Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Portcullis Awaits

The following is a short intro story, written for the first issue of Portcullis, by fantasy and superhero fiction author, Tim Nolen. Tim is most well-known for his books set in the Defiant Universe, a fictional story universe shared by all his books, featuring the superhero Defiant, and his friends. If you aren't familiar with his works, we suggest you go to Amazon and check him out.

Image Source: The Works of Shakespeare / Edited by Howard Staunton / The Illustrations by John Gilbert / Engraved by the Dalziel Brothers / Vol. 2 - Published: London: George Routledge and Sons, 1867
And now, on to our story...

The boy, no more than ten years old, had been gathering herbs and roots for his mother in the forest when he heard voices up ahead. He paused and scratched his unruly head of dirty blonde hair. There shouldn't be anyone out this way, not this deep in the forest. He was only here because his mother had twisted her ankle earlier this week and couldn't make the journey to gather the supplies she needed to make her poultices and potions. His mother was the closest thing to a healer in these parts, the only one the boy knew of in the wilderness settlements anyway.

He cocked his head to the side and listened to the people up ahead in the woods, but he couldn't see them. The trees were very thick here, and the area was ringed with low valleys and small hills. Despite himself, the boy decided to move closer to the sounds. He knew that most likely whoever was in these woods were brigands or worse, but curiosity got the better of him. Slowly he made his way through the trees, being careful where he stepped so as to not alert anyone of his presence.

He crept forward, and peered around a large oak. Up ahead, standing next to the side of a moss covered hill were several people. The boy dropped down to one knee and studied the group. There were six of them. They all were armed and dangerous looking, but not in a ruffian kind of way. They were cleaner than that, like they were geared up for a task at hand, not like they were going to lie in wait for some merchant. Besides, there were no merchants out here. There was no one out here. The boy decided then and there that they must be adventurers.

He was fairly certain that the nearest one was a mage of some kind. He bore no armor, but wore a tunic of the deepest gold color and sported a staff with a Ravens claw at the top. He had a belt on his waist with several expensive metal flasks attached to it. He also saw what appeared to be two scroll cases on the belt as well. The man, with his long flowing red hair, wore no weapons, other than a small dagger in his left boot. The boy nodded to himself. The man surely must be a wizard.

If he was a wizard, the man next to him was anything but. He was a bear of a man, nearly seven feet tall and half as wide. He had a long shaggy beard that trailed down to the middle of his chest and wore a metal helmet on his skull. A huge two handed broadsword was sheathed on his back and his chainmail glinted in the sunlight. He had two short swords strapped to his sides and laughed like a grizzly bear sated on salmon.

The third man was slight, almost rail thin, with a suit of jet black leather armor that seemed to almost shine. It looked like living water to the boy. The man had daggers and throwing knives tucked all about his person, at least a dozen, maybe more. His face was painted black with charcoal. The boy shivered when he thought of meeting this man in the dark.

The fourth person was a woman. She was short, maybe five feet tall at the most, with long red hair tied back into a ponytail that reached her waist. She wore splinted mail and was leaning on a wicked looking two headed axe. She had a patch over her left eye. The boy guessed her age at around twenty.

There was another woman, much taller and heavier, who bore a strong resemblance to the other girl. They might have been sisters. The boy was sure they were related. The taller woman wore her red hair short and sported a halberd across her shoulders, her arms draped across it. She smiled and laughed with the bear of a man. The boy guessed that they were more than friends.

The last man stood out to the boy. He was six feet tall with a neatly trimmed beard and brown hair cut close. He wore leather and studded leather armor and carried a crossbow, the likes of which the young man had never seen. It had three bolts in place, and three triggers. There was a hand crossbow attached to a lanyard at the man's hip. He looked bored. That was what made him stand out. The others seemed to be excited about something, the man with the crossbow not so much. The others seemed to be on an adventure, he looked more like he was working a job. 

"This is the place. I'm sure of it." The wizard was pointing at the hillside. The boy saw nothing but moss and leaves.

"You're sure?" The man bear asked as he unsheathed his giant sword. The wizard nodded and the man sighed, stepped forward and swung the sword downward, slicing at the moss against the hill. He made several slices and then stepped back, whistling.

