Excerpt: Theoreticals of Illusories

In advance of the publication of Theoreticals of Illusories on February 1, here is a short excerpt:

I sit in the chill alone, another mile further down the road, staring up at the sky and watching my breath as it forms puffs of vanishing clouds. The air is the way only winter can make it, sharp and crisp, cutting at my lungs as it goes down my throat. Clouds are gathering, distant on the horizon, foreshadowing the storm I know is coming. Wind, snow, and tumult; the storm of our humanity will not even register.

I can see a fire in the distance, not far from where I crouch in the miserable shelter of a few trees. It must be no more than half a mile, if that, and I long to trudge across the snow to join whoever is there. To ask them if they will share their fire and perhaps a little food or drink, if they have any to spare. The commonwealth of all travellers on a cold winter’s night.

But I do not stray from where I sit in the frigid darkness, shivering and rubbing my hands together to try to put some semblance of warmth in them. The Commonwealth—my commonwealth—died some time ago, and I have no friends left to me. Certainly not in this place.

Does he feel as tired as I do? As hopeless and alone? Is he worn out and ready to quit, the strength to keep fighting drained by these endless hardships?

No, not him. For him, the privations and difficulties are merely proof of his righteousness. The blood on his hands only demonstrates the justness of his cause and the lengths he will go to stand by it.

For me, I do not enjoy this new world that he and his kind have wrought. That it is him, of all people, that I am forced to reckon with only makes it all the worse. If it were someone else, it would be another matter. It would not cut so deep.

As these thoughts flit through my mind, I finger the tome that I carry with me. It has only the dead in it now. The incantations here that my kind once worried over are now only the words of a forgotten tongue. I am its last speaker and I have sworn myself to silence. He and his kind have seen to that.

He has the silver and the gold, and our lives, so many I cannot even bear to count. And now he will take this last thing too, to bring an end to all this.

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Now Available: Unspeakable Rites

UNSPEAKABLE RITES

FANTASY

CLINT WESTGARD

A dead man of no family or account is what Gahryll, Chief Magister of Tson, sees when the corpse of an Enir youth is brought to the Magisterium. But Magister Mihuibel sees something else: a conspiracy involving false adepts practicing an outlawed form of alkemya.

Against his better instincts Gahryll authorizes an investigation that draws both Magisters into the seamy underbelly of Tson where the rich and powerful prey upon the desperate. When the inquiry implicates one of the most important families in the Realm of Craitol in forbidden practices and false alkemya, their positions and ranks will be threatened.

But that is only the beginning. For the killer will stop at nothing to ensure his secrets remain hidden and Gahryll is brought face to face with the unspeakable power of alkemya that has been unleashed. It forces him to make a choice. Will he risk everything to fight for justice in a realm ruled where rank and wealth are all that matter?

Set in the same universe as The Shadow Men Trilogy, Unspeakable Rites, further explores the nature of alkemya, its terrible power, and the heavy price paid for its use.

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Excerpt: Unspeakable Rites

In advance of the publication of Unspeakable Rites on August 24, here is a short excerpt:

The storm swept through the city of Tson in the middle of the night as most everyone slept, leaving in its calamitous path a sea of fallen branches, and not a few fallen trees, along with a seemingly endless amount of unidentifiable refuse, mostly stolen from shacks in the poorest quarters. Many of those did not survive the tempest and the next morning the streets of these quarters were filled with those who had been left homeless. Mixed in amongst all this detritus on one street near the city wall was the body of a young man. The local Magistery discovered it on their patrols of the neighborhood and had the body taken to the central mortuary.

Because of the youth’s shade, the Magistery notified the Chaziqs of the Enir Quarter in the hopes that they would know if one of their community had gone missing. Dutifully, the four men put on their finest robes and made their way to the central mortuary to look upon the body, all of them declaring that they did not know the man and that he was not from their quarter.

Chief Magister Gahryll a Tyranil frowned and pursed his lips. He ran a distracted hand over his head and the close-cropped hair there, a habit he had formed once he had started going bald several years before. Each time he did it, he was left annoyed at the fact there was less and less to pass his hand through, to say nothing of the fact that what remained was turning grey. All artifacts of his advancing years, but not so advanced yet, as he never failed to remind himself.

He forced his thoughts back to the matter at hand. There were not many Enir in Tson, so it was not unusual to expect the Chaziqs to know the majority of them. It was strange as well that no word had gone among their people of someone missing a son or a brother.

“You will ask around for me with your people,” Gahryll said. “Perhaps he is new to the city.”

