The Proving – Chapter 1

Hey all! Chapter 1, new and improved, is below. Let me know what you think! Critical opinions are always welcome.


1 Pithwood


Argand only raised an eyebrow as the corpulent, black-bearded brigand slowly drew a broad scimitar from the sheath at his waist. The thief had pig-like eyes and wore a raw, angry scar across his forehead. He looked like the kind of man who was accustomed to drawing blood.

The thin, hawk-nosed man to the brigand’s left and the younger man with the pock-marked face to his right both took the cue and drew their short swords. Behind them two other thieves, hooded and menacing, bared their weapons.

“Here now,” the fat bandit grumbled in a deep, gravelly voice, “let’s not make doin’s get ugly here, young masters.”

He pointed the curved, rust-spotted blade at Argand, standing tall and expressionless ten feet away across the small clearing, then at the shorter, stockier form of Kosin next to him.

“Ain’t no need for either of the two of ya to get hurt, y’know,” he continued as a toothless grin appeared through his matted beard, “just toss yer weapons and toss yer gold, and we’ll call it smooth.”

It was a half hour after dawn on a cloudy, cool Spring morning that carried the smell of approaching rain. Whispy white smoke still drifted upward from the remains of the campfire. Argand and Kosin’s tents lay behind them, only partially bundled.

“Toss yer weapons, youngsters!” the fat thief barked, taking a step closer. “Now!”

Argand turned to Kosin. He looked alert, but not worried. Argand briefly thought about how unusual this was. Two travelers, both a few weeks less than twenty Summers old, surrounded by thieves in an isolated wood… and neither of them were afraid.

Of course, they had reason to feel confident.

“I am Argand Mason of Eagle’s Reach,” Argand spoke in a loud, commanding voice as he turned back to the thieves. “I will give you this one chance, cutpurse,” he squared his broad shoulders and lifted his cleft chin high while gently resting his hand on his sword hilt. “Leave us. Now. And I can promise you that you will not be injured. This is more than I expect you deserve given the nature of your work… but nevertheless. You have this one chance.”

Argand’s wavy black hair was slightly disheveled, as were his clothes. He looked like a man suddenly roused from sleep, which he was. But his youthful face was set like stone as if he were a king passing judgment. He radiated strength, eyes set, lips a tight line, as if he fully expected the bandits to back down.

And they nearly did. For a moment, the fat thief hesitated. A look of confusion crossed his face and the tip of his scimitar dropped to the ground.

Looking alarmed, the skinny thief forced a mocking laugh to cover his leader’s hesitation. The others shook their heads and smiled in a show of mock pity. The fat thief, now recovered from his momentary lapse, quickly hefted his blade.

“O’ reeeally???” he drawled, stepping closer. “Now, lemme see, Eagles-Reachling. You, tall as ya might be, holdin’ maybe twenty-five summers in the Land? And yer wee-short companion there with ya? And yer gonna… uh… let US go unhurt??? When it’s five on two? Mighty bold words, don’t ya think?!”

“Let’s just take these fools, Argand,” muttered Kosin under his breath, “they’re common cut-throats. We can beat them easily enough.” Kosin was almost a foot shorter than his broad-shouldered friend, with thick black hair and green eyes. He was very muscular for his size, broad in the chest and thick across the shoulders, and spoke in a quiet, flowing voice while standing ever-so-slightly on the balls of his feet. Kosin was always ready to move.

“We can take them,” agreed Argand quietly, “it’s the eight men that have crept up behind us in the brush that concern me, Kosin.”

Kosin’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead as his eyes darted around the clearing. Argand kept his face frozen, feeling the presence of all of the brigands through his feet as always. Every step, every shuffle, every pause… he could feel all of their movements, their very presences, through the ground itself when people were this close. It took very little effort for him to differentiate the pulses in the ground and pick out the eight hidden assailants and their movements. He still wasn’t sure exactly when he had realized that the odd sensations actually meant something, that they were so very useful. During these recent weeks of eastward travel towards Greystone City along  the crime-ridden Jury Road, he was sure the tell-tale pulses had saved his life repeatedly.

The lead thief had heard Argand. The grin faded from his face, replaced by a puzzled frown that made the scar on his forehead bulge grossly.

