Former Blizzard Entertainment executive Chris Metzen helped to bring the worlds of Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft to life. But, in the 1980s he was just an awkward kid playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. Now, Metzen and a small team of collaborators at Warchief Gaming are bringing that original D&D campaign to life. The first product in a new line of books is called Worldbook: Lawbrand, and the crowdfunding campaign has already earned more than $1 million on Kickstarter.
The land of Lawbrand is just one part of a much larger fantasy setting called Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent. It’s a place wildly different from modern D&D settings like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Ravenloft. Instead, it’s a land filled with prosperous city states, powerful magic fueled by mystical tattoos, and a prospering counterculture with a music scene all its own. Metzen told us in an interview that it’s “kind of like Dragonlance meets Black Sabbath’s 1973 U.S. road tour,” and the early art proves that out. Imagine tattooed elves in dusty bell bottoms, dwarves in beat-up cowboy hats, all cruising down the highway toward a medieval Burning Man.
Accompanying the Worldbook: Lawbrand sourcebook will be a novelization based on Metzen’s own childhood campaign. Below you can read an exclusive chapter from that book, written by New York Times bestselling author Micky Neilson. You’ll also get your first look at original art created by Metzen when he was a teenager, and the updated version created for this project by artist Zoltan Boros.
The crowdfunding campaign for Worldbook: Lawbrand runs through May 21.
In coyote form, Oldavei ran behind a cart, crouched, hid, and waited for the guard to move on. Though the first guard was beyond his sight, the Ma’ii could smell him as he darted around the closest hovel.
The trickiest part, he knew, would be dashing past the bonfire, which would not only illuminate him, but cast a long shadow as well. The window of time in which both guards would likely not be alerted was narrow. Oldavei settled back onto his haunches and scented the air. At just the right moment he sprang, sprinted past the fire, and ran alongside the dining hall opposite the first guard’s position. Once at the rear, he huddled at the base of a keg stack. Muffled sounds of revelry drifted from within as he remained still and silent. An interval passed with no alarm. He rose, preparing to jump onto the lowest kegs, when the wind shifted and he detected an odor, one both familiar and yet out of place; the smell of a human, but tied to it, death and decay.
Oldavei crept to the building’s rear corner and peered around. At first he saw nothing. Then, one of the shadows near the corral moved. A silhouetted human figure, the source of the odors Oldavei sensed, relocated from one patch of darkness to another, not by moving so much as by flowing, like dark water. The ma’ii continued sniffing and determined that the curious death-scent he detected was not intrinsic to the stranger; it was, most assuredly, closely associated. It hung about the interloper like a shroud, suggestive of a being who had passed ample time in death’s company.
The shadow-stranger scaled a hovel wall, without so much as a sound, even to the Ma’ii’s keen ears. This newcomer—a man, Oldavei determined; his was a man-smell—was clearly making his way deeper into the compound. Surely he could not clear the fire as Oldavei had done; the distance was too great for a human. Surely he would be detected.
As Oldavei watched, rapt, the man crouched atop the roof, launched up and over the fire, body straight but turning like the spoke of a wheel, feet over head, until he landed—again silently—on the next closest hovel roof.
He was working toward the dining hall, Oldavei determined. He leaped onto the lowest keg, then up to the next, and finally onto the roof.
Sinews stretched, grew, enlarged; fur, tail and muzzle receded. For a brief moment the thing that was part coyote, part man, stood. A wave rippled over his form and at once, clothing and weapon were restored. Oldavei, back in human form, stepped softly around the smoking chimney. As expected, the intruder flipped up onto the roof’s opposite end. He glided forward, drawing from his back an elegant single-edged straight sword. Oldavei stalked to meet him, brandishing his scimitar. Despite the Ma’ii’s light tread, a creak sounded beneath him. He stepped back as the stranger approached within a few paces and stood, tense and alert.
