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.
Pocket Book, 352 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….
Legend speaks of a long-dead city known as Ureh, thought by many to have been a gateway to the High Heavens. It is believed that every two thousand years, when the stars align and the shadow of Mount Nymyr falls upon the ruins, Ureh is reborn—and all its lost riches are revealed to those brave enough to seek them out.
Now, after a lifetime of research and intense calculation, the Vizjerei sorcerer, Quov Tsin, has come to witness Ureh’s rebirth for himself. But that which awaits Tsin and his hired band of mercenaries is nothing like what they expected. They will find that the dream of radiant Ureh is, in fact, a twisted nightmare of horror—one that will draw them inexorably into
The Kingdom of Shadow
An original tale of swords, sorcery, and timeless struggle based on the bestselling, award-winning M-rated computer game from Blizzard Entertainment. Intended for mature readers.
Order this book at the Blizzplanet Store
The horrific scream came from the direction of the river.
Kentril Dumon cursed as he shouted orders to the others. He had warned his men to avoid the waterways as much as possible, but in the dense, steamy jungles of Kehjistan, it sometimes became difficult to keep track of the myriad wanderings of the rivers and streams. Some of the other mercenaries also had a tendency to forget orders when cool water lay just yards away.
The fool who had screamed had just learned the danger of growing complacent ? not that he would likely live long enough to appreciate that lesson.
The slim, sunburnt captain battled his way through the lush foliage, following the pleading call. Ahead of him, he saw Gorst, his second, the giant, shirtless fighter ripping through the vines and branches as if they had no substance at all. While most of the other mercenaries, natives of cooler, highland regions in the Western Kingdoms, suffered badly from the heat, bronzed Gorst ever took all in stride. The scraggy mop of hair, dark black compared with Kentril’s own light brown, made the giant look like a fleeing lion as he disappeared toward the river.
Following his friend’s trail, Captain Dumon made better time. The screaming continued, bringing back graphic memories of the other three men the party had lost since entering the vast jungle that covered most of this land. The second had died a most horrible death, snared in the web of a horde of monstrous spiders, his body so injected with poison that it had become bloated and distorted. Kentril had ordered torches used against the web and its hungry denizens, carefully burning out the creatures. It had notsaved his man, but it had avenged the death somewhat.
The third hapless fighter had never been found. He had simply vanished during an arduous trek through an area filled with soft soil that pulled one’s boots down with each step. Having nearly sunken to his knees at one point, the weary captain suspected he knew the fate of the lost soldier. The mud could be quick and efficient in its work.
And as he considered the death of the very first mercenary lost to Kehjistan’s fearsome jungles, Kentril stepped out into a scene almost identical to that disaster.
A huge, serpentine form rose well above the riverbank, long reptilian orbs narrowed at the small figures below who sought in vain to pry free the struggling form in its tremendous maw. Even with its jaws clamped tight on the frantic mercenary whose screams had alerted Kentril and the others, it somehow managed to hiss furiously at the humans. A lance stuck out of its side, but the strike had evidently been a shallow one, for the behemoth appeared in no way even annoyed by it.
Someone loosed an arrow toward the head, likely aiming for the terrible eyes, but the shaft flew high, bouncing off the scaly hide. The tentacle beast ? the name their esteemed employer, Quov Tsin, had used for such horrors ? swung its prey around and around, giving Kentril at last a glimpse of whom it had seized.
Hargo. Of course, it would be Hargo. The bearded idiot had been much a disappointment on this journey, having shirked many of his duties since their arrival on this side of the Twin Seas. Still, even Hargo deserved no such fate as this, whatever his shortcomings.
“Get rope ready!” Kentril shouted at his men. The creatures had twin curved horns toward the backs of their heads, the one place on their snakelike bodies that the mercenaries might be able to use to their advantage. “Keep him from returning to deep water!”
As the others followed his instructions, Captain Dumon counted them. Sixteen, including himself and the unfortunate Hargo. That accounted for everyone ? except Quov Tsin.
Where was the damned Vizjerei this time? He had a very annoying habit of wandering ahead of the band he had hired, leaving the mercenaries to guess half the time what he wanted of them. Kentril regretted ever taking this offer, but the talk of treasure had been so insistent, so beguiling…
He shook such thoughts from his head. Hargo still had a slim chance for life. The tentacle beast could have easily bitten him in two, but they just as often preferred to drag their prey under and let the water do their work for them. Made their meals soft and manageable, too, so the cursed sorcerer had said with scholarly indifference.
The men had the ropes ready. Kentril ordered them in place. Others still harassed the gargantuan serpent, making it forget that it could have long finished this encounter just by backing away. If the mercenaries could rely on its simple animal mind a little longer ?
Gorst had a line set to toss. He did not wait for Kentril to give the order, already understanding what the captain wanted. The giant threw the loop with unerring accuracy, snagging the rope on the right horn.
“Oskal! Try to throw Hargo a line! Benjin! Get that rope on the other horn! You two ? give Gorst a hand with that now!”
Stout Oskal tossed his rope toward the weakening, blood-soaked figure in the behemoth’s maw. Hargo tried in vain to grab it, but it fell short. The tentacle beast hissed again and tried to retreat, only to have the line held by Gorst and the other two men keep it from getting very far.
“Benjin! The other horn, damn you!”
“Tell ‘im to quit wigglin’, and I will, captain!”
Oskal threw the rope again, and this time Hargo managed to grab it. With what strength he had, he looped it around him.
The entire tableau reminded Kentril of some macabre game. Again he cursed himself for accepting this contract, and he cursed Quov Tsin for having offered it in the first place.
Where was the foul sorcerer? Why had he not come running with the rest? Could he be dead?
The captain doubted his luck could be that good. Whatever the Vizjerei’s present circumstances, they would have no effect on the desperate situation here. Everything rested on Kentril’s already burdened shoulders.
A few of the fighters continued to try to wound the serpentine monster in any way they could. Unfortunately, the tough hide of the tentacle beast prevented those with lances and swords from doing any harm, and the two archers still at work had to watch out for fear of slaying the very man they hoped to save.
A rope caught the left horn. Captain Dumon fought back the swell of hope he felt; it had been one thing to catch the monster, but now they had to bring it in.
“Everyone who can, grab onto the lines! Bring that thing onto shore! It’ll be more clumsy, more vulnerable on land!”
He joined with the others, pulling on the line Benjin had tossed. The tentacle beast hissed loudly, and although it clearly understood at some level the danger it faced, it still did not release its captive. Kentril could generally admire such tenacity in any living creature, but not when the life of one of his men was also at stake.
“Pull!” the captain shouted, sweat from the effort making his brown shirt cling to his body. His leather boots ? his fine leather boots that he had bought with the pay from his last contract ? sank into the muddy ground near the river. Despite four men on each rope, it took all they could give just to inch the aquatic horror onto the shore.
Yet inch it they did, and as the bulk of the beast came onto land, the mercenaries’ efforts redoubled. A little more, and surely they could then free their comrade.
With the target much closer, one of the archers took aim.
“Hold your ? ” was all Kentril got out before the shaft buried itself in the left eye.
The serpentine monster reared back in agony. It opened its mouth, but not enough to enable the gravely-injured Hargo to fall free, even with two men pulling from the ground. Despite having no appreciable limbs, the tentacle beast writhed back and forth so much that it began dragging all of its adversaries toward the dark waters.
One of the men behind Gorst slipped, sending another there also falling. The imbalance threw the rest of the mercenaries off. Benjin lost his grip, nearly stumbling into his captain in the process.
One orb a mass of ichor, the tentacle beast pulled back into the river.
