Check out this summer sale of SPFBO entrants on until 30th June. Lots of great fantasy books to choose from!
Trapped in his chrysalis of waterproof fabric, Frater Yory could do little except read the slim pamphlet he had brought over and over, until every word, every syllable, had been stamped into his consciousness. The mournful poetry of the exiled Rhumgadian poet, Versifer, captured his own melancholy perfectly. Here he was, clinging to a dragon’s tail ten thousand leagues from the golden halls of the Panatheneum, risking his life for another book and the knowledge it contained.
In between readings, he fell into the habit of staring at his wrist attracton, a wondrous gizmo, about twice the size of a Nosteran ducat, that told not the time but the location of its wearer in the huge void between worlds known as the Crevast. Yory had begun to despair that it had malfunctioned when the shrill ring of its alarm filled the tent. Turning it off, he strapped on the slim backpack holding his folded glider and the belt containing the tools of his trade. He threw a cloak over his matte black armor and slipped on his mask. He tucked the poetry book into a bag on his belt. It didn’t feel right to abandon a book, no matter how common and well read.
The wind ripped away the tent as soon as Yory cut through it. He watched it dance and writhe on the breeze until it shrank into the inky distance, then turned his attention to the black, hulking edifice standing before him. Its tens of slits flickered invitingly, but it was no inn. It was the sterncastle of a saddledeck and the scaly hillock on which it stood was the back portion of a dragon, the Baleful Shade. Yory stepped toward it, careful to hook his boots into the creature’s scales to avoid following his tent into the void. Beyond the dragon, villages lit up the curtain of cliffs at the brink of the continental shard of Magmel. Ahead lay the fabled city of Shamta, gleaming like a cluster of blue-white crystals. Yory had to recover the book and escape before the dragon reached it.
Reaching the sterncastle, he gently lifted one of its gunport flaps and peered inside. Two of the crew lay facedown on the deck. Another was draped over a cannon. Surely they couldn’t have passed out from drink. They emitted not the slightest hint of a snore, which was unusual and slightly alarming.
The port was too small for him to enter, so he used the gunports to climb up to the top deck of the structure. More unconscious crew littered saddledeck. Loose and torn sails billowed in the breeze and whipped about unsecured ropes. If pyrates had attacked the dragon, Yory surely would have noticed.
He crouched beside the nearest insensate man and turned him over. The draker was cold to the touch, but showed no sign of injury.
Whatever had happened, it made Yory’s recovery of the book even more urgent. He located the open hatch to the hold and descended the ladder.
He found the door of the chamber where the book was stored ajar. A metal pick protruded from the chest’s lock.
A thud behind Yory made him turn around. The bald, thin man standing before him was accoutered in similar fashion to Yory, except the stranger hadn’t bothered to wear a mask. He must have supposed he didn’t need one, having murdered any witnesses.
“It’s rather dangerous to leave the chest’s lock in that state,” Yory said, trying to sound casual. “The lock is booby-trapped. What department are you?”
The man’s sneer deepened. “Pyratical Studies.”
“I’m Pre-Cataclysm,” Yory said, doing his best to wring the tremble from his voice. “The book falls under my department’s remit.”
“Nonsense,” the stranger said. Metal quills protruded between his fingers like claws, each sharpened nib containing whatever toxin he had used to massacre the crew. “The tome is a copy of a Pre-Cataclysm original. It was part of the Emperor of the Void’s library and, as such, is the rightful property of my department.”
“I can’t believe any member of the Panatheneum would massacre the crew of a dragon for a book, no matter how precious.” Yory knew even as he spoke, it was a mistake, but anger had gotten the better of him.
“I’m Pater Viliber. You may have heard of me.”
Yory had. Pater Viliber was famed across the Panatheneum for his exploits. He had retrieved many rare tomes, often in the most challenging circumstances.
“You have, I see,” Viliber said. “Well, I spilled much blood to earn that reputation. I have killed hundreds, thousands, in the service of the Panatheneum. Your squeamishness is why you’re doomed to fail. You don’t want it enough. You must be a silly little frater on his first mission. Why do you think your mentors trained you to kill? We’re fighting a war to preserve knowledge and wars have casualties. The lives on board this dragon are inconsequential compared to the survival of this book. Besides, I only killed the crew of the saddledeck, not the cinchdeck or the headstall. I’m getting out of here before the dragon perches. I suggest you do the same.”
It was the dismissive way he turned his back that spurred Yory to draw his knife and lunge at him. “That book is my department’s, you thief!”
