After getting some good advice, listening to a podcast seminar and doing some worldbuilding exercises, going on a soul-searching walk-about…I came back to this to make some much needed edits. Nothing too MASSIVE in the context of the chapter, but it will have lasting repercussions for the future of the book. So, let’s just say that I reinforced my foundation a bit.
Here is the opening excerpt. The full chapter is at the link above where I’ve added more fun little links to notes and codexes for those who like to read that stuff (like I do.) Please do stop by and leave some feedback – positive or negative. Criticisms are okay too. I hope the improvements are solid. Enjoy.
Consciousness returned in cyclical waves of nausea and sensual distortion. Each limb felt weighted by sand, and her head filled with a hot, stinging fluid. The near evacuation of her stomach as she sat up slowed Khes’ progress, and only as her hand came to her abdomen did she become aware of her nudity. The girl’s bleary eyes blinked wider, forcing focus and awareness as the spasm of realization jolted her to sobriety.
Upon the floor was her dress, the plain blue shift she wore as servant in the Damin’s estate. Plain by Shae standards, but among the poorer clans of her own people, the dress was elegant. Only the stigma of station attached to it darkened that elegance. Service was an incorrect description. Khes was a slave. Captured, bought and owned. Whatever had transpired that left her body aching and her mind numb was within her Master’s rights. Khes knew this, and loathed the not knowing as much as she loathed that she had failed to prevent it.
Resting her bare feet on the plush rug, the young Erahs tried to stand. Like a fawn, her first attempts were a tangle of limbs that landed her roughly onto the floor. Stretching out, hands smacking onto the cold stone at the boundaries of the rug, Khes reached for the dress and caught sight of her reflection. The reflection staring back was not ethereal and shimmering, but hard and cold. Staring back was the visage of a warrior after battle.
The iridescence of her skin was ashen, her naturally pearl complexion matte and soiled with violet stains from recent aggressions. It no longer glittered like snow in the sun. Dark hollows shadowed beneath the onyx orbs of her equine eyes. The pale lilac haloing one iris was clouded in near black, orchid ink. Blood caked in lavender clumps amidst the mats of long, gossamer white hair.
Closing her eyes to the brutal ugliness, she focused on her physical senses again. This was how she felt as well. She had fought… hard. The more she focused, the deeper a void she found. No memory of any kind just a giant maw taunting her with the terrors of what might have been. Her self-awareness, numbed as it was, attempted to reassure her however, that the only part of her that did not hurt was–
There was a loud crash and an echo of throaty laughter. Deep voices, unfamiliar to her. Every muscle tensed and her breath caught in anticipation. No one entered. Her fingers curled about the fabric of the dress, drawing it to her like a weapon. Lip twitching in a sneer as she forced herself up to slide the shift on, Khes muted the emotions rising. This was no time.
Once standing, she realized the gown was torn in several places, and she would not get far in this state. Hobbling to the wardrobe, she heard another crash then angered shouting. She leaned on the door pacing her breath and waiting until the noise subsided. Tugging one of her Master’s tunics free from within, Khes grit her teeth and swapped the tattered dress for the soft Damin’s shirt.
Dizzy as the movement made her, Khes made her way to his vanity. Here she found his tonics and medicinal herbs. He drank tinctures frequently for migraines. She had mixed them for him often. With luck, it would numb the pain and she could move more freely. A whiff of berry wine and salt stung at her nose as she bent forward to rummage in the bottles. Withdrawing sharply from the goblet resting near, her eyes slammed shut and memory invaded.
Maris’ arctic blue eyes were dim and dark with worry as he knelt before her. One hand caressed her hair as the other presented the goblet. An urgency restrained with as much difficulty as a panicked stallion pressed the cup to her mouth. Some of the thick, syrupy wine sloshed out, staining the corner of her lips.
“Everything will be fine, my love. Just drink this—all of it– and relax. I promise, the Dūsan isn’t going to take you away from me. I swear to it. You aren’t going anywhere, but you must drink this all.” He lifted his eyes toward the door with concern and a glint of anger. He then stroked her hair again before lowering his warm, velveteen hand to her cheek. Although his hair was black, his fur was a light gold tone. The scent of his cologne and his gentility brought to mind silk and the strains of Shae music.
