WTH, while I'm goofing off, I opened Dark Red. Here is its first chapter, a ragged thing that needs TLC. Been a while since I've looked at it.... It's a beast of a ms, 799 pages, 258,000 words.
And again, the formatting is changed. Should check into that sometime. Not today. Between posting these first chapters, I did manage another thousand in the current WIP, flash writing as it is, blazing out raw and unchecked, fun and satisfying but also a little depleting. Flash writing consumes energy but it's empowering. I'll edit it now, while it's fresh, make notes to myself about what needs greater attention, chew on the next bits already squirting out of me. Flash writing often opens a vein, a stimulating ore of fresh scenes and actions. It's just a matter then of staying true to the vein for a while to keep writing.
While I've been reading, writing, editing and sharing, my coffee has grown cold. I was alone except the employees. Now others share conversations and space. The music has ceased, no, has been turned low, a faint tinny sound from the speakers on the room's far end.
I've enjoyed this melange of reading old materials, writing new materials, posting first chapters and sharing random thoughts, but the coffee is cold and the afternoon is tumbling by. Need to wrap it up, he thought, sighing and smiling.
His scarlet cape, a Lord Stiltman legacy, whipped around Marius with sharp snaps. Marius’ army was close by but separated by ground from him, a reflection of his life and situation, reinforcing the impression he stands alone, egging on childish songs in his mind. Fargum Lord Stiltman had insisted he wear the fargum cape for this military action without explanation. Asking was a lost cause.
The wind was wearing on Marius and his fargum swearing helped nothing. Were he a resident of this fargum city, he’d hate the fargum wind because the fargum wind never stopped, never, screaming, whistling, hissing, shrieking and moaning. A fargum wind always blew off the fargum sea through Kelcrestbur’s broad streets and narrow alleys, singing higher notes as it passed towers and edifices. The fargum wind seemed more potent today, gusting with wicked impetuousness and varying strengths, kicking Kelcrestbur’s torn pennants into frenzied flapping. No doubt the town’s remaining fargum citizens felt and heard the lusty wind as a final statement about their existence. Without looking, he knew of watching venomous stares. Few cried but some spat, final acts to express their hate. He chuckled, thinking they should be careful not to spit into this fargum wind. He was glad to be almost done with it. Just be hours, even less, from now.
Stop swearing, he told himself. Swearing was a symptom of anger and resentment. Anger was useless. Anger only destroyed energy and clear thinking and the swearing helped keep the anger burning. He needed clear thinking. The end was almost at hand but he needed to see it to the finish. Once before, he’d made a mistake at the end. Hah, before the end, when he’d thought it the end. Not again.
Before Marius were hundreds of captured women and children, the last of the town’s elites, gathered survivors from their penultimate stand in Kelcrest. Their captured warriors watched from cells in the high towers, places that once were homes and offices. Lord Stiltman had changed that.
Bones slithered across slate floors in approximation of a gray monotone voice as Stiltman asked, “Feel their hatred, Marius?”
Yes, Marius thought. He felt their fargum hatred, like a burning wind. Of course he felt their hatred, fool. Didn’t he always feel their hatred? Was that why he was here instead of Lord Stiltman?
“You should hear what they say.” Lord Stiltman seemed to enjoy Marius being hated. “Some simply spit when your name is said. The names they call you – desert jackal. Snake. Rat. They vow, ‘If I survive, I will hunt him to time’s end. I will slice open his scrotum, rip out his balls and shove them into his mouth. I will open his abdomen and pour acid and salt into his body and peel his skin from his back.’ You should hear. The men’s vows are almost as hateful. Do you want to hear?”
Steeling himself, Marius kept quiet, wondering why Stiltman was pestering him like this. He yearned to scream, “Of course I know what they’re saying. Do you think me a fool?” Was that what Stiltman thought him? He still could not say for certain what Lord Stiltman thought of him though so much time had passed. As the breeze slapped him, he wondered how much time it had really been since the two of them allied efforts. There was no way of knowing, the way they ran through time and time ran through them.
“Winds of good fortune grace Kelcrest,” they used to say, an echo of a lucky sentiment. Thinking themselves lucky, the Kelcre carved the words into many Kelcrest buildings above the doors. Painted murals and tiled mosaics captured the sentiment on buildings’ sides and on walls. They were sown into clothing, tapestries and pennants.
The expression was attributed to the prophet who told the first wandering nomads to stay and build. Back in that day, the Kelcre trekked north seeking relief after escaping their tormentors. All they found was a blazing hot land with a stone hard ground. No water, no food, no relief. Food and water supplies almost depleted, and death and illness stole more of their number each day. Their original group was down by ninety percent. Reaching the sea, they found water too salty to drink and a steady burning wind. Many collapsed, prepared to die.
But the young girl named Feliciten said, “Dig here. There’s water here.”
