Don't Write What You Know;
Write What You Care About -- Passionately!
Gate of Souls
- Verna McKinnon
Magical animal companions of sorcerers.
Keepers of spells and secrets.
Most important, devoted friends for life.
When one such familiar, Mellypip, bonds with the young sorceress Runa, he shares in the wonders of magic. Together, Mellypip and Runa train under the tutelage of Runa's grandfather, Cathal, and his cantankerous mountain owl familiar, Belwyn. But secrets and spells do not make for good sorcery. Old friends begin to vanish even as enemies from Cathal's past return, threatening to reveal the truth of Runa's parents; a truth from which Cathal must protect his granddaughter at any cost. When Cathal is kidnapped, Runa and Mellypip rush against time to save their family and friends from dark sorcery that will not only destroy them, but shatter the Gate of Souls and release demonic creatures of The Otherworld unto the mortal realms.
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Belwyn was agitated by the dry heat and sand. A gray mountain owl, Belwyn was bred for cooler climates, and the constant grit and hot sun of arid deserts made him cranky. His magical nature as a sorcerer’s familiar broadened his adaptability, but that didn’t mean he liked it.
“My feathers itch,” Belwyn groused.
The shrill whistling wind outside their tent only added to his frustration—one born of helplessness as he watched over his sorcerer, Cathal. Cathal sat in mute misery on the dusty rug, dark hair sweaty and matted, gray eyes cast in a blank stare. Not even his rage remained, only a sorrow that devoured his heart.
The oil lamps smoked and sputtered out, casting more gloom in the shelter.
“Bloody hell,” Belwyn grumbled.
Caliste entered the tent. “The storm is finally abating. We should be able to leave tomorrow,” she said in a weary voice, shaking red dust from her hair and clothes.
“Good. I hate being blasted by sand,” Belwyn said.
“Why is it so dark in here?”
“It reflects my mood,” Belwyn said.
“How’s Cathal?” she asked. “Any change at all?”
“You needn’t whisper, my dear. He’s a statue of flesh, closed off to everything…including me.”
Caliste sparked the lamps to flame with a nimble turn of her hand. “That’s better. There has been enough darkness.” She sat next to Belwyn; her beautiful black face pinched with concern. “I wish we could do something. He can’t go on like this.”
“The Sorcerer War is over,” Belwyn said. “But for some of us, it will never be finished. The death of his family was the final blow that broke his spirit.” Belwyn fought down raging emotions that threatened to erupt. Nothing could excise this pain, but Belwyn would not retreat into his own mourning until Cathal could at least weep for his loss.
“Cathal once called Ashur son, when he married his daughter,” Caliste said with bitterness. “I still can’t fathom how he became such a monster. How he could—”
“I know,” Belwyn whispered. “None of us will ever understand why.”
Belwyn winced as memories of Cathal’s wife and daughter rose like ghosts. “So many lost. Yllia, Rualla, even Rualla’s familiar, Striker, all dead, along with so many others, because of a sorcerer’s madness. The worst blow was Runa.”
The thought of Ashur murdering his own daughter tormented Belwyn. Talons dug deeper into the ragged carpet as more memories were unleashed. The fateful meeting on the battlefield in Thill and Ashur’s gruesome gift—a silver urn filled with the ashes of Cathal’s wife and daughter—and his granddaughter, Runa. Tied to the urn were the women’s silver and amber wedding rings, and Runa’s tiny rattle.
That confrontation led to a mad chase across the continent and several battles, ending here in Mowad, in the middle of this damned desert. The forbidden magic they used to defeat Ashur would give Belwyn nightmares for years to come. There wasn’t enough ale in the world to make him forget, but he learned a long time ago that to fight evil you had to get your talons bloody.
Ashur was dead. The fight for Cathal’s salvation would be harder.
“Any word on Ashur’s forces?” he asked.
“Fled or surrendered, all over the continent. Even Ashur’s demons are vanishing like phantoms, or crawling back into the foul pits they slithered out of. It’s like they know Ashur is dead.”
“What of Koll?” Belwyn asked with grim interest.
