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Friday, 16 September 2016

The Serpent's Venom

White Dwarf was getting a circulation boost or something, so Jamie (who was the real editor of the mag, whatever the punters thought) asked me to knock off a beginners’ scenario for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Ah, dungeons – I’m sure you know by now how I feel about those. But I did my hack duty, and it went out under the pseudonym Liz Fletcher because I already had The Castle of Lost Souls and my RuneRites column appearing in the same issue – which was number 52, April 1984, if you’re interested.

It was later modified slightly by James Wallis to appear in the platinum-rare Dragon Warriors supplement In From The Cold. I’ve taken the stats from that, but reverted it to a more generic world background. Looking at it now, I’m not sure what the ‘awkward situation’ was that Galadria had ostensibly approached the player characters to help out with, and they may well ask so you’d better have her invent something plausible. As Galadria will have researched the characters' background before approaching them, she might be able to come up with a story that relates to their recent adventures, in which case it could be quite an effective sting.

The Serpent’s Venom

An adventure for 1st to 3rd-rank characters

Players’ introduction
Finding themselves somewhat impoverished, the player characters enter the town of Overdale one cold evening, and are forced to make do with only a meager supper of bread and cheese at the Black Rose inn. Naturally they are quick to accept when a tall, slender blonde woman in robes of green and grey approaches and invites them to dine with her.

‘I am Galadria the Gifted,’ she says. ‘I know what it is to be down on one’s luck, so I extend this charitable hand to a group of fellow adventurers.’  

The charitable hand in question glitters with a number of heavy gold rings. She sweeps gracefully between the benches where the common patrons of the inn sit drinking, leading the characters to one of the partitioned tables off to one side of the room. She orders stew and mulled wine for them, all before explaining that she is  looking for a party of suitable adventuring companions to help her deal with an awkward situation.

As the food is brought, there is a brief lull in the conversation, and the characters cannot help overhearing something of what is being said by the group at the next table. ‘Treasure’ is mentioned several times. Discreetly listening at the thin wooden partition, they hear snatches of discussion—the other group are also adventurers, planning to explore and loot an abandoned temple a day’s ride to the north. The temple appears to be located in an underground complex hidden beside a lake surrounded by weeping willows. Galadria whispers that she knows the lake, having recently passed that way—it is called Willow Lake.

Suddenly one of the men at the next table rises to leave. Galadria and the player characters immediately pretend to be chatting to one another. The man who has risen says goodbye to his friends. At the door, he turns and calls back, ‘I’ll get some horses and see you back here in two days, then,’ before walking into the night.

Galadria leans forward and speaks in hushed tones, glancing from time to time at the next table as if to reassure herself that the eavesdropping has not been detected. ‘Luck has delivered us an excellent opportunity. If that group aren’t planning to depart for another two days, we can steal a march on them. I hope that none of you consider this dishonorable—they do look rather disreputable types themselves, and honor must go by the board when one’s pocket is almost empty of gold.’

Referee’s Background
This has actually been a con, an elaborate charade enacted to dupe the player characters. Galadria is the accomplice of the men at the next table. She and they are worshippers of an evil god. (In From The Cold interpreted this as a cult sacrificing to the pagan deity Balor; see Prince of Darkness. The original scenario had the god down as Set, who in the can't-be-arsed but vaguely Old Testament mythology of Dungeons and Dragons is a snake god - which explains the scenario's title, at least.) The abandoned temple was their own, but it was attacked over a year ago by a knightly order. Galadria and the others were the only ones to escape. They would like to retrieve the idol of their god and the coffers from the temple, but have been unable to do so because several of the skeleton guards of the temple were not destroyed by the knights and now patrol parts of the complex following their original orders: to attack anyone not accompanied by a full priest of the god (of at least 5th level).

For some time, Galadria and the others have been luring adventuring parties to the temple in order to whittle down the number of undead guards without risking themselves. Then events were complicated by a group of orcs moving into the abandoned temple. Their leader, a human sorcerer, instructed the orcs to board the skeletons into one section of the complex. Although many died in the attempt, this was achieved, and the skeletons do not have the orders or the intellect to dismantle the barricade.

The remaining worshippers of the god know about the orcs. They have evolved new tactics. Galadria will take the player characters into the temple and make a drive straight for the main shrine in order to get the sacred idol. On the way out, Vargus and the others plan to mount an ambush—whereupon Galadria will reveal her true colors and (they intend) the player characters will be slain.

