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Warhammer - Darkblade 05 - Lord of Ruin - Dan Abnett

By Sharon Wilson,2014-11-03 15:43
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Warhammer - Darkblade 05 - Lord of Ruin - Dan Abnett

A WARHAMMER NOVEL

    LORD OF RUIN

    Darkblade - 05

    Dan Abnett & Mike Lee

    (An Undead Scan v1.1)

    This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of sorcery. It is an age of battle and death, and of the world’s ending. Amidst all of the fire, flame and fury it is a time, too, of mighty heroes, of bold deeds and great courage.

    At the heart of the Old World sprawls the Empire, the largest and most powerful of the human realms. Known for its engineers, sorcerers, traders and soldiers, it is a land of great mountains, mighty rivers, dark forests and vast cities. And from his throne in Altdorf reigns the Emperor Karl Franz, sacred descendant of the founder of these lands, Sigmar, and wielder of his magical warhammer.

    But these are far from civilised times. Across the length and breadth of the Old World, from the knightly palaces of Bretonnia to ice-bound Kislev in the far north, come rumblings of war. In the towering World’s Edge Mountains, the orc tribes are gathering for another assault. Bandits and

    renegades harry the wild southern lands of the Border Princes. There are rumours of rat-things, the skaven, emerging from the sewers and swamps across the land. And from the northern wildernesses there is the ever-present threat of Chaos, of daemons and beastmen corrupted by the foul powers of the Dark Gods. As the time of battle draws ever near, the Empire needs heroes like never before.

    Chapter One

    THE MOUNTAIN IN THE NORTH

    The Chaos Wastes, first week of winter

    The cold wind shifted, blowing gusts of snow from the southeast and whispering in torment through the topmost branches of the trees. Urghal froze in place, settling on his haunches amid the snow-covered undergrowth. The beastman’s nostrils flared, scenting prey, and his thin lips pulled back in

    a rictus of feral hunger. Urghal swung his horned head left and right, catching glimpses of his two fellow hunters, Aghar and Shuk, as they split up and slid into concealment as well. The dense mountain forest had gone deathly silent save for the keening wind, and the beastman’s long, tufted ears twitched restlessly as he strained to hear signs of movement from farther down the long slope. Heavy muscles bunched and relaxed along the beastman’s broad shoulders, causing the dark, spiral

    tattoos etched into his thick hide to roll and shift in unnerving patterns. He breathed slowly and deeply, his clawed fingers flexing around the knotty grip of the rough-hewn club resting in his broad hands. The hunting had been poor since the herd had crept back to the cleft mountain and reclaimed their former territory. Soon the new master of the herd would begin culling out the weak and the slow and butchering them for the cook fires. Urghal had no intention of being one of them.

    Silence stretched across the dark wood, broken only by the shrill buzzing of flies circling the open sores on the beastman’s bony snout. Then without warning came the rustle and crash of bramble and fern, and Urghal heard the drumming sound of hooves racing over the loamy earth.

    The beastman listened intently as the herd of deer stampeded up the slope directly at him. Ferns and thick shrubs were trampled and torn as the panicked animals forced their way through the dense undergrowth. Urghal could smell them now, perhaps as many as a dozen, the scent of their fear burning in his nostrils. He ran a thick, black tongue over his jagged teeth, lusting for the taste of hot, salty blood.

    Twenty yards. Ten. Urghal caught glimpses of swaying branches now as the herd drew near. He heard the slight sounds of his fellow hunters readying themselves to strike. The beastman’s muscles tensed like coiled springs just as the herd crashed over him like a wave.

    A doe burst from the undergrowth to Urghal’s left, dodging nimbly around the bole of a dark

    oak tree in a blur of frenzied motion. The beastman caught a glimpse of wide, terrified eyes as he sprang from his crouch and lashed out with his heavy club. The length of hardened oak smashed into the doe’s side, splintering ribs and snapping the animal’s spine with a brittle crack. The deer

    squealed in agony and plunged headfirst onto the ground.