“Hold him! Hold him!” Kentril shouted uselessly. Between the two ropes snaring the horns remained only five men. Gorst, his huge form a mass of taut muscle, made up for the fact that he had only one other mercenary with him, but in the end even his prodigious strength proved ineffective.
The back half of the gigantic reptile vanished under the water.
They had lost the battle; the captain knew that. In no way could they regain enough momentum to turn the tide.
And Hargo, somehow madly clinging onto life and consciousness, obviously knew that as well as Kentril Dumon did. His face a bloody mess, he shouted out hoarse pleas to all.
Kentril would not let this man go the same way the first one had. “Benjin! Grab the line again!”
“It’s too late, captain! There’s nothin’ ? “
“Grab hold of it, I said!”
The moment the other fighter had obeyed, Kentril ran over to the nearest archer. The bowman stood transfixed, watching the unfolding fate of his unfortunate companion with a slack jaw and skin as pale as bone.
“Your bow! Give it to me!”
“The bow, damn you!” Kentril ripped it out of the uncomprehending archer’s hands. Captain Dumon had trained long and hard with the bow himself, and among his motley crew he could still count himself as the second or third best shot.
For what he intended now, Kentril prayed he would have the eye of the best.
Without hesitation, the wiry commander raised the bow, sighting his target as he did. Hargo stared back at him, and the pleas suddenly faltered. A look in the dying man’s eyes begged the captain to fire quickly.
The wooden bolt caught Hargo in the upper chest, burying itself deep.
Hargo slumped in the beast’s jaws, dead instantly.
The act caught the other mercenaries completely by surprise. Gorst lost his grip. The others belatedly released theirs, not wanting to be pulled in by accident.
In sullen silence, the survivors watched as the wounded monster sank swiftly into the river, still hissing its rage and pain even as its head vanished below the surface. Hargo’s arms briefly floated above the innocent-looking water ? then suddenly, they, too, disappeared below.
Letting the bow drop, Kentril turned and started away from the area.
The other fighters nervously gathered their things and followed, keeping much closer to one another. They had grown complacent after the third death, and now one of them had paid for that. Kentril blamed himself most of all, for, as company captain, he should have kept a better watch on his men. Only once before had he ever been forced to resort to slaying one of his own in order to alleviate suffering, and that had been on a good, solid battlefield, not in some insufferable madhouse of a jungle. That first man had been lying on the ground with a belly wound so massive that Captain Dumon had been amazed any life lingered. It had been a simple thing then to put the mortally wounded soldier to rest.
This…this had felt barbaric.
“Kentril,” came Gorst’s quiet voice. For someone so massive, the tanned giant could speak very softly when he chose. “Kentril. Hargo ? “
“Kentril ? “
“Enough.” Of all those under his command through the past ten years, only Gorst ever called him by his first name. Captain Dumon had never offered that choice; the simplistic titan had just decided to do so. Perhaps that had been why they had become the best of friends, the only true friends among all those who had fought under Kentril for money.
Now only fifteen men remained. Fewer with whom to divide the supposed treasure the Vizjerei had offered, but fewer also to defend the party in case of trouble. Kentril would have dearly loved to have brought more, but he had been able to find no more takers of the offer. The seventeen hardened fighters accompanying him and Gorst had been all who would accept this arduous journey. The coins Quov Tsin had given him had barely paid them enough as it was.
And speaking of Tsin ? where was he?
“Tsin, damn you!” the scarred captain shouted to the jungle. “Unless you’ve been eaten, I want you to show yourself right now!”
Peering through the dense jungle, Kentril searched for the diminutive spellcaster, but nowhere did he see Quov Tsin’s bald head.
“Tsin! Show yourself, or I’ll have the men start dumping your precious equipment into the river! Then you can go and talk to the beasts if you want to do any more of your incessant calculations!” Since the beginning of this trek, the Vizjerei had demanded pause after pause in order to set up instruments, draw patterns, and cast minor spells ? all supposedly to guide them to their destination. Tsin seemed to know where he headed, but up until now none of the others, not even Kentril, could have said the same.
A high-pitched, rather nasal voice called from the distance. Neither he nor Gorst could make out the words, but both readily recognized their employer’s condescending tones.
“That way,” the giant said, pointing ahead and slightly to the right of the party.
Knowing that the sorcerer had not only survived but had utterly ignored Hargo’s fate ignited a fire within Kentril. Even as he proceeded, his hand slipped to the hilt of his sword. Just because the Vizjerei had purchased their services did not mean in any way that he could be forgiven for not lending his dubious talent with magic to the desperate hope of rescuing the ill-fated mercenary.
Yes, Kentril would have more than words with Quov Tsin…
“Where are you?” he called out.
“Here, of course!” snapped Tsin from somewhere behind the thick foliage. “Do hurry now! We’ve wasted so much valuable time!”
Wasted it? Captain Dumon’s fury grew. Wasted it? As a hired fighter and treasure hunter, he knew that his livelihood meant risking death every day, but Kentril had always prided himself on knowing the value of life nonetheless. It had always been those with the gold, those who offered riches, who least appreciated the cost the mercenary captain and his men suffered.
He drew the sword slowly from the scabbard. With each passing day, this trek had begun to seem more and more like a wild chase. Kentril had had enough. It was time to break the contract.
“That’s not good,” Gorst murmured. “You should put it back, Kentril.”
“Just mind your place.” No one, not even Gorst, would deter him.
“Kentril ? “
At that moment, the object of the slim captain’s ire burst through the jungle foliage. To Kentril, who stood just over six feet in height, Gorst had always seemed an astonishing sight, but as tall as the giant appeared in comparison with his commander, so, too, did Dumon loom over the Vizjerei.
Legend had always made the race of sorcerers seem more than men, tall, hooded figures clad in rune-covered, red-orange cloaks called Turinnash, or “spirit mantles.” The small silver runes covering much of the voluminous garment supposedly protected the mage from lesser magical threats and even, to a limited degree, some demonic powers. The Vizjerei wore the Turinnash proudly, almost like a badge of office, a mark of superiority. However, although Quov Tsin, too, had such a cloak, on his barely five-foot frame it did little to enhance any image of mystical power. The slight, wrinkled figure with the long gray beard reminded Kentril of nothing more than his elderly grandfather ? without any of the sympathetic nature of the latter.
Tsin’s slanted, silver-gray eyes peered over his aquiline nose in obvious disdain. The diminutive mage had no patience whatsoever and clearly did not see that his own life hung by a thread. Of course, as a Vizjerei, he not only had spells with which to likely defend himself, but the staff he held in his right hand also carried protective magicks designed for countless circumstances.
One quick strike, though, Kentril thought to himself. One quick strike, and I can put an end to this sanctimonious little toad…
“It’s about time!” snapped the mercenary’s employer. He shook one end of the staff in the captain’s face. “What took you so long? You know I’m running out of time!”
More than you think, you babbling cur…” While you were wandering off, Master Tsin, I was trying to save a man from one of those water serpents. We could’ve used your help.”
“Yes, well, enough of this babble!” Quov Tsin returned, his gaze slipping back to the jungle behind him. Likely he had not even heard what Kentril had just said. “Come! Come quickly! You must see!”
As the Vizjerei turned away, Captain Dumon’s hand rose, the sword at the ready.
Gorst put his own hand on his friend’s arm. “Let’s go see, Kentril.”
The giant casually stepped in front of the captain, effectively coming between Kentril and Tsin’s unprotected back. The first two moved on, Kentril reluctantly following them.
He could wait a few moments longer.
First Quov Tsin, then Gorst, vanished among the plants. Kentril soon found himself needing to hack his way through, but he took some pleasure in imagining each dismembered branch or vine as the spellcaster’s neck.
