“Soul of Skulls” excerpt

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CHAPTER 1 – A Village of the Dead

On the morning of his thirty-eighth birthday, Mazael Cravenlock watched the undead swarm over the rocky hill.

Gaunt figures, their faces sallow and their eyes empty, wandered over the slopes. Most wore peasant clothing, their garments ragged and decaying. Upon their foreheads blazed a sigil of emerald fire, the same ghostly light glimmering in their eyes. The creatures were called runedead, and they were stronger than lesser undead.

Mazael flexed the fingers of his sword hand.

He knew just how strong they were.

A ruined village stood atop the stony hill. Once Morsen Village had been the fief of Sir Gaith Kalborn, one of Mazael’s knights. Gaith had been a secret proselyte of the San-keth, a worshipper of the serpent god, and perished for his folly. Corvad’s Malrags had devastated the village, the survivors huddling in the ruins of their San-keth temple as Mazael rode in pursuit of Corvad.

He supposed any survivors had perished during the Great Rising, when generations of dead buried beneath the temple rose with runes of green fire burning upon their foreheads.

As so many villages had perished.

A column of darkness swirled next to Mazael, and his hand fell upon his sword hilt. The darkness vanished to reveal a lean woman of twenty or so, dressed in leather armor and a dark cloak. A slender sword rested in a scabbard at her belt, alongside a dagger fashioned from a tooth of the dragon Mazael had killed at Arylkrad. Her brown hair had been tied in a ponytail, and her gray eyes were the exact color and shape of Mazael’s.

The same color and shape of his father’s, come to think of it.

“Daughter,” said Mazael. “You enjoy startling me.”

“I didn’t startle you,” said Molly Cravenlock. “If I had, you’d have put Lion through my heart.” She squinted at the ruined village. “You know, I thought this place was a miserable sty when I first came here. It hasn’t improved.”

When she had first come here, she had sworn to kill Mazael. Subsequent events had changed his daughter’s mind. Mostly.

“How many?” said Mazael.

“At least three hundred,” said Molly. “I think after we had our…disagreement, the villagers dumped the corpses in the temple.”

“So when Lucan cast the Great Rising,” said Mazael, “the corpses rose and killed everyone in the village.”

“Who then rose as runedead in their turn,” said Molly.

Mazael remembered the pillar of green fire erupting from Swordgrim, remembered the uncounted legions of undead rising with green fire upon their brows. He had stopped Lucan Mandragon, had ended the Great Rising.

But if Mazael had not saved Lucan, if Mazael had not taken the Glamdaigyr back to Castle Cravenlock, then the Great Rising would never have happened.

And so many who had perished would now live.

The rage that always smoldered beneath his thoughts burned hotter.

“Something’s controlling the runedead,” said Molly, shaking Mazael out of his dark thoughts.

“It looks like they’re wandering,” said Mazael.

“No,” said Molly. “Well, the outer ones are. The ones atop the hill are standing guard. Something’s controlling them.”

“An awakened runedead?” said Mazael.

“Probably,” said Molly. “Gods know we’ve seen enough of them.”

The runedead, Riothamus had told Mazael, were only shells animated by necromantic force. The souls of the dead had gone to whatever fate awaited them. Yet the runedead retained shards of the memories and skills they had possessed in life. And sometimes their undead minds awakened, gained a malevolent and insane form of will. It happened quite often with runedead wizards.

And Mazael wondered how many San-keth high priests had been buried beneath the village.

“Then Earnachar was right,” said Mazael. “The runedead of the hill country are moving in organized raids.”

“Gods,” muttered Molly. “The damned gasbag will never shut up about it.”

Mazael grunted. “He is one of the chief headmen among the Tervingi.”

“That doesn’t make him any less of a gasbag.”

Mazael walked along the valley to where his men awaited, Molly trailing after him. He had brought four hundred men. One hundred were his sworn knights, and another hundred were mounted armsmen in his service. Another hundred were archers, peasant militia from the villages near Castle Cravenlock.

