Young Adult

Chapter reveal: ON EDGE, by Gin Price

Title:  ON EDGE

Genre:  Mystery/YA Mystery

Author: Gin Price

Websitewww.thepoisonedpencil.com

Publisher: Poisoned Pencil

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book:

When a serial-killing graffiti artist starts painting your picture all over town…it puts a girl on edge.

Emanuella “LL” Harvey puts her gymnastic skills to good use as a member of her brother’s Parkour group. Freerunning, jumping, and climbing over their corner of the city like it’s an obstacle course gives them something to take pride in and keeps them out of trouble—sort of. But trouble finds LL when she runs into Haze, a talented graffiti artist whose sister Heather was murdered two years before. Freerunner and Writer promptly fall in love, but they decide to hide their relationship till they’re sure it’s the real thing—and until they can find a way to placate LL’s hotheaded brother, who has it in for Haze and his gang. But when portraits of LL—done in Haze’s distinctive style—start popping up on city walls, all hell breaks loose. LL’s brother threatens a gang war, which LL tries to avert by identifying the Writer who is really responsible for the paintings. But when another teen is murdered, it looks bad for Haze, especially when LL discovers that Heather’s killer and her portrait-painter are one and the same.

ON EDGE 

Gin Price 

Chapter One 

            I wasn’t going to make it.

I had a stitch in my side as widespread as the distance between the Pizza Pie Pagoda and the apartment roof we ran across, so the chances I’d screw up and smack my head against the concrete waiting below were pretty good. The waist of my yoga pants began to unroll, the fabric sliding down with every pump of my aching legs and I had to waste precious energy to pull them up. But if I didn’t, and I stepped on a hem, I’d stumble.

Stumbling would be bad—like lose a tooth on the balance beam the day before prom bad. Already I could feel the quiver of fatigue in my knees signaling my eventual burn out.

“He’s going to catch me, he’s going to catch me,” I chanted between panted breaths.

I spoke more to myself than my companion, but he answered anyway. “Nah, Baby-girl, you got this. Forearm, shoulder, booty, then knee up and walk away. Daily cake.”

I grunted. Easy for him to say. This fiasco made it five consecutive hours of balls-out athletics for me while he was on hour two and only slightly less out of breath than I.

“Get back here!” The voice behind bellowed, growing closer.

I threw off my rhythm a fraction to look behind me. “Damn, he’s on us. How’d he get up here so fast?”

“You realize I had you this time, right?”

Appalled at my friend Surge’s attempt to claim a victory when the game had clearly been called due to weather conditions—it was raining cops—I ran faster, pushing myself beyond my limits toward the roof’s edge. I didn’t care if my pants fell around my ankles mid-flight; I was going to win our little game today—and moon the state of Michigan doing it.

But first, I had to stay out of jail.

“Whoa! Come back.” The cop yelled. He sounded more concerned now than angry.

Too late. There was no coming back once we’d made the decision to run.

“Boosh!” Surge yelled as we both hopped the lip of the roof and leapt across the expanse between the buildings, sprawled out and reaching through the air like action heroes.

Unlike the movies, nothing happened slow enough for me to process the danger of a jump. I committed to the plunge and depended on ingrained knowledge to take over.

The Pizza Pie Pagoda building came up fast. I bent my legs to absorb the shock and let my exhausted body fall forward and to the side. The remaining energy of the landing pushed me over in a Side-Roll, taking the impact from thigh to shoulder until the momentum brought me up to my feet again. Hurray incoming bruise.

Surge’s Roll was swankier than mine, but for once he didn’t gloat. Probably because we didn’t have time.

“You kids all right?” The cop called from the building over.

We didn’t take the time to answer him verbally. We just waved off his concern and continued to ignore his command to give ourselves up. Surge grabbed my elbow and helped me to the side of the pizza place where we were able to hang off the side of the roof and drop down into the alley.

“How you doing?” Surge asked me, once we were making distance between us and the cop.

“Well, I worked my butt off in gymnastics practice, ran around the mall only to get kicked out because of your food court tabletop trick—”

“You’ve got to admit that was swank,” he interrupted. “How was I supposed to know they were going to call in the real blue?”

“And now I’ve spent the last ten minutes upgrading from a trespassing ticket to an arrest.”

“Only if we got caught, which we didn’t. So you owe me five bucks.” He grinned at me and I couldn’t help but return it.

“We aren’t off main, yet.” I slapped his extended palm away. “When I’m home and couching you’ll get your five.”

I tugged off my black hoodie as we walked, stuffing it behind a dumpster to come back for later. We knew the drill. You didn’t walk around wearing the same colored clothes after a cop was running you down. The next corner you turned would probably have you stuffed in a squad car before the first lie left your mouth. Changing shirts wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Besides, with my hoodie on, most cops mistakenly took me for a guy. I guess they thought girls had better things to do than monkey around the cityscape.

“Damn, there’s the cop,” Surge said.

I looked down the block from where we stood and frowned. He didn’t seem to notice us any more than the other pedestrians, but to be safe, I tugged Surge into The Slow Drip.

The few tables the coffee-shop had inside were up front with a window view, while racks and racks of tee shirts and other gift items created an aisle to the registers in the back. Outside, a few more two-seater tables were full of the loitering public, making blending in a little easier.

“I guess we take a time-out for refreshments,” I said.

Surge paced, looking out the store front with his lips pursed. “He’s going to keep circling and look in here eventually. Not sure stopping was a good idea this time.”

“Hey Surge,” a girl called out from behind us.

I turned and nodded a greeting at Ramona as she chatted Surge up. Dressed in her coffee-pot-shaped apron and teardrop visor-hat, she was clearly working the counter.

Wenda, her best friend and my gymnastics nemesis, walked up and stood next to her. We were all on the same team but no one would know it the way they acted—except Wenda and I were both wearing our Kennedy Gymnastics Team tee shirts.

“Hey guys,” I said, trying to be a beacon of polite through the thick fog of seething hatred. Ramona tried to smile but settled on a grimace. Wenda didn’t even try to hide her nostril-flare face.

“Ramona-girl, you think you could get us out the back of this place?” Surge asked.

Standing on her tiptoes, Wenda leaned up to whisper something in Ramona’s ear while staring at me.

Subtle.

“I can take one of you through,” Ramona started to say.

Surge snorted. “Forget it.”

“No, no.” I knew this was a good opportunity to draw less attention to ourselves. “Surge, you go out the back and I’ll go out the front.” I smiled my second best smile at Wenda, while talking to him. “We’ll meet up at the library and finish what we started earlier.”

His glare at the two girls melted when he turned to me, and I suspected he did that on purpose to show anti-bitchery support. “Ooo. I accept your challenge! I’ll even beat you there.” He winked and then turned to Ramona. “Lead the way, mama.”

With Ramona taking Surge out the back door, Wenda and I were left standing there. “Guess I’ll see you next practice.” I said.

“Oh didn’t you hear? We’re going to do individual practices until coach returns from her vacation.”

Odd. I hadn’t heard, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. Since Regionals and even at practice earlier, I suspected some of the girls were mad at me. Now I had my suspicions confirmed.

“Well, then. See ya at school.”

“Whatever.” She did the hand brush-off and turned her back on me, cutting me down without saying another word.

Shaking my head, I turned and left the coffee shop.

No one had ever looked at me with such hatred before, and I couldn’t figure out where it came from. I knew gymnastics competition pitted us against each other a lot, and I’d definitely ridden the group hard at Regionals at the end of last season, but it seemed like there was more to her attitude than just rivalry, but whatever. I couldn’t puzzle through her bullshit when I still needed to get a few blocks away to avoid a tour of the city jail.

Losing my concern for Wenda was easy once I was Freerunning again on my way to the Library. No troubles or stressful thoughts stood a chance against the heart-pumping adrenaline rush that was Parkour.

I raced down streets using the objects in my way to increase my pace instead of slow me down. I swung under a metal railing and leaped over its parallel twin. I jumped over a fire hydrant and the three bikes locked on the rack right next to it, all without choking up.

My seamless movements cancelled out Surge’s head start, and as I rounded the corner on the last block to the library, I caught sight of my friend a block to my right.

At the same time, he noticed me.

I heard his laugh across the distance and the challenge within it spurred me on. “Oh you are so gettingshown,” I promised quietly, forcing my legs into motion.

So close, so close! If I could get to the lion statue first, I’d get the prize, but Surge wasn’t going to make it easy on me. We both ran full speed, coming closer to each other and to our destination.

I vaulted over one wide stone railing, Kong-style, with my feet straight out in front, ready to catch me for my landing.

I didn’t expect anyone to be standing there.

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized, Young Adult | Leave a comment

Chapter Reveal: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7), by Christopher G. Nuttall

TrialByFire_med1Title: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: Christopher G. Nuttall

Website: www.chrishanger.net

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Sample Chapter HERE.

Purchase on Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book

Three years ago, Emily killed the Necromancer Shadye before he could sacrifice her and destroy the Allied Lands.  Now, the shadows of the past hang over Whitehall as Emily and the Grandmaster travel into the Blighted Lands to recover anything Shadye might have left behind, before returning to Whitehall to start the fourth year.  For Emily, it is a chance to stretch her mind and learn more about new and innovative forms of magic … and to prepare for the exams that will determine her future as a magician.

But as she starts her studies, it becomes clear that all is not well at Whitehall.  Master Grey, a man who disliked Emily from the moment he met her, is one of her teachers – and he seems intent on breaking her, pushing her right to her limits.  In the meantime, her friends Alassa and Imaiqah are acting oddly, Frieda seems to be having trouble talking to her and – worst of all – Caleb, her partner in a joint magical project, is intent on asking her to go out with him.

As she struggles to cope with new challenges and to overcome the demons in her past, she becomes aware of a deadly threat looming over Whitehall, a curse that threatens her very soul.  And when she makes a tiny yet fatal mistake, she finds herself facing a fight she cannot win, but dares not lose…

/////////////////////////////////////

Prologue

Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father’s study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father’s study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they’d disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.

And both of his parents were formidable indeed.

“Caleb,” his mother called. “Come in.”

Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small – living space was at a premium in Beneficence – and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She’d always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn’t want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb’s mother kept her face impassive.

They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he’d grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock – his father – was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.

“Caleb,” his father grunted. He’d never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. “You wished to speak with us?”

“Yes, father,” Caleb said. His parents weren’t stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. “I do.”

His father waved a hand, impatiently. “Then speak,” he ordered.

Caleb took a long breath. Casper – handsome Casper, confident Casper – would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn’t really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he’d had advantages none of the younger children shared. He’d set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.

“I ask your permission to open a Courtship,” he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. “I ask for your blessings and your wisdom.”

His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents…they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.

His mother spoke first. “Who is this girl?”

Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. “Emily,” he said, simply. “Daughter of Void.”

“I see,” General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. “You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria.”

“I am a sorcerer,” Caleb countered. He’d known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he’d never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. “We are social equals.”

“And her father is a Lone Power,” Mediator Sienna said, slowly. “Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?”

Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. “That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship,” he said. He’d always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free – he didn’t think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand – but marriage was quite another issue. “It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious.”

“She may reject you,” General Pollack warned. “You are not a wealthy man.”

“I know,” Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. “I do, however, have excellent prospects.”

His father’s face darkened. “But not as a defender of the Allied Lands.”

Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children – his male children, at least – to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He’d always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.

“His research may prove useful,” Mediator Sienna said.

General Pollack gave her a surprised look.

Caleb couldn’t help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they’d had some spectacular rows, yet they’d always been held in private. They’d always put forward a united front.

His mother ignored their surprise. “Do you believe she likes you?”

Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn’t it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they’d slept with – Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying – but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he’d been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He’d never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he’d been on leave.

“I think so,” he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. “That’s why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise…”

“You can back off without shame,” his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. “I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child.”

“And one so grossly irresponsible, at that,” General Pollack growled. “Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?”

“She shut them both down,” Caleb reminded him.

His mother met his eyes. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But it was still irresponsible.”

“I like her,” Caleb said, refusing to look away. “I request your blessing for the Courtship.”

General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. “We shall discuss it in private,” he said, finally. “Wait.”

Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn’t hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he’d approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn’t have minded being disowned, yet – in truth – he loved his family. Even Casper…

Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.

He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.

“We have considered the matter,” General Pollack said. “You may proceed with your Courtship.”

Caleb let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, father-”

“Now we will discuss the practicalities,” his mother added, cutting him off. “And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important.”

“Yes, mother,” Caleb said.

He cursed under his breath. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn’t being offered a choice. His father’s brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he’d started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn’t said no.

And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won’t be easy.

 

Chapter One

…Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something – anything – she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest…

Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she’d experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She’d had nightmares every night since they’d crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.

Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye’s fortress, where she’d barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn’t been a very real possibility she’d inherited Shadye’s possessions, she wouldn’t have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she’d fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she’d brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy…

Or perhaps he’s picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.

Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn’t been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he’d insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.

She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands – a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took – threatened to overpower it.

“Good morning, Emily,” the Grandmaster said. “I trust you slept well.”

“Well enough,” Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. “And yourself?”

“You know I don’t sleep,” the Grandmaster said.

I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn’t slept since the day they’d walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can’t be good for his mental health.

She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she’d ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn’t a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.

It looked very much like hell.

“I’m pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly,” the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. “I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar.”

Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He’d already saved her life twice.

“He seems to be happier here than I am,” Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. “Is that normal?”

“The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned,” the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. “He may feel like he’s home.”

Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. “I hope not,” she muttered. “I wouldn’t want to live here.”

The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. “Eat quickly,” he urged, as Emily took it. “I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark.”

Emily swallowed. Years ago – so long ago it seemed almost like another life – Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she’d stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.

“Yes, sir,” she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she’d cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. “How long will it take us to get there?”

“About an hour,” the Grandmaster said. “Unless we run into trouble, that is.”

They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn’t wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he’d dismissed the matter when she’d offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn’t help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn’t have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.

That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.

She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she’d been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.

“There’s no need to push yourself too hard,” the Grandmaster said, slowing. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise.”

Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She’d thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?

“I thought you said it wasn’t safe to lurk too close to the fortress,” she said instead.

“It isn’t,” the Grandmaster confirmed. “But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness.”

He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.

“Be careful,” the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. “You never know what might be lurking here.”

Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child’s doll lying on the ground. It looked…normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who’d owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.

“There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands,” she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. “Can’t we…cleanse the lands, or something?”

“The necromancers unleashed wild magic,” the Grandmaster said. “Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don’t get them, the wild magic does.”

He took a long look around the village – Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago – and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment – it could be a sign of subtle magic – and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.

“The White Council was quite impressed with you,” the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. “They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but…they were relieved at the outcome.”

Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she’d been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she’d been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn’t managed to get a battery to work…

She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon’s Den had been harder than charging up the battery.

“You showed a staggering amount of power,” the Grandmaster added. “They were very impressed.”

Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?

She eyed the Grandmaster’s back, wondering if he knew just what she’d actually done. He hadn’t treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn’t have. Others…had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they’d stared at her after beating Shadye – and they had – they would be paying far more attention to her now.

“Some of them even considered…insisting…that you take the oaths now,” the Grandmaster told her. “Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary.”

But I cheated, Emily thought.

It wasn’t a reassuring thought. If she’d tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now…they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd…

…But, to anyone who didn’t know about the batteries, it might not seem absurd.

She swallowed. “What are they going to do?”

“Nothing,” the Grandmaster said, simply.

