As many of you already know, my latest novel, ARCANIST FABLES, comes out Monday May 10th! (Yay! lol) In the meantime, here is a short portion of the novel to get you all excited! I hope you enjoy! ❤
The Fable of the Soul Forge God-Arcanist
The Dread Pirate Calisto
During the events of World Serpent Arcanist (Book 5)
Humanity was vile.
They could all be gutted and thrown into the abyssal hells for all I cared.
Well, perhaps not all… but most. Certainly enough to clog the hells with bodies, and stain the oceans a permanent shade of crimson. The majority of people were too cruel, and greedy, and callous beyond the pale. They wouldn’t admit it, of course, but I had sailed these waters for decades, stopping at every port and town—I knew the truth of human nature.
I crossed my arms and dug my fingers into my biceps. The pressure of my grip returned my focus to the immediate. I stood at the edge of a twisted woodland, men slowly carving a path through. Or was it considered a jungle? I wasn’t sure, nor did I care. The trees had gnarled trunks as thick as a damn battleship, and their branches grew in clusters so dense I couldn’t see a sliver of the sky through their canopy. The roots jutted in and out of the ground in multiple locations, like dolphins leaping through the waves.
The whole place smelled of wood rot. The bark of those massive trunks fell off at an interesting rate, and the rustling of the waxy leaves sounded more like metal than plant.
Men from the Second Ascension hacked their way through the undergrowth and roots. They were sturdy enough, but the accursed woodland was sturdier. The men struggled, even with masterwork swords, and the two salamander arcanists in the group had to do most of the heavy lifting. Their flames weakened the vegetation—the smoke had nowhere to escape, however. The canopy kept it lingering.
My men—my pirates on the Third Abyss—weren’t involved in finding us a path. Why would I risk them? This place was obviously designed to keep the wretched at bay, and I hadn’t been paid to clear a path. The Second Ascension had hired me to provide a ride to Theasin, and then protect him while he bonded with a god-creature. Nothing else.
Normal men wouldn’t have taken on such an insane request, I knew. But their leader had promised me magical trinkets and artifacts from the lair of the god-creature, and I was greedy enough to take the deal. It wasn’t like I was saving my life for something or someone, so what did it matter if I put myself in danger? Might as well get as much pleasure out of life as I could.
The clanking of metal, glass, and ceramics caught my attention. It sounded as though a whole house was slowly rolling its broken carcass up the beaten path and straight for the woodland. I knew the sound well enough. It was that damn relickeeper—a dragon made of objects rather than flesh.
Sure enough, when I glanced over my shoulder, I spotted the relickeeper. A massive beast of twisted iron, stained glass, and bits of brass, all held together with translucent threads of magic. I hated everything about the creature—anything that couldn’t bleed wasn’t to be trusted. Relickeepers especially. Those dragons treated everything as objects because they themselves were nothing but junk.
The monster’s arcanist, Theasin Venrover, walked beside it. Theasin’s smug expression was a cornerstone of his personality, and I hated him more than his relickeeper eldrin. If I had my way, they’d both be at the bottom of an ocean trench, bloated from salt water and covered in barnacles.
Theasin stopped at my side, his black boots too shiny for my liking. Everything on him was too clean for my liking. His ebony cloak, tied tight around the waist, didn’t have a smudge anywhere on it. His hair—cut short—had the same black shine as his boots. Men who valued appearances over practicality irritated me. Did the fool think he could keep himself clean out here in the wilderness? We were likely to get muddy and bloody, but perhaps Theasin intended to have some boy clean his boots for him between every brisk jaunt out into the wilds.
I loathed this man. What a wagon wheel.
Theasin lifted an eyebrow with oddly perfect precision and then tugged at his gloves, securing them in place. His hands seemed strangled by the apparel. What kind of sadistic tailor made gloves that tight? A Death Lord from the abyssal hells?
“Captain Calisto,” Theasin said with a bored tone. “How have the men been doing?”
He watched the men struggle with the woodland, their swords and fire barely enough to tame the wilderness. It was almost amusing, in a pathetic way. The roots had more fight than most blackhearts I had met at sea.
“This place isn’t right,” I said, staring at a piece of bark that curled in on itself, blackened, and then tumbled to the dirt. “It’s all a damn warning. The woodland wants us to turn back.”
