By Vadren Skycastle
So, you’ve learned that the supernatural world exists. And that you’re stuck. You can go back to your ordinary life, but it won’t be the same. Now you’ll glimpse doors in walls where they shouldn’t be, see masked changelings striding through the streets on mist-grey stallions, and notice towering, horned figures in crowds.
And you are the only one to see them.
Then, there are the predators. Perhaps, as you walk along the street, there’ll be a man in front. In the next heartbeat, he vanishes. And then there’s a glimpse of something big and hulking dragging him into a nearby alleyway, and if you rush forward to investigate, you’ll only see trash blowing in the breeze.
And no one will believe you when you tell them these things.
That’s why many leave the borders and go deeper into the world.
To stay safe, you’ll either need to join a faction, acquire a vestige, or both.
Factions are political blocs. Their goal is to keep the supernatural community stable, and the borders between the worlds intact. You may have heard of a few—the Undying Queen and her Court who maintain order in the city, the Amaranthine Lodge which investigates secrets and even the Lucky Twelves, a coalition of criminal and gangsters that are very good at policing themselves.
And a vestige? That word gets thrown around a lot—in fact the supernatural layer of reality is also called the ‘Vestige World’ as well as the Indigo World or the Twilight Realm.
A vestige is how you get magic. It’s a difficult process. So many things can go wrong.
You’ll need to make a pact with a being from another dimension. Someone who once roamed freely during the Age of Magic, and who’s now trapped. These beings want to conduct schemes and intrigues in the mortal world, and for that they need agents. Once you meet such a being, and you agree to a pact, you’ll receive a vestige—part of the other entity’s soul attached to yours, and through this, you can wield arcane power.
Patron and agent relationships are complex. You might be treated like an honorary employee, a knightly champion, or a son or daughter. Or worse, chattel or a meagre pet.
You get one shot at making a pact. Like at a job interview, you’ll need to as the right questions and make sure that you’ve met the right patron.
Unlike a regular job, there’s no resigning… Or not that I’ve heard.
Next, we’ll talk about the type of patrons you might meet. And what you can become.
by Vadren Skycastle
Welcome to the first article in this series, designed to introduce newcomers to the supernatural world. If you’re confused, or have questions, these entries should help you out.
Let’s start slow. You must have so many questions.
Last year, I lived in the ordinary world. I took all of it for granted: cars and skyscrapers, burger restaurants, airships, smartphones and watches. I grew up surrounded by stories of an age of magic, but it was all folklore and hearsay.
This is what I thought:
It was reasonable that there had been a tyrant called the ‘Dark Emperor’ who had reigned two thousand years ago, head of an advanced civilisation. I can see his castle from my studio window, and can make out the tour buses heading up the mountain for the top. There’s ruins and towers everywhere. You can’t dig up a piece of land in Storm City without uncovering some ancient brick or arrowhead or historical temple.
And it’s also reasonable to assume that there had been an epic war to stop the Emperor, and the famous General Hawkbow had killed him, or at least had the credit for it. This what history tells us.
But it was unreasonable to think that there had once been an age of magic. Where was the evidence for it? Where were the dragons and unicorns? Where was the crystal city of Reladon, and the wizards that had guided the world from the Crystalspire? What happened to the magic swords? Every archeological dig only returns bricks, quartz fragments and old coins. No weird skeletons. Lab tests don’t return artefacts that have strange or unique properties. Everything can be explained neatly and precisely.
No, it was very reasonable to believe that the ‘Age of Magic’ was a story, and the real history was a brutal struggle that people had embellished.
When I was a journalist, I thought that way. Until I went too far, chasing the story of a lifetime. There’s a thin barrier that separates the ‘Golden’ world of the mundanes, and the ‘Indigo’ world of the supernaturals. And once you cross that barrier you can’t cross back.
The Indigo World isn’t like a separate dimension. It’s a different layer. Like a filter on a camera, or having a superuser password that unlocks more features. For a start, you can see things. Monsters that weren’t there before. People using magic.
And it’s not a nice world. People are out for themselves, or are driven to serve extra-dimensional masters in exchange for magic powers. Magic is trapped in old crystals and relics, and these are fought and squabbled over by ‘occultists’, a crazy group of people who consider themselves the heirs to the wizards of the Crystalspire. There are factions, gangs, shifting alliances and deals.
As a person who’s crossed over with no powers—they call us ‘borderers’—you’re not protected any more. People in the Golden World have ancient enchantments keeping them (mostly) safe from the supernatural. We don’t. We’re the lowest rung on the supernatural ladder, ‘meat’ for the rest.
