Heart of Stone is a full-length fantasy epic in a world where magic is obtained through the ingestion of rune-stones, and Lovecraftian creatures threaten the world of humanity. The following excerpt is the first chapter of an incomplete novel.
Luned’s hoofs thundered across the grassy fields outside of Fallen Oak, throwing up mud and dirt and knocking the monsters that had come from the Aether out of her path. Belkin gripped his heavy lance tight in his right hand, balanced against the weight of his shield on his left. The wind swept through the slits in the visor, making his eyes water. Gods it is good to ride in battle agin, he thought, a smile creeping to his face unbidden. He looked to his right and saw one of the Badgers, holding tight in the spearhead formation that Belkin lead.
“For the Empire!” he yelled, his deep voice echoing through his Falchioneer’s helm. He leveled the lance, aiming it directly for the center of the largest creature that seemed to be directing the smaller ones. They were terrible to look upon; skin as white as corpses, hunched like apes, but completely hairless. Most of them were half the size of a man, with heads that sloped back to a point on the back of their head, their face contained a mouth filled with razor-like teeth, their eyes a milky white as if blind, and flanked by two sets of ears, each shaped like those of a bat. They were lead by man-sized monsters that looked similar, but with eyes that glowed a sickly yellow, and they stood upright like a man. They were thin, built like gymnasts, and each hand had fingers that were twice as long as they should be, ending in lethal claws.
One of the man-sized demons stood in the midst of the smaller ones, his fist raised against the tide of cavalry rushing towards him. He wore armor that, if Belkin looked at it too long, actually made him nauseous, it was shaped so oddly. Belkin ignored the strange effect, and the slicing motion the beast made with the deadly black-steel blade, and urged Luned on, trampling the miniatures in their path. Belkins target screamed, perhaps in a command, but it was cut short as the lance was driven up through his belly, up through the chest cavity and out between the shoulder blades, actually lifting the creature into the air as if it were a piece of meat being skewered.
“Take that you sonuvabitch!” Belkin screamed as the violence of the attack sheared the creature in half, the top and bottom falling apart in two different directions. He wheeled Luned, and trusting that the Badgers were staying in formation, took advantage of the chaos of the charge and made for an opening in the demon’s unit, leading his own unit to safety.
They pounded out onto the open grasslands, the stars shining above. He had almost forgotten how exhilarating a true honest to gods battle was. He wheeled Luned again, and turned to face the enemy. The Badgers, each in their own unique armor but all carrying heavy lances, swept past him before wheeling their own mounts, reforming in an instant. Belkin surveyed the enemy. It was worse than he had though; they had charged from the city’s walls in an attempt to flank the main army that was assaulting the southern gate, but had instead met another force that was about to assault the west gate. Belkin was a Falchioneer, and instead of using a cavalry unit at the city walls, decided to push his men into the brink and split them in twain.
He looked upon the force emerging from the black wood. It was too dark to be sure, the stars affording little in the way of good visibility, but there had to be several hundred of the little bastards. And he was leading twelve men, the only trained cavalry men in the city, against so many? There was no hope that way.
“We must fall back to the Baron’s manor,” he called behind him. His men grunted in aggreeance and together they sped back to the city gates. “Open the gates, quickly!” he shouted to the few men that were manning the massive oak doors. Slowly they were pulled open, just enough so that they could file through one at a time, and were closed again as soon as the last was through.
“Ho! Inquisitor Brinx, we’re here to lend a hand,” a gruff voice sounded from the shadows just beyond the light of the gate’s torches. Belkin smiled as Osrey Ollen, a bear of a man, stepped forth into the light wearing well-worn mail underneath his city guard’s uniform, the blue already tattered in several places and stained in black blood. His captain’s chevrons glowed brightly nonetheless.
“Aye, Captain Ollen, you’ll be of good use. There is no hope holding this wall, the fiends can step straight through the Aether and past the defenses here,” he replied, pushing up the face of his helm so he could be better heard. “Our only chance is to make it to the Baron’s home before Crowfoot does, and concentrate our forces there. We must make them pay for every foot up that hill in blood and bone.”
