Alright my fellows. This week is shaping up to be quite a doosey. It does not appear that I will have time to post again over the weekend, so I’ve decided to share a treat with you to hold you over until I can return with Flesh and Blood. Just for you, I am posting three sizable sneak peeks into my current WIPs! However, there are two motives behind this post. The first is to entertain until I return, as I said before. But the second is to put you to work. I want to know what you like, what you hate, what you want more of, and so on. So read away, and leave me a comment when you’re done!
“There is no frigate like a book
to take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
that bears a human soul!”
“Mommy, what about me? Can I come too?” My small voice sounds innocent, even to my own ears.
“Come where, son? I’m not going anywhere, not really. And even if I was, of course I would take you with me!” her voice soothes me, and her warm, gentle hand caresses my hair as I sit on her lap.
Ever since Dad… Left… Mom hasn’t been the same. She doesn’t talk much, unless it’s her poetry. She looks out the windows a lot more, and I think that she wishes she had gone with him. Sometimes, I imagine her suddenly sprouting wings and flying out the window, like the sparrows that I’ve always loved watching. But, even though that would be really cool, I don’t want her to go.
I rest my head on her chest, breathing in her scent. She always smells like summer, even on the coldest, harshest winter days. I don’t know why, but she just does.
“I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too, Judas.” She says, squeezing me tight.
All of a sudden, shouts sound from the street. They get louder and louder, and then guns start going off.
The sound hurts my ears, and I cover them with my grubby little hands.
Mom gently pushes me off of her, and I slide down onto the floor. What is going on? Why is everybody yelling?
I crawl into the corner, watching fearfully as mom blocks the door with a cabinet, then runs to shut all of the curtains. I’ve never seen mom so scared, not even when they said that Daddy wasn’t coming home.
“Mommy! Mommy, what’s wrong? Why is it so loud?” I yell, tears starting to fall from my eyes.
“It’s a riot, Jude. Bad men are trying to take over the town.”
My eyes grow wide.
“The same bad guys that hurt Daddy?”
“Yes, Jude. Now come on, stop crying. Let’s go down to the cellar, okay?We’ll be safer there.”
“But Mommy, it’s dark down there!”
“I know Jude, but that’s why…”
Mom stops talking when the door handle jiggles. She stands beside the table holding the cellar half-open, having already thrown the rug aside.
“Judas! Look at me! Get down there! Quickly!”
I jump at my mother’s harsh tone. She NEVER raises her voice at me, not unless something really bad is happening.
I run to her, but it feels like I’m out swimming in the pond back at the farm. I can try as hard as I want, but the water is pushing me back, and I can’t move any faster or I’ll fall down.
Before I can reach her, something starts ramming the door in.
“MOMMY!” I scream, too scared to move, my knees knocking together as I begin trembling.
She drops the door back down, and kicks the rug on top as she runs to me.
I cling to her arms as she kneels beside me, crying and blubbering like a scared little kid because that’s what I am.
The cabinet falls over, and glass breaks all over the floor. Mom curls around me, trying to protect me from the pieces flying through the air, and over her shoulder I see them.
Five tall men with guns bust in, breaking the door too.
When they see me, they start laughing and pointing fingers.
“You! Where does your allegiance lie?” They ask of my mother.
She pulls my hands loose of her dress and stands up tall, facing them.
I’ve never seen anything like these men. They have guns, but they don’t look like soldiers. They have big, fuzzy beards, and their hair is messy. They’re really muddy and dirty, and they don’t smell very good. But maybe what looks weirdest to me is that not only do they not wear uniforms… They don’t even have shoes!
“My allegiance lies with no one. I only live for my son, now that my husband is gone. He’s all I’ve got. And as long as I can care for him, I don’t really care who is in charge.” My mother states strongly, starring the men in the eyes.
How can she be so brave? It makes me mad at myself. I’m supposed to be the man of the house now that Daddy is gone, and I’m crying in the corner? I swiftly wipe away my tears and stand, trying my best to look big and tall like mom.
“Oh, good. Then you wouldn’t mind serving us some dinner, seeing as we just took over the town, eh?” The man in front says with a mean look.
“I don’t have much, only what a widow can find with a child in tow. But anything I have is yours, as long as no harm comes to the boy.” She says, and somehow, her voice sounds nice, and yet as mean as that dog that tried to bite me once.
