Below you’ll find the first two chapters of my forthcoming novel, Karthanas the Lesser. It’s my first foray into what I’m calling swordpunk, and features the exploits of a down at the heels warrior prince named Karthanas ven Lanthe–better known to his cohorts as Karthanas the Lesser. Days into a grueling assault on a massive, underground keep, Karth finally penetrates the inner sanctum…and gets more than he bargained for. Karthanas the Lesser is the first volume in a series called The Trials of Karthanas and will be released in late 2015.
Karthanas the Lesser
by James Cormier
As the sixth day of the Battle of the Akkian Mass dawned, Karthanas the Lesser wrenched his blade from the ruined chest of an enemy scout and turned to face the red sunrise. Entrenched at the third marker, just below the highest gate into the central node of the Mass itself, their advance had reached a dead halt until the black hours of midnight past, when Corgh had braved the no-man’s-land between the final markers and led a charge into the heart of the fortress’ endless battlements. Karthanas looked back at the young woman beneath his boot, umber breast cleaved and raw beneath the shreds of her light armor. There was surprisingly little blood, like cold meat on a butcher’s block.
Corgh removed his helmet, closed his eyes, and looked into the sunlight.
“Nothing like a good night’s sleep,” he said.
Karth grinned. They hadn’t slept in days, and the bindings laid on them by Kyrian and his battle mages were beginning to loosen and fade. When the fighting began he had been swift, tireless, and strong, his war harness no more than a comforting presence on his shoulders; now his every exhalation promised to crumble the unseen augmentations and sink him into a final fatigue. Already his pauldrons were growing heavy and his sword arm felt numb, the beginnings of a bone-deep ache starting to tingle along its length. His grin quickly became a grimace. He planted the tip of his greatsword into the dull metal decking of the Mass and leaned on it.
“If I stop now I might as well lie down and let them have me,” Karth said. More blood, he thought, was all that would do. Shatter their defenses, breach the keep—if “keep” could be applied to an alien thing like the Mass. Complete the raid. Of the phalanx he had been given to command when the assault began—two days ago? three?—Karthanas and Corgh were the only ones left, separated by speed and skill and luck. The only survivors, likely. Not the first time.
“I feel my strength wax with every kill,” said Corgh. “Give me but another of these Akkian whores and I will carry you over the wall, my lord.” He dipped two gauntleted fingers into the latest wet corpse he had created and anointed himself dramatically, one smear on his forehead and two vivid slashes across his cheeks.
“Then the Powers themselves can feast us and bathe our bodies in honeymilk and golden wine, anoint us with the sacred oils and present us with a heavenly array of rune-scribed arms, to assault the very foundations of Ellar itself.”
The battle fury was on him now. For Corgh, the rage was more of a furious irony, a humor that had saved Karth from sinking into something far worse, on more occasions than he cared to admit.
“Tonight we each shall feel the spoils run down our chin, and down our leg,” Corgh said, concluding his comic prayer, “for we will take our ease on the golden marble of the Akkian altar itself, with wine on our lips and Akkian priestesses on our pricks!” He coughed a crude laugh and bowed, saluting Karthanas flamboyantly with his sword.
“Time enough for pricks later,” said Karthanas. “Time to finish this or sleep at the bottom of a trench.”
“This one looks quite nice,” said Corgh.
Karth released his blade from the dark bronze paving of the Mass with a click. For the briefest of moments it seemed to stick, and become heavy as the world, as if he were drawing at the weight of the Mass itself. The feeling was lost in the rush of the moment as he clambered up the last low fielding wall in front of them, blood pounding in his ears. Beyond was the great plaza, empty but for the distant, immobile figures of the Guardians, standing sentry around the Western gatewell into the Mass, and the occasional blue crack of ambient lightning.
Kyrian and his acolytes had tampered with something when they called up their magestorm to breach the outer defenses; random, relatively mild discharges of power glanced off the metallic surface of the Mass. The field was stippled with the bright polar blue of latent energy. Sympathetic reactions, Kyrian had called them when they started. “Not entirely unexpected,” the wizard had claimed. Magery made Karthanas uncomfortable in a way he had difficulty describing, even to himself. It was necessary for victory but unreliable, and too often imprecise. A careless mage was as dangerous to his comrades as he was to his enemies. But such was true of all soldiers, he supposed. A carelessly swung sword could be as deadly as a bolt of fire.
The drop to the floor of the plaza was twice his own height, but despite the weight of his armor Kyrian’s bindings held and dampened the impact. Karth sank smoothly into a crouch, the knee of one greave tinging faintly against the ground, his right hand splayed in support like a sprinter’s. Corgh landed next to him and barely paused before ramping up to a full charge.
The nearest of the four Guardians was standing at attention a good ten spans distant. She had not moved, but their motive was not stealth and chances were that she had become aware of them the moment their feet left the fielding wall, if not before. He rose and gave Corgh a silent count of five before following at a steady walk. The Guardian remained motionless until Corgh came within striking distance, then, almost casually, it seemed to Karth, brought around the shaft of her tall pilum from attention into a broad swing that checked Corgh’s rush and sent him sprawling to one side. The force sent him sliding a surprising distance on the bronze. Battle fury or not, Corgh had felt that.
Karth was slightly surprised. She could as easily have spitted Corgh, or tried, as brush him aside. The Guardian returned to attention as he approached. As well try to understand the sky as these Akkians, he reminded himself: their tactics made as little sense as their religion. Why post such fearsome warriors as the Guardians, whose skill was legendary, and then restrict their movements to a small quadrant of space around a gate?
Still several strides away, Karth ceased his pondering, took the snare from the small of his back, and twisted the top of it sharply. He heard the glass pin snap dully, and tossed it, lazily, the last few feet toward the Guardian. She shifted the pilum just enough to deflect the small cylinder and Karth saw the slightest flicker of surprise in her eyes when the thing stuck. She shook the rod to dislodge it, but the core was already glowing through the expanding shell. The woman opened her mouth to scream and froze, her last expression one of sudden rage, the emotion like a pike breaching the surface of a glassy moat. Then the Weyndic discharge lashed out and she was gone, her body a wisp of glowing motes that winked out in a brief moment.
