Authors: Jonathan Moeller
She struck, the blue fire around her blade sinking into the Ograg’s flesh, and the undead creature shuddered again.
Power thrummed through Riothamus.
Szegan loosed his spell, a writhing serpent of green flame and black shadow leaping from his carrier’s skeletal fingers to hurtle at Riothamus. He lifted his staff, the sigils shining brighter, and a shield of golden light appeared before him. His ward held against the strike, but its force knocked Riothamus back a step.
Szegan was neither powerful nor skilled. But the San-keth runedead could summon far more power than a living wizard, more power than Riothamus himself could muster.
“Riothamus!” said Molly, appearing at his side. “Knock down his wards and I’ll take him.”
“No,” said Riothamus. “Help Mazael with the Ograg.” Szegan began another spell. “I’ll handle the serpent.”
Molly’s eyes narrowed, but she gave a sharp nod and disappeared. A heartbeat later she appeared between Romaria and Mazael, her sword and dagger blurring as she attacked.
Szegan unleashed another spell, and again Riothamus deflected it. The force staggered him, and he drew upon as much magical power as he could manage, from the very stone beneath his feet…
He blinked. Szegan had warded himself, but he doubted the San-keth had warded the stones of the temple itself.
He swept the staff before him, and the granite tile upon which Szegan stood exploded in a spray of rocky shards. The blast sent the San-keth cleric stumbling, and Riothamus made a hooking motion with his free hand. Freezing white mist swirled before him, and a volley of jagged icy shards shot from it, slamming into Szegan’s wards. The cleric stumbled, clawing at the air for balance.
“Aid me!” shrieked Szegan.
Riothamus braced himself, expecting the Ograg to attack.
Instead more shapes appeared in the temple’s shadows. At first he thought they were human runedead with the sigil of green fire blazing upon their brows. Then he saw the yellow eyes beneath the green glow, saw the fangs dripping with poison jutting over their lips.
Calibah. Human and San-keth hybrids, their fangs filled with deadly poison.
They rushed at Riothamus as Szegan worked a spell.
Mazael swung Lion again, and for the first time the huge Ograg stumbled. Its leg wavered, but the huge creature kept its balance, and its heavy club swung for Mazael.
He jumped back…but just a moment too slow, this time.
The club’s edge clipped his chest. His armor of golden dragon scales kept the blow from shattering his ribs. But the sheer force of it knocked him hard to the ground, breath exploding from his lungs.
The Ograg raised its club, ready to turn him to paste.
Molly cursed as Mazael fell, as the Ograg looming over him for a killing blow.
It was time to be reckless.
She leaped into the shadows and reappeared atop the Ograg’s left shoulder. Her feet slipped on the withered gray flesh beneath her boots, but she struck with both sword and dagger, reducing the left half of the Ograg’s face to ruin. The creature spun, wrenching its head around to bite her, and Molly lost her balance and fell.
The shadows swallowed her, and she reappeared next to Mazael as he regained his feet.
Riothamus whipped the Guardian’s staff in a circle, and a sheet of golden fire exploded in all directions.
The changeling runedead stopped, stumbling as the magic disrupted the necromancy upon their flesh. Riothamus leveled the staff and loosed blast after blast of golden fire. The four calibah slumped to the floor, nothing more than dead flesh once more.
Riothamus flung another burst at Szegan, and the San-keth cleric jerked back, standing between the altar and the looming statue of Sepharivaim.
An inspiration came to him. He could not waste time battering down Szegan’s wards, and he knew no spells that could affect the massive bronze image.
The stone pedestal upon which the statue stood was another matter entirely.
Riothamus cast a spell, forcing his will into the crimson block of stone. The pedestal trembled, and then turned dark brown as his magic transmuted the stone into thick mud.
The statue fell forward, the mud block collapsing into a puddle.
Szegan just had time to look up, and then the statue fell upon him.
Riothamus blinked. The only ways to destroy runedead were with magic or fire, but crushing one beneath a ton of bronze seemed just as effective.
The floor shuddered as the bronze image of Sepharivaim fell with a deafening clang, and Mazael tried to keep his balance, as did Romaria and Molly. The Ograg stumbled, all its weight coming down upon its damaged right leg.
Mazael heard bone snap.
He struck, Lion ripping through the runedead’s knee.
The Ograg’s right leg collapsed, and the creature fell, sending another vibration through the floor. Mazael ran forward, seized the creature’s leg, and heaved himself up.
