include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Magical Realms by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Magical Realms


By Azure Avians



Published by Bluetrix Books, Smashwords edition.


© 2011 by the author



Copyrighted material. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without the express prior written consent of the author.


All characters and events in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.



Table of Contents


A Tiger's Tale of Two Sisters


Sword and Staff


The Lure of Cats



A Tiger's Tale of Two Sisters


"Oh, is that all? Locate the princess's flying tiger before dawn." Derision dripped from my sister's tone.

"You're the almighty sorceress. What's the problem?" My sister Sian loved lording her magic over people. I was giving her the perfect opportunity to prove her spells were more effective than my sword, and she still complained.

Oh-so-casually, she waved her fingers in the direction of the hearth, stirring the fire. I'd added a log while waiting for her to return to her rooms, but it hadn't yet caught. At her gesture, the flames leapt higher and sizzling and crackling noises filled the room. The light played off thick carpeting and rich, heavy draperies hanging at the stained glass windows.

She folded her arms and scowled at me. "As always you insist on treating magic like making a wish. How many times must I tell you, I practice just as diligently at my art as you do at your swordplay."

I refused to be drawn in to our debate tonight. "The tiger, Sian. Before dawn. Can you help me or not?"

Pursing her lips, she gave me her long-suffering look. "Do you truly need to simply locate him? Or must you actually retrieve him by sunrise?"

"I need to have him back within these castle walls. And not enchanted any more."

Eyes narrowed, she regarded me with a calculating look. Even with her mouth twisted and her golden eyebrows drawn together in a scowl, she was still the pretty one. "If I do this for you, Serulean, you will stop belittling my skills."

Not even our parents called me 'Serulean'. Everyone just called me 'Ser'—everyone but her. Yet another aggravation she enjoyed.

Well, if she succeeded at this, maybe she'd be on her way to earning some respect. Maybe. I waited, glaring back at her.

"And he must be alive, I presume."

Of all the stupid . . .

I reminded myself she was baiting me. She had to be, right? Because no one could possibly be that mind-numbingly, idiotically stupid, and still survive.

"Completely unharmed." I bit out the words through clenched teeth, the only thing that was keeping me from shouting at her. If the princess didn't care about her tiger, she wouldn't be so upset about losing him. "And UNenchanted, but I have the potion for that. You just need to find him for me."

Her delicate brows arched high. "Oh, really."

"Quit. Wasting. Time. Tell me what you need. And how quickly you can work."

"A seeking spell is quite complex," she began in her teaching tone of voice. Her students allegedly considered her 'dulcet' voice mesmerizing.

I just found it obnoxious and cut her off immediately, before she could really get going. "What do you need?"

She pursed her lips at the interruption. "Something that belonged to the beast. Harness or saddle, perhaps."

"How about fur and claw shavings?" I took the pouch from my belt and held it out to her. It paid not to act all high and mighty, not that she'd grasp that fact. If I hadn't been friends with the man who groomed Scimitar for the princess, I'd never have gotten the stuff.

Sian warily regarded the satchel resting in my outstretched palm. Lips pursed, she lifted it with two fingers. "You fully understand that if any of this is not from the beast, the seeking spell will be nullified."

"Yes." That much I knew.

"All right. Come back in an hour."

It would be nearly dark by then, making my hunt that much harder. "You can't work any faster?"

"An hour, Serulean. Come back in an hour, and I'll have completed the task you requested."

I turned and stomped out.


#


The wait didn't improve my temper. My knock on her door was — loud.

The door swung open, apparently all by itself. My sister stood, arms folded, in the center of her room. Normally I'd have found the smug upturn of her lips and self-satisfied glint in her eyes annoying.

"It's ready?" I asked just to make sure.

"Of course." Head held regally high, she offered me back the pouch I'd given her. Only now it was glowing with the faintest blue light. "The brighter it gets, the closer you are." She dropped the pouch into the palm of my hand.

