Archive | October, 2020

Snippet – The Cunning Man’s Tale

26 Oct

Hi, everyone

The Cunning Man’s Tale is a short story/novella for Fantastic Schools III, set in Heart’s Eye.  It takes place at roughly the same time as Little Witches (more or less.)  It should be more or less stand-alone.

I’m trying two different things here.  First, this story is written in first person (rather than third person).  I’ve done that before, but this is the first time I’ve done it for SIM.  Second, I planned this novella with the intention of eventually filling it out and turning it into a more serious novel.  If you have any suggestions for expansion and suchlike, please feel free to pass them to me.


PS – If you read, please comment from time to time.  It encourages me.

PPS – If you want to write yourself, check out the link below.

Chapter One

I had barely rested my head on the pillow when I was awakened by a terrific banging.

I jumped awake, half-convinced I’d overslept and my master was furious.  Master Pittwater was decent and easy-going, as masters went, but he had every right to be upset if I’d overslept.  The apothecary didn’t run itself, as I knew all too well.  If Master Pittwater had to work the counter himself, he was going to be mad.  He needed to restock on a dozen potions before the rush began …

My head spun as I sat up.  Where was I?  It wasn’t my garret above the shop.  It wasn’t the bedroom I’d shared with my brothers, back in Beneficence.  It was a small room, bare and barren save for an uncomfortable bed, illuminated by a single glowing crystal.  My bag lay in the corner, where I’d left it … I blinked as memory returned.  I’d been so tired, when I’d finally reached Heart’s Eye, that I had very little awareness of being shown to a room and collapsing into sleep.  Master Pittwater had warned me about portal lag, about the body being convinced it was in one time zone while actually being in another, but I hadn’t believed it.  Not until now.  The clock on the wall insisted it was ten bells, but it felt like the middle of the night.

There was another hard knock on the door.  I cursed as I stumbled to my feet and staggered towards the sound.  I honestly had no idea who was out there.  Master Pittwater had promised he’d make the arrangements, and advised me to check in with Master Landis as soon as I arrived, but I couldn’t remember if I actually had.  Everything – the portals, the train – was a blur.  I wondered, as I turned the doorknob, if I actually was in Heart’s Eye.  It was quite possible I’d been in such a state that I’d gone to the wrong place.

“Well,” a feminine voice said, as I opened the door.  “It’s about time.”

I blinked in surprise.  A girl – young woman, really – was standing on the far side of the door, eying me as if I was something particularly unpleasant under her foot.  She was striking, in a way that most female magicians are striking, and yet the sneer on her face made it hard to like her.  Her eyes narrowed with contempt as she looked me up and down.  I looked back at her, noting the long red hair and magical robes.  Her skin was unmarked by life, her hands lacking the scars on mine.  She looked like a person from another world.

“I trust you have been getting ready to attend upon us?”  The girl sounded as though she didn’t believe it.  “Or have you been lollygagging around in bed …?”

She looked past me, as if she expected to discover that I wasn’t alone.  I felt my temper flare.  I didn’t know who she was, or who she thought I was, but I didn’t like anyone talking to me like that.  I was a free citizen of Beneficence, not a serf or a slave or a runaway peasant.  I might be an apprentice, but I had rights.  They didn’t include having to take such … disdain … from someone who was clearly as immature as someone half her age.

I cleared my throat.  “Who are you?”

“Lilith,” the girl snapped.  “Don’t you know me?”

“No,” I said, in honest bemusement.  I was supposed to know her?  She wasn’t a customer at the shop – my former shop – and I was fairly sure she didn’t live in Beneficence.  Even the snootier magicians at least tried to be polite.  Mostly.  “Am I supposed to know you?”

Lilith gave me a nasty look.  “I am” – she paused, clearly rethinking what she was about to say – “I am Master Landis’s apprentice.  And I have to take you to the lab.”

She looked me up and down.  “And you’re not even appropriately dressed!”

“I only got in last night,” I said.  The urge to just slam the door in her face was overwhelming.  “You woke me up.”

“That won’t do at all,” Lilith said.  “Get dressed in lab robes and meet me there in ten minutes and …”

“I don’t even know where the lab is,” I said.  “I can’t …”

Lilith scowled.  “Get dressed,” she ordered.  “I’ll wait outside.  Hurry.”

I scowled back as I closed the door, opened my bag and dug through it for the apprenticeship robe.  Master Pittwater had given it to me as his farewell present, along with a handful of printed textbooks and tomes.  I felt grimy as I shucked my trousers and shirt, taking time to change my underwear before pulling the robe over my head.  I had been far too long since I’d had a proper shower, let alone a bath.  Master Pittwater had been insistent I shower every day, if I lived above the shop.  I’d grown used to the luxury.

