KINGDOM OF GRAVES



KINGDOM OF GRAVES, by David Charlton:

Plague had come to the lands west of the river Elakk, and so Rakhar the Half-Orc came, too. He came to their towns with only his spade slung over his shoulder, taller than any man and uglier than most. His brow was heavy and hung low over dark, sunken eyes, and pointed teeth poked up from his protruding jaw. Even stalwart souls did not linger over his brooding and fierce visage.

It was called the Red Death for it came on in a fever, blistered the skin and cooked the brain. No one knew how it spread, but once the boils and rash began, life was measured in hours. Folk cared for their loved ones as best they could at first, but few recovered, and eventually, lest they become sick too, children abandoned their fathers, and mothers left babes to wail and gush out their life. Most died, sweat slicked and gnashing their broken teeth. As the Red Death swept the countryside, whole villages and towns were wiped out, but the graveyards filled up.

That’s where Rakhar came in. He was a gravedigger, and he cared not for the plagues of man, for they did not touch him. When he came to town he had plenty of employment, filling the earth with the bodies of strangers, taking their families’ coin and spending it on drink while Death made Her fearful rounds. The gravedigger did not look for trouble, but once, a mob of plague-crazed men had accused him of bringing the Red Death to their town. They soon discovered that Rakhar’s stout spade could speed a man to his final rest in more ways than one.

It was raining when he trudged up the muddy path into the village. If it had a name, it soon would not matter: there was a telltale stench in the air, and Rakhar knew his coin purse would soon fill up again. Ramshackle huts lined the roadside, and scrawny dogs rooted in the mud for food. In the doorway of a house, a pair of naked children huddled together against the cold and wet, whimpering; above the lintel of the door was a crimson ‘x’ painted in lamb’s blood, the sign of a plague house. The children’s faces were splotchy. They would not be orphans for long. The gravedigger walked on.

In the village square, there was a shrine to the Dead God. Scorched bones lay scattered on a stone table, and bits of burnt animal flesh were steaming in the rain. Gathered around the shrine were a few devotees in threadbare robes, kneeling in the churned ground. The downpour kept them from making a proper offering, but they raised their voices in an atonal dirge.

Of what use a dead god could be, Rakhar did not know, nor did he dwell on the question. He looked around for a tavern, and soon spotted a house with a cluster of grapes painted on its windowless door.

“Stranger,” a voice rasped, barely heard over the weird singing of the votaries. Close by the shrine was a pillory, and trapped there, his head and hands poking out from between the two hinged wooden slats was a dwarf. To keep from being strangled, he was forced to stand atop a dead tree stump that had been set on the ground there, though he strained on his tip-toes. Rakhar was going to ignore him, but the dwarf called out to him again, “Ha! You’re a halfman, too.”

That got his attention. Rakhar trudged across the square and planted his spade in the soft, wet earth by the pillory, regarding the dwarf. The head stuck through the stocks was bald and freckled, and the rain washed into a wiry red beard. Despite his predicament, the dwarf’s eyes had a mischievous glint to them as he returned the other’s stare.

Rakhar leaned one elbow on the crossbar of his spade and said in his rough voice, “You’re not in the best position to be shouting insults, dwarf.”

“I meant no insult, stranger,” the dwarf explained, stretching as best he could in the stocks. “Halfman is what they name my people in these lands, ignorant sots that they are; but I ken that you have some real Mannish blood watering down that good Orcish vintage in your veins.” His face brightened a little. “Unless, of course, you are so offended you feel the need to use that bloody great shovel to lop off my head and put me out of my misery,” he said and nodded his head toward the caterwauling worshippers at the Dead God’s shrine. “In such case, allow me to impugn your mother’s chastity, your father’s honor and your own no doubt deviant sexual habits. Please, they’ve been at that for hours.”

“It’s a spade,” Rakhar said.

The dwarf blinked rainwater out of his eyes. “What’s the difference?”

Rakhar’s shrug was all the response he bothered to muster.

“Well, it’s a fine spade.” The dwarf eyed the long, iron-banded tool. “Good oak shaft. Solid, scalloped blade. Would take my head clean off, I’d wager.”

In spite of the circumstances, Rakhar found himself amused by the dwarf.

“Why did they put you in here?”

“I dallied with a lass in the lord’s woods.”

“That seems no crime,” Rakhar remarked.

“It was the lord’s daughter.” The dwarf’s lips spread in a smile displaying a sizable gap between teeth. “And no more willing and lusty a lass ever there was. But Lord Varvatos wants no halfman grandchildren. I had to do some fast talking to keep him from taking my stones.”

Rakhar gave a noncommittal grunt, pulled his spade from the ground, and made as if to walk away.

“Hold a moment, stranger,” the dwarf called after him. Rakhar paused, but did not turn back. “As I seemed doomed to suffer the discomfort of the stocks until dawn, and there’s no telling how long these shrill fools intend to keep it up,” this last the dwarf directed towards the shrine of the Dead God. “And since you seem unwilling to strike me down, how about a swig from that wineskin on your belt? A kindness from one halfman to another.”

Rakhar fixed the dwarf with a long, steady look. “What is your name, dwarf?”

“Iolo,” said the dwarf, his gap-toothed smile returning. “Called Ironarm, by friends and foes alike.”

Pulling the wineskin from his belt, Rakhar told him, “Iolo Ironarm, if you call me ‘halfman’ one more time, I really will have your head.” He held the mostly empty bladder up to the dwarf’s bearded mouth and squeezed. Iolo gulped it down, tilting his head as far back as he could to catch it all. Still, some splashed his lips and beard, and when the wineskin was wrung dry, the dwarf licked around his mouth for the last few drops the rain did not wash away.

“Ah! Good gravedigger! May your root never wither and your blade never dull.”

Without waiting for further thanks, Rakhar made for the house with the sign of the grapes on the door and ducked inside, out of the rain.

The tavern, as usual in such times, still did good business, and was not empty. Lean men with tired, pale faces cast wary glances towards him. Rakhar ignored them and made for a table by the glowing firepit; two men sat there playing at knucklebones, but as the half-orc approached, they scurried away. Leaning his spade against the smoke-grimed wall, Rakhar sat, his chair creaking against his over-large frame.

“Ale,” he grunted towards the barkeep, and scattered his remaining coins on the tabletop before him. The barkeep, a squint-eyed man with long greasy hair, came over, scooped up the chipped and bent coppers and set a clay mug on the table, sloshing some.

Most watched him from the corner of their eyes, though some were bold enough to stare outright: though he was taller, and walked upright, like a Man, there was no mistaking the newcomer had Orc blood. Rakhar ignored them, and downed his drink in two thirsty gulps. He shoved the empty clay mug away, and called out across the room in his rumbling voice, “Another.”