The other three Guardians remained at their posts, guarding their respective quadrants. They wouldn’t budge, Karth knew, as long as he and Corgh remained inside the quadrant they currently occupied. A bloody stupid defensive strategy, he thought again, each guard being responsible for only one sector of the great plaza, deliberately blind even to the death of her sisters. It seemed designed to repel a specific invader, but not one Karth was familiar with.
Ineffective in the face of an opponent of greater skill than a single Guardian, of course, but few warriors could make that claim. He could not quite count himself as one of them; the snare had been a trick. The Guardians were ancient and perceptive, but perhaps a bit too sure in their belief that any intruder formidable enough to reach this point would fight fairly. He could scoff at it, but he wouldn’t complain about outdated tactics. Or obsolete belief.
An enemy: was that what they were? The Akkians? The priestesses that dwelt within the Mass itself? He wondered. What even constituted an enemy anymore? Could he truly consider them as such, or did the word imply a reciprocal aggression? The raid on the Mass had been unprovoked, a strike for power. No, not power. Loot. Treasure. Despite what they had convinced the local satraps, there was no strategic advantage in taking the Mass, particularly since Karth’s forces, small and specialized as they were, had no intention of helping to hold it once it had been breached. They came to pillage and burn. Smash and grab. But explaining that they had come for a handful of powerful talismans which they fully intended to seize and keep for themselves would not have gotten the locals on board.
They had come for three items they knew the priestesses held within the vast bowels of the Mass: the Spear of Uran, the Red Helm, and the last known Weynstone on the Yoran continent. Three prizes for Lanthea’s leaders, three pieces of loot for men seeking more who had never known less. Three prizes that were essentially worthless to the men who had gone to battle believing that victory over the Akkians would mean greater prosperity and freedom for their people. The spear, the helm, and the stone could not be split as spoils, nor used in the defense of the country by even the most powerful of the satraps. Such artifacts required a great level of innate power to be put to their intended use.
The Spear of Uran, for instance, would be nothing but a sharp stick to any man without the knowledge and ability to use the elemental keys secreted within it. The Weynstone could not be touched by any living being, not and remain stable—Powers forbid one of the local hedge wizards were to get his hands on that.
They would take what they could find, flee with their prizes, and, aside from encouraging them that now would be a good time to follow suit, leave the local armies to the Akkians’ wrath. Which would be formidable, and quick; the head priestess would no doubt release the Guardians from their mandates following the discovery that their treasures had been lost. Then the satrapies would pay for the theft in blood, drawn at the dark hands of the avenging angels of the Mass. The people of Akkia might rightly call the priestesses enemies, then. And the Akkians, priestly caste and peasant alike, might rightly call Karth and his brothers thieves and war criminals. Nemesis. But could Karth rightly call the Akkians his enemies? Perhaps “victims” was the better word.
“Karth!” Corgh yelled, slapping him on the armor with a heavy gauntlet. “Where are you, man?”
Karth shook his head slightly and realized that he had been staring, eyes unfocused, at the spot where the Guardian had disintegrated, for the better part of a minute. Corgh had had time to get up and walk up to him. Foolish. There was no place for indulgent reverie in the midst of battle. He would have woken one of his men from such daydreams with a gauntleted slap. Not too different from what Corgh had just done, but not on the armor.
“Down the hole,” Karth grunted, not bothering to explain. Corgh nodded, trotted up to the rim of the gate-well, and dropped inside, falling the ten feet to the gate itself. The door was a massive bronze medallion, set flush with the floor. It appeared to be one solid mass. Karth had no idea how it opened. Normally, anyhow. Carefully removing the device from a padded leather satchel hung from his belt, he set it in the center of the gate, waited for the click, then pushed down the stud on top. Standing back to inspect his work, he understood where it had gotten its nickname. It looked like nothing so much as a small brass turtle, crouched in its shell. Mages often had a strange sense of humor.
“Er…shouldn’t we…” Corgh said.
“Yes,” said Karth, and they hauled themselves out of the well and rolled away from its mouth, careful to stay in the vanquished Guardian’s quadrant. A few breaths later a massive thoom shook the entire plaza. Karth saw the three remaining Guardians tremble in their places, but none moved. What the hell are they guarding against, if not us? Thank the nine heavens for small idioicies. They looked over the rim of the well as the smoke cleared. The gate, and most of the bottom of the well itself, had been completely obliterated.
“Door’s open,” Corgh said.
Corgh jumped first again, and Karth followed, landing on polished stone. He breathed in and thrust his sword through the chest of the first guard, one of the more common variety, the kind who would be only too happy to kill him no matter where he stepped. Her breastplate parted as easily as her young lips, through which she drew the smallest of gasps before dying.
* * *
Corgh slew the last of the guards in the third chamber of the second deep and Karth breathed out. They were standing outside the black stone door of the room that was supposed to hold both the spear and the helm. The Weynstone they would retrieve on their way out.
Sheathing his sword with a heavy shlick, Karth banged on the door a few times, listening. Other than the clanging of his fist on the stone, the wide subterranean passageway they stood in was empty and silent. Pools of blood congealed around the beautiful, pale Akkian guards, dead in piles at their feet. Corgh was leaning against the massive doorframe, chewing on a strip of dried something he had pulled from his rations. Kyrian’s scrying had given them a general layout of the interior of the Mass, along with general locations for the items they sought, but the details were left up to them. Limits to it, Kyrian claimed, “especially in a place like this.”
There was a circular slot in the door, worked in bronze, that looked like it might be some sort of keyhole.
“Search the bodies,” Karth said. Corgh finished his strip of meat in one gulp and pushed away from the door, quickly but efficiently searching the bodies of the dead women. After a minute he shook his head.
“Nothing but weapons and prayer beads.”
Karth considered his options. He didn’t have another turtle, though he wouldn’t use it even if he did; a blast the size of the one they had used to gain entrance would wreak havoc in the enclosed interior of the Mass. They had no other means of opening the door by force. The stone was thick and immovable. That left two options. Find the key, or find another way in.
“We split up,” Karth said. “You take the other chambers and passages on this level. Look for the key, or another way in. I’ll take the third level.” He indicated a dimly lit hallway to their right.
“Fuck that,” Corgh said. “We don’t have time. The feint at the front gates won’t distract them forever, even presuming they got things started on time.”
“Then we’ll have to make time,” Karth said, turning to leave. “Find me a way into this room.”
