An excerpt from the chronicles of the High Kings of Andomhaim:
In the Year of Our Lord 1256, the last Keeper of Avalon and the Dragon Knight destroyed the dread Frostborn after fifty years of war, and the realm of Andomhaim had peace from battle at last, and the armies of the High King laid down their arms.
Yet peace provided a more subtle enemy than war.
For long ago the archmage Ardrhythain had founded the Two Orders, the Swordbearers and the Magistri, giving them magic to wield against the foes of mankind. And with their magic, the realm of Andomhaim stood fast against the wrath of the urdmordar and the storm of the Frostborn. Yet now both foes had been overthrown, and the hearts of the Magistri grew proud. For some among them had grown to love their power more than all other things, and desired ever more.
“Why should man be weak and mortal?” said these Magistri. “Why should he die? Do not the dark elves live for millennia? Are not the urdmordar immortal, save those slain in battle? Why should we obey the strictures of the High King and the church? Our magic makes us strong, and can make us stronger yet. Let us therefore use our spells to become immortal and rule over mankind as gods.”
These Magistri called themselves the Eternalists, for they desired to become immortal. And in their madness they turned to the vilest dark magic and the foulest blood sorcery, and wrought great misery and terrible destruction. At last the truth of their crimes came to light, and the Swordbearers and the true Magistri united to burn the cancer from their midst. In the Year of Our Lord 1307, the Eternalists were defeated, and those who desired to live forever met death at last.
Yet rumor held that not all the Eternalists had been slain, that some had escaped to lurk in dark places and plot revenge…
CHAPTER 1 – FIRE AND STONE
Thirty-two days after it began, thirty-two days after that afternoon in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark stopped and looked across the marshes.
Something did not smell right.
“What is it?” said the orcish man at his right. The orc was tall and strong, his black hair bound in a warrior’s topknot. He wore armor of overlapping blue steel plates, the hilt of a greatsword rising over his right shoulder.
“Kharlacht,” said Ridmark. “Wait a moment.”
“Something is amiss?” said a woman’s voice.
Ridmark looked at his other three companions.
The first was a human woman named Calliande, her long blond hair pulled back in a ragged tail, her blue eyes narrowed with sudden alarm. She looked young and lovely, and while the beauty was real, the youth was not. She was two centuries old.
Likely older, but no one knew for certain.
The second was a dwarven man in the brown robes of a mendicant friar, his gray skin the color of granite, his receding black hair and beard streaked with gray. Brother Caius looked as if he had been hewn from living stone. His strange eyes were like disks of blue marble, and a mace of bronze-colored dwarven steel hung at his belt.
The third was a human boy of fifteen, with curly brown hair and brown eyes. He wore a chain mail hauberk, the shield of a man-at-arms slung over his back and an orcish sword at his belt. Dark circles ringed his brown eyes. That did not surprise Ridmark. Gavin had gone through a great deal since his home village of Aranaeus had been destroyed by the cultists of an urdmordar.
Little wonder he had not been sleeping well.
“Do you smell that?” Ridmark said.
Calliande smiled. “I fear I can smell nothing but myself. Traveling through the Wilderland does not offer many opportunities for bathing.”
“Nor do I,” said Caius in his deep, rolling voice. “Alas, the dwarven kindred are not known for their keen noses.”
“Perhaps that is just as well, Brother Caius,” said Gavin. “These marshes certainly have many…different smells.”
“That is merely a polite way of saying they smell bad,” said Calliande.
“True,” said Gavin. “Though I do smell something rotten.”
Kharlacht frowned. “As do I, Gray Knight.”
“And a metallic scent?” said Ridmark.
“Yes,” said Kharlacht, his perpetual frown deepening. “Now that you mention it.”
Ridmark nodded. “Be on your guard.”
He tightened his grip on his staff and kept walking.
