Monsters of the Past: Changeling teaser

I swallowed a lump in my throat and my hand drifted to my knife, which I had taken to wearing on my hip instead of my leg once we entered the Old Lands. “Logan, I am the one who lives in this territory,” I said weakly. “I am the one who had to convince you that it wasn’t haunted. But this place… it feels wrong.”

Logan stopped and looked at me, head cocked to the side. Sophia crunched away, oblivious to our hesitation. “Riane, this is why we came here. My legs haven’t stopped hurting since we left home, and I have never been filthier. But this is why we came, remember? We were going on an adventure to break from the monotony of our lives.”

I bit my lip and stole another glance in the direction of the fort. “I like the monotony,” I whispered, but he ignored me and jogged away to catch up with Sophia.

I watched their retreating backs, and my grip tightened on the hilt of my dagger. Night was quickly falling; soon we would be lost in the darkness, and I knew I wasn’t about to camp next to the ruins of the fort. We would have to walk back to Vavenby, and that would take all night.

My gut twisted and a shiver crawled down my spine. We were trapped. Continue reading

The Drunkard King: Changeling teaser

Jory dodged her and watched her skip through the murky evening. “Who is she?” he asked as I stepped up to him.

“Sophia Henson. Captain Sophia Henson,” I corrected, rolling my eyes. “You have probably heard of her. Her father was the late pirate king of Canton, Vincent Henson. Some people call her a queen. Most call her the Pretender.”

Logan cleared his throat as he stepped past. “Be nice, mutt,” he said, and followed Sophia out the door.

Jory watched him go, as well. I doubted his eyebrows could get any higher. “Who is he?

I resisted the urge to rub my head. “My younger half-brother. He’s also the heir to a Southern Kingdom. Let’s go.” I grabbed his hand and towed him from the big house before he could ask any more questions. Continue reading

The King Without a Crown: Changeling teaser

He made another noise, then crunched a few steps away. “Take off their blindfolds. We have nothing to hide from the likes of them.”

Rough hands yanked at my hair as the knots were untied, then the blindfold was pulled away and I saw him.

He stood a metre or so away, arms folded across the broad expanse of his chest. He wore dark cloth trousers and a similar tunic, with sturdy leather boots tied to his knees. Draped over his shoulders was a thick black fur cloak, which was clasped in the front with the tarnished bronze face of a bear. Tall and powerful, he watched us with dark eyes beneath thick, beetled brows; his hair was long and curled, pulled back from his face with a single braid down the side. Continue reading

Old Nostalgia: Changeling teaser

The air quivered under the weight of her open spirit. His own squeezed up in fear; she was liable to wrench the castle from its roots in her rage, and bury them all with her.

Behind him, Hession groaned. “Fuck me,” he hissed. “I forgot.”

Alistair ran his tongue over his dry lips as they neared the main hall. He hadn’t forgotten. He had spent the past seventeen years aching for that spirit, in tenderness or anger, if only to remind himself of what could have been. Continue reading

The Last Night: Changeling teaser

She was on the verge of sleep. Her weight was on him, her head on his chest and hair tickling his nose. Her breath was heavy; it brushed the hair in his oxter, nearly making him giggle.

The evening was hot. He was almost ready to beg for fall, just so late summer’s obscene temperatures could end. Their skin was stuck together were she lay on him, and the rest of him was covered in a light film of sweat. The windows were all open, albeit with nets to stop mosquitos from buzzing in, and a small fire was lit only for light. They had long ago kicked off all the blankets from his bed, but it wasn’t enough.

She seemed to sense his unease. Their skin parted with a wet noise as she moved, and she blinked blearily at him. “What’s wrong?”

He couldn’t help but smile. Her hair was tousled around her head, and her lips were puffy and red; she looked like she had a rough night, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Running his fingers through her hair, he dropped his head into the pillows and sighed. “I’m going to be crowned tomorrow.”

