Excerpt: Comeuppance

The tavern is exceptionally boisterous this night. Evesori sits at the vanity in the private room she usually shares with Lord Draven, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Her calm façade belies the anger and jealousy roiling inside. Her emotions, however, do have a detrimental effect on the glamour that she normally uses to conceal her true appearance. Dark, angry bruises mottle her cheeks and neck; her smooth-looking skin is wrinkled and hangs in loose wattles, her breasts are flat, sagging dugs drooping under her robe and her face is sallow, aged and haggard. Damn him, she thinks. He let the other, more powerful, fresh meat get away before the ceremony could be finished – now I have to suffer this insult!

Even now, she hears the tinkling laughter of his latest conquest drift up from the main room. Naviri, the young chamber-maid, had suddenly become a favoured member of the guild; even Theo was less enthralled by Evesori’s charms than he’d initially been, although Draven made it clear that Naviri was his alone. Evesori had brought Naviri to share their bed, in hopes that he would allow her to perform the ceremony, but Draven seemed unconcerned about Evesori’s need. Now she was suffering and desperate to rejuvenate her rapidly-declining looks. The blood of the girl was sorely needed, but Draven had stayed her hand. Enthralled to him, she had no choice but to acquiesce.

She yanks open a drawer and digs around, pulling out a small envelope. Only a tiny bit of the magick-infused powder remained, just enough to stave off the impending decay. She would have one week to acquire a fresh infusion – she doesn’t want to think of what will happen if she can’t.

She taps the last bit of the precious powder into a golden goblet, takes a small teakettle from a trivet-heater, and pours a bit of warm water over the powder. It hisses and bubbles momentarily, emitting a slightly sulfurous odor. When the bubbling ceases, Evesori takes up the goblet, hesitates for a moment, and downs the bitter concoction. The results are immediate: the bruises disappear, her skin becomes taut and youthful in appearance, and her cold, pale beauty is restored. That’s it, then, she thinks. If I’m unable to find a new thrall of my own, without milord’s assistance… She shakes her head, banishing the unpleasant thought. Standing, she drops her robe to the floor and moves to the tall wardrobe. She removes her usual tavern-clothes from their hangers and squeezes herself into the tight, form-fitting garments. She gives herself a final, appraising look before heading downstairs into the din.

Draven sits at his table in the corner with a giggling Naviri on his lap. He is stroking her hair and cheek in a way that enrages Evesori anew, but she forces a pleasant smile as she grabs a tankard of ale from the counter near the stairs and moves towards the table. An inebriated Theo notices her and staggers over, glad to see that she is looking like her old self again. “Evie! I wash…I wanted…hey, join the party!” He puts an arm around her shoulders, casually grabbing her right breast and squeezing firmly. He knows that Naviri is off-limits, so Evesori will have to do for the time being. At least she doesn’t smell of rancid, week-old meat like the last time, he thinks, and still wonders if that had been some unpleasant nightmare.

Evesori laughs and shrugs off his drunken groping, gently pushing him aside. “I’ll deal with you in a moment, dear Theo – I just needed to speak with our liege lord about a pressing matter. I won’t be long, if you want to wait for me?” She tilts her head engagingly, flicking her eyes upward to her room before fixing them on Theo, letting the suggestion sink into his addled brain. He grins foolishly, turning towards the stairs and reeling off of the edge of the fireplace mantel. He trips and stumbles on the steps, stifling an embarrassed chuckle as a noxious, wet-sounding fart explodes from his nether regions. A dark stain spreads across the backside of his breeches as he crawls up the steps. Draven roars with laughter, while Naviri hides a smile behind one small, delicate hand. Evesori sighs internally, even as she directs Skips-Over-Water, the lizard-man, to attend to Theo and make certain that he doesn’t get any filth on her silken sheets. Skips hurries up the stairs while Evesori turns back to Draven’s table, still wearing her inscrutable smile.

Her mouth tightens slightly as she sees the mocking look on Naviri’s elfin face. Draven is playing with her tiny horn-nubs, unconcerned with Evesori’s emotions. In her mind, she crosses the room in a flash, tearing out the girl’s throat with a vicious swipe of ragged talons, bathing in gouts of refreshing, life-giving blood. In reality, she steps forward slowly and respectfully, nodding at Naviri politely as she addresses Draven.

“Milord? There is an…urgent matter which I must speak with you about. A moment of your time, please?” She takes a calming swig of ale from the tankard as she waits for him to stand and accompany her outside. Draven looks at her for a long moment. When he finally speaks, his voice is as frigid as an ice-bolt from the staff of a cryo-mage. “Evie, please…you do see that I’m busy, do you not? I’m sure that whatever is troubling you can wait until morning. In fact, it will have to wait. I’m being entertained at the moment.” He looks upstairs, where a loud thud rattles the floor. “Besides, your…lover is waiting for you. Surely you will be busy for the rest of the evening, as will I.” He smiles at Naviri as he pulls her tighter onto his lap. He traces a long, pale finger along her jawline and narrow, pointed chin, then lightly touches the girl’s lips. Evesori is filled with rage as she sees the girl’s slight frame shudder with pleasure. Why is he doing this? Why now? Her thoughts roil in confusion; for the first time in an eternity her confidence is shaken, yet still she tries to hide it and save face. She drains the tankard and slams it on the table a bit harder than she intended, then turns to leave the tavern. Draven ignores her as she walks out of the door, busily nuzzling Naviri’s neck and lightly suckling on her right ear. Naviri doesn’t notice the tiny bite on her earlobe…

Once outside, Evesori picks up one of the chairs and smashes it into one of the stout porch-timbers, feeling slightly better as splintered wood flies. A couple walking past the tavern hasten their steps as they see the violent outburst, heading instead towards the quiet inn near the city gates. Evesori’s eyes are wild, her face twisted in hate. All semblance of calm has vanished, and her anger makes her careless. She is completely unaware of the cloaked figure shrouded in the darkest corner of the porch until it is too late. A slender but strong arm is around her throat before she knows it; a hand smothers her mouth and nose in a powerful grip. She struggles in futility as she is dragged off of the porch and into the darkness behind the tavern. There is a brief burst of flame, then silence.

A young city guard stands at ease under a nearby streetlamp, fully aware of what just took place behind him. He was there to ensure that none would interrupt. The heavy sack of coin in his pocket is comforting – he was paid well for his duty. If the sell-sword can rid his fair city of the blood-vermin, he is more than willing to turn a blind eye. “Well done, lad,” he hears a husky voice say. “Remember – when you identify more of these parasites, send the falcon to me. Otherwise, I will return at the next cycle of the new moons. Together, we shall exterminate these filthy creatures and return this city to its full glory.” A hand rests momentarily on his shoulder. “Your family will be free to sit at lakeside again…and your infant son’s murder shall be avenged.” He doesn’t turn as he whispers, “Thank you.”

The quiet presence vanishes. The young guard smiles…

Excerpt: Metamorphosis

*** Author’s Note: Here is another excerpt of my fiction, edited to keep this post short and sweet. ***

The moons shine softly in the glade, casting their light on the statue of the Forest Lord. Behind her, the portal flares brightly, then fades and winks out. Barefoot, she walks towards the statue, which seems to gleam with an inner luminescence of its own. This statue is identical to the one that she saw in the grove before entering the portal, but looks to have been freshly-carved in comparison to its slightly weathered, moss-and-lichen-encrusted twin.

Of course, she thinks to herself. This is the realm of the Forest Lord, under his control and timeline. I am…between worlds.

She stands before the stag-headed stone effigy and gazes for a long moment, taking in the primal grandeur. The powerful build of the demigod as he brandishes his spear; his wolf companions savaging a boar at his feet.

The words of her savior echo in her mind: Pay due respect, child. The God of the Hunt suffers no foolishness.

Her hand pulses slightly where the mark was placed. She clenches that hand into a fist, momentarily, then presses her palms together and kneels before the statue. She bows her head, closes her eyes, and waits as she was instructed.

Her thoughts clear. Her mind is filled with the bright moons and the softly gleaming statue. The eyes of the demigod open, blazing as they fix on her form. A voice like distant thunder echoes in the labyrinth of her brain: Hmph. Another whelp bows in supplication to me.

Silence falls, yet she doesn’t speak – not yet. She feels that fiery gaze on her, penetrating, analyzing her from head to toe. She lets her thoughts flow freely, hiding nothing, including her recent shame and despair. The probing continues for a moment. Then, the presence exits her mind as swiftly as it entered. She waits.