The road, such as it was, consisted of a causeway winding its way through the stagnant water of the marshes. Massive trees rose from the water, thick ropes of pale moss hanging from their branches, their rough trunks spotted with lichen. Grass and weeds covered the causeway, and here and there small, tough trees rose from the dirt. It made for slow going, but it was easier than wading through the water. The marshes themselves stretched north and south as the causeway rolled west. After another day’s journey they would come to the town of Moraime, and the town and its monastery marked the end of the marshes and the beginning of the forests and hills of central Vhaluusk.
And from there it was another few weeks’ journey to the wild, spell-damaged lands of the Torn Hills, and then to Urd Morlemoch itself.
Where the Warden waited with the answers Ridmark had sought for the last five years.
Assuming, of course, that something in the marshes did not kill him first.
Ridmark pushed aside his thoughts of Urd Morlemoch and focused upon the present. In these marshes, inattention was fatal. A cut could fester and lead to an agonizing death. The pagan orcish tribes of southern Vhaluusk lurked among the marshes, building houses upon wooden posts and attacking travelers with poisoned arrows.
And more dangerous creatures hunted among the waters and the trees.
Ridmark stopped again, the others halting behind him, and watched a pool of water bubble a dozen yards away.
Of course, more natural hazards might kill them before the orcs did.
“Gavin,” said Ridmark. “Do you still have any of the torches from Urd Dagaash?”
“Three,” said the boy. “But it’s mid-morning. Surely we do not need the light.”
“We don’t,” said Ridmark. “Light one anyway, give it to me, and then step back. All of you.”
Calliande gave him a suspicious look. “What are you doing?”
“Testing an idea,” said Ridmark as Gavin fumbled with his pack. “It’s perfectly safe.” He thought for a moment. “Mostly.”
He expected another lecture from her, another sermon about forgiving himself and not risking his life without cause, but she only sighed. Perhaps she had learned the futility by now. Or more likely she would save it until the others were out of earshot.
It would have been annoying if she were not so obviously concerned about him.
Ridmark had no qualms about risking his life, given that he deserved death for what he had done, but he did not want to risk the lives of the others. If he could have undertaken his journey to Urd Morlemoch alone, he would have done so. But the others had insisted on following him.
He did not want to get them killed.
Too many people had died on his account already.
He remembered Aelia screaming, remembered the blood upon the black and white tiles of Castra Marcaine…
Then Gavin approached with a lit torch, and Ridmark shook aside his dark musings.
“Stand back,” he warned the others, gesturing with the torch. “This might get loud.”
“Loud?” said Calliande.
“Like this,” said Ridmark, and he threw the torch. It spun end over and end and struck the bubbling pool of water. The torch went out with a faint hiss and sank.
“Well,” said Caius, “that was…”
A blue fireball erupted from the water with a plume of steam and an angry hiss. Kharlacht and Caius yelled and drew their weapons, while Calliande raised her hands, white light flaring around her fingers. But the fireball vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving only burning grass and moss in its wake.
“What did you do?” said Gavin. “You…you aren’t really a wizard, are you?”
“Marsh gas,” said Ridmark. “Dead plants and animals get buried in the marsh, and when they decay, they give off a flammable gas. Since they are buried, there is no place for the gas to go. Eventually it leaks to the surface, and a single spark will set it alight.”
“I’ve heard the fur traders who visit…who used to visit Aranaeus speak of ghosts in the swamp,” said Gavin. “Blue lights at night.”
“There may be restless spirits in the swamp,” said Ridmark, “but those blue flames are marsh gases, catching flame and burning away.”
“I’d never heard of such a thing,” said Kharlacht.
“I thought were you were from Vhaluusk,” said Caius.
“The northern hills, near the mountains,” said Kharlacht. “Not the swamps. Even Qazarl thought the orcs of the swamps were mad.”
“This has been an enlightening demonstration,” said Calliande, “but why risk it? The light and noise will have drawn attention, if anyone is nearby.”
“Because,” said Ridmark, “I wanted to see if any swamp drakes were near.”
Her eyes widened. “Swamp drakes?”