Emily blinked. “Nothing?”

“I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School,” the Grandmaster said. “I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I’m not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone…well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still…”

He shrugged. “Have you thought about your career?”

“I don’t know,” Emily admitted. “I’d like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life.”

“You’d need much more experience before you could teach,” the Grandmaster said. “I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall.”

He paused, then turned to look at her. “You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year,” he added. “Going by your marks, I’d recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you’ll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you’ll need martial magic and history…”

Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness,” she said. “I…”

King Randor,” the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.

“But I don’t know what I want to do,” Emily continued. “There are so many interesting subjects.”

“You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years,” the Grandmaster mused. “It isn’t unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they’re in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad.”

Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She’d seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn’t want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.

“I think I just want to study,” she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. “And go into magical research, perhaps.”

“That would suit you,” the Grandmaster agreed.

He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. “You need to remember that you’re not just any magician,” he added, as he walked. “Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south.”

The necromancers, Emily thought.

She’d killed Shadye – and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer’s Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye’s lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn’t last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.

And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?

She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress – and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow – came into view. They didn’t look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn’t really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she’d visited. She’d been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye’s animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn’t been there, she would have died that day.

The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. “Listen,” he said. “Can you hear that?”

Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn’t think the source of the sound was actually coming closer. Whatever it was – and there was something about it that touched a memory – it chilled her to the bone.

“I think we’d better go see what that is,” the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. “Follow me.”

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS, by by Jonathan L. Ferrara

blackwell

The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS
by Jonathan L. Ferrara
URBAN FANTASY, Young Adult
Publication date: December 5, 2014
Publisher: Dragonwell Publishing
www.dragonwellpublishing.com / AMAZON

Nicholas Blackwell has no idea he is supposed to fulfill a destiny. All he knows is that he draws trouble like a magnet. Orphaned at eleven when two demonic men killed his parents, he copes with the strict rules of his new home, St. Christopher’s academy, unaware that he has been the real target for the killers and that his guardian angel has saved him in the nick of time. And now, his problems are only beginning when a mysterious serpent lures him into the woods and tricks him into a demonic ritual that will unleash the Seven Deadly Sins to destroy the humankind. Nicholas has no choice but to correct his mistake–or die trying. Aided by Amy, a shy but determined girl who seems to know more about his task than she should, Nicholas’s quest is to travel into the City of Demonio and defeat the Seven Guardians of Sin. To succeed, he must confront demons, monsters, and lost souls, learn the mysteries of the Chapel of Dreams, discover the true meaning of friendship and love, and face the darkest secret of all: the Blackwell Family Secret.

“The Blackwell Family Secret: the Guardians of Sin” is a debut young adult urban fantasy adventure with a Christian theme.

////////////////////////////////////

[As I walk through the valley of the shadow of

death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.]

Psalm 23:4

The dark night engulfed Nicholas. His sweaty palms trembled

against his thighs as he stood in the valley, knowing there was

a good chance he was about to die. His throat tightened, as he

imagined all the terrible things that could be happening to Amy.

What if she was hurt? What if she wasn’t even alive? By now,

Nicholas had an open mind to the impossible. Anything could

happen. Nothing was off limits.

Fog dripped down the valley walls and rolled past his feet.

The hazy air made it difficult to see, until a spark of ember shone

in the distance. Decrepit gravestones scattered across the dead

field, stopping at the end of the valley at a palace of white stone.

Enticed by curiosity, Nicholas made his way through the valley.

Thin brittle bones crunched under his feet as he continued on. A

group of limp, old men crept behind, dragging toward him. Their

hands and arms swayed like a rag doll’s as they lurched through the

fog. The men cried, grinding their teeth with pain, as though they

had been waiting centuries for this moment, for Nicholas’s arrival.

Nicholas halted at the entrance of the palace, eyes locked on

the elegant script etched along the front doors: Blackwell Manor.

Cold air scraped his skin and reached down his dry throat like

a claw. His breathing became harsh as he stared at his family’s

name. His trembling hand slid into his back pocket, fingers

fighting for his inhaler. Quickly he placed it against his lips.

A cold, hollow voice echoed across the valley, chilling him

to his very core. The words hung in the air: I know a secret that

could change the world.

Nicholas calmed his nerves with a puff from his inhaler.

How could he, a boy, have come this far and survived so much?

It seemed as if Nicholas had forgotten a lot in his walk through

the valley, as if his mind was erased in such a short period of

time. He had completely forgotten how he got to the Valley

of Death, why he held six random objects in his backpack and

what had happened to his friend. There wasn’t too much he

could recall, but one thing was certain: he was about to face the

greatest evil imaginable.

As he opened the front doors of the Blackwell Manor, he

stared into the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen. And

then he remembered…

The snowfall had stopped and thick ruby curtains fell together,

making the stage disappear like a magic act. Seven-year-old

Nicholas Blackwell followed his parents’ lead and stood between

them to applaud. He looked up at his mother, who had the

same smile on her face as when the show began. Her dark red

hair was elegantly done up, and her long black dress sparkled

as the overhead lights beamed from the stage. He then looked

to his father who towered over him, wearing an exquisite black

suit with a blue tie to match his eyes. Oliver continued to clap,

and Nicholas did the same.

It was the largest theater in New York City, and Nicholas had

a hard time weaving through the tall masses of lavishly dressed

people. He tried to keep up with his parents, but one wrong turn

lead him to an unfamiliar hall, where he halted at a ferocious

gargoyle statue. He searched frantically for his parents through

the sea of people, standing on the base of the marble statue to

get a better look. His chest tightened with every second that

went by, and as he reached for his inhaler, he completely forgot

that he had given it to his mother to hold in her purse.

An enormous gloved hand rested on Nicholas’s shoulder,

and he turned to see a giant of a man hovering over him.

“Hey there Nicholas, you alright?” the man said in a thick,

burly voice.

Nicholas tried to respond but couldn’t find words. The man

reached into his coat pocket, and Nicholas took this opportunity

to run into the crowd. The man yelled for Nicholas to return,

but as he tried to follow, his coat caught on the teeth of the

gargoyle.

Nicholas surged through the crowd, feeling as though he

could faint at any moment. His vision blurred as he felt dizzy.

Just as he felt he would topple over, he saw red hair and his

mother’s arms stretching toward him.

“Nicholas!” Kathleen shouted in relief as she pulled the

inhaler from her purse.

“Sorry,” Nicholas said from behind his inhaler.

Oliver put a hand on his shoulder. “You scared us to death.”

Nicholas looked up. “There was a man, he knew my name.”

His parents exchanged a worried glance.

After an unsettling moment, Oliver knelt down to be level

with his son. “Nicholas, I want you to promise me you will stay

by our side, alright?”

Nicholas nodded and looked to his mother, who had not

taken her eyes from him since they had found him.

In the lobby, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell mingled with some

friends, colleagues and one of Kathleen’s old professors from

New York University. Nicholas made a round of introductions

with his parents’ friends. He counted five pinches to the cheek,

three “look how tall you’ve gotten” and two “you look just like

your father”. He quickly forgot faces as he was being introduced

to an endless stream of people and hid behind his father, arms

wrapped around Oliver’s leg.

“Oliver,” said a man with a thick mustache and a cane,

looking as though he had just stepped out of an old Hollywood

film, “How goes the Blackwell Foundation?”

“Very well, thank you,” Oliver said proudly. “This year,

the hospital is looking brighter than ever with over two dozen

volunteers for Christmas. The donations have been most

generous, the best I’ve ever seen. The children will have a truly

blessed Christmas this year.”

“Good to hear,” the man said, leaning against his cane.

“Remind me to contribute a little extra.” He winked and turned

to Oliver’s wife. “Kathleen, may I say you look enchanting this

evening?”

“Thank you, Professor Larson.”

“I hear you’ve taken over the homeless shelter down on

32nd street. How is it holding up?”

“It’ll be a Christmas to remember.” Kathleen’s contagious

smile had everyone joining in.

Professor Larson now looked to Nicholas. “Nicholas

Blackwell, I presume?”

Nicholas nodded as he came out from behind his father.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard wonderful

things. Your parents just beam about you. You know, you look

just like your father.”

Three times. That was the third time Nicholas had been

compared to his father.

It was getting late when Nicholas’s parents finally said

goodbye to their friends. It was one of the only nights Nicholas

was allowed to stay up so late—a holiday treat. He loved it.

Staying up late made him feel grown up.

Out on the street Oliver waved down a taxi. Nicholas got

a glimpse of his father’s ring embedded with an amethyst

stone. A family heirloom, one that had been around for many

generations. Not too long ago, Oliver said that one day the

ring would be handed down to Nicholas. Ever since, he had

appreciated the ring much more.

The taxi made its way toward their home through the

labyrinth of a city toward the Upper East Side. The city was lit

up, busier than ever on the Christmas Eve, and the shops stayed

open long past midnight. When they arrived, Kathleen helped

Nicholas out of the car as Oliver paid the taxi driver, giving him

a generous tip that made the man beam with gratitude, thanking

him over and over again.

“Happy Holidays to you and your family. Take care,” Oliver

said.

“You as well, Mr. Blackwell. God bless.” The taxi driver

waved goodbye and drove off into the night, probably heading

back home early, now that he had made more than enough in

tips to make his shift worthwhile.

Huddled under her cozy jacket, Kathleen wrapped her arms

around Nicholas. Her warmth overpowered the bitter cold

night. “You know Nicholas, Santa Claus is probably already

delivering toys to children around the world.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Nicholas jumped with excitement. “I can

hardly wait until morning.”

“Me too.” She smiled.

Oliver joined his family at the front door and took out his

house key from his coat pocket. Just as he unlocked the door,

his cell phone rang. Kathleen’s look made him hesitate.

“It’ll just take a minute,” he assured her.

“Alright, but remember it’s our night.” She took Nicholas’s

hand and led him up the stairs to his bedroom. She helped him

change out of his suit. He took it off reluctantly. He loved

dressing up like his father.

In his pajamas, Nicholas knelt down beside his bed. He

wrapped his hands together and closed his eyes. “Now I lay me

down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before

I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Kathleen smiled warmly as she watched her son pray.

“Dear God, I pray that everyone in the entire world has a great

Christmas and has someone to share it with. Thank you for my

mommy and daddy and everything. I love you God. Goodnight.”

Nicholas jumped into bed and crawled under his thick,

superhero-themed comforter. Kathleen gave him Dexter, his

stuffed bear, and kissed him on the cheek, then turned the

bedroom lights off, leaving a nightlight on in the corner of his

room.

“Goodnight mommy.”

“Goodnight sweetheart. I love you.” She closed the door

behind her, leaving it open just a crack. Nicholas hugged Dexter

and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long at all before he dozed off.

The sound of shattering glass awoke Nicholas. He looked at

his bedside clock. 3:33. Muffled voices echoed from downstairs.

He pushed off his comforter and crept toward the door.

Through the crack in the doorway, he could see that the light

in the living room was on. The unfamiliar voices grew louder.

Trying to move as quietly as he could, he tiptoed toward the

edge of the staircase and slipped his head between the rails of

the banister to get a better view.

His heart raced as a man came into view. The same huge

man with black gloves he’d seen by the gargoyle statue in the

theatre was now standing in his living room.

“Alright Blackwells, where are you hiding them?” The man

moved aside, revealing Oliver and Kathleen, bound to chairs.

Nicholas covered his mouth to stifle a gasp. Now that the man

faced Nicholas’s direction, he could see what the man had been

hiding under his coat. Though he looked human, his skin had

an odd green tint. Scars showed through his thick facial hair.

Nicholas also saw another man, more stout than tall, stuffing

his mouth with cookies. His jaw seemed to unhinge as he fit in

piles of cookies with ease.

“Would you stop filling your face and get over here?!” The

big man in the coat smacked his companion on the back and a

whole cookie flew from his mouth and crumbled on the floor.

“Sorry, Mr. Romulus, sir.”

Romulus turned back to face the Blackwells. “I’m only

going to ask you one more time, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell. Where

are the sins?” He circled them in long, stalking steps.

“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Oliver spoke

weakly.

The man swung, hitting Oliver in the face. A tooth flew out

of his mouth. The man eating cookies laughed, crumbs falling

down the front of his overalls, his enormous belly bouncing

with each menacing chuckle.

“Oliver, Oliver, Oliver,” Romulus taunted. “Why do you

make me hurt you?” He stopped his pacing and leaned into

Oliver, then glanced at Kathleen quivering in her chair, her dress

tattered, her tangled hair half-covering her face. “You think I

don’t know the famous Blackwells? You Oliver, the infamous

Seeker who had sent so many of my kind back to Hell.” He

turned sharply to Kathleen. “And your wife, Kathleen Blackwell

formerly known as Kathleen LaGuardia. Studied at New York

University where she majored in Philosophy and Religion with

a minor in Demonology,” he smirked, leaning closer. “Your

beauty could bring the Guardian of Envy to tears.”

“We do not Seek anymore,” Kathleen said, fighting to speak

through a cut lip.

“And why was that, again? Was it because you finally were

able to conceive?” He pressed his hand against her belly.

“Don’t touch her!” Oliver bellowed.

The man with the cookies laughed louder.

Again Oliver was smacked across the face. “Where are the

sins, Oliver?! Where are they?!” Romulus cut Oliver’s ropes and

forced him out of the chair, pushing him against the glossy,

wooden floorboards kicking him three times in the stomach.

“Stop it, please!” Kathleen cried.

Romulus pulled out a pistol from his side pocket and shoved

it into Oliver’s face.

Nicholas’s heart pounded so hard that he was sure his chest

would burst. Breathing became difficult.

“I’m gonna ask you one more time, Kathleen, or your

husband will die. Where are the sins?” Romulus demanded, as

he tightened his grip on the pistol.

“If I tell you the whereabouts of the sins, you’ll just kill us

anyway.” Tears fell hard down Kathleen’s face.

“Ah, Katie… Can I call you Katie?” his voice softened,

but Kathleen didn’t answer. “I am a man of my word. Tell me

where you hid them and all of this will go away.”

“Kathleen, don’t,” Oliver said.

“Shut up!” Romulus’s face reddened, distended veins pulsing

beneath his skin. He shook the pistol. “I will pull this trigger.

Now answer me, Kathleen! Where are you hiding the sins?”

“They are contained.”

“Where?”

“Sins can only be contained within… innocence.” As the

words left her lips, Oliver closed his eyes and muttered the

word ‘no’ over and over again.

“Innocence,” Romulus smirked. “A child. You brilliant

woman. Now, how come we never thought of that?” He turned

to his friend who had finished the Christmas cookies. “I love it.

Simple, yet righteous. Innocence, all a part of the great Divine.”

He looked up to the ceiling, as if it was to the Heavens.

Nicholas quickly leaned back from the banister so that he

couldn’t be spotted. Then he heard the most horrible sound. A

gun shot. Kathleen screamed.

Nicholas looked back downstairs. He couldn’t see his father

behind the couch. Kathleen hung her head and sunk into her

chair as low as the ropes would allow her.

“You evil son of a bitch!”

“Ouch, Katie. There is no need for all that.” Romulus lifted

her chin and looked straight into her eyes with a menacing

smirk.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Hurt him?” Romulus gave a slight chuckle. “No, I didn’t

hurt him. I freed him. You should be thanking me. I thought

the Blackwells were all about protecting the Divine. Now he is

at peace.”

