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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Steve Pantazis

Steve Pantazis

Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.

Today: Steve Pantazis (pronounced PAHN-tuh-ZEECE) is an award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction. He won the prestigious Writers of the Future award in 2015, and has gone on to publish a number of short stories in leading SF&F magazines, including Nature, IGMS and Galaxy’s Edge, and on Amazon. He is the author of THE LIGHT OF DARKNESS epic fantasy series (slated for release in 2022) and the sci-fi novels, GODNET and BLACKOUT (forthcoming). When not writing (a rare occasion!), Steve creates extraordinary cuisine, exercises with vigor, and shares marvelous adventures with the love of his life. Originally from the Big Apple, he now calls Southern California home.

Thanks so much, Steve, for joining me!

JSC: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be? 

Steve Pantazis: You mean besides tell my younger self to buy Amazon stock when it was cheap and Bitcoin for pennies on the dollar so I could retire early and write on my own private tropical island? 😊

Actually, I would tell my younger self not to give up on writing, like I did in my twenties. I would tell a younger me to read voraciously and write prolifically, to study and practice my craft with the dedication of a professional, to submit stories to contests and magazines, and to choose a market with wide appeal, like Harry Potter did for the reading masses.

I think a younger me would appreciate that a lot (plus the investment tips!).

JSC: How long do you write each day? 

SP: My goal is to write three hours each day, from 9 PM to midnight (I’m a night owl!). It usually takes me an hour to warm up, a second to get into a rhythm, and a third to get into what I call the “flow state,” where the words just flow. I try to get at least 500 words written in a night, but I often shoot for 1,500. With a full-time job during the week, nights are all I have. If I can get an afternoon or two on a weekend, that’s striking gold to me. Plus, there are other aspects to writing that need to be accomplished, such as plotting a chapter or worldbuilding, things I try to achieve during others parts of a day, time permitting. 

JSC: Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them? 

SP: A wise indie author once said in a podcast, “Don’t hop between genres. Ever. Not if you want to be a successful indie author. Stick to one genre and make a name for yourself.”

Guess what I did?

Yep, I wrote stories in multiple genres—fantasy and science fiction specifically. I still do, and I’ll tell you why.

I love epic fantasy. I love space opera too. And urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, hard sci-fi, military sci-fi, humorous fantasy, and the list goes on. 

I’ve written short stories across all of these subgenres, because I have stories to tell. Lots and lots of them. Many different kinds. They NEED to be told. So I tell them.

That said, the sensible side of me has settled on Epic Fantasy for my latest foray into writing novels (I’m wrapping up the ninth book in a nine-book series). But I also have two near-future novels ready to be published. I’m also publishing about one short fiction title on Amazon each month, each in a different subgenre. 

It’s not an easy balancing act, because some readers like fantasy, others sci-fi, and a few (like me) both. My advice is this: if you want to write in multiple genres, you’ll have to keep fans of one genre happy and do the same for the other. Which means you’ll have to write a lot of stories to keep everyone happy. It’s not impossible, but it takes work. I wish I could stick to one genre, but I can’t. So I guess I have a lot of work ahead of me. 😊

JSC: How long have you been writing? 

SP: It all started when I was nine. I’d gone to a book fair at my grade school, and with allowance money, I purchased the first book I saw on a table piled high with paperbacks: a lovely little novel called THE HOBBIT. After devouring it, my imagination soared. I wrote a science fantasy story that combined elements of the original STAR WARS movie with a Middle Earth-type world filled with elves, trolls and dwarves from THE HOBBIT. I didn’t know this would be the start of a lifelong love of writing science fiction and fantasy, but it was. (By the way, I still have the spiral notebook with the story I wrote when I was nine.)

JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser? 

SP: Both! I’m a plantser: half plotter, half pantser. 😀

Whenever I set out to write a story, I start by plotting. I conceive the big-picture idea, the world my characters will occupy, the problem my protagonist has to face, and the possible solution. If I can figure out the ending, I’ve hit the jackpot, because I can figure out how to get there. 

