Sample Chapter from The Jewel of the Sorcerer
Night of the Golden Star
It was unusually chilly for an August evening, and Martrum Tuckle, enjoying the end of his eightieth summer, found himself a bit more bundled than he was used to as he perched upon the hillock overlooking his flock. Standing his staff against a nearby tree, he stooped to sit, and when he found a suitable position glared out across the field, observing.
Much of Martrum's herd was of the same mind, having taken to cradling their lanky, awkward legs beneath their wooly coats to enjoy a quiet night's rest. Their worries–shepherd and flock alike–were always few. Maxxie and Rufus, descendants of an ancient line of Tuckle sheepdogs, were adequate security. Ever alert, the shaggy beasts could detect intruders from a mile off, whether squirrel or wolf, and with that particularly comforting knowledge, Martrum Tuckle closed his weary eyes.
Upon opening them, the old shepherd noted that night had fully fallen, and that it was a particularly starry night indeed. Magnificent! he thought, gaping slightly.
Taking hold of his staff, he struggled to his feet. His flock below was quiet. Maxxie, lying beyond the outer ring of the herd, was bathing his bear-like paws with his coarse tongue; Rufus, who had fallen asleep along the inner wall of sheep, was shuffling noisily in the grass, apparently rapt in an adventurous sort of dream.
Good thing I'm not paying you, he said to himself, a smile beginning to tug at the edge of his lips. Big oaf—
But suddenly, with a wild jerk, Rufus woke, springing to attention as though detecting something menacing in close proximity. The look he had in his deep, black eyes Martrum knew him only to bear when trouble was near. Rufus's reaction was such that Martrum himself became startled and nearly lost his footing. But nearly as abruptly as Rufus sprung awake, he lay back down, closed his eyes, and went to sleep again.
Poor old fellow, thought Martrum. I think age is starting to catch up with—
Just then, out of the corner of his tired eyes, Martrum Tuckle thought to see a gold light shimmering through the boughs of the tree above. Trying to dismiss it for starlight, he turned his attention away, only to find that the light became brighter the more he tried to ignore it. What the—
Martrum did not remember taking shelter behind the tree, but peering in fright from the safety of its cover he saw a beam of golden light descend from the stars, touching down softly only thirty yards or so from his station. It was a light so strong and fervent that Martrum was blind to all of the surrounding area, but he could not look away. Transfixed, he stared blankly until the golden beam subsided to a dull, flickering glow before dying out completely.
When it was all but extinguished, Martrum's sight was blotchy, and even when he closed his eyes it remained as if he was staring at that horribly radiant orb. But now he heard voices, and struggling through his foggy vision, he distinguished three shapes standing where the light had been.
The first voice was very gruff, and unmistakably male. "It would be in our best interest to seek another mode of transportation next time." The figure of the speaker seemed larger than the others, and he was stretching, craning his neck as if to crack out the stiffness. He stood looking out to the field beyond. "A peasant village, honestly?" he continued. "Could Father have been more cliché?"
"As far east as can be managed was his command." The voice that responded was female, and so melodic that any ominous thoughts Martrum was concealing began to subside, though he now clung to the tree as tightly as he had ever clung to anything. "And 'next time?'" she continued. "It was my understanding that this would be our only visitation."
"At least for a long while," said the third voice, also male, yet his bore elegance that was absent in the other's. "If we are to respect Father's wishes, of course."
"Remove any thoughts of disobeying Father's orders from your mind, Nepsus," said the female sternly, and though the other was in shadow, Martrum thought to see him cower. "We are to fulfill his final wish before retiring to the realm to attempt to restore him."
Martrum heard the hoarse voice of the first male give a slight chuckle.
"I would have you tell me what amuses you, Charon," said the female sharply, anger rising in the chimes of her voice.
But the one called Charon was not fazed. "You need look no further than yourself, dear sister," he answered.
"Children, children," interjected the second male—Nepsus, Martrum thought he heard the woman call him. "Surely we are all recovering from a lengthy and uncomfortable trek, but must we bicker here in the open? We cannot know who may be listening."
