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Saving thanehaven, p.1
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       Saving Thanehaven, p.1

           Catherine Jinks
 
Saving Thanehaven


  ALSO BY CATHERINE JINKS

  The Paradise Trap

  EGMONT

  We bring stories to life

  First published by Egmont USA, 2013

  443 Park Avenue South, Suite 806

  New York, NY 10016

  Copyright © Catherine Jinks, 2013

  All rights reserved

  www.egmontusa.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Jinks, Catherine.

  Saving Thanehaven / by Catherine Jinks.

  pages cm

  Summary: Set in a computer game, a knight is swayed away from the game’s rules by the promise of winning the affections of a princess and ending his life of torment

  eISBN: 978-1-60684-284-3

  [1. Computer games–Fiction. 2. Virtual reality–Fiction. 3. Knights and knighthood–Fiction. 4. Science fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.J5754Sav 2013

  [Fic]–dc23

  2012046190

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

  v3.1

  To Richard Buckland,

  who really knows his way around the inside of

  a computer

  Contents

  Cover

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Epilogue

  CHAPTER ONE

  Noble stands on the fringes of Morwood, assessing the terrain. Spread out before him is a forest of dead trees. They look like antlers, ivory pale and twisted, their barbed limbs clawing at the sky. Beneath them the ground is as slick as a bog. It’s a strange color—the color of raw flesh—with clumps of coarse, snarled hair clogging up its clefts and hollows. There are fragments of armor strewn about.

  The silence is eerie. No birds are twittering. No wind is blowing. Flashes of blue sheet lightning flicker across the lowering storm clouds, but there’s no thunder. The very shadows seem to throb with menace.

  Smite squirms impatiently. She’s caught in Noble’s iron grasp, her shaft changing from gray to silver to a molten, eye-searing white as she slowly and irritably begins to shape-shift. Her mace-head flattens and unfurls into an ax blade. Then it sprouts a spike to become a halberd. When he sees the spike widening into a double-edged sword, Noble reluctantly advances.

  It’s no good trying to reason with Smite. She’s a Tritus—a dumb animal—and all the training in the world won’t tame her ravenous appetite. If Smite doesn’t slake her hunger very soon, she’ll start feeding on Noble. She’s done it before. He generally keeps his right hand clasped around her neck, so that her small, scaled head is nestled against his palm like a pommel. This means that, if she wants to bite him, he can only stop her by disarming himself.

  And that’s not going to happen. Not until he’s conquered the fortress.

  Though large and muscle-bound, Noble treads lightly. His hauberk is made of leather, not chain mail. His head is bare and he carries no shield. From his belt hang only a flask, a purse, and a knife. Even so, the land yields to his weight like blubber; his boots leave a faint depression with every step. They also shed the salt that he’s collected on his long and dangerous trek across the dried-up sea that rings Morwood. During this journey, he managed to fight his way through a crystalline labyrinth full of salt devils—leathery creatures that were frantic to suck every drop of moisture from his body. Now, as he moves from hummock to hummock, he scatters so much salt in his wake that the ground sizzles like fat on a fire. He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like anything about Morwood. There’s no shelter here, and his path oozes a reddish liquid whenever Noble applies any pressure to it. Once or twice, he slips and loses his footing.

  That’s why he heads for the nearest crop of hair. Before he reaches it, however, a low rumble stops him in his tracks. He can feel the ground shake. As the vibration intensifies, the noise becomes louder.

  Then—whoomp! Something is blown out of a distant trench on a jet of air and fluid. It’s like the eruption of a blowhole. The objects being expelled are silhouetted against the sky for an instant; they’re pieces of armor and fragments of bone. A human skull ricochets off a tree trunk.

  Noble retreats a step. He does it instinctively, without checking behind him, and pays dearly for his error. Because there’s nothing solid back there to support his right foot. A hole opens up beneath it. And when he tries to fling himself forward again, he overbalances.

  “Yaah!” he bellows, swinging his weapon. Smite responds, morphing into a halberd, her ax blade biting deeply into the rim of the yawning mouth that’s trying to consume Noble.

  Bloody water gushes from the wound that she’s inflicted.

  Luckily, she’s made the right choice. A sword blade wouldn’t have worked—not from that angle. With a sword in his hand, Noble would have found himself sliding down a wet, pulsing gullet toward a double set of subterranean teeth.

  But he’s been saved, thanks to Smite. He’s hanging off her shaft, scrabbling for a foothold as she works her ax head more and more deeply into the lip of the hole. There’s a tuft of hair not far away, and Noble makes a desperate grab for it. He misses. When he tries again, stretching every ligament to snapping point, his fingers close around a mangy, fibrous clump that’s as strong as braided leather.

  Miraculously, he doesn’t uproot the hair. Instead, he manages to shift his weight, hauling himself slowly out of the hole with one hand while relaxing his grip on Smite. It’s a tricky maneuver. But at last, with his belly braced against the edge of the precipice, he feels safe enough to retrieve his weapon.

  He’s only just plucked her free when something coils around his ankle.

