Kallie embraced both as she hung from the castle’s turret. One hand clutched a rocky outcrop high above the parapet; the other held a blackened steel dagger. Additional knives hung tight in a row of sheaths across her back within easy reach. She lurked in the shadows, the waning moon hidden behind a ceiling of churning clouds as she surveyed her surroundings. The ghouls milled about the grassy yard below, without direction. That would last only as long as none of the living sentries spotted her, yet she was confident. The dead never looked up. Men rarely did.
A quiet click drew her gaze. A sleek raven clung to the turret’s roof just above her perch, watching with unabashed intent. Kallie met its gaze for a moment, noting the wisp of white coloring at its forehead that brought to mind a third eye. The bird bristled and shook its wings, making aggressive motions with its sharp beak. Kallie stared until the raven lowered its eyes and fluttered back a few paces, ceding the turret to the more dangerous predator.
“There’ll be meat for you soon enough,” Kallie whispered before turning back to her watch.
She breathed easy behind the mask that hid her features, savoring the crisp, clean air while she could. Once she committed to entering the necrolord’s castle, there would be nothing but the fetid odor of death and decay. Ever since the morbid sorcerers beached their ships on the shores of Delham, the smell had grown more and more pervasive. It invaded the air as its masters invaded the land. The wind carried the stench ahead of the undead armies that marched at the necrolords’ whims, but the warning did little to alter the outcome of the battles that followed. For every living soldier who died in the field, one rose in his place to join the enemy.
There was only one way to defeat the ghouls for good: kill the sorcerers animating them. That was why Kallie was here; against her better judgment. She’d no issue with killing the necrolords—or anyone, for that matter—but never at the behest of the emperor. She ground her teeth together as she recalled the tangled circumstances that led her to work for the man whose collusion with the neighboring Duke Freye was the cause of her father’s death and her enslavement. Kallie had been only thirteen then.
A cold chill settled over her as memories of the dungeons stormed her mind. Her knuckles cracked against the hilt of her dagger, her cheeks warming. Not even the glimmer of Emperor Valtore’s gold could stay her fury, but still she clung to the turret, ready to do the job she’d agreed to. Darren and Gaul were counting on her.
The last surviving members of the Brotherhood of Sorea, the two clerics were the only family she had left. The Brotherhood had saved her from the dungeons when the ghouls overran Averlin, her captured homeland. Now, with the fall of the clerics’ sanctuary to the undead, retribution for the Brotherhood’s stand against the necrolords, the imperial coin was needed for them to carry on their work. The stragglers who’d escaped alongside the clerics needed to be fed. As the brothers had come to her aid, Kallie felt it only right to come to theirs. She knew well enough what it was like to fend for oneself.
A flicker of movement below helped her push aside the morbid reveries she wanted no part of. A sentry stepped from within the turret as he made his rounds along the parapet. Kallie hesitated for just an instant before instinct won out. She released her hold and dropped without a sound, nothing more than a deeper shadow against the wall. Kallie reached out and grabbed the guard’s chain coif as she passed, yanking his head back as her feet hit the ground. Her blade slipped beneath the mail and sliced his throat before he could voice his surprise. She caught a glimpse of wide eyes as she pushed him between the crenels. He toppled into the night’s gloom. Only a muffled thump outside the keep signaled his passing.
Kallie sped along the walkway before another sentry could stumble across the spilled blood and raise an alarm. She scanned the inner bailey for a path free of the walking dead, and slipped into the yard, drawing her sword as she went. It, too, was stained black to hide its shimmer.
The necrolord would likely be in the keep, though given the hour, she had no doubt he would still be active. The sorcerers were nocturnal by nature. That only added to the risk she was taking by coming into this one’s lair at night, but she, too, was a creature of the darkness. If there was anything about the mission that pleased her, it was the opportunity to exact revenge for the loss of her brethren.
Rellan’s death had given her the means to do so.
With a thought, the night peeled back before her as though it were the brightest day, her hearing and sense of smell grew acute as though she were a wild animal. Her strength trumped Brother Gaul’s, yet with none of the speed loss that hampered the colossal cleric. The combat skills she’d learned fighting to survive had been honed and made sharp by the clerics, but those she inherited from Rellan made those meager techniques obsolete. She had become a weapon. She had made his knowledge and training her own.
