Pocket Book, 368 pages
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
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.