Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ritual of the Mark: An Excerpt

Wow - this is the first entry in damn near six months that isn't about James Bond! That feels weird. Anyway, Lynette and I are nearly finished with our fantasy novel "Ritual of the Mark," which is based on the characters from our Weekday Warhammer campaign (but we had to create a new world to put them in, which I am developing for a future game setting - that way, even if we can't get our novel published, the work still goes into something useful).

This chapter I'm sharing here is the only one that almost - not quite, but almost - could stand alone as a short story. I thought I'd share it with my friends and see what they think. This hasn't had its third and final draft yet so there may be some mistakes we'll catch later. But this should convey something of the tone of the novel, the characters, and so on.

By the way, for those of you who already know the characters from the Warhammer game, this is before the party meets Zobeslaus. Like in the campaign, he doesn't come into the story for a while. They'll meet him later, when they reach the city of Metrozium. For those of you who don't know the characters, Kyrasoth is an elf; Daz is a dwarf; Ludo is a halfling.

I hope you enjoy it, and let us know what you think!

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Chapter 5

Ludo, Kyrasoth and Daz set out early the next morning. The air had a cloying quality and the vegetation was wet with dew. The terrain east of the Phloon was considerably rougher than what they’d been used to. The threes thinned, and wildlife grew scarce. Hunting would be next to impossible here, Kyrastoth reflected.

As they walked, the trio chatted about the riddle, and Dacian’s tale of Duke Perinold. As for Matthias, they were ambivalent, wanting to trust him, but agreeing that something about him rubbed them all the wrong way.

That night, they camped in the forest without incident, though the lack of night birds and insect chatter was somehow disquieting. By midday on their second day out, the tremors started. Periodically, the ground would vibrate under them. It was a shock at first, but within a few hours, they almost got used to it.

The vegetation responded to the vibration, it seemed. Trees and plants were less prolific now. It wasn’t just that there were fewer of them; many had fallen and lay dead and rotting. The odd animal carcass was draped over a dead limb. Winds whipped down from the north and rattled the dry branches like bones. The worst part was that their destination was still at least a day way, and they did not favor the prospect of spending the night in this forsaken place.

Night came, of course, and they sullenly made camp. The tremors got worse as they sat huddled around the fire, munching on dried provisions for dinner. Distant thunder promised rain, but they quickly realized it was the increasingly bad tremors making the noise. And there were other sounds as well: whispering sounds, slithering sounds, chuffing sounds almost like laughter. Even Daz exchanged fearful, wide-eyed looks with Kyrasoth and Ludo at the sound of it.

“Makes the skin crawl,” Ludo remarked.

“I don’t believe I can sleep,” Kyrasoth agreed.

“I don’t need to sleep,” Daz said. “I’ll push on through the night.”

But sheer exhaustion eventually forced them to sleep, and brought disturbing dreams.

Kyrasoth awoke sometime after midnight to a low, menacing growl. The white wolf sat by her side. She started for a moment; it was close enough to touch, close enough to kill her. The ground trembled, and she could have sworn something moved in the ground beneath her. The wolf’s growl became a snarl. Moments later, the ground stilled and the noise faded. The wolf seemed to settle a bit, but retained a watchful demeanor.

Ithu delnab,” Kyrasoth whispered. “You are protecting me.”

The wolf turned its head and looked right into her eyes. She slowly reached out, allowing it to see her hand long before she touched it. She gently placed her hand on its flank; the fur was dense as quilted mail but soft as the finest Iliosian silk. The wolf sat, but kept its attention on the night. Greatly comforted, Kyrasoth drifted into a sound sleep.

* * *

It started to rain at mid-morning the next day. The companions were soon soaked to the skin. Their moods turned black, and there was little talk. Kyrasoth no longer doubted the existence of the Wrotlings. She could feel the presence of something writing beneath the turf. She also found a ghost of awareness in the air, a sense of intention, like that of a lurking predator.

“An attack seems imminent,” Daz remarked at one point. But when night fell, no attack had come. Their spirits were even lower at the prospect of another night in this vibrating, barren landscape.

“Wait!” Ludo said, stopping them short with the shaft of his halberd. “Up ahead in the distance, I see a shimmering light!”

“Perhaps it’s a place we can shelter for the night,” Kyrasoth said.

“More likely, it’s a trap,” Daz grumbled, and the others couldn’t help but agree. Wrotlings infested the area. They could easily have taken over one of the buildings on the old estate.

As they drew nearer, the black outlines of a tower emerged out of the driving rain. It was about four stories tall, and its surface was of solid, smooth cobalt.

