Authors: Jon F Merz
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #General, #Historical
Slavers of the Savage Catacombs
Jon F. Merz
Ninjas versus Slave Drivers! Book 2 in the Shadow Warrior saga. A young ninja in an Asian-flavored fantasy land of dreams and nightmares must save a beautiful captive.
When Ran, the Shadow Warrior, is dispatched to investigate rumors of an invasion massing to the north, he signs on as protection for a trade caravan. But once underway, the caravan is attacked by an overwhelming force of slavers who take Ran and several others captive. Dragged into the bowels of the earth as slave labor for a despot-in-exile eager to reclaim his throne, Ran must make a desperate escape with his friends if he has any hope of uncovering the truth about the invasion above ground. But there's more at play than a mere power struggle in the catacombs, and the earth does not give up its secrets easily—even for Ran, the Shadow Warrior.
BY JON F. MERZ
The Shadow Warrior
The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul
Slavers of the Savage Catacombs
The Temple of Demons
SLAVERS OF THE SAVAGE CATACOMBS
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Jon F. Merz
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN 13: 978-1-4767-3697-6
Cover art by Sam Kennedy
First printing, January 2015
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Electronic Version by Baen Books
Ran watched the last rays of sunlight bleed over the top of the temple of Narah-Jah and said a silent farewell to Jysal, now safely ensconced behind the temple walls. The journey to bring her here had not been as easy as Ran had imagined it would be, but he’d managed. Now she was set to start her training as a sorceress; she needed much tutelage to bring her immense magical energy under control. And Ran, of the Nine Daggers shadow warrior clan, had other roads to travel.
He turned and regarded the way before him. The passage wasn’t really much of a road, but more a dirt track twisting and winding through the cypress and oaks that hemmed it in on either side. The dense canopy meant that darkness had already fallen under the trees. To most travelers, darkness meant an end to their journey until the sun once again spit its light across the sky. But to Ran, the darkness was an ally far more useful than mere daylight.
As a shadow warrior, he was expected to be able to operate in any environment. To drive that point home, his instructors back at the school on the island nation of Nehon had forced their young recruits to go out in the woods alone at night. Ran remembered the first time he’d ventured out alone, sitting with his back to the massive sequoia tree until dawn started lightening the woods around him. He’d survived the night without being taken by any monsters. And once he knew that he could see things even in the complete darkness, Ran’s confidence grew until the dark was never the same again. Over the years, he’d become so comfortable at moving through the shadows and deeper black of night that he truly considered it more of a friend.
That said, he kept his left hand on the scabbard of his long sword, ready to draw it free with his right if anything should threaten. He wasn’t in Nehon, after all, but in northern Igul. He was unfamiliar with the land and its denizens. Already he’d battled an evil sorcerer and his minions of undead warriors, losing several comrades in the process. Ran frowned. It wouldn’t have been fair to call them friends; he’d only known them a short while.
But still, he supposed they had become something like friends.
Ran moved down the trail easily, his feet rolling over roots and branches without making any sound. The long years he’d spent perfecting the skills to move silently had paid off in his ability to not even have to think about how to walk stealthily anymore. His body knew the techniques and he did it subconsciously, adjusting as need be if the environment changed.
The trees yawned and heaved as a breeze blew through their boughs. Shadows retreated in the pre-moonrise darkness, forcing Ran to keep his eyes soft and unfocused. His peripheral vision would guide him and alert him to anything that might threaten farther down the road.
The head of the temple of Narah-Jah had warned Ran that this road had seen its fair share of brigands and murderers. She’d even insisted that Ran stay in the safety of the temple overnight, but Ran had declined, preferring to be on his way. He had a destination in mind: the city of Chulal. He knew that major trade caravans left the city frequently. He hoped to fall in with one of them heading west.
Somewhere far away lay the kingdom of Valrus. That was where he would find the Princess Cassandra.
He smiled, but kept his lips closed—instinctively aware that his teeth would reflect light for hundreds of yards. The thought of finally catching up with Cassandra added fuel to his spirit. He’d spent much of the last month fighting for his life and the lives of others. A bit of relaxation and romance in the arms of a beautiful princess would no doubt help restore him. He just had to find her first.
