Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 17


The tavern room was dark, and shrouded in dust.  The candles on the table were melted to nothing, but a dull red light suffused the whole chamber.  Jonn shivered in the still, numbing air, and looked up to see that the ceiling was gone.  A blazing red moon hung low in the sky, cutting through the thick clouds.  Quickly he wrenched his gaze away and took a seat at the table.

His companions were all there, wrapped in cloaks and hoods.  They said nothing.  Sir Garath reached out to take hold of a goblet on the table before him.  His hand was gaunt, the skin rotted and peeling.  He raised the goblet and smiled from the depths of his hood with tattered lips.  The others reached forward and took goblets as well, all with hands that were near-fleshless.  They raised them in the air, and turned their heads towards Jonn expectantly.

Jonn reached his hand forward toward his own goblet, and was relieved to see that his own hands were normal.  The goblet was gold, and the liquid inside was black and smelled of fresh-tilled earth.  His hand brushed the goblet, and suddenly his skin started to turn green and peel away.  He jerked it back, and nursed it under his arm.  The others waited, their goblets still raised.  Jonn stood up from his chair, but none of them reacted.

There was a creaking noise behind him.  Jonn turned, but there was nothing there.  He turned again, and the table was gone, along with his companions.  Instead there was a woman in a rocking chair, creaking as she rocked back and forth.  It was his mother, looking almost as skeletal as his companions, yet not at all different to how she had been three years ago, when he had seen her last.  Her hair hung in matted strands around her face, and she seemed shrivelled and frayed at the edges.  Her mouth worked soundlessly, and her red-rimmed eyes wept constantly.  Only her hand showed any sign of life, with its white-knuckled grip on an ivory pendant.

"Mother," he croaked.  "It’s not you... I didn’t come looking for you."

She continued rocking, her head lolling drunkenly on her shoulders.  Jonn stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders.  Her skin felt fiercely hot beneath his fingers, but her body flopped lifelessly as he shook her.

"I’m looking for father," he said. "Where is he? Where has he gone?"

Her eyes met his, watery and shot with blood, but now alight with grit and hellfire.  "He’s gone below," she said with a voice like splintering bone.  "He’s gone below, where light and warmth and love go not.  He’s gone below, and he'll never return."

At the sound of her voice Jonn recoiled, sending the rocking chair crashing to the dusty floor.  His mother sprawled on the stones, arms and legs twisted awkwardly.  She did not move, but her voice echoed all around, louder and louder.

"He’s gone below.  He’s gone below.  He’s gone below."

An inhuman cry wrenched from Jonn’s throat, and he pushed the door of the chamber open and ran out into the cool night air.  He was on a trail in a twisted forest.  The blazing red moon still hung in the sky.

The words of his mother still echoed in his ears.  He fled further down the trail, hoping he could leave them behind, breaking from a stumbling walk into a run.  His boots scraped loudly in the dirt, and he convinced himself that he could no longer hear her words, but then another familiar sound came to him.  Metal crashed on metal, and men bellowed in pain and rage.  A sword appeared in Jonn’s hand, and he charged from the path towards the din of battle.

White snow flecked with red crunched beneath his feet.  Through the trees was a vast, icy plain, where the soldiers of Tyrest, numbering in their thousands, did battle with brawny northmen.  The northmen fought with abandon, many with a smile or a song on their lips, or a crazed inhuman laugh.  The men of Tyrest were hesitant and fearful, but they held their formations and pressed grimly forward behind a wall of shields.  Men died on both sides – short, brutal, bloody deaths – but still they fought on.

Then he saw her, hunched on her chair in the middle of the battle.  She paid it no heed, and the charging northmen ignored her as well.  She opened her mouth to speak, and even over the roar of a thousand warriors Jonn could her her.

"He’s not here.  He’s gone below."

Again, Jonn turned and ran, back through the trees and over the path.  The sounds of battle cut off instantly, and for a moment all was silent.  He heard a bell.  It sounded familiar, like the old supper bell from his youth.  He turned to his right, and saw a yellow expanse of swaying corn, and beyond that the towering eaves of a manor house.  He grinned and ran off through the corn stalks, even faster than before.

