Pocket Book, 368 pages
Since the beginning of time, the angelic hosts of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in a struggle for the fate of all Creation. That struggle has now come to the mortal realm…and neither Man nor Demon nor Angel will be left unscathed…
Norrec Vizharan has become a living nightmare. While on a quest to find magical treasure, the soldier of fortune discovers an artifact beyond his wildest dreams: the ancient armor of Bartuc, the legendary Warlord of Blood. But the mysterious armor soul. Now, pursued by demons who covet the dark armor for their own devices, Norrec must overcome a bloodlust he can scarcely control and learn the truth about his terrifying curse before he is lost to darkness forever…
An orginal tale of swords, sorcery, and timeless struggle based on the bestselling, award-winning M-rated electronic game form Blizzard Entertainment. Intended for mature readers.
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The skull gave them a lopsided grin, as if cheerfully inviting the trio to join it for all eternity.
“Looks like we’re not the first,” Sadun Tryst murmured. The scarred, sinewy fighter tapped the skull with one edge of his knife, causing the fleshless watcher to wobble. Behind the macabre sight, they could just make out the spike that had pierced their predecessor’s head, leaving him dangling until time had let all but the skull drop to the floor in a confused heap.
“Did you think we would be?” whispered the tall, cowled figure. If Sadun had a lean, almost acrobatic look to his build, Fauztin seemed nearly cadaverous. The Vizjerei sorcerer moved almost like a phantom as he, too, touched the skull, this time with one gloved finger. “No sorcery here, though. Only crude but sufficient mechanics. Nothing to fear.”
“Unless it’s your head on the next pole.”
The Vizjerei tugged at his thin, gray goatee. His slightly slanted eyes closed once as if in acknowledgment to his partner’s last statement. Whereas Sadun had a countenance more akin to an untrustworthy weasel—and sometimes the personality to match—Fauztin reminded some of a withered cat. His nub of a nose, constantly twitching, and the whiskers hanging underneath that nose only added to the illusion.
Neither had ever had a reputation for purity, but Norrec Vizharan would have trusted either with his life—and had several times over. As he joined them, the veteran warrior peered ahead, to where a vast darkness hinted of some major chamber. Thus far, they had explored seven different levels in all and found them curiously devoid of all but the most primitive traps.
They hadalso found them devoid of any treasure whatsoever, a tremendous disappointment to the tiny party.
“Are you sure there’s no sorcery about here, Fauztin? None at all?”
The feline features half-hidden by the cowl wrinkled further in mild offense. The wide shoulders of his voluminous cloak gave Fauztin a foreboding, almost supernatural appearance, especially since he towered over the brawnier Norrec, no small man himself. “You have to ask that, my friend?”
“It’s just that it makes no sense! Other than a few minor and pretty pathetic traps, we’ve encountered nothing to prevent us from reaching the main chamber! Why go through all the trouble of digging this out, then leave it so sparsely defended!”
“I don’t call a spider as big as my head nothing,” Sadun interjected sourly, absently scratching his lengthy but thinning black hair. “Especially as it was on my head at the time…”
Norrec ignored him. “Is it what I think? Are we too late? Is this Tristram all over again?”
Once before, between serving causes as mercenaries, they had hunted for treasure in a small, troubled village called Tristram. Legend had had it that, in a lair guarded by fiends, there could be found a treasure so very extraordinary in value, it would make kings of those fortunate enough to live to find it. Norrec and his friends had journeyed there, entering the labyrinth in the dead of night without the knowledge of the local populace…
And after all their efforts, after battling strange beasts and narrowly avoiding deadly traps…they had found that someone else had stripped the underground maze of nearly anything of value. Only upon returning to the village had they learned the sorry truth, that a great champion had descended into the labyrinth but a few weeks before and supposedly slain the terrible demon, Diablo. He had taken no gold or jewels, but other adventurers who had arrived shortly thereafter had made good use of his handiwork, dealing with the lesser dangers and carrying off all they could find. But a few days’ difference had left the trio with nothing to show for their efforts…
Norrec himself had also taken no consolation in the words of one villager of dubious sanity who had, as they had prepared to depart, warned that the champion, so-called the Wanderer, had not defeated Diablo but, rather, had accidently freed the foul evil. A questioning glance by Norrec toward Fauztin had been answered at first with an indifferent shrug by the Vizjerei sorcerer.
“There are always stories of escaping demons and terrible curses,” Fauztin had added at the time, complete dismissal of the wild warning in his tone. “Diablo is generally in most of the favorites whispered among common folk.”
“You don’t think there’s anything to it?” As a child, Norrec had grown up being scared by his elders with tales of Diablo, Baal, and other monsters of the night, all stories designed to make him be good.
Sadun Tryst had snorted. “You ever seen a demon yourself? Know anyone that had?”
Norrec had not. “Have you, Fauztin? They say Vizjerei can summon demons to do their bidding.”
“If I could do that, do you think I would be scrounging in empty labyrinths and tombs?”
And that comment, more than anything else, had convinced Norrec then to chalk the villager’s words down as yet another tall tale. In truth, it had not been hard to do. After all, the only thing that had mattered then to the three had been what mattered now—wealth.
Unfortunately, it seemed more and more likely that once again those riches had eluded them.
As he peered down the passage, Fauztin’s other gloved hand tightened around the spell staff he wielded. The jeweled top—the source of their light—flared briefly. “I had hoped I was wrong, but now I fear it is so. We are far from the first to delve this deep into this place.”
The slightly graying fighter swore under his breath. He had served under many a commander in his life, most of them during the crusades from Westmarch, and from surviving those various campaigns—often by the skin of his teeth—he had come to one conclusion. No one could hope to rise in the world without money. He had made it as far as captain, been broken in rank thrice, then finally retired in disgust after the last debacle.
War had been Norrec’s life since he had been old enough to raise a sword. Once, he had also had something of a family, but they were now as dead as his ideals. He still considered himself a decent man, but decency did not fill one’s stomach. There had to be another way, Norrec had decided…
And so, with his two comrades, he had gone in search of treasure.
Like Sadun, he had his share of scars, but Norrec’s visage otherwise resembled more that of a simple farmer. Wide brown eyes, with a broad, open face and a strong jaw, he would have looked at home behind a hoe. Yet, while that vision occasionally appealed to the sturdy veteran, he knew that he needed the gold to pay for that land. This quest should have led them to riches far beyond his needs, far beyond his dreams…
Now, it seemed as if it had all been a waste of time and effort…again.
Beside him, Sadun Tryst tossed his knife into the air, then expertly caught it at the hilt as it fell. He did this twice more, clearly thinking. Norrec could just imagine what he thought about. They had spent months on this particular quest, journeying across the sea to northern Kehjistan, sleeping in the cold and rain, following false trails and empty caves, eating whatever vermin they could find when other hunting proved scarce—and all because of Norrec, the one who had instigated this entire fiasco.
Worse, this quest had actually come about because of a dream, a dream concerning a wicked mountain peak bearing some crude resemblance to a dragon’s head. Had he dreamt of it only once, perhaps twice, Norrec might have forgotten the image, but over the years, it had repeated itself far too many times. Wherever he had fought, Norrec had watched for the peak, but to no avail. Then, a comrade—later dead—from these chill northern lands had made mention of such a place in passing. Ghosts were said to haunt it and men who traveled near the mountain often disappeared or were discovered years later, all flesh stripped from the shattered bones…
There and then, Norrec Vizharan had been certain that destiny had tried to call him here.
But if so—why to a tomb already vandalized?
The entrance had been well hidden in the rock face, but definitely open to the outside. That should have been his first clue to the truth, yet Norrec had refused to even see the discrepancy. All his hopes, all his promises to his companions…
“Damn!” He kicked at the nearest wall, only his sturdy boot saving him from a few broken toes. Norrec threw his sword to the ground, continuing to curse his naivete.
“There’s some new general from Westmarch hiring on mercenaries,” Sadun helpfully suggested. “They say he’s got big ambitions…”
“No more war,” muttered Norrec, trying not to show the pain coursing through his foot. “No more trying to die for other people’s glory.”
“I just thought—“
The lanky sorcerer tapped the ground once with his staff, seeking the attention of both his earthier partners. “At this point, it would be foolish not to go on to the central chamber. Perhaps those who were here before us left a few baubles or coins. We did find a few gold coins in Tristram. Certainly it would not hurt to search a little longer, would it, Norrec?”
He knew that the Vizjerei only sought to assuage his friend’s bitter emotions, but still the idea managed to take root in the veteran’s mind. All he needed were a few gold coins! He was still young enough to take a bride, begin a new life, maybe even raise a family…
Norrec picked up his sword, hefting the weapon that had served him so well over the years. He had kept it cleaned and honed, taking pride in one of the few items truly his own. A look of determination spread across his visage. “Let’s go.”
“You’ve a way with words for one using so few,” Sadun jested to the sorcerer as they started off.
“And you use so many words for one with so few things worth saying.”
The friendly argument between his companions helped settle Norrec’s troubled mind. It reminded him of other times, when, between the three of them, they had persevered through worse difficulties.
Yet, the talk died as they approached what surely had to be the last and most significant chamber. Fauztin called a halt, staring briefly at the jewel atop the staff.
“Before we proceed inside, the two of you had better light torches.”
They had saved the torches for emergencies, the sorcerer’s staff serving well until now. Fauztin said no more, but as Norrec used tinder to light his, he wondered if the Vizjerei had finally noted sorcery of some significance. If so, then perhaps there still remained some sort of treasure…
With his own torch lit, Norrec used it to set Sadun’s ablaze. Now surrounded with more secure illumination, the trio set off again.
“I swear,” grumbled the wiry Sadun, a few moments later. “I swear that the hair on the back of my head’s standing on end!”
Norrec felt the same. Neither fighter argued when the Vizjerei took the lead. The clans of the Far East had long studied the magical arts and Fauztin’s people had studied them longer than most. If a situation arose where sorcery had to take a hand, certainly it made sense to leave it to the thin spellcaster. Norrec and Sadun would be there to guard him from other assaults.
The arrangement had worked so far.
Unlike the heavy boots of the warriors, the sandaled feet of Fauztin made no sound as he walked. The mage stretched forth his staff and Norrec noticed that, despite its power, the jewel failed to illuminate much. Only the torches seemed to act as they should.
“This is old and powerful. Our predecessors may not have been so fortunate as we first believed. We may find some treasure yet.”
And possibly more. Norrec’s grip on the sword tightened to the point that his knuckles whitened. He wanted gold, but he also wanted to live to spend it.
With the staff proving unreliable, the two fighters took to the front. That did not mean that Fauztin would no longer be of any aid to the band. Even now, the veteran knew, his magical companion thought out the quickest, surest spells for whatever they might encounter.
“It looks as dark as the grave in there,” Sadun mumbled.
Norrec said nothing. Now a few steps ahead of both his comrades, he became the first to actually reach the chamber itself. Despite the dangers that might lurk within, he almost felt drawn to it, as if something inside called to him…
A blinding brilliance overwhelmed the trio.
“Gods!” snapped Sadun. “I can’t see!”
“Give it a moment,” cautioned the sorcerer. “It will pass.”
And so it did, but as his eyes adjusted, Norrec Vizharan at last beheld a sight so remarkable that he had to blink twice to make certain it was not a figment of his desires.
The walls were covered in intricate, jeweled patterns in which even he could sense the magic. Precious stones of every type and hue abounded in each pattern, blanketing the chamber in an astonishing display of refracted and reflected colors. In addition, below those magical symbols and no less eye-catching were the very treasures for which the trio had come. Mounds of gold, mounds of silver, mounds of jewels. They added to the overall glitter, making the chamber brighter than day. Each time either fighter shifted his torch, the lighting further altered the appearance of the room, adding new dimensions equally as startling as the last.
Yet, as breathtaking as all this looked, one shocking sight dampened Norrec’s enthusiasm greatly.
Strewn across the floor as far as he could see were the many mangled and decaying forms of those who had preceded him and his friends to this foreboding place.
Sadun held his torch toward the nearest one, an almost fleshless corpse still clad in rotting leather armor. “Must’ve been some battle here.”
“These men did not all die at the same time.”
Norrec and the smaller soldier looked to Fauztin, who had a troubled expression on his generally emotionless countenance.
“What’s that you mean?”
“I mean, Sadun, that some of them have clearly been dead for far longer, even centuries. This one near your feet is one of the newest. Some of those over there are but bones.”
The slight warrior shrugged. “Either way, from the looks of it, they all died pretty nasty.”
“There is that.”
“So…what killed them?”
Here Norrec answered. “Look there. I think they slew each other.”
The two corpses he pointed at each had blades thrust into one another’s midsections. One, with his mouth still open in what seemed a last, horrified cry, wore garments akin to the other mummified body by Sadun’s feet. The other wore only scraps of clothing and only a few strands of hair covered an otherwise clean skeleton.
“You must be mistaken,” the Vizjerei replied with a slight shake of his head. “The one warrior is clearly much older than the other.”
So Norrec would have supposed if not for the blade thrust into the other corpse’s torso. Still, the deaths of two men long, long ago had little bearing on present circumstances. “Fauztin, do you sense anything? Is there some sort of trap here?”
The gaunt figure held his staff before the chamber for a moment, then lowered it again, his disgust quite evident. “There are too many conflicting forces in here, Norrec. I can get no accurate sense of what to seek. I sense nothing directly dangerous—yet.”
To the side, Sadun fairly hopped about in impatience. “So do we leave all of this, leave all our dreams, or do we take a little risk and gather ourselves a few empires’ worth of coin?”
Norrec and the sorcerer exchanged glances. Neither could see any reason not to continue, especially with so many enticements before them. The veteran warrior finally settled the matter by taking a few steps further into the master chamber. When no great bolt of lightning nor demonic creature struck him down, Sadun and the Vizjerei quickly followed suit.
“There must be a couple dozen at least.” Sadun leapt over two skeletal corpses still trapped in struggle. “And that’s not counting the ones in little pieces…”
“Sadun, shut your mouth or I’ll do it for you…” Now that he actually walked among them, Norrec wanted no more discussion concerning the dead treasure hunters. It still bothered him that so many had clearly died violently. Surely someone had survived. But, if so, why did the coins and other treasure look virtually untouched?
And then something else tore his thoughts from those questions, the sudden realization that beyond the treasure, at the very far end of the chamber, a dais stood atop a naturally formed set of steps. More important, atop that dais lay mortal remains still clad in armor.
“Fauztin…” Once the mage had come to his side, Norrec pointed to the dais and muttered, “What do you make of that?”
Fauztin’s only reply was to purse his thin lips and carefully make his way toward the platform. Norrec followed close behind.
“It would explain so much…” he heard the Vizjerei whisper. “It would explain so many conflicting magical signatures and so many signs of power…”
“What’re you talking about?”
The sorcerer finally looked back at him. “Come closer and see for yourself.”
Norrec did just that. The sense of unease that had earlier filled him now amplified as the veteran peered at the macabre display atop the platform.
