Friday, July 25, 2014

Awakening, Book One: a sample chapter

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Chapter I: From Broken Dreams

"...what loosed the Nine Hells black and deep
let Mother's mourn, let freedom weep..."

Larin could taste soot in the snow swirling across the auction block, and she appraised the small gathering of bidders. In a sibilant language like nothing she’d heard before, the auctioneer screeched above the wind to begin the sale, shaking a fistful of Larin’s blonde hair toward the crowd. A harsh cacophony broke out in reply, and Larin quashed the homesick panic rising in her chest. She refused to long for Kanata, her old prison of sugar cane and sunlight, when the icy crags bearing down on her would prove no different in the end.

Analyzing the waterfall of consonants spouting from all around, Larin fought to find meaning in the occasional vowel bubbling through the chaos. The language couldn’t be any form of Allanic, which had united most of the Known World for centuries. “And I have ten thousand, do I hear fifteen?” shrieked the auctioneer, brandishing her by the scalp. “Fifteen thousand for this stunning young virgin!”

Though the words meant nothing to her, the crowd’s surge of intensity spoke volumes. Calls burst forth from every direction, and a tall man loitering back from the rabble flicked two fingers in the air to join the bid. Polished silver capped the sharp points of his backswept ears, and his pale yellow horsetail shone white in the overcast glare of midmorning. Head and shoulders above the dark-haired crowd, he made a fist to bid again, his handsome features contorting into a crazed smirk when he noticed Larin’s scrutiny. Startled, she snapped her gaze up to the sharp ridges over the town, but the elf’s manic grin lingered in her mind’s eye. Sweet Mother, she prayed, don’t let him buy me!

He stepped forward with another bid, and the once boisterous mob scrambled to make way for him. “And I have eighty, eighty-five?” Across the square, one resolute competitor continued to bid, until he recognized the elf strolling toward him through the parting throng. With his hand half-raised, the pudgy man stiffened, blanched, and let his arm drop, backing away from the block as if it had tricked him. Wasting no time, the auctioneer pronounced Larin sold and shoved her toward his guard, dragging forth the next girl before the nervous crowd could disperse any further.

Barefoot at the edge of the auction block, Larin surveyed the sharp stones below, and she checked the leather cord lashed around her wrists. Escape would have to wait for somewhere less public, but she could lose the elf in the tangled alleyways of the dingy port city, if she left no bloodied tracks across the shale. The nearby docks harbored a few ships with Allanic names, and Larin doubted she’d have to stow away long before they shoved off from the dismal rock and made for greener lands.

Her features frozen into a passive mask, she watched her new master swagger around the block and drop a single pewter coin into the guard’s outstretched hand. After pocketing the two coins he received in exchange, the elf tied a lead to Larin’s wrists, his lips crooked into a precarious smile. You’re not fooling anyone, thought Larin, suspicious of his strange civility.

They meandered in silence away from the auction and inland, the end of the lead dangling between the elf’s knuckles. As the crowd thinned, Larin twined the lead around her cold fingers, ready to make her escape when they found themselves alone. Her opportunity came in an unpaved alley, where she grasped all the slack she could and broke into a run.

Her bid for freedom lasted less than an instant. Somehow, the elf flicked his wrist twice around the lead and jerked her backward before her first stride touched the ground. Twisted and off-balance, Larin toppled, but the elf’s rough chuckle circled her as she fell, and he caught her from behind. Impossible!

“Why even try?” he crooned in his sibilant language, wrapping the lead around her neck and cinching it tight.

Scrabbling to find her footing, Larin pleaded, “K’iana cye’utc–!”

“Shh,” scolded the elf, tugging the lead tighter and cradling her gasping frame to his chest. Larin fought to stay upright, spots dancing before her eyes as they continued down the empty street.

When they turned the corner, her vision drifted onto a black dragon curled across most of an open square. Upon seeing them, it hulked upwards, shaking out its great wings and pressing the back of a scaly claw to the cobblestones. They hustled between its talons and rode the wicked cage up to its shoulder, where the elf shoved her out onto the dragon’s bare back.

Gasping for air and temples throbbing, she stumbled to her knees, and the elf settled himself at the base of the dragon’s neck. A thunderous jolt spawned a whirlwind of arduous wing-beats, garbage and dust swirling through the city streets below. Without the slightest signal from its rider, the dragon mounted into the sky, the wind somehow lessening despite their growing speed.

