Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Three)

In advance of the publication of  The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:

The ship arrived at Hessen not long before daybreak. The pier was already busy with fishermen heading out on their morning runs and another trading vessel in the midst of being loaded. Word went down the dock to the trading company that their vessel had arrived from Craitol, and a work crew began to straggle in to unload the silks that were in the hold. The captain wandered off the ship, leaving the first officer in charge of unloading the cargo and headed into the city for the company house. A Craitolian left with him, which drew a few glances from various onlookers, the more so because he was of Kragian extraction by the shade of his skin. They walked together to the end of the pier and then parted, the Craitolian heading to the Custom House that lay just outside the city walls.

Vyissan was ecstatic to be on land again, his feet firm about him. Sailors, he knew, spoke of being too long at sea in that weary way everyone has speaking of a burden they alone must carry, one they cannot live without, but they were thinking in terms of weeks and months and port after port. For Vyissan, one day was too long at sea—his stomach never steadied, his balance never became sure. This had been the first time aboard a vessel since his journey south to Craitol over four years ago, an experience he had sworn never to repeat. His was not a lot in life where he could make such vows.

Not helping to ease the difficulty of his voyage had been the captain of the vessel, a foul Nrain. He had distrusted Vyissan from the first instant, the peninsulars always suspicious of northerners, especially one with his shade. Two days into their journey from Nrai he had asked, through his second, that Vyissan not eat with the other officers. He was free to eat with the common sailors or on his own. No reason was given him, though the second to his credit had been embarrassed to deliver the message. Vyissan had not made an issue of it, taking his meals in his quarters. In his circumstances he did not need attention drawn to himself.

For all the frigidness of their passage, their parting on the docks of Hessen was a warm one; the captain glad to be rid of this particular burden and Vyissan relieved simply to be back aground. He was not yet free of his own burden, hidden in the satchel he wore across his shoulder, an unremarkable weight though it yoked him as tightly as any beast, and would not be for some time yet. In fact, he would hardly have time to wash the taste of this voyage from his mouth before he would begin another. But he would not think on any of that now, with his equilibrium regained he determined to slake his thirst and find what women were on offer in the city. There was a brothel district not far from the port, far better in quality than the harlots one would find outside the city walls, which the second officer had given him directions to. When the clerks in the Custom House had read over his letters and gone through his belongings to their satisfaction he made his way there, his steps growing more sure as he went.

He took a room at one of the academies and had the first untroubled sleep of his journey. On the vessel his dreams had been shadowed by the task set before him. He carried something with the power to reorder their profane realm, if those who led him were to be believed. Such a thing could not rest easily on the mind, and his nights had been filled again with images that had dominated his childhood night terrors: the Council Adepts scouring Desecrators, alkemya ravaging their minds and souls, leaving them ruined husks of men. Vyissan could remember the Adepts and their Craitolian soldiers going from home to home in the Fegh district where he had grown up looking for those who had stood with Kercubegahedd against the Council. At the time he could not fathom how they could know that his cousin, hidden in the straw of their roof, was there or that he was an insurrectionist. That he had learned later.

When he emerged the next morning he had altered his appearance. His skin was now the olive-green hue of those of the east rather than his normal sallow color. This, combined with his silk and ardeh wool robes, gave him the look of an Enir merchant from any of the city states that lined the desert coast. A man of no real consequence—or so he hoped. He walked out without receiving so much as a glance from the madam or the swords she had keeping an eye on the entrance. Later in the day someone wondered what had become of the Craitolian northerner who had taken a room the night before and one of the servants was dispatched to see what was keeping him, for the girl had not even spent the night and he had not called for another or for food. The room was empty but for the ash from his burned letters, and there were a few comments about how strange it was that a Kragian could leave unnoticed. His room and the girl had been paid for, though, so no one gave him much thought.

He made his way back to the docks to find a ship sailing for Sylaron, the Renian city that lay at the mouth of the Rensnan. From there he planned to find a boat heading up river to Darrhyn. He fervently hoped that river travel agreed with him more than sea or the next few weeks would be an unending misery.

