QSFer Riley S. Keene has a new queer fantasy book out:
Hidden far beneath the city of Khule lies a spell of immeasurable power. Athala Dohn, wizard and scholar, wants that spell. She’s already spent months researching it and enlisted some help—the barbarian Ermolt and the Conscript Elise—so getting what she wants should be easy, right? She was prepared for the giant rats, and she assumed there would be animated skeletons. But she didn’t expect to uncover a dragon, or to be carted off to jail. Ancients is the first book in the epic Heroes by Necessity series, overflowing with rich world-building, diverse characters, and heart-pounding adventure.
Heroes by Necessity Book One
Ydia teaches that the Journey of Life begins by taking a first step on an important task, but that the Journey of Wisdom begins when we question that step. And so, as Elise Bresch realized her companions were missing yet again, she began her Journey of Wisdom. For the eighth time that day.
This morning they had made their plans, and while it had been quite an endeavor to get them focused initially, both Athala and Ermolt seemed completely invested in retrieving the spell Athala had finally pinpointed the location of just days before. Plans and maps were made, and Elise had detailed a schedule to help them keep on track.
But here it was, two bells later, and they had already vanished into the city to get into whatever trouble they could imagine. The three of them had been working together for only about a month, but already Elise knew to expect that her companions were the sort to get easily distracted by the smallest things. This meant that Elise would be forced to make the decision to leave one of them to their own devices to fetch the other after they’d wandered off.
With Athala Dohn, it was simple in theory—you looked for the tackiest, kitschiest stall hawking wares to wizards. The more unpronounceable the ingredients, or the higher the number of pages per book, and there you would find Athala.
Finding Ragan Ermolt, well, it wasn’t too hard to locate the man himself. Ermolt’s tastes ranged from every item of food or drink sold ever in a marketplace, to large weapons of disturbing sharpness or heft. So instead of tracking down whatever stall he had wandered off to, Elise would just stand on her tiptoes and look for one who towered over the southern folk. The barbarian’s head, topped with near ringlets of unfashionably long hair, stood a good six rhen over everyone else in Khule.
It was just a matter of getting a hold of one of the two. And since Ermolt was the easiest to find in a crowd, that meant tracking down Athala first.
It took nearly a half of a bell.
The Market District of the Upper East Tun, nestled against the thick stone walls that separated Khule from the Ploosk River, was a cacophonous hum of a thousand conversations spoken in the busy mid-morning bustle. Hawkers shouted at the throngs of people who passed by, hoping to entice them and their friends to visit a chosen shop.
Every smell imaginable filled the air of the market, from the sweet bite of freshly baked bread to the unmistakable odor of salted dilray drying in the sun. Stall after stall lined the roads, each selling a unique or interesting curiosity that pulled on Elise’s consciousness like she were a child with her first silver coin. It would be so easy to forget their plans for the day and instead purchase some new delicacy from Jalova. Or a new dress spun of the finest horeon silk. Or a white statue of Ydia to adorn the small living quarters Elise called her own.
But none of that would further Athala’s desire for the spell she thought she found, nor would it bring Elise closer to determining the origin of the visitor in her dreams. The one who looked like an ancient dragon and swore it spoke on her God’s behalf. Who urged her to hurry.
Elise looked towards the ever-present Temple of Ydia. The massive structure of gleaming white stone and polished golden accents rose from the south of the market like a guiding hand. Its fingers—spindled towers carefully fitted with expensive glass windows—shone with the Beacon Lights lit every morning in service.
Seeing the tempered towers with their glorious globes of magical light soothed the followers of Ydia and brought peace to the city of Khule’s inhabitants. But to Elise, who had spent many days of her youth pouring hours into prayer and worship to just light a single globe, the five jutting towers just brought about a bone-deep exhaustion.
And yet, as exhausting as it was to think of those long days of prayer, it was nothing compared to stopping at every stall in a five-street radius in an attempt to locate a tiny brown-skinned wizard who was likely annoying some hobbyist with her long-winded explanations.
When Elise did finally find Athala, she was nose deep in a tome as a concerned bookseller fluttered about, trying to wrestle the obviously expensive publication away. Elise watched this exchange for a moment as Athala ducked and dodged the grasping hands and pretended to ignore the feeble protests that threatened to distract her from the prized bit of knowledge she sought inside the volume.
Even though Elise had specifically asked her to change that morning, the wizard still wore an ankle-length, purple dress that was hemmed with golden thread. In the context of the market, spinning this way and that as she tried to read from her prisoner before it was taken away, she looked ravishing. But in the sewers and catacombs they would need to traverse, Athala would get the lovely silken fabric dirty. It might even tear. And while Elise was skilled enough with a needle and thread, that lovely purple fabric would be beyond saving.
