A sneak peak at Baneborn

November 13, 2016

Hey, folks. It’s certainly been awhile and even then, I admit I wasn’t that consistent on keeping this blog active. I thought I would start up again by offering a peak at one of the things that’s been keeping me busy the past while.

So without further ado, here is the first scene from Baneborn, my post-apocalyptic SF action adventure that I can best describe as the Old West meets the X-Men, somewhere in the vicinity the U.S. Northeast. I hope you enjoy.

Cheers

Leo

Chapter One

Malcolm squatted behind the birches above the tuskers’ camp and waited for the killing to start.

Juniper bushes crowded close, strung with spider weavings and dewdrops that sparkled. Kristine had always kept fresh-cut boughs on the mantle and added the oil to her bath and her beeswax candles. The bushes brought her to mind with a fierceness that tore his heart open all over again.

He plucked a juniper berry and crushed it under his nose. The piney scent was a damned sight better than the stench of burnt methane and saltpeter from the flamer crew behind him. He couldn’t abide that smell, not anymore. Not after losing Kristine and their daughter the way he had.

It roused a speck of sympathy for the tuskers, but a Baneborn couldn’t afford sympathy. He had a duty, an obligation, to every soul in the Territory. People looked up to him, depended on him. Hell, they even revered him like some prophet of old. And these tuskers had killed Pure folk—that couldn’t go unanswered without the Territory being considered weak and ripe for predation.

A robin warbled off to the left and four others talked back—Sanjay and his rangers had reached their positions. They could slip about like ghosts in a fog, but a Baneborn’s ears could hear them. Malcolm knew where each was at every step.

The rangers fired in a tight volley.

He pulled his carbine from its back holster, sidled up to a birch, and poked his head around. Sanjay and his rangers had it well in hand. Five tuskers had fallen—shot clean through the brainpans.

The six survivors howled and flung their spears, random, into the underbrush.

Another volley tore into them.

The last tusker staggered back in shock and took stock of his kin. Blood and brains glistened on the soft carpet of fiddleheads and moss. He fell to his knees and threw up his arms in desperate surrender. “No more, no more.” The words came clear enough, despite his grown-out tusks.

Sanjay stepped out and finished him with a single shot. No mercy. No malice. Just done, without complication, for the good of the Territory. Men and women who found pleasure and sport in killing had no place in Malcolm and Sanjay’s command.

They didn’t always see eye to eye, but Malcolm didn’t trust another man more. Besides, they’d married sisters. That made Sanjay the closest thing to a brother he had.

He holstered his carbine and stepped down into the clearing. His hands came to rest out of habit on the cutlasses that rode at his hips. Brutal weapons designed for close-quarters butchery, with thick spikes for pommels and bone-cracking brass studs on their basket hilts.

Anna and the flamer crew followed. They would have cornered the tuskers faster if Anna had waited back at the skiffs, but the master maker hadn’t cared to be left. Malcolm knew better than to waste time arguing with her. She came on with jaw set and smoky-blue eyes hard, all business. The act didn’t fool him. The slaughter had left her rattled—her hand trembled as it tucked a stray lock of flaxen hair behind her ear. He didn’t want her to get used to seeing things like this.

The tuskers’ camp was typical of any mutan roost, with tents and lean-tos made from a motley of stitched hides and moldy canvas. Some Abomination with six legs roasted on the spit over the morning fire. Tuskers got their name from their piggish features. If they had a different one for themselves, Malcolm didn’t know it and had never cared to ask. Pure folk were seldom inclined to converse much with any breed of mutan before the killing started.

Sanjay nudged a glint with the toe of his boot and picked it up. It was a flask. “Has ‘J.L.’ stamped on it.”

“Jeff Lewis was one of the trappers killed,” Anna said.

“The fools should have known better than to spend the night in the Wild,” Malcolm said. “A trap line ain’t worth your life.”

They’d come across the trappers’ camp on a routine sweep for Black Rot north of the Poisoned River. Three men carved up like their innards hid something of value, picked clean of tools, weapons, and any metal that could be used for either.

Shrill squawking shattered the quiet. It came from one of the tents. Two rangers grabbed the poles and ripped the whole thing aside.

Anna saw them first. The color fled her face. “Oh, shit.”

The tuskers had young.

Two of them—newborns swaddled and bedded down, like any Pure-born child of the Territory. They appeared almost Pure, far more than their parents, at least. Soft pink skin, still free of bristle. Little piggish noses that might have been cute. No tusks yet to stretch their faces into something horrid.

But still, they were tuskers, mutans. Abomination. Unclean.

Malcolm’s gut tied itself in knots. One wailed for its mother. The other baby stared at them, curious and intent.

Don’t call it a baby. Don’t even think it.

They’d die anyway if just left, likely gnawed and pecked to death by scavengers before exposure could claim them. He couldn’t abide that kind of pointless cruelty any more than the alternative.

Anna swallowed hard. “Malcolm?”

