As promised, here’s the first story excerpt. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Walking Death, Chapter 1
The year the Empire fell began like any other in recent memory: celebration.
The Assassin knew the night would end with blood.
She crouched at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city of Veneshal. Black strands of hair brushed her tanned cheek, and she swept them away, eyes fixed on her goal far below. She peered into the distant shadows and dove.
Her grey cloak whipped behind her as she plummeted three hundred feet toward the highest tower of the magnificent building below. A cloud of black dust burst around her, and she froze in the air a hand’s length above the stone. Her foot touched down with serene poise.
The Assassin observed the rooftop below. She stood invisible in the night, hooded and covered in loose grey fabric, hidden from the city lights. Glimmering rings sat on pedestals around the manors of nobility. They twinkled in the night like stars fallen to the earth.
Refocused magic. Arcanists are present.
The contract required a public killing, so the Assassin expected confrontation with a magic-user. She felt neither fear nor excitement at the challenge. She merely noted the complication and planned her reactions.
Throughout Veneshal, ornate paper lanterns hung above commoners’ doorframes in such great numbers that the few clouds and the rippling bay around the port city glowed like amber. Music and the clamor of the New Year’s celebration rose to the assassin’s ears.
But no celebration echoed as loud nor building shone as bright as that on which the Assassin now stood. The Baricund dominated Veneshal’s skyline, both a fortress and the grand mansion of the Condral family, nobles with blood ties to the Emperor himself. Tarrandin Condral oversaw all trade that came through the docks, so he possessed enough wealth for frivolity. He held feasts and diversions year-round. Tonight’s celebration surpassed them all. Based on the plan the Assassin had been given, several thousand favored attendees would be inside the Baricund. The crowd outside doubled that number.
Irrelevant to the mission. The ground exits are a worst-case option. Not even a team of Arcanists can keep up with me once I get outside.
There were fifteen guards in the courtyard below, sweating in shining plate armor. The unlucky few assigned to crowd control. Probably another score of guards within.
No one watched the rooftop. The cliff face jutted out high above the Baricund. Rappelling down was impossible.
Then again, no one has seen powers like mine.
She gazed down at the stone roof and pictured the floor plans she memorized. Tarrandin would have withdrawn to the private ballroom by now, surrounded by four hundred chosen guests. His top lackeys and businessmen, most likely. Anyone connected to Hazfis Ral.
Ral’s criminal ties spread throughout every major city and town across the Empire. On receiving her mission, the Assassin wondered whether the enigmatic figure that indirectly purchased her services was Ral himself. Counting Tarrandin Condral, four of her last seven targets worked in Ral’s network. He’s cleaning house, or someone is sending him a message.
But the Assassin was not concerned about Hazfis Ral. The man with the money does not matter. I have a contract; I will fulfill it.
She picked one stone on the rooftop and reached out in her mind. Shadows stretched and oozed like spilled ink running across a sheet of paper. At her command, the darkness gathered in a slow swirl around her chosen stone until she could not see it. A whip-crack broke the silence as the stone shattered. The pool of shadow exerted tremendous force on the adjacent stones. Jagged lines spider-webbed out from the edges.
The hidden figure sprang from her perch, extending her hands toward the roof below. Lines of fine black dust appeared in the air between her and the mass of darkness. The ceiling crumbled. Stones plummeted and smashed the ballroom’s hardwood floor. The Assassin slipped through the new-formed hole, followed by the swirling plume of dark flecks left behind as the pool dissipated.
Partygoers froze. The orchestra stopped. All eyes turned toward the ceiling.
As the Assassin fell, she Stretched a new jet of shadow downward, pushing away from the ground to soften the impact. At the same time, she Pooled again, pulling a mixture of darkness and rubble into a funnel around herself.
When her foot touched the ballroom floor, she released all that she gathered. Broken rock sprayed out from the swirling cloud in every direction. Fabric and flesh tore with equal ease throughout the room as the Assassin Scattered all she had Pooled.
Screams echoed in the chamber. Men and women scrambled over each other in a dash to the exit. The Assassin scanned the crowd for anyone pushing against the human tide. Tarrandin’s bodyguards fought the panic and frenzy of the crowd, jostling their way through the rush of bodies. They wore no armor to speak of; they were still guests at a banquet and so were dressed in formal attire. Three wore eyeglasses. Three Arcanists. Manageable.
