Swords v. Cthulhu

Swords v. Cthulhu

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908983091
Publisher: Stone Skin Press
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,303,784
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author


Jesse Bullington wears the influence of Lovecraft on the pages of his three award-nominated novels: The Enterprise of Death, The Folly of the World, and The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. He has published numerous short stories, some of them Mythos-themed, as well as various articles and reviews. He is the editor of Letters to Lovecraft. He lives in Denver, Colorado. Molly Tanzer is an author who mostly writes about fops arguing with each other. She is the author of The Pleasure Merchant, A Pretty Mouth, and Vermilion. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
 

Read an Excerpt

Swords v. Cthulhu

Swift Bladed Action in the Horrific World of H.P Lovecraft


By Jesse Bullington, Molly Tanzer

Pelgrane Press Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Stone Skin Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908983-17-6



CHAPTER 1

The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels

John Langan


Her sword in a high guard (what the old woman who taught her to fight called the Horn of the Bull), Angela advances deeper into the tunnel. She steps lightly, but does not worry overly much about remaining silent. For one thing, the iron scales sewed to her leather tunic clink and rattle with her every movement. For another, the beast she is hunting appears able to hear the slightest sound. For a third, she wants the creature to know she is coming.

At least, she thinks she does. Magda, who began her training with a pair of hardwood sticks, used to ask her, "When are you most vulnerable in a fight?" It did not take long for her to demonstrate the answer: when you are attacking. Then you've committed yourself to whatever strike you are going to use against your opponent, and in so doing, exposed yourself to her counter — provided, that is, she is possessed of sufficient speed and knowledge. The lesson has served Angela well in more than one confrontation, and she has hopes it will once again. If she can provoke the beast to a charge, she will sidestep and bring her sword down on its skull.

As it so often does, her sword, Deus ex Machina, has an opinion on the matter. Wouldn't a trap be a more sensible plan? She doesn't hear its low, pleasant tones so much as she feels them, a tremor that starts in the weapon's hilt and travels through the network of her bones to finish within her skull. Aside from its voice, and the intelligence behind it, there is nothing remarkable about the blade. It is a longsword, much as she trained with, its guard simple, its hilt wound in leather to improve the grip.

"A trap would be a fine idea," she says. "What do you propose?"

A regiment of the King's finest cavalry, the sword says, armed with their longest and sharpest lances. They lie in wait while the beast is lured from hiding. Once it's in the open, they surround and skewer it.

"That might work. However, the process of organizing and implementing it would almost certainly expose Brum's joyweed enterprise, and the money it provides him, so I'd put the chances of his majesty embracing such a plan at zero."

Should you fail, he may have no choice.

"Should I fail, the matter will cease to concern me." She shifts her guard from right to left, tries to allow her shoulders, her arms, her wrists to remain limber.

You're becoming quite the philosopher.

"Hardly."

The tunnel has descended steeply, which has made Angela's progress slow, but also admitted enough sunlight to illuminate the passage. Now the ground levels, as the tunnel expands into a larger space. The cave's walls are honeycombed by a score of openings, each the approximate width of the one she's followed. It appears she's arrived at a hub for the beast's subterranean roadways. A few of the tunnels look recent, the entrances to them rough, rubble and earth scattered outside them. The remainder are considerably older, their thresholds worn smooth by years of use, the cave floor in front of them clear. Either the beast has been traveling these routes for a long time, or its family has before it.

Angela steps into the chamber. Its far side is difficult to see clearly, but there appears no trace of food, or scat, or treasure, any of the signs that she might have reached the creature's lair. She would prefer to meet it here, where the light is adequate and the distance to the surface is relatively short. If she ventures into another tunnel, she'll have to do so by torchlight, which will leave her one less hand for her sword, plus, there's no guarantee of her choosing the right passage. She could spend no small amount of time roaming underground, to no effect.

When she hears the sound to her left, she's almost happy. It comes from deep within one of the recent tunnels, a rumble and a clatter mixed with a metallic ring. With ferocious speed, it grows louder. As it does, the chamber floor vibrates underfoot. She hops back into the passage that brought her here, just as the beast crashes into view.

