Saturday, November 2, 2013

NaNoWriMo Excerpt! Chapter 1

I'm off and noveling! I don't really have time to write a blog post so here's the first chapter of my novel!
(This novel is based on the premise of the game "The Legend of Grimrock." Beyond the premise nearly everything is my own invention.)

The Descent

Chapter 1
The Spire

            The air was thin and cold as the airship struggled to gain the last hundred feet towards the summit.
            Looking out over the railing Orvar could see the mountains of the Dearthfang ridge trailing into the distance. These massive mountains that would dominate the landscape were they anywhere else in the world were quite literally overshadowed by the impossibly vertical cliffs of Mount Grimrock. He shut his eyes tight, shivered in the wind, and began thinking back on what he knew about this desolate place.
            For as many years as anyone cared to remember the spire known as Mount Grimrock served the kingdoms of the Northern Realms only as a landmark. An ever-present feature travelers could use to navigate all the way from Uttermost down to the warm bay of Nothampton.
            When Orvar had boarded the airship in the mining town of Thraelm he’d overheard the captain tell the guards that this close to the mountain it was the only way to navigate. Compasses either pointed at the mountain or spun aimlessly. "The mountain by day, the stars by night," he’d said.
            In recent years there had been rumors that the Emperor of Malan Tael had become interested in the history of Mount Grimrock. He began hiring expeditions and sending them to explore the base of the mountain and see if it could be climbed or bored into. The miners at Thraelm had stopped the expeditions and warned them that Grimrock was impenetrable. The base of the mountain, let alone the summit, was unreachable. The expeditions tried anyway. Tools snapped, men died in accidents, and the harsh weather made further exploration impossible. A young man on the expedition led a group of four closer to the base of the mountain than anyone else had been. The survivors said that they had nearly made it when they spotted an object caught in some ice. They smashed the ice and grabbed it before being forced to turn back in a mounting storm. Only a few survived the trek back to the emperor but they brought with them the object, a curved piece of an unknown metal. The emperor’s advisors, including Orvar, had told him that the scrap was nothing, just a bit of mining machinery long since forgotten. He, however, was ecstatic and ordered that a way be found to the top of the mountain.
            Orvar heard that order three years ago. High-altitude airship technology quickly advanced as the emperor placed a generous investment in research. Eventually an airship was constructed capable of reaching the peak of the mountain. The emperor sent an exploratory party to establish a foothold on the summit. Tales returned of a gaping maw at the peak.
            The emperor frowned. "A dormant volcano?"
            The messenger from the expedition shifted his feet. "No your majesty, the pit is a perfect circle and the walls are smooth. It appears to have been carved into the mountain by…by…"
            "By the ancients of course!" the emperor exclaimed, now grinning widely. "This is most excellent news, tell the expedition team to enter the mountain and learn its secrets!"
            The messenger shook his head "My apologies your majesty but the current expedition has abandoned the mountain and refuses to return. They were unsettled by the… statues."
The emperor frowned again. "Statues? Of what?"
Leather creaked in a short silence, "Hooded figures, my lord, five times as tall as a man. They stand around the pit, heads bowed. It is as if they are waiting for anything to come out. I fear whatever could. The pit smells like death."
            The emperor waved his hand dismissively. "Superstition and cowardice. Lord Perel!”
            A man stepped out of the crowd of advisors. “Yes my lord?” It was the sort of question that was already an answer.
            “Gather some of your men. I want you to lead an expedition down into Mount Grimrock.” Lord Perel nodded curtly.
            Lord Perel was a fierce warrior and a pious knight. He had proved himself in battle in the many conflicts between the Malanian Empire and the Kingdom of Theraen. He made the journey to Thraelm and then boarded one of the new airships. Once at the peak he descended and led twelve of his bravest men to the abyss. They were well equipped with torches, heavy armor, swords, crossbows, and rations for a week. Three days later only a single survivor emerged from the darkness.
            He was Lord Perel's squire. He was feverish and mortally wounded. Before dying in the evening of that day he had reported what they had seen. In his fever he babbled madly about getting lost in an endless winding tunnel network. He kept shrieking in horror about two companions’ faces melting when a horrible trap spewed liquid fire on them. Lord Perel himself was trapped in a dead end when a massive stone block lowered from the ceiling and sealed the corridor he was exploring. They had tried to break through the stone but it had been unyielding. The mindless screaming on the other side of the wall hadn’t made them try any harder to get through.
