Weaponforger – Preview

Chapter One

Resurgence

The wizard made his way down the stone stairs, spiraling ever deeper into the inky darkness. Only the soft pad of his footsteps disturbed the silence, just as the torch in his hand provided the only flicker of light. The need for such a base form of illumination was unfortunate, but it would, ironically, attract less notice than any use of magic. The consequences if he were to be discovered this night were best not considered.

The constant circling of the stairwell left him dizzy by the time it came to an abrupt end, depositing him in the middle of a long corridor that faded into curtains of darkness in either direction. After a furtive glance over his shoulder, he turned left. The air this far underground was cool and surprisingly dry, but it did nothing to prevent the beads of perspiration that began to form on his brow. Heavy iron doors without windows broke the smoothly chiseled, colorless walls of the hallway at regular intervals, their recessed entrances gaping like mouths ready to swallow whole any passerby who came too close. Wealth, power, and mystery lay hidden behind each, locked away by methods both magical and mundane.

Tonight, however, their wonderous contents held no allure.

After two hundred and thirty-seven carefully measured steps he came to a stop before a doorway that looked exactly like all the others he had passed. With caution he approached and placed a delicate finger into the thin groove between door and wall, careful to avoid any contact with the handle. The protections here were said to be impenetrable, and he believed it, but even the best locks were useless on a door already open. This one remained the slightest bit ajar, exactly as he had left it.

His pulse quickened as he wiggled the tip of his finger in as far as it would go and, with a silent prayer to Myrastus, the Keeper of Magics, gave a gentle tug.

The heavy door resisted such a feeble effort, but it moved just enough for him to work another finger in and gain more leverage. He repeated this pattern several times, carefully working in more fingers until the seal cracked with a silent puff of air.

A shiver of triumph ran up his spine as the door swung noiselessly open. Once across the threshold he pulled the door almost closed behind him. Though his torchlight failed to reveal the entire room, he already knew every detail of what awaited.

He edged his way around the circular chamber, keeping his body close against the wall as he lit the twenty-one torches secured evenly about its circumference. In the final, empty sconce he set his own torch, and turned to survey his work.

Spread across the floor before him lay a series of five narrow, concentric rings surrounding the center of the chamber, each painstakingly rendered from a different powdered substance specific to the purpose it served. Between the smooth lines ran an intricate series of arcane symbols written in the same powder as the ring that contained them. Twenty-one unlit candles surrounded the outer edge, precisely offset with the torches in the wall. Together the inscriptions and rings formed a summoning circle capable of containing even the strongest of creatures.

The wizard smiled as he looked upon it: the culmination of years of study and unwavering perseverance.

Though his time was limited, he reviewed the alignment and shape of each symbol meticulously. He expected no errors—everything had been inspected by a ranking Summoner—but any flaw could be catastrophic. Summoning was an unforgiving art.

Both room and circle had been prepared for his use the following day when he was to stand for the first of three trials that, once completed, would see him in command of a demonic servant of his own. Tonight, however, was about neither title nor servant; it was about knowledge. Knowledge that would further accelerate his already rapid rise within the most dominant order of wizards on the continent: the Conclave of Imaretii.

He allowed himself a moment to reflect on his purpose.

Nearly three years prior, shortly after his confirmation to full membership within the organization, he had been ordered to clean a room in the north tower. A menial task better suited for servants or apprentices, he believed it either a deliberate slight or a punishment for some unknown transgression. He had rebelled at the assignment, but his protests had fallen on deaf ears. The mess was an experiment gone awry, he was told, and the aftereffects would serve as a cautionary lesson on the limits of power. This was plausible, given which master’s tower had been damaged, yet once inside he quickly grew suspicious of that explanation. The damage he beheld was extensive and bore the marks of an intentional rampage rather than an accident. Even more curious were the signs that other restorative efforts were already taking place.

The scrap of paper he discovered had been a revelation. Left on an emptied shelf, as if meant to be found, it contained a single word written in a hasty hand. An unusual word—a name—but one unlike that of any civilized tongue he had studied. So strange a moniker in that context could only belong to a demon, and its placement amidst the destruction could not be explained away by coincidence. Such names, critical to the summoning process, were among the most closely guarded secrets in the Conclave and unheard of for one of his rank to possess.

He could tell no one what he suspected, however, so he had memorized and then burned the scrap to ensure no evidence of its existence remained. Then he had waited, confirming his suspicion through countless hours of research, biding his time until he was strong enough to take command of such a creature.

Which was now.