“And if I run into a battalion of pissed off Akkians who’ve figured out they’ve been tricked?”
“Maybe all they’ll do is cut off your balls. Might let you become a priestess, then,” said Karth, smiling wide.
“Fucking fuck.” Corgh had always had a way with words. That word in particular. Karth didn’t look back. He knew it was hard enough for the man to let him go off on his own without giving him time to think it over. He still blamed himself for that incident in Phervua. As if getting himself dragged into the soldan’s dungeons along with Karth would have helped matters. As it was Corgh’s well-timed, if messy, rescue was the only reason he’d made it out with his skin. Literally—this particular soldan liked to take trophies from those he caught pilfering his treasuries. And his daughters.
The hallway led to a staircase that curved down, lit only occasionally by torches along the wall. He emerged in a hallway almost identical to the one above. Their entrance and progression through the first and second deeps—as Kyrian had dubbed the strange, ellipsoid floors of the Mass that descended deeper and deeper into the ground—had drawn every guard within earshot. Even with the bulk of the Mass’ fighting women drawn to the main gates at the Southern end, he and Corgh had no easy time of it. They fought their way down, bindings weakening further with every blow. And now he was stuck looking for a small key in a large, dark, subterranean temple complex. Fuck.
He turned a corner and couldn’t tell who was more surprised, the guard standing watch by a small, unimportant looking door or Karth himself. She saw him and froze. Karth didn’t bother drawing his sword. He grabbed her by the neck as she reached for her own, dropping her spear with a clatter. Lifting her clear of the floor, he tightened his fingers to crush her slender throat. He didn’t look at her eyes.
“Should’ve tried the spear, darling.”
“Please,” she whispered.
Karth stopped. Met her eyes after all, saw the fear in them. Saw the baby fat still clinging to her cheeks. Saw that she was young, younger than she had any right to be. Barely a woman: sixteen, seventeen suns, maybe. Younger than his sister’s daughter.
Karth had killed countless Akkian guards that day. Not a one had wasted their last breath with anything but a snarl of hatred. An Akkian begging for mercy was like a mage admitting he didn’t know the answer. It just didn’t happen. He loosened his grip. Slightly.
“Who are you?” Karth demanded.
Her eyes widened. He didn’t know whether she had seen something in his face or whether it was panic, but she started babbling in Akkian.
“Lanthean,” he grunted. “Speak Lanthean.” His knowledge of Akkian was limited at the best of times, and she was speaking far too quickly.
“Akantha,” the girl croaked, her accent thick. “Dau…Daughter of the High Priestess.”
Daughter of the High Priestess. And thus, the future High Priestess herself. The Akkian High Priesthood was one unbroken line of matrilineal descent, supposedly stretching back to the goddess Akkia herself, though Karth doubted it. Then what the hell is she doing dressed like a guard?
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“She told me…I had to be here when you arrived.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
The girl was quivering now, tears running down her cheek under her ill-fitting guard’s helmet. Karth pulled a dagger and she gasped, struggling violently. He held her up against the wall, strengthening his grip on her throat, and she stopped. He slipped the blade under the thick swordbelt she wore and cut it free, her weapons jangling to the ground. He kicked them free and then set her down, choking and spluttering. She collapsed in a loud heap, wrapping small pale hands around her throat and wheezing raggedly. She was weeping in earnest now. Karth scowled.
“Who puts a fucking child in the middle of combat?” he demanded.
She looked up at him with eyes suddenly gone fierce, still coughing and choking.
“I am a priestess of Akkia,” she said. “I will be High Priestess when my Holy Mother goes to the Goddess.” She coughed again. “And I am not a child.”
He didn’t have time for this. Corgh would undoubtedly have engaged more guards—hell, he could be in the Chamber already. The man was nothing if not resourceful. More importantly, the bulk of the Akkians’ forces might have seen the gate attack for the feint that it was, might be making their way back through the tunnels of the Mass even now.
“Listen to me, child,” he said. “Do you know why I’m here?”
She looked at him blankly. “You seek that which we keep safe.”
He smiled lewdly.
“That’s right. And I’m betting you know where it is, daughter of the High Priestess,” Karth said, checking the blade of his dagger with a gauntleted thumb and making sure she could see the gleam of it. “Do as I say, and I promise I won’t cut your pretty throat.”
The girl nodded weakly, her big eyes wide and wet.
“Now,” he said, “Where is the—”
“It is through this door,” she said. “I will lead you there.”
Karth narrowed his eyes at her easy acquiescence, but long consideration was for kings and counselors, not battlelords in enemy territory. Unsheathing his short sword, he pulled her roughly to her feet.
“Do you believe I’ll kill you if you’re lying to me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’ve always admired believers,” Karth said. “What is it the Word says? ‘Blessed are the faithful, for theirs is the final truth.’ ”
“You know the Word?” she said.
“Surprised, princess? Don’t teach your breeding stock to read, eh?”
“Our men all read. Many are poets,” she said, meeting his eyes with a considering look. “I was merely surprised that a man like you knew scripture.”
“A man like me?” he said. She’s lucky I found her. Corgh would have killed her already.
“A killer,” she said simply.
Karth grinned. “All men are killers, princess. Don’t you know that yet?”
He slapped her on the ass with the flat of his sword, drawing an outraged squawk.
“Now lead,” he said. “Or you’ll find out firsthand.”
The door swung inward easily at her touch and she led Karth into what looked like a large storage room. Stone shelves lined the walls from floor to vaulted ceiling, filled with sacks, baskets, and a variety of folded sundries.
The girl padded silently to the back of the long room—her feet were bare, Karth noticed now—and touched something at the back of one of the shelves. He heard a low whine followed by a barely audible rumbling.
“Step back,” the girl said, returning to his side. He did as she said, and watched as the intricate stone tiles of the floor began to move. The mosaic was apparently designed to conceal the seams of the mechanism beneath it; after a few moments of eerily complex grinding and shifting, an ample stairway led from their feet into a yawning blackness.
The girl led, and Karth followed.
The dim light of the storeroom above illuminated their path for a few feet, but they were soon in darkness. Karth felt the familiar spike of fear and adrenaline in his heart as he heard the staircase closing behind them. Trapped.
He reached out in front of him, intending to grab the girl by the throat again and force her to open the stairway, but he caught only air.
“Dammit, girl, you’re—” he began, and then a light flared up suddenly farther down the tunnel.
