It had been her sister’s war band.
That thought kept circling her mind over and over, even as she watched the bodies burning on spires of jagged rock, even as the mumakil trumpeted pitifully, cinders dancing in the burnt out husks of their bodies. Even still, as the demon circled overhead, roaring his triumph into the skies, she watched him, eyes wide with the knowledge that this had been her sister’s war band.
They could not be defeated.
They had swept up through Harad like a sickness, utterly crushing any who’d dare standing their way. Askasil was a warrior trained by the king of their people, their uncle, and more powerful than those who’d dare oppose her. She was to take the throne of the land when she came of age. She had passed every test, hurtled over every obstacle, and only one was left: she had to quest and bring back a treasure. While her commanders had searched through Harad, Askasil had set her eyes to the north, to the land of pale men and strange halflings, and to the fallen kingdom of the dwarves, to Erebor, the impenetrable castle of mountain rock. Her general had told her it could not be done, that a great demon slumbered within its walls, but she’d not heeded her. She’d ignored the warnings of her superiors and carried three hundred of her best men around the coast of Eriador in ships, and then over vast, rolling grasslands to the Misty Mountains. She’d set up her flag, bloodred with the emblem of a roaring lion crouched in attack emblazoned across it. She’d mocked the demon, calling it cowardly for hiding away, questioning its strength and power, asking if it was a true dragon after all.
Its claws had torn her head from her body shortly after.
The demon had carried her sister’s head into the air, face still contorted in a mask of rage and thrown it down. Its body had blotted out the sun, turning midmorning into the blackest night. It had spread its wings, more powerful than a hurricane, looked down at them with eyes of fire and slain them all. All except her.
Yusraa had hidden, and she was not ashamed. She’d cowered behind a blackened stone wall while all around her, her comrades and kinsmen were slain. She could hear their screams, hear the cries of their animals, but she could do nothing to help them, not when she felt dragon’s flame licking at the stones, turning them red hot. From her post she could see the demon, its wings flapping powerfully as it ascended like a burning angel of judgement. It gave a final powerful thrust and let out a roar so loud that it shattered the glass ornaments her comrades wore around their necks. The shieldmaiden clapped hands over her ears and dropped her head between her knees, trying to keep her head from coming apart from the sheer force of the noise. Her ears pounded with the remnants of it, and it wasn’t for another minute that the last rumbles receded from the ground.
It had been her sister’s warband, and now it lay decimated on the sharp slopes of Erebor, the snow red with its blood, ash falling from the sky like black rain. This was the end for her. They could no longer protect her. Before her sister’s lust for gold, before this fool’s errand, Yusraa had trained with her sister, practicing with the spear and the longbow while her sister preferred the scimitars and broadswords of her uncle’s sons. She’d never been the best at them, despite being a recognized warrior, but Askasil had swept through any opponent with the undiscriminating fury of a sandstorm. Man or beast, she would suffer nothing to stand in her way and live.
And this red demon had ripped her head off as if she were naught but a novice, playing at being a warrior. Yusraa felt dread pool in her belly, cold and thick against the familiar heat of her armor. She was terrified and the dragon was circling, checking for any survivors. She knew her moments had been counted, and she’d be returned to her ancestors in the stars soon, but that didn’t stop tears from rolling down her face, or from her hands shaking as she clutched the spear tighter. If Askasil had been torn and thrown aside like a broken doll, then surely she didn’t stand a chance. Her elder sister had always been the strongest of the two of them, rushing headlong into battles, chopping all of their hair off to make it easier for them to fight, silencing all the smaller bands who dared oppose her. Yusraa had been the thinker. A hkim-almharb- a sage warrior. She’d not been meant for the heat of battle, and had only been brought along with Askasil because their uncle had ordered it. The future Shahd would’ve preferred her sister safe and at home.
There was nowhere safe now. The demon had been awakened. It landed with a heavy thud on the snowy mountainside and let loose another roar, quieter this time. It was a roar of victory, not one of battle. It grunted to itself, seemingly satisfied and began slowly tramping forward, its tail dragging behind it in the snow. It was moving closer ever so slowly. Yusraa couldn’t bring herself to look. Cold-stiffened fingers circled tighter around her spear, so tight she thought the metal pole might snap in half. Tears streamed down chapped cheeks and she let out a whimper as she heard the beast toss aside a wagon as if it were nothing. It clattered down the hill, the bodies in it tumbling boneless after. It was only a few lengths away now, ripping the gold ornaments from a mumakil’s ears. She’d heard the thing adored precious metals.
It was a length away, staring it itself in a mirror, brow furrowed as it tossed its head this way and that. It bared its teeth at its reflection, smirking in satisfaction at what it saw shone back. Its teeth were wicked sharp and white as bone, inch and a half long knives that could tear her flesh easily. She whimpered and the beast’s head snapped up. His eyes narrowed and he rose, stretching out to his full, intimidation height. Yusraa bit into her lip so hard she tasted blood and waited. Maybe he’d decided he’d been imagining things, go back inside his mountain and leave her to pick her across middle earth and try to find a way home. The dragon took a step in her direction. She was not so lucky. With a second, he was upon her. He tossed aside the wagon she’d taken shelter behind and hauled her into the air with minimal effort.
