2 Defiler of Tombs, p.1William King
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DEFILER OF TOMBS
MORE BY THE SAME AUTHOR
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DEFILER OF TOMBS
Copyright © William King 2013
MORE E-BOOKS BY WILLIAM KING
Stealer of Flesh
Weaver of Shadow
THE TERRARCH CHRONICLES
The Serpent Tower
The Queen’s Assassin
The Inquiry Agent
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WHEN HE SAW the entrance to the grave mound Kormak knew that his worst fears were justified. The runes carved into the doorway had been smashed and the stone doors thrown open. Whoever had done it had known exactly what they were doing -- the warding spells were broken and whatever ancient evil lurked within the tomb was free.
"What is it?" asked Sir Brandon. The massive knight chewed the ends of his blond walrus moustaches. He looked nervous as a small child about to be punished. "What has happened?"
Behind him the others stirred anxiously. They were mostly simple men-at-arms and a few village peasants, parents of the children who had gone missing. Kormak wished they had not come but there was no way he could have stopped them. Fear for their offspring had outweighed even the dread which hung over the barrows.
"Whatever was in here was let out," Kormak said. He ran his hand through his greying black hair and wished that he was alone. The trail had led right from the outskirts of their village to this foul place, and they had insisted on coming. He hoped that what they would find here would not break these people’s hearts.
The sun was setting. Mists gathered in the valleys between the barrows. The mounds were of such size that Kormak had to remind himself that they were not natural hills but raised by men in ancient times, remnants of the dark empire of Kharon which had once ruled most of the northern world.
“You think this is a trap?" asked Sir Brandon. Kormak had fought beside him during the Orc Wars of their youth. The knight had never shown any fear facing hordes of the man-flesh eaters but he was frightened now. Kormak did not blame him. By night this was no place for mortal man. There were things buried in some of these barrows who had worked dire sorcery in their time, magic that let them defy even death.
"Take these people home," Kormak said. “I will do what has to be done here.”
“We don’t have time," said Brandon."There’s no way I can get them back to the village before full dark."
Kormak could see the sense in his words; these hills might soon be crawling with the creatures of Shadow. Human weapons would prove no protection against what could be waiting.
The knight’s horse whinnied nervously as if it had caught the scent of something strange in the air. The men-at-arms glanced around them, clutching their spears tighter and looking to their feudal overlord for guidance. He in turn looked at Kormak.
Kormak’s hand went to the hilt of the ancient blade he carried on his back and rested on the centuries worn grip. The others saw his action and shifted nervously. Like their knight they were simple people, unused to confronting the old dark things of the world. They had neither Kormak's training nor his experience.
"Form up in a circle," said Kormak. He made for his own horse and reached into the saddlebags, pulling out a heavy sack that he had brought for just such eventuality as this. The air was still tonight which would work in their favour.
"What are you doing?" asked Sir Brandon.
"All of you stand together," said Kormak. "And no matter what happens, once I have created the Elder Sign, don't break it until I tell you it’s safe or until dawn comes."
As he spoke, Kormak opened the ties on the neck of the sack, allowing its contents to spill out as he walked around the people, forming a five pointed star within which the group stood. As he did so he murmured prayers to the Holy Sun, asking for protection. The salt glittered white as bone in the gloom. They looked at him as if he were mad. Some of them licked their lips. Salt was an expensive commodity and he was strewing it on the ground.
"What are you doing?" asked a haggard peasant woman whose only surviving son had gone missing
Kormak forced his voice to be calm and persuasive. "Such blessed salt is inimical to the Old Ones and to things of Shadow. They will not cross a barrier of it.”
He could see the fear written on their faces. It was a sight that he had become familiar with over the years. No one liked to be reminded of the Old Ones, those who had ruled this world before the coming of Men, and who lived on, terrible mockeries of what they had once been, into the new age. No one liked to be reminded of the power of the enemy of the Holy Sun.
"As long as you stay within the Sign, and only so long as you do, you will be safe if they come for you. If you break the barrier you will die or worse."
"But what about you?” asked Brandon. "You're going to be outside the circle."
"He's in league with them!" said one of the men at arms. "He's going to run away and leave us here at the mercy of whatever emerges from that barrow."
The knight glared at the man. "Kormak is a Guardian. He swore an oath to stand against the creatures of the darkness and his soul will be forfeit if he breaks it."
"Perhaps his soul is already forfeit," said the man-at-arms. "Perhaps he's already in league with the Shadow. Guardians have been corrupted before."
"And perhaps you’re a cowardly idiot," said Brandon. "I have known Kormak for years. I would sooner trust him than you."
This had gone long enough, thought Kormak. He had better things to do this night than to argue with a coward. "Leave if you like," he said. "If you wish to brave the hills by moonlight I won't stop you. Just be careful not to break the Sign when you go.”
