One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. This year I’m taking part in the competition as an advisor for Fantasy Book Review’s judging team. I decided to offer a spot to the authors in our group and will post them throughout the year. To see all of our content regarding the competition, check out my SPFBO page!
When he was eleven, Mitchell Hogan received The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a love of fantasy novels was born. He spent the next ten years reading, rolling dice, and playing computer games, with some school and university thrown in. Along the way he accumulated numerous bookcases’ worth of fantasy and sci-fi novels and doesn’t look to stop anytime soon. For ten years he put off his dream of writing; then he quit his job and wrote A Crucible of Souls. He now writes full-time and is eternally grateful to the readers who took a chance on an unknown self-published author. He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Angela, and his daughters, Isabelle and Charlotte.
Shadow of the Exile
I say to you againe, doe not call upp Any that you can not put downe: by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your powerfullest Devices may not be of use.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Many centuries had passed since Tarrik Nal-Valim, demon of the Thirty-Seventh Order, had felt the insidious pull of a summons. The warning signs caught him off guard, manifesting as a niggling sensation in the back of his skull, an unseen insect buzzing close by that became more annoying if he tried to ignore the feeling. When he realized what it was, his bowels and stomach clenched. One part of his mind tried to flee while another prepared to fight.
Invisible white-hot hooks jagged into his limbs, torso, and consciousness. Given only an instant to prepare himself, he managed to segregate a portion of his mind and resist the agony. But the hooks sliced and tore at his being, unraveling him no matter how hard he fought. Nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Pain seared his nerves, and his mind swam with disorientation.
With a final nerve-rending jerk, his form was torn asunder, transformed back into his basic essence. He felt himself siphoned through a tear in the veil between his world—Shimrax, the Guttering Wastes—and another, like water down a drain.
The sensation lessened, and his thoughts coalesced. He was standing atop a derelict tower, its roof missing, walls of granite and mortar cracked and broken with only rusted iron supports and rivets remaining. In one corner sat a heaped pile of crushed terra-cotta roof tiles covered in grass and bird droppings, as were the tops of the remaining walls. A half circle of blazing white sun peeked over forested hills to the east, and the air held the scent of rain. The atmosphere was slightly thicker than he was used to and much more humid. A stark contrast to the hot, roaring winds and parched mountains of Shimrax.
As Tarrik took in his surroundings, he noted frost had crystallized on the corroded iron and stonework and crusted over what remained of the timber floor. A swirling mist penetrated every corner and shadow, giving off a sulfurous stench underlaid with rot. Both frost and mist weren’t his doing, he knew, but a side effect of the summoning and its tearing of ethereal fabric, a commingling of worlds for a brief moment as the veil between them was ripped apart.
A curious place for a summons. Fraught with danger. So much could go wrong.
Either the sorcerer who’d summoned him was an idiot, which would be good for Tarrik, or desperate, which could be good or bad.
Tarrik’s essence and mind prickled as the summons grew in urgency. A hundred needlelike pains pierced his body—his summoner prodding him, reminding him who was the slave and who was the master. He steeled himself and ignored the sensation. He was no weakling. He’d fought abominable creatures inhabiting the abyssal realms that sent others fleeing in fear. He’d endured battles against the Kasonna-Vulur invaders where only a fraction of a fraction survived. He’d walked the hallowed thoroughfares of the ancient ruins of Polas’azar, then climbed the cliffs of Lantrin to guest with the winged Halimir. He’d killed sorcerous masters before and would again.
Only then did he see that his summoner was a woman. Sweat dripped from her brow, and her chest heaved as if she’d just run up the stairs to the top of the tower. She had black locks, reddish-brown skin, sharp cheekbones, and a firm figure clad in worn and stained traveling leathers that showed she was no stranger to practicality. Her clothes were wet, as was the hair plastered against her scalp. No doubt from the rainstorm Tarrik had just missed. Fine lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes, hinting at her age. At her feet sat a small leather sack, out the top of which peeked the corner of a black bound book. Probably a grimoire.
She stood, eyes half-closed, inside a protective circle marked in chalk and blood and seemed to concentrate on drawing his essence forth. The corpse of a small goat lay nearby. Blood wasn’t necessary for a summoning, but demons liked to keep that information under wraps. Whatever they could do to confuse sorcerers, they did.
Tarrik stood inside another circle, caged by glittering lines of arcane force that crackled with intensity. A wave of scorching heat flowed across him, creating a tingling agony. Resisting a summons brought pain, but Tarrik had never been one to acquiesce quietly. He hadn’t survived so long and progressed in the hierarchy of demons by being timid.
He drew upon a tendril of dark-tide power, which the woman quickly suppressed. Standing his ground, Tarrik fought back, not caring if he hurt her.
Their battle lasted only moments. She was too strong, and he quickly backed off.
Away from the realms of the abyss, he’d need to conserve his arcane energy. Opportunities to replenish it would be few. Tarrik would need to ensure his sorcery would work to his advantage. He’d been around a long time and wouldn’t waste his energy like a lower-order demon.
The woman must be a practitioner of great power and expertise to reach through the veil and hook a demon of his order. He hadn’t been summoned for centuries and thought—hoped—his name had been lost long ago.
Red-hot spikes pierced his mind, driving him to his knees. Something whimpered, and he realized he was making pitiful noises.
The spikes withdrew slightly, giving his thoughts and body a moment to recover.