Reluctantly, or so it seemed to Gahryll, the Chaziqs agreed to this request. He did not give much thought to their hesitation. It was just a dead itinerant after all, and an Enir at that, hardly worth wasting any thought over. There were more pressing concerns at hand.

The Golden Veil had recently returned from beneath the smoldering ruins they had left ten years before, striking at the Gver of Lastl during the Gver’s Council in Cratiol. Rumors of their resurrection had gone wild throughout the Realm of Craitol, no doubt attracting disaffected nobles of rank to their banner in every city and town. With the coming war against the Shadow Men bringing the absence of Gver Hythel and his finest cohorts of men from Tson, malcontents like those in Veil would see an opportunity to strike, which meant that Magistery would need to be watchful. Something like this death of a youth of no account could only distract from their true duty, to protect the city.

No word came back from the Chaziqs, and Gahryll had his assistant Ducaryh—a man of Kragian extraction, but of unquestionable competence—arrange to have the body put on display in the public room of the mortuary where anyone in the city could look upon it. The dead displayed there were sometimes identified and claimed, but as most came from the vagrant classes—prostitutes and homeless, thieves and murderers, or the poorest of the Realm, cast from the countryside into the city in the vain hope of shaping a new life—this was exceedingly rare.

The youth was evidently one of these sorts, with no kin looking for him, for in the three days that his body was displayed no one stepped forward to claim it. While this was ongoing, Gahryll ordered a cursory investigation be conducted by one of the Magisters. The man assigned to the task, Mihiubel a Jorhkah, was extremely thorough, though, and when he brought his report to Gahryll, he indicated his belief that the youth had died at the hands of another and that further investigation was warranted.

“You don’t think the storm killed him?” Gahryll said. They were sitting across from each other in his offices in the Magisterium. “It was quite violent. If he was left outdoors, it could easily have done him in.”

“No, Nes Gahryll,” Mihiubel said, with a firm shake of his head. “Did you notice his robes? Very fine silk, too fine for anyone forced to live on the street. No, I am quite certain he was living somewhere, but it was not anywhere near where he was found.”

“What makes you say that?”

“For starters, it is a poor neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants could not dream of owning such robes. And no one remembers him. I went to the Enir Quarter as well, thinking he must have lived somewhere there, no matter what the Chaziqs told you. But it seems not. They are all quite adamant. Very strange. I found a few who recognize him though, but they will not admit it.”

This attracted Gahryll’s attention. “Why not?”

Mihiubel held out his hands. “I can’t say. No one will speak to me of it. Except one man who said he thought he recalled seeing him coming and going from a particular house.”

Something about his phrasing of those last words drew the Chief Magister’s attention. “What particular kind of house?”

“It is an academy, I believe, though I haven’t called on them yet. I imagine he was in service there in some form, or servicing the trulls.”

“So call on them and see if there is someone there who wishes to take possession of the body and let us be done with this matter.”

“There is something else,” Mihiubel said. “I took the liberty of removing his robes. I’m sure you noted the bruises upon his face. His chest is similarly bruised. And there are lacerations as well, on both his chest and his back. Symbols of some sort.”

“Were they enough to kill him?”

Mihiubel shook his head. “I think not. None of his wounds were severe. If I were to guess, I would say they were symbols for some kind of rites.”

Gahryll nodded. It was all very curious and he could see why Mihiubel was drawn to the case, but in the end he could see no reason to pursue the matter with so many other concerns at hand. If the youth had been murdered, as the Magister believed, there was little to be done about it. Not with the Enir Quarter refusing to help and no witnesses to the crime, or obvious suspects. The Enir punish their own, he told himself, and that seemed as satisfactory an explanation as any. The youth had crossed someone, perhaps at the academy, perhaps elsewhere, and had paid the price.

With no one to claim the body after four days on display, Gahryll sent word to the Chaziqs to dispose of the corpse as per their customs. The Enir buried their dead and presumably would want to see this one interred, lest they anger their ancestors. It was Mihiubel who brought word that the Chaziqs had refused to honor the body.

“Well have it burned then,” Gahryll said, with a shake of his head.

Mihiubel nodded, but did not leave the room. “You don’t find it odd that they are refusing. Have you ever heard of such a thing? An Enir risking the wrath of their ancestors by refusing to bury one of their own. The whole Quarter could be cursed.”

“The Gods curse them already, what does it matter if their ancestors do as well?”

“I just think we should find out what this youth has done that would have them cast him out so completely. There is only one thing I can think of that might lead them to do that.”

