THE AXE OF THE DWARF LORDS
Copyright © D.P. Prior 2012. All rights reserved
The right of D.P. Prior to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be, by way of trade or otherwise, lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form, binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
MAP OF AETHIR
WHO THE SHOG IS D.P. PRIOR?
ALSO BY D.P. PRIOR
IT WAS AGAINST THE LAWS of the dwarves to act in the world beyond their city, to study the old texts, or to enter the underworld—and with good reason. The deceptions of the Demiurgos, Father of the Abyss, are everywhere, and once before they brought betrayal and death on a scale that must never be repeated.
When they are accosted by one of their own with a demonic axe found on the brink of the Abyss, drastic measures are needed. The link between axe and wielder is broken by a helm of scarolite, and the lawbreaker is held in stasis in the bowels of the Ravine City, Arx Gravis. To complete his shame, his name is taken from him, permanently removed from history.
When this Nameless Dwarf is awakened by the voice of the knight, Deacon Shader, he becomes embroiled in the battles against the unweaving of all creation by the technocrat, Sektis Gandaw. He later partakes in a quest to find three artifacts with which to shatter the lingering power of the black axe and free himself from the scarolite helm. Too late, it is revealed as a trap laid by the Demiurgos and his spawn, the homunculi, and the Nameless Dwarf returns to Arx Gravis as a brutal dictator, slaughtering his kin by the thousands.
Finally, his tyrannical rule is brought to an end by his closest friend, the assassin Shadrak the Unseen. With the axe destroyed and the scarolite helm broken, the Nameless Dwarf realizes the magnitude of his atrocities. A mere few hundred dwarves have survived his reign of terror, and they have fled Arx Gravis in fear of what he might do next.
Hearing rumors that they have headed into the nightmare land of Qlippoth, where they will surely face extinction, the Nameless Dwarf hires the son of a New Jerusalem guild boss to help him find them.
Thus begins The Nameless Dwarf – The Complete Chronicles.
NOTE: The events outlined above are featured in books 3–5 of the epic fantasy Shader series by D.P. Prior. The series commences with Sword of the Archon, which is available as an ebook and in print.
MAP OF AETHIR
THE AXE OF THE DWARF LORDS
FACE DOWN IN PIG SHITE, covered from head to foot in it, weren’t exactly the heroic stand Nils would have rightly wanted to take, but like Ilesa said, it was better than the alternative.
It was all right for her. Nils would have given his back teeth to be able to change shape like she did. One minute she was there in all her curvy glory, all leather and flesh, and then she turned herself into one of ’em. He’d have chanced a look, but the thought of getting his arse bitten off by a walking corpse weren’t encouraging him none.
“Hey, pig-boy, seems to be working,” Ilesa stage-whispered. “They’re wandering off.”
Felt like Nils’s brain was being sucked out his ear when he turned his head and the shite didn’t want to let him go. Her back was still to him, but she made him gag all the same. Big strips of grey flesh hung from her bones, all slicked over with pus and stuff he didn’t want to think about.
“Some tracker you turned out to be. Thought we was looking for dwarves, not these…What the shog are they?” Nils asked, fighting the cloying muck so he could stand.
“Zombies, I’d say. Brau said he’d seen them out past the village, but this is a first for—What are you doing? Did I tell you to move? Now look what you’ve done. They’re turning round.”
“Weren’t my fault,” Nils said. “You’re the one with the big mouth.”
Ilesa looked like she was gonna say something, but then went stiff as a corpse and went back to pretending she was one.
Thankfully they were real slow, shambling mounds of rotting flesh. Trouble was, there were a lot of them. A heck of a lot, and they had Nils surrounded. His guts were roiling and his bladder was fit to burst. When the zombies started moaning and reaching their arms out like blind folk trying to find a doorknob, Nils reckoned he’d made a mistake crossing the Farfalls. Not that he’d had much of a choice. Shogging dwarf had seen to that.
“Get back down,” Ilesa hissed, just loud enough for Nils to hear. “Shit’s the best chance you’ve got. Doubt they’ll see you in the muck, and they sure won’t smell you.”
“Where the Abyss have Nameless and Silas got to?” Nils whined like he used to back home when he thought something weren’t fair. “How long’s it take to have a piss, for shog’s sake?”
“Shut up yourself, you…Oh, crap!”
Nils threw himself facedown in the shite, cursing himself for a stupid numbskull. Shogging zombies had near enough crept up on him, and all ’cause he and the bitch couldn’t stop arguing. Women, his dad would have said. All the world’s problems in a nutshell. If it hadn’t been for Ilesa, they wouldn’t have come waltzing into the village in the first place. Her and Silas, in any case. Maybe if the wizard weren’t so precious about pissing in the bush they’d have left this dump well alone. Shog, Qlippoth was meant to be stuffed full of nightmares. Didn’t take a genius to figure out that towns and the like were no-go areas. If you asked him—
A foot squelched down in the muck beside his head. Nils didn’t want to look, but his eyes had a life of their own. Whole leg was rot all the way to the knee, which was about as far as he could see from his belly. Weeping ulcers and peeling black skin. Thing was so full of pus it looked ready to burst, like overripe fruit. The other foot came down, narrowly missing his ear. Something splashed the back of his neck and he choked back puke. His heart bounced around in his ribcage so hard he thought it might shoot out of his back. All he could do was lie still and hope it hadn’t noticed him, hope it moved on. One flayed leg lifted and a chunk of putrid flesh flopped off into the shite right by Nils’s mouth, so close he could almost taste it. The zombie stepped over him and lurched away, and Nils took the opportunity to roll to his side and look for Ilesa.
“Bollocks,” he whispered under his breath, fighting back tears of panic. She was lost amid a sea of lumbering dead flesh. Her disguise was so good he couldn’t pick her out from the dozens of walking corpses shambling about the smallholding.
“Ilesa,” he said as loud as he dared. “Where are you?”
A chorus of moaning went up from the zombies, and scores of milky eyes turned on him.
“Ilesa!” he called, his voice quavering like it did whenever he got caught with his hand in the cash drawer and Dad took his belt off—not ’cause he didn’t approve of the stealing, course, but ’cause Nils had got himself caught.
“Quiet!” Ilesa whispered back. Only it was a bit loud to be a useful whisper. Loud enough to draw some attention away from Nils.
A cluster of zombies turned on one of their own, filthy fingers grasping, pawing, thumping.
“Aargh,” the zombie in the middle cried. “My shogging tooth!” It spat blood and the air shimmered around it, dead flesh becoming firm and olive hued. Dank hair grew into satin locks, and tattered rags turned to a leather laced-up corset and britches. Ilesa’s thumb and forefinger fumbled about in her mouth and came away with a pink-stained tooth. “That’s just great,” she inveighed. “Shogging great.”
She’d only half drawn her sword when the zombies surged over her and she went down screaming. Nils just reacted on instinct and legged it the other way, but he ran straight into cold, stinking flesh. Icy hands wrapped around his throat, lifting him into the air. He wriggled and squirmed, coughed and spluttered, but no matter how hard he fought, he was helpless in the zombie’s grasp. A cold tongue ran up the side of his face, then he caught a whiff of rancid breath as teeth latched onto his earlobe. His struggles got weaker and weaker, and his vision blurred until it seemed he entered a dark tunnel that started to close in on him.
Don’t let it end like this, his oxygen-starved mind threw up. Please.
How had it come to this? Where were Nameless and Silas? Please Daddy, don’t let it—
Air whistled past his face and there was a sound like the pulping of a melon.
“Come on, come on,” Nameless muttered through clenched teeth as he shuffled about nervously on the porch of the ramshackle cottage. He didn’t like the feel of this village one little bit. Ilesa had some ken of it from Jankson Brau, the wizard who’d tried to have Nameless and Nils killed on their way to Malfen. She said the dwarves would have passed this way unless they wanted to chance the moors to the east, where Brau had lost a dozen men to the quagmires, or found a way to cross the Upper Sour Marsh to the west. Apart from that, she’d said, Qlippoth was unmappable, shifting like the sand on a churning seabed; like the vistas in a dream.
“One foot over the shogging border and he needs to piss,” Nameless grumbled under his breath. Couldn’t deny the fact he needed a dump himself, though. Accursed place gave his bowels a life of their own, but there was no way he was about to drop his britches and squat down. The unruly grass around the shack was undulating under the weight of a thousand insects, each the size of a small bird. They had carapaces like plate armor and pincers that looked like they could snip through bone, or worse.
Silas had refused to go on the trail as they’d been amongst a scattering of dwellings overflowing from Malfen like crap from a cesspit. Someone might see, he’d complained. Nils and Ilesa had wandered off to a smallholding Brau’s people used to do business with, hoping to find something to eat. Why anyone would want to live this side of Malfen was beyond him. He turned his nose up at the dilapidated buildings dotting the plain, then shook his head and glared at the door of the cottage.
The place was more lichen than wood. Its broken timbers were coated in green and yellow fluff that gave off a stench like rotting vegetables. Unless that was Silas’s business he could smell. Its two narrow windows were boarded up and there was a rusty metal pipe jutting from the roof that presumably served as a chimney. The roof itself was mainly exposed rafters, the few remaining tiles hanging like scabs. The garden was all brown leaves and briars with sickle-shaped thorns.
Nameless shivered and jumped on the spot. “Come on Silas, come on.”
This was getting ridiculous. How long did it take, for shog’s sake? He’d kill the shogging shogger if he was in there taking tea with the woman who’d answered the door. Sweet old lady, Nameless thought. All hunched over in her shawl. What she was doing out here in the Dark Side of Aethir he’d love to know. What she was doing living in such a rundown, moss covered, scorpion-infested hovel was a mystery, too. If he’d been asked to imagine who might have lived in such a hole he’d have had to say a…
“Witch!” he bellowed, snatching up his axe.
He bounded up the three steps to the porch in one leap and crashed straight through the rotten wood of the door.
It was dark and dusty in the entrance hall. Thick cobwebs draped down like curtains, and the corridor straight ahead was choked with them, so much so that it was obvious no one had been down there for years. The stairs were another matter. They were relatively clear, although a dark and viscous fluid had splashed onto them. Nameless sniffed as he started to climb, praying his foot wouldn’t go straight through the rotten wood. There was a sickly, coppery smell coming from the spillage which made him hurry to the top.
He’d barely made the landing when a shadow detached itself from the wall and leapt at him. There was a flurry of fangs and claws, a hissing snarl and the fetid smell of decaying flesh. Then there was the crunch of axe cleaving bone and the shadow being grunted and dropped to the floor. As Nameless wrenched the axe blade clear, the creature started to shimmer and change until the old lady lay on the floor with her head split in two.
Nameless exhaled sharply, hefted his axe and ambled through the open door to what was presumably the hag’s bedchamber. There, manacled to an iron bedstead atop a mildewed mattress, was Silas Thrall. He was stripped naked and shivering. A wide damp patch spread across the mattress from his groin. His clothes were jumbled on the floor. The black leather grimoire lay open atop his bag. Nameless had an overwhelming urge to leave Silas for a minute and examine the book.
“Thank shog,” Silas said, rattling his chains. “Another minute and she’d…and she’d…”
“You hurt?” Nameless asked. “There was blood on the stairs.”
Silas shook his head. “Some other poor bastard, I expect. Hellfire, Nameless, she was going to…”
Nameless held up a rigid finger like a chastising father.
“First day across the border. First step practically, and you have to stop to shag a wrinkly.”
Silas shook his head frantically and struggled against his bonds. “No, it’s not what it seems. She was a witch. A real life witch, I tell you. Surprised me with her magic and landed me here.”
Nameless wasn’t listening. He stooped to look at the book.
“Ah, yes,” Silas said. “She was after the grimoire, you can be sure of that. The minute she opened my bag she was flicking through it.” He licked his lips. “You can’t read Latin, can you?”
“A little,” Nameless said, shutting the book so he could see the cover. The embossed letters danced before his eyes and he could no longer focus on them without feeling nauseous. He retched and straightened up, glowering at Silas. The mage looked away nonchalantly.
“Hmm,” Nameless growled and turned towards the doorway.
“Wait,” Silas said. “You’re not going to leave me?”
Nameless was sorely tempted. “I’ll be back,” he said above the rattling of the wizard’s manacles. “But first I need to impart a gift to the good woman’s latrine. Be warned, I think this is going to take a very long time.”
“Set me free first…”
“Thought you were a great wizard.” Nameless went inside the toilet and shut the door. He loosened his britches and gave a huge sigh as he sat down. “Don’t you have a degree in escapology or something?”
Didn’t matter how much Jankson Brau was paying her, it wasn’t enough.
Ilesa ducked beneath a blue-tinged fist and skewered another zombie with her dagger. Its guts sloshed out, and she whipped her blade back just in time to avoid being tainted with putrescence. Chill fingers groped at her back, but she reversed her sword and stabbed the blade into something pulpy.
Nils’s prone body started to stir, probably due to the slush that was pouring on it from eviscerated zombies. Ilesa could have run, she knew it. Could have weaved through their shambling ranks, maybe used another disguise to keep them off her scent, but she’d not been able to leave the boy. She’d thrown her knife on reflex, felling the cadaver that was about to rip his ear off with its teeth, then darted in to retrieve it before she even realized what she was doing. Protecting his stupid arse, is what. Because he reminded her, she guessed, ducking beneath a clubbing arm, thrusting with the sword and slicing with the dagger. Reminded her of her brother Davy, back before that stinking piece of shit who was supposed to be their father—
A clubbing blow slammed her sideways, straight into the arms of a huge living carcass. Ice coursed through her ribs as the air was squeezed from her lungs. Fetid breath threatened to choke her, and she screamed her rage as a flaccid tongue tasted the skin of her neck. She stamped down on the corpse’s foot and shoved at the same time. The ankle snapped clean off and the zombie toppled, only it didn’t release its hold on her. She landed on top of it, shattering its ribcage, cold pus and gore soaking her bodice. She rolled free, stabbing her dagger through its eye socket and into the brain, then came up into a fighting crouch.
