Ean hugged the shadows as he tried to find his way back to le Comte’s estates. He feared they’d hurt his head worse than he thought, for the twisting alleys of the city disoriented him now. He was sure he’d passed the last street corner already once, and he had the uneasy feeling that he was walking in circles.
Trying to break the cycle, he turned into a long and shadowed alley, spotting a streetlamp at the other end. Abruptly a form reared out of the shadows. Ean reached for his sword—
The prince halted with his hand around the hilt. “Fynn?”
“Balls of Belloth!” Fynnlar crossed the distance in a rush and grabbed him by both shoulders, giving him a shake. “What are you doing out here, you wool-brained fool?”
“I might ask the same of you, cousin.” Pushing a hand to his throbbing head, Ean closed his eyes. He’d seen so much death since the last moon…so many lives lost, and for what? He couldn’t fathom the events that spun violently around him, only knowing they somehow had him caught in the whirlwind.
“Ean, are you unwell?”
“Hit my head pretty hard,” the prince murmured, lifting tired eyes to refocus on his cousin. “I’ll be all right.”
“Come on. We’d best keep moving.”
The prince shook off the numbness edging his thoughts and followed his cousin. Fog was rising from the river as they headed back toward le Comte’s villa, fat fingers sliding through the streets to leach the color from the night. They reached a corner, and Fynn paused and looked warily around.
“Fynn, what are we waiting fo—”
But the words stuck on Ean’s tongue, for he heard it then: a strange whispering, the whisk of silk across the rough edge of glass. The sound had prickly tentacles that pierced into the soft flesh of Ean’s inner ear and twisted there, making him cringe.
Something flew out of the shadows and Ean swung his head after it, straining to make out what he’d seen. “What in Tiern’aval was that?”
Grimly, Fynn held his sword before him. “A Wildling—a Whisper Lord.”
The whispering continued, tormenting, growing soundlessly louder until it shrieked inside Ean’s skull, shattering any hope of focus.
The Wildling shot out of the shadows again, and Ean forced his eyes to follow, to find him in the shadows where he hid.
He saw him lurking against the wall, smiling around big white teeth. His leathery skin was pitch black , and his eyes were golden like the desert sands. The man locked gazes with him, and—
Suddenly they were nose to nose. Ean felt the heat of his breath in the same moment that the fiery sting of steel pierced his flesh.
Shade and darkness!
“Ean, he cut you!”
“I’m all right.” But Ean grimaced as he gingerly probed the wound. “Shadow take the abominable creature.” Fynn gave him a long look. “Be ready,” and he rushed to meet the Wildling.
The fight turned instantly vicious. Whisper Lord fought with long, stiletto daggers that speared like claws out of his gloves. His hands crisscrossed with amazing speed, never failing to find their mark on Fynn’s person, while his body twisted and spun. Fynn’s thrusts in turn only seemed to meet with the slashed silk of his garments. So fast did the Whisper Lord dart and cavort that Ean at first felt helpless to join in, for he could barely see the Wildling move until after it had happened, as if the sight had to bounce off the back of his eyes…as if he could only see the man’s reflection.
Then Ean found his focus and rushed to help Fynn.
The Whisper Lord marked him before he even got his blade around, a long swipe at the joining of neck and shoulder that burned bitterly. Ean realized that trying to use his sword alone would get him killed, so he pulled his dagger and dove in again. The Whisper Lord dodged like a jumping spider and managed in the same maneuver to slash a deep cut across Ean’s thigh, his daggers flashing first with the silver of steel and then dark with blood. Ean snarled a curse and staggered into the wall, teeth clenched against the pain, for the wound was angry and deep.
Abruptly Fynn threw himself backwards, himself narrowly avoiding a deadly thrust to his gut. Those spine-like blades sliced a chunk of flesh out of his side instead. The royal cousin clenched his teeth and held one hand to his midriff, using the other to pull himself out of reach.
