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THE BLACK RIVER CHRONICLES EYE OF THE OBSERVER David Tallerman


Copyright © 2019 David Tallerman and Michael A. Wills Published June 2019 Digital Fiction Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. 1st Edition ISBN-13 (paperback): 978-1-989414-12-5 ISBN-13 (e-book): 978-1-989414-13-2


For Charlotte, who's had my back, along with Durren's, Arein's, Hule's, and Tia's, all the way from our first level.


Introduction

“Magic is just…magic,” Arein says. And this book, Eye of the Observer, third in the Black River Chronicles series, is magic too. Arein the wizard, Durren the ranger, Tia the dun-elf rogue, and Hule the fighter set off on an adventure at the behest of head tutor Borgnin, who believes they have the moxie to handle a fourth-level quest. But it won’t be easy. Accomplishing nothing of merit should be. And easy tasks are not the sorts of things armchair warriors want to read about, are they? So it’s a grand and harrowing coming of age journey author David Tallerman takes us on, one reminiscent of the very best roleplaying sessions we’ve enjoyed in our minds and around a table in the company of friends. To follow these characters—who have become our boon companions—in their pursuit of rat-kind and a hiding sorcerer is enviable escapism. Is there anything finer than to spend a day in the company of fellow travelers? To storm the castle, rescue the innocent, engage the enemy, reap the rewards? “Life is more fun if you play games,” British novelist Roald Dahl said.


And life is more interesting if you read wonderful-rompingbooks rooted in the gaming culture. You won’t hear the dice rolling across these pages. In fine fiction you never hear the dice roll. But you can sense them, critical hits and unfortunate fumbles, glorious hits and staggering misses. More, you can envision what it would be like to study at the Black River Academy, to be schooled in the arts of enchantment, combat, thievery, and the like. It’s a place I would have enrolled in given the opportunity. I’ll accept the next best thing, reading Tallerman’s books. Metal buckled Fabric unraveled Leather contorted Aye, magic is magic, and there is plenty of it here. Turn the page and join the adventure. Jean Rabe Jean Rabe has left her mark on many of fantasy and SF's biggest franchises: as author and editor, she's contributed to Dungeons and Dragons and BattleTech, Shadowrun and Mechwarrior, Forgotten Realms and Star Wars, and is perhaps best known as the USA Today Bestselling author of multiple Dragonlance novels. However, a love of fantasy fiction hasn't kept Jean from exploring a remarkable variety of genres across forty novels and more than a hundred short stories; her most recent release is gripping mystery thriller The Bone Shroud. You can find her website at www.jeanrabe.com.


Chapter 1

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Arein muttered. Durren would have liked to point out that she seemed to have a bad feeling about everything these days. This must be the third time she’d uttered the words since they’d been transported from the Black River Academy earlier that afternoon. With each league they’d trekked toward their objective, the dwarfish wizard’s agitation had worsened; and she’d been exactly the same on the other two quests they’d completed since their ascension to level three a couple of months before. That had been a rather anticlimactic event, all told. They’d accomplished their first advancement by outwitting a shapeshifter that had infiltrated the academy and had manipulated them into gathering magical treasures for its own nefarious ends. They’d achieved their second via the more conventional route of performing adequately in exams and improving their statistics to the satisfaction of their tutors. And there’d been no dramatic reveal, merely a brief meeting with Durren’s class head, the formidable Eldra Atrepis. She’d spared him a few words of praise, but the truth was that a considerable percentage of the students who’d begun with him had been promoted to their third level by then. Moreover, he’d come to recognize that, just as level two had 7


