“Frostborn: The Dark Warden” Excerpt

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A BRIEF PROLOGUE

Of the ancient citadel of Urd Morlemoch I know little, save that it is a place of horror and dread, the home of a dark elven wizard of surpassing might.

Yet the chronicles of the high elves, from what little we have read of them, tell the tale.

In ancient days, long before Malahan Pendragon led our ancestors to this land, the high elves and the dark elves warred for millennia. In their pride and madness the dark elves opened doors to other worlds, and summoned other kindreds to be their slaves and soldiers. The orcs and the manetaurs and the beastmen fought for the dark elves, while the halflings toiled in their fields and their palaces. Yet still the dark elves were unable to overcome the high elves.

Then the dark elves summoned the urdmordar, the mighty spider-demons, and thought they had found the tool of victory at last. Yet the urdmordar were too strong to control, and they devoured and enslaved the dark elves. The strongest of the dark elven nobles, a sorcerer of tremendous power, fled to his citadel of Urd Morlemoch and worked a ward of terrible strength to keep the urdmordar at bay. His spells succeeded, but trapped him within the citadel. The dark elves laughed and mocked him, even as their kingdoms burned around them, and named the imprisoned wizard the Warden, for he had become his own jailer.

“Fools!” spoke the Warden. “I counseled you against summoning the urdmordar, yet you heeded me not. Now you have pulled your own realms into ruin and made yourselves the slaves of the urdmordar. This world is doomed, for the darkness of the great void shall consume it. But there are other worlds, and I shall rule over them while you endure as slaves for all time.”

They mocked him, but their mockery ceased as their kingdoms were destroyed and they were made vassals and slaves of the urdmordar. In time Malahan Pendragon founded the realm of Andomhaim, and the Swordbearers and the Magistri defeated the urdmordar and the Frostborn. The Warden remained in Urd Morlemoch, unconquerable yet unable to leave.

Yet it is said among both the high elves and the dark elves that the Warden has been plotting his escape for millennia, and that those fools who enter his plans never escape them.

-From the chronicles of the High Kings of Andomhaim.

CHAPTER 1 – THE TORN HILLS

Seventy-nine days after it began, seventy-nine days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban climbed the slope of the hill, a cold wind whispering around him, the dark clouds rippling overhead. It was the middle of summer, and a few miles south the sun blazed overhead, the air hot and muggy.

Not here, though.

They were too close to the Torn Hills for that.

No one in their right mind went to the Torn Hills, and few who ventured into the hills ever returned.

Ridmark had done it once before, nine years past, and now he was going to try it again.

He kept climbing, staff ready in his right hand, the cold wind moaning around him. Grass covered the slope, a dark green that somehow looked sickly and diseased. Small, stunted trees stood here and there, their bark black and glossy, their leaves an eerie shade of blue that seemed to glisten. Like the grass, the trees looked unhealthy. The Torn Hills had been poisoned by dark magic long ago, long before humans had even walked the surface of this world, and the corruption had seeped into the plants and animals. The wind itself carried a sharp, harsh scent, like the air after a lightning strike. Further up the slope Ridmark saw an ugly, squat bush surrounded by thick, tangled vines. The black vines themselves were studded with long thorns. Fat red berries with black streaks hung from the branches, like the blood-filled eyes of some malevolent creature…

He stopped, frowning, and waited for the others to catch up to him.

The last time he had gone to Urd Morlemoch, he had been alone. Now seven others followed him. He had intended to go alone, but the others had followed nonetheless.

Ridmark only hoped he could keep them from getting killed.

Certainly he did not want them to die before they even reached Urd Morlemoch.

Kharlacht joined him first. The orcish warrior stood nearly seven feet tall, a stark, forbidding tower of a man. His tusks rose over the green skin of his face, and his scalp had been shaved, save for a fall of black hair tied in a warrior’s topknot. He wore armor of overlapping blue steel plates, and the hilt of a massive greatsword rose over his right shoulder.

“This is an ill country,” said Kharlacht, his voice a deep rumble.

“Aye,” said Ridmark, “but this is nothing. It gets worse closer to Urd Morlemoch.”

“I suspect,” said a deep voice, “that the Lord has turned his gaze from these hills.”