Hessen was a quiet port, its trade mostly with the nearby Republican cities, so there was only one vessel he could find heading to Sylaron, and it was not due to leave for three days. It was a Renian company, as he had expected, which suited him well. An Enir entering Renuih on a Renian vessel would not attract questions, and in his position questions were what he had to avoid. He had heard any number of stories of Craitolian merchants being turned back at the Custom House in Sylaron, or worse, imprisoned or enslaved. Who was to say what the veracity of those tales was, but it seemed wise not to tempt the Gods’ hands. The last thing he could afford was a close search of his satchel, that would truly get him killed. Gods forbid they somehow determined he had knowledge of alkemya, which they might if they searched him—that was punishable by death in these realms.

The second led him aboard the ship for an inspection, sounding its merits as he went. Vyissan nodded politely, thinking that even if the boat were overrun by vermin and all its crew stank of pestilence he would still take his passage.

You’ll not lack for companionship,” the second told him as he led him below decks to the passenger quarters. “We’ve another passenger with us. He’ll share the quarters with you.

And perhaps his own quarters too, if tales of their kind be true,” he whispered to Vyissan, adding in a louder voice, “He’s here now. You can meet him and gain the lie of the land, as it were.”

The second ducked in through the doorway of the fore deck quarters and pulled aside a hammock to allow Vyissan an encompassing look. There was a man stretched out in another hammock, and as he levered out of it and came forward with an offered palm Vyissan had to stifle a gasp.

Hello,” the man said, his Enir heavily accented with his native Kragian tongue. He held Vyissan’s arm a long pause, staring into his eyes, Vyissan praying to the Gods that none of the thoughts flooding his brain were showing on his face.

Of all the cursed luck, to be on a ship with Nesyur Geshlvyr a Fegh. A Kragian, from Fegh. Their families had known each other in passing, though Vyissan doubted Nesyur would remember him. The Geshlvyr were a family of low rank, which passed for something in Fegh, while Vyissan’s family had no rank and only modest means. He had still been a boy when Nesyur had gone into exile. The years had not been kind, but there was no doubt of who it was.

So you are to be my company, are you?” he said, releasing his hand and smiling again. “My name is Nesyur.”

Atasem,” Vyissan said, forcing a smile to his face. “I am considering the vessel.”

It is quality, quality as you can see,” the second said, thrusting his face between them.

Not much choice either, as I’m sure you’ve found.”

No,” Vyissan said. Nesyur. It was beyond belief. He had to remind himself that he was still in disguise and that his accent was holding firm. The Gods mocked all, those who pretended to control their destinies especially, but Nesyur. The name was a curse in the right company in Kragi. In Craitol too, for that matter.

During the alkemycal war between the Council Adepts and Kercubegahedd’s rebels, every northerner was forced to swear fealty to someone. There was no standing apart, now or then—enough blood had been spilt on both sides that no one’s hands could remain unstained. It had been a war over the very soul and practice of alkemya and a war for the freedom of Kragi. The Adepts had called the rebels Desecrators of the Balance for their alkemyc engines, and for daring to defy the Council and its proclamations. The rebels had decreed that the slavery of the Council and the Qraul could stand no more.

In a war of true believers, Nesyur Geshlvyr was something else entirely. He had received Council training, though he had not been talented enough to be inducted into the ranks of Adept and Disciple, and when the first stirrings of the insurrection were heard in Usgelt and Asder he had insinuated himself among the rebels, sending regular reports to the Adept in Devew on what was occurring there. When it later emerged that the Adept and his Disciple were using the alkemycal engines of the Desecrators, Nesyur was implicated in turning them from the Council. Even as they were being executed, Nesyur was ensuring the capture of the rebels who had supplied the engines to them. Following that, neither side could say for certain whether he was working for their interests, and so both turned against him. He had fled the province, barely escaping, and had not been seen in over ten years.

And now here he was in Hessen on his way to Sylaron.

What would take a Kragian to Renuih?” Vyissan said.

Nesyur smiled. “That is a tale in itself, not a happy one at that, so I’ll not burden you with it.”

It was a simple mistake and the second seemed not to notice it. There had been no change to Nesyur’s expression either, but Vyissan was certain he would be aware of it. How could he not? Someone from the Republics would have called him a northerner. That Vyissan had called him by his kind, even in the Enir tongue, could only mean he was from Craitol.

Vyissan smiled in turn, disguising the rising turmoil within, and carried the conversation to safer territory, commenting on how beautiful a city Hessen was.

