Authors: Ari Marmell
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Humor
For George, Gary, Jason the Larger, and Naomi:
the original Demons Squad.
And with special thanks to Richard,
without whom Morthûl would not have been
the Charnel King we all know, and … Well, know.
he flickering torches, sickly embers staggering atop loose bundles of rotting wood, no longer even pretended to hold the darkness at bay. Their illumination succeeded only in convincing the mind that countless unseen horrors lurked within the underground, artificial night.
Not that this was much of an illusion; countless unseen horrors
lurking in the dark. But here, deep in the rock beneath the Iron Keep, horrors were nothing new.
The flagstones gleamed dully beneath the glowing brands thanks to a perennial coating of luminescent slime, a revolting substance that even the greatest magics of the keep’s master had failed to exterminate. The slow, steady slap of approaching footsteps was heralded by the nauseating sounds of that slime squelching beneath heavy boots.
He was known to the men and monsters under his command only as Falchion. Ice-blue and empty eyes peered through the narrow slits in a bucket-helm shaped of dingy steel. It tilted to one side, that helm—a gesture of revulsion, perhaps?—at the sight of an enormous brown rat, dripping with slime and less-pleasant substances, that clung to the bricks beside him. A glove of mail lashed out, and the low reverberation of iron on stone echoed throughout the chamber, almost masking the truncated squeal. The tiny corpse dropped to the floor, already forgotten, as its executioner continued calmly into the adjoining chamber.
“Careless, Falchion. Clumsy and careless.” Nasal and whining, it was a voice capable of conveying little more than arrogance and scorn. “Are you really so dense that you still haven’t learned how fragile this sort of incantation can be? The death of that rat might well have disrupted the entire—”
“Shove it, Havarren.” Falchion assumed an easy stance in the far corner, crossing his arms with a faint grating sound. Those cold blue orbs flickered downward, glancing briefly at the rust-red mail that covered him from shoulders to hips. A single eyebrow rose marginally, as though he’d only now discovered that he wore the hauberk at all.
“‘Shove it’? Really? How…common.” The second speaker leaned forward, finally exposing his own face to the faint torchlight.
Falchion snarled behind his faceplate—a reflex that had become ingrained, triggered by nothing more than the man’s proximity. Where Falchion was thick, corded, and well muscled, the other fellow was lanky to the point of emaciation. Thick blond hair cascaded to a near-perfect point just below jutting shoulder blades. His attire was vain, even foppish: bright ruffles and knee-high cavalier boots—tanned from the hide of something with more intelligence and fewer legs than anything so mundane as a cow—were complemented by an immaculately pressed violet coat and pants that were, to Falchion’s perpetual dismay, worn tightly enough to accentuate, rather than conceal, what lay beneath them. And unlike the general himself, who wore at his side the heavy blade from which he’d taken his name, the other was armed only with a flimsy dagger, poor protection from anything more menacing than an agitated rabbit.
But then, Vigo Havarren possessed methods of protecting himself that had little to do with sharpened steel.
A caustic retort clung to the tip of Falchion’s tongue, begging for release. Yet he clamped his mouth firmly shut as the chamber’s final occupant approached the center of the room. He watched both men through pinpricks of unholy yellow radiance that sat where most human beings kept their eyes.
“General Falchion. Lord Havarren.” The voice revealed just the faintest trace of an accent; whether this was natural or simply the result of a decayed vocal apparatus, Falchion never knew. “Gentlemen, the death of a rat is hardly going to interfere with one of
incantations. The death of two
entities, however, might well serve to
the spell. Shall I find out? Or can I count on your silence?”
Havarren blanched. “Silence can be arranged.”
Falchion just nodded.
“Good.” The master of the Iron Keep stepped—
, it seemed—to the large stone platform along the chamber’s northernmost wall. The fur-lined hem of a cloak that had been a beautiful midnight blue when it was new—about four centuries past, give or take a decade—whispered across the flagstones. Somehow, it remained unmarred by the grasping slime.
A huge iron cauldron sat beneath a granite altar, a noxious blend of fluids bubbling within, heated without the aid of any visible flame. Virgin’s blood, dragon’s tears, spider’s breath, essence of ghost, the heart of a newborn, and other reagents so rare that centuries of searching had been required for their acquisition—all splashed and burbled and flowed through the cauldron, agitated and stirred by the agonized thrashing of the live animals occasionally tossed into the pot by the lanky sorcerer.
“Havarren?” the master of the keep glanced up from the table, where he had been carefully arranging an additional assortment of rare and eldritch objects, enchanted tools, ancient amulets. “Time?”
The gaunt wizard briefly furrowed his brow in concentration. “Almost, my lord. You may begin…now.”
The first of the priceless arcane objects was hurled into the cauldron. Instantly the vile substance began to glow, filling the underground chamber with the light of the noonday sun. Falchion flinched slightly—not at the sudden influx of illumination, but at the close-up view of his own dark master: Morthûl, the Charnel King of Kirol Syrreth.
Garments once of royal quality, now worn and tattered beyond hope of repair, shrouded a body unimaginable by any rational mind. Mummified flesh creaked like hardened leather with every move the Dark Lord made. The left side of his face was covered in that not-skin, frozen in a perpetual rictus; the right was nothing more than naked bone. That hideous, sickly yellow glow was most conspicuous in the eyes—but it leaked as well from the nasal cavity and between King Morthûl’s teeth. Worms and maggots, beetles and roaches and less savory creatures all crawled about and among the Charnel King’s clothes and patches of long-dead flesh, wandering between exposed bone and protruding ribs, every so often dropping from the empty sockets in a twisted parody of tears. A full head of raven tresses completed the horrific image, trailing from beneath a tarnished silver crown.