Well, pup – you have been marked. It seems that my prodigal offspring has deemed you worthy of this gift. You must undertake the trial. But, first…

A tone of amusement is detected as the voice continues: First, remove your wretched rags. This trial requires your skills as a huntress and a warrior. Your sword and shield will not avail you.

She nods a brief assent and stands, slowly removing her armour and placing each piece carefully and reverently at the base of the statue as an offering.

She now stands nude, limned in moonlight. It is time, the voice says. Prepare yourself! With those words, a stabbing pain rips up and down her spine. She drops to her knees again, throwing her head back, mouth opening wide to scream. The sound strangles in her throat as a multitude of changes occur.

Her body twists, her back arches. Her shoulders broaden, muscles rippling and writhing like coiled snakes. Her fingers and toes lengthen as claws extend from those appendages. Her legs become the crooked, powerful hindquarters of a wolf. A thick brush of a tail touches the forest floor. Her gaping mouth stretches into a muzzle with strong, sharp, white fangs. Black fur sprouts from every pore; her ears become triangular and move nearer to the top of her head, and her breasts diminish to vestigial nubs hidden under the newly-grown, shaggy coat. A howl erupts from her throat, announcing her primal arrival. She stands, slightly hunched, snarling in surprise.

She still knows who she is…but her awareness of everything is magnified one hundred-fold. The light breeze which flutters the leaves and rustles the grass carries many scents, which she identifies without a thought. The pungent scent of large cats. The slightly dusty smell of feathers – harpies are near. The moist, dank essence of reptiles, hiding in mud. She detects the sap rising in the nearby trees; the blood pumping through the veins of the plentiful prey.

The voice of the Forest Lord thunders in her mind once more: Heed me well, pup. The prey is yours for the taking. Find the largest and bring it down, then sound the call of the hunt. You will know when you have succeeded. Now – go! Hunt well.

She doesn’t hesitate. Turning away from the statue, she lopes down the hillside and jumps to the top of a boulder to survey the area. A tiger prowls in the grasses below, it’s back to her. Silently, she creeps down and hides in the rock’s shadow, inching closer to the large feline. Before it realizes the danger, she has leapt upon it and severed its spine with a savage bite to the back of the neck. Blood-lust descends and she tears out the great cat’s heart, gulping it down in two swift bites. Strength fills her; she races onward, seeking out the trophy prey.

There. Just over that ridge: a mammoth lumbers about, quietly munching grass. It is a double-tusked behemoth with mottled grey fur, blind in one eye. Its handicap will make it doubly dangerous; even as the thought crosses her feral mind, it raises its head and lifts its trunk, scenting the air. She carefully moves downwind of it and crouches in the tall grass, waiting. The mammoth stands stock-still, the tip of its trunk twitching back and forth, seeking out the predator. The old beast is canny, she notes. This will take some time. She hunkers down low and backs away a bit, stopping as one of her paws touches the muddy banks of the river which cuts through this realm. An idea forms in her mind: mud will mask her smell and confuse the beast; if it is unable to tell her apart from the river-dwelling reptiles, then she might be able to take it by surprise. Slowly, she submerges herself in the murky waters, stopping short of immersing her head completely. Only her ears, eyes, and nose remain above the surface. Concealed in this fashion, she waits…

Excerpt: The Wild Hunt

*** Author’s Note: This is one of many chapters which has been considerably condensed, for the purpose of posting this excerpt. For the full story, you will have to read the book! ***

😎

They walk in silence to the secluded grove. He has been here many times; for her, it will be her first visit…but not her last. Her thoughts drift back as she follows him through the dense forest, recalling the events that led her here…

She is brought quickly back to the present as they emerge in the small clearing. The statue of the Forest Lord stands tall before them, brandishing a spear. His antlered aspect is fierce; his human torso well-formed and muscular. His two wolf companions snarl in stone effigy at his feet, worrying a boar.

The tall, broad-shouldered, wild-haired man turns to face her, his ice-blue eyes blazing in the moonlight that filters through the thick branches. “I ask you one final time, youngling – is this what you truly wish? Once this gift is given, it cannot be undone. You will be forever changed. For good or ill, none will ever be able to deceive you again. You will also never be able to speak a lie, no matter how small or insignificant. The truths that many wish to conceal will be laid bare…including your own.” She meets his gaze as he speaks, heeding his words and taking them into her heart and soul. This is the first time in…days? Months? in which her thoughts have been clear. If the curse laid upon her by the foul, wretched vampires can be lifted, she is willing to pay any price. Deceit is what laid her low and brought her here. She intends to see the cure through, and live with the blessings and the curse that it brings. Anything, other than death, is better than that disgusting affliction.

He finishes his short speech: “You will also be more susceptible to poisons, but immune to any and all diseases – including that of the blood-fever. You will be able to sense infections in others, even the unseen ills of the mind, and cure some of them – but, be mindful that you don’t deplete yourself in doing so.” He smiles and lays a large hand gently on her shoulder. “Not all are deserving of this blessing, and not all are capable of shouldering the responsibility that goes with it. You are one of the chosen few. Remember this.” She bows her head in acknowledgement. She has felt low and unworthy of anything as of late. Her whispered and shrieked, feverish prayers had been answered. She was not going to question this man’s reappearance in her life. Their paths had crossed, briefly, nearly a year ago. He was now her savior.

She raises her head, meeting his gaze again. “I’m ready,” she says softly. She extends her hand, palm up, and waits. He takes it – and, with a quick motion, bites into the flesh at the base of her thumb, just hard enough to draw blood. He licks at the red ooze briefly, then kisses her wrist, pats her hand gently and lowers it. “There – you have been marked.” He gazes at a blazing portal that is materializing in mid-air, just in front of the statue of the Forest Lord. “That is the entrance to the trial-grounds. Succeed or fail – there is no other option. Either way, you will be free of the blood-fever. This is your test alone.” He turns away and walks back the way they had come.

She calls after him. “Wait…please, I need to know your name. The one who saved my life must be given due honour.” He stops for a moment. He doesn’t turn around as he speaks. “Your life is your own to save – I only gave you my assistance. Still, if it must be known…return to me if you pass the trials. You will earn the right to know my name, if it is that important to you.” He half-turns then, a smile curving his beard and lifting the corners of his thick, salt-and-pepper mustache. “You will know that, and more, if you wish. The choice will be yours.” He tosses off a smart salute and vanishes into the dense forest.

She turns back to the portal, facing its blazing light. Giving a final glance up at the moons peeping through the thick branches overhead, she strides purposefully forward and enters the portal. The Wild Hunt begins…

Excerpt: Seclusion

She jolts awake. The nightmare, again. It haunts her, as it has every night for…how long has it been? Time has gotten away from her.

She rolls over on her back, staring at the root-canopy that forms this sizeable, yet well-concealed, den. It had been inhabited by a troll until recently; she had seen to its unceremonious eviction. Its pelt makes up the rough bed in which she was sleeping, while its decaying head rests on a boulder about five feet from the front entryway to the den. The presence and stench of it keeps away all intruders, including the nearby band of giants. They are only eight in number, so tending to their small herd of mammoths is of more importance than a dead troll. It is one less troll that will attempt to prey on the calves, and the smoke from their massive communal fire eliminates the stink of decaying flesh on days when the wind changes.

The nightmare is fading, but she can recall every detail. The dream is a memory of a real event, the details of which hammer at her brain like the siege machines hammer the walls of a fortress. She fully understands, now, why her father would sometimes wander the manor halls at night, long after the family had taken to bed. Two major events of his life still haunt him, many years later, although far less than they used to. She idly wonders how long the scene she witnessed would remain in her memory. She gags helplessly as those memories rush back, and claws her way out of the troll-skin bedroll towards the back of the den and the entryway to a short, rear tunnel. This tunnel is too small for the troll to have used; it had probably been created by the original resident of the den, as it leads to a small cave which opens on a ledge in a hillside. She staggers to a corner of the cave and doubles over, retching, but nothing comes up. Her stomach is empty. She hasn’t had any substantial meal for some time. The food-basket, tumbling from numb fingers…sweet cakes crumbling in the dirt…a carafe of wine shattering on stone…

She can’t stand her own cooking now, as the smell of food makes her nauseous beyond reason. Raw flesh is all that she can eat and hold down. What she craves and wants to consume sickens her. Stabling Sylph had become a necessity; even her own faithful steed was in danger from her appetites. She had to get away from the town and the people in it, for their protection as well as hers. Skulking through the woods…a campfire glinting between the trees…a young couple with their child, taking shelter for the night as they travel…their friendly invitation to join them for a meal…her maddening hunger at the scent of their vitality…the wife screaming as her husband was pinned to the ground, slavering teeth inches from his throat…rushing headlong through the forest, blinded by tears and tree-branches, frightened at the near-massacre…

“What’s happened to me?” she whispers to herself, doubled up in agony on the cave floor. The nausea passes. She gets to her feet, stumbles a bit, then steadies herself, swaying slightly. She needs to feed. The urge isn’t as strong this night as it has been, but it is always there, along with the distant siren song. It is very faint out here, making it easy to resist. She knows that her very being depends on resisting that call. If she succumbs to it…she shakes her head, negating the thought. That can’t happen. I won’t let it. I refuse! I shall resist…

She reels to the cave entrance and looks out, blinking in the bright moonlight. The giants are slumbering a fair distance away, with one standing watch, guarding the clan and the mammoth herd. She picks her way down from the ledge, making her way to the tree-line. The scent of a nearby herd of antelope makes her stomach knot with sudden hunger. She is torn by the desire to feed; the desire to answer that distant, deadly call, and the need to get a message to her family. Confusion roils in her mind…why is it so hard to think? The wild scent of the herd fills her nostrils. She surrenders to her hunger and crouches in the shadows, creeping as close as she dares.