The Journey to the Temple
The ride north takes the characters through rolling green countryside, through vales and gentle hill, past small hamlets and farms where peasants till the fields. The terrain gradually becomes more craggy and less populous. At one point they espy a somber black chapel or monastery across the valley. Even at a distance it is easy to see that it is deserted and overgrown.

This chapel was the home of the knightly order that raided the temple. So many were slain in the endeavor that the wounded who returned decided to deconsecrate their chapel and move south. As a consequence it is deserted.

Finally their objective is in sight. As the characters ride towards the lake, however, they are suddenly attacked by a party of five orcs who are out foraging.

These orcs will not attempt to reach the temple (if they try to escape, it will be into the wilderness) because they know that the look-out there will have seen the characters approaching and will have given the alarm, so the way in will be barricaded (see below). Galadria will try not to use her spells unless absolutely necessary. She does need at least three of the player-characters to carry the idol out of the temple, however, so she will bear this in mind

The entrance to the temple is a cave mouth on the lake shore. This is concealed behind the trunk of a weeping willow but Galadria will soon ‘stumble across’ the entrance if the characters don’t spot it. Once inside the temple, her aim will be to lead them directly to the major shrine and the temple treasury. This will involve Galadria ‘noticing’ several secret doors and although she will try to pretend that she is just doing this by luck, her eagerness to complete the mission may make her find the secret doors suspiciously quickly.

The Temple Complex

1. Entrance Passage
Crudely hewn steps lead up about six feet behind the willow tree. The passage then levels out and carries on for another five feet or so—just more than the range of torchlight.

2. Entrance Hall
Barricades to the left and right block the exit passages from this room. Sturdy ropes lead across from behind the left barricade and are secured to the other. As the characters enter, they can see several orcs peering out from the left-hand barricade.

Suddenly the ropes go taut and the right-hand barricade is pulled down. There is a noxious tittering from the orcs as four skeletons advance through the collapsed barricade and attack the characters. There is a total of nine skeletons in the temple complex, previously trapped in the passage to rooms 12, 13 and 14. They will issue forth to attack the characters at the rate of 1-3 a round until all have been killed. They will also attack Galadria, even though she is a worshipper of their deity, because she is not accompanied by a priest of the god.

The barricades are made of logs and branches. The left-hand one must be broken down for the characters to reach the orcs. This will take 4-6 combat rounds, with the orcs sniping at the adventurers all the time. Galadria will prefer to take the party this way even if all the skeletons haven’t been destroyed, because she knows about the skullghast guarding the armory and regards it as the safer of the two routes.

The orcs and their leader occupy the section of the complex covering rooms 3, 4, 5 and 6. Their leader is Althalos, a sorcerer. He regards the temple complex predominantly as a convenient base from which to raid and perhaps eventually take over the local district. Though he reveres no specific deity, he does also think there’s a possibility he may be able to tap into whatever dark sources of magical power were once associated with this place. 

3. Storeroom
This was originally the temple storeroom. Some game hangs from hooks in the ceiling for a banquet the orcs were planning. The smaller chamber off to the end is where the food is prepared.

4. Refectory
There are plain wooden benches and a table.

5. Dormitory
This is where the lower-ranking worshippers slept (Galadria, Vargus and the others). It is now the orcs’ dormitory, of course. One orc lies in bed here. He has Swamp Fever (see Dragon Warriors, p. 126), and could not join his fellows in defending their lair. Anyone who touches him has a 5% chance of contracting the disease.

6. Outer Shrine
There is a black bas-relief of a muscular red-eyed demon on the opposite wall. Originally the room was hung with tapestries and was a place for solo rituals devoted to the god. It is now Althalos’s private chamber, and he uses the tapestries for his bedding.

7. Robing Room
Several black robes with a stylized eye design in white over the abdomen hang on hooks around the room. A wooden cupboard contains six black iron crowns, with tines in the form of rough, icicle-like spikes. There are five moldering corpses in the room, two of which wear rusting armour. (Roll a d20; on a 1, the player-character with the highest perception will notice that Galadria is unusually disturbed by the sight of these corpses. The three unarmoured ones were priests of the temple; the other two were knights slain in the attacks.)

8. Major Shrine
This is a large chamber of black marble veined with quartz. On the altar stone there is a solid onyx idol to the god, with eyes of red gold and a leering forked tongue, this is the idol Galadria wants. (Note: as a worshipper of the god, Galadria should perform a genuflection as she crosses the threshold of this chamber. She won’t actually do this because it would be an obvious giveaway, but from that point she will be at –1 to ATTACK, DEFENCE, MAGICAL ATTACK, MAGICAL DEFENCE, STEALTH, PERCEPTION, and EVASION, until ritually absolved by a priest of the god.)