The blue shimmer vanished. So did, the merest fraction of a second later, her haughty smile which turned to a puzzled frown. It would have been funny if I hadn't wanted to throttle her on the spot.

My jaw hurt I was grinding my teeth so hard. Somehow I managed to remain silent and still as she picked up the pouch, put it back in my outstretched hand, and repeated the motion several times.

Without fail, the glow returned when she held the pouch and vanished as soon as it left her grasp.

The fifth time I closed my fist around it.

"It's not working right," I stated the obvious, my voice a low growl. This had to be the first time I'd ever seen my sister flustered. And I couldn't even take the time to enjoy it.

"I don't understand." She murmured as she peered at the offending object. She took it back to examine it more closely. Of course, the blue glow returned.

I closed my eyes, drew in a deep breath, and let it out very, very slowly. When I no longer wanted to kill her, I opened my eyes again. She was still studying the pouch from every angle as if that would tell her something.

I grabbed it. "We don't have time for this. Go put on some trousers or I'll drag you to the stables as you are."

"Trousers?" She regarded me blankly, then her gaze returned to the brown satchel.

"Now, Sian! Or we will find out if this glows with you out cold," I waved the pouch in her face.

Sian favored silk robes, elegantly sashed at the waist, that flowed around her as she walked. As befitting her importance and status, she always insisted. She looked down her nose at my practical—plebian , she claimed—pants and comfortable woolen tunic.

She seemed to have frozen in place. I grasped her shoulder, turned her around, and shoved her toward her inner rooms.

She ran to the adjoining room and returned faster than I would have thought possible, now wearing boots and trousers along with an elaborately embroidered silk top and travel cloak.

I thrust her handiwork back at her. "Come on."

She followed me without a word, rushing to keep up with my longer stride.


#


Somewhat recovered, Sian conjured a half dozen spheres of light as we rode across the dirt courtyard and out through the castle gate. Twilight wouldn't last much longer, but Sian's magic enabled us to see the immediate area clearly.

She reined in her horse just long enough to hold out the pouch and see what direction we should take. We took off at a canter, the bright globes moving ahead of us at the same speed. Finally Sian gave up at leaving our magical guide tucked in her cloak pocket. She pulled it out and kept it securely in her hand so she could make sure we kept on in the right direction.

A thirty minute ride brought us to the crossroads, the intersection perfectly matching the four points on a compass. We pulled up and she turned her mount to face mine. Her magical lights went out, but I could still see her, just barely, in the light of the crescent moon.

"You know we're being followed."

Truthfully I hadn't, but I had expected it. "Yes?" I twitched an eyebrow and made a palm up "make your point already" gesture.

She edged her horse into the underbrush along the road and I did the same. I could barely hear her reciting something low and fast.

A moment later I was looking at us astride our horses in the center of the road. The illusion turned and raced off, accompanied by the lights. A heartbeat later, three more horses, their riders shrouded in gray, burst out of the darkness and surged to the left to follow eastward.

We waited till the sounds of the hoof beats faded to nothing. Our own illumination reappeared, and I met my sister's eye. "Nice," I said, one side of my mouth quirking up.

She just looked at me and shook her head, but I caught the glimpse of a pleased smile as she turned away and nudged her horse back onto the hard-packed dirt. She raised her hand to each of the hovering balls of light and they took on a bluer hue.

"Now they should be invisible to everyone besides ourselves."

We continued northward straight through the crossroads, not in the opposite direction from our pursuers. If—when—they doubled back, hopefully they would dash straight through and go west rather than turning to take the same road we did.

The road curved abruptly then stopped at the river's edge. A stone bridge spanned the turbulent waters and connected to a dirt road narrower, rougher and less traveled.

The glowing satchel brightened at our other option. A trail, little more than a footpath, led off to our right and followed our side of the river.

"This development makes matters much more difficult," Sian said.

At the same time I said, "We have a problem."

