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Kiltayre: Session 17 Review

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Don’ dreamed again, of a misty forest circle with tall thin figures moving about within. They would turn their heads as if hearing or sensing him on the outside of the circle but never founds him in their gaze. The trees were old and thick boled. Don’ awoke. Was it a summons? The imagery was stronger this time and he mentally shared it with Fionnghal. The dog, though fey-touched, was still a dog and did not understand but the memory was now there.

Whatever tension that was had with Felghanis seemed to ease at breakfast that morning. They sat and ate, talking about their plans and things they had seen. It was so good to be with people again. Everyone of them in the party were all so much more relaxed than travelling the snowy wilds.

Don and Herath went into the markets and asked about the surrounding lands. They found out that food prices were 50% above normal, when they could be had, and all the good furs were sold out as soon as they were offered. Each trader was keen for more, having sized at least Herath up as a good woodsman, and they offered good prices.

It was the Lutemakers Woods that had Don’s interest and the traders dismissed it out of hand as haunted. Don’ seemed unfazed by that and determined to have a visit, since it could be done in a day at less than 10 miles away. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to tell the others they planned to go there.

Turned out the rest of the group, except Aenir and Kellor, wanted to go to. Even Fel. Whatever their spat last night seemed to have vanished. A good night’s sleep can solve many things, it appeared.

On the way out of Vrim Don’ led them to scout old buildings. Abandoned after the Livruss and Kulvuss fleet attack.

“We could take one of these over.” Don’ was excited at the idea. “Maybe just pay a notary or something a lease-fee.”

He knocked on the door of the nearest neighbour. They were wrapped in blankets and making crafts. Their small fire barely enough to heat the hut, but they were happy for visitors. After sharing information they asked Don’ and his friends back for drinks, song and cake. It was agreed.

They set off over rocky hills that were wind-lashed. On the other side they descended to the margins of the woods and saw a miles wide stand of various good timber trees. Spruce, maple, birch and cedar. All growing straight and tall. The predominant northwest wind seemingly not reaching them here.

Fionnghal suddenly went on alert, growling towards the trees. As they thought to ready themselves a great four armed beast leapt from under a snowdrift and raked the dog with claws. Herath acted first lunging in with his spear and the thing was quick to respond. Rending the hunter’s face almost from his body. The man fell into a heap blood staining the snow about his head.

They fought hard and the thing tried to run off with Herath’s body, but a black ray from Felghanis weakened it so much it dropped the hunter and fled into the massive trees. They had won out. Herath was healed by Kalista and they gathered themselves.

Don’ described the stones that surrounded the circle in his dream and asked Kalista to try and locate one. She cast her spell and searched out. There was nothing close but her spell would last long enough that they could cover another furlong or so. The forest became older, darker, and more still. Mist gathered between the boles and Kalista sensed a stone like Don’ described. They cautiously approached and then Don’ gestured they stop.

Don’ moved forward and knelt, starting some ceremony, to place three torches and three silver pieces on the ground. He chanted briefly and then removed his touch. It was almost as if he had summoned the three figures that appeared in the mist. Each walking towards him from a different position. One in silver mail, another dark armor, and a third in brown clothes that might have been made from bark and leaves.

Each had skin like leaves, hair like grass and dark eyes like set amber, and seemed completely disinterested in everyone save Don’. They spoke to him.

“Our forest has been desecrated.”

“Too many times have the men come into our place and taken our old beautiful trees.”

“A price must be paid in blood.”

The three seemed to know what must be said. Like they were reciting some old prose.

“The next hunter that enters these woods.”

“You must bring to our circle.”

“And make an offering of to pay the price.”

Don’ was shocked. A blood price for the Fey. “What about a beast instead?” He had no want to be a murderer.

“Aye.”

“A beast for nine years.’”

“Each time the moon is full.”

The question was how.

“You will do this service for us.”

“Make right the wrongs in our realm.”

“Or the price will be paid by you.”

Each took a torch and a silver piece, turned, and after a few strides seemed to melt away into the mist.

The party said little as they left. It seemed too close the edge of the forest and that elicited comments.

“We may have to delay the journey with Lorco,” Don’ said.

When they returned to the Whalers’ Retreat Aenir and Kellor were waiting for them.

“We saw our friends from the Crypt,” Aenir said gravely.

“That means Thiridea has made it back to Vrim.”

This made things even more dangerous if Jonas, Thiridea’s mentor, was still there in the chapel on Manduran’s Hill.

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Kiltayre Session 15 Review

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The blizzard had set in. Camped in the hollow of a once enormous fir tree’s trunk the party had good warmth.

“Seal meat, again,” Felghanis moaned.

“I can barely eat it any more,” Kalista agreed in sentiment.

“At least we know where the third book is.”

“It could be in two places. What might be Stonecrest and almost certainly Vrim.”

“After you rest maybe you can use the spell-structure in the book to locate the first volume?” Fel asked.

The Felk Bay people speculated about the book, the ritual and the Church’s involvement. Fenris’ name came up again and Felghanis vented his frustration.

“He killed members of the Church, but not us, why? If only he would talk to us.”

It was a moot point but they dwelled on it for some time.

“Perhaps the tear of the Elder’s could break the competed ritual?” Don’ suggested.

Felghanis set aside his notes and referred to the book, “No. Once complete it’s like any other ritual and has to be dispelled or otherwise negated. That might be difficult considering the tier of magic involved.”

Kalista nodded. It was in concordance with the laws of the arcane that she understood.

“Here, read this,” Felghanis said handing out a page of notes to Kalista.

They call him Codger and he likes it! How I’d rail against such impertinence. Such disrespect. My brother was ever the one to smile and bear fools. I shall not. How the visions grow but so does my plan. An army, a horde, a sweeping ocean of the raised dead will be lifted back to the mundus. Why must my brother be so close? It matters little, if at all, he could never discern anything through my scrying-guards and other obfuscations. I long to say he is a fool but the evidence is contrary. He is cunning, if somewhat deluded, animist.

Kalista’s mouth opened, “Your Uncle is Codger’s brother?” She was incredulous.

“He might have been keeping an eye on my Uncle, even scrying him to see what he was doing. Maybe trying to prevent him from finding the Bell of Thullemon.”

Don’ was no so sure, “The Codger was kind and a bit doddering. He didn’t seem on the same level as your Uncle.”

“I don’t know about that,” Kalista said. “Although it was your Uncle, Fel, that realised I had talent for magic. It was Codger who trained me in the ways of the Wizard-Animist. I still remember my mother baking a pie and sending me over to deliver it to him. That was the first day I started studying. It was a few months later that he sent me into the hills to find some quartz with Don. That was when I missed the chance to go with Felghanis to Vensing to study at the college.”

Fel rubbed his chin, deep in thought, “That just supports my idea.” His voice was soft.

The conversation drifted and the eventually slept, or took their watch. The next morning Kalista prepared her casting. The energies were quite great, at the top of her spell tiers, and she delivered them into the spell-structure of the book.

