Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 14


"Who is left?" said the knight.  His gaze fell on the sorceress, wrapped deeply in her robes in the back corner of the room.  "You are garbed as an initiate of the Silent Academy.  We see few of your kind these days."

She leaned forward and drew back her hood, revealing a pale, gauntly fragile face and a sweep of glittering black hair. 

"You all know the reasons for that," she said with a bitter laugh, as her brilliant purple eyes strayed in Father Beren’s direction.  "My kind has hardly been welcome in Tyrest since the priesthood began their purges."

Beren rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat.  "Perhaps this is a conversation best left for another time..."

"Agreed," said the knight.  "As I’ve said before, I will brook no grievances, be they personal or political.  What brings you here?"

"Why would any of my kind venture into those ancient pathways?" she said, the barest flicker of a smile curving her lips. "I seek power."

"To what purpose?" said the priest.

"That is the question," she said, her smile growing.  "But as our grievances are to be set aside, I am not able to answer you."

"Your agenda is no concern of mine, so long as it does not impede my quest," said the knight.  "I have my reservations, but I'm even more loath to enter the Labyrinth without a sorcerer.  You may join us.  Your name?"

"I am Tharissa," she said.  "Of the Silent Academy."


Jonn felt a wrenching pull on his leg, and he was dashed to the floor.  His heart bursting, his breath caught, he lashed out behind him and felt his sword connect, saw the creature’s skull crack beneath the blow.  The beast-man fell limp, but there were more of the creatures coming, more all around, and he could barely see his friends.

He staggered to his feet with his back to the platform, eyes darting.  He thought he caught a glimpse of Sir Garath, but then it was gone.  There was light coming from somewhere, strobing through the bodies of the beast-men, but Jonn could not tell from where it came.  All he could see were the creatures closing in, claws reaching for him, clogging his throat with the rancid stench of their sweat.  All thought of his companions was gone, and he swung his sword wildly in every direction.  The beast-men closed in.  One lost a hand, another an eye.  Grimy claws raked Jonn’s forearm, and he saw the blood stain his sleeve, but he barely felt the pain.  Ragged whimpering sounds came from his throat with every swing.

Then, through the clamour of battle, through the screams and the snarling beast-men, he heard something.  A woman’s voice, low and strong, echoing about the chamber.  The beast-men stopped, and shrank back a step.

Jonn didn’t look to see whose voice it was, could not tear his gaze away from the creatures that surrounded him.  He stood rooted to the spot, back to the platform, eyes darting.  The chanting continued.  The words were strange, and they hung in the air with a sense of ancient power.

There was a rush of air, and a burning smell, and Jonn felt himself thrown to the ground.  Tendrils of writhing, crackling black energy snaked through the air above him, screaming as they passed.  He saw one pierce the chest of a beast-men, and it collapsed into a pile of ash.

Jonn fell to his knees, as all around him the beast-men fled shrieking from the black tendrils, or exploded into black clouds of ash.  He looked towards the entrance and saw Tharissa there, robes flung back, head raised.  The tendrils came from her open mouth, and every time one of them touched a beast-man she gave a violent shudder.

Then, just as suddenly as they came, the tendrils were gone.  Tharissa swayed, staggering back to the wall, a wide-eyed, confused stare on her face.  She collapsed to the floor.

Jonn looked around the room.  There were no beast-men now, just piles of ash covering the chamber floor.  Beren sat, breathing heavily, clutching his glowing staff to his chest.  Sir Garath stood beside him, his breastplate battered and his face bruised.  Krago was bleeding from a hundred small cuts, but he had his arm around Myrio and a wide grin split his beard.  Myrio did not appear to have a scratch on her.  Saskar sat huddled on the far corner, a bleak, faraway expression on his face.

"You can come in now," said Sir Garath to the rest of the group, still in the corridor.  "I think it's safe."

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 13


"A few days of hell for a lifetime of heaven?" said the barbarian.  "How long have you been practicing that line?"

"This is Krago," the thief sighed.  "My friend, apparently."

"A northman," said Sir Garath.  "The wars are still fresh in the minds of our people. I’m surprised to see one such as you in the capital."

