Iâ€™m once again here posting my longform fiction. This time, itâ€™s not from a completed work, but from my primary work-in-progress. I find it useful to have different WIPs with different voices as a kind of palate cleanser, and also because I generally have too many ideas banging around in my head.
This will not be presented as an e-book or in print any time soon. Iâ€™ve got to finish it first.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 1: Right Place, Wrong Place
Iâ€™ve been told it was my mother who named me Magastoris Algorist. Everyone just calls me Max. Though I found myself in a province on the outskirts of the Great Kingdom, thatâ€™s not where I was from. Not that it mattered. I wasnâ€™t really from anywhere. There had been places I had lived, places I knew well, and places I might have even liked. I wouldnâ€™t have called any of them home. I just didnâ€™t have one.
I didnâ€™t completely fit in anywhere, but especially in the Great Kingdom. I donâ€™t speak the High Speech so well. Even my Trade Speech isnâ€™t so good. Back where I came from, theyâ€™d mark me right away as being from the Wharves. Not a good part of town. Lots of not good parts of town back there these days.
Not my problem anymore.
That night, I was in a trade town in a pretty forgotten part of the Great Kingdom, along the main route that cut east to west. I hadnâ€™t been in Bailthair before, spending most of my time in larger cities. More than a few people in town were orcs. You might think that orcs are bloodthirsty monsters that eat babies and torture for fun. I mean, Iâ€™m sure some of them are like that, but Iâ€™ve met plenty of humans who are the same. No, orcs are pretty much like the rest of us, just that their skin is greener and they tend to be a lot bigger.
Not bigger than me, you know. Just bigger than most people.
There wasnâ€™t much to the trade town of Bailthair. It had a few wood buildingsâ€”one of them even had a second storyâ€”but most of the town was canvas tents on large wood frames. None of those had a second story. The tent buildings looked like the other ones, just they had no solid walls and no windows. Things could get hot in the summer around there, and I wouldnâ€™t want to be trying to sleep in one of those tent buildings when that happened. That canvas trapped heat as much as it kept out rain.
Youâ€™d think this place would be bigger. It was on the main trade route west through the province and along to its capital. Truth was, there wasnâ€™t a lot of traffic on the North Lunaventum Road. That meant not a lot of money for the few businesses in the town. Still, for a small place it had all the services that caravans and traders would be looking forâ€”blacksmiths, cartwrights, food, alcohol, and sex workers. It was the kind of place Iâ€™d hear rich merchants slagging while they were in their cups. That doesnâ€™t mean much. Youâ€™re more likely to end up starving on the side of the road if you trust one of those merchants than if you listen to the night workers in Bailthair.
Unless you were another rich merchant. Which, in case you hadnâ€™t figured, Iâ€™m not.
I was working for this elf named Herkrist. Even I know thatâ€™s a weird name for an elf, but she always said she wasnâ€™t an elf. She called herself a half-elf, though others usually just called her an elf. Except for elves. They spoke different to her than they did to each other, and they didnâ€™t mention her background. I donâ€™t know what that was about. She had pointy ears, pointy eyebrows, and really bright eyes. She dressed like a rich merchant, and spoke like one too most of the time. But I have heard her curse like a blacksmith. She was smart. Real smart. She just . . . I donâ€™t know. Sometimes, she talked like sheâ€™d gut you if you crossed her. I think she would. Or, I mean, sheâ€™d get me to do it. Thatâ€™s why she paid me.
She said she was a scholar, but she was a scholar who knew a lot about war and a lot about violence. She talked about the Great War like she had been there. I hadnâ€™t asked. She was an elf, so she would have been around at the time. She couldâ€™ve been around for plenty of wars. Maybe all of them?
A lot of her work was in archives and talking with old people who had read a lot. Some of her work was with soldiers and mercenaries. One time, the guy she wanted to talk to was working as an enforcer along the south coast. Thatâ€™s where we met. She needed someone who could get her the meeting and watch her back. That was me. We had worked well together. I had been with her ever since. I think she trusted me. I sure trusted her.
I guess we were friends, Herkrist and me. I thought of her as a friend. I had started as a hire. Years through, and after everyone else had tried to cheat her or betray her, I was still around. I keep my promises. And I donâ€™t lie. Unless Herkrist asks me toâ€”though Iâ€™m not good at it. We respected each other. Then we trusted each other. Then, I think, we became friends. Sheâ€™s my friend even if Iâ€™m not hers. And more.
And I always take care of my friends. Donâ€™t test me on that. Itâ€™ll end bad for you.
She didnâ€™t belong in that place. I mean, she probably didnâ€™t belong in Bailthair at all, but what I mean is she didnâ€™t belong in the canvas tent brothel where we were drinking. I probably did belong in a place like that, but I had been with Herkrist long enough that I sometimes forgot. It didnâ€™t have a name and wasnâ€™t that big or clean. Not a place where you paid real money and the workers smelled nice. No, the smell of that place was despair and stale beer. Smoke filled it, which I appreciated because it cut the rest of the stench.