She sensed the book. It was east, and a bit north, in a massive stone building. Like two towers on either side of a domed cylinder. It had to be the Vatican of St. Fergus. Glowing light pulsed and reached for her as her focus began to narrow on the book. A presence pressed her soul and it felt like an archangel.

“You are not welcome here,” the archangel said.

The light’s intensity grew and it became like a solid wall against her reaching sense then threw her back.

Felghanis, Don’, Aenir, Kellor and Herath saw a dim glow about the girl flare then fade away as she gasped. It was barely two heartbeats from when she touched the book to the light being gone.

“What happened?”

“It sensed me… I felt so dirty, so unworthy.” She went quiet, solemn, and stared at her feet.

Don’ touched her on the shoulder. “Almost certainly part of its magic.”

They broke camp and traipsed through heavy snow back on to the beach. It turned from rocky, to smooth, to icy, and then rocky again. Days passed and Felghanis mused that they were lucky for the trees or they’d all be snow-blind by now.

Fionnghal whined and kept sniffing the air behind them. Don’ sensed the dog’s concern they were being tracked. Whatever it was could not keep up with them and he did not worry the others with this news. Another day passed and it was clear that the creature tracking them had fallen too far behind for Fionnghal to scent.

It was late on the 7th day that they saw distant lines of chimney smoke. As the sun set small yellow lights, the windows of buildings, lit up their destination.

“That must be Vrim!”

“Aye, and I bet they have beer!” Kellor added.

The all picked up their pace and pushed their speed to double-time march. It was tiring but worth it as the opened the door into the warm interior of the Whaler’s Retreat. The inn was recently thatched with heather and the well-made furniture was worn to glossy wood.

Arthur the inn-keeper greeted them and they arranged a trade. All the seal meat for rooms, meals and as much as they could drink from below the top shelf.

Other patrons sat about, talking and eating. A tall woman with bright copper hair approached Kalista and they talked for a while. She was Daldra Urrdon, a Corsiff mercenary, and stood an impressive six-feet and eight inches tall. Daldra recommended Kalista talk to Colle, a dwarf, who was searching for something called Bilof’s Stronghold.

Felghanis settled into the nook by the fire and read one of the Canon of St. Fergus books that they had claimed at the Iron Tower. He couldn’t reconcile why he hadn’t started weeks ago. Still, it was comfortable and warm here and easy enough to concentrate. Local hunters bemoaned the sighting of a tentacle beast with a huge maw of fangs. Sounded like an otyugh to Fel. He just listened in for a while and heard that they were finding it hard to feed themselves so many were travelling further into the marches to the south to hunt for meat.

People began retiring and soon the only people left in the common room were Fel and Arthur, who kept yawning.

“Seems there’s a lot going on around here. Lots of weird things. What’s the strangest you’ve heard?” Fel asked Arthur.

“Well, there’s a person who was staying here but moved to another inn who thinks there’s a vampire in the mountains. Can’t say I believe’em though. Why’d a vampire come here? There’s hardly anyone left after the Kulvuss and Livruss fleets attacked before the ice set in.”

Fel nodded and kept his tongue.

“I’ll be retiring now, if you don’t mind. Have this mulled wine to keep you warm and stoke the fire as you please. Good night young sir,” Arthur said and excused himself.

Felghanis sipped the warm beverage. Most of the alcohol was gone and that was good. It wasn’t something he enjoyed, but a vampire? That was something he could enjoy taking control of. A wry smile crept over his face.

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Kiltayre: Session 14 (part 1)

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The Scours were bound, including the werebear Thiridea, and Fel took Kallista aside.

“We bury them up to their necks and leave them in the snow.”

Kalista was shocked, “Torture them? Leave them to their death? No! I’m not doing such a heinous thing.”

Fel was momentarily silenced.

“Let us see if Kentos’ spirit will allow us to take the book,” Kalista changed the topic.

They walked through the barrow in the harsh white light of Kalista’s Lumos spell. Rough hewn stone all around and not one of the black smokey forms of the wraiths. Until they came to the chamber of the giant-slayer.

“You can take the book but touch nothing else,” said the spirit gravely. Its hand touching the long sword of bone at its hip.

They both nodded then edged into the room. Fel carefully picked his way around the spear that lay across the sarcophagus. It was a massive weapon. Fel could scarcely get his hand around the haft if he had tried and the blade was like a full bastard sword mounted on the end. It shed power and dim light but Fel was not tempted. He had no love of weaponry.

Touching the book the leather was soft and smooth. He eased it from the carved stone satchel of the ancient hero. In his hands it felt heavy but when he scanned it with Detect Magic there was no enchantments. The book was mundane, per se, even if it did contain a ritual of never-ending winter.

When Fel turned back to Kalista the wraith was gone and he felt an emotion being sent. Kalista seemed to be feeling something too. Thanks.

They left the barrow and met with Herath, Don and Aenir. Kellor was still unconscious and his face bloody.

“We have it so let’s set camp and so we can rest and read it,” Fel said.

“At least let us scout the are before we start that.” The shepherd boy said.

Herath nodded and they went together through the deep snow. They had gone perhaps 300 yards when to the south Don’ heard the rattle of armor. They stalked towards the sound and dropped behind a snow drift. Figures were probing the ice of a small lake. Six of them, four lean dark hobgoblins out front in light armor, and two hefty stout orks, Tharkhor, behind in sooty-grey half-plate.

“That’s not good,” Herath said.

They slinked back and ran to the others.

“Orks. Pack your things, we are leaving!” Herath said loudly.

Felghanis and Kalista bit back their fear. Both were spent of their magical energy and desperately needed to recoup before they could face orks. There was chaos as everyone ran about gathering their gear.

“Leave them for the orks,” Aenir said bitterly.

“No. We take them,” Kalista was emphatic. “I’ll not have their deaths at the hands of orks or Garren on my conscience.”

She knelt by Kellor. There was a scrap of mana left and she fuelled a healing spell with that last piece of soul-fire. He stirred but did not wake. The doughty dwarf’s skull was covered again on the left side but the ear was gone and it left a mass of scar-tissue.

Felghanis sighed but he had a plan. He touched the two prisoners, Goran the rapier wielder, and Frellan the ordained scour, dispelling the blindness curse he had laid on them.

“I can see. Please don’t leave us to die,” Goran pleaded.

“Why were you sent to the Barrow?” Fel demanded.

“To retrieve a book.” Goran’s answer was clearly sincere and on further questioning by Fel it was obvious he knew nothing of the nature of the book.

Fel’s heart softened at Goran’s naiveté. “Carry your wounded,” Felghanis ordered and he removed the bonds from their legs.

It was hard going in the snow, carrying unconscious bodies. Aenir had Kellor across his shoulders like a lumberjack had a log. Frellan and Felghanis carried the Thiridea. Whilst Goran lugged Willem, their hardy guisarme guard, in the same fashion as Aenir. Herath scouted ahead and picked a direction. His keen senses used to the wintery scape. Don’ covered their tracks away from the barrow. It was not worth the time to cover the battle but at least it would be harder for the orks to track them past the barrow.