Kathleen spat in his face. With the sleeve of his shirt he

mopped his face clean.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, hands leaning

against the arms of her chair. “You see, Katie, we’ve been

watching your family for a very long time now. And I know for

a fact that when you and your husband fought the Guardians of

Sin and contained them, like you so honorably admit, that you

were actually… pregnant.”

Her face was now soaked with tears. She shook her head,

begging for him to stop.

“Now I can’t think of anything more innocent than a child

that hasn’t even been born. A child that hasn’t even had a chance

to sin.” He turned to the man covered in cookie crumbs. “Get

the boy.”

“No!” she screamed.

Nicholas jumped to his feet and hurried up to the third level

to his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t care how much noise he

made, he just knew he had to hurry. He hadn’t even realized he

was carrying Dexter until he ran into the bedroom. Just as he

crawled under the bed he heard the sound of another gunshot

and his mother’s screams stopped.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | Leave a comment

Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows, by Andrew Cratsley

frontcover_444x664Title: Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows

Genre:  Fantasy

Author: Andrew Cratsley

Website: http://www.keeperofrunes.com

Publisher: CreateSpace

Purchase at: http://keeperofrunes.com/ 

SUMMARY:

An extraordinary coming-of-age fantasy tale written by a dynamic new voice in the world of fantasy, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has garnered high advance praise.  Kirkus Reviews notes that Cratsley “believably and authentically develop[s] his characters” and calls the book a “promising debut.”  In a Clarion Review, ForeWord Reviews reports that Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows “has all the color, imagination, and drama one might expect from the genre as well as emotional depth.”  Moreover, the review states that the book’s “fast pace and gaming-style characteristics may appeal to more reluctant readers and inspire future fantasy enthusiasts.”

About Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows:  At 120 years old, Corinth is young by elf standards.  But even as a young elf, Corinth is haunted by his sordid past. When he emerges from his solitude within the eternal forest around Enzlintine, Corinth is sent away to quell the troubled region plagued by Khalid, the Lord of Conquest.  But this will be a journey like no other. Corinth bands together with two curious companions—the human ranger Aventis and the oh-so-spirited Nadine—until the trio is captured by an insidious necromancer, Mortiscet. A vile dark elf who forces the group to help his daughter Rieka find a mysterious object, Mortiscet thrusts the group into increasingly dangerous circumstances. Can Rieka escape the clutches of her wicked and overbearing patriarch?  And what will happen when the group launches towards a frigid wasteland in search of the bane of the evil that stalks them?  On this perilous journey, they’ll have to battle assassins, ominous creatures and the forces of Khalid. Expect the unexpected—because sometimes, the best intentions come from the darkest recesses of the heart…  

A splendid and magical tale with a captivating storyline, extraordinary characters and a plot brimming with action, intrigue and adventure, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a fascinating read that captivates from page one. Resplendent with characters that come to life within the novel’s pages, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a beautifully-written, imaginative, and inventive tale.  With its strong central female characters, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows offers a refreshing diversion from fantasy tales that focus largely on male protagonists and male supporting characters.   

A mesmerizing work of fantasy geared towards young adults, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows will also appeal to adult readers of fantasy, as well as fans of such fantasy classics such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series.  According to Pacific Book Review, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has aspects to entice most any reader, whether lover of fantasy or not…. readers of fantasy will delight in Cratsley’s work.”

1

The Dawn of a Knight

 

As the grove shimmered under the gaze of the waning moonlight, the young elf basked in a glowing cloud of fireflies along the trails. A triumphant vigor carried his tired body like the nearby orange fire-burst petals on the wind. Never before had a stroll through the dense forest surrounding Enzlintine been so blissful, and its serenity urged him to lower the hood of his gray cloak. During these rare moments of freedom, the timeless charm of the forest swept away his worries. Leaving the barracks so early was unnecessary, but he was embarrassed by the thought of a late arrival. Not the sort of thing a sage knight should do, and certainly not him.

Heavy fog rolled in and devoured him as he strode deeper into the dense foliage. More knowledgeable of the terrain than most elves, Corinth refused to be deterred after his twenty-seven years of solitude within it. His 120th birthday promised long-desired responsibilities, but the choking mist consumed his elation over attaining adulthood. Although fog was natural in early spring, this sudden onset was peculiar. He knew he was close to the clearing, but the thought of imprisonment within a smoky prism came to mind when he struggled to see his hand in front of his face.

A soft gust whispered into his pointed ears and stopped him in his tracks. Certain no wind had brushed his face, Corinth looked down at his cloak, which hung just as limply as his strong, uneasy hands. The soft forest floor greeted his feet gently as his silver eyes swept his surroundings while he felt his way through. When he noticed his footsteps were unusually muffled, the sounds of nature perished. The cooing of mourning doves, the scratching of nearby brambles against his cloak, and even the pounding of his heart, which threatened to break through his rib cage, no longer reached his keen elven ears.

“Silence spell,” he mumbled. With a glance into the warm sky, his anxiety mounted as he wished for the light of the bright moon he knew was overhead. Resting his back against the nearest tree, he brushed his shoulder-length, ebony hair from his forehead and drew his long sword. Since the enchantment around him prevented the use of magic, he wondered if it was the work of Tessius. He dismissed the absurd thought as he considered a more sinister threat might be around him. Wary of the clearing ahead, he stopped at the edge of the tree line and gazed into the eerie place that usually soothed him. A pillar of moonlight illuminated the harsh fog, which swallowed their usual meeting place.

The sharp intake of breath meant to calm him revealed an unnatural scent carried upon the white mist. It was dirty, lacking the fragrance of flowers and pollen, which should have filled the air. He stowed his blade beneath his cloak and held it tightly, since exquisite elven steel shined brighter than silver. It was the first time he regretted this quality of his father’s sword.

With a solid defensive stance, Corinth kept his back close to the great oak just outside the clearing. Shadowy distortions appeared in the fog and leaped toward his chest as he gracefully sidestepped them. Anxiety sharpened his senses as he swung instinctively toward the glare of the amber eyes, which bulged when he ripped open the throat of the waist-high menace. A putrid scent filled the air as its pustules ruptured against his steel. He glanced quickly at his feet and found no trace of the dead, wrinkled goblin, which meant it had been conjured.

Walking into the center of the vibrant clearing, Corinth relied on his sight since goblins could easily trace his scent. His fingers tingled with anticipation, and he dared not blink as his silver eyes studied the area. Two dusky blades lashed toward his toned body, followed by more pointed, snarling faces. Slashing forward with all his strength, Corinth parried the rusted short swords and launched one of the blades through the moist air. Although thrown back a couple of paces, he remained on his feet and glared at the fearful creatures. The goblins stared wide eyed at him when they landed, unable to compensate for his speed. After impaling the wrinkled forehead of the one to his left, he turned his steel and swept it to his right without pause. His lustrous blade cleaved through the other creature’s rib cage as it attempted to retrieve its weapon. Narrowly evading the cold, iron weapon at his feet, Corinth felt the rusted edge scrape his boot. Restlessness clenched his chest when he studied the area, wondering from where the next strike would emerge.

A reflection loomed in Corinth’s blade, enticing him to spin around with a blind swing. His sword clashed awkwardly against the corroded iron, and he stared down at the toothy grin of the crazed goblin who parried his attack. The small, fanatical menace scraped its steel along Corinth’s weapon with surprising strength before Corinth could recover his slackened grip on the hilt. The goblin stared gleefully at his elven steel as it tumbled through the air. Kicking it across the bridge of its long, pointed nose, Corinth staggered when another creature leaped onto his back. He struggled to pry away the stubby, strong arms that grappled his neck as the flat of a blade slammed into the back of his knee. Tears poured from his eyes as he fell backward to the soft forest floor. The goblin on Corinth’s back swung around his neck and landed gracefully on his chest as Corinth hit the ground. Anger and terror ravaged his fit body as the tidal wave of creatures swallowed him from all sides.

After punching the devilish monster straddling him, Corinth sat up as it fell unconscious between his legs. Sharp blades poked his back before he could scramble to his feet, and a fierce kick to the ribs knocked him prone again. Sound returned with a surge of the hideous laughter of the goblin pack that towered over him as they pointed their swords at his angry face.

“Cowardly beasts!” Corinth sneered through gritted teeth.

“That is enough,” Tessius said as he calmly walked into view. The remaining creatures parted to allow him to approach. His long fingers stretched out, and his arm made a polite sweeping motion. “Un-accersi.” The creatures growled as they vanished, and the fog lifted. With a swish of his large hand, Tessius pulled down his brown hood, and his web of hazelnut braids fell neatly against his back. He smiled down at Corinth with his usually kind expression and extended his open hand.

“That was very good,” he said. “Can you stand?”

Nodding, Corinth accepted his master’s hand grudgingly. This was yet another training session, and he had failed what was perhaps his last test of skill. With a strong grip, Tessius squeezed Corinth’s shoulder as he walked toward the stone bench near the center of the clearing. Corinth gazed hopefully at his master for an explanation, while his pulse raced at the thought of this mockery before he looked at the ground, feeling mutinous.

“Come now, Corinth. This is a time to celebrate, not sulk.” Tessius chuckled and reached under his brown cloak. “Come here and sit down.”

Realizing that his attempt to hide his anger had failed, Corinth was unable to resist his protest any longer.

“I was outnumbered ten to one,” he grumbled. “You prevented me from using magic, and I could see nothing! How was I supposed to succeed?” Annoyed while Tessius surveyed him with amusement and interest, Corinth bit back his mounting anger.

“Simple,” Tessius replied as he paused to open his jug of elven mead, which always hung from his thick belt. “You were not supposed to succeed.” He held up his hand to silence Corinth before he could speak. “Sit down.”

Reluctantly Corinth took his usual seat beside Tessius, who removed two flasks from the sack on his right hip. Staring back in confusion, Corinth could think of no response as his master thrust the jug and flasks toward him. “Pour, and I’ll explain since you are of age now. I want you to drink with me and talk for a while.” Enticed by the polite gesture to pour, Corinth thought the sweet aroma had an inviting appeal, but the timing felt peculiar. Unwilling to test his master’s patience with more rudeness, he filled the flasks.

The mead soothed Corinth’s throat with a warm sensation. It was remarkably smooth, with the hint of a rare berry that grew locally. Sapphire eyes pierced him as he drank, and the calm demeanor the ladies of Enzlintine admired so much relaxed him. Faint traces of blue embraced the sky, which met Tessius’s gaze as he scratched his hazelnut braids. His bulky arm lifted his flask for another sip before he continued.

“Time and again your sword has shown no limits, and your technique can only evolve with real experience.” Curious as to why the moon enthralled Tessius so much, Corinth pondered what his master thought when his bright eyes fixed upon it.

“You intended to mimic a real battle?” Corinth asked. “It seemed like the usual kind of test, only different tactics.” His choice of words came more easily as the mead washed away his contempt.

“Your training has entailed the art of swordsmanship in the way known only to the elites of the elven guard, the sage knights. This has done nothing to aid you against what awaits you in the real world, since few share our principles of chivalry.” After pausing to empty his flask, Tessius held it out for a refill and smiled reassuringly. “If you had succeeded, the lesson would have served little purpose.”

“It would have shown I possess superior skill. Surely the lesson would have been as—”

“It would not have,” Tessius interjected. Mead spewed out of the top of the flask as he spoke, and Corinth shifted uncomfortably as it ran down his master’s arm. Tessius sighed and moved his flask to his right hand so he could shake the wasted mead off his left. “Many young sage knights fall to such perils soon after induction into the order; thus my reasoning for this lesson before giving you real assignments. Now that your eyes are open, you can proceed.” He chuckled at Corinth’s blank expression.

“You mean I was accepted?” The nearby doves scattered amid his excitement.

“Of course!” Tessius laughed heartily at Corinth. “This means greater responsibilities ahead, and as my disciple, you represent not only me but also our community. You will be officially inducted tomorrow, so be sure not to get involved in city business.” He cast a quick, stern look at his student before he lifted his flask to his lips.

“Yes, sir!” As Corinth watched the sun rise, his spirit blazed like the red sky as it enveloped Terranesit, the world in which they lived.

“Take the day off.” Emptying his flask again, Tessius stared into the sky and admired the glow of the new day. All the trees swayed gently in the breeze, and the woodland creatures scuttled about with their daily tasks. “Go visit Enzlintine. I know you miss it.”

“Yes, thank you…, sir,” Corinth replied, forcing a smile of gratitude.

“Out with it,” Tessius said as he stowed his flask into his hip sack.

“I wonder how the townspeople will…I mean to say—have they forgotten?” Intense heat swept over his shameful face as he searched for the right words. He wished he could avoid this conversation and immediately begin his duties.

“No,” Tessius said. “They are elves, after all.” He stared at Corinth’s crestfallen face and smiled. “So you made mistakes in your youth.”

“It was only twenty-seven years ago,” Corinth uttered as he swept back his uncooperative hair.

“And in that time you have grown more than any elf could be expected to. Yes, you will have to earn respect again, and as you know, it may be a slow, difficult process.” A patient smile swept over Tessius, who gave a few moments’ pause. “You were a rather petulant child who had too much pride to accept aid from those who respected your family, so you and your gang of friends hid in the old city, plotting petty heists.” He stopped for a moment to grasp Corinth’s shoulder, while he bore into his silver eyes again. “A shameful thing for any of our kind to suffer. However, you were doing the best you could on your own.”

Turning away slightly, Corinth found the sight of the sapphire eyes too much to look into; the act prompted Tessius to release him and stare at the falling moon. “Those days are gone, and you will now serve Enzlintine with the highest pride and honor that is possible for an elf.”

“I will do all that is possible, Master.” Little relief swept over his burning eyes, and the urge to start his duties consumed his thoughts.

“If you recall, your pleading went on for years before I agreed to teach you the secret arts. Only your will to learn, determination, and deep sense of remorse led you to where you are now. The pain you still feel from this tells me I have made the right decision in training you.”

Leaving Corinth to his thoughts, Tessius rose and disappeared behind the wall of vines on the east side of the clearing. The mead tingled Corinth’s lips as he pondered his master’s words, shuddering at the idea of another couple thousand years of guilt. Eager to escape his past, Corinth dreamed of heroism and noble servitude to Enzlintine.

He trudged north with little notice to where he stepped, aware that he was on a direct course toward home. A dense heaviness clung to his feet as he passed the training barracks where he’d lingered for so long. Newborn leaves and blossoms didn’t sweep him away as they should have as he walked the vast forest. Looking down at the vibrant sword he had inherited, Corinth wondered what his father would have said at his matching in rank at his young age.

Upon his arrival at the outer rim of Enzlintine, Corinth stared at what the elves called the “old city.” The ruins saddened him—as they did most of his kind—as he walked past the decimated buildings. Two hundred years of overgrowth nearly swallowed the remnants from the era of chaos. Restoration of their homeland had been slow as they had built outward while their race repopulated the forest. Keeping his eyes fixed on the cobblestone-and-alabaster road, he reached the stone archway next to the waterfall, which separated the ruins from the new city.

Sunlight glistened off the ivory buildings and mansions of the many aristocrats, artists, and musicians, reminding him at once of how beautiful Enzlintine was. Trees and gardens lined the vast structures toward the center of town as he strode by, waving at the local blacksmith. As he feared, memories of his last days in Enzlintine flooded his mind. He wondered how long it had been since his parents’ funeral when Tessius arrested him and took him into the solitude of his parents’ cabin, which was near the barracks. Recalling the many funerals of friends and family, Corinth remembered only sadness and was unable to discern what he had done at the time.