    Howls and hungry roars shook the air as Aghar and Shuk joined in the bloodletting, slashing at the plunging, leaping bodies with dagger and claw. Urghal smelled bitter blood in the air and bellowed cruel laughter as a huge stag burst from the foliage to the beastman’s right. The stag saw the beastman at the very same moment; consumed with terror the deer tossed its antlered head and tried to spring away, but Urghal swept his bloodstained cudgel in a whistling arc, shattering the stag’s gleaming antlers and smashing its skull. The deer hit the snowy earth with a heavy thud, its legs thrashing in the throes of death, and Urghal dropped his club and fell upon it, tearing at its warm throat with his teeth. The beastman ate greedily of its flesh as it trembled and died, tearing away ragged bites and choking them down whole in an effort to sate his frenzied hunger.

    It was several long moments before Urghal realised how quiet the forest still was, and as the all-consuming hunger began to ebb he wondered what could have panicked the woods-wise deer in the first place.

    The beastman raised his gore-smeared snout, licking his nostrils clean and tasting the frigid air once more. The wind rose and fell; over the rich scent of blood and spilt entrails he caught the faint whiff of something strange and bitter that sent a thrill down his knobby spine. His companions ate on, oblivious to everything except the steaming feast laid before them.

    A premonition of fear tightened Urghal’s throat. Baring his blood-slicked teeth, the beastman

    looked about frantically for his club and saw it lying on the bloody snow a dozen paces away. He lunged for the weapon, barking out a warning to his herd-mates just as the air shook with a thunderous roar and a huge shape leapt from the shadows beneath the trees.

    The beast was massive, shaking the earth as it landed on two taloned feet among the surprised beastmen. Nearly thirty feet long from snout to tail, it filled the small clearing where the hunters had ambushed their prey. Its hide was dark green and scaled like a dragon’s, and its muscular haunches were covered in scars from hundreds of deadly battles. Long, skinny forelimbs were tucked in tight against the beast’s narrow chest; the creature’s muscular, cable-like tail balanced its lunging motion

    as it snapped up a pair of deer carcasses in its huge, lizard-like jaws and swallowed them in a few crunching bites. Rivulets of blood mingled with tendrils of ropy spittle that drooled from between the creature’s dagger-like teeth. Eyes the colour of spilled blood rolled wildly within deep, bony oculars as the beast searched about for more prey. Quick as a snake it lunged again, tossing the body of a deer into the air and eating it in a single gulp.

    Shouts and bellows of fright echoed across the clearing as the hunters reeled from the beast’s sudden assault. Urghal snatched up his club, snarling in rage. Hunger warred with fear as he watched the monster feed upon their kills. As the creature lunged for another deer, Urghal realised that it was oblivious to the three beastmen surrounding it. Its long, powerful tail now drooped, partly dragging the ground, and the flesh covering its bony head was shrunken, stretched across the skull like thick parchment. As it ate, Urghal saw its ribs standing out sharply from its flanks. It was starving, the beastman saw. He understood that madness all too well.

    The beastman noticed the empty, weathered saddle strapped around the monster’s back, just

    behind the sloping shoulders. Ragged saddlebags were strapped down behind it, their sides tattered and frayed by hard use and indifferent care. Silver rings glinted in the beast’s leathery cheeks where reins had once been fitted. Then he saw the long, black-hilted sword buckled to the side of the saddle and knew that its rider had to be long dead.

    Urghal bared his blackened teeth and barked commands to his fellow hunters. The creature was weak and stupid with hunger, he said. They could leap upon its back and kill it while it fed and feast off its acrid flesh for many days. Aghar and Shuk listened, and their shrunken bellies lent them courage they might not otherwise have possessed. Gripping their weapons tightly, the beastmen circled around the creature’s flanks. Aghar sidled up along the creature’s right side, raising his dagger for a deep thrust into the monster’s neck. Shuk crept near the base of the creature’s tail, ready to throw his massive bulk onto the appendage and weight it down, hampering its movement. Urghal crept up along the left side, drawing closer to the saddle. He would leap up and draw the black blade, then plunge it into the back of the monster’s neck. The beast would be dead before it realised it was in danger.