Too lost in horror to marvel at her first dragon flight, Larin scrambled to understand how the elf had caught her. Even expecting an escape attempt, he couldn’t have known the exact moment she would run, and she could see no way he could have moved that fast, unless–

“You do catch on quick,” drawled his voice, silent yet unmistakable. His taunt purred within her, inescapable words shattering the privacy of her mind like a tune she couldn’t stop hearing.

“You’re a...a reader?” she spluttered aloud, unsure how else to answer him.

Amused laughter rang through the pocket of still air over the dragon’s back. “Usually, the pretty ones aren’t as smart as you,” lauded the elf, sounding genuinely pleased.

Thank you, she thought back at him, refusing to speculate beyond the meek submission. Though a few wise merfolk had taken a shine to her back in Kanata, Larin hadn’t learned much from them about mind reading. It was only clear at short range, she remembered, but it took a skilled mage or gifted speaker to safely deflect the intrusion. To plan an escape, she’d need distance–provided this elf couldn’t riffle through her mind for details.

Larin began to count off the calendar years, reducing her thoughts to something meaningless until she could get some room to think. He’d have to sleep sometime, and as long as she could return to the port city, she could still stow away. To that end, she pushed herself up to spot the port marring the coast behind them. They bore through the mountains, following a road that zagged back to the city, and just past town the crags crumbled into a vast expanse of cold sand dunes. With the port nearly impossible to overshoot, Larin settled back to pluck shards of stone from her bleeding feet.

Amused by the girl’s overt tallies and distorted thoughts of escape, the elf flew on. Minutes stretched into silent hours as the port fell away and the sun arced overhead, sinking to the horizon. Still Larin counted, until the elf brought his dragon into a sharp bank, using a mental tug to send the beast circling downward. Beyond the scaled wings, Larin caught glimpses of a sandy racetrack cut into the mountainside, and a sprawling complex of stables along one edge of it. Across the road sat a small stone keep, a reddish glow seeping out its window slits to greet the encroaching twilight.

A thud signaled their landing, and the elf tugged at her lead, stepping onto the dragon’s raised foreclaw. Anxious to keep him mollified, Larin stumbled to the edge of the shoulder and jumped into the elf’s waiting arms, diverting her revulsion into more focused counting. With a sharp scoff, he scooped her up like a Kanatan bride and hopped to the road once it was close, striding through the waning light to the keep’s massive entrance.

While the great stone door swung open, Larin absorbed details of the keep’s layout, loud numbers still at the forefront of her mind. A faint scent like rain and lightning wafted off the elf as he carried her across the threshold, and Larin battled panic at the distinctive whiff of magic. Behind them, the heavy door settled back into place of its own accord, sealing them inside.

Elaborate tapestries muffled the walls, depicting a string of daemonic battles embroidered in gold and silver. Far from gentling the stone, the graphic hangings steeped the hall in an eerie stillness that rang with the imagined clang of cold steel. Unmoved, Larin’s new master made for a doorway near the crowning of a strange elf warrior, whose white horsetail and coal-black skin were all but coated in blood. Boots stomping across the worn skins thrown over the floor, the elf carried her down the next hall, following the bloody king as he rode a terrible beast to war. They moved past a slaughter of town and village, until the people bowed to the warrior king and daemons hoisted him high on a throne of skulls.

They reached the kitchens, and a frigid burst of wind startled Larin out of the massacre around her. Halfway out a back door to throw scraps to the wyverns penned there, a towheaded slave looked up at them, but she paled in moments and averted her eyes. Then the doorway ended, and the tapestries closed over them once more.

Down an adjoining hall, the warrior king chose an elf from his supplicants and brought him to kneel at his throne. When the knight rose, the king kissed his forehead, leaving behind a twisting red knot that radiated blackness across the knight’s skin. The dark elf rode into battle for his king, and at the end of the hallway, the victorious knight returned to present the throne with the severed heads of its enemies. At the door beside this bloody triumph, Larin’s new master set her back on her torn feet.

The elf rapped at the door and nudged her forward when it opened, following close behind. “Don’t bleed on the carpet,” he advised, and Larin shuffled up to a wide desk stacked with ancient tomes and scrolls. Behind the desk sat a stringy dark-haired man, who leveled his piercing gaze at her. “Another blonde virgin for your collection, my Lord Baron,” intoned the elf. “Third off the block at Port Donnel, like you said.”