The flamers’ smell came so strong he clenched his jaw against the urge to gag. An eyeful passed between Sanjay and Anna, stuffed with worry, pity even. The pity he couldn’t stomach, not even from his friends, least of all from them. Sanjay’s rangers did their best to preoccupy themselves with the tuskers’ meager possessions.

The hungry babe wailed louder.

Sanjay put his hand on Malcolm’s arm. “Hey, boss. There’s still that patch of Black Rot back aways to check out. I can finish this.”

Anna nodded in agreement, but looked ready to puke. Only a coward would leave her snagged in this. She shouldn’t even be here, but the field test of new flamers had given her a ready excuse to get away from her work bench for a spell. He should be the one making the hard choice, doing the bloody work that needed doing. He always had been.

But that was before.

His legs itched to leave. “Fair enough.”

He turned away only to be confronted by the flamer crew. Three techs with little experience in the Wild, tanks strapped to their backs, igniters ready in their hands. They didn’t look any more enthusiastic about the situation than Anna. He rubbed his fingers beneath his nose, desperate for the scent of juniper. “Make it quick and clean.”

He strode off into the forest as fast as he could without breaking into a run.

They waited, of course. But he had nowhere he could go fast enough. The wail of the tusker babe stopped short. Its silence ripped through him like a lead slug.

Excerpt: The Sword and the Skull

March 13, 2014

Here it is, the beginning of the epic fantasy manuscript I am currently shopping to agents. Constructive feedback is welcome and can be sent to my email above (trying to curb the spam bots) or my Twitter account (which I assume is likely what led you here).

The Sword and the Skull

By Leopold J. Valiquette

Chapter One

The iron bells of the Holy Clerisy summoned the faithful of Vysus to morning prayers.

It had been eight years since Sabelwood, and Ryn still couldn’t bear the sound of it.  Bells had tolled that night, too.  They had been different bells, in a far distant place, but the Clerisy’s cry was the same, wherever it ruled, always shouting the crimes he had committed in its name.  A tide of anxious fear, thick and dark, threatened to smother him, driven closer with each strike of the bells’ clappers.  Some mornings were worse than others.  Today, it was coming on like a raging bear defending her cubs.

He took slow, measured breaths and focused on the singsong chants of the shamanists, rising from a thousand rooftops in praise of the new sun.  The rhythms of the two religions drifted through the bedroom’s narrow window with the teasing aromas of outdoor cooking hearths and bread ovens.  He could sense the arid heat of the isthmus, rising to chase away the night’s cool respite, through the thick walls of mud brick and stucco.

By the time the bells had gone silent, the worst of his terrors had passed, his penance done for another day.

Josalind’s face was still buried in her pillow, arms cradled over her head.  Ryn attempted to slip from beneath the linen sheets without rousing her, but his foot had barely passed the edge of the mattress before her slender frame was astride his waist and coppery red curls tickled his cheeks.

“And where do you think you’re off to?” she asked.

Ryn looked deep into the milky cataracts that blinded her, but, as always, saw only the sea-green lost beneath.  “I’ve got to get something.”

“Do you, now?”  She brushed her lips across his chin.  “You dreams were dark again last night.”

“Were they?”

Did her Sight give her only a sense of their nature, or did she know more?  She had never said, and he had never mustered the courage to ask.  He seldom remembered his dreams, but if they were dark, there was little doubt about what they concerned.  For so long he had wanted to tell her about Sabelwood, of how his cowardice on that evil night was the true beginning of the road that had brought them together and led to Vysus.  But as the years had passed, it had become that much more difficult to speak of it.  It was his secret, his shame, his burden to bear.

He savored a slow kiss before wiggling out from under her.  “Wait here.”

“For what?”

“Just wait.”

He visited the water closet, pulled on a loose cotton shirt and short pants, and made for his desk in the common room of their apartment.  A palatar’s sword rested in its scabbard against the desk–a bitter reminder of faith forsaken and oaths broken that he couldn’t bear to cast away.  Facets of stained glass were mounted in the squarish pommel, glimmering with the colors of the Clerisy as if the sword hungered to answer the bells’ call to duty.  His fingers strayed without thought across the wire-wrapped hilt, relishing the comfort of it, before redirecting to the task at hand.

From the desk drawer, Ryn retrieved a silver hand vase–the kind of accessory used by young women to carry nosegays at a wedding.  But no priest of the Clerisy would have suffered the presence of this particular item in their chapel if they had known of its origins in a sorcerer’s summoning chamber.

The vase held the Durassi sand lily he had cut the night before.  The heavy bloom was as broad as his outstretched hand–hundreds of delicate petals arranged in lazy, asymmetrical circles, shaded purple, violet, and indigo.  It was all but impossible to make the damned thing grow away from its native soil; he had cursed and fussed for two years to coax this single flower from among a half dozen plants.  Thanks to the wraukuic enchantment upon the vase, the bloom would never wilt.

A sudden inhalation sounded at his shoulder, giving him a start.

“Smells heavenly,” Josalind said.

