Here is a totally raw and unedited preview of my rewrite of Chapter 1 of Stormcaller – Book 1 of The Age of Dawn. I think it has changed quite a bit for the better, I hope you feel the same.
Chapter 1 – Awakening
A spark flowered to life within the timeless abyss of Asebor’s mind. The blackness around it threatened to stomp it out, tried to press it back into the confines of oblivion. Its brightness grew. It resisted. The spark swirled and unfolded like a lotus rising up from the mud, strings of light darting out in all directions and bathing his vision in a sheet of violet light.
Then the memories came. At first it was only slivers and fractures. Then they crashed over him in waves of pain and limb shaking misery. Hundreds, maybe thousands of scowling robed men and women, wizards of the Silver Tower, surrounded him on the weed-choked Plains of Dressna. Their arms were raised, dousing him in a tireless conflagration of Dragon fire and cutting at him with portals weaved with the Phoenix. They were too many. Their trap worked. They came from nowhere and everywhere at once, leaping through Phoenix portals and hemming him in. Alone, they were ants to be crushed under his pitiless boots. Together, a force he’d underestimated.
You are not enough to stop me! He remembered roaring over them, laughing. Bleeding. Dying. But in his guts he knew he was doomed. For every wizard he slew another took its place, eventually stripping him of his Shadow armor, burning his chains, scoring his flesh. There were many who could embrace both of the god’s powers in this time. It was exceedingly rare for someone to have been able to touch both the power of the Phoenix and Dragon. There were more dual-wielders than there had ever been in this age. Luck was not on his side.
He made some pay by streaking the air with their blood. Some he impaled upon the bladed ends of his chains, sawing through throats and limbs in a mindless, desperate fury. He’d burned the flesh from their bones. Asebor blinded some, rent others into squelching halves. He wasn’t enough. Would he ever be?
His mistakes had consequences. Their spells raked his body, tore at his flesh like the claws of bear, filled his nostrils with the stink of his own flesh burning. He collapsed, too weak to flee. Shadow fire collided with Dragon fire in hail of light. The wizards healed themselves with the strength of the Phoenix god, made the prospect of surviving impossible.
The strength of their heretical gods shouldn’t have been enough to stop him. But it was, for a time. That time had ended, he realized with a gasp. I still live. They never found Bonesnapper. Never sent me to the Great Beyond. I live!
He tried to scream, but his voice only drew a whisper. He willed himself to move, to get up, rise again. He was buried, he remembered. An icy breath hissed in his throat, puffing out of his skeletal mouth. Rage flared in his chest. He moaned as flesh burgeoned from within his bones. It tore out and wrapped and weaving his body in new sinews, tendons, ligaments, muscle and flesh. Around and around it went, bringing the strength of life into his form. Veins and arteries rose from his flesh like worms after a heavy rain, making their circuitous paths through his body.
He sucked dry air into his lungs, choking on the ancient dust of his tomb. His body convulsed with burning agony. Something in his chest started to thump. It beat like a drum in his ears, around his legs, under his heels, through his temples. He roared with a demon’s voice. A harmony of others came with it, pouring out his scorched throat. He drew ragged breaths, screaming and putting all of his strength, all of his hatred into his voice.
He could move. He jerked his arms apart and found his wrists bound by manacles. Hot blood flowed down his forearms, trickled into his eyes. Where am I? He wondered, blinking away the stickiness. Blood means I live. I do live again. He tested his legs, muscles twinging at the effort of moving for the first time after 10,000 years. His guts spasmed and worked in waves. The seal of The Age of Dawn must have finally broken. Is it possible?
“Alive,” he shuddered. “I live!” His voice was a rasp.
Yes my child, his mother’s silken voice reverberated in his head. I apologize for not coming to your aid sooner. Had to gather my strength to touch the world of man once more, you understand.
“I understand,” Asebor breathed. I will not fail you again mother. This I promise.
