Chapter 1: We Are Free
Mazael Cravenlock awoke to the sound of screaming.
He had drank too much the night before, enjoying the hospitality of Toric and his thains, and now had a headache. The room around him was dark, the only light coming through the half-opened shutters. The room with its rough wooden walls and flagstone floor was the finest chamber in Toric’s hold, and Mazael had accepted it with gratitude.
The screaming got louder, and Mazael’s foggy mind snapped into focus.
He got to his feet. Was the hold under attack? Any number of foes might dare to attack Toric’s hold of Gray Pillar. A Malrag warband ranging down from the Great Mountains, seeking for men to slaughter. Bandits and brigands – the upheaval of the Runedead War had created no end of those. Or perhaps the attackers had come for Mazael himself. He had no end of enemies: the last ragged remnants of the Justiciar and Dominiar Orders, the San-keth and their proselytes, the former followers of Ragnachar, the surviving Aegonar seidjars, and numerous others.
His anger was always there, held in check by long practice and hard experience, but it flared to life. These attackers, whoever they were, dared to attack his people? Mazael would make them regret that. By the time he was done, they would curse the day they had ever come to Gray Pillar.
The door burst open, letting in firelight from the great hall, and a boy of about fourteen staggered into the room. His brown eyes were wide with fear, and he grasped a sword in his right hand, the blade smeared with something darker than blood.
“What is it, Rudolph?” said Mazael. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, my lord,” said the squire. “The devils have gotten over the wall and are attacking the Tervingi villagers. Toric was rallying his folk at…ah!”
He stumbled forward a step, his free hand flying to his neck.
“A dart,” mumbled Rudolph. “No, no, they can’t, I…”
The boy collapsed, foam bubbling at his lips, and Mazael realized that the dart had been poisoned. He cursed, snatched his shield and his scabbarded sword from beside the narrow bed as Rudolph’s attacker came through the door. Mazael froze for an instant. He had fought zuvembies and runedead, Malrags and San-keth changelings, but he had never seen a creature quite like this.
The thing stood only four feet tall, its limbs spindly, its ribs visible beneath its mottled green-and-yellow hide. Its ears were enormous, as large as Mazael’s hands, and its eyes were huge and black and unblinking. Needle-like teeth rose from its jutting jaw, and the creature’s nostrils flared. It wore a peculiar armored shirt fashioned from plates of bone, and in its left hand carried a blowgun, no doubt the source of the dart that had felled poor Rudolph Larsar.
“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” said Mazael.
The creature started to speak in the Dark Elderborn tongue.
“I smell you,” said the gangly creature, its voice like steel rasping over stone.
“I’ve had a long night and I could use a bath,” said Mazael. “Doesn’t answer my question, though.”
“We are free!” said the creature, rolling the blowgun around its bony fingers like an assassin with a throwing knife. “We are the lords of the shadows, the princes of the deep places. I smell you for what you are, tainted one! Fear of your father kept us from the surface.”
“My father?” said Mazael.
Of everything the creature could have said, he would not have expected that.
“He bound us with his trickery and his lies,” said the creature, “but now we are free! The great goddess Marazadra shall rise once more, and her loyal servants shall feast upon the cattle of the surface!” The creature’s misshapen features were alien, but Mazael nonetheless recognized the battle madness that came over its face. “Starting with you.”
In a blur the spindly creature raised its blowgun, but Mazael was ready. He ran forward, getting his shield up, and the creature’s dart struck the thick wood. Mazael swung his shield, intending to smash the creature against the wall, but it darted to the side, yanking a dagger of bone from its armored shirt. It slashed at Mazael, but he jumped back, keeping his shield up, his scabbarded sword in his right hand. He feinted with the shield, driving the creature towards the corner. Dark slime gleamed on the blade of the bone dagger, no doubt poisonous.
The creature snarled and jumped backwards. The claws on its toes and fingers sank into the wood and it scrabbled up the wall like a spider. Mazael took a quick step back as the creature darted across the ceiling. His foe’s strategy was plain. It was going to move into his blind spot and then drop upon him from above.
Mazael turned, pretending he had lost sight of his foe. He heard the hiss as the creature flung itself from the ceiling, and Mazael spun. His curved blade smacked into the creature’s bone-armored chest with a loud clack, and it shrieked in pain, clawed hands curling around the scabbard. The momentum of the blow ripped the scabbard free, and the creature bounced off the wall, still clutching the scabbard.
The pale golden glow from Mazael’s sword fell over the room.
