Dew dripped heavily from the twigs of the surrounding trees as the warlocks chanted. The clerics burned bits of incense that stank like the fourth circle as they wove the spell together. It was a ceremony, and would take nearly an hour for the first candidate to be ready.
As the ritual neared the first milestone, the temperature in the glade dropped, and as the hierarch raised the ornate dagger and plunged it into the chest of the candidate, the dripping stopped altogether, the dewdrops frozen with the blast of cold that emanated from the weathered stone slab.
Bloodsip shivered inside his woolen robes, and focused on the chant. He wasn’t sure it was required — certainly he felt no power flowing through him. At least, it felt nothing like the power he channeled when he unleashed an eldritch blast, but he was not going to be responsible for the failure of this ritual.
Snerdbane Edgeslice opened his eyes, vaguely aware that the blood dripping from the dagger above his face was his own. An aching pain in his chest made him think he knew where he had been stabbed, and he tried to lash out at the masked figure above him. However, it wasn’t the ropes that bound him to the stone slab that prevented him. Other chains, resting on his soul rather than his limbs, bound him.
As the ropes fell free from his body, he rose from the slab and knelt before the Dread Hierarch. He hated the man with every fiber of his being, but he could only obey. The hierarch extended a sword to him, the surface of which writhed with runes that glowed in Snerdbane’s vision. He reached out and took the sword, and his body was wracked with pains as the blade became his soul. Or possessed his soul. Or — he wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. However, strength now flowed into his body from the blade, and he stood, aware that the Hierarch had granted him permission.
Hate and rage flowed through his mind, and the smug look on the face of a nearby hobgoblin drove him into a frenzy. Hardly knowing what he was doing — had he been a fighter, once? — he clove the humanoid practically in two, swinging the runeblade with a heavy two-handed arc that took the creature completely by surprise.
A sharp cry of surprise — dismay? — broke from one of the surrounding, cloaked figures. Snerdbane smiled with what was more like a sneer and turned to the Dread Hierarch.
“You have done well,” that man said, his voice echoing hollowly in the mask he wore. “You have survived the transformation, and you have killed. Did you feel strength flow into you from the hobgoblin?”
Snerdbane thought a moment, then nodded. Something had flowed up the blade from the creature when he struck it. Glancing down, he saw that the wound over his sternum had closed.
“Good. You have become a Death Knight, and death is your master. When you serve him well, he will reward you with renewed health and vigor. Take the armor that the guard was wearing. It is yours, now, and you will need it shortly.”
Puzzled, the new Death Knight pulled the armor off of the hobgoblin. It fit him passably well, but was damaged from the blow he had given it. No one told me that this would be the way for me to get equipment he grumbled inwardly.
He had hardly finished fastening the final working straps of the leather armor when there was a cry from the stone behind him. Turning, he saw the Hierarch’s knife rising from the chest of another man.
This man, too, rose from the stone and knelt to the Hierarch, but when he took the sword from the hiearch’s hands, he cried out aloud and the blade shattered, leaving him nothing but a shard — hardly a dagger or short sword.
“Gutterspawn!” the Hierarch shouted in fury and disdain. “Worthless wretch! You are unable to hold the gift you have been given!” He turned to Snerdbane, but the Death Knight needed no order. He strode forward quickly and slashed at the gutterspawn, surprised when the wretch blocked with his feeble blade.
The fight was soon over, even with this unexpected resistance. With the creature’s demise, Snerdbane felt even stronger than before, and he seethed when the Hierarch told him to stand aside while others were processed. Some of the clerics were beginning to sound hoarse from chanting so long, although most of them were accustomed to this sort of duty.
After a half-dozen men had been transformed into either Death Knights or gutterspawn, and the latter had been dispatched by the former, one of the newer Death Knights noticed that Snerdbane was wearing armor, and immediately attacked him.
The first Knight was surprised at this action, and suffered a wound before bringing his own runeblade into play, parrying and riposting, slashing at his enemy’s unprotected flesh. It wasn’t long before he had defeated the newcomer, but although he felt more powerful from this victory, he noticed that the wound had not been healed.
Snerdbane approached a cleric that was observing rather than participating in the ritual and demanded that the priest explain what was happening.
“Only the living are able to heal you when you strike them with your runeblade,” the priest said with a cruel smile. Seeming to divine Snerdbane’s next thought, he said, “You are forbidden to harm one of our order.” Indeed, the invisible bonds on Snerdbane’s soul? prevented him from as much as slapping the man.
Furious, he stormed away from the ceremony until he found a small group of humanoids clustered around a smoky fire. He struck one of them down, and was immediately healed of the wound he had received from the other Death Knight. However, he had been careless again, and the armor of this victim was in even worse shape than that he was wearing.
Undeterred, he set upon the entire group, who had attacked him with the death of their comrade, and when he had slain all of them, he was able to piece together a more complete set of armor.
He was puzzled by only one thing. Although the blows he rained on the hobgoblins seemed to heal him, he didn’t feel the increased strength he had felt from killing gutterspawn or Death Knights.
