As you may know from either my blog or Twitter or just talking to me in person, I am in the middle of writing a novel. It's an epic fantasy in the truest sense, with a large cast of characters, a completely new history and mythology, and a grand, involved scope and plot. And it's taking me forever. I started writing it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last year and since November, I have written a total of 10,000 words on it. Unfortunately.
But I'm hoping to change that. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be posting a chapter from my first draft each Monday for anyone to enjoy, comment on, or critique. Hopefully, some of you will enjoy the story and keep reading, and that will give me motivation to keep writing. I'll keep writing even without that motivation, but it does help. My goal is to get far enough ahead that there will be a new chapter every week until I finish the book. Yes, that means that there won't be any new Story posts for a while that aren't To Look Skyward (unless I decide to do two posts on a Monday or write a short story that I want to share instead) but I need to be focusing pretty intently on this book if it's going to get done.
So, stick around for the ride. In theory, I should be writing a good book. Oh, and keep in mind that this is a first draft, so it will definitely need revision. But for right now, I need to focus on churning it out, piece by piece, chapter by chapter. Here goes nothing.
The boy floated above the world.
It was an exhilarating feeling for Kirelon, being in the Clouds--a collection of hundreds of buildings both large and small, constructed of windwood, a curious tree which seemed to defy gravity itself, floating wherever the sky decided it should go. The curly, black-haired youth stood next to a section of railing at the edge of one such building, gazing down at the city of Argosson below. He was technically supposed to be studying, but he had never liked books very much--especially ones he was forced to read. The Upper City, which lay on either side of the bored young man, was built along the upper reaches of two enormously high mountains capped with snow. The Middle City came next, covering the majority of the two peaks with thousands and thousands of squat, sturdy buildings, some built into the rock itself. Eventually, the Middle City ended at two uncut, impassable cliffs along the lower edges of the mountains, marking the beginning of the descent into the Lower City. A system of pulleys and elevators allowed travel between the two, but those sheer walls had become symbolic barriers between one part of the city and the other. Except for Argosson's military, which moved freely in both sections, citizens from the valley never intermingled with those along the mountainside.
That was the way it had always been. At least, that was what
Kirelon sighed as he saw a solitary Chrin off in the distance, its bulbous grey body floating just as easily as the building he was standing in. It was enormous, even for a Chrin, and had twelve fins up and down its body, eight on its underbelly and four atop its back, like the sails of an airship. Of course, the Chrin were what had inspired the common airship's design in the first place. The creature brayed once, a deep, bellowing note, and then began to float southward until it was out of sight.
Kirelon looked back down at the Lower City, his red tana rustling around him in the breeze. It was the standard uniform of the Speakers, and so he was required to wear it, but the collar of the robe-like article was always making his neck itch, and it felt too loose. He sighed again. Well, he was a Speaker, or soon would be, so there wasn't any way he could get out of wearing it. He started, thinking about that. He was going to be a Speaker. The thought both thrilled and terrified him. He felt that this was what he was meant to do, but the responsibility it placed on him was daunting, to say the least. Even at the age of fourteen, he knew how important being a Speaker was, and what it entailed. He was stepping into a new world, and he wasn't completely sure if he was ready for it.
The speakers were an elite group of men and women among the Upper City who lived and worked in the Clouds, guiding and caring for the Lower City, and keeping
"Are you ready?" Galag said from behind him, the question mirroring his own doubts. His teacher and mentor for the past two years, Galag Pleiadon was a tall, willowy man with steel grey hair and mustache, and one of the best men Kirelon had ever known. The man wore a red tana as well, though his had a gold brooch pinned at the breast, marking him as the Master Speaker, the most powerful of the group, and the most wise. The man gave Kirelon an expectant look, still waiting for an answer to his question.