Khes gently fingered the lobe of his long, leporine ear with an affection. The wine, after only a few sips, had made her cheeks warm. “Why do you worry so?” she murmured, the faint slur noticeable to her own ears. The confusion passed quicker than it should have as she assured him, “I am always polite to your guests. I will not embarrass you again. I promise.”
“Drink,” he urged again, with another thrust of the goblet. Maris stood a glowering a moment to ensure she started to drink before he then bolted to the door. As he pulled it shut behind him, she heard his angry hiss. “Not yet! Give her a moment.”
Recoiling from the vanity, Khes did not mix the tincture with what fluid remained in the cup. She could not recall setting it down, but she had clearly not finished it. Whatever drug he had given her was potent enough without the full draught. Instead, she put a large drop of her own anesthetic tincture beneath her tongue, then pocketed the vial. The sound of nearing footsteps allowed her no time to ponder what the memory meant. The re-surging nausea hinted well enough. These conclusions that arose, she chose to reject for sanity-sake.
Although she snatched up the Master’s razor, it was not a sufficient weapon. There was an iron by the fire, long, blunt and heavy. It would give her reach until she was stable enough to maneuver, to run. She rest it along the back of one leg as the door opened. These were no Shae visitors.
A towering behemoth of raw musculature, the soldier had to duck to enter. Over eight foot tall, he was almost twice Khes’ height. A Ganroth. Bare-chested save a metal shoulder-guard, his rust colored hide was leathery and marred by cordovan scars. Thick, twisted horns of coal grey formed out of his cheekbones and brows, arcing back to follow the curvature of his skull before seeming to grow back into it, like roots returning to the earth. His gold eyes were too small and narrow, yet found her immediately. A pleased smile curled his lips, bearing his large, sharp incisors.
“Does the little girl-child want to play?” His chortle was deep as thunder.
Already Khes could feel the tincture working. Her limbs were getting lighter, her mind clearer. As she slowly stepped back, the Ganroth advanced with a snide coo. “Nearly undressed and waiting near a bed, how civilized of you leaf-eater.”
Dropping and squaring her shoulders, Khes waited patient and calm, focused only on his movements and positioning. A man so large would not be easily conquered. “What are you doing in Master’s home?” she whispered.
Eyes glittering, he leered at her, at a vantage to see down the tunic were she even remotely endowed in the chest. “Your Master entrusted his debts to the wrong people. The Ganroth must no longer tolerate the Shae as equals. OUR Master, the True Master is risen and it is time for the Shae to step aside.”
Reaching out he trailed a talon along her cheek and jawline before roughly gripping her hair at the scalp. Khes made no cry or protest, merely adjusted her weight and steadied her heart and breathing. Bloated as the Ganroth’s ego was, he did not notice, only continued to play for intimidation. “What is theirs belongs to us, now… including you.”
With no effort, he hauled her from the floor by the handful of hair at the base of her neck. As he flung her onto the bed, Khes swung the poker with all her strength. The pointed hook at its end took purchase and ripped flesh as she let her weight fall onto it. With a roar, he batted it aside and spun on her, but Khes had rolled off the bed, onto the floor and had the razor poised in her hand.
“Little Erahs DKUN!” the Ganroth snarled. “I will tear you until you bleed out!”
Relieved of her pain, Khes was able to move with precision and speed. Although not nearly the skill she once had, the girl was born and raised a Blade Spirit. She had never killed a man before, but the principles of The Hunt were no different. This was as natural as breathing to her. With two long strides, she leapt onto the vanity stool and vaulted herself toward the giant. Anticipating his smack, Khes twisted and dove, one leg kicking up behind her to connect with his wrist. As she landed, she sliced downward through exposed abdominal muscle. Sinking in to the handle, the razor slipped through even the thickest Ganroth hide as if through clay. Coming to rest on one knee, Khes followed through with the blade, using the momentum to spin her. As she circled back around, the stunned Ganroth was grasping at his intestines. Her second slice took out his hamstring and the beast fell forward. As he screamed for his mates, Khes rose and straddled his shoulders. Although one of his hands snatched up and gripped hold of her, he was bleeding far too fast and hadn’t the strength to fling her off. Khes’s razor sunk in once more. Had she a slightly longer blade and more strength, the tiny Erahs might have been able to decapitate him. As it was, she cut just deep enough to sever artery, wind pipe and vocal chords. There was a faint gurgling then a thud.
