“Mask of Spells” Excerpt

bnmaskofspells

Available at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon GermanyAmazon CanadaAmazon AustraliaBarnes & NobleKobo, iTunes, Google Play, and Smashwords.

CHAPTER 1: NEEDLE TEETH

Mazael Cravenlock strode north on the mountain path, his sword in his right hand and battle on his mind.

He suspected he would find battle soon enough.

“Yes,” murmured his wife. “Yes, I can smell them.”

Romaria Greenshield Cravenlock stood a few yards behind Mazael, her Elderborn bow in hand, her green cloak stirring in the cold wind coming down from the mountains, her eyes a little too blue and her face a little too angular to be completely human.

After Romaria came the others in Mazael’s little band. Earnachar son of Balnachar, a headman of the Tervingi nation, scowled at everything in sight, sweat gleaming on his bald head. Adalar Greatheart followed him, young and rangy and grim in his chain mail, the hilt of his Dark Elderborn sword rising over his shoulder. Sigaldra, as ever, remained close to him, her ragged blond hair stirring in the wind. Then came black-bearded Basjun, sober and stoic, and his ugly hound Crouch, the dog’s fangs bared as he sniffed the wind. Last of all came Timothy, a sheathed Dark Elderborn dagger in his hand as his long black wizard’s coat blew around him.

That dagger was the key.

So long as they had that Dark Elderborn maethweisyr, the woman who called herself the Prophetess could run, but she could never hide. Celina du Almaine could run to the ends of the earth, to the isles of the Aegonar in the western sea or the distant realms of the eastern princes beyond the middle lands, but so long as Mazael had that dagger marked with her blood, she would never, ever escape him.

Timothy thought that they were barely a day behind the Prophetess and her Champion. The Prophetess was taking Liane to the Heart of the Goddess, wherever that was. The Prophetess was alone, save for the Champion and her captive, and if Mazael and the others hastened, they might be able to overtake her.

Unless, of course, something killed Mazael and his followers first.

“What can you smell, my lady?” said Adalar.

“Us, most likely,” said Earnachar. “There has not been time for a bath since Armalast, and I sweated quite a lot in the caverns of the Veiled Mountain.”

“Did not mighty Tervingar do without baths during his daring deeds?” said Sigaldra. Her voice held some of its usual asperity, but not as much as before. Surviving the soliphages and Armalast and the Veiled Mountain had drained away some of her disdain for Earnachar, though Mazael doubted she would ever be friendly with the man.

Just as he had come to doubt that the Jutai would ever be friendly with the Tervingi.

“Mighty Tervingar in days of old ignored both hardship and want,” said Earnachar with his customary bombast, “and overcame the lords of the Dark Elderborn to lead the Tervingi nation to…”

“Quiet, both of you,” said Mazael. “Romaria.”

“Valgasts,” said Romaria, closing her eyes and lifting her face to the wind again. “Lots and lots of valgasts.”

Mazael smelled nothing. That didn’t matter. His Demonsouled blood, the blood of the Old Demon, made him stronger and faster and tougher than most men at the cost of an insane rage he struggled to control. Romaria’s mother had been of the Elderborn tribes of the Great Southern Forest, and that gave his wife powers of scent and sight and hearing far sharper than normal.

Even when she was in her human form.

“How many?” said Mazael.

“I’m not sure,” said Romaria. She wrinkled her nose and gave a sharp shake of her head. “A lot of them. Gods of the Elderborn! The damned things stink.”

“Of old the valgasts raided upon the surface on the days of midsummer and midwinter,” said Earnachar.

“We know that,” said Sigaldra. “It does not matter. The valgasts are no longer bound by their old laws. They can come to the surface as they please.”

“My point,” said Earnachar, “is that the valgasts came to the surface in search of slaves and human flesh to consume. Likely they are doing the same now. We would do well to avoid them.”

“Can we fight our way through them?” said Mazael.

“I doubt it,” said Romaria. “I think there are at least a couple hundred. And there’s something else…a fire, I think? Something burned nearby recently.”

“Burned?” said Mazael. “What is here to burn?”

