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On the fringes of the Verian Empire, two small boys stumble upon a strange altar, buried in the heart of a mountain. There they awaken a horror unseen for generations, that will descend upon the realm of men while it is at its weakest. For Veria is a nation at war with itself, only recently recovered from a bloody rebellion, and the time of heroes has passed. The empire is in a state of chaos, and while its ruler, the Empron Illis, rids the land of his remaining enemies, unseen forces are gathering at the borders. However all eyes are turned inwards. The Empron is not a well man, and there are whispers among the common folk that his advisors are spies; demons that only wear the flesh of men.
Yet there is hope…
In the distant mountains, a forester who has buried his past learns that he has not been forgotten, and that his crimes have sought him out at last. But he is no simple woodsman. He is Beccorban the Helhammer, Scourge, Burner and the Death of Nations, and his fury is a terrible thing.
For when all the heroes are gone, Veria will turn to those it has forgotten, before all is lost.
“Slow down, Loster! You’re climbing too fast!” Barde’s reedy voice carried up to the small boy as he dug his toe into a narrow crevice, skinning the top of his foot. Loster was a confident climber but he had never been this far up, despite having lived in the shadow of the Widowpeak all of his eleven years.
“Los!” The rest of Barde’s protest was lost to the wind, bouncing off of the pitiless rock face and tumbling backwards into the howling elemental maelstrom that plucked at Loster’s clothing. His fine tunic of dark blue satin was ripped at the hip and his leggings bore enough stains and small tears to render them rags.
None of that mattered now.
This far from the ground the Great Hall of his father was a god’s dollhouse. If he’d had the courage to look down, Los would have been able to blot it out with only his thumb.
“Mother is going to beat us if we’re home late again.” Barde hauled himself up until he was just beneath his brother. As the elder by several years, his arms were stronger, but he was also heavier and therefore less nimble. “If we start back down now we might be able to make it.” He did not need to mention what their father would do.
Loster ignored the hopeful tone. “Just a little bit further, then we can start back.” He grinned to himself. “Of course if you’re scared…”
“I’m not! You’re the baby here.” Barde clambered up alongside Loster. “Come on, let’s keep going.” As he moved off, Loster couldn’t help but grin. Nevertheless he caught the hastily concealed edge of fear in his older brother’s voice – it pierced his sense of calm like a broken bone. There were other signs too: the telltale tremble of his legs and arms, the whiteness of his knuckles as his fingers gripped handholds with the strength of a drowning man. Loster frowned. Maybe he was pushing too hard. His brother was only here to look after him anyway. He didn’t share Loster’s interest in exploration unless it involved exploring some of the prettier girls in the village. The small climber suddenly realised how selfish and childish he was being. What if he got Barde killed?
“Hey, I think I found a ledge,” Barde grunted and disappeared from sight only to reappear headfirst a moment later. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand.”
Loster smiled. Mother could wait.
He wedged his boot into a nook, scuffing the soft leather and gripping his brother’s clammy hand. Barde heaved and dragged him up over the lip of the ledge, further ripping his fine clothing. But he did not care. Up here he was untouchable, far away from his mother’s scolding and his father’s hard stares and harder hands. Loster glanced sidelong at his brother. Barde was much bigger than him: broad in the shoulders, long in the limbs. He was the confident one, calm in the knowledge that his father’s status as Lord of Elk was enough to shield him from most of the evils that the world had to offer, even if it could not shield him from his father. Yet now Barde sat clutching his legs to his chest, well away from the edge. To Loster it seemed that his brother had shrunk in stature.
He stood and walked along the edge as if it were a line on the ground. He had seen a few of the travelling troupes perform a similar feat with a length of rope and two tall wooden beams. The act had spectators cooing and screaming with fear whenever one of the high walkers feigned imbalance. Loster wondered what reaction his high walk would get – surely nobody could boast about having performed at such a height?
He stepped back onto stable ground and sat next to Barde. Barde was breathing deeply and looking at the ruin of his boots. It had taken courage to follow him up this high and Loster respected that. Indeed he was not exactly fearless himself. If anything he saw himself as the victim of a self-imposed pressure. Whenever an opportunity arose to do something that others would call daring or dangerous, Loster’s head filled with a hushed but insistent voice, urging him on. The voice had been with him for as long as he could remember and the only way to quiet it – the only way to find peace – was to give in. He wasn’t brave or even reckless. He was the opposite. He was weak.
“Do you think we’re the first people to climb this high?” Barde asked, his eyes scanning a horizon limned in cloud.
“I don’t know,” said Loster. “We’re probably not as far up as we think we are.” He craned his neck to view the rest of the mountain that towered into the heavens.
Barde blew the air from his lungs noisily. “It’s far enough for me. Jaym said I should know my limits and this is mine.” Loster rolled his eyes. Barde had begun lessons with the family’s weapons master three weeks earlier on his fourteenth birthday. He was still in awe of the grizzled old bastard and often quoted him, no matter how banal or ridiculous the statement.
Loster looked around their perch. A few loose stones, just enough room for a grown man to lie down without his feet dangling over the abyss. He walked up to the smooth stone wall and pressed his hands against it. It was cool despite the sun beating down — even that brightest of torches could not warm the Widowpeak. He made to turn around and stopped. A groove ran down the centre of the rock face, about a finger’s width across, disappearing into the floor between his feet.
“Barde, come look at this.” Loster ran a hand down the groove, freeing dust and dirt. Barde appeared at his side, lips parted slightly.
“What is it?” he said.
