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The Lastchild

The Lastchild new cover

251,000 words.
Very mild sexual situations, fantasy violence.

Lad Oxley is no hero. He is just a typical farm boy who likes to read, a rather useless habit encouraged by a crazy old bookseller in town who teaches him imaginary languages like Elfin. But those dreamy pursuits become suddenly urgent one day on the road home from Caithrill when his life takes a turn for the bizarre: a shadow that walks upright and that releases burning coals when stabbed, a funny little man who calls himself a dwarf, and three greenish gargoyles with broadswords and the odor of garbage. Within minutes, running for his life, he is through a magical portal into another world where magic is a way of life and Elfin is real.

As the only person at hand who can read Old Elfin, he is plunged into a profound and dangerous mystery. Gargolyes are gaining in might, magic is crumbling, words written in Old Elfin fight with anyone bold enough to try to read them, and an ancient evil is yearning to awake. Joined by unlikely companions, Lad finds himself unwillingly launched on a quest to unravel a puzzle 5000 years old, one that threatens to destroy not only the world of elves and dwarfs but his own as well. Already, everyone who can read Old Elfin is being exterminated, and only he has survived — so far. The elves are weakening as magic deteriorates around them, nukgruks are rising in the west, and echoes of the past are pulling fate forward.

His road takes him into forgotten catacombs, among seats of lethal evil power, to remnants of the dimmest past. Do the answers lie with the enigmatic Obelisk at Shalomar’s Lookout? With the even more bizarre Watcher in the Well of Shadows, where hundreds have disappeared already? With the terrifying evil wizard Kazluc? Or something worse?

For in his dreams that are not dreams, is a vision of someone older than history and more evil than Kazluc. Chalik Ziniril, who calls him the Lastchild and beseeches him to remember her, to discard his elfin friends and join her.

Beware the Black Onyx Eye….

In a split second, at the climax of history, the worlds will be either saved or destroyed, and that fate rests upon Lad’s shoulders. Can he solve the mystery before it is too late?

Opening of Chapter 1

The Road That Wasn’t There

There was a fire on the mountain and Lad Oxley nearly perished in it.

He awoke abruptly to the first crash of thunder as it heralded another early morning mountain storm, the second in three days.  But its rumbling echoes soon dissipated among the hills, leaving only the sound of crackling and popping timbers.  A second later he caught the acrid smell of smoke.  His eyes darted at once to the site of last night’s campfire; it was cold and dead.  But there had to be a fire somewhere….

He sat up, startled, his bedroll still wrapped around him.

He stifled the flash of panic that arose in his throat; and tried to coerce his mind into thinking.  There would be time enough for panic later.  The soft mossy spot he had found last night was now in the midst of an inferno; the route he had taken was now blocked by flame.  Lightning had probably done this, but if it had struck so close, why hadn’t it jarred him from his slumber?  A spray of glowing embers showered down onto his blanket.  One spot was already smoldering, and looked as if it had been for several minutes.  He smote at it with one hand while his other reached for his pack.

He had traveled the old road to Caithrill dozens of times, and nothing like this had ever happened before.

There was no time to worry about the blanket.  If he got back to the village safely, he could toss it or find another.  If he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter.  The bedroll itself was another story, much more difficult to replace.  He extruded himself from it and rolled it hastily, eyes fastened on the brilliant orange flames greedily lapping at the forest around him, then secured it with one of its leather straps.

The place here atop the cliff had afforded a quiet sleeping place away from the road, but he had climbed up a fissure two or three hundred feet to the north.  Now, there was no way to get back to it except through the flames.  Chances would be a hundred to one against his being able to find an easy route back down.

As the first huge drops of rain spattered on the ground, Lad scooped up his crossbow and examined it for damage.  The fire had not touched it.  It was not likely to have been burnt, anyway, since it had lain at his side all night, cocked but not loaded.  The idea of sleeping with a loaded crossbow did not appeal to him.  It was one of Lad’s prizes, hand crafted of rich cherry wood and ash, finished with fine oils, and one of his two possessions he would have difficulty sacrificing.  The other was a book of stories, written in New Elfin, that Jifford had given him.

