“Lay the body there,” Chanathan said pointing.
The three soldiers carrying the corpse dropped their burden with a meaty thud to the forest carpet. The men looked disgusted by their task. In the distance an owl hooted and one of the men looked around, fear glinting in his eyes as he scanned the hidden recesses between the trees.
“It’s an owl,” one of his companions said. Chanathan could hear the concern in the voice. Only months ago the sight of another man’s fear would have elicited sarcasm or even bullying, but after the recent horrors there was a greater bond between these men. Battle brothers was a common enough expression, but only men who had stood shoulder to shoulder in the darkest moments of combat truly understood what that meant, men who had felt blood splash their hands and blades and experienced the pervading stench of blood, sweat and steel in their nostrils. That was how such close bonds were forged.
Chanathan stepped up to the corpse and spat in its eyes. The body was that of a man in his thirties. He wore a robe whose colour in the dark of the wood was difficult to decide. It did nothing, though, to conceal the bloodstain that marked the deep wound that had killed him.
Chanathan turned on his heel. Coming between the trees in file were others who had fought demons only hours before. It had been close, but Drachar’s death had finished the bloody conflict and even now, men of the alliance were hunting down the enemy as they sought to escape. Many of the approaching men were sorcerers and all were clearly bone tired, stumbling as they came into the clearing. Even though they were exhausted, Chanathan knew that one final act was required to guarantee an end to the bloody war.
Ashona approached Chanathan. She looked close to tears, and Chanathan felt pity overwhelm him. His own tears threatened and he choked down his emotions, but could not stop himself from taking her hand. Victory felt so very hollow, not at all how he had imagined it to be so many months ago—death still befouled his mind like a toxin.
“Swiftly, we must bind his spirit. It must not be allowed to escape or the demons will crown him their king,” Chanathan said.
“Surely not,” Ashona replied. “How can the demons still follow him after what has happened? He failed them. He is dead. We have killed sorcerers by the score. They cannot summon demons—not for a hundred years at least.”
Chanathan shook his head. “You are wrong, I fear. He made a pact with the demons, a pact that even death cannot undo. He has given the demons everything they wanted. Countless souls sent screaming to their world for eternal damnation. If they get his soul too, they will bow to him and call him Lord.”
Ashona sobbed. “Then we have failed!”
“No. Not if we can banish his soul.”
“And how can we do that?” Ashona pleaded. Chanathan looked past the grime of battle and into her eyes. With more affection than he had ever felt before he stroked a strand of hair from her face.
Without replying, he turned to the other sorcerers who by now had spread themselves around the clearing. They looked a sorry bunch, blood-soaked and covered in gore. Some distance away he could hear the army celebrating; men calling out to each other, glad to find friends and relatives alive; drinking away the cold fear instilled by demons only moments before. Abruptly singing filled the air. Only troops fresh from the horrors of war could show such emotion. By comparison, the men around Chanathan were silent, begrimed with blood and barely able to stand.
“We must act swiftly. Until this night is done his shade will be confined to his earthly body. You there, Carlan, Aswall and Harecht, draw a rune of binding around the corpse. Tarlam and Herest, summon elementals at each corner of the rune. Air, fire and water will do for what we need.”
The men set to their activities while the others fell back to watch. As they worked, the din from the army became background noise. Woodland creatures occasionally called out, distracting Chanathan from his musing. What he planned, no one had tried before and he had to think, if this went wrong he would doom his friends, and himself.
Finally, the others were ready. He looked down at the corpse now lying at the centre of a rune, diligently drawn in the dirt. At each of the rune’s corners, tiny elementals glowed; their small voices clear even with all the other sounds around them.
The sorcerers gathered while the three soldiers hovered to one side, knowing they were witnessing a truly significant moment in history. This was a solemn time.
Chanathan raised his eyes skyward. Casting a rune in the air with his hand he called aloud, “Drachar, I summon you!”
Nothing stirred. A breeze caused the trees to sway and for a moment the rustle of leaves drowned out the distant celebration.
“Drachar!” Chanathan called more urgently. “You are summoned to pay for your crimes.”
A pungent smell filled the clearing. Unable to help themselves some men stepped back, fear pounding their hearts like poison coursing through their veins. A silver shape appeared, hovering eerily above the corpse.
“Bind them, both body and soul,” Chanathan ordered and others immediately spoke, casting runes to strengthen their earlier spell.
The glow took strength and the indistinct form of a man appeared. Hollow eyes stared deep into Chanathan’s soul and for a moment he nearly quailed, but then, by his side, Ashona squeezed his hand. All at once he was glad of her presence.
“Foul creature! Abomination!” Chanathan roared.
The spectre laughed. “But I am one of you,” a ghostly voice whispered, grinding the nerves of all present. “I, too, am one of the Eldric.”
“How dare you!” Chanathan shouted, suppressing a shudder. “You forsook us the moment you looked upon the demon world. Your twisted craving for power has destroyed you. The king banished you. You were unmade and unnamed; the sands of your soul stained forever by the blood of betrayal. How dare you compare yourself to us?”