Greeted by the town square, a grid of well-kept trees and fountains, Corinth stopped on the short stone bridge. He stood over the moat and gazed at the most precious gift given to the elves, the Tree of Life. Granted by their goddess, Nartha, it was the sigil of their essence. The tree kept the entire forest fertile and immortal, and its great branches spread over the moat surrounding it. Its top was barely visible, and in the spring, it attracted doves by the hundreds. Most elves believed the tree blessed the city with prosperity, and they often held ceremonies, such as weddings, under its heavy branches. Although religion had never interested Corinth much, the tree always lifted his spirits, and today was no different. He rested on the grass of the small island and stared up for a while at the white blossoms, which floated toward the water surrounding him.

Feeling recharged, he wandered into the marketplace in the northwestern district, where the granite buildings, ornate with quartz and precious metals, were tightly packed together. The market was crowded as he passed, wondering where he should go next.

“Corinth! Is that you?”

Stopping in his tracks, he turned toward the sound of the familiar, sly voice. He caught a glimpse of the clothing vendor, who stood behind one of many booths along the street, and approached him apprehensively.

“It is! Ha!” he added, grinning at Corinth, who nodded curtly with a forced smile. “Where have you been all this time?” The scrawny vendor leaned over his counter and extended his bony hand.

“I was…removed, Besmyr,” Corinth replied as he took the vendor’s hand, unsure what to say to his old friend. The man had been the ringleader behind his childhood mischief and the last person he expected to find.

“I heard!” Besmyr said, ruffling his short, blond hair. Scathing looks from nearby vendors and customers pierced Corinth from all sides. “I was told Tessius arrested you personally.”

“Yes,” Corinth replied, glancing at passersby as his face grew warm.

“I spent a month in the dungeon, given my age, but I was worried when I heard that bloody sage knight had an interest in capturing you. Where have you been?”

“I was isolated, but after some years, I was relocated to the barracks.” The vein twitched in Corinth’s forehead, which burned as red as his tunic. He wished more than anything that he could have avoided this reunion.

“The barracks?” Besmyr asked with a suspicious frown.

“I started training after my punishment ended,” Corinth explained. It was my decision.”

“You wanted training…for what purpose?” His blue eyes flickered as his pale face reddened, and the casual conversation quickly resembled an interrogation. Corinth stood rigidly and glared back at him.

“To atone. Surely you are doing the same?”

“I’m sorry I was caught, but I make an honest living to avoid expulsion from the city!” Besmyr hissed, pulling his face up to Corinth’s. “You think I would live among humans?”

“You are not regretful of what happened?” Corinth’s heart raced furiously over the unavoidable conflict.

“Regretful I have been reduced to this living, and having to watch you puff out your chest like a pompous fool!” Besmyr snarled as he slammed his fist on the counter. “Why would being a lowly town guard make you walk about like a self-righteous buffoon?”

“I do no such thing,” Corinth said in a low tone, “and I am not a town guard. I am a sage knight.”

“A sage knight?” Besmyr blinked. “You’re full of…You have no crest.”

“I will be inducted into the order tomorrow, and I owe you no apology simply because I want to serve the city!”

“You sound just like that fool who arrested you.” Besmyr narrowed his eyes before an odd smile stretched across his face.

“You go too far!” Leaning closer to Besmyr, Corinth felt a slight tug on his belt and turned to find what had amused him. The elven child who’d pulled the purse off Corinth’s belt stood barely past his waist. Panicking, the blond boy sped down the street with Corinth on his heels.

“Serves you right!” Besmyr barked after him.

Pursuit of the thief through the marketplace was clumsy as Corinth attempted to dodge citizens with the same grace as the child.

“Boy! Everyone step aside!” Corinth shouted as he ran into a middle-aged woman, whose husband caught her as she fell. Shouting his apology over his shoulder at the angry elf, Corinth dared not pull his eyes off the child. As he sped down an alley to his left off the main street, the debris did nothing to help him gain ground. Wagons and carts vendors used to restock businesses blocked the narrow passageway, and the child passed them with impressive speed. It was the first time Corinth was thankful to be thinner and less muscular than Tessius, who could always break Corinth’s stance when he parried.

The small blond boy was almost in reach, and he dropped a bag of marbles as he rounded a corner. Unable to stop in time, Corinth braced himself with an outstretched hand as he trampled the tiny glass orbs. His left shoulder screamed in agony as he bounced off a stone wall and fell to one knee. Despite his robust training, a painful stab erupted in his side from the chase as he sprinted off once more. Ignoring the protest of his lungs and the bleeding from the cuts he had received in the alley, he cut across a vacant side street. Almost within arm’s reach, the boy ran down the alley between two men in brown cloaks. Huffing as he grabbed his knees, he stopped behind them and in front of a third man. The two men in front barred Corinth’s path as he slid to a halt. Handing over several coin pouches to the man in the back, the child scampered off behind him.

“That’s far enough,” hissed the man in the back. “He’s a good worker, and we don’t need little goodies like you turning him in.”

“Are you his employer, or are you lowly pawns as well?” Corinth wheezed, squinting for a better look at the faces under the large, brown hoods.

“I don’t see why it matters to you, foolish one. You don’t appear to be the town guard.”

The chuckling of the two men in front burned Corinth’s ears as the child’s footsteps drifted out of earshot.

“That matters not,” Corinth replied as he recalled Tessius’s warning to stay out of city business. “What you are doing is unjust, and I cannot watch you corrupt that boy.”

“What do you intend to do about it?” The man in the rear stepped toward Corinth so they could be face-to-face. Although he kept most of his face hidden, a black-and-gray beard fell out of the hood, tipping off Corinth that the man must be human, since elves couldn’t grow facial hair.

“You have no place here!” A violent explosion erupted in his chest as he shouted at them, unable to bear the thought of outsiders corrupting his home from within. The men burst into laughter, only antagonizing him further.

“You hear that, boys? We have another pompous elf to contend with,” the man scoffed as he thrust his dagger at the elf’s chest.

Sidestepping the stab, Corinth slammed his back into the wall behind him.

Illuminas caecae!” he snarled as he extended his left hand toward the bandits. The leader ducked and turned away, narrowly avoiding the flash of white-hot light, which burst from Corinth’s casting hand. The man to his right caught the full brunt of the spell and fell unconscious. He hit the paved road with a thud, while the other man shielded his eyes—but not quickly enough.

“I’m blind! I can’t see!” the cloaked man cried as he backed away and tripped over the crate behind him.

“Only temporary, I assure you,” Corinth said as he drew his weapon. “You cannot defeat me. Do yourself justice and—”

The leader spun around and hurled a pouch of sand into Corinth’s face. Intense burning consumed his eyes as he resisted the urge to scream and instead focused his energy on his keen hearing. Footsteps circled farther to his right, then paused. He pretended not to hear and held his breath as he waited for the side attack. Sidestepping gracefully, Corinth swept his elven blade and cleaved a deep wound in the man’s unarmored chest. The bandit screamed in agony and fell to the ground, heaving his last breath.

“Not so fast,” a man hissed from behind Corinth, who rubbed his watery eyes. Sharp pain erupted through the lower-left side of his back when he tried to turn. Hands wrapped in black leather grabbed his throat and prevented him from falling to his knees. Gasping for air, Corinth winced as painful tears filled his eyes. “I was watching from the shadows for my amusement, but I’m afraid I can’t let you capture my hirelings.”

Immense agony rippled through Corinth as the dagger in his side twisted before the man wrenched it back out. Laughter filled his pointed ears as he screamed. The hand that bound his throat released him and pushed him to the ground. He felt dizzy, and his eyes faded out of focus; a chill swept over him as the strength drained from his body. He rolled onto his back, unable to see the face of the cackling man who had stabbed him. Harnessing the last of his strength, Corinth raised his sword and pointed it at him.

“You still want to fight me? You can’t even stand!”

Trinus,” Corinth muttered, focused on the evil laughter. An unseen force knocked the man forward onto Corinth’s steel and impaled him. The pommel slammed into Corinth’s ribs when the rogue fell on him, but it no longer mattered, since Corinth felt no pain.

“Curse you,” the man gurgled into his ear, choking on his own blood.

Corinth twisted his blade one last time and heard the man fall silent. Darkness crept over him as he listened to the pounding of footsteps.

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Leave a comment

Guardians, Inc.: The Cypher by Julian Rosado-Machain

Guardians Inc 7Title: Guardians Inc.: The Cypher
Author: Julian Rosado-Machain
Publisher: Julian Rosado-Machain
Pages: 239
Genre: YA Fantasy Adventure
Format: Paperback, Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

GUARDIANS INC.: THE CYPHER is two stories in one. A glimpse into a multinational company that is in reality the oldest of secret societies, one that spans close to seven thousand years of existence, weaving in and out of history, guiding and protecting humanity from creatures and forces that most of us believe are only mythology and fairy tales.

The other is the story of Thomas Byrne, a young man thrust into secrets he shouldn’t be aware of and dangers he shouldn’t face but, that he ultimately will, for he is a Cypher. The only one who can steer humanity’s future.

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that Magic is real. Kept in check by technology but, every five hundred years the balance can shift and, if it does, technology will fail and those creatures we’ve driven into myth will come back with a vengeance.

To protect the present, Guardians Incorporated needs to know the future, and to unlock the future they need a Cypher.

This is the first book of the Guardians Inc Series.

Book Excerpt:

Thomas fiddled with his thumbs waiting for his grandfather to emerge from his meeting with Vice Principal “Killjoy” Khanna.

He hadn’t come up with that nickname; it was something he had heard since his first day at Oceanic High School, in Carlsbad, California. It was whispered along the corridors and classrooms with dread, like a monster under the bed. If you did something wrong, Killjoy would get you.

Even the adults knew about her infamy. Morning drop-offs at school were always a chaotic cutthroat race until Killjoy took command of the school’s entrance. Holding a metal notepad in one hand and a large coffee mug in the other, Killjoy gained control of the drop-off zone. As parents cautiously drove through the parking lot, a mere frown stopped those who wanted to cut in line. A wave of the metal notepad dissuaded those who wanted to drive into the teacher’s parking lot. Her system was very simple: students wouldn’t be admitted to school that day if their parents tried to cut in line. Simple as that.

Killjoy always wore a long overcoat over a buttoned knitted sweater, even in the summer. Her haters compared her to a barrel with legs, but many of the girls were jealous of the wavy black hair that reached her lower back and her thin manicured hands. Nobody had seen her eyes — she always wore huge sunglasses that covered half her face — but it was rumored that her eyes were the blackest black.

She was shorter than the average sophomore girl, so it was easy for her to walk among students undetected during recess, and she was silent too, like a tiger stalking prey. Someone had found out that her shoe size was around 12 or 13, but Killjoy wore rubber-soled shoes and walked in a short step gait.

In those first two weeks, Thomas had been startled three times by her sudden appearance. Only the first time had she acknowledged his presence by nodding her head at him, her chin embedding itself deeply into her large double chin.

That simple nod was enough for an introduction.

There was a story about how Killjoy stopped a speeding SUV by standing in front of it and putting her hand on the grill of the car. The incident happened before Thomas even entered school, and he knew it must have been an exaggeration, but the story went that two days later, the family who was driving the SUV moved from the county.

Or so it was rumored.

Parents avoided her, teachers respected her, and students were completely terrified of her. In a nutshell, the school was completely under Killjoy’s iron grip. The principal seemed happy to be just a figurehead, the school ran like clockwork, and there were no problems between him and Killjoy since Killjoy was always right.

Everyone told Thomas to avoid her, but he was now on her radar.

Categories: Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Shiloh’s True Nature, by D.W. Raleigh

shiloTitle: Shiloh’s True Nature

Genre: YA/Fantasy

Author: D.W. Raleigh

Pages: 260

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

Purchase at Amazon 

When 12 year-old farm boy Shiloh Williams is sent to stay with his estranged grandfather, he discovers a mysterious new world inhabited by ‘Movers’. The Movers live in symbiotic harmony with one another, except one extremely powerful Mover who has stolen the town’s most precious artifact, the Eternal Flame. Shiloh investigates his supernatural surroundings, makes new friends, and begins to think of the town as home. However, just as soon as he starts to fit in, he realizes his newfound happiness is about to come to an abrupt end. One decision and one extreme consequence are all that remain.

Chapter One

July 20th

Shiloh Williams walked along in the late-afternoon heat, on his way home from the town of Salem. The lanky twelve-year-old brushed his sweat-soaked, brown hair away from his blue eyes with one hand while trying to finish the ice-cream cone he carried in the other. His bare feet were relieved to step off the asphalt main road and onto the narrow, shady dirt path leading to his home.

The dusty, dirt lane was flanked by a vast cornfield to one side and towering black willow trees and intertwined brush on the other. Shiloh inhaled the sweet scent of honeysuckle as he licked the cone, gazing toward the two-story, white Victorian house in the distance. The house was his home, and the cornfield part of his family’s farm. One of the few farms left in the area, his father always liked to mention.

Shiloh was in a good mood: partly because he had spent the day in town playing with some friends, but mostly because this was his first actual vacation day of the summer. Until today, he had been working on the farm all day every day, since school ended. When his father told him he was receiving a two-week break, Shiloh decided he was going to make the most of it and be thankful he didn’t have to work another day in the brutal July heat.

As he strolled along the dusty path, Shiloh heard something rustling in the brush beside him. He turned his head and saw two large black birds only a couple of feet away. The birds cawed as they boldly jumped from branch to branch trying to keep pace with him. He assumed it was the ice cream they were after, so Shiloh tossed the remainder of the cone toward the brush and watched as the birds descended upon it.

Farther along, Shiloh spotted an expensive-looking, black car in front of the house. It was parked next to his father’s battered, old pickup truck, which made any other vehicle look nice. There was a man leaning against the rear of the car wearing a black suit and cap. Shiloh found that strange, considering he was dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts and had been sweating since he stepped outside that morning.

As he drew closer to the house, Shiloh realized his hands were sticky with ice-cream residue. He wasn’t supposed to be eating sweets this close to his suppertime, and knew his mother would scold him if she found out. So he slipped into the cornfield to let the giant stalks conceal his five-foot frame until he could reach the back of the house to wash off undetected.

He quietly snuck through the field and came up behind the giant stack of hay bales perpetually piled at the rear of the house. After glancing around to make sure it was clear, he crept up to the porch and over to the rusty, old spigot. He winced as he slowly turned the squeaky faucet handle, hoping the noise didn’t make it through the kitchen screen door just a few feet away.

As Shiloh cleaned his hands, the aroma of his mother’s cooking filled his nostrils, while the sound of arguing voices filled his ears. When his hands were no longer sticky, he quietly moved over to the back door, and stopped when he could hear the discussion in the kitchen. He immediately recognized one voice as his father’s, but there was another, unfamiliar, rough-sounding man’s voice. It must have been whoever came in the black car, he thought.

Listening intently, Shiloh was startled when something rubbed against his leg. It was one of his cats, Lovie. The gray and black tabby mix rubbed her face against his anklebones as she walked figure eights between his legs. Shiloh knew if Lovie was around, his other feline, Cheepie, couldn’t be far behind. He looked over his shoulder toward the faucet and found the other gray tabby, one that looked like a miniature tiger, entranced by the remaining water droplets dribbling from the nozzle.

