Today is the first in a series of blog posts previewing my upcoming novel, Malediction. I’ll be previewing one scene from the first chapter each Friday in May.
Malediction is book one in the Scars of the Sundering trilogy. My initial plan was to have all three novels debut at Gen Con, but various delays around Christmas made it more realistic to debut book one at ConQuesT 46 and book two at Gen Con. Further medical-related delays have pushed that back and I do not think Malediction will be ready for ConQuesT. I refuse to release something that isn’t the best work I can produce at the time, so I will officially debut Malediction at Gen Con, though you will likely be able to purchase it online before then.
I apologize in advance for WordPress formatting. I loathe spaces in between paragraphs in fiction, but it’s easier than manually indenting the first line of each paragraph since WordPress ignores most of my formatting. Anyway, on with the show.
The minotaur stopped at the edge of the hole, a great pit that seemed to lead to the center of the world. It seemed to swallow up what little light existed in the tunnel and threatened to swallow him as well. He rubbed his right horn, the gilded tip cool against his fingers. Kale walked up to him and kicked a stone into the hole. It clattered against the sides as it fell. He searched for an alternate route, but decided descending the hole was the only way forward.
“Come on, Pancras!” The diminutive lizard-like creature, said to be descended from dragons, gestured for his friend to follow him. The minotaur sighed, running his hoof along the edge of the precipice and watched as the black- and red-striped drak jumped into the void. Behind Kale, Pancras knocked some rubble into the unnaturally dark pit. “It’s not that deep! You were right!” Kale’s voice echoed up from below.
Pancras suspected the darkness was magical in nature. Dwarven lights illuminated the tunnels of the city, powered by their Soul Forge. Normally, they illuminated some part of dark pits such as the one before him. Pancras shook his head. Sometimes I think Kale is braver than he is smart.
Just as he was about to jump, he started at the scraping of a boot behind him. He smoothed the front of his gold-trimmed violet robes and turned around to face the hairy beast behind him.
The dwarf’s face contorted as he winced “I’m Edric. I’ve been ordered to go with you.” He ran his fingers through the frayed braids of his beard. Obvious that Edric had not groomed himself in days, Pancras wrinkled his nose at the pervasive odor of stale ale, which clung to the dwarf. Pancras intended that he and Kale would handle whatever they encountered, but if the dwarves sent a helper, he would put the dwarf to work. The smelly bugger can distract the ghouls at least. He nodded and pointed toward the darkness. “Fine. Get in then.”
Edric seemed taken aback. “That hole? Why in the name of Adranus’s beard would I do that?” He peered over the edge into the blackness, running his fingers through his scraggly beard. “What’s down there?”
Pancras sighed. “Did they not tell you why we’re here?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Nah. They don’t tell us much when we’re being punished. You fellas are from Drak-Anor, right? I figured you being here with us dwarves was your punishment for something or other, and I got stuck here with you.”
I suppose being here is a punishment of sorts. “Lord Sarvesh asked Kale and I to help your Seer-King with this ghoul problem as a gesture of goodwill.”
“Ghouls?” Edric stepped away from the hole. “I heard about some problems down here, but nobody mentioned ghouls. I don’t mess with no undead beasties.”
“Well, that’s the job.” He grabbed Edric. The dwarf squirmed and thrashed, but Pancras held him at arm’s length and tossed him down the hole. He took a deep breath and jumped in after the dwarf. Darkness enveloped him for a brief moment.
Unprepared for the impact of hooves to ground, Pancras collapsed onto his knees. Kale, busy helping Edric to his feet, shook the dwarf off his arm and rushed over to assist him. The minotaur waved off the diminutive drak. There wasn’t much Kale could do to help him up anyway since the drak stood only as high as Pancras’s waist.
“When did we get a dwarf?”
“He showed up just after you jumped down the hole. Ordered to help us.” Pancras was glad Sarvesh required his closest advisors to learn Dwarvish. Before Ironkrag and Drak-Anor worked out a peace agreement, communication between minotaurs, draks, and dwarves often relied on tedious relays between translators.
“Help us, huh?” Kale offered a clawed hand to the dwarf. “I’m Kale.”
The dwarf stared at the proffered hand as if it might bite him and shook it with obvious reluctance. “Edric.”
Immediately, Pancras noticed the darkness covered only the hole, now above them, a void in the rocky ceiling. Hmm. It is indeed magical. They stood in a rough-hewn tunnel, wide enough for only two to stand side-by-side, and the minotaur crouched, lest the tips of his horns scrape the ceiling.
