The Way of the Word

15. January 2010

Cowboys & Barbarians – Chapter 1

Filed under: books,workblog,writing — jensaltmann @ 12:38
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The lock opened easily. Dhargan put the tools back into his pouch. He pulled the gate open, keeping an eye on the hinges. They didn’t squeal, nor did he see any flakes of rust fall. Dhargan frowned. This did not bode well. A well-kept tunnel meant a guarded tunnel.

Dhargan slipped through the gate and closed it behind him. He heard the tumblers fall with an audible click. He rattled it experimentally. It had locked itself. Dhargan stretched his arm as far as he could and tried to reach the lock from where he was. No use; it was beyond his reach. Apparently, the lord of the keep had another way to open the gate from the inside. Dhargan smirked and drew his sword from its scabbard. It wasn’t as if it mattered. If he failed, he could not leave the keep alive anyway. If he succeeded, he would leave through the main gate.

By the moonlight that fell in through the gate, he could see that the tunnel was relatively wide, as such things went. It was wide enough for three men like him to stand side by side, and Dhargan knew his shoulders to be unusually wide.

He continued slowly into the darkness. The only sounds he heard were the soft pad of his leather soles on the stone floor and the dripping of water somewhere ahead. It didn’t surprise him. He had yet to sneak through an underground stone tunnel that did not draw water and produce slime.

Sight was useless. The tunnel was too dark to even watch out for any motion. He only had his ears and his instincts to guide him. Why he had let Maloff talk him out of bringing a torch was beyond him now. Cymra’s old friend had argued this point vehemently until Dhargan had finally given in, even if it had been only to shut him up.

Curse the man.

Dhargan quieted his breathing and tried to tune out both the water and his own footsteps. If there was anything else in the tunnel, he had to hear it before it caught him.

The dripping grew louder. Whatever it was, he was getting closer. It was far louder than it had any right to be, however. Dhargan stopped to listen harder. Something wasn’t right. He turned and strained his eyes against the darkness to look back the way he had come. No, he didn’t think he’d missed a side tunnel. He was sure of it. There was only one way to go, on ahead through the main tunnel, and if there was something in his way, well, he’d have to go through it.

Besides, it couldn’t be that bad. Maloff had said this was a secret escape tunnel. Nobody would set up an escape tunnel so that none could get through it in a hurry. Any traps that were set up could be disarmed, any obstacles surmounted. Especially in an escape tunnel that was as well-kept as this one.

Suddenly, Dhargan was almost glad that Kandur-Ra took such good care of this tunnel.

The sound of his boots changed from thup to squish. Dhargan stopped. Whatever dripped here, it had spilled this far. Dhargan circled to the left until the wall stopped him. Dhargan pressed his left hand against the slimy stones as he took one step forward, and another. His right foot slipped off a ledge he hadn’t known was there. His leg submerged shin-deep before he caught himself. He resisted the impulse to swear; someone might hear who’d better not. When he had calmed enough, he continued with a smile. That pit was not a bad trick. Anyone who was in a hurry, or not suspicious enough, and didn’t know it was there would probably fall right in. He wondered if Kandur-Ra had anything inside the pit. Probably. Sorcerers were crafty and malicious. Whatever it was, if there was anything it was too well fed to be useful. Had he attracted its attention, it might have grabbed him before he could have drawn his foot back out of the water.

When his steps didn’t squish anymore, he noticed that his progress became more difficult. He couldn’t be positive, but his sense of balance told him the floor sloped upwards. He slowly stepped to the center of the tunnel. If anything came from the walls, that would give him a moment more to save himself.

Such as the loose stone that gave under his weight.

Dhargan froze. Was it a chance loose stone, or had he just set off a trap? Either way, it was safer to assume the latter. Dhargan drew his dagger from its sheath and crouched. Putting the sword down, he felt around with his hand until he knew the edges of the stone. He swallowed dry and licked his lips. Even if this worked, he would have at best only a second or two go get away. He stabbed the dagger into the gap, wedging it in. Without shifting his weight, he picked up his sword. He rose halfway from his crouch, licked his lips again and sprinted forward.

