Newgrange by Julie A. Dickson — POETRY and PLACES

Newgrange Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland, 2015 by Julie A. Dickson To stand before an ancient mound on the Irish countryside, stones hewn and balanced, silent structure stands sentinel, cavern in deep darkness— but for the winter solstice, waiting for early morning light to Illuminate the ritual altar. If I almost close my eyes I can […]

Newgrange by Julie A. Dickson — POETRY and PLACES

Don’t Offend the Fairy Folk by Suggesting They Are Imaginary — Daily Quote — Jo Hawk

This quote tickled me. There are characters in my brain who would object to others questioning their existence. They have just started speaking with me, so I don’t want to offend them and risk losing the astonishing tales they are sharing with me. It places a tremendous responsibility on my shoulders. I feel an obligation […]

Don’t Offend the Fairy Folk by Suggesting They Are Imaginary — Daily Quote — Jo Hawk

The 80’s Horror Film That Ushered in the 90’s

[image description: “warlock” movie poster. fair use.]

It was in the spring of 1991 that I first watched the theatrical release of what I would many years later come to consider one of the most underrated horror films of all time: Warlock. Technically an 80’s film, at the time it seemed to be ushering in a brand new decade of horror; one that had many similarities with the previous one, and yet a freshness that seemed to belong solely to the nascent one before us.

The Gulf War had just ended, and a new age seemed to be dawning, and I can’t really put my finger on why, but it seemed to me at the time that Warlock belonged more to this exciting new era of Nightbreed and Flatliners, which had just come out the previous year. It might have been merely this: I was a teenager when 80’s horror icon Freddy Krueger first menaced teenage Nancy. By the time Flatliners came out I was a young adult, just like the main characters in that film. So is Kassandra, the female lead in Warlock, for although Lori Singer was around 31 when the film was made, she was clearly meant to represent someone in their twenties, perfectly designed to appeal to my nineteen-year-old self at the time.

And Lori seemed like a fresh face, albeit somewhat familiar (back then I didn’t recall where I’d seen her before, but in retrospect it must have been as the female lead in 1984’s Footloose). She certainly wasn’t as instantly recognisable as Julia Roberts, Phoebe Cates, or Heather Langenkamp, for example. Ironically, she is older than all three (63 at the time of this writing), but you wouldn’t have known it from watching her in this role. But then again, she was around 26 when she portrayed a high school student in Footloose, which is often par for the course in teen movies.

Perhaps it was the dialogue “Kassandra with a K” was given, or the character’s overall attitude, or her style of dress, or a combination of all these things that, at least to my young mind, seemed to embody the spirit of the new decade rather than the former one. Or maybe it was just that spring was in the air. But I was truly surprised to discover so many years later that Warlock was actually made in 1988, its release in the United States having been delayed by over two years.

[image description: lori singer as kassandra in the movie “warlock”. fair use.]

Now I know there really isn’t that much of a difference between 80’s horror and 90’s horror, especially when you compare the horror of both those decades with contemporary horror. You can look at a wide range of 90’s horror films and judge their similarity to those of the previous decades according to a few factors which show that the subsequent decade is truly an outgrowth of the previous one.

Scary movies of the 1980s imparted two very important elements onto horror cinema. The first is the widely accepted notion that horror is a high-volume, low-quality business. (They don’t call it “cheap thrills” for nothing.) The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street — classics all, but movies whose structures lent themselves to easy imitation. Studios latched onto this low-hanging fruit and saturated the market, producing upward of 80 slasher films in the 1980s alone…. The second great influence from the 1980s is the idea of the rules, memorably laid out in Wes Craven’s Scream: If you want to survive a scary movie, don’t say you’ll be right back. Don’t drink, and don’t have sex. If there’s a sequel, the body count is always higher. And never forget: The killer always comes back for one final scare.

How Modern Horror Is Breaking the Rules of the 1980s by Jordan Crucchiola

And yet Warlock breaks all of those rules. To be fair, it’s not a slasher. It’s more of an occult scare film like The Exorcist. But it’s an adventure film as well, with witty dialogue and numerous plot points, and twists and turns, and well… you just gotta see it. To this day I don’t understand why it’s not talked about more. It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and it remains iconic and unique. There’s never been a movie like it before or since, and it’s aged pretty well to boot.