There are two traps on the idol that even Galadria doesn’t know about. Firstly, if touched anywhere except behind the head, it will shoot out its forked tongue (speed 19, damage 3, normal poison) to strike any character standing directly in front of the altar stone unless they have taken specific precautions against this. Armour will not help, unless the player has specified that the character is wearing a full-face helmet, or has his visor down, in which case the tongue will have no effect.

Secondly, a 5’ × 5’ trapdoor will open directly in front of the altar, dropping anyone standing there down a sloping chute to room 17 unless they can evade its Speed of 16. The idol is worth 450 florins and radiates a palpable aura of evil.

9. Priests’ Dormitory
There are five beds with decaying linen. There are two corpses here. It seems that an armored knight slew one of the sleeping priests but was then struck down from behind.

10. High Priests’ Room
Two decomposing bodies lie together on the floor. The armored knight thrust his sword through the High Priest, but the latter locked his hands around the knight’s throat and choked him even in death. The knight’s sword has not rusted, unlike his armour. A black pentangle amulet hangs on the far wall. The high priest was trying to reach his Amulet of Sovereignty over Violence when the master of the knightly order caught up with him. The knight’s sword is +1.

When the characters have been in this room for two combat rounds, a shadowy form will rise from the high priest’s corpse. It will attack anyone except a worshipper of the god. It is the high priest’s spirit, now a wraith. The strength of the god’s spirit in this place, and the high priest’s fanaticism, are such that the he was able to become a wraith in far less time than usual.

If this wraith is struck with the paladin’s sword it will be destroyed immediately because some of the paladin’s goodness has remained in this weapon which was the cause of the priest’s death.

11. Library
Shelves around the room are stocked with numerous books, all of which deal with the revolting and terrible rituals of the priesthood of this deity. Any character of the True Faith who reads one of these books through completely will be subject to a magical attack of 16, permanently losing a point of Intelligence if affected.

12. Barracks
A bare room. This is where the skeletons remained when ‘off duty’.

13. Tomb Chamber
Two sarcophagi contain the mortal remains of earlier high priests of this temple.

14. Cells
Manacles hang from the walls. There is a decayed corpse chained here. This is where victims were kept awaiting sacrifice to the deity.

15. Armoury
A skullghast (see Bestiary, p. 66) guards the special weapons of the temple. The skullghast will attack anyone except the High Priest, so Galadria knows better than to enter the room. The skullghast will not leave this room, even to pursue intruders, as its orders were to stay and guard.

The special weapons and armour are a +1 morningstar; a +1 mail hauberk; two +1 shields.

16. Treasury
The temple coffers contain 328 florins, guarded by two zombies.

17. A Dank Chamber
Contains the temple’s special guardian, which will attack any who fall down the chute into its lair. It is a nargut (see Bestiary, p. 42). It usually subsists on small creatures such as rats and moles which burrow into its lair (the priests used to feed it regularly). A human should provide quite a feast! 

Leaving the Temple
As the characters leave the complex, they are ambushed by Vargus and the other worshippers of the god. The player-characters will recognize them from the overheard conversation in the inn; this may allow them to work out what has happened, if not immediately then later on. Galadria will turn on the party now, if she hasn’t been killed in the temple.

Since the sacking of their temple by the knights, these remaining worshippers have devoted their efforts to recovering the idol and the temple coffers. Losogon, although but an acolyte, is their spiritual leader now but he is not a leader of men, so it is Vargus, as an officer of the temple guard, who gives the orders. Galadria, by virtue of her intelligence and personal power, wields much influence, but the others do not see her as leader because, in the religion to which they belong, women are seen as inferior. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

A fresh start for the Year of Wonders

I resisted Facebook for the longest time. It’s not that I don’t like tech, I just don’t care for people that much. (Only kidding. I like people just fine. It’s the pet photos and soccer chat I wanted to avoid.)

Finally I’ve had to succumb, and the reason is that Leo Hartas and I needed to set up a Facebook page for our comics saga Mirabilis: Year of Wonders (If you need a this-meets-that, try Tintin hunts Fantastic Beasts with a soundtrack by Danny Elfman).

This is part of our big push to get the Mirabilis project moving again. The story was originally serialized in weekly British anthology comic The DFC, published by Random House. When The DFC folded, our story was left unfinished but our rights were tied up in a complicated contractual tangle. It took me months of increasingly desperate negotiation to find a way out of that limbo, made all the more fraught by the fact that none of the people involved in the mess would even return my calls. Luckily I knew Philippa Dickinson, the original publisher of Dragon Warriors and one of the truly nicest people you could hope to work with, who by now had risen to be the head of RH’s children’s publishing division. She pulled strings with the powers that be and got me and Leo our rights back.

