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ABARRACH: WORLD OF STONE, WORLD OF DARKNESS LIT BY THE fires of molten sea, world of stalagmites and stalactites, world of fire dragons, world of poisonous air and sulfurous fumes, world of magic.
Abarrach: world of the dead.
Xar, Lord of the Nexus, and now Lord of Abarrach, sat back in his chair, rubbed his eyes. The rune-constructs he was studying were starting to blur together. He’d almost made a mistake—and that was inexcusable.
But he had caught himself in time, corrected it. Closing his aching eyes, he went over the construct again in his mind.
Begin with the heart-rune. Connect this sigil’s stem to an adjoining rune’s base. Inscribe the sigla on the breast, working upward to the head. Yes, that was where he’d gone wrong the first few times. The head was important—vital. Then draw the sigla on the trunk, finally the arms, the legs.
It was perfect. He could find no flaw. In his mind’s eye, he imagined the dead body on which he’d been working rising up and living again. A corrupt form of life, admittedly, but a beneficial one. The corpse was far more useful now than it would have been moldering in the ground.
Xar smiled in triumph, but it was a triumph whose life span was shorter than that of his imaginary defunct. His thoughts went something like this:
I can raise the dead.
At least I am fairly certain I can raise the dead.
I can’t be sure.
That was the pall over his elation. There were no dead for him to raise. Or rather, there were too many dead. Just not dead enough.
In bitter frustration, Xar slammed his hands down on the elaborately conceived rune-construct. The rune-bones1 went flying, skittering and sliding off the table onto the floor.
Xar paid no attention to them. He could always put the construct together again. Again and again. He knew it as well as he knew the rune-magic to conjure up water. For all the good it would do him.
Xar needed a corpse. One not more than three days dead. One that hadn’t been seized by these wretched lazars.2 Irritably he swept the last few remaining rune-bones to the floor.
He left the room he used as his study, headed for his private chambers. On his way, he passed by the library. And there was Kleitus, the Dynast, former ruler (until his death) of Necropolis, the largest city on Abarrach. At his death, Kleitus had become a lazar—one of the living dead. Now the Dynast’s gruesome form, which was neither dead nor alive, wandered the halls and corridors of the palace that had once been his. The lazar thought it was still his. Xar knew better, but he saw no reason to disabuse Kleitus of the notion.
The Lord of the Nexus steeled himself to speak to the Lord of the Living Dead. Xar had fought many terrible foes during his struggles to free his people from the Labyrinth. Dragons, wolfen, snogs, chaodyn—every monster the Labyrinth could create. Xar feared nothing. Nothing living. The lord couldn’t help feeling a qualm deep in his bowels when he looked into the hideous, ever-shifting death-mask face of the lazar. Xar saw the hatred in the eyes—the hatred that the dead bore the living of Abarrach.
An encounter with Kleitus was never pleasant. Xar generally avoided the lazar. The lord found it uncomfortable talking to a being who had one thought on his mind: death. Your death.
The sigla on Xar’s body glowed blue, defending him from attack. The blue light was reflected in the Dynast’s dead eyes, which glittered with disappointment. The lazar had tried once, on Xar’s arrival, to kill the Patryn. The battle between the two had been brief, spectacular. Kleitus had never tried it again. But the lazar dreamed of it during the endless hours of his tormented existence. He never failed to mention it when they came together.
“Someday, Xar,” said Kleitus, the corpse talking, “I will catch you unawares. And then you will join us.”
“… join us,” came the unhappy echo of the lazar’s soul. The two parts of the dead always spoke together, the soul being just a bit slower than the body.
It must be nice for you to have a goal still,” Xar said somewhat testily. He couldn’t help it. The lazar made him nervous. But the lord needed help, information, and Kleitus was the only one—so far as Xar could determine—who might have it. “I have a goal myself. One I would like to discuss with you. If you have the time?” Nervousness made Xar sarcastic.
Try as he might, Xar could not look for long at the lazar’s face. It was the face of a corpse—a murdered corpse, for Kleitus had himself been slain by another lazar, had then been brought back to hideous life. The face would sometimes be the face of one long dead, and then suddenly it would be the face of Kleitus as he had been when he was alive. The transformation occurred when the soul moved into the body, struggled to renew life, regain what it had once possessed. Thwarted, the soul flew out of the body, tried vainly to free itself from its prison. The soul’s continual rage and frustration gave an unnatural warmth to the chill, dead flesh.
Xar looked at Kleitus, looked away hastily.
“Will you accompany me to the library?” Xar asked with a polite gesture, his gaze anywhere but on the corpse.
The lazar followed willingly. Kleitus had no particular desire to be of assistance to the Lord of the Nexus, as Xar well knew. The lazar came because there was always the possibility that Xar might weaken, inadvertently lower his defenses. Kleitus came because he hoped to murder Xar.
Alone in the room with the lazar, Xar considered briefly summoning another Patryn to stand guard. He immediately abandoned the idea, was aghast at himself for even thinking such a thing. Not only would such a summons make him appear weak in the eyes of his people—who worshipped him—but he wanted no one else to know the subject of his discussions.
Consequently, though he did so with misgivings, Xar shut the door made of braided kairn grass, marked it with Patryn runes of warding so that it could not be opened. He drew these runes over faded Sartan runes, Sartan magic that had long ago ceased to function.
Kleitus’s lifeless eyes sprang suddenly to life, focused on Xar’s throat. The dead fingers twitched in anticipation.
“No, no, my friend,” Xar said pleasantly. “Another day, perhaps. Or would you like to come again within the circle of my power? Would you like to feel again my magic starting to unravel your existence?”
Kleitus stared at him with unblinking hatred. “What do you want, Lord of the Nexus?”
“… Nexus,” came the sad echo.
“I want to sit down,” Xar said. “I’ve had a wearing time of it. Two days and nights on the rune-construct. But I have solved it. I now know the secret to the art of necromancy. I can now raise the dead.”
“Congratulations,” said Kleitus, and the dead lips curled in a sneer. “You can now destroy your people as we destroyed ours.”
Xar let that pass. The lazar tended to have a dark outlook on things. He supposed he couldn’t blame them.
The lord took his seat at a large stone table whose top was covered with dusty volumes: a treasure-trove of Sartan lore. Xar had spent as much time studying these works as possible, considering the myriad duties of a lord about to lead his people to war. But this time spent among the Sartan books was minute compared to the years Kleitus had spent. And Xar was at a disadvantage: he was forced to read the material in a foreign language—the Sartan language. Although he had mastered that language while in the Nexus, the task of breaking down the Sartan rune-structure, then rebuilding it into Patryn thought, was exhausting and time-consuming.
Xar could never, under any circumstances, think like a Sartan.
Kleitus had the information Xar needed. Kleitus had delved deep into these books. Kleitus was—or had been—a Sartan himself. He knew. He understood. But how to worm it out of the corpse? That was the tricky part.
Xar wasn’t fooled by the lazar’s shambling walk and bloodthirsty demeanor. Kleitus was playing a far more subtle game. An army of living, warm-blooded beings had recently arrived on Abarrach—Patryns, brought here by Xar, brought here to train for war. The lazar hungered after these living beings, longed to destroy the life that the dead coveted and at the same time found so abhorrent. The lazar could not fight the Patryns. The Patryns were too powerful.
But it required an immense outlay of the Patryns’ magic to sustain life in the darksome caverns of Abarrach. The Patryns were beginning to weaken—ever so slightly. So had the Sartan weakened before them; so had many of the Sartan died.