Writing’s Oddities

For over a year now, I’ve really been wanting to build a secondary fantasy world and/or to write a story set in one.  Or even a science-fantasy.  But, everything I put together in both venues always returns to urban (or contemporary, pick your poison) fantasy.  The frustrating thing is that I’m not sure why.  I’ve alternately blamed laziness (in many ways, urban/contemporary fantasy is easier—most of the history, geography, and such are already done) and what I’ve been reading lately (the last few years have been predominantly urban/contemporary fantasy).

I’m not sure that either of those is the culprit.

That said, I’ve had a hard time getting into secondary world fantasies lately, and not for lack of trying.  In the last couple years, I’ve read Sarah Beth Durst (kid’s recommendation; decent), Robert Jackson Bennett (decent), Gail Z. Martin (meh), Garth Nix (good, but not really clicking), N.K. Jemison (good quality, but not clicking), Scott Lynch (meh), Max Gladstone (good quality, but not clicking), Pearl North (meh), and Peter V. Brett (meh).  The only ones that have completely “clicked” were Naomi Novik (Uprooted) and Steven Brust (new books in the Taltos series), both authors I’ve read for many years.

It’s possible that my tastes, and approach to writing, have changed enough that the secondary world fantasy doesn’t work for my writing anymore.  I certainly haven’t lost interest in the genre, I still love Dragaera, Lankhmar, Middle Earth, and others, have Novik’s follow-up (Spinning Silver) on hold at the library, and all that.  Maybe it’s modern fantasy writers, but that shouldn’t really harm my writing, in that regard, I don’t think.

Maybe it’s age, fatigue from parenting, and time.

Whatever it is, it’s frustrating.

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WiP 21 (2018)

Another two days passed without Alaric seeing anyone except for a silent servant before he was confident that he had correctly identified the alarm spells.  More importantly, he had a plan to circumvent them.

He was still lost on the protection, or containment, wards.

Knowing they were abjuration based had proven less useful than he had hoped.  The patterns built on the protection base were utterly unfamiliar.  He used detection spells often enough that he had been able to find a core of familiarity beyond the foundational patterns.  His repertoire of protection spells, and his use of them, was rather smaller and less common.

He had to assume that they would not allow any communication or summoning magics, though.  There was little point to them otherwise.  He could probably try tunneling out, but they had placed priests around him to prevent that.  Going up or down were out.  He had no idea how many feet or yards of ground he’d have to excavate, and no climbing equipment anyway.  His attempts at air magic as a student had been, Alaric freely admitted, pathetic.  If he was being generous.  There was no levitating or flying up or down a shaft.

He could get around the alarm and detection spells, but he would have to think his way past the guard and dragonspawn.

Hours later, after the day’s last meal, Alaric’s palm met his forehead.

He did not know what was above or below his rooms, that was true.  But, he could find out.  Earth sorcery and his detection specialty.  Too obvious.

He slid the dishes back to the door and ambled to his bedroom.

Once out of “sight” of the guards, Alaric became a blur of motion.

In seconds, he had the spartan furniture and rugs shoved aside to create a bare space several feet wide on the floor.  He sat in the center, legs crossed beneath him.

Hands palm down on the floor to enhance the effectiveness, Alaric wove a bit of wizardry that verged on, the more advanced, sorcery.  The spell sent energy down through the stone, to reflect off anything beyond, within a limited range.  The reflection told him there was at least fifty feet of granite, with some bits of limestone and shale, beneath him.

Much too far to dig with his available tools.

Alaric rose, extending his arms over his head.

He was too short to touch the ceiling, by a couple feet.

This time, the magic burst found a foot of sandstone, a narrow gap, then a couple feet of local stone.  Above that, what he sensed was a cavern.

A second pattern of wizardry discovered no life of note above him, only the usual animal cave denizens and creatures of the earth.

A slow grin spread across his lips.

The two spells, he thought as he replaced the furniture, provided a lot of information.

Most importantly, if he could reach the ceiling, he could escape the same way he had before.

Alaric’s eyes roamed the room, assessing the available furnishings.

The priests had stripped the place pretty bare.  The bed was right out, he could not trust anything stacked on that mattress.  It would absorb other furniture and be unstable.  That covered what was still in the bedroom, really.

They had left him a table and chair in the sitting room.

Desperation and, Alaric had to admit, fear won out over good sense and planning.

