After years of building ideas and tearing them down, starting again and so on, the first draft of my opening chapter is finally ready. I hope you enjoy the beginning of Niiko's journey as I have, as this is the start of my own journey - one that will hopefully end in a published novel...
Her bare feet pounded the soil and grass as she burst from the forest and into the brightness of the clearing, the sun casting an eerie golden glow on the greenery ahead.
At the far end of the clearing lay the ruins of an old keep, the grey stone turned dazzling white in the eyes of the sun's glare. Man-sized blocks of stone lay strewn around the area, some entire walls lay intact on the ground whereas others still stood, proudly erect like a reminder of the strength of past residents.
Niiko shot across the clearing toward the ruins, her fierce red hair turning to fire in the brightness of the sun, her mud-splattered dress billowing wildly about her as she sped toward the nearest standing structure.
The stone archway exploded before her, showering her with masonry and enshrouding her in a cloud of dust. Small cuts and scrapes covered the exposed skin on her arms, legs and face, the fabric of her dress torn in places by more flying debris and drawing blood underneath.
She was hurt, but instinct had taken over and she had managed to cover her face before turning quickly to move to the next hiding place.
Her back suddenly burned as something struck her, knocking her to the floor and driving the air from her lungs.
Niiko rolled onto her side, coughing and spluttering as she tried to regain her breath amidst the fading cloud of dust surrounding the ruins. Looking back the way she came, she saw her attacker - a man-shaped smudge of dark grey in the lighter grey plume of smoke billowing across the field.
Two more dark smudges appeared on either side of the first.
“Three on one, eh?” The old ranger sat watching from the trees at the edge of the clearing, whispering to himself as his grip tightened around the hilt of Shadowfell, the blade of the Great Huntress.
The fog of dust parted quickly as the figures approached, three men clad in black. Masks of black cloth covered their faces, only the whites of their eyes glowed menacingly through slits in the fabric.
The central figure's cloak bore a symbol that Niiko could not make out, a blurred circle of red markings on the clasp at his collar. His hood came down over his mask, ending in a sharp point between his eyes.
His gaze fell on Niiko.
“Who are you?” she wheezed, her breath still ragged.
“Your judge,” bellowed the larger one on the left, his voice sounding distant from behind the mask. He stood a clear foot taller than the others.
“Your jury,” whispered the one on the right, a thin, wiry man with a slight limp in his step.
“Your executioners.” The finality of the central figure's tone sent shivers up Niiko's spine. The man raised a hand before his face and it erupted in flame.
Niiko had heard the stories, that magic had faded from Silentil long ago, only small glimpses of it remaining. Those glimpses were said to be very rare, few have seen magic and lived to tell of it.
This thought did not comfort her.
The girl's screams echoed across the plain, cries of pain and torment that dug into the ranger's ears and tore at his conscience.
His grip on Shadowfell grew ever tighter, the skin on his palm burning red as the leather threatened to tear the skin from his fingers. The blade almost growled its need to taste blood.
“Blood you will have,” the ranger rasped to himself.
Blow after blow of painful magic bolts hit Niiko's flesh, a fire raging on her skin and waves of agony racking her bones.
The big assassin moved in close, his punches and kicks sent Niiko sprawling across the floor, tears streaming down her anguished face.
Leaping from tree to tree, moving ever closer to the poor girl, the forest ranger could see the extent of the damage these black-clad fiends were doing.
The red head wept openly, tears mingling with the blood that poured down her swollen face, itself all manner of reds and purples and blacks. Her continuous attempts to curl into the foetal position thwarted every time by a fresh attack, both physical and magical.
The girl let out a blood curdling shriek of horror when the thin man's blade dragged itself down the side of her face, passing over the swollen ruin of her left eye.
Then came another shriek, an unholy sound beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Even the assassins ceased their attack, backing off for a moment as everything turned to silence.
“Yeeeeessssssss,” her voice rasped.
No, not her voice, it sounded twisted and broken as if she had swallowed thorns.
“Finally, this mortal shell has cracked.” Niiko could do nothing as her body began to rise of its own accord, the piercing voice breaking from her lips of its own volition.
Blood flowed freely from wounds she could no longer feel, bones creaked and cracked without even a hint of pain. She stood tall and proud before the three masked men, whose eyes were wide in disbelief.
“An execution, eh?” the demonic voice whispered mockingly.
Not a hint of movement from the assassins, frozen in disbelief as the voice continued.
