Friday, September 5, 2014

Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows, by Andrew Cratsley

frontcover_444x664Title: Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows
Genre:  Fantasy
Author: Andrew Cratsley
Publisher: CreateSpace
Purchase at: 
An extraordinary coming-of-age fantasy tale written by a dynamic new voice in the world of fantasy, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has garnered high advance praise. Kirkus Reviews notes that Cratsley “believably and authentically develop[s] his characters” and calls the book a “promising debut.”  In a Clarion Review,ForeWord Reviews reports that Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows “has all the color, imagination, and drama one might expect from the genre as well as emotional depth.”  Moreover, the review states that the book’s “fast pace and gaming-style characteristics may appeal to more reluctant readers and inspire future fantasy enthusiasts.”
About Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows:  At 120 years old, Corinth is young by elf standards.  But even as a young elf, Corinth is haunted by his sordid past. When he emerges from his solitude within the eternal forest around Enzlintine, Corinth is sent away to quell the troubled region plagued by Khalid, the Lord of Conquest.  But this will be a journey like no other. Corinth bands together with two curious companions—the human ranger Aventis and the oh-so-spirited Nadine—until the trio is captured by an insidious necromancer, Mortiscet. A vile dark elf who forces the group to help his daughter Rieka find a mysterious object, Mortiscet thrusts the group into increasingly dangerous circumstances. Can Rieka escape the clutches of her wicked and overbearing patriarch?  And what will happen when the group launches towards a frigid wasteland in search of the bane of the evil that stalks them?  On this perilous journey, they’ll have to battle assassins, ominous creatures and the forces of Khalid. Expect the unexpected—because sometimes, the best intentions come from the darkest recesses of the heart…  
A splendid and magical tale with a captivating storyline, extraordinary characters and a plot brimming with action, intrigue and adventure, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a fascinating read that captivates from page one. Resplendent with characters that come to life within the novel’s pages, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a beautifully-written, imaginative, and inventive tale.  With its strong central female characters, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows offers a refreshing diversion from fantasy tales that focus largely on male protagonists and male supporting characters.   
A mesmerizing work of fantasy geared towards young adults, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows will also appeal to adult readers of fantasy, as well as fans of such fantasy classics such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series.  According to Pacific Book Review,Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has aspects to entice most any reader, whether lover of fantasy or not…. readers of fantasy will delight in Cratsley’s work.”
The Dawn of a Knight

As the grove shimmered under the gaze of the waning moonlight, the young elf basked in a glowing cloud of fireflies along the trails. A triumphant vigor carried his tired body like the nearby orange fire-burst petals on the wind. Never before had a stroll through the dense forest surrounding Enzlintine been so blissful, and its serenity urged him to lower the hood of his gray cloak. During these rare moments of freedom, the timeless charm of the forest swept away his worries. Leaving the barracks so early was unnecessary, but he was embarrassed by the thought of a late arrival. Not the sort of thing a sage knight should do, and certainly not him.
Heavy fog rolled in and devoured him as he strode deeper into the dense foliage. More knowledgeable of the terrain than most elves, Corinth refused to be deterred after his twenty-seven years of solitude within it. His 120th birthday promised long-desired responsibilities, but the choking mist consumed his elation over attaining adulthood. Although fog was natural in early spring, this sudden onset was peculiar. He knew he was close to the clearing, but the thought of imprisonment within a smoky prism came to mind when he struggled to see his hand in front of his face.
A soft gust whispered into his pointed ears and stopped him in his tracks. Certain no wind had brushed his face, Corinth looked down at his cloak, which hung just as limply as his strong, uneasy hands. The soft forest floor greeted his feet gently as his silver eyes swept his surroundings while he felt his way through. When he noticed his footsteps were unusually muffled, the sounds of nature perished. The cooing of mourning doves, the scratching of nearby brambles against his cloak, and even the pounding of his heart, which threatened to break through his rib cage, no longer reached his keen elven ears.
