Starting a new novel concept. Going a bit deeper into the realm of fantasy than I ever have before, so it should be interesting, but we'll see how it pans out. For now, enjoy the first 5 pages, packed with gunslingery goodness. And by goodness, I mean stuff I wrote when tired and haven't even read back over yet.
It was late evening and the setting desert sun bled light the color of faraway dying leaves into the sky. In the town of Khalish, a single stranger sat at the weekly meeting, his features hidden almost entirely by his sand-worn traveler's mantle and hood. Only his eyes showed, and they were expressionless, emotionless, yet sharp. The townsfolk hardly noticed, however, filing in around him in the circular room of the town hall. As he leaned against the wall only yards from the exit, the locals pushed and fought for seats on the rings of carved stone benches surrounding the little open circle at the middle of the room. Standing there was the man they all came to see, the town's unopposed chief, shaman, healer, and guardian. From the tattoos running up and down his aged skin, the stranger could tell he was an accomplished and powerful mage.
He's got a “Band of Jygalis on each bicep, the stranger observed silently, that means he's got plenty of strength in those old bones. The “Rising Serpent” on his right wrist means he's got potent poison spells...and that he's right handed. And the “Eyes of Oasis” on his forehead mean he's an illusionist. The stranger slowly, calmly, put a hand into a pocket in his mantle and kept his eyes on the man in the center. The dry skin of his hand met the small piece of lashwood he had cut from a bush before he'd reached the desert, the blade-like thorns threatening to tear into him if he pressed against it any harder.
The dull roar of the townspeople died down instantly as the Chief raised his head and looked out at them. For a brief moment, his eyes met the stranger's. A normal man's eyes would've missed the minute smirk that graced the lips of the Chief for that instant. A normal man wouldn't have even read anything into such a small, almost imperceptible sign. But the stranger was anything but a normal man, and he knew exactly what that little insignificant smirk meant. He pressed the back of his hand against the lashwood feeling the intense sting as the thorns pierced into his flesh. He was ready for what would inevitably come.
For a moment, before the Chief began to speak, the stranger recalled a time when he wasn't so prepared. Still in training, he had run into a master illusionist who had used him like a puppet. To him, the living dead were invading, coming in hordes for his juicy living meat. In reality, the zombies he was attempting to kill were average citizens of the city of Leddick, and, were his Master not there to cut the magical strings that bound him, he would've slaughtered the whole town. Under his coverings, he smiled to himself— he'd come a long way since then.
In the silence of the gathering, the Chief cleared his throat, then produced a long, ornate golden pipe. Packing it with some esoteric blend of tobacco and narcotics, he produced a small flame from his index fingertip. Lighting the pipe, he took a single long drag and then exhaled, shooting an impossibly long and dense stream of smoke out into his audience. Starting already, the stranger thought, a little impatient, aren't we? The audience shared none of the same skepticism, however, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed as the fictional smoke filled the room. To them, it was real as could be; they could smell it, feel the heat of it on their skin, felt their lungs burn slightly as they breathed it in.
“People!” the Chief began, his loud voice thundering through the crowd,” MY people! I come to you today, as I do at the end of every month, with a lesson. My people, it has been a fruitful year for us, and in the days to come, we can only hope to enjoy such bounty. In the last month, the trade route between the great green North and the Trade City Lakhas connected our humble land with the great wealth and influence of the world. Truly, this is a great and amazing thing! Now, like never before, we people of Khalish have access to things many of you have never seen, never before even dreamt of. Wellstones, holding vast supplies of magical energy, medicines and clothing made from the exotic plants and animals of the forests to the north, tools made from the powerful metals mined from the towering mountains of the east, and more now pass by our doorsteps.”
As he spoke and gestured with his hands, the smoke began to swirl around him. Slowly but surely, the smoke began to take shape until it formed a model of Khalish, itself, sprawling just above the head of the Chief. In his model, small figures moved about happily, and caravans of camels marched through, leaving behind boxes that burst apart when touched by the smoke-people, swirling about them and making them larger and more jubilant.
“This, my friends, my family, my people, is most assuredly a cause for great joy. But...I would not be standing here before you if stories ended so simply. No, my people, these joys, these wonders, they are great things, but they must be used carefully. You see, hidden here in the desert, we have suffer the pains of seclusion from the world, but we have also enjoyed the benefits of seclusion. While the rest of the world suffered injustices, prejudices, wars, and the like, we have always been a family, a collection of people entirely at peace with one another. But now we, too, are a part of the world, and we must be careful that the poisons of the world outside of Khalish do not taint our beloved home,” he said, the citizens of his smoke village being strangled and consumed by the boxes left by the caravan. The crowd gasped and whispered amongst themselves. The stranger watched in silence, the pain in his hand keeping his perceptions of reality and of the illusion equal but separate.
