Pocket Book, 368 pages
Since the beginning of time, the angelic hosts of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in a struggle for the fate of all Creation. That struggle has now come to the mortal realm…and neither Man nor Demon nor Angel will be left unscathed…
Norrec Vizharan has become a living nightmare. While on a quest to find magical treasure, the soldier of fortune discovers an artifact beyond his wildest dreams: the ancient armor of Bartuc, the legendary Warlord of Blood. But the mysterious armor soul. Now, pursued by demons who covet the dark armor for their own devices, Norrec must overcome a bloodlust he can scarcely control and learn the truth about his terrifying curse before he is lost to darkness forever…
An orginal tale of swords, sorcery, and timeless struggle based on the bestselling, award-winning M-rated electronic game form Blizzard Entertainment. Intended for mature readers.
Order this book at the Blizzplanet Store
The skull gave them a lopsided grin, as if cheerfully inviting the trio to join it for all eternity.
“Looks like we’re not the first,” Sadun Tryst murmured. The scarred, sinewy fighter tapped the skull with one edge of his knife, causing the fleshless watcher to wobble. Behind the macabre sight, they could just make out the spike that had pierced their predecessor’s head, leaving him dangling until time had let all but the skull drop to the floor in a confused heap.
“Did you think we would be?” whispered the tall, cowled figure. If Sadun had a lean, almost acrobatic look to his build, Fauztin seemed nearly cadaverous. The Vizjerei sorcerer moved almost like a phantom as he, too, touched the skull, this time with one gloved finger. “No sorcery here, though. Only crude but sufficient mechanics. Nothing to fear.”
“Unless it’s your head on the next pole.”
The Vizjerei tugged at his thin, gray goatee. His slightly slanted eyes closed once as if in acknowledgment to his partner’s last statement. Whereas Sadun had a countenance more akin to an untrustworthy weasel—and sometimes the personality to match—Fauztin reminded some of a withered cat. His nub of a nose, constantly twitching, and the whiskers hanging underneath that nose only added to the illusion.
Neither had ever had a reputation for purity, but Norrec Vizharan would have trusted either with his life—and had several times over. As he joined them, the veteran warrior peered ahead, to where a vast darkness hinted of some major chamber. Thus far, they had explored seven different levels in all and found them curiously devoid of all but the most primitive traps.
They hadalso found them devoid of any treasure whatsoever, a tremendous disappointment to the tiny party.
“Are you sure there’s no sorcery about here, Fauztin? None at all?”
The feline features half-hidden by the cowl wrinkled further in mild offense. The wide shoulders of his voluminous cloak gave Fauztin a foreboding, almost supernatural appearance, especially since he towered over the brawnier Norrec, no small man himself. “You have to ask that, my friend?”
“It’s just that it makes no sense! Other than a few minor and pretty pathetic traps, we’ve encountered nothing to prevent us from reaching the main chamber! Why go through all the trouble of digging this out, then leave it so sparsely defended!”
“I don’t call a spider as big as my head nothing,” Sadun interjected sourly, absently scratching his lengthy but thinning black hair. “Especially as it was on my head at the time…”
Norrec ignored him. “Is it what I think? Are we too late? Is this Tristram all over again?”
Once before, between serving causes as mercenaries, they had hunted for treasure in a small, troubled village called Tristram. Legend had had it that, in a lair guarded by fiends, there could be found a treasure so very extraordinary in value, it would make kings of those fortunate enough to live to find it. Norrec and his friends had journeyed there, entering the labyrinth in the dead of night without the knowledge of the local populace…
And after all their efforts, after battling strange beasts and narrowly avoiding deadly traps…they had found that someone else had stripped the underground maze of nearly anything of value. Only upon returning to the village had they learned the sorry truth, that a great champion had descended into the labyrinth but a few weeks before and supposedly slain the terrible demon, Diablo. He had taken no gold or jewels, but other adventurers who had arrived shortly thereafter had made good use of his handiwork, dealing with the lesser dangers and carrying off all they could find. But a few days’ difference had left the trio with nothing to show for their efforts…
Norrec himself had also taken no consolation in the words of one villager of dubious sanity who had, as they had prepared to depart, warned that the champion, so-called the Wanderer, had not defeated Diablo but, rather, had accidently freed the foul evil. A questioning glance by Norrec toward Fauztin had been answered at first with an indifferent shrug by the Vizjerei sorcerer.
“There are always stories of escaping demons and terrible curses,” Fauztin had added at the time, complete dismissal of the wild warning in his tone. “Diablo is generally in most of the favorites whispered among common folk.”
“You don’t think there’s anything to it?” As a child, Norrec had grown up being scared by his elders with tales of Diablo, Baal, and other monsters of the night, all stories designed to make him be good.
Sadun Tryst had snorted. “You ever seen a demon yourself? Know anyone that had?”
Norrec had not. “Have you, Fauztin? They say Vizjerei can summon demons to do their bidding.”
“If I could do that, do you think I would be scrounging in empty labyrinths and tombs?”
And that comment, more than anything else, had convinced Norrec then to chalk the villager’s words down as yet another tall tale. In truth, it had not been hard to do. After all, the only thing that had mattered then to the three had been what mattered now—wealth.
Unfortunately, it seemed more and more likely that once again those riches had eluded them.
As he peered down the passage, Fauztin’s other gloved hand tightened around the spell staff he wielded. The jeweled top—the source of their light—flared briefly. “I had hoped I was wrong, but now I fear it is so. We are far from the first to delve this deep into this place.”
The slightly graying fighter swore under his breath. He had served under many a commander in his life, most of them during the crusades from Westmarch, and from surviving those various campaigns—often by the skin of his teeth—he had come to one conclusion. No one could hope to rise in the world without money. He had made it as far as captain, been broken in rank thrice, then finally retired in disgust after the last debacle.
War had been Norrec’s life since he had been old enough to raise a sword. Once, he had also had something of a family, but they were now as dead as his ideals. He still considered himself a decent man, but decency did not fill one’s stomach. There had to be another way, Norrec had decided…
And so, with his two comrades, he had gone in search of treasure.
Like Sadun, he had his share of scars, but Norrec’s visage otherwise resembled more that of a simple farmer. Wide brown eyes, with a broad, open face and a strong jaw, he would have looked at home behind a hoe. Yet, while that vision occasionally appealed to the sturdy veteran, he knew that he needed the gold to pay for that land. This quest should have led them to riches far beyond his needs, far beyond his dreams…
Now, it seemed as if it had all been a waste of time and effort…again.