As the baron rose to circle his desk, Larin scanned the parchment and scraps of vellum littering its surface. Though the mers had taught her to read in several languages, she couldn’t make out any of the writing until the graceful curves of the mer script caught her eye. The second falters, third prevails, she read, then back into his grasp she sails and on into his realm she wails, when golem’s work is long since done–

A soft knock at the door seized Larin’s attention, and the baron waved it open to reveal a woman with her head bowed. Through the pale hair falling over the girl’s face, Larin glimpsed a pair of thin gouges running from her temple to her jaw, shining black and bloodless against the fetid brown of the surrounding flesh. Terror lanced through Larin, and she watched the slave draw a rattling breath, stammering in a voice like trampled thresh, “M’lord Baron, they’ve arrived, sir.”

Despite the strange language, Larin understood the baron’s bark of insidious glee, and after waving the slave away he grabbed Larin’s chin, forcing her to look up from the girl clutching her face as she fled. “The masters are here to review our latest batch,” he informed the elf over Larin’s shoulder, appraising her features with hawkish gold eyes. “I can feel something in this one, Haisrir. It’s her, I know it.”

“Let us hope so, my Lord Baron,” obliged the elf from his post by the door.

Caressing Larin’s jaw with two long fingers, the baron murmured, “You will make the fifth, you know. The time has come to remake the world.”

When it became apparent he awaited a response, she hazarded, “...Winafaw’e natuu ratik’i nayelo?” It was an innocent enough question, and though she didn’t expect him to understand, she hoped the submissive tone conveyed her meaning well enough.

“She sounds Kanatan,” observed the baron, recognizing her dialect. “We’ll present her to the masters first.” He pushed her toward the door and she stumbled forward, twining nervous fingers around the lead until the end of it wound up in her palms.

Larin launched into action before her thoughts could betray her. A loud crunch met her ears and she bolted, heel throbbing from where it’d slammed into the side of the elf’s knee. Shrieking, he snatched at her elbow, but she wrenched away with a sickening pop and raced back up the hall.

“Why didn’t you see that coming?!” howled the baron, leaping over the elf foundering in the doorway. Larin turned the corner, clutching her bound hands together to support her useless arm. She only hoped the elf’s injuries would be enough to block his concentration–no magic could work without focus, and pain was one of the best distractions.

Lining her escape route in delicate carnage, the tapestries played out in reverse, and a chill settled through the air as she approached the warrior king on his throne of skulls. Cold–?! Larin darted left on a whim, barreling through the empty kitchens and shouldering through the back door she’d seen earlier. She blundered into the dark, an elbow skidding against the outside wall to keep her bearings, and she hopped the pen’s low fence, breaking into a run.

The kitchen door banged again and uneven footfalls crunched after her. Fighting a cough at the frozen air metallic in her throat, Larin swallowed frantic breaths to steel herself against the shocking cold. A single window slit glowed in the distant stable complex, and she ghosted toward it, relying on the overcast night to see her safely across the open road. The footsteps at her back fell away, and Larin paused to gather her wits while the elf hobbled off to search along the walls of the keep.

Creeping up the incline toward the stables, Larin skirted the wall to the other side of the complex, far from the lit window and its occupant. With no other cover for miles, she found a door and slipped through, stifling a bout of wracking coughs and ripping at the lead’s knot with her teeth. Hands free at last, Larin fashioned a crude sling with the tangled cords and ventured into the warm press of shadows.

Around a corner-post, the silhouette of a dragon’s head swept over its six-foot stall to peer down at her through the gloom. Waves of heat roiled off its leathery hide, the creature angling its streamlined skull to sniff at her approach. Out of nowhere, light spilled into the corridor ahead and Larin scanned for refuge, unlatching the dragon’s stall after a moment’s hesitation. Please don’t eat me, she entreated the bewildered beast, latching the door behind her and padding across the straw to bury herself in the back corner.

The light grew brighter, and footsteps halted outside the stall. “I know you’re there,” a voice murmured, and through the straw Larin watched a lantern rise above the door. It hooked onto the post, illuminating the wingless red dragon between them, and a stablehand entered. “I’m here to help you. It’s safe to come out,” he soothed, tromping over to the spot where Larin lay hidden and brushing straw off her bleeding feet.

Since he’d known exactly where to find her, she conceded and sat upright beside the young man. Dark hair hung jagged on either side of his brow, and hunger thinned his strong features. “Tcanae ‘iaya,” entreated Larin, discerning kindness in his green stare.

“Mother,” he breathed, shaking off the jolt of her lilting words and inspecting her dislocated shoulder with dismay. “What did they do to you?”

Jorn, the unnatural one will come soon, the dragon reminded him. Unless today I may bite it in half when it arrives, you ought to hide this girl quickly.

Unsurprised at hearing the dragon’s voice in his head, the stablehand declined the offer. “Thanks, Lithon,” he answered without speaking aloud, “but you know that’s not a good idea.”

