So, I posted my first draft of this prologue couple of years ago, but was very unhappy with it, and so spent a long time trying to figure out my protagonist's backstory and whether the story should be written as a memoir, a letter or an interview. After several rewrites, this is the prologue I finally settled on.
What parts do you like? What areas can be improved? Should I scrap the whole thing and start over again? Any feedback you guys could give would be really helpful. ^_^
So, you want to know the truth?
Of all the favours you could ask of me, why this? I do have connections, you know? Friends in high places that could get you anything you want, legal or otherwise. Possessions, property, influence with important people. Yet, you ask of me the one thing I was hoping to take with me to my grave. Besides, the legends about me are so much more entertaining! I could be either a revolutionary hero of the people or a demon summoned from the deepest pits of the inferno depending on which stories you listen to. I personally recommend you pick whichever narrative best suits your fancy and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of tales to accommodate it. The truth, I fear, will be rather boring by comparison. Moreover, the truth can be a cruel and bitter thing. You know that as well as I. I doubt it will bring you any satisfaction.
Still, if it really is the truth you want, old friend, then you shall have it. All of it. I promise you, there will be no sugar coated versions of events and I will omit none of the harsh realities that led me to where I am today. These pages will contain nothing but complete and utter honesty. It is the least I can do after all you have done for me. You are a good man. One of only a handful of good men I have ever known. I cannot refuse to grant you one small favour before the end.
On that note, I feel inclined to spoil this entire tale by beginning at the end. Not the traditional way to tell a story, I know, but then who really cares how my story begins? The ending on the other hand, well, everybody knows the ending. You know the ending. I know the ending. Every man, woman and child in the city already knows how my story will end. It ends with my execution.
Yes, I’ll grant that the ending is not technically set in stone. After all, I am not in the ground quite yet, and I have grown rather infamous for my ability the cheat death. It is possible that some dark-humoured deity has one more miracle in store for me, but I confess that this time I do not much fancy my chances. You know better than I the reputation of Blackguard Fortress. Once a prisoner walks through these gates, he does not leave, unless accompanied by an escort to the gallows. I’ll admit I’ve pondered a few possible methods of escape, more for my own amusement than any serious breakout strategy, but after much contemplation, I’ve deduced that with anything short of an airship at my disposal, any attempt at getting out of this hell hole alive would be futile.
Escape is impossible, my chances of being pardoned, even more so. Of course, there is always a chance that some illness or disease will end me before the Monarch’s justice can be enforced, or that some disgruntled guard will lose his temper and put me out of my misery. But since I am in tolerable health at present, and I always maintain a civil tongue towards my captors, I judge my chances of surviving this journey to it’s inevitable end to be likely. My only uncertainty is whether I shall be hung as a common criminal, or burned alive as a traitor to the crown. Neither fate particularly appeals to me, but I suppose it is a fitting reward for a life such as mine.
To the point. I can only assume that is the reason you came seeking answers from me. To discuss the trial, throughout which I remained unequivocally silent. Doubtless you want to know why I didn’t speak up for myself. Why I let them say such awful things about me without so much as muttering a word in my own defence. Were the charges true? Did I really do all those terrible things? Am I really the monster they say I am? The short answer, I’m afraid, is yes.
The long answer is that it is all far more complicated than that. Some of the charges were criminally exaggerated. Some were true, but the circumstances behind the crimes were not fairly explained. Some, I am glad to say, were entirely false. I can assure you that the noble’s daughter who accused me of dragging her into a dark alley, having my way with her and leaving her bruised and weeping in the streets with a child in her belly, I have never seen before in my life. Doubtless she got herself into trouble with an undependable suitor and decided that a prisoner with a rap sheet long enough to fill a scholar’s library was a preferable excuse for her condition. I do hope you never imagined me guilty of that. Still, for the most part, the charges brought against me were true. I have no justifiable motives or excuses. If you are wondering whether or not I deserve my fate, I can say with total conviction that I do. I have earned any death the Monarch sees fit to bestow upon me a thousand times over, and probably worse.
As to how I got here… Does brutal, merciless bad luck make for a sufficient explanation? No, I suppose it’s more than that. My choices led me to this end. Some good, most bad, many just plain, inexcusably stupid. Do I regret it? Absolutely. I regret every thing I’ve ever done that helped shape me into the man I am today. Yet, strange as it sounds, if I could go back to the beginning. If I could do it all over again. If I could somehow erase that long list of charges the judge brought against me, I do not think I would. In spite of it all, I feel that, somehow, everything ended the way it was supposed to. Every story needs a villain, after all. No one can deny that I played my part. You played yours. Now, here we both are.
Upon reflection, I do not know if I can tell you everything before the executioner comes for my head. It could be a year hence, or with the rising of tomorrow’s sun. I cannot say. Still, I promise that I will write for as long as I can. After all, I have spent the best part of a year in solitary confinement, laying on a cold stone floor, staring up at the ceiling of my cell, eating stale bread, pissing in a bucket and repeatedly crushing the unlimited supply of cockroaches that come to greet me every night. It’s not as if I have anything better to do. But before I begin, I would ask you one small favour in return. When you have finished reading these papers, I want you to destroy them. Better yet, destroy them as you read. Burn each page as soon as you’ve finished it. Smuggling me parchment, ink and quill is one thing. Getting caught with the hand written memoirs of the city’s most notorious felon, on the other hand, would be slightly more difficult to explain away. It is not worth the risk. Besides, I doubt you will want to read it twice, and no one else needs to know my story.
