Read Soul of Skulls (Book 6) Online

Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Soul of Skulls (Book 6) (7 page)

He did not have to look long. An Aegonar sprinted at him, axe raised. Hugh lowered his shield and caught the stroke aimed at his leg. His shield shuddered with the impact, splinters flying from the wood. Hugh brought his sword crashing down upon the Aegonar's helmet. The blow sent the helm tumbling away, and Hugh saw his enemy's face, the glaring blue eyes, the tangled red hair and beard...

And the stylized, S-shaped brands of a serpent on either cheek, visible through the beard, identical to the black serpents upon the crimson sails of the longships.

Hugh drove his sword through the Aegonar's neck. The warrior toppled, and Hugh kicked him off the blade with an armored boot. He killed another Aegonar, and another, and the sheer press of the horsemen drove the enemy into the village square. 

The sight of the square surprised Hugh. He had expected the Aegonar to burn Kynoth and carry off its valuables as loot and its women and children as slaves. 

Instead, it looked as if the Aegonar had set up a tribunal. A row of dead villagers lay against the doors of Kynoth's small stone church. A tall crimson banner flew from a pole, adorned with the same stylized black serpent. 

Hugh had never heard of the Aegonar using a serpent as a sigil. 

Another score of Aegonar charged the horsemen, and a strange figure walked in their midst. Tall and gaunt, the man was clad only in boots, ragged trousers, and a leather vest that left his arms and shoulders bare. A bronze diadem in the shape of a serpent encircled his shaved head, and a half-dozen bronze rings adorned each of his arms, the metal piercing his flesh. 

The Aegonar lifted his hands, fingers hooked into claws...and purplish light flared and danced atop his palm. 

"Maurus!" roared Hugh. An Aegonar warrior lunged at him, and he parried the blow with his shield and spun his horse around. His mount's iron-show hooves struck the warrior's legs, and the Aegonar stumbled. Hugh slashed with his sword, denting the warrior's helm and sending him to the ground. "Maurus! Wizard!"

The Aegonar wizard flung out his hands. Something like a serpent of violet light leapt from his fingers with the speed of an arrow. The glowing serpent plunged through the knight to Hugh's right, and the man screamed, his eyes rolling into his head, black foam bubbling at his lips as if he had been poisoned. 

The man fell dead from his saddle, and the purple serpent leapt from his back, killing another man, and another, before it faded into mist. 

"Maurus!" shouted Hugh, killing another Aegonar and spurring his horse forward. If Maurus could not deal with the wizard, then Hugh would have to do it. The Aegonar wizard spun to face Hugh, the sun glinting off his bronze rings. Hugh raised his sword as the wizard began another spell...

Then a dazzling blue spark slammed into the Aegonar's chest, knocking him backward. Hugh saw Maurus galloping towards the Aegonar wizard, hands gesturing in a spell. The Aegonar wizard turned to face Maurus, beginning a new spell.

Hugh galloped past him, sword blurring.

The wizard's head jumped from his shoulders in a crimson jet, the diadem clanging as it rolled across the ground. 

Hugh turned his horse to face the remaining Aegonar, and the battle soon ended. 

###

Kynoth's bailiff was an elderly man named Corman, and he shared the same sense of injured self-importance as his lord Alberon. 

"It is not surprising that those heathen devils should attack Kynoth," declared Corman, leaning hard upon his cane. "We are the most prominent of Lord Stormsea's estates. Why, the Prince of Barellion himself dines upon fish caught by Kynoth's fishermen."

"Indeed," said Hugh, who had never once seen his father eat fish. 

They stood in Kynoth's cramped manor house. Hugh doubted Lord Alberon had ever spent the night here, but the stone walls were thick and sturdy. Corman and some of the villagers had barricaded themselves inside when the Aegonar longships pulled into the harbor.

"I expect Lord Alberon will be enraged when he hears," said Corman. 

"No doubt," said Hugh. "But...you said the Aegonar were uninterested in slaves? Or in plunder?" 

"No," said Corman. "The leader made a...a speech to the men and women he captured. He said that he had come to spread the word of great Sepharivaim, and they would kneel before him or die."

"Sepharivaim?" said Maurus, voice sharp. "You are sure of this?"

"I'm old, not deaf," said Corman. 

Hugh scratched his jaw, thinking. He knew about the San-keth, though he had never encountered one. From time to time his father's men captured and executed San-keth proselytes, but Hugh could not fathom why any man would worship the serpent god. Did not the San-keth preach that they were the chosen race, and all others would be their slaves? 

"I suppose," said Hugh, "that there are stranger things in the world than a band of San-keth proselytes among the Aegonar." 

