Stone Breaker: Gloomhaven Novel/Fanfic Sneak Peek

Stone Breaker: Gloomhaven Novel/Fanfic Sneak Peek

November 4, 2020 Edit: Basically none of this is applicable anymore, since the novel is no longer a Gloomhaven novel, but a world of my own creation. But I’d still totally be down for writing a Gloomhaven story one of these days! The new iteration of this story is called Flightless.

I can’t post the whole story yet for two reasons.

  1. It’s not done. Check the side bar for my writing status updates.
  2. My (maybe completely unattainable) dream is to get this puppy officially licensed, so I don’t want to show too much leg yet.

But I’d like to show a little leg. So… here’s the first little bit.

(Yes, I know Isaac Childres created this world, not me. Yes, I know I don’t own a sliver of this IP. Yes, this is a tribute to Childres’ fantastic game. Yes, I am creating this story in an entirely different medium so it does not compete in any way with the financial success of Gloomhaven. Yes, I hope it brings new fans to the game and reignites the loves of existing fans. And yes, I pray Childres doesn’t sue me.)

Stone Breaker Chapter 1 Excerpt

Riff worked in the dark. Lighting even a match would attract the wrong kind of attention. Unfortunately, that left him hacking at the thick rope before him instead of simply burning it apart.

The rope held a wrought iron grate firmly in place, and it was doing an abominably good job of it. The grate covered a hole in the stone wall of the tunnel system that led to the University buildings. In particular, to his goal: the warehouse of the Department of Enchantment. At three hand spans wide and two spans tall, the hole was just big enough for a slender man like Riff to crawl through. Frigid air exhaled through the bars, and within his threadbare gloves, his hands shook, nearly numb.

He’d been led to believe that the hole would let him access a quiet corner of the University’s underbelly. To a dusty old professor, he supposed the items inside the warehouse were research projects. To Riff, they represented an upgrade from the months of tattered clothes, rusty tools, cold meals, and restless nights spent on dirt floors. He knew his disheveled state had gotten particularly bad, considering how little attention women gave him these days. Whatever roguish charm he possessed had evaporated upon reaching his current degree of unwashed poverty.

It was a good job, especially for a relatively new mercenary to the city. He didn’t even have to hurt anyone. Plus, it’d probably be months before the University noticed the items were missing, and they might even assume some absentminded student had misplaced them.

Ten feet above his head, a wide bridge blocked the moonlight. It was made of pockmarked stone, just like the wall before him. Overhead, Riff heard the clattering footfalls of a troop of a dozen soldiers making their nighttime rounds. He’d spent the last two nights studying their pattern. In a few minutes, they would descend from the bridge, passing where he stood as they circled back to the barracks. He needed to be out of sight by then, tucked within the wall’s embrace.

At sunrise, the bridge would be lined with merchant stalls, the smell of flowers, and the sound of shrill hawkers. But right now, and particularly right here—under the bridge—it was another world. Empty, dark, dank. And nearly perfect.

Perfect except for the pack of half a dozen tattered Vermlings clustered on the far edge of the bridge’s underbelly. They were gathered thirty yards away around a campfire. Their chittering laughter bounced off stone columns and rose into the night like their fire’s smoke.

He swiveled his head far enough so his one good eye could spot them. The Vermling closest to him, silhouetted by the flames, leapt to its full height—no more than four feet. Its long, naked tail whipped back and forth as it cried out for its turn to gnaw on the meat that was going around the circle.

The meat in question was a skewered, severed leg. Definitely human. Riff knew, because the rest of the body was laying a dozen feet from the pack. By the look of the man, he’d been a beggar, his gray hair a tangled mess, clothes in tatters, knapsack deflated. But to the hungry Vermlings, his body had been valuable enough on its own.

Grimacing, he turned back to his work. Why is this rope so blasted stubborn?

Riff tested the edge of the knife on his thumb. It creased the skin, but it wasn’t sharp enough to make him bleed.

Gloom and gore, he thought. The rope was triple-thick, as big around as his arm, the kind sailors used on ships. The corded strands of hemp wound around each other in an unending spiral. He’d managed to cut halfway through, but he didn’t have all night. Too bad he didn’t get an advance on this job; then he could’ve afforded to replace his whetstone, and he’d be halfway done with the job by now.