He had been a man of military aspirations, that much Norrec could at least tell, even if of the garments only a few tattered remains existed. The fine leather boots lay tipped to each side, pieces of the pants sticking out of them. What likely had once been a silk shirt could barely be seen under the majestic breastplate lying askew on the rib cage. Underneath that, blackened bits of a formerly regal robe covered much of the upper half of the platform. Well-crafted gauntlets and gutter-shaped plates, vambraces, gave the illusion of arms still sinewy and fleshbound; whereas other plates, these overlapping, did the same for the shoulders. Less successful was the armor on the legs, which, along with the bones there, lay askew, as if something had disturbed them at some point.
“Do you see it?” Fauztin asked.
Not certain what exactly he meant, Norrec squinted. Other than the fact that the armor itself seemed colored an unsettling yet familiar shade of red, he could see nothing that would have—
No head. The body on the dais had no head. Norrec glanced past the dais, saw no trace on the floor. He made mention of that to the sorcerer.
“Yes, it is exactly as described,” the lanky figure swept toward the platform, almost too eager in the veteran’s mind. Fauztin stretched out a hand but held back at the very last moment from touching what lay upon it. “The body placed with the top to the north. The head and helm, separated already in battle, now separated in time and distance in order to ensure an absolute end to the matter. The marks of power set into the walls, there to counter and contain the darkness still within the corpse…but…” Fauztin’s voice trailed off as he continued to stare.
The mage shook his head. “Nothing, I suppose. Perhaps just being so near to him unsettles my nerves more than I like to admit.”
By now somewhat exasperated with Fauztin’s murky words, Norrec gritted his teeth. “So…who is he? Some prince?”
“By Heaven, no! Do you not see?” One gloved finger pointed at the red breast plate. “This is the lost tomb of Bartuc, lord of demons, master of darkest sorcery—“
“The Warlord of Blood.” The words escaped Norrec as little more than a gasp. He knew very well the tales of Bartuc, who had risen among the ranks of sorcerers, only to later turn to the darkness, to the demons. Now the redness of the armor made perfect and horrible sense; it was the color of human blood.
In his madness, Bartuc, who even the demons who had first seduced him had eventually come to fear, had bathed himself before each battle in the blood of previously fallen foes. His armor, once brilliant gold, had become forever stained by his sinful acts. He had razed cities to the ground, committed atrocities unbounded, and would have continued on forever—so the stories went—if not for the desperate acts of his own brother, Horazon, and other Vizjerei sorcerers who had used what knowledge they retained of the ancient, more natural magics to defeat the fiend. Bartuc and his demon host had been slaughtered just short of victory, the warlord himself decapitated just in the midst of casting a dire counterspell.
Still untrusting of his brother’s vast power even in death, Horazon had commanded that Bartuc’s body forever be hidden from the sight of men. Why they had not simply burned it, Norrec did not know, but certainly he would have tried. Regardless, rumors had arisen shortly thereafter of places where the Warlord of Blood had been laid to rest. Many had sought out his tomb, especially those of the black arts interested in possible lingering magic, but no one had ever claimed to truly find it.
The Vizjerei likely knew more detail than Norrec, but the veteran fighter understood all too well what they had found. Legend had it that for a time Bartuc had lived among Norrec’s own people, that perhaps some of those with whom the soldier had grown up had been, in fact, descendants of the monstrous despot’s followers. Yes, Norrec knew very well the legacy of the warlord.
He shuddered and, without thinking, began to back away from the dais. “Fauztin…we’re leaving this place.”
“But surely, my friend—“
The cowled figure studied Norrec’s eyes, then nodded. “Perhaps you are right.”
Grateful, Norrec turned to his other companion. “Sadun! Forget everything! We’re leaving here! Now—“
Something near the shadowed mouth of the chamber caught his attention, something that moved—and that was not Sadun Tryst. The third member of the party presently engaged himself in trying to fill a sack with every manner of jewel he could find.
“Sadun!” snapped the older fighter. “Drop the sack! Quick!”
The thing near the entrance shuffled forward.
“Are you mad?” Sadun called, not even bothering to look over his shoulder. “This is all we’ve dreamed about!”
A clatter of movement caught Norrec’s attention, a clatter of movement from more than one direction. He swallowed as the original figure moved better into view.
The empty sockets of the mummified warrior they had first stepped over greeted his own terrified gaze.
“Sadun! Look to your back!”
Now at last he had his partner’s attention. The wiry soldier dropped the sack instantly, whirling about and pulling his blade free. However, when he saw what both Norrec and Fauztin already faced, Sadun Tryst’s countenance turned as pale as bone.
One by one they began to rise, from corpse to skeleton, those who had preceded the trio to this tomb. Now Norrec understood why no one had ever left alive and why he and his friends might soon be added to the grisly ranks.
One of the skeletons nearest to the sorcerer vanished in a burst of orange flame. Fauztin pointed a finger at another, a half-clad ghoul with some traces of his former face still remaining. The Vizjerei repeated the word of power.
“My spell—” Stunned, Fauztin failed to notice another skeleton on his left now raising a rusted but still serviceable sword and clearly intending to sever the mage’s head from his body.
“Watch it!” Norrec deflected the blow, then thrust. Unfortunately, his attack did nothing, the blade simply passing through the rib cage. In desperation, he kicked at his horrific foe, sending the skeleton crashing into another of the shambling undead.
They were outnumbered several times over by foes who could not be slain by normal means. Norrec saw Sadun, cut off from his two friends, leap to the top of a mound of coins and try to defend himself from two nightmarish warriors, one a cadaverous husk, the other a partial skeleton with one good arm. Several more closed in from behind those two.
“Fauztin! Can you do anything?”
“I am trying a different spell!”
Again the Vizjerei called out a word: this time the two creatures battling with Sadun froze in place. Not one to miss such an opportunity, Tryst swung at the pair with all his might.
Both ghouls shattered into countless pieces, their entire top halves scattered on the stone floor.
“Your powers are back!” Norrec’s hopes rose.
“They never left me. I fear I have only one chance to use each spell—and most of those still remaining take much time to cast!”
Norrec had no chance to comment on the terrible news, for his own situation had grown even more desperate. He traded quick strikes with first one, then two of the encroaching ranks of undead. The ghouls seemed slow in reaction, for which he gave some thanks, but numbers and perseverance would eventually pay off for these ghastly guardians of the warlord’s tomb. Those who had planned this last trap had planned well, for each party that entered added to the ranks that would attack the next. Norrec could imagine where the first undead had come from. He had remarked to his friends early on that although the three had come across sprung traps and dead creatures, no bodies had been found until the skull with the spike in its head. The first party to discover Bartuc’s tomb surely had lost some of its numbers on the trek inside, never knowing that those dead comrades would become the survivors’ greatest nightmare. And so, with each new group, the ranks of guardians had grown—with Norrec, Sadun, and Fauztin now set to be added.
One of the mummified corpses cut at Norrec’s left arm. The veteran used the torch in his other hand to ignite the dry flesh, turning the zombie into a walking inferno. Risking his foot, Norrec kicked the fiery creature into its comrade.
Despite that success, though, the horde of unliving continued to press all three back.
“Norrec!” shouted Sadun from somewhere. “Fauztin! They’re coming at me from everywhere!”
Neither could help him, though, both as harried. The mage beat off one skeleton with his staff, but two more quickly filled in the space left. The creatures had begun to move with more fluidity and greater swiftness. Soon, no advantage whatsoever would remain for Norrec and his friends.
Separating him from Fauztin, three ghoulish warriors pressed Norrec Vizharan up the steps and finally against the dais. The bones of the Warlord of Blood rattled in the armor, but, much to the hard pressed veteran’s relief, Bartuc did not rise to command this infernal army.
A flash of smoke alerted him to the fact that the sorcerer had managed to deal with yet another of the undead, but Norrec knew that Fauztin could not handle all of them. So far, neither of the fighters had managed much more than a momentary stalemate. Without flesh for their blades to penetrate, without vital organs that could be skewered, knives and swords meant nothing.
The thought of one day rising as one of these and moving to slay the next hapless intruders sent a shiver down Norrec’s spine. He moved along the side of the dais as best he could, trying to find some path by which to escape. To his shame, Norrec knew that he would have happily abandoned his comrades if an opening to freedom had abruptly materialized.
His strength flagged. A blade caught him in the thigh. The pain not only made him cry out, but caused Norrec to lose his grip on his sword. The weapon clattered down the steps, disappearing behind the encroaching ghouls.
His leg nearly buckling, Norrec waved the torch at the oncoming attackers with one hand while his other sought some hold on the platform. However, instead of stone his grasping fingers took hold of cold metal that offered no support whatsoever.
His wounded leg finally gave out. Norrec slipped to one knee, pulling the metallic object he had accidentally grabbed with him.
The torch flew away. A sea of grotesque faces filled the warrior’s horrified view as Norrec attempted to right himself. The desperate treasure hunter raised the hand with which he had tried to garner some hold, as if by silently beseeching the undead for mercy he could forestall the inevitable.
Only at the last did he realize that the hand he had raised now had somehow become clad in metal—a gauntlet.
The very same gauntlet that he earlier had seen on the skeleton of Bartuc.
Even as this startling discovery registered in his mind, a word that Norrec did not understand ripped forth from his mouth, echoing throughout the chamber. The jeweled patterns in the walls flared bright, brighter, and the unearthly foes of the trio froze in place.
Another word, this one even less intelligible, burst free from the stunned veteran. The patterns of power grew blinding, burning—
A fearsome wave of pure energy tore through the chamber, coursing over the undead. Shards flew everywhere, forcing Norrec to fold himself into as small a bundle as possible. He prayed that the end would be relatively quick and painless.
The magic consumed the undead where they stood. Bones and dried flesh burned as readily as oil tinder. Their weapons melted, creating piles of slag and ash.
Yet, it did not touch any of the party.
“What’s happening? What’s happening?” he heard Sadun cry.
The inferno moved with acute precision, sweeping over the tomb’s guardians but nothing else. As their numbers dwindled, so too did the intensity of the force, until at last neither remained. The chamber became plunged into near darkness, the only illumination now the two torches and the little bit of light reflected by the many ruined stones.
Norrec gaped at the devastating results, wondering what he had just wrought and whether somehow it heralded an even more terrible situation. He then stared down at the gauntlet, afraid to leave it on, but equally fearful of what might happen if he tried to remove it.
“They…they have all been devoured,” Fauztin managed, the Vizjerei forcing himself to his feet. His robe had been cut in many places and the thin mage held one arm where blood still flowed from a nasty wound.
Sadun hopped down from where he had been battling. Remarkably, he looked entirely uninjured. “But how?”
How, indeed? Norrec flexed his gloved fingers. The metal felt almost like a second skin, far more comfortable than he could have thought possible. Some of the fear faded as the possibilities of what else he might be able to do became more obvious.
“Norrec,” came Fauztin’s voice. “When did you put that on?”
He paid no attention, instead thinking that it might be interesting to try the other gauntlet—better yet, the entire suit—and see how it felt. As a young recruit, he had once dreamed of rising to the rank of general and garnering his riches through victory in battle. Now that old, long-faded dream seemed fresh and, for the first time, so very possible…
A shadow loomed over his hand. He looked up to see the sorcerer eyeing him in concern.
“Norrec. My friend. Perhaps you should take off that glove.”
Take it off? Suddenly, the notion of doing so made absolutely no sense to the soldier. The gauntlet had been the only thing that had saved their lives! Why take it off? Could it…could it be that the Vizjerei simply coveted it for himself? In things magic, Fauztin’s kind knew no loyalty. If Norrec did not give him the gauntlet, the odds were that Fauztin might simply just take it when his comrade could not stop him.
A part of the veteran’s mind tried to dismiss the hateful notions. Fauztin had saved his life more than once. He and Sadun were Norrec’s best—and only—friends. The eastern mage would certainly not try something so base…would he?
“Norrec, listen to me!” An edge of emotion, perhaps envy, perhaps fear, touched the other’s voice. “It is vital right now that you take that gauntlet off. We shall put it back on the platform—“
“What is it?” Sadun called. “What’s wrong with him, Fauztin?”
Norrec became convinced that he had been right the first time. The sorcerer wanted his glove.
“Sadun. Ready your blade. We may have to—“
“My blade? You want me to use it on Norrec?”
Something within the older fighter took control. Norrec watched as if from a distance as the gauntleted hand darted out and caught the Vizjerei by the throat.
“Sa-Sadun! His wrist! Cut at his—“
Out of the corner of his eye, Norrec saw his other companion hesitate, then raise his weapon to attack. A fury such as he had never experienced consumed the veteran. The world grew to a bloody red…then turned to utter blackness.
And in that blackness, Norrec Vizharan heard screams.
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!
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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.
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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!”
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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.
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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.
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.
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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
Since the beginning of time, the angelic forces of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in the 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.
Bent on destroying the evil cult of the Triune, Uldyssian does not yet suspect that Inarius—secret Prophet of the Cathedral of Light—has been subtly aiding his quest. Obsessed with restoring Sanctuary to its former glory, Inarius has been playing Uldyssian against the two great religions in a reckless attempt to topple them both. But another player has slipped back into the equation. The demon Lilith, once Inarius’s lover, seeks to use Uldyssian as her own pawn in a scheme to turn humans into an army of naphalem—godlike beings, more powerful than any angel or demon, who could overturn all Creation and elevate Lilith to supreme being.
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 our Blizzplanet Store
This Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Publication Date: 03/2007
Our Price: $7.99
Pocket Star, May 2007
Mass Market Paperback, 400 pages
Availability: Ships on or around March 27
Since the beginning of time, the angelic forces of the High Heavens and the demonic hordes of the Burning Hells have been locked in the 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.
The demon-backed Triune has fallen. All that now stands in Uldyssian’s path to freeing humanity is the Cathedral of Light and its charismatic leader the Prophet. But the Prophet is actually the renegade angel Inarius, who sees the world he created as his uncontested domain. Facing a cunning foe that would just as readily see Sanctuary destroyed than let it slip from his grasp, Uldyssian is blind to the others who would possess his world. Both the Burning Hells and the High Heavens now know of Sanctuary…and their warring hosts of demons and angels will stop at nothing to claim it.
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 our Blizzplanet Store.
EXCERPT – CHAPTER ONE
The man in the middle of the pentagram shrieked as Zorun Tzin deftly used his magic to peel away another area of skin. The patch, a tidy three inches by three, methodically rolled back without hesitation. It left in its wake a bleeding gap that revealed the muscle and sinew underneath. Streaks of blood flowed from the gap down the naked figure’s body to add to that already decorating the floor.
The gaunt, bearded mage was not at all bothered by the splatters on the stones. They would be gathered later for other uses having nothing to do with the dark-skinned Kehjani’s current interest. The Council of Clans had managed to cease their feuds long enough to implore him to discover what he could about the fanatics pouring across the land, fanatics with powers unbelievable.
That these—edyrem, they called themselves—had brought down the mighty Temple of the Triune was not the point. The mage clans were more than happy to be rid of the powerful sect, which had been the first to wrest influence away from the spellcasters. Indeed, that had been in great part the cause of the first feuds, as clans had struggled to seize from one another what stature remained.
