Read Gameplay Online

Authors: Kevin J. Anderson

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #epic

Gameplay (23 page)

BOOK: Gameplay
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The Earthspirits made no reply.

A cloud of wasps and flies fell upon one of the breeder groups of goblins, stinging again and again. A gray wolf and a sharp-antlered stag charged among other demons. Beetles and spiders covered their fur, but the little creatures jumped off and set upon the monsters.

A black bear roared and threw herself on a thin, oily-skinned demon. The bear mauled at the monster with spread claws while the demon defended itself with its own iron sword. The bear ripped the demon’s oily flesh to spill entrails that smoked in the cool air.

Delrael continued forward, setting his jaw. He slashed at several confused goblins, but he concentrated on moving toward Scartaris. The mountain lair rose up across the battlefield, on the other side of a hex-line.

Beside him, a yellow bird took on a towering Slac, darting in and flapping at the monster’s face. The Slac lunged clumsily at it, smashing the air with balled, horny fists. But the bird fluttered away, then flew in again to peck the emerald eyes.

Hundreds of tiny insects swarmed over a spine-covered creature, stinging its eyes, clogging its ears and nostrils and mouth with their dead bodies. A frenzied Slac charged in front of Delrael; its face was a black mass of crawling, biting beetles. It waved its sword wildly in the air, stumbling, until a gray wolf knocked the Slac to the ground and tore out its throat.

Explosions ripped the air, throwing up dirt and flames and chunks of clay. Delrael wondered if Scartaris’s monsters used the same kind of firepowder that Tareah wanted for her Transition Day festivities. Teams of monsters used groaning catapults to lob clay pots of firepowder. The explosions only did more damage to Scartaris’s horde.

Delrael stopped and realized that he had lost track of Vailret and the others. In the chaos around him, all the soldiers looked alike. The animals and the demons fought on every side of him. He couldn’t shout into the din.

For an instant he allowed himself to feel alone and frightened, then he swallowed his fear and worked his way forward. He had to get the Earthspirits to Scartaris. Characters always had to finish their quests, or die trying. It said so in
The Book of Rules.

* * *

Vailret struggled to stay next to Journeyman. The golem charged ahead, smashing monstrous soldiers and intent on his own goal. The illusion fighters moved about, clashing, striking. Many wore an eerie reflection of Vailret’s features. He watched them fall, finding it very disturbing to watch himself die.

He held his sword, but illusion soldiers engaged all monsters that came near him. He felt his mind overloading with the terror of the battle. Sharp swords, knives, clawed hands, spiked armor, terrible weapons—

Vailret looked around, frantic, but he had lost track of the
true
Delrael. He hoped that one of those slaughtered victims wasn’t his cousin. “Journeyman! I can’t find Del!”

The golem paused and turned. “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.”

Journeyman knocked a Slac general out of the way, punching the reptilian creature in the stomach, then seizing the stout neck and snapping it sideways. The dead Slac stared at Journeyman with an expression of astonishment.

Vailret hurried after the golem. The mountain lair of Scartaris stood stark and clear; he could only hope Delrael would meet him and Journeyman there.

To the left, monsters lobbed pots of firepowder in bright explosions. The animals and insects massed around Vailret, swarming, but they attacked only the monsters. Animal smells mixed with the stench of the demon army’s long encampment.

Ahead, the manticore stood tall over all the other monsters. With great leaps he charged to the focus of the fighting. Indiscriminately, the manticore slashed his own soldiers out of the way. His giant paws mauled half a dozen goblins as he pushed toward the illusion human fighters. The manticore’s scorpion tail flicked back and forth, striking each time with a blue flash and an explosion.

Vailret knew stories about the manticores—it was said they were so powerful that even their old Sorcerers creators could barely control them. And several Sorcerers had died trying.

Vailret caught up with Journeyman just as a stone gargoyle leaped in front of them. The ground thudded as the heavy stone creature landed and spread its feet and jagged wings, holding both cumbersome granite arms up to block their way. Demonic horns curled up from the center of its forehead, but Arken’s crudely formed expression did not change. He had formed the same stone body for himself again.

“Go away, boy, you bother me.” Journeyman tried to pass by.

“Shall we have a rematch, my friends?” Arken said. “Two out of three?”

Journeyman stopped and grinned broadly. “Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?”