And the final hundred men were Tervingi swordthains, grim men with yellow hair and beards, clad in ragged shirts of mail. From time to time the swordthains and the knights glared at each other. They had fought together for months, ever since Lucan had unleashed the runedead upon the world. Before that they had been mortal enemies, had faced each other at the great battles of Stone Tower and Swordgrim.

Old suspicions died hard.

Three men and a woman approached as Mazael drew nearer.

“Well, hrould?” said one of the men, a middle-aged Tervingi swordthain with a hard face and ragged yellow beard. “How many do we have to kill again?”

“About three hundred, Arnulf,” said Mazael. “Something’s controlling them. Probably a runedead San-keth cleric.”

Arnulf son of Kaerwulf, a headman of the Tervingi, nodded. “Best get on with it, then.”

“Did I not say that it was so?” said a second man, also Tervingi. While Arnulf was tall and rangy, the second man was short and squat. Despite his size, he bore not a trace of fat. “Did not I, Earnachar son of Balnachar, warn you of the organized runedead? Just as in the days of old, when the scouts sent word to mighty Tervingar of the Dark Elderborn host, and…”

Mazael saw Molly mouthing the words to Earnachar’s oft-repeated speech and stifled a laugh.

“You are correct, Earnachar,” said Mazael. “The runedead of the hills are indeed organized, and something is controlling them.”

Earnachar scowled. “And what shall you do about it, hmm? You are our hrould, despite not being of Tervingi birth. Shall you let your folk perish beneath the cold hands of the runedead? Ragnachar would not have let this…”

“Lord Mazael,” said the third man, Tervingi like the others, “has come at your call, Earnachar.” He was still under thirty, lean and strong with thick black hair and bright blue eyes. He wore leather and chain mail, and in his right hand he carried a staff of bronze-colored wood. From time to time the symbols carved into the staff flickered with golden light.

“So he has, Guardian,” said Earnachar, “but this…”

“Lord Mazael has come to defend your folk,” said Riothamus son of Rigotharic, shifting his grip on the Guardian’s staff. “But a hrould has the right to call upon his loyal headmen for aid.”

“And you are right, Earnachar,” said Mazael, voice quiet. “Ragnachar would not have let things come to this pass. Ragnachar would have led the Tervingi to their destruction, and your children would have risen as runedead. None would be left to sing the songs of mighty Tervingar.”

Earnachar scowled again, but gave a sharp nod. He had been a loyal follower of Ragnachar, though he had never worshipped the Old Demon. And he was afraid of Mazael.

He had seen what Mazael had done to Ragnachar.

“Is there any sign of the runedead San-keth?” said the woman. She was only a few inches shorter than Mazael, her long black hair pulled into a braid to reveal the delicate points of her ears. Romaria Greenshield Cravenlock was the daughter of a human man and an Elderborn woman, and her Elderborn heritage gave her uncanny senses, superhuman skill with a bow…and certain other advantages.

Mazael met his wife’s blue eyes. She was one of the very few people who could meet his gaze without flinching.

“No,” he said. “And if a runedead San-keth is controlling these runedead, it won’t show itself. The San-keth lurk in the shadows and send others to do their killing for them.”

Arnulf grunted. “A man should do his own killing.”

“True,” said Molly. “But they’re serpents, not men.”

“And there is no one to kill here,” said Mazael. “Only undead to destroy.”

“Yes, hrould,” said Earnachar, “And how shall you destroy them? My folk have settled in these hills, and we must have pasture for our flocks! Or shall you leave us all to starve?”

Earnachar feared Mazael, but that never seemed to shut him up.

“We will deal with these runedead as before,” said Mazael. “The swordthains and armsmen will form a shield wall, between these two hills.” He pointed. “The knights will wait atop the hill, ready to strike.”

“And the archers?” said Romaria, checking her bowstring. She carried an elegant composite bow, a gift from the Elderborn bowyers of Deepforest Keep. Mazael had seen her use that bow to put a shaft through a man’s eye at fifty yards.

“Behind the shield wall,” said Mazael.

“What will that avail us?” said Earnachar. “Arrows will not harm the runedead devils. Even with wizard’s oil and…ah, your own particular sword, hrould.”