It is one of the finer Republics I have seen,” the second said, and Nesyur nodded. “And the academies. I’d a ramp my last time through so beautiful I’d be a brother starling with any man, with a dozen men, for the rest of my time if it were in her nest.”

What is your town?” Nesyur asked Vyissan. “I cannot tell from your accent.”

Tuissar.” One of the more populous Republics, and the man who had taught him the Renian tongue and the Enir dialect had been from there. It had seemed the safest choice at the time; he could easily adopt his tutor’s accent and the city was large enough that he could navigate most conversations without exposing the true depths of his knowledge. Nothing was safe just now, though—it was only a matter of time before he made another mistake. Nesyur would be sure to press him, to confirm what he now suspected.

A marvelous city,” the second declared, his eye still on the coin.

Grand Republic. I spent two years there.” Of course. Vyissan had to resist shaking his head.

There is a square there—the name escapes me now. It was between the Hezier’s Palace and the silk market. The gesht would gather there in the evenings and sing, and all the old men. As perfect a square as exists in our earthly realm.”

A marvelous square,” Vyissan agreed.

Strange to say it reminded me of home.”

Now, what did that mean? Vyissan raised an eyebrow as if to inquire, feeling his breath go still in his chest.

Nesyur gestured as though the sensation could not be captured by mere words, so feeble and devious, “It was only…I grew up in a town called Fegh, and the old men would all gather at sundown in the squares and play cards and dice and drink. As they do everywhere, of course. When I was a child that was where I would go. And when I was in Tuissar, that was where I would go.”

Vyissan frantically parsed his words for some metaphor, some meaning that he had buried within that only a Craitolian could unearth. If there was any hidden import it was more carefully entombed than a Renian. He allowed a small measure of hope to seep into his body. Perhaps Nesyur hadn’t noticed a thing. It was only a matter of time if he went on this voyage, though. Only a matter of time.

They also have the best dala in Tuissar,” the second said.

Extraordinary,” Nesyur said, and Vyissan murmured in agreement. “Although the cups I had here—”

There was an angry shout from above deck, a name sounded as a curse. The second winced hearing it and nodded at both men before going above.

Nesyur continued, “The cups I had here were unlike any I’ve ever had. Have you—”

He did not finish his sentence. Vyissan had been waiting until he heard the second’s footsteps joining the others above them. Once they did he moved, lunging at Nesyur, the dagger in his hand emerging smoothly from his robes to be buried to the hilt in the other’s chest. Nesyur gasped in surprise, raising his hands to ward off the blow too late.

Whoreson.”

Vyissan did not give him time to say anything further, yanking his blade out and grabbing Nesyur, stepping behind him as he did so, and cutting his throat with a vicious pull of the dagger. He was careful to keep his robes away from the blood that sprang forth as he lowered the Kragian into one of the hammocks.

That blood is only a small payment on what you owe. The rest you’ll give in Ulternon’s Hall.” Said in Kragian, nothing more. Let him wonder who, in the end, had found him.

Vyissan moved quickly, arranging the body on the hammock as best he could so that someone just passing by the quarters might not see anything amiss, and then wiped his hands clean. Nesyur was still in his death throes as he left, blood filling up his mouth and spilling out as he tried to speak, his eyes blinking furiously and seeing nothing. Vyissan went above deck, finding the second and giving his leave, promising to return tomorrow with his decision on the passage.

The journey from the ship across the wharf and to the city seemed to pass in another sort of time, not the steady trickle of accumulation he was used to, but one where drop after drop fell at uneven intervals, and the moments in between the beads passed with all the realms gone still. At any moment he expected to hear a cry rising from the vessel, the sound of running men coming towards him, the summoning of the authorities. None of which occurred. He passed into the city, unable to resist a glance back, and set about on a winding path towards its center.

The Shadow Men Trilogy box set is now available for preorder:
Buy the ebook

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Now Available: The Shadow Men Trilogy Box Set

THE SHADOW MEN TRILOGY BOX SET

FANTASY

CLINT WESTGARD

Craitol and Renuih, two empires a world apart, divided by the desert that lies between them. A desert ruled by the Shadow Men.

An uneasy peace holds sway in both realms, hiding longstanding feuds and bitter rivalries. Until a Shadow Men raid on Renuih shatters the calm and sets in motion events no one can control.

