Authors: David Dalglish
BOOKS BY DAVID DALGLISH
THE HALF-ORC SERIES
The Weight of Blood
The Cost of Betrayal
The Death of Promises
The Shadows of Grace
A Sliver of Redemption
THE WORLD OF DEZREL
A Dance of Cloaks
Guardian of the Mountain
he images flickering through the portal were scattered at best, but Thulos watched them intently. Sometimes words passed through, accompanying the dilution of color. His fingers brushed the smoky substance, touching something like glass.
Forgive me, Tess, I was wrong. Close the damn thing!
The words stabbed a sliver of doubt into the war god's chest. The portal, closed? Not while his soldiers still fought among the virgin lands, not when he was so close to entering the long lost realm of Celestia. He thought he could see the goddess through the portal, standing with her arms wide and her hair flowing in a torrent of wind. Behind her, two shapes huddled together, and a third lay prone in the corner.
said the wraith-voice from the portal.
You've earned this.
His generals and advisors kneeled around him on the lower steps of the massive pyramid. Regardless of which direction they looked upon it, the swirling vortex looked flat, like a painting. The sky was dull and red, as if the millions of slaughtered lives had saturated the heavens as well as the soil.
Thulos put a giant hand on the hilt of his sword and pressed harder against the portal with the other. Normally when entering a new world, his most powerful mages emerged first and combined their might to open a pathway. This one, however, had opened of its own accord, and the few messengers that traveled back assured him only two necromancers held open the gate.
Thulos's soldiers had passed through, with significant strain upon the two, but Thulos himself could not yet pass. The portal resisted, still far too weak. But now...
“Stand back,” Thulos told his men, his eyes peering at the woman, her face obscured as if she were underneath starlit water. “The time is now.”
The ground beneath them cracked. Wind howled into the portal. The glassy substance against his hand weakened, then broke. His arm pushed through. Without a moment of hesitation he followed within, passing from his world to one he had conquered untold centuries before.
Even for a god, the travel from world to world took its toll. Thulos closed his eyes, focused his breath, and then reopened them. Every muscle in his body coiled ready for action. He kept his hand on his sword as he surveyed what appeared to be a throne room, and was bewildered by what he saw. At the door, two identical men gazed at him with open-mouthed horror. In the corner by the door lay a black-robed man, his hands above his head, his face thin and bony. His maniacal laugh flooded the sudden silence. And then Thulos saw the goddess.
“Celestia,” he said, drawing his sword.
The woman stared up at him with pure black eyes, her arms clutching her worn red dress that at one point must have been beautiful. Her long black hair settled against her back as the wind died. A tiny smile curled a side of her mouth, even as tears ran down her cheeks.
“That's my mother's name,” she said, and the smile vanished. She turned toward the two at the door, their gray skin and odd ears vaguely familiar to him. “Go now, before he kills you.”
“Your name?” Thulos said as he breathed in the foreign air. Even its taste was familiar. The presence of two of his brethren throbbed in his head—his other god-pieces. Karak and Ashhur were near, and they both had their eyes upon him, whether in fear or elation he did not know.
“Tessanna,” she said, though she did not turn to look at him. She remained staring at the giant doors. All the while, the fool in the corner laughed.
“Praise be,” Thulos heard the man shout. “Praise be, my glorious Karak, we have won!”
Thulos flinched at the name, as if an arrow had poked through his heavy, elaborate armor. Four players here in this game, and he did not know upon which side they stood on. It was time he knew.
“I am Thulos, god of war,” he said. He did not need to shout, for his deep voice boomed in the quiet. “I command the bloody fist. I lead the Warseekers from star to star. Those who kneel may live in servitude. All others die.”
The larger man at the door drew a pair of swords.
“And I'm Harruq Tun,” he shouted. “Consider me your welcome.”
Thulos shook his head. Centuries upon centuries later he had returned to a world he had once destroyed, and now some pathetic runt of a man wanted to challenge his rule? There were more pressing matters to attend to. He needed to find Celestia, as well as hunt down his two renegade brothers and make them answer for their cowardice. He did not have time for this. Where were his soldiers? Ulamn, leader of his invasion troops, where was he?