She was so precious when she was half-asleep. All her defences melted away, and she was almost drunk with exhaustion and innocence. She gently spun her finger in his chest hair and blew on his damp skin, making gooseflesh ripple down his chest.

“You will make an excellent king,” she said, and patted his chest. “Have you planned how you will announce your magical inheritance?”

“Not word-for-word, but I have a general idea.”

“That is a start.” With a soft groan, she rolled on her back, so she lay arched over his lap, arms spread and face pointed to the ceiling. He thought it looked horribly uncomfortable, but she didn’t seem too bothered by it. “The king’s chambers are much better than your old room,” she remarked, lifting her head just enough to look around. “More windows.”

Alistair smiled and took one of her hands in his. Her fingers automatically tangled themselves with his. He frowned; she was being unusually affectionate, had been all day. It was odd, but not unwelcome. With a contented sigh, he kissed her fingers and let their hands rest beneath his chin.

“You know, you hated me a year ago,” he said. “Have you ever thought of that?”

She let her head roll to the side so she could see him, and she smiled. “It wasn’t yet a year ago. It was late fall, not summer. It was after your birthday. And I did not hate you, but you were an annoying little fungus.”

His brows arched. “Fungus?”

Her smile lessened, but the tender emotion of it remained in her eyes, and his heart skipped. “You grew on me. I am quite fond of you now.” She moved, leaning slightly on her side; then it happened again, the same thing she had done earlier. He had touched her breasts, they being his favourite part of her—well, other than her eyes and amazing personality, of course—and a grimace had flickered across her face, so quickly it was almost imperceptible. He had refrained from touching them after, except very lightly, to his great disappointment.

She adjusted her position again, so she wasn’t leaning her weight on her side as much, and squishing her breasts between her and his abdomen. His frown returned, but either she pretended not to notice or was completely oblivious to his concern.

“Are you all right?”

She rubbed her eyes and crawled up beside him. He automatically opened his arm so she could lean on him. “I’m fine. Only tired. Thaddeus has had me worked to the bone since we got back.”

He kissed her head and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. She didn’t fight; rather, she nestled closer, as if taking advantage of every chance she could to touch him. Unable to help himself, he brushed her hair off her neck and kissed her there too. She hunched her shoulders automatically, and he chuckled.

She shuffled to look up at him. “Are you happy?” she asked, hushed.

“I’ve never been happier. Are you?”

She took a moment to answer. When she finally did, and turned to him to look him straight on, he thought there were tears in her eyes. “My life has never been happy, but spending these past few months with you is the closest I will ever come to bliss. I will remember this moment until the day I die,” she whispered, and kissed him.

He wanted to tell her. At that moment, with her warmth pressed into him and her lips, tasting of wine, against his, he wanted nothing more than to tell her exactly what he felt. But Hession’s words still rang in his head, warning him away from any rash decisions.

She pressed her palms against his chest and kissed the heartbeat in the hollow beneath his jaw. Without another word, she settled herself on top of him. His hands automatically set themselves on her hips, but as he looked up at her his breath caught in his lungs.

There was something dark in the depths of her eyes—something desperate and unforgivable.

War Triage: Changeling teaser

The wounds were gruesome. One man was peppered with arrows; the shafts protruded from him like the spines of a porcupine. I had my doubts that he would survive, but kept quiet as the oldest squire led me around the makeshift triage. Burns were by far the most common injury. Men with fifty percent or more of their body covered in deep-tissue burns were already separated to their own section, just inside the treeline; those with a better chance of survival were kept with men with nonfatal stab wounds or slashes. I kept my face carefully composed as I surveyed the injuries. Burns from fire, ice, and electricity: they were all painful to look at, and most of those with terrible patches had already been sedated with, from what I could tell by watching one squire dole out a measure to a soldier, obscene amounts of opium.

The squire, a comely lad of about seventeen or so, peered up at me with desperate, round eyes as he finished leading me around the hospital. “Well, mum? What d’you think?”