Yusraa clutched at her spear and pressed the tip against the monster’s chest, eyes wide and hands shaking. It dangled her in the air with one arm, the claws on the other sliding from behind their sheaths to gut her. She clenched her teeth together and rammed the spear into his skin as hard as she could, the tip shattering and leaving not a mark on him.
He growled with a voice like an earthquake, amber eyes like sunfire narrowed as he hissed up at her. She’d known she was dead the moment the beast had shown itself, but the inevitability of her demise weighed more heavily on her now. This creature was death incarnate; what chance had she of besting him? He snatched the spear shaft from her hand and threw it aside. Though she knew it wouldn’t save her, she longed for it back if for no other reason than to give her the feeling of dying on her feet.
Here, in the silence of the mountain, the snow glimmering in cold sunlight, the bodies of her sister’s warband around her and a demon holding her in to the sky, she knew it wouldn’t matter how she died. If someone ever found their bodies, they’d all just be nameless, faceless Haradrim. She murmured a prayer to her ancestors and closed her eyes. The demon was lifting his claws. It’d all be over soon. She didn’t want to be forgotten. She didn’t want to die alone.
A brief flash of light blossomed behind her eyelids and she knew nothing but darkness.
Her head ached.
That was the only thing she could think of. Not that she’d reached the afterlife, not that she’d be seeing her sister again very soon, but that her head ached like an entire calvary’s worth of mumakil had been tramping over it. Yusraa groaned and curled into a ball. Wasn’t this place supposed to be void of any pain and suffering? That was what she’d been told by the priests in her homeland. Then again, the priests of her homeland had told them their quest would be a success. They’d probably wanted only to fill their coffers and build grander palaces of worship. She’d definitely make sure she haunted them, if the gods allowed it. Maybe she could show up still burning with the fire of the dragon, holding Askasil’s head under one arm, the broken body of her sister treading beside her. She let out a laugh at the grim picture and stretched. For being the afterlife of those who’d died in battle, Mjalat-Alslam was quite cold. And hard. This level of the afterlife was supposed to be nothing but open, rolling fields, warm sun and food for miles. She’d be surrounded by all the spirits of her people’s best warriors and they’d take their leave of the war ravaged world together. It was supposed to be warm. Yusraa opened her eyes.
Not full of gold. Not totally devoid of life.
This place was not the open field she’d been promised, but a wasteland of pretty baubles and towering stone walls.
She’d been sent to Altkfyr, the place of penance.
The young woman rose slowly, gold coins tumbling away from her, down to the base of the massive pile she’d woken on. Gold and treasure stretched on as far the eye could see without break. There were tapestries woven in gold, statues of silver half exposed in the sides of piles, there were gold coins, billions upon billions of them, all glittering like fallen stars under the light of one massive, tiered chandelier that hung from the ceiling, lit on every level. This had to be the hell of the greedy. Those who spent their entire lives searching after material wealth instead of helping others with it were banished here, to Altkfyr, and given all the possessions they could possibly have imagined. Wealth beyond measure- and no one to stare upon its glory or share it with. A personal hell complete with deafening silence.
But she’d not been greedy. Her meager possessions could all be fit into the single pack she’d carried on her back from the south all the way up to the land of the pale-skins. A pack that was, even now, strapped to her back. The only thing she’d ever carried that could not fit into it were her spear and her armor, and those belonged to the kingdom. Had she died in the land of her people, the armor would’ve been boiled and issued to a new recruit to save both money and the time of the blacksmiths. What was this then? Had there been some vast oversight in her character that she’d ignored? Had she misstepped in assuming she’d be sent to the land of the battle weary and torn? Perhaps she’d not been greedy in possessions, but in time. She should’ve worked harder, should’ve devoted more time to her studies and helped the beggars more often. This was her own fault. This was her burden to bear for the rest of eternity.
Yusraa moved to sit back down on the heap of gold, but a grouping of coins gave way underneath her feet and she slipped. There was a sound like a thousand bells tinkling at once as she fell, treasure after treasure following after her. She let out a shout and tried to right herself to no avail. She tumbled over an unsheathed golden dagger, and while the blade was dull, it still cut into her. Apparently in this place pain could still be felt. She’d no idea how to stop the fall; the land of her ancestors was relatively flat. She’d never climbed hills or tumbled down mountains, golden or otherwise. Just as she was reaching the bottom and about to hit her head on an exposed slab of concrete, something caught her round the middle and tossed her roughly onto a pile of tapestries. She landed hard, on her backside, but better that than on her head and unforgiving stone.
There was a woosh of air and a snapping of what sounded like leather and a thud, and there he was. The demon that had decimated her sister’s warband and any hope Yusraa had for a normal life afterwards. But why was he here? In her hell?
Every jail needs a jailer, a voice whispered in the back of her mind. And every devil has a hell.
