Authors: Jefferson Cram
Jefferson C. Cram
Copyright © 2013 Jefferson C. Cram
All rights reserved.
Cover art and interior map by Jefferson C. Cram
Cover layout and titles by Robert Cram, Jr.
To Ariya Rose and Luke David, who will always be my greatest creations.
So many people helped make this book possible. My wife, Elisha, who puts up with my flights of fancy. My parents, Robert Cram and Nancy Larkin, as well as Janet Cram and Richard Larkin; you guys always encouraged my particular brand of insanity. Bob Cram, Jr. who helped with the cover and so much more. My other friends and family who’ve always supported me, you know who you are.
Finally, my brother Scott Cram, who showed me how it’s done.
The remains of the day clung about the forest, but like a wave of nausea, the gloom swelled.
ncient trees crowded the path. They were comforting shields against the elements during the light of day, but presently began to assume their nocturnal alter egos of menacingly grim wardens and shape-shifting haunts of the imagination.
The twisting path slowly transformed from a friendly guide into a taunting trickster, with turns and blinds hidden by the oncoming shadows.
On a conscious level, the young man was unaware of the transformation going on around him. He ran with a pressing need. Lungs heaving, he blundered along the needle-strewn trail without heed to what most lads his age would have found creepy.
Foremost in his thoughts were frantic images of what he had just witnessed, as well as the overwhelming drive to escape the evil that was no doubt following close behind.
Beneath the surface there was a growing sensation, however; one that coincided with the dying of the light. There was a sense that as night approached and transformed the landscape from the domain of men to that of night creatures, so too was the prospect of escape being overtaken by the weight of doom.
Minutes ago he’d been spending the dwindling afternoon in the manner to which he’d become accustomed. As time dragged on with his chest heaving like a bellows and his heart beating frantically, it seemed that he was running from what was left of his normal life.
Still, in the manner of all teenage boys, overwhelming optimism kept him from considering a truly grisly outcome to this latest escapade.
He figured at worst, he’d spend a few days in the woods and concoct a wild tale for his ma and that would be that.
un afoul of the quick-to-anger baroness. During a typical day of exploring and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, the boy had stumbled upon a clandestine meeting between Her Ladyship and a character of ill repute. Or at least, that’s how it seemed.
In an old abandoned mill seve
ral miles outside of town, the baroness had been speaking animatedly to a fellow with dark clothing and an unshaven face. While this didn’t necessarily make the man a hired killer or a spy or worse, he matched the descriptions of such men that the boy had heard in tales around the fireside.
Her Ladyship, or the compliment of guards she stationed around the mill, the boy had been exploring the shack before they showed up. They had been making so much noise in all that heavy armor that he’d had no chance to miss their approach.
Fearing that he’d get into some sort of trouble, the lad had crawled into a moss-covered woodbin.
Apparently such places were not good hiding spots for assassins, for the guards never found him.
Trying to keep his breathing quiet, the boy waited for them to
pass by, but unfortunately the baroness told the guards to stand at attention outside while she awaited her contact. This, of course, made the boy uneasy, but he really had no choice but to sit in the uncomfortable stuffiness of the woodbin and hope it all passed without him being discovered.
Besides, he’d had to admit to himself, there was a bit of a thrill to eavesdropping!
Through one of the many cracks in the woodbin the lad could see the greaves-covered leg and booted foot of a guardsman. If he’d wanted to he could have reached out and touched the man. Stifling a nervous giggle, the lad listened as a new set of footsteps approached along the tiny brook.
What followed was a heated conversation involving t
he baroness and many names that the boy figured must have been important. He did recognize the name of King Remiel Van Uther II. At this, the boy’s heart had skipped a beat. A plot involving the king himself!
Unfortunately, the boy had overheard no more of the conversation, as he’d shifted to get more comfortable and a tumble of rotten wood gave away his position.
“You idiots!” the baroness had yelled after coming around the building to behold one of her guards hoisting the boy out of the bin.
“I told you to secure the area.
The whelp was apparently too much of a challenge for you?” her face was red with rage. It did nothing but enhance her noble beauty.
Calistra Emberlock had inherited her family’s raven black hair and piercing coal eyes. Her complexion was smooth and dusky, a gift from her exotic mother. Tall and well proportioned, the baroness was often gawked at, but never propositioned. Her temper was legendary and had earned her the nickname “Callous Cal”.
leveled her midnight orbs at the boy.
“You’ve done a foolish thing here today, young one,” she said in cool tones, motioning for the guard to release him.
The boy stood disheveled and wide-eyed.