Then, without any warning, the jungle gave way. The early evening sun lit up the landscape before him as it had not done in two weeks. Kentril found himself staring at a series of high, jagged peaks, the beginnings of the vast chain running up and down the length of Kehjistan and heading even farther east for as far as the eye could see.
And in the distance, just above the eastern base of a particularly tall and ugly peak at the very southern tip of this particular chain, lay the weatherworn, jumbled remains of a once mighty city. The fragments of a great stone wall encircling the entire eastern side could still be made out. A few hardy structures maintained precarious stances within the city itself. One, possibly the home of the lost kingdom’s ruler, stood perched atop a vast ledge, no doubt having once enabled the master of the realm to gaze down upon his entire domain.
Although the jungle had surrendered in part to this region, lush plants still covered much of the landscape and had, over time, invaded the ruins themselves. What they had not already covered, the elements had battered well. Erosion had ripped away part of the northern section of the wall and taken with it a good portion of the city. Further in, a sizable chunk of the mountain had collapsed onto the interior of the city.
Kentril could not imagine that there would be much left intact anywhere inside. Time had taken its toll on this ancient place.
“That should assuage your anger a bit, Captain Dumon,” Quov Tsin suddenly remarked, eyes fixed on the sight before them. “Quite a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Lowering his sword, Kentril eyed the ruins with some discomfort. He felt as if he had just intruded upon a place where even ghosts moved with trepidation. “Is that it? Is that ? “
“‘The Light among Lights’? The most pure of realms in all the history of the world, built upon the very slope of the towering mountain called Nymyr? Aye, captain, there it stands ? and, for our needs, just in time, if my calculations hold true!”
Gasps came from behind Kentril. The other men had finally caught up, just in time to hear the sorcerer’s words. They all knew the legends of the realm called the Light among Lights by the ancients, a place fabled to be the one kingdom where the darkness of Hell had feared to intrude. They all knew of its story, even as far away as the Western Kingdoms.
Here had been a city revered by those who followed the light. Here had stood a marvel, ruled by regal and kind lords who had guided the souls of all toward Heaven.
Here had been a kingdom so pure, stories had it that it had at last risen whole above the mortal plane, its inhabitants transcending mortal limitations, rising to join the angels.
“You see a sight worthy of the loss of your men, captain,” the Vizjerei whispered, extending one bony hand toward the ruins. “For now you are one of the few fortunate ever to cast your eyes upon one of the wonders of the past ? fabulous, lost Ureh!”
Pocket Book, 336 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….
Driven by nightmares to the ruins of a mysterious tomb, Lord Aldric Jitan hopes to awaken a terrible evil that has slept since the fall of Tristram. Drawn by the growing darkness in the land, the enigmatic Necromancer, Zayl, stumbles upon Jitan’s plot—unaware that one of his own brethren has set these dire events in motion. Now, as the celestial Moon of the Spider rises, the nefarious demon, Astrogha, prepares to unleash his minions upon Sanctuary.
An original tale of swords, sorcery, and timeless struggle based on the bestselling, award-winning M-rated computer game from Blizzard Entertainment. Intended for mature readers.
Order this book at the Blizzplanet Store
The thick, gray clouds enshrouded much of the northern side of the mountains. A chill wind cut deep into the flesh of every man in the party save the slim cowled figure in the thin, black travel cloak guiding the party. At this level, there were even traces of snow and, especially, frost. The frost was very prevalent, giving the forest of firs through which they stalked a deathlike sheen.
Two paces behind their guide, Lord Aldric Jitan drew his own thickly furred cloak tighter. From under the hood of the rich brown and white garment, the red-haired noble’s narrow eyes—one deep brown and the other ice-blue—darted back and forth along the landscape, seeking. His square jaw clenched in impatience.
“How much farther, sorcerer?” he muttered, his words accompanied by dense white clouds.
“Not much farther at all, my lord,” the black-clad figure calmly replied. Unlike the noble and the five burly men-at-arms, he strode along the uneven path as if on a pleasant afternoon hike. His voice was surprisingly deep for so thin and studious-sounding a figure, even deeper than Lord Jitan’s. He glanced back at the broad-shouldered aristocrat—a man built much like the fighters who served him—revealing glimpses of a head with short-cropped gray hair and an angular face with matching eyes so narrow they made Aldric’s seem round. The skin had a darker, slightly yellowish cast to it, almost as if the speaker suffered jaundice. “In fact, I daresay, the first hints will soon manifest themselves.”
“I sense nothing.”
“Your skills are not honed as mine are, my lord, but that shall be remedied soon enough, yes?”
Aldric grunted. “That’s the point of all of this, isn’t it, sorcerer?”
The lead figure turned his gaze forward, leaving the noble only the back of his black hood at which to gaze. “Yes, my lord.”
They fell to silence again. Behind Aldric, the five servants struggled under heavy packs. In addition to foodstuffs and blankets, they carried pickaxes, huge hammers, and shovels. Each man also wore a sword at his side. As desolate as this forest seemed, there were dangers, especially from wendigos. The huge beastmen were rare to find—not that most were so foolish as to go hunting for them—but when encountered had to be slain quickly. Wendigos thrived on meat, including human flesh. Legend said that they had not always been so monstrous, but no one in the Western Kingdoms cared about such legends. It was the blood-soaked facts that mattered. The only good wendigo was a dead one.
After all, as Lord Aldric Jitan could attest, the dead ones at least made for fine, warm cloaks like the one he wore.
Several more minutes passed and still the noble sensed nothing. He probed for some distance ahead and only noted the continual emptiness of the mountainous land. Even for this part of southeastern Westmarch, the region was desolate. Not at all like the lowlands, where the lush, rich soil and pleasant rainfall made this part of the Western Kingdoms the envy of all other regions of the world. Even the thick fir forest through which they trudged felt sterile, more a ghost than a living thing.
Lord Jitan grunted. And this had once been the heart of ancient Westmarch? This had once been where the vast, dominating estates of the Sons of Rakkis had loomed over the first, burgeoning kingdoms of the land? The moldering parchments and crumbling stone slabs through which Aldric had for months pored had spoken of a much warmer, much more regal land, of huge city-sized estates, each of them run by one of the five lines descended from the legendary paladin-lord.
Few today knew the origins of King Rakkis—founder and first ruler of Westmarch—and most of those, Aldric included, understood only that he had come from somewhere in the east, possibly even beyond the jungles of Kehjistan. As one who believed himself descended from that very same lord, Aldric thought this most definitely the case and the explanation for the narrowness of his own eyes.
What had happened to the last of the Rakkis line was up to conjecture, albeit by very few since the legacy was all but forgotten in modern times. Lord Jitan gathered from what little existed that, somewhere deep in the past, there had been a struggle for power between factions over an object of power. In fact, there had been more than one reference to it, and that had been what had first instigated him to search on. Yet, until the chance encounter with his foreign companion ahead, the noble had found only dead ends.
And dead ends were not something Aldric needed. The dreams were growing worse with each night. They tortured and beguiled him at the same time. They hinted of enemies seeking his weaknesses, shadowy figures who had become so very real to Aldric despite never having clear faces or intelligible voices. Each night, the whispering phantoms drew closer to overtaking him, and each night the fear in him swelled greater. Often, he woke full of sweat, certain that his screams had been heard throughout his estate.
But those dreams had also given him the first clue, the one that had led to the history of the Lords Rakkis and, finally, to this climb into the chill mountain region. Each time Aldric had nearly been taken by his faceless, horrific enemies, something had saved him. At first, it had been only an indistinct object, one that had appeared magically in his cupped palms. In progressive dreams, however, it had taken on form, gradually becoming a sphere, a huge pearl with odd yet familiar markings. At the same time, hints of the Rakkis ties to it had materialized—old, rotting banners with the House symbol still intact, dank catacombs with the snarling wolf carved into the stone, and more.