  “Aagh!” He chops wildly at the threat before he even knows what it is. Then he sees that an enormous tongue has shot out of the gaping maw below him. Its barbed surface hooks into his flesh, tugging him toward a ring of teeth and a rippling throat. If he doesn’t fight back, he could end up like that bundle of dancing bones he just saw, spat out of a crevice and dispersed across the landscape.

  He needs an ax. An ax would do the job, but Smite has failed him. This time, she’s made a bad choice, though not a fatal one. She’s become a sword when she should have stayed a halberd. So Noble finds himself slashing the tongue to pieces, slice by slice, instead of cutting it in half with a single blow.

  The strain on his joints is immense. He’s losing his grip on the tuft of hair. As he’s dragged lower and lower, he sets his teeth and hacks away until the giant tongue snaps suddenly, like a frayed rope. By now he’s barely holding on by his fingernails. And though the severed tip of the tongue is lifeless, he can’t seem to kick it off. It’s still clinging to h
is leg with a thousand tiny barbs, weighing him down.

  He swings his weapon above his head, hoping that Smite won’t make another bad choice. Luckily, she takes on her halberd form again, plunging deep into the side of the hole and giving Noble just enough purchase to climb out of it. He scrambles over the rim, then rolls clear. The hole slaps shut. Next thing he knows, he’s staring at Smite’s exposed hilt, which is trapped in the ground.

  “Smite!” He reaches out and grabs her neck. He strains and heaves and nearly dislocates both arms. Finally, with one huge, muscular contraction, he liberates her.

  When he climbs to his feet, he’s panting and glad of a break. Smite is no longer hot. She’s not even warm.

  Her hunger must be satisfied.

  “You know what? You don’t have to do that,” a voice behind him says.

  Noble gasps. Then he whirls around, ready to face his next challenge.

  He’s not expecting it to be a beardless, unarmed youth.

  “Hey!” The youth shuffles backward, raising both hands. “Don’t point that thing at me. I’m harmless.”

  “Who are you?” Noble exclaims. “What do you want?”

  “I’m Rufus. And I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do this.” Rufus peers up at Noble through a thick curtain of hair. “You can stop. Right now.”

  Noble is highly suspicious. “What do you mean? Stop what?”

  “This,” Rufus replies. “All this stupid stuff. The fighting. The heroics.”

  “You want me to surrender? To you?” Noble’s lip curls as he studies the boy, who’s about half his size. Rufus is skinny and pale, with a spot on his chin and a hole in his shoe. His clothes, though exotic, are badly tended. A checked shirt droops from his narrow shoulders, flapping open to reveal a soiled undershirt. His hems are frayed. He slouches. His pants are almost sliding off his narrow hips.

  “I’m not asking you to surrender,” Rufus says with a sigh. “I’m asking you to think. Just think about what you’re doing. Do you like doing it? Are you happy?”

  Noble frowns. He doesn’t understand. Is the boy trying to lure him into an ambush?

  “Just look at yourself,” Rufus continues. “You look terrible—like you’ve crawled out of a goat’s stomach.” He jerks his chin at the piece of tongue still wrapped around Noble’s leg. “I mean, is this how you really want to spend your time? Walking around with a giant leech hanging off you?”

  “It’s not a leech.” Noble pries the gray, twitching muscle off his leather boot. A quick scan of his surroundings tells him there’s no sign of imminent danger. No one’s trying to sneak up on him. The coast is clear.

  “See?” Rufus has been watching him closely. “You can’t relax for a second. It’s just fight, fight, fight. And for what? Do you even know?”

  “Of course I do. But I’m not stupid. What makes you think that I would discuss my quest with a stranger?”

  Rufus rolls his eyes. His face is extremely mobile and expressive, though barely visible beneath all his woolly hair.

  “Oh, right. Your quest,” he drawls. “You mean the quest to kill Lord Harrowmage and rescue Princess Lorellina from the Fortress of Bone?” As Noble gasps, Rufus shakes his head. “For God’s sake, that is so lame. Not to mention pointless.”

  “How—how …?” Noble is horrified. He’s been betrayed! But by whom?

  “Have you actually met this woman?” Rufus demands. “How do you know she even wants to be rescued?”

  Noble can’t speak. Instead, he swallows. Smite is twisting with impatience in his grip.

  “If I were you, I’d start looking at the bigger picture,” says Rufus, folding his arms. “I mean, what’s going to happen if you stop fighting? Is anyone going to be worse off? I don’t think so.”

  Noble can’t suppress a short, bitter laugh. “I’ll be worse off,” he growls. “If I stop fighting, I’ll die.” He has no doubts on that score.

  Rufus, however, isn’t persuaded. “How do you know?” he asks.

  “I know.”

  “How? Who told you?”

  “Lord Harrowmage is as pitiless as he is cruel,” Noble insists. “He’ll not rest until I’m dead.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because he’s trying to kill me!” Noble makes a sweeping gesture with his free hand. “Are you blind? This place is a death trap! The very earth would swallow me up, if it could!”

  “So why are you here, then?” When Noble doesn’t immediately respond, Rufus adds, “Why don’t you just leave?”

