Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
CHAPTER 1 – AN OLD ENEMY
“That is impossible,” said Mazael Cravenlock, his sword hand curling into a fist. “Lucan Mandragon is dead.”
He stood in Castle Cravenlock’s courtyard, his wife Romaria at his side. Before him stood an assembly of lords, knights, and noblewomen, their clothes dusty from travel. Mazael recognized them all from his years at Lord Malden’s court. Lord Agravain Rainier, stern and fell. Lord Tancred Stillwater, fat and meticulous, and his son Sir Wesson, solid and solemn. Lord Adalar Greatheart, lean and deadly, and once Mazael’s squire. All the lords and knights looked weary, and a few seemed grief-stricken.
But Mazael saw terror in every last one of them.
“I wish he was,” said Gerald Roland. His blue eyes were bloodshot, his jaw shaded with blond stubble. “But I saw him with my own eyes.”
Mazael shook his head. “I killed him.” His hand brushed his sword’s hilt, the golden pommel shaped like a lion’s head. “I put Lion through Lucan’s heart. He was atop Swordgrim when the Great Rising failed and destroyed the castle. Even if he had survived a sword through his chest, he couldn’t have survived that.”
“Mazael,” said the woman standing at Gerald’s side. “I don’t think he survived.” She had brown hair and green eyes, and carried a year-old child in her left arm. With her other hand she gripped a boy of about three or four years who stared at Mazael with enormous blue eyes.
“Rachel,” said Mazael, looking at his sister. “What do you mean?”
“He was…cold,” said Rachel. “I touched his arm, before I knew who he really was, and it felt like a bar of frozen iron. Mazael, I think he’s undead. I think you killed him and he came back again.”
“Undead?” said Mazael. He turned to his squire, a boy of thirteen named Rufus Highgate. “Rufus. Get the Guardian and Lady Molly, now.”
Rufus bowed and ran into the keep.
“The Guardian?” said Gerald.
“The wizard of the Tervingi nation,” said Mazael. “We will need his counsel.”
Gerald nodded, but his eyes remained wary. Dozens of Tervingi swordthains and spearthains were scattered throughout the courtyard. The nobles from Knightreach gave them fearful glances. Though if they had faced armies of runedead, Mazael supposed the Tervingi were hardly a fearful sight by comparison.
He scratched his beard, glancing at Romaria, and saw the alarm in her blue eyes. Lucan Mandragon had worked the Great Rising and unleashed the runedead. Mazael’s sole consolation from the destruction of Swordgrim was that Lucan was dead and could not hurt anyone else.
But if Lucan had returned from the dead, if he had been working in Knightcastle all this time…
“These barbarians,” said Gerald.
Mazael blinked, shaken out his dark thoughts. “What about them?”
“Do you trust them?” said Gerald.
Mazael laughed. “Of course not. But they will follow me. They have chosen me as their hrould, their war leader.” He shook his head. “And against the runedead, all men must stand united.”
“If Lord Mazael says we can fight alongside the barbarians,” said Adalar, “then we can do so.”
“And their wizard?” said Rachel. She did not like wizards, and had warned him again and again not to trust Lucan Mandragon.
Mazael should have heeded her.
“A good man,” said Mazael. “And without his aid, we would all be dead. When Lucan worked the Great Rising, he cast the spell that spread Lion’s fire to the other swords.”
Gerald’s eyes widened. “Gods, but that was timely. The first few moments after the runedead appeared were chaos. If not for that fire, they would have slain every man and woman in Knightcastle and Castle Town both.”
“That was his work,” said Mazael. “We have been through some very dangerous times.”
“It seems,” said Gerald, “that you have a tale or two of your own to tell.”
“Aye,” said Mazael, glancing at Romaria, and at the single oak tree that stood in the courtyard. He remembered her lying in the roots of that tree, a heartbeat away from death, her life sustained only by the Guardian’s magic. “Aye, we do.”
Rufus hurried from the keep’s doors, followed by a man and a woman. The woman was in her early twenties, lean and fit, clad in close fitting dark wool and leather. A slender sword rested on her left hip and a dagger upon her right, the blade fashioned from the tooth of the dragon Mazael had slain in the Great Mountains. She had long brown hair and eyes the color of hammered steel, and they widened when she saw the nobles from Knightreach.