His attention returned to the kitchen door when the rough voice said, “I don’t know how you’re keeping this farm productive when all the others in this area have gone under, but whatever you’re doing is going to fail eventually. So you might as well sell it to me before I decide to withdraw my more than generous offer.”

Shiloh imagined the scowl on his father’s face as he heard him answer, “You’ve been trying to get your hands on this property for years, but I’m not going to give it to you. Not now. Not ever. Not at any price. And if there are problems with the soil around here, you need only look in the mirror for the cause.”

“I’ll not be insulted by the likes of you, Joseph Williams. Good day,” the man huffed.

Shiloh heard footsteps, followed by the front door slamming. He was curious about this unfamiliar man, so he leapt off the porch and ran up along the side of the house. In his haste to see the stranger, Shiloh slipped on some pebbles and fell just as he reached the front corner of the house. The man immediately turned toward Shiloh scowling. Shiloh looked up at the stranger, but the bright sunshine kept him from distinguishing any of his features. The one thing Shiloh did notice was, like his driver, the man was dressed all in black, except for a hideously bright orange tie.

The man’s gaze was broken as two black birds descended and began attacking him. The man quickly ducked into the rear of the car, the birds turning their attention to his driver, who ran around to the other side to enter. As the car pulled away, Shiloh noticed it had a peculiar, black license plate with orange lettering reading HAINES.

When the vehicle left his sight, Shiloh returned to the back door, but again paused by the screen door when he heard his father’s agitated voice. “The crops looked a little off today. We definitely need to get some cash together for fertilizer. They could use a dusting too. And on top of that, I haven’t paid Rikki and Peco for a couple weeks. I’m glad I agreed to let them stay in the old barn. Otherwise they might’ve left by now. I’ll need to find a way to make it up to them.”

Shiloh heard the oven door open and close, followed by his mother’s voice, “Are you having second thoughts about Haines’ offer, Joe?”

“What? No! I’ll work the fields alone and eat dirt before I let that man get his hands on this land, Mary,” Joe stubbornly declared.

Mary scoffed. “Okay. Well, I’ll see if I can round up some recipes for dirt . . . just in case.”

Joe chuckled slightly and Shiloh smiled to himself, thinking about the easy way his mother was always able to diffuse his father’s anger.

Joe then noted, “By the way, I spoke to Doc and he said it would be all right. In fact, he suggested it before I even asked.”

“He’s not going to be happy about it,” Mary sighed.

Shiloh frowned, wondering what they were talking about, as Joe continued, “Well, that’s too bad. A vacation is a vacation. He’s almost a man now, and he needs to learn that part of being a man is having to do stuff you don’t want to do.”

Mary snorted sarcastically. “Say it just like that, Joe. That’ll make him feel better about it.”

Joe chuckled again and said, “Give me a break, Mary.”

“I won’t give you a break, but I will give you dinner. Go wash up,” Mary replied with a giggle.

Shiloh heard a chair slide across the kitchen floor and waited until the footsteps faded before opening the screen door. When he stepped through the doorway onto the black and white tile, he found his mother’s tall and slender frame at the sink. As Mary washed her hands, her long sandy-blond hair was illuminated by the sun shining in from the window above the sink.

After she dried her hands, Mary turned to open one of the nearby wooden cabinets and said, “No . . .” pointing in Shiloh’s direction and downward. Shiloh looked around in confusion. “. . . I’m making dinner and those two are not coming in here,” she finished.

Shiloh looked down and realized she was referring to the cats lingering in the doorway.

“One keeps trying to drag dead mice in the house. And the other keeps eating bugs, which wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t throwing them up all over the place afterward,” she continued.

A tight-lipped smile rolled across Shiloh’s face as he turned to shoo the cats back out the door.

When he turned back around, Shiloh found himself face-to-face with his mother. Her chestnut-colored eyes stared straight into his baby blues with a smirk. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to his chest. “Ice cream?”

Shiloh looked down at his T-shirt to see a couple of stains from his earlier treat. “Oh . . . that was from earlier this afternoon,” he replied with a wide grin.

“Really? Because it still looks wet,” Mary noted, returning his smile with a shake of her head. “Go wash up. Dinner is almost ready.”

The family dinner was relatively quiet. Shiloh tried to stuff himself so he wouldn’t be lectured by his mother about eating ice cream before supper. He avoided eye contact with his father, because after hearing Joe grumble about all of the farm’s problems, he feared he might lose his time off.

When he finished, Shiloh took his plate to the sink and tried to make a hasty retreat out the back door without saying a word. However, it wasn’t to be. “Hey . . . take a seat,” Joe called, pointing to Shiloh’s empty chair at the dinner table.

Shiloh walked back to the chair feeling certain his father was about to revoke his vacation time “for the good of the farm.” He looked up to see his father leaning forward with his elbows on the table and his large callused hands folded. Joe was a tall, muscular man with perpetually unkempt, light-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and his face always appeared to need a shave.

Joe stared at Shiloh for a moment before asking, “How would feel you about spending some time with your grandfather?”

He was taken off guard by the question, but shrugged and answered, “Okay, I guess.”

“Good,” Joe smiled. “He’ll be by to pick you up tomorrow.”

“What?” Shiloh responded in shock.

“You’re going to spend a couple weeks with your grandfather,” Joe answered pointedly.

Shiloh’s disbelief and agitation spilled out of his mouth in rapid succession. “A couple weeks? Why? I’m supposed to go swimming at the pond tomorrow! The carnival is in town next week! My birthday is in two weeks! I don’t want to go!”

Joe leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, “You’ve been complaining about having to work the fields all summer. I’d think you’d be glad to get a break from it.”

“Yeah, I wanted a break to have some fun with my friends. Not a break where I’m sent away to some strange place . . . I’m not going!” Shiloh’s voice shook with anger.

Joe, not the kind of man to listen to long protestations, replied, “You are going. End of discussion.” He returned to his meal.

Slamming his hands on the table, Shiloh rose from his chair, and walked toward the back door. “Get back here,” Joe called, as Shiloh forcefully pushed open the screen door.

He heard his father yell, “Shiloh!” but he ignored him and ran into the immense cornfield. He ran through the field until he grew so tired he had to walk. He continued walking until he found himself on the far edge of the field, where he stepped out onto a narrow dirt trail that surrounded it.

Shiloh looked back to see how far he had come and the farm’s old horse barn caught his eye. The faded, maroon monstrosity had fallen into disrepair, but the barn’s current residents, Rikki and Peco, loved it for some reason. It was their big, red dilapidated mansion.

When his gaze drifted across the field, Shiloh saw his home in the distance. The towering cornstalks obscured all but the top half of the house. Taking a couple of steps backward, trying to find a better view, he suddenly lost his balance. He began tumbling down a slick embankment covered with reeds and into the swampy marsh that separated his family’s property from the Delahanna River.

Shiloh was uninjured by the fall, but landed on his backside in the mud. He sat for a moment to catch his breath, gazing toward the river stretching out in front of him. He saw some Great Blue Herons standing nearby in the marsh. The large gray birds were motionless, with their S-shaped necks pointing up into the distance.

Following the herons’ gaze, Shiloh saw the large factory to the south. He knew the factory was there, but never paid it much attention. It was practically invisible due to the thick cluster of hickory trees lining the rear of the farm. The factory’s most distinguishing feature was an enormous cylindrical brick smokestack with a giant, orange H on its side. The huge tower emitted a perpetual gray smoke that seemed to linger in the air.

Hearing voices in the distance, Shiloh turned back toward the river. An old fishing boat was anchored just offshore with some young people frolicking around the deck. He watched as a young man jumped from the deck into the river. “It’s freezing!” the young man hollered, emerging from the water.

Shiloh smiled, remembering how he used to love the crisp bite of the river water on a hot summer afternoon. His parents wouldn’t allow him to swim in the river anymore. They said it was too polluted and dirty.

Straight across the river were some lights from the town of Old New Castle. Just beyond that was Pike Creek, where his grandfather lived and where he would apparently be going the next day. This made him think of the things he’d be missing in the next two weeks: going swimming, the carnival, spending time with his friends.

Thoughts of his impending departure made Shiloh feel sick to his stomach, so he tried thinking of something else. He looked around and noticed several gray puddles of water with a number of long-stemmed, gray wildflowers growing out of them. He frowned because he couldn’t recall ever seeing a gray flower before. He plucked the closest one and thought it was a wild daisy of some kind.

Another flower grew out of the puddle right before his eyes, taking the place of the one he picked. This second flower was not gray, but golden yellow with a black center. Though startled, Shiloh scowled and dismissed the peculiar occurrence, recalling how he’d seen colorful mushrooms grow right before his eyes while working very early in the morning on the farm.

As the sun began to set, Shiloh climbed the embankment, deciding he had better return to the house. He chose to walk back through the cornfield instead of the path along the edge of the field, because it was shorter. He came to regret that decision when the sunlight faded and the tall cornstalks blocked out what little light was left in the sky. To make matters worse, it was a new moon, so there was no heavenly light to guide him.

In the darkness, the size of the farm became more apparent than ever. Shiloh walked and walked, seeing only dark rows of corn ahead of him. He knew he would escape them eventually, but not knowing exactly where he was made him uncomfortable. The odd collection of noises echoing out of the darkness only added to his discomfort.

Shiloh dismissed some fluttering and flapping sounds, thinking it was probably one of the Great Blue Herons he saw earlier in the marsh. He then heard an odd, thumping sound, as if something was running around. He tried to dismiss that as well, remembering his father had mentioned seeing red foxes in the fields. Shiloh had never seen a fox on the farm, but supposed one could be the source of the noise.

The thumping sound seemed to grow closer and closer, but every time Shiloh stopped to listen, it would cease. The louder the noise grew, the more Shiloh’s heart raced. He tried to ignore the sound, focusing into the distance to locate his house. When the thumping became so loud it seemed just a step away, Shiloh panicked, breaking into a run.

He sprinted along until he tripped, falling forward onto the ground. Shiloh remained still and listened for a moment, but the only sound he could hear was his pounding heart. Looking behind him, down the corn row, he saw an indistinct dark mass just a few feet away.

Fear gripped Shiloh, who now thought only of escape. He turned his head around, thinking if he could just stand he might be able to outrun whatever was back there. He was shocked to discover a second dark figure blocking his path. The second shape was lower to the ground, with glowing eyes, and it was growling.

Shiloh didn’t know what to do, but figured whatever it was would have to start with him being on his feet. He took a deep breath and readied himself to stand, but before he could, the second dark figure charged him. He placed his hands over his head, preparing for an attack. However, no attack came. The figure leapt over him, chasing whatever was behind him down the corn row. Shiloh stood and sprinted away as fast as he could.

As he neared the edge of the field, he could hear a loud, fierce growling and tussling behind him. Resisting the temptation to look back, he broke through the edge of the cornfield and ran straight into the house.

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Stolen Herd by K. Madill – Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00068]Title:  The Stolen Herd
Author: K. Madill
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (February 20, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1482640023
ISBN-13: 978-1482640021
Kindle:B00GBQ9V8O

Purchase at http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B00GBQ9V8O

About the book:

Mandamus is only a foal when his herd is captured by the terrible Rakhana Army. Rescued and raised in secrecy, he knows nothing of his heritage until a dreadful incident in the woods brings him to the attention of the Forest council – and everyone else. Sent away for his own protection, he is determined to seek help on behalf of the many animals who have gone missing from the forest, including his own family.

With the help of a troubled man and a stout-hearted bat, can Mandamus save his fellow creatures before it’s too late?

First Chapter:It was a pale spring morning when a green butterfly failed to save the Alsvid herd. The wind, brisk in the early hour, carried the small creature in its swiftly flowing current. The sun had not quite risen but lit the edges of the world, colouring the sky a still and sullen grey. The butterfly, whose name was Gideon, pulled out of the rigid breeze and swirled down to the empty field below. Landing on a fat coneflower, he hungrily searched for food. An inky black bat swooped and darted behind him.

Gideon took a deep gulp of nectar and then shook his head sadly. He turned to the bat that had landed softly next to him.

“Well, Arkas,” he said gloomily. “I tried.”

Arkas nodded sympathetically and dug around the flower bed, as if he hoped to find something tasty.

“I should have put an arrow through Arion’s heart,” said Gideon, plucking half-heartedly at a petal. “His…and the rest of the horses. They’re all are as good as dead now, anyway.”

Arkas chirped in agreement then scrounged up a strawberry and stuffed it in his mouth. He had begun rooting around for more when a rumble of thunder shook the sky. The ground began to quiver and the trees that lined the meadow swayed wildly from a sudden, howling wind.

“They’re coming!” yelled Gideon over a sharp crack of lightning. “Let’s go, we have to find Daleth and Mareva.” He dove into the air and sped away while Arkas flapped closely behind.

 

* * *

 

Mareva awoke with a jolt. Her mate, Hengist, flicked one gray ear at her movement but did not wake. The cave was quiet in the early morning. The queen mare took a deep breath. The tangy smell of smoke reached her nose and lit her senses with an uneasy spark.

She shook her chestnut coat and stepped carefully through the sleeping horses of her herd to the entrance of their cave. Looking out, she faced a long stretch of white sand and deep green sea. As she listened to the rush of the surf, her instinct began to nag in slow whispers. She listened closely, and then crept out of the cave. A cold wind whirled around her, bending the flowers and tearing the leaves from the trees. Shielding herself behind a gnarly oak, she peeked down a worn path to a clearing where several figures were gathered. 

Are those humans?” she asked herself, drawing a deep breath. “Yes…that is the smell of man, but…it’s different somehow.” She inhaled again. Her nose picked up the scent of unfamiliar horses—a dusty smell that didn’t match the burnt-grass odour of her herd, the Harena. She moved closer for a better look, jumping when thunder crashed closely overhead. A storm was coming.

“Do you smell that?” asked a voice from behind. Her younger sister, Daleth, a golden mare with amber eyes and a pearly mane, had followed her. “That is the stench of man and his fire.”

“It doesn’t smell like a regular man,” Mareva said with a puzzled frown. “And that fire is black—that’s not a normal flame. There is something else… a strange scent I would not associate with humans.”

Daleth studied the clearing through narrowed eyes. She flared her nostrils, testing the air for herself.

“You are right, Queen Sister,” she agreed. “It smells like an animal that has lain dead in the sun. It is the Rakhana Army, the Silver City’s most dreadful pick of soldiers, led by that reprobate, General Caucus. That’s him there, the tallest one. I’ve tasted that scent before.” She pushed her sister with her muzzle. “We should wake the others and hide further in the cave.”

“Not yet,” said the queen, for her instinct had begun to whisper again, telling her to wait… or she would miss it. “Miss what?” she thought as watched a terrible scene unfold in front of her.

The Rakhana had caught a herd of horses, trapping the terrified animals in a ring of black fire. With fat whips, the men lashed any horse that tried to dash out of the blaze. General Caucus, his face hidden by a glinting silver mask, had cornered the herd’s king. The stallion reared and struck, but the man quickly leapt out of the way and jabbed the horse with a long stick. A jet of blue flame stunned the creature and he crumpled to the ground. Men swarmed the horse, tightly pulling ropes around his thrashing form. The general attacked the stallion’s mate with bolts from his weapon until she too collapsed, only with a loud ‘snap.’ He stood over the mare and watched her flail on the hard ground.

“Oh, no,” Daleth whispered in horror. “Her leg is broken.”