They had gone quite a distance, perhaps a mile, when bellows and the clash of steel reached their ears. Everyone stopped and took heaving breaths. They felt safer knowing the orks had encountered something.

“It must be Garren on the warpath for revenge.” Donallhan’s voice had a creeping fear in its tone.

“Then let us put more distance between,” Herath called back.

So they did. Pushing their march, Herath led them back towards the coast. One less direction the Garren could approach from. However, the wind was bitter and icy so they kept within the tree line.

The camp was set and the fire kept as small as they dared. Herath and Don’ built up snow walls about their campsite. It would reflect a bit of heat and hopefully reduce the distance the fire could be seen from. Kellor, Thiridea and Willem were all still unconscious. Felghanis called everyone out of the camp.

“We bury them up their necks…” he began.

“No. I’m not doing that,” Kalista cut him off.

“At least we slay the werebear. I don’t want to fight her again,” Aenir was stern. “She can blink or teleport or whatever it’s called. As soon as she awakes she’ll be free whenever she chooses.”

“I had forgotten this,” Kalista murmured looking at her feet.

“We give them weapons and leave them to their fate, then. Right now,” Aenir went on. “By the time they’re all free we’ll be long gone.”

“Maybe,” Don’ said. “The priest, Frellan, he seemed more amiable than the others.”

“Yes, why don’t we bring him here and talk to him?” Kalista beamed.

Frellan stood in his bonds glancing about. He was a handsome man with a powerful natural presence. Everyone’s eyes kept falling on him and they didn’t even realise.

“Perhaps I can suggest something?” Frellan tested the waters after the party back-and-forth came to no resolution.

They looked on, listening.

“You leave us with one day of food each and leave right now. Thiridea will almost certainly want to pursue but with little food we’ll have to go back and retrieve our packs or starve. That should give you at least a two day head-start.”

“Still say we should cut her throat before she wakes up,” Aenir grumbled but he couldn’t meet Frellan’s eyes.

“Don’t kill her, please. You’ll have her superior, Jonas, come looking for you. He’s far more powerful. I can see you’re good folk. You don’t deserve the fate that Jonas would put on you if you killed Thiridea.

“Jonas, is he a werebear too?” Fel asked, a sneer creeping on to his face.

“They are from the chapter of Inquisition Exarcanum, called Ursa Bellor, the bears of war.”

Felghanis nodded. He had suspected as much but he didn’t know for sure until now.

“What are the duties of the Ursa Bellor?”

“They wage war on the foes of the Inquisition Exarcanum. Demons, necromancers, witches. Those who  use magic to corrupt or counter the Saint’s works, or threaten the faithful.”

It made sense to Fel that werebears were used in this chapter. Unwaveringly good and very powerful they would be great soldiers for the cause of the Inquisition. It seemed to him that they were afflicted with their type of lycanthropy as part of joining the chapter. He said as much.

Frellan countered, “It is a great honor to be asked into the Ursa Bellor. Few ever are approached.”

“What about you? What section are you from?”

“I am from the Inquisition Exarcanum. My dedication to the destruction of the wakeful dead gained my invitation. I loathe the undead and will destroy them wherever they may be.”

They talked more at length about the structure of the church. How the Inquisition Exarcanum answers only to the Inquisitor and the Living Saint directly. Frellan was sincere and listened well. Felghanis and Kalista shared the party’s story. When they brought up the Prelate of Dwarf Town and his apparent trucking with demon stone ships Frellan was suddenly stern.

“How could you make up something like that? It’s too absurd to think that is a lie you expect me to believe. I have to believe it is the truth and I will lead the Inquisition there to investigate. The Prelate will not get away with such acts.”

“We’ll leave you with two days food each,” Kalista said. “And you’ll recommend that Thiridea return you all to your packs.”

“One day. Two days is enough that she might think she can force-march us to catch up with you. Willem will still be too wounded for that. I want to make sure we can live and get back to Vrim.”

They shared looks, Fel, Kalista, Don’ and Aenir. Vrim was where they planned to head.

“One day, then, and you’ll have some weapons so you’re not helpless.”

“I suggest you do this now,” Frellan urged. “Thiridea recovers quickly and she may be regain consciousness in the next few hours.”

“Well, I for one don’t want to fight her again and face the possibility of being hunted down by a bigger and badder were-bear,” Aenir said in a hiss.

It was decided and the party left the Scours to the fate that Frellan had suggested. Don’ led the party into the Greywynd Woods. Heading south-east to throw off the idea of pursuit. But they circled around after a mile or so and headed northwards of where the Scours were left. Setting camp was done again and they settled into their watches – tired but resolute.

Soft snow had been falling all night. Occasional gusts swirled it like mist and Felghanis had kept the book in his pack – which he insisted on wearing, or keeping beside him, all night. Now he was on watch with Herath. It was the coldest part of the dark night, just before the sun would rise and he felt bolstered with the recovery of magical energy he had.

As they kept watch, Herath and Fel would walk about the camp, close in on the fire while the other was on the edge. Herath was watching Fel head to the fire. The fire that wasn’t crackling or hissing with the recently added wood. A sudden sinking fear hit his guts as Herath realised he could not hear a thing.

That was when an arm, clad in chain, seized him around the neck from behind. Herath struggled but whomever it was had him tight and the pressure suddenly surged on his neck. The hunter lost consciousness.

Felghanis rubbed his hands together and caught movement out at the snow walls. A heavily built man in chain was dropping the limp form of Herath to the snow. For all Fel knew Herath might be dead. Then he recognised the hard face of Fenris. The traitor, tomb-robber, stalked towards the slim necromancer. He tried to speak, held out his hands to placate the advancing soldier, but he was within the effect of a Silence spell. That was when Fenris jumped on him. Gods he was fast and strong. Fel couldn’t resist. Try as he might Fenris just seemed to wrap him up like a snake might coil about a rat. In desperation Fleghanis seized Fenris’ arm and hit him with negative energy; his Charnel Touch. The soldier’s body jumped at the sensation and then his arms squeezed on Fel’s neck. To the young necromancer it felt like the world rushed away.

Barking awoke the others. Fionnghal was causing a ruckus. Don’s adrenaline surged and he leapt to his feet with a spear ready. A figure was trapped in the flailing roots of Fionnghal’s Entangle. Don’ hurled the spear but his depth perception hadn’t adjusted and it went wide. Aenir was up and moving towards Fel & Herath. The hunter was choking on his own tongue and the dwarf quickly pulled it free with his dagger’s scabbard. Kalista rolled out of her bedroll and also leapt to the aid of those on guard. She healed Felghanis and his eyes fluttered open.

“Fenris,” he rasped, his voice raw from the crushing choke that had knocked him out.

It was too late, though, Fenris had broken out of the dog’s spell and had fled into the cold darkness. They quickly assembled and used potions on Herath. Kellor was awake, too, and Aenir barely had time to grasp forearms with his battle-brother before Don’ and Herath declared Fenris untrackable.

“The snow was not even disturbed,” Don’ said a little awe-struck.