"Alas," said Krago with a shrug of his beefy shoulders, and a jerk of his thumb in Artis’ direction.  "I go where he goes."

"It’s true," said Artis.  "I really can’t get rid of him."

The mercenary captain fixed the barbarian with a shrewd stare.  "I lost a lot o’ good men up north.  There’ll be some bad blood if he comes along."

"Your grudge is with King Aelgar," said Krago.  "And despite my regal bearing and noble demeanour, I am not him."

The captain raised his slab of a hand in a calming gesture.  "Never fear, I hold no grudges.  I can’t say the same for me men, though."

"You will keep them in check," said the knight.  "Your gold depends upon it."

The captain nodded his head, and leaned back in his chair.  The knight continued.

"What brings a northman to the Lightless Labyrinth?"

"As I said before, I go where he goes.  If you take Artis, you take me.  Though, to be honest, you’ll find me much more useful than him."

"No other reasons?" said the knight sceptically.

"Absolutely none," said Krago with a smile.


His arms burned.  Sweat stung his eyes.  Blood ran slick on the ground beneath his feet.  Still Jonn fought on, side-by side with Sir Garath, with the stone platform at his back.  The priest was behind them, holding his arm where it had been gashed by a jagged piece of bone wielded by one of the beast-men.  Despite the wound he stood resolute, staff planted firmly on the ground, his forehead glistening.  The light shed by the staff never wavered.

A beast-man lunged forward, and Jonn smashed the rim of his shield into the creature's open jaw.  Another came at him from the front.  He caught the blow aimed at him with his sword, and the beast-man reared back with a bloody hand.  Sir Garath fought on cautiously against two more opponents, defending against every blow and waiting for an opening.  He was no magnificent fighter, but he was methodical, and effective.

Jonn held his position.  He felt more at ease with the knight beside him, and the light of the priest’s staff at his back.  This was more like the fighting that he knew; he had but to defend, to stand his ground with Sir Garath while the better warriors like Myrio, Saskar and Krago fought on their flanks.  They were better armed than the beast-men, and more disciplined.  It was only a matter of time.

He saw a flash in the corner of his eye, just before a rock thundered into his temple.  His vision went black, and when it cleared again he was on the ground with a beast-man on top of him, fangs snapping at his throat.  His shield was between his own body and the creature’s, but he was unable to force the beast-man’s weight from him.  He brought his other arm up, but his hand was empty, his sword out of reach.  He pushed at the slavering face, pushed the jaws away from him with all his strength.

He couldn’t see Sir Garath, could barely even spare a glance to find anyone.  The staff-light flickered crazily, sometimes dim, then suddenly bright.  He struggled with the beast-man, and as he did he saw another lope past on all fours, scrambling up the side of the platform.

He tried to sound a warning, but all that came from his throat was a cracked, wordless cry.  He could see the crazed, bloodshot eyes of the beast-man through his warding fingers.  There was more than animal lust in those eyes, more than hunger and rage.  They blazed with malevolence, with a pure hate like nothing he had seen before.  The yellow fangs inched closer, dripping saliva onto his neck.

He strained his shield arm, feeling around on his belt.  The creature’s bulk had it pinned, but he was able to shift it a few inches, until his fingers closed on the hilt of his dagger.  He tugged, but was unable to shift his arm enough to wrench it free.

The yawning jaw brushed his skin.  With a grimace, he forced his finger into the creature’s eye, and it jerked up with a shriek.  He drew forth his knife, plunged it into the beast-man’s belly, then whirled around to the platform.

Artis was there, still crouched beside the bowl, his arm buried in the mound of skulls.  Behind him loomed the beast-man, eyes bright, jaws wide, a heavy rock clutched in its hand.  The thief’s head turned, and his face drained of colour, but he did not remove his arm from the bowl.  The beast-man raised the stone above its head.

Jonn cried out and tried to pull himself onto the platform, but something wrenched at his leg.  The beast-man on the floor, lying in a pool of its own blood, had caught him by the ankle.  Jonn could feel the claws through his boot as they pierced his skin, but he could not pull away.  He ignored the beast-man grasping his ankle, faced the one on the platform, and let fly with his dagger.

