prologue - the shivs: a mouthful of filth

I have a tradition now of posting the Prologue to my books while it's on pre-order. This gives you a chance to get a taste of what you're going to get.

The prologue to the Shivs is a little different from the previous books, as it keeps the characters within the story as  focus. The reason is that many of my prologues and epilogues occur at points in time outside of where Nysta is located. This entire book is a few years before she arrives in Dragonclaw, so I figure it's simply an extended version of a Prologue to a Nysta book.

I hope you'll enjoy it.

***

The Shiv squeezed between crumbling stone. Not ashamed to sob in terror as he heard wet boots scrape against the tunnel’s earth behind him.
“Hey!” Shout which made his heart give a crippled beat. “He’s here! Over here!”
On hands and knees, he wriggled, kicking legs and straining. Let a roar of effort cut the pain of the tight gap scraping against his torso.
Pushed through, pulling down a few chunks of rock and thick clay which bounced across his shoulders and thighs.
Twisted around to look up at the opening he’d squeezed through.
Closed his eyes.
Heard the rushed approach.
Licked lips.
“Hey, you fuckin’ piece of shit.” Cool voice called from beyond the gap. Bright magelight pierced the gloom. “Don’t make us come in there and get you.”
“Aww, fuck,” he growled.
Kicked. Heels hit ancient stone.
Ankles shuddered.
Rubble choked loose.
And tumbled all around. He skirted back with a yelp as heavy stone splashed into the thick layer of slime where his body had been. Would have crushed him if he hadn’t moved.
Had to keep rushing back as more and more of the tunnel collapsed until his back was pressed to a wall and the trembling subsided.
The shouts of the other men were muffled now.
There was no way they’d try to dig him out.
Which was both good and bad.
Good they couldn’t get him.
Bad because now he was stuck inside a cramped tomb.
All this, he thought, over a woman.
If Creed hadn’t been so fucking hard-headed, there’d still be peace between the Eight Street Slashers and Orkbloods. But when Creed killed an Orkblood over some bullshit about a woman, the cities were suddenly flowing with gang blood.
Dozens of gangs were converging, each hungry to chomp out a piece of turf or snatch revenge over some half-forgotten insult. Gangs which scrambled and bickered and ultimately came together to roll over those the Slashers and anyone else standing with them.
Which left the Shivs caught in the middle.
His Shivs.
His family.
“Fuckin’ Creed,” the Shiv muttered. Turning his body took effort, but he managed to press his cheek to the stone. Could feel a cold breeze trickling through cracks. Could smell something bitter on the dank air.
Could mean a way out.
Could mean death.
Either way, he had no choice.
The past few hours had been a rush of violence and confusion.
Mocker and Ellz had been with him. They’d made it to the sewers with a horde of Orkbloods on their ass. Had to split up, though.
Make it to the Docks, Mocker said. “Meet at Bug’s place.”
He’d thought he knew the tunnels, so he rushed away. Left Mocker and Ellz to their own. Refused to wait.
But it’d been a while since he’d been down here, and quickly found himself lost in a knot of winding tunnels and shafts which sometimes led to nowhere.
Lost in Dragonclaw’s sewers. A terrifying thought.
He pushed against the wall, not caring if the whole thing fell on top of him. Knew there wasn’t much else he could do.
The wall creaked as it absorbed his intention but eventually gave. Sent rock spewing into a shaft sliding down into the depths of Dragonclaw’s putrid guts. Lined with rot and thick slippery mud.
Smell of sulfur and rotten flesh.
He didn’t want to think about whose.
Looked back. Maybe he could dig his way back out instead. Hope the Orkbloods had moved away.
How long would that take?
Days? And if they heard him and left a few to wait for him to come out? Brain him as soon as he stuck his fool head out?
“Shit.”
No choice.
Had to pull himself through the fresh hole, losing some skin along his hip.
Felt the sting of a shallow cut and ignored it.
Looked down the shaft. Could see it sliding away in the distance. A shivering green light hummed up from the dark and he didn’t like the look of it.
He’d dropped his cane sword. Left it somewhere back in the sewer.
Checked his belt. Pinky’s knife was still there. Still sheathed.
He felt better about that.
Pinky had never let him down and he knew her knife would be as reliable.
Still, the feeling of unease wouldn’t leave and the hairs crept along the back of his shoulders and neck.
“Ain’t no good gonna come of this,” he murmured.
And started slipping down the shaft. There was no other word for it. He couldn’t stand. Couldn’t walk. Heels digging to wipe speed off as he dragged body through sludge too wet to get a decent grip.
Blind terror flapped up his spine like bats, leaving eyes wide and sucking meagre light.