An array of glinting nibs jabbed at his face, forcing him to jerk his head back. A kick to the stomach sent Yory sprawling backward against the chest. As he tried to rise, Viliber pounced on him, his quills aimed at Yory’s eyes.
“I tried being collegial and letting you live, and this is how you repay my generosity,” Viliber said.
Yory forced himself to look from the nibs and stare into Viliber’s cruel eyes. “You said I needed to toughen up. You were right. I never imagined I could ever kill people in cold blood like you. Teach me. I’m a librarian already. Accept me into your department and I will do my best to be worthy of your trust.”
The nibs wavered as Viliber cogitated, no doubt calculating if Yory was worth the effort. “I’m sorry, Frat. I work alone.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Yory said, yanking the pick from the chest lock. The booby-trap exploded, punching a hole in Viliber’s side. Yory crawled from under the groaning man, thankful his foe’s deadly quills lay scattered on the surrounding floor. Flinging open what remained of the chest’s lid, he grabbed the book wrapped in cerulean silk from its resting place and raced out the door.
Viliber loped after him, listing to one side as he pressed a bloody cloth to his wound. “I’ve changed my mind. Your gumption has impressed me. Give me back that book and I’ll arrange your transfer to Pyratical Studies as a pater.”
Several loud thumps came from the deck above, followed by the thud and scuff of boots against the boards. Yory paused at the bottom of the ladder to the saddledeck, glimpsed the distant belly of a dragon through the open hatch. The Baleful Shade’s headstall must have signaled Shamta that its saddledeck was under attack, spurring the city to dispatch a boarding party to investigate.
As Yory dithered over what he should do, a humming ball of metal rolled between his feet. Viliber’s distant horselaugh mocked him as he raced away from the bomb. It exploded with a blinding flash, its loud boom knocking Yory to the floor. As the rain of wood fragments subsided, Yory glanced behind him. The ladder was gone and in its place, an enormous hole had been gouged in the decks. From somewhere above came panicked and angry shouts.
“You could have damaged the book,” Yory whispered to Viliber who stood on the opposite side of the hole.
“Take it as a sign of my confidence in your abilities, little Frater. It’s a pity your glider is busted.”
One of the folded wings hung limply from its backpack, broken and tattered. In disgust, Yory hit the release catch where the straps crisscrossed his heart and let it drop to the floor.
“Have no fear,” Viliber said, gesturing with his hand. “Your efforts are not in vain. My glider is in working order. Just give me the book and I will safely take it away from here.”
A rope dropped from above. At any moment, the boarding party would ascend.
“No time to wait,” Viliber insisted. “Give me the book.”
Yory leaped at the rope, grabbed it, drawing gasps and astonished cries from the soldiers above. As it swung near the far side, he let go, depending on his momentum would carry him across the gap. He rolled across the floor, slammed into Viliber and punched the clasp on his foe’s glider pack. Yory reached for the falling pack but abandoned it to block Viliber’s dagger as it swept toward him. While the two rivals grappled, more ropes descended. Soldiers armed with springbows slid down them. As they took aim, Yory seized Viliber and spun him into the path of their weapons. Several bolts dinged against Viliber’s armor, but one struck the back of his head, leaving a look of utter shock on his face and a triangular point peeping out of his slack jaw.
Yory used the dead man as a shield against a second volley while he slipped on the glider pack and grabbed a bomb in Viliber’s belt. As the soldiers struggled to prime their weapons for a third time, he dashed into the nearest compartment, and, yanking the pin from the bomb, tossed it against the wall with too much force. As it rolled back in his direction, he threw himself clear of its path. It passed through the doorway, eliciting cries from pursuing soldiers, only to reverse course with a whack back into the room.
As it rolled over to the outer wall, Yory covered his head with arms. The pulverizing force of the explosion reverberated through him. The air was thick with dust and splinters. Something heavy fell on top of him. Raindrops dampening his face helped him shake off his daze, and he crawled from under the fragment of wall or roof—he couldn’t tell which. The outer wall had been ripped away and nothing lay beyond except black, rainy void. Still clinging to the book, he released the unfolding mechanism of his glider and its wings spread out behind him. It didn’t look damaged, but could he be certain he could rely on it?
Yory didn’t wait to find out who had shouted or what they were aiming at him. He leaped into the slobbery darkness. A great wing rose in front of him like a tsunami of leather, forcing him to bank hard to the right. He squeezed through the narrow gap between the saddle and the wing until the latter fell away. As he glided away from the Baleful Shade, he glimpsed the holes punched in its saddle by Viliber’s bombs. The lights of its headstall and saddledeck blinked urgently at each other, while the headstall of the second dragon flying by its side no doubt observed the conversation. At any moment, one or both of the dragons might pursue him.