He cast an angry glare at her, futile though it was.  “I said to wait.”

“Did you?”

She plucked the vase from his hand with accuracy that never failed to surprise him and waved it beneath her nose as if sampling the bouquet of a fine wine.  She loved to be among flowers.  A dozen species crowded the rooftop garden above, spilling from bedding boxes and terracotta pots, beneath a pergola draped with flowering ettel vines.  She tended them all meticulously by touch and smell alone.

“Heavenly,” she said again.  She leaned up and planted a kiss.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, happy anniversary.”  There was little chance he could remain annoyed with her given the simple pleasure she had taken in the gift.  If only it were as easy to preserve everything rare and precious, protect it from the ravages of time and ill fortune.

How many times can she touch the souls of the dead before they claim her?

It was an old fear, one without obvious cause beyond his poor understanding of her rare gifts as a Reader.  Once in awhile she would try to explain what it was like to touch the soul of someone dead for centuries, to read their story from a piece of tattered cloth or weathered bone, but words were seldom adequate.

He drew her close in a bid to shake off his dark thoughts.  “How I love you.”

“And I you,” Josalind said.  “But you’ve still given me no sense of a gift for you.”

“I’ve no need of anything I don’t already have.”

She thumped her fist against his chest.  “Spit and spray, Ryn Ruscroft!  You’re horrid when it comes to gifting.”

“So you tell me.”  He nuzzled the soft flesh of her neck and savored the subtle scent of jasmine.  “Your joy is all that matters to me, that’s gift enough.”

Her posture tensed, and her breath caught as if she meant to speak, but she didn’t.

“What?”

“Nothing.”  She relaxed and nibbled his earlobe.  “I think we can put off opening today, don’t you?”

A loud fist struck the door of the shop below.

Josalind cocked her head.  “Somebody’s out early.”

“Somebody who can’t heed a bloody sign.”

“It’s in a rather poor place.  Even I find it hard to spot.”

Ryn snorted.  “Gods save me from such a wicked wit.”  He went to the window and peered at the mirror mounted under the eave outside to show the entrance.  “It’s Teshga.”

“Teshga?  It’s not like him to come a-calling without a fair hail and hout.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ryn said.  “And he doesn’t have his factor or any porters with him, either.”

“He must have a tale to tell,” Josalind said.  “Best put on a drip a tea.”

#

Teshga unwrapped the skull and placed it upon the receiving table of the shop’s viewing room.  His hands shook so much the skull slipped from his grasp and hit the table with a crack.

“Oh my,” Josalind said softly, her attention riveted upon the object as if she could still see.  She was in her customary position on her favorite floor pillow, weight resting on one elbow.

Ryn sat back in his own pillow and regarded Teshga with concern.  In keeping with his superior caste and rank, the Teishlian merchant’s attention to dress and personal grooming bordered on the obsessive.  But on this day, his striped pantaloons were smudged with dirt, several days’ growth of beard masked his dusky features, and his raven hair was in desperate need of a good brushing.  Even the blossom knot that secured his silk kafahra at the shoulder was poorly tied.

“Well?  Have you nothing to say?” Teshga asked.

“It’s a fake,” Ryn said.

“A … a fake?  I haven’t enjoyed a proper rest since I acquired the thing.  No, no, no, respected Ryn.  This … this is like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Ryn waited for Josalind to speak, but she said nothing.  Which in itself was odd–she was usually the first to ask after the details of a relic.  He crossed his arms and looked back to Teshga.  “You think it’s a martyr.”

“This is no trinket for your pilgrim trade, respected Ryn.”

Nothing short of death could dampen Teshga’s devotion to the finer points of Teishlian social protocol.  The merchant’s fondness for that word seldom bothered Ryn, but on this morning, it sounded more condescending than deferential.

Tesgha floated his palm above the skull’s crown.  “This … this is a sorcerer’s skull–maybe even that of Zangtemias.”

Zangtemias. Storm Devil, Desert Wraith, Scourge of Aegias–the dread sorcerer who had fought with the Teishlian legions during the Aggression with the Four Kingdoms.

Ryn took a deep breath to quell the sudden surge of his pulse.  “Nothing eight hundred years old is going to look like that.”

“The jawbone,” Teshga said with a nod.  “I too shared such doubts, respected Ryn, but if you just pick it up and …”  He made a vague gesture.

Ryn still didn’t know what to make of Teshga’s stressed demeanor or Josalind’s strange silence, but with every tick of the Jendalian pillar clock in the corner, a vague unease settled deeper into his stomach and made him yearn for his sword.

He laid his hand upon the skull.  The bone was cold–a cold that bit deeper than ice, a cold that didn’t belong this side of the grave.  The thought raised the hairs on the nape of his neck.  He shook off the feeling and picked up the skull, surprised by the weight.  It was large, with a strong jaw and broad cheekbones, but its unusual weight made it seem even larger, as if it had come from some giant three yards tall.