Here’s a just a small taste, a single scene with minor spoilers, to get you in the mood:

Warlock (1988) – The True Zamiel

Stonehenge Leylines – Alignments of Mystery. — Stonehenge Stone Circle News and Information

When commercial traveller, photographic inventor, and amateur antiquarian Alfred Watkins wrote up his lecture expounding his theory about ancient routemarkers in Early British Trackways (1922), delivered to the Woolhope Club of Hereford only five months previously, he started a movement, some would say a craze, which shows no signs of diminishing even in the cold […]

Stonehenge Leylines – Alignments of Mystery. — Stonehenge Stone Circle News and Information

Celebrating The Best Black Characters In Video Game History — KAKUCHOPUREI.COM

In case you weren’t aware, this whole of February was Black History Month. With this iconic time coming to a close, let us celebrate and talk about our favourite and iconic black characters in video game history. Barret Wallace (Final Fantasy VII Remake) While the FFVII original version of Barret was fine, the 2020 version…

Celebrating The Best Black Characters In Video Game History — KAKUCHOPUREI.COM

On the Nobody Somebody Has Inside: C.S. Lewis and a Post About Bullying For Pink Shirt Day #pinkshirt — A Pilgrim in Narnia

By all accounts, the famous children’s author C.S. Lewis was bullied badly in the English private school that he was subjected to as a child. His first school, Wynyard, had a bully as a headmaster. Robert Capron–nicknamed “Oldie” by Lewis and his brother, Warren–was selected to be their father, Albert Lewis, to mentor these future […]

On the Nobody Somebody Has Inside: C.S. Lewis and a Post About Bullying For Pink Shirt Day #pinkshirt — A Pilgrim in Narnia

Homemade Rice-A-Roni Recipe

Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat, was invented in 1958 by Vince DeDomenico, the son of an Italian American businessman. It was inspired by a pilaf recipe given to his sister-in-law by an Armenian immigrant. A boxed convenience food consisting of vermicelli combined with long grain rice sautéed in butter and then simmered in water mixed with the powdered contents of a flavouring packet, it’s become a comfort food for many North Americans, including me. So I was pretty stoked when I came across this recipe, because due to shortages caused by the pandemic I haven’t been able to get any of the commercial stuff.

I was also thrilled to discover once I made this homemade version that it was, as the author claims, even better than the original. It was also fun to make. Follow the link at the bottom of the excerpt below to view the full article and recipe.

The preceding text has been corrected. It originally stated that Tom DeDomenico invented Rice-A-Roni. According to the Wikipedia article, it was his brother Vince. Tom’s wife was the sister-in-law mentioned.

This homemade rice-a-roni is a blend of rice and pasta cooked in butter, chicken broth and seasonings until light and fluffy. An easy side dish that tastes WAY better than the store bought kind!

Rice-A-Roni is a popular way to round out a meal, but I don’t love all the unpronounceable ingredients in the boxed version. This chicken Rice-A-Roni has no artificial ingredients and is absolutely delicious.

Homemade rice-a-roni topped with tomatoes and herbs, all in a skillet.
[image description: bowl of homemade rice-a-roni by used in accordance with the website’s sharing policy.]

Ravener’s Scorn (Novel Excerpt)

This is the fifth excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites” which was begun on November 1st, 2020 for National Novel Writing Month and is intended to be the first volume of an as yet unnamed dark fantasy series set in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.

The city of Meridian slept fitfully, as large cities often do, but its night-time goings-on were still far more subdued than the clamorous bustle of its daylight activity. Ravener preferred it that way, because the few people who were out and about were usually outlaws like him, with the exception of the Guard, and what little noise they made as they conducted their illicit business on the shadowed streets would mask his own footsteps as he navigated the labyrinth of alleyways behind the silent buildings. He was no master of stealth, after all, being used to a more straight-forward means of robbery. He was first and foremost a pirate, but the ship he had been captaining for the past three years was now at the bottom of the Sea of Blood, its First and Second Mate killed, and most of its crew scattered – if any but he still lived.

