Destroyer of Legends Preview
The Crypt of Zagamar was a labyrinth carved into the base of a great mountain, built over six millennia ago. And within its gloomy depths was the Tomb of Zagamar, a domed chamber that held the remains of the great Legend himself. A chamber shrouded in utter darkness and silence since it had been sealed long ago.
High Seeker Zeno’s lantern cast its pale light on the black stone platform in the center of the chamber, bobbing madly as he sprinted across it. He spotted the rippling water of a shallow pool a few meters ahead.
There was a loud thump behind him, the sound echoing through the ancient chamber.
He leapt into the pool, the frigid water enveloping him, coming up to his belly. He waded forward, struggling to flee from the central platform – and the great statue of Zagamar – as quickly as he could.
He heard a low growl behind him.
Zeno swore, moving faster. The other end of the pool was only a few meters ahead, a small tunnel through the stone wall beyond leading into the next room. The floor of the pool angled upward gently, and he burst out of the pool, ducking through the tunnel into the room beyond. A large, dark room with countless skeletons scattered over the floor. Some of which he’d fed to the…
There was a splash from behind.
Oh god oh god…
Zeno sprinted across the room, bones crunching under his boots as he ran for the spiraling staircase he knew was ahead. He reached it, leaping up the steps four at a time. The crunch, crunch of footsteps came from behind, picking up speed gradually.
Coming for him.
He reached the top of the stairs, seeing a narrow stone ledge leading forward into the darkness. A huge pit of long, sharp spikes was to his right, a stone wall to his left. Zeno ran forward across the ledge, his heart hammering in his chest, his skin slick with sweat. His guts cramped, hunger gripping them. A hunger beyond anything he’d ever experienced.
A ravenous compulsion he knew was only a fraction of what the thing hunting him must be experiencing.
The sound of feet running up the stairs behind echoed through the crypt, getting closer now.
The ledge turned right abruptly, and he skidded to a stop, slamming into the wall ahead, then turning right and continuing down a narrow hallway. His lungs burned, his breath coming in rapid gasps.
Calm down, he commanded himself. Remember your training!
He focused, remembering the first axiom.
Emotion is temporary, action is forever.
But his heart continued to pound, fear overwhelming him. Fear of what he’d done. What he’d unleashed upon the world. Centuries of planning, and everything the Guild of Seekers had fought for had been a mistake.
A deception of apocalyptic proportions.
He sprinted down the corridor, turning left, then right as the hallway did. There were stairs ahead; he leapt them in a single bound, running down yet another hallway.
The footsteps behind him drew ever closer.
Zeno pushed himself to the limit, pumping his legs as hard and fast as he could, nearly slamming into the wall ahead as the corridor took a sharp left turn. He continued forward as the hall opened up into blackness, a narrow stone ledge ahead, a black pit to the left and a stone wall to his right.
He looked down at his hands as he ran, seeing the black flesh that had replaced his own. Small hard nubs grew from the tips of his fingers, what would eventually grow to become claws. His sacrifice for tending to the Ascension. For transforming the still-living head of the Ironclad, injecting the liquified remains of the great Zagamar into its veins.
Zeno focused, pushing the awful vision of that head’s transformation. The first moment its eyes moved.
Focusing on him.
He sprinted across the narrow ledge, turning right down a wide hallway. He was near the exit now, only a dozen meters from the outside world.
The footsteps grew ever closer, their tempo even faster now.
It’s getting stronger.
Zeno glanced back, but saw only darkness.
He saw skeletons ahead on the floor ahead, piled up against a set of huge double-doors. Zeno waded into them until he was waist deep in the long-dead corpses, struggling to reach the doors. One of them was slightly ajar; he reached the gap between them, squeezing through. Beyond was a dark tunnel…and beyond that, the night sky.
Zeno broke into an all-out run, bursting from the entrance to the crypt into the cool night air. A stone path littered with the dead bodies of animals and men greeted him, leading away from the base of the mountain.
He followed the path, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
The sound of footsteps crunching on bone came from behind Zeno, and he ran even faster, pushing his body to its limit. His lungs were on fire now, his heart beating far too quickly. Sweat trickled into his eyes, stinging them. He wiped it away, focusing on the dark, twisted trees beyond the path…and the more conventional forest beyond.
The sensation of bugs falling onto his scalp came to him, and he swiped at them furiously. But more took their place, landing on his neck and shoulders, then crawling under his clothes.