Thus unfettered I could stop chewing my nails, but it was still far from plain sailing. We secured a publisher for Mirabilis, but though they did a beautiful job of the production they failed to get copies into any shops. I had to lug a couple of bags stuffed with copies to the Gosh! Comics store in London – if you bought one of those, hang onto it like a Penny Black with Queen Vic in a hipster beard, because they were almost the only copies that ever saw the light of day. The rest, I hear, went astray between the printer (in Bosnia) and the distribution warehouse (in Lancashire) and may now be propping up wobbly cafĂ© tables somewhere in Germany.

So, back to the drawing board. A comics publisher reached out, but the deal they offered was like a handshake from Don Corleone. We were expected to sign over all rights in perpetuity to them, even though there was no obligation for them to keep the book in print. After the epic struggle with Random House there’s no way Leo and I could accept terms like that. As a creator, all you have is your work. You can't let other people lock you out of it.

What about Random House themselves? Well, Philippa had retired by this point, and the mildest way to put it is that having escaped the clutches of the contract we didn’t really have a lot of friends there. We were in our gulag and, at any other time in history, there we might have stayed. But this is the 21st century, right - with social media and crowdfunding and shit. So Leo and I have spent the last few weeks getting ready for a full and concerted relaunch of this mighty fantasy saga. Our plans include:
  • a Patreon page where aficionados can come and pledge as little as $1 a month to help fund new instalments. Pages of the comic go up there Mondays and Fridays with higher-level backers getting access to backstage blog pieces and other goodies.
  • a new website where everyone can read the comic absolutely free – just a little way behind the paid-up supporters on Patreon, who also get higher-res versions of the art.
  • the aforementioned Facebook page where you can get updates on Mirabilis and any other books, comics, movies or games that we thing might interest you.
  • a Twitter account with daily instalments of the comic.
And we’re toying with the idea of a Kickstarter to fund a Mirabilis gamebook. Or app. Maybe a boardgame. Possibly all three and - I dunno, a roleplaying game too? The Patreon backers may get a say in that. The exciting thing is that it's a community where everyone gets a voice.

Here’s the thing. We could really use your support – which is, after all, the whole point and rationale of what we’re trying to do now. We’re bypassing the publishers and distributors and going straight to the people whose opinion and backing count most. That’s you, we hope. The readers. Already we've got backing from Jason Arnopp, the 21st century's Stephen King, from the Jedi Master of gamebooks Stuart Lloyd, and from musician, artist & game designer Frazer Payne, among others. Good company to be in, and an absolutely priceless vote of confidence when we're starting a new venture like this. Thanks, guys.

If you can spring for a few dollars to actually fund the work, then you’re our BFFs till the sun dies – but even if not, a like on Facebook costs nothing and can really help boost interest. You never know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, 26 August 2016

So you want to be a game designer?

I spent more than ten years working as a designer in the games industry and, although I've also been an author, comic book creator, scriptwriter and TV producer, it's game design that I get asked about most often. In particular people want advice about courses and ways into the business. Well, everybody's story is different, so anything I say probably won't be usable as a route map. Even so, if it's a career that appeals, maybe some of the following will be of interest.

I think of game designers as being "interested in everything" and in particular in straddling the arts/science boundary that tends to divide the majority of people. My college degree was in Physics but I'd always been interested in English too. After college I started writing role-playing game articles, and then choose-your-own style gamebooks, and that got me into writing novels and comics. And then I got a job as a game designer at Eidos (working on Warrior Kings, pictured below) and that seemed like the job I'd been training for without knowing it.

But there are other experiences. My senior assistant designer at Elixir Studios, Sandy Spangler, came into it from a quite different direction. She studied Fine Arts, went from there into character design and animation for TV, and then into art direction at a game developer, and from there into design.

As the game designer is really the "show runner", you need to be able to communicate your creative vision to the artists, coders, writers, voice and mo-cap actors and so on. Design is almost by definition the thing that unifies those disciplines into a new coherent opus. Of course, you have to be able to nudge people to do their best work without coming across as a supercilious know-it-all. Charm, humour, passion and a collegiate manner - what I used to describe as a "bridge of the Enterprise" attitude - will all help.