Once I’ve got the beginning and ending in mind, I frame out the major beats in the story and put together a high-level bulleted list. That becomes my outline. I wish I could plot every chapter and scene—which would make writing the story a lot easier—but I don’t have the vision or clarity to do that. 

That’s where pantsing comes in.

I call it discovery writing, because I often discover things I would never have thought of had I tried to plot them. A new character, a twist in the story, a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter—I discover these things during the writing process, and it’s rewarding when I pull it off successfully.

By combining plotting and pantsing, I end up with a story that has structure, but also feels organic. To me, that’s my favorite way to write. So, yeah, I’m a plantser.

JSC: What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers? 

SP: This is a long answer, but I’ve assembled a lot of great tips and tricks for fiction authors, both traditionally publishedand independently published. Be aware some of these suggestions cost money (e.g. buying a how-to book or paying a monthly service fee). My advice is to research them before you take the plunge, and only pay for what you can afford. So let’s dig in!

First off, you need to read and write a lot as an author, whether new or seasoned. Reading is your source material and fuel for your creativity, which in itself is a tool. For me, I like to read in the genre I’m writing so I can get my mind “into character.” If I’m writing Epic Fantasy, I read Epic Fantasy. If I’m writing near-future sci-fi, I read near-future sci-fi. I also like to read bestsellers, because I want to learn from the best.

Reading also conditions the mind as you prepare to edit—a critical tool for an author—because you can study what’s been published and what works, and apply these to your fiction. But you need more than that. 

You should read a book on self-editing. I recommend SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s a short read packed with awesome tips.

For story craft, there are a ton of books out there. For me, MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY by Jeffrey Schechter is superb. It’s written for screenwriters, but it breaks down the top-selling movies of all time and how they’re constructed, which you can use for your prose.

When it comes to software, you have several choices for writing your story. I stick to tried-and-true Microsoft Word. Some writers like Scrivener. There’s also Atticus, which is newly available from Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur. 

One self-editing tool that’s a must for me is ProWritingAid, which I use as a plugin for Microsoft Word. It finds all sorts of grammatical errors, repeated words and phrases, consistency issues, and a whole lot more. Most authors swear by it over Grammarly, but you can try both for free and judge for yourself before you plunk down any money.

After I write my first draft, I go through and fix wording issues, plot holes, crappy dialogue, and other problems in my second draft. When that’s done, I run the draft through ProWritingAid, one chapter at a time. After I fix those issues, I use a tool that is one of the best out there (and it’s free!): I read the story aloud. You wouldn’t believe how many small errors you catch when you read your prose out loud. Microsoft Word has a built-in “Speak Selected Text” feature that can read passages to you. I use this all the time, because even reading words to yourself can cause you to miss things due to how the human mind skips over errors.

If you’re an indie author, you can either format the interior of your book yourself or pay a service to do it for you. I do all my own internal formatting for my books, which saves me money. If you want to format your own eBook, I recommend using Draft2Digital.com. You can set up a profile, upload a Word file and jpeg image of your cover, and download an epub file to use for Amazon and other publishers without actually using Draft2Digital’s paid service. In fact, they make this free on purpose for authors, which is awesome.

For formatting the interiors of print books, whether you go with Amazon or IngramSpark, download the Word template from Amazon to use with both. You’ll have to do all the formatting of italics, justification of the paragraphs, etc. yourself, but you will end up with a document you can export to PDF format for uploading. Another option is to hire someone on Fiverr to do it for you, but now you’re paying for a service. A third option is to buy software like Atticus, which has the various formatting features of Vellum, but is available on all operating systems (Vellum only works on Apple devices). A software product like Atticus can save time on all the pesky formatting details you would have to do in Word.

I pay to have my covers designed, but I always make sure to get a copy of the Photoshop document (PSD file). All professional cover designers use Photoshop. That way, if anything needs to get changed, I have the source file at my disposal. If you have Photoshop skills and can afford the software, great. You can make tweaks to your covers. I had zero experience with Photoshop before I decided to go indie, but I set out to learn the basics. I got myself a video how-to course and tried out things like moving a title around, widening the spine on a print book cover, and even adding a tattoo to my mech warrior on the cover of my GODS OF WAR novella, which was super cool. Playing around with Photoshop can be time consuming. But I had 55 covers made by my artists on Fiverr, so I needed to make tweaks now and then. If you have the chops and willingness, then gaining a little Photoshop experience can help. Otherwise, like most authors, let the pros do all the heavy lifting and tweaking while you work on something important—like writing!