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failed to be the leap in prestige he’d once imagined, so attaining level three was solely a step up to being—from the faculty’s perspective—a proper student of Black River. They’d proved their basic competence, and that they could be relied on not to do anything wholly idiotic or misjudged. Which explained, he supposed, why they’d been given today’s daunting responsibility. “What precisely do you have a bad feeling about?” he asked Arein. “The part where we have to sneak into town? The part where we track down a sorcerer while going unnoticed by the hundreds of rat-kind down there? Or the part where we somehow have to strap that—” and he pointed to the ornate belt of leather, polished metal, and woven cloth that Hule carried over one shoulder—” onto said sorcerer before they start trying to fry us with spells?” Arein’s evident concern turned to outright anxiety. “All of it. None of it. I mean, it’s nothing specific.” She shrugged helplessly. “Just a bad feeling.” “You’re talking about magic,” Hule proposed, with the hint of a scowl in Durren’s direction. For a fighter raised among what some might regard, if they were picking their words carelessly, to be barbarians, he could be surprisingly considerate and perceptive—particularly where Arein was concerned. She nodded. “The thing is, you don’t sense magic the way you’d sense anything else. It’s not like a breeze, or a fever, or water lapping around your ankles; it’s not hot or cold or heavy or light. Magic is just…magic. Part of the reason wizards have so many special words to describe our craft is that you need special words when none of the traditional ones work. And when what you feel is strange in a manner you’ve never encountered, there aren’t any words at all. Not until somebody invents new ones.” “Surely it’s the same for all wizards, though?” Durren suggested. “And surely the ones with more experience are capable of finding some answers?” They’d had this discussion, or variations thereof, on numerous 8


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occasions, and he had a fair idea of what Arein’s reply would be: that yes, of course they were, but that getting two wizards to agree on a definite answer to any question, let alone an entire academy’s worth, was not a development that happened overnight. And that in the meantime there wasn’t a lot she could do to make her bad feelings go away. However, before Arein could respond, another voice intruded. “Is this really the time or place to be having this conversation?” Tia’s words came apparently from nowhere, as if the gathering shadows beneath the trees had decided to whisper their opinion. Once Durren would have jumped out of his skin, but he’d had months to grow accustomed to the dun-elf rogue’s habit of vanishing and reappearing at will. So instead, he flinched ever so slightly and feigned casualness as he sought her amid the gloom. Tia was leaning against a tree, which the black of her cloak had all but dissolved into, leaving only the paler gray oval of her face to betray her. “There might be patrols out,” she said. “Rat-kind may not be especially clever, but they’re not stupid either.” “Actually, as magical hybrid species go, they’re considered quite smart,” put in Hule, and frowned when three sets of eyes turned his way. “What? I’m just saying.” When no-one appeared satisfied with that explanation, he rooted in the backpack tucked between his knees and drew out a fat oblong. Durren perceived to his astonishment that it was a book, not much taller than Hule’s hand but nearly as wide as it was high. Squinting, he could make out the title. It read, in gilded letters, A Compendium of Races, Species, and Monstrosities. “You’ve been reading the monster manual,” he said, not certain whether to be dismissive that Hule was wasting his time with a text most first-level students would be ashamed to be caught with their noses in or impressed that the fighter was taking an interest in any book whatsoever. “My family sent it to me. A gift from the whole village for reaching my third level.” Hule managed to sound both proud and 9


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faintly embarrassed. “Does it say anything in there about whether rat-kind have good hearing?” Tia inquired. “Absolutely,” the fighter agreed brightly. He flipped to a page marked with a worn strip of cloth. “While rat-kind are notably short-sighted, they’re known for their exceptional hearing. And their keen sense of smell, too.” Finally he registered Tia’s look of exasperation. “Oh. Patrols. Right.” Tia abandoned her tree trunk and stepped closer to where the three of them were sitting. “Two, as it turns out.” She pointed across the town beneath them and the forest that hemmed it in on every side. “One that way and the other over there. Fortunately for us, they’re upwind, and anyway, they’re hardly bothering. They seem overconfident.” “That’s not a good sign,” Durren noted. Overconfidence might mean that Hule’s manual was wrong in this instance, and they were dealing with uncommonly dim-witted rat-kind. It might also mean that they had justification for considering themselves secure. Given how rat-kind weren’t the most proficient of fighters, that left the uncomfortable possibility that their relaxed surveillance had something to do with why their party was here. Rat-kind were, by their nature, thieves and bandits. Acquisitiveness was in their blood, along with a disregard for the custom of doing that acquiring with the payment of goods, coin, or services. What they wanted, they took, and with force if necessary. But since they were small and generally ill-equipped, they were deemed more a nuisance than a serious hazard. If you lost anything of value to rat-kind, it was probably because you’d been too stingy with your locks or your bodyguards. According to the brief lecture they’d been given earlier in the day by the head of wizardry, Rumina Shiverleik, that had changed recently, at least in the region where their present quest had brought them. The local band of marauding rat-kind had relinquished all caution, striking at the sorts of towns, temples, and 10