Gritting my teeth, I dug out the letters of introduction and slipped them into my pocket.  Master Pittwater had assured me that everything had been sorted, that Master Landis would give me a fair shot at an apprenticeship.  He hadn’t mentioned another apprentice, a girl no less.  I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Female apprentices were rare, outside the magical community.  And Lilith clearly had a massive chip on her shoulder.  If I’d shown that sort of attitude, I would have been in deep trouble.

“You’re not an apprentice,” Lilith said, when I opened the door.  “You shouldn’t be wearing those robes.”

I glared at her, feeling pushed to breaking point.  “I came here for an apprenticeship,” I said, sharply.  “Shouldn’t I be dressed for the part?”

“You’re not a real apprentice,” Lilith countered.  She held up her palm.  A spark of light danced over her skin.  It was a trick magicians often used to identify themselves.  I tried not to wince as I looked at the reminder I would never be a magician.  “All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients.  Menial work.”

She turned and marched down the corridor, then stopped.  “Did you even think to have something to eat?”

“No,” I said.  I was used to hunger – my family had never been wealthy enough to be sure of putting food on the table – and I could have gone on for quite some time without making mistakes, but I wanted to irritate her.  Just a little.  “Is there something to eat?”

Lilith snorted and turned to walk down a staircase.  “Follow me,” she snapped.  “And stay a step or two behind me.”

I ignored the insult as I peered around with interest.  Heart’s Eye was big, easily larger than anything I’d seen in the city.  The corridors seemed like giant mazes, although someone had helpfully hung signs and markers everywhere.  There were no paintings on the walls, save for a handful of strikingly-realistic portraits.  I frowned as I ran my eye over the names below the portraits.  MISTRESS IRENE.   LADY EMILY … the Emily, I assumed.  CALEB.  MASTER LANDIS … I stopped to study his face, wondering just how closely the painting matched reality.  He looked very different to Master Pittwater.  A pale face, neatly-trimmed goatee, green eyes … I couldn’t help thinking he reminded me of someone, although I wasn’t sure who.

“That’s your new boss,” Lilith said.  She seemed in no hurry, all of a sudden.  “We don’t want people forgetting who runs this place.”

I gave her a sharp look.  “Do you even want to be here?”

Lilith looked thoroughly displeased.  “I have no choice,” she said.  “You do.  Why don’t you leave.”

She turned and strode down the corridor before I could think of a reply.  I glared at her back as I started to follow her.  I didn’t have a choice, not if I wanted to be something more than an apothecary’s assistant.  Master Pittwater had made that clear, when he’d told me I could go no further in his employ.  I could either accept being a lowly assistant for the rest of my life or take a chance on Heart’s Eye.  He hadn’t promised me it would be easy.

I heard people talking as we reached the bottom of the corridor and stepped into a large hall.  It was crammed with people, ranging from students to older men and women wearing worker’s overalls and protective outfits.  The tables seemed to be scattered at random, although I could tell there were dozens of groups and subgroups already.  I glanced from table to table, noting youngsters who were clearly magicians and men who looked like proud craftsmen.  I felt a tinge of envy.  I’d thought about becoming a craftsman myself, but I hadn’t been able to get an apprenticeship.

Lilith pointed to the table at the front of the hall, raising her voice so I could hear over the din.  “Take what you want,” she said.  “Don’t worry about paying for it.”

“Really?”  It sounded as if she wanted to get me in hot water.  “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Lilith said.  She walked beside me, the crowd parting in front of her.  I couldn’t help noticing that she – and I – were getting wary looks, even from the magicians.  “Right now, the food is free.”

It was also very basic, I decided, as I filled a bowl with porridge and dried fruit.  Oats were easy to grow, if I recalled correctly; they were probably shipped in by the ton through the portals.  Or something.  Heart’s Eye was in the middle of a desert, but I’d been told the land was slowly becoming fertile again.  I put the matter aside for later consideration as we sat down, Lilith nursing a mug of Kava.  I couldn’t help thinking we were in a bubble.  The others gave us a wide berth.  Even the magicians seemed wary of her.

“Eat quickly,” Lilith said.  She didn’t seem pleased with her seeming unpopularity.  “We don’t have much time.”

I nodded and tucked into the porridge.  It tasted bland, but I knew I should be glad to have it.  My stomach growled warningly, suggesting I should go back for seconds.  There was dried fish too, as well as meats I didn’t recognise.  I wanted to go, but Lilith was clearly impatient.  I drank my Kava – stronger than anything I’d had back home – and stood, carrying the plates and bowls to the collection point.  It looked as if the staff had a full-time job.