Seeking a weakness he could exploit, or better yet an outright mistake, he steeled himself with a growl and sent his awareness pulsing along the edge of the restrictive markings. But he was out of luck. No miswritten runes, no spelling mistakes for this sorcerer.
A simmering resentment in his guts turned to anger. Once again someone was attempting to enslave him.
“Reveal yourself, demon!” she shouted, and Tarrik realized he hadn’t filtered fully through the gate. The forceful tug of her summons pulled at him harder, like ropes binding his limbs and torso. The needle-sharp pressure in his mind intensified, on the verge of debilitating torment.
Tarrik gave in and allowed his essence to coalesce into his natural shape. It wasn’t so different from that of a standard human male, though the harsh abyssal environment of Shimrax had sculpted his muscles, rendered his fat, and roped his body with sinew. He drew himself up to his full height, knowing he stood a head taller than most humans. His straight black hair brushed his shoulders, his skin sleek and taut.
Tarrik decided his natural form would suffice. After all, demons and humankind were closely related, and it took effort to maintain a different physical manipulation for any length of time.
The summoner’s eyes narrowed, and the hot spikes of agony lessened slightly. Her gaze traveled along his body from head to toe. No material objects could pass through a tear in the veil—unless they were summoned separately—so Tarrik was naked.
He raised an eyebrow at her. He hoped she was enjoying the view, because if he found a way to free himself, he was going to rip her head from her shoulders, then suck the marrow from her bones. And when he was done with her body, he would imprison her soul and take her back to the abyss. There she would remain his plaything until her soul screamed for an end, a true death.
She took a deep breath and held her arm out dramatically. Tarrik noted it was trembling with either exhaustion or fear, maybe both.
“I am your master! I command you to reveal your true form!”
“This is my true form,” Tarrik said flatly.
That was how all these summoners saw themselves. They were the masters, and the demon was the slave. Minor demons reveled in being summoned, as their base hungers were usually well sated by defiling and slaughtering humans. But Tarrik Nal-Valim was no ordinary demon. He’d evolved past base desires and was now only a few tiers down from the exalted status of a demon lord.
“Do not lie to me, or I’ll visit upon you such pain as you’ve never—”
“This is my true form,” he said again with an exasperated sigh. “And I have felt such pain before. I have no desire to repeat it.”
She sniffed and whispered a cant under her breath. Tarrik sensed a whiff of power caress his body. He stiffened but otherwise made no move.
He recognized it as dusk-tide power, and that told him which world he was in—Wiraya, so the humans called this realm. Sorcerers here absorbed both the dusk-tide and dawn-tide essence and used the energy to perform their cants. She had timed his summoning to draw on her stored power and also take advantage of the dawn-tide surge. Her reserves were depleted, though—he could sense it. Summoning took a great deal of arcane energy.
His own demon sorcery used the dark-tide power too, but he had no way of replenishing it until the next full dark, when both moons stayed below the horizon. He had no idea when that would be.
“You speak the truth,” she said slowly. “Your skin . . . it’s silvery gray. You could be of San-Kharr blood.”
“But I’m not.”
Tarrik searched his memory and came up with a vague sense that the San-Kharr were arid-plains dwellers from the scorching south of this world who spent much of their time living underground, but his knowledge was a little hazy on the races of Wiraya. One human was much like another.
“No.” The summoner paused. “You’re a little short for a demon, aren’t you? Still, you’re above average height for a man.”
“Did you expect a giant? Horns and talons?”
He’d had enough of assuming monstrous forms to deliberately repulse and alarm humans, though some of his race delighted in such displays.
“Well . . . yes.”
“You don’t know much, do you?”
“Be silent, slave,” she hissed. “I’m not open to your manipulations. I am your master.”
“Your first time, is it?”
From her attitude and bearing, he decided it had to be. Despite the position she’d put him in, Tarrik was impressed. To summon a demon like him on her first attempt at breaching the veil showed a talent and knowledge of sorcery few could surpass, not to mention the strength such a feat took, both in dawn-tide and dusk-tide power.
“I said be quiet!”
He put his hands up to show he meant no mischief. Besides, bound as he was, he couldn’t harm a hair on her head. “You sorcerers are always so sure of yourselves. If you’d just—”
She spoke a cant, one that Tarrik recognized an instant before the Wracking Nerves slammed into him at full strength. His skin burned with agony, and he cried out, collapsing onto the floor.
As swiftly as it had engulfed him, the punishment ceased. He lay curled up, hands balled into fists, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He’d bitten his tongue, which throbbed with pain.
After a few long panting breaths, he struggled to a sitting position. When he looked up, his summoner was peering into the distance over the side of the ruined tower, a look of worry on her face.
Something was chasing her. She was desperate. This, Tarrik could work with.
“You sorcerers,” he said, pausing to swallow the bloody saliva that was thick in his mouth, “are always too quick to punish. The carrot works better than the stick.”
“I have no carrots,” she replied. “And you’re not a donkey.”
Tarrik struggled to his feet, nerves still tingling from the torture. He glared at her but remained silent while she stared at him. Her dark-blue, almost black eyes were filled with fear and despair.
“I think,” she said slowly, “I’ve gone about this the wrong way.”
If you’d like to get in contact with Mitchell Hogan, you can find him on social media:
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Shadow of the Exile is out now!
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