  “Ah.” Noble has a flash of insight. This must be a tactical maneuver. He’s familiar with such things. “I understand now,” he declares, tightening his grip around Smite’s neck. “You serve Lord Harrowmage. You’re one of his minions. You want to turn me back.”

  “Oh, please.” Rufus snorts. “Do I look like I belong here?”

  It’s a good question. When Noble stops to reflect on the matter, he realizes that Rufus does seem out of place. There’s something about the boy that sets him apart. It’s more than just his peculiar clothes, or his odd manner of speaking. Is it the texture of his skin? The density of his color shadings?

  “I’m not a part of this program,” Rufus reveals. “I’m a visitor, just passing through. And I’m here to set you free.”

  To Noble, this seems ludicrous. “I’m no captive. The princess is imprisoned, not I.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Once I release her, Lord Harrowmage will no longer be able to shield himself. Having no hostage in his clutches, he will fall to the remnants of Thanehaven’s warrior clans when they join forces to defeat him.” With a grim little half smile, Noble concludes gruffly, “Unless, of course, I kill him first.”

  “So you’re planning to kill the guy?” Rufus proceeds without waiting for an answer. “Has it occurred to you that you might be the baddie in this scenario? Maybe Lord Harrowmage isn’t the problem, here. I bet he’s as scared as you are.”

  Noble blinks. Then he scowls. “No,” he says. “You’re wrong.”

  “Maybe. Have you ever talked to him?”

  “Talked to him?”

  “It’s worth a try. We can go and knock on his door right now. You can promise not to kill him if he promises not to kill you.”

  But Noble is shaking his head. “You’re mad,” he announces.

  “No I’m not. I’m a lateral thinker.”

  “Talk to Lord Harrowmage? I must get to Lord Harrowmage first.” Noble points at the horizon. “Beyond Morwood lies the Blood River, and beyond that lies the greatest fortress in the world, with walls so high and thick that no one has ever penetrated them.”

  “Yeah, but there’s a road through the woods,” Rufus interrupts. “And a drawbridge across the river.”

  “Both of which are well guarded!” Noble can’t believe his ears. “Do you think I’m a fool? If the road was safe, I’d be taking the road!” Suddenly, Smite buries her needle-sharp fangs in his wrist. “Ah!” he groans, conscious that she needs to be fed again.

  And Rufus is the closest available meal.

  “See—this is exactly what I mean,” Rufus says impatiently, nodding at Smite. “Aren’t you sick of being bossed around? You can throw that thing away, you know.”

  Despite his discomfort, which makes it hard to concentrate, Noble doesn’t succumb to such a pitiful trick. “You’re trying to disarm me,” he snarls, shifting Smite from one hand to the other.

  Rufus waves this accusation aside. “Actually, I’m trying to empower you,” he explains. “Because guess what? Smite isn’t yours. She’s taking her orders from somebody else.” Before Noble can pour scorn on this idea, Rufus continues. “She fouls things up for a reason, you know. It’s not because she’s stupid. It’s because some idiot you’ve never met is telling her what to do.”

  “That’s a lie.”

  “It’s not. It’s the way the game works. You’re not a player here, you’re just a puppet. And you don’t have to be.” Rufus lets his
gaze drift down to the writhing weapon in Noble’s hand. “Tell the truth, now. Wouldn’t you like to call the shots, for once?”

  Noble hesitates. It occurs to him that Smite is very much a mixed blessing. Every second choice she makes is bad. Whenever he wants to stop and think, she drives him forward.

  Right now, she’s trying to drink his blood—and he’s not enjoying it.

  “You’ve got two options,” Rufus argues. “Either you keep fighting until the dingbat in charge gets you killed, or you negotiate a truce with Lord Harrowmage and decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Because then you’ll actually have a life.” Rufus flashes a sudden, irrepressible grin. “Bit of a no-brainer, really.”

  Something clicks inside Noble’s head. It’s an odd feeling, as if a door has swung open. The whole world seems to shift sideways.

  He’s barely conscious of Smite’s gnawing teeth.

  “Smite speaks to no one,” he finally says. “How can she be serving two masters?”

  Rufus shrugs. “She’s not. She’s serving one master. And it isn’t you.”

  Noble can almost believe this. For some deep, unexplored reason, it makes sense to him. “But how?” he asks. “Is it magic? Has someone cast a binding spell?”

  “Ummm … yeah. Sort of.”

  “Another mage, perhaps.” Noble considers the possibility, which has never before crossed his mind. Suppose he’s nothing but a minion? Suppose he’s being tracked in the depths of some enchanter’s crystal ball?

  Suppose his quest isn’t really his own?

  Suddenly, Smite chomps down hard, derailing this train of thought. “Ouch!” Noble yelps.

  “Listen.” Rufus’s tone becomes more urgent. “We can’t just stand around yakking, or that thing will chew your arm off. What if I get you inside the fortress? Will you believe me then?”

  Noble’s jaw drops.

  “I bet I can do it. Infiltration is my speciality,” Rufus assures him. “We’ll head for that road over there and see what happens. If things don’t work out, I’ll be your advance guard. Which means I’ll cop the worst of it while you’re on your way back to wherever.”

 
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