Again, a little bit late - and I skipped April. I've been considering this as a bit of a longer project as I want to get better at writing actual novels rather than just short stories, so I've done a bit of planning/worldbuilding to have a world to base my novel in. I'm going for a single character focused fantasy story - it's going to be fairly short for that genre but we'll see how it goes!
I'm unsure of a lot of the choices I've made here, but I felt it was better to write than not so here we are. I will at some point go back and fill in for April with a short story - I will have 12 stories by the end of the year (not counting NanoWrimo!).
Eyes Of Stone - Chapter 1
The ash and soot clogged Lonan's senses as he fell to his knees. Rooftiles cracked as the weight of his limp body crushed down on the wreckage. Somewhere above a carrion bird screeched between bursts of thunder and the clamour of battle. Lonan heaved a dry breath that tasted of dirt. Then forced his eyes open. His vision was blurry, impaired by the hot, wet blood running down his forehead. Fire had begun to tear through the village, leaving only embers in its wake. Lonan forced himself up on wobbly legs, breathing heavily. A low whistling sound caused his ears to prick up. As he turned a thick arrow thumped into his shoulder, knocking him off his feet again with a cry of pain. He rolled on the ground as another arrow thwacked off the broken masonry where he had been lying moments before. Scrambling behind a piece of collapsed wall, he cursed as tears of pain ran down his cheeks. Black spots blurred his vision and he tried to think, though he thought he might vomit. He began to breathe deeply, in and out, just like he had practiced. By focusing on the cycle of his breath he gradually forced himself to relax. Slowly, he released his knuckles from their white-hard grip on his overcoat, imprints of fine patterns dissolving from his skin. Mind racing, he nervously fingered the short sword at his side. He knew how to use it, but he was in no state to fight. The shouting and voices of soldiers grew closer to his hiding spot. He had to act now. Closing his eyes, he focused even harder on his breathing. That cycle of air, in and out. In. Out. The stomping of boots grew closer. In his minds eye, Lonan saw colour. A deep green candle, burning in the distance. He reached for it, drew it close. As he did so the flame transformed before his eyes, from a flickering green light, to many shades of the same colour. It came closer, until he could see clearly the shapes of his destination. It was like putting on spectacles for the first time. Then he opened his eyes, and the flame was right there in front of him. He scrambled to his feet, amidst shouts. Shouts directed at him. Turning he saw a small contingent of soldiers, bows drawn. At their head was a tall woman, her red hair draped over her face as a hazey blue shape took form in front of her. A sage. The Council would not be happy. The archers completed drawing their arrows and Lonan fled through his gateway, closing it behind him and snapping one of the arrows in the process, which fell harmless to the ground.
He didn't have much time for respite, as a thick forearm slammed him up against the wall he had stepped out in front of. A stern, thickly jowled face looked him up and down.
"Lonan. We've been looking for you.", Lieutenant Oran sneered at him. Lonan had stepped through on to the top of the makeshift wall that had been built around the little mining village. Several soldiers guarded their position as a small army of archers peppered the village below with arrows. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about this ginger bitch running around the village killing my men would you?", he squeezed hard against Lonans neck. "You're one of them, boy.", jaw now quivering in rage. Lonan struggled for breath, tried to reply; but there was no sound. "What's that? Speak up!", he forced his knee into Lonan's stomache and let him keel over onto the floor.
"I don't know what they're doing here!", he coughed, "Oran! I don't fucking know!".
He got another boot in the stomache for that. "You're a real piece of shit, boy.", he paused, "I could kill you right now and call it a battlefield tragedy."
The Lieutenant drew a long knife, "Getting rid of you would answer a lot of questions for me, you know."
Lonan stumbled to his feet and drew his sword, "I'm not what you think!", he gasped, "The Sages probably hate me almost as much you do, I have no reason to do their dirty work! I was sent here to help you!"
Lonan knew he was in no condition for a fight, not with anyone, but especially not with Oran. Lonan was a skilled fencer but the old Lieutenant had seen a lot of fighting in his day, and Lonan hadn't fought outside of the fencing tournaments. Orans middle-aged paunch disguised a thick, muscled torso and the sagging skin of his face framed keen eyes that had seen countless years of conflict. He could feel his heart begin to race as he considered the prospect of a fight. Even if he won, if word got out that he - a known Sages guild scholar - had killed or injured an officer, he's be as good as dead anyway. The Guild and the army didn't get on at the best of times, and there were plenty of accusations and insults thrown around in their struggle for influence over the city council. A fight like this could be the catalyst for open war between the two factions, and if that didn't kill him, it would leave him destitute. The Fencing Guild that paid Lonans keep had lent him out to the military as part of an exchange program, and getting into trouble with Oran would see him expelled in a heartbeat. There was simply no way to turn a fight with him into any kind of victory.