The beast-man ignored the dagger as it grazed his shoulder, and brought the stone down towards the thief’s head.

And then a long spear burst through its chest and out of its back.  The stone fell from its grip and onto the floor.  Jonn looked across the room, and saw the barbarian standing there, a wide grin splitting his red beard.

"I saved your life again!" he yelled.  "How many is that you owe me?"

Artis pulled his hand free and rubbed the top of his head.  "By my count, twenty-six," he said.  "You cut that one very fine!"

"Should I let you die next time, then?" said Krago, hefting his battleaxe again.  "No, my friend.  No chance of that."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 12


"Well," said the thief, standing up and giving his cloak a small flourish. "Isn’t anyone going to ask me what I’m doing here?"

"He gets bored when he’s not the centre of attention," said the barbarian.

Sir Garath nodded his head in the thief’s direction.  "Speak, then, if you’re so inclined.  I for one would like to know what you bring to this expedition. You look more at home in a ballroom than a battlefield."

"I thank you for the compliment," said the thief with a smile.  "And you are correct: I am no warrior. There are, however, necessary skills that require more finesse than banging someone on the head with a stick.  I am an expert lockpick, a master of stealth, and incredibly charming and handsome.  You won’t find me a burden, I assure you."

"At the very least he can carry some supplies," ventured the barbarian.

"That's all very well," said the knight. "But I would know your name, and your reason for coming here."

"My name is Artis," said the thief.  "And, quite simply, I seek wealth."

"There are far less dangerous ways to obtain that," said the knight.

"I would happily brave a few days of hell for a lifetime of heaven," said Artis.  "Wouldn’t you?"


Jonn raised his shield, and the thigh-bone that was aimed at his head splintered.  The creature kept coming at him, and Jonn lashed out wildly with his sword.  He had been in battle before, but this was different.  Then he had been shoulder to shoulder with his fellows, arrayed in formation with firm ground underfoot and a bright blue sky overhead.  It had been terrifying, but at least then he had been able to feel something.  Here, in the whirling chaos, battling by a light that flickered this way and that, against things more beast than man, he had no time to feel at all.  He just struck and chopped at everything that moved.

The beast-man grabbed his shield and wrenched it aside, blasting Jonn’s face with a gust of rancid breath.  Jonn brought his sword down and cut off the thing’s arm at the shoulder, then lashed out again, smashing its face to a bony pulp.  He whirled around, barely even having time to breathe.  Saskar was on top of another wounded beast-man nearby, working slowly with his knife.  Across the room Myrio and the barbarian were fighting side-by-side, him wreaking havoc with his axe, and her weaving around the enemy like a dancer.  Near the platform and the bowl, Sir Garath was beset by three of the creatures; he was holding his own, but one of them landed a blow on his shoulder, and he was only saved by his thick plate armour.  The priest darted from behind, giving what aid he could with his staff, but it was obvious that he was no fighter.  Jonn dashed towards them, leaping up onto the platform.

As he was running past he saw a figure crouched near the bowl, and he lashed out at it with his sword.  The figure raised its hands as it stumbled back, and Jonn pulled his blow at the last second.  It was the thief.

"What are you doing?" said Jonn.  "We need to help Sir Garath."

"You go," said Artis, pushing himself back up to kneel by the side of the bowl.  "I’m no fighter."

"Then get back to the tunnel with the others, you’re no use here," said Jonn.

Artis ignored him and thrust his hand into the bowl, rummaging through the skulls.  Jonn hesitated.  Sir Garath was being forced back, and now there were four of the beast-men against him and the priest.  More were emerging from the tunnels near Saskar, who was felling them with arrows as they entered the chamber.  Jonn wanted to go to Sir Garath's aid, but if he did, Artis would be left defenceless.  He was still caught in two minds when the thief suddenly drew forth two gold coins from the bowl in triumph.