A dwarf in the brown robes of a mendicant friar followed Kharlacht, his skin the gray of granite, his eyes the blue of polished marble, his beard and receding hair shot with gray. A wooden cross hung from a cord around his neck, and a mace of bronze-colored dwarven steel waited at his belt. Mendicant brothers were forbidden from killing with the edge of the sword, but that had not stopped Brother Caius from crushing skulls with the mace when necessary.

“Is not God everywhere?” said Kharlacht.

“Well,” said Caius, “in the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says he had turned his face away from…”

“Will you two bicker all the way to Urd Morlemoch?” said a third man. The speaker was a halfling, shorter than even Caius, though not nearly as wide. He had large amber-colored eyes beneath a thick mane of curly brown hair, and wore black boots, black trousers, and a black leather vest over a white shirt that he somehow kept spotless even in the Wilderland.

“We are not bickering, Master Jager,” said Caius. “We are engaging in theological discourse.”

“It sounds like bickering to me,” said Jager. The woman at his side smiled. She was short, only a few inches taller than Jager, and slender with pale blond hair that hung loose around her head and brilliant green eyes. Mara did not talk much, and seemed content to allow her husband to take the lead, but when she felt it necessary, she took viciously decisive action.

Both Sir Paul Tallmane and the Artificer had found that out the hard way.

“It is not quarreling,” said Kharlacht. “If we were quarreling, there would be blood.”

“I said bickering, not quarreling,” said Jager. “There is a difference.”

Ridmark caught Mara’s gaze, and she rolled her eyes.

“And the difference is, pray?” said Caius.

“How much wine is consumed,” said Jager. He sighed. “Sadly, there is none to be found in this desolate land.”

“No,” said Ridmark. “There are worse things.”

That stilled Jager’s amusement. “You have a gift for sobering a man, Gray Knight.”

Ridmark watched his remaining three companions climb the slope. The first was a boy of about sixteen, brown-eyed and brown-haired, wearing chain mail and carrying an orcish sword. Gavin of Aranaeus seemed harder and more solemn than the boy Ridmark had first met in the forests of the Wilderland, which was not surprising, given all the battles they had seen since leaving Aranaeus. His eyes roved back and forth ceaselessly, watching for foes.

The Torn Hills had that effect.

Two women followed him. The first was blond-haired and blue-eyed, wearing a leather jerkin and trousers and boots beneath a green cloak, her fingers toying with the hilt of a dagger at her belt. Calliande looked distant, lost in thought, but she often did. The second woman had black hair and eyes, and wore a long cloak of tattered brown and green strips that helped her move unseen through the woods. She held a wooden staff in her right hand, its length carved with various sigils. Her expression always had a sharp edge of mocking amusement to it, but her features softened slightly when she looked at Ridmark.

A different sort of emotion flashed through Ridmark. He remembered the taste of her mouth against his, the feel of her body, the heat of her breath against his neck.

A crooked, satisfied little smile appeared on her face. Evidently she was thinking the same thing.

Ridmark had been drawn to Morigna from the moment he had met her. She was the only one who could match his skill at stealth and tracking in the wild, and the hunt for the stolen soulstone had forced them to spend a great deal of time alone. After Sir Paul and the Artificer had been defeated, Ridmark had gone alone into the forest to clear his head, only to find Morigna, and then…

Once more the memory of their first time flashed through his thoughts.

Suddenly Ridmark wondered what his father would have thought about Morigna. She was a wild sorceress and would have been forced to join the Magistri or put to death within Andomhaim. For that matter, Ridmark wondered what Aelia would think of him now. Had she ever dreamed that the man who had been her husband one day be a branded exile who lay with a wild sorceress at every opportunity?

He pushed the thoughts away. If he dwelled upon them he would start to brood, which Morigna did not deserve. She made him feel far less grim than he had in years, which in itself made him feel guilty.

The Torn Hills was not the kind of place to dwell upon such things.

Not when a single mistake here might get them all killed.

“We’ve stopped,” said Calliande.

“Most observant, Magistria,” said Morigna. She spoke Latin with a peculiar, archaic stateliness. Given that her teacher had been born centuries past, it was not surprising. “Perhaps the Gray Knight wished to allow you to rest, before making the arduous ascent up this hill.”

Calliande gave her a thin, patient smile. “Walking is good for the constitution. And we never stop without a reason.”

“My birds have seen no foes,” said Morigna, “though they have grown skittish. They do not want to fly any further to the northwest.”