They looked out over the horizon for a moment, where three of the lesser moons hung like tiny marbles, blue and grey and brown. The day was still young, and the weather was calm, with only a slight breeze tickling
Galag hoisted the craft's single sail and tied it off, then adjusted it slightly to catch the wind at just the right angle to get them to where they needed to go. Soon, they were sailing off towards the center of the Clouds, where the largest viewing platform sat, a massive building with a hooded roof that made it look like an enormous, wide-brimmed hat. After only a few minutes, they floated up to the dock protruding from the platform and moored their ship. They entered the building through an arched portal made of marble, heavily engraved with words written in an archaic form of the Argo script. The words read, "Before one can speak with any certainty, one must first listen to wisdom's voice.” It was a sort of motto for the Speakers, one that had been inscribed by the very first Speaker, Arodrias Gaphan, centuries earlier. Though he could not actually read anything in ancient Argo, Kirelon had long since committed the words of Arodrias to memory. He recited them in the silence of his mind as they saw the gathered Elder Speakers in the center of the building, standing in a half-circle, waiting for him. The platform seemed to be empty of people except for them. They stepped off of the wood part of the floor and on to the large sheet of suspended glass that made up the the middle portion of the viewing platform. Kirelon didn't know how they had managed to seal the glass and the trunks together without killing the windwood, and he had never found the time or the convenience to ask. Bulky viewing lenses circled the disk, made available to any Speaker who needed to peer down into the Lower City. The young man felt a momentary stab of irrational panic as he walked across the surface of the glass, seeing the entire valley directly below him. He had been here before, of course, but it always felt as if he were walking on air. Heights had never bothered him--that was good, since he was a Speaker--but there was something about all that empty air below him without any visible means of keeping him from falling to his death that still made Kirelon shiver.
The Elder Speakers nodded as the two reached the group, and
Kirelon had been preparing for this moment for weeks, editing and revising the words in his head over and over again until he had bored himself to tears. He tried to sound as confident as he could as he spoke. "I am truly honored," he said, looking each of them in the eye one by one. "To be standing here today. I will try with everything I have to live up to the responsibility I've been given, and to always put this city and its citizens above my own needs."
They nodded, and one, a balding man with a face wrinkled like a piece of old leather, asked the question that began the initiation. "What do the writings of Arodrias
Kirelon answered the questions of each of the Elder Speakers as they came, growing more confident with every answer he gave, and every nod of approval he received from his superiors. None of the Elder Speakers were surprised by Kirelon's competence--they had been a part of his training as well, and knew how talented he was--but they were impressed all the same.
After each of the gathered men and women had asked him a question,
Kirelon did so, starting to grow nervous again. This was the part he was really worried about. So much could go wrong here--the wrong target, the wrong time, the wrong situation. He didn't think there would be much chance of him actually failing his initiation--it was sort of set in stone at this point--but he certainly didn't want to embarrass himself in front of the Elder Speakers. Especially not in front of Galag.
He grabbed the lens and pivoted the instrument downward to scan the Lower City. At first all he saw was a grey-green blur, and so he adjusted the focus of the lens slightly. The image cleared up, and Kirelon saw the buildings and the ground and the glowing fungi of the valley below him. He began to search for his target--a middle-aged man named Vatos, one of the lowborn miners. Every time a new Speaker was chosen, he or she would in turn choose a Listener to Link with. They would become a part of the bridge between the nobility and the lowborn, a high honor if there ever was one. Kirelon had been searching out a suitable candidate for months now, and had settled on Vatos for numerous reasons. The man was a saint, to say the least. He was kind, noble, and gracious to those around him, and would serve the people well as a Listener. Kirelon thought that he and the man could be quite the team.
After a minute or two, Kirelon located Vatos. He was standing in the midst of a group of other broad-shouldered lowborn in the dusty courtyard of a Lower City neighborhood, seemingly discussing something with them. Kirelon watched them for a moment, unsuccessfully trying to pick out what they might be discussing from their postures. He was supposed to Link to the man and inform him of his duty, and then Dominate him to show to the Elder Speakers of his prowess. Kirelon glanced up briefly, and nodded to Galag, indicating that he had found the man he was looking for. Kirelon gave him the coordinates, and Galag and the rest of the Elder Speakers went to their own lenses to watch the spot that Kirelon had indicated.
Kirelon turned back to his lens, preparing himself for what he was going to have to do next. With a start, he noticed that Vatos was not standing in the spot he had been a moment ago. Instead he was sprawled on the rough ground of the courtyard, stood over by three of the other lowborn from the crowd. Kirelon reacted without thinking, reaching out and Linking with Vatos.
Kirelon's face suddenly flared up with pain. He tasted blood, and looked up to see the same three men now standing over him--over Vatos. The smell of unwashed bodies permeated his nostrils, and the murmur of voices filled his ears. He and Vatos were Linked. It was as if Kirelon was perceiving things from the other man's body, his own senses lost in the melding of identity.
