Check out Matthew Reilly’s Troll Mountain: Episode Two, available April 15th from Momentum Books. This is the second of three serialized ebook releases coming this month, so check back for additional excerpts!
The only unguarded entrance to Troll Mountain is the abandoned kingdom of the hobgoblins.
With no other route available to them, Raf and his newfound friends, Ko and Düm, enter the dark, dank world of the hobgoblins.
But is it truly abandoned?
The realm of the hobgoblins was a dank collection of dark tunnels and immense stone caves, all cut out of the living rock. Exposed sections of a strange rust-colored stone could be seen in its walls. These sections were framed by long-abandoned scaffolds and ladders.
“What is this strange stone?” Raf asked, touching it.
Ko said, “This ‘kingdom,’ it would appear, was actually once a mine. Similar mines were common in my homeland, for that substance you see is raw iron which, when smelted in a furnace, can be used to make very effective weapons.”
“I have heard tales of an ancient tribe of men who lived in these lands,” Raf said. “They were clever men, and they wore shiny armor and bronze helmets with red plumes. But they left when their home city, across the sea to the south, was attacked, and they never returned.”
A short way down the first tunnel, Raf’s group came to a broad pit in the floor, spanning the entire width of the passageway. At the base of the pit were a dozen upwardly pointed wooden spikes. In among the spikes, Raf saw the remains of a troll, skewered by no fewer than five of the deadly stakes.
The troll, he noticed, was not very decomposed. “That corpse hasn’t been here long,” he said.
“A rogue troll seeking shelter, I would guess,” Ko said.
“It must have entered from the other side,” Raf said, “for the spider web sealing our entrance was undisturbed.”
Düm just nodded in agreement, saying nothing.
Two small stepping stones protruded from the right-hand wall of the pit: the only way across.
Raf and Ko skipped easily across the stepping stones, but Düm needed the help of a rope to get across. It was a simple but effective trap to stop a troll from entering the cave system.
They passed through two massive mine-caves, each connected by long straight tunnels that contained other traps. Grim hobgoblin decorations flanked the walls: more troll skulls, and some bear and wolf skulls.
In the first of those caves, Düm found a large wooden sledgehammer near some other mining tools. For a human, it was a large thing, to be wielded with both hands in a slinging over-the-shoulder motion, but Düm held it lightly in one hand.
Flanking the entrance to the next tunnel were the rotting corpses of not one but two trolls: they were both affixed to the wall with their heads sagging and their arms spread wide, their giant hands nailed to the stone wall.
Raf stared up at the dead trolls in disgust.
Düm just averted his gaze.
“Hobgoblins did this?” Raf gasped.
“Yes,” Ko said softly.
They passed between the two hideously displayed trolls, entering the narrow stone tunnel beyond them.
“Why would the hobgoblins leave this place?” Raf asked. “It gives ample shelter and good defense against the trolls.”
Ko said, “Hobgoblins are most unpleasant creatures, not just because of their cunning but because they only consume. They do not build anything. They do not domesticate animals or plants. They do not renew. Hobgoblins live in places built by others and they simply consume what is available for as long as it is available. Then they move on to another place and slowly destroy it. Hobgoblins cannot see beyond the needs of the present moment. They stayed here for as long as it sustained them and then moved on.”
“Are trolls any different?”
“Oh, trolls are much smarter,” Ko said. “Why, this is the cause of your current dilemma. The trolls deduced that they needed to secure their food and water supply for the future. They did this by damming the river and essentially enslaving the human tribes downstream. They give you just enough water to survive and you give them food. This enforced tribute feeds the trolls with minimal labor on their part. In this regard, the troll is much smarter than the hobgoblin.”
They edged further down the tunnel.
“What exactly is a hobgoblin?” Raf asked.
Ko shrugged. “Hobgoblins are smaller than men, but they speak like men. They have hands and feet just like ours but their skin is coarser, leathery, more bristled. If they were not once men then maybe they were once apes—it is as if they are an animal caught halfway between the two, for they share features of both.”
As Ko said this, Raf realized that the tunnel through which they were walking was becoming oddly warm and humid.
They came to a doorway and stepped out into an enormous cavern.
Raf stopped at the sight that met him.
A broad lake of steaming water filled the floor of the mighty space. Raf had seen thermal springs before, but not an entire subterranean lake.
A low wooden bridge spanned the hot lake, giving access to a most unusual feature that dominated the far wall of the massive cavern: a railless stone path cut into the rock wall itself. It switched back and forth up the three-hundred-foot wall, steadily ascending. Any slip or stumble would result in a fall into the steaming pool at its base. Bored into the huge rock wall beside the path were many man-sized mini-tunnels.
At two places along the path’s length there were ancient guardhouses with drawbridges folding down from them that spanned gaps in the vertiginous walkway. At the moment, the lower of the two drawbridges was folded down and open, while the upper one was folded up, barring passage across its void.
At the very top of the path, Raf saw an imposing stone doorway like the one through which they had entered the old mine: the exit.
Raf stared up in awe at the incredible feat of engineering.
Beside him, Ko wasn’t looking at it at all. He was peering at something on the ground nearby. He dropped to his knees to inspect it. “Oh, dear, this is not good.”
Düm saw what Ko was examining and sniffed with distaste. “Droppings…”
“These are mountain wolf droppings,” Ko said. “And they are fresh.” He drew his sword with a sharp zing.
“Mountain wolves…” Raf said. He was already gripping his flint knife.
Düm hefted his sledgehammer.
Ko said, “Something did move in after the hobgoblins abandoned this place…”
A sudden cackle of laughter echoed out from the upper reaches of the cave.
