The Battle on the Ivory Road.
The sun was starting to wane when Niethlan was summoned to the tent. No herald came to her, but a guru, a gesture that spoke of diplomacy. Niethlan had lived in Ind for centuries and as far as she could tell only the mystics of this land knew enough of the realities of the world to treat her like an equal. The term was improper of course, as no mortal could ever rival her knowledge of the aethyr realm, but at least a fellow mage, maybe even tutored in the City of Spires, would refrain from worshipping or cursing her. They knew enough to know she was, in a way, as mortal as them.
She followed him to the mob entrenched in the center of the indan line, and crossed the many circles guarding the tent that rose at the center of the formation.
This was the largest army assembled since the civil war, four hundred years before. For these people it would be a legendary catastrophe, but Niethlan had seen its ruin unfold and favor the druchii pirates she was there to thwart. She still wondered how many families from Naggaroth made their fortune with indan gold and souls in those days. No army rose to stop them then.
That changed with the Kanishka lineage. All the more reason to favor them.
She walked through warriors from three kingdoms and mercenaries from all Ind, ignoring their curiosity, fear or anger. They were the best troops available, arguably the best any kingdom could muster, although Maharajastan might have challenged that claim.
Regiments from the warrior castes, second third and fourth sons of the nobility armed with inlayed matchlocks, along with veterans from every campaign of the last decade commanded by their faujdars and caste champions. Caravan guards from the southern kingdoms who refused to leave when they had the chance. A regiment of axemen under the banner of the weevil, whose anger herald calamity. Elephants with bolt throwers mounted on howdahs and blades for tusks. She recognized the mountaineers from Devalaya, the Abode of the Gods, wearing grinning demonic masks and ringing bronze bells. With them came the tribe of the Hundred Mouths, civilized by ogre standards after centuries trading their talent for savagery in exchange for food and gold. They were at least disciplined enough to obey the order to wait.
Around them all, swarming the camp like angry wasps, throngs of holy men. Smeared in dwarf ashes and wielding skulls like flails, or trained in martial disciplines to rival the warrior caste, these carnivals of grotesque zealots haunting every corner of the land led the warriors in prayers and ecstatic dances, blessed weapons with their own blood and responded to Neithlan’s presence with invocations to gods that meant nothing to her.
It was a sea of colorful uniforms and banners proclaiming loyalty to three kingdoms, a hundred cities and a thousand gods. Only one thing provided a sense of unity, Niethlan noticed. They had all dusted their beards, or hair, with saffron.
The color of martyrdom.
She moved to the last circle. Around the tent prowled a cohort of grey beards: rajahs, kshatrapas, bloodsteel metallurgists, priests and eternals, tribal chieftains and palace executioners, many of whom had followed Kanishka all their lives, waiting for their lord’s command to plunge into hell. They scowled in silence as she walked among them, their aversion palpable. She knew what they all thought: she was an unwelcome intrusion into their war. Many would rather fight alone than having elves as allies.
Watching the tent’s entrance, a man waited riding astride a tiger, or rather hunched on his back like a vulture.
“Step inside, Dvija”.
Dvija. Twice born . It was the belief of this land that all the elves were born twice; once into this world, once into the aethyr, something only the most enlightened humans could achieve. It used to be a mark of respect, until the druchii turned that relation sour like everything they ever touched. The asur might never again be welcome as they used to be. Even now that she was about to march into war with them, the mortals would never feel at ease around her, never enough to trust her.
By the tent was a white elephant, almost twice the size of those waiting in the outskirts, with a richly decorated howdah. Niethlan noticed long braided locks of black hair nailed to the wood, and each side of the howdah, a cage. Ridiculously small, they forced their occupants to contort into painful shapes just to fit, leaving their legs dangling on the outside.
As she stepped inside the tent, she realized the occupants in question were dwarfs. Shaved, tuskless, blinded, alive.
At least one rumor was true.
Maharajah Dara Kanishka.
Heavenly Son of Gandhara, Rajah of Rajahs, Bane of Rakshasas, Vicar of Gilgadresh, Kshatrapa of the Great Salvation, and so on and so on…
He seemed about to crumble under his helmet’s weight.
It was a misleading sensation, but Niethlan was still surprised. The man was short, thin and strong like a mountain goat. He was dressed in silk and diamond incrusted armor, wearing more silver-engraved metal than every jeweler in Hoeth, the helmet crowned with a turban, crowned with peacock feathers. His metallurgist had armed him with an assortment of tulwars and daggers, enough bloodsteel to make any dilettante from Ulthuan drool with envy. All in all, he carried more wealth on his person that could be found in most family coffers at the City of Spires, but that was also misleading. There was nothing remotely soft in him. Rather, the obscene luxury surrounding him only accentuated the strength preserved despite the years.
Unlike his army, he had not powdered his beard with saffron. It was so conspicuous Niethlan wondered if it meant someth…
“Great king, I am Niethlan of Tiranoc. My lords assure you of the enduring friendship of the City of Spires.”