“Yeah, yeah. Just get to cooking!”
I don’t like these men, or how they’re talking to my mom.
I wonder what Dad would do if he was here right now? I bet he’d walk up to that first one, and punch him right in the nose. Then he would yell at them to get out, and chase them down the street.
I ball my fists, thinking that’s a pretty good plan. But when I step forward, Mom puts a hand on my shoulder, and pulls me close. I look up at her, furious now that she’s holding me back. I try to tell her that I can take care of it, but I can’t before she starts talking.
“Judas, go fetch me some water for these nice men, okay?” She says, her voice clipped and short.
“But, but…” I try to argue.
“Now!” She says, pushing me towards the door.
I run down the side of the house, to the little water pump, and fill the small pail beside it.
When it’s full, I lift it carefully, trying not to spill it. But it’s so heavy, and my fingers hurt from holding it.
By the time I’ve dragged it back to the door, only half of it is still in the bucket. The other half is all over my pants, and my cheeks turn red as I climb the steps to the house.
When I walk back in, the men are sitting around the table, where their guns are in a big pile, and mom is busy in the kitchen, making something on the stove. Whatever it is, it smells really good, and my tummy starts rumbling.
I drag the water over to her, and she bends down to kiss me on the cheek. Her body looks different though. Kinda… Wound up. Like a spring!
“Do whatever they ask you to do, okay honey?”
I nod, knowing that I can’t disobey her or I’ll get in big trouble.
I walk back to the table, quietly watching the men. One of them, I guess he’s the leader, has his yucky feet up on the table, and he’s playing with a little pistol in his hands.
Three more chew on their fingernails, pick at the wood of the table, or tap their fingers impatiently. The other one gets up and starts walking around, looking at my stuff.
I watch him as he grabs a couple of things here and there, looks at them, then puts them back down. I don’t know why he’s doing it, but I leave it alone, trying to do to what mom said.
“So, what happened to your husband? If you don’t mind my askin’.” The leader guy says. But it doesn’t sound like a question. It’s more like he’s telling her what to do.
“He was killed in the war.”
“And what side would he have been a fightin’ for, ma’am?” He asks.
Mom doesn’t answer for a minute, and then I hear more glass break.
I look back over to the guy that’s walking around, and on the ground in front of him is the only picture we had of Daddy… Shattered in pieces.
I feel my face get really hot.. Hotter then it’s ever been before. My little fingers close up in fists again, and this time I intend to use them.
“HEY! THAT WAS MY DADDY’S PICTURE!” I scream at him.
I start to stomp over at him, but the leader guy calls me.
“Hey, did your Daddy ever use a gun like this?” He asks when I’m right up in front of him. I wrinkle my nose. His breath smells really funny.
His hands cover up the little pistol, and I lean over curiously to see it.
All of a sudden, something hits my face really hard. I feel myself flying through the air, and then my back hits the wall.
My nose hurts really bad, and so does my head. The room spins around me, and I feel like I’m going to fall over.
I start to cry, blood pouring out of my nose and onto my hands and shirt.
The men laugh at me, making me cry harder.
“What do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to be in there makin’ dinner!” I hear that evil voice again, and blink my eyes clear so I can see who he’s talking to.
Mommy is next to him, and when she sees me on the floor, her eyes get big. Really big. Then, she turns and punches him in the nose.
I’ve never seen her so mad. Her face gets really red, and she yells a word that I’ve never heard before at him.
She starts to attack him again while he tries to get up, a hand on his nose.
But then I hear a gunshot, and she screams.
My eyes go wide, and I see mommy crying on the floor. There’s blood everywhere I look.
I’m so scared, but I just can’t move. I don’t even feel my heart beating.
The man gets up, and the other ones start grabbing my mother.
One grabs her hair and starts lifting her by it, and another grabs her arms to hold them behind her back.
The one that dropped the picture is behind her, and he laughs again when she shrieks in pain after he kicks her knee.
Then I see that that’s where the bullet must have hit her.
I want to scream, I want to punch them all, I want to steal their guns and shoot them. But nothing happens. My body just won’t move, my voice won’t come out.
Then the man she hit is in front of her face, all screwed up in pain… And he has a gun pointed at her.
“MOMMY!!!!! NO!!!!!” I scream as the gun seems to explode in his hands.