Ean dove at the creature with renewed determination, his battered head forgotten in his haste to keep the man away from Fynn. He wore a malicious grin as they battled, and his golden gaze was flecked and sparkling against his face of leathery pitch. As Ean’s strength failed, the Wildling grinned even broader and began to chant in a voice like sand, “Tur or’de rorum d’rundalin dalal! Tur or’de rorum d’rundalin dalal!” Over and over while he pressed Ean on the retreat; gleefully, like a madman.
And then he made a sudden thrust, and Ean jumped to avoid the slashing daggers that barely missed his throat. He came down unevenly on his bad leg, and his knee buckled. Stumbling, he hissed a curse and the man bore down on him. A swipe of his hand, and three spiny daggers cut deeply across Ean’s back with their sharp fire. The Wildling’s other hand darted for his throat again, but the prince veered and twisted so the blades caught his chin and cheek instead. Ean rolled and thrust upward, but the Wildling merely laughed and arched out of his way; the weapon met only the whisper of silk.
Ean lay panting. His dagger seemed lost along with his will, and desperation could no longer drive him on.
The Whisper Lord advanced slowly wearing a grim smile. With the shrieking noise still accosting his skull and the loss of blood and nausea in his stomach, Ean felt only numb acceptance. Shaking, he lowered his head—
A tall form pushed past him, knocking Ean aside as it rushed to engage the Whisper Lord, driving the Wildling back and away, taking the battle out of Ean’s hands.
Ean fell onto his back, gasping as the last of his strength bled out of him, and lay watching his rescuer take offensive control.
The woman’s brown half-cloak floated behind her as she advanced with long, fast strides, forcing the Whisper Lord on the retreat beneath two short swords wielded in a flashing figure-eight.
The Wildling smiled no longer. Every thrust and swipe of his daggers was blocked by the woman’s whirling black blades. She matched him stride for stride, spinning when he spun, darting as he did, dodging as he lunged. They performed a ferocious, twisting dance of death where both knew the steps intimately and took them with ease.
As Ean watched, the Wildling slashed his daggered gloves in a motion that should’ve gutted the woman, but she flipped out of his reach, thrusting long as she landed. Her sword met with the flesh of his side, drawing a hiss as he jumped back. He glared malevolently at her and pressed one palm to his side.
“Merdanti,” he snarled, his golden eyes hot as they assessed her black blades.
Arching brows with a predatory smile, she twirled her blades and lunged for him again, and once more the dance began, the meeting of their deadly weapons a rhythmic beating that seemed in time with Ean’s still-racing heart.
Ean thought he must’ve dreamed it, his tortured mind inventing an impression for what clearly defied explanation. The woman and the Wildling seemed to shift and slow, their cloaks floating as if suspended on the wind. Then the woman launched out of her turn so quickly that Ean lost sight of her, only to spot her again as she stood squarely before her opponent, blades crossed. With naught but a grimace of effort, she chopped her short swords crosswise through the Wildling’s neck, removing his head completely. His body toppled to the stones at her feet, paying respects to her skill.
Silence hung in the street, a palpable blanket sewn of incredulity fringed with pain.
The woman lowered her dripping blades and leveled tawny eyes on the prince…
One of the most enticing aspects of writing fantasy is developing a magic system. The author’s magic system is inextricably woven into their world and contributes greatly to the reader’s vision of the world overall. The way a system is created either makes the world seem real or unreal, depending on how well the author has grounded the system with laws and limitations.For example, scientists in our own world have defined laws—inertia, gravity, the periodic table—that describe the physical limitations and properties of energy. We don’t expect a stone to rise upwards when we throw it, but we might believe it could float if it were somehow made of helium. Likewise in a fantasy world, it’s important to codify the system with laws and rules (and to stick to those rules once established), to set boundaries for what the magician can and cannot do with magic, and to establish consequences for and ramifications of magical misuse.
This all shows that magic systems require significant thought and research on the author’s part to develop realistically. Yet for all of this, the manner in which one might design and describe the magical process is potentially limitless—there are as many magical systems as there are fantasy novels, and equally as many readers eager to pontificate on their pros and cons and/or to organize the systems into categories and types.