“You heard ‘im, men!” Osrey turned to the hundred odd guardsmen gathering behind him. They raised their longspears in a cheer, and without another word turned and began jogging deeper into the town. “Run ahead, Belkin, We’ll cover ye back until…” before he could finish a loud crack split the night. Belkin snapped to the gate, and saw the wood already buckling under some enormous force.
“Battering ram!” he shouted, but he was wrong. Before he could utter another word the gate split asunder, and through the small space that had been opened a great head, similar to the demons on the battlefield, sprouted forth. The head alone was as large as a full-grown horse, with teeth jammed in its maw almost haphazardly, each the length of a longsword and just as sharp and flanked by two enormous tusks that curled upwards back again on themselves. It snarled, looking directly at Belkin, and began to thrust one arm through the space below its head.
Without even a hesitation, Belkin lowered his lance and spurred Luned at the creature. Already the small demons were popping into existence, appearing in small puffs of smoke around the giant’s head. But they didn’t matter; Belkin lowered his lance-arm, leaning his body off-center and back so that the lance was angled upwards. The monster screamed and began to reach its free arm at Belkin, and just as it was about to strike Belkin rushed his body forward on Luned and pushed his right shoulder up and forward, thrusting the lance up under its jaw, straight up through its mouth and into its brain.
From across the yard Osrey looked on in terrified amazement as Belkin Brinx, a man he had met scarcely three months ago, charged a monster that he could scarcely dream up in his most terrible nightmares and thrust his lance up into its head, the tip exploding from the top of its head in a terrible shower of gore and bone. Without even breaking stride, Belkin wheeled Luned parallel the wall and back to Osrey, leaving his lance embedded in the monster’s skull, blocking the gate from any further entry. More demons exploded into reality around it, but each stood in shock up at their monstrous cousin before retreating back into the Aether.
“Watch your back, Osrey, but make haste! I fear we have little time!” Belkin shouted as he galloped past the guardsman, acting as if his armor was not covered in black gore from some terrible beast.
“Aye, Belkin Beast-slayer. Aye!” he shouted in shocked awe, frozen to the spot. It was several moments before he was able to shake the cobwebs loose from his skull and run after the Inquisitor. “Ia’s teeth we may have a chance yet,” he muttered to himself.
Belkin patted Luned, speaking in hushed tones to her. She was a good, strong horse, and he had trained her for months to face anything that they may encounter in battle. But by the Void he had never even imagined they would fight monsters straight out of the Age of Legends. A shiver raced up his spine, the fear from the charge just now reaching his system. I must be mad, he thought. There was no time to think of such things now. An army from hell was attacking the city. The city that was in his charge. He was an Inquisitor for the Empire, and he would not let these demons from the Void win this battle as long as he drew breath.
Luned raced down the streets of Fallen Oak, her hoofs thundering against the cobblestone streets. He had lost the rest of his unit in the mist that had accompanied the demonic legions. The din of battle echoed through the empty streets of Fallen Oak, the screams of the dying and the shouts of the killers; worst of all were the screeches of the monsters fighting and dying.
Minutes passed like seconds in the dark, and suddenly, as if emerging from a great pool he was thrust into a battle the likes of which he had not seen since the Battle of Thunder and Flame. Greenhoods, Magi, and bewitched Woden battled with stone and spell in the market square; phoenixes of green flame barreled into a group of the attacking Woden while streams of fire leapt forth from the hands of an attacker on the opposite end of the square. Just next to Belkin a Magi cupped his hands around a large runestone, and as Belkin looked on he blew on the stone causing it to flare green before the magi threw it overhand into the fray, where it exploded in a great brilliance, sending forth a cloud of ravens, each of a different brilliant color attacking the nearest Woden.
There was nothing he could do here; this was a Stone user’s battle, and no place for a warrior. Belkin began to turn his steed when he noticed Festus, the Woden whose life he had saved weeks before. The man, wearing a simple jacket and trousers, raised his fist into the air, and with a flash of brilliance from the ring on his middle finger he brought his open palm down with a fury and clapped it into his other palm, creating a wave of fury. When he opened his hand a great raptor flew forth, trailing streams of flame behind it as it soared high into the air above the battle, and with a great scream it spread its brilliant wings wide and shot down spears of lightning into their enemies.