The jawbone was stuck in place, without any sign that it had been glued.  Nor was it bound to the skull by parched tissue, as he had seen with remains found mummified in the Durassi Desert.  The bone was the burnished brown of ancient bronze, as if it had spent years in peaty earth.

He turned the skull around to face its death grin.  The eye sockets were pits of darkness.  He angled the skull toward the light of the nearest oil lamp, but the darkness remained.  Something seemed to crouch there.

Ryn leaned closer–and found himself perched on the edge of an abyss.  He couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t move.  All he could do was teeter on the edge, frozen in the moment, waiting to fall and helpless to stop it.  Things of smoke and shadow danced at the edge of sight.  A soft whispering called to him, compelling him to listen.  Louder and louder it grew, ‘til it permeated his entire being.  He couldn’t understand, couldn’t tell if it was one voice or many.  All he knew for certain was that it would drive him mad.

He tore his gaze away, gasping for air as if he had been trapped under water.  His hands were now as shaky as Teshga’s, and he struggled to place the skull back on the table.

“You see?” Teshga said.  “Only a sorcerer’s skull would hold that kind of connection with the Ravager’s realm.  A very powerful sorcerer.”

Ryn’s skepticism was lost somewhere in the depths of the skull’s glare.  Strip away the Clerisy propaganda that vilified Zang as the Ravager Incarnate and the man was still a legend, spoken about with awe and fear by Vysus’s sorcerer Brotherhood.  Dozens of relic hunters over the years claimed to have found this part of Zang or that, but every one had been proven false.

Josalind remained still, as if paralyzed by the mere presence of the thing.

“Where did you get it?” Ryn asked.

“From one of my usual contacts,” Teshga said.

“Tell me exactly where and how you got this thing.  Otherwise, there’s the door.”

Teshga’s gaze hardened, and his hands stopped their endless fidgeting.  “You are not the only dealer in town, my respected friend.”

“But I’ve got the best contacts,” Ryn said.  “If this is what you think, you know I’ll squeeze a better price than anyone else.  You also know I don’t touch unknown goods.”

Teshga fussed with a crease in his pantaloons.  “You must know of the caravan that was attacked near Eishlemas.”

It had been the stuff of gossip and conjecture at every opium den, alehouse, and market forum across the city for days.  Ryn’s empty stomach refused to lie quiet.  “I’ve heard it was a bloody massacre.  That it seemed a wrauku’s work.”

“The garrison down there searched the area for days but found nothing,” Teshga said.  “No tracks, no bodies, no weapons.  There were twenty guards with that caravan, eighty people in all.  Most of them died with their steel still in the sheath.”

“Are you telling me this is from that caravan?”

“A stumas I know with the Eishlemas guard found the body of a brother cenobite,” Teshga said.  “But couldn’t tell from which order.  This brother had wandered off from the caravan, trailing his own innards.  He was still clutching the skull, even in death.”

“You think whatever massacred the caravan was looking for the skull.”

“I don’t know, respected Ryn.  If so, why was the skull left?  But you know as well as I how sorcerers crave things that will grow their power.  Few of them would care if innocent blood was spilled in pursuit of a worthy prize.”

“Let me read it,” Josalind said, her tone sharp.

Ryn grimaced.  If the skull affected him and Teshga so strongly, what would it do to her?  Reading powerful relics often brought on fierce headaches that could last for days.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Jos.”

“How can you sell it if you don’t know for certain who it is?” she asked.

“I can find out another way,” Ryn said.

“Do you really think you can trust a sorcerer to look into this for you if it’s half the prize Teshga thinks it is?”

Ryn took her hand.  “Are you sure about this?”

“It’s what we do, isn’t it?” she said.  “In for a drop, in for the whole bucket.”

Ryn reluctantly sat back and waited.  Teshga said nothing, but had resumed his fidgeting with such vigor Ryn considered asking him to wait outside.

Josalind rose up on her knees and reached out with both hands, fingers spread wide.  Her breath caught, and she yanked back as if the very air above the skull was burning hot.

“Jos–”

“No.  It’s all right.  He’s … he’s just so strong, so dark.”

Ryn and Teshga exchanged a look.  The way she said “he” implied that she already knew to whom the skull belonged, but Ryn had never known her to be able to read an object without touching it.

As if to keep from losing nerve, Josalind gritted her teeth and snatched up the skull.  For one endless moment, nothing happened.  Ryn waited for the usual signs of a reading–for her eyes to close and her features to take on that vacuous expression.  But her eyes spread wider and wider, until he feared they would pop from their sockets.  A vein at her temple throbbed, and the muscles along her jaw stood out beneath her pale skin.

Something was wrong, terribly wrong.

She threw back her head and screamed with raw anguish before collapsing to the floor.  The skull remained clutched in her hands as if the bone had fused to her flesh.

Chapter Two

Josalind didn’t stir through the rest of the day or the night that followed.