As she scanned the yard, she spied the ebony flitter of necromantic energies, which tugged the strings of the dead marionettes; another gift from the priest. The psychic leash was dim, active only to keep the bodies sentient, but that clue offered no satisfaction. The lord could be one of the weaker ones to come ashore, or he could simply be holding back for another purpose. Kallie sighed. She wouldn’t know which until she confronted the lord. It’d be too late to worry about it then, so she planned for the worst as she crept across the yard.
Kallie plunged her dagger into a ghoul that stumbled too close, the blade slipping into the base of its skull. The zombie shuddered and went still, its brain stem severed. It was one of only a few ways to return the dead to their graves without destroying the entire body. She left it to crumple to the ground as she weaved her way across the field, making use of what little cover there was. The other dead wouldn’t notice their fallen companion, but she needed to be inside the keep before any of the living spied the fallen corpse. She reached the wall a short distance from the sealed entryway and set her back against its cool stone. Darkness eclipsed her.
It seemed too easy.
She looked across the field and watched the ghouls as they ambled about without purpose. Their numbers appeared diminished, and there were too few of the living around to shepherd the walking corpses. The emperor’s spies had claimed the army of the resident necrolord and were on the march, which explained the lack of ghouls, but the castle felt more like a tomb, all reference to the dead aside. It felt empty. She wondered if maybe the war was taking more of a toll on the necrolords’ forces than people believed. She could only hope, but it was unlikely. There was no shortage of corpses.
The waft of death pierced her mask and stole her attention for just a moment before the wooden door to the keep swung open on weathered hinges. A guard walked out with a confident swagger to a serenade of rusty squeals, two of the dead trailing him. Kallie sunk her dagger into the man’s eye before he took two steps and shoved his lifeless body into the ghouls. They grunted and stumbled back. Neither saw Kallie before she was on them. Their inanimate bodies crumpled alongside the guard’s.
Kallie took a moment to listen, her breath clutched tight in her breast. The bitter tang of rotting flesh distorted her sense of smell, but she heard nothing moving within the foyer of the keep. Corpses on the ground, with nowhere to hide them, it was now or never. She slipped inside.
The chill of the stone floor worked its way through her padded soles as she crept toward the portal she presumed led deeper inside. Portraits hung from the walls, gray dust coating the canvasses and gathering thick at the frame. The colors were muted beneath the wear of time. A great banner hung from the ceiling. The fierce, conquering lion embossed upon its yellow face seemed to mock the destruction of its namesake clan, the Helmonds. They’d been one of the most recent to fall when the necrolords moved inland, the sorcerers raising part of their army from within the Helmonds’ own ancestral cemeteries. The family’s last moments must have been horrific, murdered by the rotting hands of their own kin and creed.
Now the castle had fallen into disrepair, like so many others before the emperor consolidated his allies and withdrew west to form a unified defense. For all the good it would do. The dead marched without rest. It was only a matter of time before the whole of Delham fell, Helmond less than five days from the first of the emperor’s forward defenses.
It sickened Kallie to think such thoughts, but she had seen the walking death that swept across the land and could imagine no other end. The necrolords had scattered to the winds once their foothold had been secured, making it nearly impossible to rein them in. They hid while the ghouls fought their battles, and she could only slay so many of the lords before humanity collapsed.
A chance sighting by one of the emperor’s spies had led her to Helmond. A necrolord settled in the castle as the war raged on. Away from the front, it was an easy presumption that he was confident in his safety. A grim smile creased Kallie’s lips as she drifted through the corridors of the keep. The sorcerers may well claim Delham, but Kallie would whittle their numbers down as best she could. By dawn, there would be one less.
The halls silent, Kallie crept on, working her way toward the chapel where she’d begin her search. What better place for a trafficker of the dead to perform his rituals? She could hear the soft shuffle of ghouls echoing through the castle, but none challenged her. A cemetery chill clung to the air as she rounded a corner and spied the great archway that led to the chapel. Its encircling stones were engraved with the silver glyphs and sigils of Allara, goddess of the sea and good fortunes. Kallie shook her head at them. The Helmonds would have been better served by following Rau, the god of war and vengeance. At least he would have prepared them for war. Kallie smirked. Though the Helmonds had chosen a different path, today, she would be their avenger.