"But the Aegonar do not worship Sepharivaim," said Maurus, scowling. "They worship a peculiar variety of gods - a one-eyed old man with a staff, a warrior with one hand, a berserker with a hammer, and so forth. Not the serpent god. To my knowledge, they kill the San-keth whenever they encounter them."

"I can only tell you," said Corman, "what I heard with my own ears, master wizard." He gave Maurus a sidelong look. "No one converted to the worship of the serpent god. We of Kynoth are good godly folk."

"Indeed," said Hugh. The old man's indifference to the dead peasants annoyed him. "The Aegonar are slain, and I doubt they will return. Raiders prefer easier prey. Bury your dead and rebuild, and..."

Montigard ran into the room. "Sir Hugh!"

Hugh blinked. For the first time that he could recall, Sir Philip Montigard was not smiling. 

"What is it?" said Hugh.

"You need to see this. Now."

"Excuse me," said Hugh to Corman, and followed Montigard outside. 

"But, sir knight," said Corman, "I have messages to send to Lord Alberon and Prince Everard..."

Hugh shut the door behind him.

"If that was an excuse," said Hugh, "I thank you for it." 

"It's not," said Montigard. They walked to the edge of the village, overlooking the beach. "Look at the sea."

Hugh did...and felt his eyes grow wide. 

Red sails rose over the horizon. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them.

Thousands. Thousands and thousands of longships. 

"Gods," said Maurus. 

"All those ships," said Montigard. "They could hold an army."

Hugh looked at the abandoned longships in the inlet.

"They weren't raiders," he said. "They were advance scouts for an invasion." 

Chapter 7 - To Live Again

Night fell by the time Lucan reached the gates of Castle Town. 

Though darkness no longer hindered his vision in the slightest.

Castle Town sat on the banks of the Riversteel, a prosperous town of ten thousand people. At least it had used to enjoy prosperity. Once barges of goods had floated down the river, either bound for the harbor in Knightport, or moving inland to the lords and townsmen of the High Plain and the Stormvales. Now the town’s gates stood closed, militia patrolling the walls, crossbows and torches in hand.  

Beyond Castle Town rose a low range of mountains, and in their foothills sat Knightcastle itself. 

The castle was enormous, far larger than Castle Cravenlock, larger even than Swordgrim. The first Roland kings had settled here long ago, building a fortified citadel over the ruins of a High Elderborn stronghold. Every Roland king and lord since had expanded the castle, raising new towers and rearing new walls. 

Now Knightcastle was the size of a small city, a fantastic jumble of towers and courtyards and keeps. The castle boasted three concentric curtain walls, each higher than the other. Even at night, the Roland banner, a silver greathelm upon a field of blue, flew from the Old Keep, the highest and oldest tower of the castle. 

And within that castle, Lucan would find a Door of Souls, the path to Cythraul Urdvul…and the destruction of the Demonsouled. 

He kept walking. A maze of tents and ramshackle shelters squatted outside the gates of Castle Town. Refugees, Lucan supposed, driven from their homes by the runedead. He suspected both Castle Town and Knightcastle already overflowed with refugees, and any new arrivals had to survive outside the walls as best they could. 

Between the town and Knightcastle stood a fortified camp, ringed with a ditch and an earthen wall. Inside Lucan saw neat rows of tents, sentries guarding the camp, clad in chain mail and blue tabards adorned with an eight-pointed silver star. 

The sigil of the Justiciar Order.

Lucan stared at the camp. It made sense for Lord Malden Roland to rely upon the Justiciars. He had been closely allied with them, and when the Great Rising came, they would have possessed the strongest military force in Knightreach. And the Justiciars were sworn to cleanse the world of dark magic and worshippers of the San-keth. No doubt they blamed the rise of the runedead upon the gods, visited upon mankind in repayment for wickedness…

Lucan recalled what Skalatan had told him. Not many people would believe that one man had wrought the Great Rising. To most of the world, it would be an inexplicable disaster, a catastrophe without cause. People would seek a scapegoat for the horrors they had suffered. 

And Lucan needed a great deal of power to open the Door of Souls.

The Justiciars and Lord Malden would claim it for him.

He whispered an incantation, wrapping himself in a concealing spell. Then he walked through the tents of the dispossessed peasants, listening. Men stood in clumps, speaking in low voices. They discussed the news, and none of it was good. Bands of renegade runedead wandered the countryside, killing anyone they could catch. Most of the knights and lords had marched away to the south to deal with a huge runedead army led by a rebel named Caraster.

Lucan wondered how this Caraster had managed to take control of the runedead. 

One rumor caught his ear. Lord Malden was gravely ill, and expected to die within in the month. His son Tobias would then become Lord of Knightcastle. A few men wondered if Lord Tobias would gain victory where his father had failed, while most despaired of any hope at all.