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heavily guarded convoys that would once have been outside their reach. And the reason for their growing audacity was the same reason the four of them were here now: a rat-kind sorcerer of unusual prowess. That was to say, not unusual by rat-kind standards; they had their wizards, like most races, but those were far from capable or dangerous, more shamans really. No, the one they’d been sent to capture was impressive by any definition. Armored wagons had been punctured, reinforced doors had been blown to smithereens, and guards had found themselves battered and scorched, though thankfully there’d been no casualties as yet. Regardless, while general degrees of rat-kind thievery were beneath the academy’s interest, this was a threat that couldn’t be ignored. Indeed, Shiverleik hadn’t played down the jeopardy of their task. “This would normally be classified as a level four quest, at the least,” she’d informed them candidly, “but with the recent rise in incidents of a magical nature, our resources are stretched thin, and Head Tutor Borgnin assures me the four of you have appropriate experience.” That much was true. Their first-ever quest had taken them to a rat-kind village, and since then they’d faced down shapeshifters wielding necromantic magic that would put the most zealous of rodent sorcerers to shame. What Borgnin had perhaps neglected to pass on was that their first quest had been a disaster that had nearly ended their academic careers before they’d begun, and their run-in with the shapeshifters Apaek and Tulpek had come close to costing all their lives, leaving Hule in particular with a scar the size of a soup bowl. At any rate, Tia made a good point. After their trek through the forest, they’d stopped on the hillside above the rat-kind town to formulate a plan and bide their time until nightfall, and Durren had considered himself safe, assuming they were well-placed to see without being seen. He’d failed to acknowledge the risk of their being picked out by other, inhumanly acute senses. 11


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Suddenly feeling a lot less impervious, Durren let his gaze drift over the clustered homesteads below. Rat-kind weren’t much for architectural sophistication; not one building rose above a single story. They were more like ambitious nests, with walls of clotted mud and roofs of straw and branches. Nevertheless, they were buildings, and there were signs of industry and agriculture too: a couple of dense columns of smoke that likely represented forges, animal pens, and scrappy areas of cultivated ground scattered amid the houses. If the rat-kind weren’t quite people, they weren’t beasts either, and only a fool would underestimate them. Tia’s gray eyes were focused not down toward the town but upward to the sky, still the blue of late evening in its heights but with a spreading foundation of dusk that had almost consumed the neighboring hilltops. “This is our chance,” she said. “By the time we get there, it will be dark enough to keep us hidden and not so dark that they’ll have begun to light torches.” With an outstretched finger, she indicated a gap between two hovels on the edge of town. “We’ll enter there and work our way north-east.” “Hold on,” Durren replied, “are you saying you’ve already decided our route? Do you know where the sorcerer’s hiding out?” Tia’s finger roved to settle on a structure larger than most, though smaller than the one beside it. Both were near the center of town, and isolated from their surroundings by a broad oval of bare earth. “That big hut belongs to the chief-mother. Normally those round about would be reserved for her breeding partners. In this instance, we can presume that if she has a prestigious resource such as a powerful sorcerer to hand, she’d want to keep them as close as possible.” “Wait, what? The chief-mother? Breeding partners?” “Rat-kind society is matriarchal.” Tia sighed at Durren’s blatant incomprehension. “Their chiefs are female. And their subchiefs are those males she chooses as mates. It’s a surprisingly refined and sensible system.” “I thought everybody knew that,” Hule put in with a smirk, 12