She drops to the floor, a pool of blood all around her. I can’t look.
I somehow get to my feet and run out the door. I feel sick. I think I’m gonna throw up.
But the men come stumbling after me, and I keep running, screaming for help.
At the end of the street, I see a couple of men in uniform, and they have guns. I know they’ll help!
“HELP!! HELP! THEY KILLED MY MOM!” I scream at the top of my lungs.
They look up, and I stop short when they lift their guns. I drop to the ground. Why are they trying to shoot me?!
Then I hear the shots… But nothing hurts. Am I dead? Did I die? What happened? I open my eyes when rough hands pull me up, and the soldiers are in front of me.
“Are you alright there, Sonny? What’s this about your mother?” The one crouching in front of me says.
I lead them back to the house, trying to wipe away the tears that won’t stop coming.
“Mom!” I yell into the empty house as I jump out of bed. I sigh when the familiar chair and fireplace greet me.
I sit back on the end of the bed, rubbing my eyes, trying to erase the images of my mother’s pale form, laying limp in my arms while I hold her in a pool of blood. Every night, it’s the same. The same awful nightmare that I can never wake up from.
The same awful nightmare that keeps me going, keeps me hunting those evil monsters that dare call themselves revolutionaries.
I flop back on my bed, as usual hoping to get a little more sleep… Even though I know I won’t.
Someday, someday I’m gonna make those vermin pay. And they’ll never, ever see it coming.
I will myself forward, inching away. Pain and smoke envelop me. All I want to do is stop, give in to my fate, but the fear drives me ever onward, away from the gunshots, the screams, the flames.
My body burns. I feel as if I’m dead already, and yet my arm still reaches, pulling me forward ever so slowly. The scent of burnt flesh and gunpowder assaults my nostrils, and the smoke burns my eyes… but I feel none of it. Almost as though my mind were separated from my body.
Suddenly, my travel is stopped entirely as two large, black boots appear beneath my nose. I somehow gather the strength to lift my face, and can see only the round, black hole of a gun’s barrel.
I take a last, shuddering breath, and everything goes black.
Behind closed eyes my mind slowly starts to function, and I gradually come to realize I’m awake. My body feels stiffer than usual, probably from the hard training yesterday. The numbness of sleep slowly turns to pins and needles in my extremities, feeling returning to my limbs.
As my mind clears and I gain control of my body, I take a deep breath. The light beyond my eyelids is darker than usual, instantly alerting me to the fact that something isn’t right. I inhale again, taking in the precious oxygen my brain requires to think this through. Like every morning, I twitch the skin around my left wrist and ankle, feeling for the metal cuffs that terrified me that first day. Nothing.
I try to remember what I was doing before I fell asleep, and clearly remember following my normal routine. I also remember opening the window a crack, and shutting it. It’s just one of many tricks we’ve learned. We have a normal routine, but always do one strange thing. Drop a brush, put on shoes and then remove them, something small but unusual so that we can be sure we aren’t just remembering some other night. I allow myself to relax. Either I’ve risen early – not likely after last night – or Dirus has pulled one of his stunts.
Since I’ve been strong enough to carry myself, Dirus has trained me beneath Mordacis’s watchful eye. They’re hard men, and I’ve come so far that they expect me to show no weakness. Mordacis is… well, for the sake of time, we’ll call him my father. He’s not exactly “touchy-feely,” but I know he loves me. As I love him.
Which is the only reason I allow them to subject me to this. See, Mordacis is getting up there in age, and for reasons mostly unknown to me, he has a lot of enemies. Big ones. The kind that would not only slit his throat if they had the chance, but that constantly strive to make that happen.
I’ve only ever witnessed one attack, but it was brutal. Had we not been there, they would have killed him for sure. After that, I asked to become part of his elite force of protectors. Part bodyguard, part assassin, and entirely devoted to his well-being. Besides… I kind of owe him.
Much of my time is spent by his side, watching over him as he did me. The rest is split between training and missions, taking out those he assures us are the most dangerous. I’ve quickly become his favorite, not only because I excel in training, but because our close connection makes me more focused and passionate than any of the other protectors.
Officially, we’re known as the Praedatoria… but most people just think of us as ninjas. Our training is harsh, comparable to none other in history. It’s also constant. Dirus is infamous for his “pop quizzes”… such as the one I assume myself trapped in at this very moment.