Fear dripped icy down the back of her throat and her hands shook. Surely the gods couldn’t have been so cruel as to curse her to an eternity with this beast. For that’s what he was in truth: a beast. He stood three heads taller than her, every piece of skin tanned and diamond-hard. Red scales dusted his abdomen and lower back twisting around powerful thighs and thinning out on his shins. They curved up over the backs of his arms and shoulder blades, wrapping his shoulders in a cape of red. His spine was ridged, black scales sharp as knives lying flat for now. From the base of his back extended a tail, long and thick and done in the same red as his scales. She’d seen him sweep ten men off their feet with a single sweep and watched him squeeze the life out of another with it while he ripped into some poor soul with his claws. His claws --her eyes flickered to his hands-- they were sheathed for now, but when extended were two and a half inches long and wickedly sharp. The light armor of her comrades hadn’t stood a chance. The warrior’s eyes wandered up to the demons face. If not for the horns curling a top a mass of black curls, one would’ve almost thought him to be elven. His features were angular, with a jaw that looked like it was made for crushing. She knew he hid teeth like knives behind his lips. Another inch upward and she met his eyes. He had eyes like a wildfire leveled on her. The only time she’d seen a gaze this intense was on the face of one of the lions her uncle kept as guards- and eventual pets, once they became too old to do their duty.
Before she’d left with her sister on this fruitless mission, her uncle had been training a young male, Kato, she believed his name was. Every morning for two hours, her uncle would stand and hold a beef flank above the lion’s nose. If Kato sat patiently, he was rewarded. If not...well, she’d never seen an animal disobey a direct order from the Shahd. Kato never jumped before he was supposed to, but the look in his eyes as he sat there watching that meat was deeper than the look of any starving man or fervent warrior. It was the look of a predator, staring down prey and being told he couldn’t devour it, not just yet. Yusraa gnawed at the inside of her lip, waiting for the beast to fall upon her. Instead he took a step forward.
She hissed and bore her teeth at him. If she were to be trapped here for an eternity, he would have plenty of time to torment her. She reached back in the pile she sat on, hands searching for the knife that had drawn blood from her arm. Lithe fingers closed round it and she brought it to her front, all pretenses of fear seemingly banished for now. This demon had already taken her life and damned her to a hell. What more could he take from her?
The demon growled and narrowed his eyes. He opened his mouth, and the warrior braced herself for the wave of fire that was no doubt about the lick at her flesh, but the demon did something that surprised her. He spoke.
His voice rippled, calm and clear and deeper than any well. She couldn’t understand a word he was saying. His speech sounded harsh and thin, like the pale men from the north, and she’d never bothered learning any of their tongues. A foolish omission on her part. His tone was clipped and he sounded...disgusted with her, as if her mere existence was an abomination. His attitude was returned in kind by her sister. Askasil had believed that demons, dragons like this especially, were created when humans were burned at the exact moment of their greatest sin. They were the unholy offspring of evil and death, and needed to be executed without discretion. Yusraa wasn’t sure what she believed. At the moment, she just wanted to escape this ordeal without being harmed. He’d have her for the rest of eternity, surely he could put off his punishment until the morrow.
“I...” Her voice sounded small and weak in comparison to his, shaking pitifully as she tried to address him. She cleared her throat and forced her words to ring clear. “I don’t understand you, I’m sorry.” He narrowed his eyes at her and , and she saw the white flash of his teeth, temporarily exposed. The beast appeared annoyed with her, and he showed his irritation blatantly. He said something else and she shook her head. She’d only been instructed in the languages of the south, and a few from their eastern cousins, but all the tongues she spoke lay within Harad and she’d not ventured any further.
He turned and began striding away from her without so much as a backward glance. The girl scrambled to her feet and tried to follow, but the demon shot her a look of pure venom. He hissed something cruel to her, something short and brutal. The end of his words twisted into a growl, and he spread massive wings, his size dwarfing her. He blocked out the wavering lights of the chandelier and stared down at her with slitted eyes. For a terrible, silent moment, Yusraa thought he was going to lash out at her again, and seriously injure her this time. Her death had been quick -nearly painless, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t feel anymore. The gash in her arm was testament enough to that. She took a step back, into a defensive position, but when the monster closed the difference, she took another, and then another, gilded knife clutched firm between dark fingers. The monster loomed, his wings fanning out. If she had to guess, she’d say that this was a sign of dominance. Like the lions of her homeland who puffed themselves up when asserting their leadership, this demon was doing the same.
He growled deep in his throat, glittering teeth bared at her as his voice ripped free from his mouth, forming one compelling word.
It seemed to reverberate deep in his chest, and before Yusraa had time to weigh the consequences of disobeying, the demon had pushed away from the ground in a whirlwind, the power of his wings knocking her on to her back. He ascended quickly, toward the vaulted ceilings of his keep, and by the time the warrior managed to lift her eyes to track him, he’d disappeared from view, leaving her to spend the night among the glittering jewels and the silence.