Manipuli

I’ve been engrossed in writing “Quantum Conscience” lately, which is definitely a good thing, but also means it’s harder for me to switch gears and write a vignette! So today I offer an excerpt from an unpublished novel co-written by me and Malcolm Pierce called “Manipuli.” The only reason I haven’t released this novel yet is that I’m trying to hold out for a traditional publisher. These days, though, that sounds like saying I’m waiting for my fairy godmother to fly down and wave her magic wand. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the excerpt!

*

In a small cottage upon the foothills of Fairdalia, a baby’s cry pierced the heavy darkness. Howling winds rattled the brittle trees and tossed snow through the air like tiny shards of ice. Animals huddled in their nests or groped through the shadows for shelter. Even the critters with sharp, nocturnal vision failed to find their way home on this night, for not a single star shone in the sky. Pitch black clouds swallowed the light of the hidden moon. A sense of dread and panic seized the heart of every rabbit, wolf, griffin, unicorn, and other manner of beast to be found in the woods of Fairdalia, for this was the darkest night they had ever experienced.

But every living creature paused, ears twitching, when the baby’s cry rang across the land. Their dread did not release them; in fact, many of the animals suffered an increased sense of anxiety. Nonetheless, they all knew they heard something special, something that would change the world of Fairdalia for the rest of their meager lives.

Within the cottage, the baby’s father—a ragged peasant named Balthazar—struggled to keep a candle lit amidst the battering winds. Like prying fingers, the breeze forced itself through every crack and crevice of the log cabin. His wife, Agatha, held the newborn baby in her trembling arms and wiped the blood from its face with a cloth. Even Agatha, relieved by her successful childbirth and proud of the bundle of life in her arms, felt disturbed by the piercing cries coming from its mouth.

“Sphinx’s curses!” growled Balthazar, dropping the flint as he watched the candle sputter and shrink. “I can’t see a damn thing!”

Another gust of wind blew out the flame completely, plunging the husband and wife into darkness. Agatha clutched the squirming baby to her chest, but somehow this brought her no comfort.

“All is well, husband,” she said wearily. “The baby is born. We can rest until morning.”

“All is not well!” he cried. “I want to see my child!”

Suddenly, beams of silver light shot through the farmer’s window. A white glow filled the interior of the cabin. Awestruck, Balthazar moved to the shutters and opened them. In the heavens above, the moon filled the sky, so huge and heavy, it looked as if it would collide with their planet. Mixed feelings of fear and wonder stirred in the poor peasant’s heart. The brightness of the moon almost blinded him, but he could not look away.

The baby stopped crying, and silence fell over the kingdom of Fairdalia.

“Look, husband!” gasped Agatha.

He followed her gaze to their newborn child, now glowing in the brilliant luminescence. He could now see that he had sired a son. But that did not draw his attention so much as a strange mark on the infant’s chest. At first, he thought it a stain from its mother’s blood. But the longer he stared, the more detail he discerned on the baby’s skin. Like a tattoo, black marks intertwined around the area of his heart, then dispersed and faded like so many veins into his body.

Balthazar’s eyes grew wide with terror. “That mark,” he breathed. “I have seen that mark before. It is the mark of evil!

He turned to his wardrobe and fumbled through its contents. Agatha knew what he was getting long before she saw the flash of moonlight against the blade.

“No!” yelled Agatha. “NO!”

The baby, sensing his mother’s dismay, wailed alongside her. Clouds swept over the moon, drawing darkness back over the world like a curtain. Balthazar dove for the baby, but could no longer see it. He tripped and fell upon the floor, cursing.

Weakened by childbirth, but driven by the need to save her child’s life, Agatha got up and fled.

She could see no better than her husband, but desperation guided her through the shadows, across the familiar floorboards of the cottage, and out into the biting snow. Cold clung to her feet and climbed up her legs, draining her weary muscles. She stumbled through the blackness.

Then a star twinkled above her, providing a surge of light over the field. Agatha followed the silver glow. It faded as she passed through, but then another star sparkled from the blackness. One by one, the stars winked above her, illuminating her path through the frosty fields and forests. It seemed as if some powerful force guided her, granting small pools of light wherever she needed it, but casting all else in darkness. The sound of Balthazar yelling from the cottage grew more and more distant until it faded completely.

Agatha hoped she was safe, for she did not have the strength to run any further. She wrapped the baby in her cloak and huddled into a small cove protected from the wind, relatively free of snow or ice. Here she clutched her son to her breast and prayed to All Sortilege, the source of all magical power. One look at her son made Agatha cease to care whether a good or evil force had marked him. She believed that any power could be directed in either direction. But she did suspect that magic of some sort had marked her newborn son.

“All Sortilege,” she whispered, “please protect us and lead us to safety. Pour your blessings on my dear son… Lucien.”