Riff knew that when the guards passed, the Vermlings would likely scatter, disappearing back into the sewers or Great Oak knew where. He’d be completely exposed, so he had to be gone.

Forget the knife. 

His fingers groped for the leather pouches lining his belt. His second blade was gone; it had been snapped by a Quatryl’s experimental sharpening device two weeks ago. Smoke bomb. A vial of poison. A lockpick set. None of it was of any use to him here.

It was going to have to be fire. So long as the Vermlings didn’t see him, he’d be through in no time.

Sheathing his sorry excuse for a blade, Riff reached into his inner vest pocket and brought out a small oiled matchbox, slid it open, and drew out a single match.

He glanced back at the Vermlings. They were still thoroughly distracted by their grim prize.

Huddling over his hands, he struck the match over the rough strip on the side of the box. Light bloomed to life, illuminating his wavy mess of blond hair around his peripheral vision. Then the light softened. He leaned closer to the rope to shield the flame from view, holding it under the hemp. The rope was blackened from dampness, toughened from age like leather.

The frayed strands Riff had already cut burned a deep orange, then puffed out. Riff leaned in and blew on the charred edges, and the glow returned. A wisp of noxious smoke rose.

Riff coughed, covering his mouth with the crook of his arm to muffle the sound.

The chittering of the Vermlings quieted. He peeked over his shoulder again. Each ratlike face stared directly at him, ears perked. Then, as one, they scrabbled towards him, moonlight glinting off steel blades and bone clubs.

Oh, this is charming.

Riff shook out the match and drew his dull knife as he whirled to face them. “Not worth it, friends!” he called as they continued their scrambling approach. Rows of sharp, wet teeth flashed in response. With a grimace, Riff took a step back, bumping into the grate. “Really!” he tried again. “The guards will be here any minute. You think you can kill me and hide two human bodies before they arrive?”

That gave one of them pause, and it slowed to look back at the beggar. The other five seemed more optimistic as they scurried forward. From a distance, all of them had looked disheveled, but harmless enough. In close quarters, though, the creatures were easily two-thirds Riff’s size with snarled fur and wicked, curved claws. 

The closest one lept towards Riff with a sharp yip. Its flattened nose quivered with flared nostrils. Riff spun away, tucking in his shoulder to avoid a swipe of the Vermling’s paw.

Another landed on his back, whumphing against him like a sack of grain. It dug its claws into Riff’s leather vest, piercing his skin. Riff gasped in pain, then gagged. The creature’s breath smelled like rotten meat.

Eyes watering at the stench, Riff swiped his knife at the Vermling in front of him. Dull as the blade was, it drove the creature back a few feet. It hissed with glinting eyes.

Before another could take his companion’s place, Riff staggered into the wall, driving the Vermling clinging to his back against the stone. Its furry head connected with the metal gate with a crack.

The Vermling let out a cry and dislodged itself, giving Riff’s ankle a kick before scampering back. Riff hopped in place, shaking out his smarting limb.

Three fresh Vermlings advanced, one swiping its claws menacingly. Another nibbled on the edge of its battered knife, its beady eyes locked on Riff. The third swung its club over its shoulder, staring consideringly at the rope-bound grate.

Riff fingered the smoke bomb in his vest pocket.

Thrump, thrump, thrump, thrump. It was the sound of a dozen sets of boots approaching, marching in step.

“Here come the guards,” Riff hissed at the Vermlings. “You honestly like these odds?”

They looked between each other. The one with the club swiveled its pointy ears to Riff then squeaked at its companions, “Go without! I catch up!” Riff blinked. He hadn’t realized they were capable of stringing together a coherent sentence. 

The rest of the Vermlings—all but the one facing him—chittered in agreement. They scampered off, squeezing out of sight through a sewer grate on the far end of the bridge. One darted back to the campfire to snag their gory meal and drag it underground with him.

The sound of the approaching guards grew louder as Riff straightened. “Not going to follow your friends?” He asked the remaining Vermling as he clutched his aching shoulder. His empty hand balled into a fist.