"Then go seek out eavesdroppers, little brother," answered Charon bluntly, and when he stood up to Nepsus, Martrum could see that he was larger than him in every way a man could be larger than another.
This remark caused the woman to guffaw. "Now you give the orders?"
"Be silent, Nephromera," said Charon sharply, turning from his brother and advancing on her. "I have endured enough nagging from you for one apparition."
"Yet the stubborn little boy," she answered under her breath, and her voice sounded as if she had spoken from behind clenched teeth.
Turning from the towering Charon, Nephromera began to walk away down the hill where Martrum's flock was resting, seemingly ignorant to the open quarrel waging just above them. She thrust her hand to the heavens, and, in a flash of purplish light, a staff manifested out of nothing, and she continued to walk on.
It was then that Charon followed her, and called from the ledge, "Yet the foolhardy, sniveling girl."
This insult made Nephromera stop cold for a fraction of a second, and in that time she made as if to turn and retort, but clearly thought better of it. Continuing away, she swept past Rufus, whose tongue was now dangling from his slightly ajar mouth, and out in the direction of the nearby village of Amar.
"Now you have done it," said Nepsus accusingly.
"What have I done now?" replied Charon defensively.
But presently Nepsus was following in the woman's wake, springing along as briskly as a young buck.
"She started it," muttered Charon to himself before he too cantered off to join his siblings.
Under the starlit cover of night the three figures of Nephromera, Charon, and Nepsus traversed west, where, faintly across the bleak and rolling expanse of field, what lights were left burning in Amar could be distinguished. Seizing his own staff, Martrum Tuckle labored down the hill after them as stealthily as his eighty year-old, creaking limbs would allow.
Before he endured the field ahead, he roused Rufus who woke excitedly as though startled out of dream.
"Will you relax?!" Martrum squealed in the loudest whisper he could muster. He clasped one bony hand around Rufus's mouth to prevent the enormous dog from making an audible-enough sound.
"Listen, you mutt," he continued, "Daddy's got to go for an important walk." The elderly shepherd averted his gaze to see that his quarry was still within range. "Look after this lot, will you? And tell Maxxie when he wakes."
He had to hurry; otherwise, the ground his weary legs would have to cover to gain on the three strangers would be a difficult errand. Martrum sighed as he watched the black shapes grow smaller in the distance. "Daddy will be back soon enough. Don't you go fretting now. That's a good boy."
Rufus whimpered almost inaudibly, as though lamenting his master's decision to temporarily leave, but the old shepherd's heart would not be swayed. As briskly as he could manage, he set off on the trail of the odd company.
To his advantage, their pace was leisurely, as though the business they were seeing to was not an urgent matter. But their manners were certainly edgy. Even the foreboding figure of Charon seemed to flinch at the slightest sound of movement.
Quiet, you old fool! Martrum scolded himself whenever he kicked a stray rock or broke a branch. It was difficult to manage stealth and speed in the darkness of the field, and he found himself dodging behind outlying trees more often than suited his purpose.
The voices of Nephromera, Charon, and Nepsus were only audible enough to determine that they were speaking. Their words, however, were indistinguishable, though Martrum believed them to be bickering again.
In nearly half an hour's time, the outskirts of the village was upon them. By now, there were sufficiently fewer lights than Martrum had seen from his perch, as most of the residents were almost certainly asleep by now. On a bridge beneath which ran a slow-trudging stream, the three stopped.
Martrum took to hiding perhaps fifty yards behind them, where the girth of one of the remaining scattered trees afforded him shelter. Here, in the open beneath the unveiled moon, the features of the three strangers were finally perceivable. The woman was without question the most beautiful Martrum had ever seen. Her flowing locks of gold ranged beyond the slopes of her slender shoulders to the small of her back in a decorated braid. The surface of her face seemed smooth even from the distance that separated Martrum from the three, with high set cheekbones and crystal eyes that seemed to pierce through him even when her gaze was elsewhere. Yet there was a twinge of something strong in the features of her face as well—something masculine and stern—such as inclined Martrum to believe that she was the leader among them. A brightly colored shawl was draped upon her shoulders atop a dark blue satin robe that dragged behind her as she walked.
