Prologue

Prologue

A murky darkness hung in the air, shrouding the ruins. The city might have been beautiful once, a cluster of walled manors with elaborate gardens, pillar-lined temples boasting glorious spires, a gilded palace to a long forgotten king and all around the many small stone homes of the common folk. It was likely one of the cities of the ancient Kingdom of Moar, akin to proud Tharthin but fallen into ruin long ago. The city hadn’t been destroyed by fire or war, but rather decayed over time, as if life had been drawn from its very stones. Only a few buildings remained standing in effigy to that ancient civilization; a manor or two, the occasional temple, remnants of the palace, and a mysterious grey tower rising towards the sky from the dark heart of this ruined city.
The black mist clung to the young man’s flesh, chilling him to the bone. Distant howls filled his heart with dread and he quickly clambered over the shattered fragments of a stone wall, desperately seeking a place to hide. That horrible priest and his minions were close, he could feel it. His friends, those still alive, had all fled in different directions when the ghouls set upon them. He cursed that fool wizard, it was his fault things had gone so wrong. ‘That’s the last time’, he told himself, ‘that I’ll follow that greedy mage into some mysterious tower just for the hopes of a full purse.’ But in truth he knew they should never have come here, for they had been told this place was cursed. He had to find a way back to the forest, out of the darkness, back to the light. Foot falls and the scraping of metal on stone told him the things were near. Scrambling down a shaft of rubble, he found a chamber to hide in. It may have once been the dining hall of some aristocrat’s home, but all that remained now were crumbling walls and a gilded mural on the floor depicting handsome knights proudly riding into battle on golden steeds. Squeezing under a fallen stone slab, he laid as still as he could, but his teeth wouldn’t stop chattering and his breath came in shuttering gasps. It came upon him at that moment that he should pray, and so he folded his hands and called to the gods for salvation, “All mighty gods, Lords of the Eternal Realms, masters of man’s fate, grant me this for which I pray. Save me from the horrors of this place and I will put my thieving ways behind me. Help me to escape and I’ll devote myself to the church. I know I’ve never shown you faith before and now my prayers are those of a desperate man, but I swear you this; just save me this one more time and I…” An icy shiver ran down his spine, his breath caught in his throat. He opened his eyes. A face of drawn leather over cracked bones and jagged yellow teeth stared back at him with glowing amber eyes. A black taloned hand lashed out. It was too late for prayers.
Screams in the distance told Aradin that another of his companions had been taken by the ghouls. The monstrous creatures had hauled two of them back to that tower already. He could see it from here, a stone spire rising above the broken streets. The entire structure seemed to pulse with evil. An ominous black light had appeared in the windows of the upper chamber, silently pulsing. With it came the black mist, casting a shadow over the whole city, and the wretched nether creatures that walked the streets. With each pulse he could feel its evil as a stab of ice in his heart and a thousand insects crawling over his back. They had to get away, but he couldn’t leave the others behind. Tyrian and Drak were still in that unholy place. Turning to the two he had led this far, the young knight considered their chances. The woodland ranger was brave and seasoned. He could count on him, but the young wizard was a coward at heart. He couldn’t worry about that though, the others were in trouble and he had to save them. He drew himself up, setting his shield before him, sword in hand, he motioned for them to follow bravely and charged for the temple ruins. He heard the padded boots behind him, and knew the ranger was fast on his heels. They made their way up the street and passed through the broken gates. He didn’t stop, but plowed on at full pace across the courtyard. Broken flag stones tripped him up but he managed to keep his momentum, racing towards the rotting wooden doors, but just then they flew open. Rising before him stood a daunting figure clad in ancient armor and clenching a dragon hilted sword in cracked leather gauntlets. Its time-ravaged breast plate was still wet with his companions’ blood. Ethereal green orbs shone from the sockets of its cracked and blackened skull. “Ramsor!” he cried out. Behind him he heard the ranger let loose an arrow. The sound of iron clad boots rang out in the courtyard as the Dread Lord’s skeletal warriors emerged from the ruins to surround them. He had no choice but to fight. Stabbing his blade into the sky, Aradin invoked his god, “Thamor guide my blade!” and lunged towards one of the undead knights clad in rusted mail and an age-worn tabard. It clenched a fine long blade in its bony hand, and brought its ancient shield up to block Aradin’s attack, but the rotten wood shattered upon impact. Aradin’s sword struck true, driving deeply through the chain shirt and into its chest cavity. The skeletal warrior howled in unliving death as it collapsed upon the stone stairs. Another was upon him before he could recover, slashing his exposed back with its curved haradien blade. The sharp ring of steel filled the air as the sword shred through his cuirass. He felt his flesh slit open and peel away from his raw muscles. Hot blood soaked his silks and the ferrous taste of it filled his mouth. Aradin threw off the pain and spun, facing the khazagand clad skeleton, smashing his shield into its shoulder with bone crushing force. Knowing its long chain shirt, heavily padded under the tabard, would be proof against his sword, he swung a strong downward stroke, hacking through its rigid neck, sending its head rolling across the courtyard.