Pressed flat against the archway, she peered inside the room. The subtle waft of acrid chemicals tickled her nose, easing the scent of old death. A twisted smile split her lips. The necrolord had made his home in the chapel.
Rows of wooden pews, covered in bright banners celebrating Allara, led the way to the far side of the chamber. The great marble statue of the goddess, which stood at the head of the altar, was defiled. A blunt instrument had been taken to its stony face, its visage shattered and undefinable. Half of the marble skull was broken away. Dried blood and feces marred the goddess’ stone dress in splatters that emphasized the disgust the necrolord held for her and those of her flock. Kallie’s gaze drifted down the encrusted statue to the man who knelt before it.
Dressed in crimson robes, he sat motionless in front the ruined altar, wisps of smoke billowing up from a dozen black candles that surrounded him. He made no sound. His head was bowed in what Kallie believed was supplication to his dark gods. Much to her delight, he was alone.
Kallie went inside, setting her feet with caution despite that. She wanted nothing to spoil her surprise. Armed with her sword and dagger, she inched closer, reveling in the feel of the weapons in her hand and the job that lay ahead. For all the effectiveness of a crossbow or hurled knife, nothing matched the feel of plunging a blade into flesh. There was grim satisfaction in riding out the death throes of your enemy up close, feeling their life drain away as they surrender to the darkness.
“Did you truly think you could bring death to my door and it would escape my notice?” the necrolord asked before she had crossed even half the room. His voice was a graveled pit of scraping stones.
Kallie froze, her stomach twisting into a tight knot at her foolishness. She had given no thought to slaying the guard outside. Rellan would never have been so foolish, but for all his experiences embedded inside her mind, there were none dealing with assassination. He had been a man of Oraua, the merciful shepherd of the people, who fought only to defend the weak and innocent. Brilliant and caring, he had been a great leader, a great teacher, warrior, but never a murderer. Kallie had been too confident, and she’d given away her advantage. Rellan would be disappointed.
The necrolord rose and turned toward her, brilliant pools of blue peering from his jaundiced face. “So, you are Dirge, the assassin who believes he can bring the Obsidian Order to its knees?” A gnarled grin broke across purpled lips. Jagged yellow teeth lurked beyond.
Kallie heard the shuffle of dead feet at her back and spied the push of ghouls massing behind the sorcerer as they spilled from a hidden door at the rear of the statue. Her breath went cold in her lungs, but she said nothing. For all her efforts to disguise her identity behind the guise of a man, her voice was the one thing she couldn’t mask.
Thick with muscle, she had always been small in the chest. Imprisonment had only served to harden her body and layer it in solid cords of steel. Kallie wrapped her breasts in thick cloth to hide what remnant femininity survived her years in the dungeons, and she covered her face and head to complete the illusion. It served her purpose to hide. As long as men believed she was one of them, the gold and information flowed and they kept their hands to themselves. They gave no credence to the idea that a woman could be as deadly as they, or could succeed where they had failed, and thus Dirge was born. Even here, amidst the dead, she held to the façade.
“You are a quiet one, I see, but I wonder, assassin, will you scream when my minions sink their teeth into your flesh?” His robes rustled as he spread his arms, gesturing to the walking corpses that filled the chapel.
At a quick count, factoring those she heard at her back, Kallie guessed there were fifty ghouls, all told. She clenched her teeth, her jaw throbbing, and questioned the odds of her reaching the necrolord before his pets reached her. They weren’t good, but they were better than if she stood still and waited for the dead to come to her. It made her choice simple. She darted forward, blades brandished.
“Take her,” the necrolord screeched as he hurried into their rotten midst. The dead swarmed.
Kallie ran straight at them. She darted left out of instinct despite knowing the ghouls would be too slow to follow her, and then shifted right in a vain attempt to fool them. The necrolord continued backing away as she closed. She knew she would never reach him through the press of the dead, but she didn’t intend to. Kallie had made one foolish mistake already and swore she would make no more. She reached out with the flat of her sword and swept several of the black candles into the pews. The decorative banners went up immediately.
The ghouls were on her.
The first of the grasping bunch lost its hands, the severed stumps oozing black ichor. Kallie ducked low and drove into the nearest ghoul, flipping its dead weight over her shoulders. It crashed into the mass of creatures closing from behind, bodies tumbling to the ground in a tangled mess of flailing limbs and guttural moans. Precision blows cleared the path before her, and ghouls fell away from her blades in gory pieces. The muddy blood of their undead life gushed from their wounds, and Kallie took advantage of the momentary respite.
