CHAPTER 1 – The Dead Walk
Mazael Cravenlock turned his head just as green lightning exploded from the sky and tore into the earth.
An instant later the wave of hot air from the blast slammed into him, tugging at his cloak and the mane of his horse, an ill-tempered destrier named Hauberk. The horse whinnied in alarm, even as another blast screamed out of the sky, ripping a nearby tree to burning shreds. Behind Mazael, both his men and Sir Gerald Roland’s men shouted in alarm. But there was no panic. The knights and armsmen dropped from their horses, while the archers strung their bows and seized quivers of arrows.
Every last man was a veteran of the war against the Malrags.
Every last one of them had seen men die at the hands of the Malrags.
As they, too, might die, if one of those lightning bolts landed with any accuracy.
“Circan!” shouted Mazael.
A tall, thin man in a long black coat hurried to Mazael’s side, his clothing a stark contrast against his pale face and blond hair. Even as he ran, Circan muttered a spell, his hands flying through arcane gestures. The wizard thrust his hand into the sky as another green lightning bolt screamed out of the cloudless sky. Blue light flashed around his hand, and the blast rebounded from Circan’s spell to rip a tree in half.
Circan swayed on his feet. “My lord, you must find the Malrag shaman quickly. I do not know how many more blasts my spells can deflect.”
Mazael gave a sharp nod. Even Lucan Mandragon, one of the most powerful wizards Mazael had ever known, had difficulty deflecting the lightning spells of the Malrag shamans.
Though Lucan was in no shape to do anything, just now.
“Do you know where they are?” said Mazael.
Circan gave a sharp nod, rolling a wire-wrapped quartz crystal around his gloved fingers. Mazael had seen that spell before, knew that it let a wizard sense the presence of foes from a distance.
“Aye, my lord…a mile, perhaps a mile and a half, to the north.” Circan’s face tightened in a frown. “At least two hundred of them. Approaching quickly.”
Mazael swore. He had one hundred and sixty men – one hundred and twenty of his and forty of Gerald’s that had survived the great battle at Deepforest Keep. But they were veterans, and knew how to fight Malrags. If Mazael kept his wits about him, they could overcome the Malrags.
Even as the thought passed Mazael’s mind, a man and a woman ran to his side. The man was tall and strong, with blue eyes and a blond mustache trimmed with razor precision. Sir Gerald Roland wore armor polished to a mirror sheen, even here in the heart of the Great Southern Forest, and carried a bared longsword in his right fist.
The woman was tall and lean, with long black hair and eyes the blue of mountain glaciers. She wore wool and leather armor, her jerkin studded with steel disks, and carried a composite bow in her right hand. The hilt of a bastard sword rose over her shoulder, and she moved with an easy, fluid grace. Mazael’s men were hard fighters, accustomed to war, yet even they gave deference to Romaria Greenshield.
After all, they had seen her become a great wolf and tear the throats from her enemies, had seen her wake an army of statues to smash the Malrags below the walls of Deepforest Keep.
“Why didn’t our scouts see them coming?” said Gerald.
“I don’t know,” said Romaria. “They just rode in five minutes past, and claimed to see nothing. Even a blind man couldn’t miss two hundred Malrags.” She lifted her face, nostrils flaring as she sniffed at the air.
“What is it?” said Mazael. He knew to trust Romaria’s instincts.
And her supernaturally keen senses.
“I didn’t smell them,” said Romaria. “Malrags smell of decay. Like a tumor filled with poison. I can smell them five miles off. I didn’t smell these Malrags until a few moments ago. As if they appeared out of nowhere.” For an instant her lips peeled back from her teeth, making her look almost wolfish. “And they don’t smell like Malrags.”
“What do they smell like?” said Mazael.
“Dust,” said Romaria. “Old bones.”
“They don’t…feel like Malrags,” said Circan, hand clenched around the quartz crystal. “I know what Malrags feel like by now. I can sense the Malrag shamans. What the others are…I’m not sure.”