Do not, the Shadow God replied. Her voice was endless, a sonorous melody in his head. Your followers await your return. They have prepared for you, at my behest.
I will not fail you again mother, Asebor thought.
I know. And her voice was no more. She’d left him, once again alone, in pain, in land of the living. It was a world where a lone star shone bright, bathing the world in its terrible glow. There were a precious few of his kind remaining on this realm. He could sense them, feel their relative locations in the world.
His eyes flashed with a violet glow, illuminating the furrows of the spellscript carved into the underside of his tomb’s lid. He remembered being placed here, saw his body as a tattered shell, his flesh flayed. “I will have my vengeance. I will paint the land in blood, make this world yours Mother. I’ll make you proud,” he hissed.
He extended a finger tipped with a blade the length of a dagger and directed it at the chains binding his wrists. They were around his ankles too, lined with spikes that clawed at his flesh with every movement. He harnessed a sliver of the Shadow. It was a tremendous effort and took everything he had to not incinerate himself with its fury. He felt weak as a lamb ripe for slaughter.
A line of violet fire streamed from his fingertip directed at the center the chains binding his wrists. Their Milvorian alloy was forged in the Black Furnaces of the Nether, impossible to cut without anything but Shadow fire.
He was a mere husk of what he once was. He had to be patient. In time, he’d regain his strength. In time, day would become night again. There was only retribution. It would be cold and hard and final.
He would start by finding the Chains of the North. Some called in Bonesnapper in another age. It was the only weapon capable of causing him irreparable harm. Once the weapon was secured, he’d be unstoppable. He would not make the same mistakes again, foolishly lured into a trap of the Tower whore’s designs.
He would provide the Shadow God, his mother, with the surrogate she needed. He would find the mother of a dual-wielder. He’d had endless failures and endless disappointments. He’d make them right. It was the last component his mother needed to bring his unborn sister to glorious life. I’ll not fail you again, Mother. He vowed.
Walter hefted a basket of elixir cherries against his arm, the wood scratchy and starting to form a red abrasion from the day’s work. He paused to wipe the back of his hand across his brow, grinning at the mix of sweat and dirt left on his knuckles. A cool breeze swept in from the Abyssal Sea, bringing with it the tang of salt and sweeping tendrils of his long dark hair against his neck.
The sun was a white orb that heated the back of his heavy tunic. All measure of cloud formation seemed to have fled the sky. Along with the odor of salt came the occasional stink of sulfur. It was carried in from the ocean air where the Ars Volcano merrily puffed out an arcing column of black smoke. The volcano was set far enough out in the Abyssal Sea such that the denizens of Breden didn’t have to worry about its occasional eruption. Breden was a small town of about a thousand denizens according to the last survey. Most were elixir bean farmers or fishermen. The volcanic ash could be nuisance, but nothing the people couldn’t handle. What Walter found most annoying about the ash was how it always seemed to find its way down his smallclothes and between his ass crack. The volcano rumbled in the distance, belching Walter reckoned.
Green vistas swept in waves over the land behind his family’s plantation, studded with the occasional stretch of broad leafed trees. Along the coast the narrow tips of the Denerian Cliffs stabbed at sky like demon’s mouth vying to consume the sun. The stone making up the Denerian Cliffs shone with the color of blood, their skin bare of any vegetation at their peaks. The Misson Road, a path of tamped dirt, butted against the crops and wound into Breden Square a few miles away where the village’s people generally met for trade and celebration.
His family’s house was set back from the farm, modest in size, but ornamented with the beauty that the Glade family’s fortuitous profession provided. The trim was carved with intricate swirls and spirals, the custom work commissioned by the best carpenter in Midgaard, the capital of Zoria. Wrought iron handrails paralleled a set of stairs leading into the house worked into the shape of vines. Beside the house was a thriving flower garden where his mother worked, pulling the weeds threatening to steal their nutrition. There was a hog pog pen and a chicken coop too, both serving to prevent Walter from ever sleeping past dawn.