A large buck, standing sentinel, whips his head around, startled by the distant howl of a wolf. The night had been almost eerily quiet, but now an answering howl, and then a third, floats on the air. The nervous herd mills about, then moves off towards the giant-camp. They have learned that relative shelter can be found amidst the mammoths; only the boldest and hungriest predators dare to attack the shaggy beasts.

She freezes amongst the shadows, not daring to follow the antelope herd. The giants will have heard the wolves as well, and might be more than ready to defend their camp. Her stomach knots with another sharp pang of hunger; her fevered brain reaches for a solution, and then it hits her: follow the pack. She had been successful with a past hunt when she had tracked a foraging band of goblins, following the wild boars for a full day after the goblins had captured three and returned to their rough camp. Following wolves would be fairly easy. Turning in the direction of their howling, she slips off into the night. She must feed…

Excerpt: Decision Time

* AUTHOR’S NOTE: Another out-of-sequence excerpt from my fictional short-story…the editing is much more fun than the NaNoWriMo daily word-count grind was!

Sepultur’a walks across the cobbled bridge towards the tavern. It is still early enough that the marketplace is bustling with shoppers, so the tavern is virtually empty when she walks in. She was expected, though; Evesori is sitting at a table near the fireplace, along with the guild-leader and a young man who is deep in conversation with the guild-leader. Evesori is wearing tight breeches, thigh-high leather riding boots, and a corseted top with short, ruffled sleeves and a halter-styled, linen bodice with a lacy décolletage. As usual, her breasts seem to be in danger of over-spilling the low-cut top – Sepultur’a wonders if Evesori uses some sort of small magic spell to keep her clothes on. The guild-leader is wearing a black suit with a white shirt underneath. The shirt has a ruffled collar, fastened with a small ruby brooch. His face is uncovered and he sips a deep red wine from a golden goblet. His hair is brown and cut in a style that Sepultur’a associates with soldiers and the military. His face is thin and clean-shaven, with a mildly vulpine appearance, but he is not unattractive. His eyes are still intensely piercing, although a bit less so since his full countenance is finally visible. Sepultur’a figures that the cowl he was wearing when she first saw him simply made his gaze far more distinct than normal. She takes a relaxing breath, smiles, and approaches their table. A fourth chair stands empty, as if waiting for her. She walks a bit closer, then stands quietly and waits. The guild-leader is just finishing his conversation with the young man, who is wearing the rough sack-cloth garb of the village-folk. Sepultur’a notes the young man’s form as he stands, shaking hands with the guild-leader. This other recruit has the tall, muscular build of a wood-hewer, quite similar to Endymion’s.

“Well then, Theo – it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! Welcome to our little family,” the guild-leader is saying as he shakes the young man’s hand. “Please be sure to visit the bank as soon as you can, and let the moneylender know that you have joined our ranks. They will provide you with a small sum of money from our coffers, as well as the tabard that you will be expected to wear at our formal gatherings. You will be notified beforehand which meetings are formal and which are not.” Theo grins and salutes smartly. “Aye, sir – hail and well met! ‘tis a right pleasure to have made your acquaintance. Me da’ will be happy to hear of this development. This oafish son of his will make him proud, yet!” The guild-leader sees Sepultur’a standing there and waves her closer. “Ah – here is another one. I hope that she brings good news, as well?” He gestures to the empty chair, bidding her to sit as he turns to Evesori. “Evie, my dear…would you kindly escort young Theo to the bank and assist him?” He drops a wink. “We wouldn’t want him to be wearing the wrong colours now, would we?” Evesori jumps up and links her arm with Theo’s, pressing close to him. Theo’s eyes widen at the generous view this provides, and grins a bit foolishly as she steers him to the door. “As you wish, milord,” she purrs as she leaves, dropping a similar wink at Sepultur’a as she passes.

Sepultur’a smiles, a bit hesitantly, then sits down in the chair indicated by the guild-leader. He sips his drink, then looks at her expectantly. “Well, seeing you return is most welcome. Please, don’t keep me in suspense – have you come to join our family?” He smiles in a friendly manner, eyes crinkling pleasantly at the corners. Sepultur’a smiles in return, choosing her words carefully. “Well, I had a couple of questions to ask of you, before I render my decision…if that is acceptable with you, that is?” She hesitates, then finishes: “I don’t mean any disrespect, nor am I trying to pry into affairs which are none of my business, but I need a few, minor things clarified.” She presses her hands together, almost in supplication, as she says this – it is something that she has done since she was a small child, and is an unconscious action on her part. He beams broadly, noting her gesture and chuckling to himself as he answers her aloud. “I would question your intellect if you didn’t have questions,” he replies easily. “People who ask questions tend to be smarter than most, and those who would join a group without question are those that don’t stay around long.” He takes another sip of his drink, savoring it. “Ask your questions, please,” he says, fixing his penetrating gaze on her. “I will answer them to the best of my ability.”

Sepultur’a takes a breath, clearing her thoughts, then presses forth. “Well, first of all – I have to ask, is your guild based here, in this town or this land? I have familial obligations back in my homeland, and wouldn’t be able to relocate here permanently.” She smiles almost apologetically. “Any guild that I join would have to allow me that freedom – I hope that is understandable.” He sips at his drink as she speaks, eyes half-closed as he listens. “That is an excellent question, and one that I don’t think anyone has posed to me before.” He opens his eyes, peering at her as if seeing her clearly for the first time. A gentler smile curves his thin lips. “Family ties and obligations are things that most people seem to run from – at least, in my experience.” He sets his drink down and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. “You have nothing to fear, milady,” he states firmly. “If you already have a permanent home, then you will always be free to return to it whenever you need to. Just know that loyalty to your guild-family is expected – if any of your guild-brothers or -sisters are in need of your help, and your blood-family needs it not, then be prepared to defend the guild as you would your own kin.” He takes up his drink once more. “Of course, if your kin need you before we do, then there would be no question that you should return home and see to their health and well-being.” He smiles at her again, then sips from the cup. “Priorities must always be met,” he finishes.

Sepultur’a is pleased by this, and can barely contain her joy. Her head whirls; could it really be so easy? The other questions she had thought to be important seem to fade from her thoughts. She beams happily as she says, “Well, then; I confess that is the sole question of concern which needed to be asked. I must confess; If you had responded negatively, then I would have gracefully and respectfully declined your honourable invitation. As it stands, I see no reason why I shouldn’t accept, so…” she proffers her hand to shake his and solidify her acceptance. He looks at her hand, then sets his drink down and stands, staring at her with an inscrutable expression. He moves quickly to her side, kneeling and taking her hand in both of his, kissing it softly and lightly stroking her fingers with one of his. “You are no coarse lad, milady…a mere handshake isn’t sufficient for one of your grace, beauty, and gentle nature.” He gazes into her eyes with that same mysterious expression. “You are a lady of refinement who seeks to find herself. Our guild, our family, will help you.” He stands, gently guiding her to her feet as well, and bows low before her. “Welcome to our little family, milady. It is an honour to have you join us.” He releases her hand and bids her sit again, but it is she who bows low to him. “I thank you, many times over. This means a great deal to me,” she says. “However, I do have an obligation to fulfil on the morrow, and hope that it doesn’t interfere with any…family business. Guild-family, of course – not my blood-kin.” He smiles and reseats himself, gesturing for her to continue. She sits as well. “I have to enter a lair of spiders. It is far underground, just on the edge of the swamps of the lizard-folk to the far south.” She waits for a response. When he doesn’t speak, she presses on. “I had joined a guild of adventurers just yesterday; they extended their invitation before I met your…family, and didn’t expect that you would recruit me as well. There isn’t an issue with me belonging to another guild alongside of yours, is there?” Realizing that this is one of the other questions she had meant to ask, she looks at him, a worried expression crossing her face in spite of herself. He smiles reassuringly. “Not at all, milady, not at all…in fact, I might know of this spider-den that you mention. I just might have braved it myself, in the not-too-distant past, and…” he pulls a bit of folded parchment from a hidden pocket of his suit-jacket and sets it on the table. “…and, I just might have drawn a map of it so that I wouldn’t get lost in there, on the off-chance that I would have need to return to it.” His smile widens, exposing shockingly white teeth. “There are many fabled treasures there, ripe for the taking – and there is more than enough for any and all adventurers who brave its depths. If you need our help there, you have only to ask.” He takes up his cup again, draining the last bit of drink from it.