“Hmm… Enduring no doubt, but not strong enough to bring an army with you.”
That caught her off-guard.
“Our army is currently performing its duty.”
“Oh yes! Protecting the City of Spires.”
“That is the purpose of our army as you surely understand. My lords are committed to fulfill their duty to the Phoenix Crown without abandoning our allies.”
“I will not question the reasoning behind your lords’ decision to avoid battle, although one might think it is of little consequence for my land, my army and my allies. I wonder what they would have to say. Of those allies, only one saw fit to send a mere handful of swords. – He raised his shoulders slightly, as if in the end all that mattered little – In any case, your presence is welcome.”
Down the centuries, Niethlan had found that her condescension toward the human race made it easier to deal with them. She had never met one who would challenge her with his own.
“I am here to lend assistance in the name of…”
“You are here because your lords can spare you. They would see half of Gandhara destroyed if that preserved their beautiful city.” His was the insufferable tone of common sense. He was forgiving them , and her, for their shortcomings. She felt anger overcoming her as she searched for words that would preserve the alliance without shaming herself and her lords.
But then he surprised her.
“Rest assured, dvija, I would do the same to preserve the other half.”
He said, and then went quiet and somber, an attitude that fitted him better. In the half lit tent, the trembling oil lamps played tricks on the eyes. He could have been part of the tapestries, one of the figures Niethlan saw on the walls, drowning in the blood of long passed battles, with gods and idols gazing approvingly from the heavens.
“Feel no guilt Niethlan of Tiranoc, he continued more coolly, you may find yourself quite selfless once you learn what I have been scheming all day. It is nothing to vaunt about, but it will be done regardless, with your assistance I hope.”
“What do you need of me?”
“I do not need your blessed gift to rain fire on the enemy; I have enough gurus dying for me as we speak, and more waiting for my command to do the same. But when I learned you were here, I knew the gods were giving me their blessing, for no one is more suited to my purpose than your folk. Understand I did not come here to fight the rakshasas. I came to purge them from my home. It must be done now. They will never stop chasing me for as long as I demure. They either die today, or I do.”
“There is no reason to believe any of this is directed at you. Chaos is uncaring and dwarfs are guided by nothing but their greed. All preys are equal.”
“Would a direct message be proof enough?”
Once again she was taken aback.
“A few days ago, outriders brought me a corpse they found crucified somewhere on the road to Tanjvor. Someone wrote a missive on his skin, with acid. It was a long litany of grievances directed at me in passable jargon, and a promise of vengeance for every rakshasa that ever died on my land. For those crimes I will die today, and Gandhara will always bear the scar of my defiance. The missive was signed by the High Priest of Hashut”.
Hashut. As she pondered the word, she felt her mind rebelling.
“That title means nothing to me”.
“To me neither. But I suspect it will enter our nightmares regardless.”
“Is it because of this message that you kept your best troops in reserve for so long?”
“Someone challenges me to meet him on the Ivory road. I was waiting for a sign that he would be there. Now our center is gone but the rakshasas do not move. He is waiting for me. He will wait until I move or flee, and if I do the latter, he will follow until I run short of places to hide…”
This time he flinched. A mortal would not have seen it, but Niethlan could read more than expressions. Beneath the cold exterior of the man who locked chaos thralls in cages, was uneasiness barely kept in check, something deeper than the common fear of death, or even the enemy.
“Great king, did you delay your attack because you know he is here for you?”
For the first time the maharajah averted his gaze. He pretended to focus on the tapestried, but Niethlan was not fooled. She had found the chink in his armor, and it was not reassuring knowledge that the head of the army was having doubts.
Then Kanishka spoke without betraying the emotions she could read.
“What are twenty seven years for you, dvija?”
The question surprised her.
“For us it is a lifetime. Twenty seven years ago I won my greatest victory, the first in over a century against the slavers. I annihilated an army. Every slaver, every ogre, every maneater from the steppes they pushed in front of them, all hacked to pieces, all trampled beneath my elephants’ feet, and all in the shadow of my forefather’s stupa. After the battle, witnesses came who had seen what I had: the Messengers marching with us. The gods saw us that day and judged us worthy of their presence. Ours is the only land where gods walk with mortals.
Niethlan sighted, ignoring the old mania, “Of course great king.”
“Twenty seven years of peace, of not fearing what comes from the western frontier, of growing. Not even Maharajastan challenged us after such a victory. Why would they if our efforts ensure they can thrive? That is what I thought for many years.”
The tone changed.
“Then the nightmares started. I woke with anvils resonating in my head. I found myself in the shadow of a monstrous, solitary volcano, fuming and gathering strength, and I stood in an empty wasteland of ash and bones extending to the end of the world, defenseless against the eruption.”
The volcano . She remembered a bright soul siphoning the aethyr winds, the soul she could not reach. She remembered the message etched with acid, the word Hashut tasting like bile in her mind. She hid her uneasiness as the old man continued.