He shouldn’t have been sleeping later than the sun anymore anyway, being in his eighteenth name-year and the farm work ever calling. Walter stood at just under six feet, had an olive complexion, and thick eyebrows that drew to a furrow when he focused.
The plot of land his parents had settled upon had the perfect soil for growing elixir beans. The beans were a fragrant mix of chocolate and cinnamon and fetched a great price in Midgaard, Helm’s Reach, and even the marketplace of the Silver Tower, the place where it was said that wizards resided. But he didn’t know much about wizards.
The beans, once dried, ground and mixed with hot water produced a delightful energy and focus increasing effect. Some said it was too bitter a taste, but Walter found peace in it. Other farmers grew them, though none produced them with quite the same flavor as theirs. Walter’s parents, Aiden and Isabelle, settled on the name Redbud beans for the unique reddish color of their flowers in Spring.
He admired the squat elixir plants set in the perfect rows of his family’s farm. Their broad leaves swayed as he drew near to pick their cherries, squeezing their round flesh for the right amount of ripeness. They were ready when they gave under moderate pressure – like a man untrained in combat, with an over-inflated ego, Master Noah had said. He deftly plucked the few that were ready, depositing them into his basket, a swirling mix of colors in various shades of blue, purple, and some black.
He flicked his eyes to the edge of the plantation where the tortured earth met the untarnished density of the forest. Something was wrong. The forest stretched for about another half mile, ending at the coastline. Something was there. Acid burned and wriggled up his throat. His basket slid from the crook of his arm and hit the ground with a thud. He tried to move, but it felt like his feet were encased in iron blocks. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came.
A figure that moved as if it lacked bones was there. It watched him. Its head had a bizarre shape of a pyramid and seemed to be made of a gray metal. All the moisture in his mouth departed then, tongue sticking to the roof. A hand made of metal and gleaming talons wrapped around a tree beside it. Why was it watching him?
“It’s not real,” he breathed. He screwed his eyes shut and started vigorously rubbing them. His heart thumped in his ears. “Not real.” Walter opened his eyes. The figure from his nightmares was gone. He was staying up too late and reading too many stories.
“Walt?” His father’s voice called. He saw he had his hands planted on his narrow hips, shaking his head with his lips pressed into a white line. He let out a great exhale. “Would you please be more careful? You know we can’t sell those now. Gone and ruined them.”
Walter snorted. “I know, I know. Damages the flavor. It was an accident, alright?” You don’t know what I just saw. It was just a trick of the light. Maybe too much time in the heat, not enough sleep. He told himself, thoughts racing. He raised a hand to shield his eyes form the sun, scanning along the forest’s edge where it met the farm. Nothing. Just the relic of a young man’s wild imagination.
There were stranger things. There was a time when he, among other villagers, didn’t believe that the powers given by the gods were real. He was a child then of five name years. Some were already convinced, the elders mostly. The Tower rarely sent ambassadors this far west. His father had once warned him that a wizard was the last person you’d ever wanted to cross. It was an odd thing for him to say and that’s why he remembered it. The very mention of a wizard being a true thing had sent his mind spinning with wondrous tales. It filled his dreams of robed men and women cloistered together in forgotten halls, studying relics and pouring over dusty tomes.
All of that false belief broke like glass after a wizard from the Silver Tower paid them a visit. He’d reluctantly demonstrated to the gathered denizens a show of the Phoenix’s power. Walter remembered watching the wizard’s hands glow with a faint blue light. He touched them to a man who’d been gravely wounded by a misplaced swing of his axe while chopping wood.
The wound in his leg had been an infected greenish-black. He came to Walter’s mother first for healing, but her herbs were unable to touch the infection. It had gone too deep. It was too late. She offered to amputate his leg. She had all the equipment to do it from her time as a surgeon in the Great Retreat. He declined, opting for a painful descent into the Shadow Realm.