It’s not real, he told himself. They’re not…
He heard the footsteps behind him closing in rapidly, and fumbled for the sword at his left hip, drawing it free from its scabbard.
Something slammed into his back, knocking his sword out of his hand and sending him flying onto his belly on the rocky path!
He slid for a few meters, rocks scraping at his belly and chest. He gasped, scrambling to his feet and rushing forward. But something grabbed his shoulder from behind, yanking him backward. Sharp black claws sank into his flesh there, sending agonizing pain shooting down his arm.
Zeno cried out, seeing another black hand reach around from behind, raking its claws down his chest and belly.
His uniform and flesh tore, his intestines spilling out of a gaping hole in his abdomen.
He stared at his innards, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. He felt numb, as if he was outside of his own body. As if this was happening to someone else.
The hand on his shoulder spun him around, then gripped him by the throat, claws piercing the flesh around his windpipe and wrapping around it.
Zeno’s gaze drew upward, his eyes widening. He heard a chanting sound in the distance, thousands of long-dead voices echoing in his mind.
He opened his mouth to scream, but never got the chance. There was a loud crunch as his windpipe was torn from his neck. Blood filled his mouth rapidly, a horrible hissing sound coming from his throat with each desperate, gurgling breath.
He was thrown backward onto the rocky path, a shadow looming over him, blocking the light of the stars and the three moons of Varta.
And even as he drowned in his own blood, Zeno could only watch in horror as the Dark One plunged a pitch-black hand into his guts, and began to feed its insatiable hunger.
A hunger that would devour the world.
At first, there was only darkness.
There was no sound, no feeling. Only a vague sense of self. When it had begun, it didn’t know. Time did not exist. There was only infinite nothingness, a void with no end. A sleep without dreams.
And then came the visions.
Bursts of color at first, then fully formed images. A white house on a hill. An old, wrinkled hand holding a much smaller hand. His hand, he realized. And he knew then that he was a he. That he was human. That the wrinkled hand holding his was his grandfather’s.
He felt a profound sense of comfort, holding that hand. The air was sweet with flowers, the pleasant hum of bees buzzing in the air around them.
I am Dominus.
The image faded, replaced by others. Hints of a castle, then a bed of flowers. Soft lips on his, and twinkling blue eyes. His wife. Young, beautiful. Before…
An image of fire. Screams piercing the air. And a small boy holding a broken lantern, cheeks wet with tears.
Just a mistake, Conlan. It’s not your fault.
Dominus smelled the smoke, the scent of flesh burning. Tasted the ash on his tongue, dry and bitter. Bitter like his memories.
Too young to remember. He’ll never know.
But Dominus had remembered.
The images faded, but the smell of smoke remained, as did the ashen taste in his mouth. He realized that he had a mouth. That he could feel it. A tongue. Teeth. And the ash…the horrible ash.
His mouth started to burn.
The pain spread to his tongue, to his lips. Spread across his face. A horrible burning, along with a pins-and-needles sensation, as when a limb fell asleep, then woke up. He took a breath in, and then coughed immediately as dust sucked into his lungs.
He was hungry for it suddenly, desperate for air. He hacked, then pulled air into his lungs. More dust came, and he coughed again, his head swimming. He could feel his chest now, the burning spreading across it. Then down his belly, and then his limbs.
He had arms now, and legs. And they felt as if they were on fire.
Dominus screamed, or at least he tried to. Only a wheeze came out, followed by a rattling in his throat. He took a deep breath in, and this time he did not cough.
He tried to open his eyes, but nothing happened. There was only blackness.
Where am I?
Dominus knew he was lying on his back, felt something hard and irregular underneath him through the burning pain all over his body. He tried to move, but could not. If he could’ve killed himself then to end the torture, he would have. But he could only lay there, accepting the pain.
It was impossible for Dominus to know whether he was going in and out of consciousness. Impossible to know how much time had passed since he’d become aware of himself. He only knew pain and darkness. Darkness and pain. There was no relief, no reprieve from this torture.
And then there was light.
At first he saw only brightness, in his left eye first, then his right. A blinding light that made his eyeballs ache. Then he saw blue, blurry at first, then sharpening slowly. A wisp of white against the blue. A sudden pain spread across his eyes, as if acid had been poured into them. Pain so awful that he tried to scream again. An inhuman screech; at first he did not realize it was he who’d made the sound. He tried to close his eyes, but nothing happened.
At length, the pain in his eyes abated. He tried to close his eyes again, and this time he found that he could.