“Allow me to tell you a story, my children, of a people that lived long before any of us. They lived before Karak set foot upon our world, forming the desert we call home. They were known as the Akiri, and they lived thousands of years before any of us were born. The archeologists of the world are just now learning about them, but they are people we have long known about. The great spires that still stand in the desert that we use as way points were theirs long ago, the pieces of strange green glass that we still find in shards were theirs, and the only surviving ruin of their once apparently great civilization, Djarah, sits in the middle of this desert of ours. But where have they gone?”
The smoke dispersed and formed itself into single figures constructing an even larger city than the mock Khalish. This one had massive spires, and as the figures built, color flooded into the smoke, filling the city they built.
“The Akiri, from what little remains of them, were obviously a a people with power and knowledge vastly superior to our own. And yet, they are gone now, their greatness left to become no more than grains of sand blowing about in the wind.”
The color faded from the smoke city and it and its inhabitants collapsed, leaving only the slowly expanding cloud of smoke.
“But then, how are we to last? If we are to believe smarter, stronger people were eventually destroyed and forgotten, then how can we hope to escape the same fate? The answer lies in the Akiri's power, itself. You see, my children, Djarah shows the fate that befell the Akiri. The last true remnant of their culture is a temple, in which a massive painting depicts the people of the Akiri cities praying for an angel of death, who comes and rains crimson lightening upon them as they rejoice. Do you get it, children? Do you understand? The Akiri destroyed themselves, not by accident, but on purpose! They intentionally used their immense power to wipe themselves completely off of the scrolls of history. But why? Because they knew they had become corrupt and wished that no one that would come after them would make the same mistakes! That, my children, is the evil power of the wonders that now pass by us. Power poisons the good man, strength corrupts the just! You must now be ever watchful for the burning claws of the world's greed and lust for more power, more strength sinking into our fair city. You may think it cannot happen, that our humble village has not the value to gain the attention of those in the great cities that sit on thrones of greed to come for us, but you are naive!”
The smoke began to swirl around the Chief faster and faster as he spoke with more and more fire and passion. The townspeople were lost in the illusion, completely swept up by the force of his spell and they were seconds away from leaping out of their seats in a frenzy.
“You see, my dearest sons and daughters, there is already a dog of some government here to claim what is yours for his masters! He sits amongst you, waiting for his chance to sell you all for a profit! He has not learned from the mistakes of our forefathers, the Akiri, but instead rushes to the same bitter fate!”
The smoke swirled faster now, forming a single rushing cloud that spun rapidly around the Chief as if it were a living thing. The stranger's free hand inched slowly to his waist, seeing what was coming and knowing just how quickly he could respond to it. Sure enough the Chief threw his hands into the air in a wild shout, his whole body trembling, before dropping a single arm in an accusing point at the stranger.
“It is him my children! HE is the filthy vermin that seeks to poison our homes! HE is the death of the Akiri! HE is the death of us, lest we be the death of him first!”
The smoke broke free of the rings it spun, flying directly for the stranger as the crowd in front of him became a frenzied mob, scrambling to their feet. Had he been unprepared like he was in Leddick, the smoke would've blinded him and the mob would've gotten to him. They would've torn at him and beat him until he bled to death, then they'd have buried him out in the sand. There his story would've ended. But he was not unprepared. He had learned from Leddick; that was his gift. He always learned.
His free right hand moved to the holster at his waist and gripped the solid grip of his weapon, pulling it free and leveling it at the closest member of the mob in half a second. It was fast, but not perfect. Lucian had always had the best of them all when it came to his work with their weapon. His draw was so fast you could hardly see it, and he could shoot a fly from across the room before most could even see it. His talent was a seed that, in time, could perhaps even have grown to match their Master, who could have shot just the wing of that same fly off. But that was not how their story had gone.
His left hand came free of the pocket of his mantle and, without a moment of hesitation, quickly yet methodically, it fanned the hammer of the large revolver in his right. Six deafening cracks echoed through the room, and six streaks of white hot flame flashed out of the barrel. The angry streams of flame moved faster than even the stranger's trained eye could see, burning fist-sized holes through the ranks of the brainwashed masses. Without thinking, his hands and feet moved, opening the cylinder of his gun and emptying the spent and smoking casings as he dashed out of the room out into the night.