Hardly had fitted the new armor to his body than he was set upon by another Death Knight. This one moved more swiftly than the last, and Snerdbane was soon fighting desperately, growing weary as he fended off the furious attacks of the other.
Finally, the attacker paused and said, “Bow before Delphus Shadowblade, and you shall live.” Snerdbane bowed reluctantly, and Shadowblade inhaled sharply, as though a surge of pleasure had moved him.
Turning from Snerdbane, Shadowblade searched for a new adversary, and the former gripped his sword, ready to run the previous victor through from behind. However, he soon realized that he was completely incapable of striking the one to whom he had bowed. Instead, he followed the victor and joined him in attacking some of the other wandering Death Knights, some of whom had, themselves, joined into small groups.
Luna was still high when Delphus Shadowblade took his place on one of the standing stones to the right of the Dread Hierarch. He had been given a suit of armor after defeating many of the other Knights, and was now called Master of Sorrow. Gutterborn and the lesser Death Knights still fought in the shadows beyond the fire pots, and there were no humanoids left within the circle that was permitted to the undead warriors. Generally, those Death Knights who had made the transition first were able to defeat the newer recruits, having collected gear from the unfortunate humanoid soldiers and guards who had surrounded the ritual circle. Others, like the unfortunate Snerdbane, were eventually cut down by warriors with finer mettle, and some of these waited with Shadowblade for the last of the victims to be processed.
In between the fighters and knights who were slaughtered to change them into Death Knights (or gutterborn, for the less fortunate) the clerics slaughtered sacrifices to the dread powers that were granting these transformations. As the Hierarch oversaw the last of these sacrifices — a young girl taken from the lands of the Bandit Kings — the sounds of combat from beyond the grove changed in tone.
While there had been a more-or-less constant clash of arms in the surrounding darkness, there were now the sound of thundering hooves and the shouts of living voices. Light bloomed in the darkness here and there as light spells were cast into the melee, and other lights cast black shadows from tree or standing stone as they emanated from unsheathed blade or uncovered shield.
Before Shadowblade could completely reckon what was happening, a great warhorse charged into the very circle, a tiny elf-maiden clad in shining armor on its back. In her right hand was a heavy lance and on her left arm a shield bearing the emblem of a rose encircled by thorns. She swept past the lesser Death Knights, ignoring even Shadowblade, to charge right up to the Dread Hierarch and strike him with her lance.
The blow would have killed a normal man, but the Dread Hierarch of the Horned Society was no normal man. Possessed of arcane powers and filled with the strength of the Hells, he flew a few feet through the air and landed on his feet.
His disciples immediately sprang into action to defend their master, while Shanks ran up behind the horse to attack the knight from the ground. However, before he could even swing his sword, several other horses charged in to the glade.
Each warhorse carried a warrior, and each warrior was hedged about with a power that made the Master of Sorrow tremble. A good-looking man in impeccable armor charged at Shadowblade, but the Master avoided the wicked-looking lance with ease. In return, he swung his massive hand-and-a-half sword over his head and brought it down upon the Cavalier. Although the runeblade guided his hand in the most effective blow possible, the opposing horseman seemed relatively unfazed by the attack.
Arrius Boldblade slid from his steed, simultaneously drawing his gleaming sword from its sheath as he did so. If the brooding Knight he faced wanted swordplay, he was more than up to the challenge.
To his left, Alianna Glimmersky leaped from her steed’s back as well, calling to the beast to retreat for the time-being. There was an aura of fear around these foes that made the horse restive, and she needed to concentrate on stopping this ritual.
Behind the two of them, Theobaldus the Observant, Guderwinda Everbright, and Clatriel Redmain repeated the maneuver, one they had rehearsed in training until it was as straightforward as breathing.
Calling forth a power he had never used, the Master of Sorrow mentally commanded the foes to despair. Although the elf and another of the warriors blanched for a moment, they pushed their assault on the Death Knights in the glade.
One of the other Knights unleashed a freezing blast of cold. While one of his comrades was inconvenienced by this, the Cavaliers were severely injured, the frost only slowly melting from the polished surfaces of their armor.
Shadowblade considered the cocky horseman before him. The man’s gleaming armor was clearly bound with arcane power that was proof against all but the mightiest swordsman, but he would see if it was protected against elemental forces. Like the lesser Knight had done, Shadowblade focused his power into a blast of cold that staggered his foe, though the man showed great courage on his face.
Across the glade two of the other Death Knights copied this action, blasting the cavaliers just as their joints were beginning to unfreeze from the earlier blast. Another of the Death Knights — Shadowblade couldn’t remember his name — was caught in these cones of cold as well, but if he wasn’t strong enough to shrug the bitter frost off, he wasn’t fit for the title.
The Dread Hierophant called upon his minions to deal with the intruders and vanished, while one of the Warlocks flew up into the sky, pointing his finger at the Elven Paladin to no apparent effect. The Death Knight behind the elf had been swinging his sword at her to no effect, and having lost her primary target, she turned her attention on him. With two mighty blows, she cut viciously through the Knight’s armor, her sword blazing redly as though enjoying the carnage.