Not yet ten years old, Feliciten journeyed with her mother, father and little brother, along with a few aunts, uncles and cousins. One younger sister had died. An introverted and quiet child, Feliciten had survived a lengthy illness as a toddler, emerging from the sickness with a bent body, crimped hands and a withered left leg that fell two inches shorter than her right leg. Many thought her mind was affected as well and wondered if she should not have been allowed to die. It was a strange grace when such a sick child lives.
Her command to dig was the first words she’d spoken in days. Finding herself ignored, she repeated with a commanding presence, “Dig here. There’s water.”
Some later accounts claimed she glowed gold when she spoke. A few said that her leg was full and healed. The official records made during her lifetime don’t mention any changes or glowing.
But they dug where she indicated, discovering sweet water not far under the rocks. Marching to another place, Feliciten called, “Dig here.” When pressed why, she answered, “There’s food stored in rock chambers below.”
She was right about the food. Stores filled with vats of grains, seeds, and dried fruits and vegetables were discovered. No one knew how long the supplies had been buried but adding water to the dried produce made them tasty and chewable.
They were saved. Digging further and finding more water and stores, the Kelcre stayed. The rocks were mined. Many areas had ruins made of cut stone underground but other areas were roads or fields paved over layers of stones. Rich soils were found beneath them.
Today, with the wind blowing, nobody remembered the city’s origins from two thousand years before but most remembered their adopted belief, “Winds of good fortune grace Kelcrest.”
Kelcrest was the original walled city and Kilcrestbur was the larger city that expanded around it. No matter where or who the expression’s source, the words held true until now. Kelcrestbur was on the way to being a lost city again.
“They’re saying, ‘Winds of ill fortune curse Kelcrest,’” Stiltman said with a broken, guttural giggle. “Oh, their muttering. You should hear, Marius. I can do that, if you want. I have the power here, for a change, so I can share their voices with you. They’re angering their companions.”
Stiltman giggled more. “They say…the fools say that the others are angering the Gods. ‘Angering the Gods.’ They have no comprehension. They’re saying their complaints bring ill winds to Kelcrestbur. That’ s not what brought me here. I didn’t come because of their complaints and you only came because of me. These pathetic animals will never understand what brought me here. And they’ll never know that I brought you here. They believe it’s you that destroyed them, Marius.”
His tone sharpened. “Be ready. A snake crawls close, a real snake, not a metaphor.”
A snake, here? Marius kept his face stony without looking for the snake. His strange, wide spread eyes took in a great swath of the town. Brown-skinned in this land, his eyes were tinged orange, unusual combinations everywhere, combinations that started others.
Fire, ruins and death surrounded him. They’d torn down Kilcrestbur’s water cisterns and grain towers. Their contents mixed with remains, blood, ashes and dirt into a clinging paste underfoot.
Just five months before Kelcrestbur was a wealthy town. Rising like a jewel from the low horizon, its white stone architecture was regarded for its cleverness and beauty. With a population breaching a million, Kelcrestbur was a center of culture, government and trade.
Most of that million were now dead, stacked like fallen logs, waiting for disposal. Some had scurried into the desert or took to ship to flee. Deciding he would write a song about Kelcrestbur later, Marius embraced impressions and thought about what he might say. Once the sky above Kelcrestbur was radiant blue. Flat seas of deep blueberry hues had surrounded its spit of land north, east and west.
Those were gone. Smoky quartz gray ruled the sky and the seas boiled black with a deadly stench. Ship wreckage was sometimes visible in the waves. Many bodies still breached the shore when high tides surrendered each day.
“The snake is large and deadly,” Stiltman said.
Marius gazed around him. A thousand of his men surrounded him along with the prisoners. He didn’t see a snake but if Stiltman said a snake was close, there was a snake.
Only he could see Stiltman or hear him. Stiltman did not always seem present. Sometimes Marius sensed Stiltman’s presence like an awkward second shadow, something that should not be there, that could not be logically connected to what should be present. Other times, Stiltman was like an oily cloud of smoke. But there were more ways – a foul smell, an unending screeching, flapping, hissing….
Marius wondered how he knew Stiltman in all these ways when no one else ever knew him at all. Standing short of five feet, Marius was known for his power and speed. Often, including in this land, he was red bearded with a bulbous, crooked nose and disease pocked skin. Others had witnessed him lift a horse and heave it aside more than once. He could do that with or without Stiltman augmenting his ability but Stiltman has also shown that he could prevent Marius from doing these things. Marius kept to the position that, overall, it was better to have Stiltman on his side. He avoided words and actions that could alienate the other.
Besides strength and warnings, Stiltman delivered many excellent qualities to their relationship. Having Stiltman with him armored Marius’ confidence, relieving him of the need to make many decisions about what to do, but Stiltman was also a frequent torture for Marius. Stiltman decided and finessed. Marius only needed to enforce Stiltman’s directions. He did so with reluctant gusto, clawing an existence between depravity and normalcy. Once he’d accepted what was to be done, he did it without question.