“Silence spell,” he mumbled. With a glance into the warm sky, his anxiety mounted as he wished for the light of the bright moon he knew was overhead. Resting his back against the nearest tree, he brushed his shoulder-length, ebony hair from his forehead and drew his long sword. Since the enchantment around him prevented the use of magic, he wondered if it was the work of Tessius. He dismissed the absurd thought as he considered a more sinister threat might be around him. Wary of the clearing ahead, he stopped at the edge of the tree line and gazed into the eerie place that usually soothed him. A pillar of moonlight illuminated the harsh fog, which swallowed their usual meeting place.
The sharp intake of breath meant to calm him revealed an unnatural scent carried upon the white mist. It was dirty, lacking the fragrance of flowers and pollen, which should have filled the air. He stowed his blade beneath his cloak and held it tightly, since exquisite elven steel shined brighter than silver. It was the first time he regretted this quality of his father’s sword.
With a solid defensive stance, Corinth kept his back close to the great oak just outside the clearing. Shadowy distortions appeared in the fog and leaped toward his chest as he gracefully sidestepped them. Anxiety sharpened his senses as he swung instinctively toward the glare of the amber eyes, which bulged when he ripped open the throat of the waist-high menace. A putrid scent filled the air as its pustules ruptured against his steel. He glanced quickly at his feet and found no trace of the dead, wrinkled goblin, which meant it had been conjured.
Walking into the center of the vibrant clearing, Corinth relied on his sight since goblins could easily trace his scent. His fingers tingled with anticipation, and he dared not blink as his silver eyes studied the area. Two dusky blades lashed toward his toned body, followed by more pointed, snarling faces. Slashing forward with all his strength, Corinth parried the rusted short swords and launched one of the blades through the moist air. Although thrown back a couple of paces, he remained on his feet and glared at the fearful creatures. The goblins stared wide eyed at him when they landed, unable to compensate for his speed. After impaling the wrinkled forehead of the one to his left, he turned his steel and swept it to his right without pause. His lustrous blade cleaved through the other creature’s rib cage as it attempted to retrieve its weapon. Narrowly evading the cold, iron weapon at his feet, Corinth felt the rusted edge scrape his boot. Restlessness clenched his chest when he studied the area, wondering from where the next strike would emerge.
A reflection loomed in Corinth’s blade, enticing him to spin around with a blind swing. His sword clashed awkwardly against the corroded iron, and he stared down at the toothy grin of the crazed goblin who parried his attack. The small, fanatical menace scraped its steel along Corinth’s weapon with surprising strength before Corinth could recover his slackened grip on the hilt. The goblin stared gleefully at his elven steel as it tumbled through the air. Kicking it across the bridge of its long, pointed nose, Corinth staggered when another creature leaped onto his back. He struggled to pry away the stubby, strong arms that grappled his neck as the flat of a blade slammed into the back of his knee. Tears poured from his eyes as he fell backward to the soft forest floor. The goblin on Corinth’s back swung around his neck and landed gracefully on his chest as Corinth hit the ground. Anger and terror ravaged his fit body as the tidal wave of creatures swallowed him from all sides.
After punching the devilish monster straddling him, Corinth sat up as it fell unconscious between his legs. Sharp blades poked his back before he could scramble to his feet, and a fierce kick to the ribs knocked him prone again. Sound returned with a surge of the hideous laughter of the goblin pack that towered over him as they pointed their swords at his angry face.
“Cowardly beasts!” Corinth sneered through gritted teeth.
“That is enough,” Tessius said as he calmly walked into view. The remaining creatures parted to allow him to approach. His long fingers stretched out, and his arm made a polite sweeping motion. “Un-accersi.” The creatures growled as they vanished, and the fog lifted. With a swish of his large hand, Tessius pulled down his brown hood, and his web of hazelnut braids fell neatly against his back. He smiled down at Corinth with his usually kind expression and extended his open hand.
