Ontogeny

Princess Ardria, the beautiful daughter of king Leothan and heir to the Kingdom of Helberion, has been poisoned by the enemies of the King. The poison is a cruel one that is slowly robbing her of her very humanity, turning her into a creature of nightmare and horror, and there is no known cure. In his desperation, the King turns to his great friend The Brigadier, who has saved him and his Kingdom many times in the past. The only hope is to find a legendary wise man, a man who may not even exist, and who is rumoured to live at the very edge of the known world, a land of wonder and mystery.

As Helberion is riven by rivalries and intrigues, therefore, the Brigadier and his men set out on their long mission during which they make astonishing and unexpected discoveries about their world. They discover a terrible threat that has been lurking for centuries, a menace that threatens not only Helberion but the entire human world, and the Brigadier learns that everything he thought he knew about his world and the history of his people is wrong...

Here is an extract from Ontogeny


      “She was such a beautiful kestrel.”

      The Brigadier followed the King’s gaze down into the courtyard, where a handmaiden was running a brush through the Princess’ long, golden hair. His eyes narrowed as he saw how the change was already beginning to manifest. A radiance around the girl. Still faint, barely noticeable in the lantern light but enough to light up the handmaiden’s face as if she were standing in a shaft of silver moonlight.

      He and his men had arrived back in the great city of Marboll just a few hours before, having travelled the last few miles in tremendous haste in response to the summons delivered by the King’s messenger. So great had been the urgency of the summons that he had gone straight to the palace, not even stopping at his estate to clean himself up and change clothes, so that he was still wearing his travel stained uniform and carrying the distinct aroma of horse and stale sweat. The King hadn’t cared, though, and had ushered him into his private quarters, the wing of the palace where the royal family enjoyed their private moments, away from affairs of state. The Brigadier had gathered that something had happened to the Princess and had feared the worse, but the truth was an even greater shock than anything he could have imagined.

     The first clues had come the day before, while still miles from the city. Every town they'd passed through had been hushed and downcast, with hardly anyone out in the streets despite the bright spring sunshine. The owner of the inn at which the Brigadier and his small group of rangers had stayed for the night had said he had no idea what the trouble was, but that a sense of desperate disquiet had been issuing from the capital city for weeks now, and that it had affected every town and village within fifty miles. People would go to the city happy and cheerful, the innkeeper had said, but when they returned they had been troubled and silent, as if they had been infected by some darkness of the soul, some malaise of the spirit that had spread to afflict everyone else they'd come in contact with. No-one could say what the trouble was, but something terrible had clearly struck in the Palace, the very heart of the Kingdom. When the messenger arrived at dawn the next day, therefore, the Brigadier had already decided to make all speed for the city, but when he heard that it concerned the Princess he and his men had driven their horses almost to death in their haste to get there as soon as humanly possible.

     They had arrived at the city to find crowds of people lining the streets, staring at them in desperate hope as they galloped past as if only they could drive away the darkness. Here, where they knew more of what had happened, the air was full of conversation as the people talked to each other and cried out to the rangers themselves. “Save her!” they cried. “Say you can save her!” The Brigadier had not paused to reply, though, had not even looked at them as they galloped past, their horses lathered and gasping, and they had arrived at the palace to find the King himself at the gate waiting for them, an unprecedented and utterly unthinkable breach of protocol. Leaving Sergeant Blane to see to the horses and take the rest of the men back to the barracks, therefore, he had followed the King inside almost as a run, as if just a few saved minutes might make the difference between salvation and damnation.

     “I remember the moment we first saw her,” the King continued whimsically, his eyes unfocused as the memory drifted back. “She belonged to the Count of Amberley, one of his finest birds. We’d stopped at his castle on our way back from a state visit to Vennerol and the Count was putting on a display of falconry for us. Just showing off, I know, but entertaining just the same. We watched for a time, watching him put them through their paces, and then he unhooded a kestrel. The moment we say her... The glossy feathers, the bright eyes... The Queen and I looked at each other, both of us knowing the same thing. We’d found our daughter.”

      The Brigadier nodded. He’d heard the story before, of course, and in much greater detail. He remembered his first sight of the royal heir, how excited and overjoyed the parents had been. Every time he’d been in the city, the King had insisted that he come visit, so he could see for himself how the transformation was progressing, and the Brigadier had attended with stoic patience as his King and long time friend pointed out the latest human characteristics the kestrel was displaying. He remembered how delighted and excited the King had been when his daughter spoke her first recognisable words and, a few years later, the celebrations all across the Kingdom when the palace ontomancer had finally declared her fully human. “How did it happen?” he asked.