Behind her walked a Tervingi man of average height with deep blue eyes and thick black hair. Like most Tervingi men, he wore a mail shirt over his clothing. Unlike most Tervingi men, he bore neither sword nor spear. He carried only a staff of bronze-colored wood, its length carved with elaborate sigils.
But even without weapons of steel, Riothamus son of Rigotharic, Guardian of the Tervingi nation, was one of the most dangerous men in the Grim Marches.
“Father,” said the woman, “it appears we have guests.”
“Molly,” said Mazael. “You remember Sir Gerald Roland and Lady Rachel Roland.” He made the rest of the introductions, and Molly offered a polite bow. Despite the dark news, he felt a twinge of amusement. Apparently even Molly could learn manners. “This is Riothamus son of Rigotharic, Guardian of the Tervingi nation.”
“My lords,” said Riothamus. “You are in distress.”
“Yes,” said Gerald. “I would say so.”
“Tell us what happened,” said Mazael. “Everything. Even before we sit down. If Lucan is still alive, we have to act at once.”
Molly gave him a sharp look, but Gerald began his tale. He described the war against Caraster and his runedead, how the mysterious Ataranur had come to their aid. How Ataranur and healed and rejuvenated both Lord Malden Roland of Knightcastle and Grand Master Caldarus of the Justiciar Order.
And how Ataranur, Lucan Mandragon in disguise, had corrupted them.
“And now Lucan has all of Caraster’s runedead at his command,” said Gerald.
“How many?” said Mazael.
“At least one hundred and fifty thousand,” said Gerald. “If not more.”
“And your father allows this?” said Mazael. Lord Malden had been short-tempered, arrogant, and proud, but he had always followed his own sense of honor. Mazael had never imaged that Gerald’s father would ever accept the aid of the runedead and Richard Mandragon’s renegade son.
But perhaps the promise of immortality had been enough to corrupt him.
“Lucan has twisted my father,” said Gerald. “He claims that the runedead submit because my father is the rightful Lord of Knightcastle, because of the righteousness of the Justiciars. But that is nonsense. Caraster controlled the runedead with a spell, and Lucan has seized that spell for himself.”
“He could do it,” said Riothamus, “with the Glamdaigyr.”
“But the Glamdaigyr was destroyed,” said Mazael, “with Lucan at…”
He fell silent. The Glamdaigyr had been forged by the cruel high lords of Old Dracaryl, mighty necromancers and wizards. The greatsword allowed its wielder to steal the life force and strength of its victims, and Lucan had used the ancient weapon to work the Great Rising. Mazael had thought the sword destroyed at Swordgrim.
But Lucan had survived. Why not the Glamdaigyr? And the Banurdem as well? The diadem, also forged by the high lords of Dracaryl, permitted its bearer to control vast numbers of undead. With it, Lucan could build a host of runedead.
And finish his mad quest to purge the world of every drop of Demonsouled blood.
“He had the Banurdem,” said Gerald. “I saw it upon his brow when I unmasked him.”
“But if Swordgrim was destroyed and Lucan slain,” said Adalar, “how could he have returned? After I saw him, I thought the story of his death merely a rumor. But if you slew him, my lord Mazael…”
“He is undead,” said Rachel. “Like the zuvembies or the runedead.”
“No,” said Riothamus. “He’s something much worse. I fear he has become a revenant.”
“The greatest undead of Old Dracaryl,” said Romaria. She remained calm, but Mazael saw the tension in her stance, the posture she assumed when a fight was upon them. “Immortal and invincible.”
“Aye, my lady,” said Riothamus. “When the mightiest necromancers among the high lords died, they rose again as revenants, their bodies cold and unfeeling, never again to know the pleasures of food or drink or touch. But in exchange for living death, they received tremendous power. Their undead bodies do not age, and are impervious to all but the most powerful magic. And a dead wizard can wield magic that would burn a living wizard to ashes.”
“Gods,” whispered Gerald. “Tobias stabbed him through the heart, and he shrugged off the blow as if it were a scratch.”
“Where is your brother?” said Mazael. “Did…”
“No.” Gerald’s voice was flat. “Lucan’s runedead slew both him and my mother when we flew Knightcastle.”
Rachel pressed closer to him.
“I’m sorry,” said Mazael.