Mazael shared a look with Gerald. He had known the younger man for years, ever since Gerald had been a squire. They had been in numerous battles together, some of them dire, and in war Mazael trusted Gerald’s judgment as much as his own.
“A shield wall,” said Gerald. “Facing the foe. The archers behind. As soon as we see the enemy, the archers release. Then we can decide whether or not to charge, or to hold the shield wall and wait for their attack. We can keep the wounded and the baggage behind the shield wall, along with the…others.”
Others like Gerald’s pregnant wife and infant son.
“Aye,” said Mazael, “do it.”
Gerald shouted orders, and the men hastened to obey. The knights and armsmen hurried forward, shields raised to form a solid wall of steel-banded oak. Behind them the archers formed up, arrows waiting at their bowstrings. After the archers waited the baggage animals and those too injured to fight. A woman sat in their midst, dark-haired and green-eyed, an infant of a few months cradled in her arms.
Rachel Roland looked frightened, but her face held no hint of panic or despair, only a steely determination. And why not? Mazael’s sister had chased the San-keth to the ends of the earth to get her son back, had found the courage to attack Malavost as the wizard prepared to murder the child. After facing such horrors, why should a few Malrags intimidate her?
She gave Mazael a grim nod and held Aldane tighter.
Behind Rachel stood a pair of pack horses, a cot stretched between them. A misshapen figure wrapped in heavy blankets rested in the cot, lying motionless. Mazael could have used Lucan Mandragon’s aid against the Malrags.
But Lucan was in no condition to help anyone.
Mazael walked before the shield wall, Romaria at his side. If he could have, he would have ordered her to remain with the archers. He had seen her struck down once before, and had no desire to repeat the experience. But he knew she would not listen.
Besides, she could take her of herself in battle. Better than most of his men.
“They’re coming,” hissed Circan, gazing at the trees to the north.
Mazael braced himself and drew his sword. Three and a half feet of steel blade glimmered in his fist. The sword’s crosspiece and hilt had been worked with gold, its pommel shaped into a golden lion’s head, jaws open in a roar. He called the sword Lion, and it had been forged in ancient times, imbued with potent magic to fight the powers of darkness, burning with azure flame when confronted with dark magic.
As it began to burn now.
Mazael saw the lines of blue light shining within the steel, saw the flicker of pale flame at the edge of the blade. Creatures of dark magic were coming.
To the north, the trees rustled, and Mazael heard the underbrush cracking and snapping. Romaria lifted her bow, and Mazael heard the creak as the archers drew.
“These wretched trees,” muttered Gerald, lifting his shield. “If we were on the plains, we could sweep aside the Malrags with one solid charge.”
“We’re not in the Grim Marches yet,” said Mazael. A halo of crackling blue flame snarled around Lion’s blade. “Brace yourselves!”
A moment later dark shapes leapt from the trees.
Mazael expected to see Malrags. Creatures with gray, leathery skin. Hands with six fingers and mouths filled with fangs. White, colorless eyes, and a third eye glowing in the foreheads of the shamans. Black armor, and axes and spears of black steel.
He did not expect to see a line of animated corpses burst from the trees, moving with inhuman speed, empty eyes shining with green flame. The creatures looked as if they had been dead for some time, crumbling flesh stretched tight over yellowing bones. Yet they moved with supernatural speed and power, some racing on all fours as their clawed fingers raked at the earth. Mazael had seen such creatures before. They were corpses, raised by the dark magic of a skilled necromancer.
Lion shuddered in his grasp, its azure flame burning brighter.
“Release!” bellowed one of the archers.
“No!” shouted Mazael, “no, lower your bows, take your…”
But it was too late. His men knew how to fight Malrags, but most of them had never seen a zuvembie before. A storm of arrows slammed into the charging mob of zuvembies. The impact knocked the front row down, sent them sprawling into the others. But the arrowheads did not harm the undead flesh.
Normal steel could not wound a thing raised by necromancy.