“That evil sorcerer has disappeared,” Caliste replied. Her voice was sharp with anger. “He’s not among the dead or captured.”
Belwyn’s feathers bristled. “Pity. I wanted to stain my claws with the blood of Ashur’s Chief Warlord.”
“Don’t upset yourself further. You should rest. It’s been two days, and you haven’t slept or eaten. If I bring some fresh food and water, would you at least pretend to eat?” Caliste asked.
“Maybe later. For now, just tell the others Cathal is resting,” Belwyn suggested. “Let’s not add to their concern. They’ve all been through enough already.”
“Very well,” she agreed. She kissed Belwyn, then Cathal, on the head, and departed.
Alone with Cathal again, the owl pondered on how to reach his sorcerer. He couldn’t remain like this. The dangers of his emotional retreat could be permanent if he didn’t do something soon. He shouted, cursed, and begged. He nudged Cathal with his beak again and again without response. Desperate, he bit him on the shoulder, drawing blood. Nothing. Belwyn finally used the bonding to telepathically slip into his mind. He had not intruded before, since he wanted to allow Cathal his private mourning. But enough was enough.
Cathal…Cathal! Can you even hear me? It’s Belwyn. Remember me?
There was a stubborn wall shielding Cathal’s thoughts. At least it wasn’t an empty void.
Leave me alone, Belwyn.
His response was hollow, barely a whisper. But it was something.
Not a chance. You should know me better than that.
They’re dead. There’s nothing left.
I know, Belwyn answered. The sorcerers need your leadership. I need you.
I’m not strong enough…not anymore.
“I need you,” Belwyn wept aloud. “I will be strong…strong enough for both of us. Come back to me.”
Loud voices outside disrupted Belwyn’s concentration. “Damn it! Now what?” he snapped.
“Belwyn,” Caliste shouted, “you better come see this!”
He relented and poked his head out of the tent to see what the commotion was about. The glaring sun still scorched the earth. The people were still dirty and smelly from lack of water.
And above, in the hot, cloudless firmament of this unbearable desert, Belwyn spotted some new, unexpected arrivals.
In the sky a cavalry of Ilyrran rangers riding perytons descended to earth with powerful grace. Perytons, the magnificent, winged deer native only to the lands of Ilyrra, were a rare sight in this bleak land. The stunned soldiers and sorcerers gave them a respectful welcome as they rode into the camp.
What the blazes are they doing here, Belwyn wondered.
Belwyn’s feathers raised on his back when he recognized the lead ranger in the dark green and black of his command. As he dismounted a silver peryton, the desert gusts exposed a resolute wind-burned face, long black hair, and the upswept ears that marked the Ilyrran race.
It was Ryen.
The gathering crowd parted with solemn silence at his determined stride as he marched toward their tent.
Belwyn winged to Cathal’s side. “Our friend Ryen is here. Cathal please, this must be important!”
Caliste lifted the flap and led Ryen into their small tent. Ryen looked weary and filthy, but it lifted Belwyn’s heart to see him.
“Light’s Blessing, Belwyn,” Ryen bowed, giving the traditional Ilyrran greeting.
“No blessings or light here. We’re a bit short on those now,” Belwyn said with grim humor. “But I am glad you’re alive, Ryen. Is your family safe?”
“Yes, thank be the Gods,” Ryen replied. “I’ve been hunting you for days.” He looked at Cathal, brow furrowed with worry. “How bad is he?”
“I wish I could say he’s been worse, but that would be a lie,” Belwyn confessed.
“Perhaps I can lighten his burden,” Ryen said, kneeling before Cathal. Ryen gazed into Cathal’s face “I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. Yllia was of our people. We mourn her and Rualla. But I have someone you need to see, Cathal. Someone who needs you.”
Ryen opened his heavy cloak, revealing a small bundle wrapped in a blanket that began to cry. Belwyn sucked in his breath when he saw the treasure he held was Runa.
Cathal stirred and gasped in a weak voice, “Runa.”
“Yes—it’s Runa,” Ryen nodded. “Your granddaughter.”