If he moved the furniture, the guards and priests might try to prevent it.  If he did not move the furniture, the guards would assuredly be activated the moment he cast the digging spell.

The thoughts ran through his head and were discarded as he charged back into the sitting room.

Banishing conscious thought, Alaric threw the chair on top of the table.  He clambered up to stand on the seat, elbows bent to place his palms on the ceiling for balance and the spell.

The moment the energy released, the sorcerer saw the guards begin to move in his peripheral vision.  He instinctively knew he only had a minute at most; fortunately, he could start climbing after seconds.

As sand fell around him, coating his face and body, Alaric hopped and blindly reached for the rim of the temple’s roof.

With a groan, he pulled himself up and groped for another handhold.

A crash from below told him that the guards had tried climbing his table.

Muscles burning from fingertips to shoulders, the sorcerer managed to pull himself through the hole.  It became somewhat easier once the spell broke through so he could see and was not choking so bad.

Collapsed on rough stone, Alaric swore to work out more, especially pull-ups, if he made it home.

Only the sound of voices raised in alarm below drove him to his feet.

Without a conscious thought, he picked a direction, summoned a light ball, and ran, stumbling, away from the hole he had created.

The sorcerer—bruised, damp, bleeding, and completely tapped out—staggered out of a cave days later.  Hand shading his eyes against the daylight, he looked around and tried to get his bearings.  His pursuers had been left behind by the second day.  After a few moments, he started hobbling down the mountain slope toward what he thought might be civilization.


 

As always, this is a pre-revision version.  Any feedback, comments, etc. are very welcome.  Additionally, I’m not entirely pleased with the conclusion (one area I tend to be bad at), so thoughts there are very appreciated.

Also I’ll include a PDF copy here (The Island Stories) for those who’d like to see the whole thing as one document.

WiP 20 (2018)

The interview complete, Alaric found himself quick marched to a different suite, as promised.  As best he could tell, it was far from his former rooms.  Probably in case he had left any other waiting spells.  Which he probably should have done.

Hindsight and all that.

Aside from not having a hole in the bath wall and having two statues flanking the inside of the door, the suite was almost identical to his old one.  Though it looked like his captors not only took the pens and sharp things, but most of the furnishings as well.  Where the other suite was the epitome of understated opulence, this set was the poster child for extreme minimalism.

For the next six meals, which he took to be three days, Alaric tried to appear resigned to his captivity.  Inside, though, he studied the wards and other spells woven around the rooms as best he could.  Most were done in the unfamiliar silver, but a few blue strands of energy wove through the rest.

Magic—whether wizardry, sorcery, or this dragon-priest—was about more than sources of power, though.  It relied heavily on patterns, and while the specific pattern for every spell was unique, they did all hold a base framework depending on the type of spell.  Unraveling, or finding a soft spot in, an unknown spell could be done by beginning with the foundational framework the caster hung it on.  The masters at the Green Tower, the tower of earth sorcerers on the Island, taught that the frameworks were integral to all magic, transcending culture, era, type of sorcery, or ideology.

If that was the case, then Alaric felt he should be able to figure out how many spells, and of what type, were in place around the suite.

By his fourth meal, he believed he had distinguished around a dozen different spells in place.  Most, he tentatively classified as containment wards, meant to prevent his escape or outside communication.  The rest were ones he was more confident to identify as detection and knowledge based.  The frameworks were, at their core, identical to the patterns he had internalized as a student and regularly used without conscious thought.  The details on both sets were tangled and strange, but he felt he could at least begin looking for cracks and mistakes.

Shortly after his sixth incarcerated meal, Alaric thought he had a good handle on what the detection spells were supposed to do.  The details were a bit different, but enough was familiar to get the gist of the spell, like, he thought, knowing Spanish and hearing someone speak Portuguese.  The trick would be to keep from falling for the false cognates, the things that seemed to same but were not.

Exhausted, he collapsed on the expansive mattress that night with a sense of mingled accomplishment, hope, and caution.

He woke the next morning to find a young woman in the ivory priests’ robes sampling his simple breakfast in the sitting room.

Nica.

Her bob of silvery hair shimmered in the room’s ambient light as she turned at the sound of his door.