“Festus!” Belkin shouted, throwing his helm open with a mailed fist. The woden turned to his friend and smiled. He looked like he was enjoying himself. Truly, it was the first time perhaps in his life that he was able to unleash his full power without fear of the Magi seeking him out.
“Belkin! You’ve come to see me turn these fools crying back to their dread lord!” Festus laughed, waving his arm in a wide arc, taking in the battle behind him. Belkin shook his head in annoyance.
“No, friend, this battle is sheer folly. They are simply splitting our forces, we must retreat to the Baron’s and concentrate our might in defense of the prize!” he said as he drew forth the greatsword that Festus had retrieved for him from the Duke’s treasure horde. Festus nodded.
“Aye, let us away then!” he jumped up onto Luned behind Belkin and gripped the larger man’s dark blue Inquisitor’s cloak. Festus snapped his fingers, sending sparks into the air. Belkin looked in the direction that he was motioning, and saw the leader of the Magi in the town, Domina Shale, her grey hair brilliant in the fray. She looked at the two and nodded before bringing her staff high into the air and yelling something that Belkin could not hear from such a distance. She brought the staff crashing down into the cobblestones, and simultaneously the two bridges that were the only entrance across the river to the city exploded, sending advancing Woden flying in all directions. She spread her arms wide, and brilliant green arrows flew into the night sky and exploded in a dazzling fireworks display.
“That’s the signal to retreat to the Baron’s,” Festus explained. “Ride, you big brute!” And with that, the two flew down the streets to the Baron’s home, and to what Belkin believed would most likely be their deaths.
Across the city, Gannon ‘Turncloak’, Belkin’s partner as Inquisitors of Fallen Oak, fought his own battle. Assembled with almost every fighting man in the city at the main gate, he led the thousand-strong townsfolk and his own mercenary band known as the Warborne against the invading horde. The gate remained closed, but the barrier was little more than a slight inconvenience for the fiends who simply appeared out of the void deep in the battle. Nonetheless, the demons were unprepared for the defenses that Gannon had erected, and many were cut down as soon as they appeared.
The blood-frenzy had taken Gannon; he knew that this defense was folly and that this gate was of little import, the Baron’s house was the real target. He looked to the sky, and there suspended in the air, his decayed robes swirling about the husk that was his body was the magi known as Crowfoot, dead some five-hundred years but now leading an army of demons against the city he had called ‘home’ in life. He flew over the battle, ignoring the carnage below, heading directly for the Baron’s.
But Gannon no longer cared about anything outside of the killing field. “Onward!” he cried, raising his sword, covered in gore. “Onward! To glory!” he ran deep into the throng of the beasts who had established a beachhead against the onslaught of warriors. His blade slashed again and again, ripping flesh and bone asunder, black gore covering him and those around him. He was a machine of slaughter, and he reveled in it.
“The dead have risen!” a cry reached him from the north. From the graveyard. Belkin had urged that they burn the corpses, they had already seen that Crowfoot had the ability to animate the corpses within, but the priesthood would not allow it. Gannon laughed at the absurdity of it, and shifted the Warborne to face the coming undead.
“Come! Meet my blade, and embrace death once more!” he shouted to the shambling corpses. The Warborne charged, and the battle was met.
Belkin pulled on the reins of Luned, and the horse slowed to a trot. Festus slapped him on the shoulder, and pointed into the sky. Belkin followed the motion, and hovering a hundred feet or more in the air was the dread Crowfoot, his tattered robes flowing in the punishing wind, and above him he raised the spellsword of legend, the mythical Felldriver. The oversized falchion glowed in the night, the runes along it glowing a bright blue as he swung it in an arc, ending it pointed directly at the Baron’s home.
“No!” Belkin shouted, and spurred Luned on, Festus desperately clinging to his cloak. They charged up the steep hill to the house, where already the city guard was fighting the hordes of the demons of the Aether and undead both. He trusted Luned to take them safely up the slope, and kept his own gaze trained on Crowfoot, attempting to gauge whether he could hit him with his bow from this distance.