    Grinning viciously, Urghal turned to Shuk and, too late, saw a dark shape leap from the

    depths of the forest and land upon the beastman’s back with a terrifying shriek. Urghal heard the clatter of metal as the attacker pounced upon Shuk’s bare torso, then saw pallid hands reach around

    the beastman’s broad chest and plunge claw-like fingers through scarred hide and slab-like muscle.

    Shuk bellowed in terror and pain, throwing back his horned head and reaching over his shoulder to try and pry free his assailant, but the pale-skinned attacker clung to his victim like a cave spider, pressing close to the beastman’s back.

    Urghal caught a glimpse of a pale, angular face framed by loose, matted black hair as the armoured attacker lunged for Shuk’s throat. Eyes as dark as the Abyss burned into Urghal’s own. Bluish lips skinned back over perfect white teeth, and the figure tore open the beastman’s muscular throat. Blood burst from Shuk’s lips as he tried to staunch the fountain of crimson jetting from the

    ragged wound in his neck. Urghal watched the black-eyed monster bury its face into the gaping wound, tearing away mouthfuls of flesh like a frenzied rat.

    The dying beastman fell to his knees, choking on his own blood. Urghal gripped his cudgel and bellowed a challenge just as the scaled beast beside him turned and lunged for Aghar. The creature’s whip-like tail slashed in the opposite direction, crashing into Urghal’s chest. Ribs snapped like twigs beneath the powerful blow; Urghal was flung backwards across the clearing and dashed against the bole of a towering oak tree. Stunned by the double impact the beastman toppled onto his side, feeling broken bones grate together in his chest.

    As his breath rattled wetly in his throat, Urghal saw Aghar charge at the black-armoured attacker. The hunter bellowed in berserk fury, and the lithe figure responded with a bestial growl of his own. Bloody mouth agape, the armoured warrior leapt to his feet with disquieting speed and met the beastman’s rush head-on.

    Aghar was head and shoulders taller than his foe and half again as wide. Urghal expected the armoured attacker to be smashed to the ground by the hunter’s furious charge, but instead the two crashed together in a clatter of flesh and steel. A pale hand reached up and took hold of the beastman’s throat, and the pair grappled for the space of several heartbeats. Savage snarls and guttural growls rose from the desperate struggle; Urghal could not say for sure from which throat the terrible sounds came. Then, with a sudden, convulsive wrench Aghar pulled his dagger-arm free and stabbed at the armoured figure again and again, the blows ringing against the smaller assailant’s steel breastplate and pauldrons.

    There was a muffled heavy thud and a crunch of broken bones. Aghar shuddered at the blow, his cloven feet lifting off the ground from the impact. The beastman doubled over, choking in agony from a shattered breastbone, and the black-eyed attacker grabbed Aghar’s ridged horns and

    wrenched them around in a neck-snapping twist.

    Urghal felt the cold gaze of the killer settle on him. Growling in pain, the beastman struggled to rise onto his knees. Without warning an armoured boot crashed into his shoulder, flipping him back onto the ground. The pale-skinned warrior had crossed the dozen yards between them in the blink of an eye. The beastman growled defiantly, hefting his club one-handed but as he met the warrior’s

    face the weapon tumbled from his stunned grasp.

    Depthless black eyes, without iris or pupil, regarded Urghal with the soulless hunger of the Abyss. The warrior’s mouth and pointed chin dripped with clotted gore, spattering the ornate gilt-

    work of his plate armour. Trickles of red flowed into the crevices and corners of three golden skulls affixed to the foe’s breastplate, and a thick torc of red-gold enclosed his wiry neck. Just above the

    burnished gold curve of the torc jutted the rusty hilt of Aghar’s dagger. The long blade had been driven clean through the warrior’s throat, its broad point emerging at an angle just below the

    warrior’s right ear.