Her brothers were equally breathtaking to the eyes of Martrum Tuckle. Never before had he seen young men who looked like them. Charon was indeed a paragon of his kind—boasting a magnificently brutish figure and standing well over six feet in height. Upon his chest, he wore a shimmering breastplate that was presently reflecting the starlight. Behind his back, his dark blue cape flirted with the dusty earth and was beginning to take on stray pieces of loose straw. The outlines of his face were sharp at the edges with a very distinguishable jawline and a deep delve in his cleft chin. His hair resembled more of a lion's mane than anything—a brilliant, white-gold, lion's mane. His eyes were very much alike to his sister's, though they seemed to be embedded deeper into his face than hers. At his side swayed a glittering scabbard out of which a marvelous sword glimmered from guard to pommel.
Nepsus, whom Martrum determined was the youngest of the three, dressed as peculiarly as his older brother. He was a fair size smaller than Charon (perhaps by nearly half a foot), and his hair, though the same, mesmerizing hue, was much shorter and more kempt. He had an arrogant gaze upon his face, though his mannerisms did not suggest that he was arrogant, and at his side, like a staff of his own, he carried a spear whose point was fashioned to resemble what Martrum could only guess was the head of a golden swordfish.
Nephromera stood peering out beyond the edge of the bridge, looking into Amar before they entered it completely. For a long while, they remained quiet and unmoving. Nepsus had taken to sitting on a nearby ledge of the bridge, but Charon paced impatiently. Finally, he broke the silence with an air of frustration. "Well, now is as good a time as any to do it, if you have to."
"I daresay she is seeing to that, brother," said Nepsus lazily, playing with the fingers of his non spear-hand, which seemed to be piquing his interest.
Even from the distance that separated Martrum from the three siblings, he could hear Nephromera muttering something. It seemed unrelated to what Charon and Nepsus were discussing, which now concerned how to properly respect your elders. Leaning on her staff, her chant grew louder and more animated. After several moments, it seemed her staff was supporting the entirety of her weight, until finally she fell to her knees in exasperation and Nepsus raced to aid her to her feet.
Martrum was not prepared for what happened next. The staff to which Nephromera had clung a moment ago was standing balanced in its lonesome, wreathed in an eerie, blue-purple glow. Now the staff seemed to be shrinking, and as it shrunk, changed form until it was nothing more than an odd little heap upon the ground.
"It is done then?" asked Charon, wonder at the edge of his rasping voice.
Nephromera struggled in Nepsus's arms, and, short of breath, answered. "It is done."
Charon stooped low beside the bundle and raised it in his arms. For a moment, his back was to Martrum, but when he turned his broad shoulders to show his sister what he had lifted from the ground, the old shepherd saw that it was fleshy-colored and wriggling.
A child? he asked himself in wonder.
Martrum's thoughts were confirmed. After a moment or so, he heard the very distinct cries of an infant, muffled by the cloths surrounding it. Nephromera's face came alight as she took the child from Charon's arms and held it like her own. Silence fell over the three for what seemed like a long while.
"Hello, little brother," Martrum thought he heard her say. The child had been in Nephromera's arms for the breath of a moment before it stopped crying and fidgeting entirely. Martrum thought to see its little eyes, alert and wide, peering from within its heap of rags.
"I still do not understand," said Charon, striding away from his crumpled sister. "Why was this Father's final wish? Why subject the youngest of his children to walk among the damned?"
"Because it will be his responsibility one day to rid them of their plight," she said resolutely. "You know he will be the only one over whom Parthaleon will have no power."
"Honestly," said Nepsus, "do you ever pay attention?"
Charon shot Nepsus a furious stare, but remained quiet. When the silence was broken at last, it was he who spoke. "This world, it has grown fond of war. Its affair with bloodshed will never cease. Our brother will live amongst them—amongst these…these ants—never knowing his true potential—"
"We have played our part, dear brother," said Nephromera, and her voice was weak and tired. "Now we must allow the Fates to play theirs."
Charon turned aside, and a hint of sadness crept into his voice. "He controls the Fates now."
But whom Charon was alluding to, Martrum did not know.
