Enthusiastically ripping genre fiction a new one since 2010
The Five Lords: People Skills
I’ve been writing a story for the past couple of years. It’s the beginning of what I hope will be an epic pentalogy of medieval fantasy and fantasy western (that’ll make more sense once you read the finished story). Notice I said ‘hope’ in that last sentence; there is every possibility this story, once complete, will be a confusing mess of self-indulgent confusingness. The fact that I use words like confusingness should clue you in to the lack of writing caliber present in this story.
The series is called The Five Lords, named after the five androgynous gods who watch over humanity. The first book, Storms, takes place a few months after an event called the Great Punishment; the Five have destroyed most of humanity, at the height of their hubris and selfishness. Small pockets of survivors eke out livings and attempt to find homes, while others subsist on indulging whatever pursuits they wish in this newly unconstrained and blighted world.
One of the latter is Koron of Burning Sigil. He’s a Brother of the Blood, an ancient order of mystic swordfighters with strict ritual practices and beliefs (think if the Jedi were crossed with Shaolin monks, only a little more jerkish and possessed of the super-blood of Claire from Heroes). Koron was part of a group of survivors, but he’s been cast out for various reasons and is now spending his days hunting wild animals. Because, really, why not?
He’d walked for days.
This was not the worst situation he’d ever found himself in – in terms of the immediate surroundings, anyway. He wasn’t stranded without a horse in the Abranthi Desert, nor was he at the bottom of a mine shaft in Skalleck. He was walking through a forest not far from Ascoth, with a full pack and waterskin on his person, a sharp sword on his back. In terms of where he physically was in the world, this was not as bad as things had been before.
But right now, he could not think of a worse time in his life. His Brother was dead. The camp had abandoned him. Commander Drake would probably kill him if they ever met again. As far as Koron knew, he was the last surviving Brother of the Blood. The mythologies and lessons of an ancient, powerful order older than most of the rest of the world now rested solely with him.
Koron did not want that responsibility. Right now, he did not want any responsibility. Right now, he wanted to kill something.
He’d found an appropriate target last night; a scather lizard, long and quadripedal. Its lengthy tongue had probed around several trees during the day, gathering food for the family Koron knew must be nesting somewhere nearby. Scather lizards usually left their nest for days at a time, returning with enough food stored in their digestive pouch for the young to survive for weeks.
The lizard, in full daylight, was a dark, burnished yellow with the odd black or brown scale, like a badly roasted cob of corn. It had light violet eyes above a wide mouth that hid a long, sticky purple tongue. The tongue snagged food – insects and small animals, usually – and swallowed it into the digestive pouch, where it would be slowly suffocated until it could be regurgitated for the younger lizards.
The pouch was on a particular side for the lizards – left for male, right for female – and became engorged the more the lizard swallowed. This one’s pouch was on the left, and looked fairly full. That told Koron the nest was close by. It might have seemed ruthless to be hunting this lizard and its family; scather lizards had no edible meat or use for their scales. They were considered a pest given how frequently they consumed other wildlife, and the caustic secretion on their tongues had been to known to have a deleterious effect on human skin.
So he stalked the scather lizard, resting a hand gently on the dagger Ordo had allegedly used to kill himself. The sword would have been overkill, and right now Koron relished a challenge.
The lizard ponderously waddled towards a giant crack in an ancient greatoak a few feet away. It squirmed against the ill-made opening, squeezing its bulk through and slipping its tail in quietly afterwards. Koron bent his head towards the tree trunk, hearing tiny little cries and snaps alongside the repulsive regurgitation sound the parent lizard made as it gave its children its hard-hunted food. The little cries became muted as the babies started eating.
To kill this scather lizard and its family may have been somewhat strange, possibly even cruel. He doubted Ordo would have approved. But then, like Drake had said, things weren’t up to Ordo where Koron was concerned anymore. He could hunt and kill a bunch of lizards if he wanted. Who could stop him now?
He slowly unsheathed the dagger and prepared to stalk towards the trunk. The lizards kept eating, and it was only through his Blood-enhanced hearing that Koron heard the arrow whistle towards him.
He threw himself backwards and onto the floor of the forest, the arrow just narrowly missing his nose and striking the ground a short distance to his left. In response, he replaced Ordo’s dagger and retrieved a throwing knife; the blade travelled end-over-end in the direction the arrow had shot from, towards a cluster of ferns. There was a dull thud, followed by something heavy hitting the underbrush.
Koron’s hand was already firmly grasping the hilt of his sword, swinging it over from the sheath at his back. He held it two-handed and charged into the underbrush, swordtip aimed ahead of him. No colour besides the dark and muted autumnal leaves greeted his eyes, and thus no confirmation of a kill from his throwing knife. He stepped into the ferns where his knife had flown, heart pumping, eyes searching frantically.
Come on, you whoreson. Shoot a man while he’s–
There. He saw it; a body lying face-first, its legs splayed. It had obviously been caught mid-run. The dull glint of sunlight reflecting off metal in the back of the body told him where his throwing knife had gone.