“You forget,” answered the now mirthless voice. “We were all banished. We left our homeland hundreds of years ago because our ancestors dared to look upon the demon world. I am more like you than you would care to admit.”
Chanathan was stunned into silence. The spectre faded briefly and for a moment Chanathan thought it was gone.
“Bind it!” Prince Ellard said, stepping forward, looking up at the spectre. “You are a traitor! You killed the King!”
“He killed me first,” the spectre said in a peevish tone.
“Damn you! You betrayed your people! We will not let you find your way to the demon world,” said Ellard. To Chanathan it seemed that his eyes flamed with passion.
“But you cannot stop me! I am Drachar! I do as I will, and I will damn you all.”
There was a silence for a moment. Even the revelry seemed to have stopped as though the world was holding its breath.
“But you are wrong,” Ashona said softly. At the start of the war she had been such a gentle soul, but looking at her now…
Her eyes bored into Drachar’s and her shoulders were set in utter defiance. “We will banish you but not to where you expect to go! Prince Ellard, give me your sword. Only one of the seven will help with this spell casting.”
Ellard stepped forward and handed his sword over. It was a marvellous weapon, forged from a meteor that had crashed to the earth the previous year. They hade made seven swords and each was proof against demons.
“What are you going to do?” Fear tainted Drachar’s voice, and briefly he appeared to shrink.
Ashona chanted as she drew a rune over the blade. Chanathan realised then her intent. The sword amplified the power of the person holding it. The rune was to open a gateway to another world and for a moment Chanathan feared Ashona was opening a gateway to Hell. He did not recognise the rune at first and then comprehension dawned.
Prince Ellard must also have realised for he rushed over to take back his sword, but Chanathan laid a hand on his shoulder. “It is all right. She knows what she is doing. She is opening a gateway not to another world but between them.”
Ellard frowned. “The nether regions?” he asked
Behind them Drachar wailed. His form glowed brighter and the surrounding sorcerers’ voices became more urgent. At that moment, an elemental expired; its scream echoing into the night air.
“Help them,” Chanathan ordered and others joined the sorcerers about the rune, summoning elementals to bind Drachar in place. Furiously he struggled and then the gateway was complete, purple and green streaming from it.
“Go!” Prince Ellard commanded, laying his hand on his sword. The ghostly shape drifted towards the gaping rent in space as an icy wind gusted, a prelude to the nothingness beyond.
“You shall not stop me!” he screamed. “I will return and then I will destroy you, your children and their children.” The light from his ethereal form faded as it progressed through the gaping wound. Then abruptly it was gone. Ashona stopped casting the rune and the rent slammed shut, Drachar’s final scream fading away.
Night noises about the wood returned as though the banishment had forbidden sound.
All at once, Chanathan sensed that it was too much for Ashona. She sat on the ground as though her legs could no longer support her. Others were leaving but at her collapse, they paused.
Ashona cried out, “I see it! I see the future. Drachar will return! I see the fires! I see the death!”
Chanathan knelt by her side. “Calm yourself. That is not possible.” The three soldiers came over, wanting to help but hesitating, too afraid to come too close.
Chanathan gently took her face in his hand and made her turn to look at him. “We have won. We have banished Drachar’s shade. This land is safe now.”
Ashona stared past Chanathan. He sensed she was seeing into another world.
Her voice was so low that he had to strain his ears to hear her. By his side one of the soldiers gasped. “It’s a prophecy,” he murmured in awe.
When Tallin’s crown once more does shine,
Drachar’s shade will rise sublime,
Three Princes Royal through time will sleep,
An appointment with destiny three kings to keep,
Trosgarth’s arm across the land will reach,
Of war and famine his army will preach,
And one will stand to oppose his throne,
A king resurrected from within his mountain home,
Of air, fire and water he will be born,
To aid the people when all else is forlorn
“Ashona”” Chanathan wailed, shaking her shoulders, “Ashona!” he sobbed.
The light in her eyes dimmed. She was too close to her shaol, her guardian spirit, and that had always worried Chanathan.
“Ashona,” he cried.
Slowly she shook herself as though waking from a dream. “Thank the Kalanth!” Chanathan sighed, grinning broadly.
Chanathan helped Ashona to her feet. By their side a soldier made a warding sign against evil, his mouth agape. Chanathan turned to him, “Forget what you have just heard. Do not mention it to anyone.” He doubted the soldier would; when she had spoken Chanathan had felt the compulsion in her tone. The man stared back blankly, angering Chanathan.
“All of you!” Chanathan commanded. “Forget what happened, under pain of death.”
Ashona looked at him bewildered. “Why? What has happened?”
Chanathan looked at her, truly glad she was back. “Nothing. We have won a great battle and darkness has been banished from the world.”
Taking her hand he guided her from the wood, towards hope and an uncertain future.
Behind them the three soldiers remained, but for a while only. Sensing the evil of the departed soul, they took to their heels, seeking the company of the living; eager to tell the tale of what they had just heard.
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