Cathal opened his arms and Ryen placed the weeping infant in them. In the span of three breaths, Runa ceased crying and gazed with innocent trust at the man who held her. “How?” he whispered.
“We were fighting in the north, near Thill, where Ashur’s forces crossed into our borders. While camped by the river, a red panther staggered into our midst.”
“Striker?” Belwyn cried. “You found him!”
“Yes.” Ryen nodded. “He was carrying a ragged cloth in his mouth. We recognized Rualla’s familiar and ran to his aid. Striker’s wounds were beyond our skill and he had lost a great deal of blood. Striker gazed at me with relief and laid his precious prize at my feet. He collapsed, and, in that fragile moment, he died in my arms. A cry issued from the rags he protected. We opened the scraps of cloth and found Runa. She had been content in the jaws of the panther and cried when we took her from him. Striker died before he could tell us how he rescued Runa from Ashur’s wrath. He paid for his last act of bravery with his life. I’m sorry, old friends, for Striker. But I return Runa to your loving care, Cathal.”
Runa’s crystal green eyes, reminiscent of Rualla and Yllia, lit up the dim shelter. Tenderness softened Cathal’s features as he cradled the baby. Hope seemed possible again.
Weary but relieved, Ryen stood. “We carried Striker’s body back to Moonthorne. The Raven Wing honored him with the funeral of fallen heroes and buried him in the sacred grove beneath an old willow oak. When word reached us the war was over, and you were here, we came as fast as we could.”
“Thank you, Ryen,” Cathal said, his voice choked with emotion.
Cathal rocked Runa in his arms, until finally, blessedly, he wept.
Tree of Bones
- Verna McKinnon
A Curse of Darkness... Deep within the Thill forest, stands a tree made of human bones, crowned in black leaves and red thorns.
A Curse of Light... Beneath the Wastelands of Skarros, a crystal imprisons a dark, immortal queen.
The Sorceress, Runa, is tormented by horrific images of this tree of bones in a distant, lifeless forest. Even as the visions debilitate her, Mellypip, her beloved familiar, also experiences these sinister dreams, bound by the same dream seer magic as his mistress. The tree of bones summons Runa, and she must risk madness and death as obsession drives her on. What she finds reveals a devastating truth.
Koll the Sorcerer awaits trial for his crimes. His familiar, Xabral, searches for allies to free him. Driven by his own dreams of dark prophecy, Koll seeks to free Obsydia, the Bloodstone Queen, from her prison. Determined to let nothing stop him, Koll will commit any evil to achieve his goal.
Runa and Mellypip’s newest journey reveals truths behind ancient secrets, as Koll’s obsessive hunt for a fallen queen threatens to doom the world forever. Runa and Koll, bound by opposing magical destinies of Light and Dark, will ultimately face frightening revelations and unimagined consequences.
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Runa huddled in her cloak against the night’s chill, her sleepless vigil broken by glimpses of a wily fox or a shy deer rushing past in the gloom. Beams of moonlight filtered through twisted ghost-pale birch trees and the wind touched leaves whispered a night song. She craved sleep, but sinister dreams plagued her the last few nights, snatching precious slumber away. The crackling fire dimmed. Runa ignited the flames with a spark of magic. Warmth restored, she sighed and returned to her empty bedroll a few feet away. Mellypip had been sleeping there only moments ago.
Concerned, Runa called through the bonding, Melly, where are you?
I’m over here, Runa! Mellypip replied, poking his head up from behind the food packs.
What are you doing? Runa asked.
Searching for yummy treats! The furry wampu scratched his enormous round ears, and then resumed his hunt for a snack.
Don’t wander off like that, she scolded.
But we’re surrounded by mighty sorcerers and warriors, Mellypip protested, sniffing a bruised apple. The apples are pulpy. Not magnificent at all! He discarded it to hunt for more succulent goodies.
Our mighty band is asleep, except for those guarding Koll, Runa reminded him.
Mellypip chose a slice of round flat bread from the food sacks. He offered her some bread, but Runa shook her head.
“I’m not hungry, but thanks,” she whispered.
“You’re not sleeping again?” Mellypip asked, joining her and nestling next to her for warmth. “Need sleep to make magnificent magic.”