“The metallic scent,” said Ridmark. “Swamp drake scales. They nest near patches of marsh gas, use their breath to set it afire and kill prey. They can’t fly the way fire drakes can, but they still breathe flame upon their prey.”
“Then why draw their attention?” said Calliande.
“They’re hard to see,” said Ridmark. “Brown and gray scales. Blends perfectly with the marsh. If one’s hunting you, you might not see it until it rips out your throat or sets your head on fire. But since the explosion hasn’t drawn any attention,” he shrugged, “we ought to be safe enough.”
“A sound stratagem,” said Caius.
“It was,” said Calliande, “but I wish you would explain these things. You have a deep and subtle mind, Ridmark, but my heart almost stopped when the water caught fire.”
Ridmark opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it.
She had a point.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I have spent years traveling in my own company, and I…have grown unused to explaining myself at times.”
Caius smiled. “At times, Gray Knight?”
“He merely objects, Brother,” said Kharlacht, “because of your insistence upon greeting the dawn every morning by singing the twenty-third Psalm in a voice that could wake the dead.”
“It is the duty of every baptized son of the church to offer praise to our Creator,” said Caius. “And only the Dominus Christus can raise the dead.”
“I said wake, not raise,” said Kharlacht.
Gavin burst out laughing and then fell silent, eyes wide with embarrassment.
“Be gentle,” said Calliande. “Brother Caius has a fine voice.”
“And loud,” said Kharlacht.
Caius snorted. “I was singing the twenty-third Psalm before you were born.”
“Enough,” said Ridmark, though he felt himself smile. “Brother Caius’s singing shall not have the chance to wake the dead if your bickering does it first. Come. If we make good time, we may yet get out of these marshes today.”
“A hopeful thought,” said Calliande. “And if God is merciful, perhaps there shall be a clean stream or pond where we can wash off the stench.”
“And,” said Caius, “a clearing that might provide excellent acoustics for morning praise.”
Ridmark shook his head. As much as he would have preferred to travel alone, traveling with companions did have compensations. It was pleasant to think about something other than the Frostborn, something other than his dark memories of that terrible day in Castra Marcaine.
For sooner or later his thoughts always returned there.
The causeway continued to a patch of massive, heavy trees veiled in thick curtains of hanging moss. Their roots had sunk deep into the causeway, and Ridmark and the others picked their way carefully over the uneven earth. The air now smelled of smoke, thanks to Ridmark’s impromptu fire, but the metallic smell had only grown stronger.
He stopped, hand tightening against his heavy staff.
“Something else?” said Calliande. “More marsh gas?”
“No,” said Ridmark, pointing with his staff. “Trouble.”
A small dome of dried mud and sticks sat between two of the thick trunks, a single opening in its side.
“What’s that?” said Gavin. “It looks like a hut.”
“A nest,” said Ridmark.
“Swamp drakes?” said Calliande.
Ridmark nodded. “The females only build nests after laying eggs. And they never go far from the nest until the hatchlings are strong enough to fend for themselves. That explosion should have drawn the mother’s attention.”
“Perhaps the nest is already abandoned,” said Caius.
Ridmark shook his head. “It’s too new. See? The mud is still wet in places. That explosion ought to have brought the female down on our heads. But why would she abandon her eggs?” He scratched the stubble on his chin, thinking. “She wouldn’t, unless…”
Unless something had killed her.
Or something had driven her from the nest.
But what could frighten away a female swamp drake from her eggs? Ridmark could think of several possibilities, and he wanted to fight none of them.
“Wait here,” he told the others.
“This might be one of those times,” said Calliande, flexing her fingers, “when you should explain your mind.”
“I’m going to check if there are any eggs in that nest,” said Ridmark. “If there aren’t, we’re safe. If there are, we may be in trouble. Keep your weapons ready.”