Pureblood human Arcanists used eyepieces called Oculars in order to manipulate magic. The potential energy of inanimate objects could be bound by the eyepiece, Refocused into a new form, then loosed in combat against a foe. Arcanists were the most destructive force in the Empire’s employ, but the Assassin felt no fear or worry. One at forward-left. One at forward-right. One at right flank… and weapons all around.
The Assassin’s powers could not touch an Ocular. She did not fully understand why. But the people wearing the devices were just flesh and blood. Jets of shadow dust reached out past the approaching bodyguards and Arcanists to yank several chunks of fallen rock toward the Assassin–through her foes. Bloodstained stones thudded on the ground at her feet, followed by eight bodies. Two wore Oculars.
This was the opposite of Stretching, an ability she called Flexing. She could use the shadow to pull at an object. A large object could serve as an anchor for the Assassin to propel herself through the air. A small object could be Flexed or Stretched at high velocity as a projectile weapon.
The third Arcanist still stood unharmed. The stones she flung toward him splashed to the ground, Refocused into muddy water.
Six guards rushed her. Arcanist first.
She drew two long curved knives and leapt into the fray. The Assassin spun, parried, dodged, and slashed at the guards, but always her eyes remained fixed on the man with the Ocular. Her blades became a blur, her cloak a swirling shadow.
They can only Refocus what they can see. Be faster than sight.
The ground under her softened like quicksand. Not fast enough! The Assassin Flexed at a nearby guard, pulling herself into the air and shoving him down into the puddle of liquid stone before it solidified around him. She landed with a slash across another guard’s arm, and he dropped his sword. This she Stretched toward the Arcanist, but the blade shimmered into droplets of metal. They sprayed past him and splattered across the wall.
She felt no frustration at this failed attack. The distraction served its purpose.
With a flick of her wrists, two silvery spikes flew toward the Arcanist. He swept at them with his arm, but they flew straight and remained intact. His eyes widened. Yes, they’re warpsilver too. You’re not the only one with fun toys.
The Arcanist fell to his knees, clutching at his eyes. A fist-sized stone on a stream of shadow dust punched into his chest and slid him across the floor.
The Assassin recovered the precious spikes, then turned her attention to the remaining guards. She Pooled shadow around herself. The guards grimaced, muscles straining against the sudden weight. None of them fled from her, a credit to their bravery.
They should have.
The first two bodyguards reached out to capture her. To the assassin’s eyes, they looked like tired men slogging through a swamp. Their fingertips reached for her, and she exploded in motion. She punched out with both fists, knocking the breath from their lungs and bending them over. Then she sprung onto their shoulders, pushing them downward while jumping over their falling bodies to snap a sharp kick into the throat of a third guard.
In the midst of the chaos, one of her enemies raised a monocle to his eye. The Assassin smiled. You were wise to keep your power hidden until now.
Her foot brushed the ground and her leg spun around to sweep the third guard into the air. Then she Stretched, launching him at the new Arcanist. Thought so… you can dissipate a rock or blade, but you won’t risk hurting your ally. The Arcanist hesitated, and the guard crashed into him. Both went down in a heap of limbs.
Two bodyguards lunged toward the crouching Assassin, and she Stretched against the ground. The floor could not be moved, so the Stretch tossed the Assassin into the air between the guards. Her knives flashed, slicing into their necks. Then she Scattered, sending them away with a wave of force and black specks.
The Arcanist regained his footing, about to unleash the Refocused fireball in his hand. The Assassin threw her knives, speeding them along with a Stretch. He quickly shifted elements from fire to air, pushing the knives off course with a howling wind. The blades flew wide, curving behind the Arcanist. Then the Assassin Flexed, yanking them back point-first.
The wind stopped as the man fell. Bloodstains formed in his chest where the knives nearly pierced clean through.
The last bodyguard had the good sense to run. The Assassin gave no chase. Witnesses are part of the plan.
A third of the guests remained, eyes fixed on the action. In the center of the ballroom, the Assassin was alone with Tarrandin. He slouched at the table with heavy-lidded red eyes. The empty glass on its side clearly was not his first. This will be over soon.
The Assassin stepped forward, drawing two more knives.
Then Tarrandin grinned. Slurring in an alien language, he lifted a steak knife from the table and sliced his palm. He painted a small symbol on his forehead with the blood.
So the rumors were true. He was a Kem’neth, a human filled with demonic power. She recognized the symbol. The sign of Deceit.
She paused in her approach. Ninety percent reduction in likelihood of success. She felt no sense of defeat, no fear of failure, and no exhilaration at the surprising challenge she now faced. Only an observation that she could very well die.
She brandished the knives and lunged.