“Afraid of the dark, warrior?” she said. “ ‘Only the damned need fear the dark.’ Didn’t you read that part of the Word?”
Karth approached her, gave her what he hoped was a murderous smile, and gestured impatiently.
Every ten paces or so, she touched a globe hanging above head-height on one of the walls and it flared into bright amber light. The girl seemed to grow more confident as they went on, the hall brightening to light their way. Soon it widened and terminated in a set of heavy bronze doors. She placed the palm of her right hand in the center of them and spoke a word under her breath; they opened silently on a well-lit, unexpectedly large chamber.
The ceiling was an impressive dome hung with golden chandeliers, its broad expanse supported by the circle of columns beneath it, illuminating a sunken floor centered on a simple marble pedestal, its top bare. The doors closed quietly behind them as Karth and the girl stepped into the room.
Karth was starting to get that feeling again. He carefully dropped his sword arm into a low guard.
“Those who expect violence will find it,” said a voice. A woman’s voice; not the girl’s. It echoed from the solid stone dome above them in a way that didn’t seem natural. Karth ground his teeth and began to consider the possibility that he had acted incredibly stupidly. There could easily be an entire company of guards down here somewhere.
“Seek you to prove my daughter’s assertion? That you are a killer?” asked the voice, its strange acoustics seeming to coalesce on a particular point in the room. Indeed, Karth could see a darkness between two far columns that might be a doorway.
“Show yourself, witch,” he grunted. “I don’t put up with this dramatic bullshit from my mages and I’ll not suffer it from such as you.”
“Such as I?” she asked, and Karth saw her now, striding unhurriedly from the darkened archway. A tall woman, bare-breasted, her skin paler than the other Akkian women he’d seen, a deep tan that looked long untouched by the light of the sun. She wore a collar of beaten gold around her long neck, matching the bands in her black hair; a wide sash crossed her waist just below her navel, supporting a flowing white skirt. Karth caught himself grinning. Idiot, he told himself. Distracted by a nice pair of tits. Next you’ll be pissing yourself like some green boy of a pikeman. They were nice tits, though; surprisingly lively for a woman of, what—at least 40 suns. Even older than you, old man.
She spoke Lanthean flawlessly, without a hint of an accent. Just like her daughter, now that Karth thought about it.
“It’s been a long time,” Karth said, nodding suggestively at the woman’s chest, “since seeing a pair of those was enough to impress me.”
“The High Priestess of Akkia goes bare-breasted before the Goddess,” said the woman. “I am Alsyon.” She gave an odd little bow, then looked at the girl.
“And you, daughter, should know better than to set foot in the sanctuary so attired.” The girl blushed, removed her helmet and shrugged out of the scaled guard’s cuirass she wore. Her hair was the same straight black as her mother’s. Karth raised an eyebrow when she untied the shoulder of the simple tunic she wore and bared one pert, young breast. He truly hoped they made it out of this alive, if only so he could tell Corgh, in great detail, about everything he had missed.
When she moved to join her mother, the older woman raised a hand.
“Your time at my side is finished, child. You should know that by now.” The girl’s eyes widened and Karth saw what he thought was fear in them, a different fear than what he had seen when he held her by the throat. That had been the surprised fear of a woman overpowered; this was deep, unadulterated terror. It was gone almost as soon as it came, however, and the girl—Akantha, Karth remembered—lowered her eyes again.
The High Priestess, seemingly satisfied, looked at Karth again. Her gaze was unsettling.
“Whom do I have the…honor…of addressing?” she asked.
Suddenly feeling a bit silly, a fully-armored man brandishing a sword in a room populated by two half-naked women, Karth sheathed his blade and gave a formal bow.
“Karthanas ven Lanthe, Lord of Duskwald, named the Lesser, my lady,” announced Karth. He forewent mentioning his more…colorful…titles. The Marauder of Lissom Mirk is hardly a way to introduce yourself. Karth didn’t know how Corgh ever managed; the names he was known by were unfit for any company. “Not at your service, unfortunately.”
Akantha started slightly as he laid one cold gauntlet at the nape of her neck. “Now, if we have concluded with the necessary pleasantries, I believe you have some idea of why I am here.”
Alsyon smiled coldly, showing no teeth.
“Oh yes, my Lord of Duskwald, believe me when I say that I have known of your coming for a long time, and that I alone in this room am fully aware of its import.”
More witchery, Karth thought. This one could teach Kyrian a thing or two about melodrama.
“Yes, yes, I’m quite sure you divined my coming from the entrails of a pig, or some such nonsense. Which explains why you were so formidably prepared to repel our assault, and why your guards were competent to prevent a small force from penetrating the innermost chambers of the Mass.” There was no need to admit that there were only two of them; better if they presumed he had a full phalanx with him. Karth curled his fingers slightly and Akantha mewed softly, keeping her eyes on the floor.
Alsyon’s mouth drew into a hard line.
“I can see that you are a brutal man,” she said. “I had thought I could…” She cut off, shaking her head. “No matter. Come, my lord, and claim your prize.”
She turned and held out her hand toward the pedestal, presenting it to him. Karth glanced at its blank top and raised an eyebrow.
“What…” he started, then stopped and looked again. The air above the pedestal was…changing, he thought. Moving, somehow. Something seemed to turn and a light flickered, as if someone had suddenly kindled a flame. Karth took a step toward it, almost unwillingly. His legs wanted to carry him forward of their own accord. The light was a dusky yellow color, and it slowly began to pulse and throb. Like a heartbeat, Karth thought.
“What is it?” he asked.
“What you came for,” she said.
“I doubt it,” Karth said. “I came for more than a trick of light.”
“Look again,” said Alsyon.
“I haven’t stopped bloody looking at it,” said Karth, gripping the hilt of his sword, but even as he did so the light changed again, concentrating into a small mass. After a few more moments of uncanny flickering, Karth found himself looking at an object: an irregular, flattened orb roughly the size of his palm. It was polished, but of indeterminate color; it seemed to vary from a deep, sickly transparent yellow to flat, opaque grey to deep black. It shimmered like a beetle’s wing and, Karth was surprised to realize, seemed to produce an unpleasant feeling behind his eyes and in his stomach if he looked at it for too long.
In other words, it could only be the Weynstone, one of the three things they had come here to find.
