Read Soul of Skulls (Book 6) Online

Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Soul of Skulls (Book 6) (4 page)

"Or," said Malaric, "you could claim that power for yourself and become a god." 

"No," said Lucan. "I have no wish for that kind of power." The pursuit of power had cost him everything - his friends, Tymaen, even his mortality. "The world does not need a new demon god rising from the ashes of the old. No, I will use the power to destroy the Demonsouled." 

Malaric frowned. "That was what Randur Maendrag tried to do, was it not? Kill all the Demonsouled and take their power?"

"And look what happened to him," said Lucan. 

"A moot point," said Malaric, "since it is impossible to physically enter the spirit world." 

"Unless," said Lucan, "you have a Door of Souls."

"I thought those were legendary," said Malaric.

"They are not," said Lucan. "The High Elderborn used them to enter the spirit world, and the Dark Elderborn tried to summon their demon god through one." Randur's memories floated before his eyes. "The High Elderborn created three. The first was in Cythraul Urdvul, and destroyed along with the demon god. The second was in the temple atop Mount Tynagis. That fool Malavost destroyed it a few years ago." 

"And the third?" said Malaric.

"In Knightcastle," said Lucan. 

"Knightcastle?" said Malaric, incredulous. "You mean old Lord Malden has been sitting on a Door of Souls for all these decades and never knew about it?"

"Lord Malden and all his ancestors," said Lucan. "Knightcastle was once a stronghold of the High Elderborn. After it fell, their human allies settled in the ruins and built what would become Knightcastle. The lords of Dracaryl warred against the old Roland kings to claim the Door of Souls, but they were never successful."

"Then the Door of Souls is still there?" said Malaric.

"Yes," said Lucan. "Most likely in the Trysting Ways below the castle. I will find the Door, open it, and use the gathered power in Cythraul Urdvul to destroy the Demonsouled." 

"Just how will you accomplish that?" said Malaric.

"Life energy," said Lucan. "It will take a great deal of power to open the Door...and stolen life energy is the most obvious available source. The deaths will be regrettable, but will serve a greater good." 

"You want my help, I assume," said Malaric. 

"You said power follows in my wake," said Lucan. "What I plan to do will create a great deal of chaos. A clever man might exploit it and rise high."

Or Malaric might overreach and get himself killed. Either outcome did not matter to Lucan.

"Very well," said Malaric. "I wish to travel to Barellion, and Knightcastle is not that far from the city."

"Yes," said Lucan. "Your plan to gorge yourself on vengeance."

Malaric's smile did not reach his icy eyes. "I have a few debts to repay." 

Lucan did not know the full details of Malaric's banishment from the Prince of Barellion's court. Or of his falling out with the Skulls and the wizards' brotherhood. But now that Malaric had the power of that skull, Lucan suspected anyone who had ever wronged Malaric was going to regret it bitterly. 

"Come," said Lucan.

Malaric followed him to the entrance.

Lucan emerged from the cave and onto the rocky shore of the Lake of Swords. The sun rose over horizon to the east, painting the lake's waters the color of gold. Lucan still expected to see the dark mass of Swordgrim, his father's castle, rising from the water, strong and unyielding.

But Richard Mandragon was dead, and Swordgrim was a pile of rubble at the bottom of the lake. 

Lucan turned and looked to the east.

"We had best start walking," said Malaric. "It is sixteen to twenty days to Knightcastle from here, assuming the roads are clear. Which they will not be, thanks to the runedead you have unleashed. We will make better time if we steal some horses, though given your...peculiar nature, your presence might frighten the animals." 

"We have no need of horses," said Lucan.

Malaric nodded. "Ah. One of your paths through the spirit world?"

"Something better," said Lucan, and he lifted his hand to cast a spell. 

Power roared through him, more power than he had ever before summoned. That kind of power would have killed him, had he still been a living man. But he was a revenant, and he was no longer bound by the limitations of the flesh.

A column of mist rose from the rocky beach, ten feet, twenty feet high. The gray mist broadened into a sheet, and through the haze Lucan saw a broad green valley, rocky hills rising on either side. 

"A mistgate?" said Malaric, a hint of fear in his voice. "You're strong enough to conjure a mistgate?" 

"Yes," said Lucan, gazing into the gate. "Corvad's Malrag warlocks knew the spell. This will put us a day south of Knightcastle itself. From there I can decide how best to begin the great work."

The work that would at last rid the world of the Demonsouled. He had failed once before, and Tymaen had paid the price for his mistakes. But this time, he would not fail. 

In Tymaen's name he would free the world of the Demonsouled.