No, what disturbed the clans so much that they had been able to agree to something at last was the simple fact that the edyrem were nothing more than untrained peasants for the most part. They were farmers, laborers, and the like, and yet their leader promised them abilities that the mages had painstakingly toiled for most of their lifetimes. Not only that, but the use so far of those powers revealed a recklessness that endangered so very much. It was clear that the edyrem were a hazard and had to be contained.
And who better than the mage clans to do that? Under their strict guidance, these mysterious powers could be properly explored and exploited.
“I say again,” Zorun rasped. “You saw the outsiders bring down an entire temple with only their bare hands! What words did they chant? What gestures did they make?”
“D-don’t know!” bellowed the prisoner. “I—I swear!” The man was bald and still fit, despite the mage’s interrogation. He had once been a temple guard, one of the few who had escaped the fanatics’ grasp. It had taken Zorun some weeks of scrying to locate even this individual, so deep underground had any survivors of the Triune gone into hiding. “I swear it is s-so! They did—did n-nothing like that!”
With a gesture, the Kehjani had the square of skin finish peeling. A new shriek of agony escaped the captive. The orange-sashed mage waited impatiently for the cry to die down before speaking again. “You cannot expect me to believe that they just willed something to happen. Magic does not work that way. It takes concentration, gestures, and long practice.”
From the prisoner, he received only gasps. Frowning, Zorun Tzin slowly paced around the pentagram. The octagonal chamber in which he had spent the last day interrogating the former guard was meticulously clean and neat. Each vial, each parchment, each artifact was set properly on the correct shelf. Zorun believed that neatness and order were paramount to success in the arts. Unlike some mages, he did not let clutter overwhelm him, nor did he allow dust and vermin to render his sanctum piggish.
Even when it came to himself, the Kehjani sought to be immaculate. His brown, wide-shouldered tunic and flowing pants were freshly cleaned. He kept his beard trimmed to a proper shape and length. Even his thinning gray hair was artfully oiled back.
The manner in which he ran his own life perhaps gave indication of why Zorun pursued the secrets of the fanatics as he did. They were a slovenly, disorderly factor, and their spellcasting appeared to be based on whim and emotion. In truth, when he had been approached by the council for this task, Zorun had already been delving into the situation in secret. Of course, he had not informed them of that; otherwise, they might not have granted him the list of demands he had given or promised even more should he succeed.
No, there was no should. Zorun did not fail.
“You saw the Ascenian leader, this Uldyssian ul-Diomed, he is called. Is this true?”
“Y-yes! Yes!” screamed the guard, sounding almost grateful to be able to respond to any question. “Saw him! Pale! H-he is—w-was a farmer, they say!”
“A digger in the dirt,” the spellcaster muttered disdainfully. “Little more than a beast.”
The figure above the pentagram let out a gurgle that might have been agreement.
“It is said that he brought down the temple himself. Did you see that?”
The response caused Zorun to grow more exasperated. “You are wasting my time, then.”
He gestured, and the bleeding figure suddenly gasped. A choking sound escaped the stricken guard. He tried to reach for his throat, which had now swollen monstrously around the apple. Yet, even had the Kehjani’s captive been allowed to move his arms—which, of course, he was not—he would have been able to do nothing to stop Zorun’s work.
With one last garbled cry, the guard slumped. Zorun Tzin finally let the body drop to the floor, where it sprawled, quite ungainly, over the pattern.
At his summoning, a hulking Kehjani with too small a head came shambling into the chamber. He wore nothing but a simple tunic. The face much resembled one of the small primates considered sacred by many lowlanders, although Zorun saw as little divinity in them as he did in his servant. Terul was excellent at obeying direct orders without question, the reason the spellcaster had first picked him out of the slums.
Terul grunted, the closest he ever came to speaking. His too-small head dipped down to acknowledge his master.
“The body.” Zorun had to say no more. The servant understood exactly what he desired. Terul hefted the dead guard as if the latter weighed as little as air, utterly ignoring the blood that stained his skin in the process. The giant had been trained by his master always to clean up afterward.
Terul shuffled out with the corpse. There were many passages in the sewers coursing underneath Kehjan the city. All eventually emptied into the river beyond the walls. From there, the wild lands beyond—also called Kehjan by the ancients—would deal with the refuse.
Glancing at the pool of blood and the trail following in Terul’s wake, Zorun muttered an incantation and drew the proper symbols. He watched with immense satisfaction as the crimson liquid smoothly and cleanly began rolling toward the pentagram, leaving not a trace behind. How many on the council itself could perform such a feat? It had taken Zorun ten years to perfect that spell….
He grimaced. No doubt, this Uldyssian ul-Diomed could do the same without more than a glance.
This must not be…or, if it must, then it shall be I who am able to do it, not some fool of a peasant!
Zorun seized a cloak and departed from his sanctum. There were those he needed to visit to gather the necessary items for his work. That would require some tricky bargaining that he had no desire for those who had hired him to know about. A mage’s secrets were more valuable than simple coins or jewels. They were worth lives.
And if Zorun’s plans fell into place as they should, one of those lives would be that of the Ascenian, Uldyssian.
“You must speak to your brother,” Rathma encouraged, his generally toneless voice now hinting at concern. “He is growing reckless as his power further manifests itself.”
“What can I tell him that is new?” Mendeln asked with a shrug. They were both contrast and similarity, the pair. Rathma was taller than most people and with perfect features that might have been chiseled by a master sculptor. His skin was far paler than that of any other living person, and that was made more noticeable by the cowled and hooded black cloak and robes he wore.
By comparison, Mendeln ul-Diomed, was average in height and more plain of feature. He had been a farmer’s son, albeit not so good a farmer himself. His broad nose made him feel ugly in contrast to the one with whom he spoke. His dark hair seemed lighter against the pure black of Rathma’s.
Yet in their manner, in their speech, and in their clothing, they were more like brothers than he and Uldyssian. Mendeln wore a cloak and garments similar to Rathma’s, and his flesh, while bearing some pink tint, was still far paler than normal—especially for an Ascenian, who should, like his brother and Serenthia, be baked nearly as dark as the lowlanders.
It was not so surprising, though, that Mendeln should be very like Rathma. The latter had chosen the younger son of Diomedes to be his pupil, the first mortal to learn the path walked by one who was son of both an angel and a demon.
“He thinks he is being very practical,” Mendeln went on. “Hints of the Triune’s stirring again forced him once and for all to stamp out their kind. That makes sense to him, as it does to many of the others. Even I understand the logic.”
Rathma’s cloak swirled around him, despite there being no wind. Mendeln often wondered if the garment were alive, but he never asked.
“But he thus remains blind to my father,” the tall figure reminded him. Rathma was an Ancient, one of the first generation born to the world known to a select few as Sanctuary. Like him, all of that generation had been the progeny of refugees from the High Heavens and the Burning Hells, who had forsaken the eternal conflict and bound together to seek a new existence.
They had found that existence, for a time, in a place of their own making, masked from the sight of the two great powers. Yet, in finding common cause, the refugees also had begun their downfall. Familiarity brought with it the intermingling and, with that, Rathma’s generation—the first humans.
In the beginning, the new children had seemed harmless enough, but when they had started to manifest powers—powers unlike those of their parents and with unlimited potential—the angel Inarius, leader of the group, had declared them abominations. Only barely had he been convinced by a few of his fellows not to act instantly. He and the other refugees finally had agreed to retire to their separate sanctums carefully to consider the fate of their children.
But among them was one who had already made her decision. Inarius’s own lover, the demon Lilith, secretly stalked the other demons and angels, slaughtering them one by one. In her madness and ambition, she saw herself as the savior of the children and also, thus, the only one with the right to mold their destiny.
A destiny that saw her as mistress over all.
However, she had dearly underestimated Inarius. Discovering her treachery, he cast her out of Sanctuary. Then, using the gigantic crystal called the Worldstone—which had been created to keep Sanctuary hidden—he had altered the artifact so that it caused the innate powers of the children to decline until they became so dormant as never to have existed.
Some of Rathma’s generation, called the nephalem, had protested…and they had been crushed. The rest had scattered, Rathma himself forced to hide beyond the mortal plane. Over the centuries, most of his kind had vanished, and the generations that followed grew up in ignorance of the birthright that had been stolen from them.
But no more…
Mendeln turned from Rathma as he considered the other’s words. The two of them stood deep within the jungles of Kehjan, well away from where Uldyssian’s vast following camped. The scent of smoke that wafted by did not come from the huge encampment but rather from Urjhani, a town about half a day to the south. There, Uldyssian had tracked down some of the last priests to a minor temple, which he had afterward burned to the ground.
“My brother is painfully aware of the angel,” Mendeln finally responded. “Just as he will always be painfully reminded of Lilith.”
The demoness, despite Inarius’s confidence, had managed to return from exile. The angel, distracted by the incursion of the Burning Hells into his world, did not notice her slow, subtle manipulation of the Worldstone. That manipulation had reversed his intentions, awakening the potential within the many humans now inhabiting Sanctuary. Lilith had chosen Uldyssian for her pawn, stirring through violence and lust his latent powers.
In the end, however, she had failed to turn him to her cause. Uldyssian had fought her in the main temple, and although her body had not been recovered from the rubble that was all that remained of the towering edifice, everyone, including Rathma, was certain that she was at last dead. Unfortunately for Uldyssian, who had once loved her as the woman Lylia, the demoness would never truly be gone.
“And for that, I can but apologize to him. I knew my mother’s evil, just as I knew my father’s sanctimony…and for generations, I did nothing but cower.”
Rathma had hardly cowered, but Mendeln said nothing to assuage his mentor. Still…“I shall bring up the Cathedral’s missionaries to him again. You said earlier that there are already a number of them en route to Urjhani, and we left that place only the other day. That would have to mean that they were dispatched from the Grand Cathedral itself even before we reached the town.”
“Which is not the first time, either, Mendeln. My father almost appears to know Uldyssian’s path even before he does.”
“I will make mention of that also.” But still Mendeln did not depart. He suddenly surveyed the jungle, as if expecting some beast to leap out at them.
“I am not hiding him,” remarked Rathma with a rare show of frustration. “I am not pretending my ignorance of your friend Achilios’s location. Both Trag’Oul and I have searched, but of the hunter there is no trace.”
“But you were the one who raised him from the dead!”
“I? I only influenced the situation. You are the one who brought Achilios back, Mendeln. Your gift and your link to the realm of afterdeath are what enabled him to return.”
Rather than begin an old argument over, Mendeln left the shadowy figure behind. Rathma did not call after him, and the human, aware of his mentor’s ways, knew that the Ancient had already melted into the shadows.
Neither of them had uttered what both suspected concerning Achilios’s disappearance. The one time in the past when they had discussed the possibility, Mendeln had nearly lost all heart. What point was there in trying to change the world, if the world was soon to be no more?
It was all too obvious to Uldyssian’s brother what had happened to the hunter. Rathma had detected no demonic traces in the vicinity of Achilios’s last known location. The absolute absence of any such trace could mean only two things. One was that Inarius had seized Achilios for some plot against them, a dire notion indeed. Yet, as terrible as that might be—especially to Serenthia—there was a second scenario that made the first welcome by comparison.
What if another angel had stolen away the hunter?
They all knew what that meant. The Burning Hells were already aware of Sanctuary and had been so for centuries. They had let it survive because of their interest in the potential of using humans as a turning point in the eternal war. The Temple of the Triune had been created by the demon lords—the Prime Evils—in order to bring Mendeln’s race into the fold. Had not Inarius taken personal umbrage at their act—seeing Sanctuary and all in it as his—humanity might even now be marching into battle against the angels.
But now, if the High Heavens did know of the world, they were sure either to fight to possess it or simply to destroy it so that it could not be of use to the demons. That thousands of lives would perish was not of interest to either side.
It is essential that we find Achilios, Mendeln determined as he reached the edge of the encampment. For all our sakes, it is essential!
His thoughts were violently interrupted by an invisible force against which he collided. As he rubbed his nose, two figures appeared—one with the swarthy skin of a lowlander, the other as pale as any Ascenian tended to look next to one of the locals. Mendeln recognized the second as one of the dwindling number of Parthans, Uldyssian’s first converts. There were perhaps a little more than a hundred of them left, where once there had been many times that number. Being among the earliest of his brother’s followers, the Parthans had, unfortunately, faced monstrous dangers before having the chance to truly begin to come into their powers.
“Ah! Forgive us, Master Mendeln!” blurted the Parthan. “We couldn’t know it were you!”
The other edyrem nodded nervously in agreement. Whether from the lowland jungles or the highland forests, nearly all of Uldyssian’s flock treated Mendeln with a combination of veneration and fear. The fear came from Mendeln’s calling, which dealt much with the dead. The veneration…well, he was wise enough to understand that it originated simply from the fact that he was their leader’s sibling.
Oddly, a small handful had begun to come to him for learning, but Mendeln did not set any store by their interest. They were just morbidly fascinated by certain aspects…at least, that was what he told himself.
“You need not apologize,” he told the pair. “I left without giving word. You did as you were commanded.”
They opened the way for Mendeln, watching with some visible relief as Mendeln passed. He pretended not to notice.
And, as if by passing the guards, the younger son of Diomedes had entered a new realm, suddenly the area around him was filled with magic. Colored spheres of energy dotted the vast camp, as if arranged for some festival. Yet none of them was secured by string, but rather floated above those who had cast them. There were still fires, but mainly for cooking, not for illumination.
But the spheres were not all. As Mendeln strode through the throngs, a continual array of magical displays caught his gaze. One swarthy lowlander had created a glowing stream of energy that entwined around itself like a serpent. Another edyrem levitated a number of small stones, then proceeded to have them move around as if in the hands of an invisible juggler. A fair-haired Parthan woman created a spear from empty air, which she threw with perfect accuracy at a distant tree. The spear hung embedded for a moment, then dissipated as she forged a new one.
These were but a few examples. The many spells cast by the edyrem varied in power and skill, but that the seemingly insignificant faces around him—faces drawn from all castes and occupations—were those of people mastering what had once been available only to a select few was both astounding and troubling to Mendeln. Common folk such as himself were supposed to live out their lives toiling in the field. They were not supposed to become powerful sorcerers.
And that was what troubled him, even as he watched one inventive youth create for his smaller siblings—yes, Uldyssian’s “army” even included children—bright butterflies that flew in a dozen different directions. In some ways, many of those who followed his brother were naïve about the potential they wielded. At best, they saw it as a tool, like a hoe, not as something that could possibly either turn on them or brutally maim one of their own.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, Mendeln considered. They have fought for what they believe in and have been forced to slay those who would make them their slaves and puppets.
Yet his misgivings did not go away. Despite everything, Mendeln felt magic was something that needed to be studied carefully and used with the utmost consideration. One had to grow into its use and learn to respect its dangers.
Then, ahead, there arose a soft, comforting blue glow. Mendeln hesitated but finally stepped toward it. He had no reason to fear the source. After all, it was only Uldyssian.
Even amidst so much magic, one could feel his brother’s presence. A large group of edyrem sat or stood in a circle around the area Uldyssian had chosen for his bed. Mendeln could not see his brother, but he could sense exactly where Uldyssian was. Without hesitation, the younger sibling strode into the crowd, which immediately took notice of his presence and began to open a path for him.
And barely had Mendeln made it halfway when at last he caught sight of Uldyssian.
