The following is a fantasy/horror novelette I wrote for Privateer Press in 2012 to support that year’s season of organized play for the tabletop miniature games WARMACHINE and HORDES. It is set in the Iron Kingdoms universe and features existing characters from that setting. If you’re unfamiliar with the Iron Kingdoms, here’s a very, very brief description: It is a land like no other, a place where steam power and gunpowder meet sword and sorcery. If you’d like to learn more about Privateer Press and the Iron Kingdoms, I urge you to head on over to the Privateer Press website.
Elyshyvah stared up at the noonday sun and grimaced. She had rarely ventured this far south, and the heat of the late spring was all but intolerable. Before her lay a marshland that eventually merged with the Gnarls. Its still, brackish waters were warmed over and swarming with clouds of biting flies. To a Nyss accustomed to ice, wind, and snow, the terrain felt more hellish than any she had ever encountered. Stepping back into the shade of the forest’s edge, she let the gnarled oak branches shield her from the brunt of the sun’s glare.
Behind Elyshyvah, a dozen Nyss striders hunkered in the shade, enduring the heat without complaint. They, like she, bore the blessings of Everblight upon their flesh, though theirs were far more obvious: transfigured legs granted them swift speed, and bony barbs protruded from their limbs and faces. Elyshyvah’s blight was far subtler, with few physical manifestations beyond a pattern of purplish spots that ran from the base of her neck to the small of her back. As a battle shepherd, her gifts were more oriented toward her natural sorcerous talents and the manipulation of the Legion’s fearsome dragonspawn.
The final member of Elyshyvah’s band lurked farther back, in the deeper shadows of the forest. The nephilim stood silently, its clawed hands wrapped around the stock of an immense crossbow and its eyeless head slowly panning from side to side, seeing everything through a sense that was not quite sight.
The band had traveled from the north through the great forest the humans and trollkin called the Olgunholt and crossed the Dragon’s Tongue River, taking great pains to pass unnoticed. The servants of Everblight had many enemies this far south, and Elyshyvah’s small band would be easy prey for the well-armed groups of trollkin and humans in the area. Her small force, however, was quite skilled at getting in and out of enemy territory quickly and quietly. Her mistress, Vayl, also known as the Consul of Everblight, had chosen her and her striders for this very reason, tasking them with infiltrating dangerous areas in search of items of keen interest to Vayl—and through her, the dragon Everblight. Because of her unique role, Elyshyvah enjoyed great latitude and autonomy, freedom that had enabled her to recover several important artifacts for her mistress.
To complete her missions, Elyshyvah often had to work with those who would be considered enemies under other circumstances. Such was the case now. Vayl had forged an alliance with a human sorceress called Fiona the Black, who knew the location of an ancient Orgoth site they both wished to explore. Elyshyvah and her band of striders had been dispatched to meet with one of the human sorceress’ subordinates. Elyshyvah knew little of Fiona the Black other than that she worshipped the human god Thamar.
“Elyshyvah,” a deep, masculine voice whispered behind her. She hadn’t heard Ryvar approach, but she was keenly aware of the strider assassin’s proximity.
Elyshyvah turned to face him, planting the butt of her battle staff in the ground before her. “What is it, Ryvar?” she asked, her tone icy.
Ryvar was large by Nyss standards, even for those who bore the dragon’s blight. He stood easily a foot taller than Elyshyvah, his limbs corded with lean muscle and his deft, long-fingered hands equally at home wielding his curved sword, drawing the recurved bow across his back, or strangling the life from an opponent with sheer strength alone. He and his partner, Kyryl, held a unique position among Everblight’s striders; the pair operated as a skilled assassination team tasked with slaying targets chosen by the dragon’s warlocks.
“We are eager to set forth,” Ryvar said in his low, hissing voice. The whispered croak was a battle souvenir from years before, when a Tharn warrior had ripped open his throat. “Vayl requires quickness of action in this matter.”
Elyshyvah’s fingers tightened around her staff. “I am aware of what Vayl requires, Ryvar,” she said. “Do not forget I have served the Consul ably for many years.”
“Of course,” Ryvar replied. One corner of his thin lips turning up in a subtle smirk. “Although you have not been so able of late.” He glanced pointedly at Elyshyvah’s left leg. A livid scar marred the ivory flesh there, just below the edge of her boiled-leather skirt. The Iosan warcaster Kaelyssa had inflicted the wound more than a year before. After taking part in the destruction of an Iosan stronghold in the Thundercliff Peaks, Elyshyvah had tracked Kaelyssa to a dwarven fortress the Iosan had fled to for refuge and engaged the warcaster in single combat. The reward for her hubris had been an overwhelming defeat and a wound she would carry the rest of her days.
Even worse, her surviving striders had pulled her from the battle and taken her, feeble and shamed, before Vayl. The Consul of Everblight had not raged and threatened Elyshyvah with pain and death; Vayl had no use for such crude measures. Instead, she had ordered Elyshyvah to heal her wounds and had bidden her return to her duties when she was able. When Elyshyvah had later assembled her striders, she had discovered that Ryvar and Kyryl had been added to her band—their presence a subtle reminder that failure would not be tolerated a second time.
“Return to the shade, Ryvar,” Elyshyvah said. “I would not have you waste your strength in this heat before I have need of you.”
“As you wish,” Ryvar said and bowed. “When you do have need, Kyryl and I will be very close.” He then returned to his partner, who squatted at the foot of a large and misshapen oak, running a whetstone over the edge of her sword.
Turning her attention back to the marsh, Elyshyvah was relieved to see a dozen forms moving slowly toward her through the mire. A black-robed figure led the group, presumably the representative of the satyxis pirate and warcaster Fiona the Black.
“Melech,” Elyshyvah called out to her nephilim bolt thrower. The creature turned its great, eyeless head toward her at the sound of its name. “Come to me.” It responded immediately and moved to stand next to her. The huge dragonspawn towered over her, and its bulk filled her with pride and confidence.
Elyshyvah remained at the edge of the forest in plain sight, letting the humans wade through the muck. She wasn’t about to enter the marsh again if she didn’t have to. When they reached the sward that buffered the marsh from the forest, she turned to address her striders. “Remain here. I want bows in hand, but do not nock arrows or draw unless I give the command.” She then moved beyond the shade of the trees with Melech following.