Not that I imagine anyone would be interested in the self indulgent ramblings of a man gone half mad from several months of solitude. What can I say? History belongs to heroes and kings, not career criminals who build their fortunes on a foundation of death and destruction. If this city remembers me at all, it will doubtless be as a grim little footnote in it’s long, wretched saga. An old wives tale used to frighten small children at night. “Be good, or his evil spirit will hunt you down and drag you into the great inferno.” Yes, I can imagine that. That is the kind legacy I deserve. The truth, good and bad, should die with me.
I briefly considered asking you to preserve these papers. To share my tale. To tell people who I really was. But then, who would I ask you to tell? My friends? My lover? My child? No. All the Gods forbid, no. I have promised to put nothing but the truth on these pages, and there are truths in my life that I pray my friends will never find out. Things I have done that my lover wouldn’t even think me capable of. And the atrocities I committed to secure the boy’s future… I would not burden him with that knowledge for all the world. In truth, I seem unable to share my final thoughts with any save for you. I am afraid that with the parchment you provided, I have wasted countless attempts on letters of bitter farewell, guilt-ridden apologies and confessions of undying love, all of which lay torn and crumpled on the ground, given up as a lot cause. There are a million things I wish to say to the ones I leave behind, and no words I can find to express them.
I confess, I do wonder why I feel so willing to pour out my heart and soul to you when I cannot seem to string together a single sentence for anyone else. I ask myself and find I am not quite sure of the answer. Perhaps it is simply that you asked it of me, and I have given you fair warning that my story will not be pleasant. As such, I cannot be held responsible if you don’t like what you read.
A few other possibilities come to mind, the most obvious of course being that I have simply been alone with my thoughts for too long. How long has it been since I had a real conversation with another human being? Besides the incredibly rare and brief opportunities you’ve had to visit me, the only time I open my mouth in this cell is to utter a quick thanks to whoever it is that slides the tray with my food and water through the hatch beneath my door.
No, that is a lie.
I promised you I would write only the truth, yet already I have lied before the story has even begun. The truth is that I have spoken aloud to myself quite frequently in the past few months. It began with simply muttering my thoughts under my breath, and has since devolved into full blown tirades, raging at myself for all of my past transgressions and failures. More recently, I have started enacting two party conversations with myself, imagining that I am speaking to friends, enemies and the ghosts of those long dead, telling them of all my troubles and regrets and trying to imagine what they would say in return. I confess, I think I am getting rather good at the various tones, accents and mannerisms. See, I do not exaggerate when I say I have gone half mad.
Still, I doubt that loneliness is the only reason that I wish to commit my sins to paper. Perhaps a part of me is searching for absolution through the act of confession. An old habit from my childhood years I still cannot seem to shake. More than anything, I think that like you, I am searching for answers. I see the man you have become, and I contemplate. How did our lives take such entirely different paths? How did I stray so far from my own nature? How did that innocent, bright eyed boy become the most infamous criminal this city has ever seen? How exactly did the man become the monster?
I have heard the best place to start when trying to comprehend the mind of a criminal is to look at their background. Where they were born, how they were raised, who their parents were. The age old question of nature vs nurture. How far can the apple fall from the tree? Well, as to that question, I am afraid your guess is as good as mine. I cannot even recall whether it was my mother, my father, or some other ill-suited caregiver that left me at the gates of the Temple of Sister Ada the Penitent.
My parents I have neither knowledge nor memory of. Though I often contemplate who they may have been, and what drove them to the temple that day. Were they debtors or slaves? Could they have been so poor they could not afford to feed their tiny child? Were they devoutly religious, so much so that they surrendered their own child for the glory of the Goddess? Or was I simply a bastard, abandoned by his father and leaving his mother in shame? Was I dragged from my mother’s arms kicking and screaming, or did she gladly rid herself of me the moment I was weaned? Worst of all, could she have died giving birth to me, gone before she even had a chance to hold me in her arms? All this I have asked myself many times, the answer forever out of reach. But I digress. I agreed to tell you my story and for better or worse, my parents were not a part of it.
Now, if we are to look to my upbringing for an explanation of the man that I became, I’m afraid we would be straying even further from an answer than before. Call me arrogant if you wish, but I do not think I exaggerate when I say that if I was not a perfect child, I was as close to it as any mere mortal can hope to be. Granted I was not particularly intelligent, my memorization skills left something to be desired and I had no talent whatsoever for chanting. But what I lacked in natural skill, I more than made up for with enthusiasm. I honoured the gentle temple sisters, dutifully served the brotherhood and was utterly devoted to the Goddess Xia, with the unwavering faith that only a little child knows. It’s funny, I wonder what the people of Brass Haven would think if they knew that the most hated man in the city once dreamed of becoming a priest.
Doesn’t really add up, does it? Not the recipe for a cold blooded killer that people would expect. I was a good boy. I was raised right. I had a kind and honest soul. Where exactly did it all go wrong? That much, at least, I can answer. Not when I changed. Not how. Perhaps not even why. But I can tell you the incident that started it all. I suppose it is fitting that in relating my life of crime, I should begin with my first crime of all. And you can certainly say this much of me, I do not do things by half.
