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Death of a Darklord

Laurell K. Hamilton



  aN UNNatURaL gIft.

  “Your magic recognizes you,” Gersalius said.

  Elaine stared at the glowing shield. It recognized her? She tried to be afraid but wasn’t. In fact, she wanted to touch it, to run her fingers along its gleaming surface. It was akin to the desire she’d had to touch the wizard’s hands in the kitchen. Magic called to magic. Her own magic called most strongly.

  “Touch it,” he said softly.

  Elaine reached out to it. Her hands tingled with its nearness. Her skin was stained violet, as unnatural-looking as the elf’s, but she didn’t care. Her hands sunk into the glow with a gush of sparks that flared and blinded her. She took a sharp breath, and as the air went into her lungs the spell went into her skin. She felt it being absorbed, like a tingling lotion. Then it was gone.

  From The New York Times best-selling author of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novels comes Death of a Darklord, the story of a girl struggling to realize her gift for magic without compromising the love and lives of those around her.


  The covenant

  Death of a Darklord

  Laurell K. Hamilton

  Vampire of the Mists

  Christie golden

  I, strahd: The Memoirs of a vampire

  P. N. Elrod

  To sleep with Evil

  Andria cardarelle

  Tapestry of Dark souls

  Elaine Bergstrom

  Scholar of Decay

  Tanya Huff


  The Covenant


  ©1995 TSR, Inc,.

  ©2006 Wizards of the Coast LLC

  All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

  This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or unauthorized use of the material or artwork contained herein is prohibited without the express written permission of Wizards of the Coast LLC.

  Published by Wizards of the Coast LLC.

  RAVENLOFT, WIZARDS OF THE COAST, and their respective logos are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast LLC in the U. S.A. and other countries.

  All Wizards of the Coast characters and their distinctive likenesses are property of Wizards of the Coast LLC.

  Cover art by: Jon Foster and Matt Adelsperger

  eISBN: 978-0-7869-5957-0


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  To Baby Bird,

  who died during the writing of this book.

  This was the first book written without her

  sitting on my shoulder.

  A bit of magic has gone out of my life.



  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  tHe skULL Lay ON tHe Desk, gLeamINg IN tHe tHIN daylight. It was an old piece of bone, clean and dry. It looked human until held in one’s hands and studied. The eye sockets were huge, almost as large as the empty sockets of a bird of prey. The strong yellowish teeth had sharp edges; the front teeth were fangs, made for piercing flesh, spilling blood.

  Calum Songmaster remembered what the thing had looked like when alive. Something between a hawk and a wolf … and what was left of the human the creature had once been. The man had been Gordin Smey, a friend, a comrade in battling evil. With the remnant of his mind, his decency, he had begged Calum to kill him. Calum had done it. Gordin had been a good man, with a wife and children. He had slain many monsters, but in the end, he had become one of them. Calum had saved the skull as a reminder that the land of Kartakass could corrupt anyone.

  Now he lay in the soft, smothering folds of his sickbed, propped up on one side like a spitted piece of meat, save that pillows and quilts kept him in place, not a sharp metal spike. But he was just as trapped. He stared at the skull of his long-dead friend and envied him his quick death.

  Calum had survived all of the evils of the land for eighty years. It was a prodigious age to have lived to see. Foul sorceries, monsters, beasts, robbers, evil people of every description; all these he had survived. Old age was not so easily escaped.

  For many months, he had been unable to sit at his desk and work. The pain of the disease that ate him alive made every movement agony. He had been a tall, strong man, but now he was a bundle of sticks clothed in loose skin. He had made his housekeeper take down the room’s mirror. Calum no longer recognized the fragile creature that stared back at him. In his mind, he was still young and strong, but mirrors did not lie, so he banished the truth-telling glass. The pain, and what he could see of his own body, were reminder enough.

  His friends had come to visit him. His good friends. It was why he was propped up on his side, so he could see them without having to move, without having to let them know how much even the smallest movement hurt him. His housekeeper was very good about such things. He planned to leave her what money he had and this house. After twenty years, she deserved more, but it was all he had. Fighting evil was not a particularly lucrative business.

  His friend, his best friend, sat in a chair by the bed. Jonathan Ambrose was not really young, nearly fifty. There was gray in his beard. His hair had receded to a thin circle that he kept closely cropped. The fashion was to let what hair you had grow long, but Jonathan never cared much for fashion. He wore a simple brown robe, clean, well mended, but utterly plain. No one had worn ankle-length robes in a decade, but Jonathan found them comfortable. His clear blue eyes looked at Calum. His face was smooth, calm. There was no hint of horror or pity. For that Calum was grateful, but at the same time, irritated.

  To look at him, Jonathan might have been here on any afternoon. No special reason. Calum wanted to shout, “Don’t you know I’m dying, dying?” He was angry his friend could face him without showing the pain he saw on so many faces. So why had he gotten angry at his housekeeper for crying this morning?

