Part One: Chapter 1
It was nothing more than a prick in that fathomless black orb—the blazing globe of life caught and reflected in the corner of her pet’s eye—yet its rays had given birth to the warm draft on which the great bird now hovered and soared. Waves of searing heat danced along the bare red walls beneath and beyond the divide, distorting all about her save the clear azure sky. Shrill cries ripped the air above, piercing her ears before rebounding from the cliffs down into the valley far below.
Motionless as the stone tower beneath her feet, the woman named Saedus of Ost followed from the rim the hawk’s every circle and dive. Her eyes, gray as winter dawn, should’ve been shielded from the blinding sun by lovely white hands. But they weren’t. They were opened wide instead, unblinking, staring at the cruel points of beak and talon, lost in the flutters of wingtip and fantail. And though indeed she looked upon these things, she didn’t see them—for her spirit reached out and usurped the sight of her bird, making its keen, wide view her own.
“It walks the river,” she spoke suddenly aloud then returned as swiftly to silence: her only welcome for the imposing figure approaching from behind. A man with flowing raven hair climbed the final steps of the tower’s winding stair, his thick chest and broad shoulders hardly clearing the portal without causing a break in his kingly stride. A curved ebony horn hung at his waist, rim banded in etched gold, and his rich crimson-stained garments reeked of the black herb. His expression was calm.
“Such is the habit of restless shades, I’m told,” said the man.
“Not a shade, Baeldrin,” replied the sorceress, lowering her gaze. “A ghoul. And one of great power.” The hawk circled high once more, screeched, and flew out of sight. Saedus turned as it did so, adding: “One with a hunger that can’t be sated.”
Baeldrin couldn’t help noting the correlation. The captivating being before him was referred to in some circles as the Spider, and indeed she seemed akin to the widow spiders of the north: a species whose females devoured the males as soon as their usefulness was ended. Baeldrin no longer questioned that Saedus was using him. So long as his due was delivered, he’d serve the Daemon herself, even if that cost him his soul and more. But he’d not be consumed by this witch. There’d soon be a measure in place to ensure his protection.
“You’d hand over my glory to this wayward soul, then?” he said at last, turning his thoughts back to the present.
“I’ll honor our arrangement.” The sorceress narrowed her devilish eyes and fixed them on her guest. ”As shall you." Though the man eclipsed her by nearly a head and wore the countenance of an imperious monarch, it was clear who ruled here in the stone tower.
This wasn’t Baeldrin’s first visit to the Spider’s kingdom as a result of their arrangement; nor would it be the last. Her barbaric realm shared a border with his native Domal—Ost’s larger and more civilized neighbor to the south—and a journey here and back home again for him could be accomplished well within a week: easily concealed by the pretense of a hunting expedition or some other innocent jaunt to the backlands. Each time he made the trip he felt the witch’s invisible threads constricting tighter about him, and again now he contemplated just how tangled in her web he’d become.
With her own mind wrapped around harvesting a new prize from the river below, Saedus had been swift to dismiss Baeldrin’s concern regarding his role in their upcoming plans. Yet, moving now to descend the stair, she offered him a consolation in passing: “Remember this, prince. Your father’s throne will be of little use to you, should you find yourself lying broken on the battlefield, trodden beneath enemy heels…”
Baeldrin watched the sorceress fade from view then strode from under the alcove to the parapet wall and gazed out over the Forest of Ûnath. Legend had it that in ages past, the Daemon had cut the river through those trees as a route for lost souls to navigate to the afterlife. The Asendath, it was named. A murky flow that snaked down to Gorm Vûdoc before spilling into a basin beneath the mountain’s roots: a final stop for the damned before entering the underworld.
Tracing the river’s path as a courier might scan a map before departure to a foreign land, Baeldrin finally settled his attention on Gorm Vûdoc. Snow-capped and barren, the mountain loomed ominously against the colorful backdrop of the world, lording over its surroundings, oppressing them with its mighty precipices and meaty knees. Staring outward, the prince felt his zeal subdued and thus retracted his gaze. “Witches and warlocks,” he blew out in disgust while pulling two small round stones from his pocket. His eyes glowed with a lustful fervor as he looked upon what lay in his palm.
After a moment he closed his fist about the pebbles and, with a wicked grin, exited the balcony.
The sorceress stood waiting in the courtyard as the ghoul was being escorted in from the wilderness. Though armed, her imp servants kept well away from their captive: for his cooperation was no part their doing, and they were visibly frightened. More than one of the blue-skinned pygmies quailed at every turn of the ghoul’s head, ready to cast down weapons and make a run for it; and the rest were hardly better, having enough courage only to prod the beast on by darting in and out from a distance. Each one’s blade may have been raised high when he jumped forward in turn, but all of them looked as if they’d rather chop off their own hand than get within arm’s reach of the prisoner.
Saedus approached the party with a regal gait and cast her intimidating gaze on the ghoul…whereupon the imps managed to suppress their fear long enough to kneel in fealty before her. The ghoul wasn’t impressed with this production, however. Instead of following suit with his guards, he laughed brazenly: “What is this trap you’ve laid for me, sorceress? I go north and south, left and right, up and down, only to find I’ve returned to the gates of your lair. Release me from your web, witch, for I’m no shade. Do you not know my name?”