Sepultur’a sits quietly for a moment, not daring to speak. She can’t believe her good fortune – acceptance in not one, but two guilds! She now has the chance to prove herself to her family and make a name for herself. A chance to mold herself into the type of woman that would make Endymion proud. She smiles, her eyes shining softly in the light from the fireplace. “Thank you,” she says fervently. “I will do all that I can to do the family proud.” He looks at her, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “I have a question or two that I would ask of you,” he states, waving at the bartender and indicating that he would like two drinks to be served. Sepultur’a raises her eyebrows, surprised that he would be interested in anything about her. He leans forward in a conspiratorial manner. “I don’t know your name – and you haven’t asked mine. How did we manage to forget that little formality, I wonder?” His eyes bore into hers again. “I…I’m sorry – I didn’t even think to ask; I didn’t think that it was my place to do so,” she stammers, embarrassed at her lapse of courtesy. “Please forgive my forgetfulness!” She stands and bows low again, speaking as she does so. “I am called Sepultur’a by my family and friends,” she states. “How should I address you?” she inquires, not certain if calling him “milord” would be sufficient or even acceptable. Only Evesori appears to refer to him in that manner, from what Sepultur’a has observed thus far. He smiles at her, easing her worry. “Please – call me Draven. Lord Draven or Master Draven is acceptable during formal gatherings…but still a bit fussy for my tastes.” He shrugs, almost apologetically. “We aren’t stuck on many formalities, but some ceremonies and gatherings require it.” Sepultur’a sighs quietly and relaxes, glad that she didn’t offend him. The serving-girl comes over to the table, carrying a tray that bears two wine-glasses and an iridescent pitcher. She sets the glasses on the table, then pours a bit of mead into each glass, filling them halfway. She sets the pitcher on the table, then curtsies and leaves after accepting a bit of coin from Draven. Draven takes one of the glasses and offers it to Sepultur’a, who accepts it with a smile. He takes up the other and raises it to her, lightly touching the edge of his glass with her own. “A small toast to you, Sepultur’a – I say again, welcome!” He takes a small sip, and she does the same. The drink is a sweet mead that she doesn’t think that she’s tasted before, so she sips again, letting the flavor run across her tongue. He watches her intently as she does this, a mysterious smile playing across his lips.

Another question pops into her head, and she is asking it before she has time to think about it. “Speaking of ceremonies – is there some formal ceremony that takes place for those of us who are new recruits? I’ve always wondered what a guild initiation is like.” He smiles at her eagerness. “Indeed, there is,” he says, draining his glass and then refilling it, and pouring a bit more into Sepultur’a’s glass as well. Taking up the glass again, he swirls the mead slightly, then sips again. “But, that won’t take place for another two weeks. You will get a formal invitation within the next few days, and Evesori or another member of the family will assist you with procuring a tabard – but it is late, so that can wait. In fact,” he continues, “You can get a tabard after you receive your formal invitation. Since you have an underground adventure ahead of you, we might as well wait and see if you are successful with it first!” He toasts her again, fixing her with another direct stare. “I’m certain that you will have no troubles, though…” he trails off, his eyes scanning her face. “You seem to be a lady who can handle herself quite capably.” He looks down into his glass. “I haven’t encountered a personality as quietly formidable as yours for quite some time,” he muses, more to himself than aloud.

A few hours later, Draven gallantly escorts a very tipsy Sepultur’a back to Ingvar’s inn. Evesori watches him with narrowed eyes as he leaves the tavern with the new recruit. Her annoyance is palpable, even though she says nothing aloud to the others at her table. She merely scowls momentarily, drains her mug of ale and calls for another, then leans up against Theo and strokes his burly chest, nestling her head against his shoulder. Theo is halfway to drunk himself, but not blindly so. He stares down Evesori’s gaping blouse, enjoying the generous view she is providing him. That view is apparent to anyone and everyone who walks past their table, but Theo doesn’t give two shits about it. He is happy to have her hanging on him while the guild-master tends to the other new recruit…

Excerpt: A New Craft

* Author’s Note: This excerpt is also a change in POV, to introduce depth to some of the characters that are of importance in the tale.

Endymion wipes his sweating brow, rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck, then returns his focus to the delicate scroll-work that he is carving on a bit of wood. He has been working on the piece in his spare time, which has been very little as of late. He had finally completed his apprenticeship with the smith, but found himself dissatisfied with his metal-work. He wanted to master a craft, but the work of a smithy wasn’t his forte. Unbeknownst to him, a good turn of fortune was about to take place in the form of an unexpected visit from Sepultur’a’s father.

Lord Yazim had noted his youngest daughter’s interest in the young man, seeing their obvious affection towards each other on the day of her departure. He wondered if the lad had aspirations of his own, or if he was merely hoping to marry into money. To satisfy his curiosity, he was hoping to speak with Endymion informally and offer him an apprenticeship. On a mild morning, about three months after Sepultur’a’s departure, he dressed in his most casual clothing and set off to the smith’s workshop. As he walks, a plan forms in his mind: a means of offering Endymion the apprenticeship without the lad knowing that he, Yazim, was responsible for it. Sometimes, subterfuge was a necessary means of gathering important information.

Bulgor gro-Kazhgur, the orc blacksmith, greets Yazim warmly, clasping his wrist in the warrior’s grip. “Hail, Lord Yazim! What can a lowly smith such as myself do for you this fine morn? Are ye in need of a new cuirass or pauldrons for the New Life Festival parade?” Yazim laughs heartily, clapping the orc’s solid shoulder. “Nay, good smith; I appreciate your offer, but my parade-garb is in fine shape, thanks to your craftsmanship. And you aren’t lowly, by any means! Your arms and armour sets are known far and wide, and your business is thriving. You have turned out many fine apprentices, and they have taken the knowledge and skills which you taught them back to their homelands. And, the work that you have done for my family and myself has always been exemplary. If there haven’t been books written about your prowess with metal-shaping, then there should be!” Bulgor smiles; on his scarred, tusked face it looks more like a pleasant grimace, but his appreciation of the compliment is apparent. He scratches his bald head. “Well, not all of my apprentices take what I teach them back to their homelands. Once in a while, I run across one who is…not necessarily unteachable, but their talents seem to be wasted under my tutelage.” He crosses his massive, muscular arms across his burly chest. “I currently have a young protégé who isn’t quite as adept as he, or I, had hoped that he’d be. Oh, he’s fair enough with a hammer and tongs, but I just don’t think that metal-crafting is what he should be doing. I think that he has finally, grudgingly, acknowledged it as well.” Yazim nods in understanding. “I think that I might know of whom you speak,” he says, looking around, making certain that the topic of their conversation isn’t in earshot. Seeing that Endymion is deeply engrossed in his project a good distance away, he turns back to Bulgor and continues. “In fact, I had a proposition for you which might be of benefit to all three of us.” Bulgor sets down his hammer, splashes water on his face from a bucket, and wipes his hands on the thick apron that covers his work-clothes. “Let us move away from the heat of the forge, then,” he rumbles. “I think that it is time for a break.” He and Yazim walk to a small, open balcony that overlooks the harbor, then stand side-by-side as they gaze out, taking in the view. The sun is still climbing in the sky, and a gentle breeze is blowing – the mild salt-scent is pleasant and refreshing after the heat from the forge. Gulls circle the fishing-boats and squabble over scraps as the boats return from their early-morning fishing excursions. Bulgor takes a dipper from a bucket of water and drinks deeply, quenching his thirst.