Ryn barely slept and seldom left her side.  His only company was their neighbor, Jufiena, who clucked over Josalind as if she were her own daughter and kept him at a distance with an icy silence.  He couldn’t deny the righteousness of her ire.  That it had been Josalind’s own decision to touch the skull, that he had learned long ago to trust her judgment when it came to such things, did little to ease his guilt.  Instead, it burned with a bitterness that grew hotter with each fretful hour.

The cathedral’s bells, the chants of the shamanists, and the arrival of three city guardsmen on Ryn’s doorstep greeted the new day.  The guardsmen were grim, somber, and intolerant of any protest.  He had little choice but to let them escort him to where his presence was required in the Harbor Ward.  They made no effort to prepare him for the horror of what he would see.

It was Teshga.

The merchant’s body was already beginning to stink as the rising sun beat full upon it, yet the seabirds that scavenged for scraps on the docks only a few blocks away were strangely absent; even they could sense something foul and unnatural had been at work.

Meticulous care had been taken to ensure Teshga’s body remained fixed to the warehouse door.  Stakes penetrated the wrists, the feet, and the soft tissues beneath the arms and ribs.  Even his ears had been pinned back so that his empty stare would accost anyone who passed.  His kafahra was torn open to expose his torso.  The gutting had been executed with the clean precision of a master butcher, leaving a gaping hole between crotch and breastbone.

What did they do with his guts?

The clench of Teshga’s jaw, the gnarled contortion of his fingers, revealed that these atrocities had been visited upon him while he still lived.  Ryn had witnessed the same or worse by grenlich, done to cherished comrades in arms, but this was different.  It took him a moment to master his shock and realize how.

There wasn’t a single drop of blood to be seen, anywhere.

Ryn had never heard tell of such a murder, even in this godless place.  There was no dismissing it as coincidence.  Teshga had died for the very skull that now lay hidden in his shop.

Sour bile churned his stomach and threatened to gag him.  It wasn’t grief, or even revulsion.  It was fear–fear of what this meant, fear of what might happen to Josalind and Jufiena in his absence.

He tore his gaze away from the body and scanned the crowd that had gathered beyond the cordon of city guardsmen, desperate to spot something, anything, which would betray the identity of the murderer, returned to admire their gruesome handiwork.  But he saw only sailors and longshoremen, courtesans and fortunetellers, shopkeepers and civil servants, street hustlers and opiate peddlers, rubbing shoulders with no regard for rank or station.  Among them were merchants, adventurers, and pilgrims from across the Four Kingdoms, drawn by the riches of the Empire and the fool’s promise that salvation could be found in the footsteps of Aegias and the relics of the Aggression.

“Ryn.”

The same horrid fascination was mirrored on a hundred faces and echoed in the murmur of a hundred voices throughout the crowd.  Ryn throttled the urge to shout at them all to be silent and grant Teshga some final dignity.

“Ryn!”

He turned to the man who had spoken–the guardsman in command of the scene, Stumas Kerith Estagon–certain his fear was plain to see, separate and distinct from the horror he should have felt at the sight of Teshga’s body.  Kerith was one of the few men in Vysus he called friend, but there were considerations here that went beyond friendship.  “It is Teshga.”

“Uh-huh.”  Kerith held Ryn’s gaze, one hand massaging the pommel of his short sword, the other tapping a stout cudgel upon his cuirass of black leather.  “The killer must have been a sorcerer.”

Ryn glanced up at the jagged underbelly of the City Above where it hung a half-mile above the earth, casting its cold shadow upon all who dwelled below.  There was never any doubt as to where the true power lay in Vysus.  “You mean a wrauku.”

“What’s the difference?  Behind every wrauku there’s a sorcerer holding its leash.”

“It could’ve been a rogue that slipped free of its master’s hold,” Ryn said, as futile as he knew it was to cling to such vain hope.

Kerith stepped up to the body and tapped one of the stakes with his cudgel.  “What do you make of this?”

Ryn forced himself to step closer.  The stakes were all the same, splintered from bones.  Human thighbones.

How they had been driven into the wood without shattering was of little consequence.  What struck him was their obvious age, as if they had been looted from graves centuries old.

“Looks like someone’s trying to send a message,” Kerith said.  He smoothed the wispy growth that he attempted to pass off as a moustache.  “A quite particular message.”

Ryn pressed his hands flat against his hips to hide their trembling.  “So it would seem,” he said, in as even a tone as he could muster.

“It’s a sign, an omen!  Zangtemias will return!”

The outburst had come from some old street oracle, as she tried to force herself between two of Kerith’s men.  The onlookers nearest stumbled over each other in their haste to back away, as if she carried something contagious.

“His dark spirit is among us even now, even here!”  She fixed Ryn with her mad glare and beat in vain upon the guards’ shoulders.  “Let me pass.  He must be warned.  Everyone must be warned!”

“Gods be damned,” Kerith said.  “Muzzle that crone and toss her in the lockup ‘til she comes to her senses.”