But the wizard healed him. Walter remembered Watching the color of the rotting flesh fill with the pallor of life. The wound pulled together as if imaginary hands worked to stitch it back together. A moment later it was if he’d never been injured at all. Cheers, laughter, and clapping hands filled the air. The rumors of the Phoenix and the Dragon gods were undebatable. He knew then that there was indeed magic in the world.
“You going to pick those up or just stand there?”Aiden picked up his basket and resumed picking, tossing Walter a sidelong glance as he worked.
“Sorry,” Walter said after a long minute. He bent over and started gathering them into pile. Some could be salvaged. His body was sore from yesterday’s Sid-Ho training. The muscles in his back felt like that been massaged with a sledgehammer.
“Mistakes happen. Just be more careful please. Didn’t make our wealth by being careless, understand? A mistake or two is fine…but you’ve used your quota for today,” he grinned at him, mouth creased with lines. His cobalt eyes glittered like diamonds, muscular arms working to harvest the cherries without looking.
“I understand,” he said sheepishly. Walter inhaled deep, steadying his nerves and trying to dash away the terrible figure he thought he saw. It was persistent and more details came into focus then, the image seared into his mind. He saw its skin was an almond brown, thin as if it had been painted on. Its exposed mouth hung below its helmet, chin long, mouth a scowling set of black teeth. Those talons, those hands were made for only one thing: destruction.
“Yeah?” He turned to look at his father, furrowing his brows at him.
“You going to pick those up already?”
He chewed the inside of his cheeks and gave him a sharp nod. He set his gaze at the swimming shades of elixir cherries, gathering them into a small pile. He let his vision relax and the edges blurred. He slowed his breath, pushed the air deep into his chest and let it slowly escape his lips. He felt his eyes soften and an involuntary smile crept along his lips. The colors of the cherries deepened and magnified, each taking on a new dimension as he saw each wasn’t a single color, but a followed a natural gradient. He saw their textures, all their imperfections. Not much different than a man when you looked deep enough, he thought. One cherry had been nibbled by a grub, another by a bird. Three were prematurely picked.
Time slowed as he fell into Warrior’s Focus. He saw each cherry flow over the other as if passing through honey. Warmth filled his chest, felt like his body was placed into a bath. The breath was all there was. All there ever would be. He intuitively felt he’d know where each cherry would tumble as he worked, grinning as his predictions fell into place.
Warrior’s Focus was a skill taught to him by Sid-Ho master, Noah. It muted the unnecessary senses, muted the world and made what was important apparent. He enjoyed using it for things besides sparring. He found when he required its aid, he could fall into it quicker than the other students, giving him an edge. Well, almost faster than everyone but his best friend, Juzo Pulling. Juzo always seemed to be walking around in its embrace. How he had such great concentration was a mystery to Walter.
Something stung his ear, breaking his Warrior’s Focus. He whirled to see Borden staring at him with his big dumb mouth open in the start of a laugh. Borden was one of the many workers his father had hired to help around the plantation. There was far too much work for just he and his parents.
Walter growled like a wolf, twisting his face in a flurry of mock anger. He hurled a cherry, smacking against Borden’s cheeks and leaving a red spot. Borden started laughing and whipped more at him while he countered with his own volley.
“Hey! Come now! What I paying you for?” Aiden shouted from further down the row of plants.
Borden gaped then stifled a chuckle with his meaty hand. “Sorry Mr.—” he opened his mouth to catch the last of Walter’s tossed cherries and surprisingly succeeded. “Mr. Glade,” he finished. “Back to work now.”
“Yeah back to work. Don’t hire you to pester the kids,” Walter imitated, though kept his voice low enough that his father wouldn’t hear it.
Borden snickered. “Careful. My employer has sharp ears.”
Water stole a glance over his shoulder, saw his dad hunched over a plant in the next row. There was a bright red patch over the calf of his dusty overalls and his boots were caked with mud. Water groaned. “Help me get the rest of these, would you?”
“Really?” Borden’s posture sagged, his basket filled to the brim and protectively held with both arms.