“Be gone, fool,” Thulos told Harruq. “I will grant you death another time.”
“Foolish, yes,” the frail-bodied one beside Harruq said in a raspy, ruined voice. Thulos recognized him as the one who had begged for the portal to be closed. “But not so great a fool as you. Look behind you, supposed deity, and see your folly.”
Thulos sensed no trick, so he glanced behind. The portal, the lifeline to his many worlds and near limitless troops, had faded away, like clouds broken by a warm summer breeze. His way out was gone. He was trapped on the world of Dezrel.
“Your name?” the war god demanded, pointing his sword. His arm shook with rage.
“Qurrah,” the man said, and then a bitter smile creased his face. “Qurrah Tun.”
Brothers, thought Thulos. So be it. He would kill them both.
He let his muscles relax, let his perfect reflexes and skill take over.
“Step aside,” he told the image of the goddess. “I will have words with you when this matter is done.”
Tessanna shivered and walked to the wall. The laughing man in the corner sat up, bracing his body against the stone so he might watch. Thulos shifted his sword into both hands, surveying his opponents. He was a full head's length taller than the warrior, and certainly stronger. The other had to be a caster of some sort, for he wore black robes like the man in the corner. He wondered if they were the necromancers that had borne the portal's burden.
He leapt, and with grim satisfaction saw their eyes widen in shock at his speed. He swung his sword in a single wide arc, unafraid of any counter. The one called Harruq crossed his swords and blocked. The swords connected in an ear-splitting crack. Magic sparked about them, and then Harruq flew backward, through the doors and down the stone steps. Qurrah remained, a spell on his lips, but Thulos was faster. He slammed the butt of his sword into Qurrah's belly ending the spell. His blade whipped around, edge aimed for the man's throat.
The scream rolled over him, staying his hand. Qurrah fled in the brief respite. Thulos glared back at Tessanna, who lay crumpled on the floor, her face streaked with tears.
“I told him to run, and now he runs,” she said. “Oh mother, why have you abandoned me?”
Thulos shook his head, feeling cruel anger burning within him. He would teach her who was master, who was leader, who was god. He stepped through the doors, and all his anger vanished as he witnessed a battle beyond anything he had ever witnessed. His soldiers, his winged war demons, flew in broken formations in the sky above a great city, fighting men in white robes and golden armor. He recognized them at once, the troops of his long lost brother, Ashhur. His own troops were far more numerous, but the flow of battle appeared uncertain.
The conflict was not limited to the sky alone. From the castle he saw a long, wide road, much of it covered with fallen bodies. Armored soldiers fought through file after file of mindless undead. They were taking heavy casualties, but their progress appeared more certain than that of those in the sky. When Thulos looked back at the two troublesome brothers, he saw a body beside them, blood running down the steps from a gash in its throat.
“Ulamn,” Thulos said, his anger rising. Ulamn had been his greatest general, overseeing the conquering of over twenty worlds. Now he lay dead, and by the way Harruq smirked, he had little doubt who had been the cause.
“He promised—what was it?— to crush my bones to pebbles and peel my flesh?” Harruq asked.
“Something like that,” Qurrah said between coughs.
Thulos said not a word; he was too busy absorbing the details of the war. He counted the waves of undead that fought in the streets. He took in the number of demons and angels that warred in the sky. He knew his soldiers' worth, and in the passing of just a few seconds, he sensed the ability of the angels. The men who marched against him were only mortal, even if well-trained and adequately equipped. Thulos knew when he joined the fray, his troops would win, with a few undead and the vast bulk of the demons remaining. He smiled.
“Let you two be honored as the first of my sacred kills upon your land,” he said, saluting with his sword. Harruq saluted back, a nervous grin on his face.