The barkeep had not gone too far, but eyed him with apprehension, keeping his distance. “Can you pay? Looks like your purse is empty.”

“It will be full soon enough,” Rakhar did not look up. “Another, barkeep. The work I do is best done with drink .”

Perhaps taken aback by such reasonable yet ominous words from such a fearsome stranger, the barkeep snatched up the empty mug and trudged away to refill it.

Rakhar drank in silence, keeping to himself. Around him, the muttering started. It wasn’t long before one of them found his voice. “You’re that gravedigger, ain’t you?”

Rakhar looked up to see a scrawny man with red-rimmed eyes and a dirty beard standing on the other side of the firepit. Rakhar nodded.

“I heard about you. My sister’s son lived in Mezzek.” The man wiped his eyes, but his jaw was set firmly.

Rakhar took a long pull on his cup, and stared back down at a puddle of spill on the table. “No one lives in Mezzek anymore.”

“That’s right,” the man’s tone held an accusation. “Because you buried ‘em all.”

The room got very quiet. It seemed like everyone was holding their breath, the words of the man with the red-rimmed eyes hanging in the air.

“Would you prefer I left them all to rot, stinking, where they fell?” Rakhar still did not look up.

Men stirred, muttered under their breath at the harsh words.

“Jek, let it lie,” a man sitting at a table nearby implored the man with the red-rimmed eyes. But Jek ignored his fellow, his shaking hands clenched into fists now.

“Why ain’t you stinkin’, gravedigger?” asked Jek, his voice shaking with anger. “They say when you come to town, the Red Death follows you.”

With a sigh, Rakhar looked back at the man. “You’ve got it the wrong way ‘round, friend. Yes, death has always been a close companion of mine, and it’s always red in the end.” He fixed the man with eyes so brown they glowed crimson in the light of the firepit, his lips twisted in a slight snarl. “But only a fool seeks Her out.”

Jek could not return that fierce stare for very long. After a moment, his shoulders slumped and he staggered out of the tavern, out into the rain and his private grief.

Some of the tension left the room, and conversation resumed. Rakhar returned to his drink, swirling the dregs around in the bottom of the cup. He called for another, and this time the barkeeper did not question him.

It wasn’t long before someone approached again, tentative this time. Rakhar was not surprised to find a woman staring at him, her hands clutched tightly in front of her. She couldn’t have seen thirty winters, but her face bore testament to hard years. He looked up at her.

“Please, sir,” she began in a quiet voice, thick with emotion. “My husband lies dead at our farm; I fear for the little ones . . . ” She sniffed and seemed like she wanted to say more, but only added, after a moment, “I can pay you.”

Rakhar nodded and got to his feet, reaching for his spade. “Lead the way, mother.”

* * *

 

Rakhar buried the farmer, and later he buried his widow and all four of their children. It was not long before the Red Death swept its cloak over the village. Bodies were thrown out of doors by weeping, fearful families, and soon flies and dogs competed for the feasts in the stinking town. Two days after his arrival, Rakhar was hired by Lord Varvatos to bury the dead and was paid handsomely for it.

In the morning, the Half-Orc would load a cart he’d taken from the dead widow’s farm with the bodies of those who’d perished the night before, and he would pull it himself across the shuttered and woebegone town, out to the graveyard behind the old smithy, just under the eaves of the lord’s wood. In the afternoon, he’d dig the holes and lay the bodies down, each to their own grave; Rakhar always gave them this last dignity. In the evening, he would return to the tavern and drink at that table by the firepit, until he passed out and it was morning and time to collect the newly dead.

It was late on the third day when the rain stopped and the clouds parted to reveal the red orb of the sun hanging low in the sky. There was no one still alive who remembered when that sun burned yellow and wholesome, but songs were sung of those brighter days before the Withering, when the Unkindled Flame still burned in the North. Rakhar’s mother sang him a few of those songs, before his father had her put to death.

He was stripped to the waist and in broadcloth breeches, chest deep in a new grave, shoveling dirt out of the hole. His skin, like his father’s was thick and jaundiced, and slick with sweat and grime. The body that would rest in this grave lay uncovered on the ground, waiting for its final resting place. It was the last grave he would dig today, and he was tired. His limbs were heavy and his muscles ached. A distant clatter caught his attention, so he climbed out of the earth and squinted up the road. From the small castle that sat on the hill overlooking the town emerged a cortege of wagons and riders. Rakhar tracked them down the dirt road and through the now almost-deserted town and away. Lord Varvatos, no doubt, and what was left of his household, fleeing before the inevitable and ugly end. The Red Death had already claimed the lord’s daughter, who lay now only feet from Rakhar, as if asleep. The gravedigger looked down on the body. The girl had been young and very pretty, though her delicate features were now twisted in her final agony. He glanced up into the trees and thought how not long ago she had trysted with that dwarf under those very boughs. He wondered if Iolo Ironarm knew or cared his lusty lass was bound for the worms. Perhaps the dwarf himself had already succumbed, but after that first rainy afternoon, Rakhar had not encountered him again. If he had any sense, he had fled the town, just as Lord Varvatos did now.

Satisfied with his work, Rakhar lifted the dead girl off her bed of rotting leaves and placed her in the ground. He began shoveling the mound of dirt back into the hole, covering her up, and it was just as the sun was setting that he became aware of the sound of horse’s hooves again. He wiped sweat from his eyes and looked around, expecting to see more riders from the castle, or perhaps some returning. But the sound came not from the road, and he was greeted with a wholly different sight, one that caused the hairs on his chest and arms to rise.

From out of the sunset across empty fields of long grass they came, five riders on bone-white steeds, taller than Men and clad in tattered robes of the blackest sackcloth. They rode toward the graveyard, straight for him. Their faces were hidden by hoods, but there in the failing light of the day, Rakhar thought of the dread Lornael, ancient enemy of the Orc race. In his youth, he’d listened to Orc skalds weaving nightmare images of their long-extinct foemen. An Elder Race, they were, Tenders of the Unkindled Flame, born in the dawntime and as beautiful as the Orcs were dreadful. It was said they all died when the Flame in the North went out. For a certainty, all their cities lay abandoned and toppled into ruin. But, sang the skalds, some few of the Lornael had slipped Death’s grasp, and had returned to ride their ghost-steeds upon the earth, to hunt the Sons of Orguz as they had in life, not resting until Orckind was wiped from the earth.

Surely these were not spectral slayers, sprung from misty legend into the waking world, but as Rakhar watched them closing the distance, a fear grew in him; spectral slayers or not, the riders bore down on him with increasing speed, and showed no sign of slowing. Did they mean to run him down?