“Where’s the rest?” he grunted. The high priestess looked at him strangely.
“The rest?” she asked.
“The helm. The spear. I came here for more than a magick rock.”
“The helm…” she whispered, looking at him as if he had gone mad, then laughed suddenly and harshly. “I overestimated you. You don’t know what this is, do you? You came here seeking those trinkets? You have no idea what is happening here.”
“One, I’d hardly call two of the greatest remaining artifacts of Lanthea trinkets,” Karth countered, and once again pulled his sword. He seemed to be doing that a lot today. “Two, what’s happening here is you’re going to fucking well tell me what I want to know. And three, I don’t like being laughed at.” He pulled Akantha to him and brandished his blade, making his intentions clear.
Alsyon laughed harder. “Oh yes, the greatest weapons…of Lanthea,” she croaked. There was an edge of madness to her laughter. The thought made Karth truly cautious for the first time since he had encountered the girl, who was also staring at her mother in silent disbelief.
The older woman had fallen to her knees, still trembling with whatever desperate emotion had consumed her. This had gone far enough. Unhooking the padded satchel from his war harness, he shoved it into the girl’s arms and pushed her toward the pedestal.
“Put it in there,” he said. Kyrian and the senior Peers had been clear that the Lanthean records concerning the handling of the Weynstones were to be interpreted literally: no living being could touch them. How the Akkians had kept it safe for so many centuries…well, that was a mystery for another day and a more academic mind.
Karth’s armor felt heavy as he stepped over and grabbed the priestess roughly by the upper arm. Her breasts jiggled lewdly as he jerked her to her feet.
“You don’t know,” she mumbled, looking glassily up at Karth. “What do you think this is?”
“I think it’s a pretty rock for mages to play with,” Karth said, pulling her closer to the pedestal. Akantha had paused over the stone and was staring into it as old men did into the fire on cold winter nights.
“Get moving, girl,” he barked. She jumped guiltily, and with shaking hands fumbled the padded satchel open and moved to wrap the stone up in it.
“No, daughter,” said Alsyon. “The duty is mine.” She looked up at Karth, her eyes suddenly clearing. Something in them told him that she intended to cooperate with him. Karth had seen the same look in many a captured woman’s eyes over the years, as they were led off into the tents of invading soldiers: cold, resigned acceptance. Better to cooperate, and live to see the morning, than to fight a losing battle. This is different, though; she’s afraid of something worse than rape. What that might be, he couldn’t say. He let go of her arm more gently than he had taken hold of it.
Akantha stepped back from the stone like it was a gallows. The high priestess approached the pedestal and rested her hands on it, then looked at Karth.
“What is your people’s word for this?” she asked. “I’m afraid I don’t know it.”
“We call it Weynstone,” Karth said. “Now put it in the bag.”
“A poor translation,” she said, making no move to obey him, “but as it can only be from a Post-Deluge source, I suppose I must forgive your ignorance.” She shook her head. “Lanthea was a great civilization, but even its greatest minds never truly understood the few artifacts that survived from the ages before the Great Flood.
“Tell me, my lord, is there anyone in this world whom you love?” she asked.
“What are you on about, woman?” Karth said. “Don’t make me have to mar that fine skin.” He leveled the point of his blade at her collarbone and shook his head tiredly.
“I have fought for six days, cut down thousands of your warriors, slaughtered innocents, and stepped over the wounded bodies of comrades to get here. I will not ask again. Give me the stone, and tell me the location of the other artifacts I seek,” he said, shifting the sword to point at Akantha’s chest, “or watch your daughter die.” He touched the tip of the blade gently against the girl’s flesh for effect; her breath caught, and a single, startling drop of blood began to run slowly down her naked breast.
Alsyon smiled grimly. “You will have your prize, my lord. There is no need to harm my daughter. But do me the honor of answering my question: do you love anyone?
He smiled back. “I have no children. I am unwed. Those I love are the friends and comrades who share my fight, who bleed for the remnants of Lanthea. The ones who sought glory, and honor, and a name. The ones who died with the Leviathan on their chests. The ones who want to remake this world into what it once was. The ones who lie bleeding on your doorstep this moment.”
“Then claim your prize, my lord,” she said, “knowing that it is my fondest hope that those you love will not suffer too severely in your claiming of it.”
Saying this, before Karth could move to stop her, she touched the Weynstone with the fingertips of both hands and lifted it carefully off of the pedestal. It made a small, distinct click as it left the marble. He gaped.
She turned to face Karth.
“Are you insane?” he asked shakily. He didn’t know what he had expected to happen—that the world would end, he supposed, as soon as her fingertips touched the oily surface of that stone.
“Sometimes,” Alsyon said, “Bad things just happen.” In the middle of her sentence there was a dull, barely detectable thrum that seemed to run through the entire Mass in a wave, and Karth suddenly heard a sharp whining sound, a ringing in the ear that gradually faded out over seconds that stretched like hours.
“They have breached our fields,” Alsyon said simply. Her voice was different—augmented, it seemed, with some dark force, an echo of something else.
“They?” asked Karth, stupidly. She means you, you fool. Kyrian had agreed to attempt to bring down the powerful warding fields that protected the inner sanctuaries of the Mass, but no one—including the head mage himself—had believed it possible. “With the power our forces have to work with, it would be like attacking a man in plate armor with a wooden knife,” he said.
The Peers wanted it as a diversion, though, and Kyrian had agreed on that basis alone. What the bloody fuck is going on here? Karth supposed he should be happy, but he wasn’t used to being handed helpful miracles on the battlefield. Something was wrong.
“All the more reason—” He never had a chance to finish whatever it was he started to say. He felt suddenly heady, as if he had just swallowed a cupful of the fiery brew his steward cooked up out of malted grain back home in Duskwald, a swimming sensation followed by a brief parting with reality. When his faculties returned to him, the first thing he noticed was Akantha, arms outstretched, unmoving; she appeared stuck like a fly in tree sap, as if some hidden magick had frozen her in place.
“This has been a long time coming, Lanthean,” Alsyon said, still holding the stone out before her. The tips of her fingers were glowing with eerie light; he could see through them, he realized, through the stone itself—but the vision he saw there was not what lay behind it. It was not of this world.
She stepped closer to him as he met her eyes, addressing him in her increasingly horrific voice.
