Prologue

 

A cold, cruel wind swept through the Meil’vohllen Mountains. It carved tortured passes within an endless sea of snow-filled peaks, its shrill howl forging icy burrows deep within the range’s core. Yet death awaited any foolish enough to scale these treacherous ravines, for a lost power lay buried below, calling for the one who could ensure its return.

          Caught in cold shadow beneath a towering wall of stone, Hallen leaned beyond the edge of a deep mountain crevasse. Checking his rope was secure, he dug his spiked, fur boots into the ice, then glanced at his team of men, their thick wolf-fur coats bristling under a strengthening breeze.

          “Two days. If I’ve not returned, I’m already dead.”

          He looked beyond them as the rising sun set the mountain peaks alight. Wondering if this would be his last sight of dawn, he jumped into the cold, blue crevasse, and disappeared below the snow line of the Meil’vohllen. Great sheets of ice rose up to greet him, smooth and unforgiving, the relentless wind almost swallowed in silence. Weary after eight long days trudging through heavy snow, Hallen leaned out from the wall, and stared into the seemingly bottomless abyss.

          Soft slivers of light trickled in from above, doing little to penetrate the gloom. Yet there was something else rising from the shadows, whispers of an unseen fear. Hallen closed his eyes, shielding himself from the voices echoing in his head. It must be near, he thought. Forcing his concern aside, he called to his men to loosen the rope, and slowly descended once more.

          As darkness enveloped him, Hallen saw a ledge guarding a thin, black cleft that cut into the mountain on the opposite wall. Seeing little else below, he loosened the rope, gauging the ledge to be within easy reach. With a deep breath, he launched himself from the icy cliff, his heart pounding as the depths rose up to consume him. It was further than he thought, but as his spiked fur boots caught the edge, he struck his pick deep into the ice, preventing his fall. Pulling his tired frame to safety, he collapsed upon the ridge. His breath was heavy, yet it could not hide the distant cracks and groans that echoed through the crevasse as the glacier shifted. The Meil’vohllen is alive, he thought. To his relief, so was he.

          Carving a slab of pale-blue ice from the wall, he secured the rope against the ledge, hoping he’d be fortunate enough to find his way back. His team of men waited high above, sheltered from the cold, ravaging winds, but from this point on, Hallen knew he was alone. He pulled his thick, wolf-skin cloak tightly around his shoulders, and rose to his feet. He stared into the chasm, shivering against the cold emanating from its depths. Leaving the last of daylight behind, Hallen inched his way between two towering walls of ice and into the darkness beyond.

          Whispers funnelled through the cave. Sighs came from behind him and from in front, concealed in shadow yet burdening deep in his heart. Not far… Find me… You are close…. Hallen fought to subdue them. For years they’d hounded his mind, day and night, now more than ever. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out a small firelight and ignited its iridescent core. A pale-blue glow brushed the surrounding icy walls, and the voices retreated. Hallen breathed a sigh of relief, finding strength to step forward once more. Yet he only made another few feet before the ground gave way beneath him, and he slipped feet first into an unseen ice chute caught between the stone.

          Desperately clawing for purchase, Hallen helplessly slid as the chute twisted and burrowed deeper into the mountain. His frail firelight barely exposed what loomed before him, the speed in which he fell too fast to control. Hallen freed his arm to grasp his pick, ramming it against the ice as he sped by. It slowed him a little, before he burst from the chute into thin air and into a vast cavern. His heart froze in the free fall, before he crashed against the icy floor, sliding to an abrupt halt beneath a great stone wall.

          Darkness consumed him. His firelight had smashed. Unsure if he’d fallen unconscious, Hallen tried to stand, and felt a sharp pain stab through his shin. He reached down, fearing his leg was broken. He felt the stain of blood beneath his furs, but no bone struck through.

          “I’m alright,” he shouted to his men, more from habit than anything else. They were too far to hear him, too far to help. As the echo of his voice faded, he looked ahead. Seeing only emptiness, he repeated the words once more, albeit consolingly to himself.

          Slowly rising on his injured leg, Hallen noticed a hum resonating from behind. He turned and saw in the distance a faint blue glow penetrating the gloom, lighting an alcove in the stone. Hallen groped the darkness for his pack and slung it over his shoulder, before stepping his way carefully toward the light.

          Droplets of water echoed throughout the cavern, yet as he neared the alcove the hum grew louder, drowning out all other sound. The tunnel burrowed beneath the girth of a gigantic stone, its surface worn smooth from countless years of moisture slipping across its skin. Ice crunched underfoot, and Hallen felt a chill return to the air. His legs became heavy, the pain in his shin replaced by heaviness in his heart as, from the shadows, the whispers returned. You are close….

          “Leave me,” he growled, feeling pressure build in his mind.

          It is time… Release me….

          Hallen staggered forward, grasping once more at the smooth walls for support. The hum grew louder, and in it he could hear the shifting of the mountain, as though the very earth moved beneath his feet. The light grew brighter. He followed it course, until at last the tunnel gave way and he found himself in a vast cave, standing before a violently spinning sphere of blue ice, a bright light pulsating at its core.

