Check the link below for a Really Blunt Review of THE PROVING chapter 1! This is really good stuff. I naturally love the positive comments, but I also really appreciate the constructive criticism about structuring action scenes and general writing craft.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
I did not appreciate the truth of that quote when I began writing THE PROVING six years ago. But back then, the novel was called EMERGENCE, was 140k words, had completely different characters and settings, and broke all of the rules of plot management. That was me ‘going out my front door’, and I am stunned when I recognize to where I have since been swept off. I cringe now when I look back at that ponderous first draft that I was just positive would be loved by agents and editors alike. I remember thinking that surely I had a chance to be published within a year or so… maybe 18 months at the outside. Not so much.
But as in Frodo’s case, the journey – while painful and long – had tremendous value.
Now it’s October of 2015 and I am well into the sequel to THE PROVING, titled The COUNCIL OF LORDS. But I don’t have to repeat the mistakes of 2009. I can spot passive text, word repetition, and poor dialogue structure from across the room. The Author Salon “Six Act, Two Goal” construct guides my plot. Multiple levels of conflict are weaved through the text, and close points-of-view are frequently employed. While I know there will be many, many re-writes to book 2 before it is finished sometime in 2016, I am willing to bet that it will be a far superior product in much less time.
But that does not reduce the impact of Bilbo’s quote.
Having finished chapter 1 of tCoL, I am again stepping out my front door. While I have plotted and planned to the hilt, I have no intention of keeping my feet. The story and its characters will inevitably sweep me away and take me places I never envisioned, and that is all at once terrifying and wonderful.
In the meantime, THE PROVING is being read by my dream agent, and sometime soon I will know if a very exciting new chapter of my writing career is about to begin… or not. And I continue to query other agents, at least a handful a week, using the strong new query letter the fantastic Carey Corp helped me craft.
Working while waiting, waiting while working, this is the process. Many authors in social media use pregnancy as an analog of writing. Having watched my GeniusWife give birth to five beautiful babies, I must say that I completely disagree. With pregnancy, from the very beginning you have a pretty good idea when the process will end. With writing, you can get to the end of the third trimester and… surprise! Six more trimesters to go!
So I wait and work, collecting rejection emails, coveting feedback when I can get it, and dreaming of that day when an agent says “YES”.
Until next time,
In the last post I mentioned the new and improved first chapter of THE PROVING… but failed to share! So the new creation is posted below.
There are two significant changes surrounded by dozens of small edits. Most notably, Kir’Ana is no longer trying to re-create a past event when she passes through the door at the Steward’s Gate. Instead, she discovers her talent for passing through solid objects right there on the spot. The other major change begins with a brand new set of opening sentences designed to draw the reader further into Kir’Ana’s perspective.
I am always open to sharing the entire book with anyone out there who wants to be an early reader. The only requirement is feedback; any and all is welcome, and the more critical the better!
* * * * * * *
Chapter 1 – Rhythm in the Night
Kir’Ana awoke with a start, wind whipping through her hair and garments as she plummeted through darkness. Below, and getting closer by the second, loomed the castle’s moonlit courtyard.
Instinctively, she threw her hands before her face as if to somehow block the approach of death. As Kir’Ana closed her eyes for what she knew would be the last time, the castle’s courtyard still sped closer in her mind’s eye. She realized that it was not what she expected. Shouldn’t she instead be seeing her life – all sixteen Summers of it – flash before her eyes while she faced such a brutal end?
She cried out as her hands, head, and knees smacked the unforgiving pavement. She rolled onto her back as a wave of dizziness struck. Clutching her forehead and panting as pain shot through her body, she sat up, opened her eyes, and fought to orient herself.
Her eyes stung. Was it sweat? She wiped her face and saw a smear of crimson across her beige skin. Blood ran down the bridge of her nose from her forehead. She used the hem of her nightgown to wipe it away then looked around at the deserted courtyard filled with silvery light from the half-moon above. The ever-present sea breeze brought the brackish smell of the bay to her nose. She would have to —
The dizziness faded and her mind snapped into order. Patting her face and torso rapidly, she took stock of the obvious truth. She was alive, and this was no dream.
She looked up at the castle walls looming high above her, having no idea what she expected to see. There had not been a way in or out of the building above the east-facing courtyard for nearly forty years.