Dominus heard an awful rasping sound, and realized it was his own breathing. He tried to lift his head up, but couldn’t. Tried to lift his arms, but they did not obey him. The burning pain all over his body was starting to fade, however. Still there, but lessened. Tolerable now.
It was clear now that he was lying on his back, staring up at the sky. His arms were at his sides, his legs out straight. And he was lying on something wet and prickly.
He attempted to move one arm again, and this time it obeyed him. But only a little, barely lifting off the ground. It was terribly heavy, as if made of lead. He couldn’t see it, still couldn’t move his head.
And then the hunger came.
A horrible cramp seized his belly, a sense of hunger so powerful that it overwhelmed the pain. He was suddenly ravenous, saliva pouring into his dry mouth. He swallowed, tasting more of that horrible ash, his chest burning as his saliva coursed down his esophagus.
Dominus lay there, his breath coming in short gasps, the pain in his abdomen coming and going.
After what seemed like hours, he tried to move again, tried to roll over onto his side. After a few tries, he managed to do so, rolling onto his right side. Something flopped onto the grass in front of his face; a long, charred hunk of meat. No, it was an arm. The skin was charred, with deep cracks exposing red and gray flesh underneath. A hint of pearly-white bone shone through the deepest of these, as it did on the tips of the limb’s fingers.
Dominus stared at it, wondering who had dropped it there. Wondered if whoever it was was standing on his other side, ready to attack him.
He tried to push himself away from the limb, and saw it move.
A chill ran through him.
He wiggled his fingers, and saw the limb before him move again, fingers flexing just as he’d commanded his to.
They’re mine, he realized. The charred arm was his.
A surge of panic threatened to overtake him, and he quelled it instinctively, his heart hammering in his chest.
He focused on his breathing, concentrated on the air coming in through his nose, then out through his mouth. In and out, in and out. His heart slowed, and he felt the panic subsiding.
The arm is mine.
It was a fact now, nothing to be frightened of. It was his, and he had to accept it. Reality could not be bargained with. There was no god to pray to. Nothing that could save him from this.
He tried to move his head to look down, and found that he could. He saw his chest and belly, and his legs. All covered in soot. All charred, like his arm.
Dominus spotted water a meter beyond his feet. A small pond nearby. The sight brought on an intense thirst; he fantasized about cool water in his mouth, moistening his dry throat. Imagined swallowing it. He tried to move his legs, but they were still dead; he rolled onto his belly, gripping the ground with his blackened fingers. Bit by bit he rotated himself, his eyes glued to the water. He rotated until he was facing it, crawling forward. After what seemed like an eternity, he made it to the edge of the water.
He dipped his head into it, sucking at the cool fluid.
Or at least he tried to; the water fell right out of his mouth. He could not move his lips, he realized. He lapped at it with his tongue, treasuring every drop of it.
At length, his thirst sated, he pulled his head up from the water….and saw a rippling reflection there. He couldn’t make sense of it at first, not with the water having been agitated by his drinking. He waited for the surface to go still, staring into the water, his eyes focused on his reflection. After a while, an image came into focus. He stared at it, his breath catching in his throat.
And then he screamed.
Birds chittered overhead, gliding lazily over the treetops of the Deep forest, the small flock forming a black ‘V’ against the bright blue sky. The sun’s rays lit upon the forest floor, casting its warmth on Hunter’s shoulders as he hiked through the woods. He savored the heat, knowing that it would end soon enough. The past few nights had been chilly, the weather gradually cooler with each passing day. Fall was approaching, and autumn and winter here on Varta were mild compared to those on Earth, the temperature rarely dropping below freezing. The leaves hadn’t yet fallen from the trees, but there was a definite crispness to the air after the sun started to set.
Hunter adjusted his metal helmet, his scalp sore from having worn it all day. It was functional but not particularly sexy, leaving his face visible from the eyebrows down. He’d gotten into the habit of wearing it after discovering it could protect his mind from absorbing the emotions and memories of everything around him. A necessary precaution in a world where a single mistake could not only cost you your life, but your very soul.
“How you holding up, bro?” he asked, glancing to his left. A huge creature walked at his side, a beast about nine feet tall, with two pairs of heavily-muscled arms and a body covered in black armored plates. It was Xerxes, the brother he’d never known he’d had, born on this strange world after his mother Neesha had been sucked into an ancient portal. A one-way ticket from Earth to Varta…with no way back.
