Authors: Jonathan Moeller
FROSTBORN: THE DARK WARDEN
RIDMARK ARBAN is the Gray Knight, questing to stop the return of the terrible Frostborn to the High King’s realm. For years he has sought the secret of the Frostborn, and now the answer is at hand within the walls of the cursed citadel of Urd Morlemoch.
For the Warden of Urd Morlemoch knows the secret.
CALLIANDE seeks for her past, her memory lost in fog. She seeks to stop the return of the Frostborn, but the secret of their defeat is trapped within her damaged memory. The truth of her past awaits within the walls of Urd Morlemoch.
For the Warden of Urd Morlemoch knows who she really is.
THE WARDEN has been imprisoned within Urd Morlemoch for centuries beyond count, his potent magic chained behind its walls.
But his final game is almost complete.
And worlds beyond count shall tremble before his power…
Frostborn: The Dark Warden
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
Ebook edition published October 2014.
All Rights Reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
A Brief Prologue
Of the ancient citadel of Urd Morlemoch I know little, save that it is a place of horror and dread, the home of a dark elven wizard of surpassing might.
Yet the chronicles of the high elves, from what little we have read of them, tell the tale.
In ancient days, long before Malahan Pendragon led our ancestors to this land, the high elves and the dark elves warred for millennia. In their pride and madness the dark elves opened doors to other worlds, and summoned other kindreds to be their slaves and soldiers. The orcs and the manetaurs and the beastmen fought for the dark elves, while the halflings toiled in their fields and their palaces. Yet still the dark elves were unable to overcome the high elves.
Then the dark elves summoned the urdmordar, the mighty spider-demons, and thought they had found the tool of victory at last. Yet the urdmordar were too strong to control, and they devoured and enslaved the dark elves. The strongest of the dark elven nobles, a sorcerer of tremendous power, fled to his citadel of Urd Morlemoch and worked a ward of terrible strength to keep the urdmordar at bay. His spells succeeded, but trapped him within the citadel. The dark elves laughed and mocked him, even as their kingdoms burned around them, and named the imprisoned wizard the Warden, for he had become his own jailer.
“Fools!” spoke the Warden. “I counseled you against summoning the urdmordar, yet you heeded me not. Now you have pulled your own realms into ruin and made yourselves the slaves of the urdmordar. This world is doomed, for the darkness of the great void shall consume it. But there are other worlds, and I shall rule over them while you endure as slaves for all time.”
They mocked him, but their mockery ceased as their kingdoms were destroyed and they were made vassals and slaves of the urdmordar. In time Malahan Pendragon founded the realm of Andomhaim, and the Swordbearers and the Magistri defeated the urdmordar and the Frostborn. The Warden remained in Urd Morlemoch, unconquerable yet unable to leave.
Yet it is said among both the high elves and the dark elves that the Warden has been plotting his escape for millennia, and that those fools who enter his plans never escape them.
-From the chronicles of the High Kings of Andomhaim.
Chapter 1 - The Torn Hills
Seventy-nine days after it began, seventy-nine days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban climbed the slope of the hill, a cold wind whispering around him, the dark clouds rippling overhead. It was the middle of summer, and a few miles south the sun blazed overhead, the air hot and muggy.
Not here, though.
They were too close to the Torn Hills for that.
No one in their right mind went to the Torn Hills, and few who ventured into the hills ever returned.
Ridmark had done it once before, nine years past, and now he was going to try it again.
He kept climbing, staff ready in his right hand, the cold wind moaning around him. Grass covered the slope, a dark green that somehow looked sickly and diseased. Small, stunted trees stood here and there, their bark black and glossy, their leaves an eerie shade of blue that seemed to glisten. Like the grass, the trees looked unhealthy. The Torn Hills had been poisoned by dark magic long ago, long before humans had even walked the surface of this world, and the corruption had seeped into the plants and animals. The wind itself carried a sharp, harsh scent, like the air after a lightning strike. Further up the slope Ridmark saw an ugly, squat bush surrounded by thick, tangled vines. The black vines themselves were studded with long thorns. Fat red berries with black streaks hung from the branches, like the blood-filled eyes of some malevolent creature…
He stopped, frowning, and waited for the others to catch up to him.
The last time he had gone to Urd Morlemoch, he had been alone. Now seven others followed him. He had intended to go alone, but the others had followed nonetheless.
Ridmark only hoped he could keep them from getting killed.
Certainly he did not want them to die before they even reached Urd Morlemoch.
Kharlacht joined him first. The orcish warrior stood nearly seven feet tall, a stark, forbidding tower of a man. His tusks rose over the green skin of his face, and his scalp had been shaved, save for a fall of black hair tied in a warrior’s topknot. He wore armor of overlapping blue steel plates, and the hilt of a massive greatsword rose over his right shoulder.
“This is an ill country,” said Kharlacht, his voice a deep rumble.
“Aye,” said Ridmark, “but this is nothing. It gets worse closer to Urd Morlemoch.”
“I suspect,” said a deep voice, “that the Lord has turned his gaze from these hills.”
A dwarf in the brown robes of a mendicant friar followed Kharlacht, his skin the gray of granite, his eyes the blue of polished marble, his beard and receding hair shot with gray. A wooden cross hung from a cord around his neck, and a mace of bronze-colored dwarven steel waited at his belt. Mendicant brothers were forbidden from killing with the edge of the sword, but that had not stopped Brother Caius from crushing skulls with the mace when necessary.