His old sword Lion had been forged by the High Elderborn in the deeps of time as a bane to the Old Demon. The sword had met its destiny and been destroyed in the process. Mazael’s new sword had been made from one of the talons of the great dragon he had killed below the walls of Arylkrad. The Guardian of the Tervingi had worked his magic over the blade, writing symbols of golden fire upon it. The resultant sword was lighter, stronger, and sharper than steel, and capable of wounding undead and other creatures of dark magic.
He had named the blade Talon.
The creature screamed and charged at Mazael, but Mazael swung, Talon’s blade tearing through the creature’s thin neck. Its misshapen head hopped off its shoulders in a fountain of greenish-black slime. Mazael sidestepped, letting the corpse fall to the floor, and drove Talon through its ribs just to be safe. He had encountered too many creatures that could keep on fighting even after their heads had been removed.
The severed head and the corpse remained motionless.
Mazael ripped the sword free and strode to Rudolph’s side. Fortunately, Rudolph was unconscious, not dead, his breathing and pulse slow but steady. Mazael had seen Timothy deBlanc, his court wizard, prepare drugs that had the same effect. The creature’s dart had been drugged, not poisoned. Had the creatures come to take captives? The creature Mazael had killed claimed that the servants of Marazadra, whoever that was, had come to feast.
Did the creatures want to eat the people of Gray Pillar?
More noise from the great hall caught his attention. Mazael turned to his armor and weapons. He pulled on his quilted arming jacket and then donned his armor, a coat of chain mail reinforced with the golden scales of the dragon he had killed in the Great Mountains. Some of the scales over the chest had been replaced after the Old Demon had driven the Glamdaigyr through Mazael’s heart as Cythraul Urdvul burned around them. He slid on his gauntlets and helmet, since only an idiot went into battle without a helmet, and strode into the great hall.
After Ragnachar’s defeat, Mazael had given Gray Pillar to Toric and his bondsmen. The village’s manor house had burned, but Toric had rebuilt it in the style of a Tervingi headman’s hall. Thick wooden pillars supported the beams overhead, a thatched roof spread between them. A firepit blazed in the center of the hall, the smoke rising to a gap in the ceiling. A dozen of Toric’s bondsmen and bondswomen lay unconscious upon the floor, darts stuck to their necks and chests.
A half-dozen of the spindly creatures moved around the fire, their huge black eyes reflecting the flames. Their nostrils flared, and as one the creatures turned to face him.
“Leave now,” said Mazael, lifting Talon, “and I’ll let you go. Try to kill my people and take my lands, and I’ll kill you all.”
“It is him,” snarled one of the creatures. “I smell him.”
“The tainted one!” said another. “The slayer of the old world!”
“Take him!” screeched a third. “Take him and the Prophetess shall reward us!”
The creatures charged, raising their weapons, and Mazael laughed.
The rage of his Demonsouled blood was always with him, never sleeping or tiring. He had grown adept at controlling it, but the urge to fight, to conquer, and to slay never left him for a moment. Perhaps he had put it to good use, keeping the Tervingi headmen and the lords of the Grim Marches from tearing each other apart. Yet he always yearned to fight, and did not often have the chance.
So it was with something like relief that he rushed to meet the charge of the creatures.
A trio of darts flew towards him, and Mazael sidestepped, catching the volley upon his shield. The creatures tried to encircle him, but Mazael attacked first. His shield caught the nearest creature upon the face with enough force to shatter its jaw, and Talon took off its head in a burst of greenish-black slime. A second creature lunged at him, and Talon opened it from throat to groin. The creature’s heart and lungs and viscera fell out, along with several other organs Mazael did not recognize. A third creature lunged at Mazael with a bone dagger, and he caught the strike on his shield and stabbed back.
Talon’s tip struck the creature’s left eye, but bounced away without leaving a scratch. Mazael staggered, his balance lost, and raised Talon again. Little wondered the creatures never blinked. Before he recovered his balance, the creature struck with the dagger again, the blade opening a cut on Mazael’s left leg. Numbness spread from the wound, and his left leg twitched.
At once he felt the burning as his Demonsouled blood started healing the wound and fighting the poison.
The creature attacked again, and Mazael raised his shield to deflect the strike. As he did, something slammed into his back, and a wiry arm closed around his throat. One of the creatures had climbed onto his back. Mazael snarled and drove his shield arm over his head, slamming the edge of the heavy wooden shield into the creature’s skull. Bone snapped, and his hand closed around the creature’s neck, ripping it free. The creature slammed into the one in front of Mazael, and both creatures went sprawling to the floor. He killed them with two quick slashes and spun to face the remaining creatures, the numbness in his left leg fading as his Demonsouled blood conquered the poison.