Calistra crouched to face the lad, reaching up to stroke his smudged cheek in a rare display of tenderness. She smiled slightly while making a casual gesture to one of her guards.
“You see, spies against nobility cannot be tolerated,” she cooed, a sinister light coming into her eyes.
The boy sensed it, and as she rose and turned to take up the offered sword, he bolted.
Expecting a shout of alarm or perhaps a scream of rage, the boy was chilled to the bone as peals of delighted laughter followed him into the forest.
Now, with night almost upon him, the echoes of that laughter propelled the boy beyond his limits. His body was screaming in protest but he blinked through tears to keep going. Had he been paying attention he might have noticed the root reaching out to trip him and avoided it. He wasn’t, and so he didn’t.
He hit the dirt hard and lost his wind.
He lay there for a moment gasping for breath and spitting pine needles and blood from where he’d bit his lip. Part of him wanted to just lay there for an hour to rest and let the pain go away. The better part had him getting his hands under him and pushing. As he began to stagger forward, he felt vibrations in the carpet of needles beneath him - the tromp of booted feet.
Fear lent him new strength and he pushed on.
As the trail skirted a small ravine, the boy veered to the left down into it, hoping to lose his pursuers. He crashed through the light underbrush and made for a small bubbling brook in the center of the hollow.
There came a soft sound, as if a breath had been let out sharply.
Pain exploded in the boy’s leg, just above the knee. He went down screaming and cut his palm on the extruding arrowhead as his hand reflexively felt for the wound.
Terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought, he got to his knees and began to crawl across smooth stones toward the stream.
His world became a haze of pain and panic.
Behind him, just
coming down the ridge were the baroness and a few of her guards. She smiled wickedly and absently dropped her longbow to the earth. A few relaxed strides brought her to the boy as her guards looked about, one holding a lantern high.
“This really has been great sport, boy
,” she said amiably, the lantern-light catching the slightest sheen of sweat on her comely face, “You led us on a merry chase.”
The lad looked up to see her lazily drawing her blade.
It was a vicious looking thing with wicked serrations and two blood channels. It gleamed with a sickly green light and the boy remembered it had a name but couldn’t recall what it was. He locked eyes with the baroness.
“Sadly, like all hunts, this must end in death
,” she stated flatly.
With just a bit of his wits returning, the boy realized his doom was imminent.
Stifling a sob and summoning all of his courage, he did all that he could think of doing at that moment.
aroness’s eyes blazed with fury, all trace of her previous calm erased. Snarling, she brutally struck the boy’s head from his shoulders. She stood for a moment, trembling in rage as the headless corpse twitched at her feet. Blood seeped into her hungry blade until there was no trace of it and the glow brightened slightly. Traces of crimson were caught by the waters and swirled away into oblivion.
Heaving a sigh, she sheathed her weapon and stepped over the body, heading back up the ravine.
“Retrieve my bow, won’t you?” her friendly tone had returned.
She began to walk down the trail, reaching up a black-gloved hand to wipe speckles of blood from her perfect cheek.
As an afterthought she half-turned to her men and waved an easy gesture in the general direction of the corpse.
“Oh, and be a dear and remove that garbage from my land.”
As night came to the small seaside hamlet of Mord’s Casting, so too did a wizard.
Walking at a relaxed, yet steady pace, Reynolt crested a rise that overlooked the town from the east and stopped for a moment, leaning on his spear. His brown eyes took in the village, noting as they did, the tall stone tower that rose to the north along the shore: Reynolt’s destination.
He’d come a long way in
the past three weeks. Seeking knowledge greater than his own, and having already been given leave by the lord mages, the young sorcerer set out for the ‘Casting. Specifically, for the town’s most famous resident, Leodyne Falkshire - a mage of no small power who’d chosen Mord’s Casting to set up his practice. Reynolt had come hoping to learn a thing or two, as well as to see more of the world.
A breeze smelling of s
pringtime flowers and the sea tousled his closely cropped jet hair. The wizard closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the simple pleasure that he was often denied within the massive walls of his home city, Freehold.
In the capit
al, not much in the way of fresh breezes could stir the dense air laden with the stench of civilization. Out here next to the sea, however, one could really clean out one’s lungs.
a long sigh, he began walking again. Noting a large building with a stable and barn along the main road, he made for it while mentally tabulating his coinage.
He’d been sparing along his trip, spending much of his time sleeping under the stars, or within the small canvas tent that was rolled up and attached to his pack.
He had more than enough money to enjoy a dry bed and a warm meal, what with his journey nearing its end.
Again his gaze drifted to the tower.
