Happy Halloween, folks! In honor of the fall harvest (or Tiri-Zul, as it’s known in Tiranon), here’s a chilling excerpt from my wip, The Tang of Fate, an epic fantasy novel filled with gods, monsters, and mortals. Feedback always welcome. Please enjoy!
Terrwyn’s dream about flying on a broomstick was interrupted when she felt something soft drift over her face. Scratching and sniffling, she popped open her eyes and glanced around. She saw Croli turning the knob on the door, edging it open. His cloak must have brushed against her as he moved. He didn’t seem to notice her. Terrwyn held her breath as he slipped out of the room. She heard his footsteps disappear down the long, dark hallway. She pursed her lips for a moment then sighed, deciding to follow.
Terrwyn crept out into the hallway, walking toe-heel, as she’d learned as a child to avoid waking her parents when she wanted to wander the cornfields at night. The hallway was nearly pitch-black. The only light came from a window at the far end and the faint glow of the hearth casting red light up the stairway to her right. The stairway creaked with almost every step she took. She gritted her teeth at every sound, straining to catch some hint she’d roused another soul in the dark. But no. She was alone in the dark. Alone, save for Croli, embarked on some midnight errand. He’d had his staff with him, so she’d buckled her sword. She didn’t know what danger he went to face, only that it must be dire indeed to justify him not bringing her along. As she entered the common room, she saw men and women sleeping beside the hearth, a few collapsed at their tables near drained mugs. She heard the sound of another door creaking and turned just in time to see the curve of Croli’s cloak flapping out the doorway.
The sleeping patrons seemed completely out, not a single snore among them, their bodies still as exhausted newborns. Tiptoeing around them, she made it to the door and snuck outside into the night. The steady buzz of crickets and the croak of frogs filled the air. The night was thick with humidity and almost too dark to see anything, despite the plethora of stars. She looked all around, but she could see no sign of Croli. Terrwyn began to regret following him out into the night. She started to wonder if she were just being paranoid. Just her luck, he was probably relieving himself on the side of the building.
She turned to the post where the horses were tied. Gill and Marius were both there, along with two others. Marius’s eyes were open, watching over the others. Terrwyn smiled. Then, just beyond the edge of the forest, she heard the sound of crunching leaves. She nearly jumped from the shock. Struggling to keep her breathing slow, she crouched down beside the doorframe. Just there was the saucer of milk left for the moon goddess, turned over in the night. The cookies were gone as well, the cloth wrapping torn open as if by some thrashing animal. From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the faint glimmer of moonlight in the forest. But there was no moon in the sky. Slowly, she stood up and walked down the stairs. The grass crunched underfoot as she left the road for the forest’s edge. There. A glimmer of light just a few yards ahead. She crouched again, holding her arms in front of her to move the branches of the brush as she entered the forest.
All the wood was black as pitch, starlight scarce below the treetops. But the source of moonlight was growing brighter. Finally, it shined over her. She panicked, threw herself to the ground, hoping she could hide from the light. “It’s no use.” Croli’s voice. “I heard you on the stairwell. Come on, Terrwyn. You’re not fooling anyone.” Terrwyn felt her face flush. The soil clung to her jeans and shirt as she stood up to face Croli. He was just ahead, moonlight emanating from the crescent atop his staff. The light had softened now, and she could make out Croli’s face in its pale glow. He was smiling at her, eyes darting side to side as she approached him.
“You have your sword,” he whispered. “Good. They’re very close. Stay behind me.” Terrwyn didn’t have to ask who he meant. She struggled to keep up as Croli glided through the forest. While she had to step carefully around roots and stones, Croli seemed able to move effortlessly here in the darkness of the forest, his feet making no sound as he skipped over rock and branch and fallen log. Terrwyn could hear grasshoppers and crickets chirping in the night. Up ahead, she could hear the steady rush of the White River.
As they passed through the wood, over moss-eaten logs and under the black branches of trees, she began to hear something else, a distinct hissing sound that stopped her in her tracks. Croli stood just a short distance ahead of her. He turned and motioned for her to come closer. She did so and, following his lead, crouched low beside a massive hickory stump and peered through the thorny brush. Not seven feet from where they perched, a small campfire glowed in the night. A man in a black cloak sat with his back to Terrwyn and Croli, tall skeletal warriors flanking him. More approached from the dark beyond the fire, armed with clubs and nets, though a few wore swords at their waist.