And then the mob of zuvembies crashed into the shield wall, claws raking against the iron and wood. The knights and armsmen struck back, yet their blades rebounded from the zuvembies as if they had struck steel. In an instant Mazael saw one man go down, and then another, the zuvembies clawing at throats and faces.
He sprang into motion.
Lion blurred in his fist, and Mazael struck the head from the nearest zuvembie. His sword sheared through the undead flesh with ease, and blue fire extinguished the green glow in the zuvembie’s empty sockets. The creature collapsed to the earth in a pile of yellowed bones and dusty flesh. Mazael wheeled, striking the arm from another zuvembie, Lion’s blade splitting the skull of another.
Then he spun, and slapped Lion against the flat of Gerald’s blade.
The blue flame spread to Gerald’s sword, wreathing it in a halo of ghostly light. Gerald had fought zuvembies before, and knew what to do. He hastened into the fray, smashing a zuvembie attacking a pair of knights, chips of yellow bone flying from his blade. Romaria cast aside her bow and drew her bastard sword with a steely hiss, and Mazael slapped Lion against her sword. Again Lion’s flames spread, and Romaria attacked, bastard sword gripped in both hands.
Mazael raced through the fray, slapping Lion against the swords and spears of his men. The ancient sword’s fire spread, and soon the battlefield shone with blue light. The zuvembies were quick and strong, but wore no armor, and the burning swords and spears cut them down with ease. Mazael smashed down another zuvembie, the stench of decayed bone and long-desiccated flesh filling his nostrils, and risked a quick glance around the battlefield. They were winning. He had lost a half-dozen men to the charge of the zuvembies, but they were winning.
But who had created the zuvembies? It took a necromancer, and a powerful one, to raise zuvembies from the corpses of the slain. A Malrag shaman? That would explain the green lighting. But he had never seen a Malrag shaman powerful enough to raise the zuvembies…
A bloodcurdling roar rang out, and Malrags raced from the trees, armored in black steel, black axes and spears in their hands.
“Shield wall!” roared Mazael, cutting down another zuvembie. “Reform the shield wall! Now! Now!”
These Malrags looked…different.
They stood perhaps a foot taller than most Malrags, their arms and chests heavy with muscle beneath their black armor. Strange crimson veins crawled over their arms and and faces, stark against their gray hides.
An arrow shot past Mazael’s shoulder, and then another, both burying themselves in the chests of the charging Malrags. He saw Romaria with her bow in hand, loosing arrow after arrow. More arrows whistled out, though the Malrags’ armor deflected most.
Then the shield wall came together again, and the Malrags attacked.
Mazael swung at a Malrag, and the creature pivoted, catching the blow on its axe, and shoved against him. He stumbled, scrambling for balance, and deflected a blow from the axe on his shield. Gods, but the thing was strong! The Malrag roared and swung again, its colorless eyes wide with rage, and Mazael twisted, avoiding the blow. Lion lashed out and bit into the creature’s leg, and the Malrag stumbled to one knee. Mazael brought Lion around in a backhand and beheaded the Malrag. Black blood spurted from the stump of the creature’s neck, while a strange crimson slime leaked from the bulging veins.
But Mazael had no time to contemplate it. Another Malrag came at him with a roar, spear thrusting. He blocked the spear thrust on his shield, Lion carving a wound in the creature’s thigh. The Malrag staggered, and then Romaria was behind it, her sword ripping open the side of its neck. Again black blood sprayed from the wound, along with that vile crimson slime.
The shield line bucked before the Malrag onslaught, but it held. These Malrags were stronger and faster than usual, but they were still Malrags, and Mazael’s men knew how to fight them. Mazael slew Malrag after Malrag. Gerald bashed one across the face with his shield, yellow fangs flying from the impact, and drove his gleaming longsword into the creature’s heart. Romaria moved through the creatures in a blur, movements almost dancelike, her grip shifting from one-handed to two-handed and back again as she killed.