The soldier looked around to see if anyone would support him. Under the disapproving glare of their liege lord no one would; he saw it and did not want to walk through the night alone. “I was just saying," he said.
“You've just said enough," said Brandon. He looked over at Kormak. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going into the barrow," said Kormak.
Everyone stared at him. They were thinking that only a madman would go down there as night fell. Even after all his years of hunting monsters in the dark, Kormak could not blame them.
"Whatever happens," he told Brandon, "don't let anyone out of the circle until I return or the sun rises. This night there may be things in the darkness that you don't want to meet."
"What about you?"
"I would not leave my worst enemy in the clutches of a tomb wight, let alone those children."
Kormak lit a torch. Its flames made his shadow dance eerily as he walked through the entrance into the barrow. The place was dank and dirty and smelled of old, unclean things. The solitude forced him to think about what might be waiting for him down here in the depths of the earth and about the sort of people who would unleash them.
Why would anyone break the warding runes on a barrow? Eve
Was there some connection between this and the fugitive he sought? He suspected there was. An open grave mound on the trail of a fleeing necromancer— it was an unlikely coincidence. It was entirely possible Morghael had opened this barrow simply as a distraction for his pursuer. He had proved himself ruthless enough to do such a thing in the past. Perhaps this whole thing was a trap. He pushed such thoughts to one side. It was best just to concentrate on the matter at hand.
The corridor sloped down ahead of him. The smell of dank earth and ancient stone filled his nostrils, mingling with the scent of something long dead. Beneath that charnel tang was something he'd come to recognise over his long years of hunting: the pulse of evil magic, the taint of sour, curdled power. This place had been blighted by the Shadow. That was why it had been sealed with Elder Signs.
He could hear nothing; not the cries of the children, not the sound of stealthy movement that he feared. Ahead of him the corridor opened out into a larger chamber whose ceiling arched high overhead. Around the walls were niches in which lay white bones and mouldering clothes and grave goods: weapons, jewellery and small personal treasures.
He paused, fearing that the ancient bones might spring to life. It had happened to him before. For a long moment he let his hand rest on the hilt of the sword. Force of habit kept him from drawing it. He had been taught never to unsheathe his weapon unless a foe was in front of him or immediate danger threatened, unless he intended to kill. He stretched his senses to their uttermost limit, ready to explode into action at the slightest threat. There was only the eerie silence and the sense of a brooding evil presence swirling all around him.
Despite the clamminess in the air he was sweating. He felt warm even though his breath misted before him. He told himself it was the heat from the torch that caused it but he knew that it was not. Even after all these years he was still not used to places such as this. He doubted he would ever be. He could almost feel the weight of the earth pressing down upon him and fought down the first, faint waves of panic.
He passed through another arch, and ahead saw a faint eerie glow. He wondered if whatever was out there knew he was here. If it had been human it could not have failed to notice the approach of his torch, but Kormak had learned that often the things he hunted had senses different from men’s and lacked the ones that humans possessed. Perhaps it was unaware of him, or perhaps it was simply busy about some evil purpose. That thought pushed him closer.
An odd blue light illuminated the place. Kormak had seen its like before, and it had never been a good thing. The space ahead was even larger than the chamber he left behind. It might once have been the tomb of a king. Sarcophagi had been overturned from the large stone slabs on which they rested and in their place lay four small shapes. Kormak knew that he had found whathe had come for but it was not the missing children that held his attention, but rather the thing that stood over them, preparing to feast upon their life force.
Once perhaps it might have been a king or a proud and terrible necromancer. It was robed like royalty, although its clothes were faded and torn. A circlet of some pale metal ringed its desiccated brow. Its skin was grey, sagged and sunken. Bones were visible beneath the parchment-thin flesh. It had the form of a man a thousand years dead. Pale blue light surrounded it and something darker and more intense gleamed in its eyes. The chamber was cold and getting colder as the wight whispered evil words in an ancient tongue.
As Kormak entered it turned to greet him in a voice as chilly as a steel blade left overnight in snow. “I thought luring these tender little morsels into my palace with mists and mirror-magic might prove bait for stronger nutriment and so it has…”
“You should not be here," Kormak said. “You should be dead. At least the body you wear should be."
“I shall consume your essence and when I am done I shall seek out the thief who robbed me.”
“Thief? What was stolen?”
“That is no business of yours. I will soon recover what is mine.”
“I don’t think so.” The wight cocked its head to one side as if amused. Kormak wondered if it could really see him or whether it was looking at his soul. Some of these creatures could do that.
"You're not afraid,” the wight said. “That will change.”