The sandy-haired figure had the strong build and looks of a country farmer, which, of course, Uldyssian had been. Quite good at it, too. Broad-shouldered and square-jawed, with a short, trimmed beard, the elder sibling was handsome in a rough-hewn way, and that helped him appeal to others. He did not look in the least like one of the haughty priests or fiery prophets with whom most of his followers were familiar. He was one of them, the common folk. He had prospered, and he had suffered, his greatest loss that of all his family save Mendeln years before to plague. At that time, Uldyssian had turned from one missionary to the next, seeking salvation for his loved ones and receiving nothing but empty words and suggestions of donations. That tragedy had given him a fierce hatred for sects such as the Triune and the Cathedral even before both had gone hunting for him.
Uldyssian sat atop a log, talking earnestly to all. Mendeln did not have to listen to know that Uldyssian was speaking words of encouragement to his flock, explaining what walking his path meant. His words all had great merit, but too often, Mendeln’s brother did not follow them himself. Of late, Uldyssian had been letting his incredible abilities take command of him, not the other way around.
Urjhani was the latest example of that. Uldyssian had intended to capture the priests, not slay them. There were questions about their true masters, the demon lords, that he had wanted to ask. Yet, when one had struck at the edyrem in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable—an attempt that had been easily deflected—Uldyssian had angrily hit back.
What had once been the priests had been strewn for yards, each having exploded from the inside. Uldyssian had shrugged off the situation as if he had intended this end from the start.
“They were Triune” was the reasoning with which he cut off any other protest from Mendeln. That said, Uldyssian had ordered the final temple burned down so that no memory would remain of the sect.
Now, the same man who had so casually torn apart those living souls and burned their temple dismissed his followers with a genial nod. The glow muted but remained strong enough to be noticed.
Only one figure stayed behind: Serenthia, daughter of the merchant Cyrus, who had been one of the first slain by Uldyssian’s powers. That had not been his fault, naturally, Lilith having manipulated the situation to bring about such terrible results. Serenthia was a beautiful woman, with long black tresses and bright blue eyes. Like Uldyssian’s her once-pale skin was bronzed. In contrast to the brothers, she wore the loose-fitting, flowing clothing of the lowland regions. The spear in her right hand was a constant companion, and if anything marred her beauty, at least in Mendeln’s opinion, it was the dread determination in her expression.
“Mendeln.” Uldyssian rose and greeted his brother as if the latter had been gone for days. “Where have you been?”
“Beyond the boundaries.”
“Ah.” Some of the older sibling’s pleasure faded. “Who was it this time? The dragon or her spawn?”
By “her,” he meant Lilith. “Rathma, yes. He warns of his father—“
The aura abruptly blazed bright, causing some nearby to start. However, all eyes quickly turned away again. “As he does every time! Does he think I keep no watch for that one? Rathma could serve us better by standing at our side rather than running off into the dark after he whispers another fearful warning.”
The glow continued to increase in intensity. Mendeln felt his own anger stirring but kept it in check. “You know he risks as much as any of us, Uldyssian…and you need not hate him for being Lilith’s progeny. He regrets that more than you can ever imagine.”
The blue muted again. Uldyssian exhaled. “You—you’re right. Forgive me. The past few days’ve been long ones, haven’t they, Mendeln?”
“To me, the days seem to grow longer and longer with each breath I take.”
“I miss the farm.”
“As do I, Uldyssian. As do even I.”
Serenthia finally broke her silence. Gaze narrowed at Mendeln, she muttered, “And any word of Achilios?”
“You know I would speak if I knew even the slightest hint.”
She thrust the bottom end of the spear into the ground. A brief scattering of red energy marked where the spear struck. Of all Uldyssian’s acolytes, Serenthia was the most powerful. Some of that strength, unfortunately, was fueled by her concern for the hunter, and the longer he remained missing, the more careless she became. It was becoming not an uncommon trait among the edyrem, and as the only relative outsider, Mendeln appeared alone in noticing it.
“Achilios will find a way to return to you,” Uldyssian interjected. “He will, Serry.”
But she looked uncertain. “If he could’ve, he would be standing with us now!”
“You wait and see.” Uldyssian put a hand on her shoulder, which, long ago, would have made the merchant’s daughter turn red. She had adored him most of her childhood, only discovering her love for Achilios just before the demon Lucion had slain their brave friend.
Turning back to Mendeln, Uldyssian added, “And, as I said, I keep wary about the angel, but what can he do against us that the Triune didn’t? Rathma’s hidden so long it’s hard for him to think that—“
There was a shout from the edge of the encampment and a host of angry voices that did not belong to the edyrem.
Uldyssian stared into the sky. He frowned, looking more frustrated than surprised.
“We’ve guests,” he told Mendeln and Serenthia. “Many uninvited guests…”
“Triune?” she asked, almost eagerly. Serenthia hefted the spear, looking as if she intended to throw it now.
“I don’t know, but who else can it be?” Uldyssian headed toward the direction of the cry. “Well, whoever they are, they’ll receive the same greeting we always give the Temple.”
Cyrus’s daughter smiled, a look that reminded Mendeln just briefly of the expression often on her countenance when she had been possessed by Lilith. She raced eagerly after Uldyssian, the two quickly leaving Mendeln well behind.
He did not move, although it was not because he shirked battle. Rather, as the sounds of struggle rose, Mendeln wondered at this desperate surprise attack. It hardly sounded like the Triune, assuming that they could muster any size force now. Yet the only other choice in his mind was Inarius. Mendeln, though, could not conceive of something so overt, so simple, from Inarius, whom Rathma had often described as one who worked behind the obvious, manipulating events as he desired—
Mendeln swore, suddenly rushing to join the others. Whatever this attack appeared on the surface to be, it would have another, far more dread reason behind it—one that it might already be too late to stop.
Chronicles of the War in Azeroth
A treatise of the events leading to the war between Mankind and the Orcish hordes as related by Sir Lothar, Knight of the Realm
Note: This is straight from the Warcraft: Orcs and Humans Game Manual
I am Sir Lothar, Armsman to the Brotherhood of the Horse, and a warrior in the King’s service. I feel it necessary to inform you of the events that have led us to this time of conflict. The tale of our battle with the Orcs begins some forty years in the past. I tell you of these things so that you might glean some understanding of our plight, and gain insight into our enemy. As a student of history and battle, I have found that only through understanding the past can we make well thought decisions for the future.
All has been peaceful for many generations, and the reign of King Wrynn III is a prosperous one. The constant bickering and infighting that marred the rules of former Kings has no place in the court of Wrynn. The child sorcerer Medivh is born of a coupling between the Court Conjurer and a mysterious traveler. After the child is born, the woman disappears, and the baby is taken into the court as a ward of the kingdom.
The child Prince Llane is born to King Wrynn and Lady Varia. This is their first and only offspring, but the birth of a son marks the continuation of their line. It is a grand day in the kingdom that is celebrated by great feasts and tournaments. King Wrynn proclaims the day to be a time for festival for the duration of his rule, and to mark the occasion gives each citizen of Azeroth one gold sovereign.
The marking of the Age of Ascension from childhood to adulthood is one of great anticipation for both parent and youth. Medivh attains that time and is expected to be given the title as Apprentice Conjurer to the Court. On the eve of this occasion, the boy’s sleep is troubled by dark dreams of figures giving chase through deep chasms. Waking in a cold sweat, Medivh makes his way to the bedchamber of his father. As the conjurer reaches out to touch his fevered brow, a burning fire ignites in the child’s eyes. This backlash of power must have reached as far as Northshire Abbey, for within the hour over one hundred clerics arrived at the castle.
Only by combining their abilities with the powers of the conjurer were one hundred enough to contain Medivh. As magiks unimagined poured forth from him, the boy screamed in unholy pain at the energies that were channeling through him. Hours passed, perhaps even days, for time seemed to stand still as the onslaught grew in fury.
Then, as simply as one snuffs a candle, both father and son crumpled into a heap. The Conjurer laid dead, drained of all life, and only the faintest breath escaping his lips. After long discussion, the King and the Abbot of Northshire agree that Medivh should be taken to the Abbey for the safety of both child and kingdom.
Llane reaches his Age of Ascension, and the full station of Prince of Azeroth is bestowed upon him. At this ceremony, tens of thousands of devoted subjects come to offer their wishes of support and long life. During the evening feast with the family, and those close to the crown, a cold wind began to chill the air. A gentle breeze at first, it grew in intensity, until the doors to the great hall were blown off their hinges. As the guests leaned into the wind, a figure entered, riding the winds like some great bird of prey.
The torches set about the great hall ignited with the blue flame and the visage of Medivh was revealed. As he set down in front of the King’s table, the guard sprang to their feet. A mere pass of his hand kept them motionless – frozen in their places. The sorcerer, now a man, explained that his years of sleep had ended. The years of constant tending from the clerics of Northshire Abbey enabled him to gain control over his powers. When his spirit and body became attuned, he awakened himself, and set out to Stormwind Keep at once. Medivh explained that he had come to repay the court for the kindness it had shown to him while he was in their keeping, and to acknowledge the occasion of the Ascension ceremony for Prince Llane.
From within his flowing cloak he produced an hourglass, crafted of deepest obsidian, with sands as white as undriven snow. The young Prince looked closely, but although the sand seemed to constantly sift from top to bottom, the lower half never filled, and the top never emptied. Medivh claimed that these sands represented the people of the kingdom, and so long as the glass never emptied, the reign of King Wrynn would not fail.
Six years passed, and the land slowly grew sick. Crops began failing in the richest soils of the kingdom. Children were stricken ill and never fully recovered. even the moods of the subjects of Azeroth seem dark. The weather would become unseasonably cold during harvest, and the summer sun scorched the earth and made working out of the shade almost unbearable. Neither cleric nor conjurer could fathom what could be the cause of this change in the lands. More and more people became disheartened, and what once would have been looked over, now caused bitter argument.
During a bleak morning, Prince Llane rushed to his father’s side, carrying the hourglass. During the night, the sands had run down from the top, and it was near emptied. King Wrynn took the glass into his hands, and a chill ran through the very core of his being. As the last sands trickled to the bottom of the glass, a great crashing sound was heard at the gates of Stormwind Keep. Suddenly, the grounds were filled with hideous creatures. gross deformities, a cruel reflection of humanity, they swarmed over the King’s guard and tore them to shred. King Wrynn sent Llane and Queen Varia with an escort of knights to Northshire Abbey, promising to call for them when the foul beasts had been destroyed. That day has not yet come.
At the age of twenty years, Llane is pronounced King of Azeroth. His task is clear – to rid the lands of these creatures. The few that have survived battle refer to themseves as Orcs. When questioned, they will tell little else, and prefer death to releasing information. They are cruel, sadistic and vile – making no distinctions between soldier or child, warrior or woman. They will slay anyone who they encounter without a second thought. The only humans who do not fall to the Orcish blade are those who are taken to the swamps that have festered in the east, where the Orcs have made their encampments. What they do with these people is unknown, though the worst is feared for none have ever returned.
Nearly ten years of skirmishes and raids along the Borderlands have kept the people of Azeroth wary, but the Orcish hordes had been beaten back into their swamps. King Llane has found that the Orcs, though incredibly strong and vicious, were seldom well trained in combat, and always disorganized. This has been the key to holding them at bay, and is the weakness he hopes to exploit in the future. The mystery that no Cleric or Conjurer had found the answer to, though, is the origin of the creatures.
In the tenth year of his reign, King Llane is visited by the mysterious traveler (Aegwynn)*. She has come to the King with a warning that she hopes will aid him in his fight against the nemesis to his land. the coupling between the King’s Conjurer and herself was intended to created a child that she could pass her knowledge and power onto before leaving this place. she did not count upon other forces in this world, and others, that would seek to dominate the child. He was now become a beacon to mystic power.
She sought him out only a fortnight before, and found that the powers that course through his veins have twisted him, making him insane. Realizing the threat he now posed, she was forced to attempt to destroy him. He all but slew her.
The battle left both combatants drained, but Medivh held enough power to banish her from his sight, and command her never to return. His magiks were strong enough that even she cannot break this bond, and so can offer no aid in his downfall. The traveler also informs King Llane that it was Medivh who was responsible for the coming of the Orcs to Azeroth. During the battle with his father, he inadvertently opened a gateway to the domain that they, and many other foul creatures, call home. The Orcs are disciples of chaos, however, and not even Medivh has the power to control them.
Although the battle has Medivh in a greatly weakened state, the traveler warns that there will be a time when Azeroth will be forced to deal with him. Her parting words to the King were of her hope that the sorcerer would not become so strong, by that time, that the whole of this world would suffer.
Stirrings of war now come from the swamps. The attacks upon our settlements, once scattered and poorly executed, have become more organized. The King has found it necessary to send footmen and archers to protect settlements along the Borderlands. Rumors of the rising of a great Orcish Warchief have been heard about the land. He is heard to be a harsh leader who has gathered the feuding Orcs under one banner. King Llane’s scouts and spies have found him to be as cunning as he is bloodthirsty. This foul creature’s name is Blackhand, and his control of the Orcish hordes could spell doom for Azeroth. The King has ordered me to seek out new recruits to train in the druiments of combat for the time has come to call upon the people of Azeroth and prepare the kingdom for war.
Note: Be warned that there could seem to be some mistakes in the original lore. Blizzard Entertainment makes changes to the lore to accommodate new content and lore in future games like Warcraft II, Warcraft III and World of Warcraft.
To read the storyline of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans with Medivh as main character, we recommend reading the great novel pocketbook Warcraft Archive which reprinted Warcraft: The Last Guardian —written by Jeff Grubb, writer known by many fans of Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Magic the Gathering Ice Age, Starcraft: Liberty’s Crusade, among other books.
Aegwynn* – Former Guardian of Tirisfal, Mother of Medivh, who defeated Sargeras in Northrend 800 centuries ago. The Court Conjurer, father of Medivh, was named Nielas Aran.
eBook, 180 pages
Far in the future, 60,000 light-years from Earth, a loose confederacy of Terran exiles are locked in battle with the enigmatic Protoss and the ruthless Zerg Swarm. Each species struggles to ensure its own survival among the stars in a war that will herald the beginning of mankind’s greatest chapter—or foretell its violent, bloody end. She is the Zerg Queen of Blades. Her name has become legend throughout the galaxy, and that legend is death for all who stand against her. Yet once, long ago, Sarah Kerrigan was human—the unwilling subject of an insidious clandestine experiment. She was forced to serve as a merciless assassin for the Terran Confederacy until a twist of fate propelled her toward a destiny none could have foreseen. This is the untold tale of Kerrigan’s shadowy origin…and the war that was fought for her very soul. An original tale of universal conflict set in the world of the award-winning, bestselling computer game from Blizzard Entertainment.
Chapter One: The Seeds of Rebellion
Throughout the course of every person’s life, a large-scale catastrophe is certain to occur. At some point, fate will hand each of us the ultimate test: a tragedy so profound and so inescapable that it will forever alter the remaining course of the life affected. This event will have one of two outcomes. The man or woman confronted with the catastrophe may be defeated in the test, and live the remainder of their life as a shadow of the person they once were. Or a person might transform and become strengthened by their experience, transcending all self-imposed limitations and flourishing in a way they had never deemed possible.
