CHAPTER 1: DEAD EMPIRES
One hundred and sixteen days after it began, one hundred and sixteen days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban jogged through the trees, his black staff in his right hand.
Spider webs hung from the branches overhead like ragged veils.
No mortal spider had woven those webs.
The web-wrapped skeletons proved that.
Ridmark made his way around the trunk of a towering tree, his eyes sweeping the uneven ground before him, his ears straining to detect any sign of foes. Bits of webbing clung to the worn leather of his boots in pale, sticky strands. Overhead a dozen mummified corpses hung from the web-wrapped branches like grotesque, misshapen fruits, swaying a little in the cold breeze coming down from the mountains of Vhaluusk. Ridmark spotted a dozen desiccated orcs wrapped in the strands, a pair of dvargir in their dark armor, three lizard-like kobolds, the hulk of a troll, and even the half-human, half-wolfish form of a lupivir, its crumbling hide clinging to its yellowed bones.
The urdmordar did not discriminate in their appetites.
The prospect of facing an urdmordar concerned Ridmark a great deal. There had been millennia, he knew, when the great spider-demons had ruled vast empires unchallenged, feeding upon whom they wished and doing as they pleased. Ridmark had faced urdmordar twice before and barely survived, and he had no wish to fight an urdmordar a third time.
Right now, he was more concerned about the servants of the urdmordar.
Ridmark completed his circuit of the tree and stopped. The forest was silent around him, save for the whisper of the wind through the leaves and the dull creak of the mummified corpses swaying in their webbed cocoons. The forest might have looked deserted, save for the dead, but Ridmark had spent years wandering the forests and hills and mountains of the Wilderland, and he knew that dangers lurked in the trees.
As if the desiccated corpses were not proof enough of that.
The urdmordar were deadly and powerful, but they did not do their grisly work alone. The spider-devils attracted worshippers. A sword or a spear in the hands of a devoted cultist of the urdmordar could kill just as easily as the talons of one of the great spider-devils themselves.
Ridmark paused for a moment, noting the recent footprints upon the ground. There had been five men, he thought, maybe six, and they had passed this way recently. Then they had come to a stop, standing as if in a debate, and scattered. Ridmark followed the tracks, one set of them heading towards a nearby tree…
The realization hit him. The men had known that he had been following them.
So they had set a trap for him.
Ridmark dodged just as a dark shape appeared from around a nearby tree, a bow in hand. An arrow hissed past Ridmark and struck the tree behind him with a loud thud. The archer stepped closer, raising his bow for another shot. Ridmark’s foe was an orcish man, about six and a half feet tall, with skin the color of a summer forest and hard black eyes glimmering with the crimson light of orcish battle rage. The orc wore leather armor, a sword at his waist, and his short hunting bow turned towards Ridmark.
An eight-pointed star had been cut into his forehead, and two of the lines stretched to cover each of his temples, while the others curled down his tusked jaw. The scars made it look as if a giant spider had been carved into his face. The orcish man was an arachar, a sworn warrior of an urdmordar, and had ingested the blood of an urdmordar to make himself stronger and faster than the already considerable strength of an orcish man.
Fortunately, the blood of an urdmordar made him no less mortal.
Ridmark charged as the arachar drew back his bowstring. The bow creaked, and Ridmark swung his staff, the end of the long weapon impacting the bow just as the arachar released. The arrow tumbled away with a twang, and the arachar roared in fury and swung his bow like a staff. Ridmark parried, twisted to the side, and turned, the black staff once carried by the high elven archmage Ardrhythain a dark blur in his hands. The staff slammed into the back of the arachar’s right knee with a loud crack, and the warrior stumbled forward. Ridmark whipped the staff around and drove its length against the back of the warrior’s skull, and the arachar went sprawling, his limbs twitching.
A roar rang out from the nearby trees, and Ridmark whirled as four more arachar burst from concealment. Likely they had planned to let the archer shoot him, and then emerge from hiding to kill him. No – more likely they wanted to take him alive before whatever urdmordar they served. The urdmordar had uses for corpses, but living prey was more to their liking.
Ridmark would just have to disappoint the urdmordar and her servants.