It brings with it a cloud of dust and dirt. She has the impression of sheets of metal, patches of dark fur. And size: the creature is at least as big as an elephant. It snorts and snuffles, wheeling around the center of the room. Angela switches her guard from left back to right.

Through the dust, she sees something like an enormous mole; although that's like calling a shark an enormous goldfish. The thing's forelimbs are tree trunks, capped with claws the length of her sword. Its eyes are almost comically tiny, but its snout flowers into a dozen thick, fleshy tentacles, each the length of her arm. Its hide is covered with thick, bristling fur — what is visible through the armor the creature wears. Its breast, back, and shoulders — its short legs — are covered by carefully fashioned bronze plates. Though battered and dim, the metal still bears traces of elaborate designs, looping figures and characters. No one mentioned armor, she thinks.

The appendages at the end of the beast's nose flick through the air, drawing the rest of its blunt head after them, back and forth. They stretch toward her, and she knows she's been found. The creature's bulk swings in her direction. She has enough time to realize she's in a bad position. If she's in the tunnel when the beast charges, it will crush her. Her plan of attack momentarily forgotten, she leaps out of the passage and to the right. The creature barrels past her into the tunnel. Its bulk stoppers what light the tunnel admitted, plunging the chamber into darkness.

"I think we might have to go with the cavalry, after all," Angela says.

Brum's description of the beast did make it sound a bit smaller, the sword says.

Already she can hear the thing at the other end of the passage, turning around. She would very much like to run someplace, anyplace, but there is no place to go. Any of the other tunnels will have the same disadvantage as the one she just escaped. Nor is she fast enough to outrun the creature in the open cavern. She raises the sword directly overhead, shifting her weight onto her back leg.

When the beast erupts from the passage, spilling light into the chamber, she lunges forward on her left leg, slashing down and to the right, in the strike Magda called the Tiger's Claw. She feels the tip of the sword slow for a fraction of a second, long enough for her to know it's met resistance, before she sees red on the blade. The creature shrieks, spinning toward her, the tentacles that cap its snout thrashing. It rocks back on its haunches, readying another charge.

Before it moves, Angela does, the sword out to her right. The beast hesitates, which allows her to close the distance between them. By the time it registers her threat and starts to retreat, she's swept the sword up in a chop. The Heron's Wing severs one of the appendages flailing at the end of its nose.

Its last expression of pain was loud, but this one leaves her deafened, ears ringing. She ignores this, focused on attacking the rest of the tentacles, clearly a weakness. Her swings open wounds in half a dozen of them, spattering blood onto the cave floor. Screaming, the creature rises on its hind legs in a kind of crouch, lifting its wounded snout out of range and placing her within reach of its forelimbs and their great claws. The beast pendulums its left paw at her. She hops back, but has to use the sword to block attacks, first from the right, then from the returning left. The strength in the blows shudders the sword in her hands, threatens to knock it from her grasp.

She wants to retreat, move to a safer distance. Instead she slides closer, stabbing at the creature's forelimbs with the Scorpion's Sting. The beast yanks them away, straightening almost to standing, exposing the stretch of belly below its armored breast. She drives her sword in on the left and with a single smooth motion slices it across and out on the right. Blood vents over her as the beast's belly falls open, spilling the mass of its guts onto the cave floor in a bloody mess. She hops back, loses her footing in a puddle of blood, and is unable to avoid the paw rushing at her.

The impact flings her across the chamber. She thinks she might miss the wall, land in the tunnel beside it. She doesn't.


* * *

Dreams, Magda warned her, are no less perilous than waking life. The powers that hold sway over existence are at home in the shifting landscapes that sleep offers access to; indeed, there are some who contend that the powers are more comfortable in an environment that mimics their own mercurial natures. Not to mention, the dreamlands are host to a bestiary whose entries are as fearsome as anything Angela might expect to meet while awake. For these reasons, it was important to go into sleep armed, and to remain so for the duration of her stay. This part of her training Angela found surprisingly easy. Magda said this was because she was already halfway to dreaming, especially when she ought to be focused on her lessons, but Angela thought the old woman was impressed with her. A few minutes' meditation, sometimes less, and she entered sleep, sword in hand. At first she equipped herself with the blade Magda kept on display in the hall, over the fireplace. When she obtained her own sword, she brought that. Within her dreams, Deus ex Machina has always felt surprisingly solid, which may be due to the fact that she was given it in a dream.