“That was very good,” he said. “Can you stand?”
Nodding, Corinth accepted his master’s hand grudgingly. This was yet another training session, and he had failed what was perhaps his last test of skill. With a strong grip, Tessius squeezed Corinth’s shoulder as he walked toward the stone bench near the center of the clearing. Corinth gazed hopefully at his master for an explanation, while his pulse raced at the thought of this mockery before he looked at the ground, feeling mutinous.
“Come now, Corinth. This is a time to celebrate, not sulk.” Tessius chuckled and reached under his brown cloak. “Come here and sit down.”
Realizing that his attempt to hide his anger had failed, Corinth was unable to resist his protest any longer.
“I was outnumbered ten to one,” he grumbled. “You prevented me from using magic, and I could see nothing! How was I supposed to succeed?” Annoyed while Tessius surveyed him with amusement and interest, Corinth bit back his mounting anger.
“Simple,” Tessius replied as he paused to open his jug of elven mead, which always hung from his thick belt. “You were not supposed to succeed.” He held up his hand to silence Corinth before he could speak. “Sit down.”
Reluctantly Corinth took his usual seat beside Tessius, who removed two flasks from the sack on his right hip. Staring back in confusion, Corinth could think of no response as his master thrust the jug and flasks toward him. “Pour, and I’ll explain since you are of age now. I want you to drink with me and talk for a while.” Enticed by the polite gesture to pour, Corinth thought the sweet aroma had an inviting appeal, but the timing felt peculiar. Unwilling to test his master’s patience with more rudeness, he filled the flasks.
The mead soothed Corinth’s throat with a warm sensation. It was remarkably smooth, with the hint of a rare berry that grew locally. Sapphire eyes pierced him as he drank, and the calm demeanor the ladies of Enzlintine admired so much relaxed him. Faint traces of blue embraced the sky, which met Tessius’s gaze as he scratched his hazelnut braids. His bulky arm lifted his flask for another sip before he continued.
“Time and again your sword has shown no limits, and your technique can only evolve with real experience.” Curious as to why the moon enthralled Tessius so much, Corinth pondered what his master thought when his bright eyes fixed upon it.
“You intended to mimic a real battle?” Corinth asked. “It seemed like the usual kind of test, only different tactics.” His choice of words came more easily as the mead washed away his contempt.
“Your training has entailed the art of swordsmanship in the way known only to the elites of the elven guard, the sage knights. This has done nothing to aid you against what awaits you in the real world, since few share our principles of chivalry.” After pausing to empty his flask, Tessius held it out for a refill and smiled reassuringly. “If you had succeeded, the lesson would have served little purpose.”
“It would have shown I possess superior skill. Surely the lesson would have been as—”
“It would not have,” Tessius interjected. Mead spewed out of the top of the flask as he spoke, and Corinth shifted uncomfortably as it ran down his master’s arm. Tessius sighed and moved his flask to his right hand so he could shake the wasted mead off his left. “Many young sage knights fall to such perils soon after induction into the order; thus my reasoning for this lesson before giving you real assignments. Now that your eyes are open, you can proceed.” He chuckled at Corinth’s blank expression.
“You mean I was accepted?” The nearby doves scattered amid his excitement.
“Of course!” Tessius laughed heartily at Corinth. “This means greater responsibilities ahead, and as my disciple, you represent not only me but also our community. You will be officially inducted tomorrow, so be sure not to get involved in city business.” He cast a quick, stern look at his student before he lifted his flask to his lips.
“Yes, sir!” As Corinth watched the sun rise, his spirit blazed like the red sky as it enveloped Terranesit, the world in which they lived.
“Take the day off.” Emptying his flask again, Tessius stared into the sky and admired the glow of the new day. All the trees swayed gently in the breeze, and the woodland creatures scuttled about with their daily tasks. “Go visit Enzlintine. I know you miss it.”