    As Urghal watched, the warrior reached up with a red-stained hand and slowly pulled the dagger free. A trickle of thick, black ichor leaked from the gruesome wound. Ropy black veins pulsed and writhed like worms beneath the skin of the warrior’s throat and along the back of his hands.

    The warrior let the dagger tumble slowly from his dripping fingers. It landed right beside Urghal’s head, but the beastman made no move to pick it up. With a ghastly red grin, the black-eyed

    warrior opened his mouth and uttered a sound no living throat could possibly make, and the beastman’s fevered mind shattered at the sound of it.

    Urghal’s cry of terror shook the black-limbed trees as the killer reached for him with claw-like

    hands.

    Little by little, as the beastman’s raw flesh filled his wasted belly, a measure of sanity returned to Malus Darkblade. His body, withered like a shrunken root by the nightmarish ordeals of his journey, began to shudder and ache as the daemon relaxed its remorseless grip. The shock of consciousness was so intense that for an agonizing moment the highborn was certain that he was going to die. He fell onto his back, still clutching tattered scraps of flesh in his hands, and howled his wretched hate to the roiling northern sky.

    Part of him was certain he was already dead. His mind recoiled from the few memories he had of the past few weeks, driven ever northwards by the daemon’s merciless will. No sleep, no food, no rest for weeks on end, driven to lengths no living body ought to endure. Even Spite’s near limitless

    stamina had been driven to the breaking point and beyond.

    But they had reached the broken mountain. Nearby lay the pale road and the dreadful temple. Many times in the last few weeks he hadn’t thought such a thing possible, but now, so close to his

    goal he wanted nothing more than to die. He wept bitterly at the thought, feeling icy tears course down his hollow cheeks.

    Rise, Darkblade, the daemon said, and his body responded to the implacable command. Ravaged muscles tautened painfully, propelling Malus upright with a groan of helpless rage. Your final hour

    approaches.

    Malus’ body lurched across the clearing towards Spite. His mouth worked silently, trying to utter dark curses from his ruined throat. From somewhere farther up the wooded slope came a chorus of howls and the rolling, mournful notes of horns. The clamour of the battle had reached as far as the beastman camp, and now the herd was on the move.

    As he approached the saddle the cold one groaned and cowered, snapping at him fearfully. The daemon lashed the nauglir with its black will, and the cold one whined in submission, allowing the highborn to clamber jerkily onto its back. Still groaning, the nauglir rose wearily onto its feet and was mentally lashed into motion, beginning the last leg of its long, hellish odyssey.

    The horn calls faded but the howls of the beastmen drew nearer as the daemon led Spite around the flank of the mountainside. Darkness fell as they rode. Malus swayed in the saddle, his gaze drifting to the black-hilted sword resting by his left knee. With all his might he tried to force his hand to reach for the sorcerous blade, but Tz’arkan’s will held him fast.

    All for nothing, he thought, as the daemon drove him onward to the temple like a sacrificial lamb. He thought of Hauclir, and the fields of the dead. He thought of the daemon-haunted shade and the soul-shattering screams of his sister. All for nothing.

    Hatred and loathing burned like a seething coal in his ravaged chest and the little finger on

    his left hand twitched.

    Malus scarcely dared to breathe. He couldn’t bring himself to hope, but even in the depths of privation and despair there was always room enough for hate. With hate all things are possible, he thought. His bloodied lips trembled in a palsied smile.

    Half-formed memories dogged in the highborn’s wake as they plunged on through thicket and fern. The echoes of the hunting beastmen called to mind a desperate flight through these same woods exactly one year before. Every now and then they passed a stand of trees or a wooded hollow that seemed familiar to him, though part of him knew that it was only a trick of the mind.

