It was evening. On the southern slopes of Banor Aden a company of thirteen soldiers lay prone in the waning daylight upon an escarpment of black and barren rock. From that vantage, which overlooked the thickly forested Woods of Helyen and the ancient Blood Road beyond, they spied with keen eyes a great caravan of wagons pulled by massive and grotesque beasts, and soldiers in marching formation on the road. The thirteen men had lain still for an hour, watching and waiting for the return of two members of their party who had been sent to spy more closely on the road.
The leader of the group, a man named Drayden, watched intently from the edge of the escarpment, scanning the forest below for any movement. The woods stretched north from high upon the brow of the mountains behind them down south past the foothills and several miles more to the ancient Blood Road, which snaked its way from east to west along the southern edge of the woods and divided the Woods of Helyen from the forest of Felatra away to the south.
“They should be close to the road by now,” Drayden thought as he watched the unending train issuing out of the coming night in the east. Of the two men whom Drayden had sent ahead, one was an initiate named Kaydan. He was young and eager to learn, and though he was still in the early stages of his training to become a guardian of the mountain, a Vorgos of the Kynarken, he showed great skill with both bow and blade.
Along with the initiate went his mentor, and Drayden’s second-in-command, the man named Sero. Sero was a surly and seasoned veteran of the Vorgos, equal in age to Drayden, though more cunning and quick to anger. He had taken Kadan in his charge, though not willingly at first, and Drayden thought now what an excellent choice he had been as mentor. Sero was very skilled in stealthful travel, and this exercise would prove a suitable test of Kadan’s abilities.
Another hour soon passed and the red sun fused with the horizon and disappeared below it. The thirteen men waited, still motionless, still silent and the darkness in the east slowly seeped out over the entire valley, leaving a blanket of stars in its wake. It was autumn, and the chill winds from the north had began to blow crisp and cold, but the fell air which had slowly crept into the forest from the west since spring and had gathered upon the western slopes of Banor Aden over the course of summer, remained unchecked by the change of season, and now tendrils of the foul smoke passed the banks of the Felnath and wisps slowly drifted into the Woods of Helyen.
Drayden slowly pulled the fur lined hood of his cloak lower on his brow to dispel the brisk cold. He adjusted the covering worn about his nose and mouth to better arrest the smell of death and sulfur which had infused the air. “They should have been back by now,” he thought. In the distance, the sinuous road disappeared into darkness, but time and again points of light would appear on the eastern horizon and move slowly into the west along its path, like a floated candle carried on a stream.
An ominous feeling fell upon him, but before he could take it for a sign an almost undetectable rustle of the underbrush came from behind the group of men. Drayden turned to see the shadows of Sero and the initiate Kadan returning at last. Sero moved silently through the prone men and crawled to Drayden’s position at the edge of the escarpment to deliver his report. Sero bore his typical grim expression.
“That down there is a whole mess of Arisen, dozens of scythes, possibly more, for they march at least ten abreast. We didn’t get close enough to say for sure, I didn’t want to take an initiate that close to the road alone. There are sentinels watching the woods. But if the crows and the wolves are any indication, there are more Arisen marching on the road than I have ever seen with my own eyes.” Sero said.
The road had its beginnings in the distant east, far beyond the wicked land of Wormoth, to the numerous lands and places which remained wholly unknown to them. From there the road ran west, splitting at the river Felnath, one branch continuing west through the dark land of Mar to the sea; the other branch turning south and going past the ruins of their ancestral city of Kynar to the evil lands beyond. For Banor Aden was an island of stone and Vorg Volow, the Secret City, was its heart, and on all sides it was surrounded by dark lands and evil cities filled with enemies.
“What do you make of it?” Drayden asked.
“No army that big has ever set foot on Banor Aden. Not since The Taking. If it was raiders, they would have marched into the mountains from the east. And if they had done so, we’d already have been done for and our mangled corpses would be on the way to Draggeran as we speak. And that in itself is strange; why are they coming back out of the east?”
He shot Drayden a knowing look.
“The deer have been moving deeper into the mountains the past two days. We should have investigated this sooner. Let’s take the men and move closer. I want to have a look at these sentries you speak of.”
Drayden crawled back away from the edge and stood up, followed by Sero and the rest of the company. “Blades and bows at the ready. We make for the road.” He said.