Yory steered for Magmel—it didn’t matter where. He hadn’t enough lift to reach the top of the cliffs, so he picked a broad ledge to land on. As he drew closer, he realized it was wider than he had imagined. There were several irrigated fields where he could safely land. As soon as he touched down, he unwrapped the book’s blood-spattered silk cocoon with trembling hands and sighed with relief. The ancient cookbook was undamaged.
© Noel Coughlan
A lie made Drinith one of Gyre’s rulers. It secured the city state’s support against her enemy, the tyrant Magian the Infinite. Now it threatens to destroy her.
Drinith voyages to Gyre’s bitterest rival, Ophigee, to convince its rulers to join the fight against Magian. But her audience with her hosts turns into an ambush.
Quick thinking wins her a reprieve from the execution block, but the route to salvation may well prove more treacherous than anything she has faced before. Everyone who attempts the journey she must undertake vanishes without trace. Can she succeed where they failed and uncover the secret that threatens not only Ophigee but her adopted homeland?
Greater Evil is the second book in the Champions of Fate, an epic fantasy series with fast-paced action, intriguing characters, and imaginative world-building. The ebook (Amazon only) and paperback are available HERE
The first book in the series, Fatal Shadow, free until 4th March, can be found HERE.
As I’m planning to launch Greater Evil on 28th February, I thought it worthwhile to do a bit of an introduction/refresher to sailed dragons used to travel across the vast distances of void between shards.
The crew of such dragons are known as drakers. Originally, they hailed from the fabled Aerhaunt Archipelago but they spread across the Crevast and mixed with other cultures, leading to most crews have diverse ancestories. They regard themselves as distinct from the peoples living on shards and refer to them as Landlubbers. They worship dragons rather than gods.
Though fiercely independent, they have built many powerful kingdoms in the past. They were unified briefly under the Emperor of the Crevast, but his empire fractured after his mysterious disappearance. Gyre and Ophigee are two successor states. During the Crevast Empire period, the peoples of the shards called them pyrates, a name that now only applies to those who engage in illegal activity.
Typically, the vessel on the back of the dragon is called the saddledeck. The saddlemaster is the senior officer on the saddledeck. From most viewpoints, it looks like a ship and most parts of it are named using nautical terms. However, the hull has two keels allowing the saddledeck to straddle the dragon’s back. The dragon’s dorsal spikes stick through the hull giving the saddledeck some added ‘grip’. A strap around the dragon’s midriff is critical to keep the saddledeck secure.
This strap is protected by the cinchdeck, a series of connected compartments across the dragon’s belly. These compartments can be used for transporting people or goods. The cinchdecks of most drake-o’-wars are equipped with cannons. The cinchmaster is in charge of the cinchdeck.
The headstall is a structure under the dragon’s frill that extends in a band around the dragon’s head. A key part of it is the pineye, the compartment from where the captain commands. Generally, the pineye is easy to spot because of its large, hemispherical window. The whisperers are also based in the headstall. They are the drakers who communicate directly with the dragon by crawling into the dragon’s ears. They are treated with reverence by the rest of the crew and are paid in dragon wax.
Because the headstall is subject to the movement of the dragon’s head, navigation is managed in a compartment in the saddledeck’s quarterdeck called the whereabout. This contains an attracton, a ‘compass’ which is pulled toward different shards to varying degrees based on their relative positions. The whereabout also communicates with the headstall by means of signal lights. Commands are relayed to the cinchdeck by speaking tubes.
The dragon must bend back its head to facilitate boarding of the headstall from the saddledeck. The gap between them is bridged by the springboard. During flight, the headstall, saddledeck, and cinchdeck are physically isolated from each other so trust between the captain and his two senior officers is critical.
It’s time for a look back over the progress last year.
(1) I published Fatal Shadow on Amazon, the first book in the Champions of Fate Epic Fantasy series. Despite a less than successful launch, it has come good. Reviews/ratings are trickling in and most people seemed to have enjoyed it.
(2) I published Hoard, a horror short story on Amazon. This was originally written for the newsletter at Halloween and given away free to its subscribers before its official release.
(3) Through Ingram Spark, I expanded the availability of the paperbacks of The Golden Rule series (A Bright Power Rising/The Unconquered Sun/The Parting Gift) and also No Escape. This was largely because the titles were appearing on many on-line retailers but weren’t available. I also sorted out related issues on these sites where the book covers were missing or showed old covers.