With a wave of his hand he lit the candles at precisely the same instant—an important factor in establishing the protective ward’s strength. The flames swayed in unison, and he allowed them to steady before aligning himself just outside the outermost ring of the circle.

He began the incantation in a low, steady voice. The spell of summoning was short but the words complicated, and the rise and fall of every syllable was precisely timed. The final sound to pass his lips was the name he had discovered on that scrap of paper: Mataasrhu.

Time stretched uncomfortably long into the silence, to the point he began to doubt his accuracy in the casting. Then a mote of intense darkness manifested in the center of the circle. It was silent and without substance, yet occupied a physical presence that far outweighed its size. Tendrils of purple-black smoke stretched and pulled, tearing the air apart and distorting the fabric of reality as they expanded to form a swirling void.

His concern mounted as the mists billowed and twisted, pressing outward until they filled the innermost circle and obscured the looming shadow that approached from within. Large arms solidified, attached to a massive chest. Hooved legs the size of tree trunks took shape, followed by wings contorted to fit within the confines of the room. The entirety of its skin was a dark brownish-red, and a mantle of thick, dark fur covered its shoulders and wrapped its waist like a loincloth. The wings curled back and tucked themselves together behind the creature, revealing a squarish head set with eyes that burned red beneath a ridged brow knit together in a deep furrow.

The wizard could scarcely believe what he had accomplished. Before him stood a greater demon, a creature of near myth that would confer enormous prestige to the one who controlled it. Caution overrode exhilaration, and he quickly squashed any sense of pride. Maintaining control would be matter of focus and willpower, and in this aspect of his studies he had excelled.

“Greetings, mighty Mataasrhu,” he said, using a tone appropriate for a valued inferior.

Mataasrhu ignored him and surveyed the chamber, his eyes taking note of everything in it.

“I thank you for coming this evening,” the wizard continued. “Though you may fear that I have called you into servitude, such is not my intent.”

Mataasrhu snorted in disdain and glared at him with an almost tangible malevolence.

The wizard chose to disregard the look. He could already feel the creature pressing against the wards that contained it, testing. Best to get on with it.

“Tonight, I desire from you only knowledge. Knowledge of whose failure resulted in the destruction wrought upon the north tower three years ago. I bid you reveal to me the events of that night.”

The demon could not speak, of course, but there were spells that would allow a mental image to be shared between the creature and himself. It was a simple incantation, one that he mouthed now almost without thought.

In answer, the demon’s hand shot towards him, crashing into the invisible boundary of the circle and sending angry red sparks streaking about the inside of the dome that enclosed it.

The wizard winced as his mind absorbed the blow, erasing the glowing cracks that had appeared in the air between them. It had nearly gotten through.

“You are summoned and bound,” he commanded. “You must answer!”

Mataasrhu’s lips curled, baring teeth as large as daggers.

“My friend does not wish to speak to you.”

The wizard jumped in surprise at the soft voice that seemed to come from behind the demon.

From the swirling mists at the creature’s back, a second, smaller figure emerged and slid to the side, stopping just inside the boundary of the circle’s protection. It looked like a man, though he was wrapped in snug garments stitched from unfamiliar hides, and his face was hidden deep within a cowl. A sword and knife were belted around his waist, but his stance was relaxed and his hands made no move towards his weapons.

The wizard licked his lips nervously.

“You are not summoned,” he stated with all the force he could muster. “You may not come.”

“May I not?” the stranger asked in a manner that was terrifyingly conversational. “Then I’ll intrude no further.”

As smooth as a cat stalking its prey, the man stretched one leg outside the rings inscribed on the floor, taking care not to disturb any of the symbols.

The wizard sucked in his breath as a cold bead of sweat trickled down his neck. “You cannot leave the circle.”

“He cannot leave the circle,” the man corrected from where he stood straddling the protective rings. His shadowed head turned back to the demon, who regarded him silently. “Which hardly seems fair.”

The wizard stood frozen in horror as the stranger pulled his back foot from within the circle, slowly dragging a line through the markings with his toe.

“No! You’ll kill us all!” He sought to conjure an attack, but his mind stumbled and the words would not come fast enough.

The torches and candles were snuffed the instant the final circle was broken, plunging the room into absolute darkness. The last thing the wizard saw was the malicious grin spreading beneath the demon’s burning red eyes.

He died so fast there was not even time to scream.

Mataasrhu savored the lingering traces of power that drifted like embers from the wizard’s broken corpse. It had been far too long since he had tasted one of the despised Imaretii, and though this one had been small the sensation remained quite satisfying.