Although he was lost, he knew no one had explored this far into the sewers.
The Shivs had only used them to get to the canal.
There were no maps. No reliable passages. Too many had collapsed, or were poised to collapse. Everyone knew it was death to explore them.
Only someone with a dozen Orkbloods on their tail would even consider it. Even then, only an idiot would try.
He hit the bottom harder than expected as the shaft suddenly curved horizontal. Tumbled inelegant, head bouncing off stone underneath. Splashed into a puddle of slime and came up streaked in dark ooze. Spitting it out.
Disgust and horror worked fear into glittering balls of ice which roved his guts.
Wiped his face with a soaked sleeve and found he could stand without his head bouncing off the roof of the tunnel.
Staggered forward, limping a little.
Remembered rumours of giant lizards which roamed the sewer’s innards. If not those, then rats the size of dogs. Spiders as big as a horse. Shuddered.
If such monsters existed, he thought, this is where they lived.
Right here.
In the dankest heart of Dragonclaw’s rotten corpse.
“Dark Lord protect me,” he mouthed. And came round a corner to see the source of the eldritch light. Said; “Oh.”
Because there was nothing else he could say.
The tunnel ejected like a broken pipe a few feet above a wide black pool. Water so motionless it looked like the surface of a dark mirror. In the centre, a stone column speared upward, and he could see it bore the weight of an unnatural circular platform.
Pitted and old, he didn’t think the pillar would be hard to climb. Maybe if he could get up on the platform, there’d be a way out. Had to be.
But first, he’d have to cross the pool. How deep was it?
Was it water, or something else?
“Sitting here on my ass won’t get shit done,” he said at last, pushing courage he didn’t feel. Nudging it so it might warm his belly.
Even a little.
He poked along the edge of the tunnel and began climbing off the lip. Feet dangling above the mysterious surface.
Said; “Fuck it.”
Took a deep breath.
And dropped.
Had feared the worst.
It was cold. Frigid. So cold it ate into his bones.
But it was only hip-deep. The splash, however, wet him to his armpits.
Ground beneath was a layer of splintered rock. Sharp and jagged. Like teeth. It shifted under his boots as he walked, wet crunch combining with the near-panicked splash of each step.
“Ah, fuck!” His voice boomed around him as it echoed off the walls.
Made him cringe.
Ears strained to hear the sound of discovery. Still didn’t know where he was, but feared someone had to be around somewhere.
Or something.
His brain threw scenarios at him of tentacled beasts writhing up from beneath the surface to tear him to pieces. Or fang-jawed monstrosities lunging from the dark and snapping him in two.
The Shiv waded forward, slowly at first, then faster as his heart hammered in his chest and his senses told him to get out of the water as fast as he could. Water splashing around him, the sound crashing into his ears along with his terrified sobs.
His fingers found the surface of the pillar and he hauled himself out of the freezing pool. Water riddling down his long coat like rain.
Looked down, watching foam swirl and settle.
Still expecting a mouth to erupt from the dark.
Or a heavy-lidded eye to open.
Shuddering, he looked up and began to climb.
Water dripping off his heels. Making the journey difficult. More than once he felt himself begin to slip and let out a whined choke which begged the Dark Lord not to let him fall.
Tried not to look down, but knew he was high enough that any slip now would send his brains splattering across the rocky surface beneath the pool. Or break his legs and leave him to die a slow death in the watery cold.
His forearms were aching by the time he reached the top of the pillar. Fingers numb from clutching. Shoulders burning.
Could see several holes in the platform wide enough for him to climb through, but only one he could reach.
If he jumped.
The Shiv looked down.
The pool shimmered as green light from above glanced off the walls and was absorbed by the water.
Jump, he told himself.
Tensed for it.
Belly squirming like a bucket of worms was writhing inside.
He’d have to grab the opening with sure hands.
Tired hands.
Miss, and he was dead. No doubt about that.
Could he really make it? It wasn’t too late to climb down and-
He jumped.
Fingers wide and desperate. Eyes bulging.
Mouth opening into a terrified scream.
Felt stone against fingertips.
And snatched.
Grabbed.
Slipped and slapped his hands again. Nails clipping. Sharp pain, but desperation did little more than set the pain aside for later.
Found grip and clung with every ounce of strength he could, gibbering with insane hope as he pulled. Dragged himself up the narrow gap and lay there, chest heaving in disbelief and a need to thank the Dark Lord for any help he might have received.
A couple of loose tears, leftovers from terror, blurred his vision as he slowly moved onto his side to look around.