The corn parted before him and soon he came into full view of the manor.  It was just as he remembered: the bluestone walls and slate roof, the old well that he had knocked Graem into while playing at knights, the barn where he had kissed Sera after the midwinter feast.  The old gnarled oak, where Sir Garvin had told him about his father.

He stopped, and stared at the tree.  He had loved climbing it as a boy, scrambling around its twisted branches and concealing himself within the leaves.  There were no leaves now.  A cage hung from one of the branches, creaking in the wind.  Inside, slumped against the bars was an emaciated figure with skin pulled taut over his skull.  He wore the tattered remains of a knight's surcoat, and Jonn thought he could make out the raven of Sir Garvin’s sigil.  The knight, too weak to call out, reached an imploring hand to him.  Jonn turned away, towards the manor house.

Smoke curled from the chimney, and Jonn could smell roast pork.  There was a pie cooling on the window-sill, but there was someone sitting in the room beyond.  It was his mother, slumped in her chair, staring into space.  She did not move or speak, and seemed not to have noticed Jonn staring in through the window.  She just sat, slouched, with mouth agape and eyes watering.

Jonn stood and watched her for a long while.  She never moved, not even when one of the servants came in and wiped her chin with a towel, and fed her soup with a spoon.  She sat and stared, until the blazing red moon had vanished and the sun started to creep over the horizon.

As dawn approached, Jonn turned his back to the manor house, and made his way past the oak tree and the cage.  He walked through the corn, parting it easily with his hands as he went, and eventually he came back to the path.  He could see now that it ended in a looming white skull, nestled between jagged black rocks.

He walked slowly forward, up to the edge of the cavern entrance set into the skull mouth.  It was dark inside, impenetrable and cold.  He took and step forward, and vanished into the darkness.

"I’ll find him, mother," he whispered.  "I’ll find him for both of us."

He went below.


His skull ached.  He tried to open his eyes, but something had gummed up his eyelashes; the small amount of light that seeped in sent his head spinning.  He lay on the floor, eyes closed, until it passed.
He brushed his face with his hand, and felt a sticky smear on his cheeks and mouth.  Dull pain throbbed inside his head when he touched it, and his ears were screaming.

"He’s awake."  He heard a voice, distant and muffled.  "Looks like he’ll need more’n a bit o’ beauty sleep to fix that mess.  Orguss, bring the priest, will ya?"

There was a mirthless, grating laugh.  "Why should I?"

"It’s your mess, ain’t it?  Ah, I’ll send Eracos then."

"Why bother," sighed a doleful voice.  "He's going to die eventually.  Oh, very well then, I will go.  What's the point of arguing?"

Jonn tried to speak, but his voice was just a croak, and the pain was making him sick.  It was hard to breathe.  That mirthless laugh came again.

"He wants help, does he?  He only got what he deserved."

"You think so?  He might be a fool, but at least he's a brave fool.  Hold on, here’s the priest."

"Stand aside," said Father Beren.  "I’ve no room for such louts here now, if you don’t mind.  Go and drink or wench or whatever it is you fellows do for stimulation."

There was some grumbling, and the sound of footsteps.

"Alright my boy, can you hear me?  Of course you can, it’s not your ears that were broken.  Here, I’ll prop your head up.  Drink this."

Jonn felt a gentle hand slide under his head and tilt it upwards.  A warm mug was touched to his lips, and liquid poured into his mouth and down his chin.  He drank feebly.  The brew was foul, but better than the thick coppery taste in his mouth before.  His nausea subsided, and the pain in his face eased a little as well.

"What happened?" he croaked.

"If you’ll wait a second, you can see for yourself," said Beren.  Jonn felt a damp cloth pressed to his face, and flinched away.  The priest pressed it there again, this time holding Jonn’s head in place, and washed away the blood in his eyes and around his mouth.  When he was done Jonn opened his eyes a fraction, waiting for the blurry light to focus into something he could recognise.