Beside him, Sadun Tryst tossed his knife into the air, then expertly caught it at the hilt as it fell. He did this twice more, clearly thinking. Norrec could just imagine what he thought about. They had spent months on this particular quest, journeying across the sea to northern Kehjistan, sleeping in the cold and rain, following false trails and empty caves, eating whatever vermin they could find when other hunting proved scarce—and all because of Norrec, the one who had instigated this entire fiasco.
Worse, this quest had actually come about because of a dream, a dream concerning a wicked mountain peak bearing some crude resemblance to a dragon’s head. Had he dreamt of it only once, perhaps twice, Norrec might have forgotten the image, but over the years, it had repeated itself far too many times. Wherever he had fought, Norrec had watched for the peak, but to no avail. Then, a comrade—later dead—from these chill northern lands had made mention of such a place in passing. Ghosts were said to haunt it and men who traveled near the mountain often disappeared or were discovered years later, all flesh stripped from the shattered bones…
There and then, Norrec Vizharan had been certain that destiny had tried to call him here.
But if so—why to a tomb already vandalized?
The entrance had been well hidden in the rock face, but definitely open to the outside. That should have been his first clue to the truth, yet Norrec had refused to even see the discrepancy. All his hopes, all his promises to his companions…
“Damn!” He kicked at the nearest wall, only his sturdy boot saving him from a few broken toes. Norrec threw his sword to the ground, continuing to curse his naivete.
“There’s some new general from Westmarch hiring on mercenaries,” Sadun helpfully suggested. “They say he’s got big ambitions…”
“No more war,” muttered Norrec, trying not to show the pain coursing through his foot. “No more trying to die for other people’s glory.”
“I just thought—“
The lanky sorcerer tapped the ground once with his staff, seeking the attention of both his earthier partners. “At this point, it would be foolish not to go on to the central chamber. Perhaps those who were here before us left a few baubles or coins. We did find a few gold coins in Tristram. Certainly it would not hurt to search a little longer, would it, Norrec?”
He knew that the Vizjerei only sought to assuage his friend’s bitter emotions, but still the idea managed to take root in the veteran’s mind. All he needed were a few gold coins! He was still young enough to take a bride, begin a new life, maybe even raise a family…
Norrec picked up his sword, hefting the weapon that had served him so well over the years. He had kept it cleaned and honed, taking pride in one of the few items truly his own. A look of determination spread across his visage. “Let’s go.”
“You’ve a way with words for one using so few,” Sadun jested to the sorcerer as they started off.
“And you use so many words for one with so few things worth saying.”
The friendly argument between his companions helped settle Norrec’s troubled mind. It reminded him of other times, when, between the three of them, they had persevered through worse difficulties.
Yet, the talk died as they approached what surely had to be the last and most significant chamber. Fauztin called a halt, staring briefly at the jewel atop the staff.
“Before we proceed inside, the two of you had better light torches.”
They had saved the torches for emergencies, the sorcerer’s staff serving well until now. Fauztin said no more, but as Norrec used tinder to light his, he wondered if the Vizjerei had finally noted sorcery of some significance. If so, then perhaps there still remained some sort of treasure…
With his own torch lit, Norrec used it to set Sadun’s ablaze. Now surrounded with more secure illumination, the trio set off again.
“I swear,” grumbled the wiry Sadun, a few moments later. “I swear that the hair on the back of my head’s standing on end!”
Norrec felt the same. Neither fighter argued when the Vizjerei took the lead. The clans of the Far East had long studied the magical arts and Fauztin’s people had studied them longer than most. If a situation arose where sorcery had to take a hand, certainly it made sense to leave it to the thin spellcaster. Norrec and Sadun would be there to guard him from other assaults.
The arrangement had worked so far.
Unlike the heavy boots of the warriors, the sandaled feet of Fauztin made no sound as he walked. The mage stretched forth his staff and Norrec noticed that, despite its power, the jewel failed to illuminate much. Only the torches seemed to act as they should.
“This is old and powerful. Our predecessors may not have been so fortunate as we first believed. We may find some treasure yet.”
And possibly more. Norrec’s grip on the sword tightened to the point that his knuckles whitened. He wanted gold, but he also wanted to live to spend it.
With the staff proving unreliable, the two fighters took to the front. That did not mean that Fauztin would no longer be of any aid to the band. Even now, the veteran knew, his magical companion thought out the quickest, surest spells for whatever they might encounter.
“It looks as dark as the grave in there,” Sadun mumbled.
Norrec said nothing. Now a few steps ahead of both his comrades, he became the first to actually reach the chamber itself. Despite the dangers that might lurk within, he almost felt drawn to it, as if something inside called to him…
A blinding brilliance overwhelmed the trio.
“Gods!” snapped Sadun. “I can’t see!”
“Give it a moment,” cautioned the sorcerer. “It will pass.”
And so it did, but as his eyes adjusted, Norrec Vizharan at last beheld a sight so remarkable that he had to blink twice to make certain it was not a figment of his desires.
The walls were covered in intricate, jeweled patterns in which even he could sense the magic. Precious stones of every type and hue abounded in each pattern, blanketing the chamber in an astonishing display of refracted and reflected colors. In addition, below those magical symbols and no less eye-catching were the very treasures for which the trio had come. Mounds of gold, mounds of silver, mounds of jewels. They added to the overall glitter, making the chamber brighter than day. Each time either fighter shifted his torch, the lighting further altered the appearance of the room, adding new dimensions equally as startling as the last.
Yet, as breathtaking as all this looked, one shocking sight dampened Norrec’s enthusiasm greatly.
Strewn across the floor as far as he could see were the many mangled and decaying forms of those who had preceded him and his friends to this foreboding place.
Sadun held his torch toward the nearest one, an almost fleshless corpse still clad in rotting leather armor. “Must’ve been some battle here.”
“These men did not all die at the same time.”
Norrec and the smaller soldier looked to Fauztin, who had a troubled expression on his generally emotionless countenance.
“What’s that you mean?”
“I mean, Sadun, that some of them have clearly been dead for far longer, even centuries. This one near your feet is one of the newest. Some of those over there are but bones.”
The slight warrior shrugged. “Either way, from the looks of it, they all died pretty nasty.”
“There is that.”
“So…what killed them?”
Here Norrec answered. “Look there. I think they slew each other.”
The two corpses he pointed at each had blades thrust into one another’s midsections. One, with his mouth still open in what seemed a last, horrified cry, wore garments akin to the other mummified body by Sadun’s feet. The other wore only scraps of clothing and only a few strands of hair covered an otherwise clean skeleton.
“You must be mistaken,” the Vizjerei replied with a slight shake of his head. “The one warrior is clearly much older than the other.”