“Not going to attack,” it declared.

“Then leave,” Riff snapped.

“What is your plan?” the creature demanded, voice raspy. Its eyes darted to the half-severed rope to indicate what it meant.

“My plan?” he asked blankly. 

With an impatient gait, it scampered to the rope, tugging on it. “Why cut this?”

The guards were getting closer. From the sound of it, they would be in sight any moment now.

Shaking his head, Riff snapped, “Get out of my way.” He strode forward, reaching for his matchbox, which had fallen to the ground. He slipped it back into place.

By the time he straightened, the Vermling had sunk its teeth into the rope, gnawing at it with vigor. In just a few seconds, the two pieces fell away, and Riff lunged forward to catch the metal grate before it clattered to the ground. He looked down at the Vermling, who bared its teeth. Bits of rope stuck out between them. Was it… smiling?

Flickering light caught his eye, and he looked up to see torches coming around the far edge of the bridge. The soldiers marched alongside the columns, slowing to a stop at the sight of the campfire and dead beggar.

Without another word, Riff set down the grate and pushed his way in front of the Vermling. He heaved himself into the hole in the wall. Fingers digging into the tight stone, he dragged himself deeper until he was lying on his stomach, all but his feet within the tiny space. The hilt of his knife jabbed against his hip. Riff stretched out his arms until his gloved hands grasped at empty, pitch-black space. He wormed his way forward and toppled inelegantly onto a hard, cold floor a few feet down. 

As he clambered to his feet, he heard the scuffling rustle of the Vermling following him. “Get out of here,” he hissed. Insufferable little creature.

Abruptly, its paw landed on Riff’s face, grasping his nose. Riff yelped and stepped backwards out of its reach. The Vermling tumbled to the floor with a squeak of alarm, its bone club clattering just after it.

Now that the hole—shaft, really—was cleared of occupants, Riff could see through it, into the under-bridge area where he’d just been. He couldn’t see the guards, but their torchlight came ever closer. Their steps were no longer synchronized, and they murmured in concerned tones. He ducked out of sight as soon as he spotted them, putting his back against the wall, with the shaft’s entrance beside him.

For the first time, he took in his surroundings. The sliver of moonlight that pierced the darkness illuminated a long hallway that stretched to the left and right as far as he could make it out. Every fifty feet or so, there was another shaft just like the one they’d crawled through. A few feet away, embedded in the wall, was a metal sign. It said Department of Enchantment, Left. Department of Transmutation, Right. Do Not Extinguish Torches; They Are Necessary for Your Safety. There was not a single torch in sight. Maybe they’d been blown out; the frigid air that had seeped through the wrought iron grate now surrounded Riff, blowing through the corridor.

The guards’ voices grew louder on the other side of the wall until one sounded like it was just a few feet away. Torchlight illuminated a perfect rectangle of the stone wall across from the shaft. “Is the grate supposed to be on the ground like this?”

A second voice gave a long-suffering sigh. “What kind of idiotic question is that? Of course it’s not.”

“Do you think that has something to do with the… unfortunate soul back there?” the first voice asked.

“Perhaps, but it’s far from him. It’s more likely to be Vermling mischief.”

“Should we investigate, sir?”

Just Riff’s luck. He shot the Vermling a sour look. Faintly-glowing yellow eyes peered back at him unblinkingly.

Finally, the second voice responded, “Shift’s about over. Just note it in your log.” Their boots thrumped away, taking the torchlight with them.

Riff released a sigh of relief, then rounded on the Vermling in a whisper. “Alright. Care to explain yourself?”

Its sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight. “I help. I profit.”

He scowled. “I don’t need help.” And he certainly wasn’t losing his profit. Lifting his gaze, he started down the left path, towards the Department of Enchantment. As he walked farther from the shaft, everything grew dark. The icy wind picked up speed and blew his hair back from his face. He extended his right hand to run it along the wall. Twenty paces ahead was the next pale rectangle of silvery moonlight.

 Hearing scrabbling behind him, he stopped and turned. The Vermling was hurrying to catch up, club bouncing on its shoulder. 

