Read Soul of Skulls (Book 6) Online

Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Soul of Skulls (Book 6) (5 page)

"A solid victory," said Lord Agravain. 

Gerald nodded. A solid victory, and it could have been much, much worse. Yet they had lost over a hundred men, and those were men that Gerald could ill-afford to replace. 

Men who had been husbands, sons, brothers. 

Sir Commander Aidan approached, his blue surcoat and armor darkened with soot. 

"We captured one of Caraster's disciples," said Aidan. 

"What?" said Gerald. "Why wasn't I told at once?"

"I just found out myself," said Aidan. "The scouts I sent across the river found him. He tried to flee once the battle went against the runedead. Caraster must have given him control over this group of runedead."

Gerald raked a hand through his sweaty hair. "A pity we didn't know that before the battle. We could have killed him and then destroyed the runedead piecemeal without his control."

And perhaps those one hundred and five men might still live. 

"Agreed," said Aidan. 

"Which one did we capture?" said Gerald.

Aidan grimaced. "He calls himself Harbinger."

Adalar frowned. "Harbinger? He led the runedead through the villages near Castle Dominus. He killed every knight, every noble, every priest, every merchant, and every peasant that owned a brass pan or more than eight acres of land. Put their heads on stakes and made their wives and children watch, and then killed the wives and children." 

Gerald's mouth thinned into a hard line, his mustache scratching at his lip. Gods, but he needed a decent shave. "Take me to him. Now." 

"This way, sir," said Aidan. 

Gerald strode through the camp, his captains following. He made sure to circulate through the men as he did so, praising their courage, and pointing out those who had displayed conspicuous valor during the fighting. Mazael had always said that a lord needed to show his men that he relied on their courage, that their suffering had not been in vain. 

He wished Mazael were here now. But his old friend probably had his hands full dealing with the runedead in the Grim Marches.

The Justiciar portion of the camp stood in perfect order, the tents lined up in neat rows, sergeants in Justiciar colors standing at guard. Two sergeants held a man in a ragged black robe. Circan stood nearby, watching the ragged man, and the Justiciar sergeants gave him wary glances. Before the coming of the runedead, the Justiciars had refused to allow any wizards on their lands, and killed those they could catch. The Great Rising and the necessity of the wizard's oil had forced the Justiciars to change their policy...but old habits died hard.

"He is a wizard?" said Gerald.

"Aye, sir knight," said Circan. "Like Caraster's other disciples. But I have neutralized his magic, and he is currently no threat."

"Fool!" shrieked the man in the ragged robe. "You cannot escape from justice!"

Gerald looked at the man who named himself Harbinger. He was ragged and filthy, his hair and beard matted with grease. Though after months in the field, Gerald supposed that he looked no better himself. Harbinger's eyes glittered with hatred, his lips peeled back from his yellow teeth in a snarl. A brand marred his forehead, the stylized image of a closed crimson fist.

The sigil of Caraster's new order, one that promised to rid the world of both the rich and the poor and to provide bread for every man.

"You are the rebel called Harbinger?" said Gerald.

"Yes," spat Harbinger. "The day is coming when all the lords and princes shall be cast down, and the wealthy shall choke upon their own gold. And who are you, noble dog?"

His captains bristled, but Gerald raised a hand. "I am Sir Gerald Roland."

Perhaps he could glean some useful information from this madman.  

Harbinger spat. "The dog of the tyrant Lord Malden. I am surprised that you do not drip with the blood of the innocent as you walk. You too will perish when the new order arises, you and all your vile family."

"The blood of the innocent?" said Gerald, remembering the impaled corpses he had seen. Then he mastered himself and said, "I assume you call yourself Harbinger because you are the herald of this new order?"

"You recognize your doom," said Harbinger. 

"Tell me of your new order," said Gerald. 

"We shall cleanse the world of the unjust," said Harbinger, his eyes filling with a fanatical glitter. "The lords, the nobles, the priests, the merchants, all will die. We shall wash the world in their blood. And then Caraster will inaugurate a new order. There will be no more lords, no more priests, no more rich and no more poor, and every man shall have bread." 

"You blaspheme against the Amathavian gods," said Adalar, who had inherited his late father's pious streak. 

Harbinger sneered. "There are no gods. Only lies told to keep the poor enslaved and to make the priests fat and rich. Caraster has shown it to be true." 

