Clayton Emery

Dangerous Games

Chapter 1

'There! It's nice to be-'


The pudgy wizard was knocked flying by a shove from the tall, scarred barbarian. Candlemas caromed off a table, slipped, and crashed to the workshop floor. The stumble saved his life, for a monstrous red insect had leaped to the table, scattering jars and crockery and priceless artifacts, clashing steely mandibles to snap the arcanist's head off.

Fighting instinct saved the barbarian's life. Mistrusting magic, Sunbright had unsheathed his sword before Candlemas could invoke the shift spell. One minute they'd been standing in a dusky rainy forest then, at a fast- rattled spell, they were whisked to a cluttered workshop with high, airy windows-a room besieged by a horde of rust-red insects as big as wild hogs.

Had Sunbright thought about danger, he would have been dead long ago. Reared on the tundra, where death was always just a whisker away, he reacted instinctively, attacking the menaces with might and sinew and the fighting agility bred deep into his bones. Training seized his hands and body. Before Candlemas even recognized the threat, Sunbright had attacked half a dozen marauders.

The great hooked sword Harvester of Blood flashed as Sunbright fell to slaughter. The insects were thick in the body and hunchbacked, like giant fleas. They were giant fleas, he realized. Myriad scuttling legs were pointed as daggers, claws bore pincers like a scorpion's, mouth-mandibles were jagged as broken razors. A dozen insects rushed the two men. Sunbright was hard-pressed to beat them back, both from himself and from the chunky Candlemas, whom the barbarian considered helpless.

The first insect to chomp onto Sunbright's iron-ringed moosehide boot lost its head to a downward slash. But even that was difficult, for their carapaces were thick as boiled-leather shields and they had few vital organs to shear. Sunbright barely wrenched Harvester free before another flea hopped up and clamped onto the barbarian's unprotected thigh. Yowling with sudden pain, Sunbright batted the thing from underhand, bowling it aside and slashing off four legs like brittle jackstraws. Yet the bug ripped a hunk of flesh free as it tumbled to land, upside down and twitching. The bug's blood was thick, reddish, pasty, and smelled acrid as burning garbage. Their alien smell filled the room, until Sunbright felt like some fly blundered into a spiderweb. He tried not to think about being sucked dry of blood, or being paralyzed and eaten alive… slowly.

Screaming a northern challenge, he slammed his great sword between the jaws of a charging insect, felt the hook hang up in the tough carapace of the skull. He stamped his boot into a face with multifaceted eyes- then a bounding bug crashed on his back, sent him sprawling, knocking his breath out.

Kneeling under the table, crushing a crystal goblet with his bare knee, Candlemas was not helpless, but neither was he happy. How had these giant vermin come to infest his workshop? And how to combat and survive them? Not that he had time to think, for a furious red insect with clacking jaws raced straight at him.

Candlemas was no fighter, but he could hurl magic as instinctively as Sunbright could sling a sword. The wizard's first reaction to these monsters was to push them away, and the spell he ripped off did just that. Locking his two middle fingers under his thumb so first and fourth projected like horns, he squalled the mystic gargle of a spell, invoked the name of Amaunator, and fired a wormhole at the bug not three feet away.

Before the wizard's hands a vortex like a gray tornado spun into being, writhed and twisted in the air, then sought the closest, densest object. With a tail like a bee's sting, the magic wormhole drilled through the insect like an arrow through a mouse. The thick, rusty, hair-studded carapace was bored open, and the mystic energy spiraled through the beast to erupt out its back end. In the process, the bug's primitive guts were churned to paste and sucked into the magic maw to disappear Candlemas himself knew not where. The stunned insect, half-deflated, collapsed onto the flagstones of the workshop.

But Candlemas yelled as another insect tore into his robe at the shoulder, seeking sweet meat and rich red blood.