Lucan nodded to himself. Lord Malden would make an excellent starting point. He turned to go…

And froze, his eyes wandering over the tents.

So many people, all of them scared and hungry. Most had lost loved ones to the runedead. A row of low mounds rose outside the camp. Fresh graves, dug for those who had died after reaching Castle Town.

Lucan had done this. 

He had wrought their suffering. He could blame it on the Demonsouled, true, or upon Mazael’s interference, but that was a feeble justification. The Great Rising was Lucan’s doing, and his doing alone. 

If not for him, none of this would have happened. Years ago, the Grand Master of the Justiciars had ordered Lucan’s assassination. Lucan had survived, if barely, but perhaps it would have been better if he died. Then the Great Rising would never have happened. 

All this suffering was his fault. 

So why didn’t he feel guilty about it?

Perhaps he had lost the ability to feel such emotions when he had lost his mortality. 

For a moment an image danced in his mind, a ruined black city, a dragon breathing crimson flame, and then vanished into nothingness. Lucan dismissed it as a stray dream of Randur’s. 

He would not turn back now. He would rid the world of the Demonsouled. The cost would be great, but if he succeeded, he would free the world from the blight of the Demonsouled forever. To relent now would mean these people had suffered for nothing.

That Tymaen had died for nothing.

Lucan would not allow that. 

He looked around at the refugees, fixing them in his mind. In their name, in the name of their suffering, he would succeed. 

Even if he had to kill them all to do it.

Lucan strode towards Knightcastle. 

###

Lord Malden Roland lay in his bed, dying. 

Every breath filled him with searing agony, his palsied limbs trembling. 

He struggled to rise, but he could not. The disease had gone too far, the tumors eating his flesh like rats. Sometimes he could not remember where he was, his mind wiped by the pain.

Again he struggled to stand, to move. He had to rise! His people needed him. His remaining two sons needed him. Before the illness had advanced so far, he had heard the reports. The dead rose in the night to kill the living, sigils of green fire upon their brows. And in a south, a madman commanded the runedead, promising a new order and to destroy everything Lord Malden had spent his life to build.

Knightcastle and the lords of Knightreach faced a foe more terrible than any they had ever known. 

His people needed him. His sons needed him.

He struggled to rise.

Malden sagged against the pillows, trembling, every breath setting an inferno within him. 

It was over.

He had lived sixty-four years, longer than his own father. He had repaid the Dominiars for the death of his son Mandor, their order crumbling when Mazael smashed them at Tumblestone. He had even outlived Richard Mandragon, the murderer of his son Belifane, and he had laughed when the Tervingi barbarians murdered him. Malden Roland had defeated his enemies, safeguarded his lands and people, taken more women into his bed than he could recall, and left a strong son to rule Knightcastle when he died.

It was a good life, more than many lords of Knightcastle could claim.

But it was not enough. 

Not with the runedead ravaging his lands and people. 

Again he fought to rise, knowing it would be futile.

But he struggled anyway. 

###

Lucan stopped outside Malden Roland’s bedroom door, adjusting his cloak and hood. 

Entering Knightcastle had been easy enough. Layers of mighty wards rested upon the castle’s walls, laid by generations of court wizards, and newly strengthened against the immaterial form of the runedead.

They had not been crafted to stop an undead creature of Lucan Mandragon’s power and skill. 

He slipped a steel mask over his face. The mask displayed a stern, unsmiling visage. It had no holes for the nose or mouth, but since Lucan didn’t need to breathe, that presented no problem. Given how much Malden Roland hated Richard Mandragon, Lucan knew that showing his true face would be unwise. Lucan could have cloaked himself in a spell of illusion, but one of Malden’s wizards might detect it.

Richard Mandragon had always said the simple disguises were the best. What would his father think of him now? Perhaps he would approve. Richard had always done what he thought necessary…and now Lucan did the same. 

Lucan opened the door and slipped into Malden’s bedchamber. 

It was opulent and vast, as befit the Lord of Knightcastle. The balcony doors had a splendid view of the castle, the town, and the Riversteel itself. A huge canopied bed stood against one wall.

Malden Roland lay upon the bed, dying. 

In the years since Lucan had last seen him, Malden had lost sixty pounds, and now resembled a skeleton draped in wrinkled skin. Every breath pained him, and Lucan saw the bulge of the tumors beneath the sweaty sheet covering the old man. 

Amazing that he had lasted this long.  

Malden’s blue eyes glared up at Lucan.

“Are you death, come to take me at last?” spat Malden.

“No,” said Lucan. “Would you like to be young again?” His voice sounded metallic, hollow, inhuman. 