You only survive if you make contacts, or play your cards right.
Next post I’ll explain how you can do this as soon as possible.
There are few magical librarians left in our modern world. Not because there’s a shortage of individuals who’d like to care for secret collections and forbidden tomes, but because most of the enchanted libraries that survived the end of the Age of Magic have gone feral.
Mine was like that before I tamed it. Little more than a snarling beast, devouring all who wandered through. It’s calmer now, although it took a good deal of work to set right. And it gets riled easily. Visitors have to remain calm, speak in a soft voice and keep their powers under control, or else the place hungers.
That evening, I was at the Raven Pie Tavern near Greenwater Square when I sensed something was wrong with the Library through our psychic bond. I swilled my craft beer and stepped onto the street. It was around 6pm and the streets were full of fast-moving cars, motorcycles and mopeds. Bicycles and skaters whizzed past in the green lanes to the side. Everything was a blur of neon and streetlights. I stuck my thumb out and hailed a cab, as the Metro had delays for track work. A few vehicles sped by when they saw me—I’m not the most accepted person in society as I’m half-ogre, half-elf, or ‘blended’ as the young folk say these days. Finally, a compact car pulled in.
“The Cull.” I slipped inside, hunching uncomfortably in the front passenger seat. “Tempest Ward.”
My driver was a youthful dwarrow, barely licence age. The vehicle was the right size—for her. She had thick sideburns, braided with worked copper nuggets. “What’s the exact address, ma’am?” She reached to tap the location into her navigation unit.
I hunched over, my legs cramping. “I’ll have to tell you. Straight ahead, and left onto Royal Drive—”
Following my directions, the cab slipped through the central city districts until we were within the Tempest Ward. A melting pot for immigrants, outcasts and other undesirables, the Ward has escaped Storm City’s various gentrification programs. We drove through thin lanes, over ancient, cobbled roads, and weathered terrace houses.
“We’re here.” We were outside an old factory from the 1900s: a shell of tumbled red bricks and broken chimneys reaching into the sky.
“That was fast.” The dwarrow frowned and tapped on the screen of her device.
“Shortcut.” I shoved a generous handful of coinage at her, minted with the heads of monarchs from different eras, then ran down a darkened alley between the old factory and an abandoned lot full of wild grass, stopping at a blue door.
I unlocked the entrance with the oak-and-iron key around my neck. Rather than emerging on the side of the ruined workshop, I entered a wide hall with a high-vaulted ceiling lost in the darkness. Books lined nearby shelves, light glinting on polished leather and silken bindings. I trusted the cab driver hadn’t remained to watch me walk through. If she had, she would have seen nothing untoward. Despite our magical past, today’s world of humans, elves, ogres and dwarrow is focused on ordinary, big city life guided by technology. Ancient pacts and secrets protect them from the strange and secret magic.
I closed the Library door, and with a flicker I was somewhere else in the complex, near the stacks containing eldritch bestiaries. Books littered the ground. Portraits of past librarians hung awry. The Library’s rage echoed in the shivering of pages, the rattling of the shelves and in the strained binding. If I didn’t calm the place soon, terrible things could happen. Entire rooms might disappear, portals could open to dark and unpleasant dimensions, and paintings could trap innocent visitors within their landscapes.
Footsteps echoed in the distance, and I could smell magic in the air. Not the Library’s own power, but the alien scent of energy siphoned from other dimensions. Through some quirk of my relationship with the Library, I could scent these as easily as my camelia perfume. Quietly, I moved towards the fracas and hid behind a shelf, where I peered at two intruders.
They circled each other like angry panthers seeking weakness. One was a pale-skinned elf with glowing red eyes, wearing an 18th century frock coat and cravat. His magic reeked of bitter loneliness and regret: darkness and cold. That was the stench of the Underworld, which meant he was an undead revenant.
The other was a human woman with crimson-scaled skin and horns. Her power carried the scent of blood and iron. I sniffed again. Definitely infernal energy, which meant she was a cambion.
I moved to speak to them, when the revenant picked up the cambion and threw her at a nearby shelf. It toppled backwards, spilling books everywhere.
“Stop it!” I shouted.
Ignoring me, the crimson-skinned intruder leaped to her feet and lunged at her opponent. She crunched into him horns first.
He took the blow and swung at her with black-gloved fists.
The cambion ducked, flipped the revenant over her shoulder and sent him crashing into a reading chair.
I stepped in front of him, drew my umbrella from the nearby stand, and pointed it at the undead creature’s throat. I whispered as loudly as I dared: “Please sir, do not make a mess of the Library any longer!”