The air hung thick, the warmth from the burning village below caused constant sweating and Lonan could feel the cloying dampness of his clothing on skin. A second of silence that felt like a lifetime hung between them. Words spun through his mind but seemed always inadequate. The silence was finally shattered by a huge explosion that rocked the earth and lit the night. A huge billowing cloud of black smoke rose from the other side of the little town. The Lieutenant lowered his weapon and gaped at the scene.
"Shit. The bastards got to the mine.", he said it quietly, as though speaking to himself. Then turning to the stunned archers and the young officer overseeing them he shouted, "Captain! Get to the mine immediately!"
Oran paused for a second eyeing Lonan, then in a resigned tone added, "...and get me three of your best fighters, I want them here now!".
He turned to Lonan with a grimace, "Maybe you had nothing to do with this, maybe you did, whatever the case I'm giving you a chance to prove yourself here." he said it slowly, meaningfully. "I don't like your kind Lonan, I don't trust your little guild. But if you can put some men right in the mine for me right now, I'll take your word that you had nothing to do with this. I won't even have you killed.", he grimaced, "Promise."
Using the realms for transportation was fairly easy for Lonan - he was well attuned to his aspect. He drew energy from the realm of Esana, a quiet and somewhat illusive god. Esanas realm was orderly and his energy was easily moulded to manipulate the laws of the world, it was quite useful for changing the properties of objects and that sort of thing. Of course if he wanted Lonan could attempt more direct force with Esana, but it was not efficient - there were other realms for that sort of thing, though Lonan was not naturally attuned to any of them.
Transporting multiple people through a realm was not easy. The realms of gods ran alongside the earthly realm, though scholars don't know quite how they occupy the same space, they often describe realms as stretched and compressed parallel spaces. When travelling through one, if were you to emerge back on earth you would reappear at the corresponding location in the earthly realm. The problem was that because some realms were stretched and some compressed, figuring out where you would emerge was something of an art form. There were some maps of the more stable realms, but they were expensive and only those realms that did not often fluctuate in their occupation of space could be usefully mapped. Esana was compressed, and stable. It was well accepted that a given distance in Esana was roughly half that of the same distance on the earthly plane. It was also (and unlike many realms) mostly devoid of its own indigenous life, and so was fairly safe. Lonan had this to be thankful for as it meant it was perfectly suited to transportation, he would still need to be very careful, and there was no chance that he would be exactly right, but it was predictable enough that he would be able to get them in the rough vacinity of the mine. If Oran was giving him this chance he had to take it, the last thing he needed right now was to give the man anything that would in his eyes confirm his suspicions of Lonan.
He sighed, then sheathed his sword, "Fine. Get them here and I'll see what I can do."
In minutes the captain of the guard returned with two large soldiers. Both of the men had a well maintained breastplate over a thick red doublet struck through brightly coloured slashes of red and a shining, sturdy looking helm. They both carried large halberds as well as a beautiful sidesword and dagger pairing at their waist. These men clearly weren't your standard recruit, but likely the sons of some rich family that could afford to provide the absolute best for them.
"The mines have been breached. We have the main force on their way but its slow going fighting through the town.", Oran was briefing them, and turned to face Lonan with unmasked distaste. "Frederick, Perry, this man here is a sage...one of ours. He's going to open a gate for us. You will follow me through. We're going to cut them off and take them out before they can do any damage.", he paused, "Any questions?".
The men stood at perfect attention, finely groomed mustaches bristling. "Good. Our target is the woman sage that's been opening gates through the town, she has to be their escape plan. She's dangerous, but Lonan here will nullify her.", he gave Lonan a stern look then turned back to the men, "Kill her before she can cause any more trouble. Regroup and try to hold out until the main force gets through on the other side. That is all."
The men nodded and moved to ready themselves as Oran moved closer to Lonan.
"You can nullify her, can't you?"