He had no time to think about it further. The spade fell from his hands and he sprinted for the cover of the woods. The naked-limbed trees were a barely-glimpsed blur as he ran, the pounding of horses’ hooves growing louder and louder. He plunged deep into the woods, only once risking a look behind him, and what he saw made his blood run cold. The horses reared up at the edge of the woods, their forelegs kicking the air; and though it was not yet winter, icy breath came from their flaring nostrils. The hooded figures dismounted and continued their pursuit. So long were their robes they seemed to glide across the forest floor after their chosen prey. And they were faster than Rakhar, gaining on him, spreading out to flank him, cutting off all avenues of retreat.

Rakhar put his head down and ran. He was faster than typical of one of his size, but he was not fast enough. A glance to the side revealed one of his pursuers had drawn almost even to him. The figure turned its head toward Rakhar, and from the depths of the hood, glinted twin pinpricks of blue light, like reflections on ice.

Lornael.

He was not going to be able to escape them; they were gaining on him too quickly. Icy breath tingled against his neck.

It is the end, Son of Orguz,” came a soft exhalation, and something flashed by him, knocking him slightly off his stride. He stumbled and almost lost his footing, and where it had touched him, his shoulder burned like frost bite. He ignored it and the silky, taunting voice, running as hard as he could, trying to stay even a little ahead of them to buy himself some time. If he could not outrun them, he’d have to fight them. If only he had not left his spade behind.

The next instant he burst into a clearing, where the ground sloped up beneath a rocky mound, making it a natural wall; if he put his back to it, they could only come at him from one direction. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. He made his defensive position and turned, hands poised to rend, his lips curling back from his thick, pointed canines.

They emerged from the trees, five hooded figures in tattered robes, all at least as tall as he, drawn up against him. The blue lights of their eyes burned brightly in the gathering gloom of dusk as one figure set itself apart, gliding forward. The hood fell and long silver hair flowed out from a face so sharp and beautiful it hurt to look upon.

“What do you want from me?” Rakhar spat at her, one hand shading his eyes.

The woman wore a thin silver circlet that bound her long, wispy hair. In answer, she turned to one of the others, and spoke a single, musical word: “Jaranthasalasar . . . 

The Lornael she invoked raised his arm and in his hand there manifested a javelin of crackling power. Drawing back his arm, he hurled the bolt at Rakhar. It struck the Half-Orc’s upraised left hand, pinning it to the wall of rock behind him.

Laelandras,” hissed the lady of the Lornael. Another of her band raised her arm and caught a burning spike of blue power in her hand and sent it, unerringly, to pierce Rakhar’s right hand, binding that arm, too, to the wall.

Rakhar groaned and heaved against the nails of weird energy trapping him beneath the slope. His hands were afire with pain, and jolts of agony traveled down his arms, and into his chest.

The lady whispered two more names: “Neochamanderan. Zaballaxiaster,” and the remaining two Lornael sent their luminous spears of power, one into each of Rakhar’s legs. Like a bug on an alchemist’s table, the gravedigger was splayed, straining but bound tight.

Only the lady had refrained from hurling a bolt. Now she approached, fixing him with her eyes of chipped ice, hair blowing back from gracefully curved and pointed ears, though the wind seemed to swirl only around her.

What I want from you, spawn of Daemonium,” she answered his question at last, “is for you to die, like all of the treacherous and misbegotten Sons of Orguz.” She raised her arm, and gathered from the whirling motes of icy air a spike of sizzling blue power. She was poised to deliver the killing stroke, to drive the shard of energy into Rakhar’s heart or brain — but something stopped her.

He was laughing.

It was no half-crazed, panic-laced mirth, but a laugh of genuine irony. It stayed the lady’s hand. She regarded him with interest. He had, apparently, surprised her.

Why do you laugh?

Through pain-filled eyes, Rakhar turned his gaze upon her countenance, looking as long as he could bear upon her heart-breaking loveliness. “Because, lady, I have beaten you to many of your prey. We share the same desire.”

Almost before he had gotten all the words out, the blue shard in her hand slashed across his face. It cut a swath from his brow, over his broken nose and across one cheek, slicing and cauterizing the flesh in the same stroke. Rakhar gritted his teeth against the blow, and the chill that suffused his body already made him swoon now.

“What do you know of the desires of the Lornael?” Demanded the lady, her words all but freezing the air between them. “What but the basest desires would drive an Orc?”

“My mother was a human woman,” gasped Rakhar, shivering in the preternatural cold. “Captured by Orcs. My father killed her, and when I was strong enough, I killed him. Then I slew every Orc I could find. Even now, where I find them, I slay them.”

The lady of the Lornael regarded him intently. The spike of power in her right hand did not flicker or fade, but with her other hand she made as if to touch his face. It burned where her pale fingertips brushed his scarred cheek, dark blue fingernails leaving scratches even at this lightest of touches. Her sapphire-colored eyes widened almost imperceptibly and she pulled her hand back.

This Kinslayer speaks the truth,” she said softly. The Lornael behind her stirred, and it seemed that some sort of conversation passed between them, but it was swift and sibilant, and soon cut short. However, Rakhar caught another name, spoken with respect bordering on reverence: Amandalainion, they called her.

The Lady Amandalainion held up her blue bolt and it flared, casting shadows across the clearing. “Rakhar Kinslayer, we are not monsters,” she declared in a loud, strident voice. “You do the work of the Lornael, but the Orc stain must not be allowed to spread. This is our Doom. Thus it falls on you, too!

The blue shard of energy swept down and then drove upward between his legs, burying itself in his loins. Amandalainion held it there long enough to catch his bulging eyes with hers; there was no comfort in that gaze, but the revulsion with which she’d regarded him was replaced with something like pity. He thrashed, impaled on her power as she withdrew the shard. His last sight before he lost consciousness was of her face, beautiful beyond compare, as she drew up her hood and turned away.

 

* * *

 

That face was etched in his brain, burning and freezing him at the same time. It haunted his feverous thoughts, watching with impassive elegance as he faced his father again, within a circle of Orc berserkers, all of them banging the hilts of their curved blades against their shields, marking time with the beating of his heart.

Nagarakh Grimjaw was as big as his half-human son, but like every Orc of pureblood, he stood hunched over, his heavy knuckled hands brushing the ground. Torchlight glinted from canines that had ripped out the throat of more than one pretender to his throne of bones.

“Come at me, milkblood,” growled the Orcish chieftain. “I’ll add your bones to my chair and tonight I’ll feast on your guts.”

It had been a bloody and fearsome battle. In the end, father and son had grappled close, Nagarakh’s mouth slavering for his son’s throat, Rakhar’s arms binding his father across his chest and back. The loud crack of the chieftain’s twisted spine signaled the end of the fight. All that was left was for Rakhar to stamp his hobnail boot upon his father’s neck, to the maddened and guttural yelps of the berserkers. The throne of bones was his, but he would not keep it long. His eyes had scanned the ring of Orc warriors, and there she was, inside the circle, the Lady Amandalainion, watching him with eyes that were like a cool wind after a fire.