“Who does the cooking?”  I asked, as Lilith led me out of the hall.  “And everything else?”

“Depends,” Lilith said.  “The cooks do the cooking” – she wasn’t looking at me, but I could hear the sneer – “assisted by students who are working their way through the university courses.  They do the labour and, in exchange, are allowed to attend courses.  It is quite the arrangement.”

I stared at her back.  “What’s wrong with it?”

“They cannot use it,” Lilith said.  “What’s the point?”

I couldn’t put my feelings into words.  Lilith didn’t seem to notice as she walked down two flights of stairs and along a long corridor.  I felt a tingle passing through me, my hair threatening to stand on end, as we crossed the wards.  Silence fell, noticeably.  I hadn’t really been aware of the background noise until it was gone.  A pair of young girls walked past us, going in the other direction.  They both gave Lilith a wide berth.  I frowned.  Lilith wasn’t that bad, was she?  I’d met people who were worse.

“This is the lab,” Lilith said, as she pushed open a door.  “Master Landis will key you into the wards, once you prove yourself.”

“I proved myself to Master Pittwater,” I protested.  “I know …”

“An apothecary,” Lilith said, in a tone that suggested Master Pittwater was one step above a gutter rat.  “This is an alchemical lab.  The rules are different.”

She muttered a word as she stepped inside.  The air glowed with light.  I felt a thrill, despite myself, as I looked around.  The chamber was massive, a dozen wooden tables – neatly spaced, in line with the rules Master Pitt water had drummed into me – dominating the room.  The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of potion ingredients, alchemical textbooks and everything an alchemist needed, from cauldrons to glass vials, jars and bottles.  I stepped closer, admiring the collection of ingredients.  A number were so expensive that Master Pittwater had rarely, if ever, used them.  I couldn’t help shuddering as I saw a pickled frog in a jar.

“That was a boy who tried to kiss me,” Lilith said.  I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.  “I turned him into a frog and pickled him.”

I felt sick.  “Do you think that’s funny?”

Lilith shrugged.  “There’s a washroom through there,” she said.  “I take it you know how to wash your hands and put on a proper apron?”

I didn’t bother to dignify that stupid question with a stupid answer.  I hadn’t worked a day in the shop before I’d learnt the dangers of cross-contamination and injury.  It was very easy to get seriously hurt, even if one couldn’t brew the more dangerous potions.  I’d helped Master Pittwater clean the wounds, after one of his previous ancestors had splashed himself with cockatrice blood.  It wasn’t as lethal as basilisk or manticore venom, but it had still done enough damage to terminate the poor man’s career.  I had no idea what had happened to him afterwards.  I hoped he wasn’t starving on the streets somewhere.

Lilith rattled around in the lab as I washed and dried my hands, then donned a apron.  It wouldn’t provide much protection, if a cauldron exploded, but it might give me a few seconds to tear it off before the boiling liquid burned through to my skin.  I tested it lightly, making sure I could pull it free, then headed back into the lab.  Lilith had laid out a set of ingredients, and a small collection of tools.  I felt a thrill when I looked at them.  I knew how to use them all.

“To work,” Lilith ordered.  She jabbed a finger at the pile.  “Ready these for use.”

I frowned as I stared at the pile.  Some were common, so common a child could prepare them properly.  A couple required almost no preparation.  The remainder were tricky.  I couldn’t prepare them unless I knew what we were going to brew.  The Darkle Roots needed to be sliced one way for a sleeping potion and quite another way for a purgative.  The Candy Seeds needed to be left intact for a shape-change potion and crushed for a healing potion.  And the daises … Master Pittwater had joked about a vile old witch who found daises soothing, but – as far as I knew – they had no real magical applications.  They were useless.

“Interesting,” I said, as neutrally as I could.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith sniffed.  “A simple painkilling potion,” she said.  She hadn’t said which one.  There were over fifty different recipes, with varying levels of potency.  “Prepare the ingredients.”

I kept my face under tight control as I considered the recipes I’d memorised.  There were only four that involved all, but one of the ingredients.  The daisies were a mystery.  I shrugged, resisting the urge to ask about them as I started to work.  I chopped up the Darkle Roots, being very careful to avoid mixing them with the Hawthorne Thistles.  They didn’t go well together unless they were blended in a cauldron.  The Jigger Stems were of too poor quality for two of the four recipes, so I angled my work towards the remaining two.  Lilith watched, occasionally tossing in a question.  I was almost insulted.  I’d covered most of them within the first two months of my time in the shop.

