Pocket Book, 336 pages
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.
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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.