She was completely surrounded. Couldn’t even see the farm buildings now, there were so many moaning, shuffling corpses pressing in upon her. Nils crawled over to her, but one of the zombies grabbed him by the leg of his britches. He thrashed about like a fish on the hook, wriggled around trying to free his sword from its scabbard. If she hadn’t been so close to death, Ilesa would have laughed. He looked like a little boy desperate to get his cock out before he pissed his pants. Maybe he already had; it was difficult to tell, what with the sludge from the pig sty caking him head to toe.
She lunged in and severed the zombie’s hand, and Nils scrabbled backwards on his arse.
“Thanks,” he said, finding his feet and drawing his sword.
“Welcome,” Ilesa said. “You any good with that thing?”
Nils took a double-handed grip and Ilesa suppressed a sigh. “I can handle myself,” he said, puffing out his chest.
“Sure you can.” Ilesa glanced at his groin. “But can you fight?”
She already knew the answer, and he just reinforced the fact with a wild swing that nearly took his own toes off. She tugged him out of the way of a slavering maw and stuck her sword down the zombie’s throat.
That’s it, she thought as the throng pressed in tight around them. That’s shogging it! She shut her eyes and imagined being one of them again, imagined her flesh hanging from the bone, her organs turning to slush. She was almost there, almost there. Shog that little runt, Nils. He was nothing like Davy. Nothing. At least when that sick bastard had come for him, Davy had put up a half decent—
The zombies in front surged forward, but there was nowhere to back away. Hands as strong as vices gripped her from behind, and a drooling face pressed up so close she gagged. She couldn’t see Nils any longer, but she could hear him screaming.
Shog Brau and his plans. Shog his money.
“Shoggers!” she roared, spit flying from her mouth. She cracked her head against the zombie’s nose. Half its face came off, but the teeth were still there, straining for her.
“Shoggers!” she screamed again as the horde swamped her and her knees buckled under the weight.
“Walk away, Silas,” he told himself as Ilesa and Nils disappeared beneath a sea of rotting limbs. “No sense in us all getting killed.”
He cast a look over his shoulder, but Nameless was nowhere to be seen. Of all the times to get constipated, he had to pick this one.
The grimoire slipped from his bag and thudded as it hit the ground, open and demanding to be read.
What the Abyss? How the hell did…? Silas flicked his gaze between the book and the zombies ripping his companions apart. Not now, for crying out loud. Not now, damn it.
Wind turned the pages, but it seemed to Silas it was the book doing it, goading him into reading more. And he was sorely tempted, though he’d have been happier doing so a thousand miles from this place. He looked back at the zombies and then returned his gaze lingeringly to the pages of the grimoire. He stooped to pick it up and an idea struck him.
“You clod, Silas.” He mentally slapped himself. First Nameless had reminded him he had the power to free himself with magic, and now the book—an inanimate object—was prompting him to use arcane power to save his companions. He knew he lacked the skill to do so by himself, but Blightey’s ancient tome held out a promise to him, though he couldn’t tell how. All he had to do was focus on the page. All he had to—
“Make way!” Nameless roared, sending Silas into a spin as he thundered past, stumpy legs pumping, chainmail clanking, axe held high above his bald head. “Come to Nameless, you shoggers! You’re dead, you hear me! All shogging dead.”
Nothing like stating the obvious, Silas thought, closing the book so he could put it back in his bag. Only the book wouldn’t close. The spine had stiffened and the pages refused to be turned.
It actually hurt his neck to look away from the grimoire to see what was happening.
Nameless tore straight into the zombies, axe rising and falling with elemental savagery. Blood flew up in great showers, limbs were lopped off, bones crushed, and then the dwarf disappeared in amongst the dead as if swallowed by a colossal anus.
“Nothing I can do,” Silas said, once more trying to close the book. He strained with the effort, but the spine resisted him. The letters on the page flashed red, and an angry whisper hissed between his ears like a whiplash. He blinked, and then squinted down at a jumbled confusion of Latin script. There were sigils in the margins, each of which was swirling, drawing him in. He tried to pull back, but couldn’t break the rapture. His lips started moving in time with the shifting letters on the page. Still reading, still incanting, he turned to face the fray, even as molten lava pooled at the base of his spine and rushed in a great torrent towards his head.
“This ol’ dwarf, he killed one,” Nameless sang as he lopped off a head amidst a spray of reeking pus. “He shoved his axe right up your—”
The shambling corpses let out a communal hiss and started to turn away from Nils and Ilesa. The axe crunched through a skull, splitting it clean in two. A swipe to the left, a hack to the right, and he was in the midst of the horde, bobbing and weaving, barging and kicking. He thought he could make out Nils’s jerkin, caught a glimpse of Ilesa sprawled on the ground, a bunch of zombies crouching over her.
“With a quick hack, bloody splat, make a shogger groan.” He barreled into them, bowling them out of the way.
Nils came to his knees, clutching his throat and hawking up phlegm, blood streaming from one ear. Ilesa scrabbled about for her sword and dagger, bleeding from half a dozen cuts. Nameless stepped over her to hammer his axe into the face of a groping zombie.
“This ol’ dwarf came rolling home.”
The instant Ilesa got to her feet she was slammed back down by a wall of bludgeoning limbs. Nameless roared and cut a swath through rotting flesh, spilling gore all over her. Nils was up and running, but an arm took him across the throat and he dropped like a stone.
Nameless was relentless, swinging his axe in great chopping arcs, the inexorable press of zombies doing nothing to curb his good mood.
“This ol’ dwarf…” Hack. “He killed…ten? Eleven?” Chop. “Shog it, lost count.” Crunch. “You hear that, you putrid shoggers? Made me lose track.”
He drew the axe back for another blow and froze. The zombie before him was suddenly shorter, and sporting a beard.
He twisted away, seeking another target, but each face was now thick with hair, and deep-set eyes bright with moisture looked at him in horror. He whirled this way and that, his heart pounding in his ears, breaths coming faster and faster.
“No,” he muttered. “What have I…? Oh, sweet Arnoch, no.”
“Nameless!” Nils screamed. “Nameless, help me!”
He backed towards the voice, stumbled and nearly fell.
“Nameless!” Ilesa this time, shrill and despairing.
He took a shaky step towards her, saw the zombie about to rip out her throat, raised his axe. But it wasn’t a zombie…or was it?
“No,” he moaned. “I can’t. No more. I can’t…”
Cold hands gripped him from behind, spread their chill into his bones. Faces pressed up close, one moment ghoulish with peeling skin, the next dwarfish and terrified, accusing. Rank breath assailed his nostrils…or was it stale beer?
He tried to lift his axe, but his arms had turned to lead.
Then each of the dwarven faces crowding around him called out one at a time, building into a garbled chorus that made him drop his axe so he could cover his ears. He spun to face each and every one of them; those he had betrayed; his people. His victims.
Nameless fell to his knees, pounding at his ears with his palms. Fingers tugged at his armor, curled around his throat. A lone voice within cried out the danger, but all he could see was his kin, and the terrible things he’d done to them filled his mind to bursting.
He began to choke as clammy hands throttled the life from him. The skin of his arms was aflame with cuts and tears. A swollen cloud sank over his vision. He was falling. Falling.
A crack of thunder, a rush of heat, as if he were caught in a sandstorm in the scorching sun. The hands left him, let him topple face-first to the dirt. There were voices. Voices he dimly recognized.
“Run! Come on, before they close the gap!”—Silas. A way off by the sounds of it.
“But Nameless…”—The lad, Nils.
“Forget him.”—Ilesa. “Come on!”
The dirt tasted wholesome, gave Nameless something to cling to. He was swooning, spiraling into a bottomless pit.
“No way.”—Nils again. “I’m a Night Hawk, remember? We don’t leave our mates.”
Hands grabbed him roughly, pulled him across the ground. Felt like someone had opened a window to let in the noise from outside, and the moaning started again, a great swelling tide rolling towards him.
“For shog’s sake,” Ilesa said, and Nameless felt himself hoisted to his feet and dragged along on the tips of his toes.
“Move it!” Silas shouted from somewhere up ahead.
“We’re moving,” Nils said. “We’re moving.”
Nameless shook his head, tried to clear it. He needed to speak, needed to say something, but whatever it was swirled from his mind like a dark fog.
“Quickly,’ Silas said. “And don’t look back.”
They half-carried Nameless now, his feet barely touching the ground. He could hear Ilesa panting in one ear, Nils in the other. The groaning was falling behind, but they kept up their pace. Something flicked into Nameless’ face, caused him to blink. He saw blurs of green and brown, felt leaves brushing his skin, brambles pricking at him. The heat of the suns gave way to a cool dampness, and at last they slowed to a walk.
“They’re going back,” Silas said. “Put him down. We can rest up here a while.”
“Thank shog for that,” Ilesa said, ducking out from under Nameless’ arm and letting him tumble groundwards. Nils hung on best he could, then got down on one knee to straighten Nameless out, make him comfy.
“I remember,” Nameless mumbled.
“What?” Nils said. “What do you remember?”
“My axe. I dropped my…” But before he could finish, his jaw set like dwarvish cement, and an old familiar sludge oozed through his veins, cloyed his thoughts, until he was nothing more than a brooding presence entombed in his own flesh.
The three moons took over the sky with unnatural quickness. One minute it was day, the next it was night. Nils was shivering, his clothes still sodden from where he’d washed them in a stream to get off the worst of the shite. Better on than off, though, he told himself. Last thing he wanted was for Ilesa to see him starkers.
He was relieved when Silas clapped his hands and a fire sprang up in their midst, complete with a pig on a spit, turning and dripping fat that sizzled in the flames. Fresh baked bread appeared in a hamper at Nils’s feet and Silas winked, though there was little humor in it. His face was deathly pale. It may have been the pallid glow of Raphoe, the largest of the moons, but Nils thought the wizard had sickened rapidly since their flight from the village. His cheeks appeared sunken, his eyes bloodshot and set in deep cavities. He had the look of a skull about him. Even his hair was thinner, somehow, straggly and in need of a good wash.
Ilesa looked about as on edge as Nils felt. She turned her nose up at the display of magic and constantly shifted from foot to foot. Her fingers brushed the pommel of her sword, eyes flitting this way and that as if she expected the zombies to lumber from the trees at any moment. Nils caught her watching Nameless once or twice, but the dwarf did nothing to hold her attention. He was flat out, or so it seemed. Nils couldn’t be too sure, ’cause Nameless had his eyes open, although they were fixed and unblinking.
“Don’t all thank me at once,” Silas said as he seated himself cross-legged on the ground. “It might not look like much, but it’s quite an effort rustling up food for four.”
Nils grabbed some still-warm bread and crammed a chunk in his mouth. “Thanks,” he grunted.
“Don’t mention it.”
Ilesa crouched by the spitted pig and sliced off a haunch with her dagger. “Great wizard like you, fries a couple of dozen zombies and then makes a fuss about a minor cantrip.”
“So minor that it escaped your meager abilities.” Silas’s eyelids drooped shut and he steepled his fingers beneath his nose.
“I make no claims to wizardry.” Ilesa sat back against a tree.
“Yeah, right,” Nils said, reaching for the pig and realizing he had nothing but his sword to cut it with. He’d nearly lost a finger last time he did that, and what with the way his luck was going he didn’t want to chance it. “Mind if I…?”
“Help yourself.” Ilesa reversed her blade and passed it to him.
“Yeah, like I was saying,” Nils said as he sawed himself a slice of meat, “I wouldn’t call them spells of yours meager. Gaw, had ’em fooled good and proper, you did.”
Ilesa held her hand out, head cocked until Nils returned her dagger. “Who says it was a spell?”
“Well what else—?” Silas started, but Ilesa cut him off.
“I’ve told you nothing and see no reason for that to change.”
“Mystery woman, eh?” Silas looked up, a thin smile crossing his face. “I’m impressed.”
Nils felt the tension between them like the heaviness that sets in before a thunderstorm. How many times had he felt that at home? How many times had he stopped Mom and Dad going at each other hammer and tongs with a bit of a laugh and a joke?
“Should’ve seen her as a zombie, Silas. Dead funny, she was. Get it? Dead funny?”
“Shut up, piss pants,” Ilesa said, sucking the grease from her fingers.
Nils gave a shrill laugh and swiftly tried to deepen it. “It weren’t piss,” he said, praying the silvery moonlight would keep her from seeing his cheeks redden. “It was blood and pig shit.”
“It shogging was, I tell you. Silas—”
“I’m staying out of it.” The wizard still hadn’t touched the food. His fingers were drumming against the satchel that contained his big leather book, and he had a far away look in his eyes. “Why don’t you two lovebirds just kiss and make up?”
Ilesa gave a contemptuous snort that stung Nils down to the bone.
“Shog off,” he said, doing his best to sound as dismissive of her as she’d been of him. “Credit me with some taste.”
“Wanker,” Ilesa said, her mouth curling into a knowing smile that had Nils seething inside.
“I ain’t rising to that,” he said, rummaging about in his belt pouch and pulling out the crumpled map he’d copied by hand before setting off to bring Nameless to the borderlands.
“Oh, please,” Ilesa said. “Don’t pretend you’re going to read.”
“It ain’t reading,” Nils said, holding the map up for them both to see.
Silas leaned over and snatched it from his hand. “You draw this?”
Nils nodded, not sure whether to feel pride or embarrassment.
“Not bad. The lettering’s a bit shaky, like it was written by a drunken spider.”
Nils snatched it back. “Well I ain’t no writer, am I?”
“Ain’t no magsman, neither,” Ilesa mimicked his voice.
“Wanna bet? I can thieve better’n most. They don’t let just anyone into the Night Hawks, you know.”
“No, just whiney boys who piss their pants.”
“Yeah.” Ilesa said.