She stepped on the back of a pew and launched herself at the statue of Allara as the rush of fire brightened the chapel. She flew over the heads of the ghouls and settled on a marbled shoulder, spinning about the head to face the necrolord. He hissed and withdrew from the licking flames. In his panic, he summoned the dead to his defense. They responded without hesitation, spreading the virulent fire and bringing it straight toward him.
The bitter stench of burning rot filled the room with swirling clouds of black, the dry, dead flesh of the ghouls igniting like torches. Oblivious to pain, they continued to push toward their master, spreading the flickering orange-red fury even further. The necrolord stumbled away from his charges with wide eyes, waving off their fiery approach. The dead complied and backed into the spaces between the pews. He recognized his error an instant later as he stood alone, unprotected.
Kallie leapt through the whirls of smoke and dove at him. He cried out and darted around the back of the pews, heading toward the great archway. Kallie hit the ground running, following after.
A ghoul reached for her as she passed, but it was too slow. A quick slash sent its enflamed head spinning from its shoulders. It struck the floor and bounced, rolling into the feet of the other corpses that ambled after her. The necrolord had regained his control, but it was too late. The chapel was engulfed. The fire roared as it gnawed at the wooden rafters, setting her ears to ringing with its sharp crackle. The dead would be nothing but ash soon, so she left them behind and stepped through the archway.
A silvered blur flickered at the corner of Kallie’s vision as she emerged into the hallway. She ducked away just as a sword clanged into the archway behind her. Jagged shards of stone peppered her back, and she turned to face her attacker. She only had an instant to assess the threat before it renewed its offense. It was more than enough.
Built like a mountain, the ghoul that bore down on her was like nothing she had ever seen. Slabs of rotten muscle hung loose across the giant’s frame, disguising its seven-foot height with its impressive width. It filled the corridor. Naked, its black and yellowed body molted as it moved, sloughing brittle flakes as though they were a pestilent snow. All the skin had been stripped from the ghoul’s face, leaving nothing but an exposed skull. Its skeletal grin hovered above her as it wielded a greatsword in a single, gnarled hand. The halo of obsidian energy that encircled its head flickered with angry pulses. This was what the lord had been holding his power for, she realized.
Kallie backed away from the ghoul’s attack, feeling the wind as its blade whipped past. The necrolord stood a distance behind the creature. He looked weary, but an aura of arrogance still surrounded him. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, but Kallie had little attention to spare. The glimmer of steel drew her eyes back to the ghoul.
Kallie raised her sword to parry and instantly regretted it. As the blades clashed, her arm nearly buckled. Sharp spurs of agony ran the length of it as she muscled aside the greatsword. Her knuckles creaked against the hilt as she ducked once more.
The ghoul turned his blade in an awkward attempt to take her head off.
She bounded away to catch her breath, doing her best to ignore the painful throb that threatened to incapacitate her right arm. The ghoul kept coming, the sorcerer huffing at its heels.
“Fool!” the necrolord shouted. “You’ve seen nothing of our power and still you dare to come into my home? You will not live to regret your choice, but know this, Dirge: you will suffer it for all eternity.” He laughed, frothy spittle spewing from his mouth.
Kallie ignored him.
The ghoul was too near to be distracted by the lord’s threats. The creature raised its sword, stark white teeth chattering as it drew even closer. She’d been lucky turning aside its first blow, proper technique winning out against raw strength, but even that had left her nearly crippled. The ghoul’s power was more than she had ever faced. She could not risk another blow. It would kill her.
Her arm ached as she raised her blades against the ghoul’s approach. The hallway limited its movement, but it also limited hers. She could turn and run deeper into the keep or stand and face the monstrosity that stalked her. Neither option sounded appealing, but she wasn’t spoiled for choice. She drew back, listening for the telltale sounds of other ghouls, milking the lull in the hopes the pain in her arm might ease. The ghoul had other ideas.
