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…

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