“They have good reason,” said Ridmark.

“This is it, then?” said Gavin. He braced himself like a man preparing to face a battle. “We’ve arrived at the Torn Hills?”

“Not yet,” said Ridmark. “Almost, though. This is the very edge.” He gestured with his staff. “You see how the dark magic has poisoned the very land. It gets worse the closer we draw to Urd Morlemoch.”

“This is the work of the Warden?” said Jager.

“Only in part,” said Calliande, her distant tone indicating that she had recalled something from her past. “The Torn Hills…they were once grasslands. The dark elves and the high elves warred across them for thousands of years, and their spells ripped the land asunder. After the Warden sealed himself within Urd Morlemoch, the urdmordar assailed him again and again, but he drove them back every single time. So much dark magic unleashed over such a small space twisted the land.”

“And the things that live upon it,” said Ridmark. “Until we leave the Torn Hills, do not eat anything that you find, whether plant or animal. Do not drink the water.”

Jager grunted. “Good to know we carried all those waterskins for a reason.”

“Be wary of everything,” said Ridmark. “Plants and animals both.” He stooped and picked up a stone from the ground.

“The war beasts of the dark elves lurk here, then?” said Kharlacht. “Urvaalgs and ursaars?”

“Worse things, too,” said Ridmark. “But we needn’t worry about the beasts of the dark elves if the plants kill us first.”

Morigna laughed. “I promise not to eat any of the plants.”

“The other way around concerns me,” said Ridmark, and he tossed the stone into the bush.

For a moment nothing happened, and then the plant went into a frenzy. The vines whipped back and forth, the thorns digging furrows into the ground, and the swollen berries rolled back and forth like eyes seeking for prey. The others stepped back in alarm, and white light flared around Calliande’s fingers as she summoned power, while purple flames danced around Morigna’s hands.

At last the bush stilled, the vines coming to rest.

“You know,” said Jager, “you could have just warned us about the bush.”

“A demonstration would be more effective,” said Ridmark.

Calliande shook her head. “You have a knack, Ridmark, for dramatic gestures.”

“I believe that is an understatement, my lady Magistria,” said Jager.

“The thorns are poisonous,” said Ridmark before Jager attempted another witticism. “A paralytic. The vines drag the victim close to the bush, where the roots sink in and digest the flesh. There are many such plants in the Torn Hills, and the animals are more vicious and aggressive as well. There are also urvaalgs and undead left from the battles.”

“We shall indeed have to keep watch,” said Kharlacht.

“Aye,” said Morigna, “but there is no reason to tolerate this vile thing.”

She swept her hand before her, and a pillar of white mist swirled around the barbed bush. It began to sizzle and smoke and hiss, the acidic mist eating into the plant. A shudder went through the bush, its vines lashing at the air like the fingers of a dying man. Morigna released the mist, and the bush burst into flame, the smoke rising into the air.

“That,” said Jager, “is a most powerfully unpleasant smell.”

“Given that we have been travelling for weeks,” said Caius, “I think we have become accustomed to unpleasant smells.”

“Not like this,” said Jager with a frown.

“I will take the lead,” said Ridmark. “I’ve been here before, and I know the dangers. Morigna.” Her black eyes shifted to him. “I don’t know if you will be able to bind the animals of the Torn Hills or not. If you can, use them as scouts.”

“If not,” said Morigna, “I can scout quite capably on my own.”

“The rest of you,” said Ridmark, “stay with Calliande and keep watch over her.” The Magistria smiled at him. “If the beasts of the dark elves or undead attack us, her magic is our only chance of stopping them.”

“I fear the more intelligent beasts or powerful undead,” said Caius, “would be clever enough to attack her first.”

“Which is why,” said Ridmark, “we shall guard her.” He beckoned with his staff. “Come. I would like to be within the Torn Hills by nightfall.”

The others adjusted their weapons and packs, and Ridmark started up the hill once more, leaving the smoldering remnants of the bush behind. Every step took him closer to Urd Morlemoch.

Every step took him closer to the Warden, who knew the secret of the omen of the blue fire, who knew how the Frostborn would return. Ridmark would pry that secret from the Warden.

Or the Warden would simply kill them all.

###

Morigna walked through the hills like a ghost.

