CHAPTER 1: FROST
One hundred and eight days after it began, one hundred and eight days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban stood before the yawning black gates of Khald Azalar.
It was past midsummer, but the air was colder than he would have expected.
The cold wind came from within the Gate of the West.
Khald Azalar’s western gate rose before him, tall and mighty. Two massive reliefs of armored dwarves had been carved into the cliff, rising nearly three hundred feet overhead. Elaborate carvings and glyphs covered the face of the cliff between the two reliefs, and Ridmark had no doubt that the carvings concealed hidden redoubts for archers and siege engines. Compared to the towering reliefs, the black archway of the Gate itself looked tiny, but it still stood fifty feet high and twenty wide. Once it had been sealed with massive doors of dwarven steel, but now those doors lay in twisted ruin upon the ground.
Beyond lay darkness, but Ridmark knew that was only a mask. Within the darkness waited the ruins of Khald Azalar, once one of the Nine Kingdoms of the dwarves. Within the ruins was Dragonfall, the resting place of Calliande’s staff, the key to stopping the return of the Frostborn. Ridmark and the others had been looking for this place ever since Calliande had awakened in the darkness below the Tower of Vigilance one hundred and eight days ago.
In a way, Ridmark mused, he had been looking for this place for his entire adult life, ever since an urdmordar had first warned him that the Frostborn would soon return.
He looked back at the others. Calliande was blond and blue-eyed and looked like a woman in her twenties, but she was older, far older. Once she had been the Keeper of Andomhaim, and her memories and her staff rested within Khald Azalar. Her face was composed, but Ridmark knew her well enough to see the fear there. She had been searching for her memory ever since awakening beneath the ruined Tower of Vigilance.
Perhaps Dragonfall held things she did not wish to remember.
The others followed Calliande. Morigna, her black hair and eyes giving her a stark kind of beauty, her staff slung over her shoulder with a leather strap and a bow ready in her hands. Kharlacht, a tall, grim orcish warrior armored in blue dark elven steel, the hilt of a greatsword rising over his shoulder. Brother Caius, a gray-skinned dwarven noble of Khald Tormen, clad in the brown robes of a friar, a wooden cross hanging from his neck. Gavin of Aranaeus, the curly-haired boy of the Wilderland who had become a Knight of the Soulblade, his face hard with new maturity, and Antenora, the ancient apprentice of the Keeper who had fled to Andomhaim from Old Earth, her gaunt face gray and scarred, her eyes a harsh yellow. Then came Mara and Jager. The halfling thief wore his usual cocky smile, though his hands remained near his weapons, and Mara gazed at the grandeur of the Gate with thoughtful green eyes, her blond hair stirring in the cold wind to reveal the pointed ears of her dark elven blood. Last came Sir Arandar, a Swordbearer like Gavin, his weathered face proud and stern, his mane of black hair shot through with gray.
Ridmark had departed Andomhaim alone after the death of his wife five years past, after he had failed to save her. Partly it had been to find the secret of the Frostborn. Partly it had been to seek atonement for his failure through death, though no one had managed to kill him yet. After the omen of blue fire, he had set out for Urd Morlemoch alone…but despite his best efforts, he had acquired companions.
It was just as well. Without them, he would have failed months ago. Together they had defeated an urdmordar, dared the Deeps, overthrown the Iron Tower, and entered Urd Morlemoch and escaped the Warden’s wrath. A wave of affection went through Ridmark, so strong it surprised him. But why should that surprise him? They had dared tremendous dangers together and come out alive on the other side. His eyes strayed to Morigna, and the memory of her lips and body burned through him. She had come to mean a great deal to him…
Then Jager opened his mouth, and Ridmark remembered one advantage of traveling alone.
There had been so much less bickering.
“You know,” said the halfling. The deep resonance of his voice always belied his size. “Walking into this gate puts me in mind of striding into the maw of some vast stone beast.”
Morigna scoffed. “You would know, master thief, given the way you stuff yourself at meals.” She spoke Latin with odd stateliness, her archaic accent acquired from her ancient teacher.
Jager’s smile did not waver. “Some of us do appreciate the finer things in life, madam. You might have grown up in a forest, but not all of us had such a unique upbringing. Civilization does have its benefits. Besides, we stole that food from the Mhorite camp fair and square.”
Kharlacht grunted. “He has you there.”