They approached the place cautiously. But when they were still several paces from the iron door at the tower’s base, it was thrown open. Light streamed out of the doorway, silhouetting a tall figure. The companions exchanged looks. They’d all been under the impression the tower’s owner was long dead.

“Good evening,” boomed a pleasant male voice. “Please, weary travelers, come in for the night; my sanctum is warm and dry, and I will have a hot meal prepared in no time.”

“That’s kind of you,” said Kyrasoth, “but we have no wish to impose.”

They were now just outside the doorway. “Nonsense, dear one,” the figure said. “Your beauty is such that you could never be an imposition.”

“What about me?” Daz asked. Ludo surreptitiously kicked him.

Their eyes grew used enough to the light to get a good view of the gentleman, and they were all taken aback to see he was dashing and fair Elf. His hair was a cascade of golden curls; his eyes were so light blue as to almost appear clear. He was dressed in noble garb. “My name is Rastavan,” he said in a melodious voice. “Please allow me the honor of being your host this dark evening.”

Slowly, they passed through the door.

“I’m going to regret this,” Daz muttered under his breath.

Rastavan bowed to each othem in turn as they came into a small vestibule. “Please forgive me for my lack of decorum; tradition dictates my manservant should greet visitors, but he has, alas, met with an…accident.” Ludo’s eyes widened.

Rastavan took Kyrasoth’s hand. “Darul sinomay,” he said, bowing deeply and pressing his generous lips against the back of her hand.

Passing fair though he was, Kyrasoth felt the touch of his lips on her skin dreadful. She suppressed a shudder.

“Please, make yourselves at home, weary travelers,” Rastavan said, motioning the way to a door that led deeper into the tower. “I’ve already prepared your rooms for the night. A very special feast is being prepared for you right now.”

“What do you mean you’ve already prepared –” Daz began, but Kyrasoth shushed him with a look. Ludo gave them both an expression they read as ‘nothing good can come of this.’ They all understood – if they did not play along for the moment, the situation would come to a crisis this instant. If they did, they’d live a bit longer, and possibly have time to learn something. One did not have to have Elven blood to feel the unstable magical energies swirling around Rastavan. Even if they wanted to leave now, they realized they were probably trapped here in the wizard’s lair; he had all of the advantages.

“Come,” he said with a smile. “I will show you around.”

He lead them into an enormous parlor. It was dominated by an ornate stone fireplace in the center of the room, set with a mosaic pattern depicting the crusader Dustinian, the first emperor of the fallen Joolian realm, battling the sorcerer Malthazaar on the plains of faraway Hagan. Suits of old armor and racks of archaic weapons stood near the stairwell.

“The sorcerer Malthazaar,” Rastavan explained, following their eyes. “He brought about the Darkening – blotting out the sun for six winters in the ancient times. Crusaders from the western kingdoms defeated his monstrous armies, but not Malthazaar.”

There were numerous places to sit; cushions were plush, piled next to small tables. Most of these were piled with books. The walls were covered with tapestries of myriad designs, mostly historical: Metro and the Seven Swordsmen defeating O-Bolg, the Giant King; Tarful the Mariner shining Illuma’s Lantern into the face of Hymeme the Sea Hag; the Women of Hagan gathered at the Hill of Junipers in the Garden of Dawn, imploring the goddess Aena to create the moon; and so on. None depicted Elvish history, Kyrasoth noted, concluding that at some point, Rastavan murdered the tower’s original owner.

Rastavan gestured to a deeper doorway. “There’s the dining room.” He continued on, noble robes swishing, to the far side of the room, where a circular stairway began its winding climb up into the tower. The companions followed him up; once, twice, then thrice, then onto a short landing that emptied onto a hall that held three doors.

“These are your rooms, my honored guests,” Rastavan said, bowing again. “Please make yourselves clean and comfortable. Dinner will be served in an hour. You remember where the dining room is.” With that, he left them and descended the stairs.

“Whose fool idea was this again?” Daz demanded as soon as the wizard was out of earshot.

“You’d think Dacian could have told us about the wizard,” Ludo grumbled. “That seems an important detail…forsaken estate, Wrotlings, ancient artifacts – oh yes, let’s not forget the freakish Elven sorcerer!”

“He probably didn’t tell us because he’s a werewolf,” Daz said. “He’s in cahoots with the wizard!”

“Please,” Kyrasoth interjected. “He’s not a werewolf. Stop acting silly. What are we going to do?”

“What can we do?” Daz shrugged. “Other than wait for his next move.”

“We could sneak out,” Ludo said unconvincingly.