    The shouts of the beastman herd were close now -perhaps a half-mile further upslope, hidden by the depths of the forest. Without warning the ground suddenly levelled out, and Malus found himself on a road of pale, snow-covered stones untouched by the passage of millennia. It was a road built for the tread of conquerors, with each stone carved in the shape of a skull and standing stones set at intervals along its length, praising the Ruinous Powers and exalting the deeds of the Chaos champions who ruled there. A year before, the blasphemous runes of the standing stones held no meaning for Malus; now he looked at them through daemon-tainted eyes, and the names carved on the menhirs burned themselves into his brain. Malus could feel his sanity crumbling with each passing moment as they drew nearer to the temple; desperately he turned to his hate, stoking it with all the bitterness and rage his year of servitude had wrought in him. The highborn focused on the hilt

    of the sword and prayed to every cursed god he could name for the strength to tear the unholy blade from its scabbard.

    The air hummed and crackled with unseen energies as the daemon within Malus drew closer to the temple. Unearthly power crackled over his tortured skin, and the black-limbed trees lining the road rattled and shook in an invisible wind. Spite’s pace quickened steadily, as though the nauglir

    was being drawn forward like iron to a lodestone. A strange, buzzing hum began to build in the back of Malus’ skull.

    By the time they swept around the final bend of the winding road Spite was nearly at a gallop. His drumming feet echoed off the close-set trees, and for a dizzying moment Malus felt as though he’d been cast back in time, riding with a troop of armoured retainers at his back. He thought of Dalvar, the dagger-wielding rogue, and Vanhir, the haughty, hateful knight.

    He thought of Lhunara, riding quietly at his side, her fierce smile gleaming in the darkness. Choking back bitter bile, the highborn pushed the memory away.

    And then the air trembled with the shout of a hundred furious voices as the beastmen raised their weapons and challenged the lone rider bearing down the road towards them. The herd had guessed where he was headed and had cut him off just short of his goal, exactly as they’d done just twelve months past.

    But there were no armoured retainers to open the way for him this time. The beastmen stood in a roaring, bellowing mob that filled the tree-lined avenue before him. Axes, cudgels and rusty two-handed swords were brandished by the light of guttering torches. Spite stumbled to a halt, hissing and screeching in agitation as the mob surged forward.

    Malus sensed his chance. The daemon would have to let him draw the warpsword before they were overwhelmed. With all his hate-fuelled will he tried to force his hand to reach for the blade.

    But just a few yards short of the cold one the howling mob fell to their knees and pressed their horned heads to the skull-faced stones. In the midst of the mob a shaman with a single red eye gleaming from the middle of his narrow skull bleated: “The prophecy is fulfilled! The Drinker of Worlds is come! Bow before the blessed Prince of Slaanesh, and let the dirge of Eternal Night be sung!”

    Once again the daemon lashed at the nauglir’s beleaguered mind, and the warbeast lurched forward, trotting down a path that opened through the centre of the prostrate mob. Malus trembled with impotent rage as they passed unchallenged through the herd and rode on a short way until the trees parted before them. Beyond rose a square, tiered structure of sheer, black stone, windowless and devoid of ornamentation, as cold and soulless as the Abyss itself. Surrounding the temple was a wall formed of similar stone, and a square-arched gateway. A desperate battle had been fought there a year before; skeletons of beastmen and misshapen Chaos beasts still littered the ground where they had fallen to druchii crossbows and swords. They crunched beneath Spite’s heavy tread as the cold one walked beneath the gateway and came to a halt within the courtyard beyond.

    There were more bones here, speaking of another scene of slaughter. Huge skulls and piles of dark bones that once had been nauglir, and druchii skeletons in rusting armour. They lay in the white snow where he’d slain them almost twelve months before.

    He’d killed his own retainers out of shame, unable to bear having them see how the daemon had

    enslaved him. Now he met their black, empty stares and wished he could grind their grey bones into dust.