"And how does Caraster explain the runedead?" said Gerald. Harbinger seemed more than willing to ramble, and perhaps Gerald could coax out the secret of how Caraster controlled so many runedead. Before the Great Rising, Caraster had been nothing more than a petty bandit wizard, terrorizing the hill villages of southern Mastaria. Without his control of the runedead, he would be no threat to anyone. 

"The runedead rose at his command," said Harbinger. "The dead themselves rebelled against injustice. They came at Caraster's call."

Gerald knew better.

"And how does he make them obey him?" said Gerald. 

"His blood," said Harbinger, grinning.

"His blood?" said Gerald.

"The fire of justice burns in his blood," said Harbinger, "and with that fire he binds the runedead to him." He jerked forward, heedless of the Justiciar sergeants holding him. "You will see, noble dog! Already our runedead control most of Mastaria. Soon we shall march north, and lay waste to Knightcastle! Knightreach shall be cleansed, just as we have cleansed Mastaria." 

"Cleansed?" said Gerald. "You mean you shall kill every noble, knight, priest, and merchant? Every peasant who has more wealth than his neighbors?" 

"The wicked shall perish," said Harbinger. 

"And their wives?" said Gerald. "Their children, too? They deserve to die?"

Harbinger grinned. "The wicked are poisonous snakes...and we shall crush their spawn as well." He laughed, high and mocking. "I enjoyed the screams of the merchants as we slew them, and I enjoyed the sobbing of their fat children as I killed them..."

"So," said Gerald, "you ordered the murder of the children?"

"Gladly!" said Harbinger, "and I will..."

"That is quite enough," said Gerald. "Hang him." 

He just had time to see the stunned expression of Harbinger's face before the sergeants dragged him away. Perhaps Caraster had promised his disciples immortality. Harbinger began shouting imprecations, but Gerald ignored him. 

Harbinger had no further useful information, and Gerald would not suffer a man who murdered children to live. 

"I fear this confirms what we already know," said Agravain, shaking his silver-haired head. "This war will not be over until we find Caraster and kill him. His followers are a band of madmen. Without his control over the runedead, they are nothing."

"But Caraster is somewhere in the heart of Mastaria," said Nicholas. "And we dare not venture in force south of the River Abelinus. Tens of thousands of runedead await, and we would be overrun."

Gerald nodded. Each of them had valid points. But it was not his decision to make. He had been charged to hold southern Knightreach against the runedead. His father and older brother Tobias would decide the course of the war.

If his father was still even lucid.

"We shall decide our course on the morrow," said Gerald. "For now, the men have won a victory, and shall rest and recover. Secure the camp, and prepare to march at dawn."

The lords and knights went to their tasks. 

In the distance Gerald heard Harbinger's ranting come to an abrupt halt, accompanied by the sound of snapping bone.

###

At dawn a band of horsemen approached from the north. 

Gerald walked to the edge of the camp as the horsemen reined up. The standardbearer flew the banner of the House of Roland, a silver greathelm on a field of blue. The lead rider swung down from the saddle with a grunt, his plate armor clattering, and pulled off his helmet.

Gerald blinked in surprise. “Tobias!”

Sir Tobias Roland looked like a shorter, more muscular version of Gerald. He had a broad, ruddy face, made for laughing. But he had not laughed much since Garain's murder and Lord Malden's increasing illness, and the chaos of the Grim Rising and Caraster’s rebellion had driven all traces of humor from his face. Now Tobias looked grim and implacable, and Gerald could not remember the last time he had seen his older brother smile. 

“Brother,” said Tobias. “I have ill news.”

Gerald sighed. “When was the last time we had any other sort?”

“Some time, I fear,” said Tobias. “Father is dying, brother.” 

“He has been ill since the San-keth murdered Garain,” said Gerald, “but…”

“The physicians say he has less than a week left, if that,” said Tobias. “We need to leave for Knightcastle at once.” 

Chapter 5 – The Pact

Malaric’s hand kept straying to the leather bag at his belt.

He made himself stop. An enemy might observe him, and conclude that something valuable rested within the bag. 

And the bag held an object of incalculable value. With it, Malaric would reclaim his birthright. He would repay, with interest, everyone who had ever wronged him.

And with it he would live forever. 

Assuming he was careful.

He pushed aside his plans for the future and made himself pay attention to his surroundings. 