“I doubt it,” Kyrasoth said. “Rastavan reeks of black power.”

“The place is on lockdown,” Daz agreed.

“All right,” Ludo said. “This Rastavan seems rather taken with you, Kyrasoth. Perhaps you could distract him?”

“Distract him how, Ludo?” she asked.

“Well, you know,” Ludo stammered, “go into his bedchamber and behave in a womanly fashion. I’m quite certain that would distract him.”

“What do you want me to do?” Kyrasoth said. “Snuggle up to him? Take off my clothes? Allow him to defile me? Allow him to sacrifice me to the Wrotling God?”

“Well, whatever you’re comfortable with,” Ludo said agreeably.

“How will that help?”

“It will give Daz and I a chance to escape,” Ludo offered.

She cast a withering look at him.

“Daz is right. We wait and see what Rastavan’s next move is.”

* * *

They explored their bedrooms together. All three were virtually identical, with a small fireplace and a large bed. Each had a chair and some form of wardrobe. Kyrasoth wondered how many guests Rastavan was used to entertaining. She and her companions were certainly the only ones here now. Ludo insisted on searching all three rooms thoroughly for secret doors or traps, but found nothing. Even so, Kyrasoth doubted anyone would be sleeping well that night.

After cleaning up a bit, they returned to the first floor and entered the dining room, where they found Rastavan waiting.

“Come!” he said. “Sit. Eat. Enjoy.” He motioned toward the chairs that lined the long table. A meal of roast duck and boiled potatoes lay before them. There was also coarse black bread with butter and candied apples for desert. Several large bottles of wine – of rather good vintage, Ludo noted – stood vigil over the food dishes. They ate and drank, and though Daz had, upstairs, quietly urged them not to, he ate and drank as much as the rest. Kyrasoth also noticed with relief that Daz kept his barrage of anti-Elf rhetoric to himself for once.

They didn’t talk much during the meal, though Rastavan asked piercing questions about their travels.

By the time she was halfway through the dinner, Kyrasoth felt her head swimming. A quick glance at her companions showed they were also somewhat confused, to say the least: Daz stared blankly, a foot-long streamer of drool hanging from his lips, and Ludo was engaged in what seemed an intimate conversation with the saltshaker. As for Kyrasoth, she kept noticing strange swashes of color appearing in random places in the corner of her vision.

All of them exchanged glances as they began to feel the familiar vibrations again. It was constant and it was everywhere. A cacophony of strange sounds filled the air: dry clicks and hisses, mad, plosive whispers, mechanical-sounding laughter, and a weird humming that pulsed in and out. Rastavan just smiled as if this were all perfectly normal for an impromptu dinner party.

“Well, you must all be exhausted,” the wizard said suddenly after Ludo had finished his fifth helping of the candied apple desert. “You are welcome to retire at your leisure.”

All three stood.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Kyrasoth said.

“Not at all. Could you stay a moment, Elven lady?”

Kyrasoth’s heart sank. She glanced at Ludo, who was smiling and making a juvenile sexual gesture, while silently mouthing the words, distract him. The Halfling and Dwarf made their way upstairs. Kyrasoth stood before her chair uncomfortably.

Rastavan, finishing a glass of wine, said, “Will you not sit back down with me?” She looked into his icy blue eyes and could swear they were pulsing.

She bowed her head. “Sir, you have been kind and generous to strange travelers. I do not wish to offend, but I am weary from the road and would like to be excused.”

Rastavan’s eyes widened, and they pulsed ever more fiercely. “You are immune to my charms?”

“So it would seem.”

“I wonder why,” Rastavan said, more to himself than to her. Then his eyes narrowed and he snapped, “Get out of my sight, then!”

She did so with gladness.

* * *

The companions each lay awake in their own rooms that night, hoping, perhaps, to reconnoiter the place well after midnight. The eerie sounds and vibrations persisted, seeming worse to Kyrasoth, now that she was alone.

Just as she began to fall asleep despite the dire circumstances, she noted ripples moving through the mattress beneath her. Squirming, disturbed, she leaped from the bed as the Wrotlings came for her.

They’d come up from under the bed – maybe even out of the bed itself. Cool Elven willpower to the contrary, Kyrasoth let out an ear-splitting scream that she knew could have been heard all through Rastavan’s tower.