He was still in the chamber where the beast-men had attacked.  Bodies lay strewn about everywhere, and the floor was thick with blood and black dust.  He could barely turn his head to see, but none of the bodies were those of his companions.

"Did anyone...?"

"You could say that they saved us," said the priest, gesturing with a nod of the head in the direction the sellswords had gone.  "They certainly saved you."

"That's... not exactly how I remember it..."

"Well, you’re not dead my boy, are you?  Just a blow to the head.  Our good friend Orguss assured me that it was an accident."

"And you believed him?"

"Never mind that," said Beren.  He lifted Jonn’s head again and placed a folded cloak beneath it.   "You need to rest for a time.  Sir Garath will want to move on soon, I imagine, but you should take as much time to recuperate as you can.  I have other patients, I’m afraid."

When Beren started to rise from the floor he grimaced, and Jonn saw the bloodstain on his sleeve.  He started to say something, but caught the words in his throat and fell silent.  Beren stopped and looked at him with a frown.

"You’re concerned about this?" he said, holding out his wounded arm.  "It’s but a little thing.  I’ve had worse paper-cuts in the repository."

"I shouldn’t be," said Jonn, turning his head away.  "I shouldn’t be concerned about you at all."

"I think I understand you, Jonn.  You and I should have a talk, when you are ready.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check up on our northern friend.  The way he’s been moaning about his minor abrasions you’d think he’d had his arms cut off."

The priest shuffled away and Jonn let his head rest back on the cloak and squeezed his eyes shut.  Why didn't I flee?  Why wasn't I afraid?  I must be mad.

The thoughts circled around in his head, chased by pain and the ebb and flow of nausea, but eventually he fell into unconsciousness.  He did not dream.

When he awoke his head still throbbed, but the nausea had subsided.  There was a weird shrieking sound in his head.  The mug that Beren had given him earlier rested next to him, full of steaming liquid.  Jonn sat up and drained the acrid brew, glad to feel the pain ease, but the noise in his head continued.

"You’re finally awake, lad?" said Sir Garath, who sat beside him eating a trail biscuit.  "Get on your feet and we can get out of here."

"Sorry, I..." Jonn faltered as he spoke.  "I’ll gather my things, and we can..."

"What things?" said the knight.  "The arms and armour of a soldier?  Brave men are well and good, but I would take discipline over bravery on any day.  I've a mind to send you home."

Jonn blinked.  "You can't."

"I might, if I didn’t think you likely to follow in our wake regardless."

Jonn pushed himself up and grasped his sword-belt in trembling fingers.  "Next time I’ll do better," he said.

"You will," said Sir Garath.  "Or you’ll die.  Up.  We move within the hour."

Jonn held his temples and shook his head.  The shrieking continued in the back of his head, just loud enough that he could not ignore it.  He took a few deep breaths; the air was cold and stale, but it cleared his head a little.  Even so, the screaming continued.  He opened his eyes and looked around the chamber.

Close to his right was Tharissa, lying on a blanket, her skin clammy with sweat.  Father Beren was kneeling beside her, leaning on his staff with a stern frown furrowing his brow.  He held a steaming mug in one hand, but she glared at him icily.

"Drink," he said cheerily.  "You’ll feel much better."

She turned away and pulled the blanket close to her chest.  "Go away," she hissed.  "There is no kindness your kind has ever done that could make me feel better."

Beren shrugged his shoulders, and flashed Jonn an exasperated look.  He placed the mug on the floor next to her, and left Tharissa curled up in her blanket.

Sir Garath stood a little further on, checking over his arms with his squire.  Harin’s face was sour, though little more than usual, but he didn’t appear to have any injuries.  Myrio was nearby, practising with her sword.  She seemed tense, her strokes less fluid and more aggressive.  Saskar sat with his back to the wall, watching her with fascination.