The gargoyle heaved a rumbling sigh. “
I
learned my lesson, but apparently Scartaris has not. Once again he has brought me back with explicit orders to stop you. Scartaris is angry—he thinks I tricked him.”

Arken seemed to smile with his craggy stone face. “And of course we did. But this time he has given me no freedom to decide for myself. I must stop you. I can’t bargain.”

Journeyman stepped forward. “We’ll see about that.”

Vailret remembered how long and difficult their previous duel had been. He knew he couldn’t defend himself for that long as the howling battle swirled around him.

Then he felt the seed of an idea in his mind and grabbed at it. He stood between Journeyman and Arken. “Wait, Arken! Scartaris gave you explicit, clear orders, correct?”

“Yes.”

“All right then. We’ll make it easy for you. Journeyman—stand still.” Vailret stood beside him, motionless. “There, you’ve stopped us. You have fulfilled your obligation to Scartaris.”

Arken stood up straight, nodding his horned head in delight. “Why didn’t I think of that? He told me to follow his orders exactly. Oh, this is delightful! Scartaris will be even more upset!”

“Now do what you can to help,” Vailret said. “We have to get to Scartaris.”

Journeyman squared his shoulders. “The Rulewoman Melanie is counting on me.”

With another great bound, the huge manticore stormed toward them, striking with his explosive scorpion tail. He used his claws to tear apart illusion human soldiers four and five at a time, stomping over them without a pause. The manticore let out a howling roar, human and bestial at the same time from his distorted manlike face.

Arken turned and flashed his cavernous stone eyes at Vailret. “Here’s a good opportunity. You move on, get to Scartaris. Luck!”

Turning, the gargoyle waded through the other fighting and approached the manticore from the side. Arken slammed a jagged stone fist into the wide ribs of the leonine body before the manticore had even noticed him.

With a roar and an outraged “Ooof!” of pain, the manticore turned on him, favoring cracked ribs. The great monster reared up and scored its claws against the gargoyle, leaving clean white gouges across the granite chest and raking up sparks.

The stone-winged gargoyle scrambled to his feet again and leaped up to grab the hooked bulb at the end of the scorpion tail, trying to break off the stinger. But the manticore whirled and brought the tail up. He lifted Arken off the ground and flung him forward. With another lash, the scorpion tail sparked blue lighting. It struck down with an explosive electric roar that shattered the gargoyle into lifeless stone pieces.

With a long backward glance, Vailret followed Journeyman, who pushed toward the lair of Scartaris with single-minded intent.

* * *

Delrael closed his mind to anything but moving forward. He could not find the others, but if he failed to reach Scartaris that wouldn’t matter anyway.
He
had the Earthspirits.
He
could end the Outsiders’ threat.

Delrael looked ahead, paying only enough attention to keep moving. His sword arm was exhausted; he found breathing difficult—but he had reached a fever pitch of fighting, and nothing else seemed real to him.

Until one loud bellow broke through the din of the battle.

“Delroth!”

He froze and turned with stunned amazement as the one-eyed ogre plowed through the other soldiers. With a slash of his spiked club, Gairoth bowled over a mob of goblins and plodded toward Delrael.

“Haw! Now I kill you!”

Delrael couldn’t believe the ogre had followed them from where they had rescued Tallin, through the Spectre Mountains where he had been swept off the ledge by the avalanche, all the way across the map to here. Somehow the ogre knew which one was the true Delrael, and which ones were just Bryl’s illusions.

Delrael held his sword ready. “You’re starting to bother me, Gairoth.” But despite his show of false bravery, he saw how the huge ogre knocked aside other formidable demon fighters to reach him.

“Come on, then,” Delrael said. He swallowed and felt his throat tighten. He got ready.

Gairoth growled and strode forward, holding his club like a baseball bat.

Then another explosive roar distracted both of them. Goblins and demons were tossed aside like dead leaves in the wind.

The Slave of the Serpent burst into view. His hairy paws dripped with blood of different colors. He grabbed two goblins, smashed their heads together into a pulpy mass. Then he tossed them aside as he strode toward Delrael.

“Sadic will protect you.”

Delrael stepped back, feeling relieved. The Slave stepped beside him like a gigantic bodyguard. “You freed Sadic from Serpent.”