He watched his men drag her off, kicking and screaming, before looking back to Ryn.  “Don’t need that kind of hysteria taking hold.  The whole isthmus is already up in fits over that butchered caravan in Eishlemas.  My superiors are wondering if Teshga’s murder might be connected.”  He glanced up at the City Above.  “The Savant Council, of course, has said nothing about either incident–only that it’s doing its own investigation.”

He leaned close and spoke with quiet earnest.  “Did you hear what I said, Ryn?  The Council.  If there’s something going on here that sorcerers want to sweep under the rug, anyone even suspected of being involved might as well slit their own throats now as a kindness.  So talk straight, was Teshga at your shop yesterday, or not?”

Had whatever killed Teshga also been responsible for the slaughter of the caravan?  Had it extracted from him the skull’s location?  No, not likely, given that they were still alive.  Ryn savored the idea of telling Kerith everything and just handing the cursed thing over, but his gut told him that the most prudent course was to keep his mouth shut.  Denying any knowledge of the skull was the only leverage he had, but he knew such a thing couldn’t be kept hidden for long if wrauku were on its trail.

Kerith nudged his arm.  “Ryn?”

He looked his friend straight in the eye.  “No, he wasn’t.  Hadn’t seen him in a couple of months.”  Which was true enough.  The man who had visited the shop yesterday had not been the Teshga he knew.

The cudgel came to a sudden rest upon Kerith’s shoulder.  “Is that so.”

“You wanted an answer, there it is.”

Before Kerith could press the issue, a glimpse of silver and white caught Ryn’s eye.

Captain Tarven Calias, commander of the city’s palatar garrison, stood just inside the cordon, wearing a white tabard embroidered with the Tetraptych of the Clerisy.  He turned his flinty gaze from Teshga’s body and acknowledged Ryn with a brief nod.

Ryn didn’t return the gesture.  “What in the Ravager’s arse is he doing here?” he asked, making no effort to hide his contempt.

Kerith snorted and spat on the ground to express his own disgust.  “You need ask?  The Clerisy’s hounds are always sniffing around, pissing in our pots, since our new Bishop took office.  Which reminds me–did a deputation of local businesses not complain to the city magistrate yesterday about Clerisy harassment of late?”

“What of it?”

“Now ain’t that odd,” Kerith said.  “Figured you of all people would’ve been chief among them, considering how whipped up you’ve been about the Bishop’s new policies.”

“I was concerned with other things yesterday.”

“Like what?”

Ryn flexed his hands to keep them from clenching into fists.  Gods be damned!  I’ve no time for this.  “Josalind’s been under the weather.  You know how her readings can put her in a state sometimes.”

“But Jufiena is looking after her right now.”

“She has a business of her own to run, as do I,” Ryn said.  “So are we done here?”

Another commotion up the street drew their attention.  A group of Teshga’s countrymen approached bearing a bier and shroud, accompanied by drummers who beat a slow and somber rhythm as they came.  In accordance with their customs, only someone of pure Teishlian blood could touch Teshga’s body.  The procession was led by an impressive figure, resplendent in a scarlet kafahra and a felt hat with a brim so broad it shaded his shoulders.

“And here comes the Consul for the body,” Kerith said with a sigh.  “It’ll be past lunch before all the cursed ritual and formality is done with.”

“It’s their way,” Ryn said.  “Look, if I find out anything useful, I’ll let you know.”

Kerith rubbed at the furrows that knotted his brow and waved in weary dismissal.  “Fine.  Go.”

Ryn turned away, resisting the urge to break into a run for home, but a heavy hand landed on his arm before he could take more than a step.  He looked back and saw the concern in Kerith’s eyes.

“Watch your back,” he said.

“I always do.”

#

Ryn returned to Bonetraders Way at a brisk trot, eager to assure himself that all was well.  The shop was protected by wards, but given the current circumstances, he had little faith in anything that had been provided by a sorcerer, no matter how well compensated they had been for the work.

Across the street was Jufiena’s parlor, where she practiced the art of fortunetelling with some mild skill and no shortage of theatrics to impress her more gullible clientele.  Ryn’s keen eye caught a flicker of movement in the shadows of the alley beyond it.  A glimpse of a white tabard told him all he needed to know.  The new Bishop could march his toy soldiers around all he wanted–it was bark with little fear of bite.  Living in the shadow of the City Above wasn’t without its risks, but only in Vysus could a bonedealer and a fortuneteller set up shop without inviting the cruel hand of the Clerisy’s catechisors.

He bypassed the ground-floor entrance of the shop and took the stairs from the back alley up to the apartment.  Sweat trickled from his brow and he mopped his face with the hem of his shirt.  As his hand came down upon the latch, the door swung inward with such abruptness it startled him.

Jufiena folded her arms across her ample bosom and regarded him with eyes narrowed, unbowed by the near sleepless night they had both endured.  Age had fattened a once voluptuous figure, but she remained a handsome woman, with rich brown hair braided at the temples to frame her pleasant features.

Her expression at the moment, however, was anything but pleasant.

“Has she woken at all?” Ryn asked.