“Least I don’t abandon my friends.”
“No friend of mine. Maybe that’s something you better learn, if you’re gonna live long in this business. Just because you’re traveling with someone, doesn’t mean you owe them your life. Next time, I’ll leave you both behind. This isn’t any place for cowards and wannabe rogues.”
Nils half-expected Nameless to leap up and clobber her for disrespecting him, but the dwarf may as well have been dead, he was so still.
“Whatever you might say about our friend the Nameless Dwarf here,” Silas said, “he’s no coward. Believe me, I’ve seen firsthand.”
“Me too,” Nils said. “Saw him kick your arse, Missy-I’m-so-tough.”
Ilesa’s eyes flashed like a cat’s in the dark. “We didn’t fight, if you remember.”
“No,” Nils guffawed. “You shat yourself and legged it before he could get hold of you.”
That shut her up. She just looked down at her dagger and twisted it in the earth. A heavy silence ensued, the only sounds the crackling of the flames, the spitting of fat, and the drum, drum, drum of Silas’s fingers on his satchel. Finally, Silas sighed and took out the tome. He wetted his lips, drew in a deep breath, and began to leaf through its thick pages.
Nils glanced at Ilesa out the corner of his eye, but she had her head turned away, chin tilted to the sky, looking for all the world like she was lost in thought. Ain’t no fury like a woman slighted, Dad used to say. Nils reckoned he would’ve been right about this one. The thought of her sticking him while he slept gave him the jitters.
“What’s that then?” He shuffled closer to Silas and peered at the open page.
Silas narrowed his eyes and held the book out to him. “See for yourself.”
Nils recognized some of the letters but couldn’t make no words out of ’em. There were strange squiggles, too, and odd pictures made up of lines and numbers. “Can’t read,” he said in a low voice, trusting Ilesa wouldn’t hear.
“Not at all?”
“No need for it, Dad said. Couldn’t see no use of it for a guildsman.”
“No use? But I thought you said your father was—”
“Boss of the Night Hawks. Yeah, he is. That stunted little freak Shadrak made him up just before he cleared off.”
“Shadrak the Unseen?”
“That’s him. You know him?”
“Heard of him.” Silas closed the book and let it rest on his lap while he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What’s he like, this dad of yours.”
“Top man in the guild. Reckon everyone knows him, and everyone respects him.”
Silas fixed Nils with an unnerving stare. His pupils had swollen to black pits that made Nils want to look away in case he saw something he didn’t want to see. Suddenly, Silas was racked with coughing. He put his fist to his mouth and when he stilled, there were dark flecks on the back of his hand.
“A man…” Silas coughed again, this time to clear his throat. “Man who doesn’t see the use of reading and writing.” He shook his head. “What kind of man is that?”
Nils felt his hackles rising. He was about to give Silas a piece of his mind but the wizard raised a hand and went on.
“Didn’t you ever want to learn? I mean, haven’t you ever seen a book or a letter and wondered what it says?”
Nils racked his brains. None of the kids in the neighborhood could read, and books weren’t things you came across that much. Except at the school, that is, but he’d only been there a few short weeks, and Magistra Archyr hadn’t exactly been the most patient teacher.
“Reckon it’s enough to write my own name. Beyond that, don’t see much need for it. People that read too much go soft in the head, my dad says. It’s all just someone else’s ideas. Reckon I got enough of my own.”
Silas fished about in his pocket and produced a slim black tube flecked with green.
“That scarolite?” Nils bent forward to take a closer look.
“From the mines outside Arx Gravis,” Silas said. “Had it made by a mage called Magwitch the Meddler according to some instructions I found in the Academy’s scriptorium. You’ve seen a quill, right? Well, this does the same thing, only you don’t need to keep dipping it in ink. It’s called a pen.”
“Must’ve cost an arm and a leg,” Nils said. “What with it being scarolite and all.” Not to mention being made by Magwitch. Prob’ly cost the other arm and the other leg, too, from what Nils had heard.
“It’s yours.” Silas tossed it to him. “If you can write your name for me.”
Silas reached inside his long coat and drew out a leather-bound notepad, like the sort Crapstan ‘the money’ used as a ledger for keeping track of the guild’s merchandise. “Here, write it on the flyleaf.”
Nils took the book and opened it with shaky fingers. “Well, I don’t know about—”
He watched as Ilesa rose from her spot by the tree and prodded Nameless with her boot. The dwarf groaned but remained perfectly still. She sat beside him and pressed her fingers to his neck, tilting her head to one side as if listening.
“Go on,” Silas said. “It’s all right if you’ve forgotten.”
“Look, mate,” Nils said. “I know what your game is, but I don’t need no help with writing. I told you—”
“Write it,” Silas said with an edge of command in his voice.
Nils swallowed and pressed the pen to the paper. He glanced up at Silas and then made his mark as swiftly and confidently as he could. Silas turned the book round so he could see.
“That what you want me to call you from now on?”
Nils felt his cheeks flush again. “What’s wrong with it?”
Silas gave a good-natured chuckle and turned the book back for Nils to read. “It says Mils Fuckwit.”
Nils shut the book. “No it don’t.”
“How do you know?”
“ ’Cause…” Nils started and then saw where this was going. “I spelled it how Magistra Archyr showed me, all right. If you don’t like it, take it up with her.”
Silas reached over and put his hand on Nils’s arm. “You’re right, Nils. It didn’t say ‘Fuckwit’. I was just trying to make a point. It could have said that and you’d never have known.”
Nils dropped his chin to his chest. “No.”
Silas’s gaze wandered towards Ilesa and Nameless. Nils craned his neck to see. Ilesa had her hand inside Nameless’ chainmail and appeared to be rubbing his chest.
“You did spell it ‘Mils’, though. My point is, if you’re going to get on in the underworld, you need to be able to read and write, otherwise how are you going to know when you’re being duped?”
Nils nodded, all the while watching what Ilesa was doing. “Too late to learn now,” he said as she undid Nameless’ belt.
“It’s never too late,” Silas said. “Let me teach you. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s illiteracy in a grown man.”
Grown man? That’s something Nils hadn’t been called before. The sound of it made his chest swell. “Well, if you don’t take the piss—Hey, what you doing? Get your hand out of his britches.”
Ilesa gave him a sultry smile. “I’m trying to rouse him. In case you two scholars haven’t noticed, he’s not moved an inch since we brought him here.”
Silas stood and went to frown down at Nameless. “Touching to see you’re so caring all of a sudden.”
“Like you can talk,” she said. “Back there, you were just as ready to leave him behind as I was.”
“So. Can’t save everyone, you know. You could at least show some gratitude for me saving you from having your guts ripped out like a string of sausages.”
Ilesa turned her cattish eyes on him. “Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. How come a half-rate sorcerer who whines about magicking up a bit of food can cast a spell strong enough to blow a hole through all those zombies?”
“Book,” Nameless mumbled as if in his sleep.
Nils got up and went to him, turning the dwarf’s face from side to side and peering into his eyes. Nameless blinked, and his lips parted, all dried and cracked.
“Water,” Nils said. “He needs water.”
Nameless muttered something. Nils bent closer so that he could hear.
“What was that?”
Silas clapped his hands and a huge tankard with a great head of froth appeared in them. “I think I know what he wants.”
He went down on one knee, held Nameless’ head up and put the tankard to his lips. The dwarf’s tongue dipped into the froth.
“Mmmnnng,” he grunted, and then took a sip. The sip became a glug, and then he pulled the tankard away from Silas and poured the contents all over his face, lapping up as much as he could.
“More!” he growled, and Silas produced another tankard out of thin air. Nameless sat up and downed the whole lot in one go. He let out a burp and then raised one bushy eyebrow at Ilesa.
“It’s OK, lassie. You can let go of my dwarfhood now.”
Nameless nodded to his groin.
“Oh, I was just—”
“Aye, lassie, I know, but you’ll have to wait your turn.” A shadow seemed to cross his face then, and he looked deeply into the empty tankard. “How’s the magic holding up, laddie?”
“Need to take it easy,” Silas said. “I’ve used a lot of power already today.”
“I know,” the dwarf said. “Maybe more than you should have.” He gave Silas a lingering look.
“I don’t—” Silas began.
“I’ve seen dark things in my time,” Nameless said. “Darker than you can imagine. Just make sure you aren’t getting into something you can’t handle.”
Silas’s cheek twitched and he looked like he was going to say something, but then turned away towards the milky face of Raphoe. When he turned back, there was something close to frenzy in his eyes, but then he blinked and it was gone as quickly as it had come.
Nils didn’t like the atmosphere one bit. “Silas is gonna teach me to read,” he said, offering his hand to Nameless. The dwarf gripped his forearm so hard Nils thought he might break a bone, and then he clambered to his feet.
“Mixed blessing, if you ask me,” Nameless said. “Course, it depends on what you plan to read.” He shot a look at Silas before turning his gaze on Ilesa. It was a hard look he gave her, one that had her taking a step back. “Lassie, lassie,” he said. “We’re all friends here.”
Ilesa forced a weak smile. Nils wondered how much of their earlier conversation the dwarf had heard. Just because he’d been lying there so still didn’t mean—
Nameless clapped him on the back so hard Nils nearly coughed his guts up. “Proud of you, laddie. Mighty proud. Always said there was honor amongst thieves. Now tell me,” he gave Ilesa a beaming smile and then turned it on Silas, “what’s all the fuss about this place? Nightmares, my axe! I think I’m beginning to like it here.”
Both the dwarf’s hands went to his cheeks, and his eyes opened wide. “Where is my axe?”
“You dropped—” Nils started to say.
“I dropped it,” Nameless said. “Anyone fancy a ramble back to see if we can find it?”
“No? Oh, well, best press on then, assuming you’re ready to go?”
“Shouldn’t we wait until daybreak?” Silas asked sheepishly.
“Already here,” Nameless said, pointing at the twin suns on the horizon, where the three moons were sinking so quickly it seemed their strings had suddenly been cut.
“The Cynocephalus dreams darkly, don’t they say?” Nameless set off towards the red and purple ribbons streaming across the brightening sky. “But maybe he’s not so troubled, after all. If I’m not very much mistaken, Qlippoth is going to do me the world of good. World of good, I tell you. Oh, and laddie.” Nameless beckoned Nils over. “Ignore what I just said. Take this chance to learn your letters. Never did me any harm. Here, you can have this.” He unshouldered his pack and dug around inside, pulling out a black leather book. “Friend gave it to me. Said I should read it, but it’s beyond me. Maybe you’ll have more luck. And between you and me,” he leaned in close to whisper, “it won’t do your teacher any harm to have a change of subject matter.”
“What’s it about?” Nils asked, trying to work out the title on the cover.
“Gods and the like.” Nameless gave a bit of a shrug. “Love and peace, and a surprising amount of smiting.”
“Oh.” Nils turned up his nose.
“Don’t rubbish what you’ve not tried,” Nameless said.
The suns came up like a pair of malevolent eyes, retaining their crimson hue even when at their zenith. Grey clouds processed in front of them, misshapen islands floating in the cobalt sky. The paralysis had left Nameless’ limbs and retreated to the edges of his mind, where it still lurked like the darkness at the edge of a campfire. He refused to give it quarter, though. His black moods were an enemy he couldn’t face head on, but he’d found they didn’t take too well to being ignored. He may not have been in the best of spirits, but experience had taught him that manufactured jollity had a way of duping him into the real thing. He forced a grin as broad as a barn and set a brisk pace, all the while humming a jaunty ditty he’d picked up from the poet Quintus Quincy back in New Jerusalem. Back before Nameless and Shadrak had fled the city after the albino had got on the wrong side of the Senate. Back when there were still dwarves in Arx Gravis.
The thick green foliage they’d been traipsing through suddenly passed like smoke on the breeze and left them without warning atop a precipitous cliff above a roiling sea. White horses frothed towards a rocky beach hundreds of feet below, and here and there violent eddies and swirls sprang up with the randomness of pure chaos.
Nils let out a gasp and pointed to where huge cloak-like rays were skimming beneath the waves, and Nameless followed his finger to where half a dozen black dorsal fins basked close to the shore. Silas was wheezing from exertion and coughing into a pink-stained handkerchief, whereas Ilesa stood apart from the group, sullen in her dusky beauty. Her satin hair was whipped up by a gust of wind, and she looked to Nameless as full of elemental ire as one of the wailing spirits the dwarves had told spooky stories about in the depths of the ravine city.
He’d heard everything they’d said back at the camp. His body might have been frozen by the dark sorcery of his mood, but there’d been nothing wrong with his hearing. Still, he told himself, lest he wandered down that precarious path, she owed him no loyalty. She was what she was, same as Silas. It didn’t pay to expect too much of folk, and besides, he wasn’t exactly one to be relied upon himself. Not according to his brother dwarves, in any case. Not according to his old friends, Shader and Shadrak.
“So what’s the plan?” Silas said between coughs. “Because I’d sooner we found another route. This sea air is killing me.”
“Maybe you should consult that book of yours,” Nameless said. “See if you can divine our passage.”
“It’s not that kind of book.”
“No, I figured that. So, unless anyone has a better idea, I say we fill our lungs with salty air and see what’s on the other side of these cliffs.” Nameless turned and took a few jogging steps, making sure to lift his knees high and pump his arms. He abruptly stopped and made a show of looking past Nils and Silas to Ilesa. “Unless, of course, you have anything to add, lassie.”
Ilesa pulled her hair back from her face and tied it with black ribbon. “Like I said, there are no maps. All we have to go on is hearsay.”
“But you’ve been here before, haven’t you?”
She nodded, chewing her bottom lip. “Came here once or twice with Brau. Got as far as the village we left behind. There were people there then. Ordinary folk we used to do business with. Course, we had to pay a fee to Shent, but it was good trade nonetheless.”
Nils stepped back from the edge, eyes full of wonder at the creatures he’d been spying on in the waters below. “What do you s’pose happened to them?”
