always been reserved solely for their foes, as I made it so myself,’ she spoke. ‘Yet you must ensure that the right Hasharin becomes the next Black Scorpion. Many of the elites who are promising for election are already in the cult, except for one, who strongly opposes our activities with prejudicial wrath. He was your mentor, Sumnem Vhyghor. Execute him, with all haste.’
Drozhna thought of the memories he had of his infamous tutor, though next to the worship of the Shadow Queen and the Dark Lord he knew they meant nothing. ‘It shall be done, my queen.’
By the time Drozhna arrived back at the secret stronghold of the Hasharii, word of his mission had already spread, and despite the confusing transition from the death of one Black Scorpion to the other, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Congratulated and given homage by many novices and elites alike, Drozhna made his way through the stone halls until he came to the mighty gates leading into the Sanctuary of the Shadow Queen, where Vhyghor would most likely be. Talvir Vashnir had accompanied him back to their order’s base, and as they rode informed Drozhna of the varied customs and worships of the Cult of Sauron. By the doors of the sanctum the two companions found gathered Latir Corazin, Venmal Javitakh and Garthik Inculdir.
‘Greetings, Kharid,’ said Inculdir, a little venomously. ‘Tales have already spread of your famed exploits. They say you did what one hundred armies could not?’
‘More than one-hundred, Inculdir,’ retorted Drozhna.
‘Apparently barely a tenth of the population survived,’ interjected Corazin. ‘Some captain named Hagraz led some of the people out of Azkhahar before it became awash with filth.’
‘Men are now calling all the grounds about the city blighted lands,’ continued Javitakh. ‘I was curious as to what kind of device could have caused such devastation?’
‘Surely only the champion of the Shadow Queen needs to know that, does he not?’ said Drozhna a little decadently. ‘Now tell me, where can I find Sumnem Vhyghor.’
‘He is in the chamber within. Apparently he will be one of the first to see the new Black Scorpion, because of his elitism,’ replied Corazin.
‘Why do you ask, did you expect to take some paternal praise off your precious mentor?’ chuckled Inculdir.
‘Not exactly, Garthik,’ retorted Drozhna. ‘In fact, it is I who mean to give him something.’
Drozhna and Vashnir silently walked by, entering the hallowed contours of the sanctuary, seeing the Altar of Venom and the all too real idol of the Shadow Queen rearing like a tower above it.
‘I cannot see him anywhere,’ moaned Drozhna. ‘In the name of the goddess, where is he?’
And then all went silent in the sanctuary as a higher member of the elder council came to the forefront of the raised platform above the Altar of Venom. Those Hasharii wandering outside soon recognised the meaning of the hush and rushed inside, and the novices, unable to yet enter the chamber, bristled impatiently in the corridors outside.
‘They must be announcing the next Myr Unghal…’ muttered Vashnir.
‘To all members of the Hasharii Order gathered here today, in the wake of the last mortal vassal of the Myr Unghal’s demise, I am now to announce the newly anointed and resurrected Black Scorpion.’
The all-too familiar pointed mask of white and the long robes of utter black walked to the side of the speaker of the elder council. As Drozhna surveyed him, he recognised that this new incarnation was slightly taller, and much leaner.
‘My order,’ boomed the Black Scorpion. ‘With my new avatar, I promise to you all decades of unceasing battle against both our enemies here in the Southlands and our hated nemeses in the stone-lands of the north. I will ask of you more than you have ever been asked before, but in doing so, I offer you both unlimited ambition, glory and power.’
The Hasharin solemnly clapped and nodded in agreement, but as Drozhna looked into the black slits of the Myr Unghal’s haunting mask a cold realisation shuddered down his neck. That voice was far too familiar, it was the voice of a past guardian and of a teacher. Sumnem Vhyghor had become the new Black Scorpion, and by the suspicions circulating in Drozhna’s mind, it was he who had assassinated the former.
‘Vashnir, I have failed the Shadow Queen,’ spoke Drozhna, blankly in horror.
Vashnir’s face widened in recognition, though she spoke words of comfort for both Kharid and herself, ‘It does not matter, Drozhna. You are destined to lead the followers of Sauron to great victory in the war that musters in the north. This is but a minor setback, a small glitch. Glory is already promised to you.’
‘But that does not mean I should not seek it out,’ spat Drozhna, who turned and left the sanctuary as his peers applauded soullessly.
Talvir Vashnir had followed Drozhna back to his bed-chamber, where he had come to muse on what had transpired. Vashnir came into the room casually with no entrance or greeting, for since discovering she was indeed a woman both she and Drozhna had taken advantage of it.
‘Do not think of what could have been, Kharid,’ Vashnir spoke. ‘Your victory at Azkahar already guarantees your legacy among both the Hasharii and the Cult.’
‘You speak the truth,’ he replied. ‘Now I am thinking of my next strike.’
‘And so what shall that be?’
‘The young man who escaped me three years ago at the forests of Dharan-sar, Amur Suladan, has risen to heroic prominence in the north-east. He could prove a useful tool for the Cult of Sauron to gain popularity, and if not, at the very least, I shall reclaim lost pride from watching his eyes go dead.’
Drozhna now stood from the bed, and looked into the green eyes of his lover and companion Vashnir, and she returned his gaze, though in his eyes she saw promises of ambition, of leading great hosts and slaying mighty men and burning dozens of lands in his name.
‘In my left hand I shall carry the standard of the Shadow Queen as legions march at my word,’ Kharid Drozhna stated, lust burning like the pits of Utumno inside of him. ‘And in my right I shall crush the allies of Gondor and claim the power of Harad for my own, and I shall do it in the name of the great eye of Barad-dur, the glorious Dark Lord, our beloved Sauron!’
Kharid Drozhna and the Hasharii will return in the tale of Amur Suladan; ‘The Serpent Lord: Book One – The Rogue Prince’.