For just an instant, he met the Ograg’s remaining eye, and then swung Lion with all his Demonsouled strength and rage behind the blow. The burning blade sheared through the Ograg’s thick neck and spine, its head rolling down its back. The rune above its forehead flickered and went out, and the body collapsed. Mazael jumped free as it slumped to the floor in a misshapen heap.
Silence fell over the sanctuary. Mazael looked around, breathing hard, but saw no other attackers.
Lion’s fire faded.
Riothamus walked towards them, staff clicking against the cracked floor.
“What happened to Szegan?” said Mazael.
Molly grinned. “Riothamus turned the statue’s pedestal to mud, and it fell on him.”
“Clever,” said Mazael.
Riothamus shrugged. “Your Amathavian church tells its faithful to tear down false idols. I merely took the injunction literally.”
“Come,” said Mazael, returning Lion to its scabbard. His chest and shoulders ached from the battering the Ograg had inflicted, but already his Demonsouled blood healed the wounds. “We’re still alive. Let us go disappoint Earnachar.”
“I am overjoyed,” said Earnachar, “that you were victorious, hrould.”
Mazael nodded. “I’m sure you are.”
“Mighty Tervingar himself,” said Riothamus, “could not have done better.”
Molly snickered, and Earnachar shot them both a dark look.
“Your folk should be safe enough now,” said Mazael. “We destroyed almost all of the runedead, along with the undead San-keth that controlled them. You will have no more organized runedead attacks on your villages.”
Unless more runedead wandered into these hills. Or desperate refugees, fleeing from the chaos the Great Rising had unleashed, decided to claim these lands as their own.
To his surprise, Earnachar bowed. “My thanks, hrould. A hrould swears to protect to his folk, and you have defended my thains and bondsmen from the undead.”
Mazael inclined his head. “It is my duty.”
“Though now that this village has been reclaimed,” said Earnachar, “perhaps I might settle some of my bondsmen there? The village would be a strong place, once the walls are rebuilt, and these hills would offer good grazing.”
Mazael stifled a laugh. He might have cleared out the runedead, but once Earnachar settled some of his people here, they would give the headman credit. And perhaps Earnachar would start to whisper that a man of Tervingi birth ought to be the hrould of the Tervingi nation. From there it was a short step to arguing that the Tervingi ought to conquer the Grim Marches for themselves.
Ragnachar was dead, his dream of conquest in ruin…but not all of his followers had taken the lesson to heart.
“I shall consider it,” said Mazael. “This land once belonged to Sir Gaith Kalborn, a vassal of mine, and I reclaimed it after he betrayed me. I shall bestow it as a fief once I find a suitable vassal.”
“Of course,” said Earnachar with another bow, a twitching of his eyelid the only sign of his disappointment.
“Send word if you need further aid,” said Mazael. “Until then, I will return to Castle Cravenlock.”
That night Mazael lay in his tent, staring at the canvas overhead.
Romaria rested against him, her head on his chest.
“You cannot sleep?” she murmured.
“It will take decades,” said Mazael. “Maybe even centuries.”
“To do what?”
“To rid the lands of the runedead,” said Mazael.
“We’ve made good progress,” said Romaria. “Most of the infested villages have been cleared, and the remaining runedead are in lonely places. They will not disturb anyone unless they are first disturbed.”
“Unless a renegade wizard or a San-keth takes control of them,” said Mazael. “Or more runedead wander into the Grim Marches. Or we are attacked by another barbarian nation like the Tervingi. Or more Malrags come down from the mountains.” He rubbed his face, his beard scratching beneath his palms. “Gods, Romaria, Lucan raised so many runedead.”
“But the Grim Marches have survived,” said Romaria.
“I wonder how many other lands can say the same,” said Mazael.
There had been scattered reports and rumors as bold merchants braved the runedead-haunted roads. Mazael had heard stories of entire towns overrun, now haunted by walking corpses with symbols of green fire upon their foreheads. Of forests where no one dared to go, for the runedead killed any that entered. Of lands and lordships thrown into chaos. The Prince of Travia had been killed in the Great Rising, and his sons battled each other for his throne. The rumors claimed that a great host of runedead marched through Mastaria, and Lord Malden could not hold them back. Mazael had sent a letter to Knightcastle, but there had been no response, and he wondered how Gerald and Rachel fared. His nephew Aldane would be over three years old by now, and Rachel would have birthed her second child months ago.
Assuming they were still alive.
“Not as many,” said Romaria.
“And all of it,” said Mazael, “because I did not kill Lucan when I had the chance.”