I'd always been a movie and comics buff right from earliest childhood, so over the years inevitably I picked up some visual skills by osmosis. Two weeks into my time at Eidos, I was showing one of the artists how giving his Tyrannosaurus rex a low, forward-leaning stance with its body parallel with the ground made it look a lot more threatening than an upright Godzilla-style posture. A decade on, working on Dreams (pictured above) at Elixir, I was drawing on rules from cinema to create a game with the focus on character interaction. If I could rewind now, I'd probably add a cinematography or photography course somewhere in my school years.

A designer doesn't need to be able to code but it won't hurt. Coders can be pretty superior types until you earn their respect by proving that you at least understand the architecture of the system. My degree-level maths, rusty as it is, counts as mad skilz in the games industry. Likewise, while you'll probably be hiring writers rather than doing most of the game dialogue in person, you should know enough about storytelling and drama to manage that part of the process. If you like acting or role-playing, that'll help both with narrative structure and performance.

So the skills needed are:
Creative writing
Visual sense (cinematography/narrative art)
Some maths
Some code
Some drama and storytelling
Communication and leadership skills

- and I guess the angle you come at that from (whether science/maths first like me, or art first like Sandy) really depends on what you find most inspiring. Then fill in the other skills as and when you get the opportunity.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Lord Tenebron has risen from the grave

My first ever gamebook was Crypt of the Vampire, illustrated by Leo Hartas, and recently Leo was asked to do five new illustrations for a special colour edition of the book published by Megara Entertainment. It's not just window dressing. Megara also commissioned Way of the Tiger scribe David Walters to write a bunch of new sections for the book, expanding the adventure by about 30%.

David has done a fang-tastic job of matching the style and mood of the original book, while also making it more cohesive by building up the sense of the vampire as a threat throughout. So it's no longer just a dungeon bash. Now it really feels like you might find Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing around the next corner. (Possibly with Jack MacGowran and Alfie Bass not all that far away.)

You can get the new edition exclusively from Megara, while the original version is available from Fabled Lands Publishing on Amazon. Take your pick.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Way of the Tiger - video review

Marco Arnaudo did a great review of the Critical IF books a while back, so it was a nice surprise to come across this review of The Way of the Tiger series. If you've only recently thawed out of a glacier since the early '80s, the series is based on Mark Smith's Dungeons and Dragons campaign and its unique blend of high fantasy, ninjutsu and Cthulhu mythos makes for a memorable setting coupled with a clever tactical combat system and richly immersive descriptive text.

Ooh, while you're here, in other news I've been working on a fully responsive rebuild of the Mirabilis website. This is a precursor to me and Leo Hartas launching a Patreon page, and quite probably a Kickstarter for an all-new gamebook.

Yes, I know my comments about the viability of using Kickstarter to create a book are on record. It would work a lot better if it was a gamebook app rather than a printed book, as that way all the funds raised could go towards the actual content rather than being eaten up by print and shipping costs. But I have a feeling that most gamebook fans prefer to own a physical copy, so that's something Leo and I will have to think hard about. More about that project and the Patreon page in due course.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Things within the shape of things

To round off our excerpt from The Mage of Dust and Bone, here's where Forge first sets off to study at Dweomer. I liked the idea of magic being about power, and power of course corrupts, which is where I was going with it. But the Fabled Lands agent (probably correctly) deemed that young readers want likeable characters. I find likeability is over-rated - and in any case Fabled Lands LLP hasn't got the resources to pay for this to get written - but just in case it should ever get completed and published, I've stuck to this flashback because it contains no real spoilers.