He had been able to swim as far as the mouth of the Crimson Channel, where he’d been fortunate enough to be picked up by a fishing boat just as he’d been about to succumb to weariness. But what gold he still carried had gone to buy the silence of that vessel’s Captain, who had been thinking to turn his guest over to the authorities, as he was sure some sort of bounty could be collected for the capture of a pirate from the infamous Scourge of Scorn. The tattoo on Ravener’s chest had been the giveaway. A skeletal hand clutching a whip – that had been the motif used by the Scourge, and his tattered shirt had betrayed this unmistakeable mark to the fishermen. But after he had greased the Captain’s palm, the old man had been only too happy to take him to Meridian, which was the nearest port, and had even given him an old stained shirt of linen with which to hide the damning evidence of his knavery.

Now all he needed was some coin so he could buy a new sword (for he had dropped his on the deck of the ship when it had been rammed by a Sarunian vessel, and he had fallen overboard) and safe passage back to the Rock – the island hideout of the crew of the Scourge and other noteworthy pirate vessels. He still had his dagger, which was fortunate, because the house he meant to rob would not be empty. He had no skill as a burglar, and not much time to get what he needed, so breaking into a stranger’s house wouldn’t do. Instead he planned to pay an unexpected visit to the Scourge’s former Captain. Her name was Scorn, for the Scourge had been hers up until she’d retired, handing the reigns over to Ravener, her faithful First Mate.

But what he didn’t realise at the time was that she wasn’t merely retiring as Captain. In fact, she had betrayed them all by accepting a pardon from the mayor of Meridian in exchange for convincing her successor, Captain Ravener, to dock the ship there instead of at Varda as he’d originally planned. The fledgling pirate Captain and his crew had only narrowly escaped that battle, but seven ships of the Royal Fleet of Sarun, the kingdom of which both Varda and Meridian were tributaries, awaited them in the Bleeding Wound, where the Crimson Channel flowed into the Sea of Blood. After a brief skirmish, somehow the Scourge had broken through to the open sea, but the Sarunian ships had pursued them. Still, they never would have overtaken the Scourge – a fine ship she’d been, swift and sure – had it not been for a sudden squall that had come out of the East. It had slowed them down, not much, but just enough for the Sarunian wolves to close in around their prey.

It was not merely to avenge the deaths of his fellows, or even the loss of his newly gained ship, that Ravener now sought out the betrayer. In fact, it was only the thought that she had so callously sold him out, her sometime lover, that rankled him. But more than that, he knew that she had made off with much of the loot. He needed some money, and though slitting her throat while she slept would give him great pleasure, he would not have bothered to hunt her down for vengeance alone.

And it had taken a good deal of hunting to find her. It wasn’t easy getting information from the locals, because of his looks – the pale eyes, pointed ears, and bluish cast of his skin which clearly marked him as one of the fey, not to mention the long thick scar along the right side of his face (which he had given himself while still just a boy, in order to appear tough in a neighbourhood where being different could get you killed). After all, for the most part the fey were looked upon as diseased individuals—not diseased in the sense of lepers or plague-bearers to be avoided lest one become sick as well, but rather “the stricken,” those singular unfortunates who suffered from afflictions that defied explanation and so could only be described by such vague terms as “failure to thrive”, “diminishing”, or “fading away”. They were starvelings, dying of a peculiar sort of hunger that could not be sated; in short, they were not long for this world, and that had everything to do with them not being from this world to begin with.

Still, he had been able to gather clues and hints here and there, mostly by sitting quietly in the corner of one seedy tavern or another and just listening to the conversations around him (one of his favourite pastimes). In fact, the whole city seemed to be buzzing with the glad news of the defeat of a greatly feared menace, and the unprecedented pardon bestowed upon one of the most bloodthirsty pirates in history.

Yes, it took a long time, but eventually he had been able to discover her whereabouts. She was staying at the Salty Dog, a tiny dockside inn on the other side of town, far from the Bleeding Wound, the Crimson Channel, and the Sea of Blood. No doubt she feared that not a few of them might have sought fit to deal her the only sort of justice that such folk recognize, for the only sort of crimes that they deem worthy of punishment. But had she known that Ravener himself had survived, she would have almost certainly fled the city altogether, and he would never have found her.