  Calum gave a careful sigh. Nothing would satisfy him. He wanted everyone to know and pity his pain, and yet not to show it. He wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.

  “I am a cranky old man,” Ca
lum said in a scratchy voice that he barely recognized as his own.

  Jonathan smiled that same gentle smile. “Never.”

  Calum had to smile. His anger dripped away. He was suddenly glad of the visit. Was it a sign of death’s nearness, these swift-changing moods? He was not sure; he had never died before.

  In a smaller chair, the one his housekeeper usually sat in to do her sewing while she kept him company, sat the only other woman he allowed to see him like this. Tereza was tall, lithe, dark. Her thick black hair spilled round the strong bones of her face like a raven cloud. Her short, more fashionable tunic was scarlet, breeches brilliant emerald green. One black-booted foot was drawn up on the chair, her strong hands holding the knee. The belt from which hung short sword and pouches was black but much embroidered, so that it gleamed rainbowlike. Jonathan had a matching belt that made his brown robe look even more ordinary. But Tereza had embroidered the belts herself, and Jonathan always wore his.

  There were no more chairs, so Konrad Burn stood behind the others. He was the youngest, not even thirty yet. His face had been handsome once. His green eyes were fierce and glittering as jewels, brown hair caught back in a leather thong. He was dressed all in brown leathers of varying shades that matched the tanned skin of his face and arms. An axe rode at his hip, a small shield on his back.

  Calum was not sure what had changed in the younger man. His face was still clean-shaven, still unlined, but the life had gone out of it. It was as though he were looking at a bad painting. The picture looked like a man, but there was no life to it. Only his eyes gleamed, alive with … rage: Konrad’s wife and partner had been killed two years ago.

  Calum’s body was dying, but his mind and spirit cried out for life. Konrad’s body was healthy, strong, but mind and spirit waited for death. Konrad lived, but it was only the motions of life. Calum would have changed places with Konrad in a moment. He wondered if the younger man would have agreed.

  “The twins are just outside,” Jonathan said. “They would love to see you.”

  “No,” Calum said. “They are too young to see how all life ends.”

  Jonathan touched his hand, gently, gripping the fragile flesh. “It does not always end like this, Calum. You know that.”

  “Then why is my life ending like this?” Tears warmed his eyes. He tried not to blink, holding his eyes very still. Crying would have been the final embarrassment. His voice came out choked, and he hated it. “I was a good man, wasn’t I, Jonathan?”

  “You are a good man, Calum.” Jonathan squeezed his hand as if holding tight could make it better.

  Calum clung to his hand, the betraying tears spilling down his cheeks. “I have fought the evil of this land my entire life. I have nothing to show for it.”

  “You are Calum Songmaster, one of the greatest bards in all of Kartakass. You could have been a meistersinger of any city or town if you had wanted it. You could have lived in luxury, but you chose to serve the entire land. To search out and destroy evil, to serve the brotherhood.”

  “But what have I accomplished, Jonathan? The evil still rules this land. The brotherhood is no closer to discovering who, or what, poisons Kartakass. The corruption will outlive me, Jonathan. It will grow and thrive, and I will be dead.”

  “How can you say that?” Jonathan asked.

  Tereza knelt by the bed. “You are Calum Songmaster, who defeated the vampires of Yurt. Calum Songmaster, the slayer of the great beast of Pel. Savior of Kuhl.”

  Staring into the woman’s dark eyes, Calum could almost feel his blood flow stronger. For a moment, he was not an old man at the end of life, but the young Calum, the Songmaster who had tamed the wilderness and slain his share of monsters.

  The pain roared up from his belly. A red, burning tide of pain that filled his body, ate his mind. Nothing was left but to ride the pain. He was aware, dimly, of Jonathan’s hand still gripped in his own, but the rest of the world vanished while he writhed and trembled with pain.

  He lay, weak and gasping, on the bed. Sweat covered his body. His hand was limp, too weak to hold Jonathan’s. Jonathan cradled the trembling limb in both his own. A single tear trailed into his beard.

  Tereza stared at him; no tears, but he could see a deep roaring pain in her eyes. He had never seen her cry. He was glad this would not be the first time.

  Konrad had moved away from the bed, arms folded, angry eyes uncertain.

  “Let me bring in the others. They need to say good-bye.” Jonathan’s voice was a soft rumble.

  “No,” Calum gasped. He wanted to shake his head but was too weak. Talking was almost beyond him. “Young ones … should not … see me … like this.”

  “They love you, Calum.”

  “Frighten them … it will frighten them.”

  Jonathan didn’t argue. He raised Calum’s hand very gently to his face, pressing the weak flesh to his beard. “You have always been a good friend to me, Calum. I wish I could help you in this.”