Vatos' angry thought was projected into Kirelon's mind. No! You pick now of all times to do this, Speaker? I don't need you interfering! Kirelon started. When two people were Linked, they couldn't hear each other's thoughts, but they could communicate telepathically by consciously choosing to project a thought into the other's mind. Obviously, Vatos had been Linked with before.
I'm just trying to help,
"We don't need you screwing with our lives, Vatos," said one of the lowborn standing over the middle-aged man. He was short, but heavily muscular, and was missing part of his left ear. "Leave us alone and go back to hiding in the mountains."
You're just going to get in the way, Vatos projected to
"Well, Vatos?" the second of the trio said, a tall, gangly man with a bug eye. "Are you going to leave? We don't want you here--you'll bring the Listeners on all of us!"
When Vatos didn't answer, the third man--an ugly brute missing quite a few teeth--kicked him square in the face. Kirelon cried out as he felt the pain along with Vatos, and then hurriedly severed the Link. He gasped as his own senses flooded back, and he realized he was lying on his back on the great sheet of glass in the viewing platform.
Galag glanced at him from where he stood by a lens. "Kirelon, get up! I want you to handle this situation as you think a Speaker should. This is your time to prove yourself."
Kirelon gritted his teeth and got to his feet, grabbing the lens once more and returning his gaze downward. The three men were still beating Vatos, and it didn't look as if he was going to retaliate in any way. Kirelon ground his teeth together. What am I supposed to do? Vatos wanted me to leave him alone, but Galag said I need to do something...
The first of the lowborn grabbed Vatos and shook him, yelling something that Kirelon couldn't distinguish. The short man threw Vatos a good fifteen feet, sending him crashing into partially buried boulder laying in the courtyard. Kirelon took a deep breath. He had to help. Vatos might get killed if this kept up any longer. The young speaker reached down with his mind and Linked with the third man of the trio that was beating Vatos, the one with the missing teeth. His own senses were replaced with the brute's, and he saw the scene from within once again. Both men shivered as the ugly brute noticed Kirelon's presence.
"Speaker!" The man bellowed, just before
They were no longer two separate entities. The brute's mind was completely suppressed, and Kirelon's gained control. The man's body was his to do with as he pleased. Kirelon had only Dominated three times before, and so the feeling was still new to him. He felt as if he had pasted his awareness over someone else's, taking away their free will and replacing it with the mindless compulsion to do whatever Kirelon ordered.
He shook with terror as the feeling overwhelmed him.
The crowd burst into motion at the announcement, some jumping forward to pin the Dominated man to the ground, others leaping to grab Vatos, most fleeing in terror. Kirelon compelled his Dominated to crash into the other two men of the trio that had been harassing Vatos, sending all three barreling to the ground in a dusty heap. "Run, Vatos!" Kirelon said through the man's lips.
Vatos didn't waste a moment. He sprung to his feet with a surprising agility, given his injuries, and sprinted down the dirt road towards another neighborhood. Men gave chase, screaming out obscenities even as they grabbed fallen sticks or stones.
Kirelon felt a flash of pain as his Dominated was smashed in the head with a rock. The young Speaker quickly severed the Link before he was overwhelmed with pain, and then brought his lens about as he regained his own senses, searching for Vatos. He found him running down the same dusty road. There were a group of lowborn circling around the buildings to the man's right, as that seemed to be the most logical route of escape. Kirelon quickly Linked with Vatos. An aching pain flooded his entire body as the lowborn's senses became his.
Turn left at this alley,
I know where I'm going, Vatos retorted. Stay out of it.
Where are you going, then?
Stay out of my head! Vatos almost screamed as he went right at a turn on the dusty road and ran head long into the group of men
Told you so,
Shut up. Vatos pivoted and ran back the other way, diving over a low wooden fence and into an alley to the left of the road. A stone narrowly missed his head as he turned a corner. The man continued to run, dodging and turning and zigzagging through the neighborhood on his way progressively northward.
Speaker, Vatos projected, still angry. If you're so cursed determined to stick around, make yourself useful and check on the courtyard I was in. My family lives in one of the buildings at the north end . Please, make sure they're alright. I'm trying to lead the mob away from them, but some might have circled back to try and threaten them.