General Caucus pulled a small, silver ball from his cloak and aimed it at the wailing mare, who scrambled to get to her feet. A thunderous boom rang across the field and the mare was still. He kicked at her limp form and then strode away to where the stallion lay struggling against the ropes. Mareva strained her ears and fought to pick up what the man was saying, but his words were lost under the stallion’s furious whinnies. The sisters huddled miserably together.

The moon still cast its faint light across the land as Gideon and Arkas reached the beaches.

“What pretty green wings,” said Daleth dryly, spotting the butterfly who landed at her side. Arkas squealed and flapped over to Daleth. He nuzzled the large horse affectionately.

“Daleth,” Gideon said breathlessly. “It is good to see you, old friend; you too, Mareva.”

“Never mind that,” said Daleth impatiently. “What are you doing here, Forest Man? You’re only a lucky charm for humans. Anytime I see you, it usually means trouble.” She tossed her head warningly at him.

“Gideon, what is going on down there?” asked Mareva anxiously. “Who is that herd?”

“It’s the Alsvid. That fool, King Arion, came here to make a deal with Queen Asura. She wanted animal Bonds with his herd for her soldiers of the Rakhana. In exchange, she promised them immortality.”

“What?” Daleth shrieked. “Immortality…has he been bitten by a rabid fox? How ridiculous!”

“I thought the Alsvid were dead against Bonding,” Mareva murmured.

“So did I,” answered Gideon. “But her falsehoods fed his large ego. He actually believes his herd legends about being created for the Gods and he was lured by the lies of Asura and that wizard of hers.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that scoundrel of a magic maker, Dazra, is still hanging around and stinking up the castle?” Daleth hissed. “Why he and Asura weren’t beheaded for killing their human king is beyond anything I’ve ever…”

“They weren’t beheaded because they rule the Silver City now, in his place,” Gideon interrupted. “Most people still believe their lies about him dying in a riding accident. An accident while atop your back.”

“Hmpf,” Daleth snorted. “So, they’re still up to their two favourite pastimes, trickery and untruths, are they? I see nothing has changed since I left.”

“It’s gotten worse,” Gideon answered grimly.

“Did you not tell Arion what that so called “queen” has been doing to the animals in the Silver City?” Daleth asked bitterly.

“Of course I told him,” came the reply, followed by a soft pop.

Where a butterfly had been only moments before, stood a tall, lean man. He had a bony face lit by fierce, green eyes. His long hair was the colour of tree bark and he wore a green cloak that brushed the tall grass. Arkas flew up and roosted on his shoulder.

“You’re getting old, Gideon,” said Daleth, studying the lines on his face.

“If Arion was coming to make a deal with the queen, then why are the Rakhana rounding them up?” asked Mareva quietly.

“Because she had no intention of giving them immortality,” Gideon said angrily. “She just plans on turning them all into warhorses. I came to warn him that it was the army coming to meet him, not her, but he didn’t believe me. What a fool.” He watched the soldiers with an expression that was both miserable and furious.
“Oh, no,” Mareva whispered, “the entire Alsvid—finished.”

“Not quite,” said Gideon turning to her. “I managed to do one thing right today and that’s where you two come in.”

“What do you mean?” Daleth asked.

“I took his foal.”
“Good heavens, you did what?” gasped Mareva.

“I took him,” Gideon replied. “Like I said, Arion wouldn’t believe me when I told him the army was on its way. I stood there arguing with him as the minutes ticked by and with each one the Rakhana grew closer. So, I changed to my butterfly form and teased his foal into following me. He’s so young; there’s no way he could have made the journey from here all the way to the Silver City. The first time he tried to lay down to rest, the Rakhana would have just left him there…that or killed him.”

“Where is he?” Daleth asked.

“I hid him in that brush, just over there.” Gideon pointed to a clearing further up the edge of the forest.

“Oh, Gideon, his son…” Mareva whispered unbelievingly.

“He’s your son now,” said Gideon. “Mareva, I need you to keep him here at the beaches and raise him as your own.”
“Wait a minute, you mean you want us…?” Daleth began.

“Daleth,” interrupted Gideon, “I don’t trust anyone else to take him. There’s more to this and I don’t have time to…” he stopped short, as if taking a cue from the worried looks on their faces.

“There is a legend,” he said as the violent wind that whipped his hair, “about a man who rides a ‘white-eyed steed; Alsvid are the only horses to have white eyes, as far as I’ve seen. I must keep him safe. What if he is the horse from the myth?”

“A legend,” Mareva muttered. “But if the legend is about a man and men are rounding them up then wouldn’t—”

“No,” Gideon interrupted shortly. “I need you to trust me, Mareva. Now, tell no one he is here except for the Forest Council, do you understand me?”

Without waiting for their answer, he and Arkas disappeared in a rush of green smoke.

“Good old Gideon,” said Daleth with grudging affection. “Always running around sticking his nose in everyone’s business—turns out it was a good thing, this time.” She turned to Mareva. “You stay behind me and if I tell you to run, you do it, no matter what. Let’s go find that foal.”

Daleth quickly led her sister in the direction that Gideon had pointed. As they reached the small clearing, Mareva caught the fresh-morning scent that always accompanied a young horse. She pushed past Daleth and poked her face into a small hillock.

Huddled in the weeds was a small, shaggy foal. His coat was the deepest shade of midnight and his hooves were as black as coal. He would have looked like a perfectly ordinary horse if not for his white, glowing eyes that shone like two full moons in the dark morning. He looked up at Mareva’s looming figure and gave a surprised snort.

“Daleth, my goodness,” Mareva whispered in amazement. “Look at this!”

“Let me see him,” said Daleth, shoving Mareva aside. She eyed the odd shape on the colt’s flank—a white spiral, bordered with a scattering of tiny, silver spots. “There is his mark,” she muttered. “Alsvid, indeed; we should get him to the cave.” She stared back out at the Rakhana army.

The Alsvid had stopped fighting and were grouped miserably under a swollen storm cloud that had settled solely over them. Under a shroud of pounding rain, the soldiers bound the horses into a long line. The largest soldier led the limping king stallion to the front of the row and began dragging the horse away.

“That is not a fight we can win,” Mareva said warningly, after seeing the blazing look on Daleth’s face. “And if the Rakhana see you, you will be caught too. Come, Sister, we have to get this foal to safety.”

“Quickly now, little one,” Mareva whispered to the small horse. He shakily got to his feet and they rushed him to the trees outside their cave. Here, they looked him over.

“An Alsvid,” Daleth said wondrously. “I’ve never seen one before. Look at those strange eyes. Oh, how I hate leaving them to this. Now that the army has them, who knows what dreadful things fate has in store for them.”

The foal sank to his knees and laid down between the sisters. Mareva began to wash his coat with soft, gentle licks. Comforted by the queen horse’s affection, his strange eyes grew heavy, and with a deep sigh, he fell fast asleep.

“Look at that,” said Daleth quietly. “He’s settled right in already. How lucky for us too, what with no foals this year.” She swished her tail and gave the foal a small push with her nose.

“I worry about what Hengist will say.” Mareva said with a frown. “Bringing a strange male into the herd will seem like a challenge to him, don’t you think? He won’t like it at all.”

“Well, that’s too bad for Hengist, isn’t it?” Daleth answered, laying her ears back. “You are the Queen of the Harena herd and your stallion will do as you say, if he knows what’s good for him. Besides,” she added, “Gideon told us to take him and trust me—you do not want to go against his wishes.”

Seemingly satisfied with this reasoning, Mareva finished grooming the foal. “There you are,” she whispered. “You don’t need to worry; we are your herd now.”

“I wonder what his name is,” Daleth mused. “Gideon, that twit, he forgot to tell us.”

“Now, now,” chided Mareva. “Gideon might not have known it himself. This poor, little fellow; he must have one. I hate the thought of changing it on him.”

“Well, he can’t tell us what it is and we have to call him something,” Daleth said logically. “What should it be?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mareva as she got to her feet. “You’ve never had a foal. Would you like to name him?”

Daleth looked pleased. “Well,” she replied, licking her lips. “My Bonded human used to shout a very strange word just before he led his army and me into battle. I don’t know why he said it—it didn’t seem to have any effect on the enemy, but he did it every time. I always loved the sound of that word. To me, it meant victory.”

“What was it?” asked Mareva.

“He yelled, ‘Mandamus.’”

“Mandamus,” murmured the queen. “What does it mean?”

“He told me that it meant “we command,” in a very old human language, spoken before creatures decided to use the Common Words that we and the humans share now.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mareva said with a frown. “That sounds dangerous to me, naming him after a human battle cry. It could bring all sorts of problems and we don’t want that for him.”

Daleth snorted. “Right, well if you think this little guy is going to go through this life without running into any problems, then guess again—no one gets off that easy. For starters, he is the last of the free Alsvid… I’d say his troubles have already begun.”

“‘We command,’” said Mareva thoughtfully. “Shouldn’t it be ‘I command’?”

“Absolutely not!” Daleth answered. “Who should be allowed to command on their own? You said I could pick what we call him; now, let’s name him.”

Mareva smiled at her sister’s stubbornness. “Mandamus,” Mareva said softly, touching the foal’s forehead with her muzzle. “By the Goddess Epona, we will call you Mandamus.  Mandamus of the Harena.”

The sisters stood over the sleeping foal and listened to the fading sounds of his herd being forced away. When the sun finally rose on that dreadful morning, the Alsvid and the army were gone.

About the author:

Karai MadillA chronic “head in the cloudser” K. Madill lives in a rickety house on a well treed street in British Columbia, Canada.  When she’s not hanging out with her best equine friend in the woods she can be found trying to stay upright on her roller skates or mediating the affairs of her various furred and feathered friends that rule the aforementioned rickety house. 

K. Madill’s website: kmadill.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/K-Madill/161159890706088

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaraiMadill1

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20643483-the-stolen-herd

 

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Categories: Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Soul of the Sun by Genevieve Crownson & Win Prizes!

The Soul of the Sun banner 2
The Soul of the SunTitle: The Soul of the Sun
Genre: Paranormal/Young Adult
Author: Genevieve Crownson
Publisher: Genevieve Crownson
Pages: 348
Format: Paperback; Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

“The hands of time turn on the face of the sun. Only you can move them. If the Watcher controls the hands of the clock he can go anywhere, past or future– and destroy our planet.”

Since the days of ancient Greece, the Argos dynasty has kept a secret, a mystery passed down through their descendants from generation to generation, in the hopes that the forces of good can stop the evil destruction of planet Earth.

Margaret Ingall is harboring that secret. Time is running out for the descendants of the Argos. They know a great healer and time traveler will be born of their blood. But the only person that knows whom they will call “the soul of the sun” is Margaret’s sister, Abigail. Before she can reveal the healer’s identity, disaster strikes…

Evil stalks them, watching and waiting to find out which member of her family has the ultimate power. Is it Margaret’s own child? Or her beloved granddaughter? Or even herself? Their only clue is a powerful protective amulet that will lead them all in a cat-and-mouse game to discover secrets as ancient as time.

If the Watcher discovers the truth before they do, all will be lost.

Fate, time and love weave together in their struggle to fulfill their destiny. Will Margaret’s fears sabotage her family’s protection? Can the healer accept her gifts in time? And once the soul of the sun is finally revealed, will it be too late?

Her power is incredible. The sacrifices required of her are immense.

Will it be enough to stop the Watcher?

Excerpt:

The rain fell in sheets around me, it was gloomy and depressing, but I didn’t feel a drop. I was completely encased in light; I was a moving, breathing, flaming yellow orb that no one could penetrate. I watched in amazement as my broken leg instantly healed and the torn pajama fabric cinched itself back together. My jaw pain ceased. I closed my hands over the amulet, now humming with intensity. In a split second, I was vibrating with the same power. The wind picked up and the sky loomed black. The moon lay dark behind an inky sky and somehow strange chanting words flowed out of me. Lava hot and fraught with meaning, they rose to a fever pitch. Every word was a part of me, part of my being. Words from another time, Tanga’s time, slipped from my lips as though it were my native tongue. It was the inscription on the amulet, of that much I was sure.

I stretched my glowing hands out to Thomas.

I call on you Lady Isis.

Protect Me.

For I am the one, the Soul of the Sun.

I plead with you and your son Horus to give refuge.

Patroness of Nature and Magic bring all my power and your power together to glorify

what is right and true in this world.

Honor your name and those we safeguard from harm. Let time be taken from no man.

Amen.”

He was laughing at me.

“You stupid little twit, did you honestly think that would work? You think that I can’t take what’s mine?”

As he spoke, I chanted the same words, repeating them over and over. I saw fear cross his face just for a moment when he realized I was using the amulet’s power. A brilliant beam of light continued to radiate from my core. It was strange, the light now shone gold instead of blue. It must have changed when it sealed together. I continued to watch and to my astonishment, he became transparent and, with a puff of smoke, evaporated into the heavens. I could hear his heart-rending screams echoing through the ocean’s storm. Drained completely of energy, I crumpled, exhausted, onto the sand.

About the Author:

Genevieve CrownsonGenevieve Crownson graduated from the College of Charleston with a Bachelors of Science degree. A love of writing led her to pen her debut novel, The Soul of the Sun. This is book one in her highly anticipated trilogy, The Argos Dynasty. She currently lives in beautiful Charleston, SC with her family and beloved four-legged friends.

You can find her at www.genevievecrownson.com.

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  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
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The Luthier’s Apprentice, by Mayra Calvani

LuthiersApprentice_medTitle: The Luthier’s Apprentice
Author: Mayra Calvani
Publisher: Twilight Times Books, http://twilighttimesbooks.com
Genre: YA Paranormal Fantasy, 184 pages

Purchase on Amazon 

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), one of the greatest violinists who ever lived and rumored to have made a pact with the devil, has somehow transferred unique powers to another…

When violinists around the world mysteriously vanish, 16-year-old Emma Braun takes notice.  But when her beloved violin teacher disappears… Emma takes charge. With Sherlock Holmes fanatic, not to mention gorgeous Corey Fletcher, Emma discovers a parallel world ruled by an ex-violinist turned evil sorceress who wants to rule the music world on her own terms.

But why are only men violinists captured and not women? What is the connection between Emma’s family, the sorceress, and the infamous Niccolò Paganini?

Emma must unravel the mystery in order to save her teacher from the fatal destiny that awaits him.  And undo the curse that torments her family—before evil wins and she becomes the next luthier’s apprentice…

 

The Luthier’s Apprentice 

Chapter One 

Brussels, Belgium

Present day

Sixteen-year old Emma Braun got off the school bus and strode down Stockel Square toward her home. She glanced up at the October sky and wrapped her wool scarf tighter around her neck. Heavy dark clouds threatened a downpour.

As she passed a newspaper stand, the headlines on The Brussels Gazette caught her attention:

ANOTHER VIOLINIST VANISHES!

Emma stopped. For a moment she could only stare. She dug into her jacket pocket for coins and bought a copy.

The newspaper article left her stunned. Not only because three well-known violinists had gone missing in the last several months, but because the latest one was her teacher, Monsieur Dupriez.

The news story seemed so hard to believe, she stopped at the next street corner to read it one more time.

It was the last week of October, and the shops and homes were lightly adorned with Halloween decorations. Pumpkins and Jack-o-lanterns sat on doorsteps. Witches, broomsticks, and black cats hunkered down in windows and shops. Just last evening, Emma had sauntered along this street with her best friend Annika, unconcerned and looking forward to Halloween. Now, everything had turned dark and ominous.

The strange incidents she had experienced for the past two weeks added to her stress.