When it came to direct and destructive force, one sages energy could be easily nullified by the other simply by enacting an equal and opposite effect. In practise this meant that sages on the battlefield were a high value, and very vulnerable target. By successfully taking out the enemy sages you could give your own free reign to wreak havoc on the opposing force. Meanwhile the sages under attack would be unable to divert their attention to defend themselves because to do so would be to let their own men be slaughtered. Any low grade sage could enact an opposing effect, and it didn't often matter how skilled an individual was because in the context of a battle one persons lack of skill was still a net gain in terms of energy. When it came to more personal matters however, it was a different story. The amount of energy one could channel was a vague, not well understood combination of physical fitness, practise, and attunement to their chosen realms, as well as so called birth-talent. Lonan was in good shape, and he was well attuned, but so far as he could tell he was nothing special. If birth-talent was real he certainly didn't have it. Whether or not he could oppose this woman would be a flip of the coin. At the very least he could force her attention to him while one of the soldiers ran a halberd through her. It wasn't like he had a great deal of choice.
Lonan grimaced and gave a slow nod, "Of course."
Orans expression betrayed a momentary flicker of worry, then snapped back to his commanding scowl as he turned to bark orders at the remaining soldiers on the wall.
Within minutes the soliders were ready to go, lined up and waiting for Oran. The taller of the three looked positively casual. He could've been about to embark on a shopping trip with his wife. His placidity was contrasted by the youngest of the three who was steadily breathing in and out in a rapid motion while staring at a spot on the wall like it had just insulted his mother. Lonan tried to avoid eye contact with him, just in case. The final soldier was the only one that looked like he was at work. Like he had done this a million times before and he was just hoping there would be no complications today so he could get back in time for tea. There was something comforting in that. Or maybe it was his bushy, yet somehow meticulously tidy mustache. So far it seemed that none of them were in the habit of smalltalk, or at least not with him, and so while waiting for Oran to finish barking orders at a distant unit of soldiers Lonan decided to name them. The big, casual looking one was Shopping, the angry young man would be Eyes, and the older veteran would be Moustache. They all had mustaches of course - but his was the best.
Lonan was still daydreaming when a thick hand slapped him across the back of the head.
"Sage! Where's my gate - we need it now, get going!", Oran was back.
Lonan rubbed the back of his head and begrudgingly moved towards the three men as Oran stormed past.
"Right away...sir.", it wouldn't do him any favours to talk back to Oran in front of his men.
Concentrating on the circular motion of his breathing, Lonan opened a channel to Esana and plucked the deep green colours from his minds eye. As he opened his eyes again the silent gateway formed in front of him, solid and stable as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
With a satisfied smile Lonan stepped forward, then turned towards the soldiers.
"Alright, follow behind me. The gate is stable and the realm is fairly tame so there's no much to worry about. Just...don't split up.", he turned back towards the gate, "Follow behind me and this won't take long at all. Get lost and you could be stuck in here forever."
He heard Oran's annoyed grunt, but ignored it and stepped through the gateway. The transition was seamless, from the din of battle to the quiet of Esana. The shouts and crackling fire, the odd scream, all of it vanished and gave way to the quiet breeze and rustling in the leaves of strangely straight trees, with their smooth curving branches, all facing upwards.
Oran took a deep breath behind him.
"Alright sage, lead the way.", then in a quieter voice he added, "...and don't try anything."
A shiver ran down Lonans spine. He could almost feel the sword at his back. The deep seated mistrust Oran had was sadly understandable, given the situation between the army and the guild. For Lonan, there was nothing he could do about it other than try not to get himself killed.
Lonan lead the way down the straight, packed dirt pathway. Esanas realm often reminded him of some noble estate garden, meticulously looked after by a squad of gardners. There were no gardeners here of course, but the beautifully symmetric trees and plants on either side of the path wouldn't have looked out of place in the grounds of some royal palace.
They walked the straight path for short time. If he concentrated Lonan could keep a half-formed gateway in his minds eye. He couldn't see what was on the other side, and sustaining a moving gateway took a lot of energy - but as it was Esanas own energy he used to form it, it was much easier to do in this realm than any other. He could get an idea for what lay on the other side by feeling for the subtle changes in energy expenditure. If the gateway required massive amounts of energy then he knew he was forcing it to open inside a physical object, vice-versa if it was very easy to generate, he knew he was in an open, unobstructed area. Using this information, and his knowledge of the town he was able to lead them towards the mines, more or less accurately. It was more of an art than a science, but Lonan knew the town well enough to place them relatively safely.
As the gateway got more difficult to hold open he knew they had entered the mines. Now the trick was how far to take them. The mines were filled with countless smaller passageways, and while he could guess when they were located over the main wide passage from the ease of generating his gateway, it was not a sure thing. He'd just have to hope. They had only been in Esana for around five minutes when Lonan stopped. It felt right. At a decent walking pace the mines were a good 20 minute journey from where they had started. By passing through Esana and passing through a gateway here (assuming he was right in his guess) they would land right in the main cavern of the mines. Easily cutting off the contingent of soldiers and the red sage. Lonan only hoped he'd have a little time to prepare when they stepped through. After all, there was no telling what was going to be on the other side of his gateway.