He followed Lucan Mandragon on the westward road, the Riversteel flowing broad and strong to their right. The countryside showed signs of recent fighting. They passed two villages surrounded by newly-constructed palisades, grim-eyed militiamen watching from the ramparts. It was just as well Lucan had donned a hooded black cloak that concealed his features. 

Lucan looked healthy, if pale, but anyone who watched him for too long would notice that he had no need to breathe. 

Malaric stared at Lucan’s back, fingering the hilt of his sword as an idea came to him. Lucan carried two mighty relics of Old Dracaryl. The Banurdem allowed him to command both undead creatures and dragons. The Glamdaigyr drained life energy and power from its victims and bestowed them to its bearer. Malaric was already powerful, thanks to his own magic, the dagger he had taken from Marstan's lair, and the skull in the bag. With the Banurdem and the Glamdaigyr, he would be invincible. He need only destroy Lucan…

Lucan looked over his shoulder, pale face expressionless, his black eyes like disks of wet stone. 

“You’ve secured that skull, I trust?” said Lucan.

Malaric swallowed. “Yes, of course.”

“Good,” said Lucan, turning away. “A pity if it were to fall into the wrong hands.”

Malaric’s fingers clenched tighter around his sword hilt.

Lucan always seemed to know what he was thinking.

The skull had once belonged to Corvad of Barellion, a renegade mercenary and an assassin of the Skulls. He had also been the bastard son of Mazael Cravenlock and a Demonsouled of great power. Mazael had killed his wayward son at Arylkrad. Malaric had found Corvad's skull there.

And transformed it into a relic of great power. 

By using a necromantic spell to bind his soul to Corvad’s skull, Malaric had gained access to Corvad’s Demonsouled power. That power made him faster and stronger than ordinary men, gave him the ability to heal even deadly wounds in moments, granted him the power to walk through the shadows as Molly Cravenlock did, and vastly augmented his magical capability. He could even access that power without suffering homicidal fury as the Demonsouled did.

But that power came at a price. The skull made Malaric almost invincible, but the skull itself was vulnerable. If it was destroyed, Malaric didn’t know what would happen. He didn’t want to find out.

He would have to be very careful.  

And Lucan knew all that. 

As tempting at the Glamdaigyr and the Banurdem were, challenging Lucan Mandragon was utter folly. And, in truth, Malaric didn’t need the relics. He already had more than enough power to achieve his goals.

To deal with his father and his half-brothers. 

Malaric’s lip curled in rage, and Lucan came to a halt. 

“What is it?” said Malaric, one hand going to the hilt of his sword, the other coming up to cast a spell. Had Lucan divined his intentions? Did he intend to attack?

“We’ve been followed,” said Lucan, pointing. “Up there, ahead. Someone awaits in the trees.”

Ahead the road veered away from the river, towards a patch of woods that stood between the hills and the water. It was the perfect place for an ambush. 

“Who?” said Malaric. “Runedead.”

“No,” said Lucan. “Someone else. Come.” A note of dark amusement entered his cold voice. “Let us see who is so keen to meet me.” 

He pushed back his hood, revealing the Banurdem upon his brow. Malaric drew his sword, the steel gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Lucan strode for the trees, the black cloak billowing after him, and Malaric made sure to stay well behind him. 

If foes awaited in the trees, best to let Lucan deal with them.

Men emerged from the trees. They had the look and clothing of common peasants, and Malaric wondered if they had turned bandit, driven from their homes by the Great Rising. Then he saw their yellow, black-slit eyes, saw the fangs curling over their lips, the scaly patches on their wrists and necks.

They were calibah, changelings, the offspring of a San-keth father and a human woman. During his time with the Skulls of Barellion, Malaric had dealt with the San-keth, and he knew that the calibah were devoted servants of the serpent people. And they were rarely seen without a San-keth cleric…

A figure draped in a gray robe emerged from the trees, flashes of green light flickering in the sleeves. Beneath that robe, Malaric knew, strode an undead human skeleton, its skull removed. In place of the skull reared up the wedge-shaped head of an enormous serpent, its head and flanks covered in crimson and black scales. 

A San-keth serpent priest.

Malaric stared at the creature. Its scales were dull with great age, its forked tongue lashing ceaselessly at the air. He saw that dozens of tiny runes of green fire had been written upon the San-keth’s skin. Warding spells, most likely. This serpent priest possessed great age and great power. 