The name, meaning light, came effortlessly to Agatha as a result of the night’s events. The baby ceased squirming and relaxed against his mother. Agatha wondered if she imagined the sensation of warmth that suddenly seemed to wrap around them both. They fell deeply asleep as if nothing on earth could harm them—and perhaps nothing could.

*

Published in: on April 1, 2014 at 10:11 am  Comments (4)  
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The Lost Scout

Today’s vignette offers a little of what’s to come in the novelization of “Serafina’s Saga.” I confess it’s a little awkward adapting my own script and drawings into novel format; usually, if I adapt any of my own work, I do so in the opposite order! But it’s kind of fun, also. So here’s a little scene from the animation, fleshed out for the novel. I hope you enjoy it.

*

Nikolaos expected to collapse into the grass at any given moment.

Yesterday, he had intended to scout only a brief distance—perhaps fifteen miles from camp. He planned to have plenty of time to return to base and sleep snugly in a tent with a belly full of warm stew. Camp rations were low, but at least at night he could usually expect a big slosh of watery soup full of scraps from the daily gathering. After adding a dash of chili powder, Nikolaos could almost imagine the stew delighting his senses with exotic spices. Then he would have sat next to a campfire and shared his scouting adventures with his fellow soldiers. He liked to narrate his wanderings in such a way that captured peoples’ interest and inspired them, rather than just reporting his work as a scout. Doing so made his own job seem more glamorous, and he rather enjoyed the attention. Finally he would return to his tent, throw off his grubby clothes, stretch his limbs over his blanket, and sleep like a baby.

That’s how he would have liked last night to play out. Instead, he had lost his way—a grave sin for a scout like himself.

Scouts should never get lost. They should be capable of distinguishing slight changes in the landscape, tracing every slope and plant into memory, so they could describe it in detail to their superiors or even draw out a map. Nikolaos should be able to guide his comrades into new terrain with confidence and reliability. More than that, he should be able to look beyond the superficial appearance of the landscape enough to assess its potential as a source of security, supplies, or strategic placement.

Not Nikolaos. Not yesterday.

He blamed his hunger. The large servings of stew every night usually satisfied him enough to grant a good night’s sleep. But the night before this fateful outing, he’d felt the first ache of hunger before tasting sweet slumber. Breakfast did nothing to satiate him, like a weak puff of air against a ravenous flame. His hunger had consumed him by midday, making his limbs drag and his thoughts tangle. The fact that the damn savanna looked the same in every direction didn’t help matters—just endless yellow grass and occasional trees stretching into a circle of sky. He had tried to return to camp, only to wander further into strange territory. When the sun started falling, he focused on finding shelter instead.

Now, after another day of wandering, he still had no idea where he was, and his hunger had become a monster possessing his faculties. He could concentrate on nothing but food, yet he couldn’t think clearly about how to obtain it. He only knew that when he saw a blur of green foliage in the distance, promising water and wildlife, he moved fervently towards it. What other hope did he have of finding food?

He ignored all the warnings he had ever heard about the jungles of Darzia. The darkness beneath the canopy harbored incredible danger, he knew, including a wide variety of animals and plants in every shape and size imaginable. Meanwhile, every single one of those strange plants and animals possessed its own unique way of killing enemies. Poisonous plants mimicked safe ones. Small creatures with frail bodies compensated with quick cleverness and sharp memory. An animal wearing the guise of prey could easily lead him into a maze of foliage from which he’d never escape. And as for the larger beasts, such as bears of griffins… well, they could just kill him with one blow.

But starvation worried him now more than any conceivable creature. So he continued moving towards the jungle, one heavy step at a time, heaving slow breaths of air through his leathery mouth. Everything exhausted him—even breathing, even holding his eyes open. The sword hanging from his hip felt like it tried to pull him into the soil below. His blue cloak, draped over one shoulder in the old Elborn fashion, yanked at his torso as it flapped in the wind. His ear-length black hair slapped his face and open eyes. He wanted to fling off his burdens and maybe chop off his lashing locks. But even doing all that would require too much effort.

So he stared vacantly ahead, watching the dark entrance of the jungle yawn wider. Even through the fog of his weary mind, he wondered briefly what he intended to do once he got inside. Hunt for an animal? In his current state, he’d never catch one. Search for water? That was a start. Surely the water of the jungle wasn’t poisonous, was it? He would have to take his chances. Maybe then, at least, he would feel good enough to hunt. If not, he would have to try eating a plant. He had no idea which ones were safe, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t matter. Even people who spent years studying botany struggled to analyze the plant-life of Darzian’s jungles, which were full of tricks and surprises. Once again, he would just have to try his luck.