“So,” Yazim begins, “your young apprentice, the Nord lad – he isn’t adept with metal-work?” Bulgor nods in assent, sighing in slight disappointment. “He is a good-hearted and earnest lad, and doesn’t want to admit defeat, but…he simply doesn’t have the aptitude for smithing. I’ve tried to teach him even the simplest things; he does his best, but I can’t say that I’d trust the armour that he’s crafted. He can make daggers well enough, and if you need eating utensils, he’s your man. But, a good smith makes their living with arms and armour.” Bulgor shrugs. “I just don’t think that he’s cut out for forge-work, and I think that he realizes it as well. He is too proud to say so, however – typical of youth.” Yazim smiles at the statement, understanding it all too well. The impetuosity and pride of youth had gotten him into, and out of, many scrapes over his long life. “So, tell me,” Yazim asks, “do you think that he has any skills? Speak true, please. What we discuss here will not be used against anyone, nor will it be fodder for cheap gossip.” Yazim turns to Bulgor, watching the orc’s expressions as he answers in order to properly assess his reply.

Bulgor thinks for a moment before responding. “Well, he seems to have more than a fair aptitude for carving. The designs that I’ve seen him work in wood and bone are beyond compare. The carvings that he does in his idle time rival those of the finest wood-workers in the land.” He chuckles again. “The dark elves to the far east, and the cat-folk from the great deserts in the south and east would be envious of his skill. He is a natural.” Yazim’s brow furrows somewhat. “Why, then, did he not apprentice to a wood-hewer, I wonder?” Bulgor shrugs again. “I know not, milord Yazim. He was brought to me as a callow youth of fifteen years, and I was told to employ him for five years. Whether he learned anything of value or not seemed not to matter to the one who hired him to me. It’s almost as if a debt of some sort needed to be paid, and the lad was used to do so.” Yazim’s face turns thunderous at this. “What sort of person would use a child to pay off their debts? Such an action is most foul! He is certainly fortunate to have you as the one to employ him. Others might not have been as kind as you have been.” Bulgor nods. “Aye. We both know of people who traffic children as slaves for all sorts of purposes. He certainly could have ended up with a far worse task-master than I.” He leans on the rail of the balcony, gazing out over the harbor. “I know what it’s like to be more of a slave than an apprentice,” he finishes, his gruff voice surprisingly soft as he speaks those words.

Yazim nods, also leaning on the balcony rail and looking down at his small fleet of ships. There are four in total, but a fifth one is in the process of being built. The bare skeleton of the newest ship is being formed on the dry-dock: the keel, ribs, and lowest deck are clearly visible. It is yet unnamed, as Sepultur’a will be the one to name it before she takes it out on its maiden voyage. It is her ship, and it will be completed when she returns from her adventures. He thinks for a moment, then chooses his words carefully before speaking again. “So, you say that the lad is adept with carving? I wonder if his aptitude lends more to wood-shaping instead of metal-forging?” Yazim lets the question hang there, waiting for the orc to answer. He sees Bulgor’s scarred face brighten as the suggestion takes hold. “You could be on to something there, Lord Yazim. Metal-working isn’t the only noble profession, after all. I’ve always been quietly envious of those who carve the intricate designs in wood, bone, and stone. The staves of wizards and mages are certainly just as potent in battle as any sword or mace!” He turns to face the merchant-lord, grimacing a huge, tusked smile. “Do you think that the lad would be willing to be an apprentice for another five years?” he inquires. Yazim grins back broadly. “Well, if he is as talented as you say, then he might only need to stay on for one more year. – If he meets or exceeds my expectations, he would still get paid the full sum of a highly-skilled, five-year apprentice!” Bulgor roars out a laugh of approval, slapping his solid thigh with a meaty hand, then proffers his hand to Yazim, clasping it to seal their contract.

Young Endymion will move to the wood-carvers’ quarters, and begin his apprenticeship with them before the week is out. Yazim looks forward to seeing how the young man responds to this unexpected change of fortune. He also wants to observe him quietly and discreetly, as he had only recently been made aware of Sepultur’a’s interest in the young man. Anyone who wants to court his youngest child has to pass his muster, first. Honor, intellect, and a strong work ethic are important virtues to Yazim. He was taught them by his own father, and they had served him well during his life. He hopes that both of his daughters find worthy men. Ildris has not indicated to him or his wife if she is seeking anyone for companionship, as her excursions to and from the war-front keep her well involved in battles. His son needed no permission from him to marry, as it was customary for the family of a potential bride to vet any and all suitors. Sonja’s family had found his son more than a worthy prospect for their only child, and had been overjoyed when he asked for her to be his wife. Yazim hopes that Endymion never dulls the glow of joy he’d seen on Sepultur’a’s face. His expression hardens a bit at that thought; he knows that some men do nothing more than use women and toss them aside, and does not want to see that happen to his youngest. Indeed, any man who brings tears to the eyes of any of the women-folk in his life would pay dearly for that insult and transgression.

Bulgor sees the hard look on the merchant-lord’s face, and is glad that it is not directed at him. He would rather face the rage of all of his kinfolk at the stronghold where he’d grown up, or the lash of the whip of his former master, than bear the brunt of Yazim’s anger and vengeance. Yazim’s reputation, for good or ill, was well-known. Those who were ignorant of it never forgot it…if they happened to survive it, that is. Lord Yazim was not one to cross, and any slights to his family’s honor or name were never forgotten.

The two leave the balcony, exchanging mild pleasantries as they return to the forge. After a few more minutes of talk that menfolk discuss away from women, Yazim finally bids Bulgor farewell, letting him know that the arrangements would be made as soon as possible. He leaves the orc to his work, making his way back to the manor. He decides to walk through the family gardens on the way, as the jasmine is blooming. He enjoys the sweet fragrance of the pale flowers, and hopes to find a unique bloom that he can show to his wife when they take their evening stroll.

Excerpt: Journal Entry

* Author’s Note: I tend to change up the POV in my fiction from time to time. It is a writing technique that I like, and can appreciate the merits of.

(Looking for other excerpts? The prologue can be found here; another one, Day of Departure, can be found here.)

Journal Entry: 17 Sun’s Dusk, 2E 582

I have decided to pen about some of the people and places that I encounter on my journeys, making it easier to tell of them in my letters home – if I don’t note things daily, if not hourly, I might forget important details. There has been so much happening lately, my poor head is awhirl! Jotting things down will help clear it, I think.

I have been invited to join two different guilds in the past two days, which was a bit of a surprise! I had always heard that it was difficult, at best, to get an invitation to any guild, and finding ones that are worth joining is an ordeal in and of itself.
One guild is loosely-based, with members of it scattered far and wide. They are adventurers and explorers, mainly. They roam the land seeking new places to discover and explore, monstrous creatures to battle, and the forgotten cities of ancient civilizations, whether they are above or below the earth. The task that they gave me to do involves braving an underground den of spiders, which I have yet to complete. The arachnids are among the most deadly in existence, bearing venom for which there is no cure – one bite will certainly doom an unfortunate soul. I am to slaughter the largest spider that I can find, and bring back one of its legs and mandibles as proof – and, I must sing the tale of the battle! I had great trepidation about this adventure, at first, but the second guild that has invited me to join their ranks has renewed my confidence and given me hope. They approached me while I was dining at the tavern the other night; they were having a loud party of celebration and saw me talking with the adventurers, and sat with me for a time before leaving.

They are a relatively small, but seemingly close-knit group, consisting of nearly all of the races of the land. If I were to join, I would be the only one representing my homelands, at least for the moment. There are few of my countrymen here, which leaves me yearning for the sights, sounds, and smells of home more often than I care to admit to myself. A brew which is highly sought-after by my people is kept in stock at the tavern – the taste of it overwhelmed me with loneliness. These cold winds blowing from the nearby mountains would chill me to the bone, if Ingvar hadn’t told me the proper attire to wear. The clothing from my homeland is sometimes suitable during the day, when the sun warms the air, but when the sun goes down, the temperature drops considerably during this time of the year. At least I’m not in the frigid city far to the north of this pleasant one on the lake; it is ice-bound for these next four months, and heavy snow-storms make travel there virtually impossible. I left that region just in time!

I digress – this is how scattered and fragmented my thoughts are, recently. Whenever I try to think of the smaller guild and the people who are members, my mind seems to drift off to common, mundane thoughts and affairs. As I was mentioning, they represent nearly all of the races of the lands, but seem to mainly be the dark elves – their kind seems to be quite prolific, like the cockroaches some of them remind me of. I’m not trying to be cruel or hateful, but the dark elves, especially the women, fill me with slight loathing and I can’t figure out why. They seem polite enough, but some of them have eyes like spiders – black, glittering, and soulless. The armour that they sometimes wear adds to, and enhances, that insect-like appearance.