Arcturus Mengsk was one such man. He had overcome a tragic event in his life, and now it had changed him, forever molded him into a being of single-minded purpose and unshakable determination. Lesser men would have been broken by the tragedy. Lesser men would have just given up. But lesser men did not take their place in the proud annals of Terran history.
During his formative years, young Arcturus would often awake from dreams in which he had seen himself as a figure of importance, a preeminent leader of men. Mostly, Arcturus would dismiss the dreams as whims of an overactive imagination. In the waking world, Arcturus did not see himself as the leader-type at all. He didn’t care about the affairs of others; he didn’t care about the Confederacy. All he cared about was serving his time in the Confederate military and how much money he might be able to earn as a fringe-world prospector when that time was done. He had certainly done his duty, and, lack of desire to lead notwithstanding, had ascended to the rank of colonel before the climate changed; before he realized he was not fighting for what he believed in, and of course, before the tragedy.
Now, in the wake of the tragedy, things had changed. Arcturus’s self-perception had changed; the man he once saw himself as seemed no more than a distant relative. Now Arcturus was on his way to becoming the man he was in his dreams.
For the most part, up until now, it had all been about preparation: keeping in constant communication with his colleagues in the underground network on Korhal (although they had become so vocal and overt as of late that the term “underground” no longer applied); recruiting like-minded, eager civilians for training; and observing the actions of the Confederacy here among the relative safety of the Umojan Protectorate.
Preparation was well and good, and Arcturus prided himself on planning ahead. But he believed that the time had now come for action. Blowing up supply route bridges on key planets, hacking into Confederate mainframes and staging mine-worker revolts was all well and good, but the time had come to strengthen his numbers and to set out on his quest in earnest. The time had come to raise hell.
And so General Mengsk now stood looking into the determined eyes of the roughly twenty or so Umojan men before him. They were an able-bodied lot, though not as many as he had hoped for, and he was fairly certain that none of the men had ever seen combat. Still, they were capable, and they were willing to fight for what they believed in, and that’s where the seeds of rebellion truly began to germinate.
The general greeted each man’s eyes in turn. Once he was confident that he held their attention, he spoke. “You men are gathered here today because you share common beliefs and a common desire. Among the beliefs you share is the tenet that no man or body of government should have authority to treat you unjustly; the desire you share is the pursuit of independence. Make no mistake men—these are the ideals that wars are made of. The least of the troubles that lie ahead for all of you is a life of forced seclusion, of being branded as seditionist by the very government that would impose her unfair laws upon you. The worst of what you may face—of what we all face—is death. Pollock and I and the rest of our fighters are, as you know, already considered turncoats by the Confederacy….”
Arcturus motioned to a man standing at parade-rest to his left. Pollock Rimes was a man who looked the part of a battle veteran—his bald head and face were covered with scars, and the upper left hemisphere of his skull bore a slight indentation the size of a large man’s fist. His left ear was mostly missing and the bridge of his nose formed a backward S. Pollock’s eyes stared ahead blankly as Arcturus continued. “It is important that all of you go into this knowing that there exists a very real possibility that you may not live to see it through.”
As Arcturus allowed his words to sink in, his eyes fell on a man outside the room, visible through one of the large windows. The man, of Asian descent, wearing the clothes of a low-level prospector, seemed to be quite intrigued by what was going on inside. When the man looked up and saw Arcturus staring at him, he held the gaze for a second before looking away. He seemed to be wrestling with some kind of decision. Just then Arcturus heard the sound of one of the men clearing his throat. He turned to see a somewhat crazed-looking older man standing near the front of the group whose face bore a web of wrinkles and whose white tonsured hair circled his bald dome like wispy clouds hovering around a particularly worn mountain peak. “My mother, may she rest easy, used to say that there wan’t nothing worth living fer that wan’t worth dyin’ fer.”
Arcturus allowed himself a half-smile. “I see. And what might your name be, civilian?”
“I’m Forest Keel, and I seen my share o’ friction in the seven cycles I served in the Guild Wars.”
“I’m sure you did. And I’m sure you made your superiors proud.” Old Forest beamed a smile devoid of a few teeth as Arcturus’s eyes once again scanned the nearby window, where the prospector was still standing, nervously undetermined. Arcturus turned his attention back to the group. “Well men, the time has—“
Just then Arcturus was interrupted by the sound of an entryway opening. Looking to the far side of the room, the general saw Ailin Pasteur—one of the Protectorate’s ambassadors—stick his head in. The usually unflappable man looked pale and distressed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, General, but there is a situation that requires your immediate attention.”
The Spy Deck was an area where mining foremen watched image-enhanced holograms of planets within the system that might be fertile grounds for prospecting. For the enlistment of its current purpose, the Spy Deck could not have been more aptly named. Not long ago, Ailin Pasteur had served under the command of Arcturus’s father, Angus. Angus had saved the man’s life on one occasion and Ailin had repaid the favor by being one of the voting members of the Ruling Council that appointed Arcturus the rank of general, and leader of the revolution. The Council also allowed Mengsk to use the Protectorate as a base of operations, and to use the Spy Deck as a somewhat archaic means of surveillance. The imaging program contained detailed charts of all the planets within the known systems. It was also capable of charting the progress of freight ships carrying their valuable cargo through the trade routes in real-time—a primitive kind of “radar” system to be sure, but more than adequate for Arcturus’s needs. It was here on the Spy Deck that the Ruling Council of the Umojan Proctectorate stood, their haggard faces revealing collective concern.
Ailin turned to Arcturus and spoke in a halting voice: “We received an anonymous transmission suggesting that we keep on eye on this sector.”
Arcturus looked at the sector currently being displayed. He recognized the planet at the display’s center immediately. “Korhal,” he said, to no one in particular.
The superintendent nodded slightly. Arcturus noticed that the man was sweating heavily. “Yes.”
Several smaller objects that looked like orbiting satellites of some kind surrounded the image of the planet. Arcturus had an idea, even before the superintendent spoke, of what the objects really were.
“Battlecruisers,” Ailin confirmed. “We make out twenty of them. We’ve been monitoring the military channels and have overheard nothing that might explain this.”
“Nothing they’re willing to admit, anyway,” offered Mengsk. “But you can bet your bottom credit that the Confederates are the source of your anonymous tip. And if those ships are orbiting Korhal on Confederate orders, they mean to start trouble. Send an intelligence report to Achton immediately.”
In Korhal’s capital city of Styrling, Colonel Achton Feld—the elected leader of the rebel forces in the absence of General Mengsk—was busy shouting orders, standing atop a guardwalk at the city’s perimeter, the myriad antiair missile turrets that served as outer defenses forming a jagged outline on the horizon behind him. At one time, this fortress in the center of the city had been a Confederate post. That was before the revolution. Now it served as the rebel headquarters on Korhal.
The rebels had of course known about the presence of Confederate ships in their orbit, but their limited surveillance systems had been unable to uncover what the recent intelligence transmission confirmed: that the orbiting ships numbered twenty—quite a number, especially with the capacity of each ship to hold hundreds of marines, dropships, siege tanks, even armored Goliaths. And those were just the ground forces. They were sure to be bombarded from the air first. But none of that mattered now. The rebels had spent almost a full cycle beefing up their antiair defenses and had recruited enough of the planet’s population to form an army that was more than just sizable—it was huge.
The confrontation with the Confederate forces was inevitable. And even now, in the midst of all the fear and the panic and the anticipation, Achton was glad. He was glad that the waiting was over and that the battle was about to begin. The Korhalians were about to send a message to the Confederates: that they were the citizens of a free planet, and that they would fight to ensure that freedom. Let them come, thought the Colonel, let them bring their armored walkers and their cloaked fighters, but just let them come.
Colonel Achton smiled and waited for the first dropships to appear.
The holo-image now showed several tiny objects, no more than minuscule dots. They came from the ships in swarms, like locusts, leaving the battlecruisers and snaking their way toward Korhal’s atmosphere.
“Dropships?” Ailin responded to the unasked question on everyone’s mind. Mengsk shook his head. “No. Too small. They look more like … no, no that couldn’t be, just could not—” Mensgk continued shaking his head, refusing to believe, because he knew that if he believed, that just might make it all the more real.
He watched with the others as the scores of tiny, luminescent dots began descending into Korhal’s dense atmosphere.
Achton waited, looking out at the array of defenses beyond Styrling’s walls. A lieutenant raced up onto the guardwalk, out of breath. He had the harried look of a man who suddenly wished he were somewhere else.
“Sir, we’re tracking hundreds of incoming objects that have locked onto several positions across this side of the planet. I’m not sure, but I think we got a report from the Underside that they’re tracking objects as well.”
“Hundreds, you say?” The colonel’s calm veneer was slipping, and the naked fear began to become apparent on his face.
“Yes, sir. Too small for us to identify just yet, but they’re coming fast.”
Just then the colonel heard a low hum, barely detectable, like the whine of a small insect. Then he looked to the horizon and saw a swarm of small objects descending, trailing tails of smoke from behind, and he knew. “Not fair…” he whispered.
But the lieutenant did not hear him. The hum/whine had become almost deafening now. As the lieutenant looked up and saw more of the objects descending on them from directly above, he began to scream.
On the Spy Deck, a palpable silence pervaded as pools of brilliant light began spreading across the surface of the already luminescent image of Korhal. They continued from multiple locations until the majority of the planet was engulfed in that brilliance and no one in the room could question what they had just seen.
“By the fathers, it’s gone … Korhal’s gone. Every-body. Millions of people …” Ailin seemed on the verge of fainting.
Arcturus felt his stomach tighten and was aware of nothing but that image in front of him, the image of Korhal burning. After a short time, the pools of light began to fade, and the holo-image of Korhal became a darker, featureless facsimile of its former self.
In the midst of his shock and denial, Arcturus managed to speak three words: “Gather the men.”
The case of Korhal was, like many others throughout history, an example of a government attempting to suppress upheaval among its populace through tyrannical means and thereby only strengthening the determination of its dissenters. Inside the ready room where twenty men had stood just moments before, a throng of over fifty now crowded, exchanging angry and violent discourse over the loss of Korhal and the impudence of the Confederacy.
A hatchway slid open at the head of the room and Arcturus entered, looking like a lion that has stalked its prey into a corner and is savoring the moment just before the kill.
“You all know what has just transpired. For those of you who want the specifics—and I think you all deserve to know—twenty battlecruisers just launched about a thousand Apocalypse-class missiles from Korhal IV’s orbit. The missiles impacted on the planet’s surface and 35 million people will never again see the light of day. You need no stirring speeches; you need no coercion or coaxing. You all know the difference between right and wrong. Now the time has come to fight for the values you hold dear and to challenge those who would strip you of your individual freedoms. Are you with me?”
Fifty fists raised into the air simultaneously as the mob responded with a deafening roar. Mengsk waited for the din to subside before continuing. “As of this day, I declare that you are all no longer civilians. You are now soldiers. And we are now at war.” Mengsk prepared to go on, then stopped as a hatchway at the side of the room opened, and the Asian prospector he had spotted outside earlier now stepped in. The crowd was silent. Mengsk’s eyes traveled to the newcomer.
“I want to join,” he said.
Mengsk approached the smaller man and stood before him, an intimidating presence.
“I saw you before. You seemed hesitant.”
The Asian man nodded. “I wasn’t sure yet. But I am now.”
Somewhere among the crowd a mocking comment was made. A man near the general muttered “Fringe-squib” under his breath. The general silenced the man with a glance, then turned back to the Asian. “Indecision on the battlefield costs lives, boy.”
The smaller man held the general’s gaze. “Sir, all I’m asking is that you give me a chance.”
“Will you follow orders without question?”
Mengsk searched the other man’s eyes for a moment, then finally nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Somo. Somo Hung.”
“Welcome aboard,” said the general before he walked back to his spot next to Pollock and surveyed the men. “As I said, from now on … you are soldiers. And you will bear that mantle proudly. And as for the name of our little army, the name that shall be the bane of the Confederacy’s existence, I think it only appropriate that we call ourselves the Sons of Korhal!”
Once more the room erupted, this time with spirited cries of “Mengsk! Mengsk! Mengsk!”
Ailin stood next to the general, looking out into the docking bay where a battered, barely recognizable craft hung suspended. Workers pored over the behemoth busily, their torches spraying out sparks of light as final fittings and adjustments were made.
“She’s not exactly pristine, but she’ll serve her purpose,” Ailin offered, nodding his head toward the craft outside.
“That she will, my friend.” Arcturus was visibly pleased with the progress.
The battlecruiser was the casualty of a navigational systems error, much like the snafu that landed four supercarriers, carrying convicted criminals onto a few inhabitable worlds (including Umoja) into the deepest reaches of space just a few millennia ago. Those criminals were the forefathers of the Terrans, a blanket term that applied to all the generations of humans who followed and spread, inhabiting world after world and marching on in the way only humanity can.
The battlecruiser now in the docking bay had crashed onto a fiery planet not far from the Protectorate, but well out of range of the Confederacy’s hailing frequencies. Ailin and Mengsk went to the crash site immediately and stripped the craft of its tracking beacon. In the cargo bay they found several SCVs as well as a fully operational siege tank, and in the launching bay they found two CF/A-17G Wraith fighters, as well as four dropships.
The Protectorate shepherded the cruiser into one of its many docking bays. The Confederacy was obviously angered by the loss of one of their ships, but without proof of the Protectorate’s subversion, was unwilling to start another war. The crew was pronounced dead, and offered better pay and shorter hours to remain among the Protectorate and remain silent (a proposition no one balked at), and not too long after that the displaced ship’s captain became Arcturus’s most trusted soldier, Pollock Rimes.
It seemed like so much time had passed since then, though it was only a cycle. The craft had remained, being upgraded and modified slowly and methodically, until it became what Arcturus now saw before him, a battlecruiser he could call his own.
Ailin interrupted the general’s thoughts briefly. “What would you like to call her?” he asked.
Mengsk thought for a long moment.
“Hyperion,” he said at last. “I’ll call her the Hyperion.”
Just then Pollock approached the two men. “The soldiers request an update of status, General.”
Arcturus turned his bright eyes to Pollock. “Tell them we set out at next interval.”
Pollock’s lip lifted slightly, the closest thing to a smile Arcturus had ever seen cross the man’s face.
Copyright ? 2000 by Blizzard Entertainment
Pocket Book, 272 pages
Far in the future, 60,000 light-years from Earth, a loose confederacy of Terran exiles is locked in battle with the enigmatic Protoss and the ruthless Zerg Swarm. Each species struggles to ensure its own survival among the stars in a war that will herald the beginning of mankind’s greatest chapter—or foretell its violent, bloody end.
Danny Liberty was a good reporter…too good. When his investigations struck too close to the heart of the corrupt Terran Confederacy, he faced a simple choice: continue his current series of expos?s, or take a hazardous new assignment covering the Marines on the front lines of the Koprulu Sector. It didn’t take him long to decide….
Behind the attacks of the Zerg and the Protoss lies the story of a lifetime, but every piece of information blurs the mystery further. Thrown into the middle of a war where the outcome will determine mankind’s very survival, the only thing that Danny Liberty knows for sure is that the only person he can trust to keep him alive is himself.