“I summoned doctors and priests. Nothing they did chased the night terrors away. It lasted for years. Then, a year ago, my gurus left the palace; they said I oozed nightmares, that I was infecting their own dreams. That they shared the experience at least gave them an answer to my question: the day I crushed the rakshasas, the gods altered my thread, they said. From that day on, I was on a collision course with the one who wrote that message, with a will that cannot be altered. I had a year to consider the ramifications of their diagnostic. That message only confirms it.”
He went to a table and hit a small gong.
“He will end my land and my lineage as a price for my victory. Unless I end him.”
The gurus entered and placed a wooden box on the table, black wood with silver hinges and amber inlaying in the shape of a snake, the omnipresent cobra. Then they retreated without a word, without acknowledging her or even their lord. In that short moment, Niethlan went fishing for emotions, and the result only raised more questions. Some of the mystics’ minds were heavy with doubt, others glared at the old man before walking away in disgust. Some stayed behind for an instant, as if trying to say something until they deemed it futile. The tent was saturated with anger and acrimony, and it all surrounded that box.
There was a tale around this object, and around those who brought it here with such distaste. Rulers in Ind lived by the advice provided by their mystics, some couldn’t step out the door without their opinion. What could pit an indan ruler against his gurus in such a way?
Once they left, Kanishka went to the table and put his hand on the box for a moment, getting rid of his last scruples.
“I need you to protect my army. From this.”
He opened the box. Inside was a sistrum, a white sistrum, a strange ivory-graven rattle-drum shaped like an hourglass, with decorations of bone and nacre.
Niethlan looked at that irrelevance and was struck with revulsion.
The sistrum exuded malevolence, spreading out like tentacles coming from a deep dark place. The very simplicity of the object now gave it an air of diabolical duplicity, for beyond the form she sensed the depraved intent of the mind that crafted it. Alien minds with an alien intent lost in the time that had taken this object from its creator to this tent.
“We have testimonies of those who listened to the rattling of the white sistrum when they still could talk. Those who know of such matters tell me this object must have been born in Khuresh. We do not know how it reached our shores but there have always been people willing to use it. In ancient days the rulers of Pankjiat, in the last throes of their corruption, executed criminals with it. It is said the executioner was himself a criminal, for all ended dead or mad. When Pankjiat collapsed on itself many secrets of its nature vanished in the catastrophe. This one was rescued from the Blood City by the degenerate cult of the cobra, until they were wiped out and their relics ended in the treasury of Taxila. Nothing else is known, except that listening to this instrument is indeed a way to madness and death. We know, we have tried.”
He looked at her and all scruples were gone.
“I intent to sound the sistrum, I intent to inflict its horror on the slavers. And I expect you to protect my army from its effects.”
“Three of my sons wait outside. I can lead them to death at the slavers’ hands, or let them face the sistrum unshielded, which I deem a crueler fate. My gurus have spent a year studying this horror, sacrificing the corrupt and themselves to learn. They know its influence can be contained by the gifted. They can shield us, but they lack the strength. Those who tried for too long ended dead.”
“I have no idea of the effects this will have.”
“I have no doubt a dvija will learn and react accordingly."
She slowly realized what this madman expected of her. It was not enough to even gaze at that object, he would sound it and expose them all, expose her, to whatever curse it carried.
“We have no more time, dvija. My gurus won’t even touch it anymore, and those who would cannot contain it. They will assist you, but only you can do more. I need you to shield my army from madness and death, so that I can deliver them to the rakshasas.”
An instant, she considered blasting the man in front of her. Ending his demented plan, destroy the sistrum and leave, back to the City of Spires, join the fight for his people and let the lower races bleed each other to the grave.
Only the memory of the volcano prevented her.
How many humans was she willing to sacrifice for her city? All of them. Would she sacrifice herself? Yes. Would she compromise herself?
Yes. In the end, she knew there was nothing she would not do to spare her people from facing the creature that wrote that message. Only the living would be free to judge her actions. She had been trained in Hoeth, she was a mistress of the arcane, and that thing offended her by its mere presence. The sistrum wanted to sing and for everyone to listen. And somewhere near them, a dwarf warlock wanted victims. She could deny them both the pleasure.
She realized her decision was never in question, and suddenly felt tired, a kind of lassitude that had nothing to do with the coming battle. For the first time the old man was the one to read her. He smiled sadly, knowingly.
She shared something with that flickering flame.
They stepped outside and were greeted in silence by the commanders. There were no salutes. They stood around them in silence, all eyes on their master, and waited for the order.
He nodded. They saluted. He saluted back. They all went to their regiments.
That was all. The last act could begin.
And yet both stayed where they were, unwilling to take the step that would put everything in motion.
“A moment ago, you said the gods altered your destiny to lead us all here. Which gods?”
He tried to smile but it was tired effort he stopped mid-way.
“Mine I hope. – then he looked up at the sky, where the sun was slowly vanishing - They might still come.”
She sighted, this time without mockery, and looked at the sky.
“Of course great king.”