“Which name, beast?” replied Saedus, her tone a loom weaving mockery in with scolding. “The one of the knave you encroached upon, devouring his mind and twisting his shell? Or that of his usurper, a spirit ancient as the river?”
At this the ghoul drew his lips further back from the bloodstained fangs of a distorted, gaping mouth. Black drool fled this grin and trickled down, pooling about the mammoth chest that some poor man’s frame had grown unnaturally to become. His eyes were two milky-white reservoirs of madness. His hands were murderous claws large enough to envelope a man’s head and squeeze it to pulp. The length of his arms alone nearly outstripped the tallest of the encircling imps, and he was naked save for a gilded belt from which hung hide strips stretching down to knobby knees.
“Yet it makes no difference,” continued Saedus. “For now I name you anew. Henceforth you are G’nilbor, servant of the Spider, champion of my legions.” She smiled as one satisfied, standing beautifully poised and confident before the face of chaos and destruction, the folds of her striking lavender robe rippling slightly in the wind. “Do you accept this charge? Or shall I return you to your stroll?”
The guards had little time to react. Faster than a deer pierced through, quick as the arrow bolting a wounded beast like lighting into a thicket, G’nilbor made his decision and presented it to the witch for the briefest of contemplations. The hulking form lunged, batted two imps aside as if they were mere wisps of smoke, and—with hardly a sound above the rush of his foul breath—stormed in for the kill.
Yet incredibly this savagery was checked. Instead of planting his huge, bare feet for one last leap that would’ve sent him slicing into Saedus of Ost, ripping the woman’s delicate limbs away from her lithe, sensual body, G’nilbor abruptly went down on hands and knees in the dirt. The imps still standing hefted their weapons and made to run forward—but Saedus waved them away. She needed them no longer, for her banshees were present now. These five spirits began an undulating dance about the fallen ghoul, rising and falling in the air on which they hovered, circling, each one taking and shifting shape by summoning to her soul the gray dust of earth. Their noiseless cries found the mind of their captive, and they broke him…and he cursed and howled as if his bowels had just been sliced open or his manhood cleaved away.
“Stop them!” he roared, claws covering his ears as if the wails flung into his mind were audible. “I’m…yours…witch! Make them stop!”
The Spider‘s smile returned as she gestured swiftly with a raised hand—and the banshees vanished at their mistress’ dismissal, recalled to whatever talisman she used to bind and house them.
G’nilbor was spent. Although he’d been tormented for mere moments, the ghoul felt as if the ordeal had lasted for several days. His arms felt heavier than lead when he drew them up from the earth, and they hung lifelessly by his side as he arched his spine and tossed his head back to meet the sky. His chest was heaving. One eye squinted in pain. Yet presently he cupped his hands over his face and returned to a more erect posture. His breathing slowed. His fingers slid slowly down his face, claws reddening the pale skin underneath. He stared now at Saedus amenably…but not without loathing.
The woman gazed back at G’nilbor, looming over him like master above dog. She was tall and handsome and appeared ageless. Long black tresses framed her slender face before falling onto her shoulders, resting in the bony recess between neck, breast, and robe. She wore an impudent expression.
“I see you’ve grown powerful, sorceress,” G’nilbor said with some effort. “Yet even Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin’s throat was opened as he slept.”
“The Red King was a fool!” she retorted. Her eyes were wild and beautiful. Then she laughed haughtily: “Did you think you’d be sharing my bed?”
G’nilbor’s mouth turned down at the edges with rancor. He held his tongue, though, knowing further threats and taunts would be pointless.
“No?” said Saedus. “Yet you are mine—and shall evermore be. Your hunger is relentless. Your days of starvation unnumbered.” Now the sorceress turned casually away from her new trophy, not even bothering to glance back with her parting words: “And unnumbered shall be the dead who lie on the field of war. They shall be your spoils, usurper.”
G’nilbor was not altogether displeased at this prospect. His punishment, an insatiable appetite for flesh that gnawed his gut and distorted his mind, was one reserved for ghouls: those who’d once served the Daemon in life but been cursed by her in death for some failure or betrayal. These lost souls forever walked the earth in limbo, finding host after host, denied not only the release of rebirth but even the black sleep of hell.
As Saedus walked away, a man passed her on his way towards the beast. He wore a long black cloak haltered at the top around his chest, and a great pendant in the likeness of the moon hung about his neck. Sable nails and lanky fingers protruded through leather gauntlets, the ties crisscrossing up to the elbows. His head was bald and white as chalk. Pink eyes peered down on the monster.
“Welcome, ghoul,” he began at once. “Do you need to be shackled? There’s no escape, and any aggression towards me will leave you with something more intolerable than that famished belly of yours. I’m the Spider’s steward, and I am not without her—even when she’s away. Do you understand?”
G’nilbor remained silent and expressionless. It was consent.
“Good,” said the man. “I’m called Valreecius. Come, beast. First you shall feed, then we’ll begin your training for war.”