Elise sighed. This entire month had been nothing but the same. Her companions thought of her akin to their mothers—always correcting them and scolding them—and so they tended to ignore her advice. But eventually she would be proven right and she hated that knowledge.
Athala danced away from the bookseller once more, and Elise finally stepped forward, interrupting the endless waltz with a cough. “Athala. We need to go.”
“Oh, Elise, good. You saved me the trouble of having to find you.” Athala skittered away from the bookseller’s grasp once more to get closer. “I was just looking for a particular passage I think you would be interested in.”
Elise glanced over the wizard’s shoulder. The text in the volume was minuscule, written in a tight script that blurred as Elise tried to focus on it. “There’s no time for me to read that—can you summarize it?”
“Dragons,” Athala said, her voice taking on a mischievous tone.
Elise redoubled her efforts to skim the cramped handwriting. “This book is about them?”
“Well—” the bookseller started, but Athala interrupted.
“—this is actually Henni’s Guide to Advanced Fundamentals of Bizarre Ceremonies. From the color of the ink, a copy.”
“A copy? How dare you!”
The wizard rolled her eyes and continued. “A bad copy at that. Henni Narten used exclusively an ink found in the southern reaches, which had a purple sheen when exposed to direct sunlight.” Athala whipped the book towards the edge of the stall, catching the page in the blinding light of the mid-morning sun. “See? Just blue. Fairly obvious that this leech is trying to foist this off onto some unsuspecting wizard, and for quite a bit of coin.”
Athala looked up pointedly at the bookseller who suddenly decided to thoroughly inspect a loose button on the hem of her apron. Elise suppressed a grin. The wizard was right to be suspicious—there were plenty of slimy folks who would take advantage of Khule’s Wizard Tower, and the under-educated and uninformed wizards who studied there.
“Right,” Elise said, drawing out the word slightly. “That’s, hm, fascinating. But so if the book isn’t exclusively about dragons, what is it about?”
“Rituals and ceremonies!” Athala’s chipper tone grated on Elise’s nerves, but the wizard continued before Elise’s temper could take over. “But it does have some interesting information about dragons. I was hoping to purchase the book to show you later, but this fraud is selling it for way too much.”
The bookseller’s focus returned at the mention of a potential sale. “I could be convinced, perhaps, to lower the price?”
“If I wanted to buy a copy with likely false information distorted by whatever idiot Temple you bought this from, absolutely.” Athala rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to Elise. “The short version is that Henni was a historian who documented tales and stories about all sorts of rituals and rites we no longer see today, including one that mentions dragons and theories on their ability to speak to others through dreams.”
Elise started, nearly knocking over a pile of books on a table behind her. It took her a moment to find her voice, and when she did finally speak, her throat croaked with dryness. “Anything else?”
Athala looked a little sullen. “Sadly, no. As I said, this is a copy and so it was likely edited by whoever performed the scribe work. I had remembered previously reading more on the subject and so I will continue looking, but for now, at least we confirmed you might not be going crazy.” Athala closed the tome and returned it to the stack, purposefully making sure it was left askew as if to force the bookseller to come around later and fix it. “Best case scenario is that the dragon is all just in your head. Dreams aren’t magic.” Athala started away from the stall and Elise followed. “And worst case, you’ve been contacted by an ancient being who once ruled over humanity as a tyrant and did the bidding of the Gods themselves.”
The very thought caused Elise’s skin to crawl. The being in her dreams had been so ethereal and divine. The commands so voluminous and clear.
And yet, the insolence that she, a lowly Conscript of Ydia, likely destined to a lifetime of menial tasks and servitude, would be contacted by a dragon unseen by humanity for many generations, was laughable. She tried to suppress the anxiousness bubbling deep within.
“So where did Ermolt get off to?” Athala said, and the inquiry brought Elise back to the present. The two of them had wandered almost a full street with Elise wrapped up in her own thoughts.
“Oh, I actually came to find you first.”
“I bet we can find him at the blacksmith,” Athala said after a moment. “He’s been talking to this gentleman over by the baker—I want to say his name is Danchmer?—about weapon modifications.”
Elise turned the next corner and started walking faster toward the area Athala mentioned. Athala hurried to follow, but Elise had to slow down eventually to let the wizard catch up. The crowds thinned out along this street and were marked more consistently with the Holy Symbol of Ydia, ever-present on jewelry, tunics, and tabards like Elise’s own, a sure sign that they had left the tourist-choked parts of the Market District and were coming to the permanent shops. Elise knew that the baker, tailor, and cheesemaker were all nestled in this remote location.
