With C A L I G A T I O N to be finalised very shortly, I thought I’d put down some fiction for you. Here’s a short story I wrote recently; it’s a snippet from the world I’ve been dabbling with in a YA fantasy piece I started (not my usual genre, I know, but very enjoyable to write).
As for C A L I G A T I O N, I should be done with it shortly and the launch date will be around a month after I’m done. So, end of next month, expect it out!
For now, here’s the first part of a story to keep you occupied.
Leila’s hands shook as they hovered above the stained pot of molten metal. The sweat that dripped in rivulets down her face hid her tears, though it stung her eyes almost as much as the heat from the fire. Of all the training she had been through at the Royal University, this was by far the most gruelling. The transformation of molten iron into nickel would be a relatively achievable task for any mage proficient with the alchemic domain. Unfortunately for Leila, she was not among them and now she was doubting that she would ever be. It would have suited her just fine had circumstances not changed.
Originally, she had been chosen to spend the year under the tutelage of the master of the teleic domain, Raniel. They had been planning to further hone her powerful spacial magic under his guidance but the king’s decree had changed things for the worse. King Reynard had told the five graduates, each chosen to study beneath one of the five masters, that they would be paired with the master of their weakest domain. This swiftly put an end to whatever plans the masters had for their chosen students and most of them were markedly unhappy about the arrangement.
Leila clearly remembered standing on the plinth as the king made his announcement. It had been a shock to every single person attending the graduation feast. The quiet Master Raniel did not look up during the ceremony. He greeted his new ward with a smile and only briefly tossed Leila a gentle look as she moved down the plinth and towards her own tutor. Leila longed to be placed with Raniel, he was the only one who understood her. Worse, her new mentor filled her with terror. Mistress Zinta of the alchemic domain was a severe woman and different in every way to the young teleic mage. She was strong and proud and when her glittering, golden eyes bored into Leila, the girl often expected she might pass out from fright.
At least I have escaped Sera’s fate, she thought. The only thing worse than her current situation would have been a pairing with Master Adimai of the chaotic domain. The graduates had been set to study their weakest domain, however, so tutelage by the dark-tempered Adimai was Sera’s to endure. None of those thoughts improved her situation, however, as she desperately tried to do something with the liquid metal. If only Mistress Zinta had asked her to shape it instead, she might have had some luck.
Redoubling her effort, Leila forced herself to focus on the heat and the swell of golden sparks behind her eyes that indicated alchemic magic. She pushed harder at the flicker of light but each time it felt as though her mind slipped away from the magic. As if something else caught her attention and her focus dropped.
It was no use.
Leila could manage simple tasks like changing water to steam, or shaping objects, but she found it too difficult to ground herself enough to focus on bigger tasks. With a final, bitter sob she pulled herself away from the furnace and began to piece aside the hair that hung across her face. She wiped the tears from her cheeks as she emerged into the cool night air of the courtyard and sat herself beneath the nearest tree. Closing her eyes, the mage forced herself into a meditative state. It was the only thing that would ward off despair, she had found. The only thing that would save her from a night of crying bitterly into her pillow. Master Raniel had taught her the meditative trances to help calm her anxiety; he was the only one who had taken the time to help her with the problem, instead of simply considering her too fragile to be useful, as many others had.
The meditation soothed her quickly; the ease of practice allowing her troubled mind to slip away. Being in touch with the distance and time of the world around her always helped. Slowly, Leila let her senses flow out, feeling the tug and pull of time as it passed. The flow of moments into minutes eased her worries and Leila began to feel around within the deep black of the magic behind her eyes. White threads shimmered through her vision as she explored, finding small dips and gaps where some small distortions might hide.
So strong was the sudden pull that it nearly startled Leila out of her trance. From somewhere below the castle, it felt as if something had caught at the strings of white in her mind and yanked hard. Leila’s eyes snapped open in the darkness. She was momentarily distracted as the night breeze cooled the sweat on her tunic, making her shudder, and the pull dissipated.
For a moment, she considered trying to focus on it again but the sensation made her nervous and Leila quickly decided against it. She needed to calm herself, not to get worked up by foreign sensations in her mind. However, just as she was on the verge of reaching the gentle calm of nothingness, she felt it again. It jerked the young woman from her meditation and Leila suddenly realised she was standing; she was also several metres from her tree. Even now, in her fully wakened mind, she could still feel the gentle tug. She focussed on it and found herself lulled back into quiet by its soft hum.
