25 Years Earlier
The exile looked upon the twisted, steel gates blocking off the entrance of the underground city as she journeyed closer. The design was purposefully unpleasant, meant to deter unwanted travelers. Only those who had business in Duat dared approach the unsettling city. Aesthetics were not a priority here. Duat was built into a massive, multi-level cavern underneath the dessert. The city was as dark as the hearts of the angels in charge. The pools of water within the cavern created an eerie glow all throughout. The irrigation system, built within, funneled rain into a massive pool, flooding the lowest levels of the cavern, giving the denizens a steady supply of fresh water for crops and drinking. The design was actually quite brilliant, allowing Duat to thrive in both the dry and wet seasons.
Slaves tended to the crops on the outskirts of the cave. They were forced to toll away in the unforgiving sun, while the elites enjoyed the cool air of the shelter beneath. Athena ignored the slaves. The hierarchies of Duat were none of her concern. She had passed through here several times before, making a name for herself as a mercenary who could get unsavory tasks done discretely. Her abilities earned her the respect of several high ranking members of the Duat elite. Contracts were typically distributed by a member of Anubis's court. Usually some fool low on the totem pole of power, clawing to be noticed by Anubis through discrediting a higher ranking member...or outright having them assassinated.
The jobs always paid well, and this was one of the few cities where Athena did not have to stay hidden in the shadows. Duat politics actively encouraged the brand of meddling she was so skilled with. The only law in Duat was that the strong were in command and weak were meant to serve them. In fact, open combat was encouraged if two citizens had an issue with one other. Of course, challenging someone to open combat typically meant fighting to the death, and since many in Duat's elite circles had little to no combat acumen, it was no surprise that they would resort to more underhanded tactics to gain favor in Anubis's court.
The politics of Duat meant nothing to the exile. Ever since the fall of Valhalla and the near destruction of her kin, she shut herself off to the suffering of others. Everything was a means to an end. If someone had to die so Athena could enjoy a few lavish weeks on the payout, then so be it. To her, life had very little meaning or value. She was practically living in a catatonic state for the past few centuries, moving city to city, working her network of underhanded politicians and unpleasant crime-lords, doing mercenary work, and then living off the spoils for a few weeks before moving onto the next city, never staying in one spot for too long. At this point, her skills were so well revered, she could name her price.
Still, despite the years of political maneuvers and assassinations, this particular contract had Athena on edge. The fact that she was sought out so far from Duat was the first red flag. She was a world away when the messenger approached her. The right hand of Anubis, Set, wanted to speak with her personally which was an unusual request in of itself. Unlike the other elites of Duat, Set was not afraid to get his hands dirty. He would openly fight any daring challenger, though there were not too many of those these days. He was the last one she would have expected to seek her skills out, as he often handled his own problems in brutal fashion. Despite that brutality, and hulking appearance, Set was still as cunning a politician as any. It was a necessary trait to maintain his status in Duat. Athena simply assumed he needed something done discretely for once.
Perhaps an assassination? Who could he need killed that he could not do himself? Anubis, maybe? She doubted Set was that foolish. As ambitious as he was, taking a shot at an ancient like Anubis was suicide. Only hell-forged steel was capable of wounding an ancient angel, and such weapons were nearly impossible to come across these days. Athena was also very careful with the contracts she agreed to. Making enemies out of a handful of worthless politicians was one thing. Taking out a king, or pharaoh as they called it in Duat, would create more turmoil than she was willing to deal with. Set had to know she would never agree to such a high profile assassination.
So, then why bring her here? Why send a messenger when he knew she would be back to Duat in time? Why send a transport to bring her directly? Why the substantial payment upfront? Questions swirled in the mercenary's head as the gates of the city loomed ever closer.
The driver pulled up on the leather straps bound to the wingless griffins steering the cart, forcing the unfortunate creatures to steer left. They were moving away from the gates. Athena was used to entering the more discreet entrances of a city, but for Duat, this was also unusual. She was accustomed to walking right through the front.
"What is the meaning of the detour?" Athena asked the driver.
"Master Set's orders." he responded without giving more detail.
The driver was clearly a slave. The bland jewelry around his neck told her that. Anubis was wise to cloak the iron bindings on the slaves with magic. Though the citizens of Duat cared little about optics, the concept of slavery had largely fallen out of favor throughout the realm. There was no need to advertise the fact that Duat not only encouraged slavery, but also practiced other barbaric rituals such as open combat as well as sacrifices. Duat and the Kingdom were the last major holds to subject their citizens to such barbarism.
Truthfully, no one actually cared. Out of sight, out of mind for the most part. It is not like it was some well kept secret that Duat had slaves. Most simply are not concerned with the suffering of others if they cannot see it with their own eyes, so it was wise of Anubis to ensure their slaves appeared like normal citizens outside the walls of Duat.
"How much longer?" Athena asked.
"Moments. I am to take you to a hidden entrance." the driver responded.
"Why the secrecy?" she asked, trying to pry information, wondering if she should be prepared for an ambush.
"I only know what Master Set told me." the driver said, starting to appear uncomfortable.
Athena grunted as she sat back in her seat. She gripped her dagger, and made certain her bow was ready to fire in case she needed to make a quick escape. It is not like she stood much of a chance out here in the dessert. Even if she managed to escape an assault, the elements would kill her in a matter of days. If Set truly wanted her dead, though, he would not have gone through the effort of bringing her to Duat to kill her.
The cart finally came to a stop. The slave driver stood up and reached under his seat. Athena unsheathed her dagger and hid it behind her back, waiting for the driver to try something foolish.
"Here, wear this." the driver said tossing her a black hooded robe.
"Why?" Athena asked.
"Master Set does not want anyone to recognize you." he answered. "Please, put the robe on."
The slave jumped off the carriage and moved over to a patch of unassuming rock. She watched as he knelt down by the rock and whispered something in a strange tongue. Whatever he said appeared to break some kind of magical seal, because the rock quickly vanished revealing a hidden doorway. She threw the robes over her clothes and made her way off the cart.
"Master Set is waiting for you at the end of the entrance." the slave said with a polite bow. He jumped back onto his cart leaving Athena by herself.
The exile took a deep breath as she passed through the doorway. All this secrecy and hiding was putting her on edge, but whatever this mysterious contract was, she was too far in to back out now.