The leader of the guild is a mystery – I have yet to learn what his name is. He is tall and lean of build; always clad in dark leather clothing, face shrouded by a cowl day or night. I have never seen him remove it yet, even indoors, so his racial background is also unknown to me, as of yet. His eyes burn with an intensity that I don’t believe that I’ve seen or experienced before. It is terrifying, in a way that I can’t describe, yet mildly intriguing. I find myself wanting to tell him everything about myself when I am in the same room with him, and it is all that I can do to bite my tongue and remain silent. I think the thing that helps me hold my thoughts is his constant companion and possible consort, Evesori. She is a dark elf by appearance, but is quite pale for her kind. Her eyes watch everyone, staring with a hunger that reminds me of a starving lion. The clothes that she wears – or rather, doesn’t wear – would make even the most common courtesan blush with shame. Her tops are always tight, low-cut, and midriff-baring. Her breeches are thin and clingy, leaving nothing to the imagination. For all that she exposes, she might as well be wearing nothing at all.

There is another woman – well, a girl, really – who also seems to be at his side when Evesori is not. Her name is Wrenna, and she is a sylvan elf who works at the tavern. She is always clad in the common clothing of a servant, but isn’t unattractive. Wrenna seems less intimate with him than Evesori, as she speaks politely to him with words of respect, but I can’t help but think that I noticed him embracing her tightly in the stairwell the other night, before he and his little party left. I’m probably imagining things, and why their personal business would be of any concern to me strikes me odd, yet here I am penning down these idle side-thoughts. I suppose that I’m still indecisive, and looking for reasons to delay this important decision-making. I suppose that I wouldn’t want to be in a group that engages in clandestine, low-brow activities, as it wouldn’t do any good to associate with coarse people. They seem nice enough, yet something nags my mind about them…something beyond the concerns I’ve already written about.

At any rate, I have been given a few days to decide whether to join them or not. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea, especially given the task that lies before me. Their numbers might help me in defeating the spider-queen. Who knows? Perhaps they would have information about a few of the other places that I might be tasked to explore, and might be willing to help me if I join.

The oil is burning low, so I’m going to close this journal for now. I shall write more tomorrow after I’ve made my decisions. Sleep beckons…I hope to dance with Endymion in my dreams.

Excerpt: Guild Invitation

*Author’s Note: This chapter was a fairly long one, so I shortened it slightly for this post.

Sepultur’a steps out from the banking-house, stretching. Her errands are finally complete, and all necessary transactions have been made. She has deposited a tidy sum of coin to her account after trading some fine furs and skins to the leather-worker, and then made a trade with the smith. He has offered to craft her the new pieces of armour that she needs, in direct exchange for the old pieces she wore. Since the craftsmanship of her worn-out armour was exceptional, he also offered her an extra bit of gold so that he could study the work. He hopes to re-use some of the materials, if any, that he is able to extract from the set.

Dusk is approaching, and the local lamp-lighter makes his way slowly through the streets, performing his evening duties. He will make these rounds again after sunrise in order to extinguish the flames, trim the wicks, and polish the glass and brass housings. He is an elderly dark elf with a slightly hunched back, but has a more cheerful appearance in comparison with the standard dour expressions of his people. He nods at Sepultur’a as she passes, and she tosses him a cheerful wave as she makes her way to the tavern. She desires a drink that is a bit stronger than what Ingvar offers at the inn. There is no need for her to wake early, so sleep is far from her mind. She ascends the wooden steps of the tavern, noting the outdoor seating on the wide, spacious deck. Like Ingvar’s place, there is a balcony providing cover for this deck, but it is much larger and has its own roof offering shelter from the elements for patrons. Unlike the inn, however, the deck is only as wide as the building. The deck of Ingvar’s inn wraps completely around the building, with chairs and small tables placed here and there for quiet sitting and viewing the local scenery.

The tavern looks to be very busy already, as voices and laugher ring loudly and clearly from the balcony. Patrons are sitting and standing around on the deck, many chatting casually with one another. Sepultur’a sees a couple of the market-place stall-workers, relaxing after a long day’s business. Smiling, she opens the stout oaken door. A boisterous noise greets her, as the door’s thickness muffled the din inside. She sees a large fireplace ahead of her on the far wall, in the traditional style and build of the Nord peoples. The tavern actually has an entry-hall of sorts, with a burly man standing near the door to keep order. The rowdiest and most unruly customers will get a not-so-polite escort out of the door by this man. He has short, blonde hair, a neat mustache, and a scruff of beard. She nods at him in polite acknowledgement and makes her way into the main room of the tavern.

The room is large and open, with a counter on either side. The counter to her left is similar to where Ingvar stands at the inn, with a room behind it, just under the stairwell. A lizard-man tends to the drinking patrons here. A Breton bard is playing a flute near the fireplace, while two cat-people dance with each other. Another counter takes up half the space of the right side of the room, where a Nord woman takes orders for food. A cauldron of stew stays warm by the fireplace, and a huge haunch of meat roasts on a spit. The aroma is beyond delicious – Sepultura’s mouth waters. There are three large tables, evenly spaced around the room; two stools are at the food-counter, and none at the drinking counter. Feet clomp about upstairs, and a woman screams laughter which is punctuated by the crash of cutlery. The burly man at the door sighs quietly and makes his way up the stairs, cracking his knuckles and rolling his shoulders in preparation for any trouble that might arise. The dock-workers, sailors, and mercenaries tend to drink the most, talk the loudest, and let their fists fly most often.

Sepultur’a goes over to the woman at the food-counter, first – she wants to get some food before drinking, and the roasting meat is impossible to ignore. The older woman’s hair is blonde at the top, fading to iron-gray at her temples, and is pulled back from her florid face in a severe ponytail. Sweat beads her forehead and adds a shine to her full, rosy cheeks. Her face is surprisingly smooth for her age, and her figure is plump and stout – she solidly fills out the long work-dress she wears. She wipes her hands on a rag as Sepultur’a approaches, offering a wide, warm smile. “Hullo there, lass! What might I be gettin’ fer ye this evening?” she asks in a loud, hearty voice that carries into the room. Sepultur’a would not be surprised if the patrons above could hear this woman’s voice, even over their raucous laughter. She grins at the woman as she replies. “Well, that stew in the cauldron looks like it could feed an army, and I’m but a mere slip of a girl. The roast, though, is something that I could sink my teeth into! It’s mammoth haunch, is it not?” The cook’s eyes widen in surprise. “You know your meats, girl! I’m impressed – there aren’t many who can tell the type and cut of meat, simply from the smell of it!” She laughs, doubling over with mirth, then fixes a direct gaze on Sepultur’a, appraising her with quick, darting glances. Sepultur’a feels as though her very soul has been peered at and analysed. The woman leans a meaty arm on the counter, looking Sepultur’a up and down, then says, “You look hungry, so I’ll make you a deal. One thick slab of that haunch and a small tureen of stew for 15 gold pieces. That will also get you two glasses of house wine, or one tankard of any drink that you choose.” She leans back, winking. “Does that sound fair, lass?”

Sepultur’a pretends to think on it, then laughs and drops a wink of her own. “I think that sounds like quite a fair deal for a delicious, filling meal! I’m looking forward to something other than my own cooking, for a change.” She smiles and reaches for her purse, counting out the coin. “Do I pay you for the full meal, including the drink?” she asks. “Yes,” replies the cook. “I’ll let the barkeep know that you’ve paid in advance, and he will let you know what the choices of house wine are. We have a nice, crisp white wine, flavoured with juniper-berries, or a refreshing, aged red made of local snow-berries. Otherwise, any other choice is yours, provided that we have it in stock!” She takes the coin and drops it in the lockbox behind her, then snaps her fingers. “Skips! Here to me, now!” A thin lizard-man who had been clearing, wiping, and re-setting a couple of the dining tables hurries over, bowing low. “Yesss, misssstressss?” he hisses, tongue darting snake-like as he speaks. He has no horns, feathers, or head-fins like the lizard-folk that Sepultur’a has gotten used to seeing during her travels. He is slight of frame with a narrow, serpentine head. His eyes are a sickly yellow hue, and his smooth wrinkled skin looks leathery, not scaled.