“Long enough to sip some tea and assure me she still has her wits about her,” Jufiena said.  “She’s sleeping again, but not so deathly as before, thank the gods.”

Ryn doubted the gods had anything to do with it, but an overwhelming sense of relief compelled him to give silent thanks, nonetheless.  He frowned when Jufiena remained rooted in the doorway.  “Can I come in?”

She turned away without a word and knelt before the brazier to tend her pot of ettel-thorn tea.  Most of the cooking was done in the outdoor hearth on the roof, but she had been loath to stray that far from Josalind’s bedside.

Ryn stepped through the door and closed it softly behind him.  Jufiena had laid out plates of dried fruits, cured meats, cheese, bread, and cashews upon the oval floor table, more likely in the hope that Josalind would rouse herself to eat than for his own benefit.  He collapsed into a floor pillow, kicked off his sandals and reach for an apple, though he had little interest in food.

The tick of the pillar clock sounded from the shop below, a rhythm that only served to heighten the tension in the air.  He tossed the apple back onto the plate.  “You always act like this was something I forced on her.”

“You never did hesitate to take advantage of it.”

Ryn’s face flushed.  “You damned well know I …”  He clenched his teeth and took a sharp breath.  Neither of them was in any state for a rational discussion on that subject.

A tortured moan interrupted them.  Ryn heaved himself up from the floor and strode into the bedroom with Jufiena on his heels.

Josalind looked like a bit of dandelion fluff, too slight to withstand even a breath of wind.  Her already pale skin bore a sickly pall, and her freckles stood out like the blotches of a pox.  Even her mass of curls lay listless on the pillow, stripped of their characteristic sheen.  But her sleep had grown fitful; she clutched the bed sheet between her fists as if she meant to tear it in half.

Ryn came to her side and laid his hand upon her brow.  She moaned again, and her large eyes darted about beneath their lids.

“Poor child,” Jufiena said, from the foot of the bed.  “What did Kerith want?”

He didn’t have the strength to get into it.  “I’ll tell you later.  Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?”

Jufiena went to the opposite side of the bed and brushed her hand along Josalind’s jaw.  “You let me know the moment she wakes again–whatever the time.”

“I will, our thanks for the help.”

After Jufiena had left, Ryn locked the door and sought out a much-needed glass of teisin root juice.  He savored the stimulant’s tart, tangy flavor before forcing himself to nibble at the food she had left out–it was the first he had eaten since the morning before.

Once he had blunted the edge of his hunger, he returned to the bedroom.  Josalind still slept, but more restfully than before.  He popped open the trap door camouflaged in the mahogany floorboards.  Most of his inventory was secured in the workroom below, but particularly rare and valuable items he secured here.

He drew forth the skull, once again surprised by how heavy it was, far heavier than it should have been, and by the chill of it.  The skull leered at him with a toothy grin, as if taking fiendish delight in the suffering it had inflicted upon Josalind and the trail of carnage that had followed after it.  Teshga had left it, obviously eager to distance himself, with the intention of making some discreet inquiries among his own contacts in the Brotherhood.

“Who are you, you bastard?” Ryn said, trying to avoid the hungry draw of the skull’s eye sockets.

A hand gripped his shoulder, giving him such a start his heart missed a beat or two, but it was only Josalind.

“Don’t speak to it,” she said.  “You’ll only provoke him.”

“Damned near gave me a death fright.”  He took note of the dark bags that ringed her eyes.  “How do you feel?”

She pressed the back of her hand to her brow.  “Like somebody tried to shake my brains out through my ears.”

“Maybe next time you’ll listen to me.  Why did you do such a fool-witted thing?”

“I … I had to know.”

“Know?  Know what?”

“It’s … I don’t know … It’s hard to give a fair tell.  Like it’s something I’ve been waiting for, but I didn’t know what it was ‘til I saw it.”

“You mean felt it.”

“I mean saw it–like a picture in my head.  It was there as soon as Teshga put the skull on the table.”

She had never described anything like that with any other relic.  “What do you mean you’ve been waiting for it?  What is it?”

“It’s … I think it’s why we came to Vysus.”

“We came to Vysus because it was the only place beyond the reach of the Clerisy.”

Josalind grasped his hand.  “Was that all?  How many times have we wondered why I was able to read after I was struck blind?”  Her frame trembled and she slumped back on the bed.  “I’m too soggy-brained for this.  Need to sleep some more after …”  She sniffed the air.  “A drip a tea, please.”

Ryn stifled his impatience, stowed the skull, and fetched her tea.  He waited until she was propped up with pillows and resting comfortably against his chest before breaking the news.

“Jos, Teshga is dead.  I think he was killed for the skull.”

She said nothing for a long moment, only sipped from the glass cupped between her hands.  “A wrauku?”

“Looks like.”

An odd moan sounded low in her throat.  “He called me ‘respected friend of the most honored dead.’”

He brushed his lips across her earlobe.  “I know.”

“I’ll miss that … promise me something.”

“What?”

“Tell no one about the skull.”

