The Proving – Chapter 2

I’ve received my first three rounds of feedback from my peer group at Author Salon! Overall very positive so far, I am happy to report. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out http://www.AuthorSalon.com – *especially* if you are an aspiring author of any genre looking for writing education, intense peer review, and direct access to literary agents and publishers. But I digress. I’ll write a commercial for the awesomeness of Author Salon another day!

Here is chapter 2. Those of you who have been around for a while will recognize this as the old chapter 1… before I decided that Kir’Ana’s plunge from the castle’s heights made a much better opening scene than Annix’ fight with the brigands. It’s also a lot shorter than it used to be, but is still much longer than chapter 1.

Enjoy!

~Kevin

*****

2 Pithwood

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

The group of hooded, menacing bandits behind him slowly fanned out to cut off any escape.

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

He pointed the curved blade at Annix then at the shorter, stockier form of Kosin next to him.

“Lemme guess… a couple of teens headin’ downriver hopin’ to work as ‘rents for some minor nobleman on Venture, right? Well, ain’t no need for 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.”

Glancing to his right, Annix saw that Kosin looked alert but unworried. Annix briefly thought about how unusual this was. Two travelers, both a few weeks less than sixteen Summers old, surrounded by thieves in an isolated wood… and neither of them were afraid.

“I am Ayr’Anax Mastoro of Eagle’s Reach,” Annix said in a commanding voice using his given name. “I will give you one chance. Leave us. Now. And I can promise you will not be injured. This is certainly more than you deserve, cutpurse. Go.”

Annix knew his wavy black hair and clothes were disheveled, and that he looked like a young man suddenly roused from sleep – which he was. But he did his best to sound like a king passing judgment, addressing the bandits as if he expected them to back down.

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

A thief with a pock-marked face forced a mocking laugh while the others just shook their heads. The fat thief, recovered from his momentary lapse, quickly hefted his blade.

“Oh really?” the bandit drawled, stepping closer. “Now, lemme see, Eagles-Reachling. You, tall as ya might be, holdin’ maybe eighteen Summers in the Land? And yer wee-short companion there with ya? And yer gonna let us go unhurt?”

“Let’s just take these fools,” muttered Kosin under his breath, “they’re common cut-throats. We can beat them easily enough.

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

Kosin’s eyebrows climbed his forehead as his widening eyes darted around the clearing. Annix 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. He could see Kosin standing next to him, short and muscular, dark hair a tousled mess, as a moving image in his mind that seemed driven by the constant surges of energy. With a little effort, Annix was able to differentiate the pulses in the ground and pick out the eight hidden assailants that flanked them. He still wasn’t sure exactly when he had realized the odd sensations actually meant something, that they were so very useful. During these recent weeks of eastward travel towards Coradis City along the crime-ridden Jury Road, he was sure the tell-tale pulses had saved his life repeatedly.

The lead thief had heard Annix. 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.”
“Thirteen men?” muttered Kosin under his breath, “We have been pretty lucky before, but-,”

“Run!” Annix called 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.

Annix 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.

“Okay, up ahead,” breathed Annix 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.

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

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

Annix 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 was practically invisible in the dim pithwood canopy, fading into the shadows.

Annix saw a small clearing in the wood dominated by a group of short, wide stumps of pith trees. The sweet smell of sap filled Annix’ nostrils, contrasting sharply with the foreboding dimness that filled the wood. Crouching behind the largest stump and closing his eyes, Annix stealthily drew his sword and focused on the pulses.

The energies climbing into his consciousness solidified, 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… all became clear as he focused on the earth beneath him.

He could hear the heavy wheezing of the lead thief just on the other side of the stump. Annix held his breath, uttering a silent prayer to Origis for help… and for continued accuracy from Kosin.

In one fluid motion, Annix rose from behind the stump and slashed powerfully with his big blade, knocking the scimitar out of the leader’s hands. Annix leapt over the stump and brought his sword’s pommel down hard on the leader’s filthy head with a sickening crunch. Before the thief’s round body could hit the ground, Annix 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. Annix faked a slash then made 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 a scrawny fellow with a hawk nose and a round-faced bandit with a bull whip, quickly recovered from their surprise.

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

“With pleasure,” grunted Furo.

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

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

A shrieking lance of color shot across Annix’ 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. Annix fluidly rolled 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, Annix 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 Annix 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 around Annix’ extended blade. Annix 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 Annix’ focus was already on the crossbowman, poised and ready to fire.
Annix’ time was up.

Then Kosin struck.

The thief with the crossbow screamed loudly as his trigger hand was pierced by a shining metal knife. Furo rolled back onto his feet then screamed in pain, dropping his sword as a knife split his right wrist from back to 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.

More screams erupted from the woods to the left and right, and Annix could sense via the pulses that several of the men that flanked them before 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. 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 arrow’s release filled the quiet pithwood.

Annix reflexively tensed for the 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. Annix 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 Annix, his black cloak flailing around him as he fell instantly into a squat.

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

“No,” Kosin said, slowly spinning in place in his crouch and surveying the trees, “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?”

Annix’ smile faded. He sheathed his sword and again focused on the pulses. He saw the injured thieves as they retreated, but the thirteenth figure, the one in the silver, shimmering gauntlets, was gone.

“There’s no one else near here,” Annix said. “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.”

Kosin continued to scan the pithwood warily as he began hunting for and cleaning his daggers. “You’re really getting good with the sword,” he said simply. “Those thieves were experienced, well armed-,”

“It wasn’t even that hard,” Annix interrupted. “It was as if they moved through a bog and I was attacking at full speed. If not for the archers, I feel like I could’ve taken them all. I’m just glad the last bowman missed.”

Kosin frowned. He walked over to an arrow lying on the ground a dozen feet away, then tossed it to Annix.

He caught the arrow and looked at it closely. The arrowhead was intact, but the shaft ended abruptly as if cut. A second later Kosin handed him the other half of the shaft with the fletching still in place. Annix’ 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 up to its end in the soft earth. This one had no blood on it.

Annix’ jaw dropped.

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

Annix closed his mouth, blinking hard. “On purpose? You aimed for the arrow?”

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

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

Kosin smiled then, but his brow was furrowed. “Well, yes. I’ll explain it… if I can… later.” The smile faded. “What is happening to us?”

“I have no idea, Kosin. 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 Annix 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 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 Annix held out hope that he and Kosin would remain sane, that they were the exception to the rule.

“It’s going to be okay,” Kosin said, snapping Annix out of his reverie. “We watch each other. If things start going badly for one of us, the other can intervene. We walk to Coradis city, register for Venture, and do our best to become knights.”

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

Kosin’s face darkened. Annix jumped in before he could begin to grouse.

“It’s worth a few weight of gold to get us off this road. 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.” Annix frowned as he remembered how the fat thief had assumed he and Kosin hoped to become apprentices, or ‘rents, instead of registering for Venture on their own. He reminded himself that the thief’s assumption was sound; while it was legal to register for Venture at sixteen Summers old, it almost never happened.

“You’ve heard the stories of… people like us,” Kosin said, carefully avoided the word ‘Emergents’ even though they were alone. “I think we need to lower our expectations.”

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

The rest of the walk to their campsite was silent save birdsongs and the quiet crunch of their footsteps on the forest floor. But Annix’ own 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 sky offered no reply.

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