“Brau said he’d been beyond the village on a couple of occasions. Said there was some kind of plague that turned people into zombies. Last I heard the villagers were planning to uproot and move elsewhere. Guess they left it too late.”
“Good of you to tell us,” Silas said, wiping his mouth and thrusting the handkerchief in his coat pocket.
“Didn’t think it was going to be a problem.”
Nameless caught her eye, tried to read her, but found her as inscrutable as Silas’s grimoire. “Anything else we should know, lassie, before we get ourselves neck deep in any more of the Demiurgos’s dung?”
“Actually, it’s the Cynocephalus, his bastard son,” Silas said.
“Doesn’t matter which shogger’s doing the dreaming. I just want to be forewarned.”
Ilesa held out her palms. “Village was as far as I got before. This is as new to me as it is to you. That’s all I know. Really.”
“Good enough for me,” Nameless said, turning his face to the chill wind gusting down the trail and wishing he’d not shaved his beard.
“But you didn’t hear what she said back there,” Nils said. “Back at the village.”
“Did,” Nameless said.
“You could hear?” Silas said, struggling alongside him. “Even at the camp?”
Silas put a hand on his shoulder. “Nameless, wait up. I think I ought to clarify—”
“No harm done, laddie.” Nameless gave him a pat on the hand. “All just doing the best we can.”
Nameless continued along the cliff-top path. He’d taken no more than a dozen steps when he felt a wave of vertigo. He swooned, and found himself mere inches from the edge, whereas a moment ago he could have sworn it was feet.
“What the Abyss just happened?” Silas called out, making his tentative way towards Nameless in a diagonal path that took him away from the precipice. Nils and Ilesa had felt it too, by the looks of it, and were stepping warily in Silas’s footsteps.
“Rock fall?” Nameless wondered out loud. Nonsense, of course, for he’d heard nothing, seen nothing.
“This don’t feel right,” Nils said, eyeing the cliff edge with suspicion. “It’s got the stink of magic about it.”
“Or dreams,” Ilesa said. “That’s what this place is, isn’t it? The land of nightmares? This sort of thing happens in dreams all the time.”
Nameless gave her a worried frown. “Not mine. If the Cynocephalus had half my imagination we’d be on our fifth round by now. What about your dreams, laddie?” He shot a look at Nils. “No, on second thoughts, best not answer that.”
Nils reddened and Nameless reached over to slap him on the shoulder. “Just joshing, laddie. Keeping the spirits up. Come on, if we back away from the edge…” The words died in his throat. Behind them, where there should have been endless greensward rolling away from the ocean, there was now rough sea. The cliff was no more than a narrow strip of rock hundreds of feet above the raging waters.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Nils said, and promptly was.
Nameless looked down at his boots. There was barely a couple of feet to the edge either side. Might not have been too big a problem had it not been for the wind, which was picking up, swirling around them with a whistling howl.
“We need to keep moving,” Ilesa said, ushering the others ahead of her. “Make it to the far side.”
She pointed in the direction Nameless had been leading them. Whereas before there had been no end in sight, now there was a freestanding wooden gate in the near distance, and a massive figure loomed on its other side.
Nameless squinted but could make out little other than it was humanoid and very, very large.
“What is that?” Silas spoke so close Nameless could smell the rankness of his breath, coppery and pungent, like a wound turned bad.
“Giant?” Nameless wondered out loud. “Let’s go and ask.”
Before he could move, a chunk of earth broke away and he slid towards the edge. “Shog!” he cried, flailing about and hoping someone would grab his hand.
No one did, and the next instant he was plunging head over heels towards the hungry sea.
“Nameless!” Nils screamed. He shuffled forwards, but soil and rock was still crumbling from the edge and Silas was in his way. “Why didn’t you grab him? You could’ve caught him?”
Silas turned to Ilesa, spread his palms. “Happened too fast. You saw, didn’t you? There was no time.”
“I saw,” Ilesa said. She moved along the path a little way so she could approach the edge and look over. She stared down at the sea for a long time, like she was considering something. “There was no time,” she said with a sigh. “Nothing you could have done.”
“Bollocks,” Nils said. His mouth was full of the snot dripping from his nose and there were tears streaming down his cheeks. He felt too angry to be ashamed about it, though. Too scared. “So what are we gonna do now, huh? What the shog are we gonna do?”
“Press on,” Silas said.
“Go back,” Ilesa said at the same time.
Nils wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Don’t see no point staying out here without Nameless. Thought finding the dwarves was what this was all about.”
“Then you thought wrong,” Silas said. “There were always other considerations, only you never thought to ask. You two do what you like. I’m going to speak to the giant.”
Nils didn’t like the look of the looming presence one little bit. “Rather you than me, mate. I’m off. Coming?” he asked Ilesa.
She didn’t look right. Her forehead was beaded with sweat and she’d turned a sickly grey. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
“You OK?” Nils said. “Only you don’t look—”
“Fine,” she said, shooting a glare at Silas. “Least I will be when we get back to Malfen. Don’t look so good yourself.”
Nils had been too shocked to notice. Seeing Nameless plunge over the edge had cut him deep. Not that he gave a stuff about the dwarf, he told himself. It was just…just shocking is what it was. He put the back of his hand to his head. Reckoned he had a fever. “Shog, I’m burning up. How about you, Silas?”
“No, I’m fine.” Silas leaned in close to peer at Nils. “Well, no worse than normal. You get bitten by those zombies?”
“Just scratches, mainly.” Nils’s hand went to his ear. “Think one of ’em might’ve chewed on my lughole.”
“How about you? Any bites?” Silas moved to examine Ilesa but her dagger was at his throat before he could lay a finger on her.
“Go shog yourself.”
Silas withdrew, holding his hands up placatingly. “Only I saw something about them in the grimoire, when it made me…when I cast that spell.”
“Show me,” Ilesa said, still brandishing her knife.
Silas unfastened his bag and pulled out the book. He started to leaf through the pages. “I know it was here somewhere. Should have made a note of the page, only it was so hectic back there.”
“Shogging Brau,” Ilesa said. “Never told me they’d taken over the village. What is it with people?”
“Somewhere around here,” Silas went on, oblivious. “Somewhere…”
Nils caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see the giant plodding down the cliff-top path towards them. Only it weren’t just a large man; it weren’t rightly human, what with only having one massive eye set in the center of its forehead. “Uh, Silas…”
“Patience, boy,” Silas said with a tut. “Can’t you see I’m…”
“What’s this?” the cyclops said in a voice like rolling thunder. “Nice happy family out for a blustery stroll? What brings you good folk all the way out here?”
“Dwarves,” Nils blurted out.
“Bligh…Nothing,” Silas said. “I mean, yes, dwarves.”
Ilesa just coughed up a load of phlegm, wheezing like a poytlweed smoker.
“You are ill?” the cyclops said. “You must come out of the wind.” It turned as if to lead them towards the lone gate.
“Fine,” Ilesa said with a grimace. “I’m fine. We’re just leaving.”
“That may not be possible.” The cyclops looked over their heads, back down the trail.
“Oh, it’s possible,” Ilesa said, drawing her sword and adopting a fighting stance, doubly armed.
Nils followed the cyclops’ gaze and felt his stomach fill with lead. “What the shog?”
The cliff-top path had vanished. From a few yards behind Ilesa there was nothing but roiling black mist.
“How?” Silas said, closing the grimoire and gawping like a startled turkey.
“You are new to Qlippoth?” the cyclops asked. “This is simply the way of things here.”
Ilesa sheathed her sword and dagger. “Seems we have no choice,” she said. “After you.”
“Good,” the cyclops said. “It’s been a long time since I had visitors. No one seems to just drop by these days.” He set off the way he’d come from with long, languid strides.
“Come on,” Silas said. “I can look for the page about zombie bites when we get wherever we’re going.”
Nils grunted his approval and followed the wizard. It was only when they’d passed beyond the gate and started through a dense pine forest that he felt a gnawing at the back of his mind. He turned to find that Ilesa had vanished.
Teeth rushed up towards his face. Huge teeth. Colossal. Nameless tumbled for an eternity—far longer than he should have. Far slower, too. It took his befuddled brain a moment to realize that he’d be dead already if this were natural. Dead, or at least extremely wet, and then dead, seeing as he couldn’t swim. Wasn’t much call for swimming in Arx Gravis.
The fall turned into a wafting descent, a gentle swirl towards the maw of a gigantic fish—a fish with the biggest, sharpest, most luminescent…not teeth. Not teeth at all. They were bars of light across a cavernous opening that was certainly mouth-like, if not an actual mouth. He tried to twist around, tried to swim against whatever sorcerous current had caught hold of him, but he was pulled relentlessly down. He shut his eyes as he struck the bars of light and felt…nothing, besides a warm tickling sensation.
And then he was standing upon a tongue. No doubt about it, it was rough textured, slick with frothy spit, and black as the Void. It retracted sharply and he lost his footing, landing plumb on his backside. The tongue carried him towards an aperture that pressed wetly about him, and then he was falling again, or rather sliding deeper and deeper into the gullet of whatever leviathan had swallowed him whole.
The descent leveled out after a few seconds and he was able to rise to his feet on a squelchy, viscous floor. Goo stuck to the soles of his boots, trailed him when he took a step towards…towards…What was it, a door? Right in the middle of the sinuous tube of flesh and slime he stood within was a round portal made of wood. It even had a brass handle, which he clasped and twisted.
Greenish light spilled through the crack, and then the door opened onto a spherical chamber with a gilled ceiling, like the underside of a mushroom. Clusters of wriggling uvulae dangled from above, and the floor was alive with hundreds of purplish lips, like those of a clam, opening and closing as if holding some secret conference.
Opposite the entrance there was a vast circular window with a dark spot at its center. There were fish outside, darting in and out of coral and seaweed. Nameless gasped as he realized this was the creature’s eye, seen from the inside. A single, gigantic orb that must have been set dead center in its head. Before the eye-window there was a stool that seemed molded from fungi, and seated upon it was a tiny humanoid. It spun to face Nameless and he gasped again. Save for the complexion, which was swarthy, and the grey dreadlocked hair, he could have been looking at his old friend Shadrak.
“You…You are a homunculus.”
“Abednago is my name.” The little man tapped the tips of his fingers together, almost as if he were giving a sarcastic clap. “Why so surprised? You’ve seen homunculi before.” He stood and approached Nameless the way you might approach a wild animal. “Come, Nameless.” Abednago put a hand on his arm and led him towards the eye-window.
“How do you know my—”
“I was a close observer of the chief events in your…how shall I put it?”
The homunculus took hold of a tuberous nodule in the wall and twisted it. Another mushroom-like stool rose up in front of the eye. He gestured for Nameless to sit, and took the other stool himself.
“Story,” he said. “You have heard of the pride before the fall? Well, is there not a tradition of the subsequent rise?”
“You’re starting to sound like an old fiend of mine,” Nameless said. The knight, Shader, had often spoken of such things. “Next you’ll be telling me all about the mysteries of the resurrection.”
“And why not? You wouldn’t be the first dwarf to accept such teachings. But I was speaking figuratively. Does not the hero first have to plunge to the depths before he can rise stronger and better than before?”
“Ah, then perhaps you are not familiar with dwarven tragedy.”
“Perhaps,” Abednago said.
“How long have you been following me?” Nameless asked the question with a degree of trepidation, but he already knew the answer in his gut.
“Since Arx Gravis.”
Nameless hung his head and prayed the blackness would come upon him.
“It was not your fault,” Abednago said.
“You believe you are too clever to be deceived? Too strong?”
Nameless felt every muscle in his body tense. When he spoke, it was through gritted teeth. “No.”
“Then what choice did you have? How could you have done things differently?”
“I didn’t have to enter Gehenna. Didn’t have to bring back the axe.”
The homunculus sighed and closed his eyes. “But that’s what you were supposed to do. You or any other dwarf who had the courage.”
“Yes, well thankfully no one else did.”
“I know. And that’s what makes you special.”
“That’s what makes me dangerous. That’s what led to the slaughter.”
“It is what gives us hope,” Abednago said. “It is what may yet save your people.”
Nameless scoffed at that. “Save them? I’m the one they’re running from.”
“A beast beaten will recoil from a raised hand, even if the intention is to stroke. The dwarves of Arx Gravis would have been killed with or without your help. It is the lot of your people. It was the lot of your ancestors who once dwelt in the most powerful citadel in all of Aethir.”
“Arnoch? That’s just a myth. And besides, they destroyed themselves.”
“Ah, but did they have a choice?” The homunculus cocked his head. “Nameless, there is something I wish to show you. Will you allow me?”
Nameless shifted uncomfortably on his stool and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Is it hot in here?”
The homunculus shook his head.
“I’m feeling slightly nauseous,” Nameless said, pinching the bridge of his nose and belching. “Are you asking me to trust a homunculus? The spawn of the Demiurgos?”
“We are a people divided, Nameless. Yes, our nature is deception, but there are some among us who would play our father at his own game.”
Nameless raised an eyebrow. “Why would you do that?”
“As I said, we are divided. Divided upon the issue of the dwarves.”
Abednago raised a hand. “Later. Let’s just say it concerns the experiments of Sektis Gandaw.”
Nameless’ brain was flipping somersaults trying to fathom what on Aethir the homunculus could mean. The Technocrat had laid claim to creation of the dwarves, said he’d altered the basic makeup of humans he’d kidnapped from Shader’s world, Earth. They were engineered for mining scarolite—useful tools and nothing more. When that usefulness ceased, the dwarves were discarded as easily as the Ant-Man and his pets.
“Don’t dwell upon it now,” Abednago said. “Some things are better shown than told.”
He stared straight ahead through the great eye of the fish-ship, and a ripple passed around the chamber. The view outside shifted as the craft began to move.
“I tell you, I don’t bleedin’ like it,” Nils whispered, tugging on Silas’s sleeve.