I sighed and began to roll up the sleeves of my homespun tunic. “Separate magical wounds from tangible, and those with lesser severity from those who are on death’s door,” I ordered, pushing my wet hair from my cheeks. “Have some of the younger squires with little medical training to help the men with few, nonfatal wounds; we might be able to put them back on the battle right away if need be. Nonfatal magical wounds, there is little we can do right now—”

“Sorry, mum, but one of the men, he said you was from the mountains?”

I exhaled shortly and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Yes. I am. But I am reserving my skills for those with dreadful wounds, both magical and tangible. Nonfatal wounds are not delightful, certainly, but they will at least be survived. I will need as many hands helping me as possible, until Lord Hession returns from the battle to assist. Fetch some of the more capable squires.”

The boy nodded and hurried away to do my bidding, leaving me to make some quick decisions regarding the lives of several Nallisian and Syllian soldiers. The one drenched with arrows would have to be put down to keep him from suffering too much longer; none of us would be able to keep up with the demands of so many separate wounds. A few of the men with burns didn’t have much of a chance; neither did the one with no obvious external injuries save for an ashen pallor that made it clear he had been partially devoured by revenants.

“All right, let’s get down to it,” I muttered, and brought to my fingers a healing ward. I crouched beside the man with arrows and lightly touched his shoulder. “I am so sorry.”

He smiled weakly; blood stained the corners of his mouth, and his breathing was gurgled and laboured. “I died serving my king, Lady Healer. Make it quick.”

Pickles and Vomit: Changeling teaser

“You seasick, elf?”

The man laughed when he was shot a hazardous green glare and the only sound that emerged from the hammock was a pained groan. Someone poked the bundle with the stem of his pipe, disturbing the ashes and sending an acrid cloud into the stifling room.

Nausea overwhelmed him in a wave, and Brynmor shoved back his blanket, gasping for clean air. “Get that away from me!” he snarled, sitting bolt upright. The movement rocked the hammock; it swayed dangerously for a moment, moving against the motion of the ship.

That only made it worse. Ignoring the hoots and hollers following him, he tumbled as quickly as possible from the hammock, landed with a bone-jarring thud on the floor, and launched at the chamber pot thrust unceremoniously into the corner of the cabin. He made it just in time to position himself over the rancid bucket before his stomach upended and the contents sloshed out.

Hands thumped his back and he collapsed on the floor, cheek and hands throbbing, stomach still heaving in spasms. He had only a moment of respite; a moment later, someone grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him upright.

A pickle appeared in front of his face. “Suck on this, elf. Cook says it’ll help.”

Someone else slapped the pickle away, and an open flask reeking of some pungent human drink was put in its place. The stench of it seared the inside of Brynmor’s nostrils and instantly made him light-headed. “No, no! Don’t make the poor wee lad suck on a pickle. Here, boy, drink up. It’ll—”

“It’ll make him barf up his guts!”

“Put him outside. Maybe the air will—”

“But the movement—”

Somebody finally put a stop to the babble by punching a wall, making the whole cabin shudder. “Stop with your nonsense and somebody fetch Mira. Her silly plants might do something. We can’t have him die halfway across the Lourong Sea. Henson won’t have it, not once he knows about him.”

His saviour, job finished, stomped from the cabin, leaving Brynmor at the mercy of three Brotherhood men shipping with them to Althaea. There were six of them in total, including Brynmor and Mira, sailing across the Lourong Sea to Althaea in the east. Two of the men and Mira were only going for temporary contracts before making the trip back to Cyril. The others were to remain in Althaea at the Brotherhood safe houses—a permanent and daunting move. Brynmor still wasn’t sure which category he fit into, but at the moment cared for little more than surviving the rest of the trip.

He crawled back toward his hammock. He could vomit until he exhausted himself, then he could sleep for the rest of the trip and get some respite. His insides already felt like something had scraped them hollow with a blunt and rusted spoon; further purging could only make it worse, but what other option did he have?