“No,” said Mazael, “but once the arrows are set aflame, they will annoy and hinder the runedead. Which will make it easier for the shield wall to hold. And then when the runedead are committed, the knights will strike…and Riothamus will show them what he can do.”

He looked at Riothamus, and the Guardian of the Tervingi nodded. Riothamus’s powers had been formidable even before he had taken up the Guardian’s staff. Now Mazael suspected that the young man was one of the most powerful wizards in the world.

Certainly Riothamus had held his own against Lucan.

“And what task, noble father,” said Molly, “do you have for me?”

“You’ll do what you do best, beloved daughter,” said Mazael. “You’ll annoy them.”

Arnulf grunted. “The Lady of Shadows is formidable in battle.”

Earnachar frowned. “Black witchery, that’s what it is.”

Molly smirked at him. “Come over here and say that, mighty headman.”

Earnachar’s frown deepened. “Why? You’ll just flit through the shadows and gut me.”

Molly’s smirk vanished, her eyes narrowing. “You…”

“Enough,” said Mazael. “If you want to fight, destroy some runedead. Take your places, all of you.”

The men took formation, the archers lining up behind the thains and armsmen. The knights climbed the sides of the valley, preparing for their charge. Molly drew her sword and dragon’s tooth dagger, and Riothamus gazed at the ruined village, hands tight around the Guardian’s staff.

Mazael took a deep breath and drew his sword.

The sword’s crosspiece and pommel were golden, the pommel worked in the shape of a roaring lion’s head. The long steel blade flashed blue in the morning sun, and the weapon jolted in Mazael’s hand. He called the sword Lion, and the ancient blade had been forged long ago by the greatest wizards of the High Elderborn, imbued with mighty power to fight creatures of dark magic.

The sword trembled in his hand, and then the blade burst into raging azure flames.

“Well, father?” said Molly.

Mazael tapped the flat of Lion’s blade against Molly’s sword and dagger, and the fire leapt from his sword to her weapons. Molly rolled the blades through a quick flourish, her eyes wary. She knew the bite of that azure flame.

Given the demon-tainted blood that flowed through her veins.

Mazael walked through the lines, slapping Lion against the weapons of every man. Soon it seemed as if a field of blue flames crackled in the valley. Mazael glanced towards the runedead milling around the slopes of the hill, half-expecting that whatever mind controlled the undead would attack.

But the runedead made no response. Perhaps they would not attack until they felt threatened.

Mazael stopped next to Romaria and touched Lion to her quiver, spreading the sword’s fire to her arrowheads.

“You’re growing patient in your old age,” she said with a smile.

“Oh?” said Mazael.

“You didn’t cut Earnachar’s head off,” said Romaria, glancing at the headman. Earnachar stood before his swordthains, exhorting them to fight with valor, just as mighty Tervingar had once upon a time.

“I cannot say I was not tempted,” said Mazael. “I could have let Molly kill him.”

“Or,” said Romaria, “you could just ask him about mighty Tervingar. He’ll talk until he passes out.”

Mazael barked a laugh. For a moment he forgot the battle, forgot the runedead, even the Demonsouled rage simmering beneath his thoughts. If not for Romaria, that rage would have consumed him long ago. It would have twisted him into someone like Ragnachar, someone like Amalric Galbraith.

Or, worse, into someone like his father.

He squeezed Romaria’s hand, and walked to the front of the shield wall. Arnulf nodded at him, and Earnachar lifted his chin like a bulldog spoiling for a fight.

Mazael took a deep breath and strapped his shield to his left arm, Lion a torch of blue fire in his right hand. The runedead wandering the slope of Morsen Village’s hill still paid no attention.

Time to change that.

Eagerness filled him at the thought of battle. He wanted peace for his lands and his people, but his Demonsouled nature never stopped thirsting for blood. In times of peace he struggled to keep himself in check. Then the Tervingi and the Great Rising had come, and with them incessant war.

Not enough war to satisfy his Demonsouled nature…but enough, perhaps, to slake it for a time.

“Archers!” shouted Mazael. “Begin!”

 

###

 

Riothamus took a deep breath, his fingers tight against the Guardian’s staff.