Their path had led them through narrow mountain valleys over rocky passes, across cold and desolate lands where little grew. Basjun had a good knowledge of the paths and trails thanks to his father’s lucrative business as a smuggler, but his knowledge grew patchier as they headed farther north. Most of the people of Skuldar lived in the valleys and pastures of the southern mountains. The northern mountains were the haunts of soliphages and other creatures.

“I don’t know,” said Romaria. “I better have a look around.” She smelled the air again. “Keep moving along the path. I will catch up to you in a few moments.”

“Should we not wait for you to return, Lady Romaria?” said Timothy.

“No,” said Mazael. “She can find us. And we don’t want to stay here if there are valgasts nearby.” He looked at Romaria. “Go and learn what you can.”

She nodded, stepped forward, and changed. Her body seemed to melt and reform itself, her limbs lengthening, her torso thickening, and she dropped to all fours. When the transformation finished, Romaria had become a great black wolf with eyes the color of blue ice. She loped forward with terrific speed, her paws making no sound against the rocky path, and vanished around a boulder.

“No matter how many times I see that,” said Earnachar, “I shall never get used to it.”

“Oh, I’ve seen scarier things than that,” said Mazael. He grinned at Earnachar. “Let’s find some more, shall we?”

Earnachar scowled, and Sigaldra laughed, and Mazael led the way forward.

The path wound its way along the edge of a boulder-strewn valley, stubby little pine trees jutting from the rocky soil here and there. A white-foaming stream rushed through the valley. Mazael supposed they were far enough west that the stream flowed towards the Krago Hills rather than the Grim Marches. The valley was an inhospitable place, and if Mazael looked south, he still saw the broken shape of the Veiled Mountain jutting through the gloom of the clouds.

He supposed the valley was inhospitable because the dragon Azurvaltoria had dwelt within the Veiled Mountain for centuries. Likely she was dead now, killed by the Prophetess’s magic during the confrontation in her treasure vault. The dragon had played a game with Mazael and the Prophetess, bringing them together for a duel in the caverns below the mountain…but the Prophetess had proven stronger than the dragon had expected.

Mazael had underestimated her once before, too. But he would not make that mistake once more. She had brought war to his lands, and plotted to unleash an ancient horror upon the world.

The next time he caught up with her, she would not escape.

Mazael kept walking, his sword Talon ready in his right hand.

###

Sigaldra followed Mazael and the others, her fingers tight against the curve of her short bow. The path was steep, and her legs ached from the effort of so much walking over the last few weeks, but she did not care. Instead, she felt…

Sigaldra, the last holdmistress of the Jutai and the daughter of Theodoric, the last hrould of the Jutai, was not sure how she felt.

For a long time, she had fought to defend her people against overwhelming odds, first against the Malrags, and then against Ragnachar, followed soon after by Lucan Mandragon and his hordes of runedead. When the Prophetess had taken Liane, Sigaldra had pursued, but along the way, she had fallen into utter despair. She had fought without hope for a long, long time, and at last, it had overwhelmed her.

And now…

A strange emotion burned within her, and it had been so long since she had experienced it that it took some time to identify.

Hope. It was hope.

It was strange that she should feel it within the spider-haunted mountains of Skuldar, but she did nonetheless. After they had escaped from the dragon’s treasure vault, Mazael had produced that Dark Elderborn dagger wet with the Prophetess’s blood, and Timothy announced they could follow the Prophetess anywhere…and Sigaldra knew hope hotter and fiercer than any she had experienced for years. For a moment she dared to dream of what would happen if they were victorious, if they defeated the Prophetess and reclaimed Liane.

As she dreamed, her eyes strayed to Adalar.

He had saved her life in the depths of the Veiled Mountain, drinking the poisoned elixir of Azurvaltoria’s traps. He had followed her from the Grim Marches to rescue Liane. At the time, Sigaldra had been grateful, but her mind had been too filled with rage and grief to consider what a risk Adalar had taken. Now, after they had escaped from the soliphages and dared the dangers of the Veiled Mountain, she understood far better.

He had risked so much to help her and asked for nothing in return.

In turn, she had saved him inside the Veiled Mountain, drinking the healing elixir, holding it in her mouth, and forcing it past his lips before the poison killed him. As she had done that, her mouth had lingered upon his for a moment, and now she found herself wondering what that would feel like in less desperate circumstances.