“Yes, thank you…, sir,” Corinth replied, forcing a smile of gratitude.
“Out with it,” Tessius said as he stowed his flask into his hip sack.
“I wonder how the townspeople will…I mean to say—have they forgotten?” Intense heat swept over his shameful face as he searched for the right words. He wished he could avoid this conversation and immediately begin his duties.
“No,” Tessius said. “They are elves, after all.” He stared at Corinth’s crestfallen face and smiled. “So you made mistakes in your youth.”
“It was only twenty-seven years ago,” Corinth uttered as he swept back his uncooperative hair.
“And in that time you have grown more than any elf could be expected to. Yes, you will have to earn respect again, and as you know, it may be a slow, difficult process.” A patient smile swept over Tessius, who gave a few moments’ pause. “You were a rather petulant child who had too much pride to accept aid from those who respected your family, so you and your gang of friends hid in the old city, plotting petty heists.” He stopped for a moment to grasp Corinth’s shoulder, while he bore into his silver eyes again. “A shameful thing for any of our kind to suffer. However, you were doing the best you could on your own.”
Turning away slightly, Corinth found the sight of the sapphire eyes too much to look into; the act prompted Tessius to release him and stare at the falling moon. “Those days are gone, and you will now serve Enzlintine with the highest pride and honor that is possible for an elf.”
“I will do all that is possible, Master.” Little relief swept over his burning eyes, and the urge to start his duties consumed his thoughts.
“If you recall, your pleading went on for years before I agreed to teach you the secret arts. Only your will to learn, determination, and deep sense of remorse led you to where you are now. The pain you still feel from this tells me I have made the right decision in training you.”
Leaving Corinth to his thoughts, Tessius rose and disappeared behind the wall of vines on the east side of the clearing. The mead tingled Corinth’s lips as he pondered his master’s words, shuddering at the idea of another couple thousand years of guilt. Eager to escape his past, Corinth dreamed of heroism and noble servitude to Enzlintine.
He trudged north with little notice to where he stepped, aware that he was on a direct course toward home. A dense heaviness clung to his feet as he passed the training barracks where he’d lingered for so long. Newborn leaves and blossoms didn’t sweep him away as they should have as he walked the vast forest. Looking down at the vibrant sword he had inherited, Corinth wondered what his father would have said at his matching in rank at his young age.
Upon his arrival at the outer rim of Enzlintine, Corinth stared at what the elves called the “old city.” The ruins saddened him—as they did most of his kind—as he walked past the decimated buildings. Two hundred years of overgrowth nearly swallowed the remnants from the era of chaos. Restoration of their homeland had been slow as they had built outward while their race repopulated the forest. Keeping his eyes fixed on the cobblestone-and-alabaster road, he reached the stone archway next to the waterfall, which separated the ruins from the new city.
Sunlight glistened off the ivory buildings and mansions of the many aristocrats, artists, and musicians, reminding him at once of how beautiful Enzlintine was. Trees and gardens lined the vast structures toward the center of town as he strode by, waving at the local blacksmith. As he feared, memories of his last days in Enzlintine flooded his mind. He wondered how long it had been since his parents’ funeral when Tessius arrested him and took him into the solitude of his parents’ cabin, which was near the barracks. Recalling the many funerals of friends and family, Corinth remembered only sadness and was unable to discern what he had done at the time.
Greeted by the town square, a grid of well-kept trees and fountains, Corinth stopped on the short stone bridge. He stood over the moat and gazed at the most precious gift given to the elves, the Tree of Life. Granted by their goddess, Nartha, it was the sigil of their essence. The tree kept the entire forest fertile and immortal, and its great branches spread over the moat surrounding it. Its top was barely visible, and in the spring, it attracted doves by the hundreds. Most elves believed the tree blessed the city with prosperity, and they often held ceremonies, such as weddings, under its heavy branches. Although religion had never interested Corinth much, the tree always lifted his spirits, and today was no different. He rested on the grass of the small island and stared up for a while at the white blossoms, which floated toward the water surrounding him.
