Furtive rays peeked through high clouds as if too timid to intrude upon the winter landscape. Early snow draped the small bowl-shaped valley in a blanket of pristine white, giant drifts lapping at harsh walls of ice-shrouded rock, clinging like frozen waves to a rocky shore. Along one of the cliffs, hewn out of the living rock, a virtually invisible path of smoothly chiseled stone clung to the cliff face. Through some clever design, or perhaps some subtle enchantment, snow and ice did not accumulate on the narrow track, leaving the way clear and relatively safe. Midway along the precarious trail a shrouded figure led its mount in a twisting, dogged ascent.
Curses lashed the air as the traveler’s mount balked, jerking the reins. The horse’s eyes grew wide, the whites gleaming between the dark pupil and ebony coat. Its master snatched off his cloak and wrapped it loosely over the animal’s eyes. The nervous prancing stopped, as though the danger of falling hundreds of feet onto jagged rocks was lessened simply because it could not see the drop.
Divested of the hooded cloak, the man’s long, ebony hair whipped across his face in the biting wind. He pulled his collar high to protect his neck, muttering more curses. The dark cloaks and hair met a stark contrast against the deathly pallor of his skin and the icy white irises of his eyes. His color might have passed as an aberration or some odd family trait, but the dark band of iron upon his brow with the stylized interlocking crescents of Mortas, the Deathless One, marked him as something else entirely. This was a Dukarr, the squire of a Nekdukarr, one of the dark paladins of the Demon God himself.
The characteristic coloration of the Dukarr was not a curse, but a sign of the power of Mortas, Lord of the Undead, emanating from the iron band upon the dark squire’s brow. The power of Mortas was dreadful, earning the Dukarr a wide berth from strangers and respect from those who might seek to rob or murder, but it had not come without a price. All facade of life and vigor ebbed from those chosen to become Nekdukarr. They seemed ageless, but with every foul action they drew nearer to that which they worshiped. Eventually, if their deity saw fit, they would descend to the depths of Necrol, fourth of the Nine Hells, where the Deathless One himself would place a Demon-Helm upon their heads. That would be the last day the Nekdukarr’s face was seen except through the visor of the dreadful helm. That would also be the last day he would be welcomed by any of the peaceful folk of the world, for the Nekdukarr were shunned utterly, and by all. They and theirs dwelled in the deepest, darkest caverns of the earth, among the warrens and caves of the foul and loathsome beasts that lurked only in the dark.
Rounding a bend in the cliff, the trail led into a broad chasm where the Dukarr’s destination finally hove into view. Upon a massive abutment of buff stone loomed the walls of a keep. The mumbled profanity halted in an exclamation of disgust.
“Only dwarves would be paranoid enough to build a city half way up a blasted mountain!” Jerking the rein to urge his blind mount forward, he studied the structure in greater detail.
A gate-house sat snugly against the mountainside, flanked to one side by the unscalable cliff and to the other by the keep’s outer wall. Grim battlements overhung the wall, bartizans providing an excellent view of the narrow trail. The death that could rain down on him from those walls prickled his pale skin, but he shed the idea as unworthy of his consideration. Now was not the time to begin doubting the word of his master.
As he drew closer, he could see cracks marring the stone of the gatehouse; the portcullis draped from the archway in melted black icicles. The hairs on his neck smoothed; the dwarven stronghold was, as he had been promised, dead. The trespasser picked his way through the rubble to the main gates, huge black iron doors over twenty feet high that lay askew and warped; the heavy hinges had been melted.
The sudden absence of wind in the inner court only made the intruder realize how chilled he was. Removing the cloak from his horse’s eyes he donned it again, basking in the warmth. Leading his mount to the relative shelter of one fairly intact building among the ruined outbuildings, he tied the reins to a charred beam and took a small leather pouch from his saddlebag. He then turned and approached the keep proper.
The portal yawned dark and wide in the cliff face, beckoning with the promise of warmth and shadows. Angular letters of dwarven script recapitulating the royal lineage of Zellohar were etched into steps leading up to rune-etched doors, forty feet wide and twice as tall. The pride and love of the dwarven craftsmen who had shaped the metal and lent it their strength shone like the brush strokes of an artist upon his latest masterpiece.
The majesty of the edifice was wasted on the visitor. He entered the timeless hall without a care whether this was the sanctuary of ancient dwarven kings or a brothel.
The Dukarr doffed the hood of his cloak as he entered the comforting shade of the keep. Here in the dark, the gifts of his deity came into play: his eyes relaxed their squint, his pupils dilating as they adjusted to the darkness from which his deity’s strength flowed. A sigh escaped his lips as he drew away from the last rays of diffuse light. With each step, he straightened his posture and grew more sure and fluid in his movements. Many years had passed since he had returned to the underground, more years than most of the loathsome surface folk he had been forced to associate with would see in a lifetime.