Soon he was standing behind the Salty Dog, peering through the window of one of the back rooms. It appeared to be vacant, but he couldn’t risk breaking the window or someone might hear. Besides, the only reason to sneak in that way would be to avoid anyone seeing him and recognizing him, but in order to get to Scorn’s room he would still have to pass through the common room anyway, and if he suddenly stepped out of a room that was supposed to be vacant, the suspicions of the innkeeper would almost surely be roused. He would just have to take the risk of walking in through the front entrance. The real problem would be getting past the guard that he’d heard had been posted outside the door to Scorn’s room on the second floor; a soldier of the Meridian Guard whose duty it was to protect her from visitors just like him. If he’d had his sword, he’d be reasonably confident of winning that fight, but anyhow the noise would have awakened her and she’d most probably have escaped through the back window with the loot.

Besides, the innkeeper would have called the Guard as soon as he heard the commotion upstairs, and though Ravener might have been able to handle one or two Guardsmen, three or more would have been real trouble, especially in such a tight spot. But in any case, it didn’t matter, because he was armed only with a dagger. He would have to find some way to get past the Guardsman, or better yet, knock him unconscious or otherwise dispose of him quietly. But how?

Let’s Take the Back Door (Novel Excerpt)

This is the fourth excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites” which was begun on November 1st, 2020 for National Novel Writing Month and is intended to be the first volume of an as yet unnamed dark fantasy series set in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.

As crossbow bolts rained down upon the shingles, Maera scrambled up the sloped roof, vaulted over the ridge, and slid down the other side onto the lower flat roof of a neighbouring building she already knew was there. The City Watch knew this area well, but not as well as she. At street level, they’d have to hop a few fences to get to the narrow alley between the two buildings before they could even ascertain where she was headed next. One might’ve thought she was going to run in the same direction to get to the next roof, but not so. Whilst momentarily unseen, she veered right, got to the eastern edge of the building, and lithely shimmied down a drainpipe she also knew was there—but not all the way to the bottom where another side alley connected to the one she could even now hear the Watch clambering into. Rather, halfway down she twisted her body a bit to the left in order to quickly and quietly slip through a burnt-out open window so dark it was hard to see from the shadowed alley below.

This was one of her favourite escape routes. She was now on the second floor of an abandoned building that had been mostly gutted by fire, but there were still a few stout beams for her to lightly run across in order to get to the building’s western side, where a stairwell had been largely untouched by the blaze. It had been a while since she’d used this particular getaway but so far it was exactly as she remembered it, so she was reasonably certain the stairwell would still be intact.

In the meantime, the poorly paid officers of the City Watch, if they even figured out she’d somehow gotten inside the building without them seeing her, and then proceeded to find her entrance, and then took it upon themselves to climb up the drainpipe or use a rope and grapple to get there and follow her, they’d have to negotiate these narrow beams and take a wild guess as to which ones could hold their weight.

Forsooth she thought perhaps not even the ones she relied upon now could do so, given that her current pursuers generally had heavier builds and much heavier armour, and certainly would only be able to hold them one at a time if at all, slowing their progress considerably. But that’s if they even chose to risk falling into the shadowed lower storey and injuring themselves or even possibly getting themselves killed depending on what sort of debris lay below. More often than not, she’d seen them give up the pursuit in the face of simpler, far less dangerous obstacles, and could almost hear their thoughts as they did so: Ah, she ain’t worth the trouble.

As she got to the top of the stairwell, finding it far from empty but at least not full of foes, she didn’t hear any of the officers attempting her recent gymnastics, but loathe to waste any time just in case she hopped lightly over the sleeping vagrants who lay each upon his or her own step with one or two between them for courtesy’s sake, so swiftly and so quietly that they didn’t so much as stir in their slumber.