Kharlacht grunted and drew his massive greatsword, the blue blade glinting. Caius lifted his mace, and Gavin drew his orcish sword. Ridmark strung his bow, hung it from his shoulder, and started down the side of the causeway. Massive boulders jutted from the sides of the causeway, and more stood amongst the trees, their gray sides spotted with lichen. Likely the orcs of Vhaluusk had piled the boulders there long ago at the behest of their dark elven masters, to aid the dark elves’ endless war against the high elves.
Or, more likely, the orcs’ halfling slaves had toiled to construct the road. If Ridmark dug into the causeway, he suspected he would find the bones of uncounted generations of halfling slaves.
He stepped around a boulder and scrutinized the nest. It was six feet tall and twelve wide, a dome built about of mud and branches. Within the female drake kept her eggs warm, driving off and sometimes incinerating any predators while the male hunted for food. An opening yawned in one side of the nest, and Ridmark looked inside.
Seven white eggs lay within, packed in mud. Each was about the size of his fist, their white shells marked with dozens of green spots.
There was no sign of the female drake.
Ridmark stepped back, thinking. A female drake would not abandon her eggs, not while she was still alive.
Calliande’s voice rang over the marshes.
He whirled, staff coming up, and saw a dark form racing across the causeway.
Unlike fire drakes, swamp drakes could not fly. But fire drakes rarely grew beyond the size of a large dog. The swamp drake racing toward Calliande and the others was the size of a knight’s war horse, all serpentine speed and movement, its tail lashing back and forth behind its barrel-shaped body. It was armored in brown and gray scales, and a ridged crest ringed its head. Ridmark saw its maw open wide, saw the flames glimmering to life behind its dagger-like teeth.
He dropped his staff, raised his bow, and released an arrow. The shaft slammed into the creature’s neck. The scales turned the force of the arrow, but the drake stopped and roared, shaking its head. It glared at Ridmark, its black-slit yellow eyes unblinking, and spat a gout of flame at him.
Ridmark sprinted to the left, dodging the fire. The flames washed over one of the trees, the bark crackling and hissing as it burned. Ridmark pivoted, raised his bow, and sent another arrow at the drake. This time the steel-tipped head sank into the creature’s neck, and the drake reared up on its hind legs with a brassy bellow of fury.
Caius and Kharlacht and Gavin took the opportunity to strike.
White light glimmered around them as Calliande worked a spell, using her magic to enhance their speed. Caius struck first, his mace slamming into the drake’s right hind leg as Ridmark seized his staff and ran for the causeway. Gavin landed a blow next, his orcish sword cutting through scales to bite into flesh. The drake screamed again and lashed with its tail, and the blow knocked Gavin off his feet. Yet he had cut deep into the drake’s leg, and the beast stumbled, losing its balance.
That was all the opening that Kharlacht needed.
The orcish warrior moved with speed and power, the dark elven greatsword a blue blur in his hands. The massive blade struck the drake behind its ridged crest. The creature shuddered, its claws digging chunks of grassy dirt from the causeway, and Kharlacht ripped his blade free and swung again.
The drake’s head fell from its neck in a burst of coppery blood and rolled away. The body went into a mad, thrashing dance, tail whipping back and forth, and then went still. Kharlacht let out a long sigh and lowered his sword, while Calliande rushed to Gavin’s side as the boy sat up with a groan.
“How is he?” said Ridmark, climbing the side of the causeway.
“Sore,” muttered Gavin.
“He’ll be fine, I think,” said Calliande. “Just bruised.”
“Good,” said Ridmark. He looked at Kharlacht. “Good swing, by the way.”
“Good shot,” said the big orc. “I have never been anything but mediocre with a bow.”
“Nor was I,” said Ridmark, “but when it is your only means of filling your belly for weeks at a time, you have the motivation to learn.”
“Indeed,” said Kharlacht.
Ridmark stepped past the drake’s carcass and joined Calliande and Gavin. “A good strike.”
“It was my fault,” said Gavin. “I should have paid closer attention during our lessons.” Kharlacht had been teaching him the sword, and Caius the mace, and Ridmark the use of his shield.
