Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Short Story Shorter

Ah, nuts.

I didn't win the Secret Weapon competition I mentioned last month (hats off to the man who did, it was a great read). The store voucher I got instead will go a long way towards soothing my wounds, bringing various interesting terrain options my way as it does.

Now, I'm not being suckered into trying to keep the chain unbroken or anything - it was tough enough padding out December, in all honesty - but just in case anybody in the entire world is wondering, I thought I'd stick my semi-finalist piece out here. Definitely not for the chain.

No sir.

Remember what Fleetwood Mac said.
That's right. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.

It wasn't much of a stairwell. Little more than three twists of spiral stairs, barely half a metre wide. Fulumbar scraped himself out of the last turn, grunting angrily with the effort of pulling his bulky armour through the tight gap. Before he could get his bearings any more, he walked directly into someone's solid back.

Oswald was standing directly in front of the exit, lantern held high.

"Careful, you great lunk," Fulumbar snapped. "What are you staring at?"

Then he saw, and his jaw clamped shut in astonishment.

It was a large burial chamber whose floor dropped in two-metre deep steps to a square platform at the bottom. An altar stood there, reached by four narrow sets of stairs that ran down from the centre of each wall. Lit by six red candles, a fat book lay on top, ivory-bound with a heavy clasp.  The walls and floor were ancient dressed stone, embossed with more of the skull and sun symbols they’d seen above, but that wasn’t all.

Every single slab had a mummified body lying on it.

"Hundreds of them," Oswald whispered, face pale.

"So what?" Fulumbar asked, still irritated that they'd collided. It didn't help that the handle of his warhammer had shattered in the fight with the giant skeleton, and that the best replacement Oswald had been able to rustle up was a rusty mattock. "We're in a bloody tomb. What were you expecting, feather beds?"

"Don't you see?" Oswald said. "They're fresh."

Oswald swung his lamp over the first ledge and Fulumbar immediately saw it. The bandages were new, good clean linen. Bright blotches of blood stained the chest of each one.

"Brass bells of the Bronze God," cursed the dwarf. "What is this?"

"Quiet," Goldar snapped from nearby, and Fulumbar's jaw clenched again. He readied the battered mattock and watched the corners of the room. Astrid was already cautiously advancing round the perimeter, checking the four massive doorways that led away into the darkness from the top of each stair.

Anirion had climbed down to the first broad step and was kneeling by the nearest wrapped corpse. He'd peeled back the layers of bandage from the face. Goldar stood expectantly above him.

"Well?" asked the barbarian. "Is it what you thought?"

"Maybe," Anirion said. He looked exhausted, still weary from the spell he'd cast not long before.

"Damn," Goldar said, then coughed. The after-effects of the warlock's spell still lingered.

"What?" Oswald asked. "What is it?"

"Aye," Fulumbar echoed. "I thought we were down here for gold, not corpses."

"We were down here to investigate disappearances from the outlying villages," Goldar said irritably, and coughed again. "The City Lords of Ogyr said that these tombs had a bad reputation, but we'd be well paid if we checked them."

"This is an Ogyri villager, certainly," Anirion said. "Assuming the rest are the same, there’s more than enough to account for all of the disappearances."

"Somebody's cut out their hearts," Goldar said, grimly. “Recently.”

“Who?” asked Oswald, trying to swallow with a dry mouth. “The guy I just burned?”

“No, my grandmother Thora was making her old heart stew,” Fulumbar growled. “Of course the bloody necromancer did it!”

Goldar and Anirion exchanged glances.

“What?” Fulumbar asked, confused. “He didn’t?”

“The Dark Sun is an old evil,” Anirion said sombrely. “But not the oldest.”

“So?” Fulumbar asked angrily, trying to mask the unease he felt.

“Astrid!” Goldar hissed. “Get down there. Anirion needs that book.”

“I haven’t finished checking these doors,” Astrid said.

“Now,” Goldar said, pulling his axe out again and examining the edge. It was nicked from the earlier fight. As he produced a whetstone from a pouch at his belt, Astrid rolled her eyes, but obeyed.

“Don’t wander,” she said, carefully starting her descent down the nearest stair. “It might not be safe.”

“You don’t say,” Fulumbar grumbled, fiddling with his mattock as Goldar started sharpening his axe with careful strokes.