  “Do you want me to get the housekeeper?” Konrad asked. “She said the doctor should be here soon.” He seemed eager to leave, to have something to do besides stare at the end of all flesh.

  “Go,” Calum said.

  Konrad did not wait to be told again. He went, his strong body striding across the rug, easily, unthinkingly. Calum hated him for it.

  The housekeeper entered. She was a small, round woman, her hair in a neat bun on top of her head. She smiled at the room as if nothing were wrong. In front of company, she was always her same cheerful self. In private she had mastered his moods. When he needed sympathy, she gave it. When he needed matter-of-factness, she gave that. Calum had come to love that plain, smiling face.

  The doctor followed at her heels. He was a small, bent man with a mane of snow-white hair. If Calum hadn’t been twenty years older, the doctor would have seemed old. His face was professionally cheerful. Nothing showed on his face or body unless the doctor wished it to. Calum envied his control.

  “I’m afraid this visit has to end,” the doctor said. “I need to see how our friend here is doing.”

  Jonathan pressed his hand. “I’ll see you soon, Calum.”

  Calum stared into his friend’s face and said nothing. They both knew this might be the last time.

  Tereza kissed him on the forehead, her lips soft. Her long hair fanned around his face, smelling of herbs: pinenut, rosemary, sweet lavender. She said something in her native tongue—musical, guttural. A blessing, or a curse. It mattered little now.

  Konrad had never returned. He did not come to say good-bye. He had never been comfortable around the sick. Calum hadn’t wanted any of them to see him like this. Now the fact that Konrad had not said good-bye filled him with rage.

  The doctor’s visit was mercifully short. He left another bottle of medicine, for what good it would do, and took his leave, still pleasant, still smiling. What do you say to a patient who is dying, and everyone knows it?

  The housekeeper followed the doctor out. She would escort all his friends outside, see they had a cup of tea or a sandwich. Her glance paused on the far wall and the brilliant wall hanging that covered it. Her pleasant face flashed in disapproval, then she closed the door behind her.

  In the silence of the room the tapestry pulled back with a soft, thick sound. A tall, slender man stepped from the hidden door. His hair was long, thick, and so black that the weak sunlight made blue highlights on it. His fashionably trimmed beard and mustache framed a handsome face, a face for women to sigh over in romantic moments. He had a graceful, swinging stride that brought him gliding into the room. He always entered a room as if it were his very own private chamber, as if everywhere he went he carried his own kingdom in a circle around his body, so that he was always at home, always at ease.

  His shirt was white silk, covered by a scarlet vest with gold embroidery. His pants were also scarlet, stuffed into gleaming black boots. A basket-hilted sword rode his hip. A matching scarlet hat dangled from one hand, complete with a sweeping bla
ck feather. Rings glittered from his long fingers. “Well, Calum, what do you think of your young friend now?” His voice was a rich tenor that held something of the music he made his living from.

  Calum lay on his back now, pillows cradling him so that he could only stare at the man. “Have you come to whisper more lies in my ears?”

  “Not lies, my friend, promises.”

  “What do you want of me, Harkon?”

  “Your help.” Harkon Lukas laid his hat on the foot of the bed and leaned against the bedpost.

  “I cannot betray my friends.”

  Harkon smiled, even white teeth flashing in his dark face. “I have given you my word that none of the others will be harmed. I want only Konrad Burn.”

  “Why him?”

  Harkon shrugged, a somehow graceful gesture in the tall man. “He is handsome, young, strong. He can travel beyond the boundaries of Kartakass. You can’t tell me as a bard you have not longed to escape this prison, to travel the lands your friend Jonathan and his gypsy woman have told you of. The songs I could sing. The tales to be told. Think of it, Calum.”

  “But to possess his body? What becomes of Konrad when you are inside him?”

  “He will get my body.” Harkon glided round the bed. Calum could only move his eyes to follow the bard.

  “Don’t you think my body a fair trade for his?”

  Calum did. It was a strong, healthy body. “If you truly command some … sorcery that will switch your body with Konrad’s, but not harm him, why not ask him? Why not gain his cooperation?”

  “Do you really think he would agree? Our angry, honor-bound Konrad?”

  “Would anyone agree?”

  Harkon sat on the edge of the bed. The slight movement caused Calum to gasp. “Oh, my friend,” Harkon said, “did my sitting down hurt you?” He leaned forward, face concerned.

  Calum did not want the man to touch him. He knew the concerned looks would fade instantly, chased by whatever new emotion entered Harkon’s mind. He was as changeable as a spring wind, and as reliable.

  Harkon’s hand fell back into his lap. He smiled down at Calum. “I have found a body for you. A man in his twenties. Tall, strong, in perfect health, handsome. He is a little shorter than you were in your prime, more slender, perhaps a shade more handsome, though.”