Vyissan, a mysterious alkemycal practitioner, begins a journey to Renuih, the latest strike in a long war over who shall control the secrets of alkemya and Craitol itself. He carries with him a secret that, once revealed, will reverberate across all realms. But first he must cross the desert…

Panoramic in scale and populated by a fascinating array of characters, The Shadow Men, is an epic and enthralling work of fantasy that delineates the bitter struggle for power in two realms and its terrible cost to the soul.

Buy the ebook

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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Two)

In advance of the publication of  The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:

Donier a Fieled, a noble of the third rank, and an officer in the army of Lastl, was not watching Gver Keleprai, as so many others in the palace for the Feast of Balance celebrations discreetly were. He was staring at the woman beside him, who at that moment was laughing at something he said and laying her hand on his arm as she did. He excused himself from his companions so that they did not notice the direction of his gaze. He did not trust his face to hide his emotion, he had taken too much wine. One of the balconies was empty, but for a Cureder and some scholar discussing Senteur’s heavens, so he went there, affecting to take some air.

In spite of himself, he turned from his feigned interest in a nearby tree where several sprites sang to watch the woman, Liene ul Terainous a Fusel. She and the Gver were now carrying on their own discussion separate from the other three, his back to Donier while he could see her face. He forced himself to look away at the tree before she noticed.

His rage surprised him. Why should he care that she was holding court with the Gver? It was appalling, but no more so than any number of other transgressions that marked the passing of days. What did it matter who the Gver might turn his attentions to, and that the lady might encourage it as well? That her husband was missing, dead in all likelihood, not even a month ago; well, perhaps she was simply looking to her future as best she could. Still, she would not even be here, would be sitting in her home in a mourning gown, if they had only found Terainous’ body. It was odd, he thought, that the Afusel were allowing her about the court given current circumstances, but she was obviously being escorted by the other noble couple who were conversing with Nes Kigarle, and perhaps in this day and age that was all that was required for the sanctity of a woman to be guaranteed.

It had been a nightmare. A small band of the Shadow Men had evaded the notice of the pyrsedies and set about razing and looting the countryside east of Lastl. In response the Gver sent Nes Ludenn and his cohort, including both Terainous and Donier as seconds, to hunt the beasts down. They marched down the old Renian highway for two days before they came upon the still-smoking ruins of a way station, the defiled bodies of the innkeepers and postal men strewn across the road.

The area around the way station was forested, nearly the last trees one would see passing through to the desert. Only the burned-out buildings of the station and the path down to the river were uncovered by foliage. After a cursory investigation of the slaughter, the cohort spread out along the path, most clustered near the river filling their flasks. The Shadow Men materialized from the dense underbrush, as if their dark flesh were formed from the very gloom that lay overgrown there, with swords drawn, shrieking their awful war cries. Everything after was confusion.

The men who had straggled behind on the path to the river were cut down. The five tasked with burying the dead of way station fled down the highway. The rest of them were left to form a poor phalanx, their backs to river, and it wasn’t long before Donier found his ankles wet and his foothold slipping. The Shadows snarled and yelped, sensing the desperation that had seized the remaining cohort.

He could not say when the battle turned. There was no singular moment, no coalescing of the disparate spirits gathered, no transformation from the many to the one, which songs and chroniclers always spoke of authoritatively. Looking at it dispassionately, as Donier did these things, it was a matter of superior numbers finally telling the tale, for, though nearly a third of their men were killed in the first moments of the battle, the cohort still counted nearly twice the men.

In the midst of it all, with the situation at its most dire, Terainous was touched—a demon’s hand, there was no other explanation. The gossip about it was everywhere. He wondered if Nes Liene had heard any of it. He himself had not, for no one would dare say anything of it to him, but he knew what was being said. And he could deny none of it. He had been there, heard Terainous whooping and shrieking, saw him throw his sword at the beasts as they pressed in. Then he had turned and flung his shield into the water and tried to swim across the river. The waterway was wide, the current quick, and he was pulled downstream. The last any of them heard of him Terainous was singing some child’s song from his youth as he floated away.

When the Shadows were routed, half the remaining cohort was sent in pursuit. Ludenn led that group, leaving Donier to cremate their dead. Afterwards, he spent the better part of the day scouring the forest downriver for any sign of his friend until he sensed the men growing restless. They returned to the highway and set off in search of the deserters, laying them to the sword.