Kallie set her footing and cast a quick glance beyond it. The necrolord, like a mirror image of the creature, ran forward, as well. Heavy footsteps thundered in the enclosed space as Kallie stood her ground, an idea forming as she watched the psychic leash flutter behind the beast. She drew a rancid breath and forced herself to remain still, drawing the ghoul in. Its morbid grin gleamed, red eyes casting a murderous glare. The creature raised its sword, the tip scraping along the stone of the ceiling, carving a shallow groove. It lashed out the moment it was in reach.
Kallie twisted to her side as the blade whistled past. The corridor echoed with is impact while she dove between the creature’s legs and rolled through the narrow opening, waxen flesh flaking off against her shoulders. Wet scraps of skin and meat rained down as she cleared the ghoul and got to her feet. The necrolord stared, teeth clenched behind a crooked frown.
“Behind you!” His words were jagged as he called his beast to heel.
Kallie felt a sudden satisfaction at the panic that tinged his voice; his confidence was faltering. She spun and threw a kick into the small of the ghoul’s back. Her ankle throbbed at the collision, but the creature staggered down the hall away from them. As it struggled to regain its balance, it suddenly went stiff.
The necrolord gasped, realization dawning in his eyes. Kallie grinned feral behind her mask as she watched the giant topple out of the corner of her eye. The sorcerer’s leash had been short, too much power held in check to maintain the distance. Now, there was nothing between her and her target.
The necrolord spun and ran, attempting to hide in the smoke that billowed from the chapel. Kallie was faster. As much as she wanted to make him suffer, she knew every moment he was alive, he was a threat. She bulled through the murky blackness and loosed her dagger just as he cried out.
“Valtore will not allow—”
It was too late to stop. The necrolord dropped to the floor with a meaty thump, his sentence severed. Blood spilled from the wound in his armpit. Kallie stood over him, unsure of what he’d been about to say. He had evoked the emperor’s name, but why? It was Valtore who had called for his death, but the lord could not have known that.
“What do you know of the emperor?” she asked despite realizing she had left him no strength to reply.
His breath gurgled as he drew his last, and tiny twitches signaled the end. He died a moment later. Kallie hovered over him, questions swirling in her head. The necrolords were invaders, strangers to Delham. That the lord knew the emperor’s name was no surprise, but that this one had spoken it with an almost intimate inflection, as if he knew the emperor’s mind, was something else entirely. What could he know of Valtore?
It was a question for the emperor; one he would never answer. She sighed and went about collecting the proof of her kill, cutting the necrolord’s head away. She dumped it unceremoniously into the leather sack she’d brought along, curiosity brewing in the wake of the lord’s words. A sharp crack drew her from her thoughts.
Kallie glanced behind as flames sputtered from the archway, the tapestries in the hall catching fire. Waves of heat buffeted her and sent her backpedaling, clutching the severed head. She sighed at the unintended destruction of the Helmond keep. She had no clue what had brought the necrolords to Delham and hoped to find something to explain their arrival. Whatever evidence there might have been was nothing more than ash inside the chapel. The sorcerers were as much a mystery to her now as they were the day they came ashore. Perhaps Valtore knew more.
The spreading flames pushed Kallie from the keep, and she emerged into the yard. She loosed a quiet sigh of relief. The ghouls had returned to their lifeless slumber. They littered the unkempt ground, having collapsed when the necrolord’s death freed them from their unnatural enslavement. The fire she’d started would ensure none of the corpses could be used by any of the other dark sorcerers. The grass growing rampant in the yard would carry the flames to the bodies and cremate them where they lay. Soon there would be nothing but blackened soot to show they’d ever existed.
Kallie crept across the yard, unsure how many of the living still roamed the castle, and scaled the wall to avoid them. Since she wasn’t being paid to kill them, they weren’t her concern. The raven from the turret loosed a shriek as it winged past, swooping into the yard to snatch a morsel before the fire spread to steal its meal. Kallie saluted the bird and left Helmond to burn, the castle uninhabitable in the heart of enemy territory, and set a course toward the hidden camp the cleric’s had named after the fallen village of Eton—in honor of Rellan’s birthplace. They’d built it within a nearby forest, just outside the normal travel lanes of the undead. The emperor’s gold would feed their charges through the coming winter, but it would do them no good when the necrolords came for them again, and she was certain they would.
A gentle breeze stirred the air, the scent of smoke carried on its wings. Kallie breathed it in, grateful for the respite from the cloying stench of the dead. She savored it as she slipped into the darkness.