“But–”

Her nails dug into the flesh of his forearm.  “This is important, Ryn.”

A distinct rasp cut the air before he could respond.

The heavy bolt on the door that led out to the alley was being drawn.  But that could only be done from inside the apartment–unless a wrauku was being employed, one powerful enough to overcome the wards on the door.

Hellfire!  Was it already too late?

Josalind’s grip tightened.  “Ryn?”

He rose and stepped to the bedroom’s doorway, fists flexing in desperate need of a weapon.  His sword was on the far side of the common room, propped against the desk.  But if Teshga’s murderer had come for them, would mere steel be of any use?

The latch lifted, and the hinges squeaked briefly as the door swung open and then shut.  Ryn flattened himself against the wall and glanced through the doorway.  The intruder had the shape of a man, though appearances meant little where wrauku were concerned, and wore a plain, hooded cloak.  Ryn took one last look at Josalind before stepping out into the open.

The intruder turned at the sound of his approach and threw back the hood.

Ryn held no doubt that a wrauku had forced the door and lingered nearby, for the intruder was a man he recognized … and a sorcerer.

–30–

The roots of obsession and my Work in Progress

July 30, 2012

 By Leo Valiquette

For some time now I’ve been dropping hints on the Twittersphere about my efforts as a fiction writer. On this blog I’ve been decidedly more forthright. Nonetheless, I’ve been reluctant to spill the beans about just what my Work in Progress is all about.

It’s a bit ironic considering I get paid to help others tell their stories and actively push those stories to the media. I find it much easier to be a cheerleader for others before myself. But, no more. Here at last is my first blatantly self-promotional and self-indulgent blog post as a fiction writer.

A long time ago …

I suppose it all began when I was seven years old and my mother joined a book-of-the-month club with one of those deals where you get four free books for signing up. She chose E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, along with the novelization of a new movie that had just hit theatres – Star Wars. Yes, it’s true. At the age of seven, I was reading Star Wars. Well, to be honest, it was like wading through a snow bank on the ice planet Hoth that’s neck deep, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

In Grade 3, my teacher read the class The Hobbit, and I borrowed it for the summer when she wasn’t able to finish it by the end of the school year. I think it was the map in The Hobbit, as well as illustrated histories of ancient civilizations in my school library, that compelled me to create my own story settings. A few years later, I was using my allowance to buy a genre magazine, I think it was Famous Monsters of Filmland, which would serialize old flicks like The Blob and Rodan into written works of pulp fiction. Since I was never able to buy all the issues for the full story, I started writing my own endings.

In high school drama class, our teacher expected us to develop projects for the annual Renaissance Fair. Students could do anything from covers of Bill Cosby stand-up routines to dance, theatre and the fine arts. I decided to showcase my first stab at a fantasy novel, complete with maps and character illustrations that I had coerced a talented classmate into doing for me (wish I could find those).

By college, I had played with various ideas and redeveloped that first novel through several iterations. (I’ve since lost the most recent version of it, as well as the only draft of the sequel, but that’s a painful story for another post.)

The idea for a short story that grew into the epic fantasy currently titled Knight of Aegias first came to me in 1999. I have this problem writing short fiction—it always ends up bursting at the seams. I just can’t create a plotline without wanting to spend more time with the idea and the characters than the length constraints of a typical short story allow.

Birth of a monster

It wasn’t until July 2004 that I deemed the first draft done—a bloated and wordy beast that clocked in at 193,000 words. I actually queried a couple of agents about that thing. Hopefully they’ve long forgotten.

Then came ownership of a house in need of a little TLC, the responsibilities of being a newspaper editor and a little monkey named William. The manuscript was left to collect dust. I tried my hand at short fiction again, because it was, well, short, and did garner some encouraging feedback on the rejection slips.

A couple of years ago I finally resumed work on that 193,000-word monster with the aid of an axe named Delete and the indulgence of my long-suffering partner in all things, Natalie. I also hit my first literary conferences where I could engage with other writers, as well as agents and publishers. Today Knight of Aegias is a much leaner and meaner 123,000-word manuscript that I have begun shopping around to various agents with the aid of Publishers Marketplace.

The logline

So just what is my Work in Progress all about?  Knight of Aegias is the story of Ryn, a former soldier who broke faith with the church he served after his oaths to obey his superiors led him to betray his conscience and stain his hands with innocent blood. He finds a chance at redemption in the destiny of the woman he loves, but it comes at a price. Sometime soon I’ll share my agent pitch and the first chapter.

Is there a moral to be found in my journey as a fiction writer? If anything, I suppose it’s the tired old cliché that a writer writes, always. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. No matter where I’ve been, no matter what I’ve been doing, I’ve always been lured by the call of a blank page. Along the way there have been long periods of time in which the demands of life and making a living have taken precedence. But the desire to explore a world of my own making, the restless discontent that drives my compulsion to do better, the need to just tell a story—these things have always been there and always will be.

I have no idea if I will ever make a reasonable living from making stuff up, but that’s not really the point.

 

On Twitter