The mercenaries were huddled by the far wall, talking and laughing softly amongst themselves.  The sallow-faced knight in his battered armour sat a little apart, drinking from his flask, and the Desert Scorpions sat silently with him.  The others were playing a game, tossing a knife back and forth between each other.  Captain Dursk dropped the knife with a curse, and Kejakena laughed heartily.  Even sad-eyed Eracos smiled wanly.  The giant Orguss started to laugh, but then his one eye fixed on Jonn, and he stopped.  A grave expression on his face, he inclined his head towards Jonn, as though offering an apology.  Then his beard split in an evil, gap-toothed leer, and he went back to the game.  Jonn shivered.

Artis and Krago were in the centre of the room.  Artis knelt by the large bowl that was full of skulls, and Krago towered over him with arms folded, an exasperated expression on his face.  Artis was picking up each skull and shaking it before setting it down on the floor.  Eager to put the giant Orguss out of his thoughts, Jonn stumbled over towards them.

"Come lad," said Krago, beckoning.  He was smiling, though Jonn thought there was something a little strained about it, like it did not touch the sadness in his eyes.  "Artis needs help searching for untold riches."

"I will tell you what I have told my beard-addled friend," said Artis, not bothering to stop in his task.  "Every untold fortune begins as a small fortune."

"I’ll give you this," said Krago.  "Many a fortune was made over the bones of the dead."  He turned to Jonn.  "How’s the head lad?  That fellow gave you a nasty blow."

"I’ve had worse," said Jonn, though he wasn’t sure that he was telling the truth.  He turned his attention to Artis.  "What do you expect to find in there?"

"Coins, of course," said Artis as he held an elongated skull to his ear.  "Those who follow the Elder Gods often put them under the tongues of the dead.  To buy their way into Heaven, supposedly.  Something I would much prefer to do in life."

The Elder Gods.  Jonn’s mother followed them, even after marrying his father, but he said nothing about it.  "You put yourself in a lot of danger out there, scrabbling for a few coins," said Jonn.  "Not to mention the rest of us."

Artis looked up from the skull and narrowed his eyes.  "It seems you did a fine job of placing yourself in danger on your own."

"Peace," said the barbarian, holding out his hands.  "Jonn, what do you make of this?"  He held out a scrap of cloth, faded white with black stripes.  "Some of the beast-men were wearing rags just like it."

"I’m not sure," said Jonn.  "It looks familiar."

"Artis thinks they’re prison clothes."

"I’ve seen the inside of a Tyrest prison more than once," said the thief.  "And I was threatened a time or two with being thrown in this hell-pit.  Either these creatures ate and killed some Tyrest prisoners, or..."

"This is what the prisoners became," said Krago gravely.  "What the Hellwarren made of them.  We would do well not to extend our stay too long."

The sick feeling in Jonn’s throat returned.  Five years ago his father had disappeared.  Even if he lived, who knew what state he would be in by now?  How long would it take?  The shrieking in his head intensified.

"Can you hear that?" he said.  "Can anyone hear it?"

Artis and Krago exchanged troubled looks.

"That screaming, it’s..."

"Don’t ask lad," said Krago, placing a hand on Jonn’s shoulder.

"Wait," said Jonn, shaking the hand away.  "Where’s Gam?  I haven’t seen him..."

"They took him," said Artis.  "After you were knocked out.  But he’s not dead.  Not yet."

"Didn't anyone try to find him?" said Jonn.  "We need--"

"I tried to convince Sir Garath," said Krago.  "Myrio backed me up, as did the priest, but no others.  Not even my supposed best friend."

Artis grunted.  "He seemed a fine lad, but not that fine.  We're risking our necks just being here, and I'm not about to seek trouble any further.  You know I'm right, Krago.  Ah, that boy didn’t belong here anyway."

The screams were everywhere, in his ears, in his head, and nothing he did could shut them out.
And then, suddenly, awfully, they stopped.

"And now he is dead," said Krago.  "I fear he will not be the last."

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 16


"That just leaves you," said the barbarian, nodding his head at the mercenary captain.  "You’ve been quick to question the rest of us.  What is your story?"

"It’s the plainest story there is," said the captain with a grin and a jerk of his thumb in Sir Garath’s direction.  "That one’s payin’ me to go in, so in I go.  Me an’ me band, that is."

Artis snorted.  "You’re going in for a wage?  You might be the craziest one of us all."