“I do not believe it was stealing,” said Caius. His eyes were like disks of blue marble, blinking as he looked at the grim Gate. “Technically, they were spoils acquired upon the field of battle. The Mhorites had been trying to kill us for days, and our self-defense was legitimate. So therefore we were within our rights to take some of their supplies after they went in pursuit of the Anathgrimm.”
Arandar laughed. “You indeed have the golden tongue of a friar, Brother Caius.”
“Thank you, Sir Arandar,” said Caius. He grinned at the Swordbearer. “Am I wrong, though?”
“Every link in your chain of logic rings true,” said Arandar.
“As does mine,” announced Jager.
“Your twisted words and convoluted sophistry,” said Morigna, “are hardly logic. One suspect that you would argue that the sun set in the east, if only you might profit by it.”
“It is surprising that this group is so effective in battle,” said Antenora, “given how much you bicker.” Her voice was a tired rasp, as if it had been worn down from centuries of use. Likely it had. She was older than any of them, older than the High Kingdom of Andomhaim itself. That did not make her any less dangerous. The black staff she carried had been carved with elaborate sigils that shone with a harsh orange-yellow glow, and she could use it to conjure deadly blasts of magical fire.
“I like to think it clears the air before a battle,” said Jager. “Puts our minds at ease.”
“You would talk at your own funeral,” said Kharlacht.
“An affair I hope to avoid for quite some time yet,” said Jager.
Ridmark said nothing as they approached the yawning archway, listening to the argument with half an ear. Gavin remained silent. He had become harder and more serious since taking up the soulblade Truthseeker. Mara, too, said nothing, her green eyes flickering back and forth. A life as first the Traveler’s slave and then as an assassin of the Red Family of Mhor had given her a level of watchfulness that never quite relaxed.
Calliande herself said nothing, her eyes fixed on the dark square of the Gate.
“Calliande,” said Ridmark, and the others fell silent. “You can sense it?”
For a moment Calliande closed her eyes.
“Aye,” she said, opening her eyes again. “It’s here. Within this mountain.”
Ridmark nodded. Since they had come to the Vale of Stone Death a few days past, Calliande had somehow acquired the ability to sense the location of her staff. It would have been helpful if she had possessed the ability since awakening, but from what she had said, the power had only come to her after she had learned of her true identity as the Keeper of Andomhaim.
“I suppose that narrows it down,” said Jager.
“Only somewhat, master thief,” said Antenora. “This mountain is large enough to contain many secrets.”
“You speak truly,” said Caius. “At its height, Khald Azalar held hundreds of thousands of dwarves. It was one of the mightiest of the kingdoms of my kindred.”
“Then there countless places something as small as a staff could be concealed,” said Kharlacht.
“Just as well that you can sense it,” said Jager.
“It’s in Dragonfall, somewhere within Khald Azalar,” said Calliande. “I suspect we shall know it when we see it.”
Ridmark nodded. From what they had learned, it appeared that Dragonfall was the tomb of the last of the dragons. Ridmark knew little about the dragons, and in truth, no one did, perhaps save the high elves. All he knew was that they had perished before the elven kindred had sundered into their high elven and dark elven branches. Perhaps Calliande would know more once she had recovered her memory. The warrior who had helped her defeat the Frostborn the first time had been known as the Dragon Knight.
“I suggest,” said Arandar, “that we delay no further. Lady Calliande can sense her staff, but so can Mournacht and the Traveler.” Mara’s eyes tightened a bit at the mention of her father, but she gave no other reaction. “I suspect they shall be in pursuit.”
“Mara,” said Ridmark. “You can still sense your father?”
“I can still hear his song,” said Mara in her quiet, calm voice. “He’s drawing closer. For a day he was heading west. I think Mournacht’s army pushed the Anathgrimm back. But now the Traveler is heading for the Gate of the West.”
“Likely Mournacht defeated the Anathgrimm and then marched here with all speed,” said Kharlacht, “and now the Traveler has reformed his army and comes in pursuit.”
“I concur,” said Arandar. “Best we not wait here to greet them.”
“Very well,” said Ridmark. He looked at Calliande. “Are you ready?”
She took a deep breath and offered a faint smile. “I had better be.”
Ridmark nodded and adjusted his grip on his black staff. Tthe high elven archmage Ardrhythain had carried the weapon for millennia, and while it had no magic of its own, the archmage had worked enough powerful magic with the staff that its nature had changed. Now it could wound and kill creatures of dark magic.