His staff, now.

He had been the Guardian ever since Aegidia had given him the staff, moments before she perished from Ragnachar’s treachery. The Tervingi nation respected him and feared him, and heeded his counsel.

He felt like an imposter.

Aegidia had been the Guardian for decades. Riothamus had borne the staff for less than a year. Aegidia would have known how to reconcile the folk of the Grim Marches and the Tervingi. She would have known how to deal with the runedead.

But Aegidia was dead, and Riothamus had no choice but to carry on in her stead.

His eyes strayed to where Molly stood next to her father, sword and dagger ready. She looked sleek and deadly in her dark leather and cloak, the image of an assassin of the Skulls. Deadly and lovely.

And his betrothed.

Riothamus loved her as he had never loved anyone. He might not know how to fulfill the duties of the Guardian’s office…but he vowed that he would see Molly safely through the battle.

Though, he mused, she might not need his protection.

Mazael’s voice boomed over the battlefield, Romaria shouted a command, and the archers drew their bows and released. A storm of blue flames lanced overhead and slammed into the wandering runedead. Most of the arrows missed, but those that struck tore deep into undead flesh.

The hill flashed with green light as hundreds of runedead turned to face them, the sigils upon their foreheads blazing.

“Again!” shouted Romaria. The archers loosed another volley, and the undead creatures broke into a charge. More and more runedead boiled from the empty village, a tide of dead flesh surging down the hill. They would not be as dangerous as some of the runedead Riothamus had faced. A runedead retained the skills it had possessed in life, and Riothamus doubted these villagers had been potent warriors.

But they were stronger and faster than living men.

Riothamus lifted the Guardian’s staff, its sigils flaring with golden light. The Guardian used his power to preserve and defend, never to kill a living man or woman or child.

But the runedead had already died.

Power flooded into Riothamus, magic drawn from the bones of the earth beneath his boots, the wind moaning overhead, even the roots of the low bushes clinging to the rocky hills.

He struck the butt of the staff against the earth, and three blue-white lightning bolts screamed from the sky and tore into the runedead with deafening thunderclaps. The blasts reduced a score of the animated corpses to smoking shreds and threw dozens more to the ground.

But the rest kept charging, reaching with cold hands for the shield wall.

“Hold fast!” roared Mazael, and the mob of corpses slammed into the waiting men.

Molly disappeared in a flicker of darkness.

 

###

 

The darkness vanished, and Molly Cravenlock reappeared on the flank of the charging runedead. The burning blades of the men in the shield wall rose and fell, destroying the creatures, but more pressed the attack.

Molly felt herself grinning. The rage of her Demonsouled blood burned inside her, making her faster and stronger, giving her the power to walk instantly through the shadows. She had grown weary of killing…but she could embrace a fight against Lucan Mandragon’s pet monsters without hesitation.

She darted forward, her Demonsouled blood lending her strength and power. Her sword and dagger flashed, and two runedead toppled, blue fire quenching the green light in their eyes. She took down another and danced to the side, and some of the runedead turned to face her.

Swords darted from the shield wall, cutting down the undead, and Molly jumped into the shadows.

She reappeared on the far end of the shield wall, where Earnachar and his swordthains struggled. For all his windy speech, Earnachar was no coward. He stood in the shield wall with his men, bellowing exhortations as he laid about with a spiked steel mace. A runedead reached for him, and Earnachar struck with such force that the creature’s head exploded.

The headless corpse slumped to the ground.

Molly joined the fray, her blades a blur of blue fire. She dispatched one, two, three of them in as many heartbeats. More undead turned to face her, and Molly danced around their attacks. The creatures were fast and strong, and possessed the skills they had used in life…but they had been farmers and shepherds, not warriors. Had they been alive, Molly could have killed them with ease.

Their animated corpses did not fare much better.

A score of runedead attacked her, and Earnachar’s swordthains seized the moment and pushed forward. A shout rang out, and the waiting knights charged down the hillside, plunging into the mass of runedead. The sheer weight of the attack drove the undead back, forcing them towards the ruined village.