“You aren’t getting paid to offer your advice,” Theasin drawled. “Just stay alert and follow my lead. The god-creatures hide themselves in perilous lairs. Only the worthy make it through.”
I stared at the overgrown woodland, taking note of how the gargantuan trees grew only a few feet apart, leaving little room for carriages or large mystical creatures. Making this trek would be like traveling to the abyssal hells and back. Agonizing the entire way.
“You think you’re worthy?” I asked, knowing full well this pompous blowhard would say yes.
Theasin shot me a sideways glance, a smirk creeping onto his smug expression. “I am the only one who can bond with the soul forge. No other person alive has the necessary knowledge, intelligence, and skill to impress the god-creature.”
Normally, I liked a man with a mix of arrogance and brains. It reminded me of Everett Zelfree. But Everett wasn’t an insufferable blackheart who loved his own reflection. Everett was clever. Cunning. A man with charm enough to work through any social situation, if he gave enough of a damn.
Theasin’s relickeeper shifted on its four patchwork feet, its odd body of floating metal and glass clinking with even the slightest of movements. What did it think of that statement? Was Theasin’s old eldrin going to remain bonded? Would Theasin kill it? I didn’t know—I didn’t really care, either.
I offered Theasin half a smile, though I knew it wasn’t anything friendly. “I guess it won’t be long until we see if you’re worthy or not, will it?” Then I patted him on his twig-like arm and headed for the tree line.
I wanted this over with. The faster it happened, the better.
Four days of hacking, sawing, and burning trees. That was what it took. I didn’t trust the villains of the Second Ascension, but at least they weren’t slackers. After all that work, most of them looked like they had been caught in a tornado and dragged—upside-down and screaming—through fifty trees and a mud pit. The smoke from the fires didn’t help with their breathing. Every one of them had a terrible cough by the end, like their lungs had filled with ash.
It amused me every time they broke out into fits of wheezing. Not because I thought men with broken lungs were funny, but because any one of these dastards would happily watch me fall off a cliff to my death. They weren’t my allies. They were fanatics of that fool they called the Autarch. And if that Autarch lunatic said I needed to die, every person in the Second Ascension would make it their personal mission to skin and gut me. And they would probably delight in it, like the vile sadists all of mankind were at their core.
I ambled down the charred and narrow path, taking note of the continual rotting of the vegetation. A younger man, leaning against one of the colossal trees, coughed and then spat a gob of black saliva onto the dirt near his boot. He had no arcanist star on his forehead, but he wore fine clothing of smooth leather, wool, and brass buckles. Even with the mud stains, I could tell his outfit had cost him a few shiny coins.
I stopped and gave him the once over.
His scowl told me he didn’t like that.
“You could’ve helped us more,” the man said, his tone bordering on way too prissy. “I know you have a reputation as a scoundrel, but you’re still a manticore arcanist. Why hasn’t your eldrin been out here with us? It could’ve—”
“What was that?” I asked, cutting him off with a half-smile. “I couldn’t make out your words over all that whining.”
The man straightened his posture and squared his shoulders, but his eyes shifted from mine to the ground and then to mine again. A telltale sign of fear. Yet the man hardened his brow regardless, preparing to speak. He had a spine—too bad he didn’t have the wisdom to match it.
“I’m Markus, the second son of Hippogriff Arcanist Mark Anthony,” he said. “My father won’t tolerate such rude behavior from sellswords and…” The young man clenched his jaw and swallowed the rest of his words. Perhaps his common sense had finally caught up with his mouth.
“Who can’t I be rude to?” I sarcastically held a hand to my ear. I frowned as I said, “Damn. I keep forgetting the Pirate Handbook of Etiquette in my quarters. Pirates are well known for being rule-following tryhards, after all. I’d hate to ruin that reputation.” I dropped my hand and chuckled at the man’s increasingly red face.
Then I spotted something interesting. The skin on the back of Markus’s hand flaked and peeled away, much like the bark on the nearby trees. The little crybaby scratched at his arm without any concern or consideration for his skin, and I suspected he was too wrapped up in his own delusions to grasp the ever-evolving situation around us.