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patting the book that still lay in his lap. “The point being,” Tia continued, “we can be confident that the sorcerer will be in one of those central huts. And that one’s separate from the rest, do you see? Also, notice how careful everyone is to avoid it, as though they’re being particularly respectful. Or as if they’re scared.” From Durren’s perspective, the rat-kind who threaded the streets below were the size of lice, and their movements as inscrutable. He could only trust to Tia’s interpretation and sharp eyesight. Anyway, he was being diverted from his original topic; the question wasn’t whether her theory was right, because knowing Tia it inevitably would be. “I’ll take your word,” he said. “But have you forgotten that we’re supposed to be learning from each other? And that we were specifically told not to just go off and do our own thing?” This had been a condition of their promotion to level three, and one that had filled Durren with trepidation. No more were they to keep within their own classes and depend on their companions to handle the complexities of their own. A good wizard must be prepared to wield a sword should their spell-casting fail them; a competent ranger would fall back on a rogue’s stealth if such was needed to fulfill their mission. Which meant that from here on they’d be devoting a portion of their studies to attaining the basics of the other three classes, but also that they were expected to share their expertise when the opportunity arose. There was the reason for Durren’s dismay. Try persuading Tia Locke, whose idea of cooperation was letting you in on her plans after she’d singlehandedly implemented them, to reveal the tricks of her trade. He had no faith that anything he proposed would modify her behavior one iota, yet he had to make the attempt or risk remaining a level three student forever. The look she was giving him certainly didn’t suggest he’d succeeded on this occasion. Nor did her tone as she said, “Durren, have you considered that the problem isn’t that I’m not teaching 13


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you, the problem is you being too obtuse to listen? I’ve explained where the rat-kind patrols are and why sitting here without checking the wind direction was so unwise. I’ve explained where the sorcerer is likely to be and why. Have you thought that you might learn more if you paid attention?” While Durren had never quite got over his initial nervousness of Tia, who’d proven time and again that she was dangerous in a way few students at Black River could claim, he had come to appreciate that she wasn’t always as serious as she seemed. Currently, he was confident that she was teasing him as much as she was actually berating him. However, the knowledge did him no good, since his only options were to back down or to try, uselessly, to fight his corner. In desperation, he sought a compromise. “Fine. I should have been more observant. And now that you’ve explained, I understand how you worked out where the sorcerer is. But wouldn’t it be helpful if you told us in advance? For example, you must have a plan to get through the town unseen?” Tia made a show of suppressing a sigh, as if nothing could be more futile. “Once we get down there, go exactly where I go and do exactly what I do. If I raise my hand, stop. If I move, you move. If I make a fist, be ready to defend yourself. In future, if you’re in a similar situation, remember to do what I did and not do any of what I didn’t do. Is that sufficiently clear?” Grudgingly Durren had to admit that, infuriating as Tia was, there genuinely was a great deal to be learned by watching her, and—insomuch as he could when he lacked her uncanny poise and precision—by imitating her. She’d led the way down the hillside, the four of them moving in tandem just as she’d described. As they grew close enough to hear the sounds and smell the distinctive odors of the town, Durren expected her to slow her pace. Instead, Tia accelerated, dashing from trunk to trunk at a rate that nearly defied his ability 14


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to follow. Hule loped along behind her, no match for her furtiveness but easily her equal in speed. While Durren couldn’t say the same for himself, emulating Hule was simpler than keeping track of Tia. He felt sorry for Arein, bringing up the rear: her legs were barely half the length of his. Whenever he looked back, though, she’d be there, slipping into the cover he’d vacated, without grace but with the stolid determination that characterized her kind. If she was at risk of being left behind, she’d strive all the harder, and she would never, ever give up. Durren wished he’d been more sympathetic during their earlier discussion. In truth, he was more afraid than he had any desire to let on. Everyone knew there was something awry with magic, yet nobody could pin the issue down. As Rumina Shiverleik had said, there’d been a marked increase in the number of quests with mystical overtones: magical creatures misbehaving, spells malfunctioning, and those like the one at hand where lawless wizards were suddenly making a severe nuisance of themselves. But, as Arein had explained on previous occasions, the answer to why was far from obvious, and trying to find a pattern to those occurrences was defeating the greatest minds in the wizarding community. Tia finally came to a halt on the town’s periphery, vanishing into the shadows at the base of a crooked tree. When they were all together amid the gnarled roots, she murmured, “Pootle, are you there?”—and Durren was reminded of another curious side effect of whatever was disrupting the magical ether. He’d virtually forgotten about their observer, which he had intermittently spied flitting among the branches. As the creature dropped from above, Durren almost tumbled over, his vision filled by a pupil large as a coin, an icily blue sphere of iris, and by the pool of milky white that surrounded both. Then Pootle zipped backward and teetered before Tia. Three months ago, the observer had been the size of a clenched fist; now it was big as Durren’s 15