“How…??? Ya couldn’t possibly know!” he sputtered. Face darkening to a scowl, he raised the scimitar to attack position.

“Well, then, young tho ya are, I guess we’ll be havin’ to do this the hard way!”

“Ummm, Argand?” muttered Kosin under his breath, “thirteen men? We have been pretty lucky before, but…,”

“RUN!” Argand breathed at Kosin as he took off at a full sprint to his right. He bounded over the dying embers of the fire and sped into the brush with Kosin just a step behind.

The five thieves took off in pursuit, and the grunts and exclamations from the nearby woods confirmed what the pulses revealed; the rest of the bandits had joined the chase.

Argand angled sharply left through the dense undergrowth and occasional thin trunks of burbin trees, his long legs pumping in the chill morning air. Kosin was faster, though, and soon was right at his side.

“Get ready,” Argand said, swatting saplings from before his face and leaping over a few deadfalls. “A few of these slime are mounted and circling around this brush… we can’t outrun them.”

Kosin slid and bounded along smoothly, much more like a shadowy blur than a man. He had a much easier time leaping over obstacles and weaving his way among the woodlands than Argand did, and it wasn’t solely due to his smaller size.

“Okay, up ahead,” breathed Argand as he saw a large group of mature pith trees, their trunks as wide as a horse is long. There was very little undergrowth between the piths due to the lack of light under their towering canopies. Argand had felt the presence of the pithwood moments after he had started running.

The sounds of horses and men drew closer as Argand and Kosin broke out of the brush and into the grove of ancient trees.

“You climb and cover me,” called Argand. But Kosin was clearly already of the same mind as he ran straight for a sap-stained black trunk.

Kosin said nothing. He rarely spoke during their recent encounters with brigands, cutthroats, and other diverse miscreants all over Jesserin duchy. He leapt at the base of the largest pith tree in his line of sight and hit it hard, letting his fingers find the natural cracks and crags in the rough surface while his toes instantly found purchase beneath him. He sped up the tree almost as fast as he had been running a moment before.

To Argand, this was nothing new. Kosin Fletcher had been climbing trees, walls, rocks, and just about anything else vertical since they were both children. But lately, the feats he had been able to achieve had defied description. He seemed to have perfect balance and immeasurable agility, especially when he needed it most. It was unnatural, they both knew. As was Argand’s ability to ‘see’ via the pulses he sensed in the ground.

Argand slowed, glancing back to watch Kosin as he reached the canopy and bounded out onto a large branch. Kosin squatted low, balancing easily, while he drew several of the razor-sharp, hilt-less throwing knives he carried. He had nearly two dozen of the six-inch long weapons hidden amongst the folds of his cloak and clothing, each held in place by a thin leather sheath lined with steel. The short man was nearly invisible in the dim pithwood canopy, seeming to fade right into the shadows.

Argand saw a small clearing in the wood dominated by a group of short, wide stumps of pith trees that had been felled by loggers years before. Crouching behind the largest stump and closing his eyes, Argand focused on the peculiar, pulse like surges and read them as if he were scanning a book. Through the sensations he could tell that the horses had stopped, the riders now on foot, and that his earlier count had been accurate; he and Kosin were powerfully outnumbered. Argand knew it would take some show of force to deter them at this point. The chain mail he wore, the sword at his side, even his and Kosin’s clothes would fetch a fair weight of gold and silver on the streets of  nearby Jesserin City or Oakbridge – not even counting whatever coins might be found in their pouches. No, these thieves would not back down easily.

The sweet smell of pith tree sap filled Argand’s nostrils. The pleasant aroma contrasted sharply with the foreboding dimness that filled the wood. With practiced stealth, he silently drew his sword from its sheath. He always felt more confident, almost as confident as he acted, once he had his blade in his hands. Argand closed his eyes and waited.

Without thinking, he placed one hand on the ground as he knelt. His eyes popped open in shock as he felt strong waves of warmth stream up his arm to his shoulder and beyond, as if a flow of heated bath water had been injected into his veins. Gasping, he jerked his hand up and the rush vanished instantly. All he could feel now were the sensations in his feet. There were brigands still more than fifty feet from him – how had he and Kosin managed to gain such separation so quickly? – and they were closing in on his hiding place.