Dropping the razor on the blood pooled floor, Khes stooped to relieve the Ganroth of his dagger. His sword was too large and heavy for a five foot waif, but the dagger was more than impressive. Testing its weight, she felt a renewed sense of energy and health. The vitality of the Ganroth flooded her as it drained from him and she breathed deeply, as if stepping out of a toxic fog. Pain faded from her every fiber and her vision and hearing gained a hyper acute clarity.
Straightening, the girl caught her reflection again. The thick crimson blood ran from her flesh, slow like syrup. Its color and spilling had restored some of the sheen missing in her own skin. Although she knew that this one was not the man responsible for her state, she had no doubt he would have worsened it significantly. Still that sense of vengeance had strengthened her. The not knowing was of no consequence. The intentions of their kind- Ganroth, Shae- it was always the same. Khes would not be wearing bruises unless she had fought off something. And a Blade Spirit does not lose. They die with dignity or collect a toll, so where had her previous assailant fled?
Gripping the dagger tight, Khes set her jaw. Although so many attempts had failed and eventually delusion, complicity and complacency had ruled her, she lacked no confidence that today she would escape her chains forever. For now, emotions must be quieted and focus regained.
The Blade Spirit does not feel. It acts. It slices to the quick, she reminded herself before creeping toward her only way out.
– – – –
Each glove was tugged free and tossed onto the table with a definitive slap. Gregoire Kreios was not a man to be trifled with and he smelled lies as strong in the air as the liquor on Damin Maris Eleyor’s breath. Amongst the Shae, Gregoire was a highly reputed Commander, and no less renowned as one of the Sighted.
“While I appreciate that one less squadron of Ganroth are pillaging the Deignier, it is with great concern that they litter your home like slaughtered livestock.” Gregoire’s black fur was dusted with the grey of his age, and his ears were tattered with the scars of battle. His amber eyes regarded Maris with cold disbelief.
The younger noble averted his gaze and reached for the nearly emptied bottle of Mastiha. With little patience, Gregoire hooked a finger in the bottle neck and flicked it onto the floor. The mastic resin alcohol filled the room with an aggressive stench. “How came this scene to be?”
“Can’t you see it, Commander?” Maris’s tone was snide and defeated. He raised his head and grimaced, “I just want Khes returned to me. I’ll…” he looked about seeking some suitable bribe before realizing bribery was unwise. “…pay a fine for the crimes if that will satisfy the Advocacy. They were invaders to my home. I had all rights to kill them. That a slav– servant did it is inconsequential.”
Gregoire walked away from the inebriated Damin, stepping over an eviscerated Ganroth to enter the main foyer. As he looked up the hall toward the stair at the carnage and destruction, he had no doubt there was more at play than a simple home invasion.
The Shae turned to regard Maris with impatience.
“She would not be executed for this?”
“We shall see.” Gregoire turned and nodded to his Second at the door. “Stay with him until I am finished.”
Striding carefully, Gregoire avoided dirtying his boots with the thick, congealing Ganroth blood spilt across marble floors. Reaching the far wall, he took a deep breath then rest his palm flat against the dark wood that ran the wall and eventually formed the stairs. Neither eye closed, but rather illuminated a vibrant gold before his pupils dilated fully, black chasms outlined in gleaming yellow.
Before him a wave of energy shifted time, bent reality back upon itself. Through the warble of this metaphysical portal, abstruse histories unfolded for the Shae Sighted. None witnessing him could see the malleable reality he could. Gregoire seemed only to stand still and wide-eyed as if in shock, though wholly calm. The trance was disconcerting and only a faint static electricity tinged the air around him.
A group of Ganroth exited a room toting arm loads of valuables. As they dumped their bounty over the balcony’s edge, a tiny white figure emerged from the hall, like a wisp of fog, low to the floor and only glimpsed between the giants’ limbs. She had belted one of her Shae Master’s tunics, but was otherwise unclothed. The bare feet that gripped the carpet runners and padded silently on the sleek floors had almost finger length toes and an extended flex at the arch. Such large eyes and near translucent ears that rose like dragonfly wings to a taper above her head, she was clearly Erahs. The shorter stature, coloring and narrower bridge to her fawn-like nose indicated most likely Avali.