Gods and ancestors! She was the last holdmistress of the Jutai, and she found herself daydreaming like a girl.

Yet she didn’t care in the least.

Ridiculous. She smiled nonetheless.

“You’re smiling,” said Adalar.

His voice was quiet. He almost always spoke quietly, save to shout commands or challenges in battle.

“I suppose I am,” said Sigaldra.

“Is everything all right?” said Adalar. He hesitated. “Aside from the obvious, anyway.”

“I do not smile that infrequently,” said Sigaldra.

“No,” said Earnachar from where he walked behind Mazael.

“No,” said Adalar.

“No,” said Basjun, Crouch trotting at his side.

Timothy hesitated. “It’s not my place to say, my lady.”

“You do have cause to be grave,” said Adalar.

“We’re going to do this,” said Sigaldra. “We’re going to find Liane and stop the Prophetess.”

Earnachar glanced back at her, a puzzled frown on his blunt features. “What?”

“She can’t escape us,” said Sigaldra. “Not now. Not with the dagger. She won’t escape with Liane, and she won’t escape for her crimes against the Jutai nation.” A sudden surge of generous impulse went through her. “Or for her crimes against you.”

Earnachar blinked six times before he spoke again.

“Witcher,” he said to Timothy. “You should cast a spell of discerning at her. Clearly, she has been replaced by some sort of fell creature that has taken her shape and seeks to lure us to our destruction with honeyed words.”

“I assure you, lord headman,” said Timothy, “she is quite human.”

“We escaped from the dragon’s lair, and now our foe cannot escape us,” said Sigaldra. “If that is not cause for hope, then nothing is.”

She was going to find Liane again. She knew it in her bones.

“Did you take a blow to the head?” said Earnachar, puzzled. “This optimism is…surprising.”

“We’re still alive, aren’t we?” said Sigaldra.

Earnachar started to answer, and then Mazael glanced back at them.

“For gods’ sake, all of you, shut up,” said Mazael. “You can quarrel when we’re not surrounded by murderous valgasts.”

Earnachar scowled, and Sigaldra gave him a sunny smile. “That is sound counsel, lord hrould.”

“Mmm,” said Mazael. He gave an irritated shake of his bearded head, gray eyes glinting like sword blades. “We’ll stop here for a moment. Adalar, Timothy, with me. I want to try something.”

###

Adalar stepped to Lord Mazael’s side, rolling his shoulders as he did.

He missed the familiar weight of his greatsword in its sheath against his back. The fight against Azurvaltoria’s pet salamanders had weakened the weapon, and it had finally shattered against the razor-edged legs of a Crimson Hunter. In desperation, he had snatched up a Dark Elderborn sword from the dragon’s treasure hoard. The balance and weight of the weapon were different than his old sword, but he had used weapons like it before, and the blade possessed magical power. Neither Timothy with his spells nor Romaria with her Sight had been able to work out just what the sword’s powers could do, save that they would not harm Adalar. Timothy had guessed that the sword absorbed the power of any magical creature it touched, redirecting that power against the bearer’s enemies.

The sword was light and sharp. That was all that Adalar cared about in a sword.

He glanced in Sigaldra’s direction for a moment. Her blond hair was still short and ragged from when it had been caught in the soliphage’s web, and it stirred a little in the cold breeze coming down from the mountains. Her eyes were cold and blue and large in her pale, sharp-featured face, and a frown creased her features as she watched the boulder-strewn valley for enemies.

She was beautiful.

Adalar had always thought that, from the moment they had met in the chapel of Greatheart Keep. At the time, he had thought it a brittle, frozen beauty, like a flower wrapped in killing frost. The losses and the hardships Sigaldra had suffered had made her grim and joyless, and that had intensified after the madwoman calling herself the Prophetess had taken Liane.

Now it was like the frost around her had cracked.

Or maybe it was Adalar himself who had changed.

He had seen too much death during the Great Rising, and it had sunk into his bones like salt into the earth. He had come back to the Grim Marches intending to bury his father before returning to Castle Dominus in its ruined, near-empty lands.

