tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Sword and the Soul Ch. 01

The Sword and the Soul Ch. 01

byecrevelle©

This is the first chapter of what will be a much longer work. It was originally published as "Norn's Cavern" in Sex & Sorcery Volume 1 (Uruk Press, 2015). This version is edited and expanded to give the characters and world greater depth.

***

The cave yawned before Mag and his lizardfolk guide, a black maw that swallowed all light. It was a hole wide enough for three men to walk abreast, opening from the side of the rocky foothills at the edge of the thick, murky forest.

"In there?" asked Mag, pointing at the cavern mouth.

"There," agreed the guide, the language of humans sounding raspy as his serpentine tongue struggled with his sharp teeth to form words Mag could understand. "Not go further. Human pay."

The guide tapped one open palm with the pointer claw from his other hand, indicating that Mag should fill it with gold.

"Ah. Yeah," said Mag, stroking his darkly stubbled chin thoughtfully. "What'd we agree on, again?"

The reptile snorted derisively, and his tail swished with agitation.

"Human memory not that bad. Twenty gold pieces. Mag man make agreement!"

"Easy, easy," said Mag, raising his hands palms out to mollify the guide. "Twenty it is. But here's the thing: I ain't so good with directions, and I'm not sure I can find my way out of this damn huge forest without a guide. So how about this: I'll give you fifteen now, and if you wait here till I come back, fifteen more to guide me home when I return."

The guide hissed loudly several times in quick succession, the lizardfolk version of laughter.

"Not come back," he said. "None come back. Cave is portal to..." Varak said a word in the harsh lizard tongue that Mag didn't understand. "What do humans call? Realm of Soul?"

"The Other Place," supplied Mag.

"Yes," said the lizard, nodding. "Other Place. Lizards speak tales of Norn. Norn walk in Other Place, and bring back Soulkin to do bidding. Lizards leave Norn alone. Human should do same. Pay twenty now."

Mag pursed his lips and looked the guide up and down, eventually locking his own intent yellow eyes with the reptile's icy green orbs. His once bright green skin had dulled to an earthy shade tinged with brown, a mark of his age and experience. He had a kind of skirt on, leather strips woven with tough plant fiber, and carried a sturdy pole-arm with a sharp blade and a haft well-worn from long use.

"What's your name again, friend?" asked Mag. He wasn't good with names, always had to hear them a few times before he'd remember. Most of the time people's names didn't matter a bit, because Mag usually moved on from a place before he had to bother remembering. But he thought this lizard's name might be worth knowing.

"Varak," hissed the reptile, pounding his bare chest with pride. "Strongest warrior of clan."

Mag nodded. He could tell Varak was smarter than most of his kinsmen, and braver as well. He spoke the common tongue passing well, and he moved with the casual grace of an experienced warrior. A fighter always recognizes another fighter, thought Mag. Someone had told that to him a long time ago.

"Listen, Varak," he said. "I mean to come back from in there. You say no one's ever come back; that's because I've never tried. You ever been north to Maruba?"

The lizard gave a curt shake of his head. "Lizards not go to Maruba. Too cold."

"Well, I have," said Mag. "I was a soldier for the King up there, about seven springs past. I fought the Yorn. You know what they are?"

He nodded. "Varak hear stories from human travelers. Yorn live in frozen wastes. Half-giant, half-human."

"That's right. They're brutal, bloodthirsty savages, humans infused with the wild giant Soul that keeps them warm and hungry out on the tundra. The only things they live for are reaving and pillaging. Compared to men like me, they're taller and stronger and a hell of a lot meaner. I fought the Yorn in two pitched battles. We outnumbered the fuckers two to one, and we still barely beat them. Two thousand men died on that campaign, but not me. You know why?"

Varak flicked out his forked tongue, tasting the air. "Why?"

Mag put his hand on the pommel of his sword. "Cause I know how to use this. I ain't that smart, and I can't do magic, but I know how to fight. Give me a good sword with two edges and a brace of sharp knives, and there's precious few who can take me in a fair fight. I slew six Yorn with my own sword. I mean to slay Norn the same way."

Varak flicked his tongue out again. For a long time the reptile considered Mag, blinking his green eyes slowly. Lizardfolk expressions were hard to read, but Mag thought the reptile was considering it. Mag could feel himself being sized up, as he'd appraised the lizard moments ago.