Instead of informing him of the potential danger, I dismissively waved my hand. “Maybe you should be careful who you’re talkin’ to, boy. Next time I might not be in a good mood.” I strode off into the woodland, the pompous man already forgotten. All I could think about was his damaged skin, and the ever-increasing speed at which the trees were dying all around us.
I knew something was wrong with this damn area. We couldn’t stay here long.
What a load of shit. It took us another two days to find the door we were looking for. And to make matters worse, most of the Second Ascension thugs had dark patches on their skin, and more and more of them reported their bodies feeling sluggish or having nightmares of falling apart. The woods were killing everyone, I was certain of it.
Theasin had insisted we continue, and I never had any problems, so I didn’t concern myself too much. But I did wonder what the ultimate cost of this would be.
Fortunately, we found some giant circular stone thing in the middle of the overgrown woodland. The door was flat on the ground, which was a shock to Theasin, apparently. He had expected a building. Nah, that likely wasn’t true—he had probably expected a castle and a damn parade to welcome his arrival. Instead, all he got was some freakish entrance with a slug or something carved into the stone surface.
Theasin stood at the edge of the door, his smirk replaced with a prominent frown.
That amused me a bit.
His men stood around in the nearby forest, resting against the tree trunks or playing lookout by climbing the thick branches and observing the surroundings with a spyglass. They awaited directions, and the longer the silence stretched, the more my patience wore thin.
“So?” I asked. “What now?”
“Open the door,” Theasin commanded.
I glanced down at the circular slab of stone. There wasn’t a handle, just a split down the middle. The Second Ascension goons had tried to dig around it, but all they had found were thick rocks with rough surfaces.
“You don’t have some sort of magic for this?” I asked with a sigh.
“I’d rather not waste any of my energy or resources if I can avoid it.”
I should’ve known.
“Hellion,” I shouted. “To me!”
The heavy beats of leather wings echoed in the distance. Manticores were large—they had the bodies of lions, after all—and Hellion was a champion among his breed. Ever since Hellion had gained his true form, he had practically doubled in size, which included his wingspan. When he flew over the woodland, everyone had to stop and notice. His white fur glistened in the afternoon light, and his black scorpion tail had a sleek shimmer to it that seemed equal parts beautiful and terrifying.
When Hellion flew through an opening in the leafy canopy and landed, the ground shuddered under his weight. The members of the Second Ascension hid away behind the trees or cowered in the cover of ferns and undergrowth.
Hellion’s black bat-like wings cast large shadows until he furled them against the side of his mighty lion torso. He “stared” at me with his face mask—a hilariously freakish getup that looked like a human face, and even contorted to reflect his mood. It was ivory, like his fur coat, and the mask eyes and mouth were currently curved up to represent a simple smile. Most fools got unsettled when Hellion glanced their way—he hid his real eyes, and his mask moved—which was probably the most amusing part of his true form. Normal manticores had the faces of lions.
“You think you can open this?” I asked, gesturing to the circular stone door.
Hellion’s smile tilted downward into a slight frown as he examined the entrance. He stepped closer and reached out with a “paw.” Well, more like a human hand. His front paws had the five fingers of any normal human hand, just furred and padded, like a cat’s. He could operate tools as well as the next person, including writing with a quill—manticores were freakishly human in a lot of ways. But I liked to think of manticores as just visual representations of humanity. Twisted and warped. Pretending to be decent more than half the time.
Hellion reached out with his human hands and grazed the stone door. He extended his claws from the tips of his fingers as he traced the etching of the slug. Well, maybe it was a slug, I wasn’t certain. It looked like a fat, shell-less snail with tiny whiskers—or arms?—sprouting from its back. The monstrosity reminded me of the deep-ocean-dwelling sea creatures that occasionally plagued ships out in uncharted waters.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the carved picture. “It can’t be the soul forge.”
Theasin sneered. “It is, in fact, the soul forge, you cretin.”
“Why is it called a forge?” I glared at the disgusting artwork. “It sure as hell doesn’t look like it’s forging anything other than a slime trail.”
“Your complete lack of an education betrays you. The word forge means ‘to create.’ ‘To mold.’”
“Heh,” I said. “And slugs are master crafters of souls, apparently?”