Instead, he had promised to help Sigaldra, and here they were.

He had not forgotten the terrible things he had seen, and they mattered no less to him…but now he found himself thinking about Sigaldra and the Jutai more than the horrors he had seen.

Adalar had allowed himself to hope once more.

Of course, all the hope in the world wouldn’t stop them from being eaten by valgasts, so he shoved all the emotion out of his mind and followed Mazael and Timothy.

They stopped at the edge of the path, looking into the valley. It widened here, and Adalar saw patches of scrubby pine forest here and there among the boulders.

“She went this way, my lord,” said Timothy. “I am utterly certain of it.”

“Your spell to sense the presence of foes,” said Mazael. “Can you cast it there?” He pointed further down the path. It dipped into the valley proper, winding past one of those patches of pine forest.

Adalar had been in enough battles to realize that was a perfect spot for an ambush.

“Of course,” said Timothy, tucking the sheathed maethweisyr into his coat. He drew out a piece of quartz crystal wrapped in copper wire and cast a spell, gesturing with it as his eyelids fluttered.

Then his eyes opened wide.

“There are a dozen valgasts concealed within those trees, my lord,” said Timothy. “Maybe more.”

“Think they can see us?” said Mazael.

“Not from here,” said Adalar, considering the angles.

“No,” said Mazael. “More likely they can smell us. Romaria said they can smell blood a mile off.”

“The Tervingi said similar things,” said Adalar. “No doubt if we asked Earnachar, he would recite a Tervingi hymn about how mighty Tervingar faced the valgasts in days of old.”

Mazael glanced at him in surprise. Adalar supposed that he did not make jokes very often.

“Truly,” said Earnachar. “Once we camp, I can tell you how mighty Tervingar and his companions faced a dozen warlords of the valgasts in…”

“But if we continue along this path,” said Adalar before Earnachar could get going, “they will see us.”

Mazael nodded, still staring at the trees. “I’ve seen you use fire spells often, Timothy. Can you work something smaller?”

Timothy shrugged. “I can. My control over fire magic is not…precise, let us say. I can either conjure a lot of fire slowly or several smaller flames more quickly.”

“Excellent,” said Mazael, turning from the path. “Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” said Adalar.

“We,” said Mazael, “are going to flush out some valgasts.”

###

Mazael moved from boulder to boulder, keeping low, his hand resting on Talon’s hilt. He wanted to draw the sword, but the occasional flicker of golden fire from the dark blade might draw unwelcome attention. The others followed him, weapons in hand – Sigaldra with her bow, Basjun with his axe and his ugly dog, Earnachar with his mace, Adalar with his Dark Elderborn sword, and Timothy with his spells.

Romaria still hadn’t returned. Mazael wasn’t worried about her, not exactly. Of everyone in the group, she was probably the single most dangerous one save for himself, and if a group of valgasts found her it would not go well for them.

Still, he was afraid for her. He always was afraid for her. He had seen her die once before, and he had no wish to repeat the experience.

Fortunately, there were foes at hand upon whom he could take out his fears.

He lifted his hand, and the others stopped.

“The western side of the trees,” said Mazael, pointing at the pines. “Timothy. Start the fire there. The wind should be right for what I want.”

Timothy nodded, took a deep breath, and cast a spell. Fire crackled around his fingers as he gestured. Earnachar gave the wizard an uneasy look and stepped back. Timothy shaped the fire into a wobbling sphere the size of Mazael’s fist, and then flung it.

The sphere soared through the air and landed on the ground amidst the pine trees. It erupted in a wash of flame two or three yards across, leaving burning pine needles in its wake. The fire spread up the trunk of the nearest pine tree, the sap catching flame. Timothy flung another sphere of fire, and another, his face tight with concentration. By the third sphere, a good-sized blaze was burning in the trees. By the sixth sphere, the entire thicket was in danger of going up in flames.

“That should be good enough,” said Mazael. “We need only…”

Right then the first valgast erupted from the trees, sprinting from the flames.

The creature 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. It wore a peculiar armored shirt fashioned from plates of bone, and in its left hand, it carried a short sword fashioned from the same kind of strange bone. The creature’s nostrils flared as it ran, and it was coughing, trying to expel the smoke from its lungs.