Most men would have simply thought themselves mad, but then, most men were not Lord Aldric Jitan. Even before he had determined that within him coursed the blood of the Sons of Rakkis, Aldric had known that he was of a select few. After all, he had been gifted with the touch of magic. His skills were slight, true, but in the dreams, they had grown when he had touched the gigantic pearl. That had, in fact, been the only reason his dream self had thus far survived.
And if Lord Jitan was to survive in the waking world, did it not make sense that he find what his subconscious kept steering him toward? Did not all his dreams and research mean to culminate in locating what the eastern devil called—
“The Moon of the Spider…”
Aldric stood as if suddenly as frozen as the trees around him. He glared ahead hopefully, but saw only more of the same bleakness.
“Sorcerer!” the noble snapped. “What by the Lords was that utterance for? There’s nothing here!”
His guide did not even look back. “Your senses are not attuned enough, my lord. You cannot see what there is to be seen, but I promise that it lies just before us.” One arm stretched back, the narrow, yellowed hand gesturing Aldric forward. “Step up and I will show you a taste of what you desire to wield.”
Lord Jitan needed no encouragement. Driven by his demons, he battled his way up to where the slim figure awaited him. The five servants, much more encumbered, did their best to follow their master.
“Where? Where, damn it?” All that stood before him were mounds of stone and ice and the same endless forest.
The yellowed hand suddenly reached out and seized his own, squeezing with a strength that made Aldric wince. “See…”
And the western aristocrat did.
Everything was as it had been before, and yet now Aldric saw distinctions that his sweeping glance had so quickly dismissed. The mounds of stone and ice had definition, if one only looked close. Definition that nature could not have created on its own.
Lord Jitan stared up the length of the mountainside and took in the full scope of what those definitions meant.
“Can you sense it now?” asked his companion, releasing his grip on the noble.
Aldric nodded. How could he miss it now? More to the point, how could he have not sensed it in the first place?
The stronghold of the last of the Sons of Rakkis…
Ahead lay what to the ignorant simply appeared a large, oval depression between two ridges. Of course, those ridges were much too uniform and, to Aldric’s now-awakened senses, were the flanking walls of the entrance to a much larger structure rising up several stories above. The Lords Rakkis had built their massive estates into the very mountains, carving out the rock where needed, adapting where it was not. Now Aldric saw the stepped city that they had built, each level once luxurious and spanning. There were small terraced villas and gardened walkways, all draped by the culmination of centuries of weather. Higher up stood a tower from which the ruler himself would have looked down upon his realm. Aldric squinted, noting that what had appeared to be an outcropping near the top was actually the thrusting arm of a great statue that might very well have been of Rakkis himself.
The noble grinned as he drank in the truth. Buried beneath the snow, ice, and stone was an erection to rival any of which he had seen or heard, especially in Westmarch.
Behind him, the men-at-arms muttered excitedly among themselves. They no doubt thought of treasure. Aldric paid them little mind. He already knew that anything of such base value had long been stripped away in the aftermath of the Lords’ downfall. The riffraff would have to be satisfied with what he so generously paid them.
But as for his own treasure quest…
His eyes were drawn to the depression at the base of the sprawling ruins. Marching up to it, Lord Jitan confronted the layers of earth and ice he was now certain kept him from his goal. He turned back to his servants, snapping, “Well? Drop that gear and come dig!”
They immediately set to work, rightly fearful of their lord’s wrath. As the clatter of picks and shovels echoed throughout the otherwise still region, Aldric could not help feeling as if the clamor might somehow stir up the ancient rulers themselves. Curiously, he found himself more fascinated than uneasy. So little was known of them and, as likely one of their last descendants, Aldric felt their history was his. Had matters turned out differently, perhaps he would have now sat in that high tower, master of all Westmarch and beyond.
Master of all…
It occurred to the aristocrat then that perhaps it was even they who had reached out from the abyss of death to give him this key to his future. With it, all his enemies, known and otherwise, would be swept away before him. Then—
A heavyset, flaxen-haired servant wielding a pickax abruptly screamed. He and his weapon fell through a sudden collapse in the ice and rock, a darkness like a hungering mouth swallowing him in an instant. The other workers leapt back rather than risk themselves in a vain attempt to save him.
Lord Jitan reached the hole just in time to hear the fatal thud. He ignored the mishap, instead eagerly peering down into the darkness.
“A light! I need a light!” he ordered.
No sooner had he demanded it than suddenly a pale, bone-white glow appeared next to him. It emanated from an object in the hooded figure’s hand. The voluminous sleeves of the cloak obscured it from Aldric’s view, but all that mattered to the noble was that now he had the means by which to see what lay within the mouth.
Cracked stone steps turned on a rightward spiral for two floors. The hapless worker’s broken body lay to the side of the bottom step, his pickax just at the edge of the illumination.
“Shall we descend, my lord?” asked the shrouded spellcaster.
Lord Jitan answered by immediately doing so. The figure next to him chuckled, then followed after.
The peculiar illumination wielded by Aldric’s guide cast an eerie presence over the stone chamber as the party descended. In it, savage lupine creatures seemed to leap from the very walls themselves…more stone gargoyles following the wolf motif of the ancient lords. The heads of each were three times as large as that of a man and the huge, toothy jaws stood open as if ready to seize any who dared step near. The sleek heads stretched back to powerful shoulders. Even a pair of wicked paws thrust out beneath each head.
The detail was so remarkable that Lord Jitan could make out the individual hairs on the heads. The sudden urge came to touch one, to see how it felt, but as he took a step closer to the nearest, a sense of foreboding filled him. With a frown, the noble immediately stepped away.
His hooded companion moved on ahead, illuminating more of the long chamber. An intake of breath—the first break in the spellcaster’s ever-calm demeanor—immediately caught Aldric’s complete attention.
“What is—” He got no further, for words escaped him then.
It was tall and rounded. At least the height of a man and three times that from front to back, it had been built from a substance Aldric did not recognize. Not stone, for none that he had ever seen, not even the whitest marble, could compare with its sleek, gleaming finish. In fact, as the two drew closer, it shimmered in the pale light, almost as if alive.
Pearl. That was what it reminded Aldric of. Iridescent pearl. It was as if the thing before him had been created from a single, gigantic pearl.
No matter where he looked, he could see no construction seam. There was something more curious, though. Aldric Jitan studied the curvature, the curious markings that, the longer he stared at them, seemed to radiate with a light of their own.
“This is not of the Sons of Rakkis…. It should not be here!”
The other shook his hooded head. “No, my lord, it is not of the wolf lords. Did you expect it to be? This is Vizjerei work you see…and, yes, it should be exactly here.”
The noble waited for further explanation, but none was forthcoming. Unable to contain himself any longer, Aldric inspected the sarcophagus more closely. As he did, he spied another marking higher up, one at the edge of the light.
His guide shifted, the light now sweeping across the symbol that Aldric wanted to see.
One of the servants gasped at the sight revealed, stumbling back in surprise. He hesitated directly in front of one of the great wolf heads.
With an ear-splitting roar, the head stretched forth, its mouth opening wide. The jaws enveloped the stunned man’s head, clamping tight.
It bit down.
The headless body tumbled to the floor. Immediately, the stone wolf receded to its previous position…then stilled. Its jaws remained shut, but crimson drops now dotted the floor beneath.
The remaining three attendants started retreating to the steps, but a fierce look from Lord Jitan drew them forward again. Satisfied of his control over them, he gazed once more in rapt attention at the symbol draping the upper part of the elaborate sarcophagus. Despite the forces he could now feel emanating from within, Aldric did not hesitate to bring his finger up and trace along the vivid crimson outline that had so frightened his followers.