Silas was starting to agree with the lad, but what could they do? They’d followed the cyclops through acres of woodland, and now they could be anywhere, for all he knew. He couldn’t even tell which was east and which was west, so dismal were his wilderness skills. And as for Ilesa—
“And what about Ilesa?” Nils continued in his whingeing whisper. “What do you suppose happened? I mean, did she fall like Nameless? Did that fog-shit take her?”
“Maybe she just took the chance to save her own skin.”
Nils looked dumbfounded. “Nah, she wouldn’t do that. Would she?”
“She was quite prepared to leave Nameless, remember? We have no reason to trust her.”
The cyclops ceased his mile-eating strides and turned to tower over them. He made a show of counting them with his fingers and then frowned. “Thought there were three of you. What happened to the other, you know, the female with the succulent…in all the leather?”
Silas shrugged and turned his palms up. “No idea. One minute she was there, the next she was gone. That’s two companions we’ve lost today.”
“Two?” the cyclops said, looking out through the forest.
“Yes,” Nils said. “We were traveling with a—”
“So have we arrived yet?” Silas said, clapping his hands together.
“We have.” The cyclops pushed through the last of the trees until they stood before a cave set into a craggy bank. “Welcome to my home.” He ducked inside the opening then poked his head back out. “Coming?”
Silas looked at Nils and the boy merely shrugged and went into the cave. The lad’s condition had worsened during the trek through the woods. His skin was ashen, his hair slick and matted with sweat. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing, the air rattling in and out of his lungs with a worrying wheeze. It had to be the zombies. Had to, otherwise how come Silas was the only one not to be infected? If the blasted cyclops hadn’t come upon them when he did, Silas felt sure he could have found the reference to zombie bites in Blightey’s grimoire. He’d only seen it in passing, during the casting of whatever spell had cut a swath through the cadavers. He probably should have paid more attention at the time, but the book had unnerved him. Damned thing seemed to have a life of its own. Even now he had the nagging sensation it was whispering prompts at the back of his mind, not loud enough to be fully discernible. Messages below the threshold of awareness, although not quite so deep that they didn’t ring alarm bells.
He should have listened to the warnings back at the Academy. Maybe it was for good reason Blightey’s grimoire was off limits. Then again, so much in Silas’s past had been off limits, but he’d always prevailed in the end. No, he wasn’t about to let the scaremongering of a bunch of ivory-tower academics keep him from his research. He was onto something here, and the book’s obvious power only confirmed that. Magic was like anything else worth knowing. You had to proceed with caution, one step at a time; had to get to know each stage thoroughly, harness it to your will, and then move on only when ready. Had to show it who was master, that was all. Fear was for the weak and the ignorant.
With a rap of his fingers on the book through his satchel, Silas followed Nils inside.
The entrance bore into the rocky bank some way, and then converged on a tunnel mouth, where Nils and the cyclops were waiting. The three of them descended half a dozen natural steps until they reached a far larger cathedral cavern. The skins of different animals covered much of the floor, their bones stacked in piles upon ledges at various heights. Two massive ensconced torches shed their guttering glow across one corner of the cavern, and this is where the cyclops led them, gesturing for them to be seated on a fur hide so large it could have belonged to some kind of elephant.
“Do you have any food?” Silas asked. “Only my friend here is sick. He was bitten by a walking corpse. You know, a zombie.”
“Only what I brought back with me,” the cyclops said.
“Don’t want none,” Nils said, curling up on the rug. “Just need to sleep.”
Silas shook him by the shoulder. “Wouldn’t do that just yet, Nils. Let me look for that page again.” The instant the words left his mouth he regretted it.
“Oh, yes,” the cyclops said. “I was meaning to ask you about that book you were looking at when I happened upon you.”
Happened upon? Hardly. The giant had virtually stalked them. How long he’d been standing there by the gate while they struggled along the cliff-top path was anyone’s guess.
“It’s just a book,” Silas said.
“I like books.” The cyclops fixed Silas with a stare of his single great eye. The pupil was the size of a saucer, the iris amber and resembling nothing so much as a crocodile’s. “What’s it about?”
Silas swallowed, did his best to improvise. “Flora and fauna, you know the sort of thing. Boring, really. Stuff about mushrooms and insects.”
“And it will help with the boy’s sickness?”
“Maybe,” Silas said. “If I can find the right page.”
“Let me look,” the cyclops said. “I’m good at finding things. Big eye like this has some advantages, you know.”
Silas covered his satchel with his arm. “It’s all right, thanks. I think I can find it now.”
“I said let me look.” The cyclops held out a big meaty hand and tilted his head, the great eye suddenly feral and predatory.
Shit, shit, shit, Silas thought, racking his brains for a spell that might help. If he could shock the thing and grab Nils, they might be able to make a run for it.
The cyclops twiddled his enormous fingers impatiently.
Shock! That was it. The words of the casting danced through Silas’s mind, his lips moving as slightly as a ventriloquist’s as he reached over and grabbed the cyclops’s thumb. A sparking charge of static shot down Silas’s arm and burst into blue fire that consumed the giant’s hand.
Consumed, but did no harm.
“Oh,” Silas said.
“Uh uh.” The cyclops wagged his finger. “You’ll have to do better than that.” He leaned forward, pushed Silas gently back with one hand, and took the satchel from him with the other. “Well, well, well, what have we got here? A grimoire, if I’m not very much mistaken. A grimoire of the eleventh degree, no less. Now what’s a pusillanimous whelp like you doing with something so puissant? No, don’t say anything. You can tell me after dinner.” The cyclops let out a malevolent chuckle. “Well, maybe not. Remember I said I only had what I brought home with me?”
Silas gulped and wished he’d been able to do something to stop Nameless from plunging to his death. Right now, he’d have given anything to have the dwarf waltz in and take command of the situation.
“Now be a good little wizard,” the cyclops said, “and use that poxy magic of yours to rustle up a fire. Can’t remember the last time I had cooked meat.”
At first Nameless thought it was a coral bed, but then he realized that was an effect of the distance. As they drew nearer he could see enormous spires crusted with barnacles, towers swathed in weeds, minarets green with algae, and buttressed gatehouses decked with brightly colored anemones. It was as big as an island, an impossible structure encased in a vast bubble of either water or glass. This was something far beyond the architectural abilities of any race he’d come across on Aethir, outstripping even the magnificence of Arx Gravis. There could be no doubt in his mind what it was they were approaching. This was no mere legend. It was looming right up in front of him, a colossal citadel at the bottom of the ocean, the prehistoric capital of the dwarf lords.
“Arnoch,” he whispered.
“Legends are like dreams,” Abednago said. “Most are based on truth.”
Nameless remembered Shader saying something like that. Many of the dreams of the humans on Earth were but echoes from Aethir, dim reflections of the troubled mind of the Cynocephalus.
“But Aethir itself was dreamed,” Nameless said. “So none of this is real, if you look at it that way.”
The homunculus gave him the sort of smile a parent might give a child that was just starting to find its way in the world. His eyes sparkled, as if within they contained the brightness of a thousand stars. “The dreams of a god are of a quite different order. Quite different.”
Nameless didn’t like where this conversation was going. Already his head was pounding. His brother Lucius was the family philosopher; Nameless was more for strong drink and the thrill of battle. Didn’t mean he wasn’t a thinker, only he preferred more tangible concepts.
“So, he is a god then?”
Abednago shrugged. “Some say so. Others say there is only one true god and that a dog-headed ape falls short of the definition. As do his parents, for that matter.”
The craft shuddered as it passed through the bubble surrounding the city and they turned towards a round stone door set between two towers. Nameless clutched the sides of his stool. They were going to crash, he was sure of it, but at the last moment the craft slowed. A sucking, gurgling sound rolled through the chamber, there was a whir and a click, and then they were still. A hairline crack split the center of the circular door, which filled the eye-window, and swiftly drew wider to reveal a short corridor that ended in an identical portal.
“Stay seated,” Abednago said. “Then you won’t have to go out the way you came.”
“Thank goodness for that, laddie. I was—Aaagh!”
The stool fell through the floor and came to a jolting halt directly below in the cavernous maw Nameless had entered by.
“Aren’t you coming?” he hollered up to the homunculus.
Abednago peered through the hole left by Nameless’ stool. “Remember the courage we were talking about? This is definitely something you need to do alone.”
“Do what?” Nameless said, feeling his hackles rise.
“We’ve docked at the Royal Passage. There was once a time this entrance would have been so heavily guarded uninvited guests would have needed an army to get inside. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what some tried. None succeeded. Head through the far doors and keep going straight till you reach the throne room. From there, pray to whatever god you follow and hope for the best.”
Nameless grunted and stood. “Sounds encouraging.”
“And Nameless, be on your guard. The evil that destroyed the dwarves of Arnoch may be impossibly old, but it could very well endure.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me? Don’t suppose you have a spare axe, do you?”
“When the mouth opens,” Abednago called from above, “hold your breath.”
“What?” Nameless said, taking a step back. “But I can’t sw—”
The jaws of the fish-craft parted and water rushed in. Nameless gulped in a last breath of air and held it. The tongue poked out, carrying him into the corridor beyond the round opening. As soon as the tongue withdrew, the door snapped shut behind him.
The passageway was completely submerged. Salt water stung his eyes and blurred his vision. Froth bubbled around his head, and debris rose up from the floor—ribbons of cloth, dust and weed. Something larger shifted across the bottom—a skeleton, dwarven and draped in rusty mail. The air started to burn in Nameless’ lungs. He needed to breathe. His heart was thumping and whooshing in his ears as he turned back to the entrance and scratched at the stone, seeking purchase, seeking a way out before…
There was a grating sound as the edges of the floor slid back to reveal holes through which the water began to drain away. Nameless tipped his head back and gasped in stale air. The door at the far end slid apart to reveal a long antechamber knee-deep in water, which was emptying amid a great torrent of noise.
Ensconced torches, which should have been too sodden to take, burst into wavering light. Not the light of natural flame, but a mauve radiance that sat like a halo atop each torch. He waited for the water to clear before stepping into the corridor, footsteps echoing in time with the drip, drip, drip from the ceiling. Following Abednago’s instructions, he ignored the flanking doors running along both walls and approached the stone double doors at the end.
Two crumpled skeletons lay before the doors. Each wore chainmail, brown with rust, each carried a spear, and each appeared to have died from horrific wounds. One’s skull had been pulverized, leaving nothing but fragments atop its spine. The other had a gaping hole through its sternum, a crushed leg and a missing arm. The city may have sunk beneath the waves, Nameless thought, but that wasn’t what had killed these two.
He searched in vain for a means to open the double doors. There was no handle, merely a crack down the center, the same as the doors he had entered the city by. There was an inscription engraved in the stone. He found he had to squint to read it as his vision had grown cloudy and he was sweating once more. The scratches he’d picked up from the zombies were itching like crazy, and one or two of the bites were festering. No matter, he thought, he’d endured worse, and he knew from experience that his body was hardy enough to fight off any infection. Any common infection, he added with a niggling concern, which he banished to the back of his mind.
The letters came into focus, letters he recognized. It was Latin script, the same he’d learned from Lucius when his brother had been obsessed with translating ancient scrolls that pointed the way to the black axe. The same he’d struggled to read in Shader’s Liber, and got quite far with, too, until the subject matter had bored him senseless.
He rubbed away some of the sediment from the grooves chiseled into the door and frowned at the revealed word. Genuflectio. Was it an instruction? Was that the key to gaining entrance?
He dropped to one knee and bowed his head. The grating of stone upon stone caused him to look up to see the door cracking open down the center. Beyond it was an immense chamber forested with fluted columns, a massive dais rising in the center like a stepped island. There was an intricate throne atop the edifice, carved from stone, and upon it sat the skeleton of a dwarf robed in sodden brown that may once have been crimson. A lopsided crown of gold bedizened with gems sat atop a rusty helm that encased much of the skull, and above the seated figure, floating in midair, was a sight that froze the breath in Nameless’ lungs.
A great double-bladed axe hung suspended, gleaming like a small sun. It was a perfect facsimile of the Pax Nanorum, only this one was gold rather than black. He distrusted it instantly. He may have been a numbskull, but he’d be damned if he was going to fall for the same trick twice.
He looked away, scanning the chamber, noting the three other entrances, open archways that led to more torchlit corridors. Half a dozen algae-coated pillars had collapsed, split in two like felled trees, and there were flights of stairs around the perimeter of the room that led to a gallery. More broken dwarf skeletons were piled up in the corridors, their backs to the throne room as if they’d died defending it. Nameless approached the dais, treading carefully on stone slick with seaweed. Here and there water had collected in pools where the drainage holes had been clogged with debris. He hopped between chunks of fallen masonry until he reached the bottom step and then made his way to stand before the throne.
The dwarf king’s skeleton was intact. Perhaps he had escaped the fate of his brethren and had perished either by drowning, or in some other more natural way. The golden light of the axe glinted from the king’s crown-topped helm and gave a yellowish tint to the exposed parts of his skull. There was a brooding sadness about the figure, and Nameless felt deep in his bones the terrible loss of something that could never be reclaimed. If the legends contained even a grain of truth, the dwarf lords of Arnoch were heroes, each and every one of them, great warriors stubbornly holding back the hordes of nightmare that spilled from the mind of the Cynocephalus.
His heart quickened at the thought he had been brought here for a reason, that fate was at last smiling on him and had offered him a glimpse of what his people—Gandaw’s pale imitation of the lords of Arnoch—could have been. Might still become. That hope alone, so great as it was, set his mind to crying warning. Had he not felt the same way when he’d plucked the black axe from the depths of Gehenna? Had his heart not swelled with pride and the anticipation of a golden age for his people when he returned to Arx Gravis and offered to lead them out of their self-imposed exile?
Nameless turned and started back down the steps. He’d not make the same mistake again. No, Arnoch was just a legend, and whatever this sunken city really was, it had the reek of deception about it.
