When a man travels on the Ivory road heading north from Taxila, he may notice that once Lake Sagartha appears to his right, the road takes a sharp turn left without any apparent reason. Rather than follow the gentle plain, it leads the traveler through a forest that could have been easily avoided. The traveler may wonder about the reasons for such a decision, since the well-known dangers of the forest do not seem to be worth the risk of abandoning the open spaces. A curious traveler might notice there are still traces of the old road that once headed straight north, avoiding the forest entirely. He might follow said ancient road, thinking he will travel more safely. If he keeps a steady pace, if he is lucky, he will reach the Cursed Heath before night.
What gandharans know by that name is a plain of ashes and volcanic rock where the air itself seems moribund and everything chokes with the stench of a burning pyre. The traveler will need no insight into that place to fear it: nothing grows on the Heath; the wind does not take the ashes away no matter how strong it blows; sometimes cinder falls from the sky like snow, sometimes mournful voices moan in unknown languages, at least unknown to those who have heard them. As soon as the traveler sets foot on the ashes, the land around him, the sky and the sun itself seem to blur out of sight. A dirty veil of grey cages the Heath from the outside world - unless it is the other way around – the wrongness of it leaving the traveler with the sensation of standing in an entirely different part of the world.
As he hurries to leave this dreadful place, he will sometimes bump into rusted armors or weapons. Before finding the Ivory Road again, he might see decayed ruins lost in the empty Heath, a pile of rocks impossible to identify.
Those ruins are those of the trading post me and my brothers fought to protect forty years ago. And the Cursed Heath is the place where Maharajah Dara Kanishka and his saintly warriors fought for the last time to beat back the iron rakshasas.
The places defiled by the Battle on the Ivory Road healed with time. Forest regrew, animals returned, commerce restarted, even the Palace of Sagartha was rebuilt and the giant turtles bless it once again with their presence. But the Cursed Heath remains and nothing has ever altered its shape. Men and women fear it, and gurus avoid it to escape nightmares and seizures.
Forty years after the meeting of the storms, know old and crippled, retired long ago to the temple-school of Kollur for the last days the gods give me, I am one of the last to remember. It is for this reason the scholars of Kollur asked me years ago to compile this list of testimonies. I have travelled every kingdom with their help, interrogated dozens of veterans, bought my access into the archives of Taxila and palaces of rajahs who preserve the memory of those days, even into the City of Spires.
This is what I can tell.
After the conflagration, the slavers abandoned the field. The commanders bracing for a new offensive testified that once the wind settled, the army began its march north and continued until every invader abandoned the blessed soil of Ind. I cannot describe the joy we felt as the news spread that the slavers had had enough. Such joy was well worth losing the use of one leg.
Then the rajahs wondered why no sign was coming from the center. They send messengers, who found no trace of Kanishka, his sons, his commanders or his warriors.
They found the Cursed Heath.
Days later, the vast armies of Maharajastan arrived too late, only to find an army drowning in blood and a grief none could explain. The ruling caste had been decimated in a single day, and many thought Maharajah Shivaji Arjuna would take advantage and conquer a rival unable to mount any kind of defense.
The surviving rajahs bowed to him and begged him to follow them to the Heath. He did and when he returned, he took his army back home. He left behind only his physicians. I owe them my life.
We searched the Heath for clues of what had happened. We found no bodies, only dregs of scorched armors with no one inside and weapons with no hands to grab them. We slowly came to realize the ashes were all that remained of our rulers and of brothers from three kingdoms. Once the rumor spread, despite every attempt to quench it, many wondered if we had won anything that day. The ruin was total, the army bled, the devastation caused by the slavers will only become evident in the following weeks as they retreated north.
How then call this a victory?
Maybe mighty Kanishka fell in battle. Maybe something worst happened. If the maharajah has acquired a semi divine status among soldiers and the common people, the same cannot be said among the priestly caste and the gurus. Among them, rumors still abound about the actions Kanishka took to face the rakshasas, actions they all refused to discuss with me. In their eyes, the Cursed Heath is less the result of slaver sorcery than a curse Kanishka brought on himself in a last moment of faithlessness.
In an anonymous Rathastan tent-city, I met a venerable patriarch who told me something new. According to his testimony, he was one of the explorers who days before the battle found a corpse carrying a message, a message explicitly threatening our maharajah with death and the death of his entire lineage.
If that witness did not lie and the message truly existed, it might help us understand the ominous way of Kanishka’s passing. He had been marked, and our best efforts only delayed the promise.
But if their purpose truly was to wipe out the lineage of the Redeemer, they failed. For forty years the fourth son of Dara Kanishka has ruled Gandhara without opposition, and in forty years the slavers have not returned.
Why did the slavers retreat, their promise unfulfilled? What did Kanishka do to make them abandon their purpose? Why do the gurus grow silent when asked about the last act of that tragedy?
What were the consequences of the storm?