Ridmark suspected that would come in handy very soon.
“Then let us make an end to this,” said Ridmark, and he strode forward, the others following.
He passed through the archway and into the Gate of the West of Khald Azalar.
Beyond a shaft of sunlight stabbed into a vast pillared hall, so large that the gloom quickly swallowed the light. The polished granite floor clicked beneath Ridmark’s boots. He glimpsed towering pillars on either side, another archway on the far end of the hall, and numerous uneven shapes upon the ground.
It was strangely cold in here.
“Antenora,” said Calliande. “Could we have a little more light?”
“Of course, my lady Keeper,” said Antenora, raising her staff. The sigils burned with light, and a hot white flame appeared at its end, throwing back the gloom.
“Useful spell,” said Gavin.
“It is,” said Antenora. “Especially if you wish to light a pipe.”
“A pipe?” said Morigna.
“Ah,” said Antenora. “I forgot. I suppose tobacco is unknown in Andomhaim. Upon Old Earth, some nations have the custom of burning the leaves of the tobacco plant and inhaling the smoke for its stimulant effect. It started…mmm, I cannot recall. After the death of Martin Luther, but before the defeat of the French Emperor at Waterloo.”
Ridmark felt a flicker of pity for her. Antenora had seen over fifteen centuries of Old Earth’s history, but the human mind could not contain such vast spans of time. Entire centuries had fallen from her memory, and what she could recall she could not always remember in the right order. He could barely imagine having lived so long.
At the moment, though, the carpet of bones upon the floor of the hall held his attention.
“What a peculiar custom,” said Morigna.
“I imagine it would cause considerable scarring of the lungs,” said Calliande.
“It did,” said Antenora. “I would not recommend it. It usually caused eventual death.”
“But not as quickly,” said Ridmark, “as whatever killed these dwarves.”
The heavy gray bones of dwarves covered the floor. Some of the skeletons were still intact, but others had been scattered. Caius moved among them, his face solemn.
“They must have fallen when the Frostborn broke through the Gate of the West,” said Caius.
“They have neither weapons nor armor,” said Gavin.
“Dwarven steel, like dwarven bone, is remarkably tough,” said Caius. “I suspect scavengers from Vhaluusk carried off everything they could find decades ago.”
“But not everything,” said Ridmark. “Look.”
A pile of armor lay against one of the pillars, breastplate and greaves and a full helm crowned with spikes. The armor had a peculiar, rough look, and it reminded Ridmark of gray ice in the grip of winter’s deepest chill. White mist swirled around it, and he realized that the strange cold radiated from the armor. Within the armor lay bones of white crystal that glimmered and flashed in the light of Antenora’s magic.
“What is that?” said Gavin.
“Unless I miss my guess,” said Ridmark, “that is the armor and bones of a slain Frostborn.”
“It is,” said Calliande, her voice distant, the way it was when she recalled something from her past. “I’ve seen armor like it before.”
“Likely it has been here since the fall of Khald Azalar,” said Caius. “At least my kindred took some of their foes with them.”
“I wonder why no one has looted the armor,” said Jager. “Surely is it is valuable.”
“Because a single touch would likely freeze the blood in their veins,” said Antenora. “It is not of this world, nor are the bones. Even after two centuries, the armor yet retains its power.”
“She is correct,” said Mara. “I can see the armor’s power with my Sight. Elemental magic yet lingers within it, magic of frost and ice.”
“Then don’t touch it,” said Ridmark, “and stay well away from it.” He tapped a tusked skull with the end of his staff. “Some of these bones are newer. Only a few years old, I deem.”
“Orcish bones,” said Kharlacht. “Likely scavengers from Khald Azalar.”
“Not this one,” said Gavin, pointing at one of the skulls. It was indeed an orcish skull, with tusks and the broad, flat features common to orcs. Yet where the eye holes should have been, Ridmark saw only an unbroken sheet of bone. “It looks like the orcs we fought outside Thainkul Dural.”
“Deep orcs,” said Ridmark. He took another look. Deep orcs possessed considerable skill at stealth, and could move as silently as a shadow. He saw no sign of deep orcs, at least living ones, but that didn’t mean anything.
The deep orcs would have heard them coming long ago.