It was a switchback staircase, and the next flight was void of sleepers due to the top half of it being covered with slimy green mould and the bottom half being completely underwater. The basement of the building was flooded long ago, and the stagnant water stank awfully, but she knew she wouldn’t need to wade through it. When she got halfway down the stairs she leapt forward into the darkness, reaching out and up with both hands toward where she recalled that a long thick pipe running along the ceiling horizontal to her was waiting, grabbed onto it, swung a bit back and then a bit forward, and reached out for the next pipe with one hand, grabbed that, and repeated the process. Thus swinging from pipe to pipe hand over hand she crossed the room until she was back on the southern side of the building, where another burnt-out window waited. It was a small, high, rectangular basement window level with the ground outside, and she knew from experience that she could just barely squeeze through it. So now she swung toward it, grabbed the sill with one hand, let go of the pipe with the other, and was soon hanging from the window ledge with both hands. She slowly lifted herself up just enough to stick one arm all the way out the window, then used her elbow to lift herself more so she could stick the other one out. Then it was just a matter of wriggling and worming her way through the narrow aperture until she was crawling out of it into yet another narrow alley, but one closed off from any of the others and partially concealed by fallen debris from the fire that had gutted the building she’d just emerged from. In fact, she could probably get away with hiding here until the heat was off. But she decided she’d better not chance it, and so made her way stealthily and cautiously along the alley westward, since she knew that at the end of it there was a hidden entrance to yet another abandoned building she could sneak through in order to get to High Street.

Once she was through that, avoiding with expert stealth the shabbily dressed squatters who inhabited it, she found herself in another small alley, this one a cul-de-sac that smelled strongly of garbage, vomit, spilled ale, and stale piss. But there at the opposite end of it was, as far as Maera was concerned, the entrance to paradise: A tavern’s back door. It led out into this alley for the benefit of the sort of patrons who often needed an escape route. She knew this tavern well, as it was famed throughout the city. The Old Black Cat it was called, after the landlady’s beloved pet. Its back door was bolted from the inside, so she’d have to wait until someone opened it. Luckily she didn’t have to wait long. A drunken middle-aged man soon came stumbling out to take a piss. She slipped through the open door behind him unnoticed.

The tavern was busy tonight, as she’d figured it would be. That was a good thing, as it made it easier for her to slip through the raucous crowd almost completely unnoticed. It was also dimly lit, which she had expected as well, and a little smoky from the torches. All these things made it ideal for lying low for a bit, and there was also the added boon of being able to knock back a few drinks as she did so. She picked a dark corner at the end of the bar farthest from the entrance, and waited for the tapster to notice her.

As she did so she started working out a plan in her head. High Street was heavily patrolled, especially at night. Applebough would no doubt have its own safeguards as well, from high walls to literal guards, and probably a few traps as well. Over the course of her highly lucrative career as a professional cat burglar she’d been obliged to plunder such high security estates a couple of times in the past, but she’d done so with a team. This was not the sort of job one attempted solo, if one was smart, which she was. Contrary to what most people believed, even the most skilled and accomplished of thieves tended to avoid heavily guarded prizes, except in rare occasions when the value of the prize vastly outweighed the risk involved in obtaining it. But even then they rarely attempted a stunt like that on their own.

She sighed, even as she caught the tapster’s eye. There was nothing for it. If she wanted to corner this Puppeteer in his den she needed a team of specialists. This was a situation that called for a heist, and yet there was no known treasure to be gained, with which she might lure her accomplices in despite the obvious dangers. She needed something more specific than “chests of gold and gems and jewels,” though there likely would be that, and more. She could easily make something up, but she’d rather not. Underworld folks were, for the most part, not to be trifled with.

The tapster, an elderly fellow with a few wisps of white hair on his head and about as many teeth, shuffled over and asked her what he could get her. She ordered a dark, bitter stout they made on the premises, appropriately called Old Black Cat Ale.

As the old man tapped the keg behind the bar and handed her a tankard full of the nearly black yet beige-headed beverage, she ran through a mental list of possible partners in crime, ticking off each one she would try to enlist, based on availability, reliability, probable willingness to be recruited, and of course, expertise.

She’d only come up with three when she realised she wasn’t going to be able to think in this joint. In the middle of the room at a large round table sat a party of oddly dressed travellers who, while not overly loud, were saying outrageous things, and sometimes it was hard to understand everything they were saying due to the hostile crowd surrounding them drowning out their feeble voices, so she found herself straining to hear even though most of it sounded like doomsayer nonsense she ordinarily wouldn’t have paid any mind. So she left the way she came, slipping out the back door, taking her nearly full tankard with her but leaving more than enough coin on the bar to pay for the vessel as well as the fine brew it contained.