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head. And given that it had been growing steadily ever since they’d returned from their temporary transfer to the Shadow Mountain Academy in distant Ursvaal, he suspected they hadn’t seen the end of Pootle’s growth spurt. No other observers were showing similar gigantism, and there had been some debate about retiring their companion in favor of another of its bizarre species. Arein’s indignant defense of their fifth party member had carried the day, but only by deferring a difficult choice. There’d come a point when all hope of discretion would be lost; being pursued by a supernatural floating eyeball was one thing, but being pursued by one so large as to be unmissable was a lot less practical. “Pootle,” Tia whispered, “do you understand what you need to do? That you have to keep out of sight until we reach our objective? And what’s required of you once we get there?” Durren had long since stopped questioning how the observer could hear anything when it had no ears. Therefore, he was surprised when its response was a midair wobble rather than the jovial bobbing that usually signified comprehension. “Do you understand me, Pootle?” Tia tried again, not so softly and with a definite note of aggravation. When the observer’s sole reaction was to rotate on its axis, she turned her attention to Arein. “Can you make it listen?” Arein gulped nervously. “Pootle, did you hear what Tia said? Nod if you understood.” This time, Pootle jounced up and down, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than was customary. “Are you sure?” Arein urged. “You know we’re relying on you, don’t you? And that if you make a mistake, we’ll all be in danger?” Pootle’s bobbing became more eager and assertive. “Of course you do,” Arein agreed. Yet there was concern in her voice. She wasn’t oblivious to how strangely the observer was behaving. But Tia’s focus had moved on. Her eyes roamed back and 16


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forth, interrogating the borders of the forest and the edge of town. No doubt there were rat-kind behind some of those walls, getting on with their lives as evening crept toward night. No doubt if Durren were to press his ear to a clumsily built wall, he’d discern their skittering and scratching and their high-pitched speech. However, no rat-kind were to be seen, and the narrow alleyway ahead of them was devoid of life—except, he imagined, for more traditionally sized vermin, drawn to the waste liberally strewn there. These rat folk weren’t much for cleanliness, and the stench was already clogging Durren’s nostrils. With a flick of the hand to summon the rest of them, Tia was in motion, one moment leaving the sanctuary of the tree and the next sliding between the buildings, effortlessly finding the broadest patch of shadow and making herself one with it. Durren’s heart was drumming, as he became really conscious that they were sneaking into the territory of an enemy that would show no mercy to intruders. Nevertheless, he took an instant to remember their tutors’ instructions and to admire the way Tia conformed herself to the available shade. Now that a single slip-up might be the end of them, he was more willing than ever to try and mimic her technique. By the time Hule reached the spot where she’d been, Tia had darted onward. Hule was too big to hide anywhere, but he did his best; he edged deeper into the gap so that Durren could squeeze in. As he shuffled along after both Tia and Hule, all the while intent on not gagging at the smell, a brush of displaced air revealed that Arein had joined them. As Tia had predicted, night was close but not fallen, and in open areas there remained ample light to navigate by, whereas here they were thoroughly shrouded by darkness. Approaching the alleyway’s end, Durren saw no fiery glimmers. They had a window of opportunity, but a small one. Soon there’d be torches and lanterns lit and the sheltering obscurity would be torn away. Yet Tia showed no signs of haste. She found fresh gloom to 17