Sitting upon one of the bluffs that abutted the shore north of the town, it was constructed entirely of cut stone with several windows, which appeared to be made of stained glass.
Reynolt surely had seen grander within the walls of Freehold, but this tower’s location next to the fishing village made it seem
opulent by comparison. As he watched, a weird eldritch glow began to emanate from the cap of the tower’s spire.
a green-blue beam that could be seen for miles, which began to rotate. Having witnessed the beam on the previous night from his meager campsite, Reynolt recognized the magical lighthouse for what it was. It was just one of the many spells that Leodyne employed to serve the town.
I shall have to learn that little trick
, the young wizard thought as he entered the town limits. He passed a few folks along the road.
Many were returning home to outlying houses, having finished a long day on the sea.
More than a few, Reynolt noticed, cast a less-than-appreciative glance skyward as the mage’s beam passed overhead.
The young wizard mentally catalogued everything he observed, and those looks hinted at something being amiss here.
Why would these people be wary of their town mage? Pondering, he continued to scan his fellow pedestrians.
He met the gazes of several grizzled fisherman, their faces worn and cracked by the combination of sun and surf.
They nodded a curt greeting and one even held the door for him as they all entered the inn.
Thanking the man and allowing
a slight grin at the fellow’s dismissive grunt, Reynolt took stock of the common room as he made his way to the bar in the back.
The sign that was nailed above the door outside h
ad named this inn the Cod Peace; a clever play on words, Reynolt thought. It was also an indication to him that these people took their hard work seriously, and themselves rather less-so. The wizard found the idea to be pleasing.
There were far too many people he’d met, many of them mages,
who were convinced of their own importance and were constantly trying to prove it to others. It seemed that the fisher folk of Mord’s Casting were not generally of that ilk.
Drawing a few glances from the locals, Reynolt strode easily to the bar and leaned his
spear against the aged and oft-polished wood as he loosened the straps on his pack. Depositing the heavy knapsack on a stool, he nodded amiably to the barkeep.
“Greetings and good evening, sir,” he said politely.
The barkeep returned his easy gaze with a bit of surprise, but deposited a large wooden mug in front of the younger man as he spoke.
“Ye needn’t be callin’ me sir, son.
I work for a livin’.”
His words were accompanied by an honest, if gap-toothed smile.
He spread his hands on the edge of the bar and leaned on them, relaxed.
Reynolt smiled back at him, “Good to know.
I’ve been on the road a while and would like a room for the evening, as well as whatever fine fare you’re offering.”
The wiry man nodded smartly but made no move from the bar.
He sized-up the young man with a glance.
“I’d enjoy seein’ what yer gonna use to pay for such things.
Beg pardon, good wizard, but out here we don’t get too many travelers and bein’ the pragmatic fellow that I am, I need something more than kind words.”
Reynolt’s smile faltered not in the least, though he was intrigued that the fellow had surmised his vocation in such a timely fashion.
He deftly retrieved the purse from his belt and counted out a few golden chits.
After setting them on the bar, and noticing the barkeeps appreciative glance settling on them, the young mage eased himself onto a stool and brought the mug to his lips.
“I hope that appeals to your pragmatism,” he said after tasting the ale.
It was bitter and earthy, but good nonetheless.
Without ceremony, the barkeep scooped up the chits and nodded.
“We’re servin’ up clam chowder and crab cakes, plus we got some fine blueberry tarts baked up. I hope that’s to you’re likin’,” he said honestly before turning to the door behind the bar which lead to the light, heat, and appealing smells of the kitchen.
Reynolt nodded to the man’s back as he took another swig of ale.
Feeling some of the tension in his muscles ease, he turned around and rested his back against the bar. He sipped the brew as he surveyed the room.
He found the place charming, if a bit rustic.
The wood planking was yellowed with age and cleaning but seemed to add to the warmth radiating from the large stone hearth that dominated the western wall. Here and there on the walls were trappings of sea life; a net slung across the corner, a belaying pin mounted with a machete above the fireplace.
There were a few fur rugs scattered among the round tables that dotted the room.
Buoys, stuffed fish, and old wooden lobster traps rounded out the décor.
Patrons sat here and there in small groups, tal
king and eating around the miniature lanterns that adorned each table. Periodically one or two might look up and take a measure of Reynolt, whispering openly.
Whenever he noticed this,
he merely smiled and raised his mug slightly to each in acknowledgement. Invariably these people would quickly go back to their drinks or conversations, flustered at being caught gawking.
Unperturbed, Reynolt continued to nurse his ale and observe.