Even within the strict, disciplinary confines of the temple, I was rarely ever in trouble. When I was, it was generally due to accidents or misunderstandings. I was a virtuous little monk, you see, and I did not break the rules. I did not lie. I did not steal. I never so much as shook hands with a woman after taking my vow of celibacy. Perhaps that was the issue. Perhaps I was too perfect for too long. Perhaps, over time, all the neglected wickedness built up inside me until it could no longer be contained. So, when the bad finally did come out, it came out in it’s full, uncontainable fury.
I did something terrible. I did something that my meek, innocent self never thought I could be capable of.
I killed a man.
My dearest friend,
You know, or think you know, even before I reply, what I will say. You look at these pages, blurred with droplets that let's call tears for your predicament, but we both know is probably sweat or grease from dinner, and you think, ah, even though everyone else is silent, you can count on good old Gower to reply, to give you some solace in your imprisonment.
You think, as well, that I will make some mild jest, like you having spelled "favor" as "favour" for some insane geographical reason, or possibly say something about a semicolon and move blithely on. Perhaps mention the errant "it's" at the end of one of the last paragraphs. (it's full, uncontainable fury.) But no, no, I will not mention these things.
However, of these matters I say nothing. Indeed, I would like to encourage you to take what you have written and halve it. I think, too often, old friend, that in your eagerness to make that connection with me, the reader, you retread ground that either you already have betrodden--trod--treaded--walked on, or make explict things that would be best left to the imagination. The rhetorical questions followed by the restatements two or three times--(" Doesn’t really add up, does it? Not the recipe for a cold blooded killer that people would expect. I was a good boy. I was raised right. I had a kind and honest soul.---or " I have heard the best place to start when trying to comprehend the mind of a criminal is to look at their background. Where they were born, how they were raised, who their parents were. The age old question of nature vs nurture. How far can the apple fall from the tree?" --- or " What can I say? History belongs to heroes and kings, not career criminals who build their fortunes on a foundation of death and destruction. If this city remembers me at all, it will doubtless be as a grim little footnote in it’s long, wretched saga. An old wives tale used to frighten small children at night."
All lovely sentiments, no doubt, but highly *condensable* and with a prologue like this, I think less is more. We do not wish to tire of this voice, and this voice that repeats and rechews moves from the intriguing to wearying at times, especially when that voice is telling me how cool they are multiple times. Let me decide, in short, if you do things by half.
I would be most interested if you were to revise this prologue and see what you can strip away from it. After all, what else is there to do while you await your death.
Your obedient humble servant,
Thank you Gower! Yes, the dreaded semicolon. Just can't seem to shake it. Must make it my priority to review every single "it's" before I share anything I've written again.
But thank you. I was worried that the prologue dragged on for too long. I think my main issue is that I have something in mind I want the protagonist to say, and find it hard to transition naturally from one topic to another without it seeming to come out of nowhere. So, I end up just blathering on for a whole paragraph about nothing in particular, repeating the same topics over and over because there's one crucial sentence that needs to be included, and doesn't make sense without the half dozen sentences before it. Will have a look and see what I can get rid of without breaking the flow of the writing.
I quite enjoyed this! Though Gower's observations are keen, I did not find myself tiring of the protagonist's voice. Maybe that's just because I enjoy reading monologues. It definitely piqued my interest, and, we're it a complete piece, I definitely would have continued to read the story. It did what it needs to as an introduction, and what changes may be necessary seem few in my eyes.
In short, great read Avery!
Thank you! Really glad you liked it. Will get to work on Chapter 1 and then tweak the prologue accordingly after. ^_^
I think the concept is good. Who doesn’t like unreliable narrators?
Thank you! Nice to write in first person for a change. It's always been my preferred POV. ^_^
Well it certainly works with the premise and story that you have here.
This prologue is really well-written! From the first question, I was intrigued. As the purpose of prologues are to hook the reader by planting questions in their mind, I think this does a good job, because I found myself wanting to know more about this villain's tale.
I enjoy the gradual build-up before the truth is revealed; the stretching of suspense as far as it can go. The narrator's unwillingness to disclose the truth, combined with the build-up of its significance, really makes the truth more fascinating when it comes. And even so, once the truth is revealed, there are many more questions left unanswered -- Why is the villain getting executed? How did his corruption arc occur? And finally, what led him to kill a man?
As Gower mentioned, perhaps the lengthy prologue may cause readers to tire of the narrator's voice, since in my haste to know what happened, I may have skimmed several sentences. Therefore, I'd suggest that if you do cut out some parts, do try and keep the main moments that pique the reader's curiosity and edit/ combine the sentences that aren't essential. (Unrelated sidenote: I find the advice to halve this prologue amusing considering this line -- "And you can certainly say this much of me, I do not do things by half.")
I recently read a piece of advice which said that every sentence must do one of the following -- advance the action, or develop a character. While I still haven't mastered this skill yet, if you tend to use drafts/ rewrite and edit a lot, this might help fine-tuning some parts that may be overwritten. But all in all, this piece is effective and the suspense element meant I kept wanting to read on.