In the kitchen, after a silent breakfast, it had suddenly hit him. Going away! Not to sleep in his own bed or ever again have porridge the way his mother made it. He saw all his future as a stone rolling to crush his happiness, blotting out the timeless days of playing in the sunshine outside their little cottage. He ran to his mother.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he cried. ‘I’ll never see you again.’
‘It’s a week’s journey at most,’ said his mother. ‘You’ll see us so often you’ll be sick of it.’
She stroked his hair, but he knew the calm manner was just her way of dealing with distress.
Through his tears he saw the Arch Mage looking at him. ‘I don’t blame the lad. But, Forge, you’re a magician born. That’s not a hook you can ever get out.’
His sobs became quieter. He was old enough to feel both the terrible wrenching heartache and also the humiliation of being thought a overwrought child. The older Forge, revisiting this sweetly painful memory, was glad he’d had that tantrum. He often felt guilty that he’d been too eager to leave his parents, but that scene in the kitchen must have made it clear he did love them. Now, in the present, with Lord Grazen’s threat hanging over them, that was more important than anything else.
‘It is the last time you will see him as the child he is now,’ the Arch Mage had told his parents. He was never one to coat the truth, however much it hurt. ‘The next time you may see him is in a year and a day, and by then he will have begun his journey on a new path.’
The way to the crossroads lay across Hetch Greyson’s fallow field. ‘There’s no coach due,’ his mother told the Arch Mage. Not for days, Forge knew. But he also knew it wouldn’t matter. They set off right after breakfast, through the gate (ninety-two swings now) and across the stile that was still darkly wet and slippery from a rainfall in the night. Forge was over and running, letting the long wet grass slap his legs, the Arch Mage following with Forge’s father carrying his pack. After his outburst at breakfast he felt free. He was ready.
He drank it in, not knowing when he’d be back. The way the sun’s rays awoke a million pinpricks of light in the dew. The thick shadows, liquid black under the hedgerows, and the dazzling blaze of coming day that haloed the trees. The rich reek of dung in the fields, the fragrance of honeysuckle, the drifting scent of wood smoke and cooking from surrounding farmsteads. He watched the Arch Mage’s robes swish through the long grass, the dampness on his silver-buckled boots.
‘The shimmer,’ said the Arch Mage, answering his unspoken thoughts. ‘Things within the shape of things, that’s what you’ll learn to see.’
His manner was more aloof now. He swept on across the field, not looking at Forge as he spoke. In the years to come, Forge was often to seek his approval, and sometimes earned it. But they would never again have that near-fellowship they had briefly shared in the early hour before the dawn.
The older Forge, watching it all in memory, was conscious of this as the last morning of his childhood. All the things he took for granted, that swept out behind him as he ran. Sensations that tumbled past, disorderly as dreamtime, never noticed but always there. These things were coming to an end. He was on the brink of a world where all phenomena were recorded, catalogued, studied and manipulated. The age of his innocence ended now, and the age of power began.
The Arch Mage had left his other cases to find their own way home. ‘They’re too impatient for a leisurely trip,’ he’d said. He carried only one small wooden box. As they reached the crossroads, he slid back the lid and took out a black-lacquered toy coach.
‘Travel a long road, you might as well travel in style, eh?’ He set the toy coach carefully down in the middle of the road, where the finger-post pointed to the coast. Crouched over it, he whispered some strange lilting words to it, the disquieting lullaby you might sing to a changeling. Straightening, he took Forge’s arm and turned him round. ‘Look over there a while. A thing like this is like pots boiling. It never happens if you watch.’
Forge’s mother hadn’t come. His father’s stolid calm was better suited to goodbyes. He put Forge’s pack down by the roadside and scratched his head. ‘A year goes faster than you’d think,’ he said. ‘And we can write.’
‘I could stay,’ said Forge, a little daunted as he felt a tingle of magic in the air. ‘I could be a blacksmith like you, Poppa.’
His father laughed. ‘Reminds me.’ He pulled a book out of his pocket. ‘Left this in the forge, you did, while “helping” me.’ He pretended to clout Forge on the head with it, then stuffed it into the pack.
‘Poppa – ’
‘It’s right for you, son. Some people are too big for the village. Not me, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me. But your mother nearly is, all five foot three of her. She just about squeezed herself into this way of life, but you couldn’t. Right from when you were a toddler I knew that, even before the Arch Mage came to tell us.’
The scrape of a hoof on the stones. Turning, they saw an elegant coach. The team of four horses stood silent but with an air of pent-up ferocity, as if ready for a race. The driver, hooded and unspeaking, gestured impatiently for them to get aboard.
The Arch Mage already had Forge’s arm and was leading him towards the coach. The pack was in his other hand. Forge cast a look back at his father. Suddenly there wasn’t enough time. The future was happening like plunging over a cliff.
The older Forge seemed to see this all from a view already inside the coach. His younger self could have broken away. The Arch Mage wasn’t holding him tightly, just hurrying him along. He could have run back and given his father a last hug. But, overwhelmed by the moment, he didn’t.
If only he could rewind time now. Yet that is what he was doing, only to watch it again as a helpless observer. His father stood, big and awkward, and the younger Forge was already eagerly climbing up onto the black leather seats, entranced by the drapes that had been thimble sized a moment earlier. The Arch Mage closed the door to shut them in.
A jolt. Forge wasn’t braced, and was thrown back in his seat as a glimpse of meadows and woodland went flying by. From outside came a shout of alarm, but by the time he’d dragged himself to the window there was just a tiny figure far behind.
He thrust his head right out. It was a hurricane! The countryside swept past like green and golden clouds. The road was a blur beneath the sparks struck from the horses’ hooves. An inn loomed and then fell away behind. He glimpsed a gawping group of pilgrims, forced to scatter as the coach came through.
The fields and trees gave way to scrubby heath. Salt tang and seagulls’ shrieks. No cottages here. No more inns or wayfarers. And then, his first glimpse of the grey immensity of the sea.
Dweomer came in sight then, with its crashing waves and ramparts of rock. He knew it as home at that first glimpse. He waited tense in the seat, teeth bared in the rush of wind as the carriage hurtled on, eager to jump down and rush in under the great rune-carved lintel.
It was only the older Forge, watching the scene in his memory, who realized he’d never waved his father goodbye.