Xerxes grunted, raising one hand and flashing a few hand signals. Hunter concentrated, trying to figure out what Xerxes was signing. His brother had been changed by this world, turned into a half-man, half-beetle. Barely able to talk, he’d been teaching Hunter sign language for the past few days.
“Good,” he saw Xerxes sign. “You?”
“Tired,” Hunter grumbled. “Hungry.”
Xerxes grunted again, wagging one finger.
“NO TALK,” he lectured. “SIGN.”
“Right,” Hunter grumbled. He signed slowly, struggling to remember the words. “Tired,” he signed. “Hungry.”
Xerxes nodded in approval. He reached down as he walked, plucking a large white mushroom from the base of a nearby tree and offering it to Hunter, who made a face. Xerxes shrugged, chowing down on the stuff. Little pieces of it stuck to the corners of his mouth.
“Nasty,” Hunter muttered. He hated mushrooms, as any rational human being should. But the Ironclad – the name for creatures like Xerxes – loved the stuff. It was the beetle in them, apparently. At least that’s what Vi had told him.
He sighed, wishing she were here. Not that Xerxes wasn’t fine company, but it was a whole hell of a lot easier to speak with Vi. Considering she could, you know, speak. He’d told Xerxes a lot about himself in the last couple of days. About their father. About what their mother’s journey to this world had done to the man. And about what Dad had done to Hunter.
And in return, Hunter had a lot he wanted to learn about his brother, but with Xerxes barely able to say more than a few words at a time…
“What’s wrong?” Xerxes signed. Hunter grimaced.
“Wish you could talk,” he admitted aloud. Mostly because he didn’t know how to sign it. Xerxes took the opportunity to show him, signing slowly with one of his four hands. Hunter watched him, then repeated the signs a few times.
“ME…TOO,” Xerxes confessed afterward. His voice was deep and gravelly, his voice box transformed by decades of exposure to the powerful wills of beetles in the cave the Ironclad lived in. Descendants of peasants who’d risen up against the kingdom of Tykus half a century ago, the Ironclad were loyal only to Xerxes…and to Neesha, their queen. Xerxes and Neesha were both immortal, possessed of the ability to heal from nearly any injury. And they never aged. It had something to do with the blue bioluminescent goo that they generated; Xerxes had a long translucent mane extending from the top of his head all the way down his spine, forming a short, broad tail. It was filled with the glowing stuff.
“I miss Vi,” Hunter signed. He felt bad about telling Xerxes, afraid he might offend his brother. But he’d promised himself he’d be brutally honest with the guy, even at the risk of hurting him.
Holding things in is the exact opposite of letting them go, Vi had taught him.
“She talks a lot,” Xerxes signed, smirking down at him. Hunter chuckled.
“True,” he signed back. “But most of it is worth listening to.”
They continued forward, settling into a comfortable silence. It’d been days since they’d started their journey from the Ironclad caves toward the Kingdom of the Deep. Days since they’d barely escaped from the Castle Wexford – the fortress owned by Duke Dominus – with their lives. Neesha and Vi were still in the Ironclad caves, preparing for a war against Tykus. Apparently the kingdom had been attacked by the Guild of Seekers, much of it set ablaze. Rumor had it the Seekers had managed to raid the Acropolis itself, the massive fortress in the center of the kingdom.
If it weren’t for Zagamar, Hunter thought darkly, I’d still be with Vi and Mom.
His stomach growled, loud enough that Xerxes heard it. His brother offered a hunk of mushroom again, and again Hunter declined. Still, Xerxes had a point. The longer Hunter went without eating, the more likely that Zagamar would try to take over. And that wasn’t something Hunter was keen on suffering through, on account of the fact that good ‘ol Zaggie was a megalomaniacal asshole.
Never shoulda drank that shit, he groused silently.
It was too late, of course. He’d swallowed the liquified brains of Zagamar, a Legend who’d died over six thousand years ago. And now the Legend’s will was exerting itself slowly, taking over Hunter’s body and mind bit by bit. There was only one way to stop the bastard from transforming Hunter into Zagamar himself…and that was to go to the Deep.
According to Mom, the Deep had the power to lock in his traits, making who he was now…his mind and body…permanent. The downside, of course, was that nothing would be able to change him afterward. He wouldn’t be able to absorb memories anymore, or sense other people’s emotions. He’d basically end up being the guy he’d been on Earth. An outcome he hardly looked forward to…but the alternative was to lose himself.