Your character's voice is highly distinct; this makes everything feel more personal, especially when combined with the first person pov and the nature of this passage (a letter to an old friend). I once read that a story's events would only affect the reader if they are first shown to affect the characters. In this way, I think you've succeeded since the main character's life events are shown to have a drastic impact on him. From the way his imprisonment has driven him to the depths of insanity, to the fact that he rambles on due to having no other way of entertaining himself, you've really driven home the scope of impact the plot has on the protagonist. I'm taking notes on this to improve my own future works haha.
Another brilliant thing about this character is how he is essentially a contradiction. His narrative is said to be the truth, but when taking into account the life he has built out of deception and his rather questionable motivations, he does become an unreliable narrator. And yet, I can't help but want to know about this version of the truth.
In terms of feedback, there's a lot of backstory covered in one letter, and it might border on the verge of info-dumping. One thing you could consider is this: is everything here essential for the reader to know about the protagonist at this stage of the story? Sometimes, I fall into the trap of over-explaining things if I spent a lot of time worldbuilding or developing my characters. It usually helps me to think about how I can separate a lengthy backstory into categories (e.g. knowing nothing about his parents, lacking talent but having enthusiasm, being a 'perfect child', etc) and deciding which ones I can later sprinkle into the narrative. For instance, the part about the parents could later come up in a conversation about parental figures and role models, adding more depth to the character's personality. It would make sense to leave some things for later, so the reader will constantly discover new things about the protagonist (plus, it makes sense that this half-mad man who has been deprived of social interactions for a long time would, in his haste to tell his story, forget some details and provide a slightly disjointed, non-chronological narrative).
While setting may not be a main part of the prologue, I like the little details that hint at it. The Blackguard Fortress sounds menacing, a world that executes prisoners perhaps signals a somewhat medieval society (and there are also nobles, the crown, the monarch, etc), and deities are mentioned too. It seems like a great backdrop has been set for a fantasy/ dark fantasy story!
This is a rather polished piece. I could only find one minor grammatical error: After all, I am not in the ground quite yet, and I have grown rather infamous for my ability the [to] cheat death.
One of my favourite parts (because I begin to wonder what role the 'old friend' plays in the story): Every story needs a villain, after all. No one can deny that I played my part. You played yours. Now, here we both are.
The last line is so impactful, especially after the two other sentences before it and the whole build-up together with the juxtaposition of the protagonist's past self. To be honest, I read that last line by accident before the rest of the prologue, but because of that, I started reading this prologue, and stayed until the end. If there's another page I would have clicked the 'next' button by now.
Overall, I hope you're satisfied with this rewrite, because it's very eloquent and engaging :)
Oh wow, thanks MW! Damn, you really went all in with that review. I genuinely appreciate it. It really means a lot. Sometimes I get dissuaded when all my mistakes are pointed out, so it's always encouraging to hear that I'm doing something right. ^_^
Wow, it took me three whole months just to write the first chapter. That is very not good.
Honestly, I've really struggled with this chapter because I just wasn't sure where the story should begin, and I'm still very unsure of it now. I'm trying to get a first draft out of the way before I edit anything, otherwise I'll just keep going back and changing stuff and I'll never get anything done, but I will probably go back and edit this entire chapter and I'm likely to make some very dramatic changes. So, it would be a massive help to me if you guys could give me any advice at all on what I should keep and what I should cut. What parts do you like and what do you think I should change? Are the characters interesting or annoying? Feel free to be brutal, I may well end up just scrapping the whole thing all together if it just doesn't work.
Most importantly, I'd like to know whether you think I've started in the right place. Should I write a chapter that details the events leading up to the murder, introduces the characters and establishes the relationships between them, or should I just skip it and jump straight into the action?
(Also, should point out, there are a lot of discrepancies between Chapter 1 and the Prologue, like the name and location of the monastery. I'm going to go back and edit that later, since I'm still not 100% sure what I'm going to keep/cut and I don't want to spend loads of time editing something that I might end up deleting all together.)
Chapter 1: The End
“What have you done?”
Behind me, Sister Ada was speaking. She did not shout and there was no trace of anger in her tone. It was worse than that. Her voice was faint. Barely more than a whisper. Frightened even. It was the voice of a girl who did not quite believe what she’d just witnessed with her own eyes. If I’d have turned round, I imagine her expression would be one of complete and utter terror. Not the wide eyed, mouth agape kind of terror, but the one that completely drains all the colour from your face. The one that leaves you a ghost of your natural self. I imagine that must’ve been what she looked like, but I cannot be sure. I never looked at her. My eyes were fixed on the fire.
Xia’s furnace. The ever burning flame. The beacon that welcomed the righteous and non believers alike to the Temple of Sister Keisha the Penitent. I was one of several brothers tasked with the noble duty of keeping her fire ablaze, day and night, so that all might see the holy light of the Goddess.
“Sweet Xia, Mother of all! Brother Eko, what have you done?” This time, Sister Ada did not whisper. She screamed. A distraught, blood-curdling scream that snapped me out of my senseless stupor. My mind finally began to process her words and recognised them as questions directed at me rather than some vague, meaningless background noise. I replied.
“I… Don’t know.” In my dazed state, this was the only answer I could seem to come up with. I cannot imagine why. I did know what I had done. I knew exactly what I had done. In my hands, I held the shovel that I used to feed coal into the flames. To power the great beacon at the heart of the temple. It was a job I was proud of and took very seriously. In my three years of service to the temple, I had never once let the fire go out.