“How come you’re awake so early?” Runa asked.
“Hard to sleep when my sorceress is troubled.”
“I’m not troubled,” Runa insisted. “It’s just that my dreams are filled with weird images.”
“You cannot fib to your familiar. Perhaps it was something you ate,” Mellypip suggested. “Our food stores are dull. We don’t even have cookies or drobba.” Mellypip sighed and looked at his bland piece of bread. “I miss drobba. And jam. Bread is boring without jam. Do they make drobba jam? That would be magnificent!” Mellypip nodded, his furry cheeks puffed out as he chewed. “We’re dream bonded. That’s what Belwyn calls it. I see your dreams. They’re strange, but all I remember is fragments. Then I wake up so hungry! I thought if I had some nibbles, I would get drowsy again.”
Runa opened her silver locket and gazed at the tiny portraits of her mother and grandmother. Mellypip waddled over to her and rested his head on her arm. The firelight cast amber shadows on the tiny pictures of Runa’s mother and grandmother. “They were so pretty. You look a lot like them too, Runa, well except for the lack of pointy ears. Yllia and Rualla! They had magnificent names too!”
“Magnificent is quite a big word you’re fond of lately,” Runa observed with suspicion, scratching Melly’s head. “What is going on?”
“Belwyn gives me a new word every day for my vocabulary lessons. Yesterday it was ‘magnificent.’ I haven’t received a new one yet, so I am making good use of it now. I never escape the schoolroom, even in the wilderness.”
Caliste stirred and stretched. “Runa, why are you up so early?”
“I’m sorry I woke you,” Runa apologized. “Go back to sleep.”
Caliste draped her blanket around her shoulders and sat down next to Runa by the fire. “You didn’t, really. The rocky ground is a misery. At least we’re out of that damned desert. I’m still brushing sand out of my hair.” Runa’s locket glowed in the light of the campfire. Caliste’s eyes misted when she looked at the pictures, her voice wistful with memory. “I remember when they had those portraits painted as a special gift for Cathal’s birthday. They wanted to include me, but I thought it would be nice for Cathal to have a special portrait of just them.”
“Which birthday was it?” Runa asked with a grin.
“He never confessed. You know, I was about your age when Cathal and Belwyn told Rualla and me of their adventures during the Bloodstone Age. Cathal was scarcely older than you are now,” Caliste whispered. “Cathal and Yllia had some very exciting adventures. Belwyn is especially good at relating their tales into thrilling stories.”
“We haven’t had much time for stories since my birthday,” Runa said.
Caliste brushed back a wisp of Runa’s short hair, and smiled, “We’ve been quite busy, haven’t we, sweetheart?”
Runa grinned. “Battling evil mages and scary wraiths is very time consuming.”
“Don’t forget Opaline turning the slimy mage Gorvanus into a troll,” Mellypip added.
“I wish I could have seen it,” Caliste said, grinning.
“It’s a marvelous tale,” Mellypip agreed with a vigorous nod. “I’ll write it all down when I can spell better. I wish we were home. The journey is taking so long because we have to—” Mellypip paused, looked around then whispered, “keep the nasty one chained up.”
Runa cuddled Mellypip in her arms. “I know it’s terrible having Koll here.”
“We’ll be rid of him soon,” Caliste assured him. “That’s why we came to Thill.”
Runa glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping figures of Iona and Panthara. “I still can’t accept Panthara is my half-sister. Yet, I cannot deny we share the same blood though my father.”
Runa leaned against Caliste’s shoulder. She gently stroked Runa’s short hair. “I know it’s hard. I suspect Panthara received little love growing up, judging by what we witnessed of her mad mother. Koll certainly wasn’t a good influence. To her credit, Panthara chose to stop the ritual.”
“At least Iona and Amun will look after her,” Runa said. “And her familiar, Azmadu, is still devoted to her.”
“That bond will never break,” Caliste affirmed.
On silent wings, Belwyn landed next to the fire; irate, golden eyes chastised Runa. “Humans must sleep, else they go mad, you know.”