While at first these people seemed to be paying him what he considered a normal amount of attention for a newcomer, he started to notice a disturbing mood to the continued observation.
Here and there, along with the open gawking of the
ir village folk there would be a look of sadness, or disappointment. At one point, as a couple was leaving, the woman looked back in his direction and shook her head just noticeably, looking away with a frown.
Reynolt’s brow creased slightly in response, but before he could give it much more thought, the barkeep returned, depositing a plate of rich smelling food and another mug of ale.
“There ye be, good wizard.”
Reynolt turned to face the man and ignored the food momentarily.
“Have you had many sorcerers come through before, si-eh…barkeep?” he asked with a quizzical expression.
“You were quick enough to see me for what I am, yet I wear no insignia.
It seems as though most of these folk know as well.”
The man dropped his gaze for just a moment, telling much to the wizard, before reply
“’Tis true, we’ve had more’n a few of yer like come through over the past fortnight.
Seems old Leodyne’s been lookin’ fer ‘prentices.”
Reynolt nodded, “That’s why I’m here, as a matter of fact.”
“Figured as much.”
There was a pause, just long enough for the barkeep to disengage from Reynolt and make his way to a griping man near the end of the bar.
The younger man let him go, not wishing to rattle the fellow unnecessarily. As he started his meal he cast his thoughts inward, appearing to thoroughly enjoy the fish.
The wizard thoughtfully recounted what he’d experienced so far in this town and compared it with what he’d learned before his trip.
So it was true that the old mage was looking for an apprentice. This seemed to bother the people here some, but he had yet to find out why. He had a hunch however, and considering how things were beginning to shape up in line with the lord mages’ suspicions, he wasn’t looking forward to finding out for sure.
Shortly after his meal was finished, and the blueberry tarts had been sampled, a young boy approached the wizard at the bar.
The lad was no more than eight winters, and sported a sandy bowl cut common to peasant folk. Tugging on Reynolt’s forest cloak, the boy spoke.
, M’lord, but I’m to show you to your room.”
The wizard pivoted to regard the youngster with a kind smile.
The lad half-grinned in nervous response.
“Excellent, young sir,” he said, winking. “Let me just grab my things.”
The boy watched patiently as Reynolt hoisted his pack by one strap and retrieved his spear.
Immediately setting-off toward the stairs on one side of the room, the boy didn’t wait for further prompting. Reynolt nodded to the barkeep as he ascended a few steps behind. The man raised his hand slightly in response before going back to swabbing the bar. As he reached the hallway at the top of the stairs, the young wizard stopped and regarded his diminutive guide.
The youngster came to a door further down on the left, past three identical portals.
He deftly slotted a key into the lock and swung the door inward. He seemed to notice that he was alone and looked back down the hall to Reynolt with a questioning glance. The mage smiled again.
“Before we go any further,” he said, leaning slightly on the haft of his spear, “I’d like the pleasure of your name, my friend.
“Puristan, m’lord,” the boy offered in return.
The man nodded.
“Well, Puristan, it
’s my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The boy turned to face him as he approached.
The lad seemed to openly stare at him, for the first time really taking him in. When his gaze met Reynolt’s soft brown eyes, he looked away, and appeared to be considering something. Patiently, the wizard watched.
At length, the boy returned his look and seemed to summon some courage.
“You’re a wizard, aren’t you?
One from a city far away?” he gasped, becoming animated for the first time since Reynolt had met him. He stepped a bit closer in his excitement, any shyness forgotten.
“Indeed I am,”
Reynolt replied, chuckling softly.
“Can you show me magic?
Tell me about how you got here, on the wings of some spell!” Puristan gasped hopefully.
At this, Reynolt openly laughed, but not unkindly.
He crouched down to regard the lad on an even level, resting his spear against the wall.
“Well, unfortunately for both you and
me, getting here took a bit more than a few words and gestures. I walked,” he held his grin as the boy’s excited face drooped a bit.
He added with a little disappointment, “I’ve yet to lea
rn how to ahh…ride the wings of some spell, as you put it.”
Puristan studied the floorboards.
“Oh,” he said softly.
“I did come from a city, however. Freehold as a matter of fact,” he said, trying to keep the lad’s interest.
“Perhaps I can show you a little magic as well.”
Pale blue eyes snapped up to meet his, if with a touch less enthusiasm. The boy nodded just slightly.
“Okay,” he said.
Deciding inwardly that he liked the shy lad, Reynolt reached up to the boy’s ear and came away holding a silver chit. Puristan watched, and after seeing the chit his eyes got big…and then narrowed.