The Puppeteer (Novel Excerpt)

This is an excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites”. It 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 based in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.

Maera wrinkled up her nose at the strong smell of urine rising from the unpaved ground of the alley as she entered it, stinging her eyes and making them water. She had only come here looking for a temporary hideout, a place out of sight of the City Watch, where she could take a short rest and lick her wounds before moving on. This narrow corridor between a building that appeared to be under construction and another that had partially burned down seemed perfect, until she saw the lumbering shape at the end of it. The small, black-haired, mahogany-skinned young woman reached for her short sword as the figure shambled into view. Though the alley was almost pitch black on this moonless night, she could clearly make out the features of a human face with her fey-green eyes. A dishevelled old man, shabbily dressed. Probably just some vagrant. Her hand rested on the pommel of her sword as he slowly shuffled toward her, and then, either not seeing her or not caring that she was there, turned and entered the construction site through a large gap between two of the unfinished walls which she hadn’t noticed upon entering the alley.

“Well,” she muttered to herself, “if he thinks he can get away with that, I probably have nothing to worry about if I do the same.”

But before she followed him in blindly she decided it was best she have Whisper take a quick look around. So now from under her long dark cloak the large black bat came fluttering out, then flitted through the gap. As the young witch possessed her familiar she could instantly see everything he saw—and also perceived through echolocation, whereby the bat emitted sounds no human ear could detect, and then received information about his surroundings when his large sensitive ears picked up the echoes of those sounds, essentially mapping the terrain for his mistress with pinpoint accuracy.

With just a few loops around the interior, the witch now had a pretty complete picture of the entire area. The partially constructed building was not empty of people. In fact, there were a number of humanoid figures gathered there, and they had even lit a fire. She had no way of knowing whether they were friend or foe, but it didn’t seem likely that they were members of the City Watch at least. Nor did they appear to be masons and carpenters, who would not be working on the building this late at night in any case. With a silent command she summoned Whisper back to her side. Perhaps she could sneak in without any of them noticing and then spy on them a bit before revealing herself—or, if necessary, slinking away into the shadows again.

As she entered the building stealthily she could hear the low murmurings of the folk gathered around the fire, which looked to have been made from splintered beams and charcoal salvaged from the burnt out building next door. Light crossbow at the ready, she moved silently from shadow to shadow past crates and barrels, large bags of sand, piles of wooden beams, and wheelbarrows full of stones and mortar. She could smell the reek of the fire now, not altogether unpleasant, and could see clearly the group of seven who stood or sat around it.

In addition to the old fellow she had followed in, there were three other men and three women, all of which appeared to be young adults like herself except for one of the men whom she judged to be middle-aged. None of them were likely to be a threat. They wore no armour and bore no weapons—none visible, at least. She stepped out into the light.

“Greetings,” she said. “I am Maera. I mean you no harm. Just looking for a place to rest. If you’ll welcome me, I have food and drink to share.”

To her surprise the others were neither startled by her sudden appearance, nor her somewhat grim apparel—for she was not only hooded and cloaked but clad in black from head to toe so as to merge more easily with the shadows—they merely looked at her with blank faces as their apparent leader, the middle-aged man, an utterly ordinary looking fellow, addressed her with an amiable smile from where he sat upon the ground.

“Welcome, friend. Come sit beside our fire. You look like the sort who might benefit from our revelations.”

“Revelations?” She crossed the floor between them until she could feel the warmth of the flames, but did not sit. “What sort of revelations?”

The portly, copper-skinned, slightly balding man smiled again as he slowly stood and dusted himself off. “First things first, young lady. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Salanthar the Puppeteer, and you will make an excellent servant.”

At that very moment Maera felt a pin prick in the back of her neck, at the base of her skull. She whirled around, but there was no one behind her. As she reached up a hand to the back of her neck she could feel a needle or pin piercing the skin. Her first thought as she grabbed hold of it was that she had been shot from afar, perhaps with a blowgun. But the straight piercing object now became limp in her hand, like a short piece of string—but strong as a fishing line—and immediately began worming itself deeper into her flesh.

In desperation, she pulled at the string, but it was slippery and seemed to wriggle, making it difficult for her to hold on to it. So she wound it round her forefinger—or at least what little of it remained outside of her. Then she began to yank as hard as she could. This caused blinding pain—like trying to pull out one’s own tooth with one’s fingers. As she fell to her knees she felt Whisper burst from his hiding place beneath her cloak, and then she screamed at him in her mind—NO!