“So do sarcastic owls,” Runa replied. “Can’t you rest either?”
“No—well, at least I’m supposed to be nocturnal,” Belwyn replied. “Also, dragging Koll across the continent is making me twitchy.”
“Koll makes everyone twitch,” Runa agreed.
Runa looked at the end of the camp where Koll sat cross-legged in the constrictive iron-barred cage. Hands and feet bound with chains to prevent his escape through mortal means and a collar of sorcerer bane locked around his neck to prohibit magical escape. She sensed Koll’s stare as he sat stony-eyed.
Belwyn looked at him suspiciously. “Koll hasn’t spoken since we captured him. He just sits there and stares like the village idiot, except I know how dangerous his mind is. He refuses food and drink yet hasn’t had the courtesy to die from it. His slimy familiar, Xabral, is still free. It all reeks, I say. Just a question of time before Koll attempts something vile. I feel it in my bones.”
Sanura, Caliste’s bronze-colored cat, lifted her head. “It’s not even sunrise, please keep it down to a purr,” she groused.
“Sorry, my sweet,” Caliste apologized.
“Why did Grandfather choose to take Koll to Thill? I thought we were supposed to deliver Koll to Tarsicius?” Runa asked.
Belwyn shook his head. “Thill is closer for one, plus we have old friends there. We lived here for a long time. It’s too dangerous with Koll in tow to risk the long journey across the bloody continent. Koll has too many dark allies who would attempt to free him. There’s strife in the Ivory Kingdoms now that Levandius is in exile. I also detest the way Tarsicius treated poor Opaline after she risked everything to save his pompous life. The Emperor can go rot! Many nations have a bounty on Koll, but Thill has a strong and legitimate claim. The evil bugger slaughtered thousands in Thill with dark magic during the Sorcerer War. Time to pay with his bloody wicked head, I say!”
Runa clutched the locket in her hand. “Koll’s soul is black with the murder. My father, mother, grandmother, and even Striker, my mother’s familiar, are dead because of Koll. If Striker had not rescued me, I would be dead too. The seed of our all my family’s misery is Koll!”
A grey and white owl flew down by Runa’s feet. The owl shimmered into Cathal, his flinty grey eyes stern. “Young lady, why aren’t you asleep?”
“Sorry Grandpa. What about you? Where did you go?”
“With Koll in our midst, sleeping is a dangerous luxury. We have guests coming to relieve that torment,” Cathal assured her. “King Caladynn of Thill is meeting us here. I met him down the road. Caladynn is bringing an escort of soldiers to welcome us—and take him into custody.”
“Can’t wait to unload the annoying dark mage?” Belwyn asked.
“You know me so well, Belwyn,” Cathal replied.
“They can take Koll with my blessings,” Belwyn said. “I’m sick of babysitting the evil one.”
“Perhaps we wake everyone up, so we can properly greet them,” Cathal suggested.
“Quite a magnificent occasion,” Mellypip agreed.
Cathal raised an eyebrow. “Vocabulary exercises again, Belwyn?”
Belwyn chuckled. “Sorry. I must confer to Furball the sin of repetition.”
Cathal grimaced. “Pick another word, Belwyn. He’s used magnificent hundreds of times since yesterday. Even Dabiro’s belching was magnificent!”
Belwyn chuckled. “Well, the old badger is pretty vocal.”
“I heard that, you musty old feather duster!” Dabiro grunted as he waddled by.
“Your manners aren’t exactly resplendent, you mangy flea-ridden rodent!” Belwyn retorted.
Dabiro responded with a thunderous belch, and then resumed waddling to the shallow stream.
“Well isn’t that bloody charming!” Belwyn called after him.
News of the king coming roused the camp. Broda and Talwyn brewed fresh coffee. Runa longed for cream and sugar, but drank down the strong, bitter coffee to combat her fatigue. Mellypip clung to Runa’s shoulder to avoid getting trampled in the early morning hubbub as they crowded around Broda and Talwyn for the precious coffee. Runa grabbed a bucket in one hand and Mellypip in the other to walk to the stream to fetch water.