“I seeeeeee you!” a thin reedy voice called from the darkness.
“I see you, too!” another voice called from another direction.
“I see you three!” a third voice called.
Raf spun again, eyes scanning the cavern, but he saw nothing, no movement.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” a lower voice said from somewhere much closer. “Because now you must die.”
Raf’s heart was pounding as he turned once more to face the tunnel through which they had come and abruptly found himself staring into the eyes of a hobgoblin holding a sword.
The sword came rushing at Raf’s face.
Another sword appeared in front of Raf’s nose and parried the incoming blow.
It was Ko’s. The old man now stepped in front of Raf and engaged the hobgoblin.
At the same moment, Raf saw three more hobgoblins leap down from fissures in the cavern’s walls, armed with rusty swords. Three quickly became six, which quickly became eleven. The gang of hobgoblins came running toward him.
“Raf! Run!” Ko called as his sword clashed with the first hobgoblin’s. “We must get up that path! Go! I will be right behind you!”
Raf and Düm dashed across the low wooden bridge spanning the steaming lake.
Hot moist air wafted around them, rising from the thermal pool. Raf didn’t know how hot the lake was, but he guessed it was not far short of scalding.
As he and Düm reached the base of the path on the other side, Ko managed to sidekick the first hobgoblin away and race after them, pursued by the gang of twelve hobgoblins.
Raf looked back in horror at the pursuing creatures.
They were about five feet tall and they ran on their legs and knuckles, clutching rusty swords in tight fists. In the dim light of his torch, he saw their black leather-like skin, pointy ears, snub noses and hunched backs.
They cackled meanly as they ran.
“Fly, little birds!”
“Run, rabbits, run!”
“Oh, yes, we like a good hunt!” their leader called. “A kill is a kill, but when I bury my blade in a victim who is white with fear, it is so much the sweeter!”
Raf pushed Düm up the path as Ko joined them. Raf stepped forward to meet the first hobgoblin and the clash of their blades rang loudly.
Raf had the higher ground, which helped him hold off the creature’s blows, but the sheer number of hobgoblins was going to be too much for him to handle. Then, suddenly, a huge brown blur whooshed past Raf and struck the first hobgoblin, sending the little creature flying backward into the lake with a howl. It landed with a splash and screamed in agony as the water scalded its skin. It went under, shrieking.
Raf turned to see Düm swinging his long sledgehammer again. “Master Raf! Duck!”
Raf ducked and the big hammer swooshed over his head again and sent another hobgoblin splashing into the sizzling pool.
It gave Raf the moment he needed and he bolted up the path to join Düm and Ko.
And that was how it went: a running sword-battle as Raf, Ko, and Düm ascended the path, pursued by the furious hobgoblins.
They scaled the railless path, clashing swords, parrying blows, always moving, never stopping. They traversed the first drawbridge—the one that was in the open position—but stopped short when they came to the second.
This drawbridge towered high above the floor of the immense cavern, two hundred dizzying feet above the steaming lake.
Raf called out the plan: Ko and Düm would hold off the hobgoblins while he dashed inside the two-story guardhouse and lowered the drawbridge.
Raf hurried inside the little structure and clambered up a wooden ladder to its upper level. He emerged inside a small chamber, where he beheld a large cogwheel around which the drawbridge’s chains were spooled. The chains stretched out through a small rectangular window in the wall.
A low growl made Raf freeze.
Raf turned to see a large shape emerging slowly from the darkness…
It was a mountain wolf.
It was three.
They stepped out from the shadows of the chamber. They were massive, their shoulders easily four feet off the ground. Their eyes were pitiless, their fangs cruel.
Raf didn’t stop to stare. He dived for the cogwheel and released its lever, causing the cogwheel to spin furiously and the drawbridge outside to fall and land on the other side of the void with a loud bang!
Then Raf ran for the window through which the chains exited the chamber—just as a hobgoblin appeared on the ladder poking up through the floor and raised his sword, only to be bowled off his feet by one of the wolves. The wolf proceeded to tear the hobgoblin to shreds as Raf grabbed a chain and slid down it, out of the chamber.
Ko and Düm stepped backward across the drawbridge, fending off the hobgoblins as Raf came sliding down one of the drawbridge’s chains, overtaking them.
Düm swiped a hobgoblin off the bridge, sending the creature flying two hundred feet down to the pool, a high-pitched shriek following it all the way down.
But then the three mountain wolves emerged behind the hobgoblins and the goblins didn’t know what to do—suddenly, they were hemmed in both in front and behind by deadly enemies.
“Düm!” Raf called as they stepped off the bridge and onto the path again. “Destroy the bridge!”
Düm held the big hammer aloft and brought it down on the brackets where the chains were attached to the drawbridge. Two blows and the brackets came loose. Three more and the bridge fell from its chains, plummeting down the rock wall, taking three hobgoblins and one mountain wolf with it.
The remaining hobgoblins were left on the guardhouse-side of the void, with the two remaining wolves. Their fate would not be kind. The wolves pounced on them and the hobgoblins’ death screams filled the air.
Raf sucked in a deep breath.
He and the others were safe on their side of the void. With a final look back at the realm of the hobgoblins, he ascended the last few turns of the path and disappeared through the ornate door at its summit.
Moments later, he, Ko and Düm emerged from the mine onto a small ledge cut into the side of the mountain that contained the hobgoblin kingdom.
Raf was about to ask Düm how far it was from here to Troll Mountain, when he stopped himself. He didn’t need to. The ledge on which he stood faced west, and laid out before him was the most spectacular and sinister sight he had ever seen in his life.
He was looking at Troll Mountain.
Troll Mountain © Matthew Reilly, 2014