“Khald Azalar had multiple entrances to the Deeps,” said Caius. “Anything could have wandered up in the centuries since the defeat of the Frostborn. Deep orcs. Kobolds. Dvargir. Mzrokars or basilisks or other creatures. We shall have to be ready for almost anything, I fear.”
“You’ve been here before,” said Ridmark. “Do you know where we should go next?”
Caius shrugged. “This is the Hall of the West. When important guests arrived, the King of Khald Tormen greeted them here, along with his chief taalmaks and taalkazs…ah, his chief knights and nobles. Beyond was a gallery, a market, and some residential areas the dwarves of Khald Tormen called the Dormari Quarter – the Foreign Quarter. Beyond that, though…” He shook his head. “I fear I only visited the Hall of the West and the Dormari Quarter, and never entered any deeper into Khald Azalar.”
Ridmark looked at Calliande. “If Dragonfall was a secret entrusted to the Kings of Khald Azalar, it makes sense that it would lie deeper within the city, perhaps at its heart.”
She nodded. “The staff…it’s down and to the east, somewhere further within the mountain.”
“If this place is as great a maze as you say,” said Arandar, “it is possible we could wander for weeks without finding anything.”
“Not necessarily,” said Caius. “There would be maps. I can read those, along with any dwarven glyphs we find. Every gallery and chamber and tunnel would have its own name, Sir Arandar, just as every street and forum within Tarlion’s walls has its own name. If we can find a map, perhaps we can reach Dragonfall and escape from Khald Azalar long before the Traveler or Mournacht locate us.”
“Very well,” said Ridmark, and they continued onward.
They left the Hall of the West and entered a high pillared gallery, and Calliande felt a peculiar sense of disappointment.
She knew it was entirely irrational. After escaping Urd Morlemoch, all her thoughts had been upon reaching Khald Azalar and Dragonfall, of recovering her staff and her memory at last. She had known that her staff would be buried deep within Khald Azalar. It would not be waiting for her just beyond the Gate of the West. Her past self would not have left any clues or secrets waiting in the Hall of the West.
Yet the disappointment was there nonetheless.
A dark sort of relief went with the disappointment. Calliande knew that she had once been the Keeper of Andomhaim, the woman who had led the High Kingdom to victory against the Frostborn. Yet she remembered nothing of it, and she dreaded the return of that memory. That woman had been willing to seal herself away in darkness for centuries, to lose everyone and everything she loved to awaken in the distant future. Calliande could not imagine the kind of woman that could make such a cold choice.
Yet she had been that woman, and she had made that choice.
They walked in silence down the gallery, the harsh light from Antenora’s staff throwing back the darkness. Here and there dwarven glowstones shone from the pillars, treated in chemical salts that made them luminous for centuries. More bones lay scattered upon the floor, both ancient dwarven bones and the more recent bones of Vhaluuskan orcs and deep orcs. Calliande wondered what had killed them. The Vhaluuskan orcs had probably been scavengers from Khorduk to the west, and they had likely killed each other in a quarrel over spoils or fallen to the arrows of the deep orcs.
The deep orcs, though…what had killed them?
Calliande knew some things about deep orcs, things that she had likely learned before hiding her memory in Dragonfall. The deep orcs lived in tribes in the Deeps, some independent, some enslaved by the dvargir or the dark elven princes. Granted, that information wasn’t useful just now. Anything could have killed these deep orcs. Other tribes, the Vhaluuskans, some horror that had wandered up from the Deeps…anything at all, really.
Another pile of the strange gray armor lay in a heap against a pillar, radiating terrible cold, a faint white mist crawling over the crystalline bones of a slain Frostborn. Calliande felt a strange crawling sensation as she looked at the bones. She was certain, absolutely certain, that she had seen armor like that before coming to Khald Azalar.
She just couldn’t remember when.
“Keeper?” said Antenora in her worn voice. “Is anything amiss?”
Calliande was still not sure what to do about Antenora. The woman had been the apprentice of the first Keeper, the Keeper who had helped Malahan Pendragon lead the survivors of the High King’s realm from Old Earth to Andomhaim. Antenora had remained upon Old Earth for centuries, cursed by her betrayal. She wanted redemption, wanted to be released from her curse, and Calliande had no idea how to do that.
Perhaps Calliande would remember once she had recovered the staff of the Keeper.
In the meantime, Antenora’s powerful fire magic might well help Calliande to reach the staff.