They can happen at any time, but his favorite trick is to take us at night, while we’re sound asleep. He then traps us somewhere, anywhere he pleases. We’ll wake up in unfamiliar terrain, and have to fight our way out of some nearly impossible situation, one that involves real dangers. The individual challenges are never more than what we’ve been trained to handle. He makes sure of that. But we are expected to handle a broad collection of these challenges, back to back, show no weakness, and escape within 24 hours. The punishment for going over is swift and brutal, but well deserved. Any Praedatoria that is giving his all will rise to the challenge. To fail is a disgrace.
Just last month we lost a new trainee, Felix. Literally. He was chained to a rowboat with no oars, and sent out to sea. We tried to find him after the time limit had passed… but only found an empty rowboat. We all felt bad about it, but he was too good-natured a kid for the team anyways. It takes a certain control, a disconnect from emotion to succeed, and he just didn’t have it. The only thing that made us think twice about it was that we all knew Dirus hadn’t liked Felix to begin with. I think we all made a mental note to stay on his good side that day… a difficult rule, as he doesn’t seem to have one.
But, I’ve wasted enough time. I can’t hide from Dirus’s test forever.
I open my eyes. It’s pitch black, no light source anywhere. I suddenly feel the closeness of the walls, my own body heat radiating back to me as though the walls were mere inches away. My left hand carefully feels around beneath me, and I appear to be laying on some kind of wooden planks. Maybe a table. As I press my arm outward, I quickly meet a corner. I raise my arm, and just two or three inches above my nose is the lid. A box. Of course. He’s been teaching us to find weak spots by hand for weeks.
I attempt to move my right limbs against the fourth wall, but neither budge. My left hand feels for my right wrist, and finds it bound by thick, heavy rope. I don’t bother searching my leg, knowing it will be the same. Instead, I feel my pockets, taking inventory of the weapons Dirus left me with. I find my knife in my left pocket, as it always is. Thank goodness. It makes quick work of the rope, and I replace it.
I once more feel for the walls of the box, only slightly larger than a coffin. With my left hand, I touch the wood, following the grain, fingering the rough texture cautiously. In a moment, I’ve found a sliver of space, a tiny crack, where the wood feels slightly thinner. The weak spot.
Just as I start to withdraw my fingers, something causes me to pause. Around the crack, the wood is wet. Shoot. I think to myself. Deep breaths, Tera. You can handle this. It’s just a test. No big deal. It’s not supposed to be easy, but Dirus wouldn’t put you into a situation you couldn’t handle.
I flex my muscles, and place both feet against the crack. I fold and condense myself until my back and shoulders are braced against the bottom of the box, my feet pressed solidly to the soaked wood, and my arms out against the corners for balance. My eyes squeeze shut as I suck in a breath, taking in as much air as my compressed lungs will hold. Who knows how deep he’s got me. I want to wait a moment longer, but I know I don’t have time to waste. There’s no telling what nightmare awaits me at the surface.
Another deep breath, and I take the plunge. The wood shatters under my explosive force, and water instantaneously fills the cavern. I hastily gather my wits, open both eyes, and shove off the bottom with both legs. For a moment, I rocket upward, gliding through the water. The flavor of my lips tells me it’s salt water. Great. It’s still dark, except for a square of light at the surface. Here is where I place my aim, beginning the arduous task of swimming to freedom. Or, more likely, a lack of it in the open air above.
I grit my teeth as my left arm and leg strain, attempting strokes and kicks with my heavy, useless, stiff right limbs. In most physical endeavors, metal limbs make me stronger. But underwater? They might as well be millstones tied about my neck. My lungs shriek for air, my muscles already leaden from exertion. Curse you Dirus. Only you know of my weakness. Only you would use it so treacherously against me. Just as I feel I’ve reached the utmost limits of my strength, my fingers reach the placid surface.
I close my eyes as my lungs lap in the precious oxygen, but within a breath I’m coughing, the thick, rancid smell of smoke burning a trail up my nostrils and down my throat. My eyes flash open, and I find myself peaking up through the floor of a burning building. I know Dirus would not leave me another exit from this watery grave, not in a test. So I brace myself, and use my right arm to push off the floorboards and hurl me up into the flames.