“I don’t know but we could pry it open. Give me your dirk.” Barde took a quick step back and clutched at the prized dagger tucked in his belt. As a man of fighting age, he had been gifted it by none other than his father, albeit grudgingly. It was a lovely thing with a jewelled hilt and a blade of steel so bright that it shone blue.
“No it’s mine. Father said I must look after it.” The older boy turned his body away from Loster to forestall any attempts at snatching the dirk from its oiled sheath, though Loster suspected that it was also so that he wouldn’t see Barde’s fear. Lord Malix’s rage was a dreadful thing. Almost as bad as his affection.
Loster held out his hands. “Oh come on, it’s a knife. You butter your bread with one.”
“That’s not the point. This is a proper knife, used for fighting Veria’s enemies. Not spreading butter.” He scowled. “You’re just jealous.”
Loster’s hands dropped to his side. He stifled a grin as an idea leapt to mind. “What if this leads to the tomb of some great king?” He waved a hand at the seam in the rock.
“Up here? Not likely,” scoffed Barde.
“Why not? Aifayne said that there used to be a great city on this mountain. That’s what the ruins at Stackstone are all about.”
“That old dustfart?” Barde snorted, yet nevertheless elbowed past his brother. He ran a finger down the gap in the rock face and turned back to Loster. “Give me your tunic.”
“If there is treasure inside then we have to go and claim it, but I’m not damaging my knife. In case there’s a dragon.”
“A dragon?” Loster raised an eyebrow.
Barde flushed red. “Yes. You never know. You were the one who said we were the first up here.”
“I said I didn’t know.”
“Just give me your tunic.” Loster looked down at his soiled and tattered satin tunic. He sighed and slipped it off, passing it to Barde and shivering as the cruel wind nipped at his naked chest. The older boy grabbed the hem and wrapped it around his dirk before turning back to the rock face. With a grunt of effort he rammed the blade into the groove up to the hilt and began to saw it back and forth.
“It’s no use,” said Barde, and slipped the knife from its tunic cover too quickly, slicing the blade into the ball of his thumb. “Gods,” he cursed. A ruby droplet of blood fell from his hand and sparkled as it splashed onto the ground. There was a loud crack like bone splitting and a great door opened in the rock, swinging outwards and threatening to sweep the boys from the ledge. Barde leapt back, knocking into his brother and sending them both tumbling over the edge.
Loster’s hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of rough stone. Glancing to his right he saw Barde doing likewise, terror etched on his features. A shadow passed overhead as the great rock door passed above them, locking into position with a deep boom. Dust showered down on the boys and then all was silence.
“Are you okay?” Barde had remembered his courage and resumed his role as the older brother.
Loster smiled. “I’m fine. Did you drop your knife?”
Barde cursed again. His prized dirk was somewhere below, probably beyond recovery. Loster hauled himself back up to the ledge and froze as Barde scrambled up beside him, sucking his thumb to stem the flow of blood.
The door had revealed a long corridor angled down into the heart of the mountain, and its passage had gouged away a thick layer of dirt and dust, laying bare a quarter circle of mosaic underneath. The hundreds of tiny tiles were chipped and faded but Loster could just about make out a dark figure, picked out in once-black and was-red. The figure’s hands were raised towards a vibrant sun in a sky of azure brilliance.
“What is it?” Barde asked, his dagger forgotten. “It doesn’t look like the king of a great city.”
“That’s because it isn’t.” Loster looked at Barde. “I’m not sure, but I think that’s…Him.”
“Who? Who’s ‘Him?’” Barde knelt and wiped more dust from the floor, revealing a line of strange runic script. Barde sat back on his haunches and frowned. Loster swallowed hard and instinctively moved behind his brother. Barde looked over his shoulder at him. “Well, what does it say?” he asked.
“It’s Old Verian, I think,” Loster recognised the strange shapes from his studies with Aifayne, “but…”
Loster raised his hand to his mouth, absently chewing his grimy thumbnail. “Well that word.” He pointed at a jagged symbol. “I’m not supposed to say it out loud.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the writing, the man in the picture. It’s Him.”
Barde blinked. “Not the Black God?”
Loster gasped. “Ssssh. What if He hears?” This adventure had been his idea but he was beginning to like it less and less. None of the stories that haunted his slumber were more chilling than the horror tales of the Unnamed. Loster had overheard His true name once but knew it was not to be uttered aloud. Not unless you were one of his thralls from the Temple Deep or were spinning the cruellest of curses.
“Don’t be a baby. He can’t hear us.”
“He’s always listening. That’s what gods do.” Loster could feel the cold without his tunic and had lost his appetite for this particular excursion. “We should get back. Mother will be worried.” He knelt and pulled on his soiled and torn shirt.
Barde knotted his brow. “Well what about my dirk?” he asked, cocking his head.
“What about it?”
“I’m not going home without it.” Barde folded his arms across his chest.
“But it went down there,” Loster said. He gestured at the emptiness behind him. “We have to go down there to get it anyway.”
“Not if there’s a better one.” Barde jerked a thumb at the portal into the mountain.
To Loster it looked like the maw of some fell beast waiting to swallow the two small boys. “We don’t know what’s in there…”
“Afraid are we? That makes sense at your age.” Loster scowled. The challenging voice in his head was strangely silent on this matter. Instead it seemed that his older brother had taken its place.
“I’m not afraid, I just…” he paused. “It’s that.” He pointed at the mosaic. “We don’t know what it means.”
“So let’s find out,” said Barde.
They stepped through the doorway into the Widowpeak, though both took care to walk around the dark figure on the floor.