That was when he heard the noise.  It was a scuffling and scraping sound, like children fighting.  But whatever was making it was out of sight behind the wall of fire.  Lunatics perhaps?  Lad could imagine no issue, regardless of how excellent a fight it might provoke, that was worth burning up over.

“Yo!” he shouted

As he did so, he wondered why, except to satisfy his own curiosity.  There was nothing he could do to help, anyway.  The heat was already stinging his face and the smoke biting at his lungs.

“Somebody there?” came the immediate but unexpected response in a coarse and scruffy voice.  The words sounded somehow strange, but Lad was so startled to get a reply at all that he didn’t stop to think about it.  “Stand aside.  I’m coming through.”

Lad didn’t know which way to step, so he stayed where he was, wondering how anybody could be so optimistic about trying a run through a fire too dense even to see through.  But as he wondered, a dark form — like a great autumn watermelon hurled over a fence, and too small to be human — barreled from the flames.  It rolled to a stop just short of the cliff and unfurled into a tiny man, stout and so short that the tip of his tightly woven wool hat barely reached Lad’s belt.  He was dressed in leather, dyed red and forest green by some commendable process.  Large jovial eyes poked out from beneath his hat.  He had a long hickory brown beard tucked into his jacket and on his belt hung a soft leather satchel at least as big as Lad’s pack.  He carried a pole twice as long as he was high, and wore a scabbard, minus the sword, that nearly dragged the ground.  Above all, he reeked of smoke.

“We’d better hurry,” the little man said.  “He’ll probably follow me.  He doesn’t go too fast, but he keeps to a task until it’s finished.”

Lad was still rubbing his eyes to make sure he was not dreaming.

“Who’ll follow you?  You mean there’s someone else in there?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“He’ll burn up!”

The man shook his head vehemently.  “Not this one.  Let’s get out of here.”

Lad slung his crossbow over his shoulder, dropped the bolt that had been lying beside it into a jacket pocket, and peered over the cliff.  Dark, angry clouds filled the sky, and a dense mist blanketed the valley so it was impossible in the feeble light to see to the bottom.  Lad knew it had to be at least fifty feet down; he had climbed it last night.  He could discern a couple of narrow fissures wide enough to get a hand into, but not wide enough to climb.

“What we need to do,” he said, “is find a way down.  And fast.”

The midget looked down.  “Crowns!” he swore.  “I forgot about that.  Wait here.”

“Where are you going?”  Lad asked.  “There’s no place else to go.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Lad muttered to himself, “What is this crazy fool up to?  We have no time for games.”

His answer came at once.  The midget placed the palm of one hand on his head to secure his hat and bounded back toward the fire.

“Wait!”  Lad shouted.

But it was too late for the little fellow to stop.  At the last possible moment, he prodded the ground with his pole and vaulted through the flames, curling into a ball, disappearing exactly as he had arrived.

Lad looked to the sky.  The rain was picking up.  It would eventually put out the fire if it turned out to be anything like yesterday’s storm, but not soon enough to help that midget, who would surely have met his doom by now.  Lad had his own problems: a fire raging in his direction and the only means of escape an unscalable cliff.

But in a moment, before the direness of the situation had reached its full impact, the little fellow tumbled back out, apparently unharmed, but patting a spot on the seat of his pants that had gotten too close to the flames.  This time he carried probably a hundred feet of stout rope in a coil that was nearly as big as he was.

“He’s coming,” he squeaked.  “We’d better hurry.  I got the rope.”

“Great.  But there’s nothing to tie it to.  All the trees are on fire.”

“No problem,” the midget assured him.  “No problem at all.”

He selected a rock, of reasonable throwing size for Lad but a massive burden for a midget, tied one end of his rope to it, and wedged it securely in one of the cracks at the lip of the cliff.  He yanked on it, first outward toward the chasm, then to both sides.  Lastly, he swung over the edge and pulled on it from below.