Caius snorted. “Yes, the lesson was to duck faster.”
“You did fine,” said Ridmark. “That drake could have killed us all, but it didn’t, and we are alive.”
“And it seems our worries were unfounded,” said Caius. “The explanation is simple enough. The drake detected us meddling with her eggs, and she came to their defense.”
“That’s not what happened,” said Ridmark.
“Why not?” said Caius.
“Because,” said Ridmark, prodding the crest of scales ringing the severed head with his staff, “this is a male drake.” He lowered his staff. “The females don’t have crests.”
“Like kobolds,” said Calliande with a shudder.
“Like kobolds,” said Ridmark. “And the male drakes never fight to defend the nests.”
“Perhaps this one was simply…chivalrous?” said Gavin.
“No,” said Ridmark. “The male wasn’t defending the nest. He was running from something to the north.”
“What could scare a monster like that?” said Gavin, looking at the carcass.
“Well,” said Caius, “what is north of here?”
“The Wilderland,” said Calliande.
“The mountains and hills of Vhaluusk,” said Kharlacht. “My old homeland.”
“Dark elven ruins,” said Ridmark.
They shared a look. They knew the sort of things that could lurk in the ruins of the dark elves.
“Ruins of Vhaluusk, too,” said Kharlacht. “After the High King and the Two Orders overthrew the urdmordar, the orcs of Vhaluusk warred among themselves, and every chieftain tried to make himself High King of the orcs in imitation of the High King of Andomhaim. Many fortresses were raised, and many burned, and the orcs of Vhaluusk war against each other to this day.” He shook his head, his tusks throwing dark shadows over his hard face. “To this day. Mhalek killed many orcs before he came south.”
“Mhalek killed many after he came south,” said Ridmark, remembering.
He looked north.
“You’re think of investigating, aren’t you?” said Calliande.
“Urd Morlemoch is west,” said Caius.
“We’re less than a day from the monastery of St. Cassian and the town of Moraime,” said Ridmark. “Anything that could frighten a swamp drake is a threat to the town.”
Calliande frowned. “You don’t know that. It is an unnecessary risk…”
Ridmark opened his mouth to continue their old argument, but a new voice cut him off.
“You speak the truth, man of water.”
The voice spoke Latin, but no human, orc, halfling, dwarf, or elf had a voice like that. It was deep, so deep that it sounded like a note from one of the ancient war horns housed in the High King’s stronghold of Tarlion. If a mountain could speak, it would have a voice like that.
He turned, and saw that one of the gray boulders near the nest stand up.
“What in God’s name is that?” said Gavin, lifting his sword.
The boulder seemed to take the shape of a towering old man of rough-hewn stone. Caius’s skin looked like gray granite, but this creature actually was made of rock, but rock that flowed and moved as easily as flesh. Golden light glimmered in the creature’s eyes, and Ridmark thought its expression looked solemn.
That did not reassure him. Likely it could pound them to a pulp while looking solemn and sad.
“It’s a trolldomr,” Ridmark heard himself say.
“One of the giants of stone and rock,” said Caius. The dwarven friar sounded awed. “They live in the Deeps, and shun the company of all others. They visit the dwarves, but only rarely.”
“You speak truly, son of the khaldari,” said the trolldomr. “This one has wandered far from the dark places beneath the earth.”
“Do you mean us harm?” said Ridmark. He had heard of the trolldomr, but had never before seen one. Few men of Andomhaim had. He glanced at Calliande, wondering if she might know more, but she seemed just as surprised as he did.
And even if she knew something of the trolldomr, she might have forgotten.
“Does this one mean you harm, man of water?” said the trolldomr. The creature appeared to consider for a moment. “This one does not mean anyone harm. But many mean you harm, it would appear.” The glowing golden eyes wandered over them. “So many different kindreds traveling together. Many must mean you harm.”
The trolldomr did not seem hostile. Yet from what Ridmark understood, the trolldomr rarely left the Deeps, and shunned company.