Turning back to face Ramsor, he let loose a courageous roar and swung his sword with all his might. Steel on steel rang through the air as Ramsor easily parried Aradin’s barrage. The dread lord drove him back with ease, forcing him into the ranger, knocking them to the ground in a heap. Aradin quickly leapt to his feet as the skeletal warriors closed in on them, “Get out of here Shade!”
“Not without you,” the ranger retorted, drawing his short blade and putting his back to Aradin’s.
The undead warriors approached, but Ramsor raised his gauntleted hand and they halted where they stood. He pointed a long finger at the knight and crooked it backwards beckoningly. Then he poised himself for battle, his sword held high at his side.
Aradin bared his teeth and nodded to the challenge. “Step back,” he said to the archer, and he approached Ramsor.
“What are you, crazy?” the ranger yelled, “he’ll kill you, you fool!”
Aradin ignored his friend and concentrated on the moment. Rushing the last few feet, he called upon his god again as he struck, “by Thamor’s might!” The blade hammered Ramsor’s breastplate with a thundering explosion, ripping a crevice in the ancient armor. Ramsor fell back a step, but with lightning speed his sword avenged the wounding blow. Aradin felt the dark blade hack through his right epaulette, rending the steel chains, and cutting through the flesh and bone of his shoulder with ease. The agonizing shock of the blow sent him to knees, but Aradin still swung his blade with all the strength he could muster. Ramsor easily batted it aside. Driven by fury, the young knight tried to rise to his feet again, making him feel weak and sick at the same time. His right side was numb and lifeless, but before he could think about it, a leather gauntlet clenched his throat and lifted him to his feet. Ice seemed to fill his arteries as his warmth bled into the lifeless void of the deathly warrior’s grip. Ramsor set the tip of his blade against Aradin’s ribs. He could feel it biting into his flesh, even as the pain from his crippled shoulder wracked him.
“Thamor?” a deep hollow voice echoed from within its skull as its jaw mocked the motions of speech, “If it is your god you seek, young knight, then it is to him I shall send you!” Aradin struggled in vain to break free.
Marius the wizard ran in full panic down the avenue of overturned buildings and collapsed statues, the cries of death chasing him. Marius didn’t think himself a coward, but he knew a hopeless cause and saw no reason to throw his life away. He passed many structures that may have once been temples or even fine manor homes, but none caught his attention. A loud noise broke the silence somewhere ahead and he quickly ducked into the shadow of a doorway. He heard nothing. Adjusting the heavy bronze cylinder he was hiding under his cloak, he waited. He found it in that ominous tower where there were dozens more of these scroll cases. The others had told him not to go near it, to wait until they’d found the Temple of Reahnyn and recovered the relic, but he knew once they had it there wouldn’t be time to return. He didn’t care about the goddess’ holy objects. There was powerful arcane lore in that tower and he wanted it. That had been a mistake, though, he admitted to himself. They had gone mostly unnoticed until he and the thief had broken into that tower.
He nearly shrieked in shock when someone leapt into the archway with him. “Tyrian, you fool!” he hissed, “are you trying to scare me to death?!”
“Quiet, they’re near!” the thief whispered harshly, “I barely escaped, but they’re hot on my trail. I saw a light ahead; we’re not far from the forest line. I think if we make it to the light we’ll be safe.” He peeked his head out and looked around, “Now’s our chance, hurry!” He rushed out of the hiding space and quietly raced down the street towards the wood line.
Marius hesitated only a moment before quickly pursuing. Falling in behind Tyrian, he too saw the light ahead. Then, from behind them they heard a booming voice, “Nargos de vala kar, Uulazarakhir. E tu vatu de plagius.” The wizard looked back in fear, and saw the tall haggard figure in ragged priestly robes standing at the far end of the street. His ghouls were loping ahead of him, racing towards them. Their master’s gaunt face opened again, revealing rotting teeth and a black tongue. He repeated his chanting, his voice suddenly a thunderous eminence, “Nargos de vala kar, Uulazarakhir. E tu vatu de plagius!” With that a wave of green fog rolled out from him, speeding towards them.
The wizard screamed, and tried to run faster. The break in the forest was just ahead, the light of day shining through the clot of branches; but, the menacing miasma rolled over them before they could make it back to the world of light. Marius felt his body begin to ache and immediately he began a horrible hacking. Sweat beaded on his skin as a fever quickly sapped his strength and he could barely keep his balance as he rushed onwards. Tyrian, also panting, barely made it through. The wizard, though, fell to the ground just before the light. He heard the cackling voracious cries of the ghouls and began clawing at the ground, pulling himself towards the shimmering gap between two trees. It was so close yet so far away. The ghouls were nearly upon him. Just as his fingers touched the warm light of day the icy grip of a ghoul snatched his ankle. He cried out in terror. But just then a hand reached back through the shadowy veil and took his wrist. “Try my friend, you must truly try!” it was Tyrian’s voice. Marius thrust out his other hand and drew upon the last of his arcana, a fan of flames bursting from his finger tips engulfing the ghouls clawing at his feet. They howled in fear and recoiled in pain, giving the wizard just enough time to scramble out of the darkness and into the light. They had escaped.

Book 1, Chapter 1

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