Behind him, he heard stone scrape against metal as the tile tried to rise against the dagger’s pressure. He wasn’t sure when the dagger gave, or what the trap was. He only heard a loud screeching behind him that told him the trap was sprung. Panting as much from the fright than the exertion, he stopped and leaned against the wall. Closing his eyes, he took three deep breaths, just as his trainer had taught him so long ago. He held the first breath for a heartbeat before he released it, held the second breath for two heartbeats and the third for three.

When his breath calmed, he shifted his grip on the hilt of his sword and continued.

He rounded a corner and saw twin pinpoints of light at the end. There it was, the end of the secret tunnel. The light, he discovered when he reached it, came through two eye-shaped cuts in a canvas.

Dhargan smiled. He had heard of paintings like this; paintings of men or women whose eyes were cut from the canvas so someone from the other side could observe a room unseen. Well, this time at least it worked in his favor. Dhargan pressed his face against the rear of the canvas and peered through the eyeholes.

The room at the other side was empty. Dhargan searched the frame with quick, practiced moves until he found the switch that opened the secret door. He stepped through it moments before it closed of its own accord. Dhargan nodded to himself. Of course. When you’re on the run, you don’t necessarily have the time to think of closing doors behind yourself. Dhargan looked at the room. It was lavishly decorated, but at the moment he really couldn’t care less about that. Perhaps he would have the time to pick up something interesting for Cymra on his way out. Right now, all he needed was a way in.

There was only one door leading from the room. Dhargan contemplated it for a moment. Would Kandur-Ra have this door trapped or guarded? It was the last door between his escape and a possible enemy, and Dhargan knew Kandur-Ra had plenty of enemies. All sorcerers did. His own presence was proof enough of that.

No guards, he decided. Not unless the sorcerer expected anyone to come for him through his supposedly secret tunnel. No traps either. If Kandur-Ra needed to get in here, he would be in a hurry. Traps, like guards, would only get in the way.

No, he had nothing to fear from this door.

Dhargan pushed the handle down and opened the door a crack. He had a quick look up and down the corridor. When he could see no one, he nodded to himself and stepped through the doorway. He closed the door and released the breath he hadn’t realized he had held.

So now he was in a corridor. So now what? Or rather, where? Where would Kandur-Ra be?

Why, he would of course be farther up. Dhargan had encountered a lot of sorcerers over the years, enough to know that sorcerers depended a lot on things ordinary people knew nothing of. The energy of the stars, for example. Dhargan grinned to himself. It was night, and the stars were out. Of course Kandur-Ra would be at the highest point of his keep, to better make use of the magical energy the stars could provide him. It would also be the farthest from where any potential assassins could enter the keep, giving Kandur-Ra plenty of time and room to set up his defenses.

Wasn’t paranoia wonderful?

All Dhargan had to do was find a staircase, then follow it as high as it would go.

Which still left him with the choice of whether to turn right or left. He decided to turn right throughout. Turning right while going in was like turning left while going out, and since Kandur-Ra was an evil wizard, he probably even derived some extra power by going widdershins.

And don’t forget to look for guards and traps, he reminded himself. Oh well, at least this corridor was well lit, with a generous number of torches burning along the walls, probably to make up for their blankness. This was much better than groping about in absolute blackness, even if it did mean that any guards could see him as easily as he could see them. Not that it worried him. The day he couldn’t outfight three or four men was the day he deserved to die.

Curiously, the corridor was empty. There was no sign of guards or traps anywhere. Dhargan wasn’t sure he liked this. No traps he could understand. It would be embarrassing if you went along a corridor in your own keep and forgot even one of them. But no guards? Either Kandur-Ra was a fool, or he was much more powerful than Dhargan had been told. Dhargan wanted to believe in the fool. He really did. He couldn’t.

Curse Alann-Keo and his ‘need to know’ attitude. How should Alann-Keo know what Dhargan needed to know? Alann-Keo was a thrice-damned sorcerer himself. How should a sorcerer know what a warrior needed to know?