“Longer than you could imagine. Longer than you would think possible. There are powers at work in this world that are more exotic and fearsome than the most lurid religious fantasies. I find that…now that the time has…come, I…treeeemmblllleeeeeeee….”
Karth could barely make out her last word. She was slurring like she had taken a mace to the head, the last syllable out of her mouth still hanging in the air, her throat buzzing, turning from language into some kind of horrid growl. She began spasming, her hands shaking; the very fabric of existence seemed to shudder around her body. The Weynstone was a starburst of white void where the High Priestess’ arms had been.
Karth grabbed at her, careful not to touch the artifact she still clutched so desperately, dropped his sword, and slapped her hard across the face.
The blow spun her partway around, and the stone tumbled from her grip. The endless drone of her voice stopped and the light vanished abruptly. She whispered something. He leaned his head in, and she spoke in a voice husky with a strange masculine tenor.
“That which you sow cannot live unless it dies.”
Karth had a brief second to feel surprised, and then she was clutching at him, clawing at his throat. He pulled the dagger he had used to threaten the girl and she wrapped herself around his arm, struggling for control of the blade.
He hammered once, twice, on the nape of her neck, and she slumped. He pushed her back against the pedestal, propping her there, his left vambrace bracing her stomach, then he reached for the bag Akantha still held in her frozen hands. She let him take it, and after shoveling the again inert Weynstone into its padded depths he hooked it to his armor and made for the door through which the high priestess had appeared.
He walked beneath the columns and found himself in a deep, darkened alcove. Seeing one of the globes hanging from a wall sconce, he tapped it, and it flared to life. The alcove terminated in a blank stone wall a few paces from where Karth stood.
He pounded his fist against it, swearing. It was just a wall; there was no sign that any door had ever existed there. But he had seen her walking into the room from here—could she have been waiting in the sanctuary alone? Is there only one way in or out? He remembered the doors closing behind them on the way in and felt a chill. Hurriedly, he crossed the room, ignoring the women, and heaved on the heavy bronze doors; they didn’t budge.
“How do these open?” he said, looking at Akantha, who was crouched over her unconscious mother.
“I do not…” she began, then hesitated.
“Open the doors,” Karth commanded. Sparing another look for her mother, she reluctantly came to where Karth stood and touched her palm to the medallion in the center of the doors.
“They should open at my touch,” she said, confused.
“Open. The doors.” Karth said. She slapped impotently at the metal, then looked at him.
“I cannot. These doors cannot be forced, and they are not responding to my touch. It makes no sense. As High Priestess in Waiting I have the honor of entry into the sanctuary, though I may not make use of it except on—”
“The doors will not open for you, daughter,” came a weak voice from the center of the room, “because I am sullied, and you are not yet shriven.” Alsyon was struggling weakly against the pedestal, her head lolling on her neck.
Karth sighed. The brutal torture of unarmed women was beginning to seem like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for safe passage out of this warren.
“Come, Akantha,” said Alsyon faintly. “Receive your mother’s last blessing.”
The decking of the Mass shook as they ran, Karth pumping with all his might to keep up with the girl in front of him, unencumbered by the weight of plate armor. He was dizzy with the effort; shaking his head, he tried to make the hallway in front of him stop shifting and swaying.
Receive your mother’s last blessing. The High Priestess had touched her daughter, taken her face in her hands, and then…nothing. A vague flash of the girl running, telling him to follow, then a doorway opening, and then here. Delirious—he was delirious. With exhaustion, most likely. He certain hadn’t eaten anything in the last day, which might also have something to do with it. He considered stopping to take the armor off then and there, but his wheeling vision aside the walls were trembling like the ceiling might come down at any moment. Ignoring the nausea roiling in the pit of his stomach, he turned a corner and caught up to Akantha.
“Slow down, girl,” he barked. “You’ll—”
The hall widened just past her and ascended three broad steps. He could see daylight leaking in through narrow windows framing a heavy door. The thing that walked in front of it blocked out all light as soon as it entered the hallway, however.
Karthanas the Lesser was no child in war. He had seen mountain trollkin from the slopes of Lermasheer scatter heavy cavalry like an ocean wave scouring a beachhead. He’d killed a Dergian giant, naked, with nothing but a short sword. But the thing before him could have turned either of those over its knee and broken it without breaking stride.
The girl was saying something, but he’d stopped listening to anything beyond the beating of his heart when he saw the shadow enter the hall. It was enormous, twice Karth’s own height, clad in dusky bronze armor the same color as the stuff of the Mass itself. What face it bore or where its face even lay Karth couldn’t tell; the helm it wore had more in common with the end of a battering ram than any human headwear he’d ever seen.
Beat. Beat. Breath.
He cleared steel and swallowed, barely aware that his legs were carrying him forward, the weight of the armor less now that the unreality of the fight was in him. Akantha brushed at his gorget as he advanced, her fingertips grazing the stubble at his throat. He wasn’t even wearing his own helm, he realized suddenly: the thing clanked heavily at his waist, still hooked to his swordbelt.
He expected not to bounce off the shell of it, not to shatter his blade, not to find himself thrown through the stone of the wall. He expected to die. It wouldn’t be the first time.
He raised his sword in high guard, preparing to slash at the thing with every ounce of strength remaining to him, to render an arc of destruction that would cleave armored head from armored torso or break his blade trying. He almost delivered it, only checking his swing at the last moment, bringing the crossguard of the greatsword into the thing’s face—he thought it was its face—and putting all of his armored weight behind it. He succeeded only in rocking it back slightly, halting its slow progress by half a step. But it was a surprise, and it was enough.
What manner of creature are you? There was no conversation in the thick of it—not growled curses, no pithy barbs. Only sweat, and blood, and hot, stinking breath, and the kind of exertion that saves nothing for afterward. Muscles long bereft of natural fuel ate up desperate hate instead, and Karth took on a monster.
The pauldrons of the monster’s plate ended in high collar guards framing the massive neck in curving, bronzed steel, and it was to these that Karth clung, using his momentum to carry him up and around, his own plate clanking against the thing’s as he clambered loudly onto it. Its arms sought him, moving faster than he would have credited, and just as he got his right arm around the thing’s neck, the joint of his vambrace clutching the spot where the apple of the throat would be on a man, he felt it clutch him around one thigh. And then it squeezed.