Just as he was about to unsling the bow and try anyways, a most unlikely thing occurred. The hill ceased being a hill, and instead began to transform. The ground shook violently, as if there were a terrible earthquake. Men and demons alike fell to the ground as rock jutted forth at random like ancient spears thrown forth by giants. The Baron’s house shuddered and collapsed, and a single column thrust up from the ruins of the palatial estate, atop which was the cave mouth that so many had died already to protect. Instead of trying to assault the cave mouth, Crowfoot was simply bringing it to him.
“No!” Belkin screamed, and just as he felt Luned begin to lose her footing he girded his feet in the stirrups and leaped from her back, grabbing a rock jutting from the cliff face that had suddenly appeared. He did not look back to see the ground suddenly receding, his shield crashing below. He had to reach the mouth before Crowfoot did, before the dead Magi could use the spellsword to unlock the ancient wards keeping the Hellsmouth closed. The fate of the world rested upon it.
Several blocks away Gannon ended the swing of his sword, lifting the head of one of the undead clear. He was still holding the dread thing in his hand, gripping it by the scalp when thunder tore the city in twain. He looked at the city center, towards the Baron’s home, and saw Crowfoot creating a mountain with sheer will. He laughed at the absurdity of it. The wonderful display of sheer power, and it was their job to stop it. The sheer, brilliant, stupid, foolish absurdity that had been foisted upon him by some throne that he had never obeyed before in his life; he had been made an Inquisitor and Fate saw to it that it was here, now, in this backwater city, one of the greatest threats in a millennia would challenge him.
“Crowfoot! You fool! You’ve chosen the wrong time to claw your way back from the grave!” he screamed into the night sky, knowing that the magi could not hear him but not caring. He tossed the rotting head into the arms of the nearest soldier and leaped upon the back of a riderless horse and thrust his way through the stunned throng, onwards to the mountain.
And Belkin climbed, his armor heavy upon his back, his Inquisitor’s cloak singed and ripped. His arms ached, screaming in the agony of hauling his enormous bulk and his armory along with it up the sheer cliff that had come from the Baron’s estate. It seemed an eternity that he climbed, but only a few minutes passed before his arm reached over the lip of the cliff, and he hauled himself up onto the plateau where Crowfoot was slowly descending to rest in front of the Hellmouth.
It seemed that they were moving in slow motion; Crowfoot stepped forward to the great pillar made of pure Greystone holding Felldriver aloft before him, Belkin struggling to his feet and drawing his short sword. The distance was too great for him to run to Crowfoot before the creature was able to unlock the cave, but he had only one chance. Belkin lifted the shortsword high in the air over his head as he began his charge forward, and with all his considerable might threw the blade, hoping to at least slow the magi just long enough. But alas, it was not so, the sword flew within inches of Crowfoot’s side, his cloak ripping in its path, but Crowfoot simply looked at Belkin and smiled, a smile with few teeth remaining and skin pealing off around the corners. For the first time, he spoke.
“You are too late, child of man,” he cackled, and without hesitating slide Felldriver into the slot in the pillar, surrounded by glowing runes.
“No!” Belkin screamed, but before he could finish unsheathing his greatsword the pillar sealing the mouth with magics older than the Empire itself crumbled to dust, and suddenly a geyser of greystone erupted from the Hellmouth, blinding him for a moment. He threw up his arm to try to keep from breathing much in, but he could feel the crushed stone begin to course through his body. His mind clouded for an instant, but he shook his head and cleared the effects, cementing his resolve. Crowfoot had to die, even if it meant his own death. Maybe he was too late to stop him from opening the Hellmouth, but even if entire armies of demonspawn swarmed the Empire moments from then, they would have no leader.
He unsheathed his greatsword, a relic from a time out of mind that Festus claimed was created using methods lost to time. The blade was easily over four feet long and almost as wide as his palm. But somehow, he did not feel the weight, it was perfectly balanced. It did not matter though, with sword or with his own fists he would kill Crowfoot.
“This ends now, demonlord!” he shouted as he raced forward with the greatsword held on high. He swung the great blade down, and Crowfoot tried to block it, instinctively raising his unprotected left arm in defense. The blade sliced through, severing the appendage. But Crowfoot simply laughed and shot his right hand out, as if to strike Belkin square in the chest. The blow never struck, but it felt like he had been struck by a horse, the invisible impact flinging him back several feet. He kept his footing, but looked on as the severed arm levitated in the air and the black blood pouring forth from the wounds formed a bridge between the arm and the stump, slowly drawing the meat together. With a flash of light he flexed the arm, looking as if he had never lost it, and spun to draw Felldriver from the pile of ash.