Gerald gave a sharp nod, blinking.
“If Lucan delved into the secrets of Old Dracaryl,” said Riothamus, “then he must have learned the spell to become a revenant, and placed it upon himself in the event of his death. And when he was slain, he rose again.”
A murmur of fear went through the lords.
“My lords,” said Riothamus, “it is the office of the Guardian to counsel the Tervingi nation, and since you are kin and friends to our hrould, I shall counsel you as well. You have all faced danger – the Malrags, the runedead, wars against your neighbors. The thing Lucan Mandragon has become is much more dangerous. I fear that every lord of every nation and tribe upon the earth shall need to unite against him…and even then, it may not be enough.”
“He seeks to rebuild Dracaryl for himself, I deem,” said Lord Tancred, “to raise an empire of blood and dark magic for a thousand years.”
“No,” said Mazael. “No, he doesn’t want mere temporal power. If he did, he could have murdered his father and brother and made himself liege lord of the Grim Marches.” He remembered Toraine Mandragon screaming as the Glamdaigyr devoured his life, the ghostly green fire of the Great Rising burning in the sky over Swordgrim. “He has a grander purpose. He wants to rid the world of the Demonsouled.”
Molly gave him a sharp look.
“Conquering Knightcastle and corrupting my father is a curious way to go about it,” said Gerald.
“It’s why he worked the Great Rising,” said Mazael. “He raised the runedead and commanded them to slay the Demonsouled. It didn’t matter if a man had one Demonsouled ancestor a hundred generations back. If a man had a single drop of Demonsouled blood, Lucan set the runedead to slay him.”
And uncounted thousands had died in the Great Rising.
“It’s what he is doing at Knightcastle now, I’m sure,” said Mazael. “Another plot to destroy the Demonsouled.”
“And gods help us,” said Agravain, “if it ends as disastrously as the first.”
“And that must be,” said Riothamus, “why Skalatan is going to Knightcastle.”
“Who?” said Gerald.
“A San-keth archpriest,” said Mazael. “Have you heard of the Aegonar invasion in Greycoast?”
“Bits and pieces, nothing more.”
“The Aegonar worship Sepharivaim,” said Mazael. Rachel flinched at that. “They’ve conquered northern Greycoast, and would have taken Barellion itself, but the new Prince repulsed them.”
“With a little help from us, I must point out,” said Molly. “Malaric didn’t kill himself.”
Mazael nodded. “The Aegonar have a High King, but their true master is Skalatan. He intends the Aegonar to take Knightcastle for themselves.”
“It seems we are not the only ones with dark tales,” said Gerald.
“No,” said Mazael. He told Gerald what had happened since the Great Rising, about Malaric’s assassination attempt and Romaria’s poisoning. “Skalatan is dangerous, more dangerous than any San-keth I have encountered.”
“I heard of him during my…youthful folly,” said Rachel. She took a deep breath. “Skhath mentioned him a few times. He said Skalatan was a heretic, was half-mad. But no one dared challenge him, not even the other archpriests.”
“Skalatan believes that the serpent god died millennia ago,” said Mazael, “and that the San-keth worship a memory. So he intends to seize the gathered power of the slain Demonsouled and use it to transform himself into the new serpent god.”
“Then Lucan is doing something in Knightcastle to destroy the Demonsouled,” said Gerald, “and Skalatan wishes to seize Knightcastle, interrupt whatever Lucan is doing, and take the spell for himself.”
“Aye,” said Mazael. “I think you have the right of it.”
Save, perhaps, for one detail, the most dangerous of all.
The Old Demon.
A woman’s voice, soft and cold, filled Mazael’s ears. “Then you understand.”
Mazael kept his face calm, but his eyes shifted to the left, and he saw the spirit watching him.
Morebeth Galbraith stood among the nobles, clad in her usual black gown. She had been Mazael’s half-sister, and had seduced him and tried to use him as a weapon against the Old Demon. But with Lucan’s help, Mazael had realized the truth and defeated her. Yet her spirit had been drawn to Cythraul Urdvul, the birthplace of the Demonsouled.
And now she could appear to him.