Grubby fingers placed the pickle in front of his face amid raucous laughter. Brynmor sniffed gingerly, testing to see if his nose still worked after smelling the flask of alcohol. A waft of vinegar and herb filled his head and he clamped his lips together.

“Spirits, I just want to see him do it and tell my children I seen an elf suck a pickle,” one of the men complained. A booted toe nudged the thing closer to Brynmor, bumping it into his nose. “All high and mighty, these fancy fair creatures, with somethin’ like that stickin’ out of his mouth?”

One of the men snorted. “A good story to tell the wee ones.”

Footsteps echoed through the skeleton of the ship. It was impossible to tell if they belonged to the crew—a mash up of scrubby, bearded human men with ragged, salt-stained clothes, who all gave evil eyes to Brynmor and Mira when they walked aboard—or if Mira was on her way to the cabin with a herbal remedy.

He remained that way, prostrate on the filthy floor of the cabin with a pickle leaning companionably against his nose, and three sometime thieves and assassins seated a metre away, trading anecdotes about their families.

Ghosts and Shadows: Changeling teaser

“You have been given your first job, Brother.”

A silhouette split from the shadows clouding the walls. The darkness seemed to reach out with murky hands, trying to pull him back into their depths, to bring him home. Hissing emanated from the floorboards, as if rising from hell itself.

Brynmor blinked and swallowed heavily, trying to focus on the man who had stepped from the corridor. He hadn’t been part of the walls. It was just his eyes playing tricks on him. “Have I?” he asked, voice shaking.

The man smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach his eyes. “You have. The buyer wished for someone with as much discretion as possible; you seemed suiting.”

Bubbles of hysteria rose beneath his breast, but he stamped them down. His vision was swimming; the voices in the floorboards were getting louder, calling his name in his native tongue, summoning him to the shadows. Why hadn’t he thought to bring a torch?

“Suiting. Yes. Of course. What is it?”

A folded sheet of parchment appeared from nowhere, and he reached out for it. “Seems simple enough. You need to get rid of someone; the buyer doesn’t care if it’s assassination or kidnapping and slavery, but they want that someone gone. Think you can handle it?”

The voices buzzed in his head. They sounded like his brother, and the impossibly long fingers clawing at his feet from the shadows were the talons of the beasts of the north. It had been so long…

He mumbled a response, but barely heard his own voice. Was it supposed to last this long? By the Echelon, somebody should have warned him.

But he might not have joined if they had. That was the stipulation. Join without any knowledge of the initiation, or demand answers and leave. And they would not have let him leave. They needed him. They had told him that much.

The paper was in his hands, and he was being led back through the corridors from the initiation chambers to the main dormitory. It was the largest safe house of its kind, and housed several dozen members. No wonder people avoided this house. Even in a lawless city like Augustine, this was a place that was feared beyond others.

Hands touched his back in congratulations, and his knees buckled under the weight. Barely feeling the pain, he crashed to the floorboards and lay there, seeing nothing but shadows in the shape of his brother.

A mouth smiled. Big eyes blinked. “I am happy for you, Bryn,” said the spectre of his brother.

Feeling comforted by Gwynn’s presence, he shut his eyes and let oblivion take him.

War Council: Changeling teaser

It was the second hour of the meeting when Alistair’s presence was finally acknowledged. Yes, he was there because his father had died and he was the new Nallisian monarch, but the only official ceremony he needed was a coronation, especially during a war. They could have managed the meeting just fine without him.

“Now we can send more help to Syllan!” the Lounian ambassador shouted, louder than those around him with a thick accent. “Montfort and Loun are no longer threatened by such danger as—”

“You trust the end of that blockade?” someone else shrieked. “It was a pirate—”

Quite abruptly, one of the ambassadors—Alistair had no idea where from—stood from his seat and slammed his hands on the tabletop. The room fell quiet, and the air around him crackled with suppressed fury. Lips pressed in a thin line, he pointed an accusing finger at the row of thrones and snarled, “Let him explain the goings-on of the embargo! Should we be concerned that Nallis will secede from the Kingdoms and make a partnership with the foulest land in Cyril?”