(5) I published a background/history of The Golden Rule series in the newsletter and my website.
(6) Fatal Shadow’s sequel, Greater Evil, is finished except for a final proofread. I plan to publish it in February.
Travel by wing & sail to the floating city of Gyre. Get Fatal Shadow for free on Amazon until 22nd April. Check it out HERE.
Long ago, magic cracked apart the world and suspended great continents between two suns. But the ebb and flow of human history continues. Trade and war cross the void on dragon wings. Great empires rise and topple…
As the rightful heir to one such fallen state, Drinith has known only exile, dashed hope, and constant threat. She has so far eluded the murderous intentions of the tyrant Magian the Infinite thanks to the prophetic visions of the oracle, Quiescat, but his power is failing. All he can glimpse in the future now is his own death.
An assassin’s blade forces her into a desperate gamble. She takes her one final chance to secure the ally she so desperately needs. But at the end of her journey, she’ll find deceit, betrayal, and murder. And she’ll learn Magian isn’t the only threat to her people.
Fatal Shadow is the first of six books in the Champions of Fate epic fantasy series for those readers who enjoy fast-paced action, intriguing characters, and imaginative world-building.
The ebook is now available on Amazon HERE. Check out the prequel short story No Escape.
(You can find Chapter 1 HERE.)
A high-pitched cry pierced Quiescat’s heart. In the instant he took to react, Gelasin had dashed out of the room. Quiescat stumbled after him into the corridor.
Anxious faces peered through opening doors. A stranger, claret-skinned and yellow-eyed, stepped into the hall, naked save for his rapier. Another assassin. Quiescat froze.
The man arched a hairless eyebrow. “It’s me, Halyard.” He pointed to a pair of interlocked emblems tattooed in yellow on his chest. One of them, an alerion taking flight, belonged to his lover; the other, a peridexion tree, must be his own. Below them was a straight, bright scar. Stripped of his fine clothes and makeup, the courtesar was all but unrecognizable. He looked a much older man, particularly with his cropped pate. His signature feathery coiffure was clearly a wig. The absence of his platform shoes was likewise telling, robbing him of both real and figurative stature.
The gray-blue lowlander, Zin, burst from the opposite room in full armor, sword in one hand, dagger in the other. A murderous grin was set in the diamond of laughter lines between the sharp nose and prominent chin of his long, scrawny face. His black hair was even neatly tied back. Gelasin must have forewarned him but not the courtesar, for some reason.
The far end of the corridor filled with the echoey thuds of rushing palace guards, arrived much too late.
“You all wait here!” Gelasin growled as he dashed into Drinith’s room. Zin’s grin slid away as he staggered to a halt. Quiescat slipped between him and Halyard and followed Gelasin inside.
The fault for this debacle lay with Quiescat, not Gelasin. Quiescat shouldn’t have let the warrior sway him. Fighting and killing was the limit of Gelasin’s understanding. He respected only killers like Zin and couldn’t countenance following anyone who didn’t share his infatuation with violence. The supposed wiser man had heeded the counsel of a bloodthirsty old fool.
Jarma stood by the bed, her face stretched with horror, a bloody axe dangling from her hand. Quiescat followed her dazed stare to where the princess lay. Gelasin’s crouched back obscured everything except her bare feet. Quiescat seized the warrior’s shoulder to pull him out of the way. Gelasin swung around and punched him so hard he flew backward across the room, smacking the wall. He kept upright despite his stupefaction. His nose throbbed with raw pain. Rivulets of blood tickled his lips and chin.
“You damned lunatic!” Quiescat spluttered.
“Sorry,” Gelasin said with a casual shrug. “Force of habit. My reflexes are honed to react instantaneously to uninvited contact.”
Scowling, Quiescat sought his handkerchief and delicately pressed it to his nose. “I’m sure it’s broken,” he observed sullenly.
“Shall I just let Drinith bleed while I set it for you? A simple procedure. I’ll just hold your beak between my hands and twist—”
“Of course not,” said Quiescat, taken aback. Trust Gelasin to make him feel contemptible despite being the victim of his fist. “How bad is she?”
Gelasin examined the wound for an unbearable length of time before he set about treating it. “She’s fine. The cut’s superficial.” He shifted to reveal the princess’s blood-spattered face. Too weak to speak, she wore a brave grin to confirm Gelasin’s assertion—and to conceal her distress from her companions. Quiescat’s relief numbed the sting of his injury.