The approaching humans wore loose-fitting shirts and trousers and were armed with pistols and an assortment of close-combat weapons, mostly basket-hilted swords and short-hafted axes. Their skin was brown and leathery from constant exposure to the sun and the salty spray of the ocean. They looked lean and hard, if somewhat undisciplined. The leader was dressed similarly to the rest, though his garb was predominately black and seemed both cleaner and of higher quality. He carried no weapon, but a priest of the dark goddess likely had other ways to defend himself.
The group halted a dozen yards away, and the man in black advanced alone. Behind him, the rest eyed the hulking form of Melech, their hands lingering on pistol butts and sword hilts. The man in black seemed unfazed by the nephilim, and he walked briskly in Elyshyvah’s direction.
The Thamarite’s dark hair was cropped short to the scalp, and the hair on his face had been neatly sculpted around his mouth and chin. His brow was wide and clear, and his eyes shone a vivid blue that reminded her of clear northern skies. She supposed he was comely by the standards that humans judged such things.
“You are Elyshyvah?” the man said in Aeric, his barbarous accent betraying his unfamiliarity with the language. “What tongues can you speak?”
Her grasp of human languages was limited, but she had a working knowledge of Khardic and Cygnaran. She chose the latter, for the man did not have the look of the north about him. “I am she.”
“I am called Garrus,” he replied, also in Cygnaran. “My mistress bade me give you this.” He held out a folded scrap of parchment, which Elyshyvah took and opened. Scrawled on the parchment was the symbol Vayl had told her to expect: tripartite arrows on a black field. It was the symbol of the goddess Thamar, the deity whom Fiona the Black served. It was also the sign that this was Fiona’s chosen representative.
Elyshyvah nodded and handed the parchment back to Garrus, who tucked it away beneath his robe. “You will take us to the tomb,” she said.
“I will,” Garrus said, “as long as you understand the terms.”
“The terms have not changed.” Elyshyvah bristled. “The sword belongs to your mistress; the tome belongs to mine.” She placed one hand on Melech’s scaly forearm. “I will keep the agreement as long as you do.”
“Good,” Garrus replied, ignoring Elyshyvah’s subtle threat. “Then let us proceed.”
Garrus walked a few paces behind the Nyss female and the hulking dragonspawn beside her. Her warriors, whom she had called striders, moved ahead of her in the direction he had indicated based on the encoded notes Fiona had provided him. His own men followed in a ragged line. They walked abreast in small groups of three or four with all the skill one could expect of men more accustomed to the rolling decks of a ship than tangled forest depths. Still, the sea dogs were handpicked from the crew of the Ill Fortune, Fiona’s own ship, and he knew they were adept with the pistols, swords, and axes they carried.
Elyshyvah had not spoken since the two groups had begun moving south toward their goal. She and her soldiers seemed quite savage. The effect of dragonblight on their bodies interested Garrus, though, and he welcomed the rare chance to observe it up close.
Even more intriguing than the blighted Nyss was the dragonspawn that accompanied them. Garrus knew he was likely one of the few humans in western Immoren to come so close to one of the beasts and live to tell about it. Humanoid, it stood upon two wide, taloned feet, and its long, sinewy arms ended in four-fingered hands. The dragonspawn gripped a crossbow the size of a small ballista, telling Garrus it possessed intellect beyond that of a simple beast. It was a fascinating creature, and he would like nothing more than to study it in more detail—preferably on his vivisection table.
Garrus turned his thoughts back to the task at hand. Fiona had entrusted him above all others to seek out the Orgoth tomb and retrieve Harrowdim, the legendary blade reputedly interred there. Fiona’s interest in the blade was understandable; the fell magic of the Orgoth was compelling to any who sought deeper understanding of the occult. He was honored she had chosen him to complete this task.
The trees slowly thinned, and what oaks and poplars remained were quite lifeless, their bare branches skeletal and twisted. Eventually, the terrain stood completely devoid of life. Garrus frowned, puzzled. Nothing he had been told had led him to expect this kind of devastation. Beneath their feet, the ground crunched and crackled as their tread reduced layers of detritus to grey powder. He glanced at the Nyss leader and saw that her expression was grim.
“What happened here?” she asked in Cygnaran, glancing around at the still, dead landscape.
“The Orgoth’s necromantic magic could weaken and kill living things,” Garrus replied, moving up to walk beside her, “but I would have expected such energies to have faded long ago . . .” Elyshyvah nodded, but her expression remained dark, and they continued in silence.
The group soon emerged into a clearing of chalky earth from which the stumps of long-dead trees thrust up like the rotting teeth of some great, decrepit beast. In the center rose a broad mound of earth and stone ringed by six rune-etched pillars, each ten or so feet in height and appearing to be of more recent construction than the ancient barrow. One side of the tomb was dominated by a dark opening outlined in black stone and so large it could easily have accommodated something twice the height of a man and several times as wide. The huge stone slab that must have sealed the tomb lay on the ground nearby. The Nyss woman growled, and Garrus himself felt a pang of dismay that the seal had been breached.
Elyshyvah gestured to one of her band, and the striders took positions around the clearing, slinging their bows in favor of their short, curved swords. The dragonspawn stayed near her. Garrus directed his own men nearer to the mound and then moved to examine one of the monoliths more closely.
Watching him, Elyshyvah said, “What of these pillars? They are not Orgoth. Do you recognize the runes?”
“They are trollkin-made. A warning, perhaps, or some kind of ward.”
“A ward? Will they bar our passage?”
Garrus shook his head. “I do not think so; they are likely meant to limit the spread of whatever energies linger here.”
Elyshyvah nodded stiffly before moving off to speak with one of her striders, a large male whom Garrus had noticed held himself apart from the rest.
“Yorvek,” Garrus called out to his group of sea dogs. A dark-skinned man with a bandolier of pistols across his chest moved to stand before him. “We’re going in, Bosun,” Garrus said. “I want torches lit and weapons ready. Choose two men to keep watch up top.”
“Aye,” Yorvek said before heading back to his men.
Garrus turned his attention back to Elyshyvah and saw that she had issued orders similar to his own. Most of the striders and her dragonspawn were moving toward the opening of the barrow mound; the remaining two striders stood near the edge of the clearing. The big male she had recently spoken with was handing her a lit torch; he appeared to be staying behind.