He looked briefly towards the heavens and thought of his god, the mysterious Lokke, lord of mischief. Normally, Nikolaos didn’t bother praying, even though he worshiped Lokke devoutly. He didn’t think Lokke appreciated typical prayers the way other gods did. Even so, he whispered hoarsely, “Please Lokke, lend me some luck, would you?”

He dropped his head again, for it felt too heavy to tilt skyward. He watched his boots crunching through the dry yellow grass.

He noticed something shift on the top edge of his vision, towards the mouth of the jungle. He looked up reluctantly. Then he froze in his tracks.

A girl. No… a young woman. Or someone caught directly between the two stages. But not awkwardly, he thought. On the contrary, she seemed to embody the brilliance of youth and adulthood. She moved with incredible speed, even as she came to a sudden halt at the edge of the forest. An aura of wildness surrounded her as solidly as the jungle itself; she had bright red hair that tangled around her face and shoulders like a lion’s mane. She wore a small brown tunic, tattered and dirty, leaving most her arms and legs bare. But she seemed neither scantily clad or fully-dressed: merely a girl in her natural state. Her body was small altogether, but even from a distance he could see the firm flow of her muscles, and the steadiness of her grip as she twirled a spear at her side.

Then she stopped and saw him, too.

He felt stricken with a lightning bolt. Her big green eyes affixed him as surely as if she had thrown her spear into his stomach. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Just stare straight back at her and wonder what she would do next.

She turned around and darted back into the jungle.

“Hey, wait!” he cried hoarsely. But it was already too late, and he knew without a doubt he had no chance of catching her.

*

More “Serafina’s Saga”

Published in: on March 11, 2014 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  
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The King and the Killer

In celebration of the release of the “Serafina’s Saga” animation and visual novel, this week’s vignette shows King Kallias and Xavier Wolven meeting for the first time. People have been requesting to see more Kallias and Xavier–so here you go! 🙂

This scene would take place in the time after the novella Grand Traitor and before the start of Serafina’s Saga.

*

A wiry young man sat alone in large room of stone next to a table piled with gold. He was sixteen years old, and the bejeweled crown upon his head had been so recently placed that his mop of short, candy yellow hair still struggled to hold it upright.

Kallias tapped his fingers upon the table, causing the gold coins on top of it to jingle incessantly. He didn’t mind the sound. In fact, he found it reassuring, and he needed all the reassurance he could get right now. He liked every physical indication of the gold piled in front of him, especially the bright golden glow it cast throughout the dull room of stone, or the sparkles that ignited where beams of sunlight from the window struck the coins directly. He formed a rhythm with the tapping of his fingers and the jingle of the coins, then started to hum a little melody with it.

When the door of his room opened, the melody died in Kallias’s throat with a whimper. His fingers stopped tapping and his body stiffened like a block of stone. His big amber eyes stared at the swinging entrance until the pupils widened into gaping black holes. He watched and waited, his tense body unable to move except to tremble, as a dark figure slipped through the opening.

The man before Kallias was tall and slender, and he seemed to move more gracefully than his own shadow. A long hooded cloak hung from his shoulders, covering most of his body in undulating swaths of black fabric. His soft leather boots barely whispered as he walked across the stones, and as his cloak billowed around him like wings unfolding, Kallias wondered if the stranger secretly flew. Then, just as quietly, he came to a stop in the middle of the room. His hands reached up—two appendages of pale, skeletal white flesh against the dark clothing—and grabbed the edge of his hood.

Kallias struggled to keep breathing as he watched the hood fall back. The shadows retreated to reveal a long, gaunt face with an ashy white complexion. Most startling against his pale skin was his deep black hair which flowed past his shoulders, and eye sockets so dark that Kallias suspected the use of powder to accentuate their sunken appearance. Little emphasis needed to be added to such eyes, however, the irises of which peered forward with sizzling red brilliance.

Just as Kallias began to wonder if he would ever overcome his awe in time to welcome his guest, the Wolven flinched and recoiled, reaching up to cover his eyes.

“Belazar’s blazes,” hissed the stranger. The god of wrath’s name, when spoken aloud, sent chills down Kallias’s body. “That gold is going to blind me.”

“Oh… you don’t like gold?” Kallias’s heart fell to his stomach. Goldons were his only leverage with a man like this. If the Wolven did not want them…

“I like goldons well enough,” grumbled the assassin. “But I prefer them in storage.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” At long last, Kallias found the strength to rise from his seat. He rushed to a window and grabbed the curtains, yanking them across the aperture. Darkness poured over the gold, extinguishing the lustrous glow from the room. Kallias sighed at the loss. But when he saw the Wolven relax, he decided the gesture had been worth it.

“So… you’re Xavier?” asked Kallias at last. “A Wolven assassin?”

The Wolven answered with a nod, so small it was almost imperceptible. But then he tilted his head and narrowed his red eyes at Kallias. “And you’re the new king?”