Belkin charged forth once more, swinging in a wide arc to slice through his opponent’s midsection, but the blade was turned by Felldriver, so he spun and tried an overhand slash which Crowfoot sidestepped with surprising dexterity. Felldriver flashed at Belkin, but his own blade sang in answer, the two enormous blades flashed apart and together again and again, neither gaining any ground.
Below the war raged on, and the Warborne had finally pushed through the throng of demons and arrived at the miniature mountain. They had climbed a less steep side, and Gannon and his most trusted lieutenant arrived just in time to see Felldriver unlock the Hellmouth.
“All is lost,” Gannon mumbled to himself. “The war is over! We are lost! Take the Warborne, gather what treasure you can and be off! We must gather arms and men to face our foe another day!” he yelled at Varrus, his oldest and most trusted friend. The older man nodded, sadly, and turned to lead the rest down and out of the city, looting as they went. Gannon began to follow them; to stay was folly of the highest order, there was no victory to be had here. They had failed in keeping the Hellmouth sealed, and within moments countless legions of these dread monsters would pour forth, and who knew what other horrors may lay dormant in the earth below his feet? He looked up, sadness filling his soul. He was no hero, no songs would be sung of his legend. He was a man, and fated to do naught but slaughter and slay.
Lightning flashed upward from atop the ridge. Belkin still fought on, despite the odds. Maybe there is a chance, he thought, a dim hope rising in his breast. It was a fool’s battle, but maybe it was time to play the fool. With a grim resolve he turned back, and began the climb again. Belkin would not fight alone this day.
Belkin could feel the heat of the lightning bolts striking up from the ground, singing his flesh and scoring his armor. But still their blades danced in the cold night air. Suddenly, Crowfoot flung himself back, out of the range of Belkin’s blade, and threw a small greystone into his mouth, crunching it loudly in his jaw. He puffed his cheeks out, or what remained of them, and spewed forth a great green mist, instantly enveloping the mount. The mist stung, and ate at Belkin’s flesh and armor, his skin already turned red at the touch of it.
“Your tricks will not save you, hellspawn!” he yelled and charged through the acid mist, his blade slicing again and again, but always blocked. He pushed on, and he could see that he was beginning to break down the magi’s defenses. The man was no swordsman in life, and though he had great powers helping him now, he was not made for mortal combat.
Gannon topped the ridge, and through the green mist could see the two swirling together and dashing apart, their blades glowing in the darkness, sparks birthed like tiny explosions as the swords met, thunder booming again and again. He knew that he could not survive long in that cloud, he could see Belkin’s armor begin to sag and burn in it. He unsheathed his sword and began counting heartbeats, slowing his heart and readying his attack. He would only get one chance, so it would have to count. He watched Crowfoot dance, trying to keep Belkin’s blade from severing his mortal flesh. There was a pattern there, an opportunity would present itself and Gannon would leap forth from his place of hiding and strike his blade true, killing the liche. He just hoped that Belkin could survive long enough.
The pain was almost unbearable, the skin exposed to the air he could feel dying, withering away with every second he spent in the cloud. His eyes burned and his vision began to cloud. He could not see it, but the horsehair plume atop his helm had completely fallen away, the leather straps on his breastplate would be eaten through entirely in less than a minute. His gauntlets had turned brown, a rusted look engulfing them, and were darkening as he looked upon them. He knew the breastplate, as well as the Falchioneer’s had made it, was degrading just the same. But he pressed on.
Almost, Gannon thought, gripping his blade, his eyes unblinking, taking in every step and every sweep that Crowfoot made. The pattern was making itself visible to him, and in moments Belkin would swing to the right, pushing Crowfoot so his back would be directly in front of Gannon. That would be when he would strike. He could see himself leaping high into the air, his blade being driven down through Crowfoot’s shoulder, slicing through the muscle and biting deep into his chest, through the lungs and finally into the heart. He pulled himself up over the lip of the mount, and hunched down as if he were about to compete in a foot race, his blade light in his hand. Don’t worry my friend, I’ll keep you safe. He smiled, and for the first time that he could remember felt truly at peace with himself.