“You know what our father wants,” said Morebeth. Her gray eyes glinted, her blood-colored hair stirring. “All these years, brother. For three thousand years he has been fathering us and slaying us, harvesting us to claim our power for his own. Now he is ready. All he needs to do is enter Cythraul Urdvul and claim the stolen power, and he will become the new god.” She shuddered, a hint of fear going through her pale face. “If he does, we shall be his slaves forever. All living things will be his slaves. You must stop him, Mazael. You must.”
“Mazael?” said Gerald.
Mazael shook his head, and Morebeth vanished. To his surprise, he saw Romaria staring at the spot where she had stood. Could Romaria see the spirit? Skalatan had been able to see Morebeth, but Skalatan wielded tremendous magical power.
“You are right,” said Mazael, pushing aside his doubts. “We must take action, and quickly, before Lucan finishes whatever scheme he has in mind.”
And before the Old Demon found a way into Cythraul Urdvul. Mazael suspected his father planned to use Lucan to enter Cythraul Urdvul, though he could not image how.
Gerald nodded. “That is why we came to the Grim Marches, Mazael.” He looked at his wife and sons. “Rachel and Aldane and Belifane will be safe here, as will the rest of our families. The Grim Marches have known nothing but war since the Malrags came, and I hate to ask it of you. But…”
“You shall have my help,” said Mazael. “The Lord of the Grim Marches will ride to the aid of the Lord of Knightcastle.”
Gerald flinched. “But I’m not…”
“You are,” said Mazael. “Like it or not, Gerald. Your brothers are dead, and your father has turned to madness. Lord Malden is no longer fit to rule. That means you are the rightful Lord of Knightcastle and liege lord of Knightreach. If your people are to be saved from Lucan and the runedead, you shall have to save them.”
Gerald nodded. Once, Mazael knew, such a burden would have been too much for the younger man. And Gerald had never expected to become the Lord of Knightcastle. But the years had hardened him, and Gerald would do what was necessary to save his people.
“Then the Lord of Knightcastle,” he said, “is pleased to accept your aid, my lord Mazael.”
“Good,” said Mazael, thinking. “You.” He pointed at a tall, handsome man in the blue and silver surcoat of the Justiciar Order. “You’re Aidan Tormaud? The Justiciar commander that helped Gerald escape?”
He saw a flicker of pain pass over Molly’s face. She had been in love with Nicholas Tormaud, Aidan’s younger brother, until the Old Demon and Corvad had murdered him. Now she was betrothed to Riothamus, but Mazael suspected the old pain would never quite leave her.
“Aye, my lord,” said Aidan.
“I suspect you are the highest-ranking Justiciar officer who hasn’t followed Caldarus into his lunacy, Sir Commander,” said Mazael. “Which means you are now the commander of the Justiciar Order.”
Aidan’s mouth fell open. “But…”
“Not all the Justiciar officers and knights will follow Caldarus,” said Mazael, “and we need every man. Someone has to lead them.”
Aidan swallowed, and gave a sharp nod.
“My lords and knights,” said Mazael, raising his voice, “we have plans to make. Rufus! Get Master Cramton, and have rooms found for our guests. We will have a feast tonight, and then a council of war.”
Rufus bowed again and ran to fetch Mazael’s seneschal. Pages hurried forward to take the lords’ and knights’ horses. Mazael stepped closer to Rachel, Romaria at his side, while Riothamus and Molly spoke in low voices.
“This is your second son?” said Mazael, looking at the child in Rachel’s arms.
For the first time she smiled. “He is. Belifane.”
Mazael looked at Gerald. “Named for your brother.”
“Aye,” said Gerald. “My brother Belifane was slain fighting in the Grim Marches twenty years ago. I suppose it is a peculiar twist of history that I should bring my son Belifane to the Grim Marches to keep him safe.”
Mazael felt a touch on his arm.
He turned and saw Romaria staring up at the sky.
“What is it?” said Mazael. Her half-human, half-Elderborn heritage had given her keen senses, and he knew to trust them.
“Skythain,” said Romaria, and Mazael saw the black speck against the blue sky. “I think he’s going to land in the courtyard.”
The skythains usually landed their griffin mounts in an enclosed field outside of Cravenlock Town, a half-mile from the castle. The scent of the griffins terrified horses, and the beasts sometimes stole pigs and sheep when their riders’ attention was elsewhere.
Only urgent news would bring a skythain directly to the castle.
The black speck grew larger, circling towards the courtyard.