So Norrec would have supposed if not for the blade thrust into the other corpse’s torso. Still, the deaths of two men long, long ago had little bearing on present circumstances. “Fauztin, do you sense anything? Is there some sort of trap here?”
The gaunt figure held his staff before the chamber for a moment, then lowered it again, his disgust quite evident. “There are too many conflicting forces in here, Norrec. I can get no accurate sense of what to seek. I sense nothing directly dangerous—yet.”
To the side, Sadun fairly hopped about in impatience. “So do we leave all of this, leave all our dreams, or do we take a little risk and gather ourselves a few empires’ worth of coin?”
Norrec and the sorcerer exchanged glances. Neither could see any reason not to continue, especially with so many enticements before them. The veteran warrior finally settled the matter by taking a few steps further into the master chamber. When no great bolt of lightning nor demonic creature struck him down, Sadun and the Vizjerei quickly followed suit.
“There must be a couple dozen at least.” Sadun leapt over two skeletal corpses still trapped in struggle. “And that’s not counting the ones in little pieces…”
“Sadun, shut your mouth or I’ll do it for you…” Now that he actually walked among them, Norrec wanted no more discussion concerning the dead treasure hunters. It still bothered him that so many had clearly died violently. Surely someone had survived. But, if so, why did the coins and other treasure look virtually untouched?
And then something else tore his thoughts from those questions, the sudden realization that beyond the treasure, at the very far end of the chamber, a dais stood atop a naturally formed set of steps. More important, atop that dais lay mortal remains still clad in armor.
“Fauztin…” Once the mage had come to his side, Norrec pointed to the dais and muttered, “What do you make of that?”
Fauztin’s only reply was to purse his thin lips and carefully make his way toward the platform. Norrec followed close behind.
“It would explain so much…” he heard the Vizjerei whisper. “It would explain so many conflicting magical signatures and so many signs of power…”
“What’re you talking about?”
The sorcerer finally looked back at him. “Come closer and see for yourself.”
Norrec did just that. The sense of unease that had earlier filled him now amplified as the veteran peered at the macabre display atop the platform.
He had been a man of military aspirations, that much Norrec could at least tell, even if of the garments only a few tattered remains existed. The fine leather boots lay tipped to each side, pieces of the pants sticking out of them. What likely had once been a silk shirt could barely be seen under the majestic breastplate lying askew on the rib cage. Underneath that, blackened bits of a formerly regal robe covered much of the upper half of the platform. Well-crafted gauntlets and gutter-shaped plates, vambraces, gave the illusion of arms still sinewy and fleshbound; whereas other plates, these overlapping, did the same for the shoulders. Less successful was the armor on the legs, which, along with the bones there, lay askew, as if something had disturbed them at some point.
“Do you see it?” Fauztin asked.
Not certain what exactly he meant, Norrec squinted. Other than the fact that the armor itself seemed colored an unsettling yet familiar shade of red, he could see nothing that would have—
No head. The body on the dais had no head. Norrec glanced past the dais, saw no trace on the floor. He made mention of that to the sorcerer.
“Yes, it is exactly as described,” the lanky figure swept toward the platform, almost too eager in the veteran’s mind. Fauztin stretched out a hand but held back at the very last moment from touching what lay upon it. “The body placed with the top to the north. The head and helm, separated already in battle, now separated in time and distance in order to ensure an absolute end to the matter. The marks of power set into the walls, there to counter and contain the darkness still within the corpse…but…” Fauztin’s voice trailed off as he continued to stare.
The mage shook his head. “Nothing, I suppose. Perhaps just being so near to him unsettles my nerves more than I like to admit.”
By now somewhat exasperated with Fauztin’s murky words, Norrec gritted his teeth. “So…who is he? Some prince?”
“By Heaven, no! Do you not see?” One gloved finger pointed at the red breast plate. “This is the lost tomb of Bartuc, lord of demons, master of darkest sorcery—“
“The Warlord of Blood.” The words escaped Norrec as little more than a gasp. He knew very well the tales of Bartuc, who had risen among the ranks of sorcerers, only to later turn to the darkness, to the demons. Now the redness of the armor made perfect and horrible sense; it was the color of human blood.
In his madness, Bartuc, who even the demons who had first seduced him had eventually come to fear, had bathed himself before each battle in the blood of previously fallen foes. His armor, once brilliant gold, had become forever stained by his sinful acts. He had razed cities to the ground, committed atrocities unbounded, and would have continued on forever—so the stories went—if not for the desperate acts of his own brother, Horazon, and other Vizjerei sorcerers who had used what knowledge they retained of the ancient, more natural magics to defeat the fiend. Bartuc and his demon host had been slaughtered just short of victory, the warlord himself decapitated just in the midst of casting a dire counterspell.
Still untrusting of his brother’s vast power even in death, Horazon had commanded that Bartuc’s body forever be hidden from the sight of men. Why they had not simply burned it, Norrec did not know, but certainly he would have tried. Regardless, rumors had arisen shortly thereafter of places where the Warlord of Blood had been laid to rest. Many had sought out his tomb, especially those of the black arts interested in possible lingering magic, but no one had ever claimed to truly find it.
The Vizjerei likely knew more detail than Norrec, but the veteran fighter understood all too well what they had found. Legend had it that for a time Bartuc had lived among Norrec’s own people, that perhaps some of those with whom the soldier had grown up had been, in fact, descendants of the monstrous despot’s followers. Yes, Norrec knew very well the legacy of the warlord.
He shuddered and, without thinking, began to back away from the dais. “Fauztin…we’re leaving this place.”
“But surely, my friend—“
The cowled figure studied Norrec’s eyes, then nodded. “Perhaps you are right.”
Grateful, Norrec turned to his other companion. “Sadun! Forget everything! We’re leaving here! Now—“
Something near the shadowed mouth of the chamber caught his attention, something that moved—and that was not Sadun Tryst. The third member of the party presently engaged himself in trying to fill a sack with every manner of jewel he could find.
“Sadun!” snapped the older fighter. “Drop the sack! Quick!”
The thing near the entrance shuffled forward.
“Are you mad?” Sadun called, not even bothering to look over his shoulder. “This is all we’ve dreamed about!”
A clatter of movement caught Norrec’s attention, a clatter of movement from more than one direction. He swallowed as the original figure moved better into view.
The empty sockets of the mummified warrior they had first stepped over greeted his own terrified gaze.
“Sadun! Look to your back!”
Now at last he had his partner’s attention. The wiry soldier dropped the sack instantly, whirling about and pulling his blade free. However, when he saw what both Norrec and Fauztin already faced, Sadun Tryst’s countenance turned as pale as bone.