I glanced at the cambion. She waited, arms folded. Not an immediate threat.
The revenant sneered. His blank red eyes glowed in the dim light. “Away from me, you misbegotten half-breed!”
“I am the librarian, if you please, sir, and I must ask you to refrain from loud sounds or violence as you will startle the Library—”
“No one commands me!” The undead elf struggled to push the umbrella from his throat. “I am Arianthus Bloodcrow…”
I summoned the tome Beasts of the Indigo World to my hand and flicked it open to a blank page. “Thank you for your name, sir.” A heartbeat later, the revenant was in the book. An illustration showed him pacing around a cage. The caption read:
Revenant. One of the most powerful types of undead being. A deceased sapient who has made a pact with a ghost lord of Tenebra, the Underworld. In exchange for service, the revenant bears a vestige of its patron’s soul, which enables it to return to the physical world as a living corpse. Revenants possess great strength—
“—and not much good sense.” I flicked through the pages, displaying the entry for Cambion.
A sapient who holds a demon’s vestige, having made a pact with one of the powerful entities imprisoned in Thargul, the Netherworld. Cambions act as agents of vengeance and—
“I’m sure you will be more civilized.” I gave the woman a mild stare.
She smiled. “Absolutely.”
I closed the bestiary and returned it to the shelf. The Library would decide how long the revenant remained imprisoned. “Would you explain what you are doing here?”
“By accident. Bloodcrow stole a book from my client. I retrieved it. We were grappling over it when we found ourselves in this place.” She pointed to a leather-bound tome on the floor—The Codex of Occult Crystals and Their Properties.
I collected the book, clicking my tongue over the loose pages. “This volume doesn’t belong to your client—it belongs here.” I turned to the endpapers, where the card displayed the book was last checked out in 1923. “It’s extremelyoverdue. And they have defaced it!” On the front cover, an erroneous bookplate read: Property of the Luminous Night Society. “Bloody magicians!” The book’s whimpering pained me, and I soothed it with promises of repair and rebinding once I’d dealt with the intruder.
“I’ll let my client know.” The cambion studied the surrounding shelves. “What is this place?”
“The Labyrinthine Library, although it has many names—”
“How do I leave?”
“Only members can come and go freely.” I apologized. “There are two ways to depart. First, you may wander off, alone.” I gestured at the cavernous vault of the ceiling above us, and the corridors that stretched off into infinity. “You might find a door to odd places and times. Or you could spend centuries lost. It depends on the Library’s whims.”
“I don’t have time for games.” The cambion woman folded her arms. “I’ve got work to do. What’s the alternative?”
“First, you must tell me your name.”
Her mouth twisted in a cynical smile. “I saw how you bound Bloodcrow, and I’m sure that’s not his real name…”
“Ah, that’s because all words have power here, even street names. No, the safe way is to become a member. And that means building a relationship. Think of this place as a wild beast. It will show you the trail you seek only if it trusts you.”
She paced, then turned to face me, smiling. “Call me Thaena. Thaena Ashmore.”
“I’m Ivarlis. Let’s adjourn for tea, and I’ll explain.”
We moved to the Dahlia Room, where paintings of flowers hung in golden frames on the wood-paneled walls. “The next part of gaining the Library’s trust is to give what it wants most. Stories. It has a particular interest in biographies, you see.” I served jasmine tea and raspberry coconut biscuits and returned to my chair. “Tell me about yourself. What do you do?”
Thaena leaned forward on her armchair, clawed fingers twisted around her teacup. I glimpsed a shoulder holster partially concealed under her leather jacket. “I’m a cambion. My clients call to the Netherworld for vengeance, and I ensure it happens.”
I nibbled on a biscuit. Though these were unusual circumstances, it was pleasant to chat with a potential new member. And Thaena’s pragmatic approach was refreshing. She wasn’t displaying any overt signs of prejudice about my mixed heritage. She simply wanted to solve the problem she faced. A cambion would start with diplomacy, but violence was always a possibility.
“I’ve spoken with cambions before,” I went on. “Let’s be blunt. You’re required by your pact to send souls to your demonic patron. How do you cope with that? Do you see yourself as an assassin? A champion of the infernal realms?”
“It’s very simple.” Thaena steepled her hands together. “Demons don’t care for the souls of the innocent. They need those who’ve committed crimes worthy of the Netherworld. I’m called on by those who seek vengeance and can’t get it by normal means. Doing that work, I fulfill my pact and give my clients the justice they require.”
“Are you sure it’s always that simple?” I finished my biscuit and wiped my face with a napkin. “The Library enjoys stories where matters aren’t as straightforward as they appear.”