“Wait,” a voice as dry as dust grated from behind him.
Nameless spun, the breath catching in his throat. The skeleton on the throne held up one bony hand. Its skull pivoted to look at him through empty sockets.
“Have you come back to us?” the king said. “Is it over?”
“What…” Nameless licked his lips and tried to give his fear voice. “What are you?”
The skeleton looked down at its hands, raised fingers to prod at its fleshless face, and let out a forlorn sigh. “How long has it been? The city has risen, yes?”
Nameless slowly shook his head. “I came in a magical craft that traveled beneath the waves. The water has just now drained away.”
“And yet years have passed, eating the flesh from my bones.” The king tried to stand but his legs broke away from his torso and he had to remain seated. “Then we failed. The creature must still live. Whoever you are, whatever brought you here, you should go, while you still can.”
Nameless took a step towards the throne. He wasn’t sure whether or not to bow, and elected instead to stand with his arms folded across his chest. “This creature you refer to must surely have perished. Arnoch has been lost to the world since the dawn of history.”
The king looked up at the axe floating above his head. “No, it lives. Even after all this time it lives. See how the Pax Nanorum still glows in warning.”
Pax Nanorum. Just the mention of that terrible name sent Nameless to his knees. Tears welled in his eyes and his limbs began to shake. “No more,” he said through chattering teeth. “No more. Leave me alone. Haven’t I done enough already?”
The king turned his empty eyes back towards Nameless. “What is it, my brother?”
“The axe. I have seen it before; held it, but back then it was black.”
“No,” the king said. “It has always been thus.”
“But the name…”
“ ‘Peace of the Dwarves’. It is written in the old tongue upon the haft.” The king gave a grating laugh. “Old tongue, indeed. Old even when Arnoch was young.”
“But I wielded the Pax Nanorum,” Nameless said, each word a poison to be spat out. “It made me…made me do such things.”
The king reached out a skeletal hand. “Come closer. Let me touch you.”
Nameless rose and stepped towards the throne. He shut his eyes as the king’s cold, hard fingers caressed his face.
“There is strength in you. Great strength. I’ve not felt its like since the time of the Arnochian Immortals, the chief of whom wielded the Pax Nanorum. There is something else, as well. You are sick. A fever? An infection perhaps? Whatever evil resides within you now, it is not moral.”
Nameless mopped sweat from his brow. His limbs had grown icy and leaden. He could have sworn he was coming down with a cold, maybe something worse. What was wrong with him? Normally he’d have shaken off infection without even noticing it. Was it the zombies? Had they afflicted him with some vile magic?
“The axe was destroyed,” Nameless said. “But too late. My people…So many of my people…”
The king gave a slow nod. “It is an ill fate to be a dwarf. The Cynocephalus dreamed us into being to fend off the horrors of his own nightmares, and it is for that reason the nightmares sought us out, strove to destroy us.”
“But my people are not natives of Aethir,” Nameless said. “Not truly. We were brought from another world and changed by the Technocrat Sektis Gandaw. If we bear any relation to the dwarves of Arnoch, it is by way of parody, caricature.”
The king gestured above his head to where the axe emitted its golden glow. “I know nothing of what you say, only that when you entered Arnoch, the city recognized you as a dwarf, for otherwise the waters would not have drained.”
Nameless opened his mouth to protest but the king silenced him with a wag of a bony finger.
“Touch the Axe of the Dwarf Lords,” he said. “If you are not of the bloodline of the Immortals, she will reject you.”
“I cannot,” Nameless said, sweat running down his face in rivulets. “Not after what happened before. I’m sorry, I must leave.” He turned to do so but stumbled and nearly fell. “What the shog is wrong with me?”
“Please, my brother, touch the axe. There is so little time and I must know. Must know if you have the blood of the Immortals running through your veins.”
Nameless took another step down. “Trust me,” he said, “I don’t. Born to a miner and a woman so fierce she could have been a baresark.”
The king let out a groan of utter hopelessness. “Then it was all for nothing. All for—”
A crash sounded from one of the corridors, echoing off into the silence that enshrouded the city. Nameless turned to face the king, who was staring in the direction of the noise.
No more sound.
And then there was a muffled thud and the king’s head dropped to his chest. “As I feared,” he said. “It is returning.”
Another thud, followed in quick succession by another. Footsteps. Heavy pounding footsteps rapidly drawing nearer.
“Quickly,” the king said. “You must take the axe. It is your only hope.”
Thud, thud, thud.
“No,” Nameless said, scanning the room for alternative weapons. “I will not.”
“Then it is over,” the king said. “I have failed.” His head fell again, and this time the torso crumpled onto the throne and broke up into a thousand pieces.
The thudding footfalls grew faster and louder, like the beating of a heart about to burst. Nameless ran down the last of the steps and lunged for a chunk of rock. He whirled, coming up in a fighting crouch as a colossal man charged into the chamber, stopped, and stared straight at him. Nameless felt the chill of its malevolence sweep over him, commanding him to flee. His fingers tightened around the rock as he backed away.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t natural. The head was a mask of leather, crudely stitched with thick black thread. The body was the color of dead flesh, recognizably human but massive, twice Nameless’ height, broad-shouldered and bullish. It lurched towards him and he let loose with the rock. The throw lacked any force. Whatever sickness afflicted him had all but drained his strength. The rock bounced harmlessly from the monster’s skin and clattered across the floor.
A haze of red passed before Nameless’ eyes and he retched. Clutching his roiling guts, he headed for the corridor he’d entered by, but the creature moved to cut him off.
“Great,” Nameless grumbled. “Shogging great.”
He just wanted to lie down and sleep, his body felt so listless, but he knew it would be a sleep he’d never wake up from. Either the illness would claim him or the hulking aberration would crush him, like it had done everyone else who’d stood against it. “I will not be ill,” Nameless growled through clenched teeth. “Someone give me ale, for shog’s sake.”
The monster ran straight at him and he just about managed to roll beneath a bludgeoning fist. Before he regained his feet, the thing had hold of him by the hem of his hauberk and slung him into the wall. Nameless hit with a sickening crunch. Salty blood dripped to his lips. His head swam with dizziness, and he swayed as he stood. Heavy footsteps thundered towards him and it was blind instinct that made him fall flat on his face as another hammer blow sailed over his head and punched a hole in the rock.
Nameless roared his frustration and threw himself towards the closest corridor. He twisted and rolled amidst a spray of rock shards sent up by the monster’s pounding fists. He ended up on top of a skeleton and prized the sword from the dead dwarf’s fingers.
“I refuse to be sick!” he bellowed, spinning and swinging the blade in a murderous arc. The sword struck flesh but rebounded, jolting his arm and sending stabs of pain through his shoulder. He scrabbled backwards, tripping and losing his grip on the blade. The creature came at him relentlessly, unstoppable even as Nameless cast dust into its blank eyes and snatched up a sturdy spear.
“Die, you shogger!” he bellowed as he thrust with every last ounce of his strength, burying the spear deep in its chest and twisting. The tip punched through the monster’s back but there was no blood, only sawdust. A massive hand took hold of the spear shaft and pulled it free before snapping it and casting it aside. The wound drew together and thick black stitches ghosted into view, holding it tight.
“Shog,” Nameless swore.
He darted past the creature, narrowly avoiding a haymaker that collapsed a section of the wall. Snatching up the sword again, he dived for the throne room, came up running, and sprinted to the top of the dais. The monster was right on his tail, kicking its way through a fallen pillar and splashing across a pool of water. Nameless waited until it was on the step below and swung with both hands. The sword cut right through the collar bone, burying itself deep in the ribcage, but the creature continued upwards as if merely bitten by an irritating fly.
Nameless darted behind the throne, but a tremendous blow shattered the stone and sent him tumbling off the back of the dais. The breath was punched from his lungs as he hit the floor hard on his back. The creature glared down at him and prepared to jump, silhouetted against the glow of the axe still suspended above the ruined throne. Nameless wished with all his heart, then, he’d taken the dead king’s advice, but it was too late. He tried to push himself backwards with his legs but his strength had finally seeped away.
This was it, the end he deserved. He prayed to the victims of Arx Gravis for forgiveness even as the monster leapt, but with a flash and a speed impossible to imagine, the Pax Nanorum shot into his hands. In that one timeless moment, golden fire coursed through his veins, burning away every last drop of malignancy and filling him with incandescent rage. He twisted away from the creature’s leap, surged to his feet and brought the axe down in one fluid movement. It cleaved through leather and sawdust and the head came away from the gargantuan body. He struck again, this time half severing it at the hip, but once more the wound healed, and the ghastly head spun in the air and affixed itself back upon the neck.
“What the Abyss?” Nameless whispered as the thing gathered itself for a charge. Could nothing stop it? Not the Axe of the Dwarf Lords? Not the entire might of the people of Arnoch?
He spun clear of its lumbering grasp and circled away around the chamber. This time, as the monster ran at him, the axe communicated something deep within his mind and he flung it with all his renewed might. The air whistled and the blades flashed golden as they tore straight through the monster’s waist, shearing it in two. The legs ran on for a second and then stopped to wait for the torso to climb back on top of them. The axe turned in midair and flew straight back to Nameless’ hand. It had bought him a few seconds, nothing more, as the creature bunched its massive shoulders and charged again.
Nameless cast a look over his shoulder. He had his back to the corridor he’d entered by. With his new vigor he might be able to make it back to the craft. Perhaps Abednago had been watching and might be ready to leave before the creature could board. He took a step towards the exit and then all his old stubbornness reasserted itself. This shogger had wiped out a civilization. It was invulnerable to attack, a relentless killer that would stop at nothing. His mind flashed back to when he wore the impenetrable armor of the Liche Lord, carried the Shield of Warding; when he’d wielded the terrible might of the black axe with the strength of the fire giant’s gauntlets. With a gut-wrenching realization, he thought this is how he must have seemed to the hapless victims at Arx Gravis, to Shader and his dearest friend, Shadrak the Unseen.
“No!” he roared as the monster bore down upon him, fists raised for the killing blow. “I won’t stand for it!”
Argent streamed from the twin blades of the axe, obliterating the golden glow and erupting with the force of an exploding star. The silver conflagration ripped through skin and leather as the chamber rumbled and the very air itself seemed to scream. Nameless felt an explosion of light in his head and toppled into a well of infinite blackness.
Nils was starving. His guts were clenched tight as a fist, his veins were on fire, and he had a mouth full of saliva that overflowed down his chin in thick ropes of drool. He was so hungry he’d have ripped off his own arm and wolfed it down, if he’d had the strength.
A deep rolling voice had awoken him. His cheek was pressed against warm fur, but his side was mostly numb from where he’d been lying on something hard and ungiving. He turned his head and squinted into the flickering orange light coming from a fire—one of Silas’s by the looks of it, but bigger than usual, and with a spit long enough to roast a horse.
Roasted horseflesh. The thought sent another pang of hunger through his belly. That sounded almost as good as…as good as…roasted human. Or better still, raw.
The cyclops was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, completely absorbed in Silas’s dodgy book. The great unlidded eye was roving back and forth feverishly, and every so often the giant would lick his thumb and turn the page.
“Nils,” Silas whispered from the left. “Are you all right?”
Nils didn’t rightly know how to answer that. He was burning up, shaking from head to toe, but he knew he’d be fine if only he could sink his teeth into salty, bloody flesh.
“Nils.” Silas prodded him this time.
Nils turned to face him and licked his lips. Silas must have seen something strange about him because he went even paler than usual and scooted away on his backside. He cocked a thumb at the cyclops and mouthed something about trouble, but Nils was too hungry to take much notice.
“Aha,” the cyclops boomed. “Found what you were looking for. Told you I was good at finding things with this here eye. Knows a lot about zombies, this Blightey of yours. Knows a lot about all manner of unpleasant things. Sure he wasn’t from Qlippoth?”
“He’s dead,” Silas mumbled, and then said a little louder, “No, he wasn’t from Qlippoth, though he’s said to have come here at some point.”
“Fascinating,” the cyclops said, still mesmerized by the text he was reading. “Has a lot to say on the making of zombies, but then goes on to tell you how to unmake them and how to cure infection caused by their bite.”
Silas was up in a flash. “Let me—”
“What, and spoil my fun?” the cyclops said. “We cyclopes are a magical race, you know. Runs in our blood. Always like to keep on top of new spells and the like, and this one,” he gave Nils a look that was as hungry as Nils felt, “looks like it might turn bad meat good, if you get my meaning.”
The cyclops held the book in one hand and made gestures in the air with the other. His thick lips moved in silent agreement with whatever sorcerous words he read upon the page. A chill wind blew across Nils’s flesh, the blood in his veins turned to icy slush, and then he was up on his feet and feeling as right as rain.
“I’m fine,” he said to Silas. “I feel fine.”
“Great,” Silas muttered. “Now he can eat us.”
“What?” Nils turned from Silas to the cyclops.
A sickening grin spread across the giant’s face, and his lips parted to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth. “Now don’t go getting yourself all scared,” he said. “Ruins the meat; makes it all tough and stringy.” He closed the book and stood to his full height, towering above Nils and Silas.
“Now let’s talk about this,” Silas said.
“Shhhhh.” The Cyclops placed a finger against his lips. “Quiet now, my lovelies. Come to old Rumgorkin.”
He took a lurching step towards Nils and reached down with a shovel-like hand.
Nils dropped to his arse and scrabbled backwards. “No, don’t. Wait. Just wait up.”
Rumgorkin’s other hand snapped out and grabbed Silas by the hem of his coat. The wizard slipped out of the sleeves and backed alongside Nils.
The cyclops advanced another step. “Come on, my sweetmeats, no point in strug—”
“Hi, honey, I’m home.”—A voice only slightly less booming than the cyclops’s own, but definitely female.
“Huh?” Rumgorkin wheeled to face the steps that led down from the entrance.