Nothing was done after, no party sent downriver to see what trace could be found of the missing second. As far as the Lastl cohorts were concerned, he was dead and there was no use in sending anyone to investigate. Better for everyone to assume he was than to go out and find otherwise. Donier understood their reasoning, but he still felt it was a disgraceful way to treat the heir to an important family. He was a noble of the second rank, after all.

The Afusel had refused to accept the cohort’s verdict that Terainous had passed to the Hall, which explained why Liene was not in mourning, and that was surprising in its own way. A family of their stature would be expected to prefer a dead son to the return of one with senses beyond this realm, especially when they had other heirs.

When his emotions had cooled enough that he thought they would no longer show, Donier rejoined the festivities within. The Gver and Liene had disappeared into the crowd and he returned to his companions, resisting the urge to see where they were and what they might be doing.

Her name, Kigarle had told him, was Liene ul Terainous. The Gver still felt he should know who she was, but the names meant nothing to him and he dismissed it. How often was he left with this feeling? Too much these days, he thought ruefully, as he stared intently at her almond-colored eyes. The musicians had taken to the stage again, playing some of their quieter numbers, the romances and the tragedies. The air was finally beginning to cool somewhat as the crowd dwindled and the strains of a breeze passed through from the balconies.

He had contrived to speak to her alone beside the stage, the crowd ebbing and flowing around them. She had been eager to talk to him, he thought. He noted the flush on her cheeks, from the heat or wine. She was watching the musicians intently as they performed and he followed her gaze. Only two of them were playing: one of his court players and a man who, by the pale hue of his skin, was Kragian. They were singing a romance that had been popular before the Northern War, though then it had been played with Mgetir pipes, not the two guitars they were using. He could not remember the last time he had heard it, yet the words rushed back into his mind as if they had always been there for the asking.

What a lovely song,” she breathed as they finished. She was very young—could not have been married for longer than a year or two, he thought.

Haven’t you heard it before?” he asked her. He was aware of others watching them as they stood close. It was her eyes, he decided, the way they turned her whole face alight that made her so enchanting. Her features were plain but the eyes made them dance.

No,” she said. “Is it old, Most Gracious?”

He laughed. “That depends. How old do you think I am?”

Her eyes widened, “Oh, Most Immortal, I didn’t mean—”

I know. I know,” he said, laughing again. “But I am old. That song was written just before the war. It was the only song you heard the summer before. And I think I’ve only heard it a handful of times since.”

She turned back to the stage as the musicians began to play again, this time a recent song, one which had been heard in every music hall through the winter. He watched the rise and fall of her dress. The song finished and she turned to him, nervous he thought, considering her word and how to proceed.

He decided not to give her the chance. “You are too young to understand, perhaps, but do you know how a singular beauty can drive a soul to utter distraction?”

She smiled, flushing even more deeply. “You are most gracious, Immortal Gver. I wonder if I might speak to you of my husband.”

Her voice dropped. “He’s been missing, Most Beneficent, since the Shadows’ raid last month. There’s been no sign of him for good or ill since.”

With that, her name was no longer simply a name: Liene ul Terainous.

I wanted to ask, Most Gracious, if it is not too much consideration, if perhaps you could send another party to search for him. It has been so difficult these last weeks, not knowing one way or the other.”

He said something, agreeing to speak with Adept Tehh about it later, promising her. Cursed old fool, how could he have forgotten that, he thought, the ground no longer so sure under his feet.

I cannot imagine how hard it has been. Let us see what we can do to ease your mind of these worries this evening,” he said, taking her by the arm to lead her away from the stage, the eyes of the crowd upon them. His eyes were on her, though: how young she was, how light in every movement.

The Shadow Men Trilogy box set is now available for preorder:
Buy the ebook

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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (One)

In advance of the publication of  The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:

Clouds blanketed the sky, rippling bruises in the twilight. The city Darrhyn below, sprawling along the bend of a wide river, was draped in the resultant shadows, pierced only intermittently by the remnants of the day’s sun. Hurried figures passed from street to street in certain of its quarters to light the lamps, while others were left to what the night would bring. Along the city’s great wall the beacons in the towers were struck, signaling the changing of the Watch. The new quadras marched up tower stairs, the soldiers heading out to pace the ramparts, looking into the final glare of the sun as it cast the scrub of the desert in oranges and reds.

