Friday, 1 November 2013

FREE CHAPTER ONE: The World Below by Mike Phillips

 
The World Below
Chronicles of the Goblin King Book One
By Mike Phillips
Please Visit: mikephillipsfantasy.com
Chapter One
Baron Finkbeiner sat upon his throne, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his guest. Unable to contain his irritation, he fidgeted ceaselessly, first drumming his fingers and then wringing his hands. Patience was not one of his virtues. He sent his guards to fetch Jason Hume hours ago and he was tired of the delay.
Perhaps you got the better of them, he mused, unconcerned about the fate of his guards. Jason Hume was no ordinary man. It was said he had abilities strange and terrible. That was why the Baron needed him so badly. No, I would have heard something by now.
At last the Baron lifted his great bulk from the throne and climbed down to the dirt floor. Perched on a dais made of fifty-five gallon drums, the throne was an odd looking contraption.
It was an old lawn chair, covered in scraps of aluminum foil, streamers, gold stars, and pinwheels. Ornamented plastic soda bottles hung from the armrests and spun in circles even though there was no wind. Party lights were strung along its frame, blinking like many-colored stars. All of this contrived to make it look less like the garbage it was in the dim light.
The rest of the chamber was not nearly so charming. The place was dank and poorly lit. The walls were paneled in roughly cut wood, boards four foot long nailed into squares--the type of pallet used in commercial shipping. Water seeped in through the walls and mud was everywhere.
When he reached the floor, a puddle was underfoot and Finkbeiner had to be careful not to slip. Despite the hazards, his impatience drove him to pace back and forth, stretching his muscles and fiddling with a length of cord about his waist. The act did little for his state of mind. As time continued ticking by, he became more and more agitated.
Hearing something, he stopped short. There were voices, indistinct, distant. Booted feet approached, stomping and shuffling upon the floor. As they drew nearer, the Baron could recognize the feral grunting of his guards.
They were short of breath, but whether through exertion or fear, Finkbeiner could not tell. He then realized it was a struggle for control. It was all a game. Their prisoner was resisting, not so much as to earn punishment, but enough to make their work difficult.
With a sly smile on his face, he slipped his feet from his low cut shoes and dug them into the mud. The great Earth was his home and gave up its secrets like a jilted lover. He wiggled his toes, his keen senses reading the small vibrations in the ground.
The smile swept across his features, impossibly wide. His guest had finally arrived.
Only then did Baron Finkbeiner remember the most important part of the meeting. Giggling as he went, he hurried over to a corner of the chamber where he found an old chest. It was a sturdy thing of wood and iron with a modern lock fitted into the hasp.
After a brief search of his pockets, he produced a small key and inserted it into the lock. It failed to turn. Uttering a few curses, the Baron tried to force the key to work. No matter how profane his commands became, the lock would not open. Giving up, the Baron returned to his pockets. He wore a robe made of various scraps of fabric. It looked more like a patchwork quilt than the attire of nobility. Once the garment had been brightly colored, but now it was faded and tattered.
Pockets of all kinds were sewn within the patches of fabric --even the Baron did not know them all. As the footsteps in the corridor grew louder, his search became desperate, even frantic. He found coins, charms, parchments, safety pins, buttons, even a whole watermelon--he had no idea how that gotgot there--but no key.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. He remembered a cord hanging around his thick neck.
At the end of the cord was a brass key. It fit into the lock, and, with a turn and a click, opened the chest. Inside was a crystal ball the size of a fist. The ball was alive with energy, softly glowing white. With a satisfied grin, Baron Finkbeiner took the crystal ball out of the chest and thrust it into a pocket of his robe just as his guest entered the room.
Standing in the doorway, one of the guards announced, “You are in the presence of his Excellency, Baron Finkbeiner, Dragon of Worms, Lord and Protector of the World Below.”
“No need to be so formal on this occasion,” said the Baron. His thick hands fidgeted, touching the crystal ball time and time again. “Mister Hume, welcome, welcome. Do please come in.”
Where Baron Finkbeiner was short and rather stout, Hume was his opposite. Lean and muscular, he towered over the guards. Even though he had a burlap sack over his head, he would not suffer anyone to guide him as he marched into the room.
“You may remove his blindfold,” Finkbeiner ordered the guards. The guards weren’t human. They stood on two legs and had two arms, but there all similarities ended. They had piggy faces and squint eyes. Their ears were large and floppy.
With a hand that looked more a cloven hoof, one of the guards did as he was told. When the bag came off, Hume scowled, his quick eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, taking everything in.
“What?” snapped Hume.
“No need to be so rude,” the Baron replied, pleased with himself. He was unable to keep his hand from entering the pocket of his robe and fingering the crystal ball once more.
With a wave of his hand, he released the guards. They backed away.
“Following the ancient accords, I have invited you here in good faith to make a bargain.”
“What is it?”
Pacing thoughtfully back and forth, the Baron said, “Something valuable has been stolen from me.”
“You drag me all the way here because you can’t look after your toys?”
“Now, now, let me finish. This is no trifle I am speaking of. The Blade of Caro has been taken.”
Hume burst into laughter. “What goes around comes around.”