“Sounds like fun.”
The old ranger had seen many things in his long years, from giants to ghouls, dragons to sea serpents. He had even seen a man throw himself from the highest tower in Leynas, proclaiming himself to be one of the old gods. That one didn't end well.
He had never seen this before.
The girl had risen from near death, taunted her would-be killers in a voice that drew the breath from a man's lungs, then leapt headlong at the biggest of the three men.
Before the brute had chance to react, the waifish girl drove her fist into his ribs with such ferocity that the ranger heard quite a few of them snapping from his perch among the ruins. Using her momentum, she quickly spun and drove her elbow into the man's throat.
The sickening crunch told of his death even before the red head launched into the air, driving both feet into the giant's chest and sending him hurtling into the ground at the feet of the distant magus.
At least twenty feet away.
“Next!” The voice seemed distant to Niiko, echoing like she was trapped in a nightmare and unable to wake.
Somehow she knew this was no nightmare.
Somehow she knew that whatever was controlling her, whatever this thing was, it was smiling.
The two remaining assassins finally came to their senses and had moved together, readying themselves to attack in unison.
The thin one's blade glowed with ethereal fire, diving into flesh before the thunderbolt shot from the leader's hand, throwing her to the floor.
“Fighters? That was unexpected, I haven't encounter your like for centuries.” An inhuman cackle set forth from the girl's lips as she rose from the floor, making the old ranger shiver in the grip of fear. Whatever this thing was, it was powerful. The girl clearly had no control over whatever possessed her, the anguished screams had given way to infernal laughter and fiendish taunts.
His conscience weighed heavily upon him, he did not know what to do. This devil could not be allowed to walk freely in Silentil but clearly there was a troubled young woman at the heart of the beast.
A young woman that reminded him of the wife he had lost.
Somehow, Niiko could feel the power fading slightly as the pain barrier began to lift ever so slightly. That combined attack must have weakened whatever possessed her for just a brief moment.
The moment passed.
“Now,” the demon spat, “my turn.”
In a blur of immense speed, Niiko's body had rounded on the wiry knife-wielder. His eyes widened in surprise as her terrible, ruined face grinned evilly mere inches from the assassin's mask.
His expression turned quickly from surprise to pure terror, grimacing as Niiko's hand closed around his throat and lifted him choking into the air.
The blade dropped from the gaunt assassin's hand as his strength waned and, in a flash of movement, Niiko's hand swiped the knife as it fell, before plunging it repeatedly into the attacker's midriff and discarding him like a child's old plaything.
Niiko's body lurched forward suddenly, a flow of agony welling up inside her as a voice inside began to hiss no over and over. A bright light began to swell in the distance.
The third assassin was preparing to finish her.
Something was wrong.
The girl had won her battle with whatever demon had controlled her, but the timing could not have been worse as the final killer readied a spell to put the flame-haired girl down for good.
The masked fiend turned too late to see Shadowfell plunge into his body, skewering him viciously and pinning him to the floor at an awkward, twisted angle. His wide eyes were forever locked on the hilt of the sword as it swayed with the force of impact, his mouth opened in a silent scream that would never be heard.
The figure's dark cloak danced around his body as he leapt from the ruined wall to reclaim his sword, the same sword that he had thrown with deadly accuracy into the unsuspecting masked villain.
Heaving the blade from the ground must have taken some effort, thought Niiko as she watched the grizzled old ranger push his foot into the chest of the assassin and force the sword from both floor and man with a sickening squelch, a light mist of blood spraying across the grass.
Niiko noticed the beauty of the blade in a fleeting moment of clarity, the fine detail of the ancient Athrinian runes etched into one edge, the dim blue glow of the circular crest above the hilt and how the sword's softly-curving blade resembled a desert snake's body.
An intense pain racked her body, shattering the peaceful clarity before quickly dissipating, leaving her numb once more.
The demon would not release her without a fight.
The cloaked ranger heard the familiar hum of Shadowfell, its thirst for blood finally sated. Using the black cape of the downed assassin, he wiped the excess gore from the blade's edges and turned toward the girl.
The slender fist broke his nose, blood spraying as his head snapped back and he thundered into the dirt.
“Fool,” the voice hissed unnaturally from the girl's lips, “you think I would fall so easily?”
The demon was arrogant. Even as its grip on the girl loosened, it could not accept its weakened state inside the human shell. The greying hunter knew he could use this to his advantage.