      The King shook his head. “There are so many people opposed to the truce with Carrow. So many people who would profit from war. Somehow an agent got Into the palace, through all our defences. We were so confident she was safe. So naive...”

     “But surely there are wards in place to defeat any curse...”

     “But that’s just it, don’t you see? Technically it’s not a curse, it’s a blessing. She’s being transformed into a Radiant, a higher being.”

     “But without Radiant parents to raise her...”

     The King nodded. “The transformation will be unguided, random. She’ll become...”

     “There’s must be a way to stop it. Some cure...”

     The King gave a bitter, sardonic laugh. “If it were a curse... The wizards know how to deal with curses. If the effects aren't too bad the victim can be raised back up. A blessing, though. Who would even think of using a blessing as a weapon? We simply have no experience with such a thing!”

     The Brigadier nodded. The King looked old, he thought. He had never looked young, despite the fact that he'd been human less than thirty years. The worries and strain of ruling a mighty kingdom had long since taken its toll, but there were lines around his eyes now and a tired look that had never been there before. That, more than anything else, worried the Brigadier and made him rack his brains for any solution, no matter how hopeless or desperate. “There are any number of ontomancers in the Kingdom,” he said. “Maybe a curse will reverse the blessing. I know the idea of...”

     “We approached Boll.” The Brigadier shot him a glance and the King nodded ruefully. “Yes, we had the same idea. A curse to reverse the blessing. All the court ontomancers tried, when we finally managed to convince them we weren't testing their loyalty. When they failed, we approached outsiders. The finest licensed wizards we could find. They cast curse upon curse on her, while the Queen and I just stood and watched. All to no avail. In the end, we turned to the most powerful wizard in the Kingdom, licensed or not. Lawful or villainous. We sent for Boll.”

     The Brigadier stared back down at the Princess, trying to imagine the young woman sharing a room with possibly the most evil wizard in the human world. Trying to imagine her parents bringing the two of them together, on purpose. “The number of times I’ve tried to find that man,” he muttered to himself. “He was like a ghost. Always one step ahead of us. All we ever found were his victims and, occasionally, the scum of the earth ambitious or desperate enough to hire his services.”

     The King nodded. “That's how desperate we were. We had him here, right in the castle, under a flag of truce and an offer of amnesty. We hired him to cast the most powerful curse he possibly could, a curse more powerful than any other human could possibly perform. A curse that, if cast on a normal, healthy person, would have knocked them not just one rung down, but two or even three. We paid him to do it. All for nothing. She still looks human, but the transformation has already progressed too far. She’s immune to all curses and ailments.”

     “So we think of something else. We still have time, do we not?”

     “It took her five years to change from Kestrel to human, It’ll take at least that long to fully change to Radiant. It is my hope that, somewhere in the world, there is someone with greater knowledge of such things than anyone we’ve ever heard of, someone who can help her. ”He turned to face the Brigadier. “That’s why I sent for you, old friend. Your experience out there, in the wild places of the world. I thought you might have heard of someone...”

     The Brigadier shook his head thoughtfully. He was tired from many days riding. It had been a long, hard mission, he’d lost several men, suffered minor injuries himself, and he’d been looking forward to some time relaxing and recuperating in his family estate. He was beginning to suspect he would be leaving the city again without even glimpsing the walls of his family home. “Everywhere you go there are myths and legends,” he said. “Tales of lost cities of the Hetin folk, of sages and wise men hoarding secret knowledge, but whenever we go in search of them they turn out to be just that. Myths. We spent six months once searching for a man rumoured to possess the secret of immortality. We found no trace of him, nor any sign that he had ever existed.” He paused, staring ahead at nothing. “There was one man I heard of. He may be nothing but another legend, but I knew a man who claimed to have actually met him. A man whose word I’d come to trust, not prone to flights of fancy. Even if he did exist, though, he might now be dead. And if he does exist and is still alive, the stories say he lives in Mekrol. In the foothills of the Uttermost Range.”

     The King stared at him, his eyes pleading. “You have done many things for me over the years. Saved my life time and again, saved my Kingdom more than once... I have no right to ask anything more from you...”

     “You don‘t have to ask, my friend.” He looked over the balcony again, where the Princess was now strumming at a lyre, the music drifting up to where the two men were staring down at her in gut wrenching concern. She was scared too, he saw. She knew what was happening to her and was terrified, but somehow she was finding the courage and strength to remain calm and composed. To remain a princess. He returned his gaze to the King. “His name is Parcellius, and I will find him. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I will find him.”