You were supposed to die for me, Sadira.
Fitful dreams troubled her. In them, Set came, a naked body draped with serpents, and the largest of them was the sacred serpent Akolet. The apparition drove her to her knees, and the rattling of snake tails filled her ears.
You were meant to die, my slave, my pet. Your life belonged to me.
The priests of Akolet, Set's high arcanists, surrounded her. Each of them grasped for her, seizing her limbs while she thrashed to escape. Men complicit in the rituals of slavery and sacrifice that built Set's nation, cultists who'd humiliated Sadira and crafted her, body and spirit, to his specifications. They lifted her from her feet and carried her through the capital streets, and the people jeered and cursed at her.
"Coward! Adulteress! Witch! Queen!"
Native and slave alike condemned her, and she belonged to none of them. No clan would claim the God-king's personal pet. All despised her.
"Stop!" She cried out. Some of the slaves threw garbage at her as she struggled to raise her arms in defense. "Please, can't you understand I hated him as much as you do? I never chose the claim he put on me! I hated him! Please don't call me his queen..."
So they called her slut and serpent-witch instead. They ridiculed her for her desperation. Her skin bore marks, and in the world of the dream they became a list of sins: foul hungers for the God-king's punishment, intoxicated lusts for his pain, the clinging desire for him which so often silenced her loathing. All the slaves and prisoners read the words on her, and saw the heart of poison within.
The cultists of Akolet carried her to a stone cairn in the desert, and before it yawned a great pit. The grave of Set. The rattle of the snakes rose above the shouts of the crowd, then drowned them out, as the priests brought her to the edge.
It was your duty to die for me...
Come to me. Sadira. Your life is still mine.
She screamed. The cultists cast her down into the grave, though she fought their hands like a fish swimming against the current. She could do nothing as the blackness of the sacred serpent's maw broke open to swallow her.
Then, among the mob...Bannon appeared. Amid the chaos she beheld him, barbarian captain, like a king among the slaves. Their liberator. Their champion.
And he reached out for her. Offered her his hand.
Come on up then, girl.
Come on up.
The War of the Sands—the battle between the God-king and the highlander whose people he enslaved—stretched more than a year by Akolet's solar cycle. When the enemy armies came for the capital city of Rahan, though, it fell in only three days. The worshippers of the serpent god, magician and warlord alike, crumbled under the boots of their foe. Akolet hadn't saved them.
Neither had Set. Set marched to his death laughing, cackling, and wild-eyed. He'd walked across the bodies of his own men, and Sadira—already a prisoner of the enemy by the time the God-king appeared—shuddered at the sight. He emerged from his temple a gaunt skeleton, almost lost in the knot of snakes he'd wrapped around himself, a senseless tangle of reptiles dripping off his limbs. These hissing, rattling creatures provided his only cover as he strode into battle with the enemy captain. A testament to the God-king's decaying mind.
The whole war slowed down to a single, silent, bated breath. Later, Sadira would decide it was exactly that moment when the people of Rahan and the Ruined Sands understood they had lost. They whispered it over the battlefield, ally and invader alike. He is mad. Bloody stinking mad. All their hope in the God-king, in the power of the sacred serpent, come down to this: a naked, screeching lunatic draped in a cloak of writhing asps.
And when the barbarian— Bannon—struck him down, the snakes scattered, fleeing his corpse like frightened mice abandoning the nest. Abandoned, even by the reptiles.
So much for the chosen son.
Sadira had no remorse. Fear, perhaps. Dread and futility. But no remorse.
Three armies had rallied against Set. Two of them had been the allies of the Cult of Akolet, in the time of Set's father Kha'set, and his father Kha'sun, first of the great God-kings. Mercenary warlords prospered when they worked alongside the arcanists of the Ruined Sands. Their cultures were the same: brutal and hard, merciless and greedy. All the clans of the desert lived their lives bent on feeding an endless hunger for cruelty. In his arrogance, though, Set foreswore the treaties his predecessors forged. The mercenaries he double-crossed went on to embrace the philosophy of "the enemy of my enemy".
The third army—the one led by the Red Bear—swelled with soldiers in holy crusade from countries long-abused by the dynasty of God-kings.
Who could be surprised? Sadira wondered. With this land built on the backs of their children?
The people of the Ruined Sands reaped what they and their fathers had sown. Set, the God-kings before him, the cult's arcane magicians...all of them. Even as a prisoner, though, captive and disgraced, Sadira didn't suffer from the defeat. She'd been no native of The Sands, after all. Merely another of its prisoners, stolen from an unknown tribe in an unknown land. One more slave of Akolet.
The only slave who could not be freed.
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