Alaric felt that he was more concerned than she was by his half-dressed state.  Since he hadn’t seen a servant or priest in days, he had intended to stroll across the sitting room to the bath.  Instead, he made a rapid u-turn and tossed on his, slightly stale, shirt.

Once he returned to the main room, he saw the young priest sitting composed and, apparently fully engrossed in watching a wall.

“Nica, sorry,” he said, “I wasn’t expecting . . . well, anyone.  Uh, to what do I, er, owe the pleasure?”

“The Agrum wished you to know that he has decided to extend your stay indefinitely,” she gave a perfunctory nod, instead of a bow.  “He says you cannot be trusted to be allowed to leave before the Great Ones awaken.  And he has decided not to awaken the Great Ones until the scouts he sent out yesterday return with enough news and information.”

She rose to leave, without looking at him.

“Nica, wait.  Look, I’m sorry things didn’t go as expected.”

“No.  You are not.”

Alaric sighed.

“You’re right.  I’m not, really.  Because if things went to the expectations of Jdal, there’d be another Great War all over again.  My people have millennia of stories, they’d never accept dragon overlords again.  And the dragons you keep, serve, would try to take over again and set humanity back more than six thousand years.”

“You let Agrum Jdal, and me, think you were one of our kin and that the Great Ones left.”

“True enough.  Admittedly, given my current situation . . . it seems like that was a good idea at the time.”

“You do not know that there would be another war.  It could be different.”

“My people have millennia of stories and legends revolving around tyrannical, evil dragon overlords.  They would never trust your dragons.  And if Jdal wakes your dragons, what will they expect?  They’ll expect the world to be just like it was, or they’ll try to make it that way.  Too much has changed for that.  And if anything in our tales of the Great War is true, I doubt they’d accept being equals or second to humans or sorcerers.  I mean, they built temples to their own divinity to control humans before.”

Nica paused, her hand on the door.

As it faded, she shook her head and walked out.

The door rematerialized in her wake mere heartbeats later.

WiP 19 (2018)

And right into a group of servants.

In the ensuing collision, shouts were raised and limbs became tangles.

When things sorted themselves out, Alaric found himself hanging above the floor.  Vice-like grips held his arms to the sides, as twin statue-guards suspended him from hands of stone.  The few servants were bowing and prostrating themselves before the priest, who was smiling faintly.

The language was unfamiliar, but Alaric got the gist.

The priest’s tone was obviously happy, albeit restrained.  He guessed the servants would be rewarded.  His own fate was less certain, but more concerning.

Alaric relaxed as best he could, trying to relieve the tension and ache in his shoulders.  He was pretty certain his head had connected with a foot, or maybe one of the guards.  Whatever he had hit, the entire back of his skull was throbbing.  The adrenaline spell helped dull the pains a bit, one good side effect, but the sorcerer worried about concussions.  He would need some self-healing or a healer as soon as he could get one.

Finally, the priest sent the servants on their way.

She turned to Alaric and his captors with a humorless smile.

A sharp command sent the guards marching down the hall.  Although they kept stone hands clasped around his arms, at least they lowered him to walk, so his arms would not pop out of their sockets.

The woman led the way confidently.

In fact, Alaric thought he detected the hint of a bounce to her steps.

But, that could have been a concussion talking.

He must have blacked out, for a while, because the next thing he knew, he saw two hands hovering a couple inches above his face.  And he was lying on something vaguely comfortable.  Someone, presumably the owner of the hands, was muttering in a language he could not identify.  It sounded repetitive though, like an incantation or a prayer.

The hands moved after a few moments and Alaric lifted his head to see an older man in the temple’s priest robes.  He noticed a gold braid along the hems, though.  The man said something in what sounded like the same language as the woman who’d caught him.

In seconds, the old man’s face was replaced by Jdal’s.

Frankly, Alaric thought he preferred the old man.

The Agrum’s features were serene, edged with a subtle tension.  His eyes, though, were a flickering orange.  They practically shone as the color rippled.  Any doubts the sorcerer had about the priest being part-dragon evaporated.

Suddenly, Alaric felt the strong desire to pass out again, maybe for a couple years.

Whatever was coming next, the sorcerer suspected that any attempt he could make to escape would be exponentially harder.  If he ever got a chance . . . or wasn’t executed.

Even though the other priests he had met so far treated Jdal with a deference that bordered on outright worship, the Agrum struck him as the type who prided himself on being in control in public.  Which made Alaric glad there was at least one other person there, and hope the older man did not leave.