“Father, look!” said Aldane, his voice full of delight. A murmur of alarm went through the lords from Knightreach, and Mazael remembered that they had never seen a griffin before. “A griffin!”
“Gods,” said Gerald, reaching for his sword. “Is that…”
“Hold!” said Mazael, his voice cutting through the noise. “The Tervingi scouts ride griffins.”
The griffin circled lower, its white wings spread, its golden-furred limbs tucked close to its body. A man in leather sat on a saddle atop the beast’s back, his reins looped through the griffin’s razor-edged beak.
Gerald shook his head. “I thought griffins were only a story.”
Molly snorted. “Wait until you see a mammoth, Lord Gerald.”
“Mammoth?” said several of the lords.
The griffin landed at the base of the keep, downwind from the stables. Mazael recognized the lean, sunburned man in the saddle as Toric son of Torvmund. Toric had been a skythain in the service of the hrould Athanaric, and after Athanaric’s death, had become a headman in his own right.
“Toric!” said Mazael. “What news?”
“Ill news, hrould,” said Toric. “There is a party of horsemen upon the road,” he glanced at the nobles from Knightreach, “and I see they have arrived.”
“This is my sister Lady Rachel, her husband Lord Gerald of Knightcastle, and their sworn men,” said Mazael. “Their arrival is hardly ill news.”
Toric shook his head. “It is their pursuers that concern me.”
“Pursuers?” said Gerald. “We were not…”
“Runedead,” said Toric. “Over a thousand strong, and of a sort I have not seen before. The sigils upon their brows blaze with crimson fire, not green.”
“Crimson fire?” said Gerald. “Caraster’s runedead had symbols of crimson fire on their foreheads.”
“And Caraster’s runedead belong to Lucan now,” said Mazael.
“Gods, Mazael,” said Gerald. “They followed us here. I’m sorry. We…”
Mazael lifted a hand. “Do not blame yourself. Even if you were slain, we would have had to face Lucan’s runedead eventually.” He looked back at Toric. “Where are they?”
“Four miles west of here, hrould,” said Toric, “heading east upon the road. They are making for the castle, and ignoring anyone in their path.”
“Good,” said Mazael. If the runedead were focused upon Gerald and his men, they would not hurt anyone else. Perhaps he could use that to their advantage.
“How did they even find us?” said Rachel.
“It would not be a hard guess,” said Gerald, “to realize that we would go to Mazael for help.”
“An awakened runedead must be leading them,” said Riothamus. “The runedead are usually mindless, even if they retained the skills they possessed in life, but I suspect Lucan gave an awakened runedead command of this group and set it to follow you. An awakened runedead, bound to Lucan’s control, would chase you to the ends of the earth.”
“I will ride out and draw it away from you,” said Gerald, and Rachel grabbed his arm.
“No, you will not,” said Mazael, thinking.
“Are your walls warded, my lord?” said Adalar. “If the runedead become immaterial, they could enter unhindered.”
“Indeed,” said Sir Wesson. “We lost many castles that way in the first hours of the Great Rising.”
Mazael nodded. “Timothy and Riothamus warded them well. Toric! How long until the runedead arrive?”
“No more than an hour, hrould,” said Toric.
“Very well,” said Mazael. He pointed at some of the pages attending the lords. “You and you. Find Sir Hagen Bridgebane and Earnachar son of Balnachar and tell them to gather every man they can muster. My lord Gerald, Sir Commander Aidan, gather your men and ride with us.”
Gerald nodded. “We came for your help, and you shall have ours.”
“Good,” said Mazael, turning. “Guardian. Daughter. We shall need your aid as well.”
Riothamus nodded. “You have it.”
“Why, Father,” said Molly. “You do know how I love a good fight before dinner.”
She was joking, but not entirely. He saw the eager glint in her gray eyes. He knew she felt a fire in her blood, an eagerness for battle, for combat, for the death of foes.
For he felt the same thing in his Demonsouled blood, and he had struggled to contain that rage for years. The arrival of the runedead brought a peculiar sort of relief. Here was a foe he could fight without reservation, without mercy.
He had sworn to defend the folk of the Grim Marches and the Tervingi nation, and he would not suffer the runedead upon his land.
“Come,” Mazael said. “We will ride as soon as you are ready.”