Leading with his sword, Dhargan started off. So what if Kandur-Ra was more powerful than Alann-Keo had told him. That didn’t matter. Three feet of iron would kill the man either way.

Dhargan turned right three more times before he ended up at the foot of a narrow staircase leading up. He peered up. Impressed, he pursed his lips. It hadn’t looked that high from the outside. Then again, he had no idea how far down he was. The keep was perched on a mountain. The tunnel had begun at the mountain’s base. Since he had had no way to look outside, he might as well still be deep inside the mountain. The escape tunnel had sloped upward, yes, but obviously not far enough. Dhargan suspected this was another trap for the unwary. Yet what kind of trap it might be, he had no idea. It certainly wasn’t the lack of a rope as a handrail. Surely Kandur-Ra did not simply hope that his enemies would slip and fall down the stairs to their death. Maloff had said nothing of the staircase, He had, however, repeatedly stated that he knew nothing of what lay beyond the tunnels.

Step by step, he climbed the stairs. It occurred to him that this might be an accursed neverending staircase, the trap being that he would climb these stairs forevermore without ever reaching an exit. He snorted. If so, he was doomed already. No point in not going on.

It was slow going, though. He tested each step with the tip of his sword, looking for tripwires and similar obstacles. When the sword found none, he put his left foot on the step and slowly put his weight on it. When nothing happened, he continued with the next step.

The first tripwire he cut released a passel of tiny metal darts that struck where his head would have been if he hadn’t used his sword. The second tripwire released several blades that shot up from the step. Had his foot been on it, they would have impaled it. The third tripwire released a pendulum from the wall that threatened to cut an unwary invader in half. Dhargan grinned at this trap. The pendulum swung safely behind him as he triggered the wire. Dhargan paused to look around. Looking up and ahead, he discovered two other tripwires.

He took two steps before his weight triggered a spring that released the stairs, quickly tilting them until they turned into a slide. Dhargan yelped when he lost his footing, fell down and slid back down to where the pendulum was waiting for him. He instinctively jammed his arms outward, pressing his left hand and right fist, which refused to release the sword, against the wall. It worked. The staircase was narrow enough that this maneuver halted Dhargan’s slide. Gasping, he looked down at the swinging pendulum. It almost touched his outstretched toes.

Close one. Far too close.

Looking up, Dhargan saw where the slide turned back into stairs. It seemed farther away than he would have thought. But how could he reach them? He was stronger than most men, but even he couldn’t hold himself like this for very long.

Only one choice, really. Dhargan twisted until he could put one foot against the left-hand wall. Using the foot for leverage, he let go with his left palm, extending the leg until his shoulders pressed against the right hand wall. He had done something similar once before, climbing a mountain. With his shoulders and legs both pressing against the opposite sides of the staircase, Dhargan worked his way back up until he reached the new first step. He sat down on it to rest for a moment. Looking down at the slide and the pendulum, he admired the ingenuity of the traps. Trigger the slide, and you moved down. On the way, you would trigger the tripwire that released the pendulum, which would slice you to ribbons when you got there. If that failed, either the blades or the darts would get you.

Kandur-Ra was even more wicked than Dhargan had expected. But just how powerful was his magic? So far, all the traps had been mechanical. Anyone with a sufficiently cruel imagination and the necessary inventiveness could have built them. They didn’t require any magic.

On the other hand, perhaps that was the point. Building mechanical traps saved your magical energy. Also, who would look for mechanical traps in a sorcerer’s keep?

Dhargan would have admired Kandur-Ra’s cleverness if it hadn’t made his own life so much more difficult. As things stood, he preferred cursing it. He kept his guard up until he reached the top of the stairs. Which he did, though it seemed like hours later and probably really was, considering the distance involved and the crawl at which he moved.

The stairs ended at a huge door. Dhargan pressed his hand against the door’s cool metal. It wasn’t gold, as he had first thought, but some other yellowish metal. The warrior squared his shoulders. Behind this door was the one he sought. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there was just another trap behind this door. Either way, since this door was the only way onward, he had no choice. He had to go through it. Pushing against the door, he found it heavy but not locked. He pushed it open and cautiously stepped through.