Koron smirked, a little disappointed. That had been too easy. He’d’ve preferred a chase, maybe even a duel. Something to liven up his current state of mind.
His sword went back into its sheath while he stepped up to examine the body. With a quick motion he retrieved the throwing knife, embedded almost as hard into the body’s back as if he’d stabbed the person close-up. The corpse wore dull brown clothes, nothing terribly interesting. Probably an idiot bandit who thought I’d be an easy mark.
He started to shift the body over onto its back, but stopped halfway. The figure had no face, but rather a stitched calico flat that had been rounded and stuff with something firm. A dummy.
He rose from his crouch, hand rising to his sword again. Before he could brush the metal, there was a click behind him. It sounded an awful lot like a crossbow.
‘I really wouldn’t,’ a woman’s voice warned him from behind.
Koron closed his eyes slowly, gritting his teeth. Taken in by an elementary trick. Idiot. ‘Crossbows don’t fire arrows,’ he observed.
‘No, they don’t,’ the assailant agreed. ‘This one does, though.’
‘A foul mouth on this one!’ the woman called out. ‘We’d best keep our manners about!’
Five figures dropped from the trees, each dressed in clothing similar to the dummy. Koron made out three women and two men; the women all held crossbows, one of the men carried a yew longbow, and the last man had both hands on the hilt of a sheathed broadsword at his waist. Everything looked unremarkable about them except for the last man’s sword, which made Koron’s eyes widen slightly.
The pommel bore a very distinctive purple gemstone, reflecting the light as brilliantly as a flaming torch in a darkened cave. The sheen of it was known as heartlight, named not for the organ but for the feeling it instilled in people who looked at it. Those of righteous disposition were bolstered by its luminescence, whilst those of a fearful or evil nature had their inherent cowardice amplified.
Heartlight gems were as rare as they were invaluable, and usually only found in the pommels of swords belonging to king, queens and their retinue. Koron’s enhanced sight allowed him to see the edge of a bird’s wing sigil wrapped around the hilt, twining the edge of its feathers into the metal of the pommel.
This man was, or had been, a guardsman of the King in Ravensweep. Given the weathered sword, he judged the man to have been fairly high within the guardsmen hierarchy. Maybe even a Guard Captain himself.
Should that garner respect, or scorn? It wasn’t as if non-Blood lessers were entirely worthy of his respect. The Blood were above and beyond simple mortality. Even with a Heartlight gem – which would not affect Koron in the slightest – this man was probably nothing special now. It wasn’t as if he had a King to guard anymore.
The others all watched intently as the lead guardsman, hands still resting at his hilt, strode forward confidently to look Koron up and down. The man was tall, lean and weathered like his sword. A salt-and-pepper beard framed a strong chin beneath faded charcoal hair. His knuckles, in prominent view on the sword hilt, were scarred from countless fistfights. He smirked, but not in a condescending fashion, his sky blue eyes glittering. ‘What’s a sworn Brother doing this far from the Temple?’
The armour and sigil on Koron’s own sword probably gave it away. He suppressed the urge to bite off a retort. ‘Hunting.’
‘You mean that thing?’ The guardsman pointed in the direction of the greatoak trunk containing the scather lizard. ‘Not going to get much meat from him.’
‘I didn’t say I was hunting for food.’
‘True,’ the lead guardsman admitted, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘Does the Brother have a name, or should we make one up for him?’
‘My name,’ Koron shot back, quicker than he’d intended, ‘is go fuck yourself.’
The others laughed quietly, right before the woman holding him hostage slapped him across the back of the head. It stung in the cool afternoon breeze. Koron ground his teeth and closed his eyes, opening them once the stinging subsided. She had one hell of a slap in her.
‘Well, Go Fuck Yourself,’ the lead guardsman said amusedly, ‘my name is Steth. My companions are Ansel, Kem, Jessa and Karryll. The one with the bow at your back is Tal.’
For emphasis, Tal pressed the end of the crossbow bolt hard into Koron’s back. ‘Hello.’
What a merry band of jolly robbers. ‘Wonderful. I’m sure I’ll forget those names in due course.’
Tal slapped him again, harder this time. He felt it might leave a lump once it subsided. The others laughed again, Steth joining them this time.
I swear, Koron promised himself, they’ll all lie bloodied at my feet when they let me go.
‘You’re not a very likeable young man, are you?’ Steth observed. ‘Far too quick to condemn and threaten. I’d be more accommodating to your captors, were I you.’
Koron glared at him. ‘Good thing you’re not me, then.’
‘Also true. For one thing, I’m much prettier. I would like to get to know you, though.’
Steth shrugged, seeming far too nonchalant. ‘It’s not every day that one of the Blood strays across our path. Even rarer that we find one without a sibling present. I thought your kind hunted in pairs?’
So they think as lowly of me as I do of them. Excellent. At least there’s that common ground. ‘Who says I came alone?’
‘We’ve been watching you for the past half-day.’ The other man with them – Ansel, was it? – piped up. ‘There’s no-one but us and you for kilometres around. We move fast in the trees.’