Romaria sighed. “Are you going to blame yourself for this again? Who killed Lucan and stopped the Great Rising from animating any more runedead? You did. Who kept the Tervingi and the lords of the Grim Marches from tearing each other apart? You did.”
“With Riothamus’s help,” said Mazael.
“They follow you, not Riothamus,” said Romaria. “You’ve held the Grim Marches together. You are the reason the Grim Marches has not become a score of warring fiefdoms or a runedead-haunted wasteland. Perhaps you should have killed Lucan, but you thought him a better man than he was. His deeds are not your fault.”
“No,” said Mazael. “No, they may not be my fault, but they are my responsibility.”
He fell into silence.
“You’ve done all you can,” said Romaria. “You’ve kept the Grim Marches safe, and you’ve driven out or destroyed most of the runedead. No one can ask more of you than that. And you broke the Great Rising, Mazael. There might be tens of thousands of runedead, but no new ones will rise. Sooner or later, we’ll destroy them all. Perhaps it will take decades. But someday the last runedead will be destroyed, and no one will fear them again.”
Mazael said nothing for a moment.
“You’re right,” he said at last. “It could be worse.”
At least Lucan Mandragon was dead, and could work no further harm.
Chapter 3 – Awakening
Lucan Mandragon stood motionless in the darkness, gazing at the underground lake.
How long had he been standing here? Two days? Three? A week, perhaps?
It didn’t matter.
He had nothing but time.
He had been standing for days, yet he did not feel the slightest ache in his legs. He did not feel the draw of his breath, nor the beating of his heart, most likely because both had stopped.
He felt nothing at all.
Save for the occasional flash of grief that tore through him.
Followed always by rage like an inferno.
“How long, I wonder,” said a sardonic voice, “are you going to stand there contemplating the water?”
Lucan blinked – not that he had any need for it – and turned his head.
He stood in the vast underground cavern that had once served as his teacher Marstan's hidden workshop. Marstan had claimed the wizards’ brotherhood had expelled him for challenging their authority, but in truth he was a necromancer. He had tried to transfer his spirit to Lucan’s body and claim it for his own, but Lucan had fought him off. Yet the ordeal had left many of Marstan’s memories and powers in Lucan's mind.
Was that where he had first gone wrong?
“As long as necessary,” said Lucan, turning from the underground lake.
A broad ledge encircled this end of the cavern, filled with tables and workbenches, their surfaces laden with jars and vials and glass tubes and peculiar brass instruments. Heavy shelves stood against the cavern’s walls, lined with books and scrolls.
A lean, fit man in his early thirties stood a dozen yards from Lucan. He wore gleaming black boots, black trousers, and a black leather vest over a spotless white shirt. His blond beard and mustache had been trimmed with razor precision, and a fine sword and dagger hung from his leather belt. Despite the rigors of the long journey to Arylkrad and back, he kept up his grooming, and looked like one of the minor nobles that infested the Prince of Barellion’s court. Yet the man had the balance of a master swordsman, the cold green eyes of a hardened killer…and an aura of dark magical power that brushed against Lucan’s senses.
An aura that had grown much stronger.
“As long as necessary?” said the man. “I suppose you could stand down here until all your enemies are dead, given your new...state, but that hardly seems like an efficient use of time.”
Lucan stared at him. “Why are you here, Malaric?”
Malaric grinned. “Why, to follow you, my lord Lucan. Power follows in your wake."
"And death," said Lucan.
He remembered the life fading from Tymaen's blue eyes, the shard of the Wraithaldr transfixing her heart. The grief filled him, more intense than any grief he had felt while still alive.
Were rage and grief the only emotions he would ever feel again?
"There might be more power in your wake," said Malaric. A hint of scorn entered his tone. "Unless you plan to spend your newfound immortality gazing into that lake."
The grief vanished, replaced again by rage. Tymaen had been taken from him. Lucan had been so close. He had almost rid the world of the Demonsouled forever, and then...
Something in his expression made Malaric flinch, and the other man vanished in a swirl of darkness.
Lucan's lip curled in an amused sneer at Malaric's new trick, a power gleaned from that skull he had taken from Arylkrad. Of course, those tricks had saved Malaric's life when the Great Rising had unraveled...
When Tymaen had died.
Lucan bowed his head and stared into the rippling waters.
Lucan could not have said how much time passed. He had no need to eat, to drink, to sleep, or even to rest. He had not realized how much those simple rituals allowed him to mark the passage of time. But now he had no need to maintain his physical body. He was a revenant, a soul housed in a body of changeless undead flesh, immortal and unfeeling.