“Is not God everywhere?” said Kharlacht.
“Well,” said Caius, “in the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says he had turned his face away from…”
“Will you two bicker all the way to Urd Morlemoch?” said a third man. The speaker was a halfling, shorter than even Caius, though not nearly as wide. He had large amber-colored eyes beneath a thick mane of curly brown hair, and wore black boots, black trousers, and a black leather vest over a white shirt that he somehow kept spotless even in the Wilderland.
“We are not bickering, Master Jager,” said Caius. “We are engaging in theological discourse.”
“It sounds like bickering to me,” said Jager. The woman at his side smiled. She was short, only a few inches taller than Jager, and slender with pale blond hair that hung loose around her head and brilliant green eyes. Mara did not talk much, and seemed content to allow her husband to take the lead, but when she felt it necessary, she took viciously decisive action.
Both Sir Paul Tallmane and the Artificer had found that out the hard way.
“It is not quarreling,” said Kharlacht. “If we were quarreling, there would be blood.”
“I said bickering, not quarreling,” said Jager. “There is a difference.”
Ridmark caught Mara’s gaze, and she rolled her eyes.
“And the difference is, pray?” said Caius.
“How much wine is consumed,” said Jager. He sighed. “Sadly, there is none to be found in this desolate land.”
“No,” said Ridmark. “There are worse things.”
That stilled Jager’s amusement. “You have a gift for sobering a man, Gray Knight.”
Ridmark watched his remaining three companions climb the slope. The first was a boy of about sixteen, brown-eyed and brown-haired, wearing chain mail and carrying an orcish sword. Gavin of Aranaeus seemed harder and more solemn than the boy Ridmark had first met in the forests of the Wilderland, which was not surprising, given all the battles they had seen since leaving Aranaeus. His eyes roved back and forth ceaselessly, watching for foes.
The Torn Hills had that effect.
Two women followed him. The first was blond-haired and blue-eyed, wearing a leather jerkin and trousers and boots beneath a green cloak, her fingers toying with the hilt of a dagger at her belt. Calliande looked distant, lost in thought, but she often did. The second woman had black hair and eyes, and wore a long cloak of tattered brown and green strips that helped her move unseen through the woods. She held a wooden staff in her right hand, its length carved with various sigils. Her expression always had a sharp edge of mocking amusement to it, but her features softened slightly when she looked at Ridmark.
A different sort of emotion flashed through Ridmark. He remembered the taste of her mouth against his, the feel of her body, the heat of her breath against his neck.
A crooked, satisfied little smile appeared on her face. Evidently she was thinking the same thing.
Ridmark had been drawn to Morigna from the moment he had met her. She was the only one who could match his skill at stealth and tracking in the wild, and the hunt for the stolen soulstone had forced them to spend a great deal of time alone. After Sir Paul and the Artificer had been defeated, Ridmark had gone alone into the forest to clear his head, only to find Morigna, and then…
Once more the memory of their first time flashed through his thoughts.
Suddenly Ridmark wondered what his father would have thought about Morigna. She was a wild sorceress and would have been forced to join the Magistri or put to death within Andomhaim. For that matter, Ridmark wondered what Aelia would think of him now. Had she ever dreamed that the man who had been her husband one day be a branded exile who lay with a wild sorceress at every opportunity?
He pushed the thoughts away. If he dwelled upon them he would start to brood, which Morigna did not deserve. She made him feel far less grim than he had in years, which in itself made him feel guilty.
The Torn Hills was not the kind of place to dwell upon such things.
Not when a single mistake here might get them all killed.
“We’ve stopped,” said Calliande.
“Most observant, Magistria,” said Morigna. She spoke Latin with a peculiar, archaic stateliness. Given that her teacher had been born centuries past, it was not surprising. “Perhaps the Gray Knight wished to allow you to rest, before making the arduous ascent up this hill.”
Calliande gave her a thin, patient smile. “Walking is good for the constitution. And we never stop without a reason.”
“My birds have seen no foes,” said Morigna, “though they have grown skittish. They do not want to fly any further to the northwest.”
“They have good reason,” said Ridmark.
“This is it, then?” said Gavin. He braced himself like a man preparing to face a battle. “We’ve arrived at the Torn Hills?”
“Not yet,” said Ridmark. “Almost, though. This is the very edge.” He gestured with his staff. “You see how the dark magic has poisoned the very land. It gets worse the closer we draw to Urd Morlemoch.”
“This is the work of the Warden?” said Jager.
“Only in part,” said Calliande, her distant tone indicating that she had recalled something from her past. “The Torn Hills…they were once grasslands. The dark elves and the high elves warred across them for thousands of years, and their spells ripped the land asunder. After the Warden sealed himself within Urd Morlemoch, the urdmordar assailed him again and again, but he drove them back every single time. So much dark magic unleashed over such a small space twisted the land.”
“And the things that live upon it,” said Ridmark. “Until we leave the Torn Hills, do not eat anything that you find, whether plant or animal. Do not drink the water.”
Jager grunted. “Good to know we carried all those waterskins for a reason.”
“Be wary of everything,” said Ridmark. “Plants and animals both.” He stooped and picked up a stone from the ground.
“The war beasts of the dark elves lurk here, then?” said Kharlacht. “Urvaalgs and ursaars?”
“Worse things, too,” said Ridmark. “But we needn’t worry about the beasts of the dark elves if the plants kill us first.”
Morigna laughed. “I promise not to eat any of the plants.”