It suddenly occurred to her that she may have been attacked. An assassin! I was pushed, or thrown, from the heights of the castle’s roof. After being drugged maybe?
A chilling realization hit her. Assassins could still be in the castle! With one loud shout she could bring scores of the Royal Guard running from their posts, and within moments any invaders could be located and seized. But calling the guards would mean calling attention to herself, the girl who had just survived a hundred foot fall with only superficial wounds.
I didn’t die. It’s another symptom, which means I am completely hopeless. And I definitely can’t call for help and risk revealing the truth.
She stumbled to her bare feet, remembering Sir Jason’s strong voice repeating his favorite phrase. Stay in rhythm… Stay in rhythm. The knight had drilled Kir’Ana since she was a child to focus on the immediate, rejecting distractions of any kind. Keep your mind and body immersed in the rhythm of the moment, he would say, whether during combat or the delivery of a speech. Stay in rhythm.
“I have to get back inside,” Kir’Ana whispered as she crossed to the inner wall of the courtyard. “I have to stay out of sight in case there are assassins… and I have to bandage this wound.”
She tore a sleeve from her nightgown as she crept towards the Steward’s Foyer on the north side of the castle. It was the only entrance that might be open at this hour. Late night deliveries of food or beverages to the royal kitchens were rare, but not unheard of. If the gate was closed—
Stay in rhythm. Sir Jason’s words again rose to the surface of her mind. One thing at a time. Live in the moment.
Nearing the corner, she tied the long white sleeve around her brow like a sweatband, wincing at the pain of her raw forehead.
Even if I do make it back inside without being noticed, and make it back up the upper floors unseen, how do I explain my wounds? My bloody knees and toes are likely leaving a trail that anyone-
Stay in rhythm.
Kir’Ana peered around the castle’s northeast corner, crouching low. She watched and listened for a full minute before deciding it was safe and creeping over to the Steward’s Foyer awning.
“Nightwings!” she cursed under her breath. The massive foyer doors were closed.
A group of three guards stepped into view from across the Steward’s courtyard, talking quietly. Kir’Ana dove behind a stack of barrels just a few feet from the Foyer and held her breath. Her heart pounded and her wounds throbbed painfully along with it. Panic rose within her throat. The troop walked to within feet of her hiding place, then continued their march into the courtyard. Kir’Ana exhaled, then crept over to the ten-foot high wooden doors barring passage into the Steward’s Foyer and the kitchens beyond.
Maybe it’s not latched? But she knew the chances were slim. She placed both hands on the cold wood and pushed. The great doors didn’t budge. She pushed with even more intensity, putting all of her weight against the locked portal. I must get inside!
Her vision blurred with exertion and pain, forcing her to stop. This is foolishness. I’ll have to find another way.
With a deep breath, she rested her aching head on the cool wooden door and closed her eyes.
And landed with a thud on the stone floor inside the Steward’s Foyer.
She stifled a scream as she lay there on the other side of the still-sealed door. Her feet were not completely through. Her legs simply ended at the surface of the door’s planks as if sliced off. Her feet were still on the other side of the solid wood, the night breeze chilling her toes.
With a whimper-like yelp she yanked both knees towards her chin and rolled to a crouch. Her feet and legs looked fine, as if nothing had happened. Trembling, she stared at the door as if somehow it were to blame. A tentative touch to the darkened door revealed that it was, in fact, solid. But she had just passed through it as if it were no more substantial than smoke.
No, no, no! Another Emergent skill? I’m getting worse! Oh, no…
Long minutes passed before Kir’Ana regained her composure. She slowly stood, pulled her eyes away from the door and focused on getting back to her rooms. She sped across the foyer, through the empty kitchens, and into the castle proper. Sneaking around the great keep after dark was one of her favorite hobbies, so remaining hidden posed little challenge. She knew every guard station and hidden passageway. More importantly, she knew which guards were most likely to be dozing.
If I can just make it to the kitchen rear stairs, and if either Hunlon or Pistarak are on duty and napping…
“Kir’Ana, is that you?”
She froze in a crouch, then realized the voice was familiar.
The tall, redheaded Jerine crept out of the gloom and into a shaft of moonlight let in by the narrow windows near the staircase. She wore a long, dark nightgown and slippers.