Then perhaps you should nuzzle her and get her to trust you, urged the dragon. It will be here at any moment.

With no time to strip off his gloves, Jorn guided his hand to Larin’s forearm in the same way he touched injured dragons, sliding fingertips from somewhere painless to grasp just above her elbow. Undoing her makeshift sling, his other hand hovered over her collarbone, and he watched the steel rage in her blue eyes as she expelled a shaky breath and nodded up at him. He pulled.

She didn’t yell, but Jorn swallowed guilt at the gasp he wrenched from her. The joint popped into place and he released her arm, watching for the weak flexing of her fingers before retying the sling around her neck. “Daaga,” she croaked in thanks, choking on the word and degenerating into addled spasms.

“You’re not safe here,” beckoned Jorn. “Come with me.” When she stood to follow, he grabbed the lantern off its hook, securing Lithon’s door behind them and darting through the stable’s corridors. They came to the base of a ladder, where he gestured for her to stay behind while he scaled up to the loft with the lantern in his teeth. Cradling her arm in the darkness below, Larin watched Jorn lower a heavy pail on a rope, and after a nerve-wracking ascent through the warm air, she joined him in the loft.

Jorn settled her onto his pallet and took a seat beside the modest bed, watching her rest a foot on her knee to inspect the bloody sole. “So what’s your name?” he blurted, pointing to himself when she raised an eyebrow. “Jorn. I’m Jorn. What’s your name?”

“Laa! Jorn,” she echoed, practicing the strange name a few times as she picked new stones from her heel. Only a few slick fragments had pierced her feet, thanks to a lifetime going barefoot. Removing the first, she tapped her chest to reply, “Larin.” He rehearsed the name and she laughed, his accent diminishing with each repetition. “Larin k’ee.”

Jorn, the unnatural one approaches! warned a nervous dragon from below, and the door banged open moments later, a dozen guards pouring inside with Haisrir limping in their midst.

“Where is she?!” crowed the elf, slamming the door and howling up at the bright loft. “Get down here, boy!”

Pressing a finger to his lips, Jorn flashed a smile and made his way to the ladder, sliding down its rails to the stable floor. “Yes, Master Haisrir?” he pacified, glancing around at the guards searching the stalls one by one. “Where is who?”

“The baron’s new virgin!” the elf cried, wringing his hands and glowering at Jorn. “The masters are here, and she broke free and ran!”

Jorn allowed a gloating smirk to flicker across his face. “And you didn’t...know beforehand?” He feigned dismay. “Because, Master Haisrir, if this girl has powers to rival your own, I think I’d be much safer staying with the other slaves until you get this sorted–”

The blow was sudden but expected; Haisrir cracked his knuckles after landing the punch, drawing some meager condolence from the angry red mark across the stablehand’s jaw. “You will alert me the instant you find her!” ordered the furious elf. “Me and only me. The masters are not to know one escaped!”

Knowing better than to inspect his jaw in front of the elf, Jorn nodded. “I’ll have the dragons on high alert,” he lied. “They’ll sniff her out, if she’s nearby.”

With a shrewd scowl, Haisrir scrutinized the stablehand, failing as always to read the boy’s mind. Bedamned speakers! He punched Jorn again for good measure and stormed off to monitor the search, unable to wring anything useful out of the slave.

“Master Haisrir, shall we search the lofts as well?” a guard called to the passing elf.

Eyes blazing, he whirled on the unsuspecting man. “What a wonderful idea!” Seizing the guard’s arm, Haisrir yanked it from its socket and left it hanging. “Please, climb that ladder and begin the search,” he mocked, shoving the guard to the floor and towering over him. “And then we’ll search the cliffsides, in case she’s scaled them! And then the clouds, in case she flies!”

“M-my apologies, Master Haisrir–”

“All clear!” came the call from further down the corridor. The captain of the guard dashed forward, ready with a respectful salute for the enraged elf, and reported the stables empty. “With your permission, sir,” he diverted, “I’ll take my men into the surrounding area to patrol the road and set up checkpoints until she is found.”

With an irritated wave, Haisrir assented. “Yes, fine–but no road blocks! The masters can’t know one got away.”

“By your leave.” He led his men out into the night, and after casting another hateful glare in Jorn’s direction, Haisrir flounced back toward the keep. Alone again, Jorn shifted his jaw left and right until he felt confident enough to pop it with the heel of his hand. Then he latched the door behind the elf and climbed back to the loft with a triumphant grin.

