Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tale of the Underworld: The Freehand (Fiction)

This is an entry in the "Tales of the Underworld" fan fiction contest for Shroud of the Avatar. It has been a long time since I wrote anything let alone Ultima Fan Fiction. Hope you enjoy it. The monster in this story is a rare appearance in the Ultima series. Can you guess its name?

Torches crackled and spit as the group hustled down the tight cavern passageway. Discovering the series of fresh openings into the Underworld is what gave birth to such an ingenious plan. Positioned perfectly to prey upon the passing caravans that traveled along the road to the city all it took was a quick strike, a snatching of loose pouches and killing the strongest guards, to be followed by a fainted run back into the darkness. Always as predicted, those that remained would give chase to recollect their losses only to get turned around among the array of twisted tunnels. From there the band of thieves need only pick off their number, one by one, so they could return to plunder and kill whatever or whoever was left behind.

This time one of them was able to lift a handsome sack of gems, but it was also host to a stronger contingent of people who were not so keen with its parting company. Such luck would now find them frantically darting toward plan B which led into a larger chamber buried along the interconnecting tunnels. With their loot stashed behind a small waterfall, this room contained many crevices and crannies in which to hide until their pursuers tired and gave up chase. The plan was perfect and had never failed.

They were almost upon the cache when the first of their number began to scream. The scout's torch hit the wet cavern floor with a hiss. Just before it fizzled out the torchlight laid bare nothing but a severed arm. The mage among them quickly muttered a spell only for it to fail with a comedic popping sound and a harmless flash. Those that remained scattered into hiding wincing at the eery, wet mashing sounds they hoped was only the currents of the subterranean stream.

The thief with the gem pouch gripped it tightly under his tunic, and ducked quickly into a small fissure along the cave wall. He could hear his comrades die one by one, like that of their past victims, only for the cavern to be drown in an ominous silence. Frozen with fear he struggled to control his breathing and remain as quiet as possible. As he waited and listened, the available light in the room slowly died as the last of the discarded torches lay sputtering on the dank cave floor. In the final flickers of light, he witnessed the gray stone of the wall before him slowly shift into a deep blood red. In horror he flinched as the wall cracked open in a large gape of teeth. Quickly, and in utter desperation, he plunged his dagger into the wall mouth and twirled the blade. There was a short yelp, like that of a kicked dog, as the mouth simply vanished into a puff of dust tainted by the strong odor of sulfur.

The event was so bizarre he might have believed himself insane if not for the fact his hand and forearm were now encased within the fissure wall. As soon as he tried to move the pain overcame him. He could feel where his bone and flesh meshed with the rock, and even the smallest movement was agony. It was then, with perfect timing, that the cavern filled with the footsteps of his latest pursuing victims as he struggled to remain hidden and endure the tortured kiss of stone.

What in the name of compassion happened here?” a voice echoed across the large chamber along with clanks and creaks of armor.

I don't want to find out,” another voice boomed out in reply.

Valor be with us, what a mess,” someone cursed. “Let's search what's left of them and get out of here.”

The room filled with the rebounding echos of chaos as the guard frantically searched the area. Beads of sweat curled off his face as the bone in his arm fractured slightly with every movement no matter whether a breath or shiver. He flirted with consciousness as the squad gathered their spoils and prepared to depart.

No sign of the gems, but look at this,” he heard one say followed by the screech of twisted metal.

That a breastplate?” quizzed another.

I think so. Damn thing looks like it was gnarled by something.”

Just keep moving,” murmured the echoes that faded as the company drifted away. “We're going to get gnarled ourselves for losing that pouch.”

He took some deep breaths and waited for his former dupes to gain some distance from his hiding spot. The bone had broken away from the stone while he had struggled to stay alert. Stumps of his radius and ulna rattled inside the flesh of his forearm as they grated against the rock. Carefully he reached for his other dagger and placed the sheathed blade in his mouth to allow him to grit through the pain. With a chuckle wrought from agony and fatigue, he pondered which was the greater loss, his hand or his primary weapon, both of which were buried within the wall before him. Biting down on the sheath he tore a strip of cloth from his tunic and twisted it around his embedded forearm. Slowly he positioned the dagger above his arm he took a moment to gather his strength. Sadly he was never good at carving harvest turkeys.

So began Tom's journey in mastering the arts of the lefty, and the moment that would forever mark him as The Freehand. Returning with wealth only attainable as a sole survivor, he would become one of the first great pioneers of the Underworld. His enduring legacy, The Freehands, would become known as some the best sources of strange and rare oddities that the great darkness would have to offer.

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