His eyes picked out the fork in the road, and Ran hesitated only a second to confirm his heading before opting for the right fork. He knew that a few miles away lay a town that serviced the temple and farmed the surrounding lands for rice and other staples. Ran felt sure he could find an inn there that would serve him a hearty meal and give him a bed for the night. He could cover the miles easily if he did so running, but he refused to do so out of fear that he would miss any threats until it was too late. He was tired and preferred the idea of stealing around any potential opponents, rather than being forced to cut them down. He’d done enough of that lately.
His senses prickled and his eyes scanned quickly. There. About a hundred meters away, the darkness lightened like a soft glow. Ran frowned. A fire in the middle of the woods. Was it a campsite? He had no idea and slowed to a stop, then melted just off of the road behind a stand of young firs, finally opening his jaw to better allow sound to reach his ears.
Three distinct but muffled voices reached him. From the sound of it, they were deep in conversation. Ran considered his options. The fire was close to the road, so he couldn’t travel farther without them seeing him. He could probably bypass them, but that would add time and distance to his travel.
The sound of metal chinking on stone caught his attention. A sword.
Ran’s curiosity was piqued. He stole through the woods, lifting his feet higher to avoid deadfall and roots. Taking his time, he moved ever closer to the dancing fire. As he drew nearer, he stopped behind a thick cypress trunk and used two strips of cloth to mask his face, being careful to bring one of the strips down over his right eye. When he got close to the fire, his ability to see in the dark would be compromised. But by keeping one of his eyes closed, he could restore his night vision faster than he would be able to otherwise.
After checking to make sure his sword wasn’t positioned in such a way that would create noise and give away his position, Ran moved closer to the fire. The voices of the three men were now sharp and distinct.
“It’s an easy gambit. Three of us can clean them out without any problems.”
“Easy? Nothing’s ever easy. What if there are guards or something?”
“There won’t be guards around, you oaf. It’s a bunch of farmers. Any that are still awake are most likely drunk.”
The voices grew quieter as Ran crept forward. He paused behind a giant rhododendron bush and peered through the branches at the firelight. The three men were of varying heights, but each held a sword. As the flames licked at the wood on the fire, the crackle of excitement hung in the air. Ran wondered why they’d stopped at all instead of just progressing to the town. But then he caught a whiff of something cooking and looked closer. A decent sized hare sizzled over part of the fire, its juices running into the flames and sizzling on the rocks nearby. Ran felt his mouth go awash in saliva at the thought of eating the juicy flesh.
On cue, the heaviest man took the spit from the fire and broke off portions for each of them. He took the biggest share and then handed a smaller bit to the second man. The thinnest man got the least bit of hare.
“Don’t complain, Magya. It’s lucky you get any at all what with your bitching about the chance of guards.”
The second man chuckled at this, but each soon set to the task at hand, sucking at the bits of meat and lapping up any juice they could gather from the bones.
Ran watched them in silence and wondered if he ought to head to the town ahead of the robbers and warn it. But by doing so, he’d be opening himself up to suspicion. How had he learned of their plan? Ran’s foremost task was to maintain his anonymity for as long as possible. Under no circumstances were people to know that he was a shadow warrior. The legend of his kind was known far and wide, even in the most unlikely places. There would be no shortage of people all too eager to kill him and collect the bounty many warlords had placed on the heads of members of his clan.
No, better to wait and then follow the men into the town. That way, Ran could keep the element of surprise in his favor. By coming up behind them, he could cut them down all the faster. Hopefully no one would even notice.
His ears caught a new sound, though, and one that he hadn’t heard in some time. The soft whinny of a horse. Then he heard two more. Each distinct as the men who would soon ride them into town. And that meant that Ran would have trouble keeping up with them if they left the campsite.
Just as he was about to form a plan for attacking them now, the heavyset man threw the bones of his meal into the fire. “Enough of this rest. The horses should be refreshed, and I grow tired of sitting around. It’s time we were off. Ejul, make sure you ride close behind me.”
He strode out of the firelight, and Ran heard him swing up into his saddle. The other two followed quickly, although Magya at least stomped on the fire to try to put it out. The attempt was in vain, though, and the flames came back quickly.
They vanished down the road.
Behind them, Ran could only approach the fire and kick dirt over it, before he too continued down the road. There was little chance he could catch up with them. Even if he ran, he was only going to tire himself out before having to fight. Ran preferred fighting with as much energy as he could have. Despite his desire to reach the village in time to stop the attack, he had to remain calm and force himself to a light jog.