Gandhara was bled dry by the slavers’ invasion, only recently has it begun a new ascension, helped in no small part by the state of its relations with Maharajastan. Not a conflict in forty years. It is a reprieve from the eternal disputes of the ruling caste, a reprieve we desperately need.
Wars may have stopped between kingdoms, but Ind has not grown peaceful, far from it. The land is under threat and dire news reach us even in this haven of knowledge. As I write, warriors and holy orders clash against blooddrinkers and forbidden cults in the streets of our cities; the darkest corners of our jungles resonate with the sound of unseen wars between our bestial kin and their corrupted broods; the dark fleets once again roam our waters; from the north come ogres speaking of turmoil in the far north; armies march in the lost kingdom of Pankjiat, obeying orders from unknown masters in the Blood City; dark clouds gather over dreaded Khuresh and Chittor Bastion calls for reinforcements. Gurus’ admonitions and priests’ sermons become more apocalyptic with each passing year. They all warn of a time of trials never seen since the days of the gods and pray for the return of the Messengers.
So many ill news, only countered by a memory I carry with me: Shivaji Arjuna, standing in the Cursed Heath, contemplating the place of Kanishka’s last stand and finding the wisdom to let the old rivalry go.
Whatever horrors we face, we can hope for the first time in centuries it will not be the horror of civil war.
Is that a victory?
That question deserves a mind wiser than my own. But it might be the gift we owe to the martyrs who forty years ago faced the storm.
Glory to them and to the Thousand.
-The Meeting of Two Storms.
Memories of Vindavarna Sukoh.
2521 (IC) -
On the twenty second day of Adar, Astragoth Ironhand, High Priest of Hashut, returned to the Realm of the Father having settled the grudge against the green hell of a thousand idols and avenged the dead of Harakh, prophet of Hashut.
For this crime against their masters, the curse of Hashut, Father of Darkness, fell upon them, for they sinned against the order of things and the oaths of the true ancestors. For this crime I marched south with the army of Zharr-Naggrund and laid waste to the land of the slaves.
Their cities I besieged, I captured, I carried off their spoil, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with the fire of Azgorh . Over the ruins I raised pillars proclaiming Hashut’s supremacy. Their bodies we hung up on stakes, their skins we flayed and nailed to the walls, their flesh we fed to the grobi, their bodies we broke, their souls we harvested. I besieged and captured fortified cities and towns; I took them in battle with fire and axe. I took thousands as tithe for the Dark Father, rewarded my army with plunder, replaced festering jungle with blessed ash, I ravaged the land and I did not allow anyone to escape judgment. The slaves shut themselves up like caged animals, refusing honest combat until they could no longer ignore my wrath.
Hashut Uh Ballit!
Came the day Kanishka marched against my armies, rabbles and beasts rallied to escape rightful sentence. Their mobs I killed with axe and mattock, their war machines I reduced to splinters with the blessed tools of the daemonsmiths, the unthinking beasts I hunted in their own lairs. Kanishka unleashed craven sorceries and tribal conjurers weaved spells of confusion and madness to evade combat, but to no avail against honest iron. With the Black Hammer I stroke him, I laid him low, I killed him on the back of his own beast and with the might of the Father I buried him beneath his armies’ bones. I left a consecrated field of battle. Once vine and mud, now blessed cinder.
Duty fulfilled and wrath unleashed, I took the army back to Zharr-Naggrund. I gave the Temple its due; I offered four thousand and seventy three souls to the coven, to be swallowed by the statue of the Dark Father. The plunder, the acolytes purified and the smiths melted to be reforged into worthy forms to enrich the Temple. There will they remain, forever proclaiming His supremacy, until the day the Ziggurat of Zharr-Naggrund will pierce the heavens and the lesser gods will cower in fear.
Hashut Bel Kala! Hashut Bel Kahin! Uzkul-Dhrazh-Zharr Dan!
-House of Rancor. Two hundred and forty fifth column-
On the twenty third day of Adar, clan Ironhand declares a grudge against the land of Ind, in payment for the deaths suffered at the hands of Kanishka of Gandhara. The grudge will stand until jungle becomes ash and the souls of kin and clan earn entrance into Hashut’s hellforges.
So swears clan Ironhand in the name of the Dark Father and the true ancestors. So swears Astragoth in the name of the fallen:
Takhmasp, lord of clan Bloodbeard
Zharrbaraz the Fire Boar
Agag the Stoneskull
“… your son’s murder and that wasteful raid. I think a gathering is long overdue. I would be honored to host clan Zarkaveh.
“… I must also inform of a troubling rise in forbidden cult activities in the area surrounding Lake Sagartha. Every year we suffer more cases of infidels encroaching on the cursed land we have the displeasure of patrolling, where they perform bloody rituals and the Weevil knows what else. A recently captured heretic will, I hope, bring some light into the matter once left in the hands of the interrogators.”
“…we will find it. It has to be somewhere in the Heath…”