Hunter sighed, ignoring his tired legs, keeping up with Xerxes despite the guy’s much longer stride. The sooner they made it to the Deep, the sooner he’d be rid of Zagamar. Or at least the sooner he’d stop the guy from taking over. He could summon the ancient Legend if he chose, a process that temporarily gave him Zagamar’s incredible intellect and remarkable ability to view the world in slow-motion. At the expense of risking the guy taking his mind over completely.
He glanced up at Xerxes, tapping his arm.
“How you doing?” he signed.
“Tired,” Xerxes signed back. “Normally sleep during the day.”
Hunter nodded. Vi had mentioned that the Ironclad were nocturnal. Xerxes had flipped his sleep schedule to accommodate Hunter. He was surprisingly thoughtful and considerate for a monster. Sure, they couldn’t talk much…not yet, until Hunter learned more sign language…but Xerxes was loyal as hell, and had sacrificed himself on more than one occasion to save Hunter.
“Want rest?” Hunter signed. Xerxes shook his head.
“Go until you tired,” he signed back.
Hunter nodded. Xerxes understood Hunter’s greatest fear – that with every day that passed, he might be losing a little more of himself. Subtly, imperceptibly. It was the nature of this cursed world that anyone with a stronger will than you could change you. Could make you more like them. Plants, animals, people…anyone with a more powerful will could do it. On earth, you got to stay yourself. But here…
He glanced up at Xerxes, wondering how his brother felt about having become a monster.
“Hey,” he ventured. “What was it like? You know, becoming…you?” Xerxes smirked.
“A monster?” he signed.
“FEAR,” Xerxes answered. He paused for a moment. “WHEN STOP? IF…STOP?”
Hunter nodded, remembering what it’d been like to have Zagamar take over. The fear he’d felt each time, wondering if he’d be able to take control back from Zagamar…or whether he’d lose himself completely.
“WONDER,” Xerxes continued, tapping on his chest, then his head. “HOW MUCH…LEFT.”
“How much of you was left?” Hunter inquired.
Hunter considered this, saying nothing more. As much as he hated to admit it, when he first realized his brother was, well, his brother, he struggled more than a little with seeing the guy as something other than a big dumb brute. A very violent big dumb brute. He hated the fact that he’d made that assumption purely based on Xerxes’ appearance…especially since people in Tykus – and those back on Earth – had done the same to him because of the color of his skin.
He sighed, trekking onward, rubbing his right shoulder absently. It still hurt after being struck by an arrow during their raid on the Castle Wexford. The cut on his lower back wasn’t faring much better. Not for the first time, he wished he had Xerxes’ and Mom’s ability to heal almost instantly. He told his brother as much.
“GIFT,” Xerxes replied. “CURSE.”
“Gotta think it’s more of a gift than a curse,” Hunter ventured. “Watching you get burned alive and heal a few minutes later is pretty awesome.” He grimaced, rubbing his shoulder some more. “Gonna take me weeks to heal from that damn arrow.”
“WANT…OOZE?” Xerxes inquired. Hunter glanced at Xerxes’ glowing blue mane.
“Not gonna lie,” he admitted. “I’m a little tempted.”
“Why?” Hunter asked. “She gonna be mad?”
“Ah,” Hunter muttered. He hadn’t thought of that. “How about we wait until the Deep,” he decided. Xerxes nodded.
“Hey,” Hunter stated, perking up. “Since we’re going to the Deep, you can lock in your traits,” he realized. “So you won’t have to worry about losing your voice anymore.”
“Or getting it back,” Xerxes signed. Hunter grimaced.
“Right,” he signed back.
He sighed, feeling suddenly glum. There was no good outcome here for either of them, only a choice between the lesser of two bad ones. He suddenly wished – and not for the first time – that he’d thought things through a little more when he’d met the Lady. If he hadn’t been so caught up in his guilt and obsession with revenge, he would’ve thought twice about trusting her. And he’d never have gone into that damn crypt. A master manipulator, Lady Camilla had sensed his weakness instantly, and had taken advantage of it.
And him…in more ways than one.
He felt a tap on his shoulder, and glanced up, realizing Xerxes was trying to get his attention.
“Yeah?” he asked. Xerxes wagged one index finger.
“Sign,” Xerxes signed.
“What?” Hunter signed. Xerxes gestured ahead.
“Look,” he signed.