The platform looked to be an altar carved into a single immense block of stone balanced on the pillar below. Or maybe part of it? The floor of the platform was carved with thick geometric designs and strange runes hidden beneath layers of dust and grit.
Ancient blood caked the patches of bare ground and the hair on his back erupted into frightened reeds as an awful thought ticked into his mind.
The stones. He hadn’t been walking on a layer of sharp stone.
It was bone.
He knew it. The water below was a pool of death. The holes in the platform simply a means to dump bodies into the waters below. To what god were they sacrificed? Shivering, he struggled to get to his feet.
Slipped and landed with a sodden crash. Eyes squeezed shut as he tried to work the horror from his mind. Horror of walking on so many dead. If he’d known, he’d have expected their skeletal hands to rise and drag him under.
Skulls.
Ribs.
Fingerbones.
“Motherfucker,” he moaned. And sat up on his haunches.
Dizzy, his eyes roamed the edge of the platform where megalithic stone blocks formed a circle around the edge. A few monoliths had fallen onto their face, like slayed giants. Within each monstrous block, a hollow had been carved and a brazier rested.
Lit.
But the fires were unnatural. Green. Boiling with demonic energy.
Smell of brimstone and lightning. The bitter stink he’d been inhaling since breaking into the shaft.
The frightened Shiv wheeled around until his eyes found the largest stone. Carved on its face was a figure. Shockingly real. A beautiful woman. Perfect and sublime, standing with regal pride. Mouth open to show devastating fangs.
 She looked down at him in ancient silence.
Awed by the primordial echoes, the Shiv then noticed a small chest beneath her feet.
Inside the chest, a single gem the size of his fist.
A gem which pulsed with evil green light.
It’d be worth a lot on the street, he thought.
Shit, he figured he could buy the city with it. Not just a piece of it, too. The whole fucking thing. They’d wrap it up in a bow for him.
No one would miss it, would they? It had to have been here for centuries. Maybe as long as the altar itself which was a remnant from the Night Age. Had to be.
He inched forward.
Licking lips as his gaze drifted to the woman’s defiant face.
Those fangs.
Paused in the act of reaching for the gem, he suddenly changed his mind.
It wasn’t worth it.
He was many things, but he wasn’t stupid. The gem had to be cursed. Of course it would be. No way it’d sit here all alone without being cursed to fuck.
No way.
The Shiv snatched his hand back as though he’d touched something hot.
Did the statue’s face leer at him for his cowardice?
Did it challenge him to reach again?
If it did, he didn’t respond. He might be an idiot for running blindly through the sewers, but he wasn’t a complete fool.
Deliberately turned his back and walked to the narrow bridge leading off the platform. A bridge which promised freedom. And he knew he’d never return here. He’d never tell anyone he’d even been here.
Some things, he thought, deserved to stay buried. And a treasure from before the Night Age was one of them.
He felt less afraid as he approached the bridge. As he passed two more sacrificial stone slabs beside holes drilled into the platform. Forced himself to sneer at them instead. Old rituals meant nothing in the new age. If there’d been any power in this place, he told himself it was long dead with its makers.
The Shiv was almost strutting with the confidence of a rooster when he reached the bridge. Until he saw it led to a solid stone wall on the other side. A wall lined with faintly-glowing runes. Enchanted.
Shit.
No way off.
Panic nearly made him shout curses to the dark.
But he kept calm. Kept steady. Told himself everything was going to work out. There had to be another way. Had to. All he had to do was stay calm and search it out.
He smiled, feeling courage trickle into his heart.
Only to nearly piss himself when a voice slithered from the shadows; “Oh, look. A visitor. I do like visitors, you know. But what kind are you, I wonder? An explorer, perhaps? A delver into dark places one should never delve. I do like explorers. They always wear such very silly hats. No? That’s not you? Well, maybe you’re a thief? Come to take what isn’t yours. Very naughty of you, isn’t it? Or perhaps a lost wanderer in search of friendship? A sad soul yearning for a human touch. You’ve come to the wrong place for that. Haven’t you? Tell me, defiler. Before I strip the life from your bones, what is your name?”
His heart crashed to a halt, sending a sharp twist through guts and chest. Hairs almost crackled with electricity as he spun.
Searching for the source.
Mouth dry, he answered without thought; “Filth. My name is Filth.
“Of course it is,” the amused voice purred back at him. “What else would it be?”

***

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