The diseased grasses came to the middle of her thighs, but she moved through them without a whisper of sound. She had spent years living alone in the woods near Moraime, and moving silently came to her naturally now. In fact, she would have had to concentrate to make noise.

Which was just as well, because she did not like these hills.

The forests of the Wilderland were a dangerous place, raided by tribes of pagan orcs and kobolds and dvargir and other things. Yet they were simply forests. These hills…something about them seemed tainted. Morigna sensed no magic in the earth itself, yet she did not doubt Ridmark’s assertion that the land itself had been poisoned by millennia of dark spells.

That turned her thoughts to Ridmark, which in turn summoned a welter of emotions.

Was she in love with him? She did not know. Morigna had been in love with Nathan Vorinus, had planned to spend the rest of her life with him, but Coriolus had murdered him. Ever since she had been a child, Morigna had wanted to become strong, strong enough that no one could ever harm her as her parents had been killed, and Nathan’s death had only redoubled that determination.

Yet Morigna had made herself vulnerable to Ridmark. Though without his help, Coriolus would have killed her. And Ridmark’s mind and heart were wounded, blaming himself for the death of his wife.

That sent a flicker of anger through Morigna. The lords of Andomhaim had been fools to strip Ridmark of his soulblade and banish him. He was a valiant warrior and a capable leader, and he had the potential within him to become more. He ought to have been a powerful Dux, Morigna thought. If he had wished it, he could have raised an army, overthrown the High King, and claimed the ancient crown of the Pendragons for himself.

Perhaps Uthanaric Pendragon deserved to be overthrown. He had allowed Ridmark to be banished, and under his reign the cancer of the Enlightened of Incariel had spread through Andomhaim. Perhaps it was time for a stronger man to take his place.

A man like Ridmark, for instance.

Maybe she could convince him of that, convince him to reject the lords and nobles that had condemned him for a death that was not his responsibility.

The thought of standing at his side for that, of sharing his life and his bed, was a pleasant one. It was a thought for another day, though. After she had fulfilled her promise to Ridmark, after they had returned from Urd Morlemoch and stopped the return of the Frostborn.

Assuming, of course, that they survived.

Morigna returned to the others. Ridmark had not yet returned from his scouting, and Kharlacht and Gavin had taken the lead, the orcish warrior and the boy speaking in low voices. Caius and Jager walked on either side of Calliande, all three of them talking, and Mara followed them. The short woman wore sturdy traveling clothes of wool and leather looted from the Iron Tower, and her only weapons were a pair of daggers sheathed at her belt.

That was all she needed. With the power of her dark elven blood, Mara was as deadly with those blades as a Swordbearer armored in steel plate.

“Anything interesting?” said Mara. The cold wind tugged at her pale hair, revealing the delicate elven point of one ear.

“The hills are quite deserted,” said Morigna. “We are alone. For a place of legend and terror, the Torn Hills are empty. Perhaps the Warden’s fearsome reputation has driven off all the monsters.”

Mara smiled. “Alas, I fear we are not so fortunate. From what I have seen of Ridmark’s band, I half-expect to find an army of Mhorite orcs led by an urdmordar and a dozen dark elven wizards over the next hill.”

Morigna laughed. “You exaggerate. Though perhaps not by much.” To Morigna’s surprise, she liked the former assassin. Mara was so calm and patient, which Morigna supposed were useful qualities in an assassin. For that matter, Morigna had never had a female friend before. The women of Moraime had regarded her with fear and suspicion, and Morigna had no desire for their company.

“We’re getting closer,” said Mara. She closed her eyes for a moment. “I can hear his song.”

“The Warden’s?” said Morigna.

“It’s so strong,” murmured Mara. She opened her eyes and looked north. “We’re about…six days away, I think. Maybe five.”

“And you do not feel any urge to…do his bidding, shall we say?” said Morigna.

Mara smiled. “No. Once, I would have had no choice. But I have my own song now. The Warden cannot compel me. Nor could my father, the Matriarch, or any other dark elven noble or wizard.”

“One supposes they would just kill you now,” said Morigna.

“That would be the rational decision,” said Mara. She adjusted her hair, arranging it to cover her ears. Likely it was an old habit. “Speaking of that, I need to ask you something.”

“You may,” said Morigna.

“What will you do if you become pregnant with Ridmark’s child?”

Morigna opened her mouth, closed it again, looked around to see if anyone else had overheard.