A huge circle…and within it, the stylized shape of a menacing, eight-limbed creature. An arachnid.
“The sign of the Moon of the Spider,” the noble whispered.
“Did I not promise?” asked the other.
Lord Jitan began seeking some manner by which to open the sarcophagus, but his grasping fingers could still discover no crack, no handle. “Are we in time?”
The more his efforts proved for naught, the more frantic Aldric’s search became. He started banging his fists on the top, striking the spider emblem hard.
Finally frustrated, Aldric whirled on his servants. “Break it open! Hurry!”
With clear reluctance, they came forward with pickaxes.
“My lord—,” began the hooded spellcaster.
Jitan did not listen. He pointed at the center of the arachnid. “There! Strike there!”
As one, the trio laid into the effort, striking with practiced efficiency. Once, twice, thrice, each tool bit into the top of the sarcophagus, almost always pinpointing the spider symbol perfectly.
But not one of the strikes so much as marred the surface of the structure.
The head of one pickax cracked off, flying through the chamber and clattering against a wall. At that point, Aldric ordered the three men back.
“I have the means, yes.”
An enraged Lord Jitan turned on his guide. “Then why did you let us waste precious moments?”
Rather than point out that he had attempted to tell the noble earlier, the spellcaster suggested, “Those three would make better use of themselves at the moment lighting torches. We will need the fires’ illumination in a moment.”
A wave of Aldric’s hand set the servants to work. Within seconds, two of them wielded blazing torches.
At that point, the outlander hid away the object he had used to first light up the tomb. Pushing back his hood, he surveyed with satisfaction the sarcophagus.
“I’m waiting!” snapped Aldric.
“Patience is essential to the Balance.” One hand came up. In the palm, a tiny black crystal glittered. “As is sacrifice.”
Suddenly, the crystal sprouted tiny legs…eight in all. To the astonishment of all save its master, it leapt from the palm, landing readily atop the symbol on the sarcophagus.
Where the pickaxes had made not even the least penetration, the eight limbs thrust with utmost ease into various parts of the lid surrounding the center of the crimson image.
There was a brief hiss…and the rounded top slid back.
Lord Aldric Jitan did not question where his companion had procured the macabre key. All that mattered was that the way was open. Leaning, he eyed the contents.
A long, robed form lay stretched within. There was something amiss about it.
“Bring the torches up!” Aldric commanded.
In the fire, the occupant was revealed. Although he had already expected it not to be the remains of one of the Lords Rakkis, the identity of the entombed figure still startled him.
“It’s one of their own! A Vizjerei!”
The Vizjerei were sorcerers whose origin also lay in the east, but they were of a more worldly nature than Aldric’s companion. They had ambitions and desires and in his life Lord Jitan had paid some of them for nefarious services. Not all were of such dubious nature, but to Aldric, the distinction between good and bad Vizjerei was negligible.
But why waste such effort for the burial of one of their own in this of all places? Why make such a trek here in the first place?
Skin still covered the bones of this ancient spellcaster, as did wisps of a long, gray beard and hair. The familiar, orange-colored, wide-shouldered robes called the turinnash—a style hardly changed after centuries—wrapped around the emaciated body. Golden runes supposedly designed to enhance the wearer’s power and protect him from harm lined the garment. A gold breastplate and belt gave some hint of past glory and riches, but such things were of no interest to the noble. At the mummy’s left side lay one of the rune-etched staves generally wielded by those of the order.
And in the gnarled, gaunt hands resting atop lay the object of Lord Jitan’s quest.
It was not as large as in his dreams, but it was no less spectacular. The size of an apple, maybe a bit more, but that was it. It resembled a pearl of lunar radiance—a perfectly round moon—that somehow made the sarcophagus seem crude and dull. An entire city—nay, all of Westmarch—could surely have been bought with it.
Had there been no more to the artifact’s appearance, perhaps Aldric would have done just that, for then it would have been otherwise useless to him. As it was, though, even the clawed fingers of the dead Vizjerei could not obscure the eight ebony streaks perfectly crisscrossing the pearl. They were the reason for its name, the reason he had sought this treasure out.
They were the reason it was called the Moon of the Spider.
Lord Jitan started to reach for it, but his shadowed companion prevented his hand from rising.
“Taking from the dead is hardly the work of one of your station, my lord,” he suggested to Aldric, his low tone hinting of something more than the proprieties of caste.
Brow arched, Aldric snapped his fingers at the nearest manservant. “Rolf! Retrieve that for me.”
Rolf grimaced, then bowed his head. Handing his torch to one of the others, he strode up to the sarcophagus. With a grunt, he reached two beefy hands toward his master’s prize.
His fingers grazed those of the cloaked cadaver.
Rolf howled. A fiery aura spread forth from the Vizjerei’s corpse to manservant and back again.
The transformation took place in less than the blink of an eye. The very life essence was sucked from Rolf as Lord Jitan might have sucked the juice from a piece of orange. The manservant’s skin shriveled and his eyes sank into their sockets. His burly form melted into a wrinkled skeleton. He tried to the very end to pull free, but could not.
And as his dry corpse collapsed in a grisly heap upon the floor, the mummified Vizjerei sat up.
His skin was still dry and cracked, but there was some flesh beneath it now. The ghoulish visage shifted, yellowed teeth suddenly bared and the lids opening to reveal not eyes but a sickly yellow pus.
A guttural sound arose from the empty throat and in that same moment, Aldric sensed powerful magical forces arising.
Something surrounded by a pale glow flew from the direction of the noble’s spellcaster. Aldric expected it to strike where the ghoul’s heart had once been, but instead it curved upward at the last, burying itself in the decaying figure’s forehead.
The cadaverous ghoul uttered a harsh gasp…and crumpled back into the sarcophagus, his body turning to ash at the same time.
The gray-haired man beside Aldric quietly and calmly walked up to the dust-laden remains and easily pulled free what he had tossed at the ghoul. A dagger, but one that Lord Jitan knew had not been forged from metal. It was white, but the white of ivory…or bone. Even with the torches near, its pale illumination was still noticeable.
“The path to your desires is now open, my lord,” its wielder remarked.
Unwilling to wait any longer, Aldric Jitan dared seize the Moon of the Spider from what fragments remained of the Vizjerei’s fingers. No terrible spell seized him, no ghoul leapt up to suck his soul away.
It was his. At last, it was his.
“The first step,” remarked his gray companion. “Now we must prepare for the rest. You do recall that, do you not, my lord?”
“I recall very well, Karybdus,” Aldric murmured, using the other’s name for the first time in days. He stroked the artifact as if it were a lover, tracing, as he had with the sarcophagus, the lines from which it drew its name.
Karybdus began removing his travel cloak. In the same calm, studious tone he ever used, he said, “Then, we must begin now. Time is of the essence.”
And as his cloak slipped to the floor, Karybdus’s own garments were better revealed. Utter black, save for a curious trio of bands across the upper chest and another that stretched down the midsection. One shoulder also bore a jutting, protective cover…which on close inspection an onlooker would have realized was the skull of a horned and fanged creature that could have never walked the mortal plane in life. It and the bands were all the same in color: bone-white.
Much of what the gray-eyed spellcaster wore resembled armor of a reptilian look, with ridges and scales. Despite that, when Karybdus moved, his garments flowed as if silk and he made no sound whatsoever. His leather boots rose above the knee and melded perfectly with the rest of his armor.
And at his waist, he carried the dagger which had so readily slain the undead Vizjerei. It still glowed, pulsating as if with a life of its own. The blade had a serpentine shape, coiling back and forth before ending in a pin-sharp point.