Malden stared at him, wheezing.

“What?” said the old lord at last. “What sort of rubbish is this?” 

“You can be young again,” said Lucan. “This is within my power. I can take away your illness. I can make your arms and legs remember their strength. You will be able to walk again. To fight, to rule, to make love.” 

Malden managed a croaking laugh. “I am hallucinating now. Seeing fever dreams. A shadow in a steel mask who promises immortality. Perhaps I shall see a dancing purple elephant next.” 

“No,” said Lucan. “I am just as real as you, my lord. Just as real as your pain.”

He jabbed two fingers into one of the lumps beneath the sheet.

Malden went rigid, his eyes bulging, his back arching. After a moment he slumped against the bed, trembling. 

“Who are you?” said Malden, his voice a rattle. 

“Who am I?” said Lucan. He smiled behind his mask. “You may call me Ataranur.” Randur Maendrag had known the High Elderborn tongue, and the alien word rolled off Lucan’s lips with ease. “Once, I was a wizard of the High Elderborn. When the Demonsouled and the Malrags destroyed our citadel here, I entered the long sleep beneath the mountain. For we foresaw that one day a host of the dead would descend upon the race of man, and I would return to defend you.”

There had always been legends of High Elderborn kings and princes slumbering beneath Knightcastle, waiting until the hour of greatest need to rise up. Malden would have heard those stories all his life. The old lord’s pain-wracked face twisted with disbelief…but Lucan saw the faintest glimmer of doubt in his bloodshot eyes.

It would be enough. 

“Impossible,” said Malden. “The High Elderborn are myth, and nothing more.”

“A myth?” said Lucan. “Just as the runedead are nothing more than a myth, my lord?”

“Even if you are real,” said Malden, “you can do nothing. The physicians have examined me, the wizards have cast spells upon me, and the priests have prayed over me. I am an old man, and my time is spent.”

“No,” said Lucan. “Knightcastle needs you, my lord. Who will shepherd your people?”

“My sons,” whispered Malden, “my sons…”

“Are young men,” said Lucan, “and lack your wisdom. Knightreach needs you, my lord. You will defeat the runedead and make your people safe. Knightcastle shall stand foremost among the lords and princes. And perhaps a Roland will again reign as king over the entire realm.”

“A dream,” whispered Malden, “and nothing more.”

“It is to save your land and fulfill this dream,” said Lucan, “that I have awakened from my long sleep.” 

A hinge creaked, and the door swung open. A young woman in servant’s livery stepped into the room, a folded blanket in her arms. No doubt she had come to change Malden’s sheets. 

Her timing was perfect. 

Lucan gestured, summoning power, and blue light flared around his hand. Malden trembled once and fell asleep as the spell washed over him. It would not last for long, but Lucan only needed a moment.

The maid froze, eyes going wide with fear. “Who…”

Lucan gestured again, and the maid went silent, motionless as his will wrapped around her like an iron vice. He beckoned, and she floated towards him, eyes bulging with terror. 

“I regret,” said Lucan, “this necessity. But you may die in the knowledge that the loss of your life will be the first step to a better world.”

Her eyes grew wider, lips trembling as she tried to scream.

Lucan held out his right hand and called the Glamdaigyr. 

A flash of green flame, and the massive black sword appeared in his hand. The symbols of emerald flame upon the blade writhed, and the empty eyes of the dragon’s skull pommel glared at him. A haze of darkness swirled around the blade, and Lucan felt the weapon’s terrible hunger. The Glamdaigyr was the most powerful artifact ever forged by the high lords of Old Dracaryl, a weapon that could penetrate any spell, could drain the power of any wizard. And the sword drained the life force of its victims, transferring that stolen life and vitality to its bearer.

Lucan knelt besides the bed, the Glamdaigyr angled up, and wrapped Malden’s thin hand around the hilt.

Then he beckoned once more, and his will drove the maid onto the blade.

She sagged at the sword drank her life. One moment she looked like a healthy young woman of twenty-five. Then a matron of fifty. A crone of one hundred. Then nothing remained but gray dust and crumbling bones.

The stolen life energy surged down the Glamdaigyr and into Malden Roland.

###

Sunlight filled Lord Malden’s eyes. 

He sat up, annoyed. He had ordered the servant girls to leave the curtains drawn until the sun passed to the western side of the castle, lest the light gave him a headache. A stern rebuke ought to...

Malden blinked in surprise. 

He was sitting up. It had been weeks since he could last sit up unassisted. He took a deep breath, surprised...and was even more surprised at the lack of pain. He drew another breath, and another.

Still no pain. 

Malden looked at his hands, and his mouth fell open in shock. 

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