“I’ve done everything, but the daises,” I said, finally.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith snorted.  “We?  I’m going to brew …”

I felt my temper snap.  “I just prepared the ingredients for you,” I said, sharply.  A thought struck me.  “Did I just help you with your work?”

“It’s your job,” Lilith snapped.  “You prepare the ingredients.  I turn them into potions!”

“I came here for an apprenticeship, not to be a servant,” I snapped back.  I didn’t mind preparing ingredients.  It was part of the job.  But I didn’t want to be just a preparer.  “I need to learn to brew and …”

“With what?”  Lilith turned to face me.  “You have no magic.  You can toss this lot into a cauldron and get what?  Sludge!  You cannot do anything with this.  All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients!”

“I can learn,” I said.  “I can …”

Lilith jabbed a finger at me.  My entire body froze.  I could neither move nor speak.

“I learnt that spell before I went to school,” Lilith said.  She tapped me on the head.  It sounded as if she’d rapped her knuckles against solid metal.  “You are powerless against it.  You cannot defend yourself against even the merest touch of magic.  You have no place here, save as a servant to your betters.  And the sooner you learn it, the better.”

I struggled to move, but I couldn’t.  My entire body was locked solid.  I couldn’t even move my eyes.  I watched, helplessly, as Lilith took the ingredients I’d lovingly prepared and started to turn them into a potion.  She was good, I admitted grudgingly; she was far better than the other apprentices I’d met.  Her fingers moved with easy skill, her magic sparking with life as she worked.  And yet she thought of me as a servant …

My heart sank.  How the hell did I get into this mess?

SIM: The Kingdom of Tarzana

25 Oct

Another bit of background.

The Kingdom of Tarzana

Tarzana sits at the eastern reaches of the Allied Lands, separated from the remainder of the former Empire by a combination of mountains and arid deserts.  It is not as isolated as many of its aristocrats might prefer – there are roads through the mountains and the kingdom has a number of ports that link it to the Southern Continent – but it does maintain its distance from the White Council.  Tarzana has not sent any troops to join the common defence against the necromancers and has only reluctantly paid its dues to the White Council. 

The kingdom is best described as a mixture of arid countryside, dominated by hot and humid summers, and cold to mild winters.  The fertile regions of the country are bracketed by farms that barely produce enough to keep their workers alive and deserts that are effectively impossible to farm.  Rainfall and thunderstorms are not uncommon, but completely unpredictable.  The farmers have made some attempts to irrigate their fields, using aspects of the New Learning, but such efforts have floundered against aristocratic resistance.  It is perhaps unsurprising that a sizable percentage of the country’s population is desperately poor.

On paper, Tarzana is a kingdom roughly akin to Zangaria.  In practice, this isn’t true.  The country’s aristocracy had deep roots within the local government and, when the king started trying to increase his power, revolted against him.  The king lost his life and his son, the current King Jacob, was put on the throne.  As he was barely an infant at the time, he was unable to exercise governance and the aristocracy were able to effectively strip the monarchy of most of its power.  The country is effectively divided into aristocratic estates and city-states that maintain a precarious independence.  The Warlords – a title they stripped from the King and distributed to themselves to symbolise his powerlessness – hold most of the power, as long as they act in unison.  Each of the warlords, however, has dreams of taking the king’s daughter – Princess Helen – for his bride and becoming a true king.  This would, naturally, come at the expense of the other warlords and they can be relied upon to unite against anyone who tried.   

The five major warlords, with many aristocrats bound to them through oaths of blood, are Aldred, Cuthbert, Eldred, Hlaford and Renweard.

King Jacob and his daughter would love to regain effective power – or, at the very least, break the power of the warlords – but they face a number of serious challenges.  The crown is banned from deploying more than a few hundred soldiers, nowhere near enough to challenge even one of the warlords, while the tax base is very small.  The warlords have exempted themselves and their supporters from most taxes, while the city-states, temples and nearly everyone else pays as little as possible.  (The crown doesn’t have the manpower to collect taxes, even ones that are still legal.)  The main tax burden falls on the peasants, who are unable to pay even if they wanted to.  Practically, the king rules Roxanna, the capital, and very little else.

The city-states maintain an uneasy balancing act between their ancient rights – they claim their rights pre-date both the monarchy and the empire – and the simple fact that their neighbouring warlords are powerful enough to storm the cities or simply blockade them into submission.  This is bitterly resented in the cities, leading to a steady stream of anti-noble riots that rarely get anywhere.  The cities have a range of different governments, from a limited form of democracy (men with property alone, naturally) to semi-aristocratic or mercantile systems.  It is generally believed that uniting the cities would give them a chance to shake themselves free of the warlords, but the city governments refuse to back any such attempt.  They believe it would result in certain destruction.