“It is rightfully mine,” said Baron Finkbeiner indignantly. Perpetuating the lie he was so accustomed to telling, he went on, “I won it in a duel. The spoils of combat give me right to claim it as my own.” “So, Frick and Frock here let the only weapon that can kill their boss get stolen? I’d hate to see their bonuses at the end of the year.” Hume crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’ll get it for you?”
“Because of this!” said the Baron, holding out the crystal ball with a flourish.
“So what? I can get one of those off the internet for twenty bucks.”
“Look inside.”
The Baron held out his hand. The crystal ball began to shine with the purest light--warm and sensuous as a spring morning. The light grew brighter andmore intense, filling the room. It was alive with power, enchanting in its simple beauty, and drawing every living thing toward it.
Lightning struck the ceiling and floor, then the walls on all sides. The pallets were blown to splinters. Thick mud oozed through the gaps like blood. A half-second later, the thunder clap was deafening.
The guards fell to the floor, holding their ears. Shards of wood protruded from their scaly skin, shedding dripping blood as black as tar.
When the smoke cleared, the Baron stood frozenwith his hand clutching the crystal ball. He hadn’t been touched. Neither had Hume.
“What kind of a stunt was that?” said Hume dangerously. Electricity sparked at his fingertips.
“Sorry, sorry, my fault,” the Baron sputtered. “I should have explained. All I meant was to have you take a look inside.”
“You can’t trap me in that,” Hume said slowly, as if to a halfwit. “Try it and the Blade of Caro will be the least of your problems.”
“No, no, you are quite right. No tricks--you have my word.”
“That’s worth a pile of dung.”
Extending his hand, the Baron asked, “Please? Have a look?” He smiled his wicked smile, showing a mouthful of pointed teeth.
Glaring, uneasy, Hume did as he was asked.
Light from the crystal ball shone once more. This time Hume gave himself up to its magic, allowing the warm light to surround and envelope him. His skin tingled. He looked up and found the Baron travelling into the light with him.
“Here we are. Not much longer now,” the Baron reassured him.
They floated in a blue sky. The air was fresh and smelled of flowers. Clouds as thick as cotton dotted the air around them. Below was a little homestead. The walls were made of logs and the roof of shake shingles. There was a wide garden with a cherry orchard and strawberry patch. A pasture held a jersey cow and a pair of goats. Chickens pecked in the yard.
“Nice place,” Hume said noncommittally.
“I try to make my guests as comfortable as possible.”
“Prisoners, you mean.”
“Yes, quite so, but let’s not quibble over semantics.”
“Your prisoners wouldn’t call it that.”
They landed on the garden path and walked up to the front door. A knock on the door was met with silence. No one was home.
“This way, I think,” said the Baron. “My prisoner, as you say, will not be able to see us or touch us. We are only observers, not really here at all if you take my meaning.”
“Shared illusion. I know the drill.”
“Good, then it goes without saying we cannot harm each other either.”
Hume gave the Baron a sidelong glance. “I’m losing patience.”
“Temper, temper,” the Baron said wickedly, leading them down the garden path. “I rule here.”
At the far side of the orchard, they found a trail to a little stream. The grass was thick and insects buzzed around their ears. A garter snake a foot long and thin as a pencil raced across the path.
When they came to a stream, they found a girl sitting on the rocks. Her back was turned to them and she held a pole in her hand. She had long, dark hair and a simple sundress with a floral print.
“Bastard,” Hume said. “I’ll kill you, Blade of Caro or no.”
“Now, now,” Finkbeiner said wickedly. “Nothing has changed. We remain in my throne room and I still hold the crystal in my hand.”
The sky went dark. Storm clouds grew thick above them. The chattering birds went silent. From the forest arose the voices of monsters. They growled and snorted. An odd collection of noises collected in what must have been a sentence. Whatever was said brought a roar of laughter and rush of activity. The unseen menace trudged through the undergrowth. Dead wood cracked under their feet. Boulders were kicked out of their away. A deer broke from the forest and ran across the stream. The monsters were close now, almost to the forest’s edge.
The girl turned. Her face was ugly with fear.“By my whim your sister remains safe or is tortured beyond all human imagining. She lives or dies. It’s up to you.”
“This is your bargain?”
The sky cleared. The sounds of the monsters faded into the distance. They were in the Baron’s chamber once again.
“Find the Blade for me.”
“I could refuse.”
Baron Finkbeiner considered the statement. “Come on Hume, I know what you are. Thief, murderer, you’re no better than me. You can do this to save your sister and earn a little coin along the way. Come now, I’ll owe you a big favor if you do this for me. You can’t tell me you haven’t thought about that.”
“How about I take her from you right now and save myself the trouble?”
The Baron smiled a devilish smile, revealing in some part what lay hidden beneath his human façade. “Because I could break it to powder in my hand before you had half the chance.”
Considering for a moment, Hume turned what he thought was an honorific to an insult and replied, “I’ll do it, you rotten worm.”
Unaffected by the intended slight, the Baron said, “Let’s not make it personal. This is business; nothing more. I know that little wench took it, the Lady Elizabeth. She has some noble idea about subverting my authority, no doubt. Find her and get the Blade. Then you can have your sister back without a scratch on her pretty little head.”