He fixed the image of her in his mind, and woke up, still pinned to the rock face. It was full dark now, but the bolts of the Lornael in his hands and legs cast an eerie flickering glow onto the night. His whole body thrummed with pain, but worst of all was the cold numbness between his legs. She had done something awful to him, he knew. Taken something. The Orc stain must not be allowed to spread . . . He thrashed savagely against his bonds, gnashing his teeth. Lances of agony ran up his arms and legs, converging in his bowels and chest. He passed out again.

All that he had ever known of beauty and comfort had been his mother, and sometimes he dreamed of her, as she had been, soft and pale, with long brown hair like wheat, and eyes that lit only for him. Her voice was all the balm that had ever been granted to him. Once, after his half-brothers had branded his arms and back with hot irons, she had rubbed soothing ointment over the scorched and sizzling flesh, and sang to him a lullaby of the homeland she knew she would never see again. It came to him now, echoing in his head:

Lush the rivers of Galad flow,
Where tall the trees of elder grow,
O, sing to me of sweet surcease,
As down the stream we slowly row.

The rivers of Galad will keep,
In cool blue grottoes still and deep,
All the tears and fears you hide,
So hush now, dear, and go to sleep.

The ache that dwelt deep in his chest expanded into his throat. He became gradually aware of a burning thirst, and knew if he could not free himself from the rock wall, he would soon perish. The rivers of Galad flowed only in his fevered hallucinations, tormenting him, but the face that hovered before him now was not that of his mother, but of Lady Amandalainion. Had she come back to release him? The steady, sapphire-eyed gaze softened, the sweet pale lips curving into the suggestion of a smile.

Something like a croak bubbled up from him. Cool water splashed against his mouth, and he drank it, letting it slide down his throat and neck, reviving him. Blinking against the light of the setting sun, he opened his eyes, and the beautiful face of the lady of the Lornael that swam before him resolved into the bald pate and gap-toothed grin of a freckled and red-bearded dwarf.

“I never thought to see you again, gravedigger,” the dwarf grunted and raised the waterskin back to Rakhar’s cracked lips. “Seems our fortunes are reversed since last we met.”

The clearing was empty but for them, and the sun bathed it in a warming red light. He had stood, crucified on the rock, for a night and a day. Rakhar gulped down the water the dwarf offered.

When he drank his fill, Rakhar found his voice again, though it was thick and rough. “Get me down.”

Iolo Ironarm took a step back, capping his now empty waterskin, one eyebrow cocked in grim amusement. “What sort of sorcerer’s mischief is this? Did you get surly with the wrong man, gravedigger?”

“No sorcery.” Rakhar strained against the sputtering spikes of power pinning him to the wall. The water had revived him a little. “Lornael.”

The dwarf let out a low whistle. “The Lost Kindred? You expect me to believe those fey ghosts were here? That they did this to you?”

“I don’t care what you believe,” Rakhar snarled, “only help me down. You owe me a debt, dwarf.”

“Might be I do,” the dwarf said, but made no move except to scratch his bushy beard. “But what good does it do to return a kindness and earn the immortal enmity of phantom Orcslayers?”

“They could have killed me,” Rakhar rasped. “I was spared.”

“Mayhap they expected you to die, thusly?” The dwarf gestured to the crackling blue bolts. “Of hunger or exposure? Or nibbled to death by forest creatures. Pretty perverse of them, granted, but then you are an Orc. Or Half-Orc, anyway. Not that I ever had a quarrel with the Sons of Orguz,” Iolo added hastily, casting a glance behind him, into the trees, lowering his voice. “But nor do I want one with Lornael.”

“It was mercy,” Rakhar muttered, his eyes drooping, remembering that last look from the Lady Amandalainion. “They spared me. She spared me.”

Iolo snorted again. “There are many legends of the Lost Kindred, gravedigger; none of them mention mercy. Especially toward your kind. Still . . . I might be persuaded to risk helping you . . . for a price.” There was a hard glint of cunning in the dwarf’s eye now.

“My coin purse is full. Take it all.”

“I don’t want your money, gravedigger,” the dwarf scoffed, all trace of his former bemusement gone now. “I want to hire you.”

Another wave of pain rippled through Rakhar’s body, causing his chest and arm muscles to spasm. “Yes, yes, whatever you want,” he said through gritted teeth. “Free me!”

Iolo approached, rubbing his thick hands together briskly. Planting his boots firmly on the ground, he reached for the bolt in Rakhar’s left leg, and before he could think twice about it, grasped it tightly. A cold so intense that it burned raced up Iolo’s arms into his chest, but he braced himself and heaved with all his strength. The bolt flared in his hands, sticking stubbornly at first, but then it gave and slid out. The coldfire flickered and was snuffed, the bolt vanishing completely.

The dwarf shook his hands to get his blood flowing again. “They don’t call me Ironarm for nothing,” he told Rakhar with a confident grin. But Rakhar was too distracted to pay him mind; there was no blood where the bolt had been, no wound at all it seemed. Just the pain of feeling returning to his leg.

After several minutes, the dwarf had the rest of the coldfire bolts out, and Rakhar slumped, weak-limbed to the ground. He was alive. She had spared him. But he was not whole. He clutched at his groin, where her knife had pierced him, and he groaned.

The dwarf squatted by him, giving him an appraising look. Rakhar watched him through heavy eyes, gratitude warring with suspicion for the dwarf.

“What do you want of me, Iolo Ironarm?” he muttered warily.

The dwarf clapped a big hand on Rakhar’s shoulder and his lips parted to reveal that space between his front teeth that gave him such a wolfish smile. “What else, gravedigger? I want you to help me bury somebody.”

* * *

 

Lord Varvatos whipped his horse to greater speed, glancing behind him as if he expected to see the Red Death personified nipping at his heels. It had been two days since he had fled his castle, and the sickness that carried away his slut of a daughter and most of his wretched village had caught up to him; last night, as his household train rested by the Elakk River, his wife vomited blood and collapsed. While his sons had rushed to comfort her, he had backed away in horror, holding the edge of his cloak up to his mouth and nose.

He could find another wife. He could make more children.

Not waiting for his horse to be saddled, he had ridden bareback from the camp, past the startled men-at-arms who were already scratching at splotchy rashes on their necks and arms. Nor did he stop when the sun went down, urging his mount faster and further. If he did not rest, he could reach the lightning-struck tower by dawn.

In his prime, Varvatos had been a man other men feared. Broad of shoulder with a mane of wild black hair, he had driven away the brigands and reavers who had ruled the lawless towns west of the river, claiming lordship as his prize. But though his breadth turned to girth and his mane to grey, the fire of his ambition did not die. Richer towns had escaped his grasp, including that jewel of the lands watered by the river, Lakkia, fat with merchants rich off the crossroads trade. The damned merchant-princes hoarded their wealth, spurning Varvatos’ offers of protection and guarding well against the day when it might come to a test of arms.