“Please,” he beckoned at his gathered pile. “Going to take me all day to pick these up.”
Borden heavily sighed. “Well alright. But you owe me. Your mother’s honeybuns are an acceptable form of payment.”
“Didn’t you already have three today?” Walter jabbed at the man’s belly protruding from his dirt streaked shirt.
Borden grunted and swatted his hand away. He knelt down and they worked together to sweep Walter’s spilled cherries back into his basket. Walter watched his tanned hands work as if they weren’t his, his mind returning to the strange figure.
He darted his eyes to the plantation’s edge again. He scanned the trees, heart thudding in dire expectation. His gaze traced the semi-circle of forest all the way from each end of the Mission Road where it met the bisected the plantation. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A flock of Amber Bongols, birds the size of his palm with feathers the color of fire, clattered into the sky some distance away towards Breden Square.
“Hm. Don’t suppose you’ve seen anything strange today, have you?” Walter asked, corralling the last of the spilled cherries into his basket.
Borden swallowed. “Saw some mold on a plant earlier, clipped the bad leaf. You’re not testing me for your dad, are you?” Borden held a cherry between thumb and index finger examining it, then dropped it into the basket.
“No,” Walter let out a laugh that was too loud, maybe desperate. It was the laugh he needed to shake off the last of that grisly picture burned into his mind. It wasn’t real. He grabbed the basket and stood, muscles in his arms straining at new spots of soreness from today’s work and yesterday’s training.
Despite the soreness he loved his martial arts training. Nothing else made him feel quite as alive as he felt when dueling against another student with their lashes. Lashes are whips bound to a bracer that kept the hands free for grappling or wielding weapons. They were a brilliant weapon by his master’s account, and he was compelled to agree.
An image of the creature’s talons flashed in his vision, bright, chrome, and sharp as if they were meant to see the insides of bones. Sweat formed between his palms and the basket’s rough wood.
“Are you feeling alright, Walt? Looking a little pale.” Borden reached out and placed his dirt-creased palm on his forehead.
Walter noticed then how Borden’s forearms were covered in a thick pelt of hair. He shook his head. “I’m fine, just a little tired from yesterday. Master Noah pushed us a bit harder than usual. It’s good though, good to be pushed.”
Borden withdrew his hand and leaned back rubbing his scraggly beard. “Right. To the pulper then?”
“To the pulper,” Walter nodded and started to whistle a tune, willing away the horrible image. They sauntered down parallel rows of elixir plants towards the whitewashed barn. It was set a bit westward from his house and before the forest. A few rebellious trees and squat shrubs stood behind the shed, as this sliver of the plantation had been left mostly in its natural state. The forest, where the demons of my mind reside, he thought with a wry smile. The shed was simply constructed with a pencil roof and broad doors parted and left open.
“You must be excited for the Festival of Flames tonight, I’d reckon?” Borden said over his whistling.
“Don’t like my music?”
“Call that music?”
Walter snickered. “Yeah. Can’t wait! Ought to be fun. No shortage of sweets, honeycakes even, ale, the Chef’s bevy of soups. Should be a good time. Nice to have time to spend my friends too. Farmer’s life is a lot of work, no doubt.”
Borden’s eyebrows bobbed with excitement. “Try the new dark brew from the Revolving Turkey? Think they’re using a bit of elixir beans to give it kick.”
“No. Make sure to try tonight though, among all the others,” Walter grinned.
They made their way into the barn, the light dim from having only a pair of windows, corners draped in shadows. They set their baskets on a worn bench, scattering a few dried cherries that never found their way into the pulper. Walter put his down with a groan of relief. “Don’t know how to ask this without sounding like a right asshole,” he paused.
“Go on. Hard to offend to me.” Borden offered. “Thought you would’ve known that by now.”
“This work. It’s so unsatisfying. Doing the same thing everyday. Sun sets, sun rises. There has to be something more to this. More than harvesting elixir cherries, turning them into beans for the realm’s morning supper. This can’t be it. Don’t mistake me, I appreciate everything we have but… sure we’ve done well by it, a decent service to the realm I suppose,” he blew a long breath out of his nose and worked the tightness from his shoulders.