He carefully returned his hand to the ground and the shot of warm energy again coursed up his arm. It was not painful, but was almost overwhelming in its power. It took him a second to realize that the feeling in his arm was exactly aligned with the familiar, pulse like surges in his feet. It was the same perception, but magnified a hundred fold. He closed his eyes and concentrated.

The energies climbing into his consciousness from the ground itself seemed to solidify, suddenly coalescing into vivid images in his mind like streaks of glowing paint being manipulated by the Land’s fastest artist. The moon-faced leader of the band, closing in on the pith tree stump at a slow trot, the other thieves lined up behind the leader with their bows and swords at the ready, two other men closing from the left with short swords and daggers, two more men with bows closing slowly from the right, horses tied to trees about twenty yards distant, a man with a strange-looking sword and silver gauntlets standing in a clearing ringed with deep shadows, a trader’s wagon pulled by a team of four workhorses along the Jury Road, the crowded marketplace in Oern village, leagues away along the river–

Argand jerked his hand from the ground and opened his eyes, nearly watering from the intensity of the pictures that had just flashed through his thoughts. The views of those men and places were so very clear this time, with his hand in the soil and fallen leaves. He had never felt anything like it. What’s happening to me? he thought.

But there was no time. He could hear the heavy wheezing of the lead thief just on the other side of the stump. Argand held his breath, uttering a silent prayer to the Creator for help… and for continued accuracy from Kosin. He didn’t want to end up with one of those perfectly sharp throwing knives ruining his day.

In one fluid motion, Argand rose from behind the stump and slashed powerfully with his big blade, knocking the scimitar out of the leader’s hands. Without pausing Argand leapt over the stump and brought his sword’s pommel down hard on the leader’s filthy head with a sickening crunch. But before the thief’s round body could hit the ground, Argand was upon the next three brigands like a storm of metal. He engaged them with the short, circular arcs of the Highlander blade technique, and the sound of ringing steel filled the shadowy wood. Argand performed a powerful fake slash followed by a quick twisting jab through the first thief’s sword wrist, forcing him to drop his sword as he howled in pain. He then felled the other two by shattering their short swords with two lighting fast, crushing overhand swings followed by a swift kick to the gut of the nearest man that sent him crashing into his neighbor.

But the others, led by the scrawny fellow with the hawk nose, had recovered from their surprise at Argand’s furious onslaught. Hawk-nose, his sword held low and ready, and a round-faced bandit with a bull whip stood in front of Argand as the other men quickly fanned out to cut off any escape.

“The young man thinks he’s a hot-blade, Furo,” the bull whip holder muttered to hawk-nose as he loosened the whips black leather coils. “Let’s teach him a thing or two, eh?”

“With pleasure,” grunted Furo with a murderous gleam in his eyes.

Another thief entered the clearing and aimed a large crossbow at Argand’s chest. But before he could shoot, Furo charged.

The pulses surged in Argand’s temples, filling his mind with images of the thief Furo’s movements far sharper than his eyes could have ever managed in the dim light of the pithwood. Argand quickly blocked and parried the initial attack, side-stepping deftly to keep Furo between himself and the crossbow.

Again and again Furo pressed his attack, swinging in broad low arcs punctuated by staccato thrusts toward Argand’s neck or groin. Classic Goldon technique, Argand thought to himself calmly as he easily blocked and turned aside each move, paying more attention to the throbbing heartbeat of the pulses emanating from the ground than to what his eyes could see. He saw numerous opportunities to strike Furo down – a razor-sharp vision of the large armhole of the brigand’s mail left exposed as he overextended a thrust – a crystalline image of Furo’s exposed left side when he mis-timed a broad, low sword stroke – but Argand instead continued to use him as a shield against the crossbowman.

A shrieking lance of color shot across Argand’s thoughts, and he instinctively fell into a crouch. The thundercrack of the bull whip rang in his ears as it sliced the air where his skull had been an instant before. Argand fluidly rolled and recovered onto his knees just in time to deflect Furo’s wild overhead swing. Pivoting with his left hand on the ground and sweeping his right foot powerfully, Argand took out Furo’s legs. The brigand, crying out in shock and flailing his arms, landed flat on his back with a heavy thud.