But Varvatos had grown more cunning than the youth who had in years past carved himself a demesne with sword and axe, and what he could not take with steel, he would win with sorcery. Whispers had come to him that weird lights had been seen from the parapet of a ruined tower on a blasted heath, and that gibbering voices could be heard coming from it from miles away. It was said, his poor doomed wife had reminded him, that they who crawled into bed with sorcerers awake twined with serpents. Varvatos rode to the tower anyway, and there he met Xalbulba.

Foam flecked the mouth of his horse and a sheen of blood glistened down its flanks from his spurs. Ridden past endurance, the beast’s heart burst and it fell, throwing its rider. Varvatos hit the ground with a jarring jolt, rolling into a tree hard enough to make him cry out. No matter, he thought, I am here.

Rising before him was a dilapidated tower of ancient stone and crumbling mortar. Vines crawled up the length of the structure, which leaned precariously to one side. The top was blackened, as if burned by fire or lightning, and whole sections of wall were gaping open, making it seem a rotting skeleton of a once-hale body. The whole thing was enclosed by a grove of dead trees and brambles, so thick together as to make entrance impossible. This grim, enchanted grove, the necromancer had told him, would admit entrance to no man.

“Necromancer!” Varvatos called up to the top of the ruined tower. “Damn you, Xalbulba, let me in!”

His cry stirred a flock of birds from some nearby treetops, but otherwise it merely echoed off the old stones of the tower. No lights could be seen glowing through the windows and holes; all was still.

Varvatos was drawing breath to yell again when the wall of trees and thorn bushes surrounding the tower rustled. The curling stems of the brambles twisted and moved, the trees themselves shifting in such subtle ways that movement was difficult to detect in the dappled light of the day, but after a moment, a path was cleared and a figure in a scarlet robe could be seen emerging from the tower gate. The sight of the necromancer always disconcerted Varvatos, for Xalbulba had no arms and a weird, loping gait, so that when he moved he swayed from side to side, like the serpent of his wife’s warnings.

Varvatos found his hand going to the hilt of the sword buckled to his waist.

The necromancer stopped at the edge of the dead grove, his body arched slightly to one side, his head cocked to the other. Wispy white hair wreathed his head and wrinkles lined a cruel, sybaritic face. His eyes were clouded with rheum, but on his forehead was painted a third eye, and it was that eye that Varvatos felt was watching him now.

“I had not thought to see you again so soon, Varvatos,” the necromancer said in a quavering voice through thick lips. A line of drool trailed down his bony chin. “Has our bargain not proved . . . ” His jaw worked, as if searching his mouth for the words. “Advantageous?”

“It has not!” said Varvatos, taking a step toward the necromancer. “You told me the Red Death would kill only my rivals in Lakkia, Trant and Mezzek. Instead it has swept from town to town, laying waste to all who live. How can I consolidate my rule when all my warriors bleed out in their beds? Shall I rule over a kingdom of graves?” His voice shook as he spoke, and before he realized it, he had drawn his sword, brandishing it at his wayward ally.

Xalbulba made a low, thoughtful sound, and swayed so that he leaned to the other side; he seemed unconcerned by the naked steel before him, and sneered. “The magicks you called for sometimes have a will of their own, hmmm? Have I not fulfilled my end of the bargain? Are your enemies not dead?”

Varvatos gnashed his teeth. He gripped his sword so tightly it trembled in his grasp. He closed the distance to the necromancer, spitting into his face. “Everyone is dead, damn you! What good is lordship if you have no one to lord over! I only just escaped it, myself!”

“No, you didn’t.”

Xalbulba exhaled a stream of noxious breath. Startled, Varvatos flinched back, but too late: red-tinged breath continued to stream from the necromancer’s open mouth, filling the air between them, getting in Varvatos’ mouth and nose. Varvatos stumbled backward, sword falling from suddenly nerveless fingers. He clawed at his throat, pulling his collar down to no avail. His eyes rolled up into his head and he fell to the ground, his heels kicking in the dead leaves. Blood gushed from his mouth and then he was still.

The necromancer loomed over the body, peering curiously down at it. Varvatos had played his part well. He had seen that the brass oil lamp bearing the Red Death spell had been delivered to the guildhall of the merchant-princes in Lakkia. From there, the plague had spread further even than Xalbulba had dared hope. Thousands had died. And now his time had come.

Ravens cawed, took flight, and the necromancer cocked his head, staring into the sky with his Third Eye. He saw leagues distant, into towns silent as death, villages empty of any living soul. He directed his vision to the rotting bodies in the street, to the freshly-dug graves of Varvatos’ so-named kingdom. Rats and maggots reigned. The necromancer’s Third Eye fixed on one giant rat, gnawing at a loop of guts spilled from a corpse left unburied in a forgotten street in Lakkia. The dead man twitched and snatched up the rat. It squealed as it was squeezed into pulp and chunks in a pitiless grasp. The corpse got to its feet, joining others like him in the streets of the dead city, as they made their slow way, as one, heeding their master’s call.

Thousands had died. Thousands would rise. Xalbulba had his army.

 

* * *

 

“This is it, then . . . ” Iolo Ironarm picked his way through the lifeless camp, stepping over the body of a man-at-arms who simply lay where he had fallen still clutching his spear. “Looks like the plague got them after all.”

Rakhar stood by the embers of the smoldering cookfire, taking in a scene he had encountered too often in recent days: unattended horses were tied up nearby, and corpses left to rot out in the open. There were a few tents, the wind having torn up a post or two, leaving the cloth to flutter, adding to the forlorn sense of abandonment. There was a steady buzz of flies in the air.

The dwarf ducked into the largest tent, one bearing the batwing sigil of Lord Varvatos. Rakhar hoped this ended it. For three days they had tracked the runaway lord’s procession, the dwarf intent on his revenge.

“I can live with what he did to me, and call accounts settled,” Iolo had told him soon after he had taken Rakhar down from the rock. “But he beat poor Varla,” he had said, his face growing clouded. “Whipped his own daughter, and turned her out. It’s no wonder she got the plague. Ruined the sweetest ass I ever had.” He had paused for a wistful sigh, then his expression had darkened again. “A man like that needs killing.” And Rakhar could not disagree.

Despite the dwarf’s tendency to chatter, or sing bawdy tunes, when Rakhar was especially laconic he had proven a good enough traveling companion, quick to share his meat and drink. The dwarf had even retrieved Rakhar’s spade for him while the Half-Orc recuperated from his ordeal. Rakhar would bear scars on his face, hands and legs, but he was otherwise intact, even his manhood, for which he had feared. Yet he felt different. Marked, somehow. And he could not get the image of her face out of his head.