“I told you to go,” Riff snapped.

“What are you stealing?” the Vermling asked, its furry clothing swishing with each step.

“Stealing?” Riff demanded. “Why would you assume that?”

“What are you… re-homing?” it rephrased. Even in the dimness Riff could see its horrid, toothy smile.

Riff shook his head. “Very funny. Now scamper along.”

“You are not ready. You need Marash.”

Riff wrinkled his nose. Now that it was close, he could smell its breath again. “Need what?”

“Marash.” It jabbed its thumb at its chest, then trotted ahead of Riff. It was faintly silhouetted by the light ahead—until it abruptly ducked out of sight.

Riff blinked, peering ahead in the darkness. “Marash?”

“This way, human!” it squeaked.

Through his gloves, he felt the wall on his right turn a ninety degree angle away. Midway between the two ventilation shafts was a new corridor that led deeper into the University complex; he never would have seen it in the dark. He could hear Marash scrabbling ahead. With a sigh, he turned to follow. At least this path pointed him in the direction of the warehouse. 

He’d known for a few months that these tunnels existed; they’d been built to help University students and faculty move between buildings. But they were infrequently traveled due to their dark, chilly state, so a few smuggler friends of Riff’s had used them before. They’d drawn him rough maps of their layout. Granted, none of the maps had agreed on anything but the fact they were labyrinthine, so they weren’t of much use.

“You don’t even know where I’m going,” he muttered to the Vermling. In this new hallway, with no ventilation shafts, there was no light whatsoever. He kept his gloved hand on the wall, taking slow, careful steps.

“Can guess,” it responded. “Only so many places with items to st—re-home.”

Riff sighed. “Let’s say I am re-homing something,” he said, following along more slowly. “I have no intention of sharing the profit with you. I’m working alone.”

It laughed, a chittering, echoing sound ahead in the dark. 

Riff kept walking, back hunched against the cold. The air smelled of sickly-sweet mildew, and water fell to the floor with echoing drips. His gloves were damp by now, and he shivered. A whetstone and a coat. That’s what he’d buy as soon as this job was over.

His shoulder still smarted from where Marash had hit him with its club. Come to think of it, his ankle twinged too, from where its little friend had kicked him. Why was he following this creature again?

His boot landed on a loose stone, and he wobbled. He took another step and found another unstable rock.

“Collapse,” Marash’s voice came from directly beside Riff’s elbow.

Riff jumped. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!” he snarled at it.

“You can’t see?” Marash asked, glowing eyes turning to peer up at him.

Riff sighed in exasperation. “You’ve led me into an impassable tunnel. What other help would you like to offer?” Vermling claws hooked into his sleeve and drew him closer. “Hey!”

“Come,” Marash urged. It drew Riff towards the collapse. “A way through.”

Riff reluctantly stepped forward, guided over debris and clattering fallen stones.

“Duck!” Marash ordered.

He lowered his head, and squeezed through a gap in the rubble that was just big enough for his slender frame. Then he clambered down the other side, where the air was even colder. He sneezed at the dust in the air.

“I help,” Marash insisted, removing its paw from his shirt. Its glowing eyes were all Riff could see.

“I could’ve just struck a match,” Riff muttered.

“Torch ahead,” Marash chirped.

With a sigh, Riff walked forward, fingers now trailing along the left wall, until his hand touched a metal bracket extending from it. He felt its shape. A torch, indeed. It seemed the little creature could see perfectly well in the pitch black. Perhaps it was good for something. Pulling the matchbox from his vest once again, he struck a match and lit the torch.

The hallway he was in looked just like the previous one—narrow and made of stone—but there was one difference.

Before him lurched three green, amorphous globs. Each was about waist high, and embedded within their gelatinous forms were all sorts of objects: rings, pebbles, and coins. The one in the back was larger than the other two, and within its quivering embrace was a dagger. From the green slime that coated a nearby grate, it appeared the creatures had emerged from there. A sewer grate, if his nose had to guess.

“What in the…” Riff whispered.

“Ooze!” Marash called from behind. “Kill them!” It sounded downright cheerful.

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Featured image by Markus Spiske from Pexels.

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