He knew what kind of figure he cut. Mag was taller than most and broader too, with a muscled frame forged in a life of hard marches and harder battles. His once-boyish features had given way to maturity, like a sharp, angular rock worn smooth by the elements. He kept his shaggy black hair swept back with a red headband, once a deep crimson but long ago faded to a dull, ruddy hue. A thick, black stubble coated his cheeks and chin. Mag shaved when he could, but his beard came back so fast it seemed almost pointless.

Varak snorted. Then he hissed in laughter, thumping his tail against the ground.

"Mag man brave warrior!" he announced, and Mag had trouble telling if the lizard was mocking him or not. "Very well. Varak wait. Fifteen now, fifteen later. But still not think human return."

"We'll see," said Mag.

Varak jabbed a claw at the sun flashing through the trees above them. "Sun sits high now. But at twilight, dark shapes walk among trees. Woods here not safe at night. If Mag man not back by sunset, Varak return to clan hollow alone."

"Fair's fair," said Mag. "I'll be back."

Varak extended one clawed hand and Mag grasped it tightly. A bargain struck. Mag counted out fifteen gold pieces from his purse and gave them to the lizard, who gazed at them intently before placing them in his own satchel.

Mag set about checking his armor and supplies. He fastened his steel breastplate tightly and re-laced his boots to be sure they wouldn't slip. His sword was well-sharpened, as he well knew, but Mag drew it anyway to check. Then he drew and checked each of the four knives tucked into the bandolier slung across his chest. Lastly he re-tied his headband to keep his thick, unkempt hair from falling into his eyes.

In his pack he'd brought several unlit torches, as well as other supplies and necessaries. After ensuring that none of the torches had gotten wet, Mag lit one with the flint and charcloth from his tinderbox. When the torch was burning steadily, he turned to Varak.

"Wish me luck," he said.

Varak just laughed his hissing laugh and thumped his tail against the earth.

Mag entered the cave, and in the light from the torch he could see a long tunnel stretching before him with sloped downward at a leisurely, twisting tilt. As he meandered deeper into the dank and chilly cavern, his thoughts wandered to the tavern he'd left behind in Seleca, and the warm bed and lusty wenches waiting for him on his return. Once he claimed that fat reward from the Duke, his purse would be two thousand coins heavier, plenty to pay his debts in town and set him up comfortably for a while. Of course, at the moment, all he needed was fifteen, since the fifteen he'd just given Varak was all he had in the world. Good thing the lizard took the bait, thought Mag. No way in hell I'd get out of this forest without him. Norn had to have fifteen gold coins lying around, right? Even if he didn't, retrieving his head ought to buy him some credit with Varak.

Of course, there was another possibility: that Mag would meet his grisly and untimely end within Norn's cavern. But he was choosing not to dwell on that outcome. Death had been at his back in Maruba during the fight out in the icy wastes, and in Angheg and Sworza and so many other places before that. If death decided to take him, there wasn't a damn lot Mag could do about it.

The path was long and dark, and Mag had nothing but his own musings to occupy him. He reflected on his recent fortunes, and how the fates seemed to bring him to this place, tossing him here with no real choice on his part. He'd been damn near broke in Seleca when he saw a brand new handbill plastered to the wall in a tavern. It had said:

Lord ROVISH SILVER, Duke of Seleca, offers:

2000 Gold Pieces

For the Capture, or, preferably, Death of,

NORN, a Soulkin,

which dwells in a cave in the Selecan Forest.

Bring Trophy to claim reward. Lizardfolk may have information.

There was no picture, not even a description. Mag had seen a Soulkin or two in his time, and he knew they could take all kinds of forms, so to say something was "a Soulkin" was no fucking help at all. It was like saying something was "alive and walks on two legs." He'd asked the barman to read it to him, since Mag had been known to get words wrong sometimes, but it was all as he'd thought the first time. The barman didn't know much more than that, save that Norn was some kind of local legend with a vendetta against the city, probably relating to the silver mines.

So Mag had seized the chance. He sought out the lizard clan hollow and spent a night there sharing drink and smoke and earning their respect, since to lizards, custom was everything. That way when he asked for a guide, they were honor bound to accept his request. None of them spoke common very well, of course, which meant the information they could give him about Norn was limited. They all agreed he was a Soulkin of some kind, and explained that Norn didn't trouble the lizards, so long as they didn't trouble him.