One of the outlying districts, near the northeastern portion of the cliff wall.
Some of the group, including two of who had been the leaders, were still in the courtyard, trying to break down the door of the one of the northernmost buildings.
They're breaking down the door,
Vatos swore and then turned a full one-hundred and eighty degrees, dashing back down the dusty alley he had just come from. Please, Speaker, do what you can. Don't let them hurt my family. I'll try to get back in time, but...
Don't worry, Kirelon projected, severing the Link again. He refocused his lens on the courtyard, and was relieved to find that they hadn't broken through yet. The short, muscular man was shouting something through the door, probably a threat. Kirelon noticed that the third of the former trio had been left in the middle of the courtyard, probably dead--his head was a bleeding mess from the rock that had been smashed against it.
Kirelon heard a girl scream from somewhere inside the house. The men around his Dominated were crying out in alarm, and then rushing forward to pin their comrade to the ground. Kirelon kept flailing the man's arms about, tackling and punching and wrestling with anyone who came near. He managed to keep it up for a good two minutes before a solid blow to the man's knee cap sent him sprawling. Kirelon winced as he severed the Link, and then quickly Dominated the man who had just kicked his previous host. And he began again.
It went on for several more minutes, and each time some of the men tried to go back to breaking down the door,
"Leave my family alone!" the worn Vatos gasped as he obviously struggled to keep himself upright. "Don't you dare hurt them."
"And what are you going to do about it, Vatos?" The bug-eyed man said, sneering.
I know, Vatos replied. I'm going to need your help. I suppose you don't have any other Speakers willing to help you?
No, I'm sorry. I was in the middle of my initiation...I was going to choose you to be my Listener, actually. But this came up, and my master wants me to resolve this situation as part of my training. Alone.
Sky above, Vatos swore. You're not even a real Speaker?
No, not yet,
Vatos did not reply, and the mob continued to stare down Vatos, neither side making a move as the bug-eyed man's question hung in the air like a cloud of dirty smoke.
Play along, Vatos finally sent. Just... Curse you, play along. "I'm going to unleash a horde of Speakers on you," Vatos said to the mob, staring them down while continuing to calm his breathing. "My friend has already been interfering with your plans to get at my family, and meanwhile his fellow Speakers have been systematically killing off the rest of your little mob. Now it's just you, me, and them. Are you going to interfere with the Speakers, Koro?"
"You're lying," the bug-eyed man, Koro, said, eyes narrowing. "You're a lowborn just like the rest of us. You don't have a magical army of Speakers waiting at your command."
"Then how do you explain this?" Vatos said. Do something dramatic, he sent to
You're good at dramatic, the man sent.
The short, muscular man, the first of the trio of leaders, stepped forward then, clutching his side in pain from where one of his fellows had slugged him while he was Dominated. "You don't scare me, Vatos," he spat, scowling. "If you really had an army of Speakers, you wouldn't be here in the middle of the Lower City, trying to overthrow them."
Vatos just stared, not saying a word.
Nothing, Vatos replied, maybe a little too quickly.
Thinda barked a laugh as Koro got to his feet and dusted himself off, mumbling curse words and stumbling back into the protection of the mob. "I just screwed you over, didn't I?" Thinda said, still laughing. He raised a hand to his mouth and started shouting, as if to the whole world. "Speakers! This man thinks he's better than you! He wants to take over, kill all of you, rule the city in your place!"
At that moment, the door to Vatos' house opened and a young girl, only slightly younger than Kirelon, ran out, holding a small knife. She had short black hair and a serious little face, as well as pupils of such deep blue that it looked as if the girl had pools of water at the center of her eyes. "Stay away from my dad!" she yelled as she rushed out, stabbing the nearest miner in the back of the leg. The man howled and fell backwards as the girl neatly hamstrung him and then slid the dagger back out of his flesh with a surprising grace.
"Danas!" Vatos cried out as the girl went to attack another of the men, but too late. Three of the miners charged her and easily knocked the knife out of her hand, then subdued her and brought her forward, hands on her limbs.
"Let me go!" She screamed as she struggled, but it was no use. The men were too strong. One of them picked up her fallen knife and then pressed it against her neck. She growled once, and then fell still.
"I swear," Vatos said with a painfully quiet voice. "If you hurt her in any way I will tear your arms out of your sockets and beat you to death with your own fists."
