Cover image copyright Dmitriy Cherevko | Dreamstime.com
Sir Oliver lay on the cold stone floor, slain by Marsile’s treachery.
Raelum never forgot that.
The wind bit deep.
Raelum shivered, pulled his black cloak tighter, and wished for a horse. He could have moved faster through these Divine-forsaken lands, and the beast’s body heat would have warmed him. The wind moaned past, rustling the barren forest, making the snow dance across dead leaves and brown grasses.
By the Divine, how he wished for a horse.
Raelum trudged on. His black cloak snapped in the wind, despite his best efforts to keep it closed. He must look like a desperate bandit, a ragged man in a black cloak and a chain mail shirt, a sheathed longsword swinging from his belt. Of course, if anyone saw the mark on his blade, they would know him for something more than a bandit.
And when they saw his eyes…
Raelum pushed the thought aside.
The road widened, and Raelum saw signs of recent passage. Could he have caught the trial of his quarry? A moment’s examination revealed the footprints of many men and oxen in the frozen dirt.
A village must lie ahead. Perhaps he could buy food, even spend the night under a roof. But if the villagers saw his eyes they would refuse him shelter. They might even try to kill him, if the mark on his sword did not overawe them.
And perhaps the villagers had seen the man Raelum wanted to kill.
Villagers or no villagers, Raelum had no wish to spend another night huddled by a fire, his sword resting against the cold mail across his chest. He wanted a decent night’s sleep, not another night spent on guard against the things that hunted the Outlands.
Another gust of wind wailed past, and Raelum’s hand twitched towards his sword. He hated the noise. It sounded like a screaming woman, forlorn and despairing. He had heard enough screaming women in his eighteen years, and wished to hear no more.
The wind stopped.
But the screaming continued.
Raelum whirled, drawing his sword, glimpsing the sigil of the rose-wrapped sword in the tang of the blade. He turned in a slow circle, eyes scanning the forests on either side of the road. He saw nothing but barren trees and snow. He heard nothing but the wind.
The scream rang out again.
Raelum hastened into the trees, trying to move quietly, cursing how the twigs snapped beneath his boots. Had he been in the city, he could have moved like a ghost, his feet making no sound. But this was not the city. He listened for another scream…
The stench hit his nostrils.
The air smelled like rancid meat. Raelum raised his sword. He knew what he faced.
The hilt of his sword grew warmer beneath his gloved fingers.
He heard another scream, followed by a sobbing plea. Then came a laugh, a gurgling titter that a human throat could not produce.
Raelum broke into a run, heedless of the noise. Another sob echoed out, and the horrible voice laughed again. Raelum darted around a tree, vaulted over a weathered boulder, and landed in a small, crowded clearing.
A young woman in worn clothes stood in the center of the clearing, blue eyes wide, cheeks flushed with cold and terror. From her halting limp, Raelum guessed that she had sprained her ankle.
A half-dozen hunched, misshapen figures stood around in her. The stench of rotting meat rose from their grinning, fang-choked mouths. Gray skin hung from their twisted bodies, revealing rotten flesh and crumbled bone. Eyes like dying coals stared at the young woman, watching her with hunger and lust.
The creatures were ghouls, corpses inhabited by minor demons of the astral world. They hunted the countryside, feasting on human flesh, and cunning ones could hide themselves in cities for decades, even centuries, devouring the unwary.
But Raelum had faced their like before. He lifted the sword that Sir Oliver had carried and strode into the clearing, the familiar anger churning in him. He dropped his pack, unbuckled his sword belt so his scabbard would not tangle his legs, and set himself.
“You will be mine, pretty thing,” rasped the largest ghoul. She flinched away. “We feast on you, yes, and then you shall rise as one of us! No more will we hunt alone.”
“You shall not!” said Raelum, pointing the sword at the ghoul. For a moment he saw Red Philip’s sneering face once more. “Wretched thing, you shall not!”
The ghouls whirled, and the girl gaped at him. The sword shuddered in Raelum’s hand, the sigil of the rose and sword on the blade beginning to glow.
“And who are you, little man?” snarled the biggest ghoul. Even from thirty feet away, the creature’s rank breath made Raelum’s skin crawl.
“I am Raelum, once of Khauldun,” said Raelum, “and by the Divine, I swear that you wretched beasts will never see another night!”
The ghoul gibbered with laughter. “This shell was Morick, in life.” Sometimes the demons inside the ghouls claimed the memories and identities of their dead hosts. “Now I am strong! We shall feast on your flesh!”
“Try,” spat Raelum, sword gripped in both hands.
The ghouls glanced at each other. The girl stared at him, shaking with fear.
The sun disappeared beneath the trees.
“Night is my time!” roared Morick, shaking his talons. “Now, little man, you shall die!”