On the marketing front, I like to post images of my books on social media, before and during a book launch. One tool I love is BookBrush.com, which allows me to create easy-to-use graphics for ads, banners and previews that I post to Twitter, Instagram and Meta (Facebook). Another use of BookBrush is to create boxed set images using jpeg images of your books. This comes in handy when you want to publish a boxed set of related titles to generate additional revenue for your published works.

One tip you’ll hear from authors serious about their writing careers, whether indie or traditionally published, is that you need to create a newsletter. Ugh, right? You need this because you’ll want to create a fanbase of eager readers who have a vested interest in what you write and what you plan on publishing. A newsletter gives you the forum to share news, upcoming releases, and pet photos with your fans (dog and cat photos win hearts!). Even if you sell like gangbusters on Amazon, if Amazon decides to nix your account for whatever reason, you’ll want your subscribers as a fallback plan so you can continue to have a readership. I recommend you read NEWSLETTER NINJA by Tammi Labrecque. She does a dynamite job of breaking down the essentials for creating a newsletter that is engaging but not overwhelming (and not overselling) for fans. I send out my newsletter monthly. Any more, and I’d be writing newsletters instead of writing fiction. 😊

Speaking of newsletters, you need a service for managing subscriber signups and the distribution of your newsletters. Dave Chesson from Kindlepreneur does a wonderful breakdown of the major services available (MailChimp, Convertkit, MailerLite, etc.). Google his article to read his comparisons. I use MailerLite, which Dave agrees is one of the best services. Regardless of which one you choose, a newsletter service allows you to reach your readership.

How do you gain subscribers, you ask? You use an online service like BookFunnel or StoryOrigin. They provide an easy-to-use means of distribution for eBooks. Bottom line: you’ll want to give away a free story to attract readers, called a reader magnet. Authors who write novels often give away a free novella or short story that’s a prequel to their novel or series. You upload your reader magnet to BookFunnel or StoryOrigin. You then offer your free story to attract subscribers. If a subscriber agrees to sign up for your newsletter, they get a free story, and BookFunnel or StoryOrigin sends them a copy. 

Both services also offer group promotions, where you can join forces with other authors to gain subscribers. Research this further. Trust me, it’s the way to go. I’ve gotten hundreds of subscribers using a combination of a reader magnet (I have two reader magnets, one sci-fi to attract sci-fi readers and one fantasy to attract fantasy readers), a distribution service (I use both BookFunnel and StoryOrigin), and group promos (again, I use both services for this).

How about getting more sales? If you’re an indie author, you’ve got a few choices: 

  • First is to build your newsletter subscribership and keep them informed of any new releases or smoking-hot deals (e.g. $0.99 for a limited time offer on a $4.99 eBook). 
  • Second is to advertise. It’s a pay-to-play world, so publishing a book and hoping for the best won’t work. That’s where advertising on AmazonFacebook (Meta) or some other service with a lot of traffic can help. This is a trial-and-error approach, with the potential of losing money, so researching how this all works before you delve in is best. There are books and video courses on the subject, and some video series are free. Indie authors succeed the most from advertising on Book 1 of a series, which can get readers to buy Books 2 and beyond, thus recouping the advertising cost and then some. 
  • Third is to get your book accepted for paid book promotions through services like The Fussy Librarian and BookBarbarianBookBub is a famous one, but it’s costly. 
  • Fourth is what I mentioned earlier about group promos on BookFunnel and StoryOrigin. Not only can you use these services for giving away reader magnets, but you can participate in promos with other authors that have eBooks for sale. It’s easy to find these promos on their sites.

If you’re creative and like to talk, you can create an online presence with your own channel on YouTube. There’s also TikTok. I can’t speak to the success of using TikTok to gain readers and increase sales, but some authors swear by it. They use #BookTok to drive traffic to their videos.