The lady who ran the place didnâ€™t care that we werenâ€™t hiring that night, because Herkrist gave her a silver kingdom talar to not ask questions and serve us the best booze she had. There werenâ€™t no questions, but the best booze was some of the worst Iâ€™ve had. At least in a while. Probably drank worst back in my hometown, but those days were gone.
When Herkrist spoke, she spoke in the dwarf speech from up around my old stomping grounds. You didnâ€™t find too many in the Great Kingdom, even dwarves, who spoke that dialect.
â€œYour friend is late.â€
If she said it was so, it probably was. I didnâ€™t take it as an accusation. She didnâ€™t have that tone. â€œI donâ€™t think they care much for clocks around here.â€ I raised my wood cup and looked in it, frowning. â€œYou want me to find something better? Someoneâ€™s got to have something better.â€
â€œI havenâ€™t been drinking.â€ Her delicate, arched eyebrows raised, her bright green eyes watching me. â€œIâ€™m surprised you have.â€
I should have said this right off, but Herkrist is really striking. I mean, sheâ€™s an elf so yeah, but there was more to it than that. Thing was, I could see when people looked at her that they were disappointed. She didnâ€™t have that ghostly weightlessness other elves had. She was solid. If other elves were air, she was earth. She had kind of a wide mouth, and maybe her nose was a bit flat. And she carried more meat than other elves, at least on her limbs and along her shoulders. She also frowned more than she smiled. Her skin looked like sheâ€™d been on the road or under the sun for most of her life. She was darker than Iâ€™d expect for an elf Iâ€™d seen, though I hadnâ€™t seen too many elves. None before I met Herkrist.
But there is something about her, that if it hit you right, you just donâ€™t recover. I know most people weâ€™ve met havenâ€™t had much time for her, but for those who get it, they get it hard. Iâ€™ve been around her long enough that it has kind of worn off. She is who she is. But sheâ€™s still something special, outside and in. I donâ€™t really have family, I havenâ€™t had any for a long time, but maybe she was family for me.
I still took her coin. After all, she offered it. Family wouldnâ€™t change that.
Thatâ€™s not what I was thinking at the time, Iâ€™m just trying to tell you a story. Anyway, she had made a comment about the booze and I didnâ€™t have a good response, so I just slumped in my chair, stretching out my legs. There wasnâ€™t a lot of space in the common room, and my foot slipped under one of the curtains used to block off private areas. The lady behind the bar cleared her throat, and I sat back up in my chair.
Herkrist made a circular motion with her cup, her eyes on its contents. â€œI donâ€™t want to be sitting here all night.â€ I still didnâ€™t have a good response. She looked at me, then looked back at the contents of her cup. â€œMaybe this was a bad idea.â€
â€œHeâ€™s maybe late, yeah.â€ I scratched the stubble on my chin. â€œMost people donâ€™t think about time like you do. Itâ€™s kind of weird. I mean, youâ€™re elf or part-elf or something, so youâ€™re immortal, right? Iâ€™d think time wouldnâ€™t matter so much.â€
She took in a long breath and seemed to hold it for a heartbeat. She put down her cup. â€œIt doesnâ€™t work like that. Time doesnâ€™t speed up or slow down for me. Thereâ€™s just a lot of it. It doesnâ€™t make me any less impatientâ€
â€œGot it.â€ I stared off into the distance for the moment, trying to find a solution. One presented itself in my peripheral vision. â€œHere he is.â€
Iâ€™d always found Tak handsome to some degree. He had an angular jaw, strong cheekbones and really penetrating eyes. It always felt like he could look right through me, or at least right into me. Itâ€™s not that he was scrawny, but he was pretty thin for an orc. He was built more like what people expected of an elf than Herkrist. He didnâ€™t have an orcâ€™s bulk, but he made up for it in quickâ€”quick in his head and quick in a fight. He had a reputation as a person of his word, someone people could trust. From what I had seen, he had earned that reputation.
I stood to get his attention, but he was already walking toward us. He didnâ€™t sit. He didnâ€™t even look at us. â€œTell me what you want and tell me fast.â€
Herkrist had agreed that I should do the talking, at least at first. This was my world. â€œWe need someone to get us into the Terror Lands, someone that can walk us around without a problem.â€
â€œMax, give me your word I wonâ€™t end up with a knife in my back.â€ His eyes were on the door.