“I am ready,” Elyshyvah said as she approached the mound. She pointed to the entrance with her bladed staff. “You will go first.”
Garrus restrained a grimace at her obvious distrust. He himself wasn’t entirely happy with the thought of ten blighted Nyss and a dragonspawn at his back as he descended into a gloom-haunted tomb, but he doubted Elyshyvah would betray him before they had explored the barrow mound completely. He was far more concerned with the possibility of Orgoth traps. He would just have to make the best of it. The Nyss would most likely trip something in their ignorance, and he couldn’t take the chance.
“Very well,” he said, “but it is vital you and your . . . people follow my instructions. The Orgoth did not look kindly on trespassers.” He took a lit torch from Yorvek and held it aloft. The scattered light revealed a steep passageway of smooth worked stone that led into the earth. The stale air that wafted from the depths of the tomb smelled faintly of rot. “Stay behind me,” he said to his men over his shoulder and stepped across the threshold into the dark.
Elyshyvah sent her dragonspawn behind the humans and followed it into the darkness. She could hear its talons clicking surely against the stone floor; it had no need of a torch to see. Her striders came after her, their movements careful in the unnatural surroundings.
The procession moved slowly, a pace set by the cautious progress of the priest in the lead. Elyshyvah studied the walls of the descending passage as they continued. They were bare for the most part, but occasionally she spotted what looked like more trollkin runes scrawled into the stone. Other places showed finely sculpted faces, leering and demonic. They were part of a common motif she knew to be associated with Orgoth ruins and artifacts.
Several times the group came upon skeletons lying in the slanted passage, suggesting more recent intrusion. Near these and several other times, the Thamarite priest bid the others to stop as he examined the walls and their markings. Seeming to know the ways of the Orgoth and their traps, he warned them against stepping on certain stones. Several times he pushed his fingers into nearly invisible openings and prompted grinding sounds within the walls, deactivating whatever deadly surprises would have sprung upon them.
After a long period of torch-lit gloom, Elyshyvah noticed a glow ahead. The yellowish light gradually grew in intensity, spilling up the passage and casting strange, distorted shadows upon the walls. As they approached, she realized it emanated from a sizable, open chamber at the end of the passage.
Garrus and his men moved into the room without hesitation. Elyshyvah held up her right hand and raised her index and middle fingers. Behind her, she heard the striders respond to her signal by sheathing their swords and unslinging their bows. The chamber ahead looked to be large enough for missile fire.
As Elyshyvah moved into the circular chamber, she was stunned by its sheer size. Constructed of worked stone and stretching hundreds of feet in diameter, it boasted a domed ceiling that rose 30 feet or more into the air. The ceiling was covered in strange sigils and more of the bestial faces she had seen in the passage. A huge pit containing a towering bonfire dominated the center of the room, its flames a vivid yellow that burned with unnatural brightness and without apparent fuel.
Though largely barren, the chamber featured a mammoth throne of black stone that sat on a raised dais across from the entrance, to the north. Scattered in front of the throne were the broken remains of dozens of skeletons. Most still clutched rusting iron weapons or cruder stone weapons and were clad in the tattered remains of clothing or armor. Upon the throne sat the mummified corpse of a large man in elaborate steel armor. A naked sword rested upon its knees.
Garrus and his men had begun moving toward the throne, giving the fire pit a wide berth. With Melech behind her, Elyshyvah followed. Her striders spread out along the perimeter of the chamber, bows in hand and arrows nocked.
As they neared the throne, Elyshyvah could make out more details of the ancient armor worn by its occupant. It looked decidedly Orgoth. Breastplate, greaves, and vambraces all bore grotesque humanoid faces, disturbingly elongated to accommodate the piece of armor they each adorned. A conical, open-faced helm with curling steel horns sat upon the corpse’s bowed head.
When Elyshyvah joined Garrus in front of the throne, he pointed to the great sword that rested on the Orgoth warrior’s knees and said, “That is Harrowdim.” The single-edged weapon resembled a two-handed falchion. Howling, bestial faces shifted and writhed on the blade’s surface, their tortured countenances glowing a faint acid-green.
“Then take it,” she replied.
Garrus shook his head. “I don’t think it will be so easy,” he warned. “Harrowdim is too great a prize to be unguarded.” He stared at the throne and the figure upon it, lost in thought.
Elyshyvah looked down at the skeletal remains in front of the throne. They all bore the telltale signs of violent death: cracked ribs, broken skulls, and shivered weapons. Most had clearly been there for many years, but shreds of desiccated flesh clung to the bones of a few, indicating more recent death. One of the skeletons was smaller and finer-boned than the others, and it clutched an oversized tome covered in leather dyed a deep blue. Her eyes fixed on its surface, but she gave no outward sign of interest.
Garrus’ voice brought her attention back to the throne and the sword. “I see no indication of wards or traps. There must be a guardian.” He turned and scanned the walls, but his frown indicated he saw no more sign of another entrance than she did.
“A guardian, we could fight,” she said flatly. “How do we find it?”
Garrus looked at her evenly, a predatory smile on his lips. “We lure it out.”
He turned toward his men, who had kept a short distance back, and pointed to a light-haired one near the edge of the chamber. “You,” he called out. “Retrieve the sword.” The sea dog hesitated, grumbling, then cursed as his fellows looked to him with darkened faces. He moved toward the throne with his pistol raised, trying not to step on any of the skeletons heaped in front of it.
When he reached the throne, the man stretched out one hand and curled his fingers around the worn leather wrap of the great sword’s hilt. Sweat was beading on his brow. He lifted the weapon cautiously, and a relieved smile broke upon his weathered face. Sword in hand, he turned and started back toward Garrus. He made it exactly three paces before stopping suddenly, his features twisting in agony.
“Look at the blade,” Garrus whispered.
The writhing faces along Harrowdim’s length had grown much brighter. Their lurid illumination had taken on an almost tangible quality, creeping up the sea dog’s arm in tendrils of emerald radiance. The man fell to his knees, features pinched in obvious pain as the awful green glow quickly enveloped his entire body.