"A hefty wage," said the captain.  "An’ hopefully a little more besides."

"Captain Dursk is taking my share in whatever treasure we find, and that of my squire," said Sir Garath.  "I have little interest in gold.  I already have more than enough."

"You mentioned a band," said Myrio.  "Who are they?  How many?"

"Me, an’ seven others," said Dursk.  "Seven o’ the toughest bastards south o’ the steppes.  There used to be more of us, but as I said, we been fightin’ northmen."

"I don’t care how tough they are," said Myrio.  "Can they be trusted?"

"Once I take a man’s gold, I do the job in front of me.  I ain’t never broken a contract, an’ I never will."

"It’s true," said Sir Garath.  "The captain’s reputation is impeccable, or I would never have hired him on."

"I’ll vouch for him," said Krago, his bare chest shaking with suppressed laughter.  The captain raised his eyebrow quizzically.  "I was with King Aelgar when he tried to bribe you over to our side.  A chest of gold he sent, but our good captain returned it with a note attached. Do you remember what it said?"

"Aye, I remember."

"Stick your gold up your arse, it said.  An eloquent man you’re not, but I give you points for honesty and loyalty.  The king laughed about it for days."

"I’ll be loyal," said Captain Dursk.  "If you count on nothin’ else, count on that."


Everything whirled around him, a clash of shattered images and sounds.  Teeth on steel.  A flashing sword, a spray of blood.  Flecks of black ash floating in his eyes.  Screaming, so much screaming.
No backward steps.  I'm coming for you, father.

With the platform at his back, he stood his ground as the beast-men swarmed around him.  There were so many of them, but their sharp rocks and bones were no match for his mail shirt, and their rags in turn gave no protection against his stout sword.  They rushed forward, snarling and clawing, and he fought back with savage chops and thrusts until the ground around him was thick with corpses.

"Fool boy!" he heard Sir Garath shout from behind him.  "Fall back before you're torn to pieces!"

He couldn't.  He knew he should have retreated, knew that he should have been in a state of panic, but he wasn't.  He felt calm, and determined, as though every beast-men he felled brought him one step closer to his father.

Then something thundered into his helm, and his head rang like a bell.  He staggered back into the platform, saw a bloody stone fall to the floor.  Rough hands seized him by the arms and throat, and through the sounds of snarling he could hear a dim voice shouting something.

He was scratched and torn, battered and shaken.  His whole world became a blur of fangs and sharp nails, and flaring pain.  Then a flash of steel passed before his eyes, and a spray of blood washed over him.  The nails and teeth disappeared, replaced by shrieks of panic and the sounds of blades on flesh.

Jonn looked up, and saw Captain Dursk whirling his blade about him, chuckling grimly.  The savage Kejakena was at his side, his rich cloak flowing about him, his mace breaking bone and skull.  Sad-eyed, pale Eracos fought with his shoulders slumped, almost as though he expected defeat, yet he was no less deadly with his two-handed sword.  Balric, the sour-faced knight in his battered breastplate, barrelled through with his shield held forth, and the three women followed in his wake.  The Desert Scorpions were as silent in battle as at any other time, but with every thrust of their spears a beast-man died.  And towering over them all, sweeping his sword like a massive scythe, was the giant Orguss, his single eye blazing like the heart of a volcano.

Jonn tried to rise, to heft his own sword and rejoin the fray, but his head felt strangely hollow, and a wave of nausea brought him back to his knees.  The beast-men were in disarray, and those that lived were scrambling back towards the bore-holes in the walls, or out of the larger tunnels.  Orguss stepped up beside Jonn and cleaved a fleeing beast-men from collarbone to crotch.

There was another beast-men within range, but the giant's sword was momentarily stuck.  Jonn thought he caught a vicious smile from Orguss, before the big man swung his gauntleted fist.  His blow cracked the beast-man's skull, but did not stop there, continuing until it struck Jonn in the temple.