The first in an epic new series of space warfare novels set in the world of the bestselling computer game!
Chapter 1: The Press Gang
Before the war, things were different. Hell, back then, we were just making our daily living, doing our jobs, drawing our paychecks, and stabbing our fellow men and women in the back. We had no idea how bad things would get. We were fat and happy like maggots on a dead animal. There was enough sporadic violence—rebellions and revolutions and balky colonial governments—to keep the military going, but not enough to really threaten the lifestyles we had grown accustomed to. We were, in retrospect, fat and sassy.
And if a real war broke out, well, it was the military’s worry. The marines’ worry. Not ours.
—The Liberty Manifesto
The city sprawled beneath Mike’s feet like an overturned bucket of jade cockroaches. From the dizzying height of Handy Anderson’s office, he could almost see the horizon between the taller buildings. The city reached that far, forming a jagged, spiked tear along the edge of the world.
The city of Tarsonis, on the planet Tarsonis. The most important city on the most important planet of the Confederacy of Man. The city so great they named it twice. The city so large its suburbs had greater populations than some planets. A shining beacon of civilization, keeper of the memories of an Earth now lost to history, myth, and earlier generations.
A sleeping dragon. And Michael Liberty could not resist twisting its tail.
“Come back from the edge there, Mickey,” said Anderson. The editor-in-chief was firmly ensconced at his desk, a desk as far away from the panoramic view as possible.
Michael Liberty liked to think there was a note of concern in his boss’s voice.
“Don’t worry,” said Mike. “I’m not thinking of jumping.” He suppressed a smile.
Mike and the rest of the newsroom knew that the editor-in-chief was acrophobic but could not bear to surrender his stratospheric office view. So on the rare occasions when Liberty was summoned into his boss’s office, he always stood near the window. Most of the time he and the other drudges and news hacks worked way down on the fourth floor or in the broadcast booths in the building’s basement.
“Jumping I’m not worried about,” said Anderson. “Jumping I can handle. Jumping would solve a lot of my problems and give me a lead for tomorrow’s edition. I’m more worried about some sniper taking you out from another building.”
Liberty turned toward his boss. “Bloodstains that hard to get out of the carpet?”
“Part of it,” said Anderson, smiling. “It’s also a bitch to replace the glass.”
Liberty look one last look at the traffic crawling far below and returned to the overstuffed chairs facing the desk. Anderson tried to be nonchalant, but Mike noted that the editor let out a long, slow breath as Mike moved away from the window.
Michael Liberty settled himself into one of Anderson’s chairs. The chairs were designed to look like normal furniture, but they were stuffed so that they sank an extra inch or two when someone sat down. This made the balding editor-in-chief with his comically oversized eyebrows look more imposing. Mike knew the trick, was not impressed, and set his feet up on the desk.
“So what’s the beef?” the reporter asked.
“Have a cigar, Mickey?” Anderson motioned with an open palm toward a teak humidor.
Mike hated being called Mickey. He touched his empty shirt pocket, where he normally stashed a pack of cigarettes. “I’m on the wagon. Trying to cut down.”
“They’re from beyond the Jaandaran embargo,” said Anderson temptingly. “Rolled on the thighs of cinnamon-shaded maidens.”
Mike held up both hands and smiled broadly. Everyone knew that Anderson was too cheap to get anything beyond the standard el ropos manufactured in some bootleg basement. But the smile was intended to reassure.
“What’s the beef?” Mike repeated.
“You’ve really done it this time,” said Anderson, sighing. “Your series on the construction kickbacks on the new Municipal Hall.”
“Good stuff. The series should rattle a few cages.”
“They’ve already been rattled,” replied Anderson, his chin sinking down to touch his chest. This was known as the bearer-of-bad-news position. It was something that Anderson had learned at some management course but that made him look like a mating ledge-pigeon.
Crap, thought Mike. He’s going to spike the series.
As if reading his thoughts, Anderson said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to run the rest of the series. It’s solid reporting, well-documented, and best of all, it’s true. But you have to know you’ve made a few people very uncomfortable.”
Mike mentally ran through the series. It had been one of his better ones, a classic involving a petty offender who was caught in the wrong place (a public park) at the wrong time (way after midnight) with the wrong thing (mildly radioactive construction waste from the Municipal Hall project). Said offender was more than willing to pass on the name of the man who sent him on this late-night escapade. That individual was in turn willing to tell Mike about some other interesting matters involving the new hall, and so forth, until Mike had, instead of a single story, a whole series about a huge network of graft and corruption that the Universe Network News audience ate up with their collective spoons.
Mike mentally ran through the ward heelers, low-level thugs, and members of the Tarsonis City Council that he had skewered in print, discarding each in turn as a suspect. Any of those august individuals might want to take a shot at him, but such a threat wasn’t enough to make Handy Anderson nervous.
The editor-in-chief saw Mike’s blank expression and added, “You’ve made a few powerful, venerable people very uncomfortable.”
Mike’s left eyebrow rose. Anderson was talking about one of the ruling Families, the power behind the Confederacy for most of its existence, since those early days when the first colony ships (hell, prison ships) landed and/or crashed on various planets in the sector. Somewhere in his reporting, he had nailed somebody with pull, or perhaps somebody close enough to one of the Families to make the old venerables nervous.
Mike resolved to go back over his notes and see what kind of linkages he could make. Perhaps a distaff cousin to one of the Old Families, or a black sheep, or maybe even a direct kickback. God knew that the Old Families ran things from behind the scenes since the year naught. If he could nail one of them…
Mike wondered if he was visibly salivating at the prospect.
In the meantime Handy Anderson had risen from his seat and strolled around the side of his desk, perching on the corner nearest Mike. (Another move directly out of the management lectures, Mike realized. Hell, Anderson had assigned him to cover those lectures once.) “Mike, I want you to know you’re on dangerous ground here.”
Oh God, he called me Mike, thought Liberty. Next he’ll be looking plaintively out the window as if lost in thought, wrestling with a momentous decision.
He said, “I’m used to dangerous ground, boss.”
“I know, I know. I just worry about those around you. Your sources. Your friends. Your co-workers…”
“Not to mention my superiors.”
“…all of whom would be heartbroken if something horrible happened to you.”
“Particularly if they were standing nearby when it happened,” added the reporter.
Anderson shrugged and stared plaintively out the full-length window. Mike realized that whatever Anderson was afraid of, it was worse than his fear of heights. And this was a man who, if office rumor was correct (and it was), kept a locked room in the sub-basement that contained dirt on most of the celebrities and important citizens of the city.
The pause dragged beyond a moment into a minute. Finally Mike broke. He gave a polite cough and said, “So you have an idea how to handle this ‘dangerous ground’?”
Handy Anderson nodded slowly. “I want to print the series. It’s good work.”
“But you don’t want me anywhere in the immediate vicinity when the next part of that story hits the street.”
“I’m thinking of your own safety, Mickey, it’s…”
“Dangerous ground,” finished Mike. “I heard. Here be dragons. Perhaps it would be time for an extended vacation? Maybe a cabin in the mountains?”
“I was thinking more of a special assignment.”
Of course, thought Mike. That way I won’t have the chance to figure out whose tail I’ve inadvertently twisted. And give those involved time to cover their tracks.
“Another part of the Universe News Network empire?” Mike said with a broad smile, at the same time wondering what godforsaken colony world he would be doing agricultural reports from.
“More of a roving reporter,” teased Anderson.
“How roving?” Mike’s smile suddenly became flinty and brittle. “Will I need shots for off-planet?”
“Better than getting shot for being on-planet. Sorry, bad joke. The answer is yes, I’m thinking definitely off-planet.”
“Come on, spill. Which hellhole do you want to hide me in?”
“I was thinking of the Confederate Marines. As a military reporter, of course.”
“It would be a temporary posting, of course,” continued the editor.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Sort of ‘our fighting men in space,’ battling against the various forces of rebellion that threaten our great Confederacy. There are rumors that Arcturus Mengsk is rallying more support in the Fringe Worlds. Could turn really hot at any moment.”
“The marines?” sputtered Mike. “The Confederate Marines are the biggest collection of criminals in the known universe, outside of the Tarsonis City Council.”
“Mike, please. Everyone has some criminal blood in them. Hell, all the planets of the Confederacy were settled by exiled convicts.”
“Yeah, but most people like to think we grew out of that. The marines still make that one of their basic recruiting requirements. Hell, do you know how many of them have been brain-panned?”
“Neurally Resocialized,” corrected Anderson. “No more than fifty percent per unit these days, I understand. Less in some places. And the resocialization is more often done with noninvasive procedures. You probably won’t notice.”
“Yeah, and they pump them so full of stimpacks they’d kill their own grandpas on the right command.”
“Exactly the sort of common misconception that your work can counter,” said Anderson, both eyebrows raised in practiced sincerity.
“Look, most of the politicos I’ve met are naturally nuts. The marines are nuts and then they started messing with their heads. No. The marines are not an option.”
“It’d make for some good stories. You’d probably get some good contacts.”
“Reporters with experience with the military get perks,” said the editor-in-chief. “You get a green tag on your file, and that carries weight with the more venerable families of Tarsonis. In some cases even forgiveness.”
“Sorry. Not interested.”
“I’ll give you your own column.”
A pause. Finally Mike said, “How big a column?”
“Full column-page print, or five minutes stand-up for the broadcast. Under your byline, of course.”
“You file, I’ll fill.”
Another pause. “A raise with that?”
Anderson named a figure, and Mike nodded.
“That’s impressive,” he said.
“Not chump change,” agreed the editor-in-chief.
“I’m a little old to be planet-hopping.”
“There’s no real danger. And if something does flare up, there’s combat pay. Automatic.”
“Fifty percent brain-panned?” Mike asked.
Another pause. Then Mike said, “Well, it sounds like a challenge.”
“And you’re just the man for a challenge.”
“And it can’t be worse than covering the Tarsonis City Council,” Mike mused, feeling himself sliding down the slippery slope to acceptance.
“My thoughts exactly,” his editor agreed.
“And if it would help the network…” Yep, Mike thought, he was on the edge, poised to pitch over into the void.
“You would be a shining light to us all,” said Anderson. “A well-paid, shining light. Wave the flag a little, get some personal stories, ride around in a battlecruiser, play some cards. Don’t worry about us back here at the office.”
“Cushiest. I’ve got some pull, you know. Was an old green-tag myself. Three months work, tops. A lifetime of rewards.”
There was a final pause, a chasm as deep as the concrete canyon that yawned beyond the window.
“All right,” said Mike, “I’ll do it.”
“Wonderful!” Anderson reached for the humidor, then caught himself and instead offered Mike his hand. “You won’t regret it.”
“Why do I feel that I already do?” Michael Liberty asked in a small voice as the editor’s meaty, sweaty hand ensnared his own.
Copyright ? 2001 by Blizzard Entertainment
Pocket Book, 288 pages
The book novel plot is from Jim Raynor’s point of view, and it details the events that occur on planet Char, specifically the interactions between Raynor, Kerrigan, Tassadar, and Zeratul. However, look forward to reading what happened in the meeting between Tassadar and Zeratul.
“Former marshall-turned-rebel Jim Raynor has broken away from the power-crazed Emperor Arcturus Mengsk. Enraged over Mengsk’s betrayal of the powerful telepath, Sarah Kerrigan, to the ravenous Zerg, Raynor has lost all faith in his fellow humanity.
Yet, in the aftermath of Mengsk’s treachery, Raynor is plagued by strange visions of Char—a deadly volcanic world haunted by horrifying alien creatures. As the nightmares grow in intensity, Raynor begins to suspect that they may not be figments of his imagination—but a desperate form of telepathic contact. Convinced that the woman he loves is still alive, Raynor launches a mission to rescue Kerrigan from Char. But deep beneath the planet’s smoldering surface, Raynor finds a strange chrysalis . . . and is forced to watch in horror. as a terrible, all-too-familiar entity arises from it.
Before him stands a creature of malice and vengeance . . . Sarah Kerrigan : The Zerg Queen of Blades.”
Copyright ? 2006 by Blizzard Entertainment
The world went dark.
Not just a darkened sky—no mere nightfall could produce such utter darkness. No, this was the dark of captivity, confinement, blindness. Nothing visible, no light, no shadow, only a smothering visual shroud. A stark contrast to the blinding lights and sudden bursts of color from just before.
I struggle to make sense of my surroundings. Where am I?
Nothing but blankness answers, and an instant later a far larger question looms up, erasing the first. Who am I?
A wave of panic rises deep within, bile carried along its edge, threatening to drown me as I realize I cannot remember. I do not know who I am!
Calm, I tell myself. Calm. I force the panic down, pushing it back by sheer will, refusing to let it envelop me. What do you remember, then?
Nothing. No, brief flashes. A battle. A war. Horrid, horrible foes, great monstrous beings surrounding me, dwarfing me. Betrayal—though I cannot recall the act itself I can still taste the bitter realization of it. Abandonment. Desperation, a last frenzied struggle. The feel of sinewy flesh pinning me, choking me, killing me. The light fading around me as the numbness creeps in.
And now this.
Where am I? I stretch my senses to their limit, probing my surroundings. The results, though hazy and disjointed, form a single conclusion.
I am being carried.
I can feel the movement, the gentle rocking motion. Not directly—something cushions me, envelops me, holds me all around. But that cushioning is moving, and me with it.
I try lashing out, but my limbs will not cooperate. I feel sluggish, drained—drugged. Senses dulled, body leaden, but nerves oddly on fire. I am burning from within! My flesh crawls, creeps, melts, morphs—I have no control over my own form anymore. I am changing.
Around me I can feel others shifting. They are not confined as I am—they are free to move, though their minds are oddly blunted. They are my captors, conveying me in my confinement.
I can hear their thoughts, slithering across me, through me. A part of me recoils but another part—a newer part—welcomes their intrusion. Vibrates in tune with their gibbering, allowing the patterns to resonate through me. Changing me further, bringing me closer to those waiting just beyond.
The part that is still me, the old me, recoils in horror. I cannot, I will not become one of these! I must escape! I must be free! My body is captive but my mind soars, reaching out for help, any help. I scream, desperate for anyone to hear.
And, far away, I know that my pleas have been heard.
Rubble lay everywhere, evidence of a city in flames, a world in demise. Buildings had fallen, vehicles were crashed and crushed, bodies littered the ground. A sign still stood near the edge of the destruction, its scorched surface reading “Welcome to”—the name New Gettysburg only a jagged hole with blackened edges. All manner of bodies, from the pale flesh of the Terrans to the smooth hides of the protoss to the sinewy blades of the zerg. People, those not yet dead and unable to evacuate, ran screaming, wailing for help. Some brandished weapons, crazed beyond rational thought, desperate to defend themselves and their families. Others cowered, weeping, unable to face the end of their world. A few hid or ran, hoping to escape their fate.
The Swarm ignored them. It had a higher agenda.