There was nothing else that pleased him about the situation, however. He was hunched over and uncomfortable, squeezed into a space more suited for a smaller being. He knew where he was, and knew as well that this chamber had not been prepared for him, which meant the wizard had not anticipated his size—probably one of their cursed students.

He shuffled around to face the stranger, who had yet to move. Though it remained pitch black in the chamber, neither needed light to see the other.

“You swore that you told no one!” Mataasrhu hissed in deep tones that could be felt as much as heard.

“And so I did not,” the man replied, his voice laced with its usual smug humor. “Perhaps he divined your name through some mystic vision.”

“He was pitiful and inept,” Mataasrhu countered with a contemptuous snort. “No, it was provided to him.”

Mataasrhu had somehow been outsmarted but could not fathom how it had been accomplished. There would have been signs of any contact, and he would have been made aware of any messages that were sent, but there had been nothing. The mystery made him angrier than being summoned to begin with, as he now felt trapped more surely than if the wizard’s feeble prison was still in place.

“What now for us, then?” he asked spitefully. “Shall we wreak havoc upon this miserable place once more?”

“I have more pressing needs at the moment. Though I’ve enjoyed our time together, I believe we have our own paths to walk.” The man’s dark eyes met Mataasrhu’s in a penetrating stare. “We owe each other nothing.”

Mataasrhu scowled. This would set his plans back significantly, but he could see no alternative. Here, he was no longer in control.

“Hunt well, then, Veluntrhu,” he said sullenly, sliding back into the mists that still swirled in the middle of the circle. “We shall meet again, you and I.”

The man bowed as Mataasrhu faded away but never dropped his gaze from the mists as they collapsed inwards. When they had winked from existence, he turned his attention to the wizard’s body, or at least what was left of it.

“‘Never summon from an untrusted source,’” he quoted with a mocking shake of his head.

He produced a small flame in the palm of his hand, then sent it spinning about the chamber to relight the candles and torches. Next he worked to restore the symbols in the circle. When he was satisfied that things were exactly the way they needed to be, he walked from the room, closing the door fully behind him.

“Now to find her.”

Chapter Two

A Journey Resumed

Fendrick rested a meaty hand on the anvil, taking one last look around the forge that had served as home and workshop for many years longer than expected. He had created so many things on that anvil, coaxing iron and steel into forms both practical and appealing. Most were mundane, a few exceptional, and one… that one had been special.

It was quiet this early in the morning, the street outside devoid of the frenetic bustle of activity that would greet the new day. He tugged at his shirt, resisting the urge to remove it and set himself to work. His tools were all packed away, or at least the ones he was not leaving behind.

He took a poker in hand and absently stirred the banked coals. If it were only possessions he was walking away from, it would not bother him so much. But this forge like the one before it had served their purpose: he had been left alone for almost thirty years. No one thought twice about a dwarf owning a smithy, any more than they cared about elves frolicking in the woods.

“Don’t worry, Master Fendrick, it’s in good hands,” Doran said as he returned with an armful of the day’s work. “I’ll do right by all you’ve taught me.”

Fendrick put away his sour expression and turned to the other smith. Doran was a serious-looking man with big shoulders and a bigger commitment to his craft. His beard would never be as impressive as Fendrick’s, but it was respectable enough.

“I know you will, lad,” Fendrick said with a sigh. It was unfair to consider Doran his apprentice anymore—the man had worked for and with him for over fifteen years—but he supposed he would never be able shake the concept. Doran was close to thirty and as capable a blacksmith as any human could hope to be, but everyone was a child to Fendrick. “It’s hard to leave, no matter the reason. Still haven’t finished all the work.”

“Do we ever?”

“I suppose you’ll be raising the anvil up at last?”

Doran chuckled. “I might, just to save my back from bending over that far.”

“Well, before you go making changes, don’t forget about that hole in the second chimney I’ve never fixed. And the bellows is near to needing replaced. Surena knows I’m going, of course, and she’ll continue to…”

Fendrick chose to ignore the bemused smile that crept onto Doran’s face as his list of instructions grew longer.

“…a watch on Luggan. That thief’ll try to rob you blind with his iron prices.”

The sound of someone politely clearing their throat caused both of them to turn. A youthful acolyte in the habit of Amalthee was standing in the open doorway.

Fendrick frowned. “And put a door on that blasted hole in the wall that everyone keeps walking through.”

Doran laughed and extended his hand. “Best of luck to you.”

Fendrick shook it, knowing that luck would be the last thing he would need.

Thoroughly unhappy, he faced the acolyte, who bowed.

“Good morning, Master Hammerstrike.”