In Mag's experience, devils and monsters were usually overrated. He figured Norn for some kind of wild, mindless beast, the type that slips out of the Other Place now and then to terrorize a quiet village; strong, but stupid and easy to take advantage of. The quest had seemed like a perfect opportunity for a seasoned mercenary like himself to claim an easy purse.

But now, in the dark passage, he wasn't so sure. The tunnel around him narrowed, and the shadows around him which seemed to throb and coalesce in the closeness. The inky blackness became a palpable thing, and the light of his torch seemed to retreat from it, leaving him illuminated by a wan oval of light tight around his person. He shuddered, feeling the darkness caress his face.

Mag heard a soft feminine sigh drift to his ears out of the gloom and felt hot breath on his neck, but when he spun around to look he found himself alone. He told himself to calm down, but his heart was thudding in his chest. He was only imagining things. It happened deep in caves, he knew. Men's brains started to play tricks on them. Keep it together, he ordered himself.

The stone path beneath his feet continued ever onward, ever downward, sometimes twisting left or right like a snake sliding across the ground. Mag began to entertain the idea that this cavern wasn't natural. He didn't see any of the typical rock formations, jutting like spear points from the ground and ceiling. When he touched the rocks they were cool and smooth, like a husk that had been sloughed off by some primordial serpent. Maybe Varak was right, he thought. Maybe I'm in the Other Place, being devoured by some huge fucking demon.

He lost track of time. Every so often he heard the same sighing half-moan, just behind his ears. It grew more distinct, insistent even, the deeper he went. He could feel her warm breath, could even smell her scent in the cavern around him: like fine floral perfume, but with an earthy, spicy quality as well. He felt a twinge of arousal in spite of himself, a longing for the woman to appear before him. He told himself he wasn't crazy, that this was some trick Norn was playing on him, and that he just had to ignore it.

But the thoughts wouldn't go away. He walked as if in a trance, enveloped by the woman's scent and enraptured by her wordless voice, dripping with lust. He kept his eyes forward, focused on moving ahead, but he could feel the touch of her hands on his shoulders, the swell of her breasts pressing against his back, the heat of her lips on his neck. He told himself it was a trick, and repeated to himself like a mantra, refusing to turn around and acknowledge the illusion. But his manhood swelled in his constricting breeches in spite of himself. He focused on one plodding step after another, using all of his willpower to keep moving.

Eventually, after an interminably long walk, Mag saw a light from around a bend in the tunnel ahead, and the illusions around him seemed to evaporate. He snuffed his torch and proceeded on tiptoes so as not to make a sound. As he drew closer to the source of the light he could hear two distinct voices: one rough, deep, and guttural, the other breathy, soft, and feminine. As soon as he heard that second voice he knew it was the same one that had haunted him through his trek here, sorely tempting him to rush straight ahead. Mag fought down the urge to plunge ahead into the unknown, instead using all of his willpower to hold back and move cautiously forward. He hunkered over, taking one slow, easy step after another, and peered around the corner.

The cavern path ended in a ledge overlooking a large, well-lit circular chamber below him. A ramp followed the curved wall of the room lower, but from this height Mag couldn't make out anything below. He got onto his belly and wriggled out into the light, so that he could peek over the stone lip at the room below.

Bookshelves lined the walls, packed with tomes of all shape and size. A hardwood desk, carved in odd whorling patterns, was pushed against one wall, its surface obscured by yellowed sheafs of parchment and dozens of rune-inscribed candles burned to various lengths. One shelf held glass vessels containing powders and humours in myriad hues. Rich purple and red rugs covered the chamber's stone floor. In the center of the room a large fire pit burned furiously, casting an orange glow about the space. The smoke that rose from it twisted itself into shadowy forms that tickled the edge of Mag's conscious mind, suggesting to him a veil blowing aside in a strong wind to reveal the unknown beyond.

On the far side of the room was an enormous bed covered in cotton blankets and plump pillows. On top of it lay a woman, eyes wide with apprehension, and in front of it, panting with desire, was Norn.

The Soulkin was roughly man-shaped, but with two ursine ears atop its head and a patch of jet black fur running down his back to meet a tail that swished back and forth excitedly. He was enormous, standing seven feet tall at least, with rippling, well-muscled limbs and taught chest, but with a slight pudge to his belly. Norn's face was punctuated by a snarling muzzle full of sharp teeth and sinister yellow eyes, fixated on the woman lying helpless on the bed before him. Norn was completely nude, and Mag couldn't help but stare at the impossibly large cock, at least a foot and a half long and near as thick as Mag's arm, jutting erect from his thighs. It throbbed visibly with each beat of the creature's black heart, the bulbous head bobbing up and down in the air.