Within one of the watchtowers five men squinted in the lamplight at a just-overturned cup, none of them speaking. Above them the sentinel on duty was singing an academy song about a woman so light in her manners that she would invite any man to sup with her.

Call,” the dealer said as he removed his hand from the cup, its contents still a mystery.

The youth to his left exhaled slowly as he eyed the cup. “Even. Five kenir,” he said, the flames of the beacon above them snapping as more oil was added.

Odd. I’ll see you, Husem,” the man beside him said, and the youth grimaced. “You’re too young to be a gamester, I think.”

He had a face gone thick with age and a long scar that ran from his chin up to his ear, just above the line of his jaw on one side. When he grinned, as he was doing now, it had the effect of creating what seemed a double smile on that half of his face.

He lacks ability,” the dealer said.

Short on talent as well,” the man said, to the laughter of everyone but the youth. The others at the table followed through with their bets, all odd.

Masiph id Ezern bit his lip. “I hope this is all above board,” he said, staring at the dealer whose hand had strayed back to the cup.

I hope so too,” the man, Achelluth, said. “Someone short on talent and without ability certainly can’t handle the underboard of life.”

Masiph bit his lip again, not replying, and the dealer pulled the cup away, revealing two dice—a four and a three. There were whoops from around the table, but he did not look up, his eyes fixed on the dull bones whose pips had betrayed him again.

That’s it. I’m out,” he said, pushing the last of his coins across the table. “I’m getting some air.” Continue reading

In A Flash: The Warder

Xan the Warder stared at the newcomer with a skeptical eye. The man was a sorcerer of some kind, to judge by his robes. Xan knew little of magic, but enough to know that its users were not to be trusted. They were fiends, as likely to summon some demon from the depths of the many earths as to cast a curing spell and mend a broken leg. She had heard tell of a man, desperate in his affections for a woman, who had begged a wizard for a love potion, only to find himself short six coins of the realm and madly in love with a toad.

“What brings you this way, stranger?” Xan said. She swept the cloak back from her shoulders and let her hand rest upon her sword. A message of sorts.

The newcomers gaze followed the movement of her hand and a small grin touched his lips. “I’ve heard the air in these parts is restorative.”

“If you can restore something that’s been froze solid with your magic, then perhaps it might be,” Xan said, looking out over the frigid wastes that extended in all directions before her.

The newcomer laughed, his breath clouding the air. “My name is Ves. You are?”

“The Warder,” Xan said, refusing to be enticed by his friendliness. The wind swirled around them and the sorcerer shivered.

“Where’s the prison?” Ves said.

“Do you think I’m a fool?”

Ves laughed again. “I suppose not. It is a rather remote clime for a prison, wouldn’t you agree?”

Xan did not reply, staring hard at the sorcerer.

Ves shrugged, as if he could not understand her reluctance to talk. “Come now, Warder. Surely you must get bored being here, all alone in the cold? I’m only asking for a moment of your time.”

Xan rolled her eyes. “No one comes here to pass the time. I’m not much for conversation. Get to the point.” She moved her hand to the pommel of her sword.

“Easy now,” Ves said, holding up his hands. “Don’t you think you should be careful? You don’t know what kind of sorcerer I am.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Xan said, her voice sounding of death.

Ves smiled. “If you say so. You needn’t worry about me anyway, Warder. I’m just here to meet someone.”

Xan had to resist a laugh. “I doubt there is someone else in the realm foolish enough to wander out onto this wasteland for a chat.”

“But there is,” Ves said, gesturing with his hand as if to point out the person.

Xan followed the movement of his hand and the world went black.

She blinked, worried for a moment that the sorcerer had put a sleeping spell upon her. But it was just that the light had gone from the sky, which, now that she thought about it, was considerably more concerning than a mere sleep spell. The light returned a moment later, the vast wasteland of ice, snow and rock, appearing again before her.

The sorcerer, however, was gone.

Continue reading

In A Flash: The Emissary

The leaves on the trees were all turning yellow and red as Jhern of Norne headed into the river valley. He took no pleasure in their gorgeous splendor, or the feeling of them beneath his feet, how they spun into the air as his boots struck them. The sound of the leaves meant anyone in the river would hear him coming—a dangerous enough proposition at home. Here in the Duke of Auzurn’s territories, he might pay for it with his life. And their changing colors signaled the arrival of colder nights and stiff, miserable mornings, to say nothing of the fact that soon enough winter would be here.