Elyshyvah watched with morbid fascination as his flesh began to wither, collapsing around his bones as if the green fire that limned his body was wringing the life from his flesh. His mouth hung open and stretched wider and wider as the skin became paper-thin and pulled taut across his skull. His eyes shriveled in their sockets, collapsing inward before disappearing completely. Remarkably, he remained alive as the sword greedily sucked the life from his flesh. Even after the man was reduced to nothing more than a husk, he still twitched, spindly fingers wrapped around Harrowdim’s hilt. Finally, he became still, and the sword fell from his grip and clattered to the stone floor.
The sword was glowing fiercely, and the radiance rose to a searing intensity that forced all in the room to shield their eyes. The painful illumination slowly dimmed and eventually winked out like a candle snuffed by the wind.
Elyshyvah removed her forearm from her eyes and curled her fingers around her battle staff. She immediately saw that the humans had pointed pistols at the throne, and her striders had drawn their bows, barbed arrows twinkling in the firelight. Melech hissed and raised its crossbow.
The Orgoth corpse was a corpse no longer. It stood in front of the throne, bronze skin visible in the gaps of its armor. The face that stared out from beneath its helm possessed a noble bearing, with a wide jaw, a hawkish nose, and deep-set eyes the color of onyx.
The warrior walked slowly forward and stooped at the strider’s remains to retrieve Harrowdim. His movement was all that was needed to break the murderous tension in the room. The muted slap of strider bowstrings striking leather vambraces sounded and was quickly followed by the thunderous roar of the sea dogs’ pistols. A hail of arrows and pistol shot struck the Orgoth warrior, driving him back a number of steps to the base of his throne, but they fell to the floor in a litter of broken shafts and flattened lead balls. The fusillade of missiles seemed to have had little effect.
The thunder of gunfire gave way to the desperate fury of reloading as the sea dogs rammed fresh cartridges into the breaches of their weapons. The striders continued to fire, smoothly nocking arrows, drawing, and releasing again and again.
The Orgoth warrior hefted Harrowdim, and his wide mouth split in a feral grin. Suddenly, the deep thrum of Melech’s crossbow filled the chamber. The huge bolt struck the warrior’s breastplate, slamming him back against the throne. The projectile had penetrated armor and the flesh below, leaving nearly two feet of fletched bolt projecting from his body.
The Orgoth recovered his balance instantly. The dark rage that filled his aquiline features was ancient and terrifying. He reached up with one hand, ripped the bolt from his chest, and flung it away. He then took Harrowdim in both hands and disappeared.
A heartbeat later, Elyshyvah heard Melech screech. She turned to see the dragonspawn on its knees before the warrior, black blood pouring from a gigantic wound in its abdomen. The Orgoth’s sword flashed, and the nephilim’s head came away from its body in a spray of blood.
A burst of reprising gunfire followed Melech’s death, but the warrior had vanished again. Elyshyvah dropped her torch and whirled around in place, holding her battle staff out in front of her in a protective stance. The entire chamber had erupted into a cacophony of Nyss and human voices crying out in confusion and rage.
The warrior reappeared in the middle of a group of sea dogs, his sword flickering: once, twice, three times. Then he was gone, leaving three corpses behind. Seconds later, he appeared again on the other side of the chamber next to two striders, and Harrowdim slaked its thirst for carnage on Nyss flesh. Strider arrows and sea dog pistol shots slammed into the wall as the warrior vanished again.
Silence reigned for a moment, and then the Orgoth reappeared on his throne, Harrowdim resting once again on his knees. Rivulets of blood ran sluggishly down the gore-spattered blade and onto the warrior’s armored legs before dripping to the stone floor.
Sea dog pistols and Nyss bows swung toward the throne, causing Elyshyvah and Garrus to cry out in near-unison in their respective tongues: “Hold your fire!”
The Orgoth warrior stared down at the figures before him, his black eyes glittering. “You dare intrude upon my court?” he asked, booming voice filling every inch of the colossal chamber. “You will pay your respects before this throne or suffer for your temerity.” He spoke Cygnaran, but in an accent unlike anything Elyshyvah had ever heard.
Garrus stepped forward and kneeled before the throne. “Forgive our intrusion, Great One,” he said, voice shaking. “We did not come seeking to rouse your ire.”
The Orgoth warrior’s gaze shifted to Elyshyvah. She felt its weight upon her as a tangible thing, a dark and stifling malevolence. “What of you, pale one?” he asked. “Too haughty to kneel before your better?”
Elyshyvah inclined her head. “I, too, mean no disrespect, but I cannot kneel before this throne,” she said, wondering if those words would be her last. “My fealty belongs to one greater even than you.”
“Greater than me?” The warrior threw back his head and laughed. “You have spine, cold one. I admire that in a slave. Kneel or stand; it makes no difference to me.”
Garrus rose to his feet. “I am called Garrus,” he said. ”The one whom I serve has sent me to treat with you. That is what brought us to your . . . hall.”
“What is it you seek?” the Orgoth inquired. “I have no treasure, and even my slaves are naught but bones now.”
Garrus, perhaps unconsciously, glanced at the shriveled corpse of the sea dog before the throne. The act did not escape the Orgoth’s attention.
“Of course, you seek the blade,” he said, placing one hand on Harrowdim’s hilt. ”I will not keep it from you.” He grasped the sword by the blade and held it out hilt-first. “Come forward and take it.”
“My mistress has much interest in Harrowdim,” Garrus admitted, though he took a step away from the throne.
“No?” the warrior said, grinning. “And you?” He pointed the hilt toward Elyshyvah.
She said nothing.
The warrior returned the sword to his lap and settled back into his throne. “It has been long years since anyone worthy has come seeking the sword,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Garrus asked.
“The blade has grown heavy these long years. I would be inclined to pass it on to one worthy of its power,” the warrior said. “Perhaps one of you.”
“How do I—we—prove our worth?” Garrus asked, glancing at Elyshyvah. She did not like what she saw in the human’s eyes.
The Orgoth warrior smiled, showing a neat row of perfect white teeth. “You survive.”
Grigor Orlov ripped his axe from the corpse of the Nyss warrior at his feet. The opponent had proved tougher than he had anticipated, weathering a blast from his Vanguard’s shield cannon before charging into melee with his sword. He had been forced to dispatch the creature with his rune axe. The other Nyss in the clearing had vanished into the dead forest, and Grigor hadn’t bothered to send any of his Winter Guard out after him.