Monday, 1 August 2016

A breakfast of magic

Here's another installment of the aborted sort-of Fabled Lands teen novel The Mage of Dust and Bone. It's a lot to digest in one go, so I'll post the last half of this chapter on Friday. If you are in the mood for a rather lighter FL novel, try Jamie's The Lost Prince, which is a lot of fun. The illustration here is by Russ, of course, and I apologize for the poor scanning.

Chapter Five

Forge rose early the next day, tiptoeing down from his shut-bed in the upstairs passage. A pale early-morning light floated in the upper branches of the beech trees that ran along the back of the garden, but the lawn was still sunk in charcoal darkness.
He padded in bare feet across the chilly kitchen floor. The familiar earthy smell came from the parlour. It crept up from under the floorboards in the night. That was where the Arch Mage had slept, the most comfortable room in the house. The door was open now and a bar of silver light lay across the grey gloom in the kitchen.
Forge went to the doorway and peeked inside. The hearth was cold, full of heavy ashes. The light came from a single lamp.
No, not a lamp. A jar. Inside it, imprisoned by blotchy glass, a tiny, fragile figure with gossamer wings struck a forlorn pose. By the light the fairy gave off, the Arch Mage sat surrounded by his travelling cases, all open now like puzzle boxes. One formed a writing desk beside him with inkwells, rows of quills, and rolls of crisp white paper. Another contained a dish of small pastel-coloured cakes along with bottles of wine or cordial. His couch had been one of the largest of the cases, unfolded to reveal sumptuous pillows and silk blankets of the kind Forge pictured in bedtime stories. Inside another case, a smouldering taper released a curl of jasmine smoke that hid the smells of last night’s cooking and the dank crawlspace soil.
But none of the travelling cases held anything as marvellous as the Book which floated in the air in front of the Arch Mage. It was so big that at first Forge took it for a painter’s easel, and the rich roughness of the binding put him in mind of freshly peeled bark. The Arch Mage was writing in it as he entered. Forge saw that he’d noticed him standing in the doorway, but for a moment the old man’s concentration was absolute. Then, removing his quill from the page, he beckoned Forge over.
‘Look there.’
He was dazzled by his first glimpse of the open Book. It was like having your head thrust into the middle of a rainbow. Colour and movement vibrated at the edges of his vision. At first he could see no pattern, only symbols that glided away as he tried to focus on them. If you have ever tried to read a book in a dream, you’ll know the feeling.
‘Here.’ The Arch Mage wiped the quill and pointed with it.
It was a word that hovered, floating above the rest of the text, not quite attached to the paper underneath.
‘What does it say?’
‘It’s your name.’
He was dubious. He knew how to read and write. The letters here looked more like pressed insects. Normal writing didn’t twitch, after all. Letters chalked on the slate in the village schoolroom didn’t waver with an obvious reluctance to be read.
‘Forge? Or Burntholm?’
‘Neither.’ The Arch Mage gestured, and the Book closed like a dungeon door. ‘It is your true name, the word that forms part of the entire work that is the world. Now you are written large, because you have a destiny.’
‘What is my destiny?’ said Forge, thinking of dragons and kingdoms to save.
‘All who study magic have a destiny,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘I will teach you to change the work of the world, perhaps only in minor ways, but still that is a thing worth writing in the book.’
‘How long will I be an apprentice?’ asked Forge. He’d been thinking about it all night.
‘Seven years, to begin with. Some leave then. If that’s your course, you’ll become what is called a journeyman. Perhaps you’ll set up a practice in a town, filling a space between the doctor and the priest and the fortune-teller. Other journeymen travel up and down, selling spells to make a person fall in or out of love, or a talisman to bring luck or guarantee a safe voyage.’
Forge picked up the tone of slight scorn. ‘What about those that stay?’
‘Another seven years and you’ll be a true mage. Lords will seek you out. They’re not interested in love, only in war. You’ll be paid to work spells to fortify their castles, protect them from treachery, ensure their sons grow up strong. They rarely ask for daughters or wisdom, you see.’ He laughed.
‘I’ll stay on. I want to be a mage.’
‘More knowledge makes for a more difficult life. The rich and powerful have never learned what it is to have their wishes denied. Some will ask for everlasting youth or for the dead to be brought back to life.’