"Nice." The shorter red head nodded at the side of the hill. The sword had stripped away the moss and revealed what looked like a series of iron bars spaced a little less than foot apart at the mouth of an old tunnel. 

"What in the seven Hells is that?" The taller sister asked. "It looks like some kind of cage."

"It's a portcullis." The wizard turned to her, a huge smile on his face. "It means we're in the right place."

"Hard to believe a treasure map actually lead us somewhere." The crossbowman hawked and spat. 

"The bars look sturdy. How do we get past them?" The taller sister asked.

"There must be a lever or something around here." The wizard motioned vaguely.

"If there is it wouldn't be on this side." The rail thin man in black shook his head. "I'll go. That's what you brought me for, right?"

He stepped forward and began to examine the entrance, his head cranning this way and that. The tunnel was maybe eight feet wide and roughly ten feet high. He dropped to his belly and looked this way and that. Finally he sighed and brushed the leaves off his black leather. Slowly he moved to the center of the Portcullis and eased a hand through the bars. From his vantage point behind the oak the boy watched in fascination as the man eased himself through the bars. The man almost seemed to compress his body as he did so.

"Do you see anything?" The shorter sister eased herself towards the bars.

"Maybe. Just a second." The man disappeared from view for a moment. 

There was an audible click that even the boy heard from where he watched. Suddenly the iron bars began to rise. They groaned in protest, as if they hadn't been moved in hundreds of years. 

"Nice work, Otter." The short girl smiled as he took a bow. He made an after you motion. She grinned and hefted her axe in two hands, began to walk into the tunnel.

"Wait!" The Wizard halted her with his voice.  He mumbled something and the tip of his staff began to glow. "Remember our order."

The group formed up in four rows. At the front was the short axe wielding sister. The big man was next, with Otter by his side.  In the middle was the wizard and the crossbowman, with the taller sister bringing up the rear. They spread out roughly five feet between rows.

The boy watched as they disappeared into the tunnel. The tops of the iron bars made it look like a grinning maw. He shuddered at the thought. Slowly their light faded from sight. The boy stood up and crept closer. He moved to within yards of the opening. As he gazed down the black tunnel, he felt a need begin, a need to enter. He started slowly forward, as if beckoned by the unknown. He needed to go inside, wanted to go inside.

Suddenly, there was a loud scream and the sounds of steel on steel. The boy fell backwards, away from the entrance, landed on his backside. Screams and groans filled the tunnel. Something or someone bellowed in rage. The boy back peddled as he heard the sound of running feet.

The crossbowman was rushing up the tunnel, his weapon aimed behind him. He fired a bolt at something unseen. He was almost at the entrance when the bars slammed down hard. It was all he could do to not be hit by them. Unfortunately he was trapped inside the tunnel. He grabbed at the bars, dropped his crossbow. It was then he spied the boy on the ground a few yards away. 

"Run, boy!" He hissed. Behind him the sounds of something scrapping the ground could be heard. The man turned back toward the sound and reached for his weapon. He never made it. A flash of red hide and claws raked out of the darkness and drug the man back down the tunnel in a shower of blood and screams.

The boy sat there, rooted to the spot. His body was numb with terror. It took him several minutes to compose himself enough to sit up, and eventually stand. He slowly backed away, but stopped and looked back at the entrance. The crossbow sat there, wedged between the bars, half in and half out of the tunnel. The boy gulped and took a step towards it, then another. He wasn't sure why, he only knew he needed to have it. He bent down and grasped it, began to wiggle it out from between the bars. It was almost free when he felt a stab of pain. A massive hand with razor like claws raked the top of his hand, leaving four deep furrows in his skin. He fell backward, with the crossbow, sobbing in pain   
Two dull yellow eyes stared out at him from the darkness. The boy wanted to run, wanted to flee, but couldn't. He was transfixed by those eyes. An evil, hollow sounding laugh echoed through the tunnel.

"Come join us beyond the Portcullis young one." A voice spoke to him. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck. The boy felt like someone had stepped on his shoulders. "We'll be waiting for your return."

The boy fled in terror then, as the sound of demonic laughter filled the air behind him. He glanced back and saw the moss once again begin to cover the entrance. He tore through the woods, the laughter echoing through his soul.

"The Portcullis is waiting. Always waiting."

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