My friend, please let me assure you, Sister Ada was not angry because I had faltered in my duty. Mother Xia forbid! I would never have been so negligent. To allow the ever burning flame to die. The mere thought of it would be blasphemy! No, the fire still blazed, strong and true. The issue was that I was only supposed to shovel coal into the furnace. The nightmarish form of a man laying halfway through the cast iron door, fingers digging into the cracks in the stone floor where he had desperately tried to crawl his way out, smoke still rising from his burning, blistered flesh… Well. Suffice to say, that was not supposed to be there.
“You killed him,” Sister Ada gasped as the terrible reality finally sunk in. “Oh Xia have mercy, you actually killed him!”
“No!” I objected. “No, I didn’t! I couldn’t! I was just shovelling coal and… Elder Tau was there and I… I…” How could this have happened? I still couldn’t quite believe it was possible. How could I have even done so much damage? I was just a boy. Barely twelve years old. Not even particularly tall or strong for my age. How had I forced a fully grown man into the fire?
“He’s not really dead is he?” I asked desperately, as if by sheer force of will alone I could make it so. It was a stupid question. Not only was the man dead, he was barely even recognisable as a human being any more. Half of his skin was as black as charcoal. The other half had burned away entirely, revealing great red blotches of fat and muscle. Great gaping cavities replaced where his nose, ears and eyes had once been. And that was just the half of his body that was visible. His legs still remained inside the furnace, gradually reducing to nothing but smoke, ash and bone. He was, quite frankly, as dead as a man could possibly be.
Suddenly, I lost my footing and dropped to the hard, stone floor as Brother Keon jostled passed me. In his hands, he held a bucket of water kept in the boiler-room for emergencies, which he threw over Elder Tau’s lifeless body. In hindsight, I felt an absolute idiot for not rushing for water the instant Elder Tau touched the flames, instead of standing there frozen in fear while I watched him burn. But then, the fire had been so strong. He had burnt so quickly. I doubt that any amount of quick thinking or fast action on my part would’ve been able to save him. Brother Keon grimaced as he took hold of Elder Tau’s charred body and tried to pull him away from the fire. Even after dousing him, his body was still too hot to touch. Retrieving the bucket, Brother Keon ran to fetch more water.
“Xia, have mercy!” Sister Ada repeated, wringing her hands together in utter desperation. The poor girl. Terrified as she must have been, I believe she was genuinely praying to the Goddess to show compassion on my unworthy soul. “Why would you do this, Brother Eko? Why did you do it? Don’t you understand what you’ve done? You killed a Holy man! You broke our most sacred vow! They’ll flay you alive for this, Brother. They’ll execute you without a blessing. They’ll send your soul to the inferno!”
“But he can’t be dead! He just can’t be!” I wailed as tears began to well in my eyes. Such a little saint I was. I knew that my life and even my very soul were forfeit, but that wasn’t what mattered. All my thoughts were for the dead man that lay on the ground before me.
It was all so wrong. Just a few minutes ago, everything was as it should have been. Elder Tau had been right there, supervising Brother Keon and I while sister Ada blessed the holy flame. I was struggling. I was younger than the other stokers and had only recently been given the sacred duty. My body was not yet strong enough to keep up with the physical demands of the work. But Elder Tau was there. He had offered me words of kindness and encouragement to help me through my hours of labour. He brought me water and allowed me fifteen minutes to catch my breath when I could physically go on no more. Brother Keon had scowled at me, angry that he had to pick up the slack while I rested. But Elder Tau had treated me with patience and understanding. He sagely quoted scriptures of Xia’s holy testament that motivated me to get back on my feet and push myself to my limits to make the beacon burn brighter than ever.
Elder Tau had been the wisest, devoutest and most benevolent monk I had ever known. And now he was dead. I had killed him.
Again Brother Keon rushed passed me with a bucket of water which he cast over the man who had been our mentor. It was useless. So completely and utterly useless. There was nothing that could be done for him. He was with Xia now, in paradise. A fate I could no longer hope for myself.
A moment of bitter silence passed before I heard Sister Ada mutter a whispered prayer to Xia. She then started walking towards me, each of her footsteps echoing loudly throughout the boiler-room as she moved slowly closer, halting where I still sat crumpled on the floor. She reached towards me. I think she meant to rest a consoling hand on my shoulder, before she remembered herself and pulled her hand back. She was a priestess. She knew better than to touch a man.
“We should go,” she spoke gently. I think she understood that I was in as much distress as she was, if not more. “You need to report to the High Priestess. Tell her everything that happened. If you come willingly, and tell her the truth, your soul might still be spared.”
My soul. Not my life. It was slowly starting to sink in. My fate had been sealed. There was no escaping it. I had murdered a priest of Xia. A Holy man. No act of penitence or charity could ever atone for such a grievous crime. My life was forfeit. I was going to die.
“Will they really kill me?” I asked Sister Ada, my voice weak and trembling with hopelessness as I continued to stare blankly at what remained of Elder Tau. “I didn’t mean to kill him. I swear I didn’t.” Tears streamed from my eyes as I begged pathetically for my own pitiful life. “I know that death warrants death, but Xia shows mercy on crime without malice. They’ll ease the sentence if they know it was an accident… Won’t they?”