One by one they began to rise, from corpse to skeleton, those who had preceded the trio to this tomb. Now Norrec understood why no one had ever left alive and why he and his friends might soon be added to the grisly ranks.
One of the skeletons nearest to the sorcerer vanished in a burst of orange flame. Fauztin pointed a finger at another, a half-clad ghoul with some traces of his former face still remaining. The Vizjerei repeated the word of power.
“My spell—” Stunned, Fauztin failed to notice another skeleton on his left now raising a rusted but still serviceable sword and clearly intending to sever the mage’s head from his body.
“Watch it!” Norrec deflected the blow, then thrust. Unfortunately, his attack did nothing, the blade simply passing through the rib cage. In desperation, he kicked at his horrific foe, sending the skeleton crashing into another of the shambling undead.
They were outnumbered several times over by foes who could not be slain by normal means. Norrec saw Sadun, cut off from his two friends, leap to the top of a mound of coins and try to defend himself from two nightmarish warriors, one a cadaverous husk, the other a partial skeleton with one good arm. Several more closed in from behind those two.
“Fauztin! Can you do anything?”
“I am trying a different spell!”
Again the Vizjerei called out a word: this time the two creatures battling with Sadun froze in place. Not one to miss such an opportunity, Tryst swung at the pair with all his might.
Both ghouls shattered into countless pieces, their entire top halves scattered on the stone floor.
“Your powers are back!” Norrec’s hopes rose.
“They never left me. I fear I have only one chance to use each spell—and most of those still remaining take much time to cast!”
Norrec had no chance to comment on the terrible news, for his own situation had grown even more desperate. He traded quick strikes with first one, then two of the encroaching ranks of undead. The ghouls seemed slow in reaction, for which he gave some thanks, but numbers and perseverance would eventually pay off for these ghastly guardians of the warlord’s tomb. Those who had planned this last trap had planned well, for each party that entered added to the ranks that would attack the next. Norrec could imagine where the first undead had come from. He had remarked to his friends early on that although the three had come across sprung traps and dead creatures, no bodies had been found until the skull with the spike in its head. The first party to discover Bartuc’s tomb surely had lost some of its numbers on the trek inside, never knowing that those dead comrades would become the survivors’ greatest nightmare. And so, with each new group, the ranks of guardians had grown—with Norrec, Sadun, and Fauztin now set to be added.
One of the mummified corpses cut at Norrec’s left arm. The veteran used the torch in his other hand to ignite the dry flesh, turning the zombie into a walking inferno. Risking his foot, Norrec kicked the fiery creature into its comrade.
Despite that success, though, the horde of unliving continued to press all three back.
“Norrec!” shouted Sadun from somewhere. “Fauztin! They’re coming at me from everywhere!”
Neither could help him, though, both as harried. The mage beat off one skeleton with his staff, but two more quickly filled in the space left. The creatures had begun to move with more fluidity and greater swiftness. Soon, no advantage whatsoever would remain for Norrec and his friends.
Separating him from Fauztin, three ghoulish warriors pressed Norrec Vizharan up the steps and finally against the dais. The bones of the Warlord of Blood rattled in the armor, but, much to the hard pressed veteran’s relief, Bartuc did not rise to command this infernal army.
A flash of smoke alerted him to the fact that the sorcerer had managed to deal with yet another of the undead, but Norrec knew that Fauztin could not handle all of them. So far, neither of the fighters had managed much more than a momentary stalemate. Without flesh for their blades to penetrate, without vital organs that could be skewered, knives and swords meant nothing.
The thought of one day rising as one of these and moving to slay the next hapless intruders sent a shiver down Norrec’s spine. He moved along the side of the dais as best he could, trying to find some path by which to escape. To his shame, Norrec knew that he would have happily abandoned his comrades if an opening to freedom had abruptly materialized.
His strength flagged. A blade caught him in the thigh. The pain not only made him cry out, but caused Norrec to lose his grip on his sword. The weapon clattered down the steps, disappearing behind the encroaching ghouls.
His leg nearly buckling, Norrec waved the torch at the oncoming attackers with one hand while his other sought some hold on the platform. However, instead of stone his grasping fingers took hold of cold metal that offered no support whatsoever.
His wounded leg finally gave out. Norrec slipped to one knee, pulling the metallic object he had accidentally grabbed with him.
The torch flew away. A sea of grotesque faces filled the warrior’s horrified view as Norrec attempted to right himself. The desperate treasure hunter raised the hand with which he had tried to garner some hold, as if by silently beseeching the undead for mercy he could forestall the inevitable.
Only at the last did he realize that the hand he had raised now had somehow become clad in metal—a gauntlet.
The very same gauntlet that he earlier had seen on the skeleton of Bartuc.
Even as this startling discovery registered in his mind, a word that Norrec did not understand ripped forth from his mouth, echoing throughout the chamber. The jeweled patterns in the walls flared bright, brighter, and the unearthly foes of the trio froze in place.
Another word, this one even less intelligible, burst free from the stunned veteran. The patterns of power grew blinding, burning—
A fearsome wave of pure energy tore through the chamber, coursing over the undead. Shards flew everywhere, forcing Norrec to fold himself into as small a bundle as possible. He prayed that the end would be relatively quick and painless.
The magic consumed the undead where they stood. Bones and dried flesh burned as readily as oil tinder. Their weapons melted, creating piles of slag and ash.
Yet, it did not touch any of the party.
“What’s happening? What’s happening?” he heard Sadun cry.
The inferno moved with acute precision, sweeping over the tomb’s guardians but nothing else. As their numbers dwindled, so too did the intensity of the force, until at last neither remained. The chamber became plunged into near darkness, the only illumination now the two torches and the little bit of light reflected by the many ruined stones.
Norrec gaped at the devastating results, wondering what he had just wrought and whether somehow it heralded an even more terrible situation. He then stared down at the gauntlet, afraid to leave it on, but equally fearful of what might happen if he tried to remove it.
“They…they have all been devoured,” Fauztin managed, the Vizjerei forcing himself to his feet. His robe had been cut in many places and the thin mage held one arm where blood still flowed from a nasty wound.
Sadun hopped down from where he had been battling. Remarkably, he looked entirely uninjured. “But how?”
How, indeed? Norrec flexed his gloved fingers. The metal felt almost like a second skin, far more comfortable than he could have thought possible. Some of the fear faded as the possibilities of what else he might be able to do became more obvious.
“Norrec,” came Fauztin’s voice. “When did you put that on?”