Three angels swerved low toward them, carrying passengers. Before Thulos could attack, the passengers extended their arms, and a massive barrage of fire, ice, and rock exploded forth. The war-god crossed his arms and grunted. The fire and ice did little, and the rocks, boulders half his size, shattered, leaving a few scrapes across his armor. The angels released their passengers at the foot of the stairs and joined the battle in the sky. A tall wizard with yellow robes and a small red beard bounded up the stairs as Thulos pushed away the chunks of rock that blocked his way.
“Please tell me that's not who I think it is,” the yellow-robed man said.
At first Thulos thought the wizard spoke of him, but then noticed the hateful glance thrown at the smaller of the two brothers. He made a note of it, then looked to the two women, magic dangling from their fingertips. One was an elf, certainly beautiful, with long auburn hair, walnut eyes, a flowing green dress. The other appeared a twin of Tessanna, the second image of the goddess he had seen within moments of setting foot upon the world. This one had a healthy glow about her skin, and she wore a dress similar to the elf’s.
“In everything, I see Celestia's hand,” Thulos said to them. “Will she herself not come and face me?”
“You'll have to settle for us,” the wizard said, tipping his hat. “My name's Tarlak. Meet my Eschaton.”
As one they unleashed a barrage of spells, a swirling mix of fire and sheer magical power. Thulos batted the spells aside with his sword, knowing its enchantments, enhanced by the strongest spellcrafters of various worlds, could protect and endure. Harruq rushed up the steps, weapons ready. Thulos saw him between the powerful light of the spells, stepped to one side, and slammed his sword down in greeting. Their blades connected, and once more the mortal flew back.
He gave them no reprieve. Brushing aside their darts of ice and flame like they were wasps, he charged. His shoulder slammed the man named Tarlak in the face, plowing him several feet backward. With his sword he lashed out at the one who mirrored the goddess. It connected, but it did not cut skin, the woman somehow protected by strong magic. The force of the blow continued, however, and she cried out in pain as she rolled down the steps, several of her ribs most likely broken.
The elf slammed her hands together, trying a different tactic to defeat him. He felt the ground rumble beneath his feet, then crack and sink. She was trying to destroy his footing, as if the others could take advantage. Thulos shifted his feet, stepped twice, and backhanded her.
“Aurelia!” he heard Harruq shout.
Several lances of ice flew from her fingers as she stumbled back, the spells shattering against his breastplate like they were fragile glass. He paused a moment, knowing his skirmish was insignificant compared with the larger battle. He raised his sword, letting his demons take power and courage from his very presence.
“I am here!” he shouted, his voice carrying for miles. “Victory is at hand, my brethren!”
The angels in the sky reacted just as fiercely as the demons. The chaos above had formed into two solid armies, and those in white dived to the ground, shredding undead and calling out commands. Thulos could not hear them, but their meaning was clear. They were shouting retreat to the soldiers in the streets.
“This is our chance,” the goddess mirror said as she pushed herself to her knees and stared at him. “Without his army. Without all his strength. Without Karak at his side. We must kill him.”
Thulos admired her determination, but she was just a child. He dodged another ball of fire from Aurelia, smacked away a spear of magic from Tarlak, and closed the distance between him and the girl with blackest eyes. His hand closed around her throat, the tip of his sword hovering before her chest.
“Your name?” he demanded. “If you are indeed not the goddess.”
“Mira,” she said, still unafraid.
“Well Mira,” Thulos said, even as the others surrounded him. “Give word to your goddess. This world is lost. I will do as I did a thousand years before. If she will not face me, then everything—
He threw her away like a discarded doll. She crumpled on the hard ground and did not move.
Harruq lunged, his swords stabbing for openings in Thulos’s armor. At the same time, Qurrah lashed with a whip wreathed in flame. As the leather wrapped around the war-god’s neck he blocked one sword stab with his vambrace. The other he parried with his sword, looped his blade around, and thrust deep through the armor covering Harruq’s chest. This time it was Aurelia who screamed at the sight, and Thulos noted their connection. They loved each other, and in her grief, the elf would be dangerous. He had to deal with her next.