The overgrown path led to the mad sorceress who lived by herself in the darkest wood. Everyone in both kingdoms—ours and the one across the river—knew of her and left her alone. Totally, completely alone.

She guarded her privacy with an intensity long since turned to insanity. No one who trespassed onto her land returned. The rest of us had no idea how the crazy woman lived. She could hide a shack, a cottage, or a palace back there in the wilderness. Or she could live in a cave, or among the treetops.

"How do you want to proceed?" Sian asked.

I rolled my eyes. She couldn't just say "now what?" Still, good question. I'd never admit it out loud, but she deserved her reputation as one of—if not the—most adept and most powerful wizards in the kingdom. That's why she had rooms in the castle and taught spellcasting.

But I hesitated to test her powers like this.

"Can you," I spoke slowly even as the idea was forming in my head, "Can you turn the tracking spell to a summoning spell and to bring the tiger to us?"

For an instant her eyes widened and she gave a little gasp, then she regarded the pouch. "I can try. But you said the tiger is enchanted— Wait, didn't you also tell me you have a potion to break the enchantment?"

"That's right." The little clay vial was wrapped in padding, protected by a wooden box and tucked in my jacket's inside pocket. Ideally the liquid would be sprinkled over the beast. When pressed, the conjurer admitted that I didn't need to be that precise. I could throw the fragile bottle, shattering it on the animal. That would splatter the contents on him and have the same freeing effect.

"Let me see it. It might enable the summoning spell to work."

I reluctantly gave her the box. She removed the flask inside, gingerly unwrapped it and handed me the box and the filling back. For a moment she regarded the bottle and weighed it in her hand.

"Hold this." She thrust the vial in my direction. I tucked the other stuff back in my pocket before taking it.

She cupped the satchel in both hands, reciting something under her breath. The glow turned from blue to deep violet. She loosened the drawstrings and held open the mouth of the bag. "Add just a drop of your potion."

I did as she said then hastily replaced the cork so as not to lose any more of the precious liquid.

The deep violet bag turned to a lighter, brighter purple. Sian held the pouch out in front of her and as high as she could. The brilliant light filled the clearing with eerie purple.

She repeated her spell, this time speaking loudly and clearly into the night. The words sounded like gibberish to me but I didn't doubt her ability.

A roar echoed through the darkness, silencing the night creatures we'd heard chirping, singing and chattering. Even the insects quit humming.

The second roar sounded even closer, and my sister and I exchanged a triumphant smile.

Our good spirits died instantly.

Something else was coming fast behind the princess's flying tiger.

Even on horseback we could feel the ground trembling and we worked to keep our mounts still. A deafening howl from something—either some creature or from the wind itself—grew louder and louder as it rushed toward us.

Through the break in the trees, we saw Scimitar streak by overhead, soaring in the direction of the castle. That was good, at least.

We just had to make sure we could follow.

As soon as we glimpsed the flying feline, we gave our steeds their head. The animals burst into a gallop toward home. Shod hooves dug into the packed dirt, kicking up a cloud behind us.

The cause of the gale gave chase and I heard thunder above the fierce wind. Lightning exploded in the sky, creating intermittent seconds of daylight.

Gradually—at first I didn't dare believe it—the raging windstorm grew fainter. Scimitar was long gone—hopefully back with his princess by now—and we seemed to be outpacing whatever pursued us.

Was it the sorceress herself? Or her magical handiwork or a minion?

It didn't matter which; I didn't care. I just knew we needed to avoid it.

Our horses obviously agreed and kept up their valiant speed. The castle was protected with wards much more potent than anything Sian could do on the fly. And there were other spellcasters there as well. Once we got inside the castle walls, the odds would favor us.

All we had to do was get past the three gray figures blocking the crossroads.

Our horses wanted to barrel through the trio blocking out way and our best bet was to let them as long as we could all avoid the swords they held ready.