“What are you doing sneaking around without me?” Kir’Ana said, stepping out to take her friend’s hand and pull her away from the silvery light. “Have you seen or heard anything unusual tonight?”
“No, nothing. It’s been quiet, as usual,” Jerine replied as she reached out to touch Kir’Ana’s impromptu bandage. “Are you bleeding? Were you sleepwalking again? What-,”
“I can’t explain right now,” Kir’Ana interrupted quietly but firmly. “I don’t think I was sleepwalking but–,” Something clicked in her thoughts, taking her words away. She had passed through a massive closed door. Her rooms were along the high, windowless castle wall directly above the courtyard where she had landed. Given her history of sleepwalking, could she have passed through the wall and fallen without any assassin involvement whatsoever? Besides, why would an assassin throw her from the roof instead of just cutting her throat? Her shoulders slumped.
“When we sneak around for fun, that’s one thing,” Jerine said seriously, unaware of Kir’Ana’s revelation. “But you’re hurt! Just go to the guards and let them get a physician. You are the princess. Your mother will not care about some harmless sneaking when your health is-,”
“No!” Kir’Ana breathed furiously. “I can’t.”
Jerine stepped even closer.
“What is going on? You haven’t been yourself in weeks, months even. You know you can talk to me. Tell me what’s happening.”
Kir’Ana sighed quietly, realizing she had little choice but to level with Jerine. Besides, she might need help carrying out her plan.
“You must promise to tell no one. Especially my mother or any member of the royal guard. Swear to secrecy, right now, and… I’ll tell you everything.”
Silence. Blood dripped into the young princess’ eye, stinging badly. Her throbbing head and the pain in her knees and toes intensified, reminding her of all that had just happened. Kir’Ana again considered the multiple new symptoms she had just displayed, and felt the crushing weight of their meaning.
Stay in rhythm!
“Swear it, Jerine Masterson!”
“I swear it. I will tell no one.”
A quick glance up and down the broad hallway confirmed that they were still alone. Kir’Ana drew closer to her old friend. “I leave for Pallas in just a few days,” she murmured.
“For your apprenticeship with the Grey Shields. Is there a problem? I know it took you forever to convince your mother to let you go.”
“I’m not going the apprenticeship. I’m leaving, and not coming back. Ever.”
Jerine stood quietly as if waiting for Kir’Ana to offer the punch-line. When none came, Jerine lashed out. “Stop it, Kir’Ana. Just stop it. That makes no sense at all. What do you mean you’re not coming back? Where would you go? Why would you want to? Your mother-,”
“Keep your voice down!” Kir’Ana interrupted. “I am doing this for my mother. And for the good of the Protectorates. I have to go.”
“Because I am Emergent. Because the Crown Princess of Touran is going insane. And if my mother finds out, she will move the foundations of Pasaron to try to help me, putting the kingdom at risk. I can’t let that happen.”
The truth of those words stung Kir’Ana as she uttered them aloud for the first time. If a Touran Queen’s only child were to die or go missing, by law she must give birth or adopt a new heir. But Kir’Ana would soon go mad; all Emergents did, and often violently so. She knew her mother well. It would kill her to replace her only child if she still lived. However, there was no cure for Emergence. With all of the other problems plaguing the Protectorates, both foreign and domestic, a leadership crisis could be disastrous.
So Kir’Ana would disappear, allowing everyone in Touran to consider her dead. Freeing her mother to do what she must in the name of the kingdom.
Jerine said nothing. Kir’Ana found her hand in the dark and led her through the hallway.
“Follow me back to my rooms. I could use some help with these wounds. And I’ll answer every question you have.”
* * * * * * *
Greetings, All! Here is a little bit more on the Happenings that have been Happening, as referenced a few posts ago.
I’m a huge NFL football fan as many of you know. Football has been called “the ultimate team sport” because success is so tightly bound to the interplay of all teammates. I love watching that process work on the flat screen every fall weekend, but far too often I have skipped the “team” part of the plan when operating in real life.
A few weeks ago I was introduced, through a friend of my GeniusWife, to an author who lives here in the Cincinnati metro area. But not just an author; a NY Times and USA Today Bestselling author, who writes YA fantasy, and who attends the same church as my wife’s friend. Her name is Carey Corp. Within moments of our introduction, she invited me to join her writer’s group/social club that meets in northern Kentucky every month. I was blown away! I had not been to an in-person writer’s group of any kind since around 2011. At the first meeting, I was further blown away. There was so much encouragement, such great advice, and a genuine desire to help new and unpublished authors such as myself.
