Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Taste of The Ursvaal Exchange

It occurred to Mike and I that, with the release of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange just around the corner, people out there might be interesting in reading a little sample of it beforehand.  It's still a day or two off being handed in, but basically I'm just proof-reading and the book's finished; so if you're reading this post then you're one of the very first people to get a look at it!  Without further ado, here's the opening scene...
So far, Durren thought - as he dodged to avoid a wad of saliva that splashed with a hiss against the trunk of the tree beside him - level two was turning out to be an awful lot like level one.
"Watch out for their spit!" he yelled to no-one in particular. "It burns."
"We wouldn't have to watch out if someone hadn't picked a campsite near a swamp," snapped back Tia.
Durren withdrew a hasty pace. The thing before him was monstrous: its slit eyes were yellow and bulbous, its mouth was a gash almost too wide for its head, its pale throat beat with a hypnotic pulse, and its skin was a crust of mottled purple. Nevertheless, despite the fact that what he was looking at was big as a large dog, he knew that the creature was basically a toad. And he was struggling to feel really intimidated by a giant toad.
Then the monster opened its mouth - the sight of that gaping cavity was almost paralyzing - and Durren barely had a moment to react as its tongue flicked out. He threw himself left, and the cord of pink flesh whipped past his ear, speckling him with stinging dribbles of saliva.
All right, he admitted to himself, that was intimidating.
Durren just kept to his feet. Nevertheless, he managed to free his bow from his shoulder and nock an arrow to the string, almost in the same smooth motion. That done, he spared a glance to make sure the others were all intact.
Hule was over to his right, and the big fighter already had his sword in hand. His expression was dour, though; he didn't look half as pleased as he normally did at the prospect of putting the weapon to use.
Arein was close to Hule, and the dwarfish wizard was conspicuously not casting any spells. Durren had hoped she was finally getting over her resistance to using magic, but apparently not today.
Tia, meanwhile, was to his left, the black of her cloak camouflaging her amid the shade of the trees. That she was still here at all surprised him; her first instinct as a rogue tended to be to vanish and attend to matters on her own.
All three of them were retreating towards the center of the clearing where they'd made their fire and raised their two tents, and Durren did the same - if only to get out of range of that hideous tongue. He dared one more glance, this time seeking their observer: the leathery, one-eyed entity that Arein, for reasons that made sense solely to her, had chosen to name Pootle. He spotted the little orb hovering near the treetops, staring down at them with grave attention.
In theory, someone back at the academy was watching them via the spell attuned to Pootle, and in theory they'd send help if the situation should grow too dangerous. But the five of them had been in some exceedingly dangerous situations before now and help had been conspicuous by its absence, so Durren wasn't holding his breath.
After a half-dozen steps, there was nowhere left to retreat to. Durren could feel the canvas of the nearest tent pressing against his ankle. He didn't like the idea of killing these dumb beasts, which were only being hostile because they knew no better. Do no harm unless harm be done was one of the Black River Academy's many cryptic mantras, and they'd been taught from the outset that their weapons were a final recourse, to be used when options such as talking and running were thoroughly exhausted.
Well, they were surrounded on all sides, so they wouldn't be running, and while Durren was no expert on giant toads, he was confident that their unusual properties didn't extend to making conversation.
Then the choice was out of his hands. As though with one mind, the toads were advancing from the shade of the clearing's outer edge. They moved in flabby hops that made their entire bodies quiver and covered a distance Durren could hardly believe. The one that had picked him out closed half the gap between them in a single leap. Barely had it touched the ground before it was in the air again and sailing towards him, its cavernous maw stretched wide.
Durren threw himself lengthwise and loosed his arrow. He heard the slap of the toad's landing, but didn't get to see whether his shot had flown true until he rolled back to his feet. The toad had come to rest on the nearer tent, the one that was his and Hule's. Its impact had collapsed the canvas wall, tearing the guy ropes loose. Durren's arrow had entered through the creature's throat and exited above its right eye; he could see where the metal head jutted, dripping violet ichor. Sprawled with arms and legs protruding, the toad's body practically covered the deflated tent.
Durren's first thought was, Now where am I meant to sleep? His second was the realization that the animal was dead and that he had killed it.
To his right, Hule was hacking at a cluster of three toads, all of which were managing to dodge aside with startling agility. Arein was waving her staff in the face of another, which seemed to Durren a singular waste of the most powerful tool at their disposal.
He considered telling her so, but by then a second toad had him in its goggle-eyed sights; he was alerted by a sizzle and a wet splatter, which he recognized for the sound of acid saliva striking the surviving tent. The culprit was glaring at him, in as much as an oversized amphibian was capable of glaring. Its mouth hung open, ready to unleash more spit or perhaps to unfurl its bullwhip tongue.
Durren cursed beneath his breath. Their actual quest had gone so smoothly - too smoothly, it seemed now. They'd been sent to sweep and clear some old mine workings supposedly infested with goblins, but they'd soon realized that the goblins had departed long ago, leaving only foulness and clutter to testify to their residence. Nevertheless, they'd explored from top to bottom, and Hule had insisted on drawing a map, even though Tia was adamant that the mining company would certainly have more accurate maps of their own.
But reaching level two, they'd been told, meant new challenges, and one of those was that they could no longer simply have Pootle transport them back to the academy once their quest was complete. Now they were to camp the night in the wilderness and travel the next day to a given extraction point.
All of which should have been straightforward - except that barely had they raised their tents and set a fire when the toads had found them.
Nearby, Arein yelped. Durren's initial impulse was to run and help her; the moment's distraction was enough that, when the toad spat again, he almost failed to duck aside in time. Immediately it seized upon the opportunity to hop closer - so that its mouth was suddenly right in front of him, like a fleshy passage into some awful netherworld. Durren's shock sent the arrow he loosed wide, grazing the creature's warty head and leaving a streak of violet, but otherwise merely making the beast angrier than it already was.