Feeling recharged, he wandered into the marketplace in the northwestern district, where the granite buildings, ornate with quartz and precious metals, were tightly packed together. The market was crowded as he passed, wondering where he should go next.
“Corinth! Is that you?”
Stopping in his tracks, he turned toward the sound of the familiar, sly voice. He caught a glimpse of the clothing vendor, who stood behind one of many booths along the street, and approached him apprehensively.
“It is! Ha!” he added, grinning at Corinth, who nodded curtly with a forced smile. “Where have you been all this time?” The scrawny vendor leaned over his counter and extended his bony hand.
“I was…removed, Besmyr,” Corinth replied as he took the vendor’s hand, unsure what to say to his old friend. The man had been the ringleader behind his childhood mischief and the last person he expected to find.
“I heard!” Besmyr said, ruffling his short, blond hair. Scathing looks from nearby vendors and customers pierced Corinth from all sides. “I was told Tessius arrested you personally.”
“Yes,” Corinth replied, glancing at passersby as his face grew warm.
“I spent a month in the dungeon, given my age, but I was worried when I heard that bloody sage knight had an interest in capturing you. Where have you been?”
“I was isolated, but after some years, I was relocated to the barracks.” The vein twitched in Corinth’s forehead, which burned as red as his tunic. He wished more than anything that he could have avoided this reunion.
“The barracks?” Besmyr asked with a suspicious frown.
“I started training after my punishment ended,” Corinth explained. It wasmy decision.”
“You wanted training…for what purpose?” His blue eyes flickered as his pale face reddened, and the casual conversation quickly resembled an interrogation. Corinth stood rigidly and glared back at him.
“To atone. Surely you are doing the same?”
“I’m sorry I was caught, but I make an honest living to avoid expulsion from the city!” Besmyr hissed, pulling his face up to Corinth’s. “You think I would live among humans?”
“You are not regretful of what happened?” Corinth’s heart raced furiously over the unavoidable conflict.
“Regretful I have been reduced to this living, and having to watch you puff out your chest like a pompous fool!” Besmyr snarled as he slammed his fist on the counter. “Why would being a lowly town guard make you walk about like a self-righteous buffoon?”
“I do no such thing,” Corinth said in a low tone, “and I am not a town guard. I am a sage knight.”
“A sage knight?” Besmyr blinked. “You’re full of…You have no crest.”
“I will be inducted into the order tomorrow, and I owe you no apology simply because I want to serve the city!”
“You sound just like that fool who arrested you.” Besmyr narrowed his eyes before an odd smile stretched across his face.
“You go too far!” Leaning closer to Besmyr, Corinth felt a slight tug on his belt and turned to find what had amused him. The elven child who’d pulled the purse off Corinth’s belt stood barely past his waist. Panicking, the blond boy sped down the street with Corinth on his heels.
“Serves you right!” Besmyr barked after him.
Pursuit of the thief through the marketplace was clumsy as Corinth attempted to dodge citizens with the same grace as the child.
“Boy! Everyone step aside!” Corinth shouted as he ran into a middle-aged woman, whose husband caught her as she fell. Shouting his apology over his shoulder at the angry elf, Corinth dared not pull his eyes off the child. As he sped down an alley to his left off the main street, the debris did nothing to help him gain ground. Wagons and carts vendors used to restock businesses blocked the narrow passageway, and the child passed them with impressive speed. It was the first time Corinth was thankful to be thinner and less muscular than Tessius, who could always break Corinth’s stance when he parried.