At first she had thought they were a string of coincidences, but not anymore. While scowling at obnoxious Billie Lynam during school recess, for instance, she wished he would fall flat on his face… and half a minute later, her wish was granted. On various occasions she guessed people’s thoughts before they spoke. And yesterday, on her way home from school, she accurately guessed the meal her mom had left on the table for her.

Was she some kind of a psychic? If so, why now? People didn’t develop powers like these overnight. Did they?

She hadn’t told her mom about her new abilities yet; only Annika knew. Maybe she would tell her mom today, after she shared the news about Monsieur Dupriez.

As Emma approached her home, she quickened her step. By the time she reached the door she was almost running. She raced into the hallway and dropped her book bag on the floor.

“Mom!” she called, looking in the kitchen, then in the living room. The house was silent. “Mom!” she called again, racing up the stairs to the bedrooms. Entering her mother’s room, Emma found her sitting very still on the bed with a crumpled letter in her hand.

When her mom saw her, she hastily put the crumpled piece of paper into her pocket and rose from the bed. Her arched brows were furrowed with anxiety.

Emma momentarily forgot the newspaper article. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I’ve just received some unsettling news,” her mom said. “I must make a trip to see your Aunt Lili. She’s ill. She…I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

Aunt Lili? Emma frowned. More surprises. Emma had never met her mom’s eccentric only sister, who lived alone in the Hungarian mountains secluded in an old chateau surrounded by dark woods—or so her mom said. Though again, her mom hardly ever mentioned her.

“What’s wrong with Aunt Lili?” Emma asked. “Can’t I come with you?” She had always been intrigued by her mysterious aunt.

“No. You’ll stay with Grandpa. You enjoy working with him, don’t you?” Her brown eyes met Emma’s before turning away, and though her voice sounded matter-of-fact, Emma detected a trace of ambivalence.

Emma sighed. She loved violin making with a passion, but Grandpa was a bitter taskmaster. No matter how much she tried to please him, she never could. Maybe that’s why her mom often seemed so reluctant about her apprenticeship.

“I’d rather go with you,” Emma said. “Plus, next week is holiday.” All Saints holiday week—or Toussaint, as they called it here—almost always coincided with Halloween.

“That’s out of the question. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Besides, you can’t miss your violin lessons, not with the Christmas competition at the academy coming up soon.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Emma said gravely, extending the newspaper.

Her mom took it. “What’s this?”

“This is why I came running up the stairs.”

Her mom read the headlines. She gasped and looked at Emma. When she finished reading, she sat on the edge of the mattress and stared into space. “Oh, my God…” she whispered.

Emma sat next to her mom. “It says Monsieur Dupriez disappeared in his study. The doors and windows were locked from the inside. The police don’t have any explanation. How can this happen? It’s not logical. It’s not humanly possible.”

“No, not humanly possible…”

“Just like the other three—that German violinist, the French one, the American. Nobody has explained their disappearances. Who would want to kidnap violinists?” When her mom didn’t answer, she began to gnaw at her fingernail.

As if by reflex, her mom pulled Emma’s hand away from her mouth.

“Sorry,” Emma mumbled. “I’m just worried about him.”

“Poor Madame Dupriez. We must visit her. She must be in quite a state.”

“Can you call her now?”

Her mom sighed. “I will. In a moment.” She looked at Emma, her features softening. Gently, she smoothed Emma’s glossy chestnut locks and side fringe away from her face. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. You mustn’t be afraid.”

“Afraid? Why would I be afraid?”

“I mean, about Monsieur Dupriez.” Her mom appeared flustered.

“I’m not afraid. I’m worried, and angry. I want to find out what happened to him. Without him, I don’t even want to take part in the competition.”

Monsieur Dupriez had been Emma’s teacher since she was four years old. But more than teacher, he was her mentor.

“You will do your best at the competition—with or without Monsieur Dupriez. Do you hear me?” her mom said. Then her voice softened. “Listen, darling, I know how close you are to Monsieur Dupriez, but you cannot allow his disappearance to destroy your chances at the competition. I’m not asking you to win, only to do your best. You have great talent, a gift, and your duty is to use it to the best of your ability. Never forget this. Monsieur Dupriez would never want you to forget this.”

“You still haven’t told me what’s wrong with Aunt Lili,” Emma said, changing the conversation. “Why must you go to her now, after all these years?”

Looking into Emma’s face, her mom hesitated, as if unable to decide what—or how much—to say. “You know she’s always been ill, a recluse. She…” She rose from the bed and walked to the window, then opened the curtain. It had started raining, the drops pelted against the glass. “This time it’s serious. She may die.”

Emma couldn’t help feeling a twinge of suspicion. She hated distrusting her mom, whom she loved more than anything in the world, but this time her mom was lying. Emma trusted that feeling, another of her freaky new abilities. She felt an overwhelming urge to chew her fingernails, but tried to control herself. For her mom, a violinist’s hands were a work of art.

“But what’s wrong with her? What kind of disease does she have?” Emma insisted.

“Her heart is very weak.” Her mom turned away from the window to face Emma. Her voice was laced with impatience.

And again Emma thought: She’s lying.

“Please don’t worry about it,” her mom went on in a lighter tone. “I’ll try to come back soon.”

“How soon?”

“As soon as I can manage.”

“Grandpa is always in such a nasty mood,” Emma complained.

“Well, that isn’t news, is it?” Her mom stared down at the floor, as if absorbed by her own thoughts. After a pause, she added, “He’s old and his back always hurts. You know that.”

“I love Grandpa, but he’s so freaking…” She tried to come up with the right word. Bizarre.  Instead she said, “Mysterious. You know, with his violins.”

Her mom looked at Emma and frowned, as if waiting for her to say more.

“You know what I mean, Mom. With that room at the top of the stairs. The one that’s always locked.”

Her mom’s features hardened. “He keeps his most valuable pieces in there. You must never disobey him. He would be very disappointed.”

“Who said I would go in there?” Emma asked, trying to sound innocent. If there was something she intended to do, it was going inside that room. Once she’d almost been successful. For some crazy reason, Grandpa had forgotten to lock it one day. But the instant she touched the doorknob, he had called her from the bottom of the stairs, his wrinkled features twisted into a mask that had left her frozen. He had appeared enraged and afraid at the same time.

“When are you leaving?” Emma asked, shaking off the past to focus on the present issue.

“As soon as possible. Tomorrow, probably. I’ll get the plane tickets today.”

“Mom…”

“Emma, please. If you’re going to complain or say anything negative, I don’t want to hear it.”

Fine. Obviously, this wasn’t the best time to bring up her new psychic powers. She headed to the door.

“Where are you going?” her mom asked.

“To my room.”

“I’ll call Madame Dupriez to see if we may visit her after dinner. In the meantime, I want you to pack. You’re moving to Grandpa’s tomorrow.”

 

In her room, Emma dragged her suitcase from the top shelf in the closet and set it on the floor.

“Hi, Sweetie,” she said to Blackie, her rabbit. “Want to get some exercise?” She opened the cage door so Blackie could hop out and roam about her room. Blackie was housebroken, and smart as a cat—or close to it.

She stared at the elegant taffeta gown hanging from her wardrobe door, a strapless design a la Anne Sophie Mutter she’d already bought for the upcoming violin competition.

She sighed.

Slumped on the bed, Emma wondered for the umpteenth time about Monsieur Dupriez’s strange disappearance.

Where could he be?

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Flight of the Griffin by C.M. Gray

The Flight of the Griffin 7Title: The Flight of the Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Author: C.M. Gray
Publisher: C.M. Gray
Pages: 219
Language: English
ISBN: 9781471750359

Purchase at AMAZON

The Kingdom is dying…

The Darkness is coming… the balance between Order and Chaos is rapidly shifting and the world is falling towards evil and horror, and all misery that Chaos will bring.

But there is hope…

Pardigan’s had enough, he’s only 12, but he’s breaking into the home of one of Freya’s richest merchants… and he’s doing it tonight…

A burglary that will change their lives forever sets four friends upon a quest, a race against time, to locate three magical objects and complete an ancient and desperate spell.

Sailing their boat The Griffin, the crew are quickly pursued by The Hawk, an evil bounty hunter and master of dark sorcery, and Belial, King of Demons and champion of Chaos who seeks to rule the world of man… yet first he must capture the crew of The Griffin and end their quest…

First Chapter:

The floorboard creaked under the sole of his felt boot – a calculated risk whenever entering a sleeping man’s room uninvited.

A breeze fluttered the loose linen curtain, and the sleeper stirred at the welcome respite from the hot sticky night. The prowler slowly exhaled the breath that was starting to burn in his lungs, every sense tingling, receptive to any change in the room or a sound from the street below.

The sleeper, thankfully, continued to sleep.

The street under the second-storey window was silent, the night given up to the occasional rounds of the city watch and those set on a darker business, the never-ending cat and mouse game that went mostly unappreciated by the law-abiding citizens of the sleeping city.

The summer had been one of the hottest people could ever remember, taxing the energy of the city’s inhabitants to the limit. Several of the more elderly citizens down at the port could be heard explaining that, ‘in their day’, the summers were often this hot, and indeed often hotter. Of course, these were the same group who would entertain the regulars at the portside taverns with tales of goblin hordes, ferocious sea serpents or the time the winters were so cold that the seas had frozen solid.

‘A man could have walked from here to Minster Island without ever seeing a boat or even getting his feet wet,’ was a much-repeated reminiscence. Whatever history really concealed, it was a hot summer, and this, a particularly humid night.

Pardigan watched the now softly snoring form and, moving his foot from the traitorous board, crept towards the cabinet that he knew held his prize. It was an elegant cabinet – its construction given over to more than mere function. Gracefully curved legs supported drawers and shelves that were fronted by a scrollwork of intricate designs. He inserted the blade of his knife between the edges of the middle left-hand drawer and felt for the hidden catch. If the information Quint had given him was correct, the false front should spring open. A prickle of sweat tickled his brow and he wiped it absently away. Glancing over to the still-sleeping form, he applied a little more pressure on what he hoped was the catch.

Nothing.

The merchant stirred, smacked his chops, exhaled wetly and then returned to snoring. Pardigan tried again.

Most people hated the fat merchant, known for his cheating ways and vile temper, so he and Quint had set about the business of planning to rob him with great enthusiasm. The break had come quite by chance when Quint had met the apprentice of a cabinetmaker who’d been happy to talk about the merchant, and the cabinet he’d helped his master build for him.

‘The shame of it is that the true beauty of the cabinet will never be appreciated,’ the apprentice had moaned. ‘Such a cunning mechanism my master contrived to conceal the hidden safe-box, nothing of the like have I seen before, nor I fear will I ever see again.’ He had been all too happy to describe and even sketch the piece for Quint who, of course, had shown great interest, marvelling at the skill of the cabinetmaker and, naturally, his gifted apprentice. Several glasses of elder ale had kept his new friend’s throat well lubricated, an investment in tonight’s escapade that they had both placed huge hopes in.

Up until this point, the information seemed to be good; the cabinet did indeed look like the sketch that he and Quint had spent so much time studying. Pardigan’s hopes had soared when he’d first set eyes on it as he was slipping over the windowsill. Right up until now that is, as his frustration grew. Because the Source damned catch simply wouldn’t shift – if catch it was. Pardigan was beginning to wonder if the real catch hadn’t been poor old Quint, whom the apprentice had conned into buying several glasses of elder ale on another blisteringly hot day.

Without warning, the warm still of the night was disturbed as the door to the bedroom opened with a creak, causing the hairs on Pardigan’s neck to stand up. He slowly turned, half-expecting to be staring at the tip of a crossbow bolt. Instead, a large grey cat slunk around the door, ran across and rubbed against his legs, purring as it sought attention. He ruffled its ears, before gently pushing the animal away. Without a backward glance the cat walked over and leapt up onto the bed. Settling comfortably against the sleeping merchant, it lay watching as Pardigan renewed his efforts.

He applied his knife once again. Nothing was happening with the left-hand side so he moved his attention to the right. An audible click echoed around the room, rewarding his efforts as the false door opened, wobbling the washbasin that sat precariously upon the cabinet’s top. The merchant turned over, groaning loudly and ejected the cat from the bed. It meowed, padded over to the open window and leapt to the sill. Ignoring Pardigan, it sat regarding the street below with a critical eye.

The merchant continued to sleep. He was back to breathing heavily, his fat sweaty chins bobbing with the effort of sucking in the warm moist air.

Pardigan returned his attention to the cabinet. Behind the false front was a small opening. Several moneybags had been carelessly tossed on top of some papers, a few old books and some rolled documents that had been stacked neatly above on two shelves.

Pardigan hadn’t had any real idea what he might find, but when he and Quint had been working out the finer details of the plan, they’d had plenty of time for speculation. Jewels, money and magical items had been on the hoped-for and expected list, but Pardigan now noted, with a certain touch of dismay, that there was a distinct lack of necklaces, rings and brooches in the safe. He turned over a few of the papers to see what they hid and wondered at the markings on them. He could read after a fashion, but only the local low-speak, enough to tell the difference between a bag of beans and a bag of rice. High-speak was for merchants and nobles.

He slipped several of the more promising-looking papers into his coat along with the moneybags, and then a small knife without a scabbard caught his eye. He picked it up. It had a blade about a hand’s span long and a plain blue jewel set in the pommel. He put it into his pocket and cast a last glance over the remainder of the contents. With a sigh, he gently reset the false front, watching the merchant’s face to make sure he wasn’t disturbed as the catch clicked softly back into place. Satisfied that he hadn’t been heard, he straightened and tested the new weight in his pockets. With a smile, he crossed to the window. The cat watched him approach then meowed in irritation as he brushed it from the sill. Taking care to mind the loot in his pockets, he straddled the windowsill and, with one eye to the street for the city watch and the other on the still sleeping merchant, made his way carefully to the ground.

Dropping the last few spans, he landed safely and offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Source. Then, after casting up and down the street, he drew in his first real breath for what seemed an eternity and moved off towards the sanctuary of the poor quarter. Keeping to the shadows, he kept an eye open for both the watch and for any opportunist thieves that may be lying in wait for a rich victim like himself.

****

The grey cat continued to watch as he scuttled away, noting his haste now he was in the open. The way he looked back and forth for danger, seeing everything, but understanding so little.

She’d been waiting for something like this to happen for several weeks and now she felt both excitement and regret that the game was to move on. Maybe I was beginning to enjoy the lazy life of a house cat too much, she wondered. The easy life did have certain merits, especially for a cat. Licking a paw she cleaned herself one last time, enjoying a few final moments in this form, and then leapt from the window, shimmering before spreading wide, snowy white wings and gliding silently in search of the departing figure.

****

Pardigan hurried down the darkened alleyways, the houses crowding closer together the further he got into the poor quarter. At several points, the buildings actually touched above him and the alley became a pitch-black tunnel, blocking out even the faint ambient light that had lit his progress so far. Earlier in the evening, the oil-lamps would have been lit, but it was late now and the oil had long burned away. He came to The Stag, an inn on Barrow Street that was favoured by traders from the market square. The murmur of a few late drinkers came from behind the heavy closed door, then the sound of a glass smashing and a woman’s shrill and angry cry prompted Pardigan to move on before the drinker was tossed onto the street, illuminating him in the light from within.