“He’s not here.” The dwarf emerged from the tent with a puzzled expression on his bluff face. “Some woman who’s probably his wife, and two boys, his sons, maybe. But that black-hearted bastard isn’t in there. No doubt he abandoned them all at the first sign of the plague.”

“There’s a horse missing,” Rakhar said.

“How do you know that?”

“There’s an extra saddle and bridle with the wagons.” Rakhar nodded back to where the horses munched on some grass. “He must have left in a hurry.”

A slow, satisfied smile appeared on the dwarf’s face. “Seems you’re still under contract, then, gravedigger. Let’s go find the tracks.”

Absorbed in his thoughts of vengeance, the dwarf did not notice the figure that shuffled out of the tent behind him. It must have been Lord Varvatos’ wife, for it was dressed in fine clothes, but its skin was tinged with a greenish pallor, and worms crawled from its nose and mouth; its eyes were filled with blood, and its hands reached hungrily for the dwarf.

Alerted either by instinct or the stunned expression on his companion’s face, Iolo spun around in time to grab the dead woman’s hands just before they closed around his neck. It bore down on him with a strange vitality it surely had not possessed in life, its mouth gaping wide to bite or suck at him. Perhaps a hand taller but weighing half as much, it nevertheless drove the dwarf to his knees, its teeth snapping close to his face.

Rakhar swept in with his spade, delivering a ringing blow to its head that all but crushed the skull. It dropped, but two more figures crawled out of the tent, the boys, apparently, and just as dead as their mother had been.

“Beards of the Saltfathers!” Iolo gasped as Rakhar pulled him away. “What the High Hell is going on?”

The two boys crawled over the wreckage of their mother’s corpse, arms outstretched for the companions. They weren’t moving especially fast, but Rakhar’s thrusting spade did not deter them at all.

Iolo swore, some hysteria creeping into his voice. “There’s more.”

All around the camp, bodies were stirring and picking themselves off the ground or stumbling out of tents; all of them had the same sickly green cast, and all of them — despite their animation — were undeniably still dead. Flies swirled around them, and maggots continued to eat their flesh, but they sniffed the air and turned, unerringly, toward the only two living beings in the camp.

“Undead,” Iolo said in a voice he managed to keep steady. He reached behind his back, under his cloak and withdrew the massive double-ended warhammer he kept slung there. “I’ve come across them before, in the spellsinks of Cthona. Bash their brains in, only way to stop ‘em. And don’t let ‘em bite you!” With a loud cry, the dwarf charged the closest knot of the undead, swinging his hammer and scattering them.

Rakhar spared him only a quick look, then a swipe from one of the boys got his attention. Lord Varvatos’ oldest son grasped the shaft of the spade, just above the blade and was trying to pull it out of the gravedigger’s hands, an exhalation like a hiss coming from its slack-jawed mouth. Instead of pulling back, Rakhar simply shoved forward with an unexpected jab, stabbing the scalloped blade into the boy’s face, cracking the bridge of the nose and turning the eyes to jelly. The revenant slid back, off the shaft, but its brother lunged forward. Rakhar met his attack with a slash that opened its throat and caused the head to wobble, barely clinging to the body by shreds of flesh and tendons. The thing lurched at him again, but Rakhar finished the job with a second swing of his spade, the head bouncing back into the tent.

“This is why they call me Ironarm!” the dwarf yelled over to his companion, laying about with his warhammer in all directions, drawing a crowd of the undead to him. Though he stood a full head or more shorter than his foes, he smashed at them with abandon. He caved in chests, which did not stop a revenant, but it certainly kept it from advancing on him, and on the backstroke swung his hammer into another’s head, splattering brain and skull across the ground. Sometimes he had to use the strap, whirling the hammer in a winding-up motion, then striking out at a foe with deadly accuracy when it was close enough. He swept out legs, then two-handedly hacked down to drive the spike-end of his warhammer through a head.

“There’s more coming,” Rakhar called out to him, pointing into the distance. A large crowd of figures were making their way over a hillside, straight for the camp. Rakhar stepped into a heaving slash, sending another head flying. “We can’t fight off all of them. We have to go.”

Iolo put his boot on the chest of a fallen revenant and plucked his warhammer from the cavity of a dead spearman’s eye socket. The camp was all but cleared of the undead, but the respite would not last long. They made a dash for the horses. Iolo had his sturdy hill pony already saddled, but Rakhar did not have a mount yet. He chose the only one still wearing saddle, bit and bridle, and leaped onto its back. The drab-colored beast was spooked by the Half-Orc, reared and would have thrown Rakhar, had he not seized the reins and steadied himself. Rakhar yanked hard and pulled it about, then kicked at its flanks. The horse shot off after Iolo and his pony.

The dwarf looked over his shoulder at Rakhar, and barked a harsh laugh. “Not much of a rider, are you, gravedigger?”

Rakhar shot him a dark look and reflected that he hated horses probably as much as they hated him.

When they were some distance from the camp, they pulled up and came to a momentary halt. The battle fever waning in him, Iolo was sweating and taking deep breaths, his eyes still a little wild. “The undead make my skin crawl.” An involuntary shiver ran through him. He eyed the gore-encrusted spade slung over Rakhar’s back and shook his head. “That was a nasty little scuffle back there. Next time, you might want to think about wading into it with something a little more deadly than a shovel.”

“It’s a spade.”

“You made the best of it, I’ll grant you that, gravedigger. Still, I’d feel better if you had my back with three feet of steel rather than some pitted iron on the end of a stick.” The dwarf reached into his saddle bag for a waterskin, took a gulp and tossed it to Rakhar. The Half-Orc did not comment on the slight tremble in his companion’s hand, and drank in silence. Talking seemed to steady the dwarf’s nerves. “If there are undead, there’s a necromancer involved, somewhere. And I’d bet my beard that weasel Varvatos is wrapped up in this somehow, too.”

Rakhar threw the waterskin back to Iolo and said, “Look.”

The dwarf followed his pointing finger straight ahead, and squinting, saw a mass of people coming toward them. They were not moving very fast, nor did they seem to be particularly orderly, as soldiers would have been. But there were hundreds of them — maybe more — and they were directly in their path.

Iolo cursed. “More of the moldy buggers. They’re coming from all directions, looks like. Except east. A thousand of them, maybe more. Looks like all your hard work was for naught, gravedigger. Not many of them are stayin’ in the ground.”

“There are more dead than alive in these lands,” Rakhar muttered. “Since the Red Death came.”

The dwarf glanced sharply at the implication. A rank smell blew through, causing their mounts to whinny and paw the ground nervously. The two shared a look of mutual concern, both knowing Rakhar to be right. If indeed those who fell from the Red Death were rising now, the reanimated would outnumber the living. The lands west of the River Elakk would be a haunted kingdom, a nightmare-place.