Ahead, near the immense barrow mound, his allies stood over the mangled corpses of two humans—seamen by the look of them, not unlike those he’d seen crewing privateer ships operating out of Five Fingers and other unsavory ports. The trollkin’s axes had made short work of the pirates, but a trollkin warrior had also been slain. Grigor supposed a pistol ball in the brainpan was an injury from which even the incredibly resilient trollkin could not recover.
“Do you recognize these men?” a female trollkin asked, breaking away from the other warriors and approaching Grigor. This was Janissa Stonetide, a trollkin runeshaper of some repute. She was tall and well formed, with the pale skin of a shaman or sorcerer among her kind. She wore a stout skirt of rune-carved stones over ring mail. Her weapon was an immense war pick, its steel head inscribed with more runes.
“That one has the mark of Thamar on his arm.” Grigor pointed to one of the dead humans with a large tattoo in the shape of three arrows. “My guess is they belong to Fiona the Black.”
“Then what the crone said is true,” Janissa said. “They seek Harrowdim.”
“So it would seem,” he said. “But what of this twisted creature?” He gestured to the dead Nyss at his feet.
“Dragon-blighted Nyss,” Janissa answered. “My people have battled these abominations in the north. It is odd, however, to see one so far south, and even odder that they would be working with these pirates. I have never heard of them allying with anyone.”
As a koldun lord, Grigor possessed passing knowledge of the twisted Nyss, though he had never seen one before now. He knew their leaders were powerful sorcerers who might be interested in an Orgoth artifact.
“Two men and two Nyss, standing watch,” he said. “The rest of them must be below.”
Janissa nodded. “Likely.”
Grigor looked around the clearing. It stood as an immense scar in the middle of the great forest, a space of dry, lifeless earth 200 yards in diameter. The Orgoth barrow mound sat in the middle of the clearing ringed by six pillars inlaid with runes. “These columns,” he asked, “what is their purpose?”
“My people placed them here centuries ago to contain the evil within,” Janissa said. “But their power is fading.”
“Can you restore them?” Grigor asked. Zevanna Agha had directed him to assist Janissa, though she hadn’t told him why. The trollkin shaman’s skill at creating and repairing the runic wards of her people could be one reason.
“I can, but we must root out the humans and Nyss below,” she said. “We cannot allow them to unleash the evil within this tomb.”
“Evil enough to stir the Old Witch to action is certainly worthy of fear or respect,” Grigor said. “The fact that she has involved you and your people also speaks volumes.”
Janissa scowled. “We owe the crone nothing. We heeded her words because my people understand this evil better than any,” she said, her voice tinged with anger.
In truth, Grigor was uncertain why the Old Witch had chosen to contain rather than claim the evil within the Orgoth tomb. He had served Koldun Kommander Zerkova for more than a decade, plundering tombs no different than this one in search of Orgoth artifacts. The Greylord Covenant had seized hundreds of dangerous items, harnessing their power to serve the Motherland. What made this one any different?
“Fair enough” Grigor replied. “But the reason I am here is because your people failed to keep this place secret and secure.” He pointed to the huge granite slab lying next to the barrow mound’s entrance. It had obviously once sealed the tomb.
Janissa’s scowl deepened. “I am not interested in bandying words with you, human. You may not comprehend the threat posed by the horrors in that tomb, but remember what the crone said.”
The Old Witch had left their company shortly after they departed the trollkin village. Before she had vanished into the Gnarls, however, she had pulled aside Grigor and Janissa and whispered urgently: “Wards made to contain the dead are not obstacles to the living.”
“I remember,” Grigor said. “The Old Witch’s warning suggests we must stop those who would plunder this tomb. Let us work toward that.”
“I agree,” Janissa said and turned to rejoin the six trollkin warriors standing near the opening in the barrow mound. Grigor hung his rune axe on his belt and then gathered his own men, eight members of the Winter Guard handpicked for both bravery and loyalty. He would have preferred a detachment of doom reavers, but they were too deep in Cygnaran territory to risk using such unpredictable assets. Instead, the Koldun kommander had left him in charge of one of the refurbished Vanguard warjacks she had claimed in the conquest of Llael. He knew that with the warjack he could deal with any threats the trollkin and Winter Guard could not. Luckily, the entrance into the barrow mound and the tunnel below seemed large enough to accommodate the hulking machine.
“The Vanguard and I will go first,” Grigor said to Janissa when they and their men had assembled before the opening. “We should be able to repel an ambush—or conduct a protected retreat, if necessary.”
“Agreed,” Janissa said and took a torch from one of her warriors. Grigor’s Winter Guard also distributed torches among themselves. He did not take a torch; his rune axe shed a soft blue radiance bright enough to light the way.
“Come,” Grigor said to the Vanguard at his side. He had no sorcerous ability to link to a warjack’s cortex, but he had been trained to command the huge machines using verbal commands and gestures. The Vanguard responded immediately, dropping its right arm so that its huge polearm hung parallel to the ground; it then followed him into the unknown.
Janissa crouched low as she moved down the stone passage, trying to keep her head out of the thick black smoke that belched from the warjack’s smokestack. They moved neither quickly nor stealthily; given they were not the first to intrude, they knew the guardians of the tomb must already be roused.
The walls of the tunnel were composed of stone from floor to ceiling, and she noticed trollkin runes etched into them in various places. Rather than serving as wards themselves, these symbols coordinated with the glyphs inscribed on the pillars above to strengthen the magic and draw it further into the tomb. Maintaining the runes was a responsibility handed down to a powerful runeshaper every generation. Janissa had recently received the honor of that duty—along with the dire knowledge of why the wards were necessary.
The legend of Harrowdim was long known to her clan. The Orgoth had brought the sword to these shores nearly a thousand years ago, and it and its wielder had sown much destruction in western Immoren. Harrowdim was not merely an enchanted blade. It supposedly allowed its wielder to cheat death and rise again after interment. No doubt the Orgoth lord who had held it waited below, biding his time to be set free and resume his campaign of enslavement and conquest. The Orgoth had buried their leader with his sword after he fell in battle, but her people had constructed the wards that trapped him there after learning he would rise again. Unfortunately, wards did not keep away foolish men in search of riches and powerful Orgoth magic.