Lucan stopped a dozen paces from the San-keth and folded his arms over his chest. 

“How did you find me?” said Lucan.

The San-keth’s tongue flicked in his direction. “An undead creature of your potency is not hard to track, my lord of Mandragon.” The serpent’s voice was a dry, hissing rasp, like wind blowing dead leaves over the floor of a crypt. “At least for those with eyes to see.”

A smile appeared on Lucan’s hard face. “You have found me, and you will soon regret that you did.”

He raised his right hand, green flame swirling around his fingers, and the Glamdaigyr appeared in his grasp.

The black greatsword was massive, its long blade written with sigils of green fire, its pommel shaped like a dragon's skull. A faint dark haze shimmered around the sword, like black mist rising from a swamp. Malaric’s magical senses recoiled from the raw power radiating from the weapon, its relentless hunger, its desire to gorge upon stolen life until it left the world a cold wasteland. 

But the San-keth cleric gave no sign of alarm. 

“Peace, Lucan Mandragon,” he said. “I have not come to hinder you. In fact, we may even be of use to each other. Fight me if you will, but perhaps a parley would be more profitable.” 

“Very well,” said Lucan. “Who are you?”

“Among the followers of Sepharivaim,” said the serpent priest, “I am known as Skalatan.”

Malaric flinched, and Skalatan’s yellow eyes turned towards him.

“You know of me, human?” said Skalatan. “Then speak.”

“Yes,” said Lucan. “Do tell.”

Malaric kept his eyes fixed on the serpent. “He is one of the seven San-keth archpriests. Certainly the oldest, and probably the most powerful. He would rule the San-keth race, but…”

The San-keth did not have expressions as humans did, but Malaric suspected that Skalatan was amused. “Go on.”

“The other archpriests regard him as a dangerous madman,” said Malaric. “They would have killed him by now…but anyone who challenges him tends to die. Abruptly.”

“Quite true,” murmured Skalatan. “The blind foolish children. But they shall learn, in time.” The yellow eyes dug into Malaric. “Tell me of yourself, human. You are curiously well informed.”

“I am Malaric of Barellion,” said Malaric. And then, on impulse, he kept speaking. “Malaric Chalsain of Barellion, the eldest son of Prince Everard Chalsain, and the rightful heir to the throne of Barellion.”

Lucan’s lip twitched in amusement, but Malaric did not care. Why not claim his rightful name? He would take it once he returned to Barellion. And much more, besides. 

“Ah,” said Skalatan. “My spies reported that you traveled in the company of Lucan Mandragon before the Great Rising. Perhaps we shall be of use to each other.”

“As fascinating as I find San-keth theology and Malaric’s illustrious lineage,” said Lucan, “I assume you did not track me down for idle conversation.” 

“Indeed not,” said Skalatan. “I know the truth of you, Lucan Mandragon. I know why you conjured the Great Rising.” 

“Oh?” said Lucan. “Do you? Please, enlighten me.”

“You have spawned a dozen different legends,” said Skalatan. “The men of the Grim Marches and the High Plain say you did it to conquer the world. My brother archpriests fear that the high lords of Dracaryl have risen from the dead with an undead army. The Justiciar Order declares that the runedead are a scourge from the Amathavian gods to punish the unrighteous. The rebel Caraster of Mastaria claims that the runedead have risen at his command to cleanse the world of the wealthy and the corrupt.”

“And which of those do you believe?” said Lucan.

“None of them,” said Skalatan. “I know you cast the Great Rising to destroy the Demonsouled, Lucan Mandragon. Just as your distant ancestor Randur Maendrag did.”

Lucan stood silent for a moment. Malaric looked at the revenant and the serpent priest. Skalatan wanted something. But what? 

“Then you knew Randur?” said Lucan.

“For decades,” said Skalatan. The skeleton beneath the robe creaked. “I was already in my third century when he came to power. There was an…accord between my race and the high lords of Old Dracaryl. They understood power, and wished to learn our necromantic secrets. So we found each other profitable.” 

Lucan grunted. “Randur never mentioned that he studied under the San-keth.”

“You met him, then?” said Skalatan.

Lucan smiled. “Briefly. But to the point, honored archpriest. You know I intend to rid the world of the Demonsouled forever. Have you come to stop me?”

“Not at all,” said Skalatan. “I have come to offer you my aid.” 