It would be nearing winter by the time he arrived at his intended destination, assuming he made it there. Perhaps it would already have arrived, for he had heard that winter came early in Allemar, that fearsome place of bearded warriors. Before he reached that land, long before winter came, he first had to cross the Duke’s territories and survive the Pass of Ghosts, which so few had managed to cross. And if he made it that far, there were the fiendish Skeletal Swamps, which it was said swallowed men whole and stole the souls of those who survived.

It was essential that Jhern do all this, risk life and limb for his Prince. The fate of his people, the fate of all Norne, depended upon it. The seas were rising and they would swallow their cities soon. Only the Allemar, with their magic, could spare them the terrible fate that awaited them.

And Jhern, emissary of his Prince, was the one entrusted to bring that word. Along with his companions, but they were gone. Had all died so early upon this journey, to ensure that he would survive, that the message he carried, would be delivered. He had so far to go that it seemed impossible, but he knew he would have to. There was no other choice.

As he came to river’s edge, he saw the narrow bridge ahead that the road he was on led to. He stood and looked it over cautiously, to see if there was any movement. This valley was home to woodcutters and the odd shepherd, but few others. The Auzurn authority barely extended here and Jhern did not expect to encounter any of the Duke’s men. But one could never be too careful. There was too much at stake.

When he was satisfied that there was no one waiting for him, he started forward again, moving at a quick pace, not wanting to linger on the bridge or in the open for long. As he did, he was certain he saw a flash of movement across the river. It might have been a trick of light, but he thought not. He paused for an instant before continuing on, his hand straying to his belt to confirm that his sword and dagger were handy. He felt sure they would be necessary.

The bridge was a narrow, flimsy thing, strung across with rope and layered with boards. It swung slightly in the wind, the rope creaking in a way that made Jhern wonder how ancient it was. How many shepherds and woodcutters had made their way across it?

That was not his immediate concern though. More important was what awaited him on the other side.

He did not have to wait long to find out. Before he was even halfway across, a figure emerged from amidst the trees to block the way on the bridge’s far end. It was a towering man, dressed in the Duke’s colors, with a long broadsword at his side. Even from this distance, Jhern could see the ugly scar that ran from his eye down his cheek, disappearing beneath the armor. He paused for a moment to gather himself, drawing a deep breath.

Across from him the giant crossed his arms, a thin smile spreading on his face. “I know who you are little one. You are the Emissary of Norne.” Continue reading

In A Flash: The Face of the Empress

Blan was known to all in Agash for the sweet confection of fruit, candy and shaved ice he sold, called h’al-h’al. He worked at stall near the market where traders would pass by. Agash lay on one of the salt roads, so merchants and strangers were the norm. But Blan had never seen someone like the woman who appeared at his stall one afternoon.

It was a particularly hot day and her face was streaked with dust from the road. She purchased a cup of h’al-h’al from Blan, paying with an old coin. In studying it, Blan did not recognize the empress stamped upon it.

“How much is this in standard? I don’t know what change to give you.”

The woman waved him away. “No matter. I’ll have no need for it soon enough.” She spoke with an odd accent, a lilt that Blan was certain he had never heard before. Her eyes and her dress were strange as well, even by the standards of Agash, where it was said the known worlds passed by. It was an old phrase, and no longer true, for there was only one world now.

“I hope you’re not in any trouble.” Blan said, though he didn’t know why. He knew better than to involve himself in the lives of strangers. Doing so led to problems, and those he could not afford.

She gave him an odd smile. “We’re all of us in trouble, more or less. Some of us just realize it better than others.”

Blan gave a wary shrug. “I guess. You like it?”

“Delicious,” she said, still smiling, and asked for his name. He told her, after a moment’s hesitation. “I will see you soon, Blan of Agash,” she said, and took her leave. Continue reading

In A Flash: The Chronicle

Thunder rumbled overhead as the Ges arrived at the athenaeum, cowls pulled over their heads. They proceeded in single file toward the entrance, submitting themselves to the inspection of the gatekeeper, passing one by one within these walls. Their faces were severe and expressionless, as though this was a duty to be endured. They gathered, once they had all passed within, and spoke in low tones with one of the Keepers as to what they required, before she set out to lead them through the broad, circling halls. To me.