He felt the last of his bindings give way, and the full weight of the war harness settled onto his body. He felt weighted with stones. The sudden change almost dropped him from the monster’s back, but he had a gauntlet wedged tightly between pauldron and gorget and he clung on. The pain in his leg grew from gentle pressure to an intense, crushing feeling; his leg plate was starting to buckle.
He had dropped his sword; it was only getting in the way. Pulling a dagger from his sword belt he aimed for his handhold, grazing the knuckles of his gauntlet as he rammed the blade home. It was good, ensorcelled steel, sharp as a razor, and the thing didn’t seem to be wearing mail beneath the plate. It snarled sharply like a cat—an unexpectedly acute sound for something so large—and Karth fell to the floor, scrambling backwards, hindered by the weight of metal encasing him.
“Run!” he yelled, but Akantha didn’t move. Why was he even concerned with her? Because she’ll lead you out of this maze and make a good hostage afterward. Karth’s eyes moved back and forth between the girl and the thing, watched it pluck the dagger from its shoulder like a splinter and toss it to the floor.
“Stop,” said Akantha, holding her right hand, palm outward, toward the monster. The monster stopped.
“Stand down,” she said. The thing seemed to relax. “Return to your chamber.”
With what seemed like grudging respect, the thing stepped backward, turned, and disappeared into the crossing corridor from which it had come. Karth released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding when the dim glow of daylight returned, after the thing’s bulk had finally cleared the steps before them.
“We must hurry now,” Akantha said, pulling ineffectually at his arm. “If the Gholl is free, then we have very little time.”
A thousand and one thoughts flickered through Karth’s mind at that moment, most of them rather unpleasant, few of them truly relevant. He thought of Corgh, wondered where the bastard was, and hoped that he was alive. He thought he had no fucking idea who this girl was or what he’d gotten himself into. And he thought he’d be perfectly willing to cut through any number of bodies if it meant getting out of the Akkian fucking Mass.
Levering himself to his feet with difficulty, he retrieved his sword and his dagger and climbed the low steps half in a daze. The Gholl lumbered away, impossibly silent, blotting out the torchlight as it moved down the corridor that bisected the hallway they were in just before the steps and the door.
Akantha was struggling with the heavy door; Karth grasped the bronze ring and opened it with one tug. They stepped out into the daylight just as the ceiling started falling in behind them.
The doorway let out into a shallow grotto cut into the bedrock surrounding the northern edge of the Mass. Karth looked out at the rocky terrain surrounding it and grimaced, then began tugging at one of the straps holding his right vambrace on. He moved far enough away from the odd sally port to give them some distance from anyone—or anything—else that emerged, but his focus was on getting the armor off.
Akantha looked like she wanted to say something, but didn’t, only sat on the rock and watched him. Five long minutes later, Karth opened the buttons of his leather gambeson and felt the air on his chest for the first time in days.
“We should go,” she said, unmoving.
Karth looked down at the pile of plate at his feet without responding. He didn’t want to leave it, but he’d be damned if he was going to wear it or carry it without the bindings, and he had no packhorse. Nor was there anywhere to bury it: the vast stone shelf that held the Mass was featureless, raw stone. He could see treetops in the distance: the Blackwold.
A great rumbling came from deep within the Mass and Karth almost lost his balance. They had closed the door behind them, but he saw wisps and plumes of stone dust escaping the frame.
“You’re right,” he said. “Time to go.” He buckled his sword belt around his waist, checked that both blades were securely sheathed, and looked at the girl. He considered his earlier thought about keeping her with him and dismissed it. “Head south, over the Mass. Your people will find you. If there’s any left.”
She squinted at him.
“I am going with you,” she said. Karth laughed.
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it, darling. But I’ll travel faster alone, and I’ve got what I came for.” A third of it, at least. He hefted the leather bag with the Weynstone inside. Maybe Corgh had had better luck. “You’re worth nothing to me. Consider yourself lucky.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, walking carefully down the rocky slope that led away from the Mass.
It honestly hadn’t occurred to Karth that the girl would follow. Consider her position, after all: young, scantily clad, justifiably afraid of rape, torture, captivity, and death. Why not take her freedom and run? That’s what Karth would have done. Not for the first time that day, he found that judging a situation based on what he would do was next to useless.
He had gone perhaps ten paces when he heard her behind him.
The look on her face was childish determination, jaw set and eyes glaring. He took her by the throat again and squeezed harder this time.
“No one’s fucking listening to me today,” he said. “Do you want to die, is that it? Mommy’s dead or buried alive and everything’s come down ’round your ears and it’s all just too much?”
She hit him, hard, but there was something more than her arm behind it. Karth opened his eyes again to find himself staring at the gray sky. He thought it unlikely that more than a handful of seconds had passed, but truthfully he might have lain senseless for hours. Kyrian’s storm clouds still capped the land in half-twilight; the green tinge of magestorm tinted the southern horizon, even from the ground.
He sat up, wiped blood from his mouth. She stood, a good six or seven feet away, with the same look on her face. His right cheek, where she’d hit him, burned like she’d hit him with a branding iron.
Karth climbed to his feet. The corner of his mouth was bleeding freely. He dragged an arm across it, only managing to create a rough war paint that did nothing to mitigate his dark scowl.
“You’ll be going with me, then,” he said. Fine. He could play along when he had to. As Corgh liked to say, why choose the uphill path when the downhill one goes someplace too? And be it on her head. He didn’t have time to argue with a child. If she insisted on tagging along, he wouldn’t waste energy stopping her. Maybe she’d even come in handy if he ran into any Akkians.
“You’ve developed quite a bite in the last hour, girl.”
“You have no idea,” she said.
The bronze bulk of the Akkian Mass sat like a giant, low dome on the rocky plateau identified without explanation on the oldest Lanthean maps as Akk’s Table. The plateau was sheer on all sides except the east, where it descended to the plain below in a series of uneven, switchback ledges like a broken staircase. The Steps of the High Priestess, or so the Lantheans had taken to calling them.
Karth led them in as straight a line as possible to the closest of the Steps, skirting as close to the outermost fielding wall of the Mass as they dared to save wasted time spent circumnavigated the outskirts of the plateau. The sounds of battle to the south were audible at times throughout the remainder of the morning; Karth found himself stepping to the distant, muffled blasts of magefire, the clacking spring of the trebuchets, and the diminished hum of the forward scorpions, which had pelted the gates of the Mass with iron-tipped projectiles the size of spears for nearly a week now. Up close they were earsplitting; the engineers that operated them typically wore woolen earplugs dipped in wax to dampen the shock throom of launch.