Upon its hilt was the one symbol to mark Karybdus’s identity with any certainty, an almost invisible image seared into the handle. It was the tiny icon of a serpentine creature over whom hung a pair of weighing scales. Though some might have readily recognized the beast as a dragon, only the rare outsider would know why the scales were set so.
The dragon was known as Trag’Oul: He Who Is the Fulcrum of the Balance. Trag’Oul was as near to a god as Karybdus had, as any of his kind had.
Trag’Oul, who watched over the followers of Rathma.
Sin War, Book One: Birthright
Pocketbook, 336 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
Since the beginning of time, the angelic forces of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in an eternal conflict for the fate of all Creation. That struggle has now spilled over into Sanctuary—the world of men. Determined to win mankind over to their respective causes, the forces of good and evil wage a secret war for mortal souls. This is the tale of the Sin War—the conflict that would forever change the destiny of man.
Three thousand years before the darkening of Tristram, Uldyssian, son of Diomedes, was a simple farmer from the village of Seram. Content with his quiet, idyllic life, Uldyssian is shocked as dark events rapidly unfold around him. Mistakenly blamed for the grisly murders of two traveling missionaries, Uldyssian is forced to flee his homeland and set out on a perilous quest to redeem his good name. To his horror, he has begun to manifest strange new powers—powers no mortal man has ever dreamed of. Now, Uldyssian must grapple with the energies building within him—lest they consume the last vestiges of his humanity.
Order this book at the Blizzplanet Store
Chapter One Excerpt
The shadow fell across Uldyssian ul-Diomed’s table, enveloping not only much of it, but also his hand and his as-of-yet-undrunk ale. The sandy-haired farmer did not have to look up to know who interrupted his brief respite from his day’s labors. He had heard the newcomer speaking to others in the Boar’s Head—the only tavern in the remote village of Seram—heard him speaking and prayed silently but vehemently that he would not come to Uldyssian’s table.
It was ironic that the son of Diomedes prayed for the stranger to keep away, for what stood waiting for Uldyssian to look up was none other than a missionary from the Cathedral of Light. Resplendent in his collared silver-white robes—resplendent save for the ring of Seramian mud at the bottom—he no doubt awed many a fellow villager of Uldyssian’s. However, his presence did nothing but dredge up terrible memories for the farmer, who now angrily fought to keep his stare fixed on the mug.
“Have you seen the Light, my brother?” the figure finally asked when it was clear that his potential convert planned to continue to ignore him. “Has the Word of the great Prophet touched your soul?”
“Find someone else,” Uldyssian muttered, his free hand involuntarily tightening into a fist. He finally took a gulp of his ale, hoping that his remark would end the unwanted conversation. However, the missionary was not to be put off.
Setting a hand on the farmer’s forearm—and thereby keeping the ale from again touching Uldyssian’s lips—the pale young man said, “If not yourself alone, think of your loved ones! Would you forsake their souls as—“
The farmer roared, his face red with a rage no longer held in check. In a single motion, Uldyssian leapt up and seized the startled missionary by the collar. As the table tipped over, the ale fell and splattered on the planked floor, unnoticed by its former drinker. Around the room, other patrons, including a few rare travelers passing through, eyed the confrontation with concern and interest . . . and from experience chose to keep out of it. Some of the locals, who knew the son of Diomedes well, shook their heads or muttered to one another at the newcomer’s poor choice of subjects.
The missionary was a hand taller than Uldyssian, no small man himself at just over six feet, but the broadshouldered farmer outweighed him by half again as much and all of that muscle from day after day of tilling the soil or seeing to the animals. Uldyssian was a square-jawed man with the bearded, rough-hewn features typical of the region west of the great city-state of Kehjan, the “jewel” of the eastern half of the world. Deep-brown eyes burned into the more pale ones of the gaunt—and surprisingly young—features of the Cathedral’s proselytizer.
“The souls of most of my family are beyond the Prophet’s gathering, brother! They died nearly ten years ago, all to plague!”
“I shall s-say a prayer for . . . for them—“
His words only served to infuriate Uldyssian, who had himself prayed for his parents, his elder brother, and his two sisters constantly over the months through which they had suffered. Day and night—often with no sleep in between—he had first prayed to whatever power watched over them that they recover, then, when that no longer seemed a hope, that their deaths would be swift and painless.
And that prayer, too, had gone unanswered. Uldyssian, distraught and helpless, had watched as, one by one, they died in anguish. Only he and his youngest brother, Mendeln, had survived to bury the rest.
Even then there had been missionaries and even then they had talked of the souls of his family and how their particular sects had the answers to everything. To a one, they had promised Uldyssian that, if he followed their particular path, he would find peace over his loved ones’ losses.
But Uldyssian, once a devout believer, had very vocally denounced each and every one of them. Their words rang hollow and his refusals seemed later justified when the missionaries’ sects faded away as surely as each season on the farm.
But not all. The Cathedral of Light, though only of recent origin, seemed far stronger than most of its predecessors. Indeed, it and the longer-established Temple of the Triune seemed to be quickly becoming the two dominant forces seeking the souls of Kehjan’s people. To Uldyssian, the fervent enthusiasm with which both sought out new converts bordered on a strenuous competition much in conflict with their spiritual messages.
And that was yet another reason Uldyssian would have no part of either.
“Pray for yourself, not for me and mine,” he growled. The missionary’s eyes bulged as Uldyssian easily hefted him by the collar off the floor.
The squat, balding figure behind the counter slipped out to intervene. Tibion was several years senior and no match against Uldyssian, but he had been Diomedes’s good friend and so his words had effect on the furious farmer. “Uldyssian! Mind my establishment if’n you can’t mind yourself, eh?”
Uldyssian hesitated, the proprietor’s words cutting through his anguish. His gaze swept from the pale face before him to Tibion’s round one, then back again.
A frustrated scowl still on his face, he let the figure in his grip drop in an undignified heap on the floor.
“Uldyssian—” Tibion started.
But the son of Diomedes did not wait to hear the rest. Hands shaking, he strode out of the Boar’s Head, his heavy, worn leather boots clattering hard on the well-trod planks. Outside, the air was crisp, which helped soothe Uldyssian some. Almost immediately, he began to regret his actions within. Not the reasons for them, but that he had acted so before many of those who knew him . . . and not for the first time.
Still, the presence of the Cathedral’s acolyte in Seram grated on his heart. Uldyssian was now a man who only believed in what his eyes showed him and what his hands could touch. He could see the changes in the sky and so tell when he needed to rush his work in the field or whether time enough remained to complete his task at a more moderate pace. The crops his work brought forth from the soil fed him and others. These were things he could trust, not the muttered praying of clerics and missionaries that had done nothing for his family but give them false hope.
Seram was a village of some two hundred folk, small by many standards, of reasonable size by others. Uldyssian could have paced its length in as many breaths, if that much. His farm lay two miles to the north of Seram. Once a week, Uldyssian went into the village to get what supplies he needed, always allowing himself the short break for food and drink at the tavern. His meal he had eaten and his ale was lost, which left only his tasks to complete before he departed again.
In addition to the tavern, which also acted as an inn, there were only four other buildings of consequence in Seram—the meeting house, the trading station, the village Guard quarters, and the smithy. All shared the same general design as the rest of the structures of Seram, with the roofs pointed and thatched, and the bodies wooden planks over a frame whose base was built of several layers of stone and clay. As was typical in most areas under the influence of Kehjan, the windows of each were arched sharply at the top and always numbered three on a side. In truth, from a distance it was impossible to tell one building from another.
Mud caked his boots as he walked, Seram too provincial to have paved streets or even stone ones. There was a small, dry path to the opposite side from where Uldyssian trod, but at the moment, he had no patience for it and, besides, as a farmer, he was used to being one with the soil.