And it was over. The remaining Malrags fled into the trees, scattering in all directions. The zuvembies lay in broken heaps of shattered bone and leathery flesh, the green light in their skulls extinguished. Mazael’s men started to break their formation, moving in pursuit of the scattering Malrags.
“Hold!” shouted Mazael. “Hold, damn you! There might be more of them!”
“There weren’t that many,” said Gerald, black blood dripping from his blade. Mazael saw him look through the lines to Rachel on her horse, heard him sigh in relief. “No more than two score, I think.”
“And no more than eighty zuvembies,” said Romaria.
“Did you ever see a Malrag shaman raise zuvembies?” said Mazael. She had fought against Malrags, years ago, before she had ever come to the Grim Marches. She knew more about them than anyone Mazael had met, save for Lucan Mandragon.
Who was in no condition to answer questions.
“No,” said Romaria. “And I never saw a Malrag shaman before Ultorin attacked the Grim Marches.”
Mazael nodded, hand tightening around Lion’s hilt. The blade’s flames dimmed as the surviving Malrags retreated. Someone was commanding the Malrags, that was plain. A skilled wizard could take control of a Malrag band. Or a powerful Demonsouled, with a soul tainted by demon magic, could command Malrags with ease.
Mazael himself could have commanded the Malrags, if he gave in to the dark power in his soul, let that seductive black strength consume him…
But if a Demonsouled commanded the Malrags…that meant a Demonsouled with the ability to raise zuvembies. A Demonsouled wizard, then, able to use the dark power of his soul to fuel his spells. That gave Mazael pause. His father was the Old Demon, the eldest of the Demonsouled, a creature of terrible cunning and a wizard of crushing magical might. Mazael had defeated him once, but he knew his father had not forgotten him.
Had the Old Demon come for him at last?
“Circan,” said Mazael. The young wizard nodded, pale hair damp with sweat. He had taken no part in the battle, saving his spells in case the Malrag shamans attacked again. Lucan would have had the strength to unleash his spells in the battle, even as he deflected the shamans’ lighting bolts.
Mazael missed Lucan, both his aid and his counsel.
“Aye, my lord?” said Circan.
“Any more of them out there?” said Mazael.
Circan rolled the wire-wrapped crystal through his fingers, eyelids fluttering. “There…yes. Perhaps a score of those deformed Malrags. And…” His eyes opened wide.
“What is it?” said Mazael.
“Four hundred of them,” said Circan. “Perhaps six miles away. Coming this way, quickly. My lord, they will be upon us within the hour.”
Mazael cursed. Mounted men could take on a larger number of Malrags. Yet here, among the tangled roots and uneven ground of the Great Southern Forest, riding horses into battle was suicide. Four hundred Malrags would overwhelm Mazael’s men, especially if the shamans unleashed their green lightning. Could Mazael break free, escape before the Malrags caught them? No, Malrags moved faster then men on foot.
“We’ll need to fortify,” said Gerald. “Find a strong place where the terrain works to our advantage, and fight the Malrags from a position of strength.”
“We need more time than we have to fortify,” said Mazael, his mind racing. “We’ll…”
“Mazael,” said Romaria. “There is a ruined castle near here, from the kingdom of Old Dracaryl. It’s been abandoned for years, but the walls still stand. We can fortify the gate, and hold out until we kill whatever balekhan or Demonsouled commands the Malrags.”
“Can we make it in time?” said Mazael.
“It’s three miles southeast,” said Romaria. “Overlooking the stream we forded this morning. If we hasten, we can get there before the Malrags.”
Mazael stared into the trees. They had encountered a few Malrag warbands since leaving Deepforest Keep, ragged groups of a few dozen, some still bearing wounds from Ultorin’s crushing defeat. Four hundred Malrags aided by zuvembies and shamans was a far more dangerous foe. Mazael needed an edge.
“Go,” said Mazael, ramming Lion into its scabbard and turning towards Hauberk.
They rode to the southeast, taking the wounded with them and leaving the dead behind.