From the author of the acclaimed fantasy trilogy The Masks of Agyrima (DAW Books), comes another epic YA fantasy adventure.
Centuries ago, the people of Nevyana were forced to leave their old kingdom across the sea after it was devastated by the War of the Twelve Gods. The only three gods to survive that war, Vekrin of the Earth, Arrica of the Sun, and Ell of the Moon, agreed they would thenceforth cease to meddle in the affairs of humans - but first, each of them gave their followers a final magical gift.
In different ways, Vekrin and Arrica gave their followers the gift of Blue Fire, a force that could provide light, heat, and protection - or be turned into a powerful weapon. But Ell, who had fought against the other two in the war, chose instead to utterly transform her followers into the Nightdwellers, nocturnal creatures with fur, teeth, and claws.
Enmity quickly arose among the three groups. Now, the Nightdwellers rule the night, killing any ordinary humans they find after sunset. Vekrin's followers became the Citydwellers, sheltering each night behind stout walls of stone, guarded by the Blue Fire-powered firelances of the priests. And Arrica's followers became the Freefolk, travelling the wilderness, camping within a fence of Blue Fire but always in danger of Nightdweller attack.
When sacred objects for channelling Blue Fire are stolen, three sworn enemies, Petra of the Citydwellers, Amlinn of the Freefolk, and Jin of the Nightdwellers, set out to find them, and their paths converge on a collision course with the truth. Can they bridge the centuries-old divisions among their communities? Or will Blue Fire, turned to destruction, bring Nevyana crashing down in chaos and bloodshed?
About the author
E.C. Blake was born in New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment,” and the state’s nickname seems to have rubbed off: he started writing fantastical stories in elementary school and wrote his first fantasy novel in high school. He’s been a newspaper reporter and editorial cartoonist, a magazine editor, a writing instructor and a professional actor, and has written (under another name) more than 40 works of nonfiction, ranging from biographies to science books to history books, but his first love has always been fantasy. He now lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, with his wife, their teenaged daughter, and their black Siberian cat, Shadowpaw.
Excerpt: Blue Fire (by (author) E.C. Blake)
Chapter 1: Cabbages and Caravans
“Oof!” With a grunt, Petra lifted another basket full of cabbages to shoulder-height, wondering how every basket could be heavier than the one before when they all held the same number of cabbages. He lugged the basket to the storewagon. As he dumped the vegetables into the wagon bed, he gave Cort a glare that should have called down Blue Fire from Vekrin and fried the other boy on the spot. But Cort, his fellow Priest-Apprentice, his roommate, and supposedly his friend, remained disappointingly unfried.
He also remained unhelpful while Petra continued to carry cabbages to the wagon. He didn’t even look around to watch Petra work. Cort remained entirely focused on a pretty, brown-eyed, barefoot serving girl, talking to her in a low voice while she smiled at him and twirled a strand of her long blonde hair on her finger.
It seemed that whenever Petra and Cort were sent to the market to bring back fresh food for the Temple kitchens, Petra alone focused on the produce. Cort had eyes only for the girls.
Petra didn’t see much future in talking to some servant lass he’d likely never see again. Girls weren’t allowed in the Grand Temple of Vekrin. He’d have plenty of time to talk to girls when he turned eighteen in a couple of years. Though still a Priest-Apprentice, he would be allowed to roam the city more or less at will during his free time.
It wasn’t that he didn’t think about girls—he thought about them quite a lot—it was just that there was very little he could do about those thoughts.
He groaned and threaded his way back through the crowded market, sprawled along the east wall of City Primaxis. At the farmer’s canvas-shaded stand, he refilled his basket for the umpteenth time. The Temple cooks required cabbages in rather alarming numbers. The wives and servants who bustled through the market shopping for their household needs could just pick a couple of heads off of the farmer’s table. Petra, and theoretically Cort, had to buy dozens.
This time, when Petra returned to the wagon, Cort met him with an empty basket. He put it on the ground and held out his hands. “Here, I’ll take your cabbages,” he said brightly. “You take the empty basket and fill it up again.”
Petra stared at him suspiciously. “Are you ill?”