Hunter looked ahead, spotting something rising far above the treetops a quarter mile ahead. A huge black tower piercing through the forest, tapering to a sharp point at the top. It had to be over a hundred feet tall, with lush green vines crawling up the sides of it. He saw more towers beyond, mostly hidden by the dense foliage.
“Almost there,” Xerxes signed.
Hunter nodded, feeling a powerful sense of déjà vu. He knew this place, had seen it before. Not in his own memories, but in the memories he’d absorbed from a mace back at Vi’s house, after she’d been mostly killed by Traven. He’d discovered that the more memories he absorbed, the harder time he had remembering which ones were his and which weren’t. Thus his helmet.
They strode toward the spires, eventually reaching a wide dirt path leading them toward it. A few minutes later, the path ended abruptly in a chasm easily a quarter-mile wide ahead. A black stone bridge some twenty feet wide spanned the gap, supported by thick stone columns rising up from the chasm. This bridge led to a massive wall made of the same black stone. Trees grew against the wall, and thick vines crawled up its surface all the way to the top…so many that their leaves almost completely obscured the stone. Hunter and Xerxes stopped before the bridge.
“Guessing this is it,” Hunter ventured, glancing up at Xerxes.
“Yes,” his brother signed.
“Don’t see any guards,” Hunter noted. Xerxes grunted, pointing up with one hand. Hunter frowned, spotting a flock of large birds gliding near the top of the spires high above. He raised an eyebrow at his brother. “You’re saying this place is guarded by birds?”
Xerxes didn’t answer, stepping onto the bridge, his feet thumping on the black stone as he made his way toward the wall ahead. Hunter sighed, following behind. He glanced over the edge of the bridge; there was a several-hundred-foot drop to a river below…and no railing to stop people from stumbling off to their deaths.
“Not exactly kid-friendly,” he grumbled.
They made their way across the bridge, reaching a huge stone archway in the wall ahead. There was no closed portcullis, no massive double-doors. Nothing to stop them from coming in. Which was odd. Why go through all the trouble of building a wall if you were going to let anyone walk through? But he didn’t have time to ponder the question. They passed under the archway, coming to wide stairs leading upward a good thirty feet. This too was strange; the leftmost part of the staircase was normal, with normal-sized steps. The middle had much larger steps, while the rightmost part was a ramp leading upward, its surface roughened instead of slippery…and with a carpet of dead vines sprawled all the way up its surface.
“Huh,” Hunter said, stopping at the foot of the stairs. “Weird.”
If Xerxes found it weird, he certainly didn’t show it; the big brute started walking up the middle portion of the stairs, the huge steps slightly too large for even him. Hunter stuck to the leftmost section – the one with sensibly-proportioned steps – making his way up to the top.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
For there, spread out before him, was a massive open space surrounded on all sides by that tall black stone wall, easily as large as the kingdom of Tykus. But in stark contrast to Tykus’s countless buildings and cobblestone streets, this place was lush with trees and shrubs, short green grass dotted with wildflowers serving as verdant streets. Long wooden buildings with curved roofs dotted the landscape, some over sixty feet long and twenty feet tall. Other buildings seemed to be built into the earth itself; indeed, wherever there was a hill, the entrance to an underground building could be seen. And in some of the larger trees, treehouses had been built. Not the simple, small treehouses one might expect, but huge structures built across numerous trees, with wooden bridges connecting them.
And spread throughout the landscape were five huge spires made of black stone, vines crawling up their sheer walls. Each had to be over thirty stories tall, and tapered into sharp pyramidal peaks at the top.
Hunter stared at the magnificent view, then realized his mouth was open. He shut it with a click.
“Wow,” he breathed, glancing at Xerxes. He couldn’t read the guy’s expression, as usual.
“Agreed,” Xerxes signed.
A group of men walked out of one of the long wooden buildings nearest Hunter and Xerxes, then started running toward them. The men were unarmed, with tanned skin and long black hair. They were wearing loincloths…and little else.
“Incoming,” Hunter warned, taking a step back and reaching for the hilt of his longsword. But Xerxes shook his head.
“HOLD,” he ordered.
Hunter obeyed, forcing himself to relax as the men ran toward them. They slowed as they reached Hunter and Xerxes, stopping a few feet away. Which was a bit too close for Hunter’s comfort.
“Hello!” one of them greeted, smiling broadly and raising one hand. “I’m Kip.”
“Hunter,” Hunter replied, pointing at himself. “This is Xerxes,” he added.