‘So you’re elf-born, as well as stupid?’ Koron spat.
Ansel raised an eyebrow. ‘Stupid?’
‘You’ve captured a Brother of the Blood. The Five don’t look kindly on that sort of thing.’
‘Last I checked,’ Steth cut in, ‘the Five Lords in general weren’t really to do with your Brothers and Sisters, were they? That was more a Lord of Blood thing, specifically. Hence the name, I guess.’
This man bore himself with near-regal air; there was no doubt in Koron’s mind that he was of high birth, almost certainly an upper-ranked guardsman from Ravensweep. He commanded immediate respect from the others, and they all interacted convivially whilst following his orders. But he was too casual, speaking in a way that one might reserve for a conversation between men at a bar. He was observing things about Koron like Morgan might, without the slightly crazed undertones. Had Steth been a full Guard Captain, he should have beaten Koron bloody at the first quip and left him broken in their wake. Ravensweep Guards had a reputation as being swift and brutal when necessary, especially if their honour was impugned.
Not this man. He simply nodded, looking away more thoughtfully as he pondered his observation about the Five. He happened to be right – Koron’s brethren and the Lord were not same-named by coincidence – but Koron wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that.
‘You think we should just kill him?’ Tal asked calmly, prodding him again with the crossbow. ‘I don’t think he’ll be saying much with fists or friendship from us.’
‘True,’ Ansel agreed. ‘Might as well kill him and be on our way.’
Koron laughed bitterly. ‘So much for high and noble guardsmen.’
Steth blinked. ‘Excuse me?’
‘You’d kill a man you find in a forest,’ Koron replied, ‘and call yourselves noble. I wonder what your King might think, were he still alive.’
There was a long, protracted moment of silence from all six of them. Koron grinned, having finally hit a nerve. Quite pleased with himself that he’d managed-
‘Who said we’re here from the King?’ Steth asked.
Koron’s grin vanished. ‘What?’
‘Who said,’ Steth repeated, ‘that we’re here because of any King?’
‘Or Queen, for that matter,’ Tal added.
Steth nodded. ‘Or Queen. Tell me, who said that at any point?’
It was a rare moment where Koron was temporarily lost for words. He tried to recover quickly, lest they think this an unexpected weakness. ‘Your sword. That Heartlight gem could only be wielded by one of intense emotional affect. It’s given to Guard Captains in Ravensweep.’
Steth examined the purple gemstone thoughtfully, as if viewing it for the first time. ‘Yes. That is true, isn’t it?’ He pulled the sword from its sheathe and examined the light reflecting off the glinting blade. ‘Usually those we come across are deferential when they see this. They think, “Oh, thank the Five! Ravensweep is here to save us!” They don’t usually swear and threaten to kill us. It makes the whole thing much easier.’
A sinking feeling crept into Koron’s gut. ‘What whole thing?’
Now it was Steth’s turn to grin, and it was a wholly unsettling expression to be seen on a face that, only a moment, had been jovial and friendly. ‘We’re building something.’
‘Something grand,’ Ansel added.
One of the other women – Kem, maybe – chimed in with, ‘Something that has never been done before.’
‘And we need people to do it,’ Tal said from behind Koron’s ear.
‘Lots of people,’ one of the other women, Jessa, supplied.
‘Quite a lot of people, actually,’ Steth clarified. His sword went back into the sheath. ‘I took this from my employer after the Great Punishment, because she told me it would make things easier. Worth its weight in gold, it is.’ He tapped the hilt appreciatively. ‘But clearly it won’t work on you. Must be that wretched Blood in your veins.’
Koron lips curled back in a snarl. ‘If you’d like, I could show you what it can really do.’
‘A tempting, if violent, offer, but I don’t think so,’ Steth refused. ‘I think I’d rather just take you with us to the building site. You’ll understand soon enough. You’ll probably even thank us, in fact.’
Tal hauled Koron up and held him fast, the crossbow still nuzzling his back. She took her other hand and deftly unclasped the belt holding his sword to his back, before grabbing it by the sheath and tossing it to Karryll. ‘Don’t touch the hilt,’ Tal warned as Karryll caught it. Then, to Ansel she said, ‘Would you mind?’
The big man strode forward, long locks of lanky, dirty blonde hair waving in motion. He reached out a massive hand cautiously, retrieving Ordo’s ritual knife from Koron’s waist. As Ansel slipped it into his own belt, Koron’s anger levels tripled. They’d kidnapped him for an insidious construction project, and now they’d taken his Brother’s knife away.
Yes. They will all die. Somehow, some way, I will kill them all.
‘Any other weapons on your person?’ Steth asked casually.
Other than my trained, bare fists and years of knife-honed combat reflexes, you mean? Koron smirked wryly. ‘Go to hell.’
Steth matched his expression, then walked towards him. ‘Silly man. I’ve been there already.’
He rammed his fist into Koron’s head, leaving the Brother to take residence within the utter blackness.