Gairoth bellowed in annoyance as the towering Slave stepped between him and Delrael. Sadic stood a full two feet taller than the ogre and much broader across the shoulders. Globs of blood matted the Slave’s fur from the monsters he had slain. The deep wound in his thigh had reopened and oozed thick yellow blood, making him limp and move stiffly.

But he stood against Gairoth. “You go,” Sadic said to Delrael. “Kill Scartaris.”

A V-formation of hawks swooped down and skimmed past him. They slashed out the eyes of a spine-covered monster, then struck in to tear out its throat with their long claws. Together, they flew off again.

Gairoth snorted and lunged toward Delrael, trying to duck to the side of the Slave. Sadic reached out a giant paw and caught the ogre across the tattered furs on his chest, deflecting Gairoth’s charge and knocking him to the dirt.

Gairoth landed on his backside and howled. He used the club to pry himself to his feet then turned his anger toward Sadic. He swung the club with all his might, and the wicked spikes raked across where the Slave had been. Sadic leaped back but stumbled on his wounded leg, wincing in pain.

Gairoth jumped at the Slave of the Serpent; Sadic met him, grabbing the ogre around the chest. The two grappled with each other, pounding with massive fists, trying to squeeze and crack ribs. Sadic raked his long claws up the peeling skin of Gairoth’s back. The ogre shifted his grip higher on the spiked club to bash at the demon’s fur-covered shoulder until yellow blood oozed out. With loud bestial sounds, both opponents flung themselves away and stood panting and bleeding.

Once more Gairoth tried to scramble around the Slave. Sadic blocked him again, but this time the ogre leered a strange grin as if he had gotten an idea. He lashed out with one of his wide bare feet and kicked as hard as he could, smacking into the deep open wound on the Slave’s leg.

In agony, Sadic buckled over, grabbing his thigh. He staggered.

Gairoth swung the spiked club up and then down, leaping into the air to put all of his weight into the swing. The club crashed down onto the demon’s head, smashing through it like a soft-boiled egg.

Sadic grunted once, then collapsed to the ground.

The shock struck Delrael like a cold knife in his stomach. He had wounded the Slave with his sword, giving Gairoth his chance to play dirty. He felt responsible. Then Delrael realized how foolish he had been for not running when Sadic gave him the chance.

Now Gairoth, panting but angrier than ever, picked up his dripping club and stepped over the Slave’s prone body. He advanced toward Delrael.

Sadic grabbed the ogre’s ankle, driving claws deep into the thick leg and tripping him. Gairoth sprawled out on his face. With a fury greater than a sudden thunderstorm, the ogre jumped back to his feet and pounded the fallen Slave over and over with the club, sending a thick rain of yellow blood into the air.

Bleeding from his ankle now, Gairoth returned all his attention to Delrael. “Haw! Now you die, Delroth!”

Delrael held his sword in front of him. “You’ve said that before, Gairoth. But you keep botching it!” He felt no force behind his words. Hope drained out of him with sick dismay at seeing the death of Sadic.

Gairoth ran forward. Delrael held his ground.

Neither of them saw the shadowy, batlike forms as the reptilian flying creatures swooped down to the battlefield.

Gairoth swung.

Delrael held up his sword to block the blow, though he knew it would do nothing against the ogre’s momentum.

He felt sharp pain in both of his shoulders as if two handfuls of knives had stabbed into him. His neck jerked as something snapped his body into the air. The battlefield dropped away under him, and he heard sounds like great sails rippling over his head.

The bat-creature shrieked from a pointed, fanged mouth and flew up into the sky.

Gairoth spun around when his club struck only air, and dropped to his knees, dizzy. He stared at where Delrael had been, but saw nothing. Only footprints that vanished. A single drop of scarlet blood marked the ground.

“Which way did he go? Awwww!”

Up in the sky, he saw the shadow of a flying creature carrying a man, winging toward the grotto of Scartaris.

* * *

Professor Verne stoked the steam-engine car and checked its water level. It would function for barely another hour. He took a last drink of water and poured the rest of his flask into the boiler. Every little bit would help. Verne ran the back of his hand across his lips and sighed. Then he sealed the chamber to let the steam pressure build.

The Sitnaltan weapon lay cradled in the car’s seat. It was primed and waiting. Monitor lights blinked on and off.

BOOK: Gameplay
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