Borden’s lips pulled into a frown as he upended his basket into the pulpler’s hopper. He started turning the three spoked wheel which drove the mechanism that would eventually spit the inedible stone from the heart of the cherries. The extracted seeds pinged into the giant drum which would eventually be used for next year’s crop. Beside it the mashed cherries came out, a deflated fraction of their formerly round bodies.
Walter continued. “Not sure if I can do this forever like my family. Want something more, excitement, adventure. Something bigger than this. I don’t know. It’s just not exciting. It’s boring. Maybe when in a year, when I’m of nineteen name years I’ll go to Midgaard to see if I can join the Falcon. You think they’d take me? Have to be strong enough, already trained in Sid-Ho for years now.” Walter took in a great breath, bent down to peer through a window, setting his gaze over the looming forest in the direction of the capital.
“You really need to learn to breathe when you talk,” Borden said.
Walter grunted in response. He turned back to face the man, his torso broad as warrior’s. He had a soldier’s arms, striated muscles pulsing as he turned the pulper.
Borden snorted. “Might not find what you’re looking for there either. Hasn’t been a war in over five-hundred years. Not since the Trial of Devastation when the Tigerian’s invaded. Have a friend in the Falcon. Tells me its just lots of just sitting on the walls, trying to look tough, having a pull on your tobacco stick to pass the time. Maybe dealing with the occasional cutpurse or vagrant, if you find that sort of thing exciting.”
“What should I do then?” Walter asked, failing to hide the exasperated crack of his voice.
“Asking the wrong person. Tried to join the Falcon myself. Bastards wouldn’t let me in, something about my mind being too slow,” he grumbled, eyes going distant as he turned the pulper’s crank.
“Honeybuns…” Walter raised a mischievous eyebrow.
“Oh, stop,” Borden shook his head. “No good at fighting. It’s alright. Farmer’s life suits me fine,” he resolved. “Can add yours now, Walt.”
Walter inverted his basket into the pulper’s hopper. They spent the next thirty minutes or so lost in the task of inspecting the mashed cherries and plucking out any that had showed a sign of rot. They had a standard to uphold. One bad cherry could ruin the taste of the brew and Redbud beans were notorious around the realm for the Glade farm’s attention to quality.
“I have to get ready for Sid-Ho practice,” Walter said, eying the height of the sun through the doors. He wiped his hands on the edge of the mashed cherries, now ready to be sun-dried. “Mind finishing up?” Walter asked, flashing Borden his best smile.
Borden glowered. “Fine. But you owe me. Owe me lots. Your dad gave me other stuff to do today too. And this wasn’t part of his list.”
“Not to worry,” Walter inclined his head and spread his arms in a mock flourish, topped off with a regal bow. “I shall return with a fresh plate of honeybuns from the queen of the house.”
Borden was staring through a window, lips set in a pleased smile. Beyond it was his mother bending over in the garden. “Your mother does have a wonderful set of honeybuns.”
Walter drummed his fingers against his chest, shaking his head. “Please don’t make me kill you.”
Borden continued staring through the window, presumably at his mother’s behind. Walter smacked his beefy arm, breaking his reverie. “Sorry, Walt. I’ll be careful to only look when you’re not around,” he snickered.
“Did I ever tell you I hate you?” Walter heaved a tired sigh. He’d need some elixir to stay awake for the night’s festivities. He waved as he strode through the barn’s door. “Thanks again, Bo.”
“Don’t forget the pastries!” he called back.
The sun warmed his face as he made his way for his house. He felt then that his jaw had been clenched, noticing the tension as it slipped away. He pressed at his square jaw, massaging the tight muscles and urging them to relax. “Strange day,” he muttered.