The three interlopers across the glade were also hacking away at their foes, seemingly undeterred by the ferocious cold that had sapped them again and again. While Shadowblade glanced around to see what had become of the other Warlock, the one in the air cast a fireball at the elf.
At another time, the Master of Sorrow would have been entertained and impressed at the way the flames broke around the elf without harming her, bringing the Death Knight she faced to his knees as they scorched his cold undead flesh. Now, he was only angry, and unleashed a second blast of cold at the infuriating Cavalier who dared face him. The man staggered and blanched, and the Death Knight took comfort in knowing that his bravery now was mostly bravado. Still, the human warrior’s sword was beginning to take its toll of the Master’s health, and he seemed to be protected from the runeblade’s life-leaching ability.
A lightning bolt tore through the glade, removing the elf’s opponent from the fight, but Shadowblade couldn’t tell if the Paladin had been badly hurt or not. His senses told him not only that she was alive, but that she bore life within her, and he burned with a hate, and a desire to end her.
Keeping his final blast of cold for the elf, he swung at the Cavalier again, but the man deftly caught the blade on his shield and countered with a wounding thrust below Shadowblade’s guard.
Two of the other Death Knights were down, now, though he thought he had seen one of the female Paladins — of Pholtus, by the look of her — go down to a blast of cold. He looked to his right and saw the Elf approaching at the top of her speed, the glowing red sword held in a way that made his insides ache with anticipation.
While planes of shifting colored lights suddenly appeared throughout the glade — no one ever learned what had caused them or what purpose they were intended to serve — the Master of Sorrow focused his rage on the elf and called out, “Die!”
To his surprise, although the frost blasted her fiercely, instead of attacking him, she stretched out her hand to the Cavalier he had been fighting and said, “Courage, my friend,” the touch seeming to revive him.
As the last two of the lesser Death Knights went down before the Paladins, Alianna Glimmersky tested her blade against the skill and armor of the Master of Sorrows. Soon, Theobaldus and Clatriel had joined her, and with the combined attacks of the group, the Master soon lay lifeless, the mockery of undeath ended.
The flying Warlock had headed off around this time, and the other Warlock, on foot, was beginning to run away. Whistling for her steed, Alianna charged her followers to take care of Guderwinda’s body, then swung into the saddle to pursue the fleeing warlock. It wasn’t long before she returned, his senseless, bound body draped across the rear of her horse.
Arrius and the others were guarding a small group of “prisoners”. Alianna’s infravision told her that they were not alive, but undead of the sort she had lately been fighting. Clatriel told her that they had been herded this way by the rest of the force, and that they did not have the same spirit as the Death Knights they had been fighting.
“They don’t have any armor, to speak of, and no swords — look.” She pointed with her glowing longsword at the dagger-like shard one of the fiends was clutching to his chest.
Alianna’s look suddenly changed, as though she were listening to someone else speak, who was not present for the rest of the party, and she smiled.
Spurring forward, she leveled Fedifensor at one of the groveling prisoners, noting the way he avoided looking at the glowing red blade.
“You, there,” she said, accepting the sidelong glance he gave her. “If you wish to be freed of this corruption, and to be avenged on the Horned Society, seek out Pholtus.”
Several of the other gutterspawn murmured that they would also seek out Pholtus, but Alianna stopped a few of them. “No,” she said, commandingly, “you four are to seek out Pelor.” They crept away, seemingly accepting this word.
When the Paladin was about to turn her horse away from the wretches, one of them stood boldly up. Hate filled his face, but there was something else there, too. Perhaps a thirst for vengeance? He was broader than the others, and didn’t seem to fit with them in a number of ways.
“Where would you have me go, mistress?” he asked.
Something like a smile broke on the elf’s face as she saw his boldness. He didn’t cower like the others, although he cradled the broken scrap of a sword against his chest like the rest.
“Heironeous,” she said, emotion touching her voice. With a nod, the gutterspawn turned and strode through the midst of his fellows as though he had a mind to find Heironeous that very night.
Alianna turned her steed and saw that her companions were looking at her with amazement. “Come,” she said, “this one,” she nodded to the shape across her horse’s rump, “has information that the mages can reach, and Goodie needs a cleric to help her rejoin the fight.
“I also need to ask her forgiveness for leading her to a death. The next time we face these monsters, we must be prepared for their cold attacks.”
“What of the ones you released?” asked Theobaldus.
“I don’t know,” she laughed. “My God has a use for them, but what it is is beyond me. Perhaps my husband will be able to tell me when we see him again. In any case, I almost wish I could be there when the undead present themselves at a temple of Pholtus.” She laughed again at the thought, and taking the reins of Guderwinda’s horse in her left hand, she started the way back to the rest of the force, where she hoped to find a cleric who could return her herald to life. Failing that, they would need to return to the fortress before Goodie would be able to ride the horse again, instead of being carried like a sack.