“See,” he said as his ash-painted face poked into view.  “No problem.  If you want a problem, look behind you.”

Lad turned back toward the flames.  What he saw was a dark figure in the form of a man, a shadow without a maker standing upright as if it were something real.  Through it, Lad could see the flames behind darkened only slightly.  As unconcerned about the fire as it would have been about confetti, it lumbered slowly in their direction.

“That’s no man,” Lad muttered.  Some of the stories he had heard about this part of the highway came back to him, in all the vivid detail of their original telling, but none of them had spoken of creatures that could walk untouched through a raging forest fire.  “Why doesn’t it burn up?”

“Where do you think that fire came from?  I didn’t start it.  That thing’s as hot as an oven.  Shoots out sparks when you poke it and hot coals if you stab it.  Lost my sword that way.  You can stand here and watch it if you want, but I’m getting out of here.”

“Good idea.”  Lad grabbed his bedroll and pack and tossed them lightly over the edge.  He could retrieve them later if he made it that far.  The midget was lowering himself hand-over-hand down the rope at an incredible pace, as if he had been doing it for decades.  Lad claimed a little experience on ropes, but it had been mostly recreational.  Jifford, the old bookseller at the village, had suggested he learn how to do it just in case the need arose, a skill worth learning, he had said, like swordsmanship and reading.  But this was the first time he had ever done it on such short notice, and with such dire urgency.

He readjusted his crossbow and climbed timidly over the edge.  Climbing up a wide gully for a good night’s sleep was one thing, but dropping over a sheer cliff on a rope, pursued by a shadow that walked in fire, was something else altogether, not an activity to occupy the idle time of a reasonable person.  It terrified him.  His hands grasped too tightly, driven by fear rather than planning, so almost at once they hurt as his fingers blanched from the lack of blood.  He had gone down maybe ten feet when a sudden crash of thunder startled him.  He lost his footing, slipped against the rough limestone wall, and swung on the rope until he was able to catch himself again on the crack.

“Careful, up there!” shouted the midget.

Lad looked down.  The little man was still on the rope below him, a dark spot in the dreary mist.  “Sorry!”

Pebbles dropped on his head.  He looked up, but saw nothing.  Then, he noticed blades of grass glowing to incandescence and bursting into flame, apparently of their own accord since the main body of the fire was still at least a couple of yards away.  Big droplets of rain struck something invisible in the air and sizzled as if they had hit a frying pan left too long in the fire.  Quickly, a cloud of vapor accumulated, and in its midst was the shadow of a man.

“Hey!” he shouted down.  “That thing’s up here!”

“Think of something quick,” came the reply.  “If he burns the rope, it’ll be a hard landing.”

Lad grumbled.  He wrapped some of the rope below him around one of his legs for extra support — not easily, since the midget was still hanging onto it below — and reached for his crossbow.  But its strap was now trapped behind the rope, and he could not get it off without using both hands.  The rope was already wet, and getting wetter and more difficult to hold with each minute.  Whatever he did, he’d better do it fast.  His arms were already tiring, and he would not be able to aim his crossbow properly even if he could get at it.  Besides, crossbows were not designed to shoot straight up.

But he knew a Word, and he trembled at the thought.

It was an arcane Word, a very special Word, one no longer spoken by ordinary folks, and one he would have felt too foolish to try under any less demanding circumstances.  It was a Word that Jifford had taught him, indirectly, of course, one that he had only whispered, not daring to speak aloud.

Lad readied himself and cleared his mind.  If such words were spoken lightly, as ordinary words, they were just so much noise, passing in the wind and then gone.  But if they were spoken properly, with finely tuned awareness of their substance, they could manifest tremendous power.  At least this was what Jifford had told him about them, and at this time, unlike ever before, he hoped it was true.

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  1. Elise Stokes

    What a fantastic start to a fantasy story! Very well-written, too. Duane, is it available on Amazon?

  2. Duane

    Thanks, Elise! Yes, for Kindle. I guess this page is broken. See the email I sent you.

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