He paid no attention, instead thinking that it might be interesting to try the other gauntlet—better yet, the entire suit—and see how it felt. As a young recruit, he had once dreamed of rising to the rank of general and garnering his riches through victory in battle. Now that old, long-faded dream seemed fresh and, for the first time, so very possible…
A shadow loomed over his hand. He looked up to see the sorcerer eyeing him in concern.
“Norrec. My friend. Perhaps you should take off that glove.”
Take it off? Suddenly, the notion of doing so made absolutely no sense to the soldier. The gauntlet had been the only thing that had saved their lives! Why take it off? Could it…could it be that the Vizjerei simply coveted it for himself? In things magic, Fauztin’s kind knew no loyalty. If Norrec did not give him the gauntlet, the odds were that Fauztin might simply just take it when his comrade could not stop him.
A part of the veteran’s mind tried to dismiss the hateful notions. Fauztin had saved his life more than once. He and Sadun were Norrec’s best—and only—friends. The eastern mage would certainly not try something so base…would he?
“Norrec, listen to me!” An edge of emotion, perhaps envy, perhaps fear, touched the other’s voice. “It is vital right now that you take that gauntlet off. We shall put it back on the platform—“
“What is it?” Sadun called. “What’s wrong with him, Fauztin?”
Norrec became convinced that he had been right the first time. The sorcerer wanted his glove.
“Sadun. Ready your blade. We may have to—“
“My blade? You want me to use it on Norrec?”
Something within the older fighter took control. Norrec watched as if from a distance as the gauntleted hand darted out and caught the Vizjerei by the throat.
“Sa-Sadun! His wrist! Cut at his—“
Out of the corner of his eye, Norrec saw his other companion hesitate, then raise his weapon to attack. A fury such as he had never experienced consumed the veteran. The world grew to a bloody red…then turned to utter blackness.
And in that blackness, Norrec Vizharan heard screams.
Pocket Book, 368 pages
Since the beginning of time, the angelic hosts of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in a struggle for the fate of all Creation. That struggle has now come to the mortal realm…and neither Man nor Demon nor Angel will be left unscathed….
Darrick Lang is coming home. Years ago he left the town of Bramwell to walk the wide world as a soldier of fortune and champion of the realm. But Bramwell is not as he left it. Something dark and terrifying has ensnared the townsfolk, something very old and very patient, tangling innocents in a web of malice and profaning the very earth itself. Now that same power calls to Darrick;and his only hope may be to walk the same perilous path of damnation. Since the beginning of time, the angelic hosts of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in a struggle for the fate of all Creation. That struggle has now come to the mortal realm…and neither Man nor Demon nor Angel will be left unscathed….
Darrick Lang is coming home. Years ago he left the town of Bramwell to walk the wide world as a soldier of fortune and champion of the realm. But Bramwell is not as he left it. Something dark and terrifying has ensnared the townsfolk, something very old and very patient, tangling innocents in a web of malice and profaning the very earth itself. Now that same power calls to Darrick and his only hope may be to walk the same perilous path of damnation.
The Black Road
An original tale of space warfare set in the world of the bestselling computer game!
Order this book at the Blizzplanet Store
Darrick Lang pulled at the oar and scanned the night-shrouded cliffs overlooking the Dyre River, hoping he remained out of sight of the pirates they hunted. Of course, he would only know they’d been discovered after the initial attack, and the pirates weren’t known for their generosity toward Westmarch navy sailors. Especially ones who were hunting them pursuant to the King of Westmarch’s standing orders. The possibility of getting caught wasn’t a pleasant thought.
The longboat sculled against the gentle current, but the prow cut so clean that the water didn’t slap against the low hull. Sentries posted up on the surrounding cliffs would raise the alarm if the longboat were seen or heard, and there would be absolute hell to pay for it. If that happened, Darrick was certain none of them would make it back to Lonesome Star waiting out in the Gulf of Westmarch. Captain Tollifer, the vessel’s master, was one of the sharpest naval commanders in all of Westmarch under the king’s command, and he’d have no problem shipping out if Darrick and his band didn’t return before dawn.
Bending his back and leaning forward, Darrick eased the oar from the water and spoke in a soft voice. “Easy, boys. Steady on, and we’ll make a go of this. We’ll be in and out before those damned pirates know we’ve come and gone.”
“If our luck holds,” Mat Hu-Ring whispered beside Darrick.
“I’ll take luck,” Darrick replied. “Never had anything against it, and it seems you’ve always had plenty to spare.”
“You’ve never been one to go a-courtin’ luck,” Mat said.
“Never,” Darrick agreed, feeling a little cocky in spite of the danger they were facing. “But I don’t find myself forgetting friends who have it.”
“Is that why you brought me along on this little venture of yours?”
“Aye,” Darrick replied. “And as I got it toted, I saved your life the last time. I’m figuring you owe me one there.”
Mat grinned in the darkness, and the white of his teeth split his dark face. Like Darrick, he wore lampblack to shadow his features and make him more a part of the night. But where Darrick had reddish hair and bronze skin, Mat had black hair and was nut brown.
“Oh, but you’re up and bound to be pushin’ luck this night, aren’t you, my friend?” Mat asked.
“The fog is holding.” Darrick nodded at the billowing silver-gray gusts that stayed low over the river. The wind and the water worked together tonight, and the fog rolled out to the sea. With the fog in the way, the distance seemed even farther. “Mayhap we can rely on the weather more than we have to rely on your luck.”
“An’ if ye keep runnin’ yer mouths the way ye are,” old Maldrin snarled in his gruff voice, “mayhap them guards what ain’t sleepin’ up there will hear ye and let go with some of them ambushes these damned pirates has got set up. Ye know people talkin’ carries easier over the water than on land.”
“Aye,” Darrick agreed. “An’ I know the sound don’t carry up to them cliffs from here. They’re a good forty feet above us, they are.”
“Stupid Hillsfar outlander,” Maldrin growled. “Ye’re still wet behind the ears and runnin’ at the nose for carryin’ out this here kind of work. If’n ye ask me, ol’ Cap’n Tollifer ain’t quite plump off the bob these days.”
“An’ there you have it then, Ship’s Mate Maldrin,” Darrick said. “No one bloody asked you.”
A couple of the other men aboard the longboat laughed at the old mate’s expense. Although Maldrin had a reputation as a fierce sailor and warrior, the younger men on the crew considered him somewhat of a mother hen and a worrywart.
The first mate was a short man but possessed shoulders almost an ax handle’s length across. He kept his gray-streaked beard cropped close. A horseshoe-shaped bald spot left him smooth on top but with plenty of hair on the sides and in back that he tied in a queue. Moisture from the river and the fog glistened on the tarred breeches and soaked the dark shirt.