Edric examined the walls. He rubbed a gloved hand on them and shook his head. “This is not dwarven work. Look at these markings.” He pointed to a pattern on the wall. “This tunnel was dug by claws.”
“Dug? So the ghouls come in from outside Ironkrag?” Kale regarded the area to which Edric called attention and then looked up at Pancras.
“So we have ghouls coming in from outside. Ghouls of goblin, drak, oroq, and dwarven origins, yes?” Pancras ticked his fingers as he recited the names.
“That’s what Sarvesh said.” Kale drew one of the many daggers from his bandolier. “But where do they come from? The dwarf ghouls, I mean. Dwarves turn to stone when they’re dead, right?”
Edric nodded. “Yes. Fuel for the Soul Forge. I have never heard of a dwarf being so afflicted.” He looked back at the black hole above them. “I wish I’d repaid that bastard moneylender now. They sent me here to get rid of me.”
Kale grinned and raised himself on tip-toes to put his arm around the dwarf’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Pancras and I have some experience with this. Ghouls are nothing.”
The dwarf pulled away from Kale. “It ain’t the ghouls I’m worried about. It’s what’s making them.”
Pancras nodded, chewing his upper lip. “Edric speaks wisely. A vampire could do this. Perhaps a necromancer. There older and fouler things that could so corrupt a dwarf, as well. The ghouls are a symptom of the problem. Our true foe is much more dangerous than a pack of mindless flesh-eaters.”
A clicking sound from the darkness ahead interrupted his musings. Though a variety of creatures made their homes in the dark places of the world, Pancras was not familiar with any that made such a distinctive sound.
Kale dropped to a fighting stance as he peered ahead. “What’s that?”
Pancras glanced over at Edric. The dwarf shook his head and shrugged. The minotaur drew magical energies to him, preparing them for use on whatever lay in the darkness. The tips of his horns glowed with emerald light as the swirling tendrils of aether converged.
He nodded. “Let’s move forward then.”
Edric drew his sword, a short and angular weapon designed more for chopping and slashing and typical of the type of brute-force weaponry dwarves preferred, and positioned himself next to Kale as they crept forward. The light from the magical foci on Pancras’s horns illuminated the walls. Accustomed to living underground, he noticed the air in this tunnel seemed unusually oppressive and thick.
The tunnel descended as they moved forward. The subtle downward slope became more pronounced the further from Ironkrag they explored. Pancras sniffed the air, recognizing the faint stench of decay. The clicking in the distance continued, growing louder.
“This is worse than Deep Road patrol.” Edric held up his hand and stopped. “Feel that?”
Pancras and Kale stopped. The minotaur felt nothing out of the ordinary. The clicking sound and stench still grew louder and stronger. “What?”
“Vibrations. In the stone. Feels like machinery ahead.”
Kale nodded and looked up at his friend. “Hey, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have a dwarf along after all, huh?”
Pancras frowned. “I never said it was.”
“Where do you suppose this tunnel goes, anyway?” Kale peered forward into the darkness. “We’ve walked a ways already, and we’re going deeper and deeper. I’ll bet we’re already below Deep Road.”
The underground thoroughfare connected most of the dwarven cities, from Dwegerthon in the Iron Gate Mountains to Ironkrag and Korbaddan in the Dragon Spine mountains in the northwest. Though he was unsure how far under the mountain it extended, he agreed Kale was probably correct.
“Let’s keep going.” He gestured for Kale and Edric to lead the way, while he concentrated on keeping his magic at the ready. He cursed himself for not bringing Kale’s sister along. She was a powerful sorceress and was more adept at combat sorcery.
The tunnel continued its descent and turned sharply before it opened into a cavern. The misty glow of phosphorescent moss covering the distant ceiling gave the appearance of purple clouds in an impossibly dark sky. The clicking echoed throughout the chasm.
“Whew! I thought something stank.” Kale waved his hand in front of his snout. “It reeks in here.”
“Oh.” Edric sniffed the air. “I thought that was the two of you!”
“Ghouls are close.” Pancras pushed past his smaller companions. “Be on your guard.”
As they moved deeper into the cavern, the minotaur felt the ground vibrating through his hooves. Ahead, he saw a shadowed recess in the floor. He walked toward it and realized it was a vertical shaft in the floor of the cavern. Boulders big enough to house drak families dotted the chamber, but a clear path led to the hole. He walked to the edge and peered into the hollow.
Downward pointing spikes lined the sides of the pit. He saw something churning at the bottom, almost like an undulating pool of blood. The red glow from the bottom permeated the sides, creeping up almost like ivy, yet it moved in a way that suggested thought, purpose.
It was then Pancras realized: the spikes were teeth.