He met the charging arachar warriors. The spearmen came first, while the two swordsmen fell back, preparing to circle Ridmark and flank him. The spearman on the right drew back his weapon to strike, but Ridmark moved first. His staff lashed out, catching the spear behind its head, and he drove the weapon to the ground. Before the spearman recovered, Ridmark raised his staff and thrust its butt into the arachar’s throat. The orc stumbled back, gagging, and Ridmark did not wait to see if he had landed a killing blow or not. He whirled, swinging the staff before him, and deflected the incoming strike from the spearman on his left. The arachar roared a furious curse in the orcish tongue and reversed his weapon, swinging the butt of the spear at Ridmark’s head. Ridmark ducked, jabbing the staff as he did, and drove the end of his weapon into the arachar’s knee. He did not land the hit with enough force to break bone, but the arachar stumbled, and as Ridmark straightened up he managed a glancing blow on the orc’s arm, unbalancing the warrior further.
One of the swordsmen slashed at him, shouting a name that Ridmark did not catch, and Ridmark parried, deflected the edge of the blade upon his staff.
“Human worm!” snarled the orc in the rough language of the Wilderland, and Ridmark retreated as the second swordsman drew closer and the surviving spearman regained his balance. “A staff? The weapon of a dog! A warrior carries steel into battle!” He brandished his sword as if to emphasize his point. “Your little stick is a child’s toy!”
“So it is,” said Ridmark, looking back and forth. The spearman he had hit in the throat had stopped moving, leaving three arachar to face. “A toy, you say? Then let’s play.”
As a boy Ridmark would have agreed with the arachar, but had made the mistake of boasting of his skill with a sword within earshot of his father. Leogrance Arban had promptly arranged for his sword-wielding youngest son to face a middle-aged man-at-arms armed with a staff. Ridmark’s amused contempt had turned to alarm and then a lot of pain as the man-at-arms gave him a thorough thrashing. Ridmark hadn’t broken any bones, but only because the man-at-arms had shown him mercy.
It was a lesson he had taken to heart. He was a branded exile, no longer a Swordbearer, and could not carry a soulblade, could not even bring himself to carry a blade of normal steel. So he carried a staff instead, but as he had learned as a boy, a quarterstaff in the hands of a skilled wielder was equal to a sword.
It was a lesson the arachar orcs were about to learn.
“Then die!” screamed the arachar swordsman. “Die in the name of great…” The orc shouted a long name, likely the name of his urdmordar, though the orc spoke so quickly Ridmark could not catch it. He beat aside the orc’s thrust and retreated, using the uneven ground and his own speed to stay ahead of the orcs’ attacks.
Something blurred before his eyes, and the arachar spearman went rigid with a gurgling cry. An arrow had sprouted from the side of his neck. Ridmark risked a glance to the side and saw a young woman standing some distance away, her bow extended. She wore worn clothes of wool and leather, and her cloak was a peculiar tattered mass of dark green and brown strips, a wooden staff slung over her back. Her black hair had been pulled away from her pale, severe face, and her eyes were black and hard as coal.
The remaining two arachar looked at Morigna, and then at Ridmark. Shouts rang from the forest, and more orcish arachar emerged from the trees, some running towards Ridmark, others dashing at Morigna.
He had no choice but to fight, hoping to force his way to Morigna’s side.
Morigna raised her bow and loosed another arrow. Her aim was true, and the shaft caught one of the charging orcs in the neck. Her lip twisted with contempt. The idiots had not bothered to wear helmets.
Ridmark sprang to the attack, his gray elven cloak flaring behind him, the staff of the archmage Ardrhythain in his hand, the armored cuirass of dark elven steel he wore glinting in the gloomy light that filtered through the web-choked branches. He moved like a lion through jackals, striking right and left with his staff and leaving corpses in his wake. The fools that ruled his High Kingdom of Andomhaim had branded him with the mark of a broken sword upon his left cheek, a coward’s brand, but that had been folly. If not for Ridmark Arban, Shadowbearer would have already triumphed. He would have murdered the Keeper of Andomhaim and opened the gate to the world of the Frostborn. The pompous lords of Andomhaim never dreamed of the danger that threatened them from without and did not even suspect the cancer that ate them from within. If not for Ridmark, Andomhaim would have been overrun by now.
The fools would see the truth. And if not, Morigna would make them see the truth.
But first, she and Ridmark had to survive.
Three of the spider-scarred orcs charged at Morigna, swords in hand. Ridmark had feared they might encounter such warriors. He called them arachar, and according to him, arachar orcs worshipped an urdmordar as a goddess and drank of her blood in a blasphemous mockery of the church’s communion rite. The blood of an urdmordar gave the arachar strength and speed and resiliency beyond that of a normal orc.
Morigna was unimpressed.
She had fought the Devout, the mutated orcish servants of the Warden of Urd Morlemoch. She had faced the Anathgrimm, the bone-armored orcish warriors of the late, unlamented Traveler. She had faced the Artificer and the Warden in the heart of their power, had seen the face of Shadowbearer himself in Khald Azalar.