Five Wrotlings surrounded her. They were more horrible than she could have imagined from Daz’s vague hints. The bottom halves of the creatures were segmented and maggot-like, but they supported themselves on a single slug-like pseudo-foot. When they moved, their made a squishy sound, punctuated by dry clicks. Their torsos were humanoid, but from the front of the chest, not the shoulders, rubbery forearms waved about, opening and closing their hands, rattling their claws. The Wrotlings’ faces were equally repellent, with eyes set upon stalks that sprouted from their pale oval faces. Two flat vents passed for a nose, and their mouths were brownish-pink holes covered with a thin membrane. This rattled with their speech and break. They spoke, incoherently and without pause. The sound of rushing air was ever-present. Chitinous armor covered parts of their misshapen bodies. A scrim of slime covered their exposed fish-belly-white skin.

Kyrasoth scrambled frantically for a weapon.

Sssssssstay phhhut, it doesn’t want ussssss to, he commands it, take them,” breathed a Wrotling.

She found her dagger and plunged it into the face of the one nearest her.

Hate it hate it hate it,” the thing said with a breathy, mewling sound.

The others launched themselves at her, mouth-membranes recessed, to snap at her with their round ring of teeth. Two of them landed bites, sinking into her flesh. She screamed again – or maybe she was still screaming from before – and she heard the answering screams of Daz and Ludo.

She focused her energy as best she could and hit one of the Wrotlings with a small burst of blue light that erupted from her fingertips: a small bit of Elven magic. The Wrotlings’ resultant confusion gave her a chance to spring for the door. The bites on her face burned like liquid fire. Slime mixed with her blood, creating a yellow-green foam to rise out of her cuts and punctures. She felt another bite sink into her calf. She flung her fingers forward and shot another bolt of energy at the one attached to her leg. The air popped and sizzled. Her power was not strong or focused enough to do the Wrotling serious damage, but it did let go, taking a round “o” of her calf-flesh with it. She felt puffs of air from horrid little mouths as the others tried to bite her.

By the time she reached the door to the upper hallway, one Wrotling was attached to her neck and another hung from her forearm. Foam frothed everywhere she’d been bitten, and a slow-growing lethargy began to hit hard. She watched in horror as one of the Wrotlings relaxed its grip to chew the flesh it had ripped from her leg.

Jerking open the door, she got a full view of Daz stumbling down the hall with three Wrotlings attached. At that instant, there was a loud crash! behind the door to Ludo’s room. An instant later, the door swung violently open, and Ludo exploded from it with four Wrotlings in tow.

“We have to get out of here!” Kyrasoth shrieked, heading for the stairs and charging blindly down. Her limbs were becoming numb as she ran: she realized the foam must have some paralytic quality. She felt certain she’d soon not be able to move her limbs at all.

Just as the thought formed, her left knee gave out beneath her and she stumbled, tumbling down the rest of the stairway. She landed at the bottom and slid across the polished floor into one of the archaic weapons racks in Rastavan’s parlor.

She heard the wizard’s merry laugh. “I see you’ve become acquainted with the staff,” he called. “I hope they find you as delicious as I do.” Kyrasoth looked up in helpless fury to see the gloating wizard, hands on hips, head thrown back in laughter.

At that moment, Daz came flying off the stairs, and – accidentally or on purpose Kyrasoth could not tell – smashed into Rastavan. The wizard let out an “oomph” as the air was knocked out of him, and he sailed backward, landing on his bottom under the weapon rack.

Ludo suddenly tumbled from the stairway, and he’d apparently gained a great deal of momentum in his fall. He was thrashing wildly as he tumbled, trying to shake off two Wrotlings that had attached themselves to him. As he hit the base of the stairs, his momentum carried him forward on unsteady legs. He crashed headlong to the weapon rack, knocking an old polearm from its resting place.

If they’d not seen it happen, they’d have thought it was impossible. The bladed polearm fell from the rack with dreamlike slowness, top-heavy from the broad axe-blade at its tip. Rastavan looked up in horror and tried to scramble out of the way, too late. The blade sunk into the wizard’s forehead with a sickening thunk. He fell back on the tiles of the parlor, thick blood beginning to spread ‘round him in a pool.

The sudden shrieking of the Wrotlings, who cried out as one at the moment of Rastavan’s death, was unbearable. There must have been hundreds more in or under the tower. It trembled as the monsters wailed in despair and they fled into the walls, cabinets, under furniture, through coal chutes, away from the scene. After several tense moments, the din receded. The secret, distant sounds of whispers and clicks returned.

The paralytic effect faded when the foam was wiped clean, Kyrasoth realized, and the trio spent a few moments carefully cleaning themselves.

“Don’t let it get in your blood,” Daz said. “You’ll incubate more Wrotlings!”

“Don’t say that!” Ludo cried, scrubbing furiously. They flushed their wounds with water over and over again. Eventually they felt comfortable enough to stop shaking and to assess their situation.