“What is that?” Gahryll said, his mind already on the papers Ducaryh had brought him to sign. Orders and reports and messages. There was so much to attend to and it was already afternoon.

“Perhaps he has been playing at alkemya,” Mihiubel said.

That did get Gahryhll’s attention. An Enir practicing alkemya was unheard of. They abhorred the art. It was condemned by their ceinobytes and cursed by their ancestors. Any Enir who did so would know he was crossing to a realm from which there was no return. He would be an Enir no longer.

Gahryll also knew that no Council Adepts would ever train an Enir. There was only one kind of alkemyst who would dare to, and the Chief Magister thought he had done with them long ago. Apparently not, for it seemed there were Desecrators in Tson.

Desecrators and the Veil. Was it ten years ago? No, then he would be in Haigah Pass watching the best of his generation perish. He shook his head, lost in the thought, before looking up at Mihiubel.

“You think we should pay a visit to this academy then, I take it?”

Mihiubel nodded and with a sigh of annoyance Gahryll rose to join him.

 Unspeakable Rites is now available for preorder:
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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Three)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A marvelous square,” Vyissan agreed.

Strange to say it reminded me of home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoreson.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Now Available: The Shadow Men Trilogy Box Set

THE SHADOW MEN TRILOGY BOX SET

FANTASY

CLINT WESTGARD

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

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

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

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

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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Men Trilogy box set is now available for preorder:
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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He lacks ability,” the dealer said.

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

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

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

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

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

In A Flash: The Dominion of the Orb

The screams on the battlefield had quietened, though the odd moan still pierced through the fog that continued to gather as day became night. A few battle orcs wandered the killing fields, finishing off those who remained alive, while the rest began the march on in pursuit of the fleeing horde. There would be no rest that night, not while a man still breathed air. They would see them all put to the sword. Remorseless, pitiless, these were the ideals they embraced, matched only by their insatiable lust for blood.

Of the orcs who lingered on the killing fields, only one was not engaged in annihilation. His sword was sheathed and he knelt beside man after man, digging through their purses and other belongings. There was little of worth—a few coins and rings that might have value—but the orc had no interest in them. He was not possessed of a lust for shiny baubles as his human cousins were. These things were of no consequence for someone who had put his faith in the gods to carry him to the greater beyond on the wings of savagery.

His name was Bijshk, Second Born of Buuwl the Fourth Sectatrian, Killer of Men, Ravisher of Women, Singer of Lamentations. He fervently believed in the new age the gods had promised. That they were harbingers of doom for all those—men and elves—who had cast their less favored cousins from the warmer and sweeter domains of the earth. Leaving them only hollowed out mountains, frigid and unwelcoming, or deserts where nothing could grow and no water could be found.

The privations his kind had suffered had made them unbreakable and unforgiving. They would see themselves triumphant, standing upon the bones of those they had vanquished. They would wipe the world clean and make it anew in the image of the gods. Those who had summoned them forth from the hidden darker places where they had waited until their time was upon them.

It was now. Bijshk exulted in the triumph of all his brothers.

Read the rest at Circumambient Scenery.

In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…

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Now Available: Dance of Shadows

War with the Shadow Men looms in both realms as the consequences of the Gvers’ Council in Craitol begin to make themselves known. A war that could end in glorious triumph or bitter disaster.

Doubt shadows everyone’s steps, for they know there are no certainties in the desert. Especially now the Shadow Men have made the art of alkemya their own.

No one has more questions than Vyissan, for he is working in service to a cause he is no longer sure he believes in. And now he must undertake a journey with those who both loathe and fear him. Before the first sword is drawn, his life will be under threat.

But his will not be the only one, for somewhere in the desert the Shadow Men lie in wait…

Dance of Shadows is the final volume in The Shadow Men.

Available at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords

Coming Soon: Dance of Shadows

Available December 2015

War with the Shadow Men looms in both realms as the consequences of the Gvers’ Council in Craitol begin to make themselves known. A war that could end in glorious triumph or bitter disaster.

Doubt shadows everyone’s steps, for they know there are no certainties in the desert. Especially now the Shadow Men have made the art of alkemya their own.

No one has more questions than Vyissan, for he is working in service to a cause he is no longer sure he believes in. And now he must undertake a journey with those who both loathe and fear him. Before the first sword is drawn, his life will be under threat.

But his will not be the only one, for somewhere in the desert the Shadow Men lie in wait…

Dance of Shadows is the final volume in The Shadow Men.