“The man is a ghost in the ice,” Herath said. “He must have magic.”

Kalista brewed on this thought. She had been ruminating on the formula for Traceless Passing, but that covered scent, too. “The dog,” she cried triumphantly. She quickly held up the piece of bear fur and cast the spell Speak with Animals.

“Can you track the man, Fionnghal?”

The dog was excited, “The hunt is on. We track and chase. But not close. Dangerous man. Bit the hunter, and he fell. Then bit the dark man, and he fell, too. Scent fresh. We chase!”

They broke camp as fast as they could. The pursuit of Fenris hot on their hearts. In less than an hour it was a grey winter’s day.

Light was about them, as much as it could be, and Don’ exclaimed, “I see him!”

They doubled their pace and it became apparent that so had Fenris. Soon Fionnghal was arcing to the east and west, as if Fenris knew they were tracking him and then they came upon their own tracks.

“Careful,” Aneir warned. “He might be leading us into an ambush.”

“He’s only one man,” Don’ said. “We have nothing to fear with all of us together.”

“I hope you’re right.” Fel countered. “You saw what he summoned out of the depths. What if he summoned that?”

There was no way to argue against the necromancer’s point, so they pushed on. Fatigue grew in their limbs and they were all tired.

“There,” Don’ suddenly pointed.

After crossing a hundred yards of snowy forest they saw it. A sack tied to a branch about seven feet from the ground. It held a rectangular shape. To Fel’s eyes it looked about right to be their hard-won book of Fimbulwinter.

“No,” Felghanis said in disbelief and amusement.

He led them to the sack and gingerly untied it. Opening the hessian away from his body he was relieved nothing issued forth. Inside he found the book and carefully he began to check its condition. There was little wrong with the volume. It was obviously read and the pages a little worn at the edges as if someone had rapidly thumbed through the thing. In the fly page a hastily scrawled note read in charcoal:

“I needed to read it. I have no qualms with you but if you pursue me I will kill you.”

It was signed with a glyph of a wolf’s paw.

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Kiltayre: Session 12 review

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Fionnghal was excited as Don’ awoke. The fey-touched dog reaching into Don’s thoughts said, “Close tower. We moving.”

Don’ knew that meant they had to be ready in case this lone person was hostile. Fionnghal didn’t have the smarts to figure that out but given this person was feeding the dog scraps of meat and offal that he’d hunted he at least had a soft spot for stray animals.

They prepared an ambush at the top of the cut-stone stairs which led up the rocky butte to the stable’s area. Don’ gathered a few heavy rocks and Kallista was surprised at the doughty lad’s strength. They waited, looking, whilst Felghanis scratched away on some salvaged parchment.

His writing was a little poor from long days of not handling a pen but Felghanis managed to assemble a lot of his notes from the lost journal in a tight small script. His Uncle might even be watching, now. Felghanis recalled his experience after being struck by the lightning trap. He hadn’t shared what he saw; his near-death experience, but it still haunted him.

The amethyst column thrummed with mana. It had a sliver of what it could potentially hold and that felt like enough energy to raise a mountain. The others were stuck in the passage fighitng the steel dog, but the column kept drawing Fel’s attention. What was it about this incredible thing that kept pulling him back?
The sounds drifted away as he began to see something within the faint purple glow. An image; there but not. In two places and neither of those places was really in the column. An arc and a dome, and a rim around the bottom… it was the bell of Thulemon.
“Oh my god,” Fel cried out and rushed forward.
There was a thunderous crack and then, nothing.
“Felghanis?” Uncle asked, surprised and annoyed. “What are you doing here?”
The room was so dark he could barely be sure he was there and Fel struggled to make out anything.
“We weren’t meant to meet again like this, nephew. You need to go back.” Uncle sounded disappointed and a bit angry.
“Go back? Where? Where am I?”
“Just go back Felghanis.” To Fel’ it sounded like Uncle was very annoyed. Like something he had hoped he could put off was now a pressing urgency.
“But where? How?”
“Can’t you feel them calling for you?”
“No! Who’s calling me?”
“Your friends. They are bringing you back. Go to them. We’ll meet again later.”
“But how? What’s happening? What have you got to do with the bell?”
“Go back Felghanis. The bell is outside of even the Saint’s reach. Rejoin your friends.”
Fel’s breath rasped in his chest and if he was conscious there would have been great pain. He rested and was given care by his friends. Kallista fussed over him and tended his wounds. By morning Fel was well enough to stand and help forage for food, but he bore the scars of the lightning bolt that killed him – burns and stitch-marks over the left side of his torso and up his neck. It did kill him because the phylactery was gone. Nothing left of it but some black ash.

Absently, Felghanis scratched a message on the parchment, “Uncle, if you can see this message, send me a sign?” It was a long shot but worth taking, Felghanis felt.

“I see him,” Don’ called out.

The figure seemed to just appear at the base of the rocky butte atop which perched the Iron Tower. Fionnghal broke from trotting along in the man’s shadow and sprinted up the stairs. Happy little whimpers escaping as he rushed back to Don’. Much happy licking from the dog and pats and ear rubs from Don’ as they were reunited after weeks.

The man who approached looked tanned and rangy. He was dressed in ragged bone-scale armor and wore his hair long. Carrying some spears and a longspear he gave the impression he was a hunter in his element.

“State your purpose,” Don’ yelled out.

“Let us meet, face-to-face, and talk. I don’t  yell out to shadows,” he said without breaking his stride.

The whole party stood to face the newcomer. Weapons were held in their scabbards, or points upward, in uneasy tension.

“I seek an end to spring and the Old Mountain has said this is the first place to look,” Herath, the hunter said after they realised there was no enmity or deception happening.

“We’ve been through the whole place and found that the winter is some books of Fimbulwinter. There is meant to be one in Kentos’ Barrow, to the east, near the mouth of the Greywynd River,” Felghanis said.

“Then it’s true what Old Mountain said,” Herath growled. Then he launched into a rhyme.

Iron mount once held bell of the dead
Where giant-slayer rests his head
Lost titans wait for ice’s return
The tree and tear must surely burn
Or spring’s last breath will pass us by
Find the way while the chance is nigh

“The titans are returning? Oh that’s just great,” Felghanis crowed. “Now who is Fenris working for: the Hrimpursar, or the Church?”

Or someone else?” Don’ asked.

Who is Fenris and why are you so afraid of him?” Herath asked bluntly.

They retold their story to this point, the trip on the stone ship, everything. Herath listened carefully and never interrupted. “What kind of power is that?” he asked once they were done.

“Birthright, ordained, or some kind of pact,” Felghanis said miserably. Then his tone lifted, “If we are to travel together we should start now.”

They agreed and continued on their journey, chatting and sharing information as they walked.

Rocky beach the color of dark clay led them east. The forest was thick once back from the high-water mark, and high enough that the tree-roots weren’t exposed to salt water. It was the Greywynd Forest according to Fel’s map and they kept looking for signs of Garren. Those territorial markers of skulls pinned to trees by long arrows. They didn’t see any and that made them nervous.