Belkin swung to his right, his greatsword batting Felldriver aside. Crowfoot leaped to his left, but then Belkin did something completely unexpected. Felldriver sang forth and bit deep into Belkin’s breastplate and through the mail shirt underneath, blood pouring from the wound. But his gambit had payed off, the armor had held just enough. Crowfoot looked up in surprise for the first time, and anger burned deep in his eyes, and kept burning as his head was separated from the rest of his body, the greatsword cleaved straight through the bony neck and shattered, sending the head and the shards of the ancient blade hurtling high into the air. Crowfoot was dead, and Belkin had completed his mission.
Crowfoot was dead? Gannon looked on in shocked disbelief. Belkin didn’t need his help after all. By himself, the warrior had felled the great ‘demon prince’ that was supposed to bring a new age of darkness to the land. And Gannon had just looked on. I was right, there will be no songs sung of me, I am not the hero of this story, he thought, the peace within him fading to nothingness. He felt weary. I am but a sellsword, it is my fate, my lot in life. He sheathed his sword and stood. He would see the town cleaned of the menace, and he would do as Belkin needed, but then, as soon as he was able, he would meet the Warborne in Winedark, and put this life of an Inquisitor far behind him.
The mist had begun to recede, but still it bit at his flesh. He dropped the hilt of the greatsword to the ground, and pulled Felldriver from his armor, feeling his bones grinding agains the blade, gritting his teeth at it. He felt the mist pour into the wound, and he would scream if he had the energy to. But he did not, and so with a whimper bent to pick up Crowfoot’s head, and with both hands full staggered to the edge of the cliff, where Gannon stood. Festus appeared beside Gannon, and with a wave of his arms a great wind dispelled the mist. Gannon ran forward to lend Belkin his strength.
“You guys missed the party,” Belkin wheezed through the rotting helm. He shook his head, and the leather straps keeping it in place fell away and allowed his old Falchioneer’s helm to tumble into the dirt. The cool air rushed against his face, a sting so sharp that it told him he was very much alive.
“Maybe next time you should wait for everyone else to show, you enormous fool,” Gannon chuckled. “But no, Belkin Bugslayer, Belkin Beekiller, Belkin Demonbane must do all the hard work himself. You big gloryhog.”
“Still, I was too late to keep him from unsealing the cave,” Belkin coughed, looking to the gaping hole, waiting for all manner of untold horrors to suddenly pour forth. But none did.
“I will try to seal it for now as best I can, then I’m sure we will gather the remaining Magi and Greenhoods to put up the most powerful wards we can,” Festus said, and with great concentration furrowing his brow he raised both hands into the air and brought them swiftly down. The cave shuddered and collapsed. “That should do it for now.” He clapped his hands together, shaking the greystone from them. “Let’s get you to the apothecary.”
“What of the battle?” Belkin asked, turning to look out over the city. The sun had begun to rise, and snow fall lazily to the ground. Half the city was ablaze, smoke pouring into the sky. He looked at the base of the mountain, but his eyes were so weak he could see little more than a multicolored blur.
His eyes were completely bloodshot, blood leaking around the edges. The skin directly around them was bloody, the mist had eaten at the area the was exposed through the slit in his helmet. His forearms were covered in specks of blood, as was his neck. His riding boots had fallen limp to his ankles, and his leggings had been eaten through in many places along his thighs where there was no armor, blood seeping through. The gash in his breastplate trickled a steady stream of blood, but not so much that it could be seen as terribly life-threatening.
“The day is won, the few Aether-fiends that survived this long returned to the Aether when Crowfoot died,” Festus answered and clapped Belkin on the back, drawing a long whimper from the much larger man. “Oh, sorry old pal.” Festus laughed. Belkin grinned at the Woden, and with his help they descended to the town.
Gannon stood, just a moment longer, and stared out over the desolation of the city. He felt nothing, no emotion whatsoever. Just a great emptiness filling his soul. He had been in Fallen Oak for far too long, it was time to conquer once more.