Stiltman declared that death was another reality. Marius wasn’t certain if he understood Stiltman’s position on death as another reality but he couldn’t contest the matter, considering it unfeasible, wrestling with desires to do so and decisions he could not, rationalizing, why should he? Enforcing Stiltman’s finessing was rewarding. Marius was highly regarded in the courts which mattered and feared in many others.
“The snake comes,” Stiltman said. “Green and as thick as your leg, with black diamond eyes and fangs the size of your finger, it comes for you. Be ready to move. Arm yourself. I will help you deal with it.”
Drawing his sword, Marius saw the world slow ahead of him. The banners’ flapping fell into sluggish, lazy ripples. Moving with like speed, the snake burst from a black horse’s dead belly twenty feet from him. Darting between knots of soldiers, the snake raced for Marius.
Aided by Stiltman’s finessing, Marius moved at his normal speed. It appeared amazingly fast to the others present. As the snake traveled five feet, Marius closed the remaining distance.
He was beside the snake before it reacted to his presence. Raising his sword, Marius beheaded it as the snake presented its deadly fangs to him. Time snapped into its normal cadence.
The snake’s enormous body thrashed in death as its eyes lost its luster and its head, mouth yawning open, fell to the ground. Bluish blood flooded the area from its remains. The hardened soldiers around it stumbled back, shoving one another out of their way in their rush to get away.
They probably think the snake’s blood is poison, Marius thought. He saw their fear, awe and revulsion as he cleaned his sword and sheathed it. Considering the snake’s size and length and the horse it came from, he knew the snake had not been in that horse. Someone had finessed it into existence, probably to do him in. This was not the first time such actions had taken place. Somewhere within this realm of people was someone who tried to kill him by finessing reality. Thoughts that it could be his fargum men or the prisoners were equally fraught with concerns.
“Someone tried to kill you, Marius,” Stiltman said. Wicked enthusiasm veiled Stiltman’s fear. “Someone powerful enough to finesse it right under my watch.” Enraged frustration pushed a thin screech into Stiltman’s tone. “Now they’re gone, Marius. We missed someone in this pile of stones.”
Marius’ men rushed about with concern over Marius and his well-being, concerns he dismissed with contemptuous sniffs, deaf to their words. He was instead thinking how grateful he was to be linked with Stiltman but worried about their relationship. If Stiltman found someone more suited to him, Marius could find himself quickly out, a troubling equation. For him to be removed, though, another would need to see and hear Stiltman. That had happened just once that Marius knew. He’d easily murdered that young girl but knowing it could happen haunted him.
“Taste the blood,” Stiltman directed Marius. “Quickly, while it remains warm, dip your finger in the blood and taste it with your tongue.”
A ritual Marius had experienced before, he couldn’t bring himself to hurry. A hush grasped his watching army as he bent forward, extended a finger and dipped it into the snake’s puddle of blood.
“Hurry,” Stiltman ordered.
Marius felt the other’s hunger but he couldn’t hurry. One day, he would need to rebel against Stiltman. He raised the bloody finger as Stiltman urged with screeching crackles, “Hurry, hurry. Maybe I can learn who is behind this.” As Marius brought the finger to his mouth, he saw another shadow join his arm.
The blood seared his tongue. That wasn’t unexpected. Marius was unable to pull his finger away as screams of pain welled up in him, but he couldn’t do that, either. He was aware of the eager sucking on his finger, a finger that was for that moment someone else’s finger, being sucked on by a mouth that for that moment was another’s mouth.
The world grew white as blindness took him. Deafness descended but he felt heavy, irregular vibrations rising up through his boots and traveling up his legs and through his abdomen. The pain ebbed away. His white vision receded, returning him to Kelcrest’s devastation and sound resumed. He had no idea how much time elapsed before he could finally lower his finger.
“There’s nothing,” Stiltman said. “The creator hid their tracks. We are done here. Kill these people. All must be killed. Torch what can be burn. Wipe it off the of existence’s face. Make it non-viable for any life. Let those who want life come in and finesse it. If they do, we’ll come back.”
Marius knew that torching would include the bodies. Stiltman always burned bodies. Marius suspected Stiltman’s longevity and increasing strengths emanated from killing people and burning their bodies.
“Tear down their castles and towers,” Stiltman said with greater anger. “Fill their moats and wells. Scorch the earth around it and pave it. It shall be arid desert when we are done, buried and forgotten across all histories and times. None shall remember this place when we are done. Assign your forces to complete the tasks. We are wanted elsewhere. “
Not moving, Marius awaited the last of directions to be given to him, the part that he most despised. He was sure they would come. The order was always the same, as though Stiltman had to think through all that was said, all that was offered before him, yet he always finished with the same words.
Marius saw his men tensing. They knew what was to come.
“But first, bring me these children,” Stiltman said. “I will give you the names. Your men will find them. I will guide them.”
As Stiltman spoke the names and Marius called them out, Marius wondered why, another question he to put to Stiltman, another he knew he never would ask. The children were never older than four years. There were always twenty. Marius never saw them again once he had them rounded up for Stiltman’s use.
A black cloud always enclosed the delivered children, yielding nothing of their fates.