by Matthew D. Ryan
Dreggin Yorr fingered his axe, and stared out across the mist-shrouded clearing. In the distance, cloudy tendrils clung to the trees, wreathing aspens and pines in cloaks of white. Feels like the Ghost Hills back home, he thought, adjusting his shirt of rough hide. The Ghost Hills were a desolate place west of the cold mountains his clan called home; he had set foot in them only once and only for a few short hours. The whole time it felt like he was being watched by some kind of malevolent hunger that pervaded the very air.
Standing next to him, Galrin Grendeth, one of his companions, shuddered nervously. A thin, wiry man dressed in black, Galrin always seemed to be on the lookout for trouble. His eyes roved and shifted ceaselessly and his hands constantly kneaded together as if infected with some kind of miserable ague. "This is not good," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "Do you have any idea where we are?"
Dreggin said nothing -- sometimes it seemed the man did nothing but complain. At Dreggin's feet lay his other companion, a bearded dwarven warrior named Bragli Baralla with whom he had been traveling for nearly six years; they had fought many battles together and had earned each other's trust many times over. They were the best of friends. Now, Dreggin watched the measured pace of Bragli's breath with trepidation; the fairy magic still held the dwarf in its grip and though Dreggin had made several attempts to rouse him, Bragli remained comatose and still. Best to let it wear off, Dreggin thought. It will wear off. He did not wish to countenance the alternative. He peered through the fog and strained his ears for forest sounds -- anything familiar that would quell his growing unease.
Shortly, Bragli stirred, flicked his eyes open and sat up, his chain mail clinking with the motion. His eyes widened, and he lifted a gauntleted fist to his temple. "By the Sacred Ancestors of Ged!" he said. "What happened?"
"We've been captured by the fairy folk," Dreggin said, relieved that Bragli was conscious again. "The Kalqari."
"Aye. I remember that," Bragli said, slowly regaining his feet. His right hand came to rest on the head of the heavy war hammer strapped to his side. His left hand lifted his wooden shield out of the grass. As he adjusted the rest of his equipment, the many bone talismans interwoven in his long black beard clinked together like wind chimes.
"We're in the Labyrinth," Dreggin continued, stepping away to give the dwarf more room.
"Remember that, too," Bragli said. He contorted his thick shoulders as if working a kink out.
"Then you know as much as either of us," Dreggin said, adjusting his own helm. He lifted his axe to his face, and gave the blade of the weapon a quick kiss; it had seen many battles in his hands and defeated many foes. He'd even given it a name: Athris. Some men had their gods. Others their women. He had his axe. It was a gift from his brother when he'd completed his Blood Rite many moons ago. His brother had told him to 'think less, and hack more,' calling Dreggin moody and ponderful, and chiding him that he would have made a better shaman than warrior.
He felt a pang at thought of his brother. He hadn't seen his family in years, not since he'd left the Frostpeak Mountains and the Iceblood Clan in search of more hospitable climes. He wasn't even sure they still lived. Bragli filled that void, now. "Come. Best to get moving," he said. He started marching in a direction he picked at random. In their situation, any bearing was as good as any other, yet he moved with a firm, purposeful stride. A leader must be decisive.
Galrin followed, slinking down into a half-crouch, keeping behind him and slightly to the right, so close as to almost make him uncomfortable. The man seemed to be at his wit's end, jumping at every sound and muttering about his sore feet. Bragli took up the rear, solidly stomping along, peering this way and that, the links of his armor and the bones in his beard tinkling with every movement.
"We're doomed," Galrin said. "Not even Perric Clowthin was able to escape this place. He and his band of mercenaries... all eight men -- gone! At least, that's what I heard."
"Perric Clowthin," Bragli said, grunting. "Sent on an errand into the Gold Leaf Woods only to vanish without a trace. A tragic tale. Not unlike that of Gareb Gurrad. One of my own kin; he disappeared five years before Perric, him and three other dwarves."