A half-dozen more valgasts stumbled from the burning trees, all of them carrying short swords and blowguns.

“Now!” shouted Mazael, drawing Talon and running forward.

The others charged while Sigaldra stepped back, setting an arrow to her bowstring. The valgasts recovered from their shock and turned to defend themselves, letting out their rasping, gurgling battle cries. One of the valgasts lifted a blowgun to its fanged mouth and blew, and Mazael ducked. The dart clipped his shoulder and tumbled to the ground, the poisoned tip deflected by his armor. One of Sigaldra’s arrows pierced the valgast’s left forearm, and the creature stumbled. Before it recovered, Mazael attacked. Talon’s dark blade swept through the valgast’s skinny neck, and the creature collapsed in a heap to the ground.

He turned, cutting down another valgast. Adalar’s Dark Elderborn sword seemed to flicker in his hand as he swung and slashed. Earnachar brought his mace down onto a valgast’s head with a loud crunch. Basjun buried his axe blade in a valgast’s neck, and next to him Crouch snarled and snapped. The valgasts were frightened of the big dog and shied away from his approach. A valgast turned on Mazael, and he heard Timothy shout a spell. The valgast stumbled as invisible force struck it, and Mazael seized the moment of distraction to cut down the creature.

More valgasts stumbled from the burning woods, only to run right into the battle. Sigaldra loosed another arrow, and a valgast stumbled as the shaft pierced its stomach. Mazael killed down the valgast before it could recover. The Demonsouled rage thrummed through him, making him faster and stronger than he ought to have been, demanding that he kill until his sword ran red with blood and his arms and shoulders ached from the effort of it. Mazael had spent much of his life fighting against that rage, struggling to control it, but now he could release it.

Left unchecked, it would destroy him and everything he cared about.

Used and channeled, though, it could destroy his foes, the enemies who threatened to destroy the Grim Marches, and Mazael used that fury now, cutting down valgast after valgast without mercy.

If the creatures had wanted to live, they should not have threatened his lands and his people.

Mazael slew another valgast, ripping Talon’s blade free, and looked around for more enemies.

But there were none.

All the valgasts had been slain. Unable to retreat back into the burning woods, they had come to fight, and they had been slaughtered. Mazael turned to face the others, the Demonsouled rage burning through him, and for a wild moment, he wanted to attack his friends, to keep killing and killing until no one was left alive in the valley save for him.

He was ready for the impulse, and he crushed with a practiced effort. Not even the Old Demon himself had been able to induce Mazael to succumb to his demon-charged blood, and a fight with a ragged valgast band wouldn’t do it.

“Anyone hurt?” said Mazael.

The others shook their heads. Sigaldra was watching him a little warily, as if she feared he would grow fangs and attack them. She didn’t know that he was Demonsouled, but if she had, that would not have been an unreasonable fear.

“Timothy,” said Mazael. He cleaned off the valgast blood from Talon’s blade and sheathed the sword, which seemed to calm Sigaldra a little. “Any other valgasts nearby?”

Timothy wiped sweat from his forehead and drew out his crystal, working his sensing spell once more. “None, my lord. At least not within a few hundred yards.”

“Perhaps we should keep moving,” said Earnachar. “That fire generated a lot of smoke.” The harsh smell of burned pine wood filled Mazael’s nostrils. If he could smell it, the valgasts could, and the plume of smoke would be visible from a long distance off. “Someone will come to investigate the…”

He fell silent and flinched as a great black wolf loped past him, stopping before Mazael. The wolf melted and reformed back into Romaria, who looked at the burning trees with wide, alarmed eyes.

“Who did that?” she said. “Did you see who started the trees on fire?”

“I did, my lady,” said Timothy.

Romaria looked at him, and then back at Mazael.

“Valgasts in the trees,” Mazael said, puzzled at her reaction. “I needed to flush them out.”

“Oh,” said Romaria. “Good.”

“Why did you think,” said Mazael, “that something else had set the fire?”

Romaria frowned. “I found something that you should see.”

Continue reading at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon GermanyAmazon CanadaAmazon AustraliaBarnes & NobleKobo, iTunes, Google Play, and Smashwords.