Falchion, general of the Charnel King’s armies, shuddered again, a rare moment of self-reflection stealing over him in this most pivotal moment of a plan that had taken the Dark Lord centuries to implement. This, this was the man—the
—to which he had sworn his loyalty and his life. It was enough to turn even the strongest stomach, to send even the most corrupt soul scampering into the corner to wail in terrified self-pity.
But Falchion was, above all else, a practical man. And if one man, however revolting, however many centuries dead, was about to conquer the known world—well, Falchion wanted to be on his good side, no matter what it took.
Morthûl’s rotted form abruptly stiffened, as though rigor mortis had finally caught up with him. Then, with an explosion of voice somewhere between a sonorous chant and a low-pitched howl, the Dark Lord raised his arms, both fists—one skeletal, one wrapped in brittle skin—clenched tight. Unspeakable energies crackled around him, and a blinding wave of bile-green luminescence flowed from the cauldron into the Charnel King himself and thence upward, where it vanished through the room’s cold ceiling. From there it would erupt to the surface and flow in writhing tendrils across the continent, seeking its targets.
Falchion saw Havarren bow his head and knew he was sending a mental signal of his own, an aspect of the ritual Morthûl was too busy to perform. Immediately, agents of Kirol Syrreth, lying in wait throughout the Allied Kingdoms to the east and south, moved out into the streets to do violence. Humans and goblins waylaid all who walked the roads so late, in a dozen cities across the land. In mere minutes a thousand lives, young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, were cut abruptly short. And for every life snuffed out in these darkest of hours, the Charnel King’s spell was strengthened, his power grew.
It had taken Morthûl over two hundred years of laborious research, of perusing tomes so old they predated even his own birth, to master the magics he now manipulated. Three hundred more were spent in methodical search for the necessary components. Agents of the Dark Lord had combed the world from pole to pole, questing for items so rare that even the greatest wizards of the day scoffed at the notion of their very existence. And finally, tonight, it all came together in a few short moments of the most fearsome sorceries the world had seen in generations.
Across the continent, kings and queens and princes, emperors and dukes and popes—all who ruled, or might one day rule—collapsed in agony so exquisite that the gods themselves must have writhed in sympathy. The Charnel King’s spell swept them up in its wake and slowly, utilizing their own bodies as a gateway, traced its way through the flow of time itself, performing subtle alterations not upon the current royals, but on their ancestors.
Still chanting, his fingers flitting as though mending a rent in an expensive fabric, Morthûl began rewriting the events of lives long passed. Slowly, over the span of generations, he instilled in each successive ruler a growing loyalty, an intense fealty to the lord of Kirol Syrreth. It took time: Seemingly endless minutes were required for the manipulation of each separate generation. But when the ritual finally reached its conclusion, just before the dawn, he would have conquered the world entire, without a single voice raised in protest, a single sword in rebellion. Once he had worked his way forward through the ages to those rulers living today, their fealty, their loyalty, their
would be absolute, instilled by tradition that stretched back a thousand years.
The last of the dispatched souls dissolved into the power emanating from the iron cauldron; the last of the ancient relics sank in its depths, melting into the obscene mixture that threatened now to boil over the sides and onto the floor. The critical juncture was upon them. Moments more, and the damage would be too extensive to ever be undone, the point of no return forever passed.
Falchion, Havarren, and yes, even the Charnel King jumped at the thunderous crash of a steel door slamming into a rock wall—a sound swiftly overwhelmed by the clatter of feet dashing through the corridor. The half of Morthûl’s visage that was capable of expression twisted.
For the first time, Falchion saw fear on the Dark Lord’s face.
“Stop them!” Even that single hissed command was a strain on his body and mind, both of which channeled more sheer magic in that instant than any wizard in history.
A metallic rasp pierced the room, and Falchion stepped toward the corridor, blade in hand. He nodded briefly as Havarren appeared beside him, animosity temporarily forgotten.
But the determination Falchion saw etched across the wizard’s features fell away as the first of the approaching figures strode determinedly into view.
“You! You’re dead!” The arrogance in Havarren’s tone was gone, drowned by an amazed and growing terror. “How…?”
The regal figure actually smiled at Havarren’s bewilderment. “My dear Vigo, surely you didn’t expect
to be inconvenienced by
little dragon, did you?”
His name was Ananias duMark: one of the greatest sorcerers of this generation, beloved hero of the Allied Kingdoms, and perpetual thorn in Morthûl’s side. He was also, Havarren knew, a half-breed, though little in his build or features, his rugged chin or earthy-brown hair, hinted at his elven heritage. He wore a simple robe of mahogany hue and carried a staff of that selfsame wood, intricately carved with a thousand runes.
A curse on his lips, the gaunt servant of the Dark Lord began a convoluted dance with his fingers, weaving the magics that would finally obliterate this cretin from the face of reality itself.
He never finished. A piercing shriek, deafening in the echoing chamber, sounded from the hall, and the first of the half-elf’s allies leapt bodily
the new arrival and slammed into Havarren’s chest, taking them both to the slimy floor.
A lock of fire-red hair fell across Havarren’s face, and the musk of animals flooded his nostrils. This, then, would be Lidia Lirimas, scout and beast-tamer. Even as he tossed her from him with a surprising burst of strength, he couldn’t help but scoff at his half-elven foe. Would the pattern never change? Each time it was the same damn thing: Every few years, duMark would wander the lands, assembling a brand-new band of “heroes” from the most worthy of that generation. It was such a cliché that Havarren felt the urge to laugh aloud.
Until, that is, his attempt to rise from the clinging slime was cut unexpectedly short. Lirimas, a second cry escaping her throat, spun on the ball of her left foot and brought her right heel across his face. Bone snapped with a brutal sound, and the mage once more collapsed.