Her familiar was liable to get himself killed. As the bat arced upward and then swooped down at Salanthar the Puppeteer she tried to think of something she could do—some spell she could cast—assuming she could even concentrate enough to do so. Perhaps if she cut the string? She reached for the dagger in her boot with her free hand and pulled it out. But then she heard a raspy disembodied voice whisper into her ear: The string is nothing. Let go and see. Smite the puppeteer, or his puppet be.

It was the Grey Lady. It had to be. The spirit had never spoken to her before, only occasionally standing at the foot of her bed weeping when tragedy was about to strike her loved ones. But now at last she had broken her long silence. Maera wasted no time. As Whisper flew toward the face of Salanthar the Puppeteer, perhaps momentarily distracting him, the witch threw her dagger at the arcane spellcaster, simultaneously muttering the spell that would make it strike true. The point stuck in the throat of her foe, who staggered backward in surprise as blood gushed from his wound.

His spell over Maera having thus been broken, she rose to her feet and unsheathed her short sword. But as the puppeteer clutched at the hilt of the dagger in his throat he managed to reach out a hand and compel his six human puppets to attack her. She might’ve defeated these easily, unarmed and inexperienced in battle as they were, but they were not attacking her of their own free will, and thus she could not bring herself to harm them. So she sheathed her sword and fought them off with her fists instead; a skill she’d learned long ago in the slums of Darkmoon where she’d grown up. Still, the puppeteer had bought himself time enough to pull her weapon from his throat and quickly gulp down a phial of thick green liquid which Maera could only surmise was some sort of healing draught, for the wound almost instantly began to close, as if the hands of some invisible surgeon were stitching it up.

But as Salanthar the Puppeteer turned to cast a new spell on the witch, suddenly a fearsome apparition appeared between him and his would-be prey. It was the Grey Lady, only not the meek old weeping woman that had always appeared to Maera, for as all witches of Darkmoon knew, this ancient spirit had another face she showed to those who displeased her. Maera had never seen it, and was glad she could not see it now, for if the tales were true it was most frightful to behold. The look on Salanthar’s face was enough to tell her that the lore was no exaggeration on this point, for he stood with his mouth gaping, frozen in fear, his spell momentarily forgotten and now probably lost to him, at least until he could prepare it again—assuming he survived long enough to do so.

Then, as the apparition disappeared and Maera subdued the last of her attackers, the puppeteer realised he was finished. So he did what any reasonable spellcaster with no fighting skills would do in such a situation. He fled. And Maera gave chase.

It was not merely that this was a dangerous foe she’d rather not have around to plot his petty revenge against her. He still had her dagger. It was an enchanted dagger, and she was very attached to it. One might say it had sentimental value.

Whisper went on ahead of her, flying above the fleeing puppeteer in order to track his movements. Maera was pretty fast on her feet but it soon became apparent to her that her enemy had cast a spell on himself to make him more fleet of foot, so even as she ran she rummaged through her belt pouch for a potion that would do the same for her, found it almost right away, and quickly drank it down. As she emerged into the same alleyway she had entered the construction site from, she took a quick glance around but Salanthar was nowhere to be seen. But then Whisper prompted her telepathically to look to her left and then up. The puppeteer was floating swiftly up the side of the tall building that stood at the end of the alleyway, heading toward its roof.

“He can fly?” she groaned. “Well, shit.”

As she ran to the end of the alley she reached into her pack and pulled out a rope and grapple, swung it around a few times and then let the grapple loose, aiming for the puppeteer himself, as she figured he could probably cut the rope if she anchored it on the roof’s edge. Perhaps this way she could hook him like a fish just as he tried to do to her, and pull his sorry ass back down. But she missed, and her quarry reached the rooftop in safety.

“By all the hells!” she swore. All she had wanted was a short rest… a brief respite from her previous misadventures, and now this—this utter clusterfuck. It was like she was cursed.

As the grapple fell, Whisper swooped down and caught it with his feet. Probably not something an ordinary bat could do, but easy enough for a witch’s familiar, fey being that it was. Then he lifted it up to the roof’s edge and let it fall onto the tiles. Maera yanked it so that it caught firmly against the gutter. Then she began to climb.

Sure enough, Salanthar appeared at the roof’s edge and first tried unhooking the grapple, but lacking the strength to do so immediately and being short on time, instead began sawing at the rope with Maera’s dagger.

In response to this Whisper dived of his own accord, flying at the puppeteer’s face with a flurry of biting attacks, forcing him to stop in order to defend himself, which he initially did by comically waving his arms about in a frantic manner. But then he attempted to stab the creature.

“You better not harm my familiar, little man!” Maera growled up at him as she continued to climb. “Or I’ll cut out your entrails and feed them to you!”

At this the puppeteer turned and fled again, and Whisper ceased his attacks in response to his mistress’s telepathic urging. Just track him, she commanded. See where he goes.

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

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