The wizard was dead, the Wrotlings were in hiding, and the companions had escaped serious injury, if only by a hair’s breadth. They had an entire wizard’s tower to explore and loot.

Ludo started by claiming the polearm that had killed Rastavan. He insisted it was the luckiest weapon ever made. It took some effort for him to dislodge it, but he managed, and in the end, was obliged to abandon his halberd in favor of the polearm, both being too much for his wee body to carry.

“You still look ridiculous,” Daz barked. “That halberd was three times your size. This is four times as big.”

“I think he looks cute,” Kyrasoth said.

“I believe the word you’re looking for is dashing,” Ludo said.

“You’re right about one thing, though,” Daz said. “That was lucky. Odds of us leaving this place alive are about a billion to one.”

“I think we ought to move quickly,” Kyrasoth said. “The Wrotlings may grieve for a while, but eventually…”

“Right then,” Ludo said. “Let’s loot this tower!”

* * *

They winded their way up the staircase, all the way to the top: the astromancy laboratory, where Ludo figured the best stuff would be. They curved wall held books from floor to ceiling. The ceiling was open to the sky, but how the rain was kept out, none of them could say. A shield, a jeweled dagger, a skull cap and a cloak hung from wall mounts hear the door. Kyrasoth could feel magic radiating from them; magic radiated from the whole laboratory.

The skull cap resembled a rat, mouth a-gape. “Dibs!” Ludo cried when he saw it, grabbing it and pushing it down on his head. It looked like he was being eaten by a rat, head-first.

“That’s disturbing, Ludo,” Kyrasoth murmured.

“Thank you!”

Daz hefted the shield, grunting appreciatively. After a few mock-combat moves to test its weight and balance, he nodded and slung it over his back.

Kyrasoth herself claimed the jeweled dagger to replace the one she’d lost in the Wrotling. But it was the cloak that captured her imagination. It appeared to blend in with the stone of the wall behind it. When she touched it, its appearancechanged: it looked like shimmering liquid metal, backlit with oily rainbow streaks. When it settled, it blended again. It appeared to reflect it surroundings if it was kept still. Kyrasoth put it on and whirled, delighting as the metallic colors glittered and danced.

“If the princess is done dressing for the ball, maybe we can get out of here,” Daz said.

“Not so hasty, friends,” Ludo said. “Observe the written material on the table.”

The Halfing pointed to a round table that stood in the back center of the laboratory. It was littered with maps, charts and notes. Kyrasoth studied these as Ludo cast about for more treasures and Daz paced impatiently.

The charts showed locations of various celestial objects, Kyrasoth noted. One showed the paths and phases of Illuma and the Wanderer over a ten-year cycle. There were four points of interest that stood out: two eclipses hen the moons were half-full, and two points of opposition. During one of them, both moons would be full, and on the other, both moons would be new. Someone – presumably Rastavan – had written next to this point, “The Ritual of the Mark.”

Amar orad undulav,” Kyrasoth said, not meaning to speak out loud.

“What are you babbling about?” Daz demanded.

“The riddle we found. Look at how Rastavan noted this date here, when both moons are new.”

Ludo and Daz crowded in to have a look.

“When the blue and white shine no light,” she quoted. “That only happens when both moons are new; every decade. The next one is happening this summer.”

Daz and Ludo both looked interested. “I think that Duke is trying to do some ritual that night,” she said. “His men out searching for artifacts are gathering what he needs to do it.”

“You mean this so-called Ritual of the Mark?” Ludo asked.

“Maybe.” Kyrasoth shrugged. “It made me think of the riddle, anyway.”

Kyrasoth rolled the lunar chart and placed it in her pack. She spent a few more moments searching the bewildering stack of books for some mention of the Ritual of the Mark, but gave this up as hopeless. She feared there wasn’t enough time to thoroughly peruse Rastavan’s library before the Wrotlings returned. Meanwhile, Ludo had uncovered a small stash of gems and jewels.

“Free for the taking,” he said, smiling.

“By right of accidental conquest,” mumbled Daz.

* * *

They arrived back in Phloonbend a few days later. They were exhausted and sore, but satisfied. After another night at the Happy Otter, they arranged for a ride to Metrozium on a riverboat laden with beans and lentils, which would leave at first light the following day.

“The captain said it will take about a day and a half,” Ludo said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the place!”

“Even I’m somewhat curious about it,” Kyrasoth said, “and I’m not overly fond of cities.”

“…I’m not overly fond of lentils,” Daz said.

“Nevertheless,” Ludo said, “let’s take a well-earned rest.”

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