Lucan strode through the mistgate.

###

The mistgate closed, the mist itself blowing over the waves. 

A figure in a dark robe stood on the bluff overlooking the lake, gazing at the shore. 

He had many names. The High Elderborn, in the days before the destruction of their civilization, had called him the Firstborn. In later days the surviving Elderborn had called him the Malevagr, and the San-keth had named him the Hand of Chaos. The Tervingi and the other barbarian nations called him the Urdmoloch, the elder evil. 

The folk of the Grim Marches named him the Old Demon. 

He had watched both Lucan and Malaric for weeks. Neither man had seen him, for he had not wished it. Malaric commanded considerable magic, and Lucan was even stronger - but they were both gnats next to the Old Demon's power. 

But his nature imposed limitations on that power. He was the greatest of the Demonsouled, the eldest and the strongest - but that meant he was half-spirit, and bound by the limitations of the spirit world. He could not attack or kill, could not use his vast magic unless he was first attacked. 

So he had to use others as his weapons and tools. 

His smiled widened.

He had gotten very good at it, over the long millennia.

And he was almost ready. 

Soon the world, and everything in it, would belong to him. 

"Lucan, Lucan," murmured the Old Demon. "You are going to do great things for me."

For centuries the Old Demon had harvested the power of his children and grandchildren. How amusing that, in the end, his most effective tool would not be of Demonsouled blood.

He turned and walked into the shadows, leaving the Grim Marches behind.

Chapter 4 - Armies of the Dead

Sir Gerald Roland watched the knights and lords file into his tent for yet another council of war. 

He knew the men well. Tancred, the Lord of Stillwater, had once looked like a walking tankard, but months of hard campaigning had slimmed him down. Silver-haired Agravain Rainier, the Lord of Tumblestone, grim and implacable in battle. Young Lord Nicholas Randerly of Knightport, slim and fit with sad eyes. Lord Adalar Greatheart, once Mazael Cravenlock's squire, young as Lord Nicholas but far more battle-hardened. Sir Commander Aidan Tormaud of the Justiciar Order, arrogant and cold in his gleaming steel armor and blue surcoat with the silver star of the Justiciars. 

Gerald had fought alongside them for months, had saved their lives and been saved by them. Every last man had fought well, had led his men well.

And they were still losing the war against the runedead. 

Or, more specifically, against the man who commanded the runedead. 

"My lords and knights," said Gerald. "What news?"

"I've had word from my men at Castle Dominus," said Adalar. Gerald remembered when Adalar had been an anxious squire. The wars had aged and hardened him. "A large force of runedead march north."

"How many?" said Gerald.

"Four thousand," said Adalar. "Perhaps a little more."

Gerald's armored hand closed into a fist. His father Lord Malden could call over twenty-five thousand men to his banner. Yet those men were stretched too thin, and still more runedead came from the south. 

Lord Agravain grunted. "They'll be making for Tumblestone. We can hold them off there easily enough." 

Sir Commander Aidan frowned. Even frowning, he still looked commanding. Mazael's bastard daughter, Gerald recalled, had been in love with one of Aidan's younger brothers. "Pardon, my lord, but can the runedead not walk through walls?"

"They can," said a thin man in a black wizard's coat, with hair so blond it was almost white. "But we have warded the walls of Tumblestone against that ability of the runedead. If they take Tumblestone, they will have to do so by force, not magic." 

"Alas," said Lord Nicholas. "Would that we had known how to work such wards when the green flame filled the sky." His face grew more melancholy. "Then my brothers and father might still live." 

"But we do now," said Agravain. "I propose that we let the runedead assail the walls of my town. When they do, we can attack and pin them against the walls. If all goes well, we can destroy them with little loss."

Gerald sighed. "When has anything gone well these past months?" 

"Sir Gerald," said Adalar, "I fear that the runedead will not attack Tumblestone."

Sir Commander Aidan frowned. "Why not? If they did not assail Castle Dominus, Tumblestone is the most obvious target."

"Because if four thousand runedead are marching together," said Adalar, "that means they are under Caraster's direct command. Caraster is a wizard, and he must know that Tumblestone is warded. He would not waste minions attacking Tumblestone. Therefore he must have another target in mind."

Silence answered him. 

Gerald nodded, thinking hard. The Great Rising been bad enough, with thousands of the runedead rising from churchyards and crypts. Entire villages and towns had been slaughtered in moments. It would have been much worse, if not for the mysterious blue fire that had suddenly sheathed every sword and spear.