He had nothing but time.
With that time he brooded.
Where had it all gone wrong?
Here, in this cavern, when he had defeated Marstan?
When he had taken Mazael's tainted blood to forge a bloodstaff?
Perhaps when he had stolen the Glamdaigyr and gone to find the Wraithaldr?
So many mistakes, so many errors. Every step had seemed logical at the time. Yet together they added up to catastrophe. The Great Rising had failed. He had died and risen as this undead horror.
And Tymaen had perished.
It had all been for nothing.
Yet he had come so close. Another few hours, and Lucan could have rid the world of the Demonsouled forever. Yes, the cost would have been high. But a new world would have risen from the ashes, a world free of the Demonsouled.
So close...but it had all been for nothing.
Unless Lucan made it right.
Memories flickered through the black ice filling his mind. Lucan had used the Glamdaigyr to destroy the revenant that had once been his distant ancestor Randur Maendrag. The sword had stolen Randur's memories and powers and bestowed them upon Lucan. Randur had designed the Great Rising, had forged the Glamdaigyr and the Banurdem and the Wraithaldr, and his arcane knowledge had been broad and deep.
And Randur had known of another way to destroy the Demonsouled.
Lucan thought upon it.
After some more time, Lucan realized that Malaric had returned.
Malaric sifted through the shelves and the tables, examining the books and the scrolls and bottles. He was looking for power, for relics and secrets that Marstan had left behind. Just as he had in Arylkrad, plucking that skull from the dust of the throne chamber.
"Why are you still here?" said Lucan.
Malaric glanced up from a shelf. "I told you, my lord Lucan. You leave power in your wake." He grinned. "And I rather like power, you know."
"You have power," said Lucan. "Your own magic. The spells I taught you. And the skull you took from Arylkrad. With that, you are a match for any mortal man...ah."
"Oh?" said Malaric.
"You're afraid," said Lucan, "that Molly Cravenlock is going to hunt you down."
"I could have taken the girl," said Malaric.
"And yet," said Lucan, "she is still alive."
"I do not fear her," said Malaric, his tone frank. "I could kill her. That Tervingi wizard, though, the one they call the Guardian. I could not defeat him."
Lucan had faced the Guardian during the Great Rising, wielding the full might of the Glamdaigyr, the Demonsouled power he had stolen from Mazael, and the knowledge and strength he had taken from Randur.
And yet the Guardian had still held his own.
"So I shall stay near you," said Malaric, "in case the Guardian pursues me. If he does, you can kill him for me. And perhaps rid me of Molly Cravenlock as well." He tilted his head to the side. "Though one thing does puzzle me. I have power now...but you have even more. Why not kill Mazael Cravenlock and his court? I doubt they could stop you."
Again Lucan saw Tymaen dying with the black crystal shard in her heart, and rage burned through him.
"The Guardian," said Lucan, "is a formidable opponent. But even if he were not, this is not about revenge. This is about creating a world free of Demonsouled."
Malaric snorted. "Revenge is sweet, my lord Lucan. And I intend to gorge myself upon it."
"A futile endeavor," said Lucan.
"You only think so because you are undead," said Malaric. "If you were still alive, if you had the passions of a living man, you would feel differently. If you really loved Tymaen, you would take Mazael's head for..."
Rage filled Lucan's mind. He would have killed Malaric then and there, but the renegade realized his mistake and vanished in a swirl of darkness.
After a moment Lucan's fury subsided, replaced by the usual cold numbness, and he stared into the underground lake. Revenge would achieve nothing.
Better instead to free the world from the curse of the Demonsouled.
Weeks passed, and Lucan contemplated his plan.
Malaric made good use of his ability to walk through the shadows, and returned from time to time with news. With both Richard and Toraine Mandragon dead, Mazael had become the new liege lord of the Grim Marches. The news filled Lucan with dark amusement. Toraine had always been so fearful that Mazael would overthrow him.
No doubt Toraine had never dreamed that Lucan would kill him.
"He's become the hrould of the Tervingi rabble," said Malaric, examining one of Marstan's tables. "Apparently he's managed to unify them, and leads them on campaigns against your runedead."
"Is he?" said Lucan, unconcerned. Still, perhaps he should take caution. If Mazael realized what Lucan had become, he would try to stop Lucan's plan.
As he had before.
"You've made quite a mess of the world," said Malaric, tapping the side of the table with the pommel of his sword. "I've been listening to the merchants of Cravenlock Town. They speak of entire towns overrun by runedead, by vast stretches of land haunted by vengeful corpses. Do you still have control over them, incidentally?"