Sunbright saw his blood mix with the rusty ichor of the giant flea's. He'd been nipped on the arm, gnawed behind his knee, and skinned along his scalp where it was shaved above his ears. A many-legged menace scrabbled at his back, claws and mandibles shredding his thick goat-hide vest, which so far had spared his spine. Another flea with a nest of sharp legs pinned his sword flat on the floor, while a third scrabbled at his elbow. More were no doubt gnawing his boots.

Stupid to be eaten alive by bugs, the young man thought with disgust. Hardly the stuff of legend.

Angry with the fleas' mindless attack, and at Candlemas, who'd teleported them into the mess, Sunbright let his anger grow, and harnessed it. With his free right hand, he hauled as well as he could onto his belly and punched the first flea in the eye. The multifaceted orb, like a mosaic of tiny mirrors, crunched under his fist. The bug was shoved backward and Sunbright could wrench up his sword. At the same time, a keen sting along his back told him his vest was destroyed. Pain fanned his battle rage.

Kicking both feet, grunting with the effort, the barbarian rolled right, dumping the monster on his back into the one at his elbow. Scrambling up, he found the two bugs idiotically gnashing at one another. Swearing in his guttural, icy tongue, he sucked wind and slammed his sword down, shearing through both bugs until his steel blade banged the floor and hashed the insects into a tangle of oozing parts. These bugs weren't so hard to kill, he reasoned. Just bulky, toothy, and persistent.

Behind him clattered jars and retorts, and Sunbright glimpsed a bug straddling a table, smashing crockery as it shuffled to leap on him. Sunbright slung his sword far back to slice the flea's head open from side to side, but the thing leaped too quickly. The table was upset so the edge crashed on Sunbright's toes, crushing them cruelly and making him yelp. Jerking his foot free, he made to kick the bug back to gain swinging room.

But the fearsome beast leapt into the air almost to the barbarian's face, and spat.

A blob of brown ichor like tobacco juice splattered Sunbright's face. Caught unprepared, he hadn't time to close his eyes. Blinking furiously and clawing at his eyes, he found he couldn't see. Then the stinging glop began to burn, sear, until he shouted in pain and anger. And for the first time, fright.

He was blind.

Candlemas's wormhole spell worked on another flea, drilling it through and reducing it to a curved shell spinning on the stone floor. The pudgy mage grabbed the table legs to pull himself out from under, when a warning crash made him duck back. From above, a jar filled with brine crashed on the floor, drenching him. A silver scale followed. The destruction didn't bother him so much as the danger: this table was old and creaky, he recalled. But before he could slither clear, it crashed on his back, pinning him.

A flea nipped at his ear, so close he felt it tick like a cat's claw. With the monster's weight crushing him-how could bugs weigh so much? — he couldn't free his arm to conjure another spell. Normally he hated to employ the same spell repeatedly, for it was considered the mark of an amateur, and many of his spells were subtle, designed to turn opponents away, to instill fear, to enfeeble their minds. But these insects had no minds, only claws and teeth, and ravening hunger.

But now he'd be glad to hurl a wormhole, except he was trapped with one hand underneath him. The bug hooked a mandible into the back of his neck, making the arcanist shiver. It would tear open his skull and suck out his brains unless he got loose Then a crashing, smashing, crunching rattled all around him, and the flea was knocked clear, as was the table. Sunbright stamped on the arcanist's hand, making him gasp.

Still, Candlemas didn't waste time. Sliding on his knees under the far side of the table, Candlemas clambered up, shoving the empty hulls of dead insects away. How many of the murderous bastards were left?

He ducked as Sunbright's sword slashed sideways, scattered glass and pottery, and tore a chunk from the table's edge. Was the barbarian mad? Broken chips stung Candlemas's face, cutting his chin and eyebrow, making it hard to see for blood. Sunbright was under attack from four slashing, jumping bugs, but the barbarian slung his sword awkwardly, dinging a marble column, almost severing Candlemas's forearm, hitting nothing. The wizard

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