“Then kill me, demon,” the hunter pressed as he rose to his feet, “if you can.”
With a roar of indignant rage, the possessed girl leapt wildly at the old ranger and he deftly showed his back to her with a spin, sending her sprawling undignified onto the grass.
“You do fall easily, it seems.” A smile found the lips of the ranger, deep within the shadows of his cowl.
Another shrieking roar erupted from the girl's throat as she leapt once more at thin air where the woodsman had once been, landing heavily on the hard soil.
Niiko felt that last fall as it hammered the breath from her bruised lungs, feeling the agony of cracking ribs and the breaking of bones in her shoulder from the awkward landing. The demon was losing the battle once more, this time the voice in her head made no protest.
A forceful shudder sent her into violent coughs and splutters, the coppery taste of blood filled her mouth and she drooled uncontrollably, the realisation of the broken jaw hitting her with an almighty wave of suffering.
A shadow descended upon her as the grizzled old ranger stood over her, the tiniest shaft of light slithering through a small tear in his cloak. She tried to apologise to him, she tried to grovel at his feet for forgiveness and even thank him for saving her shattered existence, but all that passed her lips was whimpering and bloody drool.
“I'm sorry,” the deep, gravelly voice whispered as he brought the hilt of his sword crashing into Niiko's skull.
A blissful coma of darkness took her.
The ageing woodsman removed his cloak, hanging it on a crude hook by the fireplace in his old wooden house. His shoulders sagged as the extent of his burden took shape, the weight of bringing this young woman back from the precipice of darkness would test him in ways he could not fathom.
A task he would not fail twice.
He had promised, after the death of his wife from some unknown fever, that never again would a woman perish whilst in the care of Kross Fellmoore.
He looked back at the small bed in the corner of the dark room, flames in the fireplace sending shadows dancing around and casting a dull red glow about the bed. The house itself was made up of only this one room, a small pot of water hung over the fireplace set in one wall beside the bed, a stone chimney built up around it and exited through the old wooden roof.
On the other side of the house, a series of collected pelts hung down over a large window overlooking the forest below, the world stretched off into the horizon beyond, its countless forests, rivers, cities and plains drifted as far as the eye could see.
Kross approached the bed and stood over the fiery girl from the ruins, wondering how exactly he planned to save her from whatever demon resided within her. Looking down, he saw just how pale she looked as she whimpered in her feverish coma.
“It wasn't your fault,” his wife stood beside him, a perfect apparition of her beauty. Her long, golden hair flowed down to her bottom, her pale green eyes shining in the firelight. She wore a simple floral dress of hand stitched silk, the lightest of blues in colour, and stood barefoot on the wolf-pelt rug beside the bed.
“You died in my care,” Kross whispered, a look of defeat etched across his bearded features, made even more apparent by his bloodied nose.
“It was my time,” the spirit said, reaching out to touch the old ranger's face, “nothing could have prevented my passing. I'm at peace now, you will be too when this girl is well.”
Kross knew the truth in her words. He had craved a chance to redeem himself all these years, yet could not bring himself to leave the safety of his life in the woods among the Kimr mountains.
With one last look of longing at his wife's spirit, she smiled and faded before him.
“Peace,” he whispered to her as she disappeared.
After a moment, he let out a long breath and went to fetch the heated water from above the fireplace. He lifted the warm bowl and threw a clean wash cloth into the water, before turning back toward the bed.
Kneeling beside the girl as she gently squirmed under the bearskin blanket, Kross set the bowl of water on the floor next to him. He wrung out the cloth as he lifted it from the bowl, then set to rubbing the dirt and blood from her face as best he could.
“Peace,” he whispered again.
It was remarkable how quickly the girl's wounds calmed, though her coma persisted. In just under two months, the swollen eye had gone right down leaving only a ragged scar running down over it, another small scar ran across her forehead, though the knife wound in her midriff had healed completely. The demon must have some power over her healing but, Kross hoped, it did not seem to have complete control as the scars on her face suggested.
Her fever had subsided, she no longer squirmed and whimpered during the tormented sleep she fought to awake from. The healing potions and incense he had brought from Kimr Valley, the town that resided within a treacherously deep valley at the base of the mountain, was working wonders for easing the red-headed young woman's restless dreams.
Niiko could feel the nightmare's hold over her was fading, the dark town she stood at the edge of felt like the end of her journey.