I watched all this with some trepidation on one of the looking glasses the athenaeum possessed. Their grim faces unsettled me. I knew why they were here, of course. Had known they were coming from the moment of my creation. It was my reason for being. Few are blessed with a clear purpose to their existence. Now that the moment had arrived it felt more a curse.

The Ges were brought to me—I watching their progression through the hallways—and the Keeper bowed to me and to the them. “Here it is. You may question it for as long as you wish. For the rest of your lives, if that is what you desire. But it is not to leave this place. And I must be present throughout.”

The leader of the Ges, or the one I presumed was their leader, nodded and stepped forward. He had the grimmest face of all, marked by the scars of some disease he had survived in childhood. He looked me over, with what I took to be disdain, as though he found me wanting.

“I would ask you some questions,” the leader of the Ges said in a hesitant voice, unsure how to proceed.

“I will answer as best I can,” I said.

He nodded, but still did not speak. At last he smiled. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve grown up seeing statues of you at the center of all our cities. It’s odd to be conversing with you. I feel like I should pay you obeisance.”

“I am not her,” I reminded him. “I am her chronicle, nothing more.”

“You seem more than that.”

I shrugged. “Even so.” Continue reading

In A Flash: Blind Minotaur Led By a Girl Through the Night

The girl had yet to speak. The bird that fluttered from shoulder to shoulder gave voice for both of them. It had announced, upon their entering the hovel where the Minotaur had spent the last days of his journey, that he was to come with them. The Minotaur had stood up and allowed his hand to be taken by the girl. There seemed no point in asking questions or demanding explanations. He was at the mercy of this girl and her bird, until they reached the end of their portion of his journey.

Such had been his fate for these last months, since he had begun this ordeal, broken and fleeing into the night. He had been forced to endure much and had to learn to trust in those he did not know and could not see. Would they betray him to those who were looking for him? He would not know until it was too late.

The fact it was a girl, hardly more than ten years old to judge by the size of her hand and his sense of her height—he was becoming quite adept at judging a person’s size by the feel of their movement—was somewhat reassuring. Though he knew it should not be. Girls, whatever their age, could be bought. Everyone had a price, as he knew too well.

In spite of all he had lost, in spite of the meanness of this existence—going from one safe house to another, never having a home, indebted to strangers he could never repay—he never thought of stopping or slipping into despair. There was no use for self-pity. This was what fate had chosen for him, and he would continue to wander for as long as fate allowed. He expected it would not be long.

“How much farther?” he asked, when he could stand the silence no longer.

The girl shrugged and the bird said, “It will take us the evening to get to the river.”

What river they were heading for, and what happened once they reached it, was left unstated. Most likely, the girl and the bird did not know. How many others had they conducted along this trail in the dead of the night?

After some time the bird spoke again. “You needn’t worry. We meet our bargains.”

The Minotaur did not reply. Words mattered little, as they all knew. It was actions that counted. Continue reading

In A Flash: The Prince and the Unicorn

When the Prince of the Seventh Sea and the Lands Beyond the Far Isthmus of Shadows was born, people throughout the realm celebrated. The feasts and celebrations lasted eight days, for the King was considered one of the wisest to ever to rule in those lands, and the people knew that he would raise a son who was just and fair. The King and Queen wept upon seeing the child for the first time, for they had suffered many tribulations in their efforts to have children and they had never seen a baby so beautiful.

That beautiful baby grew into a handsome youth, whose smile seemed to set the birds in the trees to song and make calm the wildest of beasts. He was a brilliant student, and his father spared no expense in bringing tutors from beyond the far reaches of the kingdom, so that the Prince might learn all there was to know of the world. As he grew older, the Prince also became renowned for his exploits. He ran the fastest, climbed the highest, leapt the farthest, and, in general, bested all his companions in whatever game they played.

All in all, the Prince seemed extraordinary, with everyone agreeing that he possessed all the necessary abilities to be a fine King.

When he came of age, his father told him it was time to find a bride and said he could choose any woman in the land. Word was sent out across the realm, even into the depths of the Isthmus of Shadows, that the Prince would receive any lady who would consent to be his wife. Continue reading