The chattering men behind him went quiet, and he could feel their eyes on his back.
"With some luck, this should do it.", he turned to face them, "I can't tell who, or what is on the other side from here."
Oran drew his sword then nodded at the men to move ahead. They did so, arraying themselves in front of Lonan, weapons in hand. Oran then looked to him and said, "Open the gate."
The gate manifested as easily as drawing a figure in the air, and the soldiers took a step towards it, "Wait!", Esana's energy surrounded him while he was here. It would have been a shame to waste it. The men looked at him with confusion, "Let me go in front."
Moustache looked to Oran who shrugged and the men stepped back, "Your funeral, sage."
Lonan moved up to the gateway. He had access to all this energy, but no use for it yet. There was, however, one thing he could do. Drawing his sword, Lonan closed his eyes. You can't hold water in a sieve, and you can't keep a grasp on another realms energy without storing it in some non permeable object. Some people could store a small amount of energy in their bodies but not Lonan, that was a skill that he hadn't mastered. Or had the need for really. Eyes closed, he began to channel the green flame down his arm and into the sword. He could feel the blade begin to slowly vibrate, like a satisfied purr. When the flow of energy began to meet a strong resistence he stopped. Forcing excess energy into a physical object could cause it to shatter, and there was no sense in pushing it. He now had a reservoir of power to pull from if he needed it. The energy would begin to quickly leak as soon as he left Esana, but with battle imminent that wasn't much of a concern for Lonan. Sword purring in his hand, he stepped through the gateway.
Lonan's breath caught in his throat as he saw the mines for the first time. He had heard stories of course, but nothing compared to seeing the true beauty of this place first hand. He stood in a wide excavated corridor, regularly spaced sconces on the walls held torches that threw their light far into the ceiling and out around the cavernous mine. That light was reflected and refracted into all the colours of the rainbow through the beautiful, thin crystalline structures that protruded from the walls, ceiling and even the floor off the beaten bath. The structures were long, and despite their glass-like appearance, seemed almost to bend and wave like long grass in a field. This 'grass' was the cities main source of income, and their main export, as well as one of the most coveted goods in the world. It was the source of all wealth in the city, and all strife. The mine, and the village above existed in the centre of a huge crater that expanded for half a mile on either side. Scholars argued endlessly over the exact cause, but all agree to some extent that an ancient calamity caused the crater and left behind the crystalline grass that was now mined for its incredible energy. Each blade was unique, and all held slithers of power from countless realms with near perfect efficiency, never seeming to leak like a normal vessel. One couldn't add any energy to a blade, but whatever was currently stored within would last for years after it was cut out of the earth. The grass was highly sought after as the only way to create alchemical tinctures that would keep for more than a few minutes due to energy leak, as well as the only way for most sages to tap into the energy of so many varied realms.
A grunt sounded behind behind him and echoed off the walls of the caves.
"You actually got us here."
Lonan turned to see Oran looking downright perplexed. The old Lieutenant met his eyes for a second, and gave him an approving head nod. That was probably the closest thing he was going to get to an apology, and Lonan was more than happy to take it. As the last of the men stepped through the portal Lonan closed the gate. The three soldiers took a few steps towards Oran when out of the darkness came a roar like water searing into steam as a bright yellow light erupted from the darkness towards the upper end of the hallway. Lonan tried to shout but the noise was deafening and moments later the crackling light shot straight through the exposed neck of the young man he had named Eyes. The bolt of light erupted out the other end and shot straight into the ceiling where countless precious shards shattered and exploded into a fine mist. The soldier fell to the ground with a solid thump, halberd clattering with him. The mans neck flapped loosely, eyes blackened and melting. There was no blood, only the smell of burning flesh as the wounds cauterised before they had a chance to bleed. Oran barked orders at the remaining two soldiers, then slapped Lonan in the face hard enough to almost make him see stars. Lonan shook himself and stared towards the other end of the hall where the red haired woman stood, eyes closed. More crackling yellow light began to form in front of her as she opened her eyes, and Lonan moved forward sword drawn. He wasn't sure why. Seeing that man die and knowing it should have been his job to stop it, and that he had failed - it made him angry. He had to stop this.