Attuning his senses to the dimmer surroundings, the Dukarr tensed as he perceived several figures in the corridor ahead. He had been told that there would be others awaiting his arrival, but his hand strayed toward the hilt of his sword anyway. After all, only a fool let trust precede caution. The silhouettes ahead coalesced into three human figures, garbed in heavy traveling cloaks. The harsh syllables of his own language, almost foreign after being unheard for so long, were like music to his ears.
“Ware not, Dekhmaal, you are among your own once again.”
“Well met, and may the Deathless One smile upon you and your clan,” Dekhmaal answered.
The formal greetings were not necessary since all the Dukarr present were previously acquainted, but it had been such a long time, the custom seemed appropriate. As etiquette demanded, they performed the traditional two-handed grasp, ensuring that no weapons were concealed. At last, the four appeared to relax.
“By the Demon God’s festering feet, it feels good to have something solid over my head again,” Dekhmaal said.
“Yes,” answered Vderryl, the one who had called the greeting earlier. “We have all been under the cursed sunlight too long. I thought my eyes would burn to cinders at times.”
“Aye, and if I ever have to look at another dung-spawned tree, I think I’ll be sick on the spot,” said the second, Ghendal.
“All our suffering will be for naught, I fear, once we’re in Lord Darkmist’s service again,” said Drixel, the most reserved of the four, intentionally loud enough for the others to hear.
“You should learn to curb your whining, Drixel,” Vderryl cautioned, posturing as the group’s leader, “unless you like the prospect of spending the rest of your miserable days as a toadstool, or something far less pleasant. Besides, we’re being offered enough to become lords ourselves once all is settled.”
“What is wealth to a pile of sun-bleached bones?” Drixel asked; Vderryl had been one of Lord Darkmist’s squires longer than he, but that earned no seniority. “But worry not; you need not fear my dissension. Once he’s released from this dwarf-cursed mountain, I wouldn’t bet a bent copper on anyone who stands against him. And though I don’t relish serving under him again, it will be much healthier than opposing him.”
“You sound as if you are trying to talk yourself out of this!” Dekhmaal was astonished at his kinsman’s apprehension. After all, they had been promised a king’s ransom for this, as well as a chance to command a legion of Lord Darkmist’s elite troops. “If you fear wealth and power so, I’m sure the rest of us would be more than happy to split your share.”
“Truly Drixel,” Vderryl added, enjoying the other’s discomfort. “If you are so fearful of him, why did you answer his summons? It’s not as if he held you at sword-point through his scrying mirror.”
Laughter echoed through the ancient halls at their reluctant companion’s expense, but stilled at his scorching reply.
“Very well, all ye merry money grubbers,” Drixel said with a dangerous glare. “But we shall see, when the blood ceases to flow and the wounds begin to fester, whom Lord Darkmist sees as more valuable, one who works for a reward, or one who would sooner march into Necrol itself than risk his displeasure.”
Silence hung heavily as the reacquainted squires measured one another anew. They had fought side by side, killed together, plundered together, and prayed to the Demon God together. And none trusted another more than he would a rabid rat.
“Come, kinsmen,” Dekhmaal said, interposing himself between the others. “Let us not argue further while our liege awaits our arrival.”
The open glares of distrust eased and the small troop moved deeper into the keep. They kept to the wide central corridor that bisected the upper level until they reached a deep alcove shielding a set of immense doors. These doors differed from others they’d passed only in the runes etched into the stone, and the fact that they were closed.
As they entered the alcove, each withdrew a small parcel wrapped in soft leather from a pocket or pouch. A faint glow emanated even through the thick wrappings. As Dekhmaal drew his covering away, sharp rays of green light pierced the gloom, glittering off of the silver tracings on the doors. Gasps of surprise escaped the pale lips of the Dukarr. The others held their parcels tensely, both unnerved by the intensity and, although none would admit it, the beauty of the light from the palm-sized emerald.
“Has it always glowed like that?” Ghendal asked, his voice quavering with a hint of nervousness.
Dekhmaal tore his eyes from the spectacle and regarded his companions. He had almost dropped the gem; now he held it as if it might burn him.
“No,” he said with a tremor in his voice, “it glowed faintly, sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer, but never like this.”
“It must be the doors,” suggested Drixel, squinting at the runes covering the massive portal.
“Possibly,” said Vderryl, trying to put a ring of courage in his voice. “If so, all the others should glow the same radiance. Ghendal, remove the wrappings from your stone.”
Ghendal looked at him through eyes slitted against the glare of the emerald. He briefly considered refusing the command simply on the premise that Vderryl had no actual authority over him, but saw no profit in confronting him now.
“Very well,” he said, tossing the leather wrappings aside with a flick of his wrist and thrusting the gem toward Vderryl.