Picking up the trail of a bison herd the party moved into the forest. The bison were down from the high plains to find food in the harshest winter for decades and the party needed meat. The hunt was quick with Fionnghal’s fey power, Entangle, launching roots out of the ground to seize three bison. One escaped and the party only slew one more. They would have more meat than they could carry otherwise.

Don’ and Herath had barely finished packing the meat when everyone became aware of the smell of wood-smoke. They looked about and a pall was rising to the north. Disturbed they returned to the beach, which was frozen firm, and trekked north towards the smoke. As they closed on the source of the pall a pinned ogre skull was spotted and they sought cover.

It was Aenir who suggested they prowl forwards to see what was going on. Herath joined him and the dwarf surprised the tribal hunter with his stealthy movements. Felghanis made it moot as he rustled and grunted along after them. They came to a small creek, frozen over, and it seemed to be a border for the burning settlement. Humpbacked structures had mostly burned to the ground.

Bodies of Garren littered the spaces between. Hacked and left sprawled in dark stains of blood in the snow. Among the tall wiry Garren were some thickset goblinoids with dark skin: Hobgoblins.

“We’ll find their camp and kill’em all,” Aenir said with a snarl.

Herath spotted something moving. Like a hemisphere of darkness it glided through the village and away from the men laying on their bellies in the snow.

“There,” Herath whispered, pointing it out.

“Blakh,” Aenir said, shaking his head.

They returned to the others to report.

Felghanis led the argument to go into town for survivors and Kallista quickly jumped on board. They gathered together and entered the town. So many dead. Even the giant beetles the Garren kept as livestock had been slain in their pens. Just speared, until they bled out, by the merciless hob’s.

Finally they found a survivor but it was one of the hob’s, barely alive.

It was Kellor who hefted the large creature on to his back and carried it back. He wasn’t gentle but neither did he try to injure the hob and push it over the abyss’ edge.

Back at camp Kallista saw to its wounds and by morning it was awake. They interrogated it, dismissing Felghanis’ overtones of using torture, and found out that there were two camps, with three Blakh between them. The Hob’s and the Blakh had been in the woods for three days and this was the second village of Garren they had razed.

“Why?”

“It is orders, for the glory of our people,” the Hob, Breakfinger, answered.

Bound tightly but kept warm the Hob was left laying on the ground while the party planned their next moves. As the day drew to a close and camp was established they were in good spirits. The weather had been clear and the sun warm on their faces. Greywynd Woods were no longer a dark threat that hid Garren behind every bole.

The next morning they travelled on and the dwarves insisted that Breakfinger carry all the meat Felghanis had preserved. With lots of food available they spent the day walking and gathering firewood, whilst keeping Breakfinger in their sights.

The day after that Breakfinger started making a fuss and nodding ahead. Slipping his gag down they heard him say, “The camp is ahead at the river mouth.”

Wisely Felghanis asked the hob to draw a map. It held up its bound hands and when let loose it drew a crude map in the sand with a stick Fionnghal had been idly chewing. Four tents on the edge of the river mouth with three trenches. Guards picketed in pairs, too. The camp looked well defensible and the party had Breakfinger lead them around it – a mile out to avoid the patrols which the Hob’ said were to half a mile. It worked.

They made it to the river which was frozen over in a thick sheet ice. Herath tested the ice and pronounced it safe to cross. Once over the river it dawned on them how can they find a barrow in a forest.

“I recall the Codger saying they used to plant trees of certain types on top of barrows. Not sure which types, though. Usually thought to be protective,” Kallista said.

“We need a view,” Don’ said.

Herath found a tall tree and asked for a rope. He used it to scale the giant fir and once high in its branches he could see the distant Hobgoblin camp. The two figures of the guards he could just make out right where Breakfinger said they’d be. To the west he could see a long barrow. The trees on top of it were giants and darker, and more dense, of needle than the surrounding fir and birch.

“I’ve seen it,” Herath said once back on the ground.

Everyone was nervous about revealing anything more in front of Breakfinger. They whispered and decided to let the Hob’ go free, here. Breakfinger backed off about 20 yards then ran for his life. He was out of their sight and ear-shot within seconds. The party was still for a few heartbeats.

“Alright. Let’s go and I’ll cover our tracks,” Don’ said.

They did a sterling job and before much time had passed Herath led them to the barrow. It was long, some 100 feet or more and five giant silk yew trees had grown over the mound. Their massive roots could be seen, thick as a man’s leg, over the side of the barrow. At the southern end a mossy slab of stone was mostly concealed by roots and shade.

“Looks like the door,” Kellor said and strode towards it.

Kallista brushed the moss of the slab revealing a worn carving of a figure carrying a long spear in old-fashioned mail armor.

Don’ took his crowbar from the pack and started to pry at the door but couldn’t make it budge.

“Here, lad, let me,” Kellor took the crowbar from the young man and worked the slab loose. “Grab it here and pull.”

Together they opened the slab. A gasp of air rushed in then a small puff of dust escaped. The darkness inside had the party staring for a brief moment in total stillness.

Kallista said firmly, “Lux!” The top of her staff burst into white light and they entered, Don leading.

As soon as Don’s foot fell across the threshold an inky form seeped out of stone-slab sarcophagus at the end of the small chamber. It began to form a figure, just like the small statue on top of the casket.

“What-for you enter the tomb of Lord Kentos, giant-slayer, servant of Davinus?”

Don’ took to one knee almost instantly in a sign of humble respect. “We seek the return of Spring, and the book of Fimbulwinter we believe will aid us in that.”

The form, now almost solid, in a long chain hauberk, carried a bone white sword that seemed flecked with ice-crystals. It levelled the blade at Don’. “You may enter but touch nothing save the book.” It warned. Then it faded away back into the rough stone casket.

There was little to say. Felghanis had studied the apparition with Detect Undead and it was strong; at least the match of any two of them, possibly more so. Pressing inwards the great roots seemed to cling to the walls, adding strength to the structure. They passed two more stone-slab sarcophagi and standing in them, through the stone, were two more apparitions of what must have been Kentos’ shouldermen. Each warned the party, levelling one of the bone swords at them, and let them pass.

The final chamber was larger than the others. A tall stone column split the entrance and was carved with runes. Felghanis took a rubbing and as he did managed to translate a phrase that was repeated a few times in the passage.

“Three deer?” he asked aloud.

“That matches the seerwoman’s vision,” Kallista said excitedly. The fact she was in a tomb of active spirits seemingly dismissed.

Beyond the column a great spear, glowing with magic, was lain across a large ornate stone casket. It lit the room well. Behind the casket, in an alcove of stone, a tall statue depicted a fierce warrior some seven and a half feet tall. On his hip was a satchel, part of the carving of stone, holding a large leather bound book.

“That must be it,” Felghanis hissed.

Don’ and Fel started whispering on how to beseech the spirit of Kentos for the book when Fel suddenly inspired dropped to one knee, hands outstretched.