          All pain left him as he stood in awe before the sphere. Easily three times his height, it spun unrestrained within the centre of the cave, floating a foot above the ground. It appeared solid, the ice and water contained held in place by an unknown force.

          “I’ve found you at last.”

Hallen feared that to breach its surface would bring instant death, yet what he sought lay buried within, the bright light permeating from the lost stone of al-Din. With it came the strength to resurrect the Armies of the Dead, a power Hallen knew he must prevent from being reclaimed. How this power could be wielded he couldn’t say, but he’d felt its pull, and it was a power he feared.

          As he slowly circled the sphere, he noticed a crumbled, rag covered skeleton propped against the edge of the furthest wall. He knelt beside the long dead soul, and lifted what remained of the hood from its dry skull.

          “Your secrets are no longer safe, Priest. Forgive me for what I must do.”

          Hallen stared into the hollow eyes of this once great man, one of the six Priests of al-Din. He had dedicated his life to finding the source of their power, their incessant whispers urging him on until it became an obsession. For years he’d become more recluse, guarding in secret the true nature of his explorations. Yet as he turned from the dead priest and stepped toward the sphere, Hallen knew he must at last give in to their call.

          With great trepidation, he reached forward, his hand trembling. Splashes caught his fingers, the sting cold even through heavy gloves. The ice parted as he breached its surface, flowing around his fingers like rushing water. He felt the sphere shudder, a deep rumble releasing within the cave. Then, without warning, the sphere consumed him, ripping him from the cavern floor and dragging him inside.

          He heard cries of pain. He felt fear and abandonment, rage and despair. The once subtle whispers became screams of death, yet buried deep within he felt hope. If it was his alone he couldn’t say, but he clung to it with all his heart as he was consumed by the power of the priests.

          In the centre of the sphere, the Stone of al-Din spun well beyond his grasp. He was unable to move, his body caught in the maelstrom, the flow of the ice too strong to counter. As he reached forward, an unseen force slammed into him, almost knocking him unconscious. Vast desert armies bursting from flowing seas of sand consumed his vision, their harrowing calls filling his soul with dread. From the depths of an encroaching sandstorm, towering wraiths emerged from whipping sands, their roars howling within the winds, matching the terrified soldiers’ screams. It was over in an instant, yet the pain and terror of all those souls devoured in the desert that day remained.

Snapped back to reality, Hallen clawed the currents, desperate for breath and respite, but he was thrust ahead only to be cast into battle, a sword in his hand as it pierced a soldier’s chest. The sphere consumed the soldier’s screams, and Hallen spun as he felt another soldier attack from his side. He raised his sword to defend the blow, only for the vision to disappear once more.

          He found himself tumbling uncontrollably within the sphere’s core, his limbs rendered useless against the priests’ power. He fought for control, only to feel scores of gnarled hands grip his body. He looked down in horror, finding himself wrenched against a black-stone cliff, towering high above swelling ocean waves, held only by the rotting limbs of a thousand dead souls trying to consume him within the island.

          For what seemed an eternity, Hallen endured visions of battles of blood, of bodies torn and cast upon the sand. They were over in an instant yet lasted a lifetime. He desperately reached out, struggling against the power of the visions. They tore at his mind and battered his body as if each bore physical form to protect the Stone. Betrayal. Murder. Rage. All gave power to the stone, and against it Hallen had no hope of survival. He still surged at the sphere’s edge, yet he felt more enclosed, drawn closer to the centre. He felt a pressure squeeze upon him, and was soon thrust within a surging flood of men charging into battle within an ancient desert ruin. His body was bombarded once more and in the confusion the soldiers turned from the living to the dead, their forms exploding from sandstone as the Armies of the Dead lurched toward their enemy.

          A roar filled the cave as visions of al-Din’s armies began to rise. Sensing he was close to the source of this power, Hallen turned to witness a dark-skinned, shaved-headed warrior, heavily tattooed with intricate inscriptions flowing across his skin. The warrior ran atop a fortress wall, then leapt fearlessly from its edge, plummeting hundreds of feet into a raging battle below. The warrior roared, and Hallen heard others beside him, each man covered in blood and falling into battle. Those below looked up and ran in fear, for descending upon them was Husam al-Din. The Sword of the Faith.

          Hallen fell below, staring unwittingly into the eyes of the great warrior. Pain tore through him. The rage. The anger. It all emanated from this one man. Hallen knew. Revenge would come. He screamed in pain, fear and dismay. For the once great leader of the Desert Tribes was destined to return, vowing to lay waste to those that betrayed him. Hallen felt Husam grip his throat, but he woke to find himself screaming, clutching the glowing Stone of al-Din in his hand.

          At once, the diminishing sphere of ice imploded. Hallen collapsed upon the cold, wet floor as Husam’s rage and anguish infused into his frail mind. He writhed on the ground, unable to release the stone, consumed as madness claimed him. For hours his tortured screams echoed through the icy chambers deep below the Meil’vohllen, as all that the Stone of al-Din contained lay waste to his rational mind. Yet, somewhere deep in the recesses of his conscious, Hallen knew that far across a distant desert a hot wind blew. It was a subtle call, rallying those who sought Husam’s power, heralding to all that the mind of al-Din had, at last, been set free.