One soldier turned and spotted her. He coughed a laugh. “Ggen, Dhok, the little ‘leveret’ found herself a dinner knife.”
Dagger in hand, the Erahs spun and by virtue of surprise and a blurring speed, cut down the first of the three soldiers before they had time to draw their swords. Smaller in size and lacking armor, the girl was fleet and fast- unnaturally fast. At first it seemed a distortion, but no, the small woman indeed moved as a wisp, a colored wind that darted between them and gusted over them. The snarl of disgust was a glittering of bared teeth as she bent time around them.
Avoiding a clumsy slash of a startled soldier’s sword, Khes leapt onto a decorative hall table. She kicked the porcelain vase at the second soldier before launching a somersault to land between the two. With a solid strike to the second’s back, she continued her downward momentum into a crouch and turn. Circling to face the first, she impaled him through the groin, ripping upward with uncanny strength for such diminutive size.
The blade lodged in the Ganroth’s sternum. Putting her weight against it, Khes held the blade at her side, stepping up the giant’s body and leaping backward in a tumble to free the dagger. Baffled by her speed, the Second was poised to strike and in doing so, slashed the sword arm of the First who crumpled to the ground as he succumbed to the pain of his gut wound.
Khes pivoted and drove the small blade forward, driving it deep between the Second’s shoulder-blades as a voice called from below.
“What keeps you? The war won’t wait on a few lazy gansalla!”
As a fleeing deer, the girl sprung upward, straddling the man’s neck and shoulders. The dagger aimed for earth and sunk down to the hilt. Riding his body down to the floor, Khes then rolled off and ran to the balcony edge.
The Ganroth below strode from the back rooms into the foyer. Khes seemed to feel him more than see him as she pitched herself feet first over the railing. Blood-coated metal struck at his neck and severed his spinal column as gravity pulled her toward the cold marble floor. Four men dead in less than three minutes.
Collapsing into a fragile statue of crystal, the Ganroth’s body pitched it over. Shards of fine glass shattered across the floor. The dining hall door flung open as the Unit Commander emerged with an angered roar. Just behind him was Maris, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“Don’t touch her! My arrangement for Khes was with Druje- she’s not to be harmed! That was the deal!!”
Maris’s frantic plea was distraction enough for the Blade Spirit. She darted toward the Commander. Although she was faster with every kill, his arm flung out to swat her away and connected just enough to throw her off course and off balance. She need only redirect. Recovering swiftly, Khes bounced at the wall opposite him, pushed off and spun with dizzying speed. As she pirouetted mid-air, her blade slashed through his middle. This time his fist connected firmly and sent her small body colliding with the wall into a pool of Ganroth blood and broken glass. She collapsed with a grunt. The Erahs lifted her onyx eyes to stare as the Ganroth Commander became aware of his wound. The gash was deep, a vivisection that exposed his innards. In spite of this, he drew his sword and turned to eye her.
Limbs shaking, Khes pushed herself up and crouched, readying her blade though her vision was still blurred. It was evident she could not focus on anything. He was much larger than the others, and her increasing invulnerability had spared her what would have been a skull crushing blow. The Blade Spirit was recovering quicker than any ungifted Erahs, but not quick enough. The Commander was just as determined.
The Ganroth advanced then stopped quite suddenly. Confused, he started to turn, looking toward Maris for explanation. He crumpled, a discarded sack of meat and bone, a dirk planted to the hilt in his skull. Maris stood over him, hands still raised and eyes wild. Lowering them he thought to look for a kerchief to clean the blood from them, but lost the thought in his shock.
Khes straightened and rose to her shaky feet. Weary, confused and wounded eyes met with those of her Shae Master- former Master. The man waited in anticipation, a faint tremble in his hand. Muscles twitched near his eyes and lips as he waited for the Erahs girl to decide his fate. Pain, questions, betrayal lashed out from her gaze to his. The accusations may as well have been a blade. Then she turned and darted away, disappearing from his house like an apparition come only to deliver death. The Damin sank against the door frame, the Ganroth Commander at his feet. Catching sight of the carnage in his halls, the “noble” Shae spun away to vomit upon his fine marbled floors.