Kip and the others nodded…and promptly took to staring at Xerxes.
“What are you?” Kip asked the big guy.
“He’s an Ironclad,” Hunter answered. Kip frowned.
“Never seen one like him before. Was he made?”
“Was he made, or was he born?” Kip clarified. Hunter glanced at Xerxes, who just stood there looking down at them.
“Made,” Hunter admitted.
Kip and the other men nodded…and proceeded to stare at Xerxes for a long, increasingly uncomfortable moment.
“Is this the Kingdom of the Deep?” Hunter inquired, breaking the silence. Kip blinked, turning to him.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “This is our home. What is yours?”
“I uh,” Hunter began, then stopped. He could say that Tykus was his home, but these guys probably didn’t get along with the kingdom. “I’m an Original, from Earth.”
Kip frowned, glancing at his fellows. Then he shook his head.
“I don’t understand.”
“I came through the Gate,” Hunter clarified. “From another world.”
Kip’s eyes widened, and he broke out into a huge smile, reaching out and grabbing Hunter by the wrists. Hunter resisted the urge to jerk his arms away…and decapitate the guy with his sword.
“An Original!” Kip exclaimed. He turned to his fellows. “From the Great Turtle, like our Ancestors!” Kip turned back to Hunter. “Tykus didn’t get you?”
“They did,” Hunter admitted. “But I escaped.”
“Ah,” Kip replied. “This is good, this is good. Come!” he ordered, pulling Hunter forward. “The Elders will want to meet you!”
Hunter glanced back at Xerxes, who merely shrugged, stomping behind Kip and Hunter as Kip dragged Hunter forward. At first Hunter thought that Kip was going to take him to the long building the men had come out of, but they passed to the right of it, continuing down a wide street of short grass and flowers. The air was fragrant with the flowers’ sweet perfume, and Hunter’s alarm at being pulled along by total strangers soon gave way to a pleasant contentedness. Vi’s training made it instantly clear what was going on; the environment was changing his mood, even with his helmet on. Either Kip’s enthusiasm was affecting him, or the surrounding environment was. Either way, it was a good sign; people here were generally happy…and happy people didn’t brutally murder strangers.
Not that Hunter was particularly worried; these men were unarmed, and Xerxes could wipe the floor with them. And if they really threatened Hunter, Hunter could always unleash Zaggie on them.
He allowed himself to relax, giving in to the emotions around him.
“So this is the Kingdom of the Deep, huh?” Hunter asked. He looked around. “Where is everyone?”
“Hmm?” Kip replied.
“Where’s all the people?”
“Most are in the Shrine of the Ancestors,” Kip answered. “There aren’t many people here,” he added. “Less than a thousand.”
“Not much of a kingdom,” Hunter opined.
“Most don’t choose the Ancestor spirit,” Kip explained.
“The Elders will explain,” Kip reassured.
Hunter glanced at Xerxes, who shrugged, and they followed Kip and the other men as they made their way deeper into the kingdom. Far in the distance – in what appeared to be the center of the kingdom – there was a lake with a large island in the center of it. And on that island was a large ziggurat-like structure, made of the same black stone as the walls and the spires.
“What’s that?” Hunter asked, gesturing at the ziggurat.
“The Shrine of our Ancestors,” Kip answered. “That’s where we’re going.”
Hunter glanced around; there were no more of the long buildings, nor the treehouses he’d seen earlier. Instead, small hills flanked the grassy path they walked on, large pits dug in the sides of them.
“I’m surprised you just let us in,” Hunter admitted to Kip. “You guys don’t have much in the way of defenses,” he added. Kip frowned.
“You have the wall,” Hunter clarified, “…but there’s no gate. No guards. And you don’t have any weapons,” he added, gesturing at Kip. “What if Tykus attacked?”
“There is more to the Kingdom of the Deep than your eyes see,” Kip replied. “And the Guardians protect us.”
“Hope you never see them,” Kip stated. “Anyone who does, it is the last thing they see.”
Kip offered no more explanation, bringing Hunter and Xerxes through the hilly terrain. The land leveled out as they got closer to the lake ahead, allowing Hunter a better view of the area to either side. A quarter-mile to his right, massive trees grew, large birds perched atop them. One of the huge black spires shot upward from within this forest; he spotted countless ledges on each side of the spire, with more birds perched there. Lots of them. And they weren’t small either.
“I hate birds,” Hunter grumbled.