Luckily, Janissa was not the only one wary of the evil contained below. When the Old Witch had suddenly appeared in her village along with Grigor and his men, she thought they meant to attack. The ancient crone, however, had merely wished to speak with her, even though Grigor had done most of the talking. He told her that Fiona the Black sought what rested in the tomb and had dispatched one of her more powerful Thamarite underlings to see the task done.
Janissa doubted she would have taken Grigor at his word had the Old Witch not been present. His order was known to descend like vultures on Orgoth ruins, seizing whatever they could find to be employed by their army. Such thinking was folly, as she and her people had long known: nothing the Orgoth had left behind was without taint.
Bringing her attention back to the passageway, Janissa saw that it opened up into a vast space lit by a queer yellow light cast from a raging bonfire within a central fire pit. As she and the rest of her trollkin moved into the space, she saw they were not alone.
At the northern end of the chamber, beyond the fire pit, a large figure clad in Orgoth armor lounged in a throne carved of black stone. Before him stood a group of blighted Nyss armored in boiled leather and armed with short swords and recurved bows. Across from them clustered a group of unarmored humans wielding heavy pistols and a variety of hand weapons. At the sound of the new arrivals the nearest turned and raised their weapons.
Janissa scanned both groups for their respective leaders. It wasn’t difficult. A tall Nyss female with a bladed staff stood among her people, who gathered protectively around her. Fiona’s sea dogs all appeared similar to her eyes, but one of the humans was clothed only in black and bore the mark of Thamar visibly on his person, a brazen display by what must have been Fiona’s priest.
“Here now is the means by which you prove yourself worthy,” the warrior on the throne said, his penetrating, baritone voice ringing off the walls of the stone chamber. He pointed a massive sword in their direction, its blade glowing a virulent green. The Orgoth was possessed of incredible stature and seemed physically equal to the largest trollkin in Janissa’s band. His armor was festooned with leering, demonic faces that added a bestial quality to his already imposing appearance. Framed by his horned helmet, his face was human enough, its features hawkish and somewhat predatory. His eyes, however, were decidedly inhuman—orbs of solid black that glinted hungrily in the firelight. Janissa had never seen Harrowdim in person, but there was little doubt in her mind that the sword in the Orgoth’s right hand was the infamous weapon.
She could feel the tension in the room rise, and she turned toward Grigor to shout words of caution. Her words, however, were utterly drowned out by the shattering boom of the Vanguard’s shield cannon followed by the staccato thunder of Winter Guard blunderbusses. The volley slammed into the sea dogs, and nearly half of them fell before the onslaught.
Chaos erupted in the chamber. The remaining sea dogs scattered, firing their pistols as they ran. The blighted Nyss followed suit, pulling back to the outer edge of the chamber. They held their bows in hand but had not yet fired.
“Kill them all,” Grigor shouted and raised his rune axe. Pistol balls pinged off the Vanguard’s hull but did little damage. The Winter Guard had crowded in behind the warjack and were hurriedly reloading their blunderbusses.
A Nyss arrow whistled over Janissa’s head. The Nyss and their leader were moving around the perimeter of the chamber, firing their bows as they came.
“Shields up, lads!” Janissa cried and grabbed her pick, Earthsplitter, from her belt. The kriel warriors responded immediately by forming a compact wedge that held her at its center. Arrows began to rattle off trollkin shields as the warriors moved forward.
Janissa snatched a quick look back at Grigor to see that he and his men had also begun advancing. Rifle and cannon fire again drowned out all other sound in the chamber, as the Winter Guard and the Vanguard unloaded on the sea dogs again.
The Nyss had not abandoned their bows, even as Janissa and the kriel warriors pressed forward. In fact, they were moving back and to the left, as if they were trying to skirt around the trollkin. Their leader’s attention seemed fixated on something apart from the battle. As her followers covered her by sending arrows at the nearest Winter Guard flank, she dashed to one of the skeletons on the floor near the throne and grabbed a tome from its clutches. Both it and the skeleton upon which it lay seemed rimed by a thin layer of hardened frost, but she wrested it free and smiled. Nodding to her subordinates, the female Nyss pointed toward the entrance. Then her eyes caught Janissa’s; she held up her staff, and the archers ceased fire.
Janissa placed a hand on the trollkin in front of her. “Wait,” she said. The trollkin stopped moving, though they still held their shields high. Janissa stared at the Nyss leader and placed her pick over her shoulder. She hoped that holding the weapon in a neutral stance would convey the message she intended: I won’t try to kill you if you return the favor. It seemed this one was only tangentially involved in the threat of awakening the evil here.
The Nyss female nodded and lowered her staff; likewise, the Nyss warriors let their bows dip and then began moving toward the passage leading to the surface.
“Let them go, lads,” Janissa said. “We’ve got more immediate concerns.” She turned to see that most of the sea dogs had been shot down by the Winter Guard or dismembered by the Vanguard’s poleaxe. By virtue of her party’s swift attack, only a single Khadoran soldier had succumbed to the sea dogs’ pistols, though several more bore superficial wounds.
A single battle took place before the Orgoth throne. Grigor’s rune axe glowed with brilliant blue light, and the Thamarite’s right fist crackled with ebony fire as they circled one another. The priest suddenly launched a blast of black flame at Grigor, but the Vanguard moved quickly to intercept the gout of searing fire. The hellish heat licked hungrily at the warjack’s shield, partially melting the alloyed steel. That was all the opening Grigor needed. He charged around the Vanguard, attacking the priest from a sharp angle. The Thamarite backpedaled desperately, and Janissa heard him muttering the frenzied words of some dire enchantment. Unfortunately for him, the dark prayer died unfinished upon his lips. Grigor brought his axe down in a mighty overhand blow and split the priest’s skull down to the teeth in a spray of blood and brais. The man slumped to the ground, tearing Grigor’s axe from his grip.
Janissa and her trollkin had moved nearer the throne while Grigor and the Thamarite battled, holding weapons at the ready.
Grigor placed one boot on the dead Thamarite’s chest, reached down, and wrenched his axe free from the corpse. He then stood and turned toward the Orgoth warrior on the throne.