Merchants and trades – and the travelling folk – are normally allowed to move freely within the country.  However, they can be harassed by local authorities – some of the nastier warlords see traders as agents of change (and thus enemies) – and sometimes beaten or robbed by bandits.  They’re also banned from recruiting outside the cities or providing transport to the peasantry without a permit.  The only real exception to this are magical traders and talent scouts, the former being regarded as too dangerous to challenge and the latter providing a useful service.

The peasantry, as a class, is ground under by the problem of raising crops in the arid environment and the constant demands from the warlords (and their subordinates).  The warlords consider the peasants to be property, one step above slaves, and take most of the produce for themselves without so much as investing in the land (such as irrigation).  It is unsurprising, therefore, that famines are frequent; peasants often take to the hills and become bandits, or flee to the cities, in hopes of making a living there.  This is, naturally, forbidden and the warlords will often threaten war to force the cities to return them, even though this is pointless spite.  Violent resistance is not uncommon and the peasants tell of a legendary warrior who will return to save them, but – so far – most peasant revolts have been brutally squashed. 

The New Learning spread into Tarzana largely by accident, brought by merchants who intended to use the innovations – reading and writing, as well as primitive gunpowder weapons – for their own advantage.  The warlords didn’t see the possibilities – or the dangers-  until it was too late, although they were quick to ban the peasants from learning to read (on the ground it would only give them ideas).  The city-states have embraced the New Learning, although it will probably be years before they manage to develop any further.  However, it is quite likely that the new concepts will bring change in their wake.


15 Oct

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Follow a mundane teacher striding into a world of magic, a spy on a mission, a guided tour of a magical school, a school dance for monsters, a dangerous reunion … and many more.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

Featuring a new Schooled in Magic novella – Nanette’s Tale – and stories by J.F. Posthumus, Christine Amsden, James Pyles, Becky R. Jones, Morgon Newquist, Tom Anderson, Lauser, James Odell, Misha Burnett, Audrey Andrews, Paul A. Piatt, L. Jagi Lamplighter and David Breitenbeck

Download from Amazon US, UK, CAN, AU

OUT NOW – The Halls of Montezuma (The Empire’s Corps XVIII) + FREE BOOK!

4 Oct

An all-new story of The Empire’s Corps!

Earth has fallen.  The Core Worlds have collapsed into chaos.  War is breaking out everywhere as planetary governments declare independence, entire sectors slip out of contact and warlords battle for power.  The remnants of the once-great Empire are tearing themselves apart.  And, in the shadows, the Terran Marine Corps works to save what little they can to preserve civilisation and build a better tomorrow.  But now they might have met their match.

The marines have beaten off a desperate attempt by the corporate worlds to recover Hameau, but the war is very far from over.  The corprats remain powerful, gathering their strength to resume the offensive, locate the marines and impose their society on the ruins of empire.  To stop them, the marines will have to stake everything on a desperate gamble to tear out the heart of the enemy empire and slay the fascist beast in its lair.

But the enemy are equally desperate to win …

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from Amazon (USUKCANAUS) or Draft2Digital.  And read the Afterword HERE.

In addition, The Empire’s Corps, the first book in this long-running bestselling series, will be available free through Kindle Unlimited between 5th October to 9th October.  If you haven’t picked it up, why not click here to download a free sample, and then buy it from Amazon here!

OUT NOW – The Halls of Montezuma (The Empire’s Corps XVIII)

3 Oct

An all-new story of The Empire’s Corps!

Earth has fallen.  The Core Worlds have collapsed into chaos.  War is breaking out everywhere as planetary governments declare independence, entire sectors slip out of contact and warlords battle for power.  The remnants of the once-great Empire are tearing themselves apart.  And, in the shadows, the Terran Marine Corps works to save what little they can to preserve civilisation and build a better tomorrow.  But now they might have met their match.

The marines have beaten off a desperate attempt by the corporate worlds to recover Hameau, but the war is very far from over.  The corprats remain powerful, gathering their strength to resume the offensive, locate the marines and impose their society on the ruins of empire.  To stop them, the marines will have to stake everything on a desperate gamble to tear out the heart of the enemy empire and slay the fascist beast in its lair.

But the enemy are equally desperate to win …

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from Amazon (USUKCANAUS) or Draft2Digital.  And read the Afterword HERE.