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merge herself with and slipped her hooded head out to inspect the street beyond. Durren could hear chittering voices not far off, but his own ears weren’t keen enough to judge their proximity. Tia, though, was satisfied. In a flash she was out into the street. Hule stuck to her heels, and Durren had a moment in which to wonder what to do, before his legs made the decision and propelled him forward. He felt as if he were naked and the avenue was packed with glaring rat-kind, as if he was bound to be detected. But a second later he was tucking in behind Hule in another alleyway, this one running crookedly amid a number of shacks. He was already impressed by how carefully Tia had chosen their route. This dense clump of buildings provided almost an excess of cover. However, she didn’t relax her caution, and her movements as she scudded from wall to wall were every bit as meticulous. Never was she in the open for more than an instant, and her black cloak made her motion like the drift of a cloud’s shadow. Durren began to imitate her practically without thinking. He’d drawn his own hood up, and so much as his body allowed, he chose the same spots of concealment as she had and angled his limbs in the same fashion. Even Hule had discovered a means to mask his pale skin and blonde hair; he’d draped a grubby undershirt over his buckler and was holding it in front of his face. They crossed another street. Tia’s course required them to divert for two dozen paces before a suitable alley gaped to claim them, and Durren could see the shapes of rat-kind moving. As he watched, illumination spilled from a doorway, to be followed by a figure bearing a primitive lantern. To Durren’s eyes, its brightness was hypnotic; he felt the need to stop and stare. Common sense prevailed, aided by a nudge from Arein behind him. The lantern’s glow was cut off by a leaning corner, and Tia ushered them onward. Past the next gap was a miniature field, wherein bedraggled clusters of leaves drooped in puddles of green. Tia traced a crude path through its middle and ducked into a divide 18


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between houses. This was a more spacious breach that constricted at its far end; she crouched and waved for the three of them to join her. “We’re near,” she whispered. “But this street will be busier, so wait for my signal. Once we get inside—” “Tia,” Arein interrupted. She spoke quietly, yet there was such dread in the way she did so that the dun-elf was temporarily silenced. Gathering herself, she said, “This isn’t the time, Arein.” But Arein wasn’t to be dissuaded. “Tia, something is really wrong. We ought to turn back. I know you’ve gone to the trouble of getting us here, but something definitely isn’t right, I feel it in my bones. So we should leave. We should leave now.” She was growing awfully loud by those last words, and Durren anticipated Tia’s response being a harsh reprimand. Instead, her reaction was the forced calm with which one might try and settle a skittish horse, softened by a note of genuine compassion. “Arein, if there’s a problem, it’s our role to deal with it. We can’t run away.” For all Tia’s uncharacteristic gentleness, her tone was adamantine. There could be no argument in the face of such conviction, and Durren was certain Arein would be swayed, that she would have to be. She wasn’t. “I understand that this is our quest. But I’m sure that if we explain about the magic, they won’t blame us.” Arein shuddered. “How it’s like ants crawling. And like someone shouting so fiercely that they don’t make sense. And like being in the center of a hurricane that could pluck you up at any instant. Like all of those, all at once.” “Arein,” Tia said, still with great patience, “that isn’t how this works. We’re not just students. We have a responsibility. What if we go and another crime occurs, one in which somebody gets badly hurt or even killed? We were sent because an important job needs doing, and because our tutors trust us to do it.” 19


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Arein looked crestfallen. “I know that.” “I know you do.” “But…” Arein shook her head. Then she met Tia’s gaze and held it. “Promise me that, if something goes wrong, something unexpected, we’ll get out of here. That if we find proof of what I’m saying, we’ll leave, and you won’t argue. Give me your word, Tia, or I’m not going any farther.” Durren couldn’t have predicted Tia’s answer, for she was precisely as stubborn as Arein when she wanted to be. But he was glad when she said, “All right.” Even if she hadn’t been won over by Arein’s plea, he had, and butterflies were cavorting in his stomach at the prospect of what was in store for them. “Thank you,” Arein told her. “You’re welcome. But no talking from here on in,” Tia replied, stern once more. She turned and beckoned. A dozen steps carried her through the narrowing chasm between the houses, and before she’d reached its end she’d crouched, near enough to the exit that she could peek out. The rest of them took their places behind her. Though Durren’s view was restricted by Hule in front and the angles of the houses, which almost met at their apex, he could see that the next street was considerably broader. And that was because, he realized, it wasn’t a street but the ring of barren earth separating the chiefmother and her intimates from the remainder of the tribe. There’d be more rat-kind around, here at the heart of town, and their one slender advantage lay in the observation Tia had made earlier, that the sorcerer appeared to be off limits to the majority of the population. All the same, Tia waited and waited. As seconds accumulated into minutes, Durren wondered if her plan had failed at the last. He heard the slap of unshod rat-kind feet in the dirt, sometimes perilously close. Fragments of squeaking conversations drifted to his ears. Once a torch was carried by, and in the amber light he could distinguish Hule’s face clearly. Convinced that they’d be 20