It moved closer, seeming not so much to walk as to drift on the air. Kormak put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The wight laughed. It was a horrible sound and there was no mirth in it. "Such a brave mortal. Such a foolish mortal. You will regret your folly when your soul is devoured and your corpse is my slave forever."
Kormak drew his blade. The steel caught the torch's light. The runes on the blade caught fire. The wight stepped back, casting an arm across its eyes, and letting a long hiss escape from its lips.
“I see you know what I carry," Kormak said.
“It will avail you not."
The wight drew a gleaming sword, its blade pale and cold as the face of the moon. Kormak could see that it too was wound round with deadly spells. The runes on the weapon seemed to absorb the eerie blue light and draw strength from it.
The undead thing lunged at him almost too fast for the eye to see. Kormak raised his blade. Sparks flickered where dwarf-forged steel bit liche-blade. Ozone stench assaulted Kormak’s nostrils. The force of the creature’s stroke was astonishing. Kormak’s fingers felt numb from just holding on to his own weapon. The wight’s hateful laughter echoed through the tomb as it rained down blow after blow on the tall swordsman.
He forced himself to concentrate as he had been taught long ago at the Chapter House on Mount Aethelas. His breathing became more regular, his movements more fluid as he parried the wight’s cold deadly assault. He thrust forward with the torch, aiming it in front of the thing’s face, careful not to touch it lest the chill of the creature dowse the flame. The wight shrieked and the movement of its sword became erratic.
As Kormak had suspected, it did not see like a normal man. Perhaps it perceived his body heat and now it was dazzled by the torch’s blaze. He lashed out with his blade aiming for the creature’s sword arm. There was a sizzling sound and a stink of burning flesh as it bit home. The runes on the blade glowed like molten lava as he pulled it forth. The wight’s sword arm fell to the ground, convulsing like a headless snake. As it did so Kormak’s blade took the thing’s head from its shoulders.
The body thrashed, still animated by whatever dark force was in it. Kormak rammed his blade home a third time and left it there. The crackling sound increased as the runic steel shattered the bond between dark spirit and corpse. Black smoke rose from the body as the wight’s essence left the vessel that held it, seeking another. This was the moment Kormak had waited for, when the thing would be most vulnerable and most dangerous. He was the obvious host for its unbound spirit. Misty tentacles enveloped him and disintegrated as they encountered the protective shield of the Elder Signs he wore. The thing started to swirl away, as if somehow it could still find refuge.
Kormak swept his blade through the shadowy fog. The sword’s fires tore it apart, turning black mist to white and sending puffs of the resulting smoke towards the ceiling. An unholy stench filled the air as the wight’s existence ended forever. Kormak’s torch was the only source of light now and he was glad of it.
He strode towards the small bodies on the slabs, fearing that he had come too late. He could see that one child was already dead, or worse. His skin was grey and flaky. His hair was pale and white, his cheeks were sunken and sere as a wind-dried leaf in Autumn. He looked like a newly d
Kormak touched the small corpse with his blade and it caught fire for a moment before collapsing into a pool of ash. He commended the boy’s soul to the Holy Sun, though he feared the lad was beyond the reach of any sacrament, then he turned his attention to the remaining children.
They were cold and their breathing was all but imperceptible but at least they appeared to be still alive. His blade would free them, one way or another.
KORMAK TOUCHED EACH of the small forms with the edge of his sword, trusting its power to disrupt the spell that enthralled them. Slowly the children began to move, looking up at him with fear and horror in their eyes.
“It’s all right,” said Kormak. “You are safe now.”
“Where are we?” said a girl, younger looking than the rest. She sat upright, stretched, rubbed her eyes. “I had such terrible dreams.”
“You are awake now,” said Kormak.
“Am I?” she asked. It was clear that she did not entirely believe him. She looked at her surroundings, and a terror crept into her eyes that might be there for the rest of her days. Kormak understood that; he had felt such fear himself sometimes, awakening in the strange dawns of his horror-haunted life.
“Are you a friend of the cold king?” she asked.
“Who?” He kept his voice gentle.
“The cold king. We got lost when the mists came on the hills. He found us and brought us to shelter and we slept. He talked to me in my dreams, saying he would make me a princess forever.”
“He lied to you. He is gone now.”
“Did you kill him?”
“I could not kill him. He was already dead.”
“Then what did you do to him?”
“I sent what was in him back to the Shadow.”
The other children were crying now. It was a good sign in its way. For them, he had been in time. At least he hoped he had. Sometimes the survivors of such rituals were altered and became worse than the things that had taken them, wolves among men. That was not his problem now. His problem was to get these children back to their families, and get them all home before something worse befell them all. And he would have to explain to the parents of one of them that their child would not be returning. The sense of his failure cut deep, one more to be added to a long list.
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