‘But that can’t be done.’
The Arch Mage looked amused. ‘Oh, it can. Better not, though. Everything stays in the Book, you understand? You might take it from here and insert it some other place, but it can’t be erased altogether. In short, what is pushed down will press back up.’
Forge struggled to catch the thread of meaning that he felt was almost within reach. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said at last,
‘That’s what the fourteen years are for.’
‘How do you get to be an Arch Mage?’
‘Seven times seven years, and even then only one in seven makes it. There’s only ever the one Arch Mage.’
‘You must be very old.’
The Arch Mage smiled ruefully and worked the muscles of his neck. ‘And in the mornings I feel it more and more. Remember what I told you. Magic will only alter reality for a while.’
He nodded towards the windowsill and Forge turned to see a withered tendril lying there. It was the sprig of lavender he’d held the day before, now dead and grey. Forge touched it and it was as light as ash, even the residue of vitality burnt away. Now it was a husk, a thing that had never lived.
‘It could have lasted longer,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘We could find a flower in the garden and weave an enchantment into it so that it is still in bloom when this house is an abandoned ruin.’
‘So why didn’t this last?’ Forge crumbled the dead lavender with just the brush of his fingertips.
‘Because that was magic you worked.’ The Arch Mage laughed as Forge spun to look at him. ‘You knew. I only guided your wish. But, as you have no skill in these things as yet, the moment your attention was elsewhere the life drained out of it again.’
‘Will I be able to conjure marvels like this?’
‘This?’ The Arch Mage clapped his hands and, with a twang of springs and clasps, the boxes all snapped shut. ‘You will make true miracles happen. Much more than this.’
‘And will I write in the Book?’
It still floated in the air between them. Forge could feel the throb of secrets.
‘Very few find that is their destiny. It is the Book of All Things, Forge Burntholm. Don’t be in any hurry to add to those pages.’
‘Maybe.’ He was still young enough to be a little brazen. Later he’d learn to be in awe of the Arch Mage. But after all, so far he’d only seen tricks.
‘Come here, then. Come, I’ll show you.’ He took Forge’s hand, very lightly as one would move an injured bird, and placed it on the scale-patterned leather of the Book’s cover.
Forge was conscious of the Arch Mage’s gnarled fingers on his own soft hand. He shifted uncomfortably.
‘Be still,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘Without my help, you could not so much as touch the book. Now let your mind empty. Become a conduit – ’
‘What’s that?’
‘A channel. A drainpipe, say, along which that current I told you about can flow. It’s coming from the Book. You sense it, can’t you, flowing through you?’
Forge started to look around, then it hit him.
He felt things growing in the soil, and earthworms turning it. Insects scratching their way through the thatched roof. The mice in the walls, a-tremble with constant cat-shaped nightmares. He felt a bird in a nest under the gutter, where it had three blue eggs. The cat there by the banisters, keenly watchful in case the mice should venture out across the kitchen floor. The cockerel outside in the garden, absurdly pleased with himself, and the hens rustling in the coop as the approach of day astonished them.
And he could feel grass and trees and how the dawn filled them up, and the brook remembering and forgetting, forgetting and remembering, just like the fish it carried along. And the wind deciding when to blow, and shadows fitting themselves into their right places under the bushes, and the hinge on the gate that would need fixing after another ninety-three swings. The firm clay hill stretching in its sleep like an old sheepdog. Crops pushing impatiently to the sky. Livestock stirring, abiding the arrival of a new day’s warmth. Clouds being born, growing with majestic grace and then fading, some as light as a passing thought, others thick and bruised, harbouring in their heart the seed of storms.
And there was something else, even deeper than the world – a babbling of voices and feelings. People’s lives. Their thoughts. His father and mother, awake in a quiet room, looking at the paling window and hoping for some things to happen and some things never to. He heard a call of desire and intention and happiness and regret, that swept across the land from every household.
‘I can hear them! Everyone’s thoughts. I can – ’
He pulled his hand away as if it had been burned.
‘Oh yes.’ The Arch Mage smiled secretly. ‘You’re not just a journeyman, that’s for sure.’