The woodpeckers were relentless, everyday a new set of holes drilled into the house’s fascia. It didn’t seem to matter how many times his father patched the wood, they always came back. His father had set a few ineffectual scarecrows around the sides of the house. He chuckled at a red billed woodpecker sitting on one of their arms. The hogs snorted in their pen. Some greedily drank from their recently filled water trough. A pair of chickens squabbled over a scrap of lettuce and scampered across his path. The perched bird scurried off as he pushed the front door open.
The mouth-watering aroma of cooking bacon and brewing elixir assailed his senses. His mother Isabelle was in the kitchen, dipping her hands in a bucket of water. “Already done Walt?” Isabelle asked him, smiling at him with her emerald eyes.
“Mostly. Have to get going to practice.”
The kitchen opened to his left, tens of pots and pans hung from the walls on gleaming hooks. Strips of salted meat hung over a crackling hearth where his mother stood, sprinkling what he guessed was pepper onto the bacon. A blob of dough was spreading out on a heavy cutting board, beside it a steel carafe of steaming elixir. Above the cabinets were tens of small jars, each containing an experimental variety of elixir beans his father had grown. Each jar was scrawled with a bit of charcoal denoting their time of harvest, water quantity, shade or light grown, and other parameters he’d measured. He was a consummate professional.
There was a dull oaken counter between the kitchen and the dining room containing plates with carrots, cauliflower and potatoes interspersed between three vases bursting with prismatic flowers. To his right stood the sturdy dining room table, long enough to seat at least ten, but set for three. His father’s copy of Thieves of Gold sat near one edge, the spine creased with dirt. Above the table hung a pair of iron candleabras, their candles unlit and in various frozen states of melting.
Isabelle crossed her arms over her narrow chest, untied apron hanging from her neck, and gave him an appraising look. “Mostly done?” Her hair was tied into a bun with a few unruly golden sprigs standing out.
“Mostly,” he shrugged and said with what he hoped sounded like assurance.
There was a clattering of scraping paws as a black and white form charged down the stairway leading up to second floor. The hound yelped and panted with anticipation, coppery eyes bright. “Wiggles!” Walter called.
The hound leaped up, draping his long paws over his arms and trying to steal a few licks but only getting air. Walter laughed and knelt, letting the dog’s coarse tongue pass over his cheeks. “Alight, alright boy. Have to get going!” He patted his head then gave the back’s of his ears a scratch.
“Walter,” his mother said, grabbing his attention. She scratched her eyebrow, smearing a sheen of oil over it. “Please make sure you at least eat something before you go.” She turned to the great pan spattering on bacon fat and started turning the long strips with a pair of tongs.
“Would I ever miss a meal?” He felt is mouth filling with so much saliva he had to swallow it lest it spill from the corners of his lips. He rubbed his stomach, pressing at the rigid waves of muscle. Wiggles trotted into the kitchen, wiry tail waving, and started licking the floor around his mother.
“You’re going straight to Festival of Flames after Sid-Ho, right?” she asked.
He nodded. “That’s the plan. Nyset’s having Juzo and I for dinner, so we’ll see you later tonight.”
“Alright. Might be late, have to finish the month’s accounting. Don’t forget the beans for Ms. Camfield,” she gestured over her shoulder at a canvas sack of dried elixir beans resting on the counter.
“I won’t,” he started up the stairs. He looked up to see his father peering down at him over his spectacles.
Aiden cleared his throat and planted his hands on his hips, blocking Walter’s path. “Do keep your wits about you tonight, Walter. Don’t want to hear that my boy has joined the tribe of the missing. The Phoenix only knows where those kids could’ve gone,” he shook his head with a scowl. “Strange times in Breden. Saw Lucan at the square today, said he hasn’t seen his boy in days. Starting to make me worried a camp of outlaws have setup in the Woodland Plunge again. Have to be careful, bandits can be dangerous.”
“Don’t worry dad,” Walter said as he slipped passed him. “Think I would up and run away without telling you? Besides, if there were outlaws they’d have a hard time with me, or any of the Sid-Ho students.”