The remaining creatures backed away, fear on their alien expressions, and ran for the hall’s doors.
Mazael strode after them, adjusting his grip on Talon’s hilt. Perhaps he had indeed frightened the creatures away, or perhaps they were trying to lure him into a trap. The two creatures escaped through the hall’s double doors, vanishing into the village proper. Mazael followed them, his shield held out before him.
More screams and the shouts of fighting men filled his ears.
Chaos reigned in the village of Gray Pillar. The gates were closed in the earthen wall that encircled the village, though from what Mazael had seen of the creatures, they were dexterous enough to climb over the wall. Rows of houses built from fieldstone ringed the headman’s hall, roofed with sturdy thatch. Men and women and children lay upon the ground outside of the houses, stunned with the creatures’ drugged darts.
A melee raged in the square before the hall. A dozen of Mazael’s armsmen stood back to back, shields on their arms and swords in hand. A towering knight in chain mail and a black surcoat adorned with the three crossed swords of the House of Cravenlock led them, bellowing commands as he wielded a war hammer, his face flushed with fury behind his black beard. Sir Hagen Bridgebane was Castle Cravenlock’s armsmaster. Now he had taken command of the armsmen who had accompanied Mazael to Gray Pillar, directing them to stand fast and fight.
Close to thirty of the creatures swirled around the armsmen, stabbing and jabbing with their bone daggers. A half-dozen armsmen lay stunned on the ground, foam bubbling from their lips, and even as Mazael watched, another armsman fell. Dead creatures dotted the square. Sir Hagen and his men had put up a fierce fight, but they would not last much longer.
They needed help.
The two creatures he had driven from the hall started shrieking, and Mazael killed one and forced the other back. It ran to join the others, and the ring of creatures around Hagen and the others wavered. Mazael did not slow, but slammed into the creatures, smashing the nearest one with his shield and cutting down a second with Talon’s keen edge. Hagen shouted and crushed another with a mighty blow of his hammer, and the armsmen rallied. Two more armsmen fell, stunned by the creatures’ drugged darts, and Mazael took another hit on his leg from a bone dagger. Yet his Demonsouled blood gave him resistance to whatever drug the creatures used, and he struck down the one that had struck him.
They had killed maybe half of the creatures before the rest broke and fled to the east. Mazael turned, Demonsouled rage thundering through him, demanding that he hunt them down and kill them all, but he restrained himself. Mazael had been in too many battles to charge rashly after an enemy, given how easy it would be for their foes to set an ambush.
It was a trick he had used himself several times.
“The gods’ be praised, my lord,” said Hagen, wiping sweat from his brow. “I thought those shrieking devils had knifed you in your sleep.”
“They seem to be after live meat, not corpses,” said Mazael. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” said Hagen. “I went to sleep in the great hall, and awoke when one of the bondswomen started screaming. Found those creatures swarming over everything. Grabbed my hammer and armor and fought my way clear, gathering up whatever men I could find.” He shook his head. “Have you ever seen these things before, my lord?”
“No,” said Mazael. “They speak Dark Elderborn. Romaria might know what they are, or perhaps the Guardian.” He pointed with Talon to the east, the dark shapes of the Great Mountains blotting out the stars overhead. “We can bring them a corpse to identify.”
Hagen’s teeth flashed in his beard. “Aye, my lord.” He gave one of the creatures’ corpses a rough kick, the bone plates of its armor rattling. “I heard one of the Tervingi call the creatures ‘valgasts’.”
“Valgasts,” muttered Mazael. “Where’s Toric? Have you seen him?”
“Briefly,” said Hagen. “He led a group of swordthains around the back of the hall, toward the ruined church. Some of his men thought the valgasts had a wizard with them.”
“Damnation,” said Mazael. The valgasts were dangerous enough without the aid of a wizard’s magic. “Toric will need our help.” He pointed with Talon. “Head around the north wall of the great hall. Find the wizard and kill him. Anyone have a crossbow?” Two of the armsmen did. “Load them. If you get the chance, shoot the wizard. Easiest way to deal with a wizard is to shoot him from a distance.”