The one thing most magic systems have in common, however, is that they all handle energy. Whether that energy is spiritual, omnipotent, corporeal, or derives from physical objects or living things, the working of arcane arts surrounds the manipulation of energy.
I designed the magic in Cephrael’s Hand based on scientists’ existing understanding of electrical fields. The process of thought has been scientifically proven to produce energy, and human bodies are known to generate electrical fields. For the magic in Alorin, I proposed that all living things produce a metaphysical energy which is formless but which flows across the world in natural currents. This energy is called elae. This is the energy a magician of Alorin uses to produce arcane workings. How he does this is the creative part.
In Cephrael’s Hand, all things are formed of patterns. A single leaf derives its pattern from the larger pattern of its motherly oak. The snowflake harbors the pattern of a storm. Rivers form patterns that mimic the pattern of the world, and a living man harbors within him the pattern of his immortality. These inherent patterns collect and compel energy (elae) toward a certain purpose—growth, action, states of change.
To compel energy, a magician of Alorin (called a wielder) must learn to first identify and then usurp control over the pattern of a thing in order to command it. This is a laborious process requiring a lifetime of study.
Unlike wielders, the Adepts in Cephrael’s Hand are born with the ability to manipulate certain patterns. Adept Healers can see creation patterns (life patterns) and mend them where they’ve become frayed. Truthreaders can hear certain thoughts and read minds to see what a man saw versus what he says he saw. Nodefinders have the ability to move long distances with a single step by traveling on the pattern of the world. And Wildlings tap into a variant aspect of the lifeforce called elae to shapeshift or even skip through time, among other intriguing talents. The last type of Adept can sense the patterns of nonliving things—stone, air, water, fire, etc.—and use those patterns to compel the elements themselves.
Adepts are limited by nature of their birth—they can only inherently work one category of patterns. They are limited by their training, their inherent intelligence, talent and ability. And of course, like us in real life, they are limited by their own vision of their capabilities.
Above all of these limitations, we find Adepts limited by “Balance.” The concept of Balance draws from my studies of Eastern philosophies. It is the high governing force, the yen and yang, karma, cause and effect, fate. It’s as esoteric and arcane as these concepts imply. How far can the Balance be pushed in one direction without lashing back at the wielder? Which actions stretch it and which ones defy it? Balance is a complex and complicated subject—as difficult to define as our own world’s myriad competing religions. The only real agreement on the subject of Balance is that all magical workings stretch the Balance to some degree. Understanding how far they can be stretched without snapping is central to survival in the arcane arts.
The concept of Balance provides, well, the “balancing” force to all magical workings in Cephrael’s Hand and is central to its plot. You see, the entire realm of Alorin is out of Balance and magic is dying—and the Adept race dies along with it.
Author Interview:1. Your debut novel, Cephrael’s Hand was the winner of The Written Arts Award for both the best fiction and the best Sci-Fi/Fantasy categories–congratulations! So tell us, what was the inspiration behind this story, and can you tell us a little bit about it?
I started the first version of Cephrael’s Hand when I was going through a difficult time in my life. I needed the cathartic joy that I’d always found in writing. I didn’t set out to write a novel—just to write. That first draft had no planning, no world-building, no design. It was pure creative inspiration. And it was awful!
But the characters… I had brought them into being, and they insisted that they had a story to tell. It took my growing as a writer—and over a million words tossed into the trash—to finally tell their story properly.
Cephrael’s Hand is the result of a philosopher’s approach to fantasy. It’s the story of one man’s steadfast determination to save the realm he swore to protect, and his willingness to do anything it takes to accomplish that end—even to betray those he loves. It’s the story of the unlikely pieces (men and women) who unknowingly fall beneath his shadow, and of the players who follow him. Ultimately, it’s a story of salvation.