Mazael had done that somehow, Gerald was sure of it. The fire had been the exact same color of Lion's flames. The fire had faded eventually, but it had been enough to drive back the runedead. After that, the wizards had brewed their oil, and the knights and lords of Knightcastle fought back. 

Then the runedead became organized.

Caraster, somehow, had taken control of them.

Things had gone ill after that.

"So," said Gerald at last, "we have no way of knowing where the runedead are going. Caraster could send them anywhere."

"Somewhere to kill nobles and merchants," said Agravain, voice thick with scorn, "and to raise his glorious new order." 

"My men said the runedead had not bothered to send out scouts," said Adalar. "We could ambush them."

Aidan shook his head. "Caraster never sends out scouts. The wretched renegade has no understanding of war."

"Nor does he need to feed his men," said Tancred, shaking his head with dismay. "He has no need to maintain a supply train, or to obtain supplies and provender."

"A pity," said Nicholas. "Then we could attack his supplies and save ourselves a great deal of trouble." 

"But he has no supply trains," said Gerald, cutting the discussion short, "so we must attack the enemy directly. Do we have any idea where the runedead might go?" 

"No," said Agravain. "Once they pass Tumblestone, there are a score of villages within ten miles. Caraster might send the runedead to any one of them." 

"We cannot allow this!" said Nicholas. "You've seen what Caraster did to the other villages. All the nobles and merchants and wealthy peasants left to die on stakes."

Along with their wives and children. 

Gerald had seen it, too. 

"We cannot guess where the runedead will strike," said Agravain. "We shall follow them to their target, and then defeat them." 

"But more people shall die," said Nicholas. 

"So they shall," said Agravain, voice grim. "But we can avenge them."

"Maybe," said Gerald, "there is a way we can keep from having to avenge anyone."

All eyes turned to him.

"If the runedead passed Castle Dominus two days ago," said Gerald, "then they have not yet left Mastaria. They will have to cross the River Abelinus to enter Knightreach. There's only one place to cross the River Abelinus. Therefore we know where the runedead will be tomorrow." 

Agravain frowned. "Then you mean to attack the runedead as they cross the river?"

"I do," said Gerald. "If we march at once, we will arrive before they do. From the northern bank, we shall have the advantage of the higher ground. We can destroy them as they attempt to cross."

"I fear," said Circan, "that we are running low on wizard's oil, and have not yet had time to make more." 

"Fresh supply wagons are coming from Knightcastle," said Tancred. 

"They will not arrive for another three days at best," said Adalar. "The runedead will cross the river by then." 

Aidan frowned. "Grand Master Caldarus believes we must remain on the defensive."

Gerald felt a prickle of irritation. "Grand Master Caldarus," he said, trying to keep his voice level, "is not the liege lord of Knightreach and the lord of Knightcastle. My father is. And my father has entrusted Tobias and myself with the defense of our lands."

Aidan bowed his head. "I mean no disrespect, Sir Gerald. But I am obliged to give you honest counsel, and in my judgment, this is a risky move." 

The other lords and knights rumbled their agreement.

"It is a gamble," said Gerald. 

It was, he realized, the sort of thing Mazael would have done, and that made up his mind.

"Wars are not won by sitting behind stone walls and waiting for the foe to pass," said Gerald. "Especially not this foe. The runedead do not tire and do not grow hungry. If we withdraw behind our walls, they will simply outwait us. If we are to defeat them, we must seek them out and destroy them...or they shall destroy us. I have decided, my lords. We march for the fords of the River Abelinus." 

No one protested. Perhaps they, too, were tired of staying behind stone walls.

Gerald only hoped that he would not lead them to their deaths.

###

Two days later Gerald arrayed his host on the northern banks of the River Abelinus, overlooking the ford.

He had six thousand knights, armsmen, and militia, all of them veterans. Gerald did not bother raising fortifications. With their ability to turn into wraiths, the runedead could walk through walls. Instead he ordered the men to assemble the catapults, and soon a dozen war engines were ready. 

"Distribute the oil," said Gerald, and Adalar saw to it.

Soon after the Great Rising, the wizards had devised an oil that produced a peculiar white flame. The oil burned without heat or smoke and could not harm living flesh, but permitted steel blades to wound the runedead. Without that oil, Knightcastle would have been overrun long ago. 

Gerald only wished the wizards could make it faster. 

He stopped at the edge of the bank. The water was no more than three or four feet deep in the ford. The current would slow the runedead, giving the archers and the catapults time to fire. Then the runedead would have to scramble up the bank, making them vulnerable to the spearmen and swordsmen.

Or so Gerald hoped.

So many things could go wrong. 