“Lord Kentos. We seek the book of Fimbulwinter to find out how to stop it from taking over our lands. To bring back Spring, and prevent the return of the Hrimpursar.”

His words had barely finished reverberating from the stone when the clash of steel echoed from the entrance to the barrow. A battle had started and they were already in a tomb.

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Kiltayre: session 2

Comments Off on Kiltayre: session 2

As the party travelled Dom’ realised their food supplies were low. One harsh blizzard could see them trapped for long enough to run out of edibles. Dom’ led the party to gathering surplus off the land and storing it for later use. The cold climate aiding the preservation of foods. However, they still had to balance their firewood requirements should it become harsher – and it would.

 

As they entered the woods a blizzard approached. Felghanis suffered that night. They ran out of fuel and he could not be roused. Being cold to the touch they worked at getting him warm and gathered around him & the fire. He had been travelling in just simple outdoor clothes and not the thick quilted cold-weather gear the rest of the group had been wearing.

“I just had to leave my uncle,” Felghanis managed to excuse himself.

“We’ll make you a suit out of skins,” Dom said.

Kalista chipped in, “I can sew and craft leather. We can do this.”

“Only question is how long until we have enough skins,” Dom’ cautioned. “Let’s hope there’s not another blizzard like that one.”

 

Crossing the forest to the margins of the moorlands took two days. Two days later they saw skulls pinned to trees. Garren! Keeping to the margins they trekked north and just before sunset found a partially razed cabin some months old with a cluster of skulls fixed to the boles around. The arrows were long, over a yard, and fletched with strange material that could only be compared to insect wings. Moving hastily away the made to set camp a half mile or so further north.

 

Barely had they stopped to begin the preparation of their camp when Dom’ spotted a bear out on the moors. A small black bear on its own for its first winter. The hunt was on. They stalked the bear and got within 40 yards when it scented them. Alassiel’s psi-crystal charged forward scoring a nasty wound on the bear. Dom’s hound went to the bear’s rear-flank and Dom slung stones at the beast. The bear seized the psi-crystal with a lucky grab and started trying to maul it. Hard as iron the psi-crystal was undamaged but it was unable to attack from the mighty creature’s grasp. They brought the bear down with a few more attacks and the psi-crystal sprung free. Much meat was had after the bear was skun and dressed.

 

Returning to their chosen camp site they set their tent and fire. Dom’ noticed wolverine tracks at a puddle and they set proper watches instead of relying on the psi-crystal and Dom’s hound. Later that night the wolverine was heard seizing the largest haunch of bear-meat. The camp awoke and the wolverine ran off with the meat; settling down a hundred feet away to eat it with loud pleasured growling.

 

Kalista charmed the creature with a spell but it still was wary and aggressive towards her companions. Then she realised that the spell would not last a few days, as she thought, and they sent it off to the bear’s carcass back on the moors.

 

Three more hard days they travelled but with the large supply of meat they did not need to forage for more than the first. They camped and Felghanis was seen with a strange book. Alassiel and Dom’ had both interest in the volume that seemed to absorb Felghanis’ attention every night. This night Felghanis leapt up in excitement.

“That’s what he’s looking for!”

“Who?”

“My uncle. He’s looking for Kanii’s key and the Bell of Thullemon.”

Kalista had heard of these things. “They’re undead related. The key unlocks the Halls of the Dead, it is said. And the Bell animates all the dead that could hear its toll.”

“Yes. Now you see why I had to get away from him.”

 

They talked more and Dom’ questioned Felghanis.

“How can this be? How can this man who employed my family be a necromancer?”

Felghanis tried to explain but Dom’ was suspicious.

“What is that book made of anyway? It looks like human skin!”

“It is. That’s what kind of man my uncle is.”

“It will attract evil spirits. We should burn it right now.”

“No. Without it I can’t figure out what my uncle is doing; what he is plotting.”

“Then keep it away from me. I will not sleep knowing it is within fifty feet of me.”

Felghanis resolutely setup his bedroll at roughly the distance Dom’ stated he needed for a clear mind to sleep.

 

 

On Dom’s watch he heard the crunch of snow underfoot. Reacting quickly he spied a humanoid shape in the pale light behind a tree. A large bow and long arrows with the odd fletching he could just make out using his fey powers. Dom’ shouted to wake the camp and the figure fled. When all were awake he checked the tracks. They were uncannily shallow in the snow and as he searched a break in the clouds revealed a small faerie ring marked with stones.

 

“We have to leave. It was a Garren.”

Felghanis wanted proof since there were no typical territorial markers. The tracks were as described.

Kalista heard the creak of bow string, “Duck!”

A long arrow streaked past Felghanis’ head and embedded in the tree without the arrow-shaft even shaking. He looked at the arrow trying to figure out if it would have pierced his skull had he not reacted.

“Run!”

They sprinted back to camp. Another arrow struck a tree in sight of the fire. They hastily packed their equipment and supplies. Then fled their campsite in the flickering light of their improvised hearth. Snowflakes were drifting about them and they were in the deep dark of night.

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Published: Bounty for the Taking, Book One

Comments Off on Published: Bounty for the Taking, Book One

If you want some bone-crunching action and good old-fashioned adventure then read my latest novel. Bounty for the Taking: Book One, is a fantasy adventure that follows three brothers as they travel the lands of Khara Thel, seeking wealth and fortune via bounty hunting in its various forms until they uncover a life-changing revelation.

 

Bounty1_COVER_01c 

Bounty for the Taking: Book One, Smashwords

Bounty for the Taking: Book One, Kindle

 

 

Keeping it less-than-epic,

 

-KW Jackson

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A Tale of Ten Covers

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Designing your own cover takes a fair bit of persistence and a decent eye for composition. What is especially hard when doing so for Kindle is that the resize of the image has to still be legible enough to entice a buyer. That has been my hurdle over the last weeks; resizing the image and still being readable.

Kindle resizes your cover image to 115px square for the gallery. By resizing your image (a copy so you don’t accidentally save it small) resize so its largest dimension is 115 pixels. That’s pretty close to how it will look on the Kindle gallery of eBooks.

I’ve done ten covers and I’m listing the evolution to what my current “go with” cover, from earliest at number one.

  1. COVER_02
  2. COVER_04
  3. COVER_04a_2
  4. COVER_04a_3
  5. COVER_04a_colour_500px_wd
  6. COVER_04a_colour_800px_hi
  7. COVER_05b_gold_blue
  8. COVER_05c_gold_blue
  9. COVER_05e_gold_blue
  10. COVER_05f_gold_blue

Some pointers? Use fonts without lots of dangly bits. Avoid too sharp an edge. It makes the object look pasted on instead of “part” of the image. Avoid clutter: it’s just more detail that can pixelate when the cover is resized.

This image could be polished some more, I’m thinking, so it will likely change to a small image and larger text for the title. For those of you on a similar journey, into ePublishing, hope you get some useful tips from this. Leave a comment &/or subscribe.