Darrick and the other men in the longboat were clad in similar fashion. All of them had wrapped their blades in spare bits of sailcloth to keep the moonshine and water from them. The Dyre River was fresh water, not the corrosive salt of the Gulf of Westmarch, but a sailor’s practices in the King’s Royal Navy were hard to put aside.
“Insolent pup,” Maldrin muttered.
“Ah, and you love me for it even as you decry it, Maldrin,” Darrick said. “If you think you’re miserable company now, just think about how you’d have been if I’d up and bloody left you on board Lonesome Star. I’m telling you, man, I don’t see you up for a night of hand-wringing. Truly I don’t. And this is the thanks I get for sparing you that.”
“This isn’t going to be as easy as ye seem to want to believe,” Maldrin said.
“And what’s to worry about, Maldrin? A few pirates?” Darrick shipped his oar, watchful that the longboat crew still moved together, then eased it back into the water and drew again. The longboat surged through the river water, making good time. They’d spotted the small campfire of the first sentry a quarter-mile back. The port they were looking for wasn’t much farther ahead.
“These aren’t just any pirates,” Maldrin replied.
“No,” Darrick said, “I have to agree with you. These here pirates, now these are the ones that Cap’n Tollifer sent us to fetch up some trouble with. After orders like them, I won’t have you thinking I’d just settle for any pirates.”
“Nor me,” Mat put in. “I’ve proven myself right choosy when it comes to fighting the likes of pirates.”
A few of the other men agreed, and they shared a slight laugh.
No one, Darrick noted, mentioned anything of the boy the pirates had kidnapped. Since the boy’s body hadn’t been recovered at the site of the earlier attack, everyone believed he was being held for ransom. Despite the need to let off steam before their insertion into the pirates’ stronghold, thinking of the boy was sobering.
Maldrin only shook his head and turned his attention to his own oar. “Ach, an’ ye’re a proper pain in the arse, Darrick Lang. Before all that’s of the Light and holy, I’d swear to that. But if’n there’s a man aboard Cap’n Tollifer’s ship what can pull this off, I figure it’s gotta be you.”
“I’d doff my hat to you, Maldrin,” Darrick said, touched. “If I were wearing one, that is.”
“Just keep wearin’ the head it would fit on if ye were,” Maldrin growled.
“Indeed,” Darrick said. “I intend to.” He took a fresh grip on his oar. “Pull, then, boys, while the river is steady and the fog stays with us.” As he gazed up at the mountains, he knew that some savage part of him relished thoughts of the coming battle.
The pirates wouldn’t give the boy back for free. And Captain Tollifer, on behalf of Westmarch’s king, was demanding a blood price as well.
“Damned fog,” Raithen said, then swore with heartfelt emotion.
The pirate captain’s vehemence drew Buyard Cholik from his reverie. The old priest blinked past the fatigue that held him in thrall and glanced at the burly man who stood limned in the torchlight coming from the suite of rooms inside the building. “What is the matter, Captain Raithen?”
Raithen stood like a mountain at the stone balcony railing of the building that overlooked the alabaster and columned ruins of the small port city where they’d been encamped for months. He pulled at the goatee covering his massive chin and absently touched the cruel scar on the right corner of his mouth that gave him a cold leer.
“The fog. Makes it damned hard to see the river.” The pale moonlight glinted against the black chainmail Raithen wore over a dark green shirt. The ship’s captain was always sartorially perfect, even this early in the morning. Or this late at night, Cholik amended, for he didn’t know which was the case for the pirate chieftain. Raithen’s black breeches were tucked with neat precision into his rolled-top boots. “And I still think maybe we didn’t get away so clean from the last bit of business we did.”
“The fog also makes navigating the river risky,” Cholik said.
“Maybe to you, but for a man used to the wiles and ways of the sea,” Raithen said, “that river down there would offer smooth sailing.” He pulled at his beard as he looked down at the sea again, then nodded. “If it was me, I’d make a run at us tonight.”
“You’re a superstitious man,” Cholik said, and couldn’t help putting some disdain in his words. He wrapped his arms around himself. Unlike Raithen, Cholik was thin to the point of emaciation. The night’s unexpected chill predicting the onset of the coming winter months had caught him off-guard and ill prepared. He no longer had the captain’s young years to tide him over, either. The wind, now that he noticed it, cut through his black and scarlet robes.
Raithen glanced back at Cholik, his expression souring as if he were prepared to take offense at the assessment.
“Don’t bother to argue,” Cholik ordered. “I’ve seen the tendency in you. I don’t hold it against you, trust me. But I choose to believe in things that offer me stronger solace than superstition.”
A scowl twisted Raithen’s face. His own dislike and distrust concerning what Cholik’s acolytes did in the lower regions of the town they’d found buried beneath the abandoned port city were well known. The site was far to the north of Westmarch, well out of the king’s easy reach. As desolate as the place was, Cholik would have thought the pirate captain would be pleased about the location. But the priest had forgotten the civilized amenities the pirates had available to them at the various ports that didn’t know who they were ? or didn’t care because their gold and silver spent just as quickly as anyone else’s. Still, the drinking and debauchery the pirates were accustomed to were impossible where they now camped.
“None of your guards has sounded an alarm,” Cholik went on. “And I assume all have checked in.”
“They’ve checked in,” Raithen agreed. “But I’m certain that I spotted another ship’s sails riding our tailwind when we sailed up into the river this afternoon.”
“You should have investigated further.”
“I did.” Raithen scowled. “I did, and I didn’t find anything.”
“There. You see? There’s nothing to worry about.”
Raithen shot Cholik a knowing glance. “Worrying about things is part of what you pay me all that gold for.”
“Worrying me, however, isn’t.”
Despite his grim mood, a small smile twisted Raithen’s lips. “For a priest of Zakarum Church, which professes a way of gentleness, you’ve got an unkind way about your words.”
“Only when the effect is deserved.”
Folding his arms across his massive chest, Raithen leaned back against the balcony and chuckled. “You do intrigue me, Cholik. When we became acquainted all those months ago and you told me what you wanted to do, I thought you were a madman.”
“A legend of a city buried beneath another city isn’t madness,” Cholik said. However, the things he’d had to do to secure the sacred and almost forgotten texts of Dumal Lunnash, a Vizjerei wizard who had witnessed the death of Jere Harash thousands of years ago, had almost driven him there.
Thousands of years ago, Jere Harash had been a young Vizjerei acolyte who had discovered the power to command the spirits of the dead. The young boy had claimed the insight was given to him through a dream. There was no doubting the new abilities Jere Harash mustered, and his power became a thing of legend. The boy perfected the process whereby the wizards drained the energy of the dead, making anyone who used it more powerful than anything that had gone on before. As a result of this new knowledge, the Vizjerei ? one of the three primary clans in the world thousands of years ago ? had become known as the Spirit Clans.