One question I hear thrown around these days is: do I need a website? I have one (StevePantazis.com), which to me is essential. Why? Because it serves as a hub to readers. Sure, I have an Amazon author page, but if Amazon decides to close my account, then it’s gone. With a website, I have complete control over what content to include. If you want to keep it simple (and free), WordPress is the way to go. You can do a single page for readers to go to. For me, I need something more robust, with multiple pages for different categories of fiction I offer. I use Wix.com, which is super easy. It offers a ton of templates, and lets you drag-and-drop text and images onto your pages to lay them out the way you want. There are plenty of other website hosting services out there. The bottom line is you don’t need a website to sell books, but it can be a cool hangout for readers to learn more about you and your writing. 

Lastly, if you want to generate additional revenue outside of publishing your books, check out Patreon. I offer my patrons (Patreon subscribers) early access to my stories BEFORE I publish them on Amazon. In fact, my current work-in-progress—my 9-book epic fantasy series—has Book 1 available now for my patrons to read, and the book won’t come out until the end of 2022. That’s a big value add for fans. For me, it’s easy, because I’m going to publish these novels and short stories anyway. Why not give fans early access, and in exchange, earn a few dollars? Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

JSC: Who did your cover for Cursed Magic, and what was the design process like?

SP: For CURSED MAGIC, I hired an artist at Fiverr.com named Rebeca. Because the story is a novella, not a full-length novel, I set a budget where I could afford an artist who does compositing, not original art. That means Rebeca had to use a compilation of stock images to create the cover’s foreground and background (i.e. compositing of the cover image). As opposed to an artist who creates artwork from scratch, like a battle scene with a custom dragon, which costs a lot more.

Let’s back up a step.

Before I worked with Rebeca (or any other artist on Fiverr), I played around with premade covers that you could buy online. I didn’t like them, not because they weren’t good, but because I wanted more control over the design process. Because I had a lot of short fiction titles to publish on Amazon (55 in total), I decided I needed to create consistent branding across covers.

What do I mean by consistent branding? I mean creating a uniformity among covers, so if you line up all of my sci-fi and fantasy short story and novella covers, you’ll see the same placement of the title, subtitle and author name. I require the same font and font size for my name and subtitle, and allow the artist to choose the font for the title based on the genre and type of story (e.g. Epic Fantasy).

Once I had my branding in place, I gave Rebeca the details. I also gave her what is called a “mood board.” A mood board is a collage of images—in this case, a collage of covers—that are of the same theme. For CURSED MAGIC, I gave Rebecca a mood board consisting of Epic Fantasy covers (most with wizards) she could use to inspire ideas for the cover design. This makes me an art director of sorts, but I leave the creative work to the designer—i.e. Rebeca. 

Along with the mood board, I provided a synopsis of my story so Rebeca could understand who my hero was, what he was up against, and what kind of fictional world he occupied.

If I’d needed just an eBook cover, I would have stopped there. Rebeca would have produced a high-resolution cover image as a jpeg for me to upload to Amazon. Since I wanted a trade paperback cover as well, I needed to provide additional items. This included a barcode image for the ISBN tied to the print book (you can easily create a downloadable barcode image online through various free sites like Kindlepreneur.com), along with the verbiage for the back cover, and the logo image for my publishing company (SP Books). I also had to figure out how many print pages the book would be so Rebeca could figure out the dimensions for the spine. 

Pro tip: If you want to publish a print book to both Amazon and IngramSpark, you should go with an even number of pages, because IngramSpark doesn’t allow odd page counts. A single page difference can affect the dimensions of a book’s spine!

After I got Rebeca all of this information, it took her about a week to complete the project. By “complete,” I mean a cover that’s completely done, pending approval from me, the client. Rebeca did a pretty darned good job with her first attempt. I believe I asked for one revision, which she knocked out in about three days.

The deliverables for the project included a high-resolution eBook image (300 dpi resolution), print book image and a high-resolution PDF file for uploading the cover for print (eBooks allow jpeg images, print books require PDF files for the images). I also made sure—and this was important to me—that Rebeca included the Photoshop document(PSD file) so I could make further enhancements should I require them.