“Well, like I’ve said before, I’ve spoken to the parents of the other missing too. Never thought their kids would’ve left either. Some from your class too, don’t forget. Granted, most were younger than you… but,” he lowered his voice. “Don’t think any of them left of their own volition. Just my take on the matter.”
Walter felt the crippling fear of the image he saw earlier welling up in his mind, but pressed it back down. “Please Dad. Probably running off to try to join the Silver Tower, maybe the Falcon, or something.” He made his way down the hallway, passed his parent’s bedroom and stopped before his bedroom’s doorway. “Though I doubt they’d join the Tower,” he voiced his thoughts. “Since it doesn’t seem like anyone can wield the either the power of the Dragon or the Phoenix here, nothing like Helm’s Reach, right?” He turned back to see his father had left the landing, heard his footfalls thumping down the steps. Being blessed with the god’s powers was commonplace in Helm’s Reach, where a preponderance of the Silver Tower’s wizards were recruited.
He eyed his bedroom. The remnants of a stick sat in the middle of a brown carpet, around it the pieces Wiggles had chewed. “Damn dog,” he muttered, gathered the decimated stick and dropped into a small barrel near his door.
The room was cramped, but it was everything he needed. A simple desk sat across from his heavy sleigh bed. On the desk was a neat stack of parchment, the results of his studies from earlier today that he’d have to turn into the headmaster in a couple days. Beside it was a stub of charcoal for writing, a carving knife, a hunting knife, and a sharpening stone, all set in a perfectly aligned array. It was just the way he liked it.
Against the wall between the bed and desk stood a fat dresser carved of walnut. Its legs resembeled the sinuous form of the Dragon god. He strode over to the dresser, furrowed his brow, and pulled out the widest drawer on the bottom. Walter produced his Sid-Ho training armor and his training lash. He gave the marred gauntlet a quick inspection, making sure the lash was still firmly bonded at the wrist. He stuffed them them all into a frayed satchel then secured the bronze buckles.
From the top drawer he retrieved a pouch with modest quantity of marks and gave it shake. The marks within emitted a tinkling. Hopefully there would be enough to buy an ale or two for himself and Nyset. Maybe enough for a game at the Festival of Flames. He jammed the pouch into his pocket, snatched his sheathed hunting knife from his desk and stowed it in his boot.
The thought of spending time with Nyset brought a flurry of tingling nerves through his gut and up to his chest. He felt moisture sprouting from his underarms. Relax, he told himself It’s just Nyset, someone you’ve known all your life. He worked his fingers opened and closed. He watched the dust dancing and twirling on the light shining through his window. Why are you getting yourself worked up for nothing? Because it’s not just Nyset, his thoughts countered. Because now you want to be more than just her friend. You want to kiss her. Squeeze her backside. Suck on her full lips. Make it more. He shook his head. “Going to be late,” he breathed.
He thought of new techniques he wanted to try in Sid-Ho as he walked down the dusty Mission Road towards Breden Square. He couldn’t concentrate though. The image of what he’d seen along the woodlands persisted in his mind’s eye, rendering him unable to shake it off until he thought of Nyset. Her warmth shattered all the darkness. He exhaled vigorously, shaking out his limbs when the mysterious creature crossed into his thoughts again. Master yourself, it was just a trick of the light.
Feeling secure that his reality was once again grounded in truth, he found himself taking in the wonderful architecture and the ornate designs on various houses lining the road. Walter considered himself very fortunate to live on the wealthy side of Breden. It’s important to never take for granted what you have, his mother always said.
He had heard rumors in the local tavern, The Revolving Turkey, that there were people in Breden who could use the powers of the Dragon and the Phoenix. He wouldn’t believe anything until he saw it with his own eyes. People often spouted drivel when their bellies were full of wine and ale. People in Breden being able to wield the Dragon or the Phoenix seemed a much more believable possibility than the strange image this afternoon had left in his psyche.