Then green light flared through the runedead, and dozens of them transmuted into wraiths of mist and ghostly green light. They strode through the shield wall, through the bodies of the men, and into the mass of archers.

 

###

 

Riothamus had seen the runedead do this before. They could turn themselves into wraiths, to stride unhindered through walls and doors. Then they would take physical form once more and rip apart their foes. While in wraith form, they could not be harmed, not even by Lion’s fire.

But Riothamus had access to weapons beyond mere steel.

The staff’s magic flooded through him, old as the mountains and just as strong. The last wizards of the High Elderborn had imbued their powers into the Guardian’s staff, to stand forever vigilant against the Demonsouled and the powers of dark magic, and the staff had been passed down from bearer to bearer over the millennia.

And now Riothamus was the custodian of that power.

He leveled the staff and cast a spell.

Blasts of golden flame erupted from the staff and stabbed into the immaterial runedead. The bolts of flame reduced them to piles of smoking ash. A few of the runedead shifted into material form to avoid the golden fire, only to have the surrounding militia archers attack with their short swords.

In a matter of moments the attack collapsed, the shield wall and the knights pushing back the runedead.

“Advance!” Mazael’s voice roared over the melee, and he led the charge, striking right and left with Lion. His armor of golden dragon scales glittered in the sun, and with Lion in hand he looked invincible.

 

###

 

The battle was over a few moments later.

Mazael wiped sweat from his forehead. Hundreds of runedead lay carpeted upon the ground, their flesh and bone crumbling into black dust. No matter how long they had been dead, the runedead usually crumbled into dust after the spells binding them had been destroyed. A few runedead retreated towards the ruined village, but not many.

Mazael had lost seven men in the fighting, and a score more wounded.

The cost had been much lighter than he expected.

“We should pursue them, hrould!” said Earnachar, face flushed with excitement and battle-rage. “Cut them down as they flee, just as mighty Tervingar pursued the sons of Greuthungar after…”

“No,” said Mazael.

Earnachar blinked in surprise. “What? Why not?”

“They’re withdrawing in an organized fashion,” said Mazael. “Which means that mind in the village is controlling them. Pursue the runedead, and we’ll run right into a trap.”

Earnachar grunted. “Then perhaps our work is done. If the undead priest in the ruins has no further runedead to command, it is no threat. Let it lurk in its lair and lord over dust and bone.”

Arnulf barked a laugh. “Turning from a fight, Earnachar? I’d never thought I’d see the day.”

Earnachar scowled and raised his mace an inch or so. “Earnachar son of Balnachar does not run from battle! But there is a difference between honorable battle and chasing a poisonous serpent into its hole.”

“Exactly,” said Mazael, “but if our guess is right, this poisonous serpent is an undead San-keth cleric. It won’t stay in its hole. Sooner or later more runedead will pass Morsen, and it will take control of them. Or it will decide to attack your villages directly. No, best to deal with it now.” He raised his voice. “I will defeat with the undead priest myself. Guardian, Lady Molly, come with me.”

“We shall accompany you, hrould,” said Earnachar, and Arnulf nodded in agreement.

“No,” said Mazael. “I have Lion’s fire, and the Guardian has his magic. Together we can protect ourselves. The priest probably lurks underground, and if it unleashes its spells while the men are packed together, it would be a slaughter.” Besides, Mazael’s and Molly’s Demonsouled blood would heal any wounds or injuries. The other men were not so lucky. “Lady Romaria will remain in command here.”

“No,” said Romaria, voice calm. “It will be dark underground, and my senses are sharper than yours. You will need my aid.”

Mazael gritted his teeth. He could command her to remain behind, but he knew she would follow him up the hill anyway. And he could use her help. But he remembered that dark day she had followed him into the San-keth temple below Castle Cravenlock, the day the Old Demon had killed her.

He did not want to lose her again.

“Very well,” said Mazael. “Earnachar, Arnulf. You’re in command until I return. For the love of the gods, don’t kill each other.”

Earnachar scowled. “It will take more than the likes Arnulf to slay Earnachar son of Balnachar!”

Arnulf only snorted.

Mazael turned and strode up the hill, the others following.

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