White light flooded the alcove, blinding all save Ghendal, who had closed his eyes before revealing the stunning diamond. He squinted cautiously to see the reactions of his companions. They had all thrown up hands to shield themselves from the ghastly light.
“Cover the blasted thing!” Vderryl snapped, scowling from behind his hands.
“Very well,” Ghendal said in the same calm tone. He wrapped the gem, leaving only the green light of the emerald.
“I think we can assume that the others will act similarly. It must be their proximity to the doors.” Vderryl managed to keep his voice even this time. “We will place the diamond in last so we do not have to endure that blinding glare as long.”
The others shot looks of astonishment at Vderryl, then questioning glances at one another. Finally one of them spoke.
“Lord Darkmist was explicit,” said Dekhmaal, holding the glowing emerald to one side. “The gems are to be placed in the doors in the order dictated by the runes.
The others murmured agreement then looked to Vderryl.
“Of course,” he said, trying to recover his composure. “I merely meant that we should delay unwrapping the diamond until it need be.”
The others shrugged off his explanation and began examining the inscriptions. Many of the symbols were runescript, which would require magic to decipher. These, however, were part of the enchantment laid upon the portal itself, and had little to do with the inscriptions in plain dwarvish around four small recesses set in the center of the doors.
The instructions were straight forward, directing the order and placement of the gems. After reading the message, Dekhmaal stepped forward to place the emerald in the right-hand depression. As the stone seated into place, new runes flashed onto the door’s surface. These gave off a green glow, seeming to draw light from the emerald. Dekhmaal stepped back, glancing around to see who held the next gem.
Vderryl stepped boldly forward as he removed a glowing ruby from its wrappings with a flourish, drenching the alcove with light the color of blood. He placed the gem in the lowest depression, and was rewarded with another change in the runes.
Ghendal presented his gem and the alcove was once again flooded with the pure white light of the diamond. However, once the jewel was placed into the highest socket, the light mellowed and took up the red and green of the other gems.
Finally Drixel moved forward, studying the new patterns on the door before withdrawing a sapphire from its soft leather wrappings. The deep blue of a pristine ocean washed over the corridor, adding an icy chill to everything it illuminated. The sapphire clicked into the left-hand socket, heralding a flash of blue runes.
A deep thrum of power, starting lower than audible but rising in pitch, emanated from the very stone surrounding them. With the rising tone, the light of the gems dimmed, and the runes flared. A resonant boom shook the mountain, extinguishing the runes and returning the gems to their previous glow.
A fissure appeared in the center of the portal and the doors began to swing inward. Light cleaved the darkness beyond, revealing a wide stair. Warmth wafted up from below, bringing familiar scents to the Dukarr. Pale eyes flickered to one another, then back into the depths before them.
“Well, do we wait here for Lord Darkmist to rise prophetically from the depths, or start down and meet him on his own ground?” Vderryl asked with a scoff.
“His orders were to wait,” Dekhmaal said, staring, astonished at his companion’s boldness.
“We wait,” added Drixel. “I shall not start out our new era of service to Lord Darkmist by disregarding his orders.”
“I agree,” said Ghendal flatly, shooting a disapproving scowl at Vderryl. “I shall not risk my lord’s displeasure before we have even been reunited.”
Vderryl gave a derisive snort and turned his back on the others, a terrible insult in their society, for it showed that you consider the other no threat, and not worthy of your attention.
“I wonder if Darkmist knows what kind of Dukarr he has in his service?” he mumbled loud enough for the others to hear.
Hands strayed toward sword hilts and spell components, but froze as a voice from behind them split the silence.
“Actually, I know a great deal more about those in my service than you may think, Vderryl.”
The four whirled, gaping at the figure that had appeared at the head of the stairs. He was shrouded in a long black cloak; silver tracings glittered along the hem, the pattern writhing under their gazes. Under the garment glinted dark armor, its ebony luster absorbing light, except along the edges, where the plates were worked in silver. The great broadsword Anol Arath—Doom Giver—hung at his hip, the demon-skull crosspiece set with cut-obsidian eyes that devoured the gaze of any that beheld them. The helm obscuring the man’s face was wrought in the shape of a demon, its bat-like wings folded back, the ruby eyes and toothy visage forming the crest.
“Lord Darkmist,” they stammered as they dropped to one knee, arms spread in the traditional position of subservience.
“Arise, my squires,” Darkmist said, his dead blue-grey lips smiling as he stepped forward. “You have served me well, and I owe you much for my rescue.” As the four rose, he moved among them, clasping shoulders in greeting as he spoke.
“To show my gratitude, none of you ever need kneel in my presence again. And as my vengeance for eighty-seven years of imprisonment scours the surface world, you shall ride the crest of that wave, and reap the wealth of an entire continent.”