“Mom too,” Xerxes signed. Which was true. Hunter had forgotten about that; Mom always hated birds - and spiders - viewing them with an unwarranted suspicion. Trips to the beach had been great fun for Dad, but for Hunter and Mom, the festivities had always carried a dread of seagulls descending upon them like vultures, tearing them apart piece by bloody piece.
“You hate ‘em too?” Hunter asked. Xerxes shook his head.
“NO…FEAR FOR…SELF,” he replied. “ONLY…FAMILY.”
Kip glanced back at Xerxes with surprise.
“You talk?” he asked. Xerxes grunted, but nodded.
Hunter watched the birds in the distance warily, trying to figure out what kind they were. But they were too far away.
“What’re those?” he asked, pointing at them.
“Birds,” Kip answered.
“What kind,” Hunter clarified, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Many kinds,” Kip replied. “We celebrate all spirits here.”
Kip glanced at him sidelong, a frown on his face.
“You do not understand spirits?” he asked.
“Everything has a spirit,” Kip explained, gesturing all around him. “The grass at our feet. The birds. Anything that flies, crawls, swims, digs…even us,” he added, gesturing at himself and Hunter. “We have human spirits. Others have animal spirits. And most choose to have many spirits.”
“You will see,” Kip promised, patting Hunter on the shoulder. “The Elders will teach you.”
They reached the edge of the lake them, stopping at the shore. Kip put a hand to his mouth, emitting a shrill whistle. Moments later, Hunter saw a rippling in the water ahead of them; something emerged from its surface, coming right for them. It looked for all the world like a huge turtle shell, easily twenty feet in diameter.
Then he saw a huge turtle head pop out of the water. Or rather, a turtle-ish head. Instead of having eyes on the sides, they were facing forward…and the thing had a face of sorts. A squat nose, and a mouth with short, stubby white teeth. And tiny ears on either side of its head.
It looked vaguely…human.
The creature swam up to them, stopping at the shore. Then it spun around slowly, until it was facing away from them. Kip hopped on its back, gesturing for Hunter to do so as well. Hunter followed, hopping onto the turtle’s shell, and Xerxes did as well. To Hunter’s surprise, the massive turtle handled their weight easily, and immediately began swimming toward the island in the center of the lake, leaving the other men behind.
“What is this thing?” Hunter asked.
“A great turtle,” Kip replied. He grinned. “Not as big as the turtle you lived on,” he added.
Hunter frowned. His mother was black – or had been, before becoming an Ironclad. But she’d also been part Native American, from the Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts. They believed that the Earth was a huge turtle, and that everyone lived on its shell. It made sense that these people would know of the Great Turtle, he supposed. The Gate to this world was in Massachusetts, after all…and before the pilgrims came, Massachusetts would’ve been populated by natives. They must have come through the Gate long ago, creating the Kingdom of the Deep.
“Its face looked almost human,” Hunter noted. Kip nodded.
“Sassamon took the spirit of the turtle long ago,” he explained, kneeling down and patting the turtle shell. “And that of a Giant. He is very old…one of the oldest in the kingdom. Some say he will never die.”
“Wait, you’re saying he was human once?”
“He has the spirit of a human,” Kip replied. “According to legend, his grandparents were human, and accepted the spirit of the turtle. Sassamon took the spirit of a Giant.”
“By spirit you mean the traits of things,” Hunter deduced.
“In a way,” Kip agreed. “The Elders will tell you more.”
The turtle – Sassamon – took them slowly across the lake, eventually reaching the shore of the island. They disembarked, and Sassamon turned about, vanishing below the surface of the water. Kip strode toward the ziggurat – the Shrine of the Ancestors – motioning for Hunter and Xerxes to follow. The Shrine occupied a large space – it was at least a hundred yards squared – but was only five or six stories tall. The entrance was a small rectangular doorway, but with no door. Stairs led downward into darkness beyond. Kip led them to this entrance, then stopped, turning to face them.
“Stay here,” he stated, holding up one hand. “Do not enter until I come for you.”
“Where are you going?” Hunter asked. Kip smiled.
“Inside,” he replied. “To speak with the Elders. No one enters without their permission…and no one leaves the kingdom without their blessing.”
“Wait,” Hunter said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Anyone can come into the Kingdom of the Deep,” Kip answered. “But no one may leave without the Elders’ approval.” His smile faded. “And that,” he added, “…is seldom given without sacrifice.”
Destroyer of Legends will be available for Kindle and paperback January 2019!