Authors: William Massa
Copyright © 2013 William Massa
Critical Mass Publishing
All character appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
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IRELAND, 525 A.D.
The Kingdom of Kirkfall
The sun lay dying amid clouds turning the color of bloody bruises. Crimson light bled over the smoldering carcass of the kingdom of Kirkfall. The horde of winged monsters had rained down death and destruction on the city, and the aftereffects of the battle were everywhere. Homes had been reduced to charred ash. Orphaned children cried out for their parents and the moans of the wounded grew weaker as the specter of death closed in. The few remaining healers desperately tried to quell the tide of misery and despair. There was no doubt among the survivors that the city could not withstand another assault.
At the center of the devastation stood a hilltop castle, an impressive stone fortress dominated by tall towers and heavily fortified ramparts. Armed knights patrolled the parapets and warily inspected the horizon, knowing their enemy was certain to attack from the sky. Within the walls, in the ward of the castle, a grim ceremony was taking place. Less than a week ago Artan McKeltar, king of the city-state of Kirkfall, had celebrated his eldest daughter turning seven; today he found himself inhaling the acrid smoke of her burning remains.
Flames engulfed the large funeral pyre and lit up the night, framing Artan’s face in a bloody halo. The fire had not only laid claim to his daughter’s remains but also the bodies of his wife Samara and their five-year old son Cian who, in a perfect world, would have one day been heir to the throne.
There was no time for elaborate ceremony and no offerings were made to any of the Gods.
As the black clouds of smoke billowed into the night, Artan recited every prayer he remembered from childhood, mouthing words that felt stale and empty on this darkest of nights. If the terrified cries of his dying wife and children hadn’t been enough to stir the Gods, Artan doubted his halfhearted words could hold much sway over them. But he prayed nevertheless. Prayed for the dead and the dying, prayed for his people and his city.
Prayed for vengeance.
Artan eyed the surviving warriors who formed a circle around the fire, heads bowed in a mixture of grief and exhaustion, their bodies still drained from the last battle. Their weariness mirrored his own. Artan normally cut a striking presence, but not on this night. His handsome, chiseled face looked aged and worn, his long black hair streaked with silver, his eyes bereft of any light.
A keening shriek shredded the silence of the night. It was part roar, part serpentine hiss, a sound not of this world. The hardened warriors flinched as the sound of the baying beast transported them back to the horrors of the preceding night, when they faced hundreds of creatures identical to the one now imprisoned in the castle. Artan’s brave knights had managed to trap one of the monsters. The action had come at the cost of many courageous souls. Artan vowed that their sacrifice would not be in vain. He nodded at his men. ”It’s time to end this war.”
Artan advanced toward a fenced-off area of the castle’s ward, trailed by his weary knights. The monster’s prison grew visible. A deep pit had been dug out of the ground and covered with a latticework of massive felled trees, preventing the creature from taking flight. The ground shook and the men stole nervous glances at their leader.
The king drew closer to the pit, moving with vengeful determination. He picked up the gargoyle’s dank stench and caught sight of a large shadow flitting back and forth beneath the latticework of trees. Sensing Artan’s approach, the gargoyle flailed against the wooden bars of its underground prison. The thick tree trunks rattled under the violent onslaught but held fast. The winged demon craved to serve the purpose it was made for – to rend human flesh and wreak havoc upon the land. But this particular gargoyle had been grounded and soon its roars of fury would be silenced.
Artan studied the creature through the bars of its subterranean cage. He caught intermittent glimpses of the gargoyle: the play of rippling musculature under burnished skin, a flash of membranous wings... There was an alien intelligence in the beast’s slitted eyes that went beyond mere animal cunning. This creature was sizing him up, as if sensing what the approaching human was up to.
Artan moved closer to the beast and a gauntleted hand grabbed his shoulder. It was his second in command Rael, one of his best and most loyal knights. The man’s handsome features distorted into a haunted mask. “My lord, I can’t allow you to go through with this!”
“There’s no other way, old friend.”
“Please let me go in your place...”
Rael broke off, the king’s steely gaze signaling that he could not be swayed – the course was set. Face taut and resolute, Artan cast off the pieces of his armor, an old skin for which he no longer had use. The creature in the pit grew still, silenced by its own growing curiosity.
Artan’s powerful legs and massive chest, thick with corded muscle, were bare now but he did not relinquish his sword – it remained inside the scabbard strapped securely to his waist. Exposed and vulnerable, he stepped up to the latticework of tree trunks. They were just wide enough for a man to slip through.
“By the Green Mother, you must reconsider!”
Rael’s words fell on deaf ears.
Artan bared his teeth at the beast, eyes filling with hatred.
Come and get me, you bastard!
Fueled by this thought, Artan dropped into the pit and the darkness swallowed him whole.
Artan’s hands snapped around one of the massive tree trunks, slowing his descent, and he dangled inside the hole with about 10 feet separating his feet from the bottom of the pit. For a split second, Artan was vulnerable and if the beast made a move he would be done for. But the gargoyle hesitated and Artan let go of the tree trunk. An instant later he touched down at the bottom of the pit, the impact sending shockwaves up his booted legs. His maneuver had slowed his descent and prevented him from twisting an ankle or breaking a leg.