Two of the ghouls stood guard over the girl, but Morick and the remaining three charged towards Raelum, darting over the snowy ground on all fours like wolves.
Raelum closed his eyes, his mind turning inward to the oaths he had taken, the vows he had made on Sir Oliver’s sword as the old knight lay dying. The Light of the Divine filled him, armoring him and strengthening his muscles.
His eyes snapped open.
The ghouls were almost on him.
Raelum moved, and his sword burst into blazing white flame.
The ghouls flinched back, talons raised to cover their eyes. Raelum did not hesitate, did not give them time to recover. Sir Oliver’s blazing sword ripped through a ghoul’s chest, rotting black blood splashing across the snow. The ghoul wailed and collapsed to the earth as the sword’s fires destroyed the demon within the dead flesh. Raelum spun, ducked under Morick’s slashing talons, and buried his blade in the neck of a second ghoul. The monster howled, its bones withering to charcoal.
“Aid me!” bellowed Morick, stepping back. The two ghouls guarding the girl hesitated. “Aide me, or I’ll rip your hearts from your chest!”
The two ghouls sprang away from the girl. Raelum stabbed, his sword striking the ghoul on Morick’s left. The beast tried to jerk free, almost wrenching the sword from Raelum’s hands. Morick shrieked, his talons racking across Raelum’s shoulder. Raelum’s mail absorbed the blow, but it jolted him nonetheless. He wrenched his sword free, sidestepped, and took off the wounded ghoul’s head. Black blood withered into ash, the ghoul’s carcass crumpling to the ground. Morick lunged, and Raelum dodged aside and thrust. His sword skidded across Morick’s ribs. The ghoul howled and lurched back, crouching besides its two surviving companions.
For a moment they stared at each other. Raelum’s sword blazed like a torch. Sluggish black blood oozed down Morick’s gray hide, outlining his ribs.
“I’ll kill you,” grated Morick, “I’ll rip out your heart and devour it.”
“No more,” said Raelum. “No more will you torment the weak.”
The three ghouls charged him.
Raelum thrust, and the first ghoul impaled itself on the blade. Raelum jerked the thrashing ghoul to the left, using it as a shield to block Morick’s blows. The impaled ghoul shuddered and went still. Raelum yanked his sword free and slashed in a quick circle, taking off the second ghoul’s hands. It screamed and fell to its knees. Raelum hacked off the ghoul’s head and faced Morick.
“Come, then,” said Raelum, beckoning. “Come and join the others.”
Morick bared his fangs and fled, bounding over the cold ground on all fours.
Raelum dashed after the ghoul. Morick whirled, fell to one knee, and thrust his talons at Raelum’s stomach. But Raelum had grown up on the streets of Khauldun, had seen that trick many times. He swerved to the side, bringing his blade down in a flashing arc. The burning sword crashed through Morick’s chest in a spray of white flame. Morick howled and flopped to the ground.
“No more,” growled Raelum. Again it seemed as if Red Philip’s face floated before him, and Raelum brought his sword down and ended Morick’s screams.
Raelum stepped back, panting, as the fires on his sword went out. He reached out with the peculiar senses that had been with him since birth. He sensed some distant demons, but nothing close.
It was over. For now.
Raelum scooped up his pack, picked up his sword belt, and started towards the girl.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“I…I am,” she said, voice faint. “The devils didn’t harm me, but my ankle is twisted.”
Raelum slid his sword into its scabbard. “How did you come here?”
“I dwell in the village of Coldbrook, a league north of here,” said the girl. “Some of my father’s sheep jumped their pen. My brothers and I went in search of them. I fell and turned my ankle. I sat here, hoping my brothers or my father would find me.”
“That was not the wisest thing to do,” said Raelum, stopping. He did not want to come any closer.
She would see his eyes.
The girl almost smiled. “No. It was not the wisest thing.” She hesitated. “Who…who are you, my lord? You said your name was Raelum. Are you a Paladin?”
“Aye,” said Raelum. “A Silver Knight, though most folk call us Paladins. Who are you?”
“Jenny,” she said. “Of Coldbrook, daughter of Harren and Rowa. Thank you, my lord. I…I would have died, had you not come.”
“Will your brothers or your father come for you?” said Raelum.
Jenny shook her head. “Nay. They have returned to the village by now, for they fear the night.”
Raelum did not want the girl to get a good look at him, yet she could not walk to the village on her own. “Let’s go,” he said, reaching towards her. “A fire would be welcome.”
“Most welcome,” she said. She took his gloved hand and staggered to her feet with a groan. “If the ghouls do not kill, the wind will…”
Jenny looked into his face. She recoiled, and only Raelum’s hand on her elbow kept her from falling. She looked almost as terrified of him as she had been of the ghouls.
Jenny had gotten a good look at his face. And at his eyes, his blood-red eyes.