Alistair kept from rolling his eyes at the melodrama. Other voices rose up in protest, accusing him of joining hands with a pirate and selling the soul of Nallis; the ambassador lowered his hand, smiled smugly, and returned to his seat.

Queen Ailith cleared her throat and stood. It took a moment, but the anger of the crowd went from a bubbling froth to a simmer, waiting for a chance to explode again. Once it was relatively quiet, Ailith gestured to Alistair and said, voice echoing off the hall’s stone walls, “Before we accuse anyone, we will allow them to speak. King Alistair, will you explain to us why Captain Vincent Henson is claiming you and he are allied?”

With a sigh, Alistair stood and rested his hands on the railing before the thrones. First act of public speaking as king, and it was to explain his actions like a naughty child.

“I am certain many of you were here the last time I attended a war council, when Vincent Henson sent the allied cryonics here with an offer to stand down. I said then, and will reiterate now, that I spent time in his company during my captivity in the Gabal Mountains, and I know that he has the mind of a businessman. Offer him a suitable enticement, and he would end the blockade; offer him slightly more, and he would help us. He does not run on loyalties like we do; rather, he gives his help to the one who pays him the best.

“My opinions at that war council were scoffed at,” he added, remembering the day with distaste. “And it seemed you all decided to leave Montfort and Loun’s coastline to the fate handed to it by Vincent Henson. I returned to Syllan with my father, and the war continued as it had before, with no alterations despite our attempts in this chamber.

“Over a month ago, on the Syllan front, I received news that my father had been killed in an ambush in Galenor. My brother passed away last fall, leaving me heir to Nallis, and king I became after my father’s death. My first act as king was to send a letter to Captain Henson’s blockade, requesting his presence in Syllan. He obliged and left the embargo in the care of his right hand, Saeed Hartir.

“I offered him exactly what he wanted to hear, and what we should have done, as allies,” he emphasized, glaring down at the dignitaries gazing up at him in silence, “when the idea was first brought to us. I offered him a monetary sum and the removal of his outlawry in Nallis; in return, he ended the blockade and agreed to attack the coast of the Wynd. For as long as there is money left in our agreement, Canton and Nallis are allies.

“So yes, it is true what you have heard. I have made a contract with the pirate king of Canton, and thus ended the blockade of Loun, stopped the destruction of Montfort, given Syllan an opportunity to actually win a battle against the barbarians, and found a way to distract the Wynders and help the Galish loyalists recover and turn the tide of war in their favour. I have no intention on seceding from the Southern Kingdoms, and as for Canton being the foulest land in Cyril”—He shrugged, anger reaching a peak—“I can certainly think of worse places. Have any of you ever been to the Necropolis, or the unclaimed territories?”

The silence met his ears with a painful ringing, and he backed away from the railing, satisfied that he had made his point. With a frustrated snort, he sat back in the throne and crossed his arms, feeling rather like a petulant child.

Ailith gave him a long stare, face carefully composed to hide her thoughts, then stood once more and faced the council. “King Alistair has given his reasons as to his alliance with Captain Henson. We shall not discuss it now. This meeting shall be adjourned until further notice. Thank you all for joining us today.”

Alistair stood and bowed to her before the first ambassadors began to file from the room. “I appreciate your hospitality, Your Majesty,” he said, just loud enough that the others in the room could overhear if they so desired, “but I would rather not join another war council until after my coronation. My duties lay in Syllan—for now.”

Those sparkling green eyes remained on him for a moment, unblinking and impassive. Then a smile crossed her features and she held out a hand. Alistair took it and kissed the back. “I understand, King Alistair, and I thank you for gracing us with your presence for today, at least. You will send my regards to your sister?”

“Of course, my lady. She will be delighted to hear from you.” He bowed again, murmured meaningless farewells to the other monarchs, and left the chambers through the rear entrance.