The mob was dead on his heels as he reached the door, but by the time he was under the stars, his gun had another round in it, and he slammed the cylinder back in. Whirling around, he fired again, the shell burying solidly in the chest of the woman at the front of his attackers. Moments earlier, she had been foaming at the mouth, baying for blood. Now, for only an instant, the illusion faded and her expression filled with sadness. What seemed like ages ago, the stranger would've felt sorry for her right then and there in the moment bitter, painful reality flooded back to her— her last second alive. He'd have hesitated, then, and probably gotten himself killed, or at least too hurt to move on, which was almost worse. But he'd come too far in his journey for that. He'd learned better. He didn't so much as blink at the sight of her anguish.
When her instant of clarity ended, the shell erupted inside of her. She was killed almost instantly as the magic stored within the tiny, yet potent wellstone inside of the bullet released its energy, sending great spears and shocks of ice tearing through her body until they broke free. The bloody ice blocked the path of his other pursuers momentarily, but both he and they knew there was another exit, and he wasn't leaving without preparations. No, there was no retreat for either side of this fight out in the brutal desert night. But in his few seconds of hard-earned reprieve, the stranger ran his hand through his pouch, realizing how low he was on ammunition.
Fifteen type 1's, three type 4's, and one type 5 left, huh?...No...that can't be right. I should still have more than that.
That's when he felt the sting. He had gotten cocky, picking himself out of the easy first layer of the illusion without ever even looking for the second. He focused on the faint whisps of pain he could still feel in his real hand as the illusory citizens of Khalish escaped the town hall and made a mad dash for him.
Come on! Come on, you slow bastard! Move your real hand! Feel the real pain! COME ON!
Deep inside, his subconscious listened to his cries, and the pain of the lashwood raking across his torn and bloodied skin became all too real. The real sensation brought the real world back with it, and all at once the world became a blur of two realities, one actual, one fictional, each with it's own distinct attack on his senses. His eyes saw both the enraged townsfolk reaching him, grabbing for his clothes, his face, his anything, and the inside of the hall, something metal glinting in the torchlight headed his way.
Blade. Move or die, rook.
Again, his body listened. This time, there was no need to force it. This time, the voice in his head was not simply his own, but a combination of his and something else. It was the voice of a lifetime of training, studying. It was the voice of a man who had lived his entire life on the razor's edge between life and death. It was a voice of authority, of knowledge, cold, unwavering, and calm. It was his voice, but it was also his Master's. His body listened without question to that voice; the one he called the Killer.
As the knife clinked off the wall behind him in the real world, the stranger's legs threw him into a roll. As he righted himself, his gun was already drawn and aimed at the source, but it had already fled, the cloak of the Khalish Chief fluttering out the door.
“So! You managed to defeat both of my illusions? Your reputation is not unwarranted. Your kind are truly something else!” His voice echoed in the hall, though his body was already outside. The stranger stood and listened, checking his body for any real damage. “For a souldead bastard, you certainly are capable of some amazing things. I saw into your dreams...a weapon that allows even your cursed kind to use magic? Interesting! Very interesting! But I know all of your tricks now, and I still have many more up my sleeve. You were a fool not to run while you had the chance!”
As the Chief's cackling echoed throughout the room, the stranger stood, checked his gun, and then looked out over the sleeping crowd still seated in front of him. He wondered if they were sharing his illusion or if they had their own, but he knew it didn't matter either way. One way or another, their beloved Chief was about to die at his hand, and they certainly wouldn't love him for that.
Outside, the Chief stood in the center of town, waiting with a devilish grin on his wrinkled face. Three days earlier, as the stranger had first set foot in Khalish, he knew who and what this man was. He was an agent of the Kingdom of Ali'sat, sent to this seemingly insignificant town to use his talents to seamlessly replace their old leader. By doing so, the Kingdom would gain a vital resting point for their legion of trade caravans as they made their way along the Burning Path, the infinitely dangerous primary trade route between North and South. He'd seen it three times already on his journey, and this was the second time he had been identified by the Ali'sati agent as a threat. This would be the second time he would have to make an enemy of the very land he was walking into.
For a moment, the Chief and the stranger stood in the dim light from the torches hanging outside of the stone houses, staring at each other. The stranger took a deep breath, letting the Killer take more and more control of his mind, his body relaxing yet ready to move without a hint of hesitation.
Aim with your mind. Never mistake your gun for your weapon, child. Your weapon is your mind. Perceive your opponent with not just your eyes, but all of your senses. In this world, even the sharpest eyes can be fooled by the wave of a mage's hand, but your perception extends far beyond your sight. Kill without hesitation. In this world, child, you are amongst the cursed, and there will be few who would hesitate to kill you. Give them the same, or die.
