The earth trembled beneath the hooves of the Asentic cavalry as they spilled into the valley, Markos at their head. The gods condemn Nikephoros, that cursed prefect for giving him this command. He probably thought
The earth trembled beneath the hooves of the Asentic cavalry as they spilled into the valley, Markos at their head. The gods condemn Nikephoros, that cursed prefect for giving him this command. He probably thought it was a reward. To Markos, it was nothing but irritation and a likely death.
His gaze swept along the rocky hills on either side, curving out like a giant’s bowl with sharp valleys notched on either end. Through its center wound a shallow creek, and beside it a low hill, bare of any stone or copse of trees. The grim, scar-faced fighter led his shining, mail-clad cohort to the top of that hill, assembling them in an outward-facing ring of bristling spears.
“Patros,” he barked.
A young man with hawk-like features spurred his horse forward in answer.
“Take your dozen and go bloody the hellspawns’ faces. Then lead them back to us.”
Patros saluted in the Asentic style, then issued clipped orders to the other iron-willed men of his raiding party. They sped down the hill, then proceeded up along the creekbank to the far end of the valley. Trapped in that hollow, without fortifications, and with the exits easily blocked, Markos’s cohort would make an appealing target.
Far away, in the high hills and low mountains north of Hathulia, Orsog stood amid the black ruins of an ancient structure, carved from strange stone drawn from the heart of the earth. An arch was carved into the naked cliff face before him, at the center of the ruins. Within the arch, a gash in the rock revealed the wide entrance to a lightless cave. He lit his torch and entered.
Bare of earth, of the festering soil in which worms writhe and from which life grows, the hard stone still dripped with cool waters of the deeper earth. The darkness seemed to flitter around Orsog, like a cloud of bats, beaten back for a heartbeat by the light of the guttering torch, only to surge inward again in the next moment. The black stone of the outer cliff may have been carved, but the inner passages were craggy and at best half-formed. Shadows lurked behind a thousand spurs of rock and stalagmite.
As he journeyed deeper into that cool and misty underworld, Orsog began to notice side passages, small bolt holes no higher than a man’s waist, hidden in the dark corners of each chamber. At times, amid the dripping of slowly falling water, he thought he heard the pattering of footsteps, or the echoes of distant, hellish laughter. If the squat, slick-skinned Gwo Belin belonged anywhere in the natural order, it was here, where only blind fish, cave crickets, and colorless amphibians could dwell.
Eventually the pattering and croaking, the scrabbling of rock and distant laughter, ceased to be merely echoes. As the sounds grew louder, the outlander drew his sword. In the open air, he might have favored the big Rendic blade of his people. Here, though, there would be no room for the grand, sweeping blows that cleaved a man in half. No, this was a place for the quick cut and thrust of an Asentic blade, short enough for close quarters, but heavy enough to dash brains when the occasion called for it.
The passage narrowed briefly, then opened up into a sweeping vista of broad floors, high ceilings, and cyclopean masonry. Torchlight glittered off hanging crystals, circular, placid pools, and white rivers of stone. Pillars of carven onyx were engraved with hellish bas-reliefs, each depicting a different episode in the long history of the Gwo Belin. This old sorcerer had been no back-alley conjurer, summoning things he did not know with words he did not understand. No, that Nemedian diabolist had understood what dark powers he called upon and had prepared a place to receive them.
At the end of the hall, where the long gallery of pillars ended in a semicircle of carven stone, a shaft of sunlight poured down from the distant surface, illuminating a smooth stone altar. Orsog glimpsed something on its surface, small patches of shadow in the dim rays of the hidden sun. As he approached it, footsteps echoing, the dim outer limits of the torchlight showed rows of arches opening in the walls on either side. The sounds came from the left-hand side, though he could not tell from which archway.
What Orsog found on the altar surprised him: small figures made of folded paper. Curious, he bent closer, but did not touch them. Each was a miniature effigy of one of the squat, bow-legged creatures now plaguing the Hathulian border country. A quick count showed that over seventy were gathered there, staggered out in a compact, zig-zagging line from one end of the stone table to the other.
There are secrets only the initiated may know. In those moments, Orsog looked up at the shaft that ascended to the surface and understood that it had nothing to do with sunlight or air. No, this plague of bloodthirsty goblins had arisen in a time when certain fearful stars were in a terrible conjunction, foretelling the rising of certain awful powers normally trapped in a deathly slumber. The wise knew the coming of this conjunction, and also knew that it would last for seventy days. In the staggered line of goblin effigies, most were white. Some fourteen, the number of days since the conjunction began, had turned a slime-covered, pitch-black.
“Curse these hell-mad sorcerers!” Orsog spat. “Can they not leave us be even when the life has fled their bodies?”
He reached out an arm and swept the paper goblins into a pile. The moment he did, a shriek and a gibbering cacophony arose from the left-hand passages. He cursed again and opened a leather sack, into which he swept the pile. As he turned to the right and began to run, a mud-covered clan of goblins, still dripping with the slime of the pit from which they had crawled, spilled out of the archways behind him and gave chase.
To Be Continued…