    Malus’ body lurched into motion, sliding awkwardly from the saddle. His face contorted into a rictus of thwarted rage, the highborn could only watch helplessly as his hands unbuckled the warpsword from the saddle and then collected the frayed bag containing the rest of the daemon’s relics. As he pulled the sack free, Spite collapsed onto its side, as though unburdened at last of a terrible weight. Its flanks shuddered and heaved, and its breath came in ragged gasps.

    It is time, the daemon said, its cruel voice reverberating in Malus’ skull. Quickly now! Carry the

    relics to the crystal chamber, and soon your curse will be at an end.

Filled with dread, Malus turned his back on the dying nauglir and marched like a condemned

man into the shadow of the daemon’s temple.

    Chapter Two

    THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

    The city of Har Ganeth, eight weeks before

    Smoke hung like a pall over the City of Executioners, wreathing the broad hill in streamers of grey that tasted of cinders and the grease of cooked flesh. High in the blade-like towers of the temple fortress the sacrificial bells were ringing, calling to the faithful to bare their blades and give thanks for Har Ganeth’s deliverance. Tortured screams and the howl of hungry mobs rose like a paean into the cloudy summer sky.

    The fighting had raged for more than a week, and the lower quarters of Har Ganeth had suffered the worst. Two days after the riots had ended the narrow, mazelike streets were still choked with corpses and the charred remains of burnt-out buildings. Fresh splashes of vivid red painted the rust-coloured walls of the White City, and the shadowy avenues reeked of the charnel stench of the battlefield. Shopkeepers and tradesmen picked their way carefully amongst the piled debris, looking for useful bits of salvage. Groups of young children ran along the cobblestone streets, brandishing tiny, stained knives and rawhide cords strung with severed fingers decorated with rings of silver and gold. Axes and meat cleavers flashed and thunked into dead flesh, separating vertebrae with a wet

    crackle as the druchii collected severed heads to stack outside their bloodstained doors. Only a few days before, many of those same folk had taken up torch and blade and risen against the priests of Khaine’s temple, believing that the apocalypse was at hand. But the would-be Swordbearer of

    Khaine was revealed to be an impostor, and the leaders of the uprising either driven off or slain, so the people of the city bent their heads and piled skulls outside their shops and homes, praying that the vengeful shadow of the temple executioners would pass them by. At the sound of tramping feet they hunched their shoulders and lowered their gaze to the bloody stones, fearful of attracting the attention of the temple executioners, or worse, the hungry gaze of Khaine’s bloodthirsty brides.

    Thus, when the heavy tread of a nauglir and the dull clatter of armour echoed down the narrow streets the people of Har Ganeth hid their eyes and paid no heed to the highborn rider or the

    black-hilted blade buckled at his side. Only the city’s ravens took notice of his passage, raising gore-

    stained beaks from their bloated meals and flapping great, glossy wings. “Blood and souls!” they

    croaked exultantly, regarding Malus Darkblade with lantern-yellow eyes. “Scourge! Scourge!”

    Damned nuisances, Malus thought, his scowl deepening the hollows of his sunken cheeks and drawing dark lines around his thin lips. Spite, sensing its master’s irritation, tossed its blocky head and snapped at the capering ravens, scattering venomous drool from its toothy maw. The highborn settled the cold one with an expert tug on the reins and guided the warbeast around the burnt wreckage of an overturned wagon. More black shapes circled overhead, floating like shadows in his wake. The ravens were sacred to Khaine, he’d learned. Is it the sword that stirs them so, he thought, or is it me?

    Something cold and hard slithered serpentine around Malus’ heart. A voice hissed like molten lead along his bones, setting his teeth on edge. A meaningless distinction, Tz’arkan sneered. You and

    the burning blade are now one and the same.

    The highborn jerked upright in his saddle, armoured fists clenching the thick reins hard enough to make the leather creak as a wave of freezing pressure swelled behind his eyes. He bit back a

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