            Several of their companions now dead and their morale shaken by the fate of their lord the remaining expeditionary force had set camp in a vast dust covered hall flooded with cold blue light emanating from a strange floating crystal in the center. During their rest the creatures of the dark came. The watchman barely had a chance to raise an alarm before the onslaught. But the squire escaped and managed to run back to the entrance hall and climb up a rope they had left. The last thing he mentioned were visions of spinning cogwheels suspended in dark clouds and a voice in his dreams.
            The Emperor was angered by the loss of Lord Perel and even more by the failure to glean anything more than a few scraps of information from a dying man. He quickly became irritable and erratic. Orvar and many other advisors had tried to reason with him to no avail. He wished he had simply let the emperor be.
            Orvar was jostled from his thoughts by a slight bump and the shouts of the airmen.
            They had arrived.
            The peak was shrouded by wispy clouds and streaks of the rising sun filtered through them, casting an odd purple radiance on the strange rock formations and ruins at the top. Orvar looked up and watched as one of the airmen leapt from the ship onto the wooden platform on the peak in order to moor the ship. As his feet touched down the planks crumbled beneath him. There was a strangled cry as his body began the long trip back to the ground.
            The airship tilted slightly as the crew ran to the side in an instinctual attempt to save him. Orvar scratched an itchy knee the best he could despite his wrists being bound together with a rough rope. He was exhausted. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he doubted if the other prisoners had either. The crew began arguing with the guards about the best way to go about mooring the airship. He glanced down at the chain around his waist and followed it as it ran along the floor to the next doomed soul.
            There were four of them shackled together. Orvar Curran was convicted of high treason against the Malanian Empire. He knew only a little of the others, they had only been shackled together since they took off from Thraelm and there had been no opportunity for conversation with the Malanian guards keeping close watch. Each was lost in their own thoughts anyway. Next to Orvar sat a young woman dressed in the same drab rags as he. She, however, wore them with an ease and grace that gave her the appearance of a snake shedding its old skin. Orvar judged her to be nearly as deadly as the snake she resembled. The ropes around her wrists were doubled and the guards were careful not to come within a few feet of her. Earlier in the voyage one of their number was nearly thrown from the ship by a well-timed kick. The guards referred to her as “That damn thief.” She sat with her eyes fixed, glaring at the commander of the guard. Orvar gathered that he had been the one responsible for her capture. He couldn’t guess what she’d stolen to warrant such a harsh sentencing.
            The chain continued from her waist to that of the third prisoner. This one Orvar knew from the courts of Malan Tael. Her name was Fiorra, the Theraen princess, captured in the war between the Malanian Empire and the rebellious Theraen kingdoms. He had last seen her kneeling before the Emperor as he sentenced her to death. At the time he had felt a twinge of regret and sorrow for her plight. Three weeks later as he had kneeled in that same spot and heard a similar sentence he felt nothing. Fiorra, despite her rags, still appeared regal but there was a haggard look about her eyes. She had been captive longer than any of them and was in a sorrier state.
            The final prisoner looked very out-of-place. Fresh-faced and young, he had a spark in each eye. One glinted mischievously, the other with desperation. Orvar noticed the guards seemed to like him better than the rest. He got an extra slice of bread and he even managed to get himself an apple in exchange for telling the story of how he went running nude through the Emperor’s court. Orvar had heard of him before, The Great Cazard. The guards laughed heartily as he recounted the emperor’s rage when visiting dignitaries were greeted with a full moon. Orvar couldn’t help but wonder whether or not he felt his antics were worth the consequences.
            While Orvar was thus in thought the “Great Cazard” called over to the captain and commander.
            “Hey! I’ll make the jump. Just give me a chance.” He held up his rope-bound wrists plaintively.
            The airship’s captain and the guard commander stopped their bickering and glared over at him. Then the captain smiled wickedly.
            “Alright, better him die than another o’ my men. He’s dead anyway.” He walked briskly over to Cazard and drew a long knife from his belt. He swiftly cut the wrist bindings and stepped back. Cazard slowly drew himself up to a standing position.
            The guard commander laughed, “You fool, how do you expect to clear the distance while chained to three others?”
            “If you’ll just unchain me I’ll gladly moor the ship.” Cazard replied.
            “Not a chance you trickster. I give you full use of your body there’s no telling what you’d conjure up. You want to make the jump?” The commander jerked his head. “Bring your friends.”
            Fiorra and Orvar looked up at Cazard, disapproval in their eyes. There was no way they could all make the jump together, and even if they could make the distance the platform would surely buckle in the impact.