“That’s not for me to decide,” was all that Sister Ada could say, and I could tell by her tone that she wasn’t optimistic.
“You’ll tell her, won’t you?” I begged, desperately. “You’ll speak in my defence. You’ll tell the High Priestess that it was an accident.”
There was a brief pause before Sister Ada breathed in a pained and heavy sigh. “I’ll tell her what happened,” she promised. But there was no reassurance in her tone. As I finally turned away from Elder Tau’s body to look up at Sister Ada, I saw the dreadful truth in her eyes. She didn’t believe me. She thought I was a murderer.
I was horrified. How could she possibly believe such a thing of me? I was an apostle of Xia, Mother of all that was good in this world. I was a servant of honour, righteousness and purity. How could she think that I would deliberately murder a man in cold blood? Even as I contemplated these things, I saw anxiety start to build in her eyes the longer I stared at her. She took a step back, as if worried that she might be my next victim.
Nonetheless, Sister Ada kept her resolve, pushed back her concern and forced a tone of command in her voice when next she spoke to me. “Get up, Brother Eko” she told me firmly. “We need to go now. Turn yourself in or I’ll have to call for the guards.”
“But…” I objected weakly. “The fire.” So like me. A dutiful little acolyte to the end. More than I feared death or even eternal damnation, I was afraid of failing in my duty, and letting the ever burning flame die out.
“Brother Keon can keep the fire going,” Sister Ada reassured me. But as we turned to my fellow stoker, it was clear that he was still distracted from his task. He had not left Elder Tau’s side. Even now, he knelt beside the elder monk, his hands running over the remains of his body, futilely checking for signs of life. I was surprised. Brother Keon had never been a devoted monk like I. Generally, he was considered a bit of a trouble maker among the acolytes. Defiant, rebellious, and the cause of endless trouble to his elders. Still, seeing him now, showing so much distress and concern for the man that had been our spiritual guide and mentor, it would have moved me to tears, had I not been sobbing like a babe already.
Clearly, Sister Ada felt the same, as there was a great deal of sympathy and compassion in her voice when she spoke to him. “Oh Brother, you can’t help him! It’s too late. He’s already dead.” Her voice was so kind, so gentle, and yet her words didn’t seem to reach Brother Keon at all. He continued to check Elder Tau for signs of life, even though it was clearly hopeless… And then he stopped.
Brother Keon suddenly let out a cry of pain as he attempted to lift something that was still scalding hot from the flames. He instantly dropped it, wincing as he wrapped the hem of his robe around his hand, using it as a makeshift glove. He then picked up whatever it was that had burned him, and flung it into the small amount of water that remained in the bucket.
“What are you doing?” Sister Ada demanded. Brother Keon did not reply. He waited a few seconds, for the object to cool, then reached back into the bucket to retrieve the prize that had so intensely interested him. It was a great, brass key.
The key to the boiler-room, I assumed. Of course, every Elder held the keys to the rooms they supervised, but they were not permitted to the acolytes, lest some faithless apostate forsake their duties to the Goddess and attempt an escape to the outside world. Realization suddenly dawned on me. I was both shocked and horrified. Brother Keon had not been trying to save Elder Tau at all. Dousing our mentor with water and pulling him from the fire, had not been an attempt to save his life, or even to respectfully preserve his remains. When I thought he had been desperately checking his body for signs of life, he had in fact been searching for the boiler-room key. He meant to desert.
“Drop that immediately!” Sister Ada ordered, utter fury in her voice. It was strange. She seemed more angry about Brother Keon’s attempt to steal the key, than she had been when I unwittingly killed Elder Tau. “You have no right to…” But there was no stopping him. As soon as he held the key in his hand, Brother Keon started running directly towards us. No. Directly towards me.
At first I thought he meant to attack me. I quickly got to my feet and braced myself, defensively holding my fists in front of my face before he could strike. Instead, Brother Keon grabbed me roughly by the arm and carried on running, forcing me to follow as he dragged me behind him.
“Where are you going?” Sister Ada cried out after us. Brother Keon ignored her. Once he reached the doors to the boiler-room, he thrust the key into the lock and fumbled with it awkwardly in an attempt to open the doors. I do not know if the heat of the fire had somehow damaged or misshapen the key, but Brother Keon had to twist the key with all his strength whilst pushing his entire bodyweight against the thick wooden doors before they finally gave way. Once opened, he took hold of my arm again, seemingly intent on taking me with him, effectively turning me into his unwitting accomplice in his ill advised escape attempt.
“Stop!” Sister Ada ordered, steeping out in front of us and stretching her arms wide, blocking the doorway with her body. It was a clever move. While she was but a slip of a girl without a scrap of muscle to her name, her standing there was the most effective blockade to an acolyte of Xia I could imagine. Neither of us could put a finger on her without breaking our sacred vow of purity. A priest of Xia could never touch a woman, let alone a priestess. It simply wasn’t done. A few years back, when I had been just a boy of eight or nine, I had made the grievous mistake of turning a corner without looking where I was going and walked straight into one of the missionary lay sisters. It had been the most mortifying moment of my life. Of course, I was taken before the High Priestess where I apologised profusely for my crime, weeping like a babe as I begged for forgiveness. Luckily the sister I had so offended spoke up profusely on my behalf and declared the event a harmless accident. I was sentenced to fifty switches of a cane to the soles of my feet, and while I could barely walk for the rest of the week, I considered myself extremely lucky to be let off so gently. I can only imagine what the punishment would have been if the act had been deliberate. And so, by the bold conviction of a prepubescent girl, Brother Keon’s escape attempt had been effectively destroyed.