Lonan focused on his breathing and just as the woman released her bolt of energy he drew some of the reserve he had stored in the sword. The power came crashing out like water from a dam, far more than he had meant to draw and his own bolt flew at the crackling yellow energy with a rush. The two bolts met with a defeaning shriek, and the yellow bolt was violently smashed into a cloud of mist. His own bolt continuing into the roof of the mine causing a large section of the ceiling to disintegrate into a mist, and then water that crashed into the floor drenching the woman who locked wide eyes with Lonan as though seeing him for the first time. Shopping and Moustache wasted no time as they charged up the the short incline towards the woman who spat and began to run. There was still plenty of Esana left in the sword and Lonan drew it all now. A great welling of power entered his body and he immediately opened a gateway running through and drawing more power from Esana as he went, after a few paces he opened an exit door and leaped through just ahead of the woman. She was mid sprint and as she looked up in shock Lonan emptied all of his reserves into an outpouring of energy at her feet. The stone floor of the mine melted into a deep pool of water with a noise like grinding stone, and the enemy sage fell face first into it as it formed.
The soldiers made it to the top of the incline just in time to see what had happened. Lonan could see the uncertainty on their faces as they stopped a safe distance back, and waited. Lonan had hoped that the woman had used up all of her reserves in the initial attack, he assumed that was the reason for her running. He edged closer to the newly formed pool and saw his mistake. The woman was gone. She had to have opened a gateway, however with the damage she had done to the town outside, and the energy expended fighting Lonan, she couldn't have gone far.
A wet thump echoed down the corridor behind him and Lonan spun to see the red woman, drenched, as she clambered to her feet and began to run towards the exit.
"Stop that bitch!", Oran had made his way up the hill and Shopping and Moustache instantly took off as he bellowed, sprinting past Lonan, halberds carried low.
The woman turned and with a snarl flung a bolt of energy in their direction. Her fatigue left her weak however and Lonan was ready for it. His own bolt met hers and they both fell harmless as a light mist dampening the floor. The soldiers were on her in seconds and Shopping thumped into her in a tackle, mist raining down around him as the woman was thrown to the ground, the big soldier on top. As she squirmed beneath Moustache gingerly placed the blade of his halberd against the womans neck. Oran strode past Lonan, sword drawn and with a grim frown on his face.
"Stand her up.", he growled.
Shopping did so, holding her arms behind her back. The woman bared her teeth and spat as Oran approached. It did her no favours as the old Lieutenants meaty fist collided with her face with a crunch, snapping her head violently to the side and sending a spray of red blood across the wall of the cavern and Orans uniform. The woman's head lolled and Lonan could hear her sharp, choking intake of breath, replaced by a violent fit of coughing as bloody spit ran down from her mouth.
"Where are your men? You entered with two.", he said it without missing a beat, the anger gone from his voice and replaced with a somehow more threatening calm.
The womans coughing didn't subside as she tried to speak.
"Dead!", she forced it out between choking coughs.
She began to breathe heavily as the coughing fit ended. Oran began to speak but she cut him off, "He's coming...", she continued to breathe heavily, "...we need to leave!". She spoke with a heavy accent that Lonan had not heard before.
"Who's coming?", Oran pressed, "Who! speak!"
The woman looked up at him, face bloodied and smiled, "It's too late now anyway."
In that moment, the stone wall of the cavern exploded outwards with a sound like canon-fire, sending Oran, the two soldiers, and the red woman alike flying away from it in a massive cloud of dust and debris. Lonan stood mouth agape as a creature easily twice his own height and as wide as a large bear ducked through the newly formed hole in the wall, wielding a sword the size of a small boat. The creature had the body of a man, torso covered in a thick fur jacket, broken chains wrapped around its shoulders and limbs. The creatures head however was that of a horse.
The newcomer stepped through the hole, and observed the scene for a second. When no one moved, and ignoring Lonan completely, the huge creature nonchalantly stepped over the debris to the pile on the floor that contained the red woman. Picking her up, it slung her over its shoulder and walked off into the mines as Lonan stood in shock.
The best part of an hour later, Lonan stumbled out of the mine with Moustache weighing on his shoulder, leg broken. Oran was leaning on Shopping, both of them having suffered only minor injuries. The scene that met them at the entrance to the mine was one of horror. The entire company of soldiers that Oran had sent towards the mines after them lay dead, their collective blood pooled the ground in puddles. Heads lay separted from their bodies, men and woman lay crushed, and one man was left hanging impaled on a jutting wooden beam. Maybe fifteen of them in all. They lay dead as the village lay in silence. The fighting was over. As he stood there slack jawed, mind racing, one question repeated itself endlessly in Lonans head; what had happened in this village?