The battle had not gone as expected. The Terrans had put up a strong fight but with fewer soldiers than anticipated. The protoss, the hated protoss, had appeared as always, gleaming in their battle suits and glowing in their arrogance, but had rapidly lost focus, dividing their attentions as if facing not one but two opponents. In some places the Swarm had sighted Terrans battling protoss, a strange but welcome sight. Yes, it had been a strange battlefield, the sides constantly shifting. But that was for the Overmind to consider and digest. For now, the conflict was over, the battle won. The remaining Terrans posed little threat and the protoss had vanished once the outcome was clear. For some reason they had not razed the planet, a fact which had allowed the Swarm to discover and claim a previously unexpected prize.
Now, their linked minds already turned from this conflict to those stretching out before them, the zerg marshaled their forces and prepared for their victorious departure.
One brood cleared a path, removing any obstructions, whether flesh or stone or metal. A second brood followed close behind, its ranks protectively closed around its prize. Near the center several ultralisks moved in close formation, their back-spikes almost touching. Between them were four hydralisks, thick arms linked to support the large oblong they held. Through its rough, sticky shell the cocoon pulsed with light, though its faint glow was lost amid the fires and flares and explosions that had once been this city.
“Carefully,” warned the brood’s cerebrate, observing their progress through the overlord floating just above the sphere. Because the celebrant itself could not move, the airborne overlords served as its eyes, ears, and mouth. “The Chrysalis must not be harmed!”
Obedient to its will, the ultralisks shifted slightly closer and slowed their pace, allowing more time for the brood before them to open the way. Their heavy feet crushed bone and metal and wood without thought or pause as they lumbered on, shielding the Chrysalis from attack.
“We have it, Master,” the cerebrate announced in the depths of its own mind. “We have your prize.”
“Good.” The reply echoed from within, rising from the deep well of the zerg hive-mind. “You must watch over the Chrysalis, and ensure that no harm comes to the creature within it. Go now and keep safe my prize.”
Accepting the Overmind’s orders as always, the cerebrate redoubled its efforts, making sure its brood’s defenses were secure. The Chrysalis would be protected at all costs.
On the zerg marched, the city burning around them. At last the Swarm had gathered itself within a vast crater where once the city’s vaunted lake had stretched. Now the surface was glass-smooth, seared by the force of the protoss’s landing ships and unmarred by the heavy feet that had trekked across toward the city under siege.
“We are ready, Master,” the cerebrate declared, arraying its brood around the Chrysalis.
“I am well pleased, young Cerebrate,” the Overmind answered, the warm glow of its benediction washing over the cerebrate and through it all the members of its Swarm. “And so long as my prize remains intact, I shall remain pleased. Thus, its life and yours shall be made as one. As it prospers, so shall you. For you are part of the Swarm. If ever your flesh should fail, that flesh shall be made anew. That is my covenant with all cerebrates.”
As the cerebrate swelled with pride, a great darkness descended upon the crater, a shadow of the mass that drifted into view high above them. Beyond the upper reaches of the planet’s dying atmosphere hung a massive storm, a swirl of orange and violet gases that spun around strange flickering lights. They moved faster and faster, the colors merging in their fury, until the center of the storm collapsed in upon itself, light and color giving way to a shadowy circle far darker than even the space hovering beyond.
“Now you have grown strong enough to bear the rigors of warp travel with the Swarm,” the Overmind stated, its words sending a thrum of power through the Swarm. “Thus we shall make our exit from this blasted world and secure the Chrysalis within the Hive Cluster upon the planet Char.”
As one the first brood rose, soaring high above the ruined city. They broke free of the planet’s weak, fading grasp and approached the storm above, pulled into that yawning, beckoning darkness at its center, and vanished. The cerebrate felt their transit through the hive-mind link all zerg shared and allowed a spark of contentment to linger within its own mind. Then the Overmind summoned it as well, and the cerebrate called its brood together, linking them tightly for travel through the warp. They rose from the crater, letting the power of the Swarm fill them as they ascended, and soon the darkness had drowned out all thought, all sense, as it carried them across the vastness of space to their destination.
And within the Chrysalis, faintly visible through its thick skin and viscous contents, a body writhed in pain. Though not conscious the figure within shifted, stirred, unable to lie still as the zerg virus penetrated every cell, changing DNA to match their own. Soon the Chrysalis would open and the new zerg would emerge. All the Swarm exulted with the Overmind.
And, as they departed and Tarsonis died behind them, the mind trapped within the Chrysalis screamed.
STARCRAFT ? 2006 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.
|June 26, 2001
Pocket Book, 272 pages
Far in the future, 60,000 light-years from Earth, a loose confederacy of Terran exiles are locked in battle with the enigmatic Protoss and the ruthless Zerg Swarm. Each species struggles to ensure its own survival among the stars in a war that will herald the beginning of mankind’s greatest chapter—or foretell its violent, bloody end.
Bhekar Ro: a bleak, backwater world on the fringe of the Terran Dominion, where every day is a struggle to survive for its handful of human colonists. It is a veritable wasteland—one speck of dust among many in the vast, dark sea of space. But when the most violent storm in recent memory unearths an unfathomable alien artifact, Bhekar Ro becomes the greatest prize in the Terran Sector—the Holy Grail of the Zerg, the Protoss, and Humanity alike—as forces from the three great powers converge to claim the lost secrets of the most powerful species the universe has ever known.
Order this book at our Blizzplanet Store
As a smothering blanket of darkness descended over the town of Free Haven, the rugged settlers scrambled to avoid the storm. Night came quickly on the colony planet of Bhekar Ro, with plenty of wind but no stars.
Pitch-black clouds swirled over the horizon, caught on the sharp mountainous ridge surrounding the broad valley that formed the heart of the struggling agricultural colony. Already, explosive thunder crackled over the ridge like a poorly aimed artillery barrage. Each blast was powerful enough to be detected on several still-functioning seismographs planted around the explored areas.
Atmospheric conditions created thunder slams with sonic-boom intensity. The roar itself was sometimes sufficient to cause destruction. And what the sonic thunder left unharmed, the laser-lightning tore to pieces.
Forty years earlier, when the first colonists had fled the oppressive government of the Terran Confederacy, they had been duped into believing that this place could be made into a new Eden. After three generations, the stubborn settlers refused to give up.
Riding in the shotgun seat beside her brother Lars, Octavia Bren looked through the streaked windshield of the giant robo-harvester as they hurriedly trundled back to town. The rumble of the mechanical treads and the roar of the engine almost drowned out the sonic thunder. Almost.
Laser-lightning blasts seared down from the clouds like luminous spears, straight-line lances of static discharge that left glassy pockmarks on the terrain. The laser-lightning reminded Octavia of library images she had seen of a big Yamato gun fired from a Battlecruiser in orbit.
“Why in the galaxy did our grandparents ever choose to move here?” she asked rhetorically. More laser-lightning burned craters into the countryside.
“For the scenery, of course,” Lars joked.
While the bombardment of hail would clear the air of the ever-present dust and grit, it would also damage the crops of triticale-wheat and salad-moss that barely clung to the rocky soil. The Free Haven settlers had few emergency provisions to help them withstand any severe harvest failure, and it had been a long time since they had asked for outside help.
But they would survive somehow. They always had.
Lars watched the approaching storm, a spark of excitement in his hazel eyes. Though he was a year older than his sister, when he wore that cocky grin on his face he looked like a reckless teenager. “I think we can outrun the worst of it.”
“You always overestimate what we can do, Lars.” Even at the age of seventeen, Octavia was known for her stability and common sense. “And I always end up saving your butt.”
Lars seemed to have a bottomless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. She gripped her seat as the big all-purpose vehicle crunched through a trench and continued along a wide beaten path between plantings, heading toward the distant lights of the town.
Shortly after their parents’ death, it had been Lars’s crazy suggestion that the two of them expand their cultivated land and add remote automated mineral mines to their holdings. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him out of it. “Let’s be practical, Lars. We’ve already got our hands full with the farm as it is. Expanding would leave us time for nothing but work—not even families.”
Half of the colonists’ eligible daughters had already filed requests to marry him—Cyn McCarthy had filed three separate times!—but so far Lars had made plenty of excuses. Colonists were considered adults at the age of fifteen on this rough world, and many were married and had children before they reached their eighteenth birthday. Next year, Octavia would be facing the same decision, and choices were few in Free Haven.
“Are you sure we want to do this?” she had asked one last time.
“Of course. It’s worth the extra effort. And once we’re established there’ll be plenty of time for each of us to get married,” Lars had insisted, shaking back his shoulder-length sandy hair. She had never been able to argue with that grin. “Before we know it, Octavia, it’ll all turn around, and then you’ll thank me.”
He had been certain they could grow crops high on the slopes of the Back Forty, the ridge that separated their lands from another broad basin and more mountains twelve kilometers away. So the brother and sister had used their robo-harvester to scrape flat a new swath of barely arable farmland and plant new crops. They also set up automated mineral mining stations on the rocky slopes of the foothills. That had been almost two years ago.
Now a gust of wind slammed into the broad metal side of the harvester, rattling the sealed windowports. Lars compensated on the steering column and accelerated. He didn’t even look tired from their long day of hard work.
Laser-lightning seared across the sky, leaving colorful tracks across her retinas. Though he couldn’t see any better than his sister, Lars didn’t slow down at all. They both just wanted to get home.
“Watch out for the boulders!” Octavia said, her piercing green eyes spotting the hazard as rain slashed across the windows of the impressive tractorlike vehicle.
Lars discounted the rocks, drove over them, and crushed the stone with the vehicle’s treads. “Aww, don’t underestimate the capabilities of the machine.”
She snorted indelicately. “But if you throw a plate or fry a hydraulic cam, I’m the one who has to fix it.”
The multipurpose robo-harvester, the most important piece of equipment any of the colonists owned, was capable of bulldozing, tilling, destroying boulders, planting, and harvesting crops. Some of the big machines had rock-crusher attachments, others had flamethrowers. The vehicles were also practical for traversing ten- to twenty-klick distances over rough terrain.
The hull of the robo-harvester, once a gleaming cherry red, was now faded, scratched, and pitted. The engine ran as smoothly as a lullaby, though, and that was all Octavia cared about.
Now she checked the weather scanner and atmospheric-pressure tracker in the robo-harvester’s cabin, but the readings were all wild. “Looks like a bad one tonight.”
“They’re always bad ones. This is Bhekar Ro, after all—what do you expect?”
Octavia shrugged. “I guess it was good enough for Mom and Dad.” Back when they were alive.
She and Lars were the only survivors of their family. Every family among the settlers had lost friends or relatives. Taming an uncooperative new world was dangerous, rarely rewarding work, always ripe for tragedy.
But the people here still followed their dreams. These exhausted colonists had left the tight governmental fences of the Confederacy for the promised land of Bhekar Ro some forty years before. They had sought independence and a new start, away from the turmoil and constant civil wars among the inner Confederacy worlds.
The original settlers had wanted nothing more than peace and freedom. They had begun idealistically, establishing a central town with resources for all the colonists to share, naming it Free Haven, and dividing farmland equally among the able-bodied workers. But in time the idealism faded as the colonists endured toil and new hardships on a planet that did not live up to their expectations.
Nobody among the colonists ever suggested going back, though—especially not Octavia and Lars Bren.
The lights of Free Haven glowed like a warm, welcoming paradise as the robo-harvester approached. In the distance Octavia could already hear the storm-warning siren next to the old Missile Turret in the town plaza, signaling colonists to find shelter. Everyone else—at least the colonists who had common sense—had already barricaded themselves inside their prefabricated homes to shelter from the storm.
They passed outlying homes and fields, crossed over dry irrigation ditches, and reached the perimeter of the town, which was laid out in the shape of an octagon. A low perimeter fence encircled the settlement, but the gates for the main streets had never been closed.
An explosion of sonic thunder roared so close that the robo-harvester rattled. Lars gritted his teeth and drove onward. Octavia remembered sitting on her father’s knee during her childhood, laughing at the thunder as her family had gathered inside their home, feeling safe….
Their grandparents had aged rapidly from the rigors of life here and had the dubious distinction of being the first to be buried in Bhekar Ro’s ever-growing cemetery outside Free Haven’s octagonal perimeter. Then, not long after Octavia had turned fifteen, the spore blight had struck.
The sparse crops of mutated triticale-wheat had been afflicted by a tiny black smut on a few of the kernels. Because food was in short supply, Octavia’s mother had set aside the moldy wheat for herself and her husband, feeding untainted bread to their children. The meager meal had seemed like any other: rough and tasteless, but nutritious enough to keep them alive.
Octavia remembered that last night so clearly. She had been suffering from one of her occasional migraines and a dire sense of unreasonable foreboding. Her mother had sent the teenage girl to bed early, where Octavia had had terrible nightmares.
The next morning she had awakened in a too-quiet house to find both of her parents dead in their bed. Beneath wet sheets twisted about by their final agony, the bodies of her mother and father were a quivering, oozing mass of erupted fungal bodies, rounded mushrooms of exploding spores that rapidly disintegrated all flesh….
Lars and Octavia had never returned to that house, burning it to the ground along with the tainted fields and the homes of seventeen other families that had been infected by the horrible, parasitic disease.
Though a terrible blow to the colony, the spore blight had drawn the survivors together even more tightly. The new mayor, Jacob “Nik” Nikolai, had delivered an impassioned eulogy for all the victims of the spore plague, somehow rekindling the fires of independence in the process and giving the settlers the drive to stay here. They had already lived through so much, survived so many hardships, that they could pull through this.
Moving together into an empty prefab dwelling at the edge of Free Haven, Octavia and Lars had rebuilt their lives. They made plans. They expanded. They tracked their automated mines and watched the seismic monitors for signs of tectonic disturbances that might affect their work or the town. The two drove out to the fields each day and labored side by side until well after dark. They worked harder, risked more…and survived.
As Octavia and Lars passed through the open gate and drove around the town square toward their residence, the storm finally struck with full force. It became a slanting wall of rain and hail as the robo-harvester ground its way past the lights and barricaded doors of metal-walled huts. Their own home looked the same as all the others, but Lars found it by instinct, even in the blinding downpour.
He spun the large vehicle to a halt in the flat gravel clearing in front of their house. He locked down the treads and powered off the engine, while Octavia tugged a reinforced hat down over her head and got ready to jump out of the cab and make a break for the door. Even running ten feet in this storm would be a miserable ordeal.
Before the robo-harvester’s systems dimmed completely, Octavia checked the fuel reservoirs, since her brother never remembered to do so. “We’ll need to get more Vespene gas from the refinery.”
Lars grabbed the door handle and hunched his head down. “Tomorrow, tomorrow. Rastin’s probably hiding inside his hut cursing the wind right now. That old codger doesn’t like storms any more than I do.”
He popped open the hatch and jumped out seconds before a strong gust slammed the door back into its frame. Octavia exited from the other side, hopping from the step to the broad tractor treads to the ground.
As she ran beside her brother in a mad dash to their dwelling, the hail hit them like machine-gun bullets. Lars got their front door open, and the siblings crashed into the house, drenched and windblown. But at least they were safe from the storm.
Sonic thunder pealed across the sky again. Lars undid the fastenings on his jacket. Octavia yanked off her dripping hat and tossed it into a corner, then powered up their lights so she could check one of the old seismographs they had installed in their hut.