“I sense power in you,” the warrior said, pointing Harrowdim at Grigor. “And you,” he moved the sword toward Janissa. “Which of you is worthier? Which of you has the strength to wield Harrowdim?”
Janissa ignored the Orgoth and crossed the short space between herself and Grigor. Noticing his eyes locked on the great, naked blade, she felt the first tendrils of dread worm their way into her gut. “Grigor,” she said. “We must go.”
The Khadoran tore his eyes away from Harrowdim to look at Janissa. “No, I do not think I am ready to leave just yet,” he said, his voice suddenly flat and hollow. As his gaze flickered between her and the Orgoth warrior, Grigor placed one hand on the hilt of his rune axe and said, “You should rejoin your kin.”
“Do not be a fool,” she whispered.
“Move away from me, Janissa,” Grigor said. “Now.”
The Khadoran’s biting tone caused a few of his men to swing their rifles in her direction; in response, her kriel warriors surged forward behind her. She held up a hand to stop them. “Do not do this, Grigor,” she said, walking backward toward her kith. “We can still leave and complete our task.”
Grigor ignored her plea and stepped toward the throne. “How can I prove myself worthy?” he asked.
The Orgoth warrior grinned. “Ah, a man with stone and fire in his heart,” he said. “If you wish to claim the blade, you must be the sole worthy supplicant before this throne.” The warrior looked at Janissa. “There is currently another.”
Grigor turned toward the runeshaper, his eyes flinty gray orbs devoid of reason or compassion. No stranger to battle, Janissa could feel the tension that was always a prelude to violence rise to a crescendo.
“Kill them,” Grigor ordered, and the rifles of his Winter Guard swung in unison to take aim at Janissa and her warriors. Expecting that response, Janissa was able to call upon Dhunia’s gifts before the humans’ fingers could tense on their triggers. Sending her will spiraling down into the stone at her feet, she commanded the bones of Dhunia to do her bidding. The stone buckled, and a tide of earth and rubble rose before her in an impervious wall. The blunderbusses discharged an instant later, their lead slugs thudding harmlessly against the wall of stone.
The spell was a taxing one, and Janissa let the wall collapse as soon as the immediate danger had passed. But it had given her an advantage: the humans would not have time to reload their weapons before being forced to meet her kriel warriors in hand-to-hand combat.
Janissa gripped Earthsplitter and charged forward. Needing no further encouragement, her kriel warriors followed her with a chorus of furious battle cries. While her kin drove at the Winter Guard, Janissa chose another target, heading straight for Grigor and the hulking metal form of his Vanguard.
The runeshaper was strong in both magic and warcraft, but no single trollkin without the might of Borka Kegslayer or Madrak Ironhide could hope to best a koldun lord and a warjack in single combat. But that was not her aim; she merely needed to keep Grigor busy while her kriel warriors dealt with the Winter Guard.
Grigor saw her coming and barked a verbal command to the warjack. The Vanguard rounded on her, aiming the short-barreled cannon on its great shield in her direction. Again, she summoned the might of earth and stone to her defense. The stone floor trembled before her as she held out one hand, feeling the magic she had unleashed as a tangible thing. Closing her fist, she ripped loose a mammoth chunk of rock from the floor and then lashed her hand toward Grigor and his warjack, propelling the boulder forward.
Grigor dove aside as the mass of earth and rock smashed into the Vanguard with a tremendous crash of splitting stone and buckling metal. The warjack was knocked to the ground by the impact. Though its shield had taken the brunt of the blow, Janissa could see that its great steel bulwark was seriously damaged. Nearly on top of the machine now, she leapt into the air and vaulted over the Vanguard’s shield to bring down Earthsplitter in a tremendous blow. The weapon’s honed steel beak punctured the Vanguard’s hull just above its head, penetrating the delicate engineering that powered the behemoth. A shower of sparks exploded around Janissa’s weapon, followed by a gout of greasy black fluid. The warjack shuddered, and she was certain she had struck something vital to its operation.
Janissa wrenched her pick free and leapt from the prone warjack’s hull, looking for Grigor. He stood a dozen paces away, rune axe in hand, blood flowing down his face from a gash on his forehead. She set her feet and prepared to summon another rock hammer. Grigor saw what she was doing and pumped his fist into the air. “Rise!” he shouted. She did not understand the command until she heard the squeal of metal behind her. Janissa whirled to see that the Vanguard had surged to its feet and sent the great crescent blade of its poleaxe slashing through the air toward her. She brought Earthsplitter up in a desperate attempt to parry the blow. The warjack’s weapon crashed into her pick, nearly ripping it from her grasp and sending a spike of agony up her arm as the bones in her wrist snapped like twigs beneath the onslaught.
Grigor chose that moment to attack, bounding across the distance between them with startling speed. Turning to meet his charge, she was forced to transfer Earthsplitter to her left hand. As Grigor’s rune-covered axe crashed down, she knew she would not be able to deflect it fully.
The trollkin snapped her pick down to catch Grigor’s axe, but he was faster, and the steel blade darted in under her guard and bit into the skirt of rune stones hanging from her belt. A handful of the stones shattered, and the axe penetrated the ring mail she wore beneath, gouging into the flesh of her left thigh.
Janissa cried out in agony and backpedaled, tearing the axe from her body in the process. Grigor rushed forward again and lashed out with a heavy boot, kicking her feet out from under her. Janissa crashed to the ground, and the air left her lungs in a brutal rush. She rolled over and tried to crawl away, but she didn’t make it far.
“Yield!” Janissa heard Grigor yell, and she felt the lethal point of the Vanguard’s polearm spike at the small of her back. She wanted to scream her defiance, but she could not suck enough air into her lungs to cry out.
The sounds of combat in the room began to fade; Janissa surmised her kriel warriors had broken off their melee with the Winter Guard for fear she would be killed. Feeling the pressure of the Vanguard’s weapon ease from her back, Janissa rolled over, ignoring the searing pain in her left arm and thigh. The stone floor beneath her was slick with blood, and she hoped that her natural trollkin resilience would halt the bleeding before she lost consciousness.
She saw that Grigor had turned away from her to stand before the throne. The Orgoth warrior held Harrowdim across his arms, its hilt projecting over his armored forearms. Horror coursed through her as she realized what was about to happen.