The man radiated a quiet menace. His garb, from sleeveless shirt to soft-soled shoe, was black. Otherwise unremarkable save for the fact that the whole of it appeared… unused; fresh. The stranger’s long dark hair was tied in a tail and his sharp hazel eyes bore through Oldavei from behind blue-tinged glasses.
A moment passed as each waited for the other to make a move, while sounds of communion emanated from below. Finally Oldavei demanded in a hushed tone, “What’s your business here?”
“Death is my business,” the husky-voiced stranger answered. “And you’d be wise to stay clear of it.”
“An assassin, then,” Oldavei said. “Who have you come to kill?”
“I don’t answer to you!” the man replied. “You’re clearly not one of them, so make way!”
Despite the stranger’s bluster Oldavei sensed a mild reluctance. The Ma’ii thrust up his chin. “I have as much right to be here as you do,” he said. “In fact I’m being well compensated.”
“As. Am. I.” the newcomer answered through clenched teeth.
“Yes well I have backup waiting nearby,” Oldavei said. “What say you to—”
“Enough!” The stranger spat, lunging forward with a rapid sword thrust.
The Ma’ii’s response was reflexive and immediate. He parried, then countered, but his opponent’s reactions were fast—almost unnaturally so. Oldavei quickly found himself on the defensive, and under threat not just from the blade, but from kicks as well, including one that stirred the air over his head as he ducked. The assassin blocked a return swing of the Ma’ii’s scimitar with his own blade, one-handed, then jabbed two fingers of his free hand into the side of Oldavei’s neck. The strike sent a jolt down his right side, deadening his arm and causing him to drop his weapon. The Ma’ii was far from defeated, however; he gripped the stranger’s sword wrist with his left hand, then lunged in, biting the intruder on the shoulder, eliciting a sharp curse.
Oldavei could hear commotion from below even as the assassin wrapped an arm around him, twisted, and threw. Oldavei flew over his opponent’s hip, crashing to the roof and through it.
From their hiding place, Xamus had Torin had heard the clashing of swords. They had drawn closer to the light, watching two figures quarrel on the rooftop.
“What in the Seven Pits do ya’ suppose—” Torin was in the midst of saying when he was interrupted by the cannon-crack of timber snapping, followed by the two shadow-figures plunging from sight, raising shouts and screams from within the hall.
“Looks like our night got a lot more interstin’,” Torin said, striking out, axe in hand.
On the dwarf’s heels, Xamus said, “Try not to kill anyone!”
Oldavei, the assassin, and a fair amount of debris from the roof crashed down onto a thick wooden table. Robed figures—those who weren’t already standing—fell off of crude benches, crying out in shock and terror. Plates, cups and food were scattered or spilled. Oldavei’s scimitar plummeted from above, its tip splitting a block of cheese and punching into the tabletop a hair’s width from his left ear. The Ma’ii swept up his sword and rolled off of the table in one motion. As fortune would have it, he now found himself face to face with the youths from Hearthvale. Four of them, within arm’s reach, staring wide-eyed, not only at Oldavei, but over his shoulder at the assassin as well.
“They’re for us,” one of the four, a female, cried, backing against the wall. “They’ve come to take us back. We can’t go back,” she said, on the verge of hysterics. “We want paradise! Help! Help!”
A cultist on Oldavei’s right advanced. The Ma’ii turned, baring his teeth, growling from deep in his chest, enough to scare the man back. Sensing another advancement, Oldavei spun and grabbed a second cultist by the throat. The young female shouted all the while: “Protect us! Brothers! Defend us!”
On the table, the assassin rose, sword in hand, and strode toward the back of the room where leader stood, just in front of the fireplace, silent and impassive.
“Taron Braun!” The stranger shouted, leveling his sword at the older man. “Your end has come!”
Screams rose anew. Near the leader, one of the Children retreated, tipping a cresset which in turn sent flames up the wall.
Braun raised a hand and voiced: “The light of the sun burns within me, and I shall fear no evil!” There was a flash, a blinding light from the leader’s hand, and then another, a glimmering, amorphous radiance appearing just before the stranger. The assassin shut his eyes, cried out, grasped his head with one hand and fell to his knees.