It was a nice night. She hadn’t really noticed before, because first she’d been chasing someone, and then she was being chased. But the waning gibbous moon had risen high in the blue-black winter sky, the bright little twinkling starlets that made up the moonfleet trailing prettily behind it, and of all the true stars arranged in their various constellations, only a smattering were obscured by what few clouds drifted across the heavens. And these were themselves beautiful, being of the puffy white cumulus variety, some of them great galleons to challenge the moon itself, others like smaller sailing ships such as fishing boats or sloops. The air was crisp and cold, and as a light breeze wafted into her face it smelled pure and clean, as if it were entirely capable of washing away the stench of the alleyway she stood in.

Speaking of which, she thought, as unpleasant as it may be, I think our next stop ought to be the Reek. It was in that foulest of neighbourhoods, after all, that she would be most likely to find anyone from her old gang.

The Party of Astrologers (Novel Excerpt)

This is the third excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites” which was begun on November 1st, 2020 for National Novel Writing Month and is intended to be the first volume of an as yet unnamed dark fantasy series set in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.

Asan entered the alehouse cautiously, casting his eyes about the smoky room before settling upon an empty table beside the window. He took a seat in the corner, where his back would be exposed neither to the door nor the other patrons. There was a slight draught, probably the reason the table was empty. It mattered little; he was used to the cold. He forced a smile as the serving maid approached.

“Welcome to the Old Black Cat,” she said. “What’ll it be?”

“Turskanian ale.”

“Right away, melor.”

The Old Black Cat was located in the seedier section of Darkmoon, where visitors to that city rarely ventured unless they also happened to be mages, thieves, or smugglers. Its owner was a cantankerous old woman known only as the Crone. She was rumoured, of course, to be a witch. The place took its name from her cat – some said her familiar – who was completely black save for a patch of white just above his groin. If he had a name it was not known. She called him the little master, because she said he was the one who really owned the place, but he was so old now that he could barely walk any more, and most of the time he just lay curled up by the fireplace, as far from the big clumsy feet of the tavern’s patrons as he could get.

Asan wondered where the Crone was now, or if she was even still living. The serving maid returned with his ale, and he was on the point of enquiring about the Mistress of the house, but abruptly changed his mind. He did not like the way some of the patrons were looking at him, and it was hardly a good sign that they had taken an interest in him at all. His last visit here had ended in bloodshed, and he began to wonder if some of the regulars didn’t recognise him after all these years, so he certainly didn’t want to ask any questions that might confirm his having been there before. Besides, it’s not as if he really cared about the old woman’s fate; he was merely curious as to whether or not she was truly immortal, as some had claimed.

He hardly touched his drink, and every now and again he glanced around the room apprehensively, as if he half expected some hideous creature of the supernatural to suddenly spring at him from the shadowy corners. He hated magic, mostly because he did not understand it, and the last place he wanted to be right now was in a tavern owned and operated by a reputed witch. It was bad enough they had to be in the City of Enchantments at all – why had Ylse picked this den of foul witchcraft as their meeting place? It wasn’t as if there weren’t any taverns in Darkmoon that were not owned by magic-makers. He had a feeling she had done it for the very reason that she knew it would discomfort him.

As he glanced up from his mug of ale for the fifth time, he noticed that four of the patrons who had been staring at him since he’d walked in were now seated together at the table adjacent to his. They were three men and a woman, all hooded and cloaked. One man was clad in dark grey and brown, one in green and gold, and the third entirely in black. The woman wore a cloak of purple, the robes beneath it lavender in colour. They were obviously mages.

Asan’s hand beneath the table gripped the hilt of his longsword firmly. Not without basis was the old adage that magic could be hindered by cold iron. Run the mage through with your blade, and any spells previously cast by them would be broken with their death. But even better was the stroke that prevented any spells from being cast in the first place.

