Darkness, save the distant starlight. Silence, save the susurrus of the dunes. Such is night in the Land of the Dead; empty of life, empty of light. Yet not, it must be recalled, empty of intent. If something should disturb the moonless emptiness – something that arcs across the heavens, bleaching the sands white in a false dawn, something that one imagines shrieking, even across the void that devours all sound – there are no eyes that will turn to the heavens.
No eyes, but sockets in plenty.
So it was that the passing of a twin-tailed comet was noted by the diviners of the High Queen of Lybaras. So it was that the scrolls were consulted – the more recent scrolls, those telling of the Reign of Millions of Years, and not the true history of Nehekhera-that-was-in-the-long-ago. So it was that a portent was recognised, considered, and understood. The last time this happened, the nemesis of the usurper and defiler was born far to the north; the fate of Nagash to perish in battle was sealed, and long centuries of prosperity ushered in. An auspicious time, for the High Queen of Lybaras to hunt.
And so it was that the armies of Lybaras are mustered, the client kings called to arms, and one among them bends a knee to the High Queen and craves indulgence…
Khonekt, who was King in Lybaras in the Second Dynasty when Rakhaf was King in Khemri, who woke most lately in the year before the Pestilence of Nineteen Crows, was troubled. He had often been troubled, since the ignobility of his latest awakening: since his crown had been snatched from his tomb on the watch of his foppish and ignorant son. It was not to be borne, it really wasn’t, and no amount of humiliating the boy would make up for that, and what an excuse for an excuse – “it was skaven, father, and we killed all but one of them!”
It only took one, that’s what King Khonekt had told Prince Thotmanho at the time. One to run back to an army of his little friends with the crown and that’s that, it would never be seen again. No, it wasn’t to borne at all, and Khonekt had had enough of bearing it. In the absence of his crown and ceremonial robes, he ordered his armour brought to him, and his second best chariot, and he set out for the Temple that was seat of the High Queen.
Court, it seemed, was in session. The death-rattle of their voices – those kings who had come before and after him – fell silent at his entrance. Someone sniggered, and Khonekt wished something quite unpleasant on them, like a scorpion taking up residence in their disused stomach. He had no crown to doff in the presence, to hand to an attendant, but in the absence of such crucial marks of etiquette he took off his helmet instead and tucked it under his arm.
“My Queen,” he began, addressing the gilded seat below the altar of the asp goddess, and its occupant in her alabaster mask. “I crave a boon of you. I would ask your benevolent indulgence in taking the greater part of my strength away to the Death Pass and the lands beyond, and recovering that which – “
“Granted,” said the High Queen Khalida, in a manner high and clear and – somewhat detached from what he was actually saying, Khonekt thought, in the treasonous privacy of his own skull. “For you see, King Khonekt the Fourth, who is called the Crownless and the Risible, we had a mind to send you northwards in the first place. There are portents.”
“Seldom any other,” muttered King Roshambo the Second, from the front row, earning a scornful tilt of the High Queen’s mask in his direction.
“Portents of great prosperity,” she went on, “which our augurs inform us bode well for the great hunt.”
A priest shuffled from the ranks amassed below her throne, and croaked out: “The Light of Death shall stir the dust of aeons, and much that was lost will be found; in the long dark lies truth, and in truth lies beauty and in beauty goodness and the divinity of vengeance.”
Another priest joined the first, and explained: “After your reign had passed, Khonekt, a great shrine was built in the walls of the Valley of Death far to the north, for the armies of Lahkashaz the Second, and in that shrine was sealed the lore of the Fourth Dynasty by the priests and scholars of the armies that did pass that way, and then that shrine was lost when Lahkashaz was slain by Setep and Lahmia thrown down and the Fifth Dynasty ascended to rule. Many of the secrets of Lahmia the cursed city may be found within.”
“You shall go to Death Pass,” the High Queen informed him, “as our champion. You shall seek out that which is lost. You shall bring us back the true and accurate history of the Fourth Dynasty that fell into blood and ashes. You shall have our blessing, and you shall wield the Destroyer of Eternities in our name, and if you happen to find that which you seek also, so much the better.”
It sounded like a lot of beetle’s breakfast, to be honest, but King Khonekt was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth at the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Any excuse would do.
And so it came to pass that in the third year of the Pestilence of Nineteen Crows, the desert was no longer empty, nor silent, nor entirely dark. The sands were stirred by four score marching feet and change; the light of distant stars glimmered off bronze and gold, khopesh and torc.
At the forefront of the army rode Prince Thotmanho in the second best chariot of the household – a place of honour, and also the place at which most trouble was likely to start and from which he was least likely to return. In their wake strode ushabti and the mighty bulk of a warsphinx, with the frame of a catapult lashed to its back. Overhead the great carrion birds circled and swooped, on a wind that blew out of Lybaras to the north, across the Gulf and the Plain and the Mountains that lay beyond.
And among the soldiery strode King Khonekt the Fourth, the Crownless and Wandering King, the Herald of the High Queen, who bore the Destroyer of Eternities within his hands, and whose sockets were fixed on the north.
He would not be alone. The kings of Quatar and Numas and perhaps even Khemri would surely send forth their armies by the western route, skirting the Marshes of Mourkain. With good luck and a following wind, he’d reach the eastern end of Death Pass while they were still harried by the greenskin tribes, and the ancient lore of the Fourth Dynasty would come back to Lybaras, and he’d have first crack at the skaven nests to boot. With better luck, his crown would still be there, and not swept further north still.
Even to his empty-eyed gaze, the World’s Edge seemed ablaze. The journals of Amenemhetum told of a strange light that sometimes shone across the northern seas, pale and ghostly and transcendent in its loveliness. King Khonekt had never seen it, but he fancied it looked much like the cascade that grew bigger and brighter every night as the army marched closer to Death Pass.