Some idiot pagan orcs with a damned spider carved onto their ugly faces did not frighten her at all.
Nevertheless, they could kill her, so Morigna loosed another arrow. She caught the nearest arachar in the knee, and the orcish warrior stumbled but kept coming. She dropped her bow and yanked her staff from its leather strap, pointing the weapon at them. One the arachar barked out a harsh laugh. She had heard the warrior taunt Ridmark, so no doubt the arachar thought that the only thing more ridiculous than a man with a staff was a human woman with a staff. No doubt Ridmark had inflicted enough broken bones by now to teach them otherwise.
Morigna did not intend to hit them with her staff.
She focused her will and drew upon the power of the ground beneath her boots, the magic of earth and stone and rock. Purple fire flared over the length of her staff, and the strength of the earth rushed through Morigna, bending to her will. The magic felt hard and immutable, as strong and as unyielding as the mountains.
Something else stirred in her mind, a dark whisper like a serpent hissing in the shadows. Another kind of magic waited within her, magic laced with shadows and corruption. With that magic, she could have dominated the arachar and made them kneel before her, or twisted their flesh and made their blood turn to poison in their veins.
The magic, if she used it, would twist her into a monster.
Morigna had spent all her life yearning after power, but she had never thought the power she wielded might warp her into a nightmarish creature like the ones she had faced with Ridmark.
So she ignored the dark magic and instead worked a spell of earth magic.
She gestured with her free hand, and the ground rippled and folded, looking almost like a banner snapping in a brisk wind. The wave surged beneath the boots of the charging arachar and sent them sprawling. Morigna worked another spell, calling upon the earth to rise and fill the air with poison. A ball of white mist shimmered into existence over the stunned arachar, roiling as if it contained a miniature storm. Morigna gestured, and the ball of mist rolled over the head of the nearest arachar.
There was a hideous, sizzling hiss, and the arachar shrieked as the acidic mist chewed into his flesh, melting the skin and muscle from his head. Morigna gestured again, and the ball of mist soared from the dying arachar and towards his two companions. Both arachar snarled in fury and scrambled to their feet, getting away from the mist, and Morigna lost the spell, the mist unraveling. The orcish warriors caught their balance and charged at her again, swords drawn back to strike.
Morigna swept her staff before her, focusing her will and her magic through the wood. The symbols she had carved into the staff’s length pulsed with purple fire, and her will reached into the ground beneath her boots, commanding the roots to obey. The roots uncoiled from the ground like the writhing tentacles of some great sea beast, and wrapped around the legs and arms of the remaining two arachar. The roots would not hold them for long, not with their enhanced strength, but they slowed the orcs long enough for Morigna to cast another spell.
Again the white acidic mist rolled over the arachar warriors, the skin of their faces bubbling and hissing. The mist flowed into their nostrils, killing them.
Their precious spider-scars had not saved them.
Morigna watched them die without the slightest flicker of pity. They would have killed her, if given the chance. Or they would have taken her for their urdmordar to devour. Or they might have killed Ridmark, and anyone who lifted their hands against her or Ridmark deserved whatever harm she could inflict upon them.
Thinking of Ridmark snapped her head around, and she sought him as she summoned more magical power. A half-dozen dead arachar warriors littered the ground, and Ridmark fought two remaining arachar swordsmen, the black staff a blur in his hands. Morigna started to bend her will towards his opponents, but it was hardly necessary. The arachar were skilled and fierce, and the urdmordar poison in their veins made them stronger and faster than Ridmark.
He was just better than them.
His staff snapped right and left, parrying the thrusts of the arachar swords, and he spun the weapon, the end catching the nearest arachar in the face. The orc’s head snapped back with an agonized roar, and Ridmark crushed his throat with a two-handed swing of the staff. The surviving arachar attacked, and Ridmark parried and shoved, knocking the arachar warrior off-balance. Before the orc recovered, the staff licked out, breaking his kneecap, and the arachar fell with a howl of pain.
Ridmark brought the staff down on arachar’s head, ending the fight.
Morigna looked back and forth, casting another spell of earth magic. With the spell, she sensed the pressure of those standing upon the ground, allowing her to detect any enemies. She felt the corpses lying upon the earth, still and motionless as their blood seeped into the dirt. Yet save for Ridmark, she sensed no one else nearby.
They had won the battle.
Ridmark took a deep breath as he lowered his staff with his right hand, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his left hand.
Morigna retrieved her bow, slung her staff over her shoulder, and hurried to join him.