There was something unreasonably menacing about an enraged giant toad. Though Durren knew he should grasp for another arrow or for his short sword, he chose instead to stumble backwards, until a wash of heat alerted him to the fact that there was nowhere left to go - not with their campfire directly behind him. To right and left he was conscious of the others fighting, and instinct assured him that they too were being driven back. Hemmed in and encircled, they'd be in serious trouble.
Durren expected the toad to press its advantage; one good hop and it would be on him. Rather, it shifted sideways, keeping the same distance, its springy limbs unsuited to such careful maneuvering. Durren wouldn't have known where to begin in reading toad physiognomy, yet something in the way its eyes flickered told him it was troubled. Maybe his arrow had deterred the purple monstrosity after all, or maybe - 
"Fire!" Durren cried. Realizing that word alone wasn't useful, he added, "They don't like the fire ... that's why they're not coming any closer."
With his free hand, he snatched a brand from the flames, choosing a branch that blazed fiercely at one end and was untouched at the other. Still, the heat was intense. Durren ignored the discomfort and, not daring to give too much consideration to what he was about to do, charged towards the nearby toad. He bellowed incoherently - did toads even have ears? - and flailed with his improvised weapon, drawing stripes of fire across the air.
For a second he thought that he was wrong and that he was charging straight into the toad's yawning mouth: no animal, he felt, should be able to open its jaw so wide. Then the toad let out a raucous trill and took a rapid rearwards hop. Somehow it managed to flop around in midair, and its second bound carried it beyond the edge of the clearing, this time heading in the right direction.
By then Durren's torch was beginning to waver, and the licking flames threatened his fingers. He threw the brand after the retreating toad, wrapped his hand in his sleeve, and dashed back to the fire to claim another. He saw that both Hule and Tia had followed his example, and Arein had belatedly recalled that she was capable of casting spells: a ball of flickering orange burned about the tip of her outstretched staff.
Durren snatched up a second branch, but by that time there was really no need. Hule and Tia had both managed to dissuade their respective foes, and Arein was having even more success. The toads evidently weren't at all happy with this being not a great deal taller than themselves who could conjure fire out of thin air. Everywhere they were backing off or turning and fleeing, accompanied by a chorus of panicked croaking.
Seconds later and the battle was over. Nothing was to be seen of the toads except for a few scattered bodies and the desolation they'd left in their wake. Durren and Hule's tent might be ruined, and Arein and Tia's had three holes in its flank, seared by acid spittle; it wouldn't be offering much in the way of shelter if the gray skies overhead should unleash their burden of rain.
"Is everyone all right?" Durren asked.
Remembering how Arein had cried out, he realized that a gash had been burned in her left sleeve and that the red of singed skin was visible through the tear. Like the tent, she had evidently fallen foul of the toads' spit. Thankfully, the burn appeared slight, and Hule already had his water flask in one hand and a roll of bandage in the other. The fighter himself was unscathed, though his boots and trousers were filthy with mud; the ground of the clearing had been churned up by feet both humanoid and toad.
Durren looked to Tia, content in the knowledge that out of all of them she was certain to have escaped harm: uncommon dexterity was only one of the traits that made her wholly unsuited to being a mere level two student. Sure enough, she wasn't even out of breath. At that moment, having plucked a throwing knife from between the bulging eyes of a dead toad, she was wiping off the violet gunk that passed for their blood in the long grass.
Tia slipped the knife back into the bandolier she wore inside her cloak. "They won't stay away for long," she said. "We need to get packed up and away from here." She turned on Durren then, and her dark gray skin was darker still for the frown she wore. "And I don't care whether you're the ranger; I'm choosing where we spend the night."
"Look," Durren said, "this wasn't my fault. I mean, it was my fault, but it could have happened to anyone."
Tia's pale eyes were bright amid the shadows of her hood. "Oh ... really?"
Her tone sent a shiver through Durren's spine, but he wasn't willing to back down. "They just - you know - wandered here. Sometimes monsters do that. I mean, wherever you camp there's always a chance of that happening."
Tia's glare somehow intensified. "Durren, this wasn't some random encounter. This happened because you picked the wrong campsite. Now are you going to stand here arguing, or are you actually going to be some help?"
He gave up. She was right. If he concentrated, he could catch the acrid odor of unclean water that should have alerted him; there was a swamp nearby, and even a brand-new first level student should have the brains to appreciate that where there was a swamp there would be something unpleasant making its home. The fact was, the tiredness of a long day trudging through the mines had made him sloppy, as the stench of goblin refuse had muted his sense of smell.
He knew he should apologize. He would have done but for Tia's manner. He wasn't the only person who'd ever made a mistake, and her inability to be pleasant or even basically well-mannered hardly counted as good teamwork. Worse, he suspected she had let him go wrong to make a point; if she'd known the spot was no good, why couldn't she simply have told him so? Her attitude was just as much a liability to their party as his own act of carelessness.
Well, maybe not just as much. Still, he had no intention of saying sorry until she did. Except that Tia never would - Durren wasn't persuaded that dun-elves understood the concept - and that meant the rest of the quest was likely to be awkward at best.
With a sigh, he plodded over to make a start on the task of hauling the toad he'd killed off the remains of his and Hule's tent. This had already been a long day, and he had a hunch that he might not have seen the worst of it yet. Bloodthirsty giant amphibians were one thing, but he'd rather face those than Tia's bad temper.
Have they seen the last of those toads?  Does Durren stand a chance against an enraged Tia?  Does giant purple toad blood wash out?  The only way you'll find the answers to these and many other questions is to grab a copy of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange in a couple of week's time!

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