What Elise assumed was the blacksmith’s shop was a wood and stone structure that looked to take design inspiration from a barn. A sign hung out front, but it was so unlike the buildings around it, it had to be the blacksmith’s shop. A giant of a man, with arms thicker than Elise’s ample thighs, obscured the entrance with his familiar dark rings of hair and wide shoulders. A two-handed hammer was strapped to his back and he seemed to be wearing an armor made from the layered hides of animals. It was obvious he wasn’t taking this little excursion serious, but at least Ermolt had changed from his lounging trousers and tunic.
“Good,” Ermolt said as the pair sidled up beside him. “You caught up. I was just getting around to some business here and then was thinking of going to collect this spell without you. If you kept getting sidetracked, that is.”
“That’s highly unlikely,” Athala said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Given training, you might have the potential to pick up a basic spell. But the one I have been tracking is really powerful. It would likely kill you outright, no matter how much studying you did. The only reason I’m confident I could—”
“It was a joke,” Elise said with an exasperated sigh, cutting the wizard off before she could keep going. Athala’s frequent lectures were sometimes informative, or even endearing, but whenever she began waxing on about her own superiority, they tended to devolve into self-congratulatory nonsense. “Ermolt, are you done here?”
“Not quite,” Ermolt said, looking away from her immediately as if to avoid the twitch of her eye he knew would follow. “I only just got here.”
“Lad here was just asking me about increasing his range, but I really can’t see why he’d have a problem,” the swarthy blacksmith said, chuckling behind a glorious mustache. “A weapon so huge, with arms as long as yours, you can almost strike a man on the other side of the market without letting go!”
Ermolt shared in the laugh, and for a moment, Elise entertained the thought of bashing him over the head with her mace and dragging him down the street. “Yes, when I say ‘range’ it starts a fair bit farther out than most men. I’m still talking about beyond that. I know I’ll never match a man with a bow, but some wizards operate well within the range of my throwing arm, not to mention winged beasts that dart out of range before a man can strike back.” He shrugged. “I just want to be able to fight back without having to spend the rest of the fight punching.”
“Well, the concept is sound—employed it before on many a weapon—but I would have to say both durability and weight are limiting factors for this case.” The blacksmith held out his hands and Ermolt relinquished the hammer. Elise glared at the two of them, but neither man seemed shaken. The blacksmith tested the weapon’s weight in his hands for a moment.
“A standard bit of rope would snap. As would the usual chains I would suggest for lighter weapons. This thing is just too heavy. Anything mundane will either throw off your aim or snap under the tension after too many throws, and that says you could carry it in the first place. Big chains are heavy, friend.” He handed the weapon back to Ermolt. “And while I am sure you could carry this weapon on a forced march day and night without rest, adding twice its weight over might make you wish that you just carried a bow.”
“Hm. I just hate to carry the fragile thing around with me.” Ermolt slung the hammer back over his shoulder. “Is there perhaps a—”
“Ermolt. Please. Is there any way we can do this later?” Elise ground her molars together. “Tomorrow, even? We did come out for something other than shopping if you remember.”
“You have the right of it,” Ermolt said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I suppose I could come back tomorrow.” Ermolt shook the blacksmith’s hand. “I’ll be sure to return as I can. You have been most helpful, my friend!”
With a confused smile, the blacksmith hailed them and returned to his forge. But before Ermolt could wander off Elise put a hand to the small of his back, guiding him toward the sewer entrance. With her other hand, she looped her fingers around Athala’s tiny wrist, securing a hold on the slippery wizard.
The three of them marched down the street, earning curious glances from those they passed. It was inevitable. By all means, they stood out against the typical backdrop of the people of Khule. And it didn’t help that Ermolt and Athala talked loudly about dragons and implements of destruction, sharing tales from their morning finds.
It was all Elise could do to drown them out with repeated litany and prayer, the words whispered between clenched teeth.
At a crossroads of alleyways, crushed up against the back of an Inscriptionist’s shop, the three of them descended a narrow stairwell that led down under the street.
Elise directed the group into the darkness of the vaguely known and barely mapped, first through the sewer access tunnels, then into forgotten side passages connecting the tunnels to abandoned bolt holes and deserted hideouts, before finally making their way towards the catacombs they sought.
And, with Ydia’s blessing, the long-forgotten spell of Athala’s bookish lust hidden somewhere within.
Riley S. Keene is a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing duo. They live in the Pacific Northwest and enjoy the rainstorms, lack of sunlight, and excess oxygen that comes with it. Robert is in charge of the writing part of Riley’s books, and he has a love for video games and a dislike for pretty much everything else. Kristen is in charge of outlines and edits, and she loves gloomy weather and good books.