Looking up, Sister Ada fixed us both with a glare of utter contempt. “Did you really think you could runaway from the Goddess?” she asked, clearly disgusted by Brother Keon’s utter faithlessness. “You think she hasn’t seen everything you’ve done? You could’ve repented for your sins, but now the High Priestess will show no mercy!”
It hit me then, standing right there next the Brother Keon after he’d stolen the key from Elder Tau’s corpse. I realized what this must look like. She thought I was involved in the escape plan. “This wasn’t my idea!” I assured her, taking a step back from Brother Keon in a feeble attempt to distance myself from his actions. “I didn’t have anything to do with this, Sister, I swear.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” she snapped at me, a genuine fury in her voice that I did not think such a generally placid girl would be capable of. “You’ve been planning this together, haven’t you?” she accused me, and I do not think there was so much as a fraction of doubt in her mind. “You killed Elder Tau so that you could steal the key and escape!”
“No!” I insisted, devastated that anyone would think me capable of such terrible things. I had been a faithful, devoted acolyte since the day I arrived at the temple. Hadn’t I proven my character? Didn’t she know me better than this?
“Why would you do this, Brother Eko?”she demanded of me, her tone changing from one of anger to genuine regretful sorrow. “You were favoured in the brotherhood! You had a life here, a future! Why throw it all away? The Goddess loved you, and you betrayed her!”
“No, I didn’t! I wouldn’t!” I pleaded desperately, trying to figure out how I could convince her that she had me all wrong. I was innocent! I was only a victim of one horrible disaster after another. Why had this happened to me?
Fortunately, I did not get much time to contemplate my troubles. While Sister Ada was berating me, Brother Keon seized his opportunity to take control of the situation. Without hesitation or remorse, he rounded on Sister Ada, stepping towards her and shamelessly forsaking every vow he’d ever sworn by roughly grabbing her arm and twisting it behind her back so that she was utterly and helplessly at his mercy.
“What are you doing?” Sister Ada asked, her eyes widening and pupils dilating with sheer horror. Clearly she had never been attacked like this before in her life. Of course she hadn’t. No one would ever be foolish enough to threaten a priestess, let alone put their hands on her. No one would dare! “Get away from me, you monster!” the young girl ordered as she desperately tried to wriggle free, only causing Brother Keon’s grip to tighten as a result.
Now, I may have been in shock and panicked from the dreadful events of the past thirty minutes, but I was not quite so dazed as to not be righteously outraged by the abuse of one of my own Temple Sisters. “Let her go!” I demanded, charging Brother Keon in an attempt to break his grip on Sister Ada. Needless to say it was a futile effort. Brother Keon was at least five years my senior, over a foot taller than me and with a significantly more powerful build. I managed to deliver a single, rather pathetic blow, before my adversary clenched his free hand around my head and forcefully shoved me back, knocking me to the ground in the process. Before I could even get back to my feet, he escalated the situation even further by drawing a carving knife from the sleeve of his robe and holding it to Sister Ada’s throat.
I was in utter disbelief. How could a sworn brother of the Temple of Sister Keisha be capable of such an act? Moreover, why did he have a kitchen knife? How long had he been hiding it? Clearly this had not been a spur of the moment decision. He had been planning this for a long time, watching and waiting for the perfect opportunity to escape. And I had given that opportunity to him on a silver platter when I killed Elder Tau.
There was nothing I could do. If I attacked Brother Keon again, he could kill Sister Ada. If I tried to run or called for help, he could turn the blade on me. All I could do was hold my breath, and pray that this confrontation did not end with yet another tragic death.
Sister Ada had clearly realised just how much danger she was in, as she instantly stopped screaming or trying to struggle free. Still, she was braver than I was, as she had the courage to condemn the traitor in the face of his wickedness. “You won’t get away with this,” she told Brother Keon with conviction. “Xia will never let you escape justice. Her light will always shine down on you and expose you no matter where you go.”
Before Sister Ada could speak another word, her voice was muffled when Brother Keon put his hand over her mouth. At first I assumed he simply didn’t want to hear what she had to say, but following this act, he pulled her to one side, manoeuvring himself to peer down the corridor, checking to see if anyone was in sight. I understood. He didn’t care what she said to him, he just didn’t want her to be heard by anyone else. Luckily for Brother Keon, the boiler-room was a decent distance from the main cloister, and seldom visited by anyone who did not directly work there. As of yet, his plans to escape were unknown to anyone save the three of us.