"I heard Gareb got out, though," Galrin said. "Escaped about the same time Perric went in."
"Aye," Bragli conceded. "That is true. But he was the sole survivor."
"We don't need to frighten ourselves with tales of the Fairies' Labyrinth while we're in it," Dreggin said. "So please, just stop." He said nothing about it, but talk of Perric Clowthin deeply unsettled him. According to all the tales he'd ever heard, Perric Clowthin had been one of the greatest swordsmen in all of Caralonn. He was known for dueling two men at a time, and usually winning. If the Labyrinth had claimed Perric and his band of seven men, what chance did the three of them have?
In the east, the sun peeked above the rim of trees, burning their tops free of mist. White cumulous clouds perforated the azure sky, like wads of cotton floating on the sea.
"We should have never entered these woods, Dreggin," Galrin said. "The Kalqari Fairies have always been secretive and inhospitable. I told you as much and you ignored me. This is all your fault."
"I accept that," Dreggin said. "My choice brought us here. It is my responsibility."
"Don't be hard on yourself, lad," Bragli said. "We opted to follow you. No one forced us. Galrin can whine and complain all he wants, but he -- "
"We should have gone around," Galrin snapped. "It would have only taken a month."
"I was in a hurry," Dreggin said, sniffing the air. A faint odor rode on the breeze, a scent somewhat reminiscent of... of... he could not quite place it. Some kind of animal, perhaps. "The wizard Izarsus is a bad man to disappoint -- "
"The fairy folk are no trifle either," Galrin pointed out, angrily.
Dreggin stopped suddenly, causing Galrin to bump into him from behind. He looked to his left. Now, the mists along the ground were beginning to break up revealing myriad flora of a deceptively soothing nature: purple clover, golden buttercups, and other common plants meshed together in a mosaic of swirling grandeur. "In retrospect -- "
"As I said -- " Bragli interrupted, "don't think like that. We'll find a way out."
"According to legend, the Labyrinth has but one exit," Galrin said, his voice cold with anger. "And it can only be found after your companions are dead. So you'll excuse me if I don't share Stumpy's optimism."
"Call me Stumpy again, footpad, and your head will find the exit," Bragli said, shaking his war hammer. He furrowed his brow for a moment, then said, "Perhaps the fairy folk intend to turn us upon each other?"
"Look," Galrin began. "We're in the middle of a labyrinth in an enchanted forest, with limited food, and no idea where to go. I'm hungry, my feet hurt, and you two don't seem to care. I -- "
"We'll find a way out for all of us," Dreggin interrupted. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry? Don't worry? Are you serious?" Galrin raised his hands and spread his arms at the apparent naivity of the suggestion.
Dreggin shook his head and did his best to block out Galrin's litany of complaints. The man just would not shut up!
He started across the clearing, again, toward a break in the trees twenty yards away -- a narrow path, lined on either side by interwoven branches, as formidable a barrier as could be construed in a forest. The branches above leaned toward each other as if to form a tunnel, and the path itself was shadowed.
When he reached the entrance, Dreggin paused, thoughtful. After a moment, he stepped to one of the nearby trees and swiped the blade of his axe against it, leaving a gash in the bark.
"Marking off the route we take?" Bragli said. "Good idea." The dwarf made a quick, convoluted gesture in the air. "Ancestors... protect us."
Dreggin started forward and the others filed in behind him. Trees passed by on either side, their nearest branches trimmed to allow passage. Even so, more than one branch came close to brushing against Dreggin's shoulders, tangling in his hair, or scraping against his helm... Like grasping fingers, he thought. He shook his head to banish the image and focused his attention in front of him, keeping an eye out for the sporadic pieces of granite that cluttered the path.
Shortly, the trail forked. Dreggin hesitated for a moment, then swiped his axe across a tree on the right hand path and started moving in that direction. Twenty yards later, he came to an abrupt halt. The others came to a stop behind him.