“Nothing just now,” said Calliande.
“Ah,” said Antenora. “I fear that means many things are amiss, but you can do nothing about them at the moment, so you carry on as best you can.”
“Something like that, yes,” said Calliande.
“It is a familiar feeling, Keeper,” said Antenora. “I remember that…”
“Stop,” said Ridmark.
For a moment Calliande thought that Ridmark had grown irritated at the conversation, but one look at his expression proved otherwise. His hard face had gone tight, his blue eyes narrowed to slits, the black staff of Ardrhythain ready in his hand.
Ahead she saw the reason for his alarm.
They had come to a crossroads. The gallery continued ahead, glowstones shining here and there from the pillars. Another gallery intersected it about thirty yards ahead, and it looked as if a great deal of fighting had taken place there. Both orcish and dwarven bones lay upon the ground, and Calliande saw more of the frozen armor of a Frostborn.
It was the perfect spot for an ambush. If Calliande saw it, Ridmark would definitely notice it.
“Brother Caius?” said Ridmark.
Caius frowned. “The gallery straight ahead continues to the Dormari Market, I believe. The galleries to the right and to the left go to residential areas, where visitors and foreigners were housed when visiting Khald Azalar.”
“You believe?” said Jager.
Caius shrugged. “It has been two hundred years since I last passed the Gate of the West. My memory is not as clear on the matter as I might wish.”
Ridmark said nothing, the fingers of his right hand drumming against his staff.
“Morigna,” he said at last.
“Aye?” she said, stepping to his side. She carried her bow in hand, an arrow ready at the string. Her face was its usual cold, somewhat mocking mask, but her black eyes softened as she looked at Ridmark, and he seemed less grim when he looked at her. A flicker of jealousy went through Calliande, and she pushed it aside.
“The spell you cast in Thainkul Dural,” said Ridmark. “The day we escaped from the mzrokar.” Morigna nodded. “I think you should cast it right now.”
Calliande stiffened, and then began summoning the power of the Well for a spell. Kharlacht, Caius, and Gavin all raised their weapons. Mara, Jager, Arandar, and Antenora all looked confused.
“Trouble?” murmured Jager.
“I think so,” said Calliande. “I think there are foes nearby, and they can overhear us. Be ready to strike.”
Antenora said nothing, but the white flame crackling atop her staff grew brighter, the sigils carved into the wood beginning to glow. Calliande looked around, readying herself to release power. She saw no sign of any enemies, but that meant nothing. The dvargir could use their powers over shadow to turn themselves invisible. Deep orcs could move with inhuman stealth. Calliande glanced at the ceiling, remembering how the children of the urdmordar could climb overhead, but saw nothing. Her eyes swept over the walls, past the pillars carved with blocky dwarven glyphs and reliefs, and…
A cold chill swept through her.
She was certain something was hiding behind one of the pillars, and suddenly she knew what had triggered Ridmark’s alarm.
Morigna slung her bow over her shoulder and lifted her staff, muttering a spell as she did so. Purple fire flashed up and down the staff, and her eyelids fluttered. Morigna’s power over earth magic let her sense the presence of people standing upon the stone floor. Not even the dvargir could hide themselves from that spell.
Morigna’s eyes shot open.
“Ridmark!” she said. “They’re behind the pillars!”
“Defend yourselves!” said Ridmark, and the others spun into a ring, moving to shield Calliande, Antenora, and Morigna so they could work their spells.
As they did, shapes appeared from behind the pillars.
They looked orcish, albeit far different from the orcs that dwelled upon the surface. Most of the orcs of the surface world were like Kharlacht, tall and strong with their skin a deep green color. These orcs were shorter and thinner, their skin a sickly yellow, their ears the size of a grown man’s palms, their nostrils wide and black. The deep orcs had no eyes. In lieu of eyes, a strange band of knotted, veined flesh encircled their heads like a blindfold. The organ gave them the ability to sense heat the way that the human eye detected light, allowing them to move in perfect darkness.
A ring of a dozen deep orcs appeared around Calliande and the others, stepping from behind the pillars, and more appeared in the crossroads ahead, all of them moving with eerie silence. The deep orcs carried blowguns. The darts within were likely treated with a sleeping drug, and the deep orcs would take them captive as slaves.
Or possibly as food.
As one the deep orcs lifted the blowguns to their tusked mouths…