The squires smiled at his praise, but quelled shivers of fear and revulsion at his chill touch and pale, pupilless gaze. They knew his pleasant moods were brief, and doubted that his long confinement had improved his temperament.
“But first,” the Dark Lord continued, “we have much work to do. If you would all recover the gems you placed into the doors, I will give you your instructions.”
As the Dukarr moved to obey, Darkmist outlined his plans. When they stood before him once again, he withdrew three small leather bags from beneath his cloak.
“Each of these contains enough wealth to raise a small army, which is exactly what I want you to do.” He handed one of the bags to Ghendal, one to Drixel and the last to Dekhmaal, leaving Vderryl waiting expectantly. “When I bid you return, do so with as large a force as you can muster. But your main concern will be to protect the gems you carry. Whatever it takes, you must ensure the return of the gems, for they are critical to my plans.”
“But I don’t understand, my Lord.” Vderryl shifted uncomfortably. “Why not just keep all the gems here safely in your possession? And what is my task to be?”
Darkmist’s smile dissolved, his shoulders stiffening as if a sudden pain stabbed him. The others sensed his building rage, but before they could speak or move he gave a slight toss of his head and smiled once again. Reaching out a gloved hand he clasped Vderryl firmly on the shoulder in camaraderie.
“Trust in your commander, Vderryl,” he said, seeming to relish the shiver that raced up his underling’s spine. “There are good reasons for separating the gems that need not concern you. As for your part, you are to stay here with me and fill a position that suits you better than the others.”
With this, Darkmist turned and bid the others farewell. Then he turned to Vderryl, spoke a few syllables, reached out and touched him. They vanished with a popping noise, as air rushed into the spaces they vacated. The squires stood for a moment, then bid each other farewell and proceeded out of the keep. When they were gone, dark shapes rose from the depths of the stair and fanned out into the upper keep’s gloomy passages.
In a dimly lit chamber in the depths of the mountain, Lord Darkmist and Vderryl materialized. The Dukarr stumbled, but recovered quickly and turned to his master, only to find Darkmist staring at him from behind the gruesome helm. Vderryl’s skin crawled under the scrutiny. He tried to mask his uneasiness by inspecting the dwarven stonework, which had been gouged and chipped, giving the overall appearance of a piece of art that had been rudely violated. He squared his shoulders and masked his discomfort.
“Welcome to Zellohar, Vderryl,” Darkmist said in a voice like volcanic glass, sharp and dark as death. He turned and started down one of the cavernous hallways, beckoning his squire to follow. “I apologize for bringing you down here so abruptly, but it would have taken several hours for us to reach this level, had we walked.”
After a few turns, they reached the end of a corridor and a huge portal set with doors of solid onyx. Darkmist approached the ebony slabs and made an intricate sign with his hand. An immense locking mechanism squealed as it opened, and the doors began to swing outward.
“This is where you will be spending a great deal of your time, Vderryl,” Darkmist explained, motioning him forward. “I would like to introduce you to a close associate of mine, who will explain your position quite thoroughly.”
As the two entered, Vderryl squinted into the gloom. A sulfurous reek not uncommon to some deep caverns assailed his nostrils, and the temperature rose with every step. As the air became hazy, Vderryl began to sweat under his heavy garments. The room had a sense of power to it; he could feel it. That power would be his, he knew it. He thanked the Demon God for giving Darkmist the ability to recognize his talents.
As they continued, a glow illuminated distant walls, giving him a better view a natural cavern with a wide trail cut into the floor, which they followed. The glow brightened, resolving into a great chasm from which torrents of super-heated air rose up around a bridge of cut stone. When they stopped about twenty paces from it, the dark squire gave his master a quizzical look.
“This might seem a rather harsh environment,” began Darkmist, “but Phlegothax finds it rather soothing.”
Vderryl froze, his jaw dropping as he recognized the name. His paralysis vanished, however, as a huge clawed hand reached over the lip of the smoldering chasm. He looked once more to his master, but when he saw the maniacal grin beneath that helm, he knew he had been betrayed.
He leapt away from Darkmist, drawing his sword and bringing a spell to his lips, but as he spoke, a huge hand crushed the air from his lungs. He swung at it, but his sword only skittered along the armored scales. A harsh scream escaped his lips as the grip tightened. He felt several ribs snap under the pressure, then his vision began to dim.
“The gem is in his cloak, Phlegothax,” Darkmist said as he turned to leave. “Please don’t eat it.”
As the Nekdukarr’s dark form receded into the gloom, the iron circlet once gracing Vderryl’s pale brow clattered to the cavern floor. The dark metal squealed as it bent in on itself, transforming into its true shape, a long black snake-like creature with glowing red eyes. A crackling noise and a light shower of its former master’s blood startled the small demon, and it slithered into the shadows.