But it got better.
Carey is “The Query Whisperer”. She is really, really good at writing query letters to agents, and has a great track record of helping others improve their queries and thereby their positive response rates. She offered to review my query (which I always liked, but which has a TERRIBLE positive response rate. Like, 2% terrible) and provide feedback. Incredible. A bestselling author in my genre willing to help me get an agent. Umm… yes, please!
But it got better.
She also offered to review my first chapter and give feedback, since most queries include the first few pages or chapter for review by agents. Her comments were stellar. Suddenly I had an improved first chapter and a shiny, crisp new query letter to go with it.
So why did Carey give me all of this help? When I asked her, she said “it takes a village” to get published. Which is to say, it takes a team. For example, she is great at writing queries but hates writing synopses. She goes to a friend for help when a synopsis is required. Moreover, she said she loves to work with aspiring authors. But I strongly suspect that this is also a God thing; it has His fingerprints all over it. Getting Carey’s help was grace – undeserved favor – being poured all over my publishing dreams. Incredible. Is it a coincidence that once again something amazing has come through my GenuisWife’s connections? Connections that tie directly to her new role as a ministry leader? No, I don’t think so.
What’s next? I have no idea. My new query is out there now, and I am expecting positive results. In the meantime I am conducting a round of edits to the rest of the book that echo the improvements Carey recommended for chapter 1. And I have started book 2 after finally deciding where the story begins (true to form, it starts with Kir’Ana in mid-air).
Finally, if you love YA fantasy-romance, I have a must-read series recommendation. Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon’s DOON series is excellent! I knew nothing of fantasy romance novels until I read DOON and DESTINED FOR DOON a few weeks ago, but they are just great reads! Book 3, Shades of Doon, was released just days ago and is exciting from page 1. Super-highly recommended for anyone who loves Broadway showtunes, Scottish fiction (Outlander!), or just good YA fantasy. And if you’re like me and have never read anything like this genre, I promise you won’t regret it. I am a total fan now.
More to come!
Greetings, all! It has been a very long time since I have posted, and even now I will be brief. Much has changed since my last submission to this blog! A final editing wave of THE PROVING, a massive and truly wonderful job change, and most recently a wave of new activity within social media as an avenue to get THE PROVING published.
I’ve been active on Twitter for almost as long as I have been writing, but lately I have taken my presence there to another level via a series of Twitter-based writer’s contests. The first of these was #PitchToPublication, where queries were submitted to a group of volunteer freelance editors for their review. The per-genre winners each receive free manuscript edits and a potential fast-path to agent attention and hopefully publisher interest. The second was #pg70pit, a nifty contest where writers submit the 70th page of their novel to a big group of volunteer editors. The best pages win similar chances at fulfilling their publishing dreams. Fun!
Hundreds of people submitted to each contest, and should anyone take an interest in my work I will naturally let you know. But one of the great side-effects of this wave of social media interaction has been getting to electronically know a huge group of like-minded writers out there in the twitterverse. Fantastic peer interactions, writing and publishing tips, and plenty of humor abound!
In the meantime, I am still within the Author Salon process and am hopeful that through one of these avenues good news will come.
Additionaly, I am flirting with the idea of beginning (in earnest) to write book two, The Council of Lords. After all, I have always said that I planned to write The Tome of Pasaron for my own enjoyment, not only to be published and sold. Perhaps the time to return to the keyboard has come!
More soon, and thanks for reading!
For those of you who have been following along with my journey through the Author Salon peer review process, today was a very big day! THE PROVING was promoted to the final level of peer review, called Editor’s Suite! This means I will now enter another, more intensive round of peer reviews and editor critiques of both the novel’s profile and the manuscript itself. This is very exciting for me, since the next step is to have the book directly marketed to agents and publishers within the Author Salon process… Hopefully to be either signed by an agent or acquired by a publisher, or both.
If any of you early readers out there are working your way through the book, please shoot me any and all feedback you have. This would be a great time for it as these new peer review sessions get going. And if anyone reading this does not have a copy but would like to read it (or if any of you have an older, unedited copy and would like to see the newer, cleaner version), just let me know!