“Historians of ancient civilization have taught us that all life started in the darkest depths of the ocean, near the first level of the abyssal hells. And since you can’t put these facts together yourself, I’ll continue.” Theasin cleared his throat. “The soul forge has taken the shape of proto-life—it is a beginning. A vessel with which new life will be shaped and created.”
I bit back a chuckle. Not the most intimidating of creatures.
The funniest part was that Theasin had said every word as though it were a prophecy of unimaginable importance. His megalomania was on full display, and I tensed. Men like Theasin were never to be trusted. Sure, he could be talented, but I could already tell that he detested speaking to me. It was beneath him. I was his lesser. Someone to disregard and step on until he had all the power he needed.
With a snort and a grunt, Hellion placed both his hands on the door and attempted to pry it open. He strained and hunkered down, exerting himself to the fullest. Manticores were known for their extreme strength. They were unrivaled in size, possessing power ten times anything they should have had.
And it was a magical benefit I enjoyed as well. As a manticore arcanist, I could rip a man down the middle without breaking a sweat.
I wasn’t going to mess with the door, though. The accursed area still had me on edge. Hellion was more than sturdy enough to handle any initial problems.
But the door wouldn’t budge. Hellion struggled with it for three straight minutes, gritting his fangs until his mask had a frustrated face on it. He stopped and stepped away from the door.
“It’s sealed with powerful magics,” Hellion said, his voice half-muffled by his mask. “No amount of raw strength will open it.”
I turned to Theasin and shrugged one shoulder. “Guess you’ll have to use up some energy after all.”
Theasin regarded the door with a narrowed glare before snapping his fingers. “Essellian!”
His odd eldrin, the pile of broken windows and religious buildings, shifted among the trees. Apparently, the relickeeper had been in its “garbage form” and just laying around as fragments. When Theasin called its name, the junk came together, tied in place through magic threads. It formed into its dragon shape, its eyeless head rising a good fifteen feet into the air. It had to duck to avoid hitting the leaf canopy, but the creature didn’t seem to mind.
Essellian headed our way, its jagged body cutting up the plants and ground. Those glass shards and metal pieces were pointed in every direction.
“Give me the rose quartz runestone,” Theasin commanded. He held out his hand, palm up. “Quickly now.”
His relickeeper nodded its head and then sat on its hind legs. His chest had bits of brass and copper, and the metal shifted around until the “insides” of the dragon became apparent. A pink runestone emerged from the depths of the beast, and Essellian grabbed the magical object and handed it over to Theasin.
“Finally,” Theasin said as he held the runestone tight and close to his chest. “I thought this would be the key required for the chamber of the god-creature, but perhaps it is merely to enter the lair. Stand back.”
Although I stood semi-close to the door, and perhaps in the range of potential traps, I didn’t budge. I wanted to see this.
Theasin sauntered to the edge of the stone circle and then gently placed the rose quartz runestone against the door. A bright light filled the etching of the soul forge, and then the whole damn door. It grew in intensity, shining with such radiance that I had to shield my eyes. Hellion—protected by his mask—didn’t seem bothered. He stood close to me, protective, and watched the event unravel.
The glowing light vanished a moment later, and the door opened, revealing a tunnel that was sixteen feet in diameter. It was slanted—like a slide—and dark enough that I suspected it led to the depths of the abyssal hells. The “walls” were smoothed stone, each slab carved with pictures of mystical creatures in various stages of life. Some babes, some eggs, some giant and grown. Even a few dead ones, which amused me.
There were so many…
Dragons, manticores, unicorns, phoenixes…
And the tunnel reeked of rotting flesh. Coincidence? I didn’t think so.
“Smells lovely,” Hellion said with a purr on the edge of his gruff voice.
I chuckled, mostly because Theasin gagged and leapt away like a frightened bird. I had to admit, it was an unpleasant scent, but I had enough intestinal fortitude to stomach the stench. Men like Theasin—who never left the comfort of civilization—couldn’t handle rank odors.
“You want me and Hellion to take care of this?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “For an extra cut of the loot, of course.”
And that’s what I have as a preview! I hope you enjoyed, and it gets you excited for the book! Remember that Arcanist Fables hits shelves this Monday! See you then!