The Nord woman instructs “Skips” to slice a generous hunk of meat from the mammoth haunch and serve it on a platter with some steamed vegetables, alongside a tureen of the venison stew. She points to one of the freshly-cleaned tables, indicating that Sepultur’a will be seated there. “Also, please remove all of the chairs from that table, there, save one…are you expecting company, lass?” she inquires, turning towards Sepultur’a for a moment. She shakes her head as she answers. “No, not this night. I shall be solitary and carefree – and, I appreciate your courtesy and attentiveness!” She genuflects respectfully and with gratitude, dropping an extra gold coin on the counter. She learned long ago to tip well and generously for good service and information, but has forgotten the associated rule: “Be not too obvious and careless with your funds, and carry no more than you expect to spend.” She is relaxed and not concerned with the monies she is spending; she has put most of her gold away for safekeeping and doesn’t feel the need for caution. She doesn’t know that she has been targeted by evildoers, and was selected by them the moment that she strode in the door. She is young, healthy, and well-mannered, and those qualities make her stand out like a red flower on a field of snow.

Without her observation, or that of the chef, a note has passed from “Skips” to the chamber-maid who is going between the upper and lower floors, taking orders and cleaning up spilled drinks, dropped food, and the occasional puddle of vomit. The chamber-maid, in turn, slips the note into a folded napkin that she places next to the plate of a thin man shrouded in dark clothing and a cloak, his face hidden by a cowl. He sits in the corner behind the upstairs fireplace, where he has an excellent view of the room and all who are in it. When he deems it safe to do so, he carefully unfolds the note and reads it, then tosses it into the flames where it vanishes into a puff of smoke and ash. He smirks under his cowl as he watches the doorman hoist up a drunken dark elf by the collar and drag the protesting man downstairs. He leans back in his chair and temples his fingers under his chin, then beckons to the woman who had been shrieking with laughter at the drunk elf’s antics. She staggers over and drops into the chair opposite him, leaning forward and displaying a startling amount of cleavage in the tight, low-cut corseted top she wears. She sways as she feigns a greater amount of drunkenness than she actually feels – in truth, she has only imbibed a single glass of wine, but it is so easy to distract drunken men with her outfit. She has casually relieved many of their coin, but only when they’d given her some and bade her to buy herself a drink on them. She knew that their eyes were on her pert bottom as she sashayed to the stairs, where she would meet the chamber-maid and pass some over as if paying for a drink, then pocketing the remainder.

The woman in the low-cut top slouches forward, giggling inanely and heaving her massive mammaries onto the table. The man in the cowl stares at her exposed, pale flesh, noting the blue-tinged veins that line the surface of her breasts. “Nicely done, Evie…nicely done. That poor sap didn’t know who he was dealing with, did he?” he queries low, in a tone that only the woman can detect. Evesori chuckles, her bosom bouncing. “Nay, milord…he was the easiest mark that I’ve seen in a while – it was almost too easy to get him kicked out!” The man in the cowl stares at her with pale, red-rimmed eyes. “I have another task for you. It has been a while since new blood was brought into the fold, and I was just informed that prime prey has entered this fine establishment. I need you to examine it up close, if you will.” Evesori heaves a dramatic sigh, pretending to be offended. “Ah – so you tire of me again, milord? You need a warm body to lay next to?” she purrs seductively. “I know that we can no longer warm each other’s beds, but still…” she trails off and leans back, crossing her arms under her ample bosom. The man chuckles again. “Ah, you misunderstand.” He shakes his head at her. “I forgot – you were still a young maiden when I met you. You have forgotten the appeal of a living, breathing body.” He leans forward, fixing her with his intense gaze and reaches out to clasp his hands around hers. She sighs again, dramatically, feigning exasperation. “Oh, fine,” she says. “I have no choice, do I?” She kisses him, lightly flicking her tongue against his. “Tell me what you need me to do, milord.” Her voice gets low and husky as she stares into his eyes with an intensity that matches his own. “Tell me your deep, dark desires…” He speaks, and she listens to his plan. She smiles…it is a plan that will be quite fun to set into motion. She shakes with silent laughter as he tells her the details.

Downstairs, Sepultur’a is engaged in deep conversation with a trio of adventurers who have sat down at a table next to hers. Between bites of meat, she learns that they travel the land, exploring the caverns that dot the countryside. She had passed quite a few during her journeys but never ventured in them yet. The prospect of going underground makes her uncomfortable; still, she knows that the only way to face her fears is to meet them head-on. Further questioning reveals that they belong to a loosely-knit guild, and she recalls Ildris telling her that finding a guild could be of great help in developing her skills and increasing her knowledge.

“So, the only requirement to join is to find and explore a cave?” she asks the tall, muscular man who appears to be the leader of this little group. He belches loudly and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand before answering. “Aye,” he says, hoisting his empty mug high. The serving-girl who is assisting the bartender hurries over with a pitcher and refills it. He takes a big swig of the ale and continues. “Not just any cave, mind. We have collected a list of some of the deepest, darkest caverns where few have ever been, so there is always a rare trinket to be found. Those who join our guild must go to one of these caverns and retrieve an item from the lowest depths.” He drinks and belches loudly again, then finishes his short speech. “Those who are successful and join the guild need only explore these dungeons, caverns, and other places of lost lore whenever they so choose, afterwards. We only require a donation of coin or trinkets found.” Sepultur’a thanks them for the information, then finishes her meal. She decides to have one more drink before returning to Ingvar’s inn, as the tavern has one of her favourite ales in stock – she was pleasantly surprised to see a brew from her homeland in one of the stout kegs behind the counter.

She gets her drink, then returns to her table and listens to the adventurers for a bit longer. Their tales are fantastic and fascinating, and she is intrigued. Joining a guild is something that she has considered for some time, and this one might be ideal. She asks if she can sit with them and talk for a bit longer…she has a few more questions to ask before she makes her decision.

Evesori makes her way down the stairs, giggling to herself and stumbling a bit, keeping up the appearance of a drunkenness that she doesn’t feel. She casually observes the room as she makes her way to the bartender, spotting the target. The young woman is sitting with the dungeon-crawlers, engaged in animated conversation. Ah, she thinks, the girl is looking to establish herself in some way. This will make what she needs to do even easier than she expected. She chuckles with renewed mirth, idly wishing that she would have been given something more challenging to do. Her skills have been sorely underused as of late, and she is bored. Perhaps an infusion of new blood is just the thing that she needs to feel rejuvenated and alive again.

She wanders back upstairs and seats herself at the table of the man in the cowl. “You’ll love this, milord,” she says. “The prey is looking for a home…I think that we shall be able to provide one.” He nods slowly. “Very good, very good…let’s put our little plan into motion then, shall we?” He gets up from the table and heads down to the main room.

Excerpt: A Letter Home

Author’s Note: This is another excerpt from my work of fiction – I thought that putting some screen-shots in would be a nice touch!

Dearest Mother and honoured Father – it has been a fortnight now since I left home, and such wondrous sights have I beheld! Sister’s advice has held true to date, as I have apprenticed myself to a chef with a travelling caravan. Their numbers will conceal and guard me as I make my way across this strange, new land. We are just over thirty in all, including myself. My duties vary depending on where we venture. When we are in a community of any size, I help out the chef and his assistant with food-preparation – I am being introduced to all sorts of new spices, seasonings, and cuts of meat from a variety of exotic animals. Other times, entertainment is the order of the day, so I get to play my lute for customers from time to time. I’ve earned a fair bit of coin in this fashion! Also, sometimes I play the drum while the other entertainers dance – they like the rhythms that I beat for them.

When able, the dancers show me some of their moves and steps, and seem to be impressed by how quickly I catch on – they say that I could earn even more coin if I were to dance, but I don’t know how I feel about trying that out, as of yet. At least the costumes worn aren’t scanty or overly provocative! I don’t know that I’d want to dance for others, especially if wearing little but filmy, gauzy, see-through material that is only appropriate for one’s bedchamber.

You will both be happy to learn that I have finally learned the art of the sword! Please do not fret and question the tutors you hired for me – they simply weren’t able to impart their vast knowledge in a way that I could understand. One of the entertainers, a fire-eater and sword-dancer, has taken me under her wing and helped me with my skills. She said that I have much aptitude and natural talent, but tend to over-think every move – if I were to relax and let the motions happen naturally, I would be much more successful, in her estimation. I have chosen to use the great-swords, as the sword and shield combination still feels clumsy to my hands. Using a staff feels more comfortable to me than sword and shield! I know that Sister is well-versed in that type of combat, and will ask her for assistance at a later time. For now, I must concentrate on my chosen weapon.

We have been on the road for three days straight as I write this – our next destination is a fortress on the edge of the mapped lands that I’ve seen and sketched out, so far. I have made note of the transitus shrines that you told me about; knowing where they are will be of enormous help in the days to come, especially whenever and wherever I part ways with the caravan. At least I have time to mark the locations of the shrines, as the day that I take my leave is still in the unforeseen future.