I see fantasy as a metaphor for life in this world. We all face tests of our honor. We’re all working to accomplish our goals and flourish and prosper. Few of us set out to do evil. Yet evil is done. Goals are abandoned. Integrity is compromised. We totter precariously on thin wires as we move through the labyrinth of life. I strive with my series to illuminate those wire-thin paths, that we might find solid ground beneath them.
2. Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open Cephrael’s Hand?
If you listen to my critics—too many characters! But this is an epic fantasy dealing with a conflict that spans multiple kingdoms. It takes a team to save the world.
Hopefully you’ll meet interesting characters and a world you can easily find your own place within. You’ll discover pirates, princes, star-crossed lovers and philosopher-soldiers. You’ll see many characters who are not as they appear, and a few who are exactly as they seem. You’ll find adventure on a perilous road with prince Ean val Lorian, and farcical escapades with Trell of the Tides and the pirate Carian vran Lea.
You’ll often wonder who is good and who is evil—because most villains in real life are cloaked in shades of gray.
3. Can you tell us more about some of the key concepts that inspired the world of Cephrael’s Hand?
The story is crafted out of many of the philosophies I’ve studied. As I was planning Cephrael’s Hand, I had been reading about game philosophy. Game philosophy speaks on the importance of games in our lives and takes a look at their composition (barriers, purposes and freedoms) and their anatomy (pieces, players, maker of games). It’s a compelling concept with abundant applications, and I became immediately interested in exploring the ideas more via the story of Cephrael’s Hand.
Balance is another concept that threads throughout the story. Exploration of this idea comes out of my study and practice of yoga. If ever a concept permeates our lives, the pursuit of balance is one. Whether seeking to balance work and parenthood, our social commitments and our private lives, or even just the juggle of that list of a thousand things we’ll never get to, every one of us is seeking balance in some fashion. Placing this concept within the framework of a fantasy story embellishes it with a magical lure.
4. The Cephreal’s Hand constellation plays an important role in the book. Is there a real life constellation that plays a similarly important role in your life?
I can’t say that a particular constellation is important to me personally, though I’ve studied Astrology for many years. But I’m drawn to the idea, both scientifically and philosophically, that we are all connected somehow with each other and the broader universe. String Theory and General Relativity play to this idea from the perspective of science. Certainly, if we are connected to the stars in some esoteric way, then the actions of the stars can impact us. Astrology believes this, and the graphing of natal charts proves an underlying truth in this ancient, mystical and often misunderstood science. Philosophies far and wide declare that we’ve descended or separated from a universal oneness and teach karmic values with the intent of helping us return or re-ascend to that harmonious state.
The concept of Balance in Cephrael’s Hand stems from this idea of universal connectivity.
5. Ever since a linguist named Tolkien came along, language has been a very important aspect of the epic fantasy genre. What inspired the various languages in Cephrael’s Hand?
The desert languages are based on Farsi or Arabic, depending on the tribe. Farsi is one of the oldest languages still in use today, and its traditions lent themselves well to the Kandori culture, which is one of Alorin’s oldest races. Likewise Arabic, being originally a language of the nomadic tribes, seemed the correct base from which to draw the language of the Akkad.
Even older than both of these languages in my novel is Old Alaeic, which is the original language of theangiel, the Maker’s blessed children, and of the two original races: the zanthyrs and the drachwyr. Old Alaeic draws primarily from Gaelic root words. I chose Gaelic because the language maintains some of the earliest roots of our Indo-European linguistic heritage. Its spellings and pronunciations are almost universally reminiscent of mythological beings from ancient times and are often associated, especially in the fantasy genre, with elves, Druids or other mystical races.
6. Which other authors have served as influences and inspiration for your own work?
I love lyrical writing, so my bookshelves host an eclectic mix (albeit heavily weighted with fantasy and science fiction). Those who first come to mind from the fantasy genre are Anne Rice, Patrick Rothfuss and Jacqueline Carey, all of whom carry on a great and fabulous romance with the English language, much to the ecstasy of millions. Being able to string words like pearls into a story that reads at times like poetry in motion seems the greatest pinnacle of storytelling skill.