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More Fiction for Khara Thel

Comments Off on More Fiction for Khara Thel

A close friend, and best man at my wedding, has been writing up a storm of steam-fantasy novels. When he’s not doing those he’s found time to write a swathe of fantasy stories that are inspired by Khara Thel and RPG’s in general. When they’ve been typed up and edited I hope to get them on this site in the shop as well as in the upcoming store on Lulu.com.

It’s very good to have another writer in Khara Thel and one who writes with a different tone to me. His novels are much more light-hearted and friendlier yet still capture the magic of the world in the way I love. I’d have to say that his style is like the first half of the Fellowship of the Ring movie, and my style is more like the second half. I think they’re complimentary.

On top of all this Bounty for the Taking book two is shaping up nicely. Sea-captains, cursed earrings, bandit wars, and the beginning of a conqueror are all to be revealed on its completion.

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Second Khara Thel Novel Completed

Comments Off on Second Khara Thel Novel Completed

A Tale of Rum Town, is completed. This will likely not be a free download as it is many times better a tale than “Bounty for the Taking”. And in celebration a change of theme. Something nice and green but still slightly old style.

Don’t despair, though, for I will give the first chapter away.

A TALE OF RUM TOWN

CHAPTER ONE

Crottle stepped quietly through the shadows of Mastview Alley. Once upon a time, he supposed, you could see the masts on the wharves of Ferris. Now the buildings were all at least three stories high and so close together many parts of Rum Town were in permanent shadow. If only he was like Patchwork and could traverse Rum Town from end to end without touching the ground – leaping from rooftop to wall to rooftop. That would be the way to travel. No risk from gangs, beggars, cutpurses and footpads. If he could do that he could operate at any other time except the dead of night where he was now.

Parkey said that Patchwork never goes to the surface except for a contract. Patchwork even sleeps in a place that you can’t get to unless you jump from a six-storey tenement. Anyway, what does Parkey know except the bottom of a jug of rum. This night Parkey was probably slumped in an alley full of rubbish so drunk he’d filled his pants with his own nightsoil. Rats would be nibbling off what was left of his ears.

No, Parkey was not to be worried about. Crottle’s days of having to pay Parkey with coin or booze just to learn about Rum Town, without having his pocket picked or his throat slit, would be over after this. When he completed this job for Harkett he would be out of Rum Town and down to East Freeport where he’d finally see daylight anytime he wanted. That and he’d work for The Cartel. Harkett had made him a good offer and Harkett was the collector for the leader of The Cartel – Medesca. That was a man to respect and fear. Crottle hadn’t seen him but he’d heard a lot about him – oh yes. A genius at plotting and getting away with all kinds of heists, burglaries, thefts and contraband sales. In Crottle’s mind Medesca was going to take over all the underworld of Ferris.

Slick black cobblestone led into the blind alley. It was narrow enough that he could touch both walls by just bending his arms at the elbows. Two people would touch if they tried to pass. It was at this point that Crottle started to climb. He pressed his back against one side, toes of his supple boots against the other, and then lifted and braced his way upwards.

In a few dozen accelerating heartbeats he reached the shutter and braced in position to fix a stiff guard on his wrist. He would have to brace across the narrow alley with one hand to open the shutters. Crottle had trained for four weeks to build his endurance but his wrist wasn’t strong enough. He still fell on the mats and rags until the idea of a wrist brace occurred to Crottle. He built one out of old boots and an archer’s vambrace and that made the difference. With the brace he could maintain the position long enough to get open the shutters with one hand.

Now he carefully slid out his tools. Long and of steel the probes and hooks were in a buckram roll with each tool in its own firm pocket. All Crottle needed was one of those tools now. With all the practice he was surprised that the latch of the shutters came open so easily. A small tin flask of oil with a pointed nozzle was the next device to deliver lubricant to the hinges. They opened with very little sound.

This was going well, Crottle thought.

Meeze, the street rat, had kept an eye on Murchison’s house for a a week. All Crottle had to do was feed Meeze, and give her the lure of a shilling at the end of it all. That shilling was costly but Crottle thought it worth so. Meeze was only about nine or ten years old but a tough little rat of a street urchin. She was also very smart. Crottle thought of her as like his niece. If this went well he would offer her a place to live and run errands for him once he was out in East Freeport. Murchison had left today with travelling bags and Meeze was quick to report. It was too good an opportunity to let go.

Crottle braced again and sorted his gear. He worked the oil-paper window with his probes then oiled the hinges just like with the shutters. With great care Crottle eased into the window, gripping the top of its frame with a steely grip.

It was so dark he could see nothing of use. Just blocky shadows amongst pitch-black. Closing the window and the shutters he set about lighting his tiny shuttered hand-lantern. Outside he heard voices.

‘Thought I saw ‘im go in here. I’m sure it was Crottle – stinking rat-turd thief,’ a nasal whining voice said.

‘Could have been a rat,’ said the other, deeper voice.

‘It weren’t no rat, hare-brain,’ said the first.

Crottle’s neck grew cold and he quickly hid against the wall of the room that faced the alley then shuttered his lantern.

‘Where are we?’ asked the deeper voice.

‘I think we’re near that money-lender – Murchison’s house,’ said the nasal voice.

Who were these two? Crottle asked himself. He heard their feet scuff through the detritus of old shingles, potsherds, and smashed tiles. They stopped almost right under the window.

‘I smell’im,’ said the nasal voice.

A deep laughter came out, ‘You can’t smell anything since Harkett broke your nose. You said so yourself!’ mocked the deeper voice.

Now Crottle knew who it was. Jenk Sonner the smuggler and his bodyguard, Hurmgaal – the half-ogre. Even though he was up in Murchison’s house and there was no way either of them would climb up he felt afraid. Ever since Crottle had scouted Jenk’s stash of grapeleaf-nectar, and stole it for Harkett, Jenk had been after him for revenge. It didn’t matter that Harkett kicked Hurmgaal in the groin then broke Jenk’s nose they still wanted to catch him – perhaps moreso, now that he was looked out for by Harkett.

‘He ain’t here,’ Hurmgaal said, plainly indicating he though they were wasting their own time.

‘Well not now but he was. I swear,’ Jenk was begrudgingly ready to go.

‘Sure. Let’s go where we’s meant to be,’ Hurmgaal said.

The two in the alley made their way back out. Scuffing as they went completely careless of how much noise they made.

Crottle slowly relaxed and unshuttered his lantern. The room was quite sparse. A trunk and a chest of drawers near a bed-frame. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years and Crottle could plainly see that he was leaving tracks in the dust. He silently cursed and decided he’d have to clean the whole room since he couldn’t put the dust back where it was meant to be.

Creeping through the dark house interior Crottle finally found a locked door. After deftly bypassing the lock and the pathetic needle trap he found a small room that contained an large iron bounded trunk. Using his probes and listening carefully he picked his way over the floor to the trunk. The lantern guttered as it ran out of oil and started to fade. The pointy bottle of oil was used to top it off with little risk of a fire and light was safely had again.