Dumal Lunnash had been a historian and one of the men to have survived Jere Harash’s last attempt to master the spirit world completely. Upon the young man’s attaining the trance state necessary to transfer the energy to the spells he wove, a spirit had taken control of his body and gone on a killing rampage. Later, the Vizjerei had learned that the spirits they called on and unwittingly unleashed into the world were demons from the Burning Hells.
As a chronicler of the times and the auguries of the Vizjerei, Dumal Lunnash had largely been overlooked, but his texts had led Cholik through a macabre and twisted trail that had ended in the desolation of the forgotten city on the Dyre River.
“No,” Raithen said. “Legends like that are everywhere. I’ve even followed a few of them myself, but I’ve never seen one come true.”
“Then I’m surprised that you came at all,” Cholik said. This was a conversation they’d been avoiding for months, and he was surprised to find it coming out now. But only in a way. From the signs they’d been finding the last week, while Raithen had been away plundering and pillaging, or whatever it was that Raithen’s pirates did while they were away, Cholik had known they were close to discovering the dead city’s most important secret.
“It was your gold,” Raithen admitted. “That was what turned the trick for me. Now, since I’ve returned again, I’ve seen the progress your people are making.”
A bitter sweetness filled Cholik. Although he was glad to be vindicated in the pirate captain’s eyes, the priest also knew that Raithen had already started thinking about the possibility of treasure. Perhaps in his uninformed zeal, he or his men might even damage what Cholik and his acolytes were there to get.
“When do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for?” Raithen asked.
“Soon,” Cholik replied.
The big pirate shrugged. “It might help me to have some idea. If we were followed today…”
“If you were followed today,” Cholik snapped, “then it would be all your fault.”
Raithen gave Cholik a wolfish grin. “Would it, then?”
“You are wanted by the Westmarch Navy,” Cholik said, “for crimes against the king. You’ll be hanged if they find you, swung from the gallows in Diamond Quarter.”
“Like a common thief?” Raithen arched an eyebrow. “Aye, maybe I’ll be swinging at the end of a gallows like a loose sail at the end of a yardarm, but don’t you think the king would have a special punishment meted out to a priest of the Zakarum Church who had betrayed his confidence and had been telling the pirates what ships carry the king’s gold through the Gulf of Westmarch and through the Great Ocean?”
Raithen’s remarks stung Cholik. The Archangel Yaerius had coaxed a young ascetic named Akarat into founding a religion devoted to the Light. And for a time, Zakarum Church had been exactly that, but it had changed over the years and through the wars. Few mortals, only those within the inner circles of the Zakarum Church, knew that the church had been subverted by demons and now followed a dark, mostly hidden evil through their inquisitions. The Zakarum Church was also tied into Westmarch and Tristram, the power behind the power of the kings. By revealing the treasure ships’ passage, Cholik had also enabled the pirates to steal from the Zakarum Church. The priests of the church were even more vengeful than the king.
Turning from the bigger man, Cholik paced on the balcony in an effort to warm himself against the night’s chill. I knew it would come to this at some point, he told himself. This was to be expected. He let out a long, deliberate breath, letting Raithen think for a time that he’d gotten the better of him. Over his years as a priest, Cholik had found that men often made even more egregious mistakes when they’d been praised for their intelligence or their power.
Cholik knew what real power was. It was the reason he’d come there to Tauruk’s Port to find long-buried Ransim, which had died during the Sin War that had lasted centuries as Chaos had quietly but violently warred with the Light. That war had been long ago and played out in the east, before Westmarch had become civilized or powerful. Many cities and towns had been buried during those times. Most of them, though, had been shorn of their valuables. But Ransim had been hidden from the bulk of the Sin War. Even though the general populace knew nothing of the Sin War except that battles were fought ? though not because the demons and the Light warred ? they’d known nothing of Ransim. The port city had been an enigma, something that shouldn’t have existed. But some of the eastern mages had chosen that place to work and hide in, and they’d left secrets behind. Dumal Lunnash’s texts had been the only source Cholik had found regarding Ransim’s whereabouts, and even that book had led only to an arduous task of gathering information about the location that was hidden in carefully constructed lies and half-truths.
“What do you want to know, captain?” Cholik asked.
“What you’re seeking here,” Raithen replied with no hesitation.
“If it’s gold and jewels, you mean?” Cholik asked.
“When I think of treasure,” Raithen said, “those are the things that I spend most of my time thinking about and wishing for.”
Amazed at how small-minded the man was, Cholik shook his head. Wealth was only a small thing to hope for, but power ? power was the true reward the priest lusted for.
“What?” Raithen argued. “You’re too good to hope for gold and jewels? For a man who betrays his king’s coffers, you have some strange ideas.”
“Material power is a very transitory thing,” Cholik said. “It is of finite measure. Often gone before you know it.”
“I’ve still got some put back for a rainy day.”
Cholik gazed up at the star-filled heavens. “Mankind is a futile embarrassment to the heavens, Captain Raithen. An imperfect vessel imperfectly made. We play at being omnipotent, knowing the potential perhaps lies within us yet will always be denied to us.”
“We’re not talking about gold and jewels that you’re looking for, are we?” Raithen almost sounded betrayed.
“There may be some of that,” Cholik said. “But that is not what drew me here.” He turned and gazed back at the pirate captain. “I followed the scent of power here, Captain Raithen. And I betrayed the King of Westmarch and the Zakarum Church to do it so that I could secure your ship for my own uses.”
“Power?” Raithen shook his head in disbelief. “Give me a few feet of razor-sharp steel, and I’ll show you power.”
Angry, Cholik gestured at the pirate captain. The priest saw waves of slight, shimmering force leap from his extended hand and streak for Raithen. The waves wrapped around the big man’s throat like steel bands and shut his breath off. In the next instant, Cholik caused the big man to be pulled from his feet. No priest could wield such a power, and it was time to let the pirate captain know he was no priest. Not anymore. Not ever again.
“Shore!” one of the longboat crew crowed from the prow. He kept his voice pitched low so that it didn’t carry far.
“Ship oars, boys,” Darrick ordered, lifting his own from the river water. Pulse beating quicker, thumping at his temples now, he stood and gazed at the stretch of mountain before them.
The oars came up at once, then the sailors placed them in the center of the longboat.
“Stern,” Darrick called as he peered at the glowing circles of light that came from lanterns or fires only a short distance ahead.
“Sir,” Fallan responded from the longboat’s stern.