The small blond boy was almost in reach, and he dropped a bag of marbles as he rounded a corner. Unable to stop in time, Corinth braced himself with an outstretched hand as he trampled the tiny glass orbs. His left shoulder screamed in agony as he bounced off a stone wall and fell to one knee. Despite his robust training, a painful stab erupted in his side from the chase as he sprinted off once more. Ignoring the protest of his lungs and the bleeding from the cuts he had received in the alley, he cut across a vacant side street. Almost within arm’s reach, the boy ran down the alley between two men in brown cloaks. Huffing as he grabbed his knees, he stopped behind them and in front of a third man. The two men in front barred Corinth’s path as he slid to a halt. Handing over several coin pouches to the man in the back, the child scampered off behind him.
“That’s far enough,” hissed the man in the back. “He’s a good worker, and we don’t need little goodies like you turning him in.”
“Are you his employer, or are you lowly pawns as well?” Corinth wheezed, squinting for a better look at the faces under the large, brown hoods.
“I don’t see why it matters to you, foolish one. You don’t appear to be the town guard.”
The chuckling of the two men in front burned Corinth’s ears as the child’s footsteps drifted out of earshot.
“That matters not,” Corinth replied as he recalled Tessius’s warning to stay out of city business. “What you are doing is unjust, and I cannot watch you corrupt that boy.”
“What do you intend to do about it?” The man in the rear stepped toward Corinth so they could be face-to-face. Although he kept most of his face hidden, a black-and-gray beard fell out of the hood, tipping off Corinth that the man must be human, since elves couldn’t grow facial hair.
“You have no place here!” A violent explosion erupted in his chest as he shouted at them, unable to bear the thought of outsiders corrupting his home from within. The men burst into laughter, only antagonizing him further.
“You hear that, boys? We have another pompous elf to contend with,” the man scoffed as he thrust his dagger at the elf’s chest.
Sidestepping the stab, Corinth slammed his back into the wall behind him.
Illuminas caecae!” he snarled as he extended his left hand toward the bandits. The leader ducked and turned away, narrowly avoiding the flash of white-hot light, which burst from Corinth’s casting hand. The man to his right caught the full brunt of the spell and fell unconscious. He hit the paved road with a thud, while the other man shielded his eyes—but not quickly enough.
“I’m blind! I can’t see!” the cloaked man cried as he backed away and tripped over the crate behind him.
“Only temporary, I assure you,” Corinth said as he drew his weapon. “You cannot defeat me. Do yourself justice and—”
The leader spun around and hurled a pouch of sand into Corinth’s face. Intense burning consumed his eyes as he resisted the urge to scream and instead focused his energy on his keen hearing. Footsteps circled farther to his right, then paused. He pretended not to hear and held his breath as he waited for the side attack. Sidestepping gracefully, Corinth swept his elven blade and cleaved a deep wound in the man’s unarmored chest. The bandit screamed in agony and fell to the ground, heaving his last breath.
“Not so fast,” a man hissed from behind Corinth, who rubbed his watery eyes. Sharp pain erupted through the lower-left side of his back when he tried to turn. Hands wrapped in black leather grabbed his throat and prevented him from falling to his knees. Gasping for air, Corinth winced as painful tears filled his eyes. “I was watching from the shadows for my amusement, but I’m afraid I can’t let you capture my hirelings.”
Immense agony rippled through Corinth as the dagger in his side twisted before the man wrenched it back out. Laughter filled his pointed ears as he screamed. The hand that bound his throat released him and pushed him to the ground. He felt dizzy, and his eyes faded out of focus; a chill swept over him as the strength drained from his body. He rolled onto his back, unable to see the face of the cackling man who had stabbed him. Harnessing the last of his strength, Corinth raised his sword and pointed it at him.
“You still want to fight me? You can’t even stand!”
Trinus,” Corinth muttered, focused on the evil laughter. An unseen force knocked the man forward onto Corinth’s steel and impaled him. The pommel slammed into Corinth’s ribs when the rogue fell on him, but it no longer mattered, since Corinth felt no pain.
“Curse you,” the man gurgled into his ear, choking on his own blood.
Corinth twisted his blade one last time and heard the man fall silent. Darkness crept over him as he listened to the pounding of footsteps.

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