“We have to get out of here,” the dwarf said, glancing at the approaching horde. “The river is our best chance — the undead won’t cross it.”

Rakhar shook his head, gesturing vaguely toward the distant ribbon of blue in the east. “Neither can we; the Elakk is too wide and swift here. But the nearest ford is not far away, just a few hours ride. Across the Blasted Heath.”

“That place has an evil reputation,” Iolo muttered. “But it looks like we’ll have to take our chances. Come on, gravedigger. Time to quit this woebegone land. Damn my beard, but it galls that Varvatos goes unrewarded for his villainy . . . ”

 

* * *

 

They rode hard the rest of that day, not daring to stop for even a moment’s rest. Though they had outpaced the revenants from the campsite, they soon spotted more groups of them, and in greater numbers. At one point they were forced to ride through a knot of them. They marched in no order, in clumps or by themselves, but as Rakhar and Iolo galloped through their midst, they seemed to try to close ranks, grasping at them as they tried to navigate the labyrinth of bodies. Before they broke clear, they had ridden down many, and once again bloodied their weapons.

“I don’t like this,” Iolo yelled to Rakhar over the sound of pounding hooves. “These things are supposed to be more or less mindless, but they all seem to be heading in the same direction.”

Yes, Rakhar thought darkly. Ours.

As the sun was bleeding its last light across the horizon, the ground become hard-pack and devoid of almost all vegetation, but for some hardy weeds; the few trees or shrubs there were stood out in stark contrast in the dusty grey waste. Rakhar had never traveled through the Blasted Heath, but he knew its reputation as well as Iolo: local folklore told that long ago, a people had lived here that were so obscene, so vile, that their own gods had struck them down, laying waste to the entire kingdom, so that even centuries later it was still uninhabitable. Rakhar didn’t know if those legends were true, but the land was strewn with the remains of rock walls and crumbling stone fortifications of a long-forgotten civilization.

“It’s going to be too dark, soon, to risk riding.” Iolo reined up his pony, Rakhar rearing to a halt beside him. “We’re going to need shelter, someplace defensible if those things find us.”

Squinting off into the dwindling light, Rakhar spotted beyond a grove of dead trees, a ruined tower, perhaps a mile away.

The dwarf shrugged and flicked his reins, grumbling, “Looks like more shelter than anything else I’ve seen in this benighted land. And that grove should slow down the udead. Come on, gravedigger; I’ll let you have the first watch.”

The closer they got to the lightning-struck tower, the more Rakhar did not like the look of it. There was something wrong about the dead trees that stood sentinel around it; their mounts balked at the edge of the grove, refusing to go further.

“Come on, damn you,” Iolo said and kicked his pony, but the animal would not budge, yanking his head away from the sight of the grove.

A sudden fluttering of wings erupted close by. Black feathers swirled around them, and Rakhar was forced to throw up an arm to shield his face. The air around them was filled with ravens, all of them circling and crowding the dwarf and the half-orc.

“Halfmen!” came the intelligible cry of a bird, in a voice pitched like no human’s. “Halfmen beat the spell! Xalbulba beware!”

Rakhar and Iolo all but fell from their saddles and rushed into the grove, fleeing the swarm of birds. Almost instantly upon reaching the cover of the trees they left behind the squawking menace. The birds rose into the dusk, cawing out their alarm, even as the horse and pony galloped away in fright.

“What in the High Hell was that?” Iolo demanded, beating dark feathers out of his beard and cloak. Both he and Rakhar were covered in little cuts and scratches from beak and talon. “That bird spoke! He called us Halfmen . . . Something about a spell?”

The little hairs on the back of Rakhar’s neck rose. He hefted his spade, staring through the gloom toward the open portcullis of the tower; something stirred in the darkness there. “Dwarf, that necromancer you mentioned earlier, the one behind the undead? I think we’ve stumbled onto his holt.”

A figure emerged from the tower, approaching them through the trees. He wore good leather boots, and a fine red cloak, bearing a batwing sigil.

Iolo swore almost joyously and brandished his hammer in recognition of the man — it was Lord Varvatos.

But Varvatos was much transformed. His skin was pale, almost translucent, and stretched taut over his bones. His graying dark hair was lanky and framed a face devoid of human expression: the eyes were clouded over and his jaw was slack. In his hand he bore a notched longsword. A stench rose from him that made Iolo gag and take a step back.

“So much for your revenge, dwarf.” Rakhar raised his spade and stepped forward. “Someone’s already killed him for you. All that’s left is to put him in the ground.”

Rakhar rushed to engage Lord Varvatos, but the revenant lowered his sword, lips retreating from decaying teeth in a warning hiss. Rakhar held his spade two-handed, eyeing the undead lord closely.

Varvatos stepped aside, and pointed with his sword to the open portcullis. An invitation.

Rakhar and Iolo exchanged glances.

“He has made of me a slave . . . ” said the man who was once Varvatos in a dry exhalation of breath. “A lich-king to lead an army of dead men against Xalbulba’s wizardly rivals.” The stiff head turned and they followed his gaze through the trees of the grove and across the Heath; hundreds upon hundreds of undead could be seen approaching from every direction, all converging on the tower. “I cannot resist his will much longer; soon, we will all be in his power. Avenge us, halfmen! Quickly!

Varvatos’ body trembled as if he struggled to assert his own will. Rakhar and Iolo needed no further prodding; there was no escape the way they’d come, so they rushed past him, into the tower.

They entered what looked like had once been a guard hall, sparing hardly a glance for anything but the staircase that spiraled up from inside the wall. Rakhar took the steps two at a time, Iolo laboring to keep up with him. Portions of the wall had fallen away, giving them a clear view of the Blasted Heath below as they climbed. By the light of the new-risen moon, they could see the grey wasteland was filled with shambling forms, drawn like moths to the lightning-struck tower.

At last they came to a landing. By the time Iolo climbed the last step, Rakhar had already put shoulder to the iron banded door that barred their way. It rattled but didn’t budge.

“Out of the way, gravedigger!” Iolo cried, twisting the haft of his hammer in a two-handed grip. “Let me show you why they call me Ironarm!”

The wood splintered and cracked under his first blow; his second tore the door off its hinges. Rakhar saw the flash of light just in time to tackle the dwarf to the ground. Serpentine trails of lightning crackled out of the opened doorway, scorching the wall behind them, directly in the path where Iolo had been a moment before. The two of them lifted their heads only when the attack had ceased, in time to spy a grotesque figure in red swaying weirdly away. They surged upright and charged through the smashed doorway.