“No, I feel great.” Cort kept his arms outstretched.
Petra handed him the full basket, and Cort’s eyes widened as his arms drooped. “Hey, these things are heavy!”
“Really? I never noticed.” Petra bent over and picked up the empty basket. As he started for the farmer’s stand again, he glanced back to see Cort picking up heads one at a time from the basket at his feet and placing them carefully and individually into the wagon, rather than dumping the whole basketful in at once. Petra rolled his eyes and returned to work.
When Petra returned with another full basket, Cort again traded him his empty basket. As he did the time after that. And the time after that. When adding one more cabbage would have caused the wagon to overflow, Petra paid the farmer with silver coins. He returned to the wagon to find Cort standing on the spokes of one of the wheels, fussing over the load. As Petra climbed into the seat and took the reins, the other boy clambered up beside him, giving the cabbages a last searching glance.
Petra looked around. “Where’d that girl go?”
Cort shrugged. “Disappeared!” Then he flashed a grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s roll! These cabbages aren’t getting any fresher!”
Petra stared at him for a moment. Then he shook his head and flicked the reins.
The placid grey carthorse started a slow plod down the market’s main path, framed by vendors’ stands. Despite Cort’s strange urgency, they couldn’t move quickly through the crowds. The horse, used to the press of humans, was careful not to step on anyone. People got out of the way eventually, but so slowly that foot traffic kept passing them.
At the edge of the market, finally free of the crowds, Petra turned the wagon toward the Great Gate in the north wall, only to find himself facing a new obstacle. A long line of brightly painted wagons trundled straight at him. With no room on the narrow dirt road for two wagons abreast, he urged the long-suffering horse to one side.
“Freefolk!” Cort said. “I didn’t know they were due today!”
“Well, it’s not like they tell the Priests they’re coming,” Petra said. “Since they hate us.”
Cort looked at the cabbages. “I hope they don’t take too long to get out of our way.”
The lead wagon approached, driven by a grey-haired giant of a man whose eyes never turned from the path. Next to him sat a girl about Petra’s age, wearing black trousers and a dark-green tunic, her long black hair pulled back into a practical ponytail. The blue gem in the hilt of a sheathed dagger at her hip glittered in the sun. So did her blue eyes, which flicked from Cort to Petra, appraising them and dismissing them in the same instant. She turned her gaze forward again as the wagon rolled past.
“Cute,” Cort said. He leaned closer to Petra. “I’ve heard the Freefolk have wanton women who dance naked for City-dwellers,” he whispered. “I wonder if she’s one of them?”
Petra shot him a skeptical look. “Naked?”
“That’s what I heard.”
Petra snorted. “Sounds like wishful thinking.”
“My cousin says he saw it.” Cort scratched the back of his head. “’Course, he might have exaggerated. He does that.”
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Petra said. “It’s not like we’ll ever see it. Priests of Vekrin are forbidden from entering Freefolk camps. Our god wouldn’t like it.”
Cort sighed. “I know. But a man can dream, can’t he?” He glanced at the cabbages yet again.
Petra watched the rest of the wagons sway and creak past, red and blue, yellow and green, gold and silver, shining in the sun. Fully enclosed, many had shuttered windows and small chimneys, like small houses on wheels. A few—grim and grey and sealed and locked—must have carried stores, or possibly weapons. And then there were the strangest ones of all, with curving tops completely covered in what looked like sheets of black glass and driven by pairs of stern-looking women in yellow robes.
Petra felt uneasy as those yellow-clad women turned unfriendly gazes his way. Freefolk Wise Women. Priestesses of the goddess Arrica.
Actually, “heretics” was one of the nicer things City-dwellers typically called Freefolk. Other popular slurs were “shiftless,” “thieves,” and “immoral.” Yet despite the mistrust the Citydwellers felt toward the Freefolk, Primaxis depended on them. Visiting Freefolk brought news, travellers, and luxury goods to each city of Nevyana from the other cities that were strung like gems on a necklace along the King’s Way. Petra couldn’t think of them without hearing the sing-song rhyme children were taught even before they could read. It named each city from south to north: “Primaxis, Otraxis, Trexis, Ceturxis, Pentaxis, Saxtixis, Septixis, Octixis, Nonixis, Desmixis, Viandaxis, Divpaxis, these are the god’s twelve cities.”