At the end of Barrow Street he slowed to a cautious walk. Market Square was in front of him, a regular hangout for drunks and beggars who tended to group together. Even at this time of night there would probably be a few milling around. These people didn’t seem to keep normal hours. You could be walking around at midday and most would be sleeping like it was midnight, and then times like now, they would be up and about sucking on a bottle and probably wondering idly where the sun had gone to.

Keeping to the shadows as best he could, he moved into the square being careful to skirt the darker parts at the edge. Picking up his pace he had to clamp his hand over his nose and hold his breath as he sidestepped several piles of rotting vegetables; the warmth of the night rich in their pungent odours.

Several of the square’s occupants were dotted about but none seemed interested in him. Three drinkers grouped around a spluttering fire were singing and laughing as they passed a small barrel. Pardigan slowed and watched for a moment, fascinated as they took turns, upending it and laughing at each other’s efforts as more of the liquid splashed down their chests than into their mouths. Pardigan shuddered, and wondered at the mystery that was adulthood and at what age you lost your mind and did crazy things like that.

At 12 years old, Pardigan dreaded the thought of waking up one morning as an adult. To have had all the fun sucked out of his life, replaced by the need to scowl at people and tell everyone off for not seeing the world his way. Growing old was inevitable, growing up was not. He and the others had made several vows that they would never grow up and would sail the coast in their boat The Griffin, for a lifetime of fun, adventure and good times. Whatever happens, I’ll not be sitting in this square drunk, dribbling and howling at the moon like some crazy dog, he vowed. Casting another look at the small group, he moved on.

The square was crossed without incident and he started down The Cannery, a street so named because of all the fish canning shops that lined its sides as it went down the hill towards the city’s little port. During daylight hours, it was one of the busiest areas of town, with fishermen hauling their catch up from the port and the canneries bustling with wagons shipping out their product all over the realm. At this hour, all was deserted and Pardigan passed down the pungent street without incident, a few squabbling rats its only nocturnal residents.

Coming down into the port, there remained one final obstacle in his path – Blake’s. The largest of the inns around the harbour, it never closed. On a warm night like tonight, even at this late hour, there could be people sitting outside hoping for the comfort of a small breeze to come in across the sea.

The sound of music drifted up to him accompanied by the sound of voices laughing and talking – there was no way he could escape being noticed. He would have to cross right in front of the entrance to get to where The Griffin was moored. Drawing his coat about him, he walked on, a shiver running the length of his spine – his nerves once again on edge.

A lone figure sat on a barrel under the main window, bathed in a pool of light from a lantern that hung above the door. Keeping his eyes averted and with his heart beating in his ears, Pardigan tried not to stumble on the uneven cobbles in his haste to get past.  Nearly there, only Blake’s to pass, almost there… Talking to himself often helped in times of stress, it was almost as if some of the burden of the moment was shared … Only a little way more … Nearly …

A sudden movement from behind and he spun round in time to see a dark figure loom up with arms outstretched. With a cry, Pardigan stepped back, tripped over something and then hit the ground hard, pain instantly screaming from his back and left ankle.

He lay writhing on the cobblestones gasping, fear and despair filling him as he realised he’d been caught so close to The Griffin.  It was almost in sight, only a little further around the port, but this obviously wasn’t to be his night after all. That’s how my luck’s been running lately, thought Pardigan, offering a silent curse to the Source. Shadows gathered about him and he tried to struggle up but someone flipped him face down and sat on his back. Powerless to move or even breathe properly – flutterings of panic threatened to overcome him. Footfalls surrounded him and he waited for the touch of a knife.

‘You should have told us you were going to do it tonight.’ The speaker tapped Pardigan’s head with something hard. ‘We could have helped you know.’ He sounded cross.

‘Quint?’ Pardigan felt a wave of relief and then anger at being tricked like this. ‘Get off me, you lump.’ He felt the weight move and several pairs of hands rolled him over. A lantern was lit and he gazed up into the shadowy faces of his friends.

‘Well, how did it go?’ asked the tall scruffy boy holding the lamp. Tarent, for that was his name, reached down and pulled Pardigan to his feet. Waves of relief filled Pardigan and he smiled, his anger slipping away.

‘You rotten…’ he took a half-hearted swing at Tarent who moved aside easily. ‘Why did you jump me? I thought you were…’

‘Serves you right, now tell us…’ hissed Loras, the fourth and final member of The Griffin’s crew. Smaller than the others with a tangled mop of red hair, Loras was peering up at Pardigan with a frown etching shadows on his face. ‘We found your bunk empty, and then Quint told us about your plan.’

‘Which he wasn’t meant to carry out yet,’ added Quint.

‘So we came and waited for you here. You’ve been ages.’ Loras was moving from one foot to the other, clearly agitated. ‘Quint seemed to think you’d have plenty of coins and would be in a better position to settle our bill than we are,’ he glanced back into the inn, a worried look on his face. ‘Like I said, you’ve been ages and we were hungry.’

‘And thirsty,’ added Tarent. ‘So we appear to be a little in arrears with the good landlord here.’

Loras reached out and dusted Pardigan’s cloak. ‘Sorry about the surprise, but you should have included us, so…how did it go?’ All three waited patiently for some sort of response.

Pardigan finally shook his head in wonder at his friends, then checked up and down the path for observers. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a moneybag, recently the property of a certain local merchant, and fished out a silver coin that he tossed to Tarent. ‘Settle up here and let’s get back to the boat. I’ll tell you all just how well it went when we get there.’ Tarent disappeared inside the inn as the others moved off towards the gently bobbing boats of the port eager to hear more.

Now, back in the company of his three friends, Pardigan finally felt safe. They were a strange group, all with a different story of hard luck and the tough times they’d had before finding each other. They’d since formed the closest thing to a family that any of them had ever known – even the boat that they called home had a sorry tale. Quint had found it in a terrible state, rotting in a small river, off the main estuary to the city. Having nowhere better to go and all alone, he’d started to live on it. The boat had conveyed the feeling of abandonment and the only other inhabitants had been a few mice and lots of spiders. Quint had spent the first few weeks alone and in fear, expecting a gang of cutthroats to reclaim their vessel at any moment. Then, as the weeks had turned to months, he had realised The Griffin, for that was the name he had found under layers of grime, really was abandoned and he began to relax. The hull was sound, had no leaks and it had several cabins plus a good-sized cargo area. The problem with the boat had simply been neglect. Whoever had abandoned her hadn’t left any clue to their identity, but abandoned she most certainly was.

About ten spans long, The Griffin made a wonderful home, blending in wherever the boys moored her. They spent most of their time in the rivers hidden from the world, but made several trips into the port cities for supplies and a change of scene.  Pardigan, of course, was the practised thief, bringing gold, food and supplies to the boat whenever they were needed. He felt no remorse from his exploits, saying it was a harsh world and if he didn’t take stuff then someone else would. Quint often found the rich targets for Pardigan and was the only one who had known how to sail, making him the logical choice as Captain. As the oldest, Quint was the unofficial leader of the group.

Loras had once been apprenticed to a magician, but the old boy had died before passing on much of his craft. When he had left, Loras took what he could of the books and spells; the boys had found him appearing dazed and confused, with soot all over his face, blowing up tree stumps in the forest.

‘That’s great!’ Quint had said, obviously impressed at Loras’s efforts, ‘How do you do it?’

‘I haven’t the foggiest idea,’ Loras had replied. ‘I was actually trying to make the stumps grow new leaves; they aren’t supposed to blow up like this.’ He’d looked questioningly at a tatty old book held together with string. ‘I think I must be doing something wrong – maybe there’s another page missing?’  He was waving his wand again, hopping about and trying to read, all at the same time. Quint had brought him back to the boat and Loras had settled in well.

The fourth crewmember was Tarent who was the laziest person that any of them had ever met, or so they often told him. Fortunately, he hid this flaw in his character by being one of the nicest people you could ever want to meet. He slept more than anyone had a need or right to, and could spend the most amazing amount of time merely gazing out to sea, or up at a star-filled night while the others were working. To many this would have grated and annoyed, but he would also talk and talk and talk, which was a good thing. He would tell about the night skies or monsters from the deep and he knew the reason why a compass always pointed north or how to make the ticker fish bite on a hot afternoon. After supper Tarent could always be relied upon for a good story to lead their minds around the world or bring enchanted sea creatures up from the deep. His body could be lazy, but his mind was as nimble as an acrobat. He was one of the crew, and shared many of the responsibilities of leadership with Quint.

The Griffin was waiting for them at the end of the quay, dwarfed in the shadow of a large black barge. The fragrant aromas of spices and herbs rich on the warm night air attesting to the cargo the barge was carrying. They clambered up the gangplank and Quint waited at the top until the last of them came aboard, then he pulled it in, sealing the boat from the land. He glanced over to the barge where a sailor was smoking a clay pipe, watching them. Giving a wave that was returned; he slipped down the hatchway pulling it closed behind him.

Down below, two lamps were already lit, the slight breeze from the open portholes enough to make the flames flicker, sending shadows dancing around the cabin. Everyone had settled; waiting for the news as Pardigan stood at the table and, without any ceremony, started to empty out his pockets.

He carefully placed the bags on the table, side by side, eight in all. The boys watched without saying a word as each bag made a soft chink, the cord drawstring falling softly to the side. Eight bags. Four were blue, one red, one yellow and two were of common canvas. The papers and books were passed across to Tarent, while the small knife was placed upon the table alongside the bags.

They hadn’t believed Quint when he’d told them of the plan; hadn’t actually thought that Pardigan would come back with anything except a tall tale of a daring escape and some would-have-beens and should-have-beens. They hadn’t thought they’d really be seeing moneybags this evening. They all sat and stared.

Loras eventually broke the silence. ‘So what’s in ‘em?’

‘I haven’t had a chance to look,’ said an exhausted Pardigan. He waved them an invitation to the table.

Loras jumped up and tipped out the contents from one of the canvas bags. Copper coins fell out and rolled around. ‘About thirteen shillings in coppers,’ he muttered, pushing the coins with his fingers. He picked up a red bag, untied the cord, and upended it. More coins hit the table making an altogether different sound, the buttery colour of gold glinting in the lamplight. ‘Seven sovereigns and one royal crown,’ said Loras after a moment, his interest growing. The other bags were duly opened and all but the yellow bag held coins of gold, silver and copper. The yellow bag held a necklace that sparkled with precious stones as Loras held it up in awe for the boys to see.

‘It’s beautiful, Pardigan. Who, in the name of the Source did you rob? Was it the King?’ They all stared at Pardigan.

‘What sort of trouble are we in?’ asked Loras, as the peril of their situation suddenly dawned upon him. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘Come on, let’s not panic,’ said Quint. ‘Did anybody see you, stop you or question you at any point, Pardigan?’

‘No, nobody saw me and I’m sure I didn’t leave any clues,’ stated Pardigan confidently. ‘I’m very good at what I do.’

‘Course you are, but come morning the city will be in uproar about this – we have to play this with cunning and no mistake.’

Quint looked at each of them in turn; lastly he turned to Tarent. ‘What do you think?’

Tarent sighed. ‘If we up and sail on the first tide come daybreak, the watch will be after us like a shot. We can’t be appearing guilty.’ He pondered a moment. ‘…Even if we did want to give it all back, which I don’t think we do’? He glanced around the group seeing shaking heads, ‘Well we couldn’t, could we?’ Everyone shook their heads again. ‘We keep the coins, some on the boat and some we take up river and stash back at the moorings.’

Quint nodded.

‘The papers I’ll look over tonight to see what we have, then we either burn them or plan on their use. What we don’t do is leave them here to be found if we do get searched. Source willing, we can up and leave in a few days’ time and be back on our usual moorings for further plans.’ He turned once more to Quint.

‘Agreed,’ said Quint. ‘Check the papers as quick as you can. The coppers we can add to our own cash box with a few of the silver as well, so we can get our normal provisions.’

‘And the knife?’ asked Pardigan.

They all stared at the knife, still lying next to the sacks. The blue jewel sparkled in the lamplight.

‘It’s a very unusual knife,’ said Tarent in a soft voice almost as if talking to himself. ‘The best thing would be to lose it over the side, or drop it in some back alley well away from here.’ He glanced across at Quint, but he was saying nothing, simply staring with the others at the knife on the table.

It seemed almost to be calling out to each one of them, and they all knew they wouldn’t be throwing it into the sea, or losing it anywhere else for that matter.

‘Stash it in the stove for now until we can think on it,’ said Quint. Sounds of ready agreement came from all around.

Pardigan placed the knife in the cold stove then piled old ash and wood over it. The cash was split between that which was staying, and that which was going, and then Tarent moved off to his cabin to check the papers. The boat settled down; Pardigan and Quint went on deck in search of fresh air before sleeping.

‘I can’t believe it was really there, false front and all,’ whispered Quint as he lay back looking up at the stars.

‘Oh, it really was there, just as he said it was and twice as lovely as the picture.’

‘I wish I could have seen it. What were you thinking when you were creeping round the room?’ Quint sat up and stared at Pardigan. ‘Weren’t you scared to the very marrow of your bones?’

‘Being scared is what keeps a thief alive and not caught and hanged,’ replied Pardigan. He pulled the knife from his pocket, and rubbed the blue gem with his thumb.

‘I thought you put that into the stove,’ said Quint watching him.

Pardigan stared at the knife, a frown creasing his face. ‘I did, I’m sure I did but…

‘Well you can’t have, can you?’ Quint nodded at the knife in Pardigan’s hand. ‘Don’t get caught with it, put it in the stove, eh?’

‘I will.’ Pardigan ran his finger across the long thin blade. It wasn’t sharp but it didn’t feel dull either, he could just make out signs or writing on the side in the dim light, but unfortunately it wasn’t bright enough to see properly. ‘I’m sure I put it in the stove, I remember covering it with ash,’ he murmured as he slipped it back in his cloak.

The boys chatted about the night’s events for a while longer. Pardigan telling of scaling the wall and creeping around the sleeping chamber as the fat merchant snored, puffed and farted, and Quint telling a lengthy story of how Tarent and Loras and he had managed to dine at Blake’s on the slim hope of him turning up with a few coins to pay for it all.

‘Blake would have skinned you all alive if he’d known you were eating and drinking all evening with no money in your pockets,’ laughed Pardigan.

‘Ahhh, but we had faith in you, my friend,’ countered Quint, punching Pardigan softly in the arm. ‘And besides, we were hungry and the iced lemon water at Blake’s is the best in all of Freya; we needed it.’

‘I know,’ murmured Pardigan softly, ‘let’s hope this is a sign that our fortunes have changed.’

As the stars maintained their journey across the night sky, the city continued to sleep and the boys finally went below to their bunks, ready for a busy day.

****

The owl watched from the top of the boat’s mast as the two boys disappeared and with a beat of her wings flew off, back into the city. It had been an interesting evening and she felt pleased that events were finally moving along. She knew the boys would need a nudge or two to put them in the right direction, but she had a good feeling about them, a far better feeling than she had when the merchant had got his greedy, pudgy hands on the knife.

She soared over the shops and buildings of the city enjoying the freedom of flight, the air flowing over her feathers as she rode the warm currents rising from the buildings below. She watched as the moon rose above the water, its reflection rippling upon the calm ocean, its pale light making long dark shadows of the boats in the harbour, giving a new texture to the cityscape beneath her.

She flew until she saw the world start to awake and with it, dawn break on a brand new day. Turning back towards the harbour, she glided down to alight upon the deck of The Griffin and, returning to the form of the grey cat curled up on a badly stored sail and there she slept, waiting for the start of the day’s events to unfold.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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