A colorful shift in the mad rush of pulses led Argand to jerk his broadsword high over his head as he finished his crouched spin. The crack of the bull whip was suddenly muted as the arching leather lash wrapped itself tightly around Argand’s extended blade. Argand launched himself back onto his feet as he yanked the whip free from the round-faced thief’s hands, sending the stunned man tumbling forward awkwardly.

But Argand’s focus was already on the crossbowman, poised and ready to fire. Argand’s time was up, and he knew it.

Then Kosin struck.

The thief with the crossbow screamed loudly as his trigger hand was pierced by a shining metal knife that came whistling down from the dim canopy. Furo rolled back onto his feet and moving to re-engage Argand, but then screamed in pain and dropped his sword as another knife split his right wrist from the back to the front. The whip wielder dove for cover behind a tree trunk, but took a knife in his hamstring before he hit the ground. The other bowmen in the clearing aimed upwards in a panic, but saw nothing in the shady canopy. Then they too cried out and dropped their weapons as their arms and hands sprouted shiny metal blades from Kosin’s unseen hand.

More screams erupted from the woods to the left and right, and Argand could sense via the pulses that several of the men that had been attempting to flank them were now bolting for their horses. A few of them managed to yank Kosin’s knives free, dropping them as they ran.

The pulses said that there was still one thief that had not run, hiding behind a tree to the right. Argand held his sword at the ready, but he couldn’t cross the distance in time if the bandit had a bow.

Argand slowly knelt and placed his left hand on the ground. The chorus of streaking colors quickly cleared into a detailed vision of the hiding thief. He was older, with long white hair worn in a braid and a round shield strapped to his back. He had a short bow with an arrow on-string.

The high-pitched twang of the arrows release filled the quiet pithwood.

Argand reflexively tensed for the arrow’s blow, but it never came. He heard a quick snap, then the thud of the arrow hitting the ground. A moment later, another scream pierced the early morning air. Argand sensed the archer’s steps as he ran away with one of Kosin’s blades in his flesh.

Kosin landed on the soft ground in front of Argand, his black cloak flailing around him as he fell instantly into a squat. He still had a knife in his right hand, pinched between two fingers, but Argand lowered his sword and heaved a sigh.

“That’s it. That’s all of them,” he said, finally breathing easily.

“No,” Kosin said, slowly spinning in place in his crouch and surveying the trees, “No, you said there were thirteen. I don’t see any others either, but I hit nine with knives, and you got three with your sword. Where’s the other?”

Argand’s smile faded. He sheathed his sword and focused on the sensations in his feet. The pulses were there, but they revealed no other bandits in the vicinity. He again placed his hand on the ground.

The warm energy spun into Argand’s mind once again. He saw the injured thieves as they gained ground on horseback and on foot, working their way eastward back toward the fishing village of Oern through which Argand and Kosin had passed on the previous day. They would be seeking medical attention from a local physician.

But the thirteenth figure, the one in the silver, shimmering gauntlets, was gone.

“What’s this?” asked Kosin, frowning at Argand as he knelt with his hand in the soil. “A new trick? Or are you worn out from your sparring session?”

Argand grinned and stood, brushing the dirt off of his hand. “Well, yes. A new trick. I will explain it to you… if I can… later. But no, there’s no one else anywhere near here. I picked out thirteen men, yes, but I don’t think the thirteenth was a thief. Someone was standing farther off – maybe a lot farther off – not sure. I couldn’t tell the difference.”

Kosin stood and returned the knife to the folds of his cloak. He continued to scan the pithwood warily as he began hunting for and cleaning his remaining weapons among the leaves and dirt. It took a lot to get Kosin to relax after an event like this. And Argand had learned first hand that events like this were happening nearly all the time these days in Jesserin Duchy.

“Three men, Argand? You took down three men hand-to-hand and don’t even have a scratch to show for it? It’s hard to believe, but you are getting even better with the sword, aren’t you.” It wasn’t really a question.

Argand sighed. “It wasn’t even that hard. It was as if they were moving through a bog and I was attacking at full speed. If it hadn’t been for the archers, I feel like I could’ve taken them all!” Argand paused then cocked an eyebrow. “But if it’s all the same to you, maybe you shouldn’t wait quite so long to do your knife work next time? That was pretty close.”