An array of traditional, stone country houses lined the circular cul-de-sac at the end of the foggy road she had followed into town, having passed yet more traditional wooden huts of businesses, unlit as it was past closing time.
She felt a familiarity here, something tugging at the edges of her memory. The nightmare had been leading her here, to this very point at which she stood, yet she could not determine a reason.
As if in response to her struggle, the fog began to close in around her. It engulfed the street behind her, began swallowing the trees and rockery behind the stone houses-
One of the houses was lit up. Somebody was home!
Niiko felt something brush her shoulder and she spun in alarm. Misty grey hands were reaching from the fog that had enshrouded the entire town. She turned quickly back to the lit house, the light seemingly holding back the fog as it covered everything but the path to that one stone archway and the deep crimson of its wooden door.
She sprinted toward the doorway with all the speed she could muster, stopping sharply at the threshold as a crack of light revealed the door to be slightly ajar.
“H-hello?” Niiko stuttered as she entered the oddly shadowy house, belying the light shining through the windows.
No answer came.
She cast about her like a startled deer, cautiously stepping into the centre of the room and peering at every dancing shadow and jumping at every creak of old floorboards and every whistle of the wind blowing through the cracks in the crumbling masonry.
The door slammed shut behind her.
Kross awoke to the rumbling of the quaking earth, the gentle squealing of the water pot swaying on its hinges over the dying embers of the fireplace, a sound like great wings flapping denoting the billowing pelts hanging over the window-
“By the gods.” Kross' mouth was agape.
A great shaft of dim light stretched across the entire valley below, the treetops standing as shadows before the background of such intense, burning light.
He pulled his old cloak from the hook by the door and headed out on to the plateau, staring over the tree line and down into the valley below.
“By the gods,” he repeated.
Inside the dark stone house, Niiko should have been afraid. The constant rapping of misty grey hands on the flimsy windows should have scared the wits from her, the roaring bangs of something much larger slamming into the front door should have her frozen with fear and yet she felt like she knew this place.
“I do know this place,” she said to herself, “this is my home!”
She remembered being cast out by her parents, literally thrown on to the cobbled street as those outside spat and screamed at her.
Shouts coming from everyone gathered outside her home. They had accused her of killing that young man, whoever he had been.
Had she killed him?
“Yes,” came the soft female voice from the darkness, “you did kill him... in a manner of speaking.”
Niiko turned sharply, jumping at the sound of this new voice in the darkness. She could only see a vague silhouette of a young woman and nothing more.
“Your body killed him, but your actions were not your own.”
She began to understand what the voice was saying, whatever lay inside her had killed this man in her home town. She still had no idea how or why, but the details no longer mattered.
“What am I?” Niiko fell to her knees before the shadowy girl, not knowing who she was any more.
“You are still Niiko Valdis,” the voice began, sounding ever more familiar to Niiko's ears, “you are still my sister.”
In that moment, the shadows fell away and the young, raven haired girl was revealed in all her beauty. Niiko recognised the dark chocolate eyes, the smooth skin of purest milk, but the sight of her brown leather chest piece and the skirts of green leather armour were totally unfamiliar, her sister had never taken to battle. She was too young.
The door behind Niiko splintered and exploded.
Kross visited the plateau overlooking the plains of Athrine every night, between tending to the young woman's health.
The red head had become more restless again lately, muttering wordless sounds as she writhed beneath the pelts covering her. Kross realised that something was keeping her in this dream state, something supernatural.
Outside, his mind toiled hard trying to work out what was going on. Inside the house, the young stranger suffered a torturous sleep from which she may never wake, while outside, beyond the trees at the base of the mountain, the world was being ravaged by creatures from the fiery depths of the Underworld.
He had ventured to the edge of the Kimr Valley a few nights back, watching as twisted beings poured forth from the glowing cracks in the earth like a swarm of insects, eyes glowing blue like thousands of tiny candles against the darkness.
Kross Fellmoore had lived through much, but this could be the end of all things.
The demon had shattered the door with its massive arm. A great mass of muscle and sinew bulged beneath scale as the clawed hand swiped wildly at the air, shrieks of frustration coming from outside as the colossal beast could not find its target.
“There's no time, Kyra,” Niiko began, “ we need to leave this place!”
Kyra gave her sister a look of loving resignation. “I can't leave, this isn't my dream. You have the power here, Niiko. Use it!”