The modern Lanthean scorpion made the catapults of Karth’s ancestors’ day look almost childish in comparison, a longbow to a child’s toy, and when powered with magefire, the destruction caused was magnificent.
The girl seemed distracted by it, her eyes shifting to scan the southern horizon every time the loudest shots reached them.
“It’ll be over soon,” Karth said, by way of comfort. Akantha looked anything but comforted.
“It pleases you,” she said. It was a statement, not a question, and a trap if Karth had ever heard one. He glanced at her sidelong, his left hand gripping the hilt of his longsword, just in case she tried any of her sorcerous slapping again.
“Yes,” he said, “though likely not for the reason you think.” When she didn’t respond, he continued.
“Any man—any warrior—who denies the bloodlust that comes to some in battle is a liar,” explained Karth. “Killing is a dangerous, dirty, wet thing, and it brings mostly suffering for all concerned, but the doing of it can be beautiful.
“There are, however,” he continued, “those who take it too far.”
A few minutes passed in silence, as they hiked over the vast tabletop, the skies increasingly bright with the blue of day. The magestorm was fading; Kyrian had ceased his efforts. The battle was finally coming to an end.
“What is it you expect me to do?” she asked, her face blank. “Take comfort in the fact that you show restraint in the enjoyment you take from killing my people?” She said it without visible emotion, which in its own way was far more worrisome than anger or hurt. Karth had seen the horrors that could come from a blank stare, and he’d take fury any day.
“No,” he answered. “I don’t expect you to do anything but hate me. But eventually, you’ll begin asking the harder questions, and it might help you to know that while war is a terrible thing, it is, at its best, business. Taking pleasure in war is only useful if its serves the aims of that business. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“So it’s about riches, then? Money?”
“Yes,” he said honestly, “but mostly it’s about power. And power comes in the taking.”
She considered this silently. Everything about the little priestess had been silent since they started southward; the moment of violence outside the back gate was beginning to seem like a fluke occurrence. Which didn’t help Karth relax, of course. She was probably only waiting until he slept to try and kill him. That’s what he’d do. Probably.
For the moment she seemed content to follow him in silence, pale arms wrapped around the thin chiton she had donned as they left the Mass. Karth studiously refrained from thinking about the perfect rosy breast she’d displayed in the temple. Better to deal with the matter of her wanting to kill him first; there would be time later for the appreciation of fine tits.
The air was pleasant at the moment; the summers were long on the continent. A month at least remained before the harvest. He would have been more comfortable in his shirtsleeves, but the sturdy tan leather of his gambeson was the only protection he’d retained. He felt naked already without the plate; no sense in baring his chest for the odd archer to put an arrow in. He might be wearing mail beneath the leather, after all.
He wasn’t terribly worried about running into Akkian patrols; if the women were smart, they would have either fled out the back way or diverted all of their forces to defend the keep, a last ditch defense that, while noble, was ultimately doomed to fail. The Lanthean forces dwarfed the Akkian Guard, and their armies were more advanced in every conceivable way. The women of Akkia fought with spears and round shields and short swords, the weaponry of the ancients; there was a reason, after all, that two warriors in magebound war plate were able to almost singlehandedly breach the Mass’ defenses.
He kept the girl walking until dusk. By that time they had reached the Steps on the eastern side of Akk’s Table and Karth helped the girl down a few of the highest ledges before finding a spot to camp. He chose a deep ledge with an overhanging wall; they would light no fire—not that there was any fuel handy in any case—and while he might have gotten a few more miles in before full dark, he felt safer sleeping high up on the ledges than somewhere on the plain below. Too open. Too much risk. The Akkians undoubtedly had bolt holes tunneled through the Table, leading out onto the plains. If they did flee, he and Akantha would be right in their line of flight. The Blackwold forest to the east was the nearest place of safety—if you could call the Blackwold safe—and that path would take them right past any campsite they’d be likely to find before nightfall.
His rations were limited to a small pouch of jerky and hardtack he kept on his belt, but he tossed her some of it and leaned back against the rock of the ledge wall, chewing in silence. She tossed back the meat.
“I don’t eat flesh,” she said. After a moment, she did begin nibbling on one of the biscuits. The wall of the ledge above curled off to form a rounded corner on their ledge, and she sat curled up, arms around her knees beneath it. She looked cold and scared and exhausted. There were dark smudges under her eyes, now that he looked carefully.
“Took something out of you, didn’t it,” he said.
“That trick earlier. Knocking me on my ass. It’s not something you can just do whenever you please.” Karthanas preferred to leave unnatural things to unnatural people, like his cousin Kyrian. Sorcery was not a field he was particularly learned in—though, to be fair, he wasn’t particularly learned in much beyond the various ways a man could remove parts of people’s bodies with a sword. His tutors had always found him frustrating. But he knew enough to know that sorcery had a cost, and he saw in the girl’s face that the cost of using whatever power she had against him that afternoon had been high. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days.
“Well?” he grunted. The girl looked at him levelly for a moment before turning to look out into the night. They learn that look young, Karth thought. He’d been with enough disapproving women in his time to know a stone wall when he saw one.
The view was something. The moon was rising, a violet specter in the midnight blue sky. The clouds from the day’s storms were drifting away, and the stars were just beginning to prick through the gray haze. The world seemed on the verge of something, as if starlight were about to shatter the dome of the sky and reveal the endless heavens behind it. He wanted it to be a clean, bright place, shining and warm, but he feared that something far worse lay beyond that particular veil. Here there be monsters.
Glancing over at Akantha, he saw that the girl had fallen asleep sitting up, her head crooked awkwardly on her shoulder. His earlier concern about being knifed in his sleep suddenly seemed cowardly and stupid: in sleep, her face looked all the more like that of a child. A child raised in seclusion; a child whose only shield was an affected adult sternness, the imaginary mantle of the high priestess.
The night was quiet and still, the sounds of battle from the south finally having ended. Karth slept then, for the first time in days, falling into the deep, dreamless nothingness of true exhaustion. The stars burned on above, uncaring.