In a dreamy state, she felt herself drift across the grounds to where the university connected to the castle. Her eyes flickered shut so that she could see the white threads once more. Slowly, the mage began to make out the soft ripple amongst them. The strangeness that had drawn her attention appeared like a glittering stream of ants in front of her. The guards she passed paid her no mind as the young woman meandered slowly down flights of stairs, focussing only on the monochromatic swirling in her mind. It became darker but Leila did not stop, she simply closed her eyes and continued moving as if her body was not her own. Coldness swept over her and the sudden, rippling breeze that washed across her body changed from cold to hot and back again, but the girl hardly felt it. She paid no mind to the sounds around her as they changed, nor to the feel of where she went. Her mind was in another place, drawn towards the path that her physical shell would take. A deep emptiness swelled about her but it faded the moment Leila turned her mind towards it. She began to drift once more, though she was not entirely sure if it was by her own will any more. Or if it had ever been.
It was only when the strange scent around her grew too strong that Leila opened her eyes. It was then that the pull dropped, its incorporeal claws disappearing from her mind. She could see nothing in the darkness around her but she could hear the dripping of distant water and the shuffling of some small creature nearby. Slowly, she held out a hand and drew forth from the purple inside of her so that light and warmth flared in her palm.
It revealed the damp wall to her right, the cool mist that rolled around her ankles and the strange, angular sticks that she trod upon. It felt different, the air seemed heavier and her sense of gravity was skewed all of a sudden, as if she stood on a ceiling, not a floor. Leila took a moment to adjust to the dizziness and realised she was not in the catacombs. She had been down there before, to the quiet and cool, with Master Raniel. The catacombs were made of carved stone, all angles and pillars, not the raw earth that was below her. Further, the floor of the catacombs was certainly clear of… whatever she stood upon. So where was she? Bending, Leila held the light in her palm to the ground.
Bones littered the floor.
They were twisted and shattered, some forming shapes that Leila could make no sense of from her lessons in nature. Others were so pale that they must have been very recent. Something dripped from above, landing on the back of Leila’s neck and sliding beneath her tunic. The girl froze, not wanting to move for fear of the den around her. Slowly, she raised her head until she could see what had formed the liquid.
Rows upon rows of razored, brown teeth stared back at her. Behind the teeth was a long, angular face of sickly white and several black orbs that focussed wetly on Leila. They disappeared into the pallid flesh, then reappeared and Leila realised with horror that they were eyes. With a cry, she stumbled backwards, reaching desperately for the black and white magic inside of her. Jerking further away from the creature, she thrust her senses out in search of the gaps in time and space that would lead her home. But nothing was there.
A low, menacing sound grated from the creature’s fanged maw. It sounded like it might have been an attempt at laughter. It approached slowly on four long, spindly limbs, though the rest of its pale body was somewhat human. Leila whimpered; it should have been a simple task for her to reach out and find her way home. Drawing up a portal would have drained a lot of her energy but it was certainly something she was capable of. Teleic magic was, after all, her strongest domain. So why was it that home felt completely out of her reach? Unless she was in another realm entirely, another plane, she should have been able to open a gap.
She forced back her fear, swallowing hard as her mind raced with the origin of the creature in front of her. Her outthrust hand burst forth with flame at her command and she waved it in the direction of the beast.
It laughed again; at least, she assumed it was laughter. With one spider-like hand it reached gently out to touch the flames, dousing them between its fingers as if they were a mere candle. As if it, too, possessed magic.
“An estrika,” Leila whispered, understanding finally what the creature before her was as she began to stumble backwards in the darkness. She had heard of them only in myths. Undead, they feasted on flesh and possessed powerful magic.
“Yessssss,” came a whisper from the darkness before her. Its voice was somehow feminine but edged with a deep, grating timbre. “Slipped into my plane like a moth to flame. You will be my-” It hissed suddenly, such a violent sound that Leila cried out. In the darkness, bestial voices began to hiss and snarl. Something else was with them, she realised.
Recapturing the light upon her palm, Leila saw the struggle in front of her with sudden clarity. Something furred and large had landed upon the estrika and the two were locked in a bloody struggle.
“Run,” snarled a new voice.
The girl did not need to be told twice. She spun back the way she had come, intending to flee.
Leila found herself face to face with a solid wall. Briefly, she saw the runes etched onto the rock in blood but put it out of her mind as she turned back to face the fight. The bone-strewn cavern was too small for her to squeeze past the estrika and its combatant. So, with a thrust of her power, Leila bolted forward into the small portal she created, feeling the world shudder and balk around her. Then, emerging past the creatures, she began to run. Light guided her from the chamber, through winding, rocky tunnels and tight, dizzying hollows until she emerged into a much larger cavern.
tl;dr – caves are bad.