A massive one-eyed woman stood there leaning on a sharpened stake that appeared to have been crudely cut from a long branch. Her breasts were swollen sacks, heaving in a way Nils found strangely hypnotic. Judging by the way he walked dazedly towards her, so did Rumgorkin.
“Miss me?” the cyclops woman asked, blowing him a kiss.
Swift as a striking serpent, powerful as a titan, the woman twirled the stake in the air and thrust it straight through Rumgorkin’s lone eye. The cyclops staggered away, flailing with his arms, screaming as blood spurted in great gouts as high as the cavern ceiling. He dropped to his knees and then toppled over backwards, twitched a few times and was still.
The cyclops woman took a step into the cave and collapsed. The air about her shimmered and she shrank until lying on the floor, sweat-drenched and clearly at death’s door, was Ilesa.
“Shadrak?” Nameless said through a muddle of dreams and stillborn thoughts. “Shadrak, is that you?”
A short figure leaned over him, shadowy at first, but slowly coming into focus within the gloaming of returning consciousness. Not Shadrak. Abednago.
“Is it…? Did I…?”
“It is. You did,” the homunculus said. “You are all I hoped you would—”
Nameless grabbed Abednago’s ankle and flipped him onto his back. He rolled on top of the homunculus and delivered a cracking blow to his mouth, then stood and dusted himself down. The Axe of the Dwarf Lords lay upon the charred floor of the corridor amid a pile of ash. Instinctively he held out his hand and it flew to his grasp.
“What…Why?” Abednago whimpered, wiping blood from his split lip.
“You knew about that thing,” Nameless said. “Knew and still let me go in there.”
The homunculus rose shakily to his feet. “It had to be done. Had to. This is the only way.”
“Only way to what?”
“To save your people.”
Nameless rubbed his stubbly chin, ruing the day he’d chosen to have his hair and beard shaved. What did it matter if he eschewed the style most befitting a dwarf. Like so much he had done, it had been a stupid idea, a great dramatic statement that was as meaningless as it was pathetic. It was in his blood, the nature that had brought the dwarves to the brink of destruction. He should either put up or shut up. Denying the truth was an affront to all he believed in. Had he really fallen so far?
“What do you care about my people?”
The golden dweomer from the axe dimmed and then died out, leaving it a dull grey, not dissimilar to any other axe he might have found in any half-decent armory. Except for the etchings on the blades, the script upon the haft. Was it really possible that there could be no deception this time?
Abednago seemed about to say something but then looked away, contemplating the broken throne on the dais. When he finally spoke, he may as well have been talking to himself. “The creature was called the Destroyer. No one else could even wound it, let alone defeat it. What did you do?”
Nameless shrugged. “Buggered if I know, laddie. Reckon it was more the axe than me. I hit the bastard with all I had but it kept on coming. At first the axe shone golden, but it was the silver fire that did it.”
“So the Pax Nanorum accepted you—the Axe of the Dwarf Lords. Good. That is very good.”
“Yes, well whatever it did, I have no idea how to do it again. Far as I’m concerned it’s just dead metal now.”
Abednago nodded absentmindedly. “And did the king say anything to you?”
“Aye,” Nameless said, regretting his final words to the skeleton. “Think I disappointed him. He had no idea of the time that had passed. Seemed to think the city had risen.”
“As indeed it has now,” Abednago said. “The dwarves’ final defense was to sink Arnoch. The engineering was staggering, even by the standards of my people. Truly staggering. When it became clear that there was no hope of surviving the Destroyer, a few thousand were selected, men, women and children, and sent to found a new community far from here, and still others were sent to a secret place where the Destroyer would never be able to reach them, should it ever surface from its watery tomb. Those who remained fought to the death, and at the last King Arios triggered the doomsday device that sent Arnoch to the ocean floor.”
“But why? What did he hope to achieve?”
The homunculus made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “The entire city is encased in a crystalline globe. For centuries it stood, an island upon the sea, unassailable to even the most horrific of the Cynocephalus’s nightmares. With each new encroachment on the mainland, the dwarves would set sail in their stone ships and drive back the darkness. Like the elves, they were dreamed by the Lord of Aethir to combat his own abysmal dreams, to keep his madness at bay. But the Cynocephalus is his own worst enemy. His mind is riddled with self-destruction, and so he dreamed a creature to hunt down the dwarves, a creature so terrible that nothing could stop it. Perhaps he overlooked the stubbornness of his guardians, though, for the dwarves would not give in. They vowed to take the Destroyer down even at the cost of their own civilization. It was a brave stand, a foolish one perhaps, but today it has come to fruition.”
Nameless gave a bitter laugh. So his people had something in common with the legendary heroes of Arnoch after all, even if it was just their bloody-mindedness.
“The survivors of Arnoch,” a thought suddenly occurred to him. “Do they endure? Are they here in Qlippoth?”
The homunculus shook his head and Nameless felt his hopes dashed. “They did not remain in the lands of nightmare, for to do so would have been the end of them, much as it may now be.”
Nameless scowled at the cryptic answer. Where he came from, folk called an axe an axe and had done with it. “Speak clearly, or not at all.”
“We are kin, your people and mine,” Abednago said. “Though many among the homunculi would deny it at all costs. We share a common ancestry.”
“Kin?” Nameless looked into the homunculus’s inscrutable eyes and felt cold fingers inching their way up his spine. “No, the dwarves of Arx Gravis are just the results of Gandaw’s meddling. He molded us from humans brought from Earth.”
“Melded would better describe it,” Abednago said. “Melded you with the blood of the homunculi.”
Nameless couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He recalled the pain Shadrak went through upon learning of his origins as one of the spawn of the Demiurgos. How could such a thing have been concealed from the dwarves all this time?
Abednago gave the slightest of nods. “My people may be deceivers, but they are also obsessed with purity. Many could not abide the thought of our blood being tainted with that of another race. They used your mixed blood against you, brought out the latent deception.”
Nameless choked back his anger. He had no right to it. “They were the ones that tricked me?”
“The accounts of the false Pax Nanorum were planted deep in the archives of Arx Gravis,” Abednago said. “The weapon itself was inspired by the original, though its powers were drawn from the Abyss.”
Nameless had so many questions he wanted to ask, but each one was dashed like a breaking wave as the next formed in its wake. “But why…” he struggled to find the words. “Why did Gandaw make us a mockery of the dwarves of Arnoch? Why not leave us in the form of humans, or even homunculi?”
Abednago sighed and steepled his fingers. He looked down at his feet, and when he raised his eyes once more there was a new depth of sorrow in them. “You are right to believe Sektis Gandaw shaped what the dwarves of Arx Gravis became, but you are wrong about their true origins. Gandaw brought many people from Earth. My people share his guilt in that, for we piloted the plane ships that carried them to Aethir. The dwarves of Arx Gravis, though, were molded from different matter. Remember, the blood of the homunculi runs in your veins, like a fault-line at the core of your being. Your people were not aware of this. Is it not possible they were deceived about the other half of their ancestry, too?”
Nameless’ mouth hung open as he finally pieced together what the homunculus was telling him. “The dwarves. The refugees from Arnoch…”
“Were the founders of Arx Gravis,” Abednago said. “You are born of the race of heroes.”
Nameless’ mind was awash with the implications of what Abednago was telling him. It all made sense, like the missing piece of a puzzle that had niggled away at the deepest stratum of dwarven consciousness for untold centuries. But one thing still troubled him. “Why? Why did he do this to us? Why taint us with the blood of…” The words trailed away when he caught Abednago’s wounded expression. Nameless grimaced. He hadn’t meant to offend the homunculi.
“Sektis Gandaw couldn’t tolerate mystery of any kind,” Abednago said, looking away. “He loathed the denizens of Qlippoth with all his being for he had not created them; nor did they fit his theories of the cosmos. He would have unwoven the dwarves along with all of creation had he possessed the power at the time. Instead, he decided to use them in an experiment on my people, whom he also did not comprehend.” Abednago fixed him with those deep, starry eyes. “Gandaw’s way was always to vivisect mystery with the aimless blade of his warped science. I suppose he thought that, besides learning something of the homunculi in the process, he might also sow the seeds of the dwarves’ destruction within their own blood. You see, the nature of my people is deception; it is the stuff we are formed from, but it proved inimical to the founding fathers of Arx Gravis. They were the ones deceived. Deceived as to who they really were.”
“But…” Nameless couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he was hearing. “But Gandaw didn’t create the homunculi. Why did he not seek to destroy them as well?”
“It was in his mind. It was ever in his mind, but Gandaw was not the only player. He was as prone to deception as any other human. My people worked with him, served under him, but all the while he fell foul of a far darker plan than any he could have dreamed of.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand.” Nameless’ head was ready to burst from all the ideas bubbling to the surface. What was he to do? How could he ever hold such knowledge in his head without his skull splitting? He began to reel with giddiness.
“Think only of the moment,” Abednago said. “Even the homunculi cannot fathom all the ways of the Demiurgos. Besides, there are forces in the cosmos that surpass even him. Your path grows clearer, dwarf with no name. You know what you must do.”
“Find them?” Nameless asked. “That’s what I was trying to do. But what if they won’t listen? What if they are still afraid of me?”
“You have the Axe of the Dwarf Lords now. How could they not listen? Find the survivors of Arx Gravis before it is too late and the nightmares of Qlippoth destroy them. Find them, Nameless, and keep alive the legacy of Arnoch.”
Nameless nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “I will do as you say, for I have no other purpose. But first you must do something for me. If you’ve been watching me so closely, you’ll know I did not cross the Farfalls alone.”
“I can’t find it,” Silas protested for the umpteenth time. “When are you going to get it?”
Nils was cradling Ilesa’s head, stroking her drenched black hair. “She’s dying, Silas. You have to try.”
It was worse than that. Silas had read that much on the page the instant he’d snatched up the grimoire. She was turning into a walking corpse like those back at the village. He’d found the page immediately, probably as a result of the cyclops marking it with a crease, although part of him worried that the book might be making things easy for him now. If that were the case, it was as fickle as it was beguiling. Truth was, he’d found the page easy enough, but he was damned if he was going to use it. He already felt the pull of the grimoire, felt like it had shackled his neck and tugged on the chains so that he had no choice but to read it. With a supreme effort of will he closed it. Supreme. He was the master, after all.
“You must keep trying, Silas,” Nils said. “You’re not even looking.”
Silas started to open the book, bit his lip, and changed his mind. He slipped it into his satchel. “I can’t, Nils. I just can’t.” He got to his feet and backed towards the steps. “I’m sorry, this book’s too dangerous. I’m going to find that cliff, fling it into the sea.”
“No,” Nils said, gently laying Ilesa’s head on the ground and standing. “Do it for her, please. You owe her.”
Silas almost laughed at that. Would have done if he’d not been so frightened. After all, he’d started out as a bit of a rogue himself, and everyone knew there was no honor among thieves.
“Sorry,” he said again. “I tried.”
He turned and ran up the steps—straight into an armored chest as solid as a rock.
“Try harder, laddie.”
Silas backed away, hands flying to his mouth, which he knew was gaping like an idiot’s. “Nameless! Oh my word, Nameless!”
The dwarf glowered at him, hefted the axe that was slung over his shoulder. A new axe, by the looks of it, shoddier than the old one and utterly dull, save for the swirls on the blade and some writing on the haft that was obscured by Nameless’ hand.
“Like I said, laddie, try harder.”
There was no give in his voice, and he seemed immovable as a mountain. The idea of a spell came to mind, but Silas knew he’d be dead before it left his lips. He’d seen this side of the dwarf before, but he’d never experienced it firsthand.
“I’ll…I’ll do my best.”
“Can’t say fairer than that,” Nameless said, sauntering past him into the cavern.
Nils rushed to the dwarf and embraced him, then quickly drew back and coughed. “Good to see you, Nameless,” he said in a ridiculously deep voice.
“You too, laddie. You too.”
Silas pulled the grimoire from his satchel. It felt as heavy as stone. He crouched down beside Ilesa and thumbed through the pages. As he found the right one, Ilesa choked and then her breath began to rattle.
“Hurry,” Nils said. “She’s not gonna make it.”
“She will, laddie,” Nameless said with quiet confidence. “She will. Isn’t that right, Silas?”
Silas was too focused to respond. He pored over the text with frenzied haste, located the incantation and began to mouth it. Dark energy washed through his veins like sludge from a sewer. He gagged and would have stopped, had he been given the choice. There was a rush of cold air, a sigh from Ilesa, and a resonant, self-satisfied hiss that echoed around Silas’s skull. He slammed the book shut and returned it to his satchel.
“Shog, you look like shit, Silas,” Ilesa said, rising to her feet. “And where the hell did you come from?” she asked the dwarf.
“That, lassie, you may never believe. Suffice it to say that I have not been idle. Indeed, if our good wizard here could magic us up some grub first, I’d like to be on our way.”
“Not a chance,” Silas said, slumping to the floor. “I’m spent.”
“Nonsense,” Nameless said. “Quick leg of ham and a dram of whiskey and you’ll be your old self in no time.”
Silas wished that were true. He’d experienced physical exhaustion before and knew Nameless had a point, but this was something different. This was something that went much, much deeper.
“What I don’t get,” Nils said, scratching his head, “is how we’re ever going to find them dwarves in this place.”
“My thoughts, too,” Ilesa said. “Brau said there were no maps here because hardly anything stays the same for long. Apart from the village where we…Hey, that’s a point. How come you’re not ill? You were bitten, same as us.”
“Felt like dung for a while back there,” Nameless said, fingers drumming on the haft of his new axe, “but seem to have shrugged it off. Dwarven constitution, lassie.”
Silas forced himself to sit and did his best to give Ilesa his most sardonic smile. “Don’t know what we need a map for, not when we’ve got a tracker with your skills. I mean, after all, wasn’t it you that led us straight into the thick of the zombies in the first place, not to mention that blasted crone?”