“Ah,” said Mara. “You’re not used to that. Usually you ask blunt questions that knock people off their guard. Not the other way around.”

“How did you know?” said Morigna.

“Given my previous occupation,” said Mara, “I have experience observing the people around me. You and the Gray Knight have spent a great deal of time scouting since we left the Iron Tower. You return looking quite satisfied with yourself. Ridmark…well, even Ridmark looks marginally less grim.”

“You are a very dangerous little woman,” said Morigna.

“I know,” said Mara.

“What about you?” said Morigna. “You wed Jager. How will you keep from bearing a child?”

“My mother was human and my father was a dark elf,” said Mara. “I am sterile. Like a mule.” She considered for a moment. “Which may not have been the most flattering way to put that.”

“No,” said Morigna. “But one fails to see how this topic is any concern of yours.”

“It isn’t,” said Mara. “I wondered if you had thought about it.”

“The man who taught me magic,” said Morigna, “was one of the Eternalists. He wanted to transfer his spirit into my flesh to avoid his own death.”

“Like the Artificer and Sir Paul,” said Mara.

“Precisely,” said Morigna. “A pregnancy would have complicated his efforts, so he taught me a spell to filter my blood. The same one we used to keep your dark elven blood from overwhelming you. So long as I use it, I will not conceive a child.”

“Do you want Ridmark’s child?” said Mara.

Ridmark was a strong man. The thought of carrying his child was not a displeasing one.

“Perhaps,” said Morigna. “I do not know. After we have been successful, after we have stopped the return of the Frostborn and I can turn Ridmark’s mind to other matters…why are we even talking about this?”

“Because,” said Mara, “I owe you and Calliande and Ridmark much. Jager and I both do. We’re also about to go into danger, which is it not a time for quarrels amongst ourselves.”

“Why should we quarrel?” said Morigna.

Mara glanced at Calliande, and then back at Morigna.

“What concern is it of hers?” said Morigna. “She does not even know herself, not truly.” She felt herself start to grow angry. “If she wanted Ridmark for herself, then perhaps she should have done something about it. Is that what you are going to say? That I should concern myself over what Calliande thinks? Or that I should stay away from Ridmark?”

“Actually,” said Mara, “I was going to say that you and Ridmark can make each other happier. Or at least less grim. I suspect you have both lost a great deal.”

“You suspect correctly,” said Morigna, some of her anger draining away as she thought of her mother and father and Nathan. In a twisted sort of way, she had also lost Coriolus, though she did not regret his death. He had betrayed her and used her, but he had still taught her a great deal. “Perhaps I am a fool, or Ridmark has made me into one.”

“You both deserve some peace,” said Mara.

“Ridmark is strong,” said Morigna, “but he could be so much stronger. Look at all of us. We follow him without question, even after he has tried to dissuade us again and again. Yet the nobles of Andomhaim cast him out. He could have power enough to purge the realm of the Enlightened of Incariel, to bring order and peace and…”

“There is more to life than simply power,” said Mara.

“No, there is not,” said Morigna. “It is the foundation of everything else. Without…”

The grass rustled, and Ridmark walked towards them, his face set in a scowl. A flicker of unease went through Morigna. Had he overheard them? He likely would not approve of their discussion. Then Morigna’s brain caught up to her emotions. Ridmark never did anything without a reason, and if he looked alarmed…

“Foes?” said Morigna.

“No,” said Ridmark. “We’re here.”

###

Ridmark led the way to the top of the hill, the others following him, and gestured with his staff.

“The Torn Hills,” he said, his voice quiet.

The land beyond did indeed look torn, countless rocky hills jutting from the diseased grasses, steep ravines lying between them. More poisonous bushes dotted the slopes, and thick patches of white mist swirled between some of the hills. Nearby Ridmark saw a wide valley, a stream tricking down its center, the ground on either side of the stream mottled white and yellow.

“What an unwholesome looking place,” said Jager.

“Few ever come here,” said Kharlacht.

“For entirely good reasons, it seems,” said Jager.

“Those white spots,” said Gavin, squinting into the valley. “Are they…”

“Bones,” said Ridmark. “Orcish bones, mostly. There was a battle here, long ago.”

“Surely it was not that long ago,” said Morigna. “Else the bones would have crumbled to dust.”

Ridmark shook his head. “Dead things do not always rot here.” He beckoned. “Stay watchful. Anything can be dangerous.”