The trunk posed a problem. Crottle had to get out most of his tools and carefully apply pressure in three ways to pop the lock and not the dart-trap. If he ever lost his legs he’d make better traps for chests. As the lid swung open Crottle saw small buckram sacks that looked to be filled with coin – and they were. A small fortune in shillings and florins. He started stuffing his chestpack and kidney-bag then slowed down. Time was his. Murchison wouldn’t be back at least until tomorrow. Crottle picked the bags by their silver content and when he was laden left the rest. If he felt up to it he could come back. No, he wouldn’t, on second thoughts. Crottle locked the chest and then the small room before dusting off the floor where he entered Murchison’s house. With difficulty bracing on one arm he managed to latch the window and shutters then descend to the narrow alley.

The sun was just beginning to light the east into a grey line when he returned to his back-lot tenement bolt hole. Some bread he’d left behind from his evening meal was eaten and a nearly sour goblet of wine washed it down. Within minutes of shedding his loot and hiding it behind the wall panel he was asleep.

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Khara Thel Fiction: Bounty for the Taking

Comments Off on Khara Thel Fiction: Bounty for the Taking

Bounty for the Taking – Book 1 is entering second pass editing. It’s been pulled from the site for that reason. When the editing process is complete it will be available for purchase on Smashwords and Kindle. There will be a new post about it then. For now here’s an excerpt:

A shower of rain lasted for a few hours during the night and Staifcairn travelled into the morning to find the streets thick with brown mud. Trudging through the viscous muck, which clung to his boot-soles, wore at his endurance. Staifcairn arrived at the small cartographer’s store, haggled briefly and without real interest, to purchase the best map of the hills north of the Scalest river valley. He was happy with the purchase. It was well scribed on good vellum and the cartographer had sealed it in a metal scroll-case with a screw-on lid and leather gasket. On his course through the town towards the river Staifcairn bought a few meals worth of local preserved food including some strange dried pink fruit that smelled sweetly of honeysuckle and rosewater.

By the time the sun had reached its zenith for the day Staifcairn had crossed the river and was trekking north into the hills. He stopped to consult the map, taking a bearing with the compass that Cavis had given to him many years ago, chewing on some of the strange pink dried fruit that he bought in the markets of Nom Pei.

Ahead of Staifcairn lay the hills. Gently rolling and lightly forested they seemed somehow full of life yet uninviting. A kind of harsh aloofness permeated the area. Staifcairn felt with magic into the soil, the bones of the earth, here and found it to be holding a subtle taint in the mana. Scry-guard was too strong a term for what was held within. It was more like a spider web in the essence: a means for the ‘spider’ at its centre to feel any flies that strayed into its finely spun snare.

Shaking the feelings of this land Staifcairn struggled with his little used knowledge of the earthblood and flung together a rough-shod cloak to lessen his presence. The spell was hastily convened and probably of little potency but it held together in arcane form well enough for Staifcairn to trust his effort and move deeper into the subtle web-like magic.

Another league passed behind Staifcairn as he walked briskly through the low underbrush beneath the thin canopy. Shadows deepened as he pressed through a thicketed vale and crested the shoulder of a hill. Ahead lay a garden rich with many herbs lit by direct sun in places and dappled green shade in others. Staifcairn took a breath of surprise as he realised that some of the small plants should not be growing anywhere but ice-laden tundra or hot volcanic slopes. Magic was at work in sustaining the plants at least and it would not be folly to assume that the source of that magic was also the source of the scrying.

‘Hello there.’ A confident older voice called to Staifcairn.

Silvery hair flicked about as Staifcairn sought the voice’s owner. ‘Hello,’ he called back.

‘Are you lost?’ The voice had moved since he last heard it; moved from somewhere off to Staifcairn’s right to a position closer at his left.

‘I don’t think so,’ Staifcairn answered as his hand closed on his sword’s grip.

‘Ah, then you wish to be here.’ The voice took on a cold tone veiling a heavy menace.

Staicairn’s senses narrowed on the source of the voice, a burl in the trunk of a young til tree. It must be the target of a long voice enchantment; he thought and on impulse triggered his own magic of protection to bend spell attacks. A shrill keening split the air and Staifcairn barely had the presence of mind to force a thread of mana into an angled shield before a dart of iron was deflected from his spine. He leapt behind a tree for cover and the hissing of another dart parted the air where Staifcairn had just stood.

‘I would parley with you, Ulthinger,’ Staifcairn called out, his sword still in its scabbard.

‘I receive only invited guests. You can leave or fight,’ he replied, the voice still coming from the burl via the enchantment.

Staifcairn felt his heartbeat race. His first instinct was to fight this man to a standstill with his knowledge of coldfire-magic but that risked killing him and it also risked that Ulthinger may have many enchantments in place to aid in his defence.

Staifcairn took a deep breath, ‘Then perhaps you could invite me back another day so we may talk of my brother?’

A dart sliced the air near Staifcairn’s ear and buried itself in the bark of the red cypress tree. Anger coursed into his blood and with a practiced reserve of mental prowess he conjured a blade of coldfire as tall as himself. Its blue-white light glared in the dappled shade of the grove and Staifcairn heard the sound of footsteps suddenly changing direction in the undergrowth. With sudden reflex he loosed the blade at the cluster of scraggly bushes. It streaked across the grove, evaporating the stems and leaves that it touched, to careen into a sugar gum sapling; splitting its trunk.

A short squeal of dismay came from in the undergrowth, ‘My young tree!’

Staifcairn quickly began weaving a spell of instant travel, a long door, to displace his spatial location to the far edge of the grove and behind his assailant. Another dart hissed towards him and relying on his quickness alone Staifcairn barely managed to avoid its dark iron point. Concentration on the spell made him clumsy. He staggered about the cypress and another dart hissed and pinned his cowl to the tree. The spell was ready and Staifcairn suddenly displaced across the grove. The lurch of warping spatial reality, as it stretched and sucked him from place to destination, made him dizzy and nauseous but Staifcairn was prepared for that. He immediately began casting an invisibility enchantment and vanished from any sight.

Crouched in the brush on the edge of the clearing Staifcairn saw a lean old man approach the cypress he was using for cover moments before. The old man must be Ulthinger that Rhastavon told him of. Wearing a pair of dirty pants and a leather jerkin of a strange greenish hide Ulthinger was difficult to see at a distance. He clutched a strange crossbow: one of the locally made dokyu repeating crossbows. Staifcairn used the time to prepare another enchantment, this one of coldfire, his favoured magical focus, to bind the man where he stood. The chains leapt from his fingers and coiled about Ulthinger in eight thick bands of energy. The old man instantly tried to struggle and the bonds seared his flesh. He staggered for balance, the bonds threatening him again, and turned hateful eyes to fix on Staifcairn.

‘It seems you have won, archmage,’ Ulthinger spat.

‘It seems I have bound you with the coldfire,’ Staifcairn replied. ‘Yet when I asked to talk to you of my brother you pressed your attack. Tell me, what would you do if our roles were reversed?’

‘My brother is long dead,’ Ulthinger answered.

‘Then imagine harder and tell me!’ Staifcairn was losing his patience.

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