Wordlessly he collapsed to the floor, his vision growing dim.  All was darkness, except for one great eye, blazing red and angry.  He slipped into oblivion, but even there he could see it, burning in his mind.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 15


"And what about that boy?" said the mercenary captain, gesturing vaguely to the lank-haired youth standing behind the knight.  "One so young as he’s got no place where we’re goin’.  Besides, his shield has the crest of a coward."

The boy’s fingers tightened on the shield in his grip.  It was emblazoned with the symbol of a rampant mouse.  "It's not mine," he mumbled sullenly.

"This is Harin, my squire," said Sir Garath.  "And the crest is my own."

The mercenary barked a laugh.  "I’d say maybe you ought to be the one who stays behind, but you are payin’ my wages."

"Does young Harin have no say in this?" said Myrio.  "He may be your squire, but you cannot force him into a place like the Hellwarren, not against his will."

Sir Garath frowned, and glanced sidelong at his squire.  "Well, what say you, lad?  Will you come with us, or return to Alcott Hall and your father?"

Harin wilted, his face pale and his eyes downcast.  His fingers on the shield were white.  "Yes," he whispered.  "Yes, I’ll come."

"Your reason?"

"To serve my master," said Harin, his lips curled in a sneer.  "Whose bravery is legend throughout the land."


Jonn felt as though he was rooted to the floor.  His whole body shook, but his legs wouldn’t move, didn’t have the strength to stand.  He felt numb, and all he could do was look around the chamber in a daze.  The floor was covered in ash, some of it in black clumps where it was mixed with blood and splinters of bone.  Tharissa still lay motionless, and Father Beren knelt beside her, with Artis leaning on the wall nearby.  Jonn felt a detached sense of surprise to see that the priest had a long, bloody gash on his arm.

The squire, Harin, emerged from the tunnel, his normally sour face drawn and expressionless.  Gam walked close behind him, starting at every sound, turning this way and that with every step.  His eyes caught Jonn’s and he hurried over.  After a moment’s hesitation, Harin followed.

"You alright, Jonn?" Gam asked.  "You don’t look quite right."

"I’m fine."  The voice came from somewhere.  Was it his own?  Jonn wasn’t sure.

Gam licked his lips.  "I ain’t never seen a thing like that before.  Those men."  He shuddered.  "I think maybe I shouldn’t of come."

"None of us should have come," said Harin.  "Look at them, they’re like beasts.  Devils.  Who knows what else lives in this hellhole?"

"Maybe," said Jonn.  "Maybe you’re right.  But I have to go on."  He still didn’t know where the voice was coming from, but it made no sense.  His own father had died down here.  What chance did any of them have?

"Listen," said Harin, and he grabbed Jonn by the collar and pulled him close.  "I can't do this on my own.  When we make camp tonight, you and I will volunteer for the first watch.  Then we slip away and get out of here.  Are you with me?"

Jonn shook his head.  It made sense.  He had to get out of here, had to get away.

"No.  No, we can’t.  Leave the others asleep?  Undefended?  No."  Who was that speaking?  Jonn wished that he would stop.

"They might as well be dead already," said Harin.  "But you and I can live."

"What about me?" said Gam.  "Maybe I oughta come too?"

"Just so long as you keep your mouth shut, peasant," said Harin.  "Are you with me, Greywood?"

The voice did not answer.  Jonn tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn’t open.

"Say something," said Harin.

Again, the voice was silent.

"Speak!" he hissed.

There was a clicking sound, echoing faintly around the chamber.  It came again, multiplied.  Jonn shook his head and raised his sword.  From somewhere he gained the strength to push himself to his feet.  The clicking grew louder, and then they came pouring from the tunnels once more, a horde of beast-men, wailing, gibbering and shrieking in a scuttling wave.

Without a sound, Harin turned and scrambled back towards the tunnel.  Jonn whirled around with his sword at the ready, and saw an onrushing storm of open jaws and pale, luminous eyes.

"Fall back!" he heard Sir Garath cry.  "Back to the tunnel!"

It made sense.  He knew it made sense, that it was the only thing a sane man would do in the situation.  Instead, he hefted his sword and shield, and stood his ground in the face of the horde.