“Now’s our chance,” Terrwyn whispered. “Let’s go!” She paid no attention to Croli as he raised his hand to grab at her. She crashed through the bramble, thorns scratching her arms and legs as she lunged for Hadeon. Her sword flashed in the firelight, as she made her swipe, but Hadeon vanished in a plume of smoke. The two nearest skelerai, their swords raised to attack, brought their blades down, and Terrwyn crouched beneath them, her sword up, guarding. The clang of metal on metal sounded through the forest as more skelerai joined the campfire’s glow, hissing and brandishing weapons. There were many, too many for her to count at once. They seemed to be taking their time. She could do nothing where she was, pinned down by her opponents’ blades.
Just then there was a burst of light from the forest. The skelerai turned toward the blaze, screeching terribly. Thunder clapped in the clear night sky as jagged lightning struck the earth, reducing the skelerai to ash and dust. Croli came plunging through the forest, his staff sending Terrwyn’s two opponents to the ground with a single swipe of his staff. Terrwyn rose, gasping, grateful to be alive. “Look out!” Croli hissed. Terrwyn turned to see one of the skelerai lunging for her with its sword. Terrwyn yelped and tumbled out of the way, then slashed at the creature’s sword-arm, slicing it at the elbow joint. The creature hissed and scrambled to its feet, reclaiming its sword from its severed limb. Croli was busy with the other skelerai, as Terrwyn engaged her one-armed aggressor.
With an ear-splitting hiss, the creature lunged forward, and Terrwyn sliced its other arm off then brought her sword up and stabbed the skelerai through the eye-socket. The creature kept coming, but it seemed unable to tell where she was. She ducked low and withdrew her blade, taking her enemy off-balance. She bounded up and sliced down through the skelerai’s spinal column, and the creature was still. Croli was still busy with his foe, but a gust of wind from the treetops shattered the creature’s sword, and it fled back into the forest.
The gust of wind had also scattered the coals of the fire, so that now the flames were starting to spread among the trees. Croli swore and raised his staff again. Clouds formed high above, and a soft rain fell, extinguishing the fire. He scowled at Terrwyn, shaking his head, and tromped off back the way he’d came. Terrwyn followed best she could, but the forest was now pitch-black. The clouds blocked the starlight, and Croli seemed unwilling to ignite his staff. “Croli!” Terrwyn called, stumbling over roots and rocks. “Croli! Help! I – I can’t find my way without light!” Her words seemed to have the intended effect, as she heard Croli’s hard footsteps soften then turn toward her. Soft moonlight soon shone over her, and she followed it all the way back to the inn. Croli sat on the stairs. He held his staff out in one hand, his forehead in the other. He was bent over himself. Terrwyn couldn’t tell if he was angry with her or just tired.
“Croli?” she whispered. When he didn’t answer, she stepped closer, kneeling beside him in the cold grass. “Croli? Are you ok?”
“No.” The silence between them was thick enough to chew. Then he broke it. “What the hell do you think you were doing?” he asked. His voice was calm, quiet, as if he were asking where the outhouse was or what was for dinner. “Those monsters could’ve killed you. They absolutely would have if I hadn’t been there. You acted recklessly and without thought.”
“Croli, I–” she tried to interject, but he looked up at her, and the fury in his eyes stopped her cold.
“No. You don’t get to talk. Do you have any idea what tonight cost? Do you know why I don’t just sling spells around, willy-nilly? Magic has a price, dear Terrwyn. Life for power. That’s the bargain. Every spell takes time off my lifespan. Granted, wizards tend to live longer than normal humans, but still. And now, because of your arrogance, your stupidity, I may have lost crucial time. Time that could mean the difference between victory and defeat! I wouldn’t expect a normal woman like you to understand. Simple farmers on the Kaian Plains. Zargonese bumpkins. You know nothing of magic, of its cost, of the horrors this world conceals.”