            Cazard made a show of leaning over the railing and judging the distance. He leaned over so far the guards couldn’t see him tracing runes in the air with his hands. Abruptly he spun around and flicked his arms, a small flame sprang to life above his fingertips. “Let’s all have a nice, slow ride to the bottom yes? It’s that or we all go down in flames.”
            There was a rustle of armor and steel as the guards assumed an attack position. There were murmurs and curses all around.
            The captain spat on the deck at Cazard’s feet. “You coward. You almost had me thinking about tossing some food into the pit. To the tenstone with you.”
            Cazard opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted as the ship shifted and bumped gently into the wooden mooring platform. All eyes moved to the nameless thief, who somehow had escaped the bonds on her wrists, fastened the rope into a loop, thrown it over one of the mooring posts, and pulled them in. She finished tying off the rope before any of the guards had the presence of mind to react.
            Cazard was grabbed from behind and thrown to the decking with such force that it pulled down the thief as well. Cazard struggled as his tiny flame went out.  New rope was found and quickly tied around their wrists.
            “Enough!” cried the commander “Let’s get this over with, be rid of our burden and away from this wretched place.”
            The gangway was brought up from below decks and run over the side of the boat to the platform. A few of the Emperor’s men disembarked first before the prisoners were given the order to march. The four of them stood and awkwardly jostled with the length of chain. They stepped across the gangway. Orvar was careful not to look down.
             His feet touched the ground for the first time since Thraelm, nearly six hours earlier. There were no signs of life, not even rodents or birds, and the top was barren of all plants. The only sounds were the hollow clink of chains and the scuffling of feet against the rock. The top of the peak was unnaturally flat. The eastern edge however was a mass of splintered rock reaching another twenty feet or so skyward. It was as if a giant had sawed the mountain like a tree and then snapped it off before going all the way through, leaving the splinters.
            The four were shoved off to the side while the airship was unloaded. Orvar lifted his head and looked off the western edge. Grimrock cast a long tunnel of shadowed air that stretched into the distance. The dark barrier lay across the land, dividing the Northern Realms in half, a three dimensional void. To the South  Orvar could just barely make out Theraen’s Great Lake. To the North the Dearthfang ridge marched towards Uttermost. He could feel the faint heat of the morning sun on his back. The airmen grunted in the thin air as they moved crates off the airship. Orvar looked West again. The darkness reached out, smothering the land far into the distance before it came to a dagger-point in the middle of a vast plain. He inhaled sharply. The Blooddrop Fields.
            The airmen finished unloading the last of the crates. There was now a large pile of them pushed up against the eastern side of the peak. Until now, everyone had avoided the center of the mountain. The pit lay there, waiting silently. The guards shoved Orvar and the four captives started the walk to the pit.
            Three colossal statues stood around the gaping maw. Each was as tall as five men and seemed to be carved from a single block of stone. They must have been impossibly old and yet they had weathered remarkably well. Orvar suspected a magic aura had been placed on them to preserve them from the elements.
            He gazed warily at the looming statues. They wore hooded robes with stone chains wrapped around their shoulders. He could feel air moving down into the maw as if the mountain were drawing breath. It was both revolting and inescapable. Three of the emperor's men leveled their spears at the prisoners, prodding them to the very edge of the maw.
            The commander stood to the side of the pit and faced us. Orvar half expected him to unroll a parchment and begin reading off each and every transgression the four of them had made against the empire. Instead he drew a breath and began a short speech. His voice was loud in the empty air.
            “By the emperor's command the strongest men and women will henceforth be gathered every month from prisons all over the empire to a trial on top of Mount Grimrock. Here you have a last chance to redeem yourselves.” The commander raised his brow, glanced down into the pit, and continued. “The emperor believes that there is another entrance to the mountain which is only accessible from deep within. Should you survive the descent and open a way into the mountain you will be granted your freedom and cleared of all charges.” The commander dropped his official tone. “May Silvanus have mercy on your souls.” He turned and walked off towards the airship.
            Orvar looked one more time at the grim trio that made up his companions. There was a determination in their eyes. Maybe it was just the will to live no matter what horrible things they would encounter down below. But they were unarmed and wearing only rags. Their hands bound with rope and their waists bound together with chain what hope could they have when all previous expeditions had failed?
            But they didn't have anything to lose, only their freedom to win. Maybe that would make a difference?

            Only the echo of their screams escaped into the air as the guards pushed them over the edge.