He set a pace and stuck to it, reasoning that if he covered the distance well, he should reach the village within an hour. Shortly before the hour passed, he saw light through the trees and knew he was close.
Even at this distance, he could hear screaming. He smelled smoke. But he heard no metal-on-metal clangs that told him any of the villagers were fighting off the intruders. Most likely all the able-bodied men and boys had already been killed.
Ran felt his face grow hot. By his nature, he disliked anyone who chose to attack hardworking farmers. They weren’t warriors; they had little means to defend themselves. And yet, brigands and scum like them picked weaker targets all the time.
Ran loosened the sword at his hip. It was time for them to meet another warrior.
He threaded his way through the trees that hemmed the path, and then the land before him opened up to reveal a tiny hamlet of perhaps a dozen houses all set close together. One of them at the far end of the land was already on fire; flames shot through the thatch roof. Ran knew unless the villagers managed to get it under control, the fire would consume the entire town.
Laughter greeted his ears, and he recognized the voice of the heavyset man some distance away. As he walked, Ran counted the slain bodies of six men and two boys. Their throats had been cut, their guts splayed open, staining the ground with grizzled entrails. Ran set his jaw firm and battled the taint of death in his nostrils. As many times as he’d had chance to smell it, he never got used to the stench.
“Come here, my pretty. . . . don’t fight. . . .”
Ran pushed through a few weeping old women and toward the center of the village. At last, he broke into the town square.
The heavyset brigand was holding court near the well in the center of town. In his arms, a young farm girl wrestled to free herself. His arms were too massive for her to break free.
Ran’s left thumb eased his long sword an inch out of its scabbard, breaking the seal and making it easier for him to draw it when the time came to cut down these fools.
“Let her go.”
The heavyset man stopped and eyed Ran. Ran had removed the mask that had covered his face earlier and stood with his long hair flowing over his face. He’d carefully cultivated the appearance of a wandering warrior-for-hire over the last month or so. No doubt the heavyset man would think him no threat.
The girl continued to fight, and the heavyset man backhanded her across the face. The girl went sprawling into the dirt and lay still.
Ran shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here tonight.”
“I go where I please,” said the man. “I am Kayo. Whoever opposes me dies.”
Ran nodded. “No doubt because you pick your opponents from the weak. I have known others like you—too afraid to battle a real warrior. You have no honor.”
Kayo shrugged. “I do have no honor. But neither do I care for it.” He sighed. “Magya, kill this fool.”
Ran sensed Magya’s presence an instant before his sword came slashing in from the side. The smaller man had been hiding in the shadows. His attack cut through the air where Ran had been standing a moment earlier. But the shadow warrior dropped to the ground, rolled once, and came up on his feet, drawing his sword free and cutting down through Magya’s head. Ran wrenched the blade free as the second brigand, Ejul, came stabbing straight in at his heart.
Ran pivoted and brought his blade down on the man’s outstretched hands, cleaving them off at the wrist. Blood sprayed the air and Ejul went screaming down to the ground.
Kayo watched this with growing alarm. He came down off of the well and drew his own two-handed sword. Ran had seen similar swords before and knew they required a lot of brute strength just to wield properly. Kayo was definitely strong, but his mind was weak.
When he attacked, the blade screamed down at Ran’s head. Kayo meant to cleave him in two.
Instead, though, Ran stepped under the arc of the cut and stabbed Kayo through the base of his throat, shoving the blade until it erupted out of the back of his neck, severing Kayo’s spinal cord. Ran turned the blade and then cut to the left and right, cutting Kayo’s head off.
The sudden spurt of violence ended as Ran flipped his blade over and struck the back of the blade with the heel of his left palm, flicking the majority of blood free. Ran slid his blade back into his scabbard and then stood there, aware of how fast his heart beat in his chest. He willed it to slow down and surveyed the scene.
The fire was spreading from the first home, but the remaining villagers were now dousing it with water. Their men were dead. And there was little else Ran could do here.
He sighed, spotted Kayo’s horse drinking from the well and grabbed the reins. Swinging up into the saddle, Ran looked around. There was no one here who would remember him. As he rode off into the night, the only memory of the shadow warrior’s presence were the three dead brigands and the sound of a horse at gallop.