The proofing of The Proving is done! I know that it still qualifies as an unedited manuscript, and I cringe when I imagine just how many mistakes likely remain in the text, but for now I am considering the book complete. Not only did I rework hundreds of lazy passive voice instances, I also hunted down buckets of redundant words and descriptions and fixed typos found by some early readers. If anyone is interested in having the new, “cleaner” version, just send me an email and you shall have it.
I am still surprised at just how much I over-write. The original “finished” text was about 104k words. Then in my re-work immediately after I shaved it down to a respectable 97k words. Just this past week, while working the proofing described above, I cut another 2k words. That’s 9k words of fluff cut in the past six weeks. It’s not just that these cuts were completed without affecting the narrative… the cuts actively *improved* the book! Amazing how the whole “less is more” thing often really works. So now, for reference, The Proving has about the same word count as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.
As you may know, I am developing this book within the online writer’s workshop at http://www.AuthorSalon.com. If you are an aspiring author, do yourself a favor and check AS out! It was founded by the people who run the Algonkian Writer’s Conferences and the NYC Pitch Conferences, very well known annual events where writers convene with literary agents and publishers to present their work. AS is like your local writer’s group on steroids. Instead of meeting with a dozen or so writers in your town to discuss your work-in-progress, you meet with hundreds of writers from around the world in a 24x7x365 all-online environment.
To facilitate this, AS members organize themselves by genre for peer reviews (The Proving is in the Young Adult Fantasy genre). Instead of reading each other’s unedited manuscripts, AS has a very detailed peer review process based on novel profiles. Everyone builds a profile about their work-in-progress using a detailed and lengthy online tool, then peers (in groups of 3-5) review each other’s profiles using an extensive critique checklist. Everything is considered; a short synopsis of the story, character descriptions, hook lines, conflict descriptions, plot structure, and more, and several writing samples from the manuscript itself must be included. In this way, the profile review process focuses strongly on the story and plot as well as on creative writing craft. Lots of people can write well; not all of them can craft solid, engaging plotlines.
Everyone starts off at Level 1 in AS, called “In Production”. Final peer reviews at this first level are anonymously sent to the AS Administrators as “Star Reviews”. It’s just like reviewing a movie, from 1-5 stars. If a work-in-progress averages 3.75 stars or better within the peer group, the aspiring author graduates to Level 2, Editor’s Suite.
In Editor’s suite, even more detailed profile reviews take place in a new peer group along with a review of the first 50 pages of the manuscript. Another Star Review occurs, with graduation leading to the final level – Marquee. Here, an executive panel reviews profiles and manuscripts and offers feedback for final tweaks. Then the novel is presented to the collection of AS-partnered literary agents and publishers as a polished, ready-for-market product.
In case all of that isn’t thorough enough, then entire process from beginning to end features real-time communication with published, successful authors, professional editors, literary agents, and publishers (they comprise the Admin staff and Author Salon Mast). When I was an infant in the AS process, a well-known editor and agent contacted me out of the blue with questions and comments on my early draft – then titled “Emergence”. Since then I have received tons of useful feedback from the Admins as well as my peers, and even though I am just about to graduate to Editor’s Suite I have already received strong interest from two literary agents. Can’t beat that, my friends.
On top of that, AS offers a super-low-cost mini-MFA program that teaches the craft of commercial writing. I did not take these classes, but I have heard amazing things about them.
There’s my sales pitch. No, I am not paid by Author Salon, but I am a volunteer moderator in the peer review forums and I am a friend of the man who started the whole affair. If you’re a writer on the hunt to get published, I know of no better place to start.
Until next time,
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.
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.
A good friend of mine once said “don’t self-edit”. Well, I suppose what I am doing can cheatingly be called “self-proofreading”. I guess. At any rate, I am about 50% through a detailed and slow re-read of The Proving. I’m hunting and slaying passive voice passages, typos, and items from the department of redundancy department. The text is improving by the minute.
But I have also unveiled a new weapon for the battle. A voice recorder app on my iPhone.
I have recorded the first five chapters using my best (don’t laugh) dramatic reading voice. It’s amazing how areas for improvement become so clear when listening to the spoken word. It’s been a great exercise… and has led to many of my family members being forced to listen to The Proving – Audio Edition during long car rides!
I’m going to post chapter 2 later tonight.
Until next time!