Just above a whisper, the healer said, “The blood of dragons is very thin in him, or the spells would have been faster and more effective, Agrum.”

The head priest merely nodded, his jaw tight.

Alaric, really wanting the healer to stay, managed, “Thank you,” past a dry throat.

The old man allowed a small smile.

“I do as I am called to.  Do not make me do it again too soon.”

“I’ll try,” Alaric said with a tiny chuckle and a glance at Jdal.

“You will come to no harm here, unless you bring it upon yourself, either through foolish resistance or further attempts to leave without our permission . . . Alaric Saul.”

The sorcerer couldn’t entirely hide his surprise from his face.  He was certain Jdal had caught the flicker too, before he got his poker face in place.

“We too have some, little, knowledge of scrying spells, Alaric.  And some power as well.  Surely you have sensed our auras just as we have sensed yours.”

“So, what happens next?”

“You will be confined again.  While you were unconscious, my junior priests . . . combed the room for all writing implements and sharp objects.  Your stunt between rooms was interesting to some of the priests, we admit.  Your ring will also be confiscated.  We can take it by force, or you can surrender it.  Our own wards will be placed on the room, additional guards will be placed inside the rooms, and the suites to either side will be occupied by senior priests, who will be monitoring your activities.”

There would, he assumed, be other protections in place.  Possibly more subtle ones.  Otherwise, why would he be told about these guards and measures.  No one would, Alaric thought, be dumb or arrogant enough to explain everything preventing his escape.

He realized that Jdal’s open hand was extended and, reluctantly, wriggled his ring off, to deposit on the waiting palm.

That, plus his failed escape, seriously cut his available power.

But, Alaric figured, magic wasn’t going to be what broke him free this time, if he could get free.

Or, at least, not magic alone.

They had the suite sewn up tight from that perspective.

WiP 18 (2018)

As he shuffled down the tunnel, the sorcerer absently wondered if the tunnel and whatever it connected to were included in Jdal’s place binding.  They were obviously later additions to the temple-refuge structure.  If the binding had happened before excavation, he thought, would it expand as the structure did, or not?  Thinking of that, did the tunnel even count as part of the temple-refuge?

The academic part of his mind pondered these questions while the rest tried to remain quiet and as hidden as a featureless, straight tunnel would allow.

Alaric remained as flat against the wall as he could, his hands sliding lightly along the glassy surface.

Reaching the end took less time than he would have liked.

The tunnel abruptly dropped to a wide obsidian stair that swept out like a fan.

He ducked back as he spotted six statue-guards at the bottom.  The quick look was enough to see that they formed a straight line at the foot.  He hadn’t seen enough room to slip between them.  He guessed the tops of their heads were about twelve, fifteen feet beneath him.

Ears straining for any sound of alarm, the sorcerer lay on the floor and scooted forward until he could see into the cavern.  He hoped the move would be unnoticeable, with only his head exposed.

The stairs, he saw, descended into a massive, symmetrical cavern with the same polished walls as the tunnel.  Artificial, then, he thought, or artificially enlarged.  To his right and left, two rows of cave mouths pierced the smooth sides.  He counted half a dozen on each side, and guessed another two each that he couldn’t see due to his angle.  The priest he’d seen leading a quartet of statues was walking along the floor, stopping at each over-under pair of caves.  She appeared to be inspecting them.  At least she did not seem to be using any rituals or spells, so she probably wasn’t waking the dragons.  Given the size, he assumed each must house one of the beasts.

Alaric slid back down the corridor.

Propped against the wall, he shook his head.

At least twelve, possibly fourteen, dragons.

Even if they were all smaller than the one in the guardian-priest’s tapestry . . .

Shite.

If those were unleashed on the world, or even the relatively organized Island, today . . .

It would be a bloodbath.

There were more sorcerers than in the old days, but there were also the humans to consider.  And no one had fought, or spoken to, or even seen an active dragon in millennia.

They would need warning.

And to organize.

Neither would go well, and which would be more difficult was a toss up.

They would likely need the help of the eldren and treefolk, probably the vrykos and dharo too.  Maybe even the changelings.

And they would need to move fast, before the dragons woke, if they were going to keep things quiet from the humans.

Shite, again.

And he was the only one who knew.

No pressure.