At once, his nostrils were assaulted by a certain stench. He could not name it, couldn’t decide if it was sickly sweet, stale or noxious, or perhaps all of it. It was a smell like no other. A smell he recognized.

Dhargan looked up at the ceiling and had his suspicion confirmed. A web of thick grayish-white strings covered the ceiling. The strings reached to the walls, some of them even ran as far down as the floor. At the web’s center sat a huge black furry-limbed spider whose torso was easily seven feet long.

Dhargan slipped back out into the corridor.

“Oh, Garon, not again,” he moaned, leaning his back against the rough wall. What was it with sorcerers, were they somehow required to keep giant spiders as guards or pets? Or was there some other reason why every single one of them seemed to have one around? Not to mention all those lost treasures that were guarded by at least one of those beasts.

Dhargan was sick and tired of them. Just like he was sick of mutated apes. Now that he had seen the giant spider, Dhargan was sure Kandur-Ra kept a mutated ape too. Why couldn’t those wizards come up with something original for once?

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it, he reminded himself. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. If a sorcerer truly did come up with something original, it would probably be the death of him. No, it was better they kept to the tried and true. That, he knew how to deal with.

He peered into the room as he reviewed the different ways he knew how to handle a giant spider. He could goad it into attacking and impale it on his sword. Or he could throw a burning flask of oil at it and set it on fire. Or …

The smile finally broke through when he saw that it wouldn’t be necessary to deal with the arachnid at all. None of the web’s strings were between him and the other door. The other door wasn’t protected by a string either. So long as he didn’t touch any of the web’s strings, he should be safe enough. That didn’t look like a problem at all.

Dhargan took a torch from the wall. Just in case he was wrong, and this spider was trained to attack something not entangled in its web, the smoke from the torch would keep it at a distance. Giant spiders hated smoke. And should it attack regardless, the torch was a wonderful weapon. A giant spider might ignore being stabbed, or even losing a leg, but they all ran if they were burned.

Dhargan made his way through the room confidently but quickly. He reached the other door, pulled it open and stepped through. On the other side, he released his breath. He had been right. The spider had ignored him.

Now to see if he was right about the monster ape.

The second door had led to another short corridor, and the end of which there was yet another door. Dhargan felt that he was getting closer to Kandur-Ra. He could tell by the way his hackles rose. Only sorcerers could make his hackles rise. That included those who, like Alann-Keo, claimed to be on his side. Perhaps he should kill Alann-Keo too when he was done here, just to be on the safe side. Sorcerers weren’t to be trusted.

Dhargan opened the next door and stepped aside. Nothing happened. He leaped through it, losing his momentum by rolling across the floor, and came to his feet in a fighting stance.

Kandur-Ra stood by a table, handling his sorcerous instruments. He looked at Dhargan with a frown.

“Don’t you barbarian warriors know how to knock?” the sorcerer asked.

“Caves don’t have doors,” Dhargan replied. Kandur-Ra laughed.

“Good one,” he said, putting down what he held in his hands. He pointed at the sword Dhargan held at the ready. “Put that away. You won’t need it.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“No, really. Monkeir won’t hurt you.”

“Monkeir?”

Dhargan turned when something grunted behind him. He whirled about, changing his stance, shifting his grip on his sword. Behind him was …

“You know what I hate even more than mutated apes, Kandur-Ra? Mutated apes with cute names.”

“I’m so sorry to offend your sensibilities,” Kandur-Ra said acidly. “Which reminds me, how did you get past Spidor?”

“Don’t tell me you got a cute name for the spider too? Garon, you deserve to die for that alone!”

Kandur-Ra laughed.

“I’m afraid I can’t die just yet,” he said. “I still have too much to do.” He waved. Monkeir looked at its master, nodded and left the way Dhargan had come in. Dhargan was glad to have only one opponent to focus on. He knew of at least one warrior who got killed by a sorcerous blast from behind while fighting the sorcerer’s mutated minions.

“So, what brings you here?” Kandur-Ra asked conversationally. It riled Dhargan that the sorcerer apparently didn’t consider him particularly dangerous

“Your death, of course,” Dhargan said, slowly moving closer to his target.