Now, if you don’t know Photoshop, that’s fine. I didn’t at first, but then I learned just enough to make tweaks to different parts of an image (such as I did with CURSED MAGIC, because Rebeca didn’t get the print book dimensions quite right for Amazon). I could have gone back to Rebeca to make the tweaks, but I would have needed to put in a change order and wait. Instead, I did the work myself, and I got Amazon and IngramSpark to approve the print book covers.

Yes, this is a lot more detail than you cared to know, but now that you know it, hopefully it helps.

I highly recommend an author get a cover done professionally. Fiverr offers artists that do both compositing and original artwork. If you don’t need original artwork for a cover, then a cover can cost you less than $50. Premade covers are another inexpensive way to go. Original art, however, can cost in the hundreds, but the images will be unique in all respects.

Last tip: Regardless of which cover design option you go with, make sure you shrink down your image to a thumbnail size. If you look at the book carousels on Amazon, they appear as thumbnail images. You want your title to appear legible when the image is shrunk down. That way, readers choose your book over others.

JSC: Let’s talk to your characters for a minute – what’s it like to work for such a demanding writer? 

SP: Ellis the arcanist: Where do I begin? Is it the lack of pay? Getting sent to deal with poor villagers? Almost dying after casting the wrong spell? Dealing with dreadful basilisks? Oh, I know. Being cursed! Yes, the author cursed me, thank you very much, so working for him is pure joy.

Sera the apprentice: Ellis, you were cursed before the author penned a single word. Don’t fault him for that.

Ellis: But I was happily out of danger. Well, for the most part. All right, only when I wasn’t forced to use my great and powerful abilities. How about you? How do you enjoy working for the author?

Sera: Technically, I work for you, which brings many colorful descriptions to mind.

Ellis: What does that supposed to mean?

Sera: It means I’m gainfully employed, learning magic from a master—well, a learned man. In other words, you’ve given me a rare opportunity.

Ellis: A very generous opportunity, I admit, but do go on. What about the author?

Sera: I don’t mind working for him, not at all. Without him, I would never have met you. And if I hadn’t met you, my uncle would still be trying to marry me off to that boy with the crooked teeth from over the hill. 

Ellis: You’re too talented to waste your life on that boy. I suppose I’m glad to have met you as well. But wipe that smile off your face. You’re embarrassing me.


Sera: You mean this smile?

Ellis: Yes, that one! By the way, the interview is over. We love working for the author, etcetera, etcetera, but we have things to do. So, say goodbye to the interviewer, my dear apprentice.

Sera: Goodbye!

Fun Questions:

JSC: What fantasy realm would you choose to live in and why?

SP: I’m a big Tolkien fan, so Middle Earth is my jam. I’d choose Middle Earth in the Fourth Age, which happens after the One Ring is destroyed, along with Sauron and his minions. Why? Because I like to travel. I want to visit the various lands of Middle Earth without getting accosted by orcs or other fell creatures. I want to travel to the Shire, Gondor, Rivendell, hike the Misty Mountains, share mead with the dwarves, and a second breakfast with a hobbit or two. Then, when I’m done wandering the world, I’ll know where I’d like to settle down and find me a nice little piece o’ land to call my own. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!

SP: I’ve devoted the past twelve months to a massive project that finishes up at the end of 2021: the completion of a nine-book Epic Fantasy series called THE LIGHT OF DARKNESS

I wrote the series to appeal to YA and adult markets in the same vein as THE NAME OF THE WIND. It portrays the grit of THE GAME OF THRONES and the epic scope of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

In a nutshell, the story is about a mage apprentice who must stop his evil brother from ruling the world to save the lives of millions. Unfortunately, my hero is the son of the God of Darkness. It makes for a—how should I put it?—challenging existence for him. I set the series in a desert civilization like that of ancient Egypt, but with magic.

Each book in the series starts with “THE DARK THAT” in the title: e.g. THE DARK THAT BEGINSTHE DARK THAT BINDSTHE DARK THAT RULES, etc. I want consistency in my book naming and a play on the “dark” theme in the series. I’m happy with the result.