"No," said Lucan. "The spell broke when the Wraithaldr shattered. I could resume control over some, easily enough." He touched the black diadem encircling his brow, its metal shaped like a dragon holding a glowing emerald in its claws. "The Banurdem would let me take control of many, perhaps thousands. But not all of them at once, not any more."
"Pity," said Malaric. He squinted at the table and returned his sword to its scabbard.
"What the devil are you doing to that table?" said Lucan.
"There is a spell on it," said Malaric.
"A preservation spell," said Lucan. "Marstan put preservation spells on everything down here. The lack of mold should have made that obvious."
Malaric smirked. "Perhaps that's why you haven't begun moldering yourself, my lord Lucan. But there's another spell beneath the preservation ward. One to keep an object concealed, I believe."
Lucan gave an indifferent shrug. Marstan had loved his little secrets. The necromancer had left hidden caches and lairs scattered all over the Grim Marches. Lucan had destroyed some, but no doubt others remained.
Malaric whispered a spell. A pulse of blue light washed over the table...and then a dagger appeared on its surface.
"Gods," whispered Malaric.
The dagger was a foot and a half long with a peculiar tapering blade, its hilt bound with rubies. In fact, the blade looked like a feather fashioned out of steel.
Even from a distance, Lucan felt the magical power within the weapon.
Malaric looked at the dagger, and then at Lucan, eyes wide.
"Do you have any idea what that is?" said Malaric.
"Of course," said Lucan.
"And...you do not wish to claim it?" said Malaric. "All that power, and you're just going to let it...sit there?" His voice was incredulous. "You're not going to take it?"
"It is too dangerous," said Lucan.
Malaric barked a laugh. "Too dangerous? From the man who went to Morvyrkrad to claim the Wraithaldr?"
"The Wraithaldr," said Lucan, "would not earn me the enmity of creatures that even I cannot control."
Malaric blinked, his eyes straying to the dagger.
"Stop prevaricating," said Lucan. "If you want the damned thing, take it. I have no need of it."
Malaric picked up the dagger, his green eyes alight with glee. "Perhaps you are a fool to give it up so easily. With it, I am a threat even to you, my lord Lucan."
For the first time since Tymaen had died, for the first time in months, Lucan felt himself smile.
"No," he said, "you're not."
Malaric's grin faded. "I suppose not. But I'm not a threat to your plans, am I? I have my own objectives, and you have yours."
"Correct," said Lucan.
"So there is no need for hostilities between us?" said Malaric.
"Not unless," said Lucan, "you get in my way."
A hint of Malaric's bravado returned. "Yes, I'm make sure not to stand between you and that lake. No doubt you have learned many impressive secrets by staring at it for the last few months."
Lucan walked away from the lake, making for the cavern's entrance.
He felt a flicker of amusement at the surprise on Malaric's face.
"You're leaving?" Malaric said.
"Yes," said Lucan.
"To do what?" said Malaric. "To attempt the Great Rising again?"
"No," said Lucan. "Tymaen...destroyed the Wraithaldr, and it took the combined might of the high lords of Old Dracaryl to create it. I have not the power to remake it. The Great Rising is over."
"Then what," said Malaric, "do you plan to do?"
Lucan considered this. Malaric was treacherous and ambitious, and would turn on Lucan at the first sign of weakness. Perhaps it would be safer to simply kill him now.
But Lucan was not weak. And he cared nothing for thrones and titles. Malaric might make a useful tool once more.
"Have you ever heard of Cythraul Urdvul?" said Lucan.
"No," said Malaric. "Those are Elderborn words, aren't they? They mean something like...birthplace of the dark, or stronghold of the dark, I think."
"Correct," said Lucan. "It is has been forgotten, but the high lords of Dracaryl knew of its existence. Cythraul Urdvul was once a temple of the High Elderborn. When some among the High Elderborn turned to the worship of evil and became the Dark Elderborn, they made contact with the demon god who fathered the Demonsouled in Cythraul Urdvul. When they tried to summon the demon god and failed, the backlash destroyed the realm of the High Elderborn and pushed Cythraul Urdvul into the spirit world, where it remains to this day."
"A historical curiosity," said Malaric. "What use is it?"
"The power of every Demonsouled that has ever been slain," said Lucan, "has been pulled into Cythraul Urdvul. It is like a...lodestone, for want of a better word, pulling the power of slain Demonsouled to itself. Or a reservoir, perhaps. All that power is there, waiting. And I will use that power to destroy the Demonsouled."