"Not those most hallowed," replied Nephromera. "Not the Mountain's most sacred. And I daresay Lucian's is the most sacred of all."
"There is no time," said Charon. "Sorcerian feeds on every perished soul, and every death makes him stronger. By time Lucian comes of age and acquires his gifts it may be too late."
"Brother," said Nephromera, "your heart is steadfast. Father will need your strength now. You must believe in his cause, and that of our brother. It is our faith that we must place in him—in both of them."
Just then Nepsus spoke. "The sun will rise before long," he said with worry.
"Then let us do this," said Nephromera wearily. "Nepsus…I do not think I can make the tread on foot."
"Fret not," answered her younger brother, and before Martrum could even comprehend the words that Nepsus had spoken, a large, black horse stood where the youngest of the three had been.
"No, Charon," said Nephromera, grasping her brother's shoulder. "Not yet. First, I must ask you to help me."
Charon stooped low, and lifted his sister—child and all—effortlessly on to the back of the horse that was Nepsus. Now, every glimmering feature of Nephromera became dull and dreary—from her sparkling robes to her white-gold hair. In an eyeblink, she bore filthy, weatherworn rags and seemed to have aged fifty years.
When she spoke again, her voice was that of an elderly woman on the brink of death. "Now you, Charon."
At once, the massive form of Charon shrunk, and in his place stood a boy of about eight years of age. His garb, too, was dirty and poor, and his face, though perhaps fair, was smudged with dirt.
"Let us go on, then," said Nephromera wearily, "and leave our brother to his new home."
Nepsus bowed his horse-head as if in agreement, and Charon, taking up a reign, led the pack on into the streets of Amar. The village was ever quiet. Not a soul passed along the dirt roads to question them (and this truly would have been a questionable sight this late at night).
After a short while, the company stopped before an old inn. Martrum knew of this place scarcely, as he had enjoyed breakfast here a time or two in his younger days. He once favored the company of Mary, the old innkeeper, in an earlier stage of his life, and felt quite embarrassed to have wandered all the way here from his hillock beyond, provoked or not. But it was too late now to be bashful. Hiding in the shrubbery of a nearby establishment, he watched as the young form of Charon received the child from Nephromera's arms.
"Farewell, little brother," he heard the boyish voice of the formerly mighty Charon say. Then, reluctantly, he placed the child gently upon the steps of what he saw Mary had finally named the Mary Ol' Inn. Stooping his bushy little head sadly, Charon stepped away.
Nephromera spoke from atop Nepsus's back. "We may yet see him again, Charon," she said optimistically, but the air in her tone suggested that even she was not entirely sure of the truth behind her statement.
As if in agreement, the head of Nepsus bowed.
"Shall we risk taking our true form?" asked Charon. "It will make for easier passage to Zynys, I deem."
"I am afraid we must," answered Nephromera. "I fear I am weaker still in this form. Help me, please."
Charon was the first to materialize into his true form, and stood again in the glory of his brutish figure. Now he was able to help his sister down from horseback, and she was barely on the ground before she too was in her real likeness, along with Nepsus.
"I feel somewhat better now," she said, as if to herself. Stooping low to survey the child, sleeping peacefully on the doorstep of the inn, she kissed him on the forehead.
"Lucian," she said, as if tasting the name. She stood for a moment staring at her little brother, then turned to walk away when abruptly she hurried. "I almost forgot." Pulling a rolled up bit of parchment from her robes, she stuck a message within the child's rags. "That ought to explain enough," she determined.
Resolved, the three siblings stood, preparing for their return trip to wherever it was that they were going, when Nepsus spoke. "And what of the shepherd?" he asked.
Martrum's heart jumped.
"He has followed us since the field," he added.
"Ah, yes," said Nephromera, "we mustn’t forget. Charon—"
Before Charon's name was finished being spoken, a vice-like grip yanked Martrum from hiding, and he was lifted above the head of the hulking man. In a fraction of a second, all went blank.
A moment later, Martrum Tuckle woke alone, his staff severed and his hair unkempt, wondering how on earth he ended up in front of the Mary Ol' Inn, and why indeed a child was sleeping on its doorstep.
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