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.
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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.