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spotted, Durren gripped the hilt of his dagger so tightly that his knuckles ached. But the accompanying footfalls passed without interruption. They hadn’t been seen because they hadn’t been sought; probably these weren’t even sentries but humble folk going about their business. Tia held up her hand, so that it was just visible in the growing gloom. Immediately she pointed with two fingers. Then she was gone. Hule needed no prompting to pursue. Durren’s reactions weren’t so quick, and he had to put on a burst of speed. He didn’t look back to make sure Arein had followed, he was too concerned with his own predicament. If he’d felt exposed before, that was nothing to this: the thoroughfare was broad as the widest of Luntharbor highways, at least to his anxious perception. Worse, Tia was leading them at a steep slant that took them farther along. Didn’t she recognize that every moment brought them closer to discovery? She did. And to his relief, she was homing in on one particular building, which Durren dimly recalled from his scrutiny of the town. It was large, though not the largest; grand by the paltry standards of rat-kind, yet not so grand as others nearby. Symbols were carved into the lintel above the door, and whether they were magical sigils or some rodent language he couldn’t tell, but instinct assured him they were a warning. They weren’t one that Tia heeded. The door had no handle, so she shoved it, and when it creaked inward, she slipped through the resulting gap. So did Hule, and Durren was eager to join them. Whatever dangers lay within, he chose them willingly over another instant of braving the wide street. The interior was brightly lit by comparison to the murk outside. As his eyes adjusted, Durren saw that the hut’s single room was more elaborate than anything he’d envisaged, more like a laboratory than the hovel he’d been led to predict. In fact, aside from a low bed in a corner, the furniture consisted entirely of laden 21


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benches and tables. They were weighed down with assorted glassware, in which colorful fluids bubbled; by stones and crystals and bones and desiccated leaves and roots, in haphazard piles; and with very many books and scrolls, half of them pinned open to exhibit scrawled runes or disconcerting diagrams. In front of one of the tables, next to the merrily flickering brazier that was the source of the firelight, stood a cloaked figure. They were tall for rat-kind, and not stooped as those half-rodent creatures tended to be. The figure turned their way, their movements conveying surprise if not necessarily alarm. A baggy hood veiled the upper portion of their face. Nevertheless, Durren had decided that something was amiss, even before they reached to draw the sagging cloth back. And that hand confirmed it: five fingers rather than four and skin of peachy white rather than ruddy pink, with no coarse hairs lining its rear. Though Durren knew what was coming, he couldn’t quite reject the hours of false anticipation. A part of him remained positive that a grizzled rat-kind shaman would be revealed, unusually formidable perhaps but a threat within their capacity. The hood fell away, and the face it divulged belonged to no rat-kind. It was long and lean, topped with straggling locks of graying hair and underscored by a triangle of beard that still retained traces of black. Durren beheld a jutting chin, a thin scar of a mouth, and piercing eyes—the one feature that failed to clash with his preconceptions, for those had more than a little rodent about them. The sorcerer cleared his throat, a painfully loud eruption amid the stillness. “Well, well, what a wholly unwelcome intrusion,” he announced nonchalantly. “I assume we’re supposed to fight now, are we?”

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Profile for David Tallerman

The Black River Chronicles, Book 3: Eye of the Observer - Sample  

A one chapter sample of the novel The Black River Chronicles, Book 3: Eye of the Observer

The Black River Chronicles, Book 3: Eye of the Observer - Sample  

A one chapter sample of the novel The Black River Chronicles, Book 3: Eye of the Observer

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