Why was this one here? Surely not to collect swamp drake eggs.
“My name is Ridmark Arban,” said Ridmark. He gestured with his staff at the others. “This is Calliande of the Magistri, Kharlacht of Vhaluusk, Gavin of Aranaeus, and Brother Caius of the Order of Mendicants. Might we know your name?”
The trolldomr considered this. “You may. But our tongue does not translate easily to yours. You may know this one as Rjalfur.”
“Rjalfur,” said Ridmark with a bow. “Might I ask why you have sought us out? While we certainly do not find your conversation disagreeable, it is nonetheless remarkable.”
“This is so,” said Rjalfur. “This one wished to stop and speak with you because I found you remarkable.” He pointed at Caius. “Specifically, you, child of the khaldari.”
“Me, sir?” said Caius. “I fear I am altogether unremarkable.”
“You are a child of the khaldari,” said Rjalfur, “and your kindred worship the gods of stone and silence, of inevitable death and stern duty. Yet you wear a symbol of the god the humans brought to this world.”
“You mean this?” said Caius, touching the wooden cross that rested against his chest.
“Yes,” said Rjalfur. “This one found it curious, and wishes to know why you wear such a symbol.”
“Several years ago a missionary came to Khald Tormen,” said Caius, “and shared the word of the Dominus Christus. I was convinced and baptized, and came forth to share the word with others.”
“Interesting,” said Rjalfur. The golden eyes shifted to Ridmark. “And you are right, man of water. There is something wrong here. Dark magic stirs to the north, and it comes for you.”
“For me?” said Ridmark. He shared a glance with Calliande. Had Shadowbearer found her at last?
“For you,” said Rjalfur, “and the Magistria. The dark magic comes for you. This one will bid you farewell now, and thanks you for the knowledge.”
The trolldomr sank into the earth so fast that he almost seemed to disappear. A ripple went through a patch of grass, one of the stagnant pools splashed, and then Rjalfur was gone.
Ridmark let out a breath.
“I take it,” said Gavin, his voice a bit unsteady, “that was a trolldomr?”
“What exactly is a trolldomr?” said Gavin.
“A kindred,” said Caius, “utterly alien to all of ours. Orcs and dwarves and humans have much in common, despite our differences. But the trolldomr are alien to all of us. They require neither food nor drink, and do not have blood…hence we are all ‘men of water’ to them. They wield magical control over earth and stone as easily as a fish swims or a bird flies…”
“Or as an urdmordar commands dark magic,” said Ridmark.
“Aye,” said Caius, “but the trolldomr are not malicious, not the way the urdmordar are. They are simply…indifferent. They keep to themselves, and only rarely interact with other kindreds. For one to speak is rare. For one to come to the surface and speak is…well, I have never heard of it happening, and the records of our stonescribes go back thousands of years.”
“He warned us,” said Ridmark. “Dark magic to the north. I think we know what frightened the drakes now.”
He met Calliande’s eyes, and saw the fear and determination there.
“Shadowbearer,” she said. “Or more of his creatures hunting for us.”
“This dread wizard, my lady,” said Gavin. “Could he have hunted you to the Wilderland?”
“He could,” said Calliande. “His power is great. Greater than anything I have sensed…since I awakened. Though that is not very long.”
“It could be more of his creatures,” said Caius. “Like the undead kobolds.”
“If so,” said Ridmark, “then we shall take the fight to them. If not, they will pursue us to Moraime, and I would not bring death upon the heads of the townsmen.”
As would have happened in Dun Licinia, if Calliande had not pursued him into the Wilderland.
“Would it not be better to find some strong place and wait for the foe to come to us?” said Gavin.
“I fear not,” said Ridmark. “For one, there are no strong places in these marshes, not until we reach Moraime. And if Shadowbearer and his servants are hunting us, they might not expect us to hunt them in turn.”
He beckoned, and they headed north, away from the causeway and into the marshes.