He led the way into the valley. The cold wind never stopped moaning, and the gray clouds writhed and danced. Ridmark scanned the valley and the surrounding slopes, watching for any threats. When he had last come to the Torn Hills nine years ago, he had reached Urd Morlemoch without much difficulty. But nine years ago, he had still been a Knight of the Soulblade, had still carried the Heartwarden into battle. Calliande’s magic, for all of its potency, was not as effective against creatures of dark magic as a soulblade. If a large enough pack of urvaalgs or stronger creatures found them, they might not be able to fight their way free.

The grass rustled around his boots as they crossed the valley, the creek murmuring against its stony banks. Bones dotted the ground, along with rusting pieces of armor and old swords. Ridmark stepped around the tusked skull of a long-dead orc, the empty eyes staring at the bleak sky. He wondered who had fought here. Perhaps these orcs had fought the high elves. Or maybe they had been slaves of the urdmordar, sent to besiege Urd Morlemoch. It was also possible that any number of predators had killed the orcs and left the bones behind.

As the thought crossed his mind, a thick white mist rose from the creek and began to swirl over the banks.

“Back!” he said, thinking of Morigna’s acidic mist. The others obeyed, drawing weapons, and the mist over the creek started to glow with an eerie blue light.

“Ridmark,” said Calliande. “That’s a necromantic spell.”

“Someone’s casting it?” said Ridmark, looking around.

“No,” said Calliande with a shake of her head. “It’s…old. An echo of an old spell. I think…”

The mist resolved itself into ghostly figures. Ridmark saw warriors clad in overlapping plates of blue steel, winged helms upon their heads and gleaming swords in their fists. Their faces were the color of bleached bone, and their eyes were black pits into nothingness, a void without limit or boundary.

Dark elven warriors.

“Slay them!” bellowed the shade with the most elaborate armor, a staff wrought of gold and ebony in his right hand. “Slay the high elven vermin! Kill them all, and show them the true might of Incariel!”

“High elves?” said Kharlacht. “There are none here.”

“It’s an echo of the spells they used,” said Calliande. “Shadows and nothing more.”

That alarmed Ridmark.

“Shadows,” he said, “can have power.”

“I see the spell,” murmured Mara, her eyes wide. Her peculiar transformation at the Iron Tower had left Mara with the Sight, the ability to see magical auras. “She’s right. It’s…old, repeating itself over and over. Like a broken clock stuck in a single second.” She blinked. “We’d better go. I don’t think it’s…”

“Rise up, my slaves!” bellowed the armored dark elf. “Rise and kill! Death does not release you from my service. Rise and kill in my name!”

He thrust out his hand, the other shades dissolving into mist. Blue fire washed from his fingers and rolled across the ground, sinking into the scattered bones. The cold wind grew icier and stronger, and the bones rattled. The shade of the dark elven wizard vanished into the mist, but the blue fire around the bones brightened.

Then the bones moved together.

“Calliande!” Ridmark shouted.

She was already moving, a burst of white fire erupting from her hands to sweep across the bones. Wherever the white flame touched the blue, the blue fire winked out, and the bones went motionless. Yet Calliande’s spell could not touch all the bones at once, and the skeletons reformed themselves before Ridmark’s eyes as the dark elf’s ancient spell took hold.

The ground erupted in a score of places. Mummified orcish corpses rose from the earth, their green skin withered to pale yellow leather, ancient armor still clinging to their desiccated limbs. Blue flames burned in the black pits of their eye sockets, and the undead orcs still held rusted weapons.

“Defend yourselves!” said Ridmark, tossing aside his staff and drawing the dwarven war axe from his belt. Calliande began another spell and Morigna started one of her own, while Gavin fell back to shield Calliande.

The undead rushed forward in a charge, and Ridmark raced to meet them, axe in both hands.

The weapon had been a gift from the Taalkaz of the Dwarven Enclave in Coldinium, and the weapon had been enchanted, written with the magical glyphs of the dwarven stonescribes. It was not nearly as powerful as a soulblade, but it was nonetheless an effective weapon against undead and other creatures of dark magic.