Now that the oars no longer rowed, the longboat didn’t cut through the river water. Instead, the boat seemed to come up from the water and settle with harsh awkwardness on the current.
“Take us to shore,” Darrick ordered, “and let’s have a look at what’s what with these damned pirates what’s taking the king’s gold. Put us off to port in a comfortable spot, if you will.”
“Aye, sir.” Fallan used the steering oar and angled the longboat toward the left riverbank.
The current pushed the craft backward in the water, but Darrick knew they’d lose only a few yards. What mattered most was finding a safe place to tie up so they could complete the mission Captain Tollifer had assigned them.
“Here,” Maldrin called out, pointing toward the left bank. Despite his age, the old first mate had some of the best eyes aboard Lonesome Star. He also saw better at night.
Darrick peered through the fog and made out the craggy riverbank. It looked bitten off, just a stubby shelf of rock sticking out from the cliffs that had been cleaved through the Hawk’s Beak Mountains as if by a gigantic ax.
“Now, there’s an inhospitable berth if ever I’ve seen one,” Darrick commented.
“Not if you’re a mountain goat,” Mat said.
“A bloody mountain goat wouldn’t like that climb none,” Darrick said, measuring the steep ascent that would be left to them.
Maldrin squinted up at the cliffs. “If we’re goin’ this way, we’re in for some climbin’.”
“Sir,” Fallan called from the stern, “what do you want me to do?”
“Put in to shore there, Fallan,” Darrick said. “We’ll take our chances with this bit of providence.” He smiled. “As hard as the way here is, you know the pirates won’t be expecting it none. I’ll take that, and add it to the chunk of luck we’re having here this night.”
With expert skill, Fallan guided the longboat to shore.
“Tomas,” Darrick said, “we’ll be having that anchor now, quick as you will.”
The sailor muscled the stone anchor up from the middle of the longboat, steadied it on the side, then heaved it toward shore. The immense weight fell short of the shore but slapped down into shallow water. Taking up the slack, he dragged the anchor along the river bottom.
“She’s stone below,” Tomas whispered as the rope jerked in his hands. “Not mud.”
“Then let’s hope that you catch onto something stout,” Darrick replied. He fidgeted in the longboat, anxious to be about the dangerous business they had ahead of them. The sooner into it, the sooner out of it and back aboard Lonesome Star.
“We’re about out of riverbank,” Maldrin commented as they drifted a few yards farther downriver.
“Could be we’ll start the night off with a nice swim, then,” Mat replied.
“A man will catch his death of cold in that water,” Maldrin grumped.
“Mayhap the pirates will do for you before you wind up abed in your dotage,” Mat said. “I’m sure they’re not going to give up their prize when we come calling.”
Darrick felt a sour twist in his stomach. The “prize” the pirates held was the biggest reason Captain Tollifer had sent Darrick and the other sailors upriver instead of bringing Lonesome Star up.
As a general rule, the pirates who had been preying on the king’s ships out of Westmarch had left no one alive. This time, they had left a silk merchant from Lut Gholein clinging to a broken spar large enough to serve as a raft. He’d been instructed to tell the king that one of the royal nephews had been taken captive. A ransom demand, Darrick knew, was sure to follow.
It would be the first contact the pirates had initiated with Westmarch. After all these months of successful raids against the king’s merchanters, still no one knew how they got their information about the gold shipments. However, they had left only the Lut Gholein man alive, suggesting that they hadn’t wanted anyone from Westmarch to escape who might identify them.
The anchor scraped across the stone riverbed, taking away the margin for success by steady inches. The water and the sound of the current muted the noise. Then the anchor stopped and the rope jerked taut in Tomas’s hands. Catching the rope in his callused palms, the sailor squeezed tight.
The longboat stopped but continued to bob on the river current.
Darrick glanced at the riverbank a little more than six feet away. “Well, we’ll make do with what we have, boys.” He glanced at Tomas. “How deep is the water?”
Tomas checked the knots tied in the rope as the longboat strained at the anchor. “She’s drawing eight and a half feet.”
Darrick eyed the shore. “The river must drop considerably from the edges of the cliffs.”
“It’s a good thing we’re not in armor,” Mat said. “Though I wish I had a good shirt of chainmail to tide me through the coming fracas.”
“You’d sink like a lightning-blasted toad if you did,” Darrick replied. “And it may not come to fighting. Mayhap we’ll nip aboard the pirate ship and rescue the youngster without rousing a ruckus.”
“Aye,” Maldrin muttered, “an’ if ye did, it would be one of the few times I’ve seen ye do that.”
Darrick grinned in spite of the worry that nibbled at the dark corners of his mind. “Why, Maldrin, I almost sense a challenge in your words.”
“Make what ye will of it,” the first mate growled. “I offer advice in the best of interests, but I see that it’s seldom taken in the same spirit in which it was give. Fer all ye know, they’re in league with dead men and suchlike here.”
The first mate’s words had a sobering effect on Darrick, reminding him that though he viewed the night’s activities as an adventure, it wasn’t a complete lark. Some pirate captains wielded magic.
“We’re here tracking pirates,” Mat said. “Just pirates. Mortal men whose flesh cuts and bleeds.”
“Aye,” Darrick said, ignoring the dry spot at the back of his throat that Maldrin’s words had summoned. “Just men.”
But still, the crew had faced a ship of dead men only months ago while on patrol. The fighting then had been brutal and frightening, and it had cost lives of shipmates before the undead sailors and their ship had been sent to the bottom of the sea.
The young commander glanced at Tomas. “We’re locked in?”
Tomas nodded, tugging on the anchor rope. “Aye. As near as I can tell.”
Darrick grinned. “I’d like to have a boat to come back to, Tomas. And Captain Tollifer can be right persnickety about crew losing his equipment. When we get to shore, make the longboat fast again, if you please.”
“Aye. It will be done.”
Grabbing his cutlass from among the weapons wrapped in the bottom of the longboat, Darrick stood with care, making sure he balanced the craft out. He took a final glance up at the tops of the cliffs. The last sentry point they’d identified lay a hundred yards back. The campfire still burned through the layers of fog overhead. He glanced ahead at the lights glowing in the distance, the clangor of ships’ rigging slapping masts reaching his ears.
“Looks like there’s naught to be done for it, boys,” Darrick said. “We’ve got a cold swim ahead of us.” He noticed that Mat already had his sword in hand and that Maldrin had his own war hammer.
“After you,” Mat said, waving an open hand toward the river.
Without another word, Darrick slipped over the side of the boat and into the river. The cold water closed over him at once, taking his breath away, and he swam against the current toward the riverbank.