Father, I wanted to say to you that I have seen the circles in the sky: the huge, black anchors and the massive chains that you’ve told us of. The ugly noise that heralds their appearance sounds for miles across the land, and they can be seen fading into view from a great distance, if you happen to look in the right direction and see their fell glow. The abominations that fall from them can barely be described – my hands shake the pen so when I attempt to sketch them. My mind wants to block out their horror. I have joined others in fighting them, but only once to date. It was a terrible battle. I can still smell the reek and stench of the disgusting undead, and have nightmares of the various golems and their twisted, constructed forms. I vow to destroy each and every dark anchor that I come across, whenever and wherever I see them. I will do anything to assist in yours, and Brother’s, healing from that harrowing ordeal those 25 long years past. I also hope to avenge the deaths of your crewmen and shipmates…so many good men lost, and families harmed!

The candle is burning low, so it is time for sleep. It has been a long, profitable day, and tomorrow is a day of rest, relaxation, and leisure for us before we set out on the following day. The weather has been mild and the winds in our favour; the ash from the great volcano has blown away from us for five days, now. Because of this, we have made good time in travelling to the fort, as the trek usually takes a full cycle of the moons from start to finish.

I close this letter with love and respect, dear Mother and honoured Father. Please give my salutations to Brother and Sister; I hope that they are well and happy wherever they are roaming today. I am hale and healthy – the gods and goddesses are smiling their favour.

Cordially, fondly, and with utmost respect and love,

~Sepultur’a

Excerpt from NaNoWriMo: Prologue

Author’s note: This is the prologue of the story I began during NaNoWriMo. I thought that it would be fun to post excerpts from it now and then! I’ve been inspired by today’s New Moon, it would appear.

He starts awake, gasping and choking. Coughing up water, gagging, snorting out sand-filled snot. He raises up on his forearms, struggling to stand…a wave of dizziness hits hard. He collapses helplessly. The crying of gulls is loud in the air…what is that clacking sound? He strains to raise his head – gods, it spins so! Bright light hurts his eyes; he clamps them shut and drags himself forward. His body aches all over. What happened? He can’t dredge up any memory save something from a nightmare…idyllic peace shattered in an instant…

Water lapping, calm seas, joy and general bonhomie as the grand ship cut through the waves on the journey home. Tall, proud son at his side, strong hands on the wheel. Grinning at his father in his good-natured way. Eyes that twinkle in the same way that the young man’s mother’s eyes did, so long ago. Eyes that now turn distant and intent, staring over the father’s shoulder, concern and the hint of fear growing rapidly. “What is that? By the gods – Father, what is that?”

Turning slowly…ever so slowly, as if in a dream…seeing the small island passing on the portside, nine figures cloaked in black garments, screaming foul incantations and dancing wildly, madly…time seems to slow to the cadence of heartbeats. Black clouds gather and roil, coalescing into lumpen shapes that begin to swirl ominously like the funnel-cloud of a tornado.

A helpless form, dressed in rags, hangs unsupported in front of the chanting, dancing worshipers. The chanting rises to a fever pitch as a thunderous sound grows in volume, getting louder by the second. The ugly noise travels through the ground and the water, seemingly filling the air itself with its oppressive presence. All on board the ship clap hands to ears; some fall to their knees, others writhe in agony.
A circle flashes into view above the chanting forms – a beam of light shoots down, vaporizing the ragged sacrifice. The chanters are washed with that hideous, sickly light; eyes ablaze, they turn as one, facing the ship. Waves suddenly churn – the ship plunges and whirls in unseen eddies. Massive chains drop from the circle in the sky, smashing into the tiny island. They lock into place and pull taut…the ground shakes from the impact, and the waves increase in intensity. The lookout in the crow’s nest is flung into the wild sea, screaming as he falls. Water washes across the deck, slamming helpless bodies into gunwales and tossing others to the waves.

The man reaches out, grabbing his unconscious son as they slide across the wet wooden planks. He desperately clutches at a flapping end of rope in an attempt to arrest forward motion, to no avail – the ship lurches madly as another freak wave heaves it to starboard. He’s falling…the side of the ship looms close. He strikes his shoulder on something…he loses his grip on his son. The cold water envelops him in an icy embrace. Shouts and screams are close, some growing faint and ceasing altogether. He tries to get his bearings by exhaling a stream of bubbles and following their trail.

He breaks the surface of the water. His eyes see the huge chains locked into the earth, but his mind still doesn’t register it as being real. Thunder rumbles continuously; the white light spins madly in the center of the circle, the clouds are black and ominous as they seem to be sucked into the spinning light. Creatures from the imagination of a mad god drop from the circle, summoned by the chanting, dancing worshipers. Their fell magics are directed at the sky, the water, and the now-sinking ship. The incessant waves have taken their toll and the port side has been stove in from some unseen impact.

“No…please…” he gasps, treading water weakly, still trying to keep his son’s head above the surging waters. Out of nowhere, a powerful arm grabs him around the chest and lifts him onto a couple of floating barrels that are still miraculously lashed together. His son’s limp form soon rests next to him – he is relieved to see that the younger man still breathes strongly. He looks around for his savior, but only sees a saurian tail cutting through the water towards another bit of flotsam. One of the lizard-folk, it appears…he had employed a goodly number of them. His desire for a diverse crew would pay off quite well, today.

The ship is floundering, quite resembling a dying cetacean or sea-serpent struggling and clinging to life. The sails hang in rags from the masts, rent and torn by the screaming winds. Forms, human and non, bob in the waves. Some manage to stay afloat – others tread water weakly, then cease their struggles, then disappear from sight. He turns blurred eyes to the limp form of his son. ‘I’m so tired…I must rest for just a little while…then I can help,’ he thinks. Darkness lays her warm cloak over his eyes and mind, and he floats away.

The clacking sound rouses him again…he knows that he needs to get away from it, but can’t think of why. He carefully moves his arms, stretching them out in front of him and feeling for something sturdy to grasp hold of. Splintered wood. Wet, wadded cloth. A soggy, frayed piece of rope. A hand…he clasps it, but it is cold and doesn’t return his grip. He carefully releases it, not opening his eyes, not wanting to know who it might belong to – or whether it is still even attached to the arm of whomever it belongs to. He needs to focus on survival. Head spinning, he makes minute, painful progress…then passes out again.

Voices call, getting closer. “Did you see that?” “What was it?” “Here! I found someone – come, come!” “Over here…no, that one is done for – mark them with the red cloth so the priests can tend to them once we find all of the survivors.” The sound of scuffing sand gets nearer still. The ugly clacking is so close…too close…sand scuffs harshly, there is a soft thump, and the clacking ceases. He groans softly, twitching his hands in the sand, trying to move. “Here – come, I’ve found another!” The voice, so close…speaking in a familiar language, but with a unique, distinct dialect. A woman’s voice. Hands press his arms and legs; questing fingers probe his shoulder. He lets out a loud gasp of pain, then dissolves into paroxysms of helpless coughing. “Turn him, quickly!” More hands grab him; fingers sweep into his mouth, clearing out sand and spittle. Fingers pull his eyes open – the sunlight is blinding and he tries to squeeze his eyelids shut against the burning intrusion. His head is cradled gently for a moment and a bowl is brought to his lips. “Here…drink this, slowly,” says a soft voice. He parts his lips; warm broth trickles down the side of his face as he swallows. He squints against the light, trying to see who tends to him – all he sees is a light-limned shadow. The broth is good…he relaxes slightly as the pain eases, closing his eyes again. His breath steadies as he falls into a deep, dreamless sleep. He feels nothing as he is transferred to a travois, wrapped in a wool blanket, and has pillows carefully propped behind his head and shoulders. He is lifted to the back of a horse-drawn cart and lain down between two others. The horse grazes quietly nearby; the driver eats his own simple meal, waiting for the order to take the poor souls to the nearby infirmary.

Other injured crewmen have been located. Those who can move on their own do so, heading to the triage tent that was hastily erected by the rescuers. Many of those with the fewest injuries are the lizard-folk, who are telling and re-telling the tale of what befell them as they are tended to by the healers. An elderly, blind priest listens to the recounted disaster, his fingers weaving runes of light in the air before his sightless eyes. His magick-infused writings are being seen in various guilds throughout the land, being transcribed to books, paper, and carved in stone by whichever mage, shaman, witch-king, or wyrd-woman can decipher them. For good or ill, this occurrence is recorded by all with the ability – and the tale spreads swiftly, like a virulent disease.

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