7. It’s been said that one of the most time-consuming processes of writing epic fantasy is world building. Without giving too much away, what are a few of your favorite world aspects and what inspired them?
As I wrote in a recent guest post, world-building and the magic system developed for the world are intimately connected. We can’t really describe a fantasy world without talking about the magic that rules it, because so much of what we understand about the world derives from our understanding of how the physical laws of the world work.
In creating my world of Alorin, I established five “strands” of the lifeforce known as elae. These strands are a way of describing and codifying the lifeforce which is the source of energy in the world, but they are only one way of describing it. While most of the viewpoints I am writing from agree with describing the lifeforce in terms of “strands,” there are other races in Alorin who have codified it differently, darkly, or with less purity for lack of philosophical simplicity.
I love exploring different viewpoints and imagining how each would describe a universal energy. I love examining the cultures that seek to describe this energy and how their ideals might alter their understanding of it. For example, the Adept race believes that Adepts are born with the ability to work one of the five strands, but only one. Yet some of the “Wildling” races are known to be able to innately work more than one strand.
The Fhorgs race works blood sacrifice to fuel their magic. Would their magic work without such sacrifice? The Adepts believe that it would. Yet within the Adept philosophy, a working of magic requires faith both in the existence of power and in one’s ability to manipulate it. If the Fhorgs don’t believe themselves able to wield the lifeforce without letting blood, it follows that magic would become unavailable to them simply because of their lack of belief. Moreover, because the Fhorgs don’t limit their ideas of their magical ability to a five strand approach, it’s possible they might achieve more through the wielding of it–or not. These are existential questions for these two races, questions which set them at odds with each other. Questions from which derive conflicts and persecutions, intrigues and betrayals.
Such explorations fuel both world-building and magic-system building, because their delineation establishes how the world works, how the people of the world interact with the energy that fuels it, how they interact with each other, and how they use the energy itself to work arcane acts.
8. You grew up in a house full of musicians, but your creativity emerged in the form of writing. Have you always felt called to write?
I always thought I would end up with a career in music like the rest of my family. I grew up harboring such an appreciation of these accomplished, classical musicians all around me, it seemed a natural course to follow in their footsteps.
Instead, I stumbled into writing the way one sometimes bumps into providence, colliding with it accidentally. I happened to take a creative writing class in high school. My creative writing instructor believed the best way to teach writing was to send her students out to actually write. So I did—hundreds of pages over the next few years. Writing became both an outlet for my creativity and the escape reading had always provided. I know I share that love affair with many authors.
9. At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
Usually I turn to music—either composing it or listening to it. If I can find a great new song, sometimes that will help inspire me out of the hole. When a scene just isn’t working, I’ve learned to go back to where I was last doing well in the story and scrap everything that came after. It’s an agonizing process, but often necessary.
10. The Dagger of Adendigaeth, Book 2 in your series, has just been published. How has your vision expanded from book 1 to book 2, and what kind of creative growth have you experienced in your process this second time around?
We grow as writers with every novel—at least I believe that’s the goal. Many of the things I gained in writing The Dagger of Adendigaeth are intangible, ineffable understandings of myself and my creative process. I think of those times of being fabulously, fantastically stuck and the final moment of inspiration that launched me out of that depressing well. I think of the plot twists that came to me completely without warning, and the absolute magic that is the creative process.
The thing I loved most about writing this book was being able to explore so many viewpoints—especially the viewpoints of those characters who might be viewed as antagonists. But I don’t and never have seen them that way. It’s my greatest purpose in writing this series to be able to show the motivations and ideals that mold and shape each character. The more we can understand each other, the closer to a peaceful coexistence we will find, whether in the microcosm of our lives or the broader political and religious zones
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About the author: Melissa McPhail is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a Vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid Fantasy reader. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their twin daughters and two very large cats. Visit Melissa on her website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.