Kallias puffed up a little, feeling a surge of pride feed his confidence. In this Wolven’s presence, he had almost forgotten his own authority. When he lifted his head, the weight of his golden crown seemed to increase. “Obviously.”

Xavier should have bowed before him—but he did not. “How old are you?”

Kallias’s chest deflated again. “Sixteen.”

“I thought monarchs had to be seventeen years of age in this country.”

“Usually, yes. But Father’s death…” His throat constricted and his breath faltered. Then he planted his fists on his hips, glowering with all the strength of his thin golden eyes. “No matter. I am special enough to be an exception. One way or another I am the king, and you are in no place to question that.”

Xavier grew very still. Then the edges of his thin lips pulled up with a smirk. “You’re very brave to summon me in this fashion, with no guards to protect you. You must want me to kill someone quite important, yes?”

Kallias forced a swallow down his throat. “I don’t need you to kill anyone… at present.”

The Wolven’s smile quickly turned downward. His red eyes narrowed until Kallias thought he felt heat emanating from them. He moved forward ever so slightly, just one foot shifting while his body started to lean, yet Kallias fought the urge to turn and flee the room. “Then why am I here?”

“To… to… establish our friendship.”

Xavier’s eyes blinked and opened wide again. He drew back and studied the young king in silence for a short while. At long last he said, “Friendship?” and his tongue seemed to struggle with the word.

“Naturally.” Kallias didn’t know whether to feel better or worse about the fact he had caught the Wolven off guard. “I understand who and what you are. I know that you’ve killed monarchs before. I know that for the right price, you’ll kill anyone. And though most people around here are happy with me on the throne because I keep the treasury overrunning, I suspect there are those who might tire of me anyway, or become so greedy they want the throne regardless.”

Xavier’s face contorted, and then he began to chuckle. A genuine smile looked strange on the Wolven’s face, as if his muscles were not accustomed to moving in such directions.

“What’s so funny?” asked Kallias, purely curious.

“Only a Jeridar would be so greedy, and you’re the only left in Castle Krondolee. Isn’t that so?”

The words struck Kallias like a bucket of icy water. He bristled and turned away, hoping to hide his pain and discomfort.

He could still feel Xavier’s hot red eyes crawling over him. “I’ve upset you. I didn’t expect to. I thought Jeridars liked being on their own. Less competition that way.”

Kallias remained silent, his heart a frustrating lump in his chest that ached with every beat.

After another long silence, Xavier sighed. “Just tell me what you what you want from me. I didn’t mean to… prattle on. I haven’t talked this much in awhile, so I’m out of practice. Let’s just get to business.”

For one small moment, Kallias sensed something in Xavier that he had not expected from a Wolven, either. Something that no one else might have noticed, but Kallias saw it as pure as golden daylight, for he knew the emotion all too well. Loneliness.

The revelation finally gave Kallias the strength to straighten back up and look at the Wolven once more. This time, Xavier was the one who avoided his gaze. “Right: business. I summoned you here to give you this gold.”

The Wolven shifted uncomfortably. “Payment to a Wolven should only be given upon a job’s completion. And if you don’t want anyone dead, you have nothing to pay me for, anyway. My services are quite… limited.”

“I understand that. This gold is to ensure my own safety. If anyone else tries to hire you to kill me, then you can refuse them, because I’ve already paid you more. And if by Mallion’s miracles they can pay you more than I’m offering now—then I’ll pay you the difference.”

Xavier did not move or speak for a while. Kallias tried to read the Wolven’s face, but failed. Perhaps the Wolven himself did not know how to feel about this.

“I can’t accept it,” said Xavier at last. “It is not the Wolven way.”

Panic fluttered through Kallias’s stomach. “But… but… it seems like it should be. If someone can pay you for death, shouldn’t someone also be able to pay you for life?”

Once again Xavier blinked and stared at the king with wide open eyes. Then even his mouth started to gape open. “I… that’s…”

Seeing the Wolven so taken aback made Kallias hopeful. “Perhaps I can pay you to make an oath to Belazar? One ensuring my safety?”

Xavier bristled. His face twisted, his lips pulling back into a snarl. “Out of the question. Belazar barters in blood, and blood only.”

Kallias considered this. He reached up and twiddled his fingers against his chin as his mind raced for a solution. “Ah, I have it!” he cried out, face beaming with a smile. “I’ll hire you with this money to kill anyone who ever asks you to kill me.”

Xavier’s scowl dissipated. His red eyes flicked from Kallias, to the money, and back to Kallias again. Finally, a smile wound back up his face. “Now that… I can work with.”

 *

Novella prequel to "Serafina's Saga"

Novella prequel to “Serafina’s Saga”

The animated Episode 1 of Serafina’s Saga is now released on Youtube:

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