“Well you were doing just fine when the fighting started,” Kosin replied, shrugging as he picked up another bloody blade and cleaned it on a handful of fallen leaves. “But towards the end, I was worried. I thought that last bowman was going to force me to continue my travels solo.”

“You and me both,” Argand said as he leaned against the stump. The fat thief still lay at its base, unconscious and snoring softly. He would have a colossal bruise and an equally large headache once he awoke. “If that last one was a good shot, I think you would be carrying me on your back to the nearest cuperative right now!”

Kosin’s frown deepened. He walked over to an arrow lying on the ground a dozen feet away, then tossed it to Argand.

Argand caught the arrow and looked at it closely. The arrowhead was intact, but the shaft ended abruptly as if it had been cut. A second later, Kosin tossed him the other half of the shaft with the fletching still in place. Argand’s eyebrows rose high on his forehead as he again looked at Kosin, watching as the small man bent to pick up another one of his throwing knives, buried almost up to its end in the soft earth. This one had no blood on it.

Argand’s mouth gaped open.

“Right,” Kosin said, growing a little pale. “Your archer didn’t miss. I… uh… I hit the arrow. In mid-flight. With one of my knives.”

Argand closed his mouth, then blinked hard. “On purpose? You aimed for the arrow? You could see it???”

“Uh, I could more feel it than see it. I just reacted. And I knew, the second I let the knife fly, I knew I wouldn’t miss.”

“Unbelievable. A new trick, Mr. Fletcher?”

Kosin smiled then, but his brow was furrowed. “Well, yes. I’ll explain it further… if I can… later.” He slowly shook his head.

“Argand,” said Kosin, head shaking in confusion, “what is happening to us?”

“I have no idea, Kosin. I have absolutely no idea. But I’m more convinced than ever that we need to keep all of this to ourselves.”

Kosin nodded in agreement, looking back at the crumpled form of the lead thief as they began walking back towards their campsite. “No one would believe any of those dirtbags if they did talk, so I doubt we have anything to worry about.”

But Argand was worried. He felt like it was only a matter of time until one of them did something that gave away their incredible abilities. That’s the way the stories always seemed to play out. Some young man or woman is discovered to be an Emergent, a person hiding a skill that could only be magic. Once discovered, Emergents were locked up permanently in the name of public safety. It was hard to argue with the motives of the physicians, of course. It had to be better to commit a small minority than to risk another murder spree at the hands of an Emergent. But Argand knew he and Kosin would remain sane, that they were the exception to the rule.

More accurately, Argand hoped – desperately – that he and Kosin were not following the Emergents’ dark path towards madness.

“It’s going to be okay,” Kosin said, snapping Argand out of his reverie. “We watch each other, just as we’ve been saying. If things start going badly for one of us, the other can intervene. We walk to Greystone City, meet up with the others, and tell them everything. Let them decide for themselves. If they’re concerned, we go it alone. Right?”

Argand nodded. “Right. It’s a good plan. It’s the best plan. We should stick to it. But the Jury road is just too dangerous. We’d better look into hiring a boat once we get to Haverlin City.”

Kosin’s face darkened at that comment. Argand jumped in before he could begin to grouse.

“It’s worth a few weight of gold to get us off this road, Kosin! Besides, as knights we will have endless weights of gold to–,”

“We’re not knights yet,” Kosin interrupted smoothly as they stepped over a small creek.

“But you know we will be.”

“No matter how skilled we are, there are no guarantees. You’ve heard the stories of… people like us… when they go on Venture,” Kosin said, carefully avoiding the word ‘Emergents’ even though they were completely alone. “I think we need to lower our expectations.”

“I know what you’re saying. I know the stories. But Kosin, something tells me that we’re different. I KNOW that we’re different. Trust me.”

The rest of their walk to their campsite was silent save birdsongs and the quiet crunch of their footsteps on the forest floor. But Argand’s words echoed in his mind. Something tells me that we’re different, he thought to himself. We MUST be meant for more than madness and imprisonment! Mustn’t we?

He looked skyward with a deepening frown, casting his question at the thin clouds above. But the brightening morning offered no reply.


Chapter 2 is on its way!



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