Artan coiled into a defensive stance and drew his sword. The steel blade glinted in the moonlight trickling through the bars of the cage above. The reflection staring back at Artan looked wild and possessed.
His eyes bored into the darkness of the pit. The gargoyle remained shrouded in a pool of shadow but the creature’s presence was undeniable – its stench suffused the darkness. Part of Artan wanted to rush heedlessly into the dark, his blade lashing out at what crouched within.
But reason prevailed. So Artan waited, blade up.
He didn’t have to wait for long.
Even though Artan had faced these monsters in battle before, it had never been under such confined circumstances. The gargoyles’ shrieks announced their presence before they launched their furious attacks from the sky. They moved with uncanny speed but one could see them coming. The darkness of the pit didn’t afford Artan that luxury.
With a ferocious shriek, the beast lashed out from the shadows. Its talons would have taken off Artan’s face but his sword came up and deflected the blow, steel clanging against the gargoyle’s clawed paw. The impact sent Artan flying several feet and he hit the ground hard. Shaken but knowing he had to keep moving, Artan scrambled to his feet.
The beast thrust itself over his head. Staying true to its nature, the gargoyle was going to attack from above. But once again Artan was prepared. Steel flashed and this time it found vulnerable tissue and bone. Artan’s sword was of the finest quality and the druids overseeing its creation had named it the
Blade of Kings
for good reason. A fine weapon, it was imbued with magical properties fit for a leader of men. One of Artan’s knights had joked that it could cut through stone. Artan wasn’t convinced, but he knew that flesh and bone, human or otherwise, offered little resistance to the bite of the blade.
The sword sheared off one of the gargoyle’s wings in mid-attack. The beast’s bellow of pain echoed across the castle, making the knights outside the pit shudder. The gargoyle slammed to the ground in a geyser of dirt and black blood.
Artan backed away, bringing up one of his hands to shield his eyes from the blinding cloud.
Realizing that Artan posed a serious threat, the gargoyle shook off its agony and lunged at him. The creature was slowed considerably with its severed wing hanging by a thread of tissue and fragmented bone. But a slow gargoyle was still faster than any human opponent. And in the confines of the pit, speed had become less important.
The gargoyle hurtled toward Artan and the king brought up his sword in a wild arc that sliced across the beast’s torso and opened up its belly. Gore spilled into the pit and the downed creature recoiled, claws clutching its exposed innards.
Artan advanced, a man thirsty for blood, but before he could put the gargoyle out of its misery, one final task remained. Artan took one more step toward the gargoyle and intentionally lowered his guard, giving the dying brute an opening. It would think the human warrior had grown overconfident in his victory. The creature fell for the ruse and its lightning-fast jaws snapped out, fangs sinking into the flesh of Artan's arm.
The gargoyle let out a triumphant roar.
The king cried out in pain and backpedaled.
We’ll see who has the last laugh
, Artan thought.
His blade lashed out once more, a blur of gray steel in the dark pit. This time the weapon plunged deep into the monster’s broad chest. It tore through skin and dense muscle, finding Artan’s target – the gargoyle’s pulsating heart. The monster exhaled, its guttural bellow turning into a barely audible whisper as the fight fled its powerful form. Artan drove his blade into the gargoyle’s skull and ended its agony, showing a mercy the beast would not have allowed him were their roles reversed.
Artan took a step back from the corpse and regarded his bleeding arm. Dark pulsating holes marked where the teeth had penetrated his skin. His lips bent into a bleak smile – phase one of the plan was a success. He peered up at the latticework of tree trunks, catching a glimpse of the blood-red sun making way for the pale orb of the moon. Night had descended over Kirkfall and moonlight speared into the pit.
“IT’S DONE!” Artan yelled to his men.
Above, the knights heard Artan’s voice and Rael’s face filled with relief. He turned to the rapt knights who had followed the battle in the pit with bated breath. “Open the pit!” Rael commanded.
The knights jumped into action and began tethering horses to the lattice of tree trunks. Moments later, the animals began to pull the massive trunks away from the hole. Moonlight plunged through the newly formed rift in the earth and washed over Artan’s expectant features.
The king closed his eyes and awaited the transformation.
Already he could feel the gargoyle’s dark blood roaring through his veins, becoming part of him, infecting every aspect of his being. A flicker of doubt flashed across his face but was quickly suppressed.
The plan would work.
The winged hordes clouding the sky were under the control of one man: Cael, the warrior-druid. He had challenged Artan’s claim to the throne and used black magic to create his gargoyle army. If Cael fell, the gargoyle army would follow. Without the druid’s magic, the winged beasts would turn back to stone, the element from which the monsters were spawned. With Artan’s army in shambles, outnumbered and outmatched in every way, getting past the winged legions that protected Cael seemed an impossible feat. But Artan had found a way. The plan was simple but required a great sacrifice. To infiltrate an army of monsters…