She has it with her now, in the fragmented world into which her collision with the cave wall has plunged her. The sword is silent, but it usually is on this side of waking. She is standing at the edge of King Brum's field of joyweed, surveying the devastation that has been visited upon it, the fencing knocked down, the plants torn up and trampled, the watering tank and the system of pipes leading to and from it smashed. Although the scene is lit as if by the sun, the sky is dark, clouded with stars. At the center of the ruined field, a tall woman wearing crimson robes considers a younger version of Angela. The woman's skin is the same as the sky overhead, as if she were a piece of it taken form. Stars flicker within her, a shooting star flares across her cheek. Her voice is pleasant, but it is cold, cold as a winter's night. "What would you have of me?" she says.

"Whatever you would give," the younger Angela says. The quilted jacket and pants she wore for her journey to this spot are torn, dyed with her blood and the blood of the things she slew on her climb here. She holds a bone saber she took from a creature whose face was an oversized, grinning mouth. The sword she carried when she set out on her quest broke halfway up the ziggurat whose summit was her destination, where she has found this woman, this power: the Pharaoh.

"What if I would give you nothing?" the Pharaoh says.

"I will take it," the younger Angela says.

"What if I would give you death?"

"I will take that too."

From within the folds of her robes, the woman withdraws a sword. Its blade appears to shimmer, as if liquid. Its hilt is gold, worked into the forms of snakes that appear to coil around one another. She holds it up for the younger Angela to admire. "This," she says, "was one of my enemies. When I overcame him, I remade him in the heart of a dead star, thus. I renamed him, as well: Deus ex Machina."

"I don't understand what that means," the younger Angela says.

"It is a private joke, in the tongue of an ancient land that also borders the dreamlands. Accept this blade from me, and you are of my house, now and forever."

The younger Angela drops the bone sword and kneels, bowing her head and raising her hands, palms up. (She will awaken a long distance from the place where she lay down to search for the ziggurat in her dreams, her armor still in tatters, likewise the flesh beneath it, a plain longsword by her side.)

The Pharaoh vanishes. In her place stands Magda. She is dressed for instruction, in a tunic and trousers of coarse cloth, plain boots, her gray hair tied back. Her arms are clasped behind her. Her lips do not move. Instead her voice rises from the ravaged earth. "To treat with any of the powers," she says, "is to court damnation. Those who seek their notice find it either in torment that carries on until long after the stars have dwindled to cinders, or in service that endures longer still. For neither is there the oblivion that is the balm of our suffering lives. Each forfeits that reward."

Angela's younger self maintains her position.


* * *

There is a time when she is walking, stumbling really, through a dark space, lit here and there by smears of furry moss that emit a pale green light. Her thoughts refuse to cohere for any meaningful amount of time. This may be due to the pain that stabs her head, her neck, her back, with every movement. It may be due to the ringing that keeps all other sounds at a distance from her ears. It may be due to the smell that clouds her nostrils and coats her tongue, the copper odor of blood and the earthy stench of shit.

But she has her sword, out in front of her in the guard called the Horn of the Rhino, and, though she cannot make sense of what the weapon is saying, she finds its tones soothing.

Light dances ahead of her — a torch, jammed into a crevice in the side of the tunnel she is moving through. Its smoky glow shines in the trail of gore at her feet, torn loops of intestine, bloody chunks of flesh and fur. As she approaches the torch, her mind begins to gather itself. She is tracking Brum's monster; though there's scant skill involved in following the creature's lifeblood smeared on the floor. Mortally wounded, the beast has retreated to its lair. Should she find it living, it may be more dangerous still, made reckless by its impending end.

You could wait, her sword says. It can't have much longer to live.