"The scouts have returned," said Agravain. "The runedead approach the river."

Gerald saw a flare of green light in the trees on the southern bank. 

"Sound for battle," said Gerald. Agravain, Adalar, Lord Nicholas and the others shouted orders to their men, and trumpets rang over the host. Men lifted shields and swords and drew bows, the catapults creaking. 

A moment later the first runedead came into sight. 

Gray-skinned corpses, clad in the remnants of the garments they had owned while alive. Some wore rusted armor and decaying tabards, others the crumbling clothing of peasants and farmhands. Yet all of them bore that sigil of green flame upon their brows, the light glimmering in their dead eyes. 

Dozens, then hundreds, emerged from the trees. 

A rustle went through the assembled men. 

"Hold!" roared Gerald, drawing his sword. He applied a few precious drops of wizard's oil to the blade. "Hold!"

The mass of runedead began wading across. The runedead possessed supernatural strength and speed, but the river was stronger still, and its current slowed them. Gerald waited, his fingers tight around his sword hilt. More runedead poured out the trees, the ragged mass of undead flesh filling the ford.

The first runedead reached the northern bank, lifting dead eyes to gaze up at Gerald.

"Now!" shouted Gerald.

A trumpet blast rang out, and his host exploded into action.

All twelve catapults released at once, hurling smoking barrels to the southern bank. The barrels struck the earth and exploded, spraying burning pitch in all directions. The ground erupted in flames, as did the trees, the conflagration devouring hundreds of runedead. 

The archers released their bows, sending a storm of flaming arrows overhead. Most of the shafts struck the water and went out. But many sank into undead flesh, setting it ablaze. 

The first wave of runedead clawed their way up the bank, and Gerald thrust his sword blade into a nearby torch.

At once the wizard's oil ignited, sheathing his sword in pale white flames. Throughout the front lines, the men did the same, and hundreds of spears and swords shone with the white glow. 

Then the runedead crashed into the front rank and the fighting began.

A runedead reached for Gerald, and he struck, his sword a shining blur. His blade took off the creature's hand, and it staggered. He reversed his sword and drove the weapon into the runedead's skull. The white fire from his blade poured into the green sigil, and the runedead collapsed to the ground.

The sigil of green fire was the key. Destroy that, and the necromancy binding the corpse unraveled. 

Gerald destroyed another runedead, and another. Lord Adalar fought at his side, wielding a two-handed greatsword wreathed in white flame. He moved with speed and power, and took the head from a runedead with a single powerful blow. More flaming arrows shot overhead, along with another volley from the catapults. Gerald caught the blow from a rusty mace on his shield, sidestepped, and took the head from another runedead.

He risked a quick look around the battlefield, his heart hammering against his ribs. 

The front ranks struggled against the mass of runedead, but held their ground. An inferno raged on the far bank of the river, but the runedead marched into it, heedless of the flames. Gerald felt a surge of hope. The runedead were strong and fast, but they lacked the capacity for independent thought. If Caraster and his disciples had ordered the runedead to cross the river, then they would cross the river.

And the fire would consume them. 

Gerald swung his sword, the blade arcing for a runedead.

It struck the runedead's head and bounced away as if the skull had been fashioned of solid iron. 

The wizard's oil had burned away from Gerald's blade. 

He ducked, reaching for the flask at his belt, and his boot caught on a stone. Gerald lost his balance and fell upon his back, his armor clattering. The runedead reached for him with pale fingers, and Gerald tried to stand, tried to reach for his flask of oil.

Then the cold hands closed around his throat, and he only had time to wish that he had seen Rachel and his sons one last time...

A flash of white light shot through Gerald's vision, followed by Adalar's greatsword crunching through the runedead's skull. The undead thing jerked, and Gerald kicked it off him. He scrambled back to his feet, shield raised.

"Sir Gerald," said Adalar, fending off another runedead, "are you wounded?"

"Not yet," said Gerald, spilling a few more drops of oil on his sword. The blade burst anew into pale white flames. All around him he saw the defensive line crumple as the oil upon the blades of the men burned away. 

"Next wave!" bellowed Gerald. "Sound the next wave!" 

His standardbearer sounded the advance, and the first line fell back, the next line moving up with fresh coats of oil on their blades. They met the runedead attack with burning steel, and pushed the undead creatures back into the river. The catapults spat flame, the archers sending burning arrows into the river, and all the world seemed filled with ash and cinders.

###

It was over by noon.

Gerald pulled off his helmet and wiped the sweat and soot from his brow.

"One hundred and five dead," Lord Tancred said, "and about one hundred and fifty wounded."

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