It took her long enough, but Astrid retrieved the book without incident. Anirion immediately put it on a folding lectern from Oswald’s pack and began reading. As Astrid carried on checking the four big doorways, Fulumbar stood and fidgeted, then sat and fidgeted, then strode up and down muttering to himself.

“Are you nearly done, elf?” he growled after what seemed like an eternity. Anirion was still on the first page.

“It’s fascinating,” Anirion said. “A true relic. I need my reference scrolls to make a full translation, but…”

“You can’t even bloody read it!” Fulumbar spat. “What are we doing sitting about in this bloody grave, then?”

Goldar gave Fulumbar a hard look. “We’re here because Anirion had some suspicions about these disappearances,” he said. “Old legends say an ancient demon was buried down here, even older than the Dark Sun.”

“Dhaoloth Sunkiller, a fallen Champion of the Red Age,” Anirion said gravely. “The warlock we fought was buried here years afterwards, serving merely to act as a deterrent to thieves who might intrude further and disturb the demon. Or the foul Khaorcha he created as servants. This book is written in their vile tongue. Despicable and degenerate creatures, we know them today by the name…”

“Orcs!” yelled Astrid from one of the doorways. She leaped back as a trio of feathered javelins flitted under the arch, falling and clattering down into the altar pit behind her.

“How many?” Goldar asked, whetstone vanishing back into his belt as he rose.

“Too many,” Astrid yelped.

“Not enough!” Fulumbar snarled, striding forwards.

“Back up the stairwell,” Goldar ordered. “Now!”

Anirion snatched up the book, Oswald grabbed his folding lectern. Both of them stopped dead as they turned to the entrance to the stairway.

“It’s gone!” Oswald gasped.

“Astrid! Get it open!” Goldar barked.

Through the arch, a pack of howling orcs spilled.

Meaty brutes, clutching hooks and cleavers, armoured in beetle shell and patchy chain, splashed with paint and screaming their bloodcurdling warcries. Fulumbar waded into the incoming tide, sending the leaders flying down into the pit-like heart of the room with swings of his heavy mattock. Goldar stood at his shoulder. The river of orcs was momentarily dammed by blade and fury.

But Astrid was right, there were too many.

As one died howling, two more sprang through the arch. They flooded in, screeching and hollering, flinging barbed javelins as they started running round the top deck of the room. Frantically, Astrid ran her chafing fingers over the unyielding stone. Oswald kicked the walls pointlessly as Anirion calmly did breathing exercises. A primitive spear broke on the wall next to his head.

“If we are going to leave, we should do so before the remaining exits become unviable,” he stated.

Orcs had filled two and a half sides of the room, were pouring down the stairs to the altar to surge up the other side. Only two arches remained clear, and one of those only by a few scant metres. Oswald swung a heavy satchel off his shoulder, pulled out a stocky firearm and blasted the nearest orcs before they could reach the arch.

“We need to go!” he shouted.

“Get out,” Goldar bellowed over the din of the orcs. “That book needs to get to Ogyr! You need to warn…”

A manic trio of orcs leapt at him together, trying to bear him back under sheer weight of numbers. The rest of his sentence was lost.

Astrid dragged Anirion towards the nearest door. “This way,” she said. “I saw something this way!”

Oswald hurried behind, throwing the discharged gun at a pursuer. Astrid swore. The orcs were nearly at the top of the stairs from the altar. Fulumbar and Goldar were going to be surrounded, but if she stayed to help, all five of them would be overwhelmed. Could they just leave their friends to their fate?

“Go!” shouted Fulumbar. “We’ll hold ‘em!”

Astrid shoved Anirion through the arch, then Oswald, then skewered the first orc up the stairs with her rapier so that its body fell back on those behind. She risked a last glance.

Fulumbar and Goldar hacked and bashed, penned into a corner by a knot of furious orcs, horribly outnumbered but still alive. But a new horror had arrived.

Framed in the door from which the savages had emerged was a towering creature, one of their kind but broader and older. Bald, tusked and half naked, the brute bore a staff topped with demonic horns. Below the waist, it wore human hearts, strung together on clot-covered twine and woven into a hideous kilt. It saw Astrid, and screamed in rage, louder than its entire kin put together, then waved a new pack of killers into the chase with one muscular claw.

Then she was running for dear life down the broad stone steps she’d spotted earlier, deeper into what looked like an ancient mine. Anirion and Oswald were just ahead, bearing the precious book.

She didn’t see how they could hope to survive. But they had to try.

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