Gelasin picked up the assassin’s blade. “Yeah, she’s fine—as long as the blade was clean. He looks like he’s from our home shard.”
Still holding the handkerchief to his stinging nose, Quiescat strode over to the headless corpse. Kneeling stiffly, he examined it. He turned one hand over to discover a tattoo on its palm: five white stars arranged in a circle. “His order doesn’t resort to poison.” The pentaculars never needed to. They always killed their quarry by dint of sheer determination and brute strength. “And they’re not from Rhumgad. They’re local.” He warned Gelasin off interrogating him with a shake of his head. The motion made his nose hurt worse.
An officer pushed his way through the onlookers walling the doorway. Beneath his massive finned helmet, his face blushed violet. “Is the princess injured?” he piped.
“She’ll live,” Gelasin sneered.
“The Aether Emperor must be informed.”
“Disturb your master’s sleep if you must, but the princess has already dealt effectively with the threat—as any fool can plainly see.” The officer, top lip twitching, let the effrontery pass.
“We’ll need a new bedchamber for her, obviously,” Gelasin added. “Take care of that, won’t you?”
The officer spun on his heels and elbowed his way through the sea of gawkers. Gelasin bounded after him and herded them across the threshold. Quiescat’s acolyte, Abecedar, squeezed inside before the warrior slammed the door, his dark eyes bugging more than usual as they darted about the room.
“Master, you’re hurt! How?” He reached for the bloody handkerchief Quiescat pressed to his nose.
“No need to concern yourself.” Smiling, he gently brushed Abecedar’s hand away. “It was an accident. Right, Gelasin?” He shot his rival a condemning glance.
“Hey, I said I was sorry.”
Clutching a bedsheet around her with one hand, Jarma still held the axe in the other. Her red and gold wig leaned precariously to one side. A shred of dried glue marked her forehead where her paste jewel had been located. She looked lost and a little annoyed. She had reason to be. Distracted by Drinith’s injury, everyone had forgotten the poor girl.
“Are you okay?” Quiescat reached out to reassure her, but she flinched from his touch. The axe slipped from her fingers and clattered against the floor. Abecedar stumbled over it and threw his arms around her. She didn’t hesitate to reciprocate his consoling hug. Quiescat did his best to suppress a smile. Would she be so eager for his attention after Abecedar succeeded him? Many people dreaded the Oracle of Godsdoor more than any assassin. They feared the truth he possessed, even those who sought to learn it. His temple had been razed during Drinith’s infancy, and the only future he could now glimpse was his end, but the mystique of his position still daunted most folk—except Gelasin. To him, the oracle, like the princess, was just another weapon to wield in his personal war against Magian the Infinite. But then, the warrior appeared to fear nothing, not even death.
“You never said she’d be wounded,” Gelasin carped.
“I warned you of the dangers.”
The rawness of Quiescat’s indignation surprised Gelasin. Quiescat hadn’t foreseen Drinith’s wounding and his unease about Gelasin’s scheme had been vague at best. As his powers waned, the seer clung even tighter to the illusion of omniscience. Yes, the great Oracle of Godsdoor had degenerated into a petty street conjurer dependent on deception and sleight of hand to keep a step ahead of the other vagrants.
Gelasin pressed: “You never said—”
“If I had, would you—”
“Enough.” The disconcerting faintness of Drinith’s voice silenced him. Her feeble effort to rise drew everyone to her. Even with Gelasin and Abecedar supporting her, she looked as though she might collapse at any moment.
“Sit on the bed,” Gelasin urged.
She shook her head as she pressed a hand to her bandaged wound. “Take me from here,” she said, desperation edging her voice. “Somewhere I can wash away this bloody mess.”
“You’re crying.” It took Quiescat a moment to realize Jarma was talking to him. “I’ve never seen tears shine so,” she added. Gelasin and Drinith likewise looked upon him with keen interest.
Abecedar, meanwhile, regarded his master with a predatory leer. He knew what these tears meant: another prophecy had come to pass, another step nearer Quiescat’s end—and, with it, the passing of his oracular power to his sole acolyte. Poor misguided fool! It was too late to warn him. He had already committed his life to the pursuit of the gift. He wouldn’t listen any more than Quiescat had in his day.
“Don’t weep for me,” Drinith said. “I’ll be fine.”
Quiescat mirrored her wan smile and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He must relinquish his ability to his acolyte, or it would die with him. Drinith needed oracular protection and Quiescat was spent, a husk of a man who couldn’t see beyond his impending death. But was Abecedar ready for this terrible burden?
Fatal Shadow is available for pre-order on Amazon.