â€œNot my intent, not my bossâ€™ intent.â€ I shrugged. â€œThough I imagine we might meet some whoâ€™ll happy do it.â€
â€œFair enough.â€ Now he looked at me. â€œThere are Praetorians out there looking for you.â€ His gaze shifted to Herkrist. â€œWell, actually for you. I have a camp an hour south along the river. Stick to the shore and you canâ€™t miss it. If I donâ€™t see you by sunrise, Iâ€™ll assume I wonâ€™t be seeing you ever.â€
Tak pointed to the back of the establishment and the lady at the bar nodded. He cast a meaningful glance at me and started to leave. I gestured to Herkrist and made to follow him. She nodded. Pushing aside a curtain, I saw a small space with a bed to one side, a chest on the other, and a canvas-covered opening. The canvas easily lifted with enough space for us to get under it. I slid outside.
No sign of Tak.
I stepped out of the way as Herkrist exited through the raised canvas. â€œMake for the camp or forget all this?â€
â€œMake for the camp.â€ She started walking.
â€œPretty sure the Praetorians are looking for you, not me.â€ I spoke to her back. â€œI mean, I just donâ€™t rate that kind of treatment.â€
â€œI would imagine that word of an elf in Bailthair would be enough to interest the authorities.â€ Herkrist paused, looked up at the stars, shifted her direction a small bit, then started walking again. â€œWe waited too long.â€
â€œYeah, I guess so.â€ I looked back, the establishment still in sight. I had good night-eyes. I didnâ€™t see anyone leave it, no one around it at all. â€œWe can ask Tak about it when we get to his camp.â€
â€œYou understand that this could be an ambush, yes?â€ There was a hint of accusation in her words that honestly hurt me a bit.
Of course, I had considered that. The whole thing stunk of a set up. But I had told her when she said she wanted to get to the Terror Lands, when she said that she wanted to get to Mons Malumâ€”the Fated Mountainâ€”and to the foundations of the Turre Tenebrisâ€”the Dread Towerâ€”that we were going to get killed. That there was no way this would end well. So, when Tak talked about a spot to meet far away from prying eyes, close to a place you could easily get rid of a body or two, the thought that someone had knives out for us had popped up.
But there wasnâ€™t much point in saying all that. â€œWe can skip it. I can try to find someone else. But I know Tak . . . I know him enough. And I know his reputation. Itâ€™s a really short list of people Iâ€™d think about hiring to get us into the Terror Lands. Right now, itâ€™s only got one name.â€
â€œThen we risk it.â€ She didnâ€™t slow down at all.
We passed the last of the tents that bordered Bailthair. All of them were a single story, but a lot of them were pretty large. Some were definitely stables. I thought about stealing a couple of horses, but figured we were in enough trouble. Years ago, before I had met Herkrist, I wouldnâ€™t have thought of the consequences. Horses would make the travel easier, there were horses, I would have just taken them. Spending time with Herkrist helped me think better. It helped me plan. I thought about repercussionsâ€”I hadnâ€™t even known that word until I met her. I wasnâ€™t smarter, but she helped me think about things differently.
â€œMaybe I go in first?â€ I suggested. â€œTest the water?â€
That made her stop and turn to me. â€œI appreciate the offer, but it wonâ€™t help. If someone is after me, this Tak and his confederates will simply wait for me to arrive. You told me this was going to get us killed. Maybe you were right.â€
So, she had listened. â€œBut you arenâ€™t giving up?â€
â€œLook at this place, Max.â€ She opened her arms wide. â€œThis whole world. They told us we were saving it. They said there was an evil that could not be reasoned with and could not be appeased. We made the sacrifices, we won the war, but nothing has gotten better. It has gotten worse. And the more they all talk about the terrifying evil that was ready to engulf the world, the more I know they were all lying. They were deceiving us. Maybe even deceiving themselves. And now, maybe thereâ€™s something worse, something coming. But none of them care because theyâ€™ve got theirs and they donâ€™t think anyone can take it from them.â€
She said that more for herself than for me. She didnâ€™t need to explain anything to me, and she knew it. Sometimes she still needed to justify things to herselfâ€”another word I had never used until I met her. She rubbed her eyes with her palm. â€œIf I get killed, I get killed. Iâ€™d rather you not share that fate, but you seem resigned to it.â€
â€œIf you mean Iâ€™m okay with getting killed, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s true.â€ I shrugged. â€œBut Iâ€™m not going to run because things are bad. Death ainâ€™t the worse thing that could happen to me.â€
â€œI have no idea how to respond to that.â€ She turned and started walking. â€œSo Iâ€™m just going to say thank you for staying with me. I feel safer with you around. I hope Tak has half your honesty.â€
â€œI guess weâ€™ll find out.â€ I followed. I didnâ€™t really want to die, I just wasnâ€™t particularly afraid of it. Iâ€™ve been alone. Iâ€™ve been alone in a bad place and had no one to even share the load with or care about what happened to me. I havenâ€™t been dead, but I have to think it canâ€™t be worse than that.
You can find Chapter 2: On the Shore of the Great River here.