Fendrick hated being called that. “I can find my way there, and the appointed time hasn’t passed. Did Nathan think I’d get lost along the way?”

“Our Patriarch instructed me to offer any assistance you might need.”

“Good. Take this and make yourself useful.” Fendrick shoved the lightest of the three sacks of equipment he was bringing into the boy’s arms. The unprepared acolyte struggled to stay upright beneath the bag that weighed nearly as much as he did.

“What’s your name?” Fendrick asked as he shouldered two other bags that were heavier still.

“Talley,” the acolyte grunted, leaning against a wall for support.

“Well, Talley, let’s move along. We’ll go straight up the hill so it’s a shorter walk.”

Talley managed a terrified squeak as he teetered his way out the door behind Fendrick.

There were more or less two ways to reach the abbey of Amalthee, located at the top of the hill near the physical and political center of the city of Kirchmont: a long, gentle climb through an array of zig-zag thoroughfares or a more direct path that would take them up a series of steep stairs and side streets. Fendrick had elected the latter. He should have left earlier rather than dawdle around the forge, but some goodbyes did not need to be rushed.

His frown deepened. Setting the forge right was not the only reason for his delay, and he knew it. He pressed a hand against his side, feeling his most precious possession tucked firmly beneath his vest, and fought against the lump that formed suddenly in his throat. The trouble with making special things is that people remembered you had done it, and eventually they came back asking for something more.

“Come on, Talley,” he said gruffly to take his mind off it. “We don’t want to keep the good Father waiting. There’s a lad. Keep your head up and breathe deep.”

The buildings grew in size, crowding ever closer as they made their way up the hill, and the streets became more neatly kept despite the increasing traffic. It took more time than it should have, but they finally reached the market square that lay outside the abbey walls.

The large, open plaza bustled with all its usual activity. Merchants hawked their wares with boisterous enthusiasm from stalls around the edges and carts scattered throughout the middle. Costumed fools juggled or sang for anyone in the crowds who would give them attention. The expanse swirled with color and motion, mocking the thick, grey clouds which hovered low in the sky. Several people who knew him called out in greeting, and he answered with a wave or friendly word as he walked past. None of the well-wishers would be here when he returned—if he returned at all—but that was no reason to spoil their day.

A short stone wall set with columns at regular intervals marked the edge of the abbey compound. Only a single gate permitted access to the inside where long, rectangular buildings four-stories tall sat aside a towering cathedral that soared high above the surrounding city. The arched gateway was guarded by more than just statues of the Lady of Knowledge now. Men in chain hauberks flanked either side of the entryway. The heads of their polearms were polished to a ceremonial shine and the blue sashes they wore over their mail coats were equally pristine, but Fendrick took note that the edges of the weapons were as sharp as any sword, and that both men stood alert, aware of everything happening around them.

Fendrick gave both statues and guards a suspicious glance as he and Talley passed between them. He paid little mind to the beautifully terraced gardens which lay beyond, instead focusing on the collection of grey-haired priests impatiently awaiting them beside a large fountain in the center of the courtyard.

It had been years since he had seen the abbot, but it was not hard to separate Nathan from the other men. In contrast to their plain brown robes, Nathan’s were of a deep blue edged in gold thread at the wrists. A short shoulder-cloak of white was draped about him, perfectly framing the polished gold symbol of Amalthee secured around his neck by an equally weighty gold chain.

Nathan’s cleanly shaven face looked disapprovingly down at Fendrick as the dwarf approached. He did a lot of looking down now, from what Fendrick had heard.

“We had hoped you would arrive earlier,” Nathan said by way of greeting. “Though the days continue to lengthen, you have a long journey ahead, and the rains will slow your travel.”

Fendrick motioned over his shoulder to where an exhausted Talley had dropped his bag and was being helped away by his fellow acolytes. “We had to make more stops than I’d expected.”

“Acolytes of Amalthee are not pack animals,” Nathan chastised.

“He said he was there to help.”

“It was a courtesy. How do you expect to take all of this with you?”

“Buy another mule, you’ve got the money.”

That drew unhappy mutterings from the other priests. The wealthy never appreciated suggestions on how they should spend their wealth, and wealthy priests appreciated it even less.

Nathan, however, remained unperturbed. “There are plenty of mules, as you specified. I might have considered horses more appropriate for the distance.”

“Mules’ll keep their footing better. Is everyone ready?”

“They await you in the stables. If you require assistance with…”

“Don’t worry,” Fendrick said as he hefted Talley’s bag onto his shoulder aside the other two. “I’ve got it.”

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