"What is it?" Bragli asked from the rear.
A disintegrating carcass lay on the ground in front of Dreggin. "Someone died here," he said, then stepped over the remains so the others would have a better view, and knelt down on the other side. Little was left to the body but bones and a few scraps of withered flesh. Two huge rents marred the fallen man's breastplate. Either one would have been a fatal blow.
Bragli knelt next to the remains as well; he pulled out a small medallion and said a quick prayer.
"What killed him?" Galrin asked, when the dwarf had finished. "Man or beast?"
Dreggin ran his fingers along one of the rents. "I can't say. These holes could have been made by an axe... or a halberd -- or a powerful beast's claws. I, too, have heard rumors of this place -- "
A gruff animal grunt sounded from behind them, from down the very path they had just traversed. Dreggin jumped up, instinctively reaching for Athris as a huge bipedal creature stalked towards them. The creature had a great bull's head with two long, curved horns, and powerful legs supported by massive cloven hooves. Much of its body was protected by thick, rune-covered plate armor, but the parts that were exposed rippled with muscles. It carried a massive battle axe, twice the size of Dreggin's own.
"Minotaur," Bragli said, spitting the word out like sour wine. "And armored." He pulled out his war hammer and crouched in a fighter's stance.
Galrin took one look at the beast, then pushed his way past Dreggin and ran. Dreggin let him go; the man had proved his lack of mettle more than once; he was good with traps and locks when they needed such, but nearly useless in a real fight. Bragli, on the other hand, had always been a stalwart companion. Dreggin hefted his axe, cursing the confining pathway that prevented him from moving up to support his friend.
The minotaur charged. Bragli lifted his shield to block, but the creature's massive weapon smashed through the painted wood and ripped into the dwarf's arm. Bragli screamed in pain, but still managed to swing his hammer. Off balanced and injured, he swung with only partial force. Regardless, the blow never landed. The minotaur vanished mere moments before impact. One instant, it was there; the next, it was gone.
A second later, it reappeared behind Bragli and swung its axe yet again. The blade of the weapon caught Bragli right below the ribs, slicing through the dwarf's armor and deep into his flesh. He collapsed on the ground.
Now, within striking range, Dreggin swung his axe at the minotaur, but again the creature vanished, reappearing on the other side of Bragli, axe raised for the final blow.
"Run," Bragli said, vainly lifting a hand to shield his face. "I am finished. Save yourself."
There was nothing else he could do; Dreggin turned and ran, Bragli's final death scream propelling him down the trail. He held his axe in one hand, yet still managed to break into a dead run. Behind him, the minotaur let out a bellow. He pumped his arms as fast as he could, his legs churning beneath him. He came to a four way intersection and took the turn to the left, nearly careening off the trees on the right hand side of the path.
He ran, darting down side paths and around corners trying to make as confusing a trail as possible. Soon, he was lost, but, with any luck, he was out of reach of the minotaur -- at least for the moment.
He paused, to take a rest, his breathing heavy. After a few minutes, he continued forward at a slackened pace. Now that he was out of immediate danger, he felt a sharp pain in his heart. He tried to keep the sorrow at a distance, but it came anyway and he choked back bitter tears. He could think of nothing but Bragli's raucous laugh and endearingly gruff manner: his constant admonitions to do right, revere the gods, and respect the Ancestors. But every memory, every image simply brought more pain. Galrin was right. We should have never come here, he thought.
He entered a wide clearing that held in its center a circular walkway made from alternating grey and white paving stones. The heart of the walkway contained a great marble dais rising from the ground in three tiers, the last forming a thick white wall around a pool of water several feet deep. In the center of the pool, a marble fountain rose shaped in the likeness of three dolphins frolicking amongst frothy ocean waves. Each dolphin had small blue sapphires for eyes and the largest expelled a steady stream of water from its mouth.