She shakes her head, wincing at the pain the motion sparks. "I'm not certain how much time I have before my injuries must be answered. Best to finish this quickly."

On the other side of the torch, the passage feeds into a cave the size of a decent barn. Several more torches have been wedged into cracks in the walls. By their light she sees the creature, on its left side, its entrails a torn and bloody tail. It is dead. Relief pours over her, causes her to lower the sword.

"Is this your handiwork?" The voice is bright and clear as a horn sounded in a forest. The woman to whom it belongs steps from behind the beast's head. She is tall, easily two heads above Angela, and her bronze skin is roped with muscle. Her tunic is the hide of something whose fur mixes with scales. Her long hair is braided with the teeth and claws of more animals than Angela can identify. In her right hand the woman holds a spear whose polished wooden haft ends in an equally polished blade. Her presence fills the chamber; she is the most vital, the most real thing in it. Angela knows her for a power, and acknowledges her question.

"It is."

"This was the Lord of Those Who Dig Beneath the Soil," the woman says. "His worshippers dwelled in cities built far underground. Upon occasion, he and I hunted together for the great worms that plagued his people. When their time passed, he remained, old and alone. I thought to hunt him myself, and end his solitude." She allows the tip of her spear to drop, catching the shaft in her left hand. "I suspect your motives are not so pure."

Angela is aware of the woman appraising her, the way a hunter might size up a lion she intends to slay. She squares her stance, lifts Deus ex Machina in a high guard. The sword twists in her hands, as if eager for the woman's attack.

At the sight of the blade, the woman's eyes widen. The point of the spear wavers. "What," she says, "are you doing with that?"

"It is mine," Angela says. "I received it from the hand of her called the Pharaoh, when she took me into her house."

The woman pulls her spear up. "If you carry that weapon, then your doom is upon you already. It would be a mercy to spare you it with a thrust to the heart. For the sake of him you have slain, I refuse you that charity."

Without another look at Angela or the remains of the great creature, the woman walks out of the cave. Angela gives her a wide berth, but keeps the sword pointed at her. It strains in her grip, like a dog struggling to be off its leash. She forces it to remain in position until it settles.

Once the woman is gone, Angela approaches the beast's carcass. Its fur is clotted with mud and blood. Its mouth is open, showing yellow teeth the size of shields. The claws of its right paw drape its breastplate; the claws of its left splay on the cave floor. Angela considers the creature's armor. Its edges are bordered by lines that cross and loop and twist like paths on a map. Its surface is embossed with figures that suggest moles and voles and other animals that dwell underground, engaged in some complex action, a dance perhaps, or a celebration — maybe a battle. Whatever it represents, like so much else, is now lost.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Swords v. Cthulhu by Jesse Bullington, Molly Tanzer. Copyright © 2016 Stone Skin Press. Excerpted by permission of Pelgrane Press Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Molly Tanzer Jesse Bullington 5

The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels John Langan 12

Non Omnis Moriar Michael Cisco 21

The Lady of Shalott Carrie Vaughn 41

A. Scott Glancy Trespassers 53

The Dan no Uchi Horror Remy Nakamura 77

St. Baboloki's Hymn for Lost Girls L. Lark 93

Jacobs The Children of Yig John Hornor 106

The Dreamers of Alamoi Jeremiah Tolbert 127

Two Suns over Zululand Ben Stewart 145

A Circle That Ever Retumeth In Orrin Grey 158

Ordo Virtutum Wendy N. Wagner 179

Red Sails, Dark Moon Andrew S. Fuller 195

The Thief in the Sand M. K. Sauer 211

Without Within Jonathan L. Howard 219

Daughter of me Drifting Jason Heller 240

The Matter of Aude Natania Barron 249

The Living, Vengeant Stars E. Catherine Tobler 269

The Argonaut Carlos Orsi 285

Of All Possible Worlds Eneasz Brodski 298

The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang Laurie Tom 313

The King of Lapland's Daughter Nathan Carson 328

Bow Down Before the Snail King! Caleb Wilson 343

Recommended Reading 359

Author Biographies 362

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