The two men loaded their crossbows, and Mazael led the way around the northern side of Toric’s hall. The sounds of fighting grew louder, and they came to a square on the eastern side of the hall, facing the foothills of the Great Mountain. On the other side of the square stood a domed church built in the style of Old Dracaryl. It had been destroyed during the Malrag invasion, and since the Tervingi worshipped a combination of their ancestors and the gods of the Elderborn tribes, no one had yet rebuilt it. Next to the church stood the pens where Toric and his skythains kept their griffins. The griffins growled and roared, raking at their pens, their wings flapping and their claws slashing at the air.
A furious melee swirled below the ruined church, Tervingi spearthains and swordthains battling a mob of valgasts. These valgasts seemed larger and better armored than the ones Mazael had killed outside the hall, and some of them even bore weapons of steel instead of bone. Both Tervingi men and valgasts lay dead upon the ground. Mazael spotted Toric leading his men in to battle. Toric was lean and weathered from years spent in a griffin’s saddle. He had once been a skythain of the Tervingi hrould Athanaric, and had later become a headman in his own right.
A glowing shape darted through the melee, a creature that looked like a wolf with a mane of razor-edged tentacles. Shimmering mist wreathed its form, and the creature looked vaguely translucent, almost ghostly. Yet the blows it dealt were real enough, and even as Mazael looked the wolf attacked a Tervingi spearthain, the warrior ducking behind his shield as he stumbled backwards.
Mazael had seen such creatures before. It was beast of the spirit world, summoned by a wizard to attack his foes.
“Sir Hagen!” said Mazael. “Aid Toric. Find the wizard if you can. I will deal with his creatures.”
“Take them!” shouted Hagen, raising his hammer, and the armsmen charged into the fray. The Tervingi fought with renewed vigor at the sight of allies. Mazael cut down a surprised valgast and sprang at the wolf. The creature turned away from the wounded spearthain and snapped at Mazael, its tentacles lashing like whips. Mazael slashed with Talon, severing the tentacles, and the spirit creature reared back in pain. He drove his curved blade down, slicing through the wolf’s body, and it dissolved into gray mist, disappearing back into the spirit world.
The wounded spearthain staggered to his feet, and Mazael waded into the battle. A blow from his shield snapped back a valgast’s head, and two spears pierced the creature’s chest. Talon ripped across a valgast’s throat, greenish-black slime spattering across the blade, and the creature joined the others upon the ground. A second spirit beast bounded through the fight, and Mazael took its head off with a powerful blow, both head and body dissolving into mist. The valgasts were quick and deadly, but Mazael’s armsmen and the Tervingi thains were better armored. The fight was turning their way, unless the valgasts’ wizard did something…
A bolt of flame erupted from the darkness of the ruined church and struck the ground with a roar. The blast killed one Tervingi spearthain, the man’s charred husk tumbling to the ground, and threw a half-dozen more men from their feet. The valgasts closed around them for the kill, and Mazael hewed his way through the creatures. A bone dagger shattered against his armor, and Mazael killed the valgast that had struck him.
He cut down one more creature, and then he was through, running for the yawning, empty door to the ruined church. Half of the dome had fallen in, filling the empty space with rubble. Mazael’s eyes scanned the darkness, seeking for a wizard.
Firelight flared in the gloom.
A valgast stood atop the rubble in the center of the church, fire playing about its clawed hands. Compared to the others, this valgast was enormous, standing nearly five and a half feet tall. The others were various shades of venomous yellow or sickly green, but this valgast was bone white, its huge black eyes like bottomless pits. Elaborate scars had been cut into its pale hide, various magical sigils shimmering and glowing with sullen flame.
“Ah, I see,” said the valgast wizard in the Dark Elderborn language, “the tainted one. One of the last tainted ones, it seems.”
“Who are you and what do you want?” said Mazael.
“I am merely a priest and a servant,” said the wizard. “I wish to harvest your people for my cattle. Great days are upon us. The ancient bonds have been dissolved, and the valgasts require strength for the conquests to come.” He pointed, the flames around his right hand brightening. “You, however, shall not be here to see it.”
Mazael cast aside his shield and ran at the wizard. The creature let out a sneering, rasping laugh and gestured, a bolt of flames bursting from its claws. Mazael twisted at the last moment, and the blast slammed into his chest with terrific force, the flames washing over him. He bellowed in pain and fury, but his armor absorbed the worst of it.
The scales of the great dragon he had slain at Arylkrad had endured far stronger fires.
The wizard just had time to flinch in surprise, and then Talon plunged into his chest. Mazael ripped the blade free, and the wizard tumbled down the pile of rubble, greenish-black slime leaking from the wound in his chest.
Mazael turned and ran back into the fray.