It made a magnificent sight, yet its presence hung heavy over Dreggin's heart, reminding him that the Kalqari, the fairy folk -- no doubt the crafters of the tableau -- were still present, perhaps watching from a safe distance. If he ever escaped this place, he would make the fairies pay. The Iceblood Clan did not forgive; it was a Blood Debt now.
He approached the pool, climbed the dais, and knelt to take a drink. The cool water sent a wave of refreshment over his body. He washed off his face, cleaning away dust and grime. Again, he felt a surge of raw emotion at the loss of his friend and forced down the tears. Later, he thought, I will mourn later. For now I must stay alive. On the other side of the clearing he saw a number of pathways leading out amongst the trees. Perhaps one of them would lead out of this horrible Labyrinth. He stood lifting his axe again.
"Only one of us can make it," a voice said from behind him. He felt a sharp pain in between his ribs, then he dropped to his knees. His axe fell from nerveless fingers. He tried to turn to face his assailant, but only succeeded in falling on his back rather than his face. He slid down the side of the dais, each step feeling like a cudgel strike to his spine.
Galrin stood above him, holding a bloody dagger.
"Galrin, you fool," Dreggin gasped. "We have to work together."
"I don't think so," Galrin said. "Only one can escape." He lifted his dagger, point downward, ready to strike the killing blow.
A snort sounded from the path Dreggin had run down. Galrin went white, turned.
With effort, Dreggin lifted his head. The minotaur stood at the edge of the clearing, its blood-covered axe held in its strong hands. Galrin dropped his dagger and turned to run. The minotaur disappeared and reappeared a moment later directly in his path. Galrin, his gaze focused behind him, ran full tilt into the creature's chest, stumbled and fell down. The minotaur lifted its axe and Galrin screamed.
Dreggin watched Galrin's head fall to the ground. He tried to move, but every effort brought pain. The minotaur approached, axe held in its hands.
It stood over Dreggin, steam puffing from its nose. "Finally," it said, its voice a deep, rumble. "I am free and it is your turn to hunt." It swung its axe.
Dreggin screamed. The blade of the minotaur's axe turned in midswing so that it struck Dreggin flat across the chest with a solid, heavy thump. It did not inflict an injury, but it did knock the wind out of him. A pulse of blue energy passed down the handle of the weapon, through the blade, and into Dreggin. He felt it. Like a burning, splash of fire.
As the energy coursed through his body, his flesh rippled and pulsed with agony. He tried to scream, but his throat muscles were too busy convulsing. His fingers twisted and sprouted fur. His chest and arms bulged, ripping through his clothes. Two long, curved horns sprouted from the sides of his head. Again, he tried to scream but it turned into a great deep-throated bellow.
Beside him, the creature that was the minotaur was covered in a coruscating blue light, and appeared to be shrinking. Its thick fur receded, the horns disappeared, its cloven hooves transformed into booted feet. Shortly a man stood there, hands held before his face, eyes brimming with tears. "So long it's been," he said, voice like a whisper, then disappeared.
His earlier wound now closed, Dreggin growled and lumbered to his feet.
Perric Clowthin stood on the edge of the Gold Leaf Woods and looked at the setting sun, tears streaming from his eyes. He had entered the home of the fairy folk many years ago with seven other men, all of whom died under his command. He alone survived, transformed into a horrid beast until he could pass his curse on to another hapless soul. He'd received his malediction from the dwarven warrior Gareb Gurrad, who in turn had received it from another. It was the Kalqari's way of punishing transgressors in their realm. All told, Perric had wandered the trackless trails of the fairy folks' Labyrinth for nearly a decade. All because he and his men had unwittingly trespassed on sacred fairy ground.
He looked back once at the gold tinted leaves of the forest. Never again, he vowed. Never again.
© 2012 Matthew D. Ryan
Bio: Matthew D. Ryan has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He lives on the shores of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, NY. He has a cat named Confucius (or Confucius has him...) For more by and about Matthew, visit his blog at A Toast to Dragons.
E-mail: Matthew D. Ryan
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