As if they had been reading his thoughts, as one the four mages abruptly turned back to their drinks. After a few moments, however, the woman turned to look at him again. Her purple cloak, which almost matched the colour of her eyes, was fashioned of velvet, a rare material made in the faraway city of Kathifet. Beneath the hood her curly hair was raven black, and her skin a deep brown. Asan thought her uncommonly beautiful, yet there was a coldness about her that he did not like at first. But then she smiled, and it was as a spring thaw, and he found himself smiling back at her despite himself.

Just then the man in green looked up again, and seeing the grin on Asan’s face, nudged his companion, the man in grey. “Looks like we may have made a new friend,” he said.

“Forgive me,” said Asan, “I did not mean to stare. It’s just that where I come from there are no mages.” This was his standard icebreaker when it came to dealing with strange magic-users, and it had a predictable effect.

“No mages?” exclaimed the man in grey. “That’s unheard-of!”

“Where do you come from,” asked the man in green, “the moon?”

This drew laughter from the rest of the party, except for the man in black, who did not seem to be paying attention to anything but his drink.

“Not quite so far,” said Asan, not smiling. “But to travel here from the moon I would have to be a mage myself. No, I come from Calembria, the land beyond the Urz Mountains.”

“Then you might as well be from the moon!” laughed the man in grey. “There is nothing beyond the Urz Mountains, but a frozen waste.”

“You are mistaken, gentle,” Asan replied politely. “While it is true that the mountains themselves are covered in the deep snows of ever-winter, they shelter a warm and pleasant valley where sheep graze and clear cold rivers empty into great lakes filled with fishes, and no maker of magics has ever walked there, nor indeed has anyone else from outside.”

Now the woman spoke, and there was no trace of mockery in her eyes or her voice as she asked: “Then how is it you came to be here?”

Asan sighed. “That is a long story, and a sorrowful one. Suffice it to say that several years ago I chose to leave my beloved homeland in search of something more. I alone of all my people have braved the treacherous mountain passes—by the skin of my teeth, mind you—and came thereby to Dasun. Northernmost of the northern lands that country is called, but of course that is not entirely correct. I found their ways not that much different from my own, though their language was unintelligible to me. When by signs and gestures I told them where I was from, they believed me, but feared me, perhaps because they thought that if I came thence I was not truly a man, but some kind of spectre. Although, I daresay, by the paleness of their skin I might have judged them such as well, had I believed in such things.”

“Yes,” said the man in green. “The farther north one goes, the paler and also more ignorant and superstitious are the barbarians. It doesn’t surprise me that there are no mages where you come from. There’s almost none left now in Dasun itself.”

The woman’s face darkened, apparently scandalized by her companion’s rude words, for she said to Asan: “Pay no mind to what Marlon says. He is just angry because he was forced into exile by his own people, for they have come to hate and fear mages. He is from Samakar, the land just south of Dasun, and he blames the barbarians for his country’s changing attitudes toward magic in recent years.”

Asan nodded. “I can understand your anger,” he said to Marlon. “But there has never been a mage in Calembria. They are not there, not because we cast them out, but because magic itself does not exist there, or so it would seem.”

“Doesn’t exist!” The man in grey stood up, and grabbing his goblet of wine, crossed over to Asan’s table and took the seat across from him. “But magic is everywhere! It touches everything, permeates everything, even the most ordinary of objects.”

Asan shrugged. “Verily I cannot say for certain that your magic would not work there if somehow you managed to survive the journey to my homeland. But it is the only explanation I can give you for the lack of mages there. For a long time after I left Calembria I thought that the magic the people of Dasun spoke of was just superstition, until I was faced with the reality of it and forced to admit that it really existed.”

Her fascination growing, the woman joined her friend at Asan’s table, followed shortly by the Samakaran, whom she had called Marlon. The man in black stayed where he was, maintaining a stony silence.

“Perhaps,” said Marlon as he took his seat, “the fault lies not with the land, but with its people.”

Asan’s grey eyes flashed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, aptitude for magic is inherited. You come from a closed society. All that inbreeding would only allow for certain traits to–”

“Really, Marlon!” the woman cut him off, giving him a disapproving look.