Only Freefolk could safely camp after dusk outside the walls of the cities and villages. Each night, as they travelled their secret routes through the woods far from the King’s Way, they erected a mystical Fence of Blue Fire to protect them from the depredations of murderous Nightdwellers. Like the Fire Curtain that surrounded the Temple, the Fence would strike dead anyone who touched it. However, the Curtain drew its power from the giant Godstone at the Temple’s heart, tons of solid, immovable rock intricately engraved with magical symbols, whereas the Freefolk Fence was portable. The Priests assumed the strange glass-topped wagons had something to do with powering the Fence, but the Wise Women no more told the Priests their secrets than the Priests told theirs to the Wise Women.
Those who didn’t travel with the Freefolk could only hope to survive a night on the road through force of arms, and even that was no guarantee. More than one heavily guarded caravan had vanished without a trace. So, too, had every expedition of the Unbound, a strange new cult whose members rejected the authority of king and god and goddess alike. The Unbound claimed they were travelling west beyond the mountains to settle a new land, although what kind of settlement could be made with maybe one woman for every ten men, Petra didn’t understand. The cities’ rulers let them go—to rid themselves of troublemakers, Petra suspected. He and Cort had discussed it and figured the Nightdwellers killed and probably ate the Unbound before they’d travelled more than a day or two.
“Uncooked Unbound,” Cort had joked. “Yum!”
Two armed men on horseback brought up the rear of the Freefolk caravan. Once they had ridden by, Petra urged the horse back onto the road. They rolled north for a couple of hundred yards, the massive city wall looming to their west, sixty feet tall and ten feet thick. City guards stared down at them from the battlements of the giant round tower at the city’s northeast corner as they rounded it and turned west into the glare of the afternoon sun.
After four or five hundred yards, the road they followed joined the King’s Way, created by Vekrin himself. Paved with smooth, unbroken white stone that had not cracked or discoloured in all the centuries since it was laid, the King’s Way led from Primaxis to the destroyed city of Divpaxis, hundreds of miles to the north. For most of that distance, it followed the Great River, which also wound through Primaxis before rolling out the southern end of the city into the farmlands and wilderness beyond.
The King’s Way bypassed most of the cities, curving around their walls, but it led directly to the Great Gate of Primaxis. Petra and Cort drove up to that gate, which was flanked on either side by two more giant towers. About a third of the way up those towers, a matched pair of crossbowmen stood on wooden platforms extending from the stone. They watched the comings and goings below.
The guards who concerned them, though, stood at ground level. They were far from a matched set. The one on the left was tall and stout, the one on the right short and skinny. Both wore red surcoats over silver mail, the surcoats marked with the king’s twelve-pointed golden crown. The same crown also gleamed on the towering timbers of the two halves of the gate itself.
“Hi, you two,” said the bigger of the pair. “Got your cabbages, I see.”
“Did you see the Freefolk pulling in?”
“Had to get out of their way on the road,” Petra said. “How long are they here for?”
“A few days.” The guard grinned. “In fact, I’m looking forward to visiting their show tent later tonight.”
“Is it true the girls dance naked?” Cort blurted.
Both of the guards laughed. “Someone’s been telling you tall tales,” said the portly one.
“But they are a bit scantily clad,” the skinny guard put in. “Too bad you lads won’t get to see.” He winked at his companion.
Cort’s face fell.
The first guard laughed again. “Get on inside, you two. You’ve got starving Priests waiting for those cabbages.” He made a face. “Although personally, I’d rather starve.”
Petra shared his opinion of cabbages but kept the thought to himself. It wouldn’t do for a mere Priest-Apprentice to criticize the Temple’s cuisine. He flicked the reins and drove the wagon through the open gate and up the broad boulevard beyond, which lead straight to the king’s palace, atop the hill at the southern end of the city. The Temple lay off to their left, about halfway to the palace, isolated in a vast green field, a visual reminder that the Priests were a breed apart, that they were concerned with the worship of Vekrin and not with the everyday mundane concerns of ordinary Citydwellers.