“And why do you seek my death?”

“I got paid for it.”

“A hired sword. I see. You’re not after revenge for the people I had killed or sold into slavery? Or for the reign of terror with which I control the people of the country my armies conquered?”

Dhargan moved closer. From what he had learned, Kandur-Ra wasn’t all that much worse than most other kings or emperors.

“No, it’s really just for the gold.”

Kandur-Ra sighed. He shook his head sadly.

“You know,” he said, “I’d always thought that when somebody killed me it’d be some revenge-crazed barbarian. Garon knows I’ve made enough of them angry at me. But to lose my life to a paid mercenary …” He shook his head. “No. I’m afraid I can’t allow that. It has no style.”

Kandur-Ra gestured. Dhargan jumped out of the way. Still, something tugged at him from behind. He turned, to see a silvery maelstrom in the wall behind him. It seemed to grow as he watched. As it grew, its pull increased.

Dhargan heard something hissing behind him and ducked just in time to avoid the fireball Kandur-Ra hurled at him. The fireball was sucked into the maelstrom and vanished.

“Who knows where that will end up,” Kandur-Ra laughed. “What you see is the door to all that was, all that is, all that will be and all that might be. That fireball might drop into the past and kill a king at some critical junction in history. Or it might simply drop into the sea where nobody ever knows it was there. Or it might be confused with a sign from a god and found a new religion someplace nobody ever heard of. The only one who will ever know is you, my muscular friend. Because you’re going to follow it.” as he said the last, his voice rose in pitch until it became like a shriek. Dhargan turned and, fighting the maelstrom’s tug with every step he took, actually inched closer to Kandur-Ra.

Until something knocked him down. Before he could react, he had slid several feet closer to the maelstrom. Something big and hairy slashed sharp claws across his chest. Dhargan gasped with pain and surprise as he realized what had happened.

Monkeir went for his throat. Dhargan hit the ape’s head with the sword’s pommel. The ape grunted, shook his head and renewed its attack.

Dhargan twisted one of his legs until he had brought it halfway between him and the ape. He straightened it with all his power. The effort actually pushed Monkeir loose. Only a little bit, and only for a fraction of a second, but long enough that Dhargan could smash Monkeir’s flat nose with his left fist. He felt the bones crunch under his fist. Monkeir howled with pain and reared back. Dhargan drew his legs back and kicked the ape’s chest. Monkeir stumbled back. Dhargan leaped to his feet, picked the ape up and hurled him into the maelstrom. He felt nothing as the mutated creature vanished. It was just another obstacle that had to be overcome.

Dhargan turned. The tug from the maelstrom had become so strong he wasn’t sure even his prodigious strength was enough to overcome it. Yet he tried. It wasn’t as if he had any alternatives. This had gone too far already. His only hope was that Kandur-Ra’s death would close the gate. Otherwise, and Dhargan shuddered to think of it, the maelstrom might grow and grow and grow until it had devoured everything in the world.

Step by painful step, Dhargan fought against the maelstrom’s pull. His rage was fueled by the fact that the pull didn’t seem to affect Kandur-Ra at all. Instead, the sorcerer laughed. He raised his left hand. A blue light enveloped it. Kandur-Ra pointed at Dhargan. The light coalesced into a ball and flew at Dhargan. Dhargan tried to duck, to avoid the blue light ball. As he did, he lost his balance. He didn’t fall to the floor, however. The maelstrom’s tug didn’t allow that. Instead, it sucked him backwards. Dhargan tried to hold on to something, anything to stop himself. He tried to put his feet back on the floor. It was useless. The maelstrom’s pull kept him horizontal.

Dhargan heard Kandur-Ra laugh. The warrior squeezed his eyes shut. Even breathing became difficult as the maelstrom sucked the air out of the room. Dhargan realized he had lost. All that remained was a last defiant gesture.

“I’ll see you dead even if I have to return from the Netherworld to do it,” Dhargan screamed. Clutching his sword with his right hand, he made an obscene gesture with his left.

Then the world was gone, and Dhargan was gone from the world.

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