A quiet shuffle followed as the fifteen men of the company strung their bows and pulled back their cloaks to reveal the hilts of short double edged swords, quivers filled with grey fletched arrows, and dark, well worn armor of overlapping segments of leather, boiled hard and closely fitted together.
With a word from Drayden they left the escarpment, moving in near complete silence down a hidden path discernible only to the trained eyes of the Vorgos, and following this they quickly dropped on to the pine and aspen covered foothills below. When the path turned west they continued until a point where the path was cut by a small stream. Here Drayden directed them off path through the forest.
They broke the single file line they had used on the path and spread out into a hunting formation. Guided by starlight and keen eyes, they moved as quickly as the thick undergrowth and dense forest would allow, moving from tree, to tree, to tree, a few men moving from the rear and scouting quickly ahead while those now at the back of the pack paused momentarily, arrows nocked and at the ready, watching and listening to the forest all around them for signs of enemy scouts, before running ahead to repeat the cycle in a continuous rhythm like that of the movement of a viper; wary of predators though themselves in search of prey.
Drayden directed his men with single monosyllabic words, more alike to the words of birds than of men, and the pack responded instantly, halting at one call, pivoting left at another, and right at another. They moved swiftly though silently, the darkness of the woods proving no hindrance to them. They paused more often as they drew closer to the ancient road, which ran in a sinuous line and divided the forest into Felatra on the south from the Woods of Helyen on the north, which was, beyond the western banks of the Felnath was called Ghostwood by the Arisen, on account of the phantom that dwelt there.
At a word from Drayden the company paused and waited motionless. Long minutes passed as they listened for signs that the Arisen had entered the woods, but they heard only the rustle of branches, fallen leaves stirred up by the restless wind, and the distant howls of wolves made curious by the noise and the smell of rotted flesh originating at the road.
They continued the descent to the valley floor, their senses more heightened with each step forward. Drayden signaled again for the company to halt and the men remained where they stood, each scanning the surrounding forest. A low rumble more felt than heard emanated from the direction of the road and shook the forest all around them. Drayden signaled and Sero appeared from out of the darkness by his side.
“Let’s take the initiate and move to the edge of the woods for a better look. The rest of the pack stays here, at the ready, full defense.” Drayden said.
Sero nodded and disappeared behind him into the night, reappearing a moment later with the youth Kadan. At Sero’s call the men moved into a wide circle with their backs to the center and then all were motionless, melting into the darkness and the forest like shadows.
“You should have learned by now that there is a pattern to the Woods of Helyen.” Drayden whispered to Kadan. “When there are no Hidden Paths, as is the case near the borders of our lands, you must recognize this pattern. The trees will only grow so close to one another, and like kinds will have like neighbors. Where there are different kinds the space between will be greater. Learn this and use it as you move. It will help you.” Kadan nodded.
Drayden, Sero, and Kadan moved south, leaving behind the rest of the pack behind. The foothills continued to drop in elevation over a short distance and soon they came to an old stream bed. This they followed as it led at a westerly angle toward the road. The din of noise from the road grew steadily louder. They left the stream bed behind as they approached the edge of the woods, which ended abruptly at a wide field which shouldered the road on both sides for miles in either direction. Here the three men stopped and waited. The creak of wagon wheels and the marching of heavy boots became discernible, as well as the clink of steel armor.
“This should test your mettle.” Sero said over his shoulder to Kadan before he bounded forward and disappeared into the field beyond the wood’s edge.
Drayden turned to Kadan and noticed a faint tremor in the initiate’s hands. “Grip the hilts of the blades at your back. It will help steel your nerves.” Kadan did as Drayden instructed and the fear welling within him was soon eased as if it passed out of him with each breath, forgotten in the surety of his grip and in the knowledge of death imbued into each of the sharply honed blades. “The first time you face the Arisen in battle, be wary of looking into their eyes. There is something of the living person there, and some will reach out to you, in a manner of speaking. Some will say nothing but you will still feel their vision. Some will speak to a dark place inside of you but you will not understand the words. But others will speak words you will know; these are the most dangerous to you. They are the Slayers, the fallen of the Kynarken. Remember what I’ve told you.”
Kadan said nothing, only nodded that he understood. He noted though, over the noise of the marching army, the somberness in Drayden’s voice as he spoke.
Kadan had suffered his Great Loss only recently, with the mysterious death of his father, a Vorgos whose pack served on the western borders of Banor Aden. With his father’s death, Kadan had become eligible to become an initiate, and he had yet to slay any of the undead with his own blades and complete the final rite necessary for his own recognition as one of the Vorgos.