Nameless laughed, a deep rolling belly laugh. “Yes, laddie, I’d quite forgotten. Had yourself a real good time there now, didn’t you?”
Silas felt his cheeks burning and glared.
“I can track anything over any distance,” Ilesa said, hands on hips. “Which is a damned sight more useful than your lame party tricks.”
“He turned into a bird once,” Nils said, sounding like he was actually on Silas’s side for a change.
“Do it now, then,” Ilesa challenged.
“Too tired,” Silas said.
“Give me a day or two and I’ll show you what I can do,” Silas said. “In the meantime, why don’t you track, Missy Tracker?”
Nameless started up the steps and then turned back to them, infuriatingly full of energy and obviously raring to go. “No need,” he said. “I’ve been doing a spot of tracking myself.”
“You?” Ilesa said. “So what do you need me for?”
Nameless blushed and gave a little cough. “Remember that thing you did with the height? Perhaps if you add a growth of beard…But seriously, I have stumbled across a trail. Well, it was a bit more than a trail. The mud just over the other side of this ridge was so churned up I’d hazard a guess a small army passed through there not more than a few days ago.”
“Yeah,” Nils said, “but an army of what? Don’t reckon I want to go following none of these nightmare creatures. Certainly not an army of them.”
Nameless grinned. “Ah, but what would you say if I told you I found this?”
He produced an earthenware jug from his pocket and unstoppered it. “Urbs Sapientii mead.” He took a glug.
“Urbs what?” Silas said.
Nameless wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Old name of Arx Gravis. This stuff is legendary. Thought there was none left. I would offer to share it, but I’m afraid there’s only a sip remaining.” As if to demonstrate, he upended the jug and took another glug, glug, glug for what seemed an eternity before flinging it against the wall, where it shattered. “Bit more than a sip, then, but you understand. It’s been a hard day.”
Ilesa and Nils joined him at the top of the steps, both fully recovered by the looks of them. Silas groaned and dragged himself upright. He thought for a moment he was going to fall. Blasted grimoire weighed him down like an anchor. He was going to ask Nameless to carry it for him, but a niggling voice warned him against that. Only a wizard of his aptitude had the knowledge and the willpower to master the book. It was a heavy burden, but it was his to bear. In the end it would all be worth it. Just think of the secrets it would reveal, the places it would lead him to in this undiscovered land of nightmares.
“Go on,” Nameless was saying to Ilesa. “Just take off a few inches and stick them on your rump. Do it for ol’ Nameless’ sake.”
Ilesa looked away, scowling like she wanted to kill someone, but then she turned back and draped her arm around the dwarf’s shoulders.
“For you, anything,” she said in a husky voice as the pair of them went on ahead.
“Splendid,” Nameless’ voice rumbled through the cavern. “I think this calls for a song.”
“Need a hand?” Nils asked as Silas struggled up the steps.
“No…thank you. You go on ahead. I’ll catch up. Oh, and Nils, let’s crack on with your reading in the next few days. You got anything to practice with till I recover?”
Nils swung his pack over his shoulder and gave it a pat. “Book Nameless gave me. Should keep me busy for a while.”
“Good,” Silas said. “Off you go now. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be right behind.”
Nils gave him one last lingering look full of concern, shrugged, and then hurried after the others.
Silas could barely put one foot in front of the other. He was sorely tempted to leave the book behind, take another path while he still had the chance, but he didn’t. Like a lightning struck tower, his ill mood passed in an instant and he was suddenly brimming with his old confidence. He skipped up the steps to join his companions, the grimoire, like an old familiar friend, banging gently against his side, light as a feather.
To Be Continued In…
THE SCOUT AND THE SERPENT
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Abednago: A homunculus. Member of the Sedition.
Albert: An assassin.
Archyr, Magistra: Nils’s former school teacher.
Arecagen, Magister: Wizard and lecturer at the Academy in New Jerusalem.
Arios, King: King of the mythical dwarf city of Arnoch.
Aristodeus: A philosopher.
Buck Fargin: Guildmaster of the Night Hawks. Father of Nils.
Cynocephalus, the: Dog-headed ape. Creator of Aethir. Son of the Demiurgos and the goddess Eingana.
Cairn Sternfist: A dwarf scout.
Carl the Cat’s Claw: One of Shent’s goons.
Castail: A councilor.
Cordana (Cordy): A dwarf. Widow of Thumil, a member of the Council of Twelve in Arx Gravis. When her husband and daughter were butchered, she took Thumil’s place on the council.
Crapstan ‘the money’: Accountant of the Night Hawks.
Danton: One of Jankson Brau’s thugs.
Deacon Shader: Elect knight of the Templum. Friend of the Nameless Dwarf.
Demiurgos, the: Father of lies. The Great Deceiver. Lord of the Abyss.
Destroyer, the: Nightmare of the Cynocephalus and doom of the dwarves of Arnoch.
Dhorn: Member of the dwarven Council of Twelve.
Droom: Father of the Nameless Dwarf (deceased).
Eingana: Serpent goddess. Mother of the Cynocephalus.
Fror Bellos: Soldier in the Ravine Guard.
Garth: Dwarf baresark.
Hernin: A dwarf boy.
Ilesa: Human shape-shifter from the town of Portis. Former guildmember of the Dybbuks in New Jerusalem.
Jaym: A dwarf baresark. Formerly a bare knuckle fighter and pariah from dwarven society.
Jankson Brau: Brigand wizard.
Kaldwyn Grey (Kal): Corporal in the Ravine Guard.
Lampol Drynn: Soldier in the Ravine Guard.
Magwitch the Meddler: Mad wizard from New Jerusalem.
Mal Vatès: Mayor of New Jerusalem (deceased).
Maldark the Fallen: Legendary betrayer of Eingana to Sektis Gandaw.
Marla: Infant daughter of Thumil and Cordana (deceased).
Mina: Barmaid at The Grinning Skull.
Nameless: A manic-depressive dwarf whose name has been taken from him and lost to the world. Known to the dwarf survivors of the ravine city of Arx Gravis as the “Ravine Butcher.”
Nils Fargin: Son of Buck Fargin, guildmaster of New Jerusalem’s Night Hawks.
Nip Garnil: Youngest of the dwarven councilors.
Noris Bellosh: Gold-digging chancer.
Old Moary: Ancient member of the dwarven Council of Twelve.
Otto Blightey: The Liche Lord of Verusia.
Pax Nanorum: The sentient Axe of the Dwarf Lords.
Plaguewind, Master: Guildmaster of the Dybbuks (deceased).
Quintus Quincy: A particularly bad poet.
Roger: A barber of Malfen.
Rumgorkin: A cyclops.
Satyring, Magister: Wizard and lecturer at the Academy in New Jerusalem.
Sektis Gandaw: Former Technocrat of Aethir.
Sern Abar: Soldier in the Ravine Guard.
Shadrak the Unseen: Albino homunculus assassin. Friend of the Nameless Dwarf.
Shent: The Ant-Man of Malfen.
Silas Thrall: Wizard. Former rogue and graduate of the Academy at New Jerusalem.
Skeyr Magnus: Lizard-man.
Stupid: The dwarf community idiot. A fool. Also known as ‘Dolt Dullard’, and ‘Dimwit Numbskull.’
Supernal Father, the: Lord of the Supernal Realm.
Targ: An old sapper. Friend of Nameless’ father, Droom.
The Ebon Staff: Sentient staff and brother of the Pax Nanorum.
Theon: A dwarf guard.
Thumil: Husband of Cordana and member of the Council of Twelve (deceased).
Throam Grago: Most outspoken member of the dwarven Council of Twelve.
Toan: Dwarf guard.
Tony: One of Jankson Brau’s thugs.
Venn the Ripper: One of Shent’s goons.
Weasel: A scrawny dwarf rogue. Organizer of illegal fights and betting rings.
Winso: A councilor.
Yuffie: A councilor.
Yyalla: Mother of the Nameless Dwarf (deceased).
WHO THE SHOG IS D.P. PRIOR?
I WAS BORN IN THE South East of England in the late sixties, just in time to get a good sniff at the Summer of Love.
I spent most of my childhood immersed in fantasy and SF novels as well as Marvel comics. I also had an unhealthy obsession with D&D and was, for a long time, a member of the rather dodgy wargaming society at the Archery recreation ground.
After studying theatre at Lewes I did a season as Father Christmas, worked as a lighting and sound technician, and then trained for three years to be a Mental Health Nurse. I started in one of the Victorian asylums but ended up at the University of Sussex.
Once qualifying, I was immediately off to Aberystwyth to study for a BA in Drama. I also studied Classics and Medieval History and ended up specializing in Acting and Intercultural Theatre.
I gained twenty years of varied experience in mental health, working in acute services, crisis resolution, management of violence and aggression, and eating disorders. This was interspersed with a five month postulancy with the Carmelite Order in Melbourne and masters studies at the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia.
On my second sojourn in Australia, following the birth of my son, Theo, I began work on my first completed novel, The Resurrection of Deacon Shader. This went through many iterations and ended up forming the raw material for Cadman’s Gambit, book one of the Shader series. It was at this time that I took to wearing a poncho and Panama hat whilst chopping firewood. It seemed to help with the writing at the time, but now I have my doubts.
I founded and moderated the Mysticism Unbound discussion group to help explore some of the themes for my postgraduate research into Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. Although the group eventually closed, it has subsequently been resurrected twice and is currently flourishing on Facebook.
Following my return from Australia I trained to become a Personal trainer and set up my own gym (Fitness Instruction for Strength and Health). I specialized in resistance training and worked exclusively with private clients until I sold the gym.
I began to edit professionally in 2009 during a trip to Chicago and this developed into a flourishing business (Homunculus Editing Services).
Since 2011 I have been a full-time author and editor.
I am married to Paula and have two children, Theo and Cordelia.
My chief influences as a writer are: David Gemmell, R.E. Howard, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson, Joe Abercrombie, and Mary Doria Russell.
You can also find me at http://dpprior.blogspot.co.uk and https://www.facebook.com/dpprior
Cover art: Anton Kokarev (http://kanartist.ru)
Covers for books 2-5: Patrick Stacey (https://www.facebook.com/artof.pat?fref=ts)
Cover design: Valmore Daniels (http://www.valmoredaniels.com/)
Formatting: Paula Prior (http://flurriesofwords.blogspot.co.uk/)
Print edition formatting and layout: TERyvisions (www.teryvisions.com)
Map of Aethir: Jared Blando (www.theredepic.com/)
Original map design: Theo Prior (http://dizeazedproductionz.blogspot.com/)
Photo of the author: Theo Prior (http://dizeazedproductionz.blogspot.com/)
Beta readers: Tony Prior, Theo Prior, Paula Prior
Thanks also to:
Chicago: Jessica Gallegos, Melanie Knill
Eastbourne: The staff at Fiesta Bistro, Le Billig, Starbucks, and Eastbourne Library
The crew and staff of Independence of the Seas
ALSO BY D.P. PRIOR
The Nameless Dwarf
A Dwarf With No Name
The Axe Of The Dwarf Lords
The Scout And The Serpent
The Ebon Staff
Bane Of The Liche Lord
The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles
Sword Of The Archon
Best Laid Plans
The Archon’s Assassin (forthcoming)
Rise Of The Nameless Dwarf (forthcoming)
The Memoires of Harry Chesterton
An original Nameless Dwarf novella (now featured in the new omnibus Revenge of the Lich, Legends of the Nameless Dwarf book 3) The Axe of the Dwarf Lords is offered as a FREE sample of the highly acclaimed series of four full-length novels, Legends of the Nameless Dwarf: 1. Carnifex: A Portent of Blood "Prior weaves a fully realized world in this rich fantasy, from history, political structure, and family life to work, food, drinking (lots of drinking), and romance." -- Kirkus Reviews "Carnifex is a masterpiece of sword and sorcery storytelling. A visceral yet thoughtful epic." -- Bookwraiths Reviews "Gritty, tense, and brutally tragic. High quality storytelling with great characters and a relentless plot." -- Mitchell Hogan, author of A Crucible of Souls and Aurealis Award winner. "...by the end I did care about those people--all of them, including Carnifex, were flawed but fundamentally decent people. But I had read The Nameless Dwarf, and I knew what was coming, and how it all ends. That knowledge made the book both hard to continue reading and hard to put down." -- Black Gate Magazine "And holy shit... the battle scenes. THE BATTLE SCENES!!! People don't actually realise how hard it is to write a good battle scene, but Prior makes it look easy. They are gripping, violent, and brilliantly choreographed." -- Smash Dragons "A Fantasy Adventure of remarkable scope, populated by many memorable characters. Maybe D. P. Prior's finest work to date." -- Ray Nicholson (Amazon Top 1000 reviewer) "Whenever I have high praise for a book, I usually like to find at least one aspect of the writing to challenge, but this one's got me stumped. I guess I could complain that it ended all too soon, but then there are three other volumes to enjoy..." -- Laurence Scotford "It's not often I'm left speechless but this was one of those times. WOW!!" -- Ebookwyrm "5 Stars is easily earned here and I'm sure it will not be long before we see this, the most unique of dwarves on the big screen! This year is indeed the year of the dwarf!!" -- Scott Morrison 2. Geas of the Black Axe 3. Revenge of the Lich 4. Return of the Dwarf Lords Nils wishes he’d never taken the job to escort a dwarf with no name on a madcap quest for redemption. Ilesa reckons she should have asked for a bigger bounty, and Silas is beginning to think the grimoire he stole from the Academy has a sinister will of its own. Nameless, on the other hand, is having the time of his life. After all, what more could a dwarf want than a horde of undead to splatter with his axe, a shape-shifting woman who does dwarf especially well, and a wizard who can produce ale out of thin air? But his ever fragile mood takes a turn for the worse when he discovers a terrible secret at the bottom of the sea—an unstoppable horror that destroyed an entire race, and a mythical axe that brings back the darkest of memories from his recent past.