This project is a labor of love for me, because I began on the story in my youth. I started with a map, some worldbuilding and six cultures divided along lines of good and evil, vying for domination. A few years later, I wrote a duology. Now (a tad older), I’ve repurposed the original duology and expanded the story to encompass nine books. 

Along with the series, I’m writing a novella (a prequel to the story) and a companion guide. Both will be available for free.

My goal is to indie publish the series at a rate of one book per month, starting in the fourth quarter of 2022. I’ll spend the early part of 2022 editing the series, getting feedback from beta readers, and hiring a copyeditor and proofreader to put on the polish. I’ll also need to commission 14 book covers9 for the series, 3 for when I release each third as a boxed set, 1 for the omnibus edition that will available well after the last book has been published, and 1 for the prequel.

I can’t wait to share THE LIGHT OF DARKNESS series with the world!


Cursed Magic

And now for Steve’s latest book: Cursed Magic:

Only one magician remains to defend the kingdom. And he’s cursed. What could go wrong?

Ellis is cursed. Not a little cursed. 

Completely cursed, as in cursed as cursed can be! 

Only the poor can afford an arcanist of Ellis’ questionable magic abilities. Yet the queen has asked for his help.

What does she want with the likes of him?

Turns out, an assassin has been dispatching the arcanists of the kingdom. Ellis is the only one left. The queen suspects her rival, King Anders, as the culprit.

With the king set to arrive in a few days, the queen orders Ellis to hunt down the murderer. It’s a matter of urgency. If he fails, her majesty might be next.

Can Ellis find the killer in time?

Or will the bumbling arcanist screw up yet again?

Get It On Amazon


Excerpt

Curses and more curses!

When the mayor of Saplinger asked for an arcanist to handle a “small lizard problem” in his town, I assumed it would be a spitster, wyvernette or one of those pesky horned minidrakes. But a basilisk? A great hulking, winged beast with the foulest inclination and claws the size of barn nails?

Heavens no!

Yet here I am, drenched by the rain and muddied below the waist, standing in a tavern stinking of sodden hay, listening as the mayor goes on and on about the disappearance of his livestock while the frightened townsfolk bob their heads in agreement. 

Of course, I have to ask the mayor the obvious question.

“How can you be sure it’s a basilisk? It very well could be something else. A pack of wolves maybe, or raiders from the Gray Hills, or—”

“Haven’t you been listening to me, mage? It’s a basilisk. I’d stake my life on it. Angus, show him.”

A weepy old man brings a tattered book to me with a page open showing a hand-drawn sketch of a creature with large wings, a barbed, coiled tail, and, I daresay, a smirk on its face.

“It’s him,” he says. “I’ve seen him with my own eyes. Took my goats and my chickens, too. He had a great big head, lots of scales, shaggy wings. And teeth. Those teeth!”

“I’ve seen him, too,” an aged woman says. “He stole my only cow, my poor Bertha. Snatched her up in the early morn.”

“And my ma’s pigs,” ventures a sturdy young lad.

“And our donkey,” someone else says.

“And my sheep.”

“He’ll come for the children next! What will we do then?”

The room fills with anxious commotion. The aroma of meat stew from the kitchen reminds me that I haven’t eaten a hot meal in weeks while on the road with my tired horse and rickety cart. 

The mayor quiets down his people. Then he asks, “Do you believe us now, mage?”

The taproom’s a field of blinking eyes and uncertain faces, everyone looking at me. What can I say but yes? “I do.”

“We don’t have much coin, but we’ve scraped together what we can.” The mayor opens the drawstrings of a purse and shakes the coins inside so I can see them. They jingle their lovely tune. Thirty silver marks, as promised in the urgent letter I’d received. Enough to keep me and my trusty steed fed for a couple of months. Hardly anything by arcanist standards, and certainly not a prize worthy of such risk.

Which is why the mayor chose me.

You don’t pay so little for a quality arcanist; you pay it when you’re desperate, when you wipe the pig slop away and see what’s left at the bottom of the trough. That slimy residue is where I dwell.

“Slay the beast and the purse is yours,” he says.

Hearty nods all around. They believe I’m suited for the job. How wrong they are. But for thirty marks . . .

“What do you say, mage? Will you use your great magic to help us?”