They slowly emerged from the trees into the field, which was overgrown with tall grasses and shrubs, long denuded of trees by ancient travelers in search of firewood, and later by the Arisen to prevent the Vorgos’ attacking the road from cover. Staying low they moved the direction Sero gone and soon, through the brush, they could make out his form kneeling close behind a mound of earth that was topped with patches of tall grass which stood a stonecast from the edge of the road. Drayden crept forward ever slower closely followed by Kadan and the two inched their way to a hidden vantage point beside Sero. The position offered a wide view of the road both east and west. As they peered out over the mound, each of them was frozen with horror, dumbstruck by the evil sight which bitterly greeted them.
A winding line of covered wagons pulled by enormous lumbering beasts alike to the bison of the southern plains though larger and darker and with large white tusks protruding from their jaws, was conveyed on both sides by column upon column of heavily armored Arisen soldiers. The line stretched out of view in both directions and moved steadily west towards the land of Mar. Arisen sentries stood motionless along both sides of the road, each standing at attention facing outward toward the fields that bordered its edge and the woods beyond.
A long moment seemed to pass as they watched. Drayden counted the wagons and number of scythes of Arisen on the road, but soon found it impossible as the never ending train moved past, wagons one after another and columns of soldiers six abreast on both sides. The vast army continued to materialize out of the dark horizon in the east and vanish like ghosts into the night in the west. Drayden ceased counting and began determining the rate at which they passed.
“What’s your count, Sero?” Drayden asked, half afraid to confirm his own numbers.
“Maybe three, three and a half thousand an hour. If this continues through the night we’ll be neck deep in rottens by morning.
Kadan heard what was said and shook his head, turning away from the sight . But soon he was peering out once again from the cover the their hiding place.
“I’ve neither seen nor heard of so many on the move at one time. And I too find it very strange indeed that they are heading west toward Mar? For what purpose? They’ve already marched on every land within two thousand miles of Maranin.” Drayden said gravely.
“There has been talk among some of the other patrols, Vorgos of the West Range where Kadan’s father served, that the altars in Draggeran have been burning day and night for months, and that it is the cause of the foul smoke on the woods. Maybe this isn’t the only train destined for the city. We have no way of knowing what moves on the Coast Road.” Sero said. Kadan’s eyes grew ever wider with apprehension.
Kadan licked the dryness from his lips. “How many Arisen does each of those wagons carry you think?”
“It’s not Arisen they carry, it’s dead bodies. Bodies that will soon be transformation and become Arisen.” Drayden answered. Both Sero and Kadan stared at him.
“Before we came out here you asked how it is our enemies could continue to amass armies if the Vorgos have Banor Aden so well guarded that the raiders are no longer as successful as they were during the Taking. Those loaded wagons are your answer. Those bodies, they come from the front lines of a different war, far away in the east, from the lands that Norak hasn’t completely conquered yet.”
“Then it seems the war must be going well,” replied Kadan. “As if the stench of Maranin wasn’t bad enough already, they fortify their ranks with foreign dead.”
“All their dead are foreign. There are no peoples or natives of Mar. It is a land of the dead. There may be some living men who reside in Draggeran, in the fortress of Remith, and there in the temples of the Black Lord where it is said the dead cannot serve, but in Maranin and all other cities of that land there is only the Arisen. Whenever there is a battle, a war, a plague, in any of the lands that the black god rules or makes war against, the bodies, all of them, make their way to Mar to be transformed from the dead into the undead, to reinforce the ranks of Arisen.” Drayden said. “The death rites of the Vorgos, the cutting off of the head and the burning of the hands and feet, this is the reason, so that even in death we cannot be made to serve the enemy.”
“And just as we have the rites that free us from slavery in undeath, the men of Drakor and Halik, those races who serve the Black Lord, they have rites that prepare their dead for passage to Mar where it is said they are passed before the altars in Draggeran, and raised” added Sero. With this thought, they ceased speaking further.
Instead, the three men watched nervously from the embankment of earth in silence. Kadan found himself fixated on the sentries which stood ten paces apart along the length of the road. Several of those nearest seemed to have their heads tilted toward them, focused on their position, their dark vision penetrating the veil of night despite the dead eyes hidden in the shadow beneath their helms. The sentries remained motionless however, standing stiffly behind their tall rectangular shields emblazoned with the device of Mar.