“You dare!” the Calembrian roared as he leapt to his feet. His chair fell back against the wall with a thud and his hand strayed to the hilt of his sword. All eyes in the room turned to him. There was a long intense moment as the bigger man’s gaze locked with that of Marlon. But the mage did not rise to the challenge.

“Please,” the woman said quietly from her own seat, “you must forgive our Marlon. He is young, and prone to speak rashly.”

But Marlon himself did not apologise; nor did he look at all sorry, and there were only so many insults Asan could suffer from this beardless youth before he would consider himself obligated to argue the point with his sword. However, he saw a hint of fear in the Samakaran’s eyes, and satisfied that the unspoken warning had made a significant impression, he slowly removed his hand from the sword hilt.

Then he bowed to the woman, as if to make it clear to all that he had restrained himself only out of respect for her. “I am called Asan,” he said, “and I am at your service, Madam.”

The other patrons, seeing with some disappointment that a fight wasn’t about to break out after all, slowly turned back to their own business and pleasure.

“You may call me Mephis,” the woman replied. “These are my Guild-brothers, Marlon and Drake. And the talkative one over there is Khand the Black.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The burly Calembrian bowed slightly as he took his seat once more, his eyes never leaving hers, so that the others were forced to wonder if he spoke only to her.

“So what brings you to the Old Black Cat?” Drake asked.

Ordinarily such a question, however innocuous seeming, would have instantly raised the Calembrian’s suspicions. But somehow he knew that these people were not in league with Malik. There wasn’t even a hint of the underworld about them, and in fact with their fancy cloaks of dyed wool (not to mention Mephis’s own of expensive velvet) they looked even more out of place in this part of town than he did. Still, out of habit he proceeded to give them as little information as possible.

“I’m waiting for a friend,” he said.

Drake nodded, drawing back his hood to reveal shoulder-length brown hair much like Asan’s, though the latter’s was now streaked with grey. Now that the younger man’s eyes were no longer in shadow, Asan could see that they were charcoal in colour; a dark grey that was almost black. They held no malice, yet there was a fierceness that shone in them which suggested he could be a dangerous man if crossed. “Then I am afraid you wait in vain,” he said.

Once again Asan’s hand gripped the hilt of his longsword beneath the table. Perhaps he had been wrong not to suspect these mages of villainy. After all, it was not necessary that they be servants of Malik in order for them to be foes of Asan and Ylse.

“Do not be alarmed,” said Mephis. “We mean you no harm.”

“Explain yourselves quickly,” Asan demanded.

“Let’s go,” said Marlon. “This fool doesn’t deserve our help.”

“Silence!” Mephis all but shouted. “He has every reason to be suspicious of us.”

“We will be happy to answer all your questions, Asan,” said Drake. “But not here.” With no movements save the direction of his gaze he indicated the group of patrons seated at the table adjacent to theirs, not a few of which suddenly seemed to be very interested in their conversation.

“I cannot leave,” said Asan, lowering his voice so that only the three he spoke to could hear him. “I promised my friend I would wait here, and I never break a promise.”

It was a lie, because as a rule he never made promises, but he didn’t like the idea of going anywhere alone with these people. Mephis nodded in understanding.

“Then consider yourself released from your promise,” she said. “Ylse is not coming.”

Asan felt a lump form in his throat. They knew of Ylse. But were they friend or foe? His frantic gaze swept over their faces in a vain attempt to gauge their motivations.

“And you know this how?” he demanded of Mephis at last.

Before she could answer, the Old Black Cat’s front door swung open, the reddish fire that had been burning merrily upon the hearth abruptly shrank to a faint blue glow that no longer warmed, and into the tavern filed seven outlandishly dressed figures: three male, three female, and one of indeterminate sex. Judging by the ostentation of their jewellery and the many arcane symbols etched into their fine silken robes, they were mages of some sort, but definitely not local. All heads now turned toward this spectacle as the roar of conversation slowly died down to a mere susurration of furious whispers.

“What’s this?” sneered Marlon as he looked the newcomers up and down.

“Astrologers,” answered a familiar but seldom-heard voice from behind him.

Marlon turned toward the lone mage seated at the table the rest of the party had just vacated moments before. “How—”

“They are from my homeland,” Khand the Black explained. “They come from Kathifet.”