Malaric blinked in surprise.

“Have you?” said Lucan. “Curious. The Demonsouled and the San-keth have often been allied.”

“To the ruin of the San-keth,” said Skalatan. “My brother archpriests and I disagree on this matter. They believe the San-keth can use the power of the Demonsouled for conquest, to destroy the races of man. They are fools. The Demonsouled are too powerful to be controlled. Time and time again I have seen this. Skhath sought to ally with the Old Demon, and we lost the temple beneath Castle Cravenlock. Straganis allied with Amalric Galbraith to take vengeance upon Mazael Cravenlock and his sister, and Amalric betrayed and slew him.” His eyes shifted to Malaric. “Only a fool seeks to wield the power of the Demonsouled.” 

Malaric scowled. 

“Plainly,” said Lucan. “So that is why you seek to aid me? To free your race from the Demonsouled?”

“Indeed,” said Skalatan. “With the Demonsouled destroyed, my people will be free to act without the dark lure of their power. In time this world will belong to the San-keth forever.”

“Unlikely,” said Lucan. “I will destroy the Demonsouled, but the San-keth will not conquer the earth. You are too few, and mortal men outnumber you a hundredfold. You will never exterminate them.”

Skalatan hissed laughter. “Why should I wish to exterminate them?” 

“Because,” said Malaric, puzzled, “that is the doctrine of the San-keth. The Amathavian and Elderborn gods stripped you of your limbs, and in vengeance, you will enslave and exterminate the race of man.”

“Such a narrow vision,” said Skalatan. “You sound like my brother archpriests.” 

“Enough,” said Lucan. “I should kill you…but I suspect you’ll have come prepared to face someone like me. So. You can aid me in the destruction of the Demonsouled. How?”

“By stopping those who will try to stop you,” said Skalatan. “Specifically, Mazael Cravenlock.” 

“Mazael Cravenlock,” said Lucan, “believes that I am dead.” 

“For how much longer?” said Skalatan. “If you came to Knightreach for the reasons that I believe, you will soon create a great deal of chaos. Mazael’s sister and his nephews live at Knightcastle. To save his sister, he destroyed our temple below Castle Cravenlock, and to save his nephew, he smashed an entire Malrag horde. What do you think he will do when your activities threaten his sister?” 

Lucan said nothing, standing as motionless as a statue, the Glamdaigyr burning in his hand. 

“By the time he realizes what is happening,” said Lucan at last, “it will be too late for him to take action.”

“You are certain?” said Skalatan. “Mazael Cravenlock is not simply another man. He is a son of the Old Demon. Perhaps the strongest Demonsouled left in this world, save for the Old Demon himself. You think to destroy the Demonsouled. Do you think Mazael will not know? He will feel it, even if he does not realize it. He will be drawn to you, and he will stop you." 

"Perhaps he will join me," said Lucan, lifting his chin, "once he understands my true goal."

"Or perhaps not," said Skalatan. "He did not aid your purpose last time. And if you intend what I believe you intend...you will need a great deal of stolen power. Slaughter on that scale will draw attention. Mazael's attention, most likely."  

"Very well," said Lucan. "Perhaps your logic is sound. How, then, shall you deal with Mazael?"

"By slaying him," said Skalatan.

Lucan laughed. "The Old Demon, the San-keth, the Malrags, the Dominiar Knights, the other children of the Old Demon, and a dragon have all tried to kill Mazael Cravenlock. Most of them are now dead, and Mazael is still alive. Trying to kill him will only make him angry." 

"Unless you kill him," said Skalatan, "with my aid. The poison of a San-keth archpriest is the deadliest venom in the world. And a dagger coated with it would be enough to kill even a child of the Old Demon."

"He's right," said Malaric. "The San-keth...provided the venom of an archpriest a few times, when they hired the Skulls to perform an assassination. It is remarkably lethal." 

"So it is," said Lucan. "And if you kill Mazael, then what?" 

Other books

Sandcastle Kisses: A Billionaire Love Story by Krista Lakes, Mel Finefrock
Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor
The Namesake by Fitzgerald, Conor
Chasing AllieCat by Rebecca Fjelland Davis
Beauty and the Beast by Deatri King-Bey
Port of Errors by Steve V Cypert
Hystopia: A Novel by David Means
The 22 Letters by King, Clive; Kennedy, Richard;