Smoke assaults my eyes, nose and lungs, burning, blurring and choking. I shove back a coughing fit, jumping to my feet and surveying the area as the water dripping from my body evaporates with a threatening hiss. The exit is straight ahead, maybe 30 feet away, and ensconced in flames. I swipe the water from my brow, and take a step. Then I hear it.
“Tera! Tera help!” The raspy, strangled cry comes from behind and above me. Of course Dirus. Because I haven’t proven my loyalty and ability to protect a teammate yet. You’d better have something for these burns when I get back there. Without hesitation, I bolt for the stairs I noticed while scanning the room. Every step ignites a new burning agony on my left side, my chest, my face, and I fight to suppress a scream. I desperately brush it all out of my mind, as we’ve been so thoroughly taught to do. While I may be writhing on the inside, I know that not a trace of my pain or fear touches my face. If Dirus thinks it necessary I injure myself rescuing some bogus, helpless teammate, I’ll rescue some bogus, helpless teammate.
Upstairs, the heat is even heavier, threatening to flat out crush me. The man, still calling out my name, is cuffed and bound to a chair in the middle of what appears to be a giant hayloft.
Desperate to take as few steps through the flames and embers as possible, especially on such a weak structure as this, I vault into the air, flipping twice and landing on my feet, having covered half the distance. I can feel my metal joints grinding, not working in the smooth, practiced manner I’m accustomed to. Great. Salt in the gears. This is not going to end well. I repeat the movement, landing at his side, knife drawn. Thank heavens for the gymnastics training. And they said I’d hardly ever use it. In one smooth motion, his rope binding is in a heap at my feet, catching fire instantly. I again flip over top of him, sheathing the small tool at the same time. As I turn to face his back, I whip a bobby pin from my hair, and pick his lock in record time.
One hand closes around his wrist and jerks it across my shoulders, the other buries the pin in my braid once more. I half carry, half drag the bulky body down the collapsing stairs, and make a break for the door. Creaks from above warn me of how close our escape is cutting it, and as I throw both our bodies against the door, the roof gives way.
Sparks rain down on us, scalding our exposed flesh and blinding me momentarily. As soon as the light has dimmed, I glance up. The sound of gunfire rings in my ears, slicing through the cracking and snapping of the fire behind me. Before I duck for cover, I see them. Bathed in shadows, silhouetted by flames, they stand off about 10 paces. Caedo.
One of Dirus’s own inventions, made through some secret process for only one purpose. To push a Praedatoria to their breaking point. They’re only used in the highest levels of training because they’re extremely dangerous and unpredictable. I’ve fought them before, but never this many, and not when I’m this tired. Not to mention poorly armed. Think Tera. Think. What do you have to work with? If it comes down to it, you have your knife. Your right arm can use the embers, or even the burning boards as weapons. But you’ve got to get one of their guns. If you can lure one down alone, or even just ahead of the pack, it shouldn’t be too hard to take them out and use theirs. But… how? I feel the worn, smooth handle of my knife, run my burnt thumb over the small button of its leather sheath gently.
“So Tera, what’s the plan?” The deep voice beside me is such a surprise, I nearly jump out of my skin. I’d forgotten about my bogus teammate. Great. I’ve got to get him out of here too. Probably can’t even hold himself up.
“The plan? Stay alive, kill the Caedo, and get back to Cassus Tenebrae as quickly as possible.” I state bluntly. Who does he think he is, anyways? Obviously Dirus instructed him to be the helpless damsel. Damsels don’t ask questions. And I’m not a fan of jabber-jaws.
“Well, I’m no strategist, but may I suggest drawing them closer? I’m not a master of hand to hand combat, but I can hold them off long enough for you to snag some weapons.” His voice is calm, falling just short of the tone a leader might use to give orders, with a heavy undercurrent of mockery he’s unsuccessfully tried to cover up. I look at my strange companion, finally taking in his muscular build, the firm set of his jaw, the confident glint in his eyes. He’s more like a commander than a damsel. What are you trying to do here, Dirus? What’s the point of this?
“Are you sure?” I ask, barely masking my surprise. Dirus never gives us help. Ever.
“I’m positive. Tera, it’s not like I’ve never seen Caedo before. And I can see you’re too worn down and beat up to do it yourself.” His voice is kinder this time, and the look in his green eyes reminds me of something, someone. But who?