Kyra's words were a revelation, sparking a realisation within Niiko that she needed to control her dream in order to wake in the real world.
“I control this dream?” She looked into Kyra's dark eyes.
The tone of Kyra's voice invited no argument. The power was Niiko's to control, she only needed to find out how to use it to her advantage. The demon had ceased its wild frenzy and was now leaning down, its bright crimson eyes staring at its prey through the small archway where the door had been.
The realisation hit Niiko like a hammer, forging the will to do what had to be done. She turned to face the demon, taking a deep breath to calm herself.
She pounced into the demon, screaming furiously.
The girl screamed, startling Kross as he sat by the window looking out over the trees.
The red head leapt from the bed, baring her teeth and snarling wildly at Kross. She was obviously afraid after waking in a strange new place, seeing a total stranger watching her from across the room.
“Calm yourself, child.” Kross raised his hands before him, palms facing outward as a sign of peace.
“Where am I?” she hissed, looking all about her in a desperate attempt to recognise something of her environment.
Kross noticed that her eyes were different colours. The scarred eye must have lost its pigmentation in the attack, its colour now a pale icy blue next to the contrasting dark red of the other eye.
“You're in my home, above the forest at the base of the Kimr mountains. I brought you here after you were attacked by those assassins.”
“Wait...” The girl's stance softened as she adopted a less threatening posture, a look of deep thought etched on her pale face. “I know you,” she continued at length.
Her expression turned suddenly to one of horror, the angry red scars standing out like cracks in her delicate features as a horrible realisation seemed to grasp her.
“I attacked you,” the young woman gasped. She looked away shamefully, a long moment of silence passing before she finally met his eyes again.
“You weren't yourself, you can't be held responsible for your actions.” Kross stood now, doing his level best to keep his survival instincts from kicking in, forcing himself not to go for Shadowfell. This girl deserved his pity and his charity, something told Kross that she was special.
“Thank you,” the girl whispered.
“Now to answer your original question,” Kross began, a smile playing across his lips, “name's Kross.”
“Kross? That's an odd name.”
“I'm an odd fellow, some might say.”
The flame haired girl laughed softly. Both of them relaxed as they shared this moment of peace.
“Nice to meet you, Kross.” The girl smiled lopsidedly, a slight notch in her top lip from a scar running down her cheek. “My name is Niiko. Niiko Valdis.”
“Another odd name, Niiko Valdis.” Kross returned the smile with his own.
Kross had given the girl a few articles of clothing, some of the few belonging to his late wife that he had kept. A greying vest and a simple pair of riding breeches the colour of tree bark, overlaid by skirts of armour that Kross had fashioned from the hide of a mountain bear. Those bastards were tough, their flesh as strong as leather.
Niiko had pulled on a pair fur-trimmed hunting boots, lacing up the sides before looking up at the old ranger as he told his tale of the undead rising and the cataclysm that followed.
“Half of Athrine was wrenched open by vortexes of cobalt blue as the twisted wretches rose from the depths, ruining the landscape in its wake and destroying the world as you knew it.” Kross had a look of sadness as he spoke, his eyes not often leaving the floor.
“Luckily,” he continued, “the strength of the people prevailed and have kept the hordes at bay for the past six months, some have even begun to rebuild homes where the Blighted have been defeated.”
“How do you know all this?” A lock of fiery red hair fell over Niiko's eye, she brushed it behind her ear. “Haven't you been tending to me all this time?”
“Rangers and hunters stick together, Niiko. When one cannot return to the wilds, others relay information to him without the need to ask.”
“But isn't it too dangerous to travel, with the dead walking again?” Niiko shuddered involuntarily at the thought of rotting corpses walking the roads.
“The Great Huntress watches over us and protects us from harm. Her great wisdom has taught us to become as shadows in the night.” Kross' eyes were ablaze at the mention of the Great Huntress, a great pride swelling within his chest.
“We have seen empires rise and fall,” he continued, “we have been present for the birth and death of great heroes, we've slain villains and been forced to watch tyrants prosper but we have endured.”
“Can you teach me to survive as you have?” Niiko had a look of renewed vigour, the dream had obviously strengthened her resolve somehow.
Kross scratched at the short grey beard that had grown over the last few months, ignoring the matted hair that clung to his face as he rolled his head around, stretching his neck muscles.
“I can do more than that,” he said, “I can help you to control that devil inside you.”
Copyright © G. Bailey 2011