Shops and houses lined the street. Many were shuttered, and a few in ruins, emptied by the plague that had ravaged Primaxis when Petra was a toddler. His mother had been among the dead. He had no memory of her.
Each of the cities and every village and town in between had similarly suffered, some even more than Primaxis. Some villages had been completely destroyed—not by the plague but by the Nightdwellers, who came howling in as the defenders fell ill.
Petra and Cort trundled up to the gate leading into the Temple courtyard, first passing between the tallest of the sigil-inscribed posts surrounding the entire complex. At night, the Fire Curtain’s blue glimmer filled the spaces between all the posts, protecting the Temple from any possible attack. Not that either Nightdwellers or Freefolk could possibly penetrate the city to mount such an attack, but the Great God Vekrin’s commandment was unequivocal: every night, the Fire Curtain must protect the Temple. And so, every night, it sprang to blue, shimmering life.
The Temple itself had a few small doors opening directly through the wall into the greensward on three of its sides, making it pretty much impossible to defend when the Fire Curtain wasn’t active. Because of that, Petra thought the main purpose of the courtyard wall, and the guard now holding up a hand to halt them, was to keep a close watch on wayward Priest-Apprentices.
Petra tugged the reins to stop the wagon. The guard came to his side of the wagon and looked up at him. “You were gone longer than I expected.”
“Held up by the Freefolk caravan.”
The guard nodded. “Right. Heard they were here.” He stepped back. “Well, you’d better get those cabbages to the—”
A muffled sneeze came from behind Petra. Startled, he glanced over his shoulder.
There was no one there.
Petra felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as the guard, eyes narrowed, stepped forward again. “Who sneezed?”
“Sorry!” Cort sniffed and wiped his nose. “Allergic to cabbages!”
“It wasn’t you,” the guard growled. “Or Petra.” He walked down the side of the wagon and peered into the back. Petra gave Cort another scathing look, but once again, to his great annoyance, Vekrin failed to incinerate his “friend.”
The guard reached in and shoved a few of the leafy green balls around. His eyes widened. He reached deeper.
“Hey!” A blonde female head suddenly erupted through the mounded cabbages. “Keep your hands to yourself!”
Petra closed his eyes and clenched his jaw to keep from swearing. He took a deep breath. Then he opened his eyes again and glared at his roommate. “Really?”
The girl struggled to her feet, waist-deep in produce. She pulled a green leaf from her hair and tossed it aside. “Are we inside yet?” she said to Cort. “Can you show me all the wonders of the Temple now?”
Cort looked at the guard. “Ummm . . . I don’t suppose I could convince you she climbed in on her own, and I had nothing to do with what happened?”
The guard glowered at him.
Cort sighed. “No, I didn’t think so.”
The guard picked the girl up by her slim waist, pulled her out of the wagon, and swung her to the ground. “Go home,” he said. “No women allowed in the Temple.”
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “But Cort said—”
“Cort,” the guard said, “made a mistake.”
“You can say that again,” Petra muttered.
“’Bye,” Cort said cheerfully to the girl. “I’ll look for you next market!”
The girl gave a tentative wave and then dashed off like a scalded cat as the guard took a step toward her. Then he turned to Petra and Cort. “Deliver your cabbages. Then report to the Master of Apprentices for punishment.”
“Yes, sir.” Petra flicked the reins, and the carthorse lumbered back into motion. He glared again at his roommate. “Cort, you—”
“‘If you don’t try, you can’t succeed,’” Cort said, quoting an old proverb. He grinned. “Hey, it almost worked.”
Petra shook his head. Cort would never change. He had a hard time imagining his friend as a full-fledged Priest. I hope the Priesthood survives. Be a shame if centuries of traditions came crashing down because of Cort.
He glanced at the sky. Well, Vekrin hasn’t struck him down with Blue Fire, so I guess He isn’t worried.
They rolled forward to face their punishment.
"A wonderful YA read" - Book Horde