Tilting his head and closing his eyes, Gregoire took a moment to breathe, uttering no sound. After a realigning his sense to present reality, the Sighted started cautiously up the stairs. His fingers dragged along the rich wood rail, an organic bridge that helped to amplify his Sight, making the folding of spacetime easier. The girl had emerged from the bedroom bloody and bruised. She wore both Erahs and Ganroth blood already. Gregoire knew there was more to see. At the top of the stair, he regarded the fallen, impressed again at the Blade Spirit’s skill. A handful of Shae men, most six foot in height, would not have taken these soldiers down with such speed and ease. A Nelenr, Gregoire knew tales of these Avali warrior monks, but never had he seen one. A female Nelenr he had never even heard of such.
Within the shadowed hall, the man paused, sensing the past. Again his palm pressed to the wood paneling, eyes growing large and illuminated. This time as he watched time unfold, he slowly drifted down the hall and into the bedroom. A moment of pain crossed his face and he looked away. When he reopened his eyes, it was to watch the death of the first, more impressive than the rest seeing the girl’s state.
Snapping his hand away, the Shae rubbed at his palm as if stung by the events, a viper of truth. The girl would need to be sought out. Very likely she would return to her clan. Luckily the Avali were not a long journey away and along his path.
Maris’ boots hit the floor as he strode to meet Gregoire in the hall. Commander Kreios made no indication he would stop, nor speak to the Damin.
“Will you find her? Return her to me?”
“Hakken, we ride out.”
As the younger soldier pushed past Maris to follow Gregoire out, the Damin balked. “I demand an answer!”
Gregoire pointed for Hakken to continue on as he turned and eyed the Deignier. “I do not think you are in a position to demand anything, Damin. You consorted with a Ganroth Dūsan. The fact is we are at war and I should be charging you with Treason.” His features soured with disgust, “but I’ve more important things to do than waste my time on cowards and slavers. The fact that Dūsan Druje is missing from among the dead but of no real use to me is to your benefit.”
“Druje is missing?”
Gifts of Sight were not needed to recognize the genuine confusion in Maris’ eyes.
“You have a great deal of housekeeping to do, Damin Eleyor… I suggest you pay your staff handsomely. The local magistrate will be auditing by week’s end.”
Ignoring Maris’ further protests the man pivoted and left. Outside the manor house, he met with Hakken and two other soldiers. One was in simple mail, a footman at best, but the other was dressed in finer leathers and a chest plate. He was young, just a quarter century, but he sat poised with an air of experience and age uncommon in youth.
“We continue North,” Gregoire asserted as he mounted his V’nesh. The steed trilled and stamped its hooves with a toss of its head.
“And the Damin?” The warrior-knight inquired.
Hakken snorted, “he’s got quite a mess for his slaves to mop.”
Gregoire glowered at the Lieutenant, then eyed the other, “I have learned what we needed. We are finished here. The Ganroth are pillaging, collecting old debts at any cost. Druje is not leading the army, but he is certainly calling in favors and acquiring resources for Massafera Tyque.”
“Tyque,” the youth sneered.
“Come, we must pay the Avali a visit. It is a day’s ride out of our way.” Gregoire started away.
“Orders, Zakeriel,” Hakken clucked at the younger man.
With an aggravated huff at not getting a proper answer, Zakeriel turned his own mount and followed in line behind the Commander and Lieutenant. He cast a curious eye back toward the Eleyor estate, watching the Damin emerge, bottle in hand and conflict twisting his features. Zakeriel could not help but wonder what Gregoire had seen within that had enraged him so, yet had spared the noble arrest or punishment. His mentor’s meting of justice confounded him.
Ahead of him Commander Kreios raised a hand to his brow and bent his head forward. Drawing his hood up, the man shaded his face from the sun and drew forward, ahead of the others to ride separate. Zakeriel steered his V’nesh along side Hakken. “Is the Commander unwell?”
“It is the Gift. Every Gift takes its toll.” Hakken shook his head and cast a worried glance Gregoire’s way. “Do not fuss over him. He takes it as an affront to his valor.”