Thaena sighed. “And if I tell you this tale, I can go?”
I shrugged. “The Library will judge, not me. However, something truthful, yet twisted and exciting, would ensure your membership.”
Thaena drummed her fingers on the edges of her leather armchair. “Challenge accepted. How about this—a story about one of my clients…”
The Vengeance Business
When you want vengeance, who do you summon?
Thaena Ashmore, half-demon assassin.
She’s been in the business for centuries.
In this devilish collection, Thaena Ashmore seeks to balance her duty to the ancient laws of the Netherworld with the concerns of living in the modern age.
In “The Vengeance Business”, a battered housewife makes a diabolical pact to flee her husband, but is that what she really wants?
In “No Way Out”, one of Thaena’s targets is back from the dead as a living corpse. The only way to stop him is to make a dangerous bargain with a monster slayer–an individual with the power to kill Thaena as easily as the revenant she seeks to destroy.
If you have a taste for villains receiving their just desserts, or want to explore what lurks in the infernal corners of the Vestige World, then this is the collection for you.
You’ll get this collection, regular short stories, and news when you join the Labyrinthine Library.
A year ago, I signed up to a year-long writing course at the Bestseller Academy, determined to get out of my rut of endlessly writing unfinished multi-volume fantasy epics and to complete something I could independently publish.
How did the course go?
Well, it kept me sane and focused during COVID lockdown. I wrote a novel, a novella and a chunky world bible that would also become the basis for a future tabletop roleplaying game in the setting. I also soaked up everything I could about book marketing and independent publishing.
So the important thing was to learn how to write a good book. I learned a lot from professional editors and workshopping my stuff at writing courses and groups. I also finished the RPG, and ran a few games of it, and found it was great having this open feedback loop between the stories, setting and game.
In terms of addressing my original problem—having stuff out there—well—I’ll release the novel next year after another draft, and the game some time after that as I keep on polishing the system.
But the novella, Final Night, is available right now to my mailing list subscribers. It’s a love letter to 80s horror films, and journeys into the Underworld to rescue the people you love. It’s about monsters and forgiveness. As one reader put it: “You have an alternate earth, parallel but different cultural stuff, supernatural monsters, metaphysical rules, alternate realities, reality-bending magic, selective amnesia and weird memory stuff… ” And it all works to tell a story about a woman’s last night in the world. I hope you enjoy it.
As I sit here, a glass of rum over ice close to hand, I am forced to ponder my impending mortality, and writing career. Or rather, lack of it.1 You know, I always thought that by 40-mumble, I’d have it made. Books published. Name in neon lights. Time to kiss that day job good-bye, and retreat to my writing garret where I would have completed every book I ever wanted to, with glowing fame, reviews, movie contracts, roleplaying game spin offs and video games.2
So, for the past twenty years, cripes, I’ve been working on a bunch of epic fantasy novels set in the same universe. They’ve been piling up, and they’re recursive, where I’d write one draft, then realise I wanted to write about the backstory of an other character, and would write a draft, realising that I needed another set-up book… And look. There’s a whole cloud drive full of prequels to prequels that aren’t going anywhere, any time soon. My current project is another stab at the epic fantasy epic, but it’s going take a while to sort out. I started it without knowing where it was going, and now I’m nearing the ending without knowing where it’s going either. 3
Part of the reason for this pile of stuff is that I don’t really plan stuff. Got a vague idea in my head, a strong idea for a character, and then I let it rip. So this leads to lots of dead ends, re-writes, re-builds and angry words. And then, as I realise that this book will take far longer than I have anticipated, I look over at other writing colleagues with actual finished books. Jealousy burns! How dare they, while my beautiful, epic fantasy still lumbers along, half-baked…
And then it occurred to me. What if I write… something else? What if I sign up for one of those commercial writing courses, and write something that follows an outline? (I’ve heard about them, but I’m not quite sure what they do yet.) Well, turning out a short book isn’t really something that someone who has spent spent 20 years writing EPIC FANTASY has a great deal of experience with, but, well, you need to start somewhere.
And then I thought, I’d change genres (mildly). I would write… urban fantasy. Noir, detectives, vampires, slick city streets, curses and people struggling just to get by. So, I know a bit about the genre, having played hundreds of hours of urban fantasy tabletop RPGs in the’90s and early ’00s (the Golden Age of Gaming). 4 And I can do a course, write a book, and have something structured and able to be self-published as something on Amazon in a year’s time. It’ll be amazing, and I can blog about it!
So, is it possible to plan, write and finish a book within one year of this post? Especially for a serial non-finisher? Let’s find out…