“I am victorious,” Grigor said. “Give me the blade.”
The Orgoth stepped forward. “So you are,” he said, his face a mask of predatory glee. “And so I shall.” The hilt of the sword was now mere inches from the Khadoran’s face.
“Grigor,” Janissa managed to croak. “Do not do this.”
The Khadoran whipped his head around, his face twisted with rage and a desire so potent it was almost palpable. “The sword will go to the Covenant,” he said. “I will use its power to bring defeat to our enemies and glory to the Motherland.”
“Take it and those things will be yours,” the Orgoth warrior said. “Take it and become part of the legend of Harrowdim.”
“Yes,” Grigor said. He licked his lips and allowed his hand to hover over the hilt of the great blade. “I have bent many such artifacts to my will; this one, too, shall serve me.” Janissa thought she heard a moment of hesitation in his voice, even fear, and she hoped that would force reason back into his mind. Her hope had barely flickered to life before it was crushed beneath the smothering weight of despair, as Grigor’s hand curled around Harrowdim’s hilt.
“No, no, no,” Janissa breathed as she climbed to her feet.
The room was suddenly bathed in an eerie green glow as the writhing faces along the blade began to exude a terrible luminance. The light moved from the blade to Grigor’s body, outlining him in poisonous green.
The Orgoth warrior stepped back, and Janissa saw something she hadn’t expected. He collapsed back onto his throne and whispered something in a language she did not recognize, but the weariness and longing in the words were unmistakable. He sagged into his armor as his flesh began to melt before her eyes, sloughing away from his bones in a semi-liquid tide. In seconds, all that remained was a pile of slime-slicked bones and ancient armor. The terrible force that had kept the Orgoth warrior alive for untold centuries had left him—and now resided in Grigor.
Janissa had been moving slowly backwards toward the three kriel warriors who had survived their battle with the Winter Guard. The humans, however, stood frozen, staring at their leader in shock. The glow from Harrowdim’s blade had faded, leaving Grigor apparently unharmed. The change was subtle, but when Janissa saw it, she felt sick terror: Grigor’s eyes, formerly a hard steel gray, had become glittering orbs of black onyx that shone with a malign intellect not his own.
Janissa heard the Old Witch’s words echo again in her mind, and their meaning suddenly became horrifically clear: The trollkin runes had kept the evil imprisoned because the arisen Orgoth had long ago ceased to be a living creature. Through the blade, his will had passed to a living man. Grigor Orlov would not be subject to the ward’s magic, and the evil possessing him would be free unto the world again.
Harrowdim would animate Grigor if Janissa could somehow manage to strike him down—and subject him to the power of the runes. But that was not an option; she lacked the power for such a task. Only one option remained, if she still possessed the strength to see it done. Finally reaching her kriel warriors, she leaned on one for a moment before giving the order. “We must leave,” she said. “Now!”
The trollkin began moving toward the passage to the surface. Without light, they would have to navigate the subterranean darkness by touch alone. Janissa looked back at Grigor just before they entered the passageway and saw that the remaining Winter Guard had clustered around him, their blunderbusses aimed at their former leader. He had not moved since taking possession of the sword—perhaps it took some time for his will to be entirely subsumed—but then, as if he sensed her gaze upon him, Grigor lifted Harrowdim in one hand and pointed it at her. His face bore a rictus grin of malevolent delight that filled her with dread.
“Run!” she howled at the kriel warriors, and they surged ahead heedless of the darkness. A blind, fear-maddened flight to the surface ensued, and though they navigated the passage in under a minute, it seemed to take far longer. Janissa kept looking back over her shoulder expecting to see a gangrenous green light growing brighter as the thing in the tomb pursued them into the world above. But it never came. The trollkin burst from the tomb and into the bright, forgiving sun of the late afternoon.
Janissa and the kriel warriors collapsed onto the gray earth surrounding the barrow mound in a tangle, breathless and nearly mad with terror. But it was not over. Janissa struggled to her feet and stepped toward the entrance. Slamming Earthsplitter into the ground, she closed her eyes and allowed her will to permeate the earth beneath her, feeling every rock, clump of dirt, and grain of sand. She delved deeper, into the very bones of the earth, and there she took hold of the primal energies that roiled in the blind depths. Janissa drew strength from the power she sensed in the rune-inscribed columns around her, each imbued with the lore and skill of predecessors dating back centuries.
It began as a slight tremor, a deep thrumming that shifted the loose dirt in the clearing. As Janissa continued to pour her will into the ground, the shaking grew into a bass rumble that made the dead trees clatter like kindling gathered for a fire. Sweat stood out on her brow, and the pain in her wounds rose along with the shaking—but she would not relent, not even when the ground before her began to buck and writhe like tossing waves on a stony sea. Finally, her strength nearly exhausted, the Orgoth barrow mound succumbed at last to the mighty forces she had assembled against it. The mound sagged and then collapsed, a tide of dust and stone exploding from the epicenter.
Janissa fell to her knees, exhausted, and watched the chain reaction she had set in motion unfold. The ground continued to heave, uprooting the dead trees around the clearing and tossing them into the air to crash back down in a shower of dust and dry-rotted wood. Though the runic pillars around the barrow mound had been buried deep, the violent shaking tore them loose. The kriel warriors behind Janissa dove to the ground and held up their shields against the onslaught of debris raining down upon them.
Finally, the shuddering earth subsided. When the dust had settled, Janissa saw that the barrow mound had been nearly destroyed. It was now little more than a bare hillock, the opening in its side smashed flat and sealed completely. She rose shakily to her feet, wincing at the pain from her wounds, and walked slowly over to the nearest pillar. It lay on its side, cracked in half, and when she reached out to touch it, she could not feel the familiar thrumming of the sigils’ magic.
The words of the Old Witch once again rose to the fore of her mind: Wards made to contain the dead are not obstacles to the living.
Was Grigor still down there, buried beneath tons of earth and stone yet kept alive by Harrowdim until he could claw his way free? What if the crushing weight of the collapse was not enough to contain that evil? Janissa again regarded the destroyed pillar before her; new runes would need to be carved in order to contain the living as well as the dead. She had much work to do.
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