One of the orcish skeletons reached for him, and Ridmark whipped the axe around in a two-handed swing, driving the bronze-colored blade through the skull. The skull shattered into dust, the bones tumbling back to the ground. One of the mummified corpses attacked, swinging a rusted sword. Ridmark parried, catching the blow on the blade of his axe, and stumbled back from the force of the swing. The undead corpse was viciously strong, but it was not fast, and as the undead thing readied its weapon for another blow, Ridmark struck, his axe ripping across its neck. The undead corpse stumbled, and Ridmark took off its head with his next blow, the body collapsing at his feet.

A half-dozen more skeletons closed around him, and Calliande finished her spell.

White light burst from her fingers and jumped to the weapons of Ridmark and the others. The war axe thrummed in his hands, the white glow joining the sullen yellow-orange light of the dwarven glyphs upon the blade. Ridmark stepped back, caught his balance, and went on the offensive again, striking down skeletons right and left. The others charged into the fray, their weapons shining with the white light of Calliande’s magic. Kharlacht’s massive greatsword ripped one of the mummified corpses in half. Caius followed in his wake, exploiting the chaos created by the big orc’s charge and smashing skulls with his mace. One of the skeletons raced at Jager, who stood his ground, short sword and dagger ready in his hands. Blue fire flickered behind the skeleton, and Mara appeared out of nothingness, her eyes and veins glowing. She tripped the skeleton, and Jager dispatched it with a quick flourish of his sword and dagger. Gavin stood guard over Calliande, striking down any corpse that drew too close. Morigna stepped forward, sweeping her hand before her as purple fire snarled around her fingers. The ground rippled and folded, knocking a dozen of the mummified corpses from their feet, and Ridmark took the opportunity to strike, beheading three of them before they stood again, and took a fourth as it rose.

His companions were holding their own against the undead. Yet there were so damned many of the things. Sooner or later they would be overwhelmed, or the fighting would draw the attention of a more powerful creature. Ridmark destroyed another skeleton, the bones bouncing across the floor of the valley. Nearly a hundred skeletons had closed around them, and a score of the mummified corpses had risen from the earth. They could not fight such numbers. He had to…

Then, all at once, the battle was over.

The blue flames winked out, and the skeletons collapsed into piles of dry bones. The mummified orcs sank into the ground, the earth closing around them. Ridmark turned, the axe trembling in his fist, but peace had fallen over the valley. The others lowered their weapons, looking around in bewilderment.

“Is anyone wounded?” called Calliande.

“Did you break the spell?” said Ridmark.

Calliande shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. I was focused on holding the spell over the weapons. Morigna?”

“I fear not,” said Morigna. “My magic gives me command over earth and beasts, not other spells.”

“An echo,” said Mara, the blue fire fading from her eyes and skin.

They looked at her.

“The spell was an echo of something that happened here long ago,” said Mara. “And echoes fade. We…just reached the end of that particular echo.”

“But echoes repeat,” said Gavin, wiping sweat from his forehead, “over and over again.”

Ridmark looked at the stream and saw faint wisps of white mist gathering over the waters.

The spell was repeating itself once more.

“It’s starting again,” said Mara.

“Run!” said Ridmark, snatching up his staff. “To the northern lip of the valley. Quickly!”

They ran across the valley, kicking aside the bones. Ridmark raced over the stream, jumping from stone to stone, and the chill of the Torn Hills deepened. He wondered how many thousands of times those undead orcs had been raised by the ancient spell. He wondered how many victims they had claimed over the centuries.

Best not to join their number.

They reached the northern edge of the valley. Ridmark turned as the others joined him, staff in his left hand and axe in his right. He expected the shades of the long-dead dark elves to reappear, the undead to rise once more.

But the mist faded away, and the undead did not rise again.

“What happened?” said Kharlacht. “Why didn’t the undead attack?”

Calliande frowned, one hand raised, a white gleam shining around her fingers.

“I think,” said Calliande, “I think the echo only responds to a living mortal. It was dormant until we drew near.”

“The other patches of mist,” said Caius, looking at the rocky hills to the north. “Are those further echoes?”

“Maybe,” said Calliande. “Or they could just be mist.”

“My Sight can give us some warning,” said Mara.

“That will have to do,” said Ridmark. “We should keep moving. Stay on guard, all of you. It’s another five days to Urd Morlemoch, and it will only get more dangerous from here.”

Of course, the dangers of the Torn Hills were nothing compared to the perils within the walls of Urd Morlemoch.

Because the Warden waited within Urd Morlemoch.

 

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