Malediction scars of the.., p.1
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       Malediction (Scars of the Sundering Book 1), p.1


Malediction (Scars of the Sundering Book 1)


  Scars of the Sundering

  Book 1

  Malediction

  Hans Cummings

  Chapter 1

  The minotaur stopped at the edge of the hole, a great pit that 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 stepped up alongside 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, according to legend 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 unnaturally dark void. "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, powered by the Soul Forge, dotted the tunnels of the city and usually illuminated the upper part of cavities such as the one before him. He tapped a piece of rubble at the edge and watched as it vanished into the darkness and then shook his head. Sometimes I think Kale is braver than he is smart.

  As he considered following Kale, he started at the scraping of a boot behind him. He smoothed the front of his gold-trimmed violet robes and turned to face the hairy creature behind him.

  "I'm Edric. I've been ordered to go with you." The dwarf ran his fingers through the frayed braids of his beard, evidence that he had not groomed himself in days. Pancras wrinkled his nose as the pervasive odor of stale ale, which clung to the dwarf, wafted past him. He intended for he and Kale to handle whatever they encountered, but since the dwarves sent a helper, he would put Edric 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. For a brief moment darkness enveloped him.

  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 his friend. The minotaur waved off the diminutive drak. There wasn't much Kale could do to help him up anyway since he stood only as high as Pancras's waist.

  “When did we get a dwarf?”

  "He arrived 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."

  Pancras glanced up and noticed the darkness covered only the hole 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 came 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 are 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. Although a variety of creatures made their homes in 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 ahead. 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. Although 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 t
he 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 approached 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 cavity. He advanced 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.

  * * *

  "What is that?" Kale bumped into Pancras as he looked down the pit. With a gasp the minotaur grabbed him and backpedaled. The drak saw spikes and a nasty-looking red morass at the bottom of the pit. He grasped Kale's bandoleer and dragged him away from the edge.

  "Bloodmaw."

  "What?" Kale looked up at Pancras.

  Pancras shook his head. "It is a beast born of chaos. It should not be in this world."

  Edric looked over the edge. "That thing's making the ghouls?" The clicking noise echoed up the bloodmaw's pit.

  "No, no." Pancras shook his head again. "I don't think so. It can corrupt, though, corrupt and devour. When the world was sundered, the shards of Calliome were surrounded by elemental chaos. Scholars called it The Maelstrom. Those rifts were all sealed with the healing of the world, but as with all grievous wounds, some of the scars festered and allowed bits of chaos to seep through, much like the portal to the Fae Realm in Drak-Anor. They allow what's on the other side passage to our world. This chaos beast"—he gestured to the bloodmaw's pit—"must have come through one of those festering sores."

  “How does it make that sound?” Kale noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Dozens of ghouls shuffled toward them out of the darkness. Twisted and deformed, they were hunched over, their knuckles touching the ground. Dirty, elongated nails now served as cruel talons. He identified ghouls that were once dwarves, draks, and even minotaurs and humans. He tapped Pancras on the hand.

  "We have company."

  The dwarf spun around, brandishing his sword. Pancras turned to regard the ghoul horde. "Aita's bloody bones!"

  Ghouls closed in from all sides, moving toward them with deliberate purpose. Kale drew a second dagger and crouched into a combat stance. "Why aren't they attacking?"

  The glow on the tips of Pancras's horns grew brighter and greener. "They are being controlled."

  "Indeed." A mellifluous, malicious voice answered. Kale did not recognize the language it spoke and was puzzled he understood it. The air around them grew ranker and as cold as the deep of winter as a shadow rose from behind the pack of ghouls surrounding them. "Welcome, Necromancer. Come to join my ever-growing army?" Kale shuddered, his stomach twisting in knots. Every fiber of his being screamed for him to run and hide from or cower in fear at this twisted abomination in the shadow as his brain told him to stand fast and help Pancras.

  The minotaur stepped forward, interposing himself between Kale and the shadow. "We come to destroy it."

  The shadow laughed. "The three of you? You would make fine additions, despite your foolishness." The shadow moved forward, revealing its true form: that of a slime-covered beast. Shadows cloaked it like billowy clouds of soot and ash. Kale found himself instinctively shrinking from it, though he did not recognize its form. Its slavering maw snapped, and hissing at the three, it bared its teeth.

  Pancras stood his ground. The emerald glow at the tips of his horns flared.

  Kale squinted to shield his eyes as Pancras threw open his arms and chanted. "Aita pairnei piso tee dyaenamee pou eiche klapei."

  The shadow growled and charged the minotaur. Kale leapt forward, throwing his dagger at it and drawing two more from his bandoleer before touching down. The thrown daggers punched holes through the shadow, holes which sealed themselves with a hiss and puff of greasy smoke.

  "Ypoloipo, nekrees psychees. Peegainete sto aionio yeapno sas!"