Sian hurled a fireball, which landed right in front of them. The three scattered, each fleeing down a different road. I grinned to myself. Not even the best rider could make the most well trained mount stand still in the face of raging flames.

But then the wind surged past us and up ahead, an inky shadow resolved into the figure of a tiny, elderly crone haloed by lightning. She would have looked like someone's warm and cuddly grandmother if not for that lightning and the maniacal expression: huge unblinking eyes, wild white hair, and a skeletal leer that might in some distant past have been a smile.

Our horses reared up and stopped.

Lightning roiled and spit around the woman's hands as she walked forward with slow, measured steps. She made a flinging motion and it flew at us—to be held off by my sister's defenses.

Acting purely on instinct, I snatched the knife from my belt and launched it at her.

The lightning stopped abruptly. The sudden total absence of sound made me wonder if my ears were broken. It took our eyes a moment to adjust to the gentler light of the hovering orbs.

The sorceress stood there wavering on her feet, her face now slack except for a lingering hint of bafflement. She clutched at the hilt of my blade embedded deep in her chest.

Her knees buckled and she crumbled to the ground in a strangely graceful fall. An odd dark sparkling enveloped her. She melted to ash and blew away on the soft breeze, leaving only my dagger behind.

It floated back to me courtesy of Sian. Not trace of blood remained.

"We should make haste to the castle," Sian said.

At the same time I said, "Let's hurry."

In unison, we urged the horses forward but allowed them to canter rather than forcing a gallop.

The castle was alight as we approached, and I wished we could tell if that was good news or bad. Then a shadow crossed the moon and we saw Scimitar up there. This time, though, the silhouette clearly included a woman on his back.

The princess astride her beloved horse-sized tiger landed in front of us, sheathing her bespelled sword as the tiger touched down as lightly as a kitten. The princess's elegantly braided hair coiled atop her head was the same black as the tiger's stripes. Long and slender, the princess always reminded me a swan.

"Your Highness," I dipped my head in respect, Sian doing the same. Then I took out the potion and handed it to her. "Just to be safe, Ma'am."

Nodding, she dribbled it on Scimitar's head. "Well done. Well done, indeed. Tomorrow we feast and you shall tell us all how you accomplished this great dead. But now, since you're not in need of assistance, let us retire for what's left of the night."

Wings folded, Scimitar jogged through the open gate.

"Good work with the spell," I said, figuring the least I could do was not mention whatever mistake made it work only for her.

"Most excellent aim with your knife," she replied.

I smirked, but my heart wasn't in it. "Let's not do this again."

"I wholeheartedly concur with that suggestion." Her wry grin was milder this time, and her voice didn't have the same edge it usually did.

"Night, Sian."

"Have a pleasant evening and good dreams, Ser."



End


Sword and Staff


"We need to talk about something or I'm going to go mad." My brain understood that we were waiting for vital information. My body was telling me to leap up off the wooden bench and dash off to do something. Anything.

Aunt Muriel looked so at ease, amused even as she sat there sipping her mug of ale, that I could almost forget the urgency of our mission. But I knew she was every bit as anxious as I for Uncle Erik to return. The thumb and middle finger of her right hand kept rubbing, the only outward sign I'd ever seen her give of nervousness

Aunt Muriel's lips twisted in a smile both gentle and wry and she rested both arms on the pub's wooden table and leaned closer to me. "Erik and I have an understanding," she explained in that lilting voice of hers, the dulcet tones always just shy of song. "I never, ever touch his sword; He never, ever touches my staff."

I glanced at the staff resting up against the wall. We sat in a corner of the Inn. A patch of early morning light from the corner's other wall hit the staff as if aiming for it.

It looked like any walking stick, wooden and gnarled and worn smooth from age. As someone with a measure of magic myself—adopted daughter or not, I wouldn't be Aunt Muriel's apprentice otherwise—I could see the mystical energy swirling around it like glowing smoke, concentrated at the top like the flame of a torch.


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-13 show above.)