This is the point where my peers would fall to the ground laughing. Great magic? Me? Never have the two been spoken in the same breath.

Faulty magic? Yes. Terrible magic? Absolutely! But great magic?

Never!

Why, Ellis, do you doubt your abilities, you might ask?

A most excellent question.

I’m cursed, you see. 

Imagine a young boy . . . a bright child with a gleam in his eye and hope in his heart. His father is a merchant, his mother a seamstress for a duchess, his older brother a knight in the Queen’s Guard. This young lad is fed, clothed, schooled, and given the opportunity to attend the prestigious Arcanist University in the capital city of Ravenmore, the most sought-after opportunity for aspiring magic casters. It’s during his first quarter that a miscalculation in Spell Weaving results in shattering the stained-glass window of the University chapel. Then a blunder in Alchemy that causes a violent explosion. Then a Potion Making accident. Wand Crafting incident. Elemental Divination disaster. Spirit Mediation catastrophe. And then an error in Pyrotechnics that sets fire to the main library, salvaged by a quick-thinking professor.

And finally . . .

Expulsion.

Only after paying a soothsayer to uncover the mystery of his disastrous quandary does he uncover the truth: 

He’s cursed.

Not a little cursed. Not marginally cursed.

Completely cursed!

As in cursed so deeply that it can never be undone. Born that way, the soothsayer had said, and destined to live out his days that way.

You’ve heard correctly: the lad’s as cursed as cursed can be.

Want to apply a magical solution to deal with nasty vermin? Good luck. An invocation to reverse the jinx laid upon you by a spiteful witch? Keep your fingers crossed. A spell to protect your land and her people against a violent and ruthless horde of berserkers? Don’t even think about it!

Thus life takes young Ellis on a shameful path as an uncertified arcanist only the poor can afford and the despondent dare consider, even now at the ripe old age of sixty-two.

People like the good townsfolk of Saplinger.

“I have a couple of conditions,” I say to the mayor, realizing he isn’t a very friendly fellow by the way his lip curls like a rabid dog frothing at the mouth. “One, a hot bath. Two, a hot meal. Three, a room to sleep. And four, a guide to accompany me into the forest. Someone who knows their way and someone who won’t get us killed.”

The mayor shrivels his nose. “That’s four conditions, not two.” Then he says, “I’ll agree to the first three. As for the fourth, you’re on your own. I’ll not send my people into that anathema of a forest, unless someone wants to volunteer.”

It’s as if the entire tavern shrinks back. 

I can’t blame them. Who would be foolish enough to go with me? They’re afraid, scared for their lives, and especially for the lives of their children. Perhaps they’re cowards, and rightfully so. Cowards live, after all. But volunteers? Best of luck to the poor sap that joins the cursed arcanist. Good luck to him indeed! It reminds me of the time—

“I’ll do it.”

We all look to the back of the tavern, following the sound of a young lady’s voice. There’s a teenage girl standing along the wall. She’s maybe sixteen or seventeen, a skinny urchin with smudged cheeks and threadbare clothes. I’m not the only one who doubts my ears. It’s as if the words were conjured from thin air, not her.

“I’ll do it,” she says again, putting to rest any doubts.

I’m happy to accept this most unlikely volunteer, but the mayor seems to disagree. He wags a finger at the girl. “Absolutely not. I forbid it.” Then to me, he says, “Forgive my niece, Sera. She’s, how should we say, enthusiastic at times.”

“It’s not enthusiasm, Uncle. It’s called courage.” Sera’s voice matches her fire-red hair. The townsfolk part to allow her through. “I know the forest better than anyone. I can follow the trails and track that horrid beast to his lair. Who else here would do it? You, Uncle? Any of you?” She points at the others, who shrink back even farther.

“Sera, please—”

“I said I’ll take him, and that’s that.”

The room falls silent. The air is so still, I could slice it with a farmer’s scythe. 

I like Sera’s indomitable spirit. It reminds me of myself at her age, believing I could achieve anything. Of course, courage has its downside, but I keep that to myself.

I speak up, as her uncle seems to have lost his tongue. “Then it’s settled. We head out at first light.”

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