It was an open-aired room at the top of the tower, most of the roof and one large section of wall ripped away in whatever cataclysm that had destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago. Now it was the necromantic Xalbulba’s foul bolt-hole, dead leaves blowing across a floor scrawled with arcane symbols. Torches set in wall sconces lit the night, a rising wind causing the flames to flicker and cast long shadows. The armless necromancer himself stood now in the center of the chamber, hunched over an object on a brass pedestal. It was a smooth-surfaced crystal globe, the size of a man’s head, completely opaque, but alive with opalescent colors that throbbed and pulsed from a source deep within. Energies crackled around it, like little worms of light.

Xalbulba lifted his gaze to the intruders, the light of the sphere reflected in his milky eyes; but the painted Third Eye on his forehead exuded malevolence.

“Halfmen,” the necromancer chewed the word with profound distaste. “No human man could have penetrated my ensorcelled grove, so they send an orc and a dwarf.”

“He’s a half-orc,” Iolo corrected with what sounded like forced bravado. “But twice the man of any I’ve ever met. You might try looking in a mirror, sometime, yourself, you red-robed inchworm.”

Xalbulba’s eyebrows shot up, but it was the Third Eye that tracked Iolo as he moved to the right, then back to Rakhar as he edged to the left.

“Very soon you both will be just two more soldiers in my undead horde,” said the necromancer dismissively, looking from one to the other as they tried to flank him, seeming supremely unconcerned by it. “But first, tell me: which of my enemies do you serve? The Coven of the Black Wyrm? Shegaal? The Warlocks of Cthon? Ah . . . ” He tilted his brow toward the advancing Rakhar, the better for his Third Eye to regard the half-orc. “Curious! I see the mark of the Lornael is upon you. Can you truly be serving the Lady?”

The words had an unexpected effect on Rakhar, bringing him up short, filling him with a heady brew of shock, trepidation, disgust and something like hope. The image of the Lady Amandalainion’s face swam before him, chastising him, entreating him, harrowing him . . .

Taking advantage of Rakhar’s momentary lapse, the necromancer attacked. He opened his almost toothless mouth, neck extended, and exhaled a gout of flame. The fireball engulfed Rakhar and the half-orc fell back, screaming. Iolo sprang forward with a battle-cry, but his hammer rebounded off an invisible barrier around the necromancer. However, he managed to get Xalbulba’s attention, and the jet of flame arced towards him. The dwarf escaped immolation by ducking and rolling to the side, the fire sweeping over him, the necromancer having miscalculated Iolo’s height.

The sound of the necromancer’s triumphant cackling filled the ruined room at the top of the lightning-struck tower. Rakhar rolled frantically on the floor to put out the flames, the only thing saving him the thickness of his Orcish hide; a Man would already have succumbed. Iolo pressed the attack on Xalbulba, striking at him in swift, smashing blows that glanced off the necromancer’s wards, but nonetheless drove him back from the crystalline sphere on the brass pedestal. No longer laughing, Xalbulba barked a word of power and a whirlwind rose up in the room, so powerful it plucked the dwarf off his feet and hurled him against a wall.

But the whirlwind had an unintended consequence: before it abruptly subsided, it had blown out the flames that clung to Rakhar. Across the room Iolo moaned and struggled to rise. Rakhar pulled himself from the floor, his skin red and raw in places, horribly blackened in others, his face a mask of dreadful rage. The necromancer shrank back from him, muttering quickly to strengthen his wards. Lifting his scorched spade in both hands, Rakhar lurched forward.

Xalbulba’s Third Eye flared. But the sorcerer was not the target of Rakhar’s fury — not directly. The flat of his spade sent the crystalline sphere sailing off its pedestal, striking sparks where it bounced on the stone floor, rolling to a stop at the unsteady feet of Iolo. The dwarf saw immediately what the Half-orc intended. His eyes wide, Iolo heaved his hammer up, then brought it crashing down on the sphere. The blow shattered the crystal, sending shards and mist in all directions.

The necromancer shrieked, a great portion of his power broken. His Third Eye burst into flame, and he howled, falling to his knees, swaying crazily from side to side. He was probably blind to the Half-orc looming over him, but turned his head toward the sound of the ragged breaths.

“I guess that’s why they call him Ironarm,” Rakhar said, and with one swing of his blackened spade, swept off the necromancer’s head.

Waving one hand to disperse the cloudy trails that had escaped the sphere, Iolo shuffled over to inspect his comrade’s handiwork. The two exchanged a look of shared exultation and weary exasperation.

“I was right,” Iolo grunted, his hand flopping toward the dripping spade in Rakhar’s grip. “That thing could take a head clean off.”

A noise from behind alerted them. They spun around to find the lich who in life had been Lord Varvatos, watching them. Behind him, in the ruins of the doorway, they could see a crowd of revenants, slack-jawed and dead-eyed, waiting.

Iolo clutched his hammer, though his stiff and sore muscles could barely bear the weight of it now. Rakhar raised his spade, and a deep, rumbling growl worked itself out from him as he faced this new threat.

But the lich Varvatos made no threatening moves. In fact, as it looked from the crumpled form of the necromancer to his slayers, something like a smile spread across its ghastly face.

“You have freed us,” came the shuddering declaration. “The wreaker of the Red Death is slain.”

“Necromancy is the father of plagues,” spat Iolo, looking from one dead-faced visage to another.

“Aye, and sire of much else that was evil in these lands,” said Varvatos in a husky voice. “Xalbulba may be dead, but his malice lives on. Thanks to you, we are not pawns in the feuds of wizards, but neither shall we know rest or comfort, joy or light. My people will know only hunger, and a long rotting walk into oblivion.”

“Your people?”

Varvatos’ lips drew back, exposing bloody gums receding from yellowing teeth. “I alone of the necromancer’s thralls possess a will of my own. I was to lead his horde across the lands, and only my will directs them now. I am all that stands between you and ten thousand reanimated corpses hungry to feast on your guts. What say you, halfmen?”

Before Rakhar could speak, Iolo sputtered, “I say you owe us one, O king of dead men!”

The Lich-King Varvatos regarded them through eyes heavily lidded, pressing cold, blue lips closed again. There was movement among the undead behind him, and a space opened up. For the second time that night, Varvatos stepped aside for them.

“Go, gravedigger and Ironarm, go and let the account between us be settled. Go and tell the world that these lands are mine, and we will brook no trespassers. Leave this sad, haunted demesne to its dread new lord, and pray we do not seek to expand our borders . . . ”

So they fled the lightning-struck tower, slipping past the new king and his worm-eaten subjects. Empty, hungry faces regarded them as they walked through the dead grove, but they were not molested. On the Blasted Heath they found their mounts, slaughtered and being eaten; the undead reavers merely smacked their lips and watched as the dwarf and the half-orc looked back once, then ran into the night.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________
David Charlton is a graduate of the University of South Florida, and works in the financial services industry. A lifelong fan of epic and heroic fantasy, he lives in southwest Florida with his wife, obligatory two cats and a carnivorous mini-lop rabbit.


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