"Strong words for a man with a death mark on his head,"
"If I'm going to
What was this business about overthrowing the government? Kirelon thought about that as the stand-off continued. If this was true...then Vatos would be killed, no doubt about it. There was no room for that kind of treason in Argosson. Kirelon wondered if the other Speakers watching with their lenses had subtly Linked with anyone near by. What if they hadn't heard the exchange? Kirelon certainly didn't want to get Vatos killed. He seemed like a humble and noble man. But Kirelon also had a responsibility, as a Speaker. It was a crime to lie to a Speaker, about anything, even if you were also a Speaker. There could be dire consequences if Kirelon did not reveal what he had learned, and something happened later on down the road that he could have prevented. Not that he was trying to defend Vatos. Treason was wrong, no matter the criminal's strength of character. But so was being the cause of a man's death.
"Let her go,
"I've regretted a lot in my life, Vatos,"
Vatos' face became less hard, and he almost pleaded his next words. "Please. Don't hurt her. There's no need--you have what you wanted, I'm going to die now, because of your slander. The Speakers undoubtedly heard you. Just...let her go."
"Dad, no! You can’t! Please, no..." Danas said, eyes growing wide.
"Danas," Vatos said to her. "I can handle this." He looked back at
But Thinda was shaking his head. "No, there isn't enough proof to get you killed. They'll send a Listener to investigate, but by that time you'll have covered everything up--if you had anything you needed to hide in the first place. You run too clean an operation to be caught this easily. Or else you would have already been caught." He looked skyward, as if talking to the clouds themselves. "Threaten his family. They're the only thing he cares about. Torture him until the world crumbles to dust, he won't say anything--at least not anything that would matter. But hurt his family...you'll find out everything you need to know about his operations and how he's been running them. And then you'll have your traitor to hang. You're welcome."
Vatos cursed. "You're the worst of men,
Danas' face went white.
Vatos stiffened, but did not make a move. The miner with the knife was still holding it to his daughter's throat, and that froze him in place no matter what he might want to do to these men.
He was going to have to go about this carefully. If the man holding the knife got any inclination that he was being Linked with, he would kill Danas without a second thought. I'm going to save her,
Vatos did not reply.
Kirelon severed the Link and was once again looking down at the courtyard from the viewing platform thousands of feet above. He took his eye away from the lens and glanced at the other Speakers. Galag was watching him, and there was a question in his look. A question that Kirelon did not want to have to answer. The young Speaker swallowed hard and looked back into the lens. The man was still holding the knife to Danas' throat, and the young girl was obviously struggling not to cry. She was tough, but there was only so much that a twelve year-old girl could handle.
Danas was caught by her father's tight embrace as Vatos reached her, but
Vatos was holding his daughter and stroking her dark hair as he stared at
Vatos took a deep breath. "
Well? Vatos thought as his wife went back into the house, said a few words to someone inside, and then came back out, going to the injured man, who still sat in the dirt of the courtyard with a hand pressed against his wound.
They heard, didn't they? Vatos projected to
Would you have kept hidden what you had learned here if they hadn't been?
Vatos sighed. I suppose you would. He got to his feet, scooping up his daughter in his arms and then carrying her towards the house. I don't hate you, Speaker, for what you have to do. You are what you are. For what it's worth, thank you for helping me. You're the first Speaker I have ever met who has cared about anyone but themselves. If things had turned out differently...I might have considered being your Listener. Not that I would have had a choice. He hesitated. But, no... I would've hated being a Listener. I would've hated having any part of it.
No, you didn't. But you shouldn't be sorry.
Why do you hate us so much?
Vatos hesitated. Do you really not see? Do you not see the pain you cause? The lives you tear apart? The freedom you destroy? But, no... You couldn't. You can't see beyond your mountain peaks. You can't see beyond your heaven to notice the hell it was built on.
I won't fight it, Vatos projected. Tell the Speakers that I will give them what they want. Just don't hurt my family. Please. They weren't a part of this.
Are you sure? I could...
Please, Speaker. Protect my family. That is all I ask of you. Do what you must.
I will, Vatos.
Thank you. Vatos stepped inside his home.
"Why are you crying?" the Master Speaker said. "That man was a traitor."
Vatos was publicly executed three days later.