The woman was clothed in a diaphanous silk shift which did little to hide the swell of her ample breasts and gently curved thighs. Her long, pale legs stretched out from the shift's high hemline, and as Mag watched Norn reached out a meaty hand, the fingers topped by razor claws, its back covered in coarse black hair, and gripped one of her ankles forcefully. She thrashed weakly, tossing her long, golden hair back and forth, but she seemed unable to command her limbs properly, as if drunk. She was breathing heavily, causing her erect nipples to press insistently against the thin fabric of her shift, and every few seconds let out a moaning, shuddering sigh. She was under his thrall, Mag realized, her mind blasted by some lust-spell the creature had woven over her. And it was that same spell he'd felt projected up the passage at him, a side-effect of whatever Norn had done to this poor lass. his was the woman he had sensed in the passage earlier. Now that he was this close, the waves of arousal emanating from the woman roiled powerfully around Mag, but he shook his head, struggling to clear the fog.

Norn grabbed the woman's other ankle, dragging her towards the edge of the bed and spreading her legs, causing her shift to ride up her hips until her sex was exposed to the air. A trim patch of golden blond hair sat atop her womanhood, which even from a distance Mag could tell was gleaming with wetness. Mag watched intently, the spell dulling his reason and will. The woman was no longer resisting, but simply gazed up at her captor intently, mouth hanging half open with arousal. Norn moved forward until the swollen head of his enormous cock brushed the lips of the woman's sex, and Mag realized with a start that she was probably going to be killed if the creature forced that beastly thing inside her.

That thought snapped him out of his spellbound state. He wasn't about to let a pretty young lass get impaled by a Soulkin. Without really considering the wisdom of what he was doing, Mag stood, drew his sword, and shouted a challenge.

"Hey Norn! You better put that thing away unless you want me to cut it off."

The monster whirled, fixed its eyes of Mag, and howled a savage, animalistic cry. It released the woman, who sighed out all her breath and flopped back on the bed. Norn charged towards the bottom of the ramp and began pounding up it towards Mag, heavy footfalls rumbling across the stone floor. Mag pulled a dagger from its sheath and hurled it at the advancing beast. The dagger plunged into the exposed flesh of Norn's chest, and the monster let out a howl of pain, cursing in a savage animal tongue, but didn't slow his approach. Norn was still tumescent, his enormous prick swinging like a javelin as he charged.

Mag stood ready as Norn bore down on him. The creature swung one claw-tipped hand, and Mag took a step back to avoid the strike. As he did his heel met the lip of the precipice, and Mag teetered vertiginously on the edge. Norn swung with his other claw, and this time Mag raised his sword to block the strike. The beast's razor talons clanged off the steel of Mag's blade, and the force of the blow sent the weapon spiraling out of his hands. Mag stumbled sideways and his right foot slipped over the ledge. He teetered precariously, desperate to regain his balance. In a flash of madness or insight, Mag thrust both hands forward and wrapped them around Norn's cock to steady himself. He squeezed down hard, digging his nails into the appendage, and Norn let out a high-pitched yelp. Never fight naked with a hard-on, Mag told himself. It was a good life lesson.

Norn swung savagely at Mag's head. He let go of the beast's prick and twisted to the side, feeling the tips of Norn's talons shred the skin of his neck in shallow red gashes. Mag reached for a knife out of his bandolier even as the beast toppled forward from the momentum of its swing. Norn stumbled to the edge of the precipice, unable to stop the inertia of his massive body from carrying him over, but as he fell he lashed out with his other arm, grasping the top of Mag's breastplate before he could react. Mag only had time to gasp in surprise as they both toppled off the ledge.

The ten-foot fall took only a few seconds, but it felt like minutes to Mag. His brain, charged with excitement and magic, seemed to act much faster than normal, noticing their rate of descent, likely landing spot (a purple rug), the fact that he would land right on top of Norn's chest, and even, with a small part of his attention, the scent of the beautiful woman on the bed nearby. Mag brought up his dagger, steadying the grip with both hands, and waited for the impact.

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