  A burst of emerald flame cascaded across the ranks of ghouls. They screeched and clawed at their skin as it burst it flames, consuming the horde in brilliant green fire. Edric stood at the edge of the bloodmaw pit. Kale noticed the dwarf's legs trembling, but he held his ground, as did Pancras.

  The minotaur's horns continued to glow. "Aspida tou ravematos." The shadow slammed to a stop inches from Pancras's face. Kale noticed a thin shell surrounding his friend. Colors played across its surface, like a bubble of soap in a wash basin, and then vanished as through the bubble popped.

  Stepping back, the shadow shook itself and growled. It swiped at Edric, as one might swat a fly, but the dwarf dove to the side, rolling into a crouch, the tip of his sword pointing at the shadow.

  "You are a worthy opponent, Necromancer. You speak with the voice of Aita. A pity. You could be so much more than you are." The shadow beast's sugary tone crawled under Kale's skin. He shivered, feeling the desperate need for a bath.

  "What I am is enough for me."

  Kale poised his daggers for another throw. For all the good it will do. The shadow beast lunged forward attempting to drive Pancras backward over the edge.

  "Skia veema." The minotaur vanished just as the beast reached him. Unable to stop its momentum, it tumbled over the edge of the pit. Pancras reappeared next to Kale and listened as the beast howled in rage at the ruse.

  "Fooled by a childhood trick." Pancras tugged at Kale's bandoleer and gestured at Edric. "Come, we must find a way to seal the rift before it climbs out. The bloodmaw won't devour that thing. They're probably working together."

  * * *

  Pancras willed his legs to carry him forward. Destroying the undead was easy. He simply recalled the energy used to create them. It gave him the boost he needed to erect the shield in time, but the shadow demon was strong, and the impact leeched away much of that energy. It was lucky he could use the demon's own shadow to step through and avoid its next charge.

  His cleverness did not come without cost, though. Pancras, tired and hungry, felt as if his last sleep and meal were weeks ago; yet, in reality, they were but a few hours past. Magic taxed the wielder, particularly when fighting such a strong foe and using different effects so quickly and close together.

  A shadow demon, a chaos rift, a bloodmaw. I hope those hairy little cretins appreciate this. No wonder the Seer-King didn't send his own dwarves down here. I'll bet the old bastard suspected something like this and asked for Sarvesh's help because he views us as expendable.

  "How in the name of Pacha's blue bollocks are we going to destroy those things?" Edric jogged to keep up with Pancras. The minotaur slowed his pace.

  "That is a very good question." One for which I do not have an answer. I can seal the rift… if we can find it.

  The three skirted the edge of the bloodmaw's pit. Pancras heard the shadow demon scrambling against the sides, howling and roaring. He hoped the downward-pointing teeth hindered its progress long enough for them to find something, anything useful.

  He stumbled over a boulder, sending a cave rat scurrying for cover. Pancras saw a glint of metal up ahead. He surged forward. The metal was part of a digging apparatus, unattended, yet churning away at
the rock. Locked into place the digging bit spun fruitlessly above dirt just out of reach as it had for ages. It appeared to be dwarven in make but was a style he had never seen.

  Edric ran up to it. "Wow, this thing is old. There are a few of these back in the city, but we don't use them anymore." He ran his hands along the machine. "These date back to before The Sundering."

  "Wow." Kale's wide eyes gleamed like a child experiencing the wonder of the first snowfall. "How does it work?"

  Edric climbed up on it. "I'm not sure. These are from before my time. The controls don't look that different than some of the machines we have now. Well, except it feels different, if that makes sense? Can you feel it?"

  Pancras reached out and placed his hand on the machine. He felt arcane energy running through it. "The magic is old. How do the ones you have currently work?"

  "There's a bunch of springs, clockwork gears, that sort of thing. I think they draw power from the Soul Forge, but I don't really know much about that." Edric pulled a lever. The machine lurched forward, spewing bits of rock and dirt. It left a gouge in the ground. Edric pulled another lever and the machine turned toward the bloodmaw pit. It chewed its way forward.

  Edric jumped off the top of the machine. "Seems a shame to waste such fine craftsmanship, but I suppose it might do some damage if we let that beastie chew on it a bit, eh?"

  Pancras nodded. "I'm sure it will buy us some time. I'm sure that shadow demon won't be pleased when a giant dwarven machine falls on its head."

  Kale tugged at Pancras's sleeve. "I don't know. My daggers went right through it like it wasn't even there. Look! There's another tunnel behind the machine!"

  The phosphorescent fungus covering the cavern walls and ceiling seemed to lead toward the tunnel Kale found. They spiraled into the tunnel, making it appear like a whirlpool dragged them deeper underground.

  Pancras led Edric and Kale down the tunnel as it curved and descended. The weight of the earth above them pressed in all around them. The ground shook, and they heard high-pitched wailing.

 
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