Alaric heaved himself to his feet.  That priest had looked like she was inspecting or checking the caves.  There was no telling where she’d started, and his getting caught in the tunnel would help no one.  Since the refuge had eluded detection for . . . a very long time, he had to assume there were some serious wards on the place.  Probably blocking or limiting communication spells too.  That would make sense, to better conceal the place.  Which meant getting out at the very least, back to the surface as the best option.

He ran, retracing his steps, back toward the service corridor.

There, he paused long enough to use a restorative spell, between panting breaths.  All the Tower’s students learned it early on.  Better than caffeine and it lasted longer.  Used more than a couple times in succession, though, and the crash when it wore off had been known to cause comas.

So long as he made the surface before the crash, that was all that mattered.

The boost kicked in, aided by a jolt of adrenaline as he heard soft footsteps behind him.

He jogged ahead a few yards before turning down the first cross hall he found.

WiP 17 (2018)

His first instinct was a spell to find his way out of the temple.

Then second thoughts kicked in.

His camera was gone.  He needed proof or no one would believe him.  They didn’t want to and there’d been millennia of hoaxes.

Knowing how many dragons were sleeping in the refuge would help too.

Maybe he could do something to stop them, or delay the awakening.

Someone had indicated, he thought, that the waking process took a while.  Months, maybe.  It was possible that he could make that longer . . . if he knew what they did, and had months to years to study the process.

No, bad idea.

Too many thrillers and action stories.

He was a scholar and researcher.

His best bet was to get information and get himself out.

So far, Alaric knew he had been lucky not to run into any priests or servants.  Or maybe there just weren’t that many.  How many people did it take to maintain a mothballed refuge and care for comatose dragons?  Accounting for a place mage and automatons too.

Hopefully not many.

Alaric gulped a little, realizing just how much he depended on hope and luck in the situation.

Not for the first, or last, time, he wished he’d brought a team.

Who might have been captured with him.  Or set the priest-caretakers into full blown paranoia, triggering violence.  At the very least they would have been potential hostages, and planning an escape would be much more difficult, in its own way.

He shook himself.

Time to move.

He formed a simple, generic seeking spell, indicating dragons when it was appropriate.

The effect manifested as a muted neon green arrow in his mage sight, pointing to his left.

After a few turns down long corridors, Alaric paused to catch his breath.  He hadn’t been jogging or running in years.  Bent over, hands on his knees, the sorcerer heard heavy thumps on the scale-tiled floor.

He rose quickly and flattened himself against the wall as the sounds grew louder.

Moments later, a troop of four statue-guards marched down the cross hall.  Alaric prayed to any deity that there were enough shadows, as a single priest strode behind them.

The woman glanced down his hall, but it seemed some divinity was listening as she passed by without looking too closely.

Alaric released the breath he had been holding with a rush of relief.

Unfortunately, his arrow pointed directly after the escorted priest.

Double shite.

He risked a glance down the hall.

The guards were gone, but the hall took a sharp right after a couple dozen feet.

After looking the other way to ensure the coast was clear, Alaric did his best to sneak down the hall.  He kept to the wall, practically brushing it with elbows and back at every step.  Unlike the others, this one was bare and undecorated.  On one hand, he thought, less to run into.  On the other, there was no cover, and there were no doors or alcoves.

Probably a service hall, he decided.  One of those passages no one lived on and no visitors saw.  Just a practical space the servants used to move around and do their jobs.  There was a tangle of those halls at the Tower, for servants.  He and some other students had snuck into them a few times to avoid teachers and others.  The faculty pretended to forget about their existence, though they had probably all used the servant halls as students.

Maybe, if the spell was right, this was the one that the staff used to check on the dragons.

It was far too small for dragons to use themselves, if the stories and Jdal’s tapestries were right.

He crept along increasingly utilitarian halls or what felt like hours, sloping ever gradually down.

Finally, Alaric stood at the mouth of a tunnel that showed signs of being hastily dug out of the living rock.  The entirety was bare stone, smooth all around.  The polished gloss spoke of regular usage or, since it was all around, the use of earth sorcery.  Where the more finished halls were rectangular and made of blocks of stone covered in something like plaster, the new one was almost entirely circular.  It looked like a refinement of the spell he’d used in his suite, just done by someone who knew what they were doing.  And had more time and a lot more raw power at their disposal.