Panic ensued as the Children closest the door clumped together in an effort to escape. Oldavei realized that the gasping acolyte he held had turned a deep shade of crimson. He let go and the man collapsed. Near the head of the table, the assassin pitched forward, displacing a bowl of fruit, and was still.
Of the four youths, only the female and one male had stayed put, frozen in fear. Oldavei struck out with the pommel of his scimitar, knocking the male senseless. Sparing a glance to the back of the room, the Ma’ii noted that the cult leader was nowhere to be seen.
Outside, Torin and Xamus skidded to a halt several paces from the dining hall as a flood of Children poured forth. The two guards, who had been approaching the hall as well, caught sight of the duo and charged. “Death to the unbelievers!” One of them proclaimed.
Xamus waved his hands, gesticulating, speaking quietly in the ages-old tongue of his ancestors. Torin watched, somewhat awestruck. He was about to witness magic. True magic. And elven at that! His blood surged.
Xamus extended a closed fist, then opened it as he punctuated his chant. The guards screamed, veering off. “Blind!” One yelled. “Gods, I can’t see!” the other cried. One of them ran straight into the nearby bonfire, robes catching. The howling, flaming cultist sprinted face-first into the wall of a hut and fell, flailing, as the hovel lit up.
Torin was impressed but also confused. “Don’t kill anyone, you said!”
“It was meant to be a sleep spell,” the elf admitted.
“Wha? Meant to—” Torin tripped over his words. “What good’s magic if—” He stopped to crack an onrushing acolyte upside the head with the flat of his axe. The man crumpled. “If it won’t do what you want it to do?”
“Works most of the time,” Xamus said as he spotted two of the youths issuing from the smoking structure.
“Most of the time, right,” Torin said as the elf charged, tripping one young cultist and wrapping his arms around the waist of the other. Torin came to his side, looking worriedly to the burning hall, where the last of the acolytes had now apparently departed.
“Where’s the mutt?” Torin enquired just as Oldavei stumbled out, dragging the male youth he had knocked unconscious, with the protesting female slung over one shoulder. He dropped both, looked to Torin and said “one more!” then ran back into the billowing smoke.
“Found some rope,” Xamus said, kneeling to restrain the young woman.
Torin looked behind to see that the elf had already tied the hands and feet of the other two runaways. “Glad you didn’t try to magic that up,” the dwarf said. “Mighta conjured snakes instead.”
The dining hall was now fully ablaze, illuminating the entire compound and throwing off scorching heat. Torin looked to the doorway. “Come on, come on…”
Roof timbers caved in, causing the dwarf to believe their comrade was lost, when Oldavei suddenly reemerged, a black-clad figure draped over his shoulders, a straight sword in one hand. As he stumbled forth, Torin hurried to assist in lowering the stranger to the ground. Oldavei dropped the sword and put his hands to his knees, coughing heavily.
”What’s this?” Torin enquired, gesturing to the prone figure.
“Assassin,” the Ma’ii said in a hoarse voice. “Came for the leader.”
Xamus, having now bound the unconscious cultist, stepped away, scanning the surrounding landscape. “Speaking of, where—” And then the elf spotted the leader, standing atop a low ridge, a fair distance away. The man held one hand aloft, and the light that shone above that hand rivaled the luminescence cast by the dining-hall fire. The last stragglers of the faithful were gathering to him. An instant later, the light was extinguished.
“Gone,” Xamus said, turning to Torin and Oldavei. “Now what?”
The dwarf looked to the south, where floating embers from the burning hovel, borne on the light breeze, had already lit one wagon on fire. “I say we hitch two oxen to one o’ them wagons,” the dwarf said. “Release the rest, then kick some dust.”
The assassin stirred, maneuvered to all fours, and put a hand to the side of his head. “What the hell hit me?” He said.
“What about him?” Oldavei asked.
Torin and Xamus both answered at once: “He comes with us.”