In an instant, the barrel of the stranger's revolver erupted, the deafening crack of a gunshot echoing throughout the sleeping town. Against a normal man, the lance of pure heat that blazed forth from his weapon would've meant instant death. Against this trained agent of the Ali'sati, the stream of lightening-quick flames met the dull, translucent green of his barrier, and it fought against it until it burnt out into nothingness. The Chief, cackled madly, raising his hands in a sweeping motion, sending a wave of sand at the stranger as if it were water. For him, against a normal man, the wave would've been too massive to avoid, burying the stranger in the cold sand, asphyxiating him. The stranger, too, was no normal man, however, and his second shot connected directly with the deadly wave, bursting on impact.
The explosion blew open enough of a hole, and the stranger was already moving at full speed, throwing himself at the weak point in the wave. Bursting through, he rolled, aimed, and fanned the revolver's hammer. Three bullets made contact with the illusionist's barrier like rocks thrown at a hanging curtain, slowing to a halt inches from his face before they exploded, forming massive jagged flowers of ice that crashed to the sand at his feet.
“One shot left in that weapon of yours! What magic can you hope to throw at me? I know your game, and no magic someone like you could throw at me could possibly break my barri—“
The last crack of gunfire silenced the Chief's gloating, and the sanguine splash of his blood splashed against the sand only moments before his body collapsed on top of it. The stranger stood and holstered his gun, brushing the sand out of his mantle before cautiously examining the body of his foe. It was no illusion, the man was dead.
He had been right about a few things. The stranger's weapon was designed to activate and fire bullets made out of specially refined and charged pieces of wellstone, allowing even someone souldead to use magical power in combat. He was also right in that, as a powerful mage, his magic rejection barrier was likely more than most anything the stranger could fire at him. He, however, didn't realize that the gun could also be loaded with simple metal bullets.
Aim with your mind. That is your true weapon...
The Chief's dwelling was simple at first, matching most others in the town in both size and design. What lied underneath, however, is what the stranger was after. Hidden beneath a trapdoor under his bed was an extra room carved right into the bedrock. Here was all of the evidence of his position within the Ali'sati government; a uniform, letters from his superiors detailing his orders, his new identity, a complete dossier on the man he was replacing and every other citizen of Khalish, and more. Most importantly, there were maps of the desert, including ones detailing the locations of not only the great spires that dotted the landscape, but the stranger's destination: Djarah, the lost temple of the Akiri.
As he collected the maps, he noticed the totem of symbol covered wellstone in the corner of the room. It was the central lynchpin that held the web of illusion over the town in place. By destroying it, the townspeople would be freed from its sway. They would realize that their government had killed their leader and installed one of their own, all to brainwash them into accepting the establishment of a trade route that would drastically change their lives. He knew it was the only moral choice, that it wasn't right to leave an entire town under the sway of a dead man's magic. He knew that they would revile him as a murderer and that the Ali'sati would only support them in that belief.
But he left it be, and left the town of Khalish behind. To him, it was a simple choice between making enemies of the people of a single desert village, as opposed to making enemies of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Morality wasn't something he ever felt like he could bother with. To him, there was only his goal.
He could still remember the cold spring morning where his Master gather all of his children around a bonfire. It was their graduation ceremony, marking their transition from being no more than weak, ignorant children and members of a minority that was loathed by society into the fledgling stages of something more. It was on that night that the five of them were given their first guns, officially making them gunslinger novices. It was also on that night that their Master gave each of them their most vital lesson. Pulling each child aside, he told them, in no uncertain terms, what their true weapon, the power that went beyond the gun in their hand, was.
“Aim with your mind,” he had said, the glow of the towering fire dividing his stern face into vibrant orange light and dim shadow. “That is your true weapon. Amongst all of my children, you have the greatest mind, the greatest intuition. That is where your true strength lies, and because of this, you, child, have the most potential. But in you, too, is a lack of heart. You strive so desperately for what you feel you must do that you care not for others. You would use any means to reach your goals, and that makes you cold. This is where your greatest weakness lies, and, because of this, your story is one of loneliness.”
At the time, he didn't believe his Master. After all, he was one of five novices under a man that was seemingly capable of anything. He would always have these people, this family at his side. But he was wrong. Four years later, the Imperial Army marched on their home with orders to arrest his Master. He surrendered willingly, and was carried off in chains to be executed. Days later, the soldiers returned with orders to capture anyone who remained, killing anyone who resisted. He and his fellow students fled, scattering like falling leaves in the wind. He had seen none of them since.
But the man the Ustian Empire announced was Isaac Desgarro, his Master and adoptive father, the man they executed, was not Isaac Desgarro. Had the real Isaac escaped and been replaced to sate the public? Was he involved with the government somehow? One thing was for certain: Somewhere, he was alive. And one of his gunslingers was going to find him at any cost.