Few of the other colonists bothered to monitor planetary conditions or track underground activity anymore, but Lars had thought it important to place seismographs in their automated mining stations out in the Back Forty foothills. Of course, Octavia had been the one to repair and install the aging monitoring equipment.
Lars had been right, though. There had been increasing tremors of late, setting off ripples of aftershocks that originated deep in the mountain range at the far side of the next valley.
Just what we need—another thing to worry about, Octavia thought, looking at the graph with concern.
Lars joined her to read the seismograph strip. The long and shaky line appeared to have been drawn by a caff-addicted old man. He saw several little blips and spikes, probably echoes of sonic thunder, but no major seismic events. “Now that’s interesting. Aren’t you glad we didn’t have an earthquake tonight?”
She knew it would happen even before he finished his sentence. Maybe it was another one of Octavia’s powerful premonitions, or just a discouraged acceptance that things would get worse whenever they had the opportunity.
Just as Lars formed another of his cocky grins, a tremor rippled through the ground, as if the uneasy crust of Bhekar Ro were having a nightmare. At first Octavia hoped it was merely a particularly close blast of sonic thunder, but the tremors continued to build, lurching the floor beneath their feet and shaking the entire prefab house.
Lars tensed his powerful muscles to ride out the temblor. They both watched the seismograph go wild. “The readings are off the scale!”
Astonished, Octavia pointed out, “This isn’t even centered here. It’s fifteen klicks away, over the ridge.”
“Great. Not far from where we set up all our automated mining equipment.” The seismograph went dead, its sensors overloaded, as the quake pounded the ground for what seemed an eternity before it gradually began to fade. “Looks like you’re gonna have some repair work to do tomorrow, Octavia.”
“I’ve always got repair work to do,” she said.
Outside, the storm reached a crescendo. Lars and Octavia sat together in weary silence, just waiting out the disaster. “Do you want to play cards?” he asked.
Then all the lights inside their dwelling went out, leaving them in pitch blackness lit only by flares from the laser-lightning.
“Not tonight,” she said.
Copyright ? 2001 by Blizzard Entertainment
|May 21, 2002
Pocket Book, 256 pages
Far in the future, 60,000 light-years from Earth, a loose confederacy of Terran exiles is locked in battle with the enigmatic Protoss and the ruthless Zerg Swarm, as each species struggles to ensure its own survival among the stars—war that will herald the beginning of mankind’s greatest chapter or foretell its violent, bloody end.
All Ardo Menikov ever dreamed of was to live in peace on the verdant colony world of Bountiful. But when the vicious Zerg Swarm attacked the colony and annihilated his loved ones, Ardo was forced to wake from his dream and accept the brutal realities of a war-torn galaxy. Now a confederate marine, charged with defending the worlds of the Terran confederacy, Ardo must come to terms with the painful memories of his past—and the unsettling truths that may dominate his future.
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Chapter 1: Downfall
That was his word for it, that rare…, perfect day that warms the soul with a golden glow of joy. There was peace in a golden day.
Some days were gray, hung with leaden clouds and rain punctuated by brilliant flashes of burning white and rolling thunder. Other days were a vibrant cold blue arching over the frost-encrusted domes and sheds of the settlement. Some days were even red—the evening sky painted by the dust in the spring winds before the crops had gotten their own hold on the soil. Some days even extended into the night with a velvety cobalt blanket across the sky.
He liked those autumn nights when he could leave his world behind by staring up into that rich darkness. God had put pinpricks in the dome of the night, he imagined, so that His light could shine through. As a child he had searched the stars, hoping to see through to the other side and catch some glimpse of this Creator. He had never stopped looking, even though he had reached his nineteenth birthday and had thought himself too mature for such things.
Each day held different colors for him. He had experienced them in all their hues. Each held a memory and a place in his heart. Yet none in his experience could compare to a golden day. It was the color of the wheat fields that rolled like waves across the low hills stretching out from his father’s homestead. Golden was the warmth of the sun on his face. Golden was the glow he felt within him.
Golden was the color of her hair and the sound of her voice.
“You’re dreaming again, Ardo,” she whispered playfully. “Come back to me. You are much too far away!”
He opened his eyes. She was golden.
“Melani, I’m right here.” Ardo smiled.
“No, you aren’t.” She pouted—a formidable weapon in getting her way. “You’re off dreaming again and you’ve left me behind.”
He rolled onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow so that he could get a better look at her. She was just a year younger than he. Her family had arrived back when Ardo was nine years old, another group in a long line of religious refugees that fell from the sky to join with other Saints in Helaman Township.
Refugee survivors had been gathering from nearly all the planets of the Confederacy back then—reluctant pioneers of the stars. Many devout religious groups had been among the first to be outlawed by the United Powers League on Earth back in ‘31. It was not a new story to Saints and Martyrs. Throughout humanity’s history, those who did not understand the faithful had driven them from place to place and home to home. That they should be driven from planet to planet, then star to star, was beginning to sound painfully repetitious in their Heritage classes. Now, exiles once more, families of the faithful were scattered among the ill-fated transports of the ATLAS project, and when that mission ended in such cataclysmic failure, those families who survived searched desperately for their brothers and sisters. When communication was finally established between worlds, the Patriarchs chose an outlying region on a world they called Bountiful for their new home. Soon, Orbital Dropships were landing at the Zarahemla Starport daily. The newly arrived families would then make their way to the outlying settlements as best they could. Arthur and Keti Bradlaw, with their wide-eyed daughter, were one of five families that arrived that day. Ardo had joined his father as the entire township came out to welcome the new families and get them settled.
Ardo could not remember much about Melani then, although he had been vaguely aware of the stick of a girl who seemed awkward, lonely, and shy. He first took real notice of her when her fourteenth year brought some rather remarkable changes. The “stick girl” seemed to burst into his awareness like a butterfly unfolding from its chrysalis. Her features held a natural beauty—body painting and makeup were frowned upon by the Patriarchs of the township—and it had been Ardo’s great good fortune to have been the first to approach her. His heart and soul fell into her large, luminescent blue eyes.
The nimbus of her long, shining hair played softly in the warm breeze drifting over the wheat fields. The wind carried the distant hum of the mill and the faint scent of the bread at the bakery.
“I may be off dreaming, but I’ll never leave you behind,” he said to her, smiling. The wheat rustled about the blanket where they lay. “Tell me where you want to go. I’ll take you there!”
“Right now?” Her laugh was sunshine. “In your dreams?”
“Sure!” Ardo pulled himself up to kneel on the heavy blanket he had spread out for them.
“Anywhere in the stars!”
“I can’t go anywhere.” She smiled. “I have a test in Sister Johnson’s Hydroponics class this afternoon! Besides,” she said more earnestly. “Why would I want to go anywhere else at all? Everything I want is right here.”
Golden. Who could ever leave on such a golden day?
“Then let’s not go anywhere,” he said eagerly.
“Let’s stay here… and get married.”
“Married?” She looked at him, half bemused and half questioning. “I told you, I have Hydroponics class this afternoon.”
“No, I mean it.” Ardo had been working himself up for this for some time. “I’ve graduated, and things are working out really well on Dad’s agra-plots. He said he was thinking of giving me forty acres at the far end of the homestead. It’s the sweetest place, right up near the base of the canyon. There’s a spot there next to the river where… where… Melani?”
The girl with the golden hair did not hear him. She sat up, her blue eyes squinting toward the township. “The siren, Ardo!”
Then he heard it, too. The distant wail, rising and falling across the fields.
Ardo shook his head. “They always sound it at noon…”
“But it isn’t noon, Ardo.”
The sun was eclipsed in that instant. Ardo leaped up, wheeling around toward the darkened sky. His mouth fell open as the lengthening shadow surged across the yellowed fields of wheat. Ardo’s eyes went wide with the rush of fear. Adrenaline roared into his veins.
Enormous plumes of smoke trailed behind fireballs roaring directly toward him from the western end of the broad valley. Ardo quickly reached down and pulled Melani to her feet. His mind raced. They had to run, find shelter… But where could they go? Melani screamed, and he realized that there was nowhere to go and no place safe to hide.
The fireballs seemed so close that both of them ducked. The flames arched over them, the thunderous sound of their fury quickly drowning the distant warning siren. The shadow of their wake covered the entire valley. Five enormous columns crossed overhead, their fingers reaching over Ardo and Melani toward the clustered buildings of Helaman Township. Then the fireballs wheeled as one, lifted over the township, and descended in roiling flames into Segard Yohansen’s instantly ruined fields, about a mile past the center of Helaman.
Ardo shook—whether from fear or excitement he could not tell—but at least his stupor had ended. He clasped Melani’s arm and began pulling at her. “Come on! We’ve got to get into the town before they shut the gates! Come on!”
She needed no further urging.
He could not remember how they got into town.
The golden day had turned a muddy brown fading to gray from the smoke that still coated the sky overhead. It was an oppressive color, slate and cold. It seemed so out of place here.
“We’ve got to find my Uncle Dez,” he heard himself say. “He has a shop in the compound! Come on! Come on!”
Ardo and Melani struggled to move through the center of the township, now crowded with refugees. Helaman originally had been nothing but an outpost in the far reaches of Bountiful. Its town center was the original fortress compound with the defensive wall encompassing the main buildings. Since then, the town had grown well beyond those central walls. Now more than ten thousand people called Helaman their home—and nearly all of them had poured into the safety of the old fortress compound.
He could just see the sign “Dez Hardwarez” across the packed central square.
The rattle of automatic weapons clattered suddenly from the perimeter wall. Two dull explosive thuds resounded, followed by even more chattering machine guns.
A cry arose from the crowd in the square. Ardo felt more than heard the fear in the seething mob. Shouts rang out, some strident and others calming. The smoke overhead cast an oppressive veil over the surging mob.
“Please, Ardo!” Melani said, “I… Where do we go? What do we do?”
Ardo glanced around. He could taste the panic in the air.
“We just need to get across the square,” he choked out, then, seeing the look in her eyes. “We’ve done it hundreds of times.”
“It isn’t any farther than it was before. Just a little more crowded, that’s all.” Ardo looked at the tears welling up in those beautiful blue eyes. He squeezed her hand tightly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here with you.”
Somehow, they were halfway across the square when it came.
A sheet of flame erupted beyond the fortress’s outer wall. Its crimson light flashed against the blanket of smoke that hung oppressively over the town. The blood-red hue electrified the panicked crowd in the square. Screams, shouts, and cries all tumbled into a cacophony of sound, but several disembodied voices penetrated Ardo’s thoughts clearly.
“Where are the Confederacy forces? Where are the Marines?”
“Don’t argue with me! Get the children! Stay together!”
“It can’t be the Zerg! They couldn’t have penetrated so far into the Confederacy…”
Zerg? Ardo had heard rumors about them. Nightmares, so he thought, to scare children or keep outsiders from settling in the Outer Colonies. He could not remember all the whispered tales, but the nightmare was here now, and very real.
Another voice penetrated his thoughts. He turned toward her.
“Ardo, I’m frightened!” Melani’s eyes were wide and liquid. “What is it? What’s going on?”
Ardo opened his mouth. He could not answer her question. No words came out. There were so many words he wanted to say to her in that moment—so many words that he would regret never having said for uncounted years to come. But no words came out.
A light flared. He felt the heat on his back. He turned, holding Melani behind him.
The eastern wall had been breached. The old rampart was being pulled down from the other side, dismantled before Ardo’s eyes. It seemed as though a dark wave was breaking against the breach, an undulating silhouette. Then details lodged in his mind: a gleaming purple carapace, red-streaked ivory claws sliding from a colonist’s limp body, the arching, snakelike bodies writhing across the broken stone.
It was unthinkable…. The nightmare had come to Bountiful.
The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the square roared their deep fear and turned to run from the breach. There was nowhere to go. Zerg Hydralisks had already crested the opposite wall, cascading into the street like black drops from a greasy spill. Within moments, hideous cobra-like hoods had unfolded above their razor-sharp talons. They arched their tails upward. Armored spikes exploded from their serrated shoulder sockets and darted with deadly effect into the western edge of the crowd.
Those facing the new threat suddenly tried to reverse direction, crushing back into the surging crowd behind them.
Ardo heard Melani gasp behind him. “I can’t… I can’t breathe…”
The mob was crushing them. Ardo looked desperately around him, trying to find a way out.
Movement overhead caught his eye. A bloated, bulbous form like a disembodied brain drifted over the colony wall. Tendrils hung like viscera beneath it, quivering with activity. It was reaching down for the center of the crowd. Ardo had heard tales in which the Zerg had captured colonists and taken them alive to a fate that could only be worse than death.
Tears flooded Ardo’s eyes. There was nowhere to go and nothing left to do.
Suddenly the Zerg Overlord drifting above the colony shuddered and slid sideways. Several explosions erupted from the side of the hideous beast. The Overlord exploded in an enormous fireball. The Zerg Hydralisks entering the compound suddenly hesitated.
A wing of five Confederacy Wraith fighters ripped through the smoke overhead, the scream of their engines nearly drowning out the cries of the terrified crowd below. Twenty-five-millimeter burst lasers pulsed repeatedly as the Wraiths wheeled through the air, the bolts slamming against targets on the far side of the crumbling fortress wall.
One of the Wraiths wavered suddenly, then exploded under a hail of ground fire from the outraged Zerg.
The Zerg who had entered the compound were pressing their attack, killing some and dragging others off without apparent distinction. They had corralled the humans; now all they had to do was harvest them from the edges of the crowd inward. A second flight of Wraiths tore through the smoke blackened sky. Then a single Confederacy Dropship ripped through the air, spinning in a rapid breaking maneuver and descending toward the square. The downblast from the engines created an instant hurricane on the ground. Trees bent over nearly double. It was impossible to hear anything over the roar of the engines. People all about Ardo tumbled to the ground, shielding themselves from the gale.
Ardo blinked through the dust. The Dropship continued to hover but managed somehow to lower its transport ramp into the square. He could see the silhouetted figure of a Confederacy Marine beckoning to them.
Everyone else in the square saw the Marine also. Mindlessly they charged the ramp. A human tide pulled Ardo along.
He lost Melani’s hand.
“Melani!” he screamed. He tried to fight against the crushing press of the panicked crowd. His words were lost in the roar of the Dropship’s engines. “Melani!”
He saw her behind him. The Zerg were pressing their attack with anger now. The Dropship was depriving them of their prize. Ardo was appalled at how quickly the large crowd had been sundered—harvested like blood-red wheat in the field. The Zerg were already nearly at Melani’s side.
Ardo clawed and fought. He screamed.
Three Hydralisks grasped Melani at once, dragging her back from the edge of the crowd.
“Please, Ardo!” she wept. “Don’t leave me alone!” The mindless mob pushed him farther into the ship.
Zerg claws suddenly rang against the sides of the Dropship. The pilot had played out all the time his luck would afford. The ship responded instantly to his command, lurching upward away from the Zerg and bearing Ardo away from his home, his life, and his love.
“Don’t leave me alone!” Those were her last words to him, pounding through his mind and soul, louder and louder, threatening to burst his skull…
Ardo’s world went black. It would stay black for a very long time.
Copyright ? 2002 by Blizzard Entertainment