At the eastern edge of Seram—and thus nearest to Kehjan—stood the trading station. The station was, other than the tavern, the busiest of places in Seram. Here it was that locals brought in their goods to trade for other necessities or to even sell to passing merchants. When there were new items in stock, a blue banner would be raised by the doorway up front, and as he approached, Uldyssian saw Cyrus’s night-tressed daughter, Serenthia, doing just that. Cyrus and his family had run the trading station for four generations and were among the most prominent of families in the village, although they dressed no more fancy than anyone else. The trader did not look down on his customers, who were also, for the most part, his neighbors. Serenthia, for example, was clad in a simple cloth dress of brown, cut modestly at the bodice and whose bottom hem ended just above the ankle. Like most villagers, she wore sensible boots designed for both riding and walking through the muddy ruts in the main street.
“Something of interest?” he called to Serenthia, trying to focus on other matters in order to forget both the incident and the images from the past it had conjured up.
Cyrus’s daughter turned at the sound of his voice, her thick, long hair fluttering about. With her bright blue eyes, ivory skin, and naturally red lips, Uldyssian felt certain that all she needed was a proper gown to allow her to compete with the best of the blue-blood females in Kehjan itself. The unadorned dress did not hide her curves, nor did it detract in any way from the graceful manner in which she somehow moved regardless of the terrain.
“Uldyssian! Have you been here all day?”
There was that in her tone that all but made the farmer grimace. Serenthia was more than a decade younger than him and he had seen her grow up from a child to a woman. To him, she was nearly one of the sisters that he had lost. However, to her, Uldyssian evidently seemed much more. She had turned down the attentions of younger and more affluent farmers than him, not to mention the flirtations of several visiting merchants. The only other man in whom she showed any interest was Achilios, Uldyssian’s good friend and the best hunter in Seram, but whether that was because of his ties to the farmer, it was difficult to say.
“I arrived just past the first hour of day,” he replied. As he neared, he caught glimpses of at least three wagons behind Cyrus’s establishment. “A fair-sized caravan for Seram. What goes on?”
She finished hoisting up the banner, then tethered the rope. Gazing over her shoulder at the wagons, Serenthia said, “They got lost, actually. They were bound for passage through Tulisam.”
Tulisam was the next nearest habitation, a town at least five times as great as Seram. It was also more on the route from Kehjan proper to the sea, where the master ports were.
Uldyssian grunted. “The handler must be a novice.”
“Well, whatever the cause, they’ve decided to trade some. Father’s trying to hide his excitement. They’ve got some beautiful things, Uldyssian!”
To the son of Diomedes, beautiful things generally consisted of strong, sturdy tools or a newborn calf that had its health. He started to speak, then noticed someone walking by the wagons.
She was dressed akin to a noble of one of the Houses that sought to fill the gap of leadership caused by the recent infighting between the ruling mage clans. Her lush golden hair was bound up behind her head with a silver band, allowing full view of the regal, ivory face. Glittering green eyes surveyed her surroundings. Slim, perfect lips parted as the woman, the shoulders of her flowing emerald gown covered by a fur, viewed the landscape to the east of Seram. The bodice of the gown was cinched tight and although her clothing was the epitome of the ruling castes, it left no doubt that she was very much female.
Just as the arresting figure began to glance in Uldyssian’s direction, Serenthia abruptly took him by the arm. “You should come inside and see for yourself, Uldyssian.”
As she steered him toward the twin wooden doors, the farmer took a quick look back, but of the noblewoman he saw no sign. Had he not known himself to be incapable of such elaborate fancies, Uldyssian would have almost believed her to be a product of his imagination.
Serenthia all but pulled him inside, Cyrus’s daughter shutting the doors behind them particularly hard. Inside, her father glanced up from a conversation with a cowled merchant. The two older men appeared to be haggling over a bundle of what the farmer thought rather luxurious purple cloth.
“Aah! Good Uldyssian!” The trader prefaced everyone’s name save those of his family with the word, something that always made Uldyssian smile. Cyrus did not even seem to notice that he did it. “How fare you and your brother?”
“We . . . we’re fine, Master Cyrus.”
“Good, good.” And with that, the trader went back to his business. With but a ring of silvering hair around his otherwise clean pate and his scholarly eyes, Cyrus looked more like a cleric to the farmer than any of those wearing such robes. In fact, Uldyssian had heard far more sensible words from the man. He respected Cyrus greatly, in part because of how the trader, more educated than most in Seram, had taken Mendeln under his wing.
Thinking of his brother, who spent more time in this very building than he did at the farm, Uldyssian glanced around. Although Mendeln would have been clad in garments akin to his brother’s—cloth tunic, kilt, and boots—and resembled his brother somewhat in the eyes and broad nose, one look at him by anyone would raise the question of whether he was actually a farmer. In truth, although he did help out at the farm, working the land was clearly not Mendeln’s calling. He was always interested in studying things, be they bugs burrowing in the ground or words in some parchment loaned him by Cyrus.
Uldyssian could read and write, too, and was proud of that achievement, but he saw only the practical aspects of such a thing. There were times when pacts had to be made that required writing things down and then making certain that they said what they were supposed to. That, the older brother understood. Simply reading for reading’s sake or studying merely to learn something of no use in their daily tasks . . . such a desire evaded Uldyssian.
He did not see his brother, who had this time ridden in with him, but something else caught his attention, a sight that brought back to him fully and painfully the memory of what had happened in the Boar’s Head. At first glimpse, he thought the figure a companion of the missionary he had accosted, but then, as the young woman turned more in his direction, the farmer saw that she wore an entirely different set of robes. These were of a deep azure and had upon the breast a golden, stylized ram with great curled horns. Below the ram was an iridescent triangle whose tip jutted up just below the animal’s hooves.
Her hair had been shorn to shoulder length and the face that the tresses framed was round, full of youth, and highly attractive. Yet there was, in Uldyssian’s mind, something missing that removed for him any desire for her. It was as if she was an empty shell, not a whole person.
He had seen her like before. Zealous, an absolute believer in her faith. He had also seen the robes before, and the fact that she was alone made him suddenly eye the room with dread. They never traveled alone, always in threes. One for each of their order . . .
Serenthia was trying to show him some feminine bauble, but Uldyssian heard only her voice, not her words. He considered trying to back out of the chamber.
Then another figure joined the first, this one a middle-aged man of strong bearing and patrician features who, with his cleft chin and strong brow, would have appealed to the fairer sex as much as the girl would have the males. He wore a tight-collared golden robe that also bore the triangle, but this time above it was a green leaf.
The third of their band was nowhere to be seen, but Uldyssian knew that he or she could not be far away. The servants of the Temple of the Triune did not stay separated long. While a missionary from the Cathedral often worked alone, the Triune’s acolytes acted in concert with one another. They preached the way of the Three, the guiding spirits—Bala, Dialon, and Mefis—who supposedly watched over a mortal like loving parents or kindly teachers. Dialon was the spirit of Determination, hence the stubborn ram. Bala stood for Creation, represented by the leaf. Mefis, whose servant was missing, was Love. The acolytes of that order bore upon their breast a red circle, the common Kehjan emblem for the heart.
Having heard the preachings of all three orders before and not wanting to risk a repeat of the debacle in the tavern, Uldyssian tried to shift into the shadows. Serenthia had finally realized that Uldyssian no longer listened to her. She put her hands on her hips and gave him the stare that, when she had been a child, had made him give in to her way.
“Uldyssian! I thought you wanted to see—“
He cut her off. “Serry, I’ve got to be going. Did your brothers gather what I asked for earlier?”
She pursed her lips as she thought. Uldyssian eyed the two missionaries, who seemed engrossed in some conversation. Both looked oddly disoriented, as if something had not gone as they had assumed it would.
