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Beyond the High Road

Troy Denning

Prologue

One man could not kill so many. It was not possible. The murderer’s trail led down to a gnarled fir tree, where an entire company of Purple Dragons lay strewn across the landscape as still as stones. There were more than twenty of them, sprawled alongside their dead horses in every manner of impossible contortion. Arms and legs hooked away at unexpected angles, torsos lay doubled back against the spine, heads rested on shoulders staring in the wrong direction. Many had died with their shields still hanging from their saddles. A few had fallen even before they could draw their weapons.

Emperel Ruousk unsheathed his sword and eased his horse down the hill, keeping one eye on the surrounding terrain as he read his quarry’s trail. There remained just one set of tracks, each print spaced nearly two yards apart. After a hundred miles, the murderer was still running-an incredible feat for any man, let alone one who had been roaring drunk when he fled.

The trail of the Purple Dragons paralleled the killer’s at the regulation distance of one lance-length. The hoof prints ran in strict double file, with no stray marks to suggest the presence of outriders or point scouts. The commander had taken no precautions against ambush, no doubt thinking it a simple matter to capture a drunken killer. Emperel would not make the same mistake.

As he neared the site of the massacre, a murder of crows rose from among the bodies and took wing, scolding him raucously. He watched them go, then stopped to make certain the killer was not lying in ambush among the corpses. The area reeked of rotting flesh. Clouds of black flies hovered over the dead bodies, filling the air with an insane drone. The soldiers’ breastplates were cratered and torn and streaked with sun-dried gore. Their basinets were either staved-in or split open. Some helmets were missing, along with the heads inside. Many shields had been smeared with the vilest sort of offal, completely obscuring the royal crest of the purple dragon, and several men had died with their own eyeballs in their mouths. One had been strangled with his own entrails.

Emperel began to feel nauseated. He had seen dozens of slaughters in the Stonelands, but never anything so sick and angry. He rode over to a headless corpse and dismounted, then kneeled to examine the stump of the neck. The wound was ragged and irregular and full of gristle strings, just like the stump of the tavern keeper’s neck in Halfhap. According to witnesses, the murderer had simply grabbed the poor fellow beneath the jaw and torn off his head.

Emperel stood and circled through the dead bodies, taking care to keep his horse between himself and the gnarled fir at the heart of the massacre. With a twisted trunk large enough to hide ten murderers, the tree was a particularly huge and warped specimen of an otherwise regal species. Its bark was scaly and black, stained with runnels of crimson sap. Its needles were a sickly shade of yellow. The tangled boughs spiraled up to a corkscrewed crown nearly two hundred feet in the air, then withered off into a clawlike clump of barren sticks.

On the far side of the tree, Emperel discovered a large burrow leading down beneath the trunk. The soil heaped around the opening was lumpy and dark, with lengths of broken root jutting out at haphazard angles. A string of ancient glyphs spiraled up the trunk above the tunnel opening, the letters as sinuous as serpents. He did not recognize the language, but the shape of the characters struck him as both elegant and vaguely menacing.

Emperel studied the burrow for several minutes, then approached and tethered his horse to the tree. The hole itself was oval in shape and barely broad enough for a man to enter on his belly. There were several boot prints in the dirt outside, but the walls and floor of the tunnel had been dragged smooth by a passing body. Emperel lay down beside the entrance and peered into the darkness. The interior was as black as night. He could hear a muffled sound that might have been a man’s snoring, and the musty air carried an undertone of rancid sweat.

Emperel scanned the massacre once again. Seeing nothing but flies and corpses, he withdrew a black weathercloak from his saddlebags and slipped it over his armor, closing the throat clasp to ready the cape’s protective enchantments. As a confidential agent of King Azoun IV, he had access to all of the standard magic in the Royal Armory, and today he was glad for it. He clamped a pair of steel bracers on his wrists, slipped an amethyst ring onto his finger, traded his steel sword for a magic dagger, then dropped to his belly in front of the dank hole. The snoring became an erratic rumble, and the smell of sour sweat grew rife.

Emperel inhaled one last breath of fresh air, then crawled into the darkness, moving slowly and silently. The hole was musty, cramped, and lined with broken root stubs as thick as his wrist. Though there was little room to fight-or retreat, Emperel gave no thought to trying to outwait his quarry. Before beheading the tavern keeper, the murderer had been boasting about how he would ruin King Azoun, and such traitors received no respite from Emperel Ruousk. They received only justice, as quick and sure as an Agent of the Realm possessed of all the magic and might implied by that title could deal it out.

A few feet into the tunnel, the darkness grew so thick Emperel could no longer see the dagger in front of his nose. He paused and whispered, “King’s sight.”

The amethyst on his ring twinkled faintly, then Emperel began to perceive the passage walls in hues of blue and crimson. The warmth of his body made his flesh glow red, while the dagger in his hand shone silver with magic. A dozen feet ahead, the tunnel opened into a small, oblong chamber surrounded by dangling amber strands-the tips of shallow roots. Strangely, there was no sign of a taproot, an absence that did much to explain the fir’s twisted form.

As Emperel neared the entrance to the little chamber, he saw the murderer lying on his back, glowing crimson against the violet pallor of a stone floor. If not for the crust of gore covering him from head to foot, Emperel would have sworn it was the wrong man. The man’s eyes were closed in blissful sleep, his lips bowed in an angelic smile and his arms folded peacefully across his chest. He looked too emaciated to have slaughtered a whole company of dragoneers. His arms were as slender as spears, his shoulders gaunt and knobby, his cheeks hollow, his eyes sunken.

Suddenly, Emperel understood everything-where the man had found the strength to run so far, how he had slain an entire company of dragoneers, why he had defiled their bodies so wickedly. Sweat began to pour down Emperel’s brow, and he considered returning to Halfhap for help-but what good would that do? The vampire had already shown that he could destroy superior numbers, and Emperel had the advantage now.

He continued forward to the end of the tunnel, the smell of his own perspiration overpowering the fetor of the musty lair. Though his stomach was queasy with fear, he reminded himself that safety was just a gesture away. All he need do was slip a hand into his weathercloak’s escape pocket, and he would be standing beside his horse, outside in the brilliant sunlight where no vampire could follow. He crawled silently into the chamber and pulled his legs in after him.

As Emperel stood, something soft and wispy crackled in his ears. His heart skipped a beat, and he found himself biting his tongue, not quite sure whether he had let out a cry. He glanced down and found the murderer as motionless as before, hands folded across his haggard chest, mouth upturned in that angelic smile. Trying not to think of what dreams could make a vampire happy, Emperel raised a hand and felt a curtain of gossamer filament clinging to his face. It was stiff and sticky, like the web of a black widow spider.

Emperel experienced the sudden sensation of hundreds of little legs crawling down his tunic. Hoping the feeling was all in his mind, he stooped to get his head out of the web, then removed a gauntlet from his belt and slipped the steel glove onto his right hand. When presented palm outward, the glove became the holy symbol of his god, Torm the True, and it would keep any vampire at bay. Next, he drew his hand axe from its belt loop and, using the enchanted dagger, began to whittle the wooden butt into a sharp stake.

Though it seemed to Emperel that the sound of his breathing filled the chamber with a bellowslike rasp, the vampire continued to sleep. The silver-glowing dagger peeled the axe’s seasoned handle away in shavings as thick as coins, and it was not long before Emperel had sharpened it to a point. He sheathed his dagger again, then kneeled beside the vampire and raised the stake. His arm was trembling.

“Torm, guide my hand,” he whispered.

A bead of sweat dropped from his brow and landed on the vampire’s shoulder. The monster’s eyelids snapped

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