“Fair morning, Runa,” Ryen said when she joined him at the water’s edge. “Girl, you look tired.”
“Morning, Ryen. I think everyone’s spent,” Runa commented and filled a bucket with fresh water. Mellypip jumped down and drank his fill.
“Runa! Runa!” Rono the gryphon cried out happily, bobbing back and forth.
“I have fresh water for you. Hungry?” Runa asked, smiling.
The gentle black gryphon had been adopted by everyone. Runa was glad the perytons helped look after the gryphon, who though loving, was often confused.
“After breakfast, then we fly?” Rono asked with bright and eager eyes.
“Maybe later,” Runa said with a laugh, rubbing his head. After feeding him, they went back to the group, Mellypip following with a drippy muzzle and soaked paws.
Everyone was rushing to prepare for King Caladynn’s arrival, except Jiana. She and her tiger hare, Jasper, refused to wake up and remained snuggled in her sleeping bag until they smelled Hinkleburr toasting bread.
Only Panthara was silent. Azmadu, her crill lizard familiar, whimpered for her to play with him. She was a placid statue as Iona combed out her beautiful black hair.
Overwhelmed by a surge of pity, Runa was tempted to go to Panthara; but the pain was still too tender yet. Runa turned away.
Then Jadon walked by with Darkleaf, his peryton. “Morning, Runa,” he said with a grin.
Runa smiled but lost the capacity to speak in his presence.
“Perhaps you need some vocabulary lessons,’ Mellypip suggested after Jadon had walked by.
Sirah and her white wolf familiar, Arial, were warming themselves by the fire. Opaline yawned as she joined them and leaned against her mother for support.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” Sirah said with a laugh, putting her arm around Opaline.
“If it’s morning, where’s the sun?” Opaline moaned, rubbing her eyes. “And it’s so damn cold. I almost miss the desert, except for the sunburn.”
Myrsalian joined them, his elf owl, Felisia, perched on his shoulder, both looking tired.
“Morning.” Sirah nodded. “You two didn’t sleep well either?”
“No,” Felisia replied, sharp and cranky.
“I don’t think anyone has lately,” Myrsalian replied.
Broda and Talwyn passed out cups of coffee to everyone. Opaline accepted hers and sipped it, eyes half-closed. Liat and Dabiro took their turn to watch Koll, relieving Darcus for some much-needed rest. Ulan handed Darcus a tin cup of black coffee, which he downed in one gulp. Only Riva and his sloth familiar, Buzzy, were calm, floating in the air for their morning meditation.
Runa accepted another cup and drank it, hoping it would revive her. Dawn’s light brightened the sky, and the fresh feel of morning felt good on her skin.
The thunder of iron-shod hooves beating the earth proclaimed the coming of the Thill King. Everyone’s attention was on the fifty green cloaked warriors riding into their camp. The horse’s flared nostrils issued steamy breath as they stomped the earth in triumph and circled them. These warhorses were immense, indeed giants among the equine clans.
“I’ve never seen horses so big!” Mellypip gulped.
“The Thills are famous for their warhorses,” Runa whispered back. “Now I know why. Pictures in books do them no justice.”
The massive warhorses were larger than the sleek steeds of Tarsicius’ stables in the west. Thill horses had powerful, thick bodies; silky hair fringed the large hooves; long manes and tails trailed almost to the ground. The horses pawed the earth with giant hooves and shook their heavy manes with pride.
The King of Thill urged his mount forward and dismounted. Dressed in the royal red leather armor, tall and broad; his girth was more muscle than fat. He removed his polished golden helmet to reveal a vital middle-aged man; long earthy brown hair streamed down his back and his short beard was flecked with gray. He was the essence of potent manhood. He needed no crown. Each powerful stride proclaimed his kingship.
Cathal bowed. “Welcome, King Caladynn.”
Caladynn marched toward Cathal with open arms. “Cathal, you old mage, I’ve missed you! Welcome to Thill.”
“A magnificent king,” Mellypip commented.
“Find a new word, Melly,” Runa suggested in a pained voice.
“But I like magnificent!” Mellypip protested.
“Get over it,” Belwyn snapped.