“Deal.”
“Not so fast. First you must swear by the blood oath not to use to Blade against me or to attack me in any way until our business is done.”
“The blood oath? With you? Forget it.”
The Baron’s hand became a claw at the end of a long tentacle, wrapped tightly around the crystal ball. The implication was all too obvious.
“All right, have it your way, but any dirty tricks and I’ll bring it to you with tongs. That hide of yours may be thick but there are powers beyond the Blade of Caro. Remember what Zeus did to the titans.”
“Yes, just so, I expect. Now come with me. All is prepared.”
For a moment, Hume stood still. Violence loomed as he looked upon the crystal ball. He was fuming but able to keep his emotions under control. Giving Finkbeiner a final, appraising look, he came to a decision and relaxed.
The choice did not go unnoticed. The Baron met his gaze and returned an appreciative nod. His hand was once again in human form. There was no transformation, no morphing of one shape to the next. It just happened.
Returning the crystal ball to the safety of his robe, the Baron put a hand on Hume’s shoulder. The gesture was accepted and they began walking. They didn’t speak as they made their way from the throne room but the tension between them had eased.
The corridors were as broad as they were tall, making gentle curves rather than straight lines. Even the intersection of hallways weren’t square. It was like the entire place was carved from stone by some great serpent, rather than nailed together from scrap wood by the Baron’s slaves.
A short walk brought them to the Laboratory. The room bustled with activity. Live specimens were everywhere. Some of the creatures were bizarre beyond imaging, sprouting thick fur or feathers in spectacular shapes and colors. Others were the product of unlikely coupling. There was a cat with a snake’s head and tail. A small dog had the claws of a lobster.
In most cases, their cages were barely large enough to hold them, let alone allow movement. More of the pig-men tended the various animals, but they cowered in fear upon the Baron’s arrival.
“Please excuse the hubbub,” said the Baron, tittering like a schoolgirl. “It’s the lesser harvest today.”
“Nice,” said Hume, pondering the implication.
“Oh, I do so much enjoy the smell of it. Don’t you?”
Disgusted by the odor, Hume said, “It stinks.”
“That’s fear.” The Baron’s eyes were alight, like he was strung out on some powerful narcotic. “They know what’s coming. The poor brutes aren’t as dumb as they look. Fear and blood, there’s nothing like it.”
A cauldron sat in the center of the room. It was as large as a dumpster, made of hammered copper turned green with corrosion. The lip was covered with the blood and gore of untold heinous rituals. Fire burned underneath, flaming high as they approached. The copper glowed with the heat, shining with a reddish orange light like the sun.
Unaffected by the heat, the Baron walked toward the cauldron. Hume followed a few steps behind. Even though the slaves backed away, neither the Baron nor Hume broke a sweat. This was the Baron’s work. He kept Hume safe until the deal was finished.
Inside the cauldron, a rancid mixture resembling feces was bubbling. The smell was terrible. Hume tried to hold his breath but soon gave it up and covered his mouth with his sleeve.
Withdrawing a knife from his robe, Finkbeiner offered it to Hume. It was a kitchen knife with a wood handle. The blade was serrated, bent with use, and pitted with rust.
Frowning, Hume said, “I’ll use my own.”
“Suit yourself.”
Cutting their hands, they let their blood run into the boiling contents of the cauldron. Smoke fumed and billowed in clouds. The smell was rancid as Lucifer’s breath. It stung the eyes and burned the lungs. Hume could hardly breathe but would not allow himself to cough. They spoke their oaths to each other, the magic binding their minds and bodies to their words.
“Done!” Finkbeiner announced. “Good luck to you. I’ll provide aid however I may. Just ask and it will be done.”
“Thanks,” said Hume, narrowing his eyes. “No need to show me out.”
went After Hume left, the Baron returned to the throne room, finding his guards still nursing their wounds. Taking a broken pair of pliers from a pocket, he pulled the worst of the splinters from their bodies. That done, he grumbled an incantation, healing them.
“Mutt, Tigg, I want you to keep an eye on our new friend. Make sure he keeps his part of the bargain.”
“Yes, Master,” grunted Mutt, the bigger of the two, in a rough voice. “You want we should stick a knife in him if he looks to be playin’ round?”
“No, not right away.” He took a small bottle from the shelf, amongst other potions of dubious efficacy. “One drop of this into a pool of water and we can talk. We’ll give our wizard friend enough rope to hang himself, but who knows? He might just do the job I require of him.”
Mutt grinned.
“Now, to make you both a little more presentable. Clothes make the man and so does the skin.”
Returning to the shelf, the Baron sorted through a number of bottles and flasks until he found what he looked for. It was a small, earthenware jug, stopped with cork and dusty with years of neglect.
“This will do the trick, but take care. The effects wear off quickly. I don’t have much, so use small sips whenever you go out in public and only when you absolutely have to. Otherwise stay to the shadows.”
Taking the jug, Mutt nodded acknowledgement.
“Now go; follow him. Find out where he lives and what he does in the world above. You must not fail.”

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