Excerpt from The Last Barbarian

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Excerpt from The Last Barbarian

    They pulled vines from each other, then scrambled up and inside the dark corridor. Morak stood and pulled the door shut, locking them in darkness. He waited for his eyes to adjust but there was not much light from which to adjust. Dagrag reached around him and pulled a torch off the wall.
   “Got a striker?” she asked. Morak handed over his flint piece. He looked around nervously. He could hear the vines swishing against the door, whispering among themselves it seemed. Ahead there was only the blackness of an unknown corridor. Morak much preferred the open, the desert, where one could see one’s opponents, and know whether to fight or run.
    Dagrag finally got the torch lit. The flickering light revealed a long, narrow stone passageway, dank and dusty.
   “Follow me,” Dagrag grunted.
   She led the way down to another door. This one opened easier, and Morak peered inside at a small room with several more doors and a dark passage leading from it. And there, among the dust and air of ages, rested the Tomb of the Dark Devices.
   “There it is,” Dagrag hissed, “that is what brought Tok to this forsaken place.”
   It rested on a pedestal made of an unknown metal. They both stood looking down at it for a long time, wonderment filling even the Witch’s face. Dust lie as a coating atop the huge book, and cobwebs wove its pages.
   “You see, Barbarian,” Dagrag said softly, without looking up, “legends sometimes are true. When he was young, Tok had discovered a few paragraphs that he thought were copied from this book, part of a hand-written chapter on how to increase witch power and reduce the evil effects.” She looked at him, “but the final pages of that chapter were missing, Morak. He could begin the experiment, but he didn’t know how to end it. Except that the fourth generation...” She shrugged, “what? He didn’t know. The pages within that,” she pointed, “might have told him. Now...it will never be.”
   She sighed, and the cobwebs moved slightly with that sound. “But come—we must not forget the jewel. That’s why I am here.”
   The silence, wonder-filled and ancient, was broken by the Witch’s grating voice. Morak looked into her endless eyes.
   “Yes, Witch. Your—jewel.”
   They continued along the passageway, lit a second torch, a flickering comfort among the blackness.
   Another turn, and the corridor began to descend, deeper into the island’s bowels. The walls became damp and slimy, and clumps of some smelly green growth appeared. The way down steepened. Footing became unstable. Once Morak slipped, reached out a hand to steady himself, then drew it back even more quickly, wiping a green goo from his palm.
   He could almost feel the stone pressing in upon him, and had it not been for the Witch ahead of him, Morak would have fled back into the welcome freedom of the surface.
   Worse, the air became stale, settling on his skin, damp and greasy. He felt they were on the path to hell itself.
   They came, finally, to another door. This door was different, however. It was made not of stone, as the others had been, but of metal, a metal that shined like the steel of his sword. This door had no handle.
   “How...?”
   “It opens for us,” Dagrag whispered. Morak looked at her questioningly as she stomped up to the door and waited. And it did open, with a click and a thunk, then sliding into the wall to leave a dark entrance.
   “How did you know...?”
   Dagrag shrugged. “I dreamed it in a dream. Perhaps I read it in a legend. Beyond that, I can’t tell you.”
   Musty odors emerged, along with muted noises and hints of a muted glow.
   Peering in cautiously, Morak could see more metal, and strange eerie lights that went off and on and glowed softly.
   In fact, the entire room seemed to be made of metal, punctuated with lights.
   “Well, go on in,” Dagrag prodded, pushing at him. The Barbarian held back, almost against his will. “Fool! Are you afraid of your own shadow? There is no Thunder Devil here—age has made him silent. There is only a jewel and some left-over lights.” She dropped the torch and stepped through, urging Morak ahead of her. He stepped into a room filled with an ancient silence.
   “Yes,” Morak said, “but still, Witch, there is a feeling about this place that I do not like. It’s older than us, yet those who built it knew how to bend and mold metal as we do cloth.” He turned to the Witch, his eyes aglow. “And what if they come back and find us here, in their magic room of lights and metal. What then Witch?”
   “Bah! I’m sick of your weakness and fear. This is a place of gods, not men...”
   “You’re right, Witch. And if they come back...”
   “They’re gone, Barbarian. They died ages ago; time is their epitaph. So move on, or go back to your blessed morning light. Just get out of my way.” She tried to push past him.
   He moved further in, stood in the center of the small room, turning slowly, eyes wide in wonder. “This is a Devil’s place,” he whispered.
   Dagrag shoved past him to another door, this one with a metal turning handle. Morak followed her through, sword drawn, as if it could do any good against such that had made this place. Yet, the blade felt good in his hand. He felt less naked with it.
   The passageway turned to the right. Dagrag went about halfway, then stopped. “This is the final door, Barbarian,” she said, examining it closely. “Beyond is the jewel.”
   At the center of the door, about halfway up, a square plate held words, and above that, a small window. Morak studied the message, written in words he didn’t understand, nor did he care to. He would have left long ago—fled back to the swamps to fight the worm. Except that Carina wasn’t here, and Tok wasn’t here. And he’d promised them.
   He looked at the message again. Most of the unknown writing was meaningless to him, but he sensed a great warning:

 Danger
Cosmic-Jewel Amplifier
Laser-Fusion Device
Radiation: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, X-Ray
Enter Only When Apparatus is Inoperative
Protective Clothing Required
s/J. R. Darm, Lt./Cl. Cmdr.
Simathica Antarctic Research Station, USAF

    Above the message and the window, a small red light flashed steadily. From the window itself came a bright glow, red with a tint of yellow. An angry red, Morak thought, like the eye of a devil.
   “Look in there, Barbarian,” the Witch whispered. “Look upon the Blood Jewel of Simathica. See how it glows.”
   Morak glanced into the window. He saw a tiny room filled with more lights. But it was the center of the room that rooted their attention. A pedestal-like stand rose out of the floor, the height of a man’s chest. On it was the source of the glow—a large jewel, glowing red and yellow, pulsing with energy.
   “So you have found your jewel, Witch,” Morak said.
   “Yes, Barbarian, I’ve found it, the source of all power in Karan. And it’s mine.” Her voice was thick with triumph, drunk with success. She turned to him, an insane smile on her leathery lips, and a strange glow in her night-black eyes.
   “Take the book, Morak, it’s yours. It’s worth half a kingdom or more. The jewel is all I want.” She looked down at her left hand and tugged at a pitted, dull green ring around her index finger. She handed it to Morak. “Here, give this to the one watching Meesha. It will identify you. Take the child to the east, Barbarian, to the cities there, and sell her to a rich family. Tell them of her—of her ancestry, Morak, and she’ll bring you a heavy bag of gold.” She grabbed a handful of cloth at his chest, “do this not for me, but for Tok and Carina. Do you understand?”
   Morak pried her hand loose, and placed the ring in a pocket. “Yes, Witch, I understand. If we escape from this,” he looked around, “this pit of hell, I’ll do as you say.”
   “Good,” she took a deep breath, “good. Now help me get this door open.”
   She impatiently fingered the wheels and latches. “Gods and devils,” she screamed in rage. Morak joined her, turning a large wheel one way, then another. Suddenly, there came a click, and the wheel began to spin by itself. Another click, and the door popped open slightly. In the distance, a loud noise howled on and off, like a Thunder Devil awakening. Dagrag grasped the edge of the door with leathery hands and pulled it wide enough for her to enter. She slipped in and pulled the door shut behind her before Morak could move to follow. The wheels spun and clicked, and the door was once again locked.
   He watched through the window with a feeling that, perhaps somehow, he’d misunderstood about the jewel. He could see the Witch’s evil mouth open in a wondering, insane laugh. Dagrag approached the jewel, she stopped, slowly reached out both hands, and moved her fingers to close over the huge, brightly glowing crystal. Morak saw beams of yellow-red emanating between her fingers, flashing in her black eyes.
   From somewhere, another loud screeching noise began. It frightened Morak.
   Then he realized it was Dagrag, screaming.
   The flesh began melting from her face, leaving black orbs of eyes, dripping skin and flesh and blood.
   She screamed again, as none have ever screamed before. The walls shook with it. Morak’s eyes, already open wide with fear and wonder, opened even wider. The screams became high pitched echoes, and after a time, the echoes died. He glanced back into the room and saw what had once been Dagrag evaporating, becoming mist, floating toward the glassy, shiny surface of the tall ceiling.
   With her last bit of substance, Dagrag grasped the jewel, jabbed it against her iridescent breast. The scream echoed and was lost in a thunder of flashing light. Morak, almost blinded, ducked behind the door, dropping his sword and sliding to the floor.
   He clasped hands over his ears to hold out, unsuccessfully, the howling noise and a deeper, shaking rumble. To Morak, it seemed like a battle between Thunder Devils and Lightning Gods. He shook in fear and pain.
   Sometime later, silence returned. Finally, he dared to rise and peer cautiously into the room. A fine violet mist hung in the air. That, and a few lights. The Witch and the jewel were both gone.
   Morak stood there for a long while, afraid to move, and thinking thoughts too deep for his simple mind. He shook his head, then turned and retraced his steps back through the steel door, up the damp passageway, and to the book.
   He looked back down that black pit from which he had just emerged, fearing something following him. But there was nothing. Nothing at all.
   He carefully examined the book. He blew and brushed the dust from the ancient tome, and cleared away the age-old and new cobwebs. Slowly, he lifted the heavy cover. The words were strange, like those on the door. Yet he found himself almost able to understand them. As if he’d once known, and had then forgotten.
   It had taken three lives to get the book. Legends spoken only in whispers had barely mentioned it, yet Morak, a southlands Barbarian now held it in his callused hands. Its value could not be measured in terms of gold, Morak thought. Yet, what would be its value if someone could understand the words? What secrets could be found there among those scratches and lines?
   Enough to make a man a king? Morak smiled slightly. Yes, somewhere in Karan would be someone who could understand the words. It would be a new beginning for him, Morak thought, someone to be feared and respected for more than a strong sword arm.
   He tucked the book away in his pouch, then walked toward the corridor leading to the outside. Once back in the morning sunlight, he still had to face again the horrors and evil surprises of the isle of Simathica.
   It hardly seemed a challenge.

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