He didn’t hesitate a moment when he returned to his borrowed chambers. Changing quickly into riding gear, he packed away the few supplies he brought with him, added extra food and drink, and collected his escorts before hurrying to the stables.

Maybe Aisling was right; maybe he could ease Nallis out of Helmene’s grip, and bring in a new age of independence with his magical inheritance.

But for now, he was just going to focus on staying alive and beating the barbarians in Syllan. Royal business could wait.

New Life: Changeling teaser

Lips once beautiful, now turned rotted black, curled up in a slight smile, showing teeth stained with clots of blood. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Aisling.”

Gooseflesh rippled down my body when that crackled, unearthly voice issued through dead lips. I swallowed, though my throat was dry and scratchy, and forced myself to look at her fully.

Her blonde curls were the same, though chopped shorter than I remembered. Her flesh, always pale, had taken on a greyish pallor with spidery veins so dark a red to nearly be black that were in thick bunches around the corners of her mouth and eyes. The blue eyes rimmed in unhealthy dark hadn’t changed, save for being a little more bloodshot than I remembered.

Her neck, long and graceful, now bore a thick, ugly line gaping open to reveal the layers of tissue beneath her flesh. It was rotted and black, with chunks of skin and blood just barely clinging to their decayed roost. Putrid flesh covered her neck, nearly reaching her chin and collar.

But it wasn’t her appearance that was so daunting—though I knew the sight of her would haunt my dreams.

All around her was the stink of death.

Her head jerked to the side, and I could see the muscles moving in the gaping slit in her neck. “What is it, Aisling?” she cooed. “Do you not like what you have made me?”

I caught my breath and tried to shuffle away, but I was trapped by the blankets and my own fatigue. “You… you should be dead,” I stammered, feeling tears of horror prickle my eyes. “I killed you.”

Her eyelids quivered as she tried to blink. Her whole body swayed slightly, but her purposeful motions were jerky and awkward. Her former beauty and grace was gone entirely. “You did. But I am not dead. Not really. Father Zdenek was not ready to lose another high apprentice so soon.”

The reek of his magic surrounded her in an aura. Seeing what it was capable of, I suddenly understood why people were so frightened of mages.

“H-How?”

Her eyes widened, nearly bulging. “How am I alive? Let me tell you a tale, dear Sister, of my death and rebirth. After you so kindly slit my throat and forced an early retreat, I very nearly did die. Luckily the Father had been listening to the battles our people involved themselves in, and he knew I was injured. When it became clear healing wards would do little to save me, he used the combined power of his specialties. He learned a secret from studying you,” she added, voice lowering to a hiss. “He uses the same queer magic you do every new moon to keep me alive. I do not know what yours does, but mine renews the chronomancy that holds my time in place to the moment before my death, and the necromancy that keeps my flesh from dying.”

Zombie. The word flashed into my head as I heard her words; stories of reanimated corpses rising on their own accord that Alistair had heard as a boy. I had thought it foolish then, but I felt more inclined to believe him now that a creature on the cusp of life and death sat before me. Dying but not yet dead; alive but not living.

“You… you’re a monster.”

“I am new life. I am the future of immortality.” She stood. It was clear that she was trying to move slowly, but I could hear her bones cracking and shifting as her dying body fought to keep her upright. Her arms jerked back and head snapped up in a grotesque parody of life. Just watching her I felt ill.

“We have what you asked, Sister.” A few barbarians slipped into the tent, holding skins of water and a plate of bread. My mouth watered and stomach grumbled upon seeing them, betraying the revulsion I felt for what surrounded me.

Lacramioara—or what had once been her—spun her head around to see them, and a clot of rotting blood dangling from her neck fell and splatted on her breast. She didn’t even notice; the barbarians went white. “Good. Give her what she needs, and nothing more. I will be back later.” She walked to the tent entrance, her arms hanging uselessly at her sides. Once she was gone, the barbarians whispered to each other of unnatural life, and I felt inclined to agree with them.