Larin had crept to the back wall, prepared to squeeze out the window slit before the elf plied her location from Jorn’s thoughts. But when the guards left instead, she settled back on the pallet to tend her feet, contemplating her unexpected safety. If Jorn had deflected the elf’s attempts to read him, his gifts as a speaker went far beyond the power to talk to animals. Larin couldn’t believe her good fortune.

Waving Jorn over once he’d crested the ladder, she pulled one of his gloves free and held his bare hand. Blood-red patterns bloomed like lace across his skin, intricate knotwork swirling forth to end at his wrist. Kanatan palm-readers summoned such designs all the time, but speakers unlocked many of the common magics just by touching hands.

Jorn jerked away in surprise, wiping at the lines until they sank back into his flesh. “What the Nine is this?” she heard him wonder when she grabbed his hand again, the thought shared with her by their contact.

Unable to explain, Larin twined her fingers through his and prodded, “Z’et?”

“I wish I could understand you,” lamented Jorn, but Larin heard his matching sentiment. The foreign words segmented themselves off as he spoke, their individual meanings interlocking with the Allanic counterparts she knew. Even the structure of the sentence clicked into place.

“!” The clumsy words formed a heavy accent, her rhythm awkward but intelligible. Much like when she’d received the mer language through magic, Larin’s tongue struggled with what her mind had suddenly come to know.

Jorn gaped at her. “What? I thought you couldn’t speak Khollic! Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

Pausing to parse up the words and absorb the language’s rules as she heard them, Larin pieced together, “I...didn’t understand, sooner. I couldn’t say...why...I couldn’t speak Khollic.” Kholl lay at the northeastern edge of the Known World, its dismal shores as isolated as its language. “I...understand you. Say something, now.” It wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done.

“Say what, though?”

“Something Khollic, Jorn!”

“Okay, okay!” Strangely nervous, he looked around for something to talk about. “Uh...hey, you should probably bandage your feet,” he seized upon, dropping her hand. “Here, use this.”

“Ita tsaan’i Jorn–?” He ripped the hem from his shirt to offer her. “Naa taknati’iel Jornke daaga.” After dismissing the proffered rag with a little wave, she explained, “I bandage...this!” She picked up a piece of straw to show him. “Laa daaga! Vetc valts’i dhadhij, Jorn.”

Incredulous, he let the torn hem drop and allowed her to pull his arm to her sling, her immobilized fingers threading into his. “You’re going to use straw? As a bandage?”

With one definitive nod, Larin poked through the straw with her good hand, laying a few long pieces lengthwise on her calf. “...Jorn? You should speak Khollic Larin now,” she reminded him, selecting shorter lengths of straw to position crosswise over the longer pieces.

“Well, I’m...kind of sorry I ripped my shirt, since you’re apparently going to use straw,” confessed the stablehand. “I can’t really sew very well. I think maybe I can get one of the slaves in the keep to fix it for me–”

“I can fix it for you, Jorn. I bandage my feet, fix...your shirt. Okay?” With a long breath to sharpen her focus, she held her hand over the straw lattice, fighting the barren land surrounding them to stir life in the stalks beneath her palm. Slowly at first, then faster as her magic acclimated to the desolate terrain, the bits of dead straw began to green. Shoots stretched tender and alive from the broken tips, and Larin coaxed them to twist around each other, darting through the weft pieces again and again until they formed a springy strip of woven grass.

Despite her impending headache at the sheer exertion of this simple magic, Larin pressed the strip to the sole of her foot and poured more energy into it. The shoots curled out from one free end to weave more bandage, wrapping around her foot as they grew, and the starting end faded back to yellow, the strands now smooth and strong. Finally, the free end wove itself into the bandage beneath it and the last tips faded to yellow, her foot ensconced in a padded straw boot.

She began the second bandage, and Jorn obliged her with his babble, eager to improve her Khollic so she could answer his growing arsenal of questions. Though sentient creatures and loyal friends, the dragons had never stirred such exhilaration within him, and he could hardly contain his excitement when she finished her shoes and took the ripped hem of his shirt in her hand.

Blinking away angry points of light dancing before her eyes, Larin brought the rag up to the torn edge of Jorn’s shirt and focused on the fibers until they twined back together. “That’s amazing, Larin!”

“Nalaake daaga,” she managed through a weary yawn. “I am...sorry, Jorn, but I must...” With no words to describe her exhaustion, Larin stretched out on the pallet and hoped he’d understand. Dousing the light for her, Jorn flopped down in the straw beside his bed and stared up at the dark rafters, far too excited to fall asleep.

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