“Thiel said nothing to me or else I’d have known you were in Seram before. Let me go find him and ask.”
“I’ll come with you.” Anything to avoid the dogs of the Triune. The Temple had been established some years before the Cathedral, but now the two appeared more or less even in their influence. It was said that the High Magistrate of Kehjan was now a convert of the former, while the Lord General of the Kehjan Guard was rumored to be a member of the latter. The disarray within the mage clans—often bordering on war of late—had turned many to the comfort of one message or another.
But before Serenthia could lead them into the back, Cyrus called for his daughter. She gave Uldyssian an apologetic look.
“Wait here. I won’t be long.”
“I’ll go look for Thiel myself,” he suggested.
Serenthia must have caught his quick glance at the missionaries. Her expression grew reproving. “Uldyssian, not again.”
“Uldyssian, those people are messengers of holy orders! They mean you no harm! If you would just open yourself up to hearing them! I’m not suggesting you join one or the other, but the messages both preach are worthy of your attention.”
She had reprimanded him like this before, just after he had stood up in the tavern after the last visit by missionaries from the Triune and gone on at length about the lack of need for any of their ilk in the lives of the common folk. Did the acolytes offer to help shear the sheep or bring in the crops? Did they help wash the mud-soaked clothes or lend their hands fixing the fences? No. Uldyssian had pointed out then, as he had on other occasions, that all they came to do was whisper in the ears of people that their sect was better than the other sect. This to people who barely understood the concept of angels and demons, much less believed in them.
“They can say all the pretty words they want, Serry, but all I see is them contesting against one another, with how many fools they can brand as their own as what decides the winner.”
“Serenthia!” Cyrus called again. “Come here, lass!”
“Father needs me,” she said with a rueful look. “I’ll be right back. Please, Uldyssian, behave yourself.”
The farmer watched her hurry off, then tried to fix his attention on some of the items for sale or barter in the station. There were tools of all sorts that could be useful on the farm, including hoes, shovels, and a variety of hammers. Uldyssian ran his finger over the edge of a new iron sickle. The craftsmanship was the best available in a place such as Seram, although he had heard that in some estate farms near Kehjan proper a few lords had their workers wielding ones tipped with steel. Such a concept had far more impact on Uldyssian than any words concerning spirits or souls.
Then someone quickly strode past him, heading into the back. He had a glimpse of golden hair bound up and a hint of a smile that the son of Diomedes could have sworn was directed toward him.
Without at first realizing it, Uldyssian followed. The noblewoman vanished through the back door as if the station were her own home.
He slipped through a moment later . . . and at first saw no sign of her. What he did see was that his wagon was indeed full. There was no sign of Thiel, but that was not uncommon. Serenthia’s eldest brother was likely assisting with some other labor.
Having already dealt with the matter of payment, Uldyssian headed toward the wagon. However, as he neared, he suddenly saw a flash of green by the horse.
It was her. The noblewoman stood on the other side of the animal, murmuring something to it while she caressed the muzzle with one slender hand. Uldyssian’s horse appeared mesmerized by her, standing as motionless as a statue. The old male was an ornery beast and only those who knew him well could approach him without the danger of a bite. That this woman could do so spoke volumes about her to the farmer.
She noticed him in turn. A smile lit up her face. To Uldyssian, her eyes seemed to glow.
“Forgive me . . . is this your horse?”
“It is, my lady . . . and you’re lucky still to have more than one hand. He likes to bite.”
She caressed the muzzle again. The beast continued to stand still. “Oh, he wouldn’t bite me.” The woman leaned her face close to the muzzle. “Would you?”
Uldyssian half-started toward her, suddenly fearful that she would be proven wrong. However, again, nothing happened.
“I once owned a horse that looked very much like him,” she continued. “I miss him so.”
Suddenly recalling where they were, Uldyssian said, “Mistress, you shouldn’t be here. You should stay with the caravan.” Sometimes, travelers journeyed with merchants in order to make use of the protection of the latter’s guards. Uldyssian could only assume that this was the case with her, although so far it seemed that she was without any escort. Even with the protection of the caravan, a young woman traveling alone risked danger. “You don’t want to be left behind.”
“But I am not going with the caravan,” the noblewoman murmured. “I am not going anywhere at all.”
He could not believe that he had heard her correctly. “My lady, you must be joking! There’s nothing for you in a place like Seram . . .”
“There’s nothing for me in any other place . . . why not Seram, then?” Her mouth curled up in a hesitant smile. “And you need not keep calling me ‘my lady’ or ‘mistress.’ You may call me Lylia . . .”
Uldyssian opened his mouth to answer, only to hear the door swing open behind him and Serenthia’s voice call, “There you are! Did you find Thiel?”
He looked over his shoulder at her. “No, but everything’s here, Serry.”
His horse suddenly snorted, then shied from him. Grabbing the bit, Uldyssian did his best to calm the cantankerous beast. The horse’s eyes were wide and his nostrils flared; to his master he seemed startled or frightened. That made little sense, for the creature liked Serenthia more than he did Uldyssian. As for the noblewoman, she—
She was nowhere to be seen. Uldyssian surreptitiously surveyed the area, wondering how she could have possibly slipped away so quickly and without a sound. He had a fair view for some distance, but all he saw were a few other wagons. Unless she had climbed into one of the covered ones, the farmer could not possibly fathom what had happened to her.
Serenthia walked up to him, mildly curious at his behavior. “What are you looking for? Is something you needed missing, after all?”
He recovered enough to answer, “No . . . as I said, it’s all here.”
A familiar—and undesired—shape slipped through the doorway. The missionary glanced around as if searching for something or someone in particular.
“Yes, Brother Atilus?” asked Serenthia.
“I seek our Brother Caligio. Is he not in here?”
“No, brother, there’s only the two of us.”
Brother Atilus eyed Uldyssian without the usual religious fervor the farmer was accustomed to seeing from his ilk. Instead, the missionary’s gaze held a hint of what seemed . . . suspicion?
Bowing his head to Serenthia, Atilus withdrew. Cyrus’s daughter turned her attention back to Uldyssian. “Do you have to leave so soon? I know you feel uncomfortable around Brother Atilus and the others, but . . . couldn’t you stay and visit with me a bit longer?”
For reasons that he could not explain, Uldyssian felt unsettled. “No . . . no, I’ve got to head back. Speaking of looking for someone, have you seen Mendeln? I expected him to be with your father.”
“Oh, I should’ve told you! Achilios stopped by just a short time earlier. He had something he wanted to show to Mendeln and the two of them headed off for the western forest.”
Uldyssian grunted. Mendeln had promised that he would be ready at the proper time to ride home with him. Generally, his brother was very good about keeping his word, but Achilios must have come across something unusual. Mendeln’s greatest weakness was his incessant curiosity, something the hunter should have known better than to encourage. Once started on one of his studies, the younger son of Diomedes lost all track of time.
But although Uldyssian would not leave without his one remaining sibling, he did not want to be anywhere near the Triune’s followers. “I can’t stay. I’ll lead the wagon out to the forest and hope that I find them. Should Mendeln somehow return here without me seeing him—“
“I’ll tell him where you wait, yes.” Serenthia did not attempt to hide her disappointment.
Feeling uncomfortable for a more normal reason, the farmer gave her a brief—and merely friendly—hug, and climbed aboard. Cyrus’s daughter stepped back as he urged the old horse on.
He looked back in her direction as the wagon moved and the intensity of his expression made Serenthia’s own countenance light up. Uldyssian paid her reaction no mind, for his thoughts were not on the trader’s raven-haired daughter.
No, the face that had burned itself into his thoughts was that of another, one whose tresses were golden.
And one whose caste was far, far above that of a simple farmer.
Copyright ? 2006 by Blizzard Entertainment