"Fine then," said Jonn.  "You can die here if you really want to."  He leaped down from the platform to Sir Garath’s side, thrusting his sword through the chest of a beast-man.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 11


Jonn caught a flash of movement to his left, and whirled around to meet it. A dozen more of the ape-like beasts scuttled from the holes in the wall, swarming from all sides of the chamber. Their eyes shone pale and moon-like by the light of Beren’s staff, and the air filled with the stench of rancid sweat.  A weird terror gripped Jonn's bowels, but he did not take a backward step.  This is just like fighting northmen.  No different.  No different at all.

One of the creatures hefted a rock in its palm, lifting it overhead to let it fly. With barely a thought Jonn thrust out his shield arm, protecting the back of Saskar’s head. The archer still stood frozen, seemingly mesmerised by Myrio’s every movement.

The rock struck Jonn’s shield with a clatter, and an impact that reverberated to his shoulder and sent him back a step.  He was surprised to see Saskar fix him with a look of pure fury, just before the archer brought his bow up and loosed an arrow at the creatures.  The arrow punched through a beast-man’s throat, and as the creature slumped to the ground with a gurgle Saskar drew again and fired into another beast-man’s thigh.

Two of the creatures were sprawled on the floor, but the third advanced quickly, a jagged bone clenched in its fist.  Jonn moved forward to meet it, and Saskar was beside him, laughing.  As Jonn caught the charging beast-man’s attack on his shield, Saskar fell on the one he had shot in the thigh, plunging his long knife into the thing’s chest and abdomen.  He stabbed it over and over, his eyes gleaming, and even after it was surely dead he continued to plunge his daggers into its limp body.  And through it all, he never stopped laughing.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 10


The archer looked up from intense scrutiny of his knife and fixed Myrio with a fervent gaze.  Jonn felt his skin prickle uncomfortably, and he shifted in his chair.

"It will be an honour to do battle at thy side," said the archer.

Myrio did not even look at him as she spoke.  "You would do well to watch this one, Sir Garath.  He is a member of the Stygian Brotherhood."

"I’ve not heard of it," said the knight with a frown.

"Few have," said Myrio. "Even in Haruna they are little known, and it is there that they most often ply their trade."

"Murder," said Beren, with a knowing smile.

Myrio looked at the priest, an eyebrow raised.  "You know much, old man.  Yes, they are assassins, in service to the Demon-God Goth-Haqqra, and whatever other vile notions drive them. I would not take this man into the Labyrinth if I were you."

Jonn watched the archer out of the corner of his eye while the others spoke.  The archer paid them little heed.  He simply returned to studying his knife, testing the edge with his thumb and glancing occasionally Myrio’s direction.  Jonn knew nothing of the Stygian Brotherhood, and had never been to Haruna.  He only knew that the quiet archer, with his burning gaze and twitchy mannerisms, made him feel on edge.

"I will judge that for myself," said Sir Garath. "What do you have to say, archer?"

The archer started when he was addressed, and fixed the knight with an intense, unblinking stare.

"Of course I am a killer," he said. "What other sort of man wouldst thou need in the Hellwarren?"

"And the Stygian Brotherhood?" said the knight.

"I am of their number," said the archer. "But like our priest here, I am here of mine own accord."

Myrio shook her head. "No. The Stygian Brothers do nothing without word from their masters. If he is here, there is some vile purpose to it."

"There is purpose indeed," said the archer. "But the purpose is my own, and I can swear that it will not conflict with thine.  Order me, and I will obey.  Tell me what to kill, and it will die."

"I see," said the knight, stroking his chin.  "Tell me Myrio, how skilled would this man be?"

Myrio eyes the archer sidelong with open disgust.  "At killing?  Almost as effective as myself, though I would say less artful about it."

Sir Garath nodded. "I have no love for murderers, and less for pagan demon-worshippers. However, I have even less love for priests, and I have already admitted one of those to our number.  Welcome...?"

"Saskar," said the archer.

"Welcome, Saskar. Do not make me regret my decision."

The archer nodded, and the ghost of a smile came to his face.  It never reached his eyes. Jonn shuddered again as he regarded that hot, fervent gaze, and that was when it struck him: the whole time they had been talking, archer had not blinked even once.