Finally, removing his hand from Sister Ada’s mouth, he took the knife from her throat and lowered it until it was pointed at her back. Sister Ada was clearly confused. In truth, I was as well. Since Brother Keon had drawn the knife on her, I was all but certain he meant to kill her. Probably to kill me too. Silence us both so that he could escape the temple without interference. Now, I had absolutely no idea what he was planning. I wondered if maybe he didn’t either. Perhaps he was simply improvising. Making everything up as he went along. But I doubted it. By the look of confident determination on his face, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Turning back to me, he released his grip on Sister Ada, maintaining her compliance only with the prick of a knife edge at her back. With his free hand, he lifted his finger to his lips, gesturing me to silence. The meaning was clear. If I wanted to live, I had to keep my mouth shut. Once that message was conveyed, he made a beckoning motion, signalling me to get off my feet and join him. I reluctantly obeyed, with absolutely no idea what he would do next.
Sister Ada physically trembled, yet somehow still managed to maintain her composure. I suppose it made sense. After all, she was blameless in the Mother’s eyes. Everything that an acolyte priestess should be. She had no reason to fear death. To her, it would be but a brief transition into paradise. “Are you going to kill me too?” she asked, her voice remaining steadfastly composed. “And then what will you do? Kill all of the monks and priestesses that get in your way? All the guards? All the city wardens? How many people do you think you can kill before they stop you?”
Brother Keon made no reply, instead he pressed his blade harder against her. I do not believe he drew blood or even pierce the fabric of her clothing, but it was enough that she could feel the prick of the knife’s edge through her robe, making it clear just how easy it would be for him to take her life if he wished. I held my breath, bracing myself to move if I had to, but knowing that if he did decide to slit her throat, I would not be quick enough to stop him.
He did something strange then, giving Sister Ada a rough shove forward, causing her to stumble through the open doorway. He then grabbed hold of my arm and pulled me forward to stand by his side. Once that was done, he tugged on the sleeve of his robe so that it covered his entire arm, along with his hand and the knife he was holding. He kept the blade pointed at Sister Ada, but it was physically out of sight. Then, once everything was arranged as he wished, he gave another quick look down the corridor, checking the coast was clear. Once satisfied that no one else was watching or listening, he started walking forward, shoving Sister Ada once more, prompting her to walk ahead, in front of him. When I simply stood there, dumbfounded, Brother Keon turned to shoot me a glare and motioned me to follow. I did so, thinking it best to appease him until I could come up with a plan of my own.
Down the length of the corridor, the three of us walked, all keeping roughly the same pace, Sister Ada in front and Brother Keon and I side by side, just a few feet behind her. I had no idea what he planned on doing next. Did he mean to use Sister Ada as a hostage? Threaten to slit her throat if the temple guards didn’t let him through? If so, why did he want me there? And why was he allowing Sister Ada to walk ahead of us instead of holding her in front of him with the blade of the knife at her throat? I could make no sense of it, and that frightened me. As the Holy Paladins taught, there was was nothing more dangerous than an unpredictable enemy.
Eventually, we made it to the end of the corridor, where we could see inside the main cloister. As expected, we were not alone. As soon as the aisles merged, we saw all manner of people obstructed out path. Converted Rivoden citizens leaving the morning service. Lay sisters in their golden robes heading towards the chapel to perform the midday chant. A small group of elders discussing philosophy in the foyer. This was going to end in disaster. I had no idea how Brother Keon would react to having his escape plan disrupted, and frantically tried to figure out what I should do if things turned violent. Would it be possible to overpower him? I certainly wasn’t as strong as he was, not even close, but if I moved quickly enough, would I be able to take him by surprise? Unlikely. While Sister Ada and I might be helpless and terrified, Brother Keon would suffer a fate worse than death if he were captured and charged for his crimes. There was no chance at all that I could catch him off his guard. I could only hope that Brother Keon didn’t suddenly go on a murderous rampage the moment someone tried to stop us.
Yet somehow, by some miracle, nobody did try to stop us. No one demanded to know why we were not in the boiler-room where we were supposed to be. No one questioned where Elder Tau was, and why we were not under his supervision. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at us. They simply allowed us to pass through, some even pausing to offer us friendly greetings and blessings before carrying on their way.
It initially shocked me that nobody was outraged the three of us would abandon our duties without permission, but the more I considered, the more I began to realise. How would they know that we didn’t have permission? How many of them even knew what our duties were? Sister Keisha’s Temple was the largest in the whole of Rivoden. I certainly could not name every acolyte in the temple, nor guess at where they were supposed to be at every hour of the day. I had never walked past a fellow brother or sister and thought to question whether or not they were in the right place. We were monks of Xia after all. If there was one thing we knew how to do, it was follow the rules.
Surprisingly, not a single person stopped to question us all the way from the boiler-room to the temple gardens. Still, as the temple gates came into view, I felt my heart tighten in my chest. Each step forward I took became more difficult than the last. It was as if I were walking straight towards my death. What did Brother Keon mean to do when he came face to face with the guards? These men had been highly trained and selected specifically based on their combat prowess. Not only that, but they were both armed with Arkale spears. What could he hope to accomplish with a simple kitchen knife?
As we grew closer though, Keon’s plan slowly started to piece together in my head. I understood why he had taken Sister Ada and I captive. It was all for show. You see, brothers were tied to whichever temple they served. Once a brother was sworn to a temple, he generally stayed within their walls until the day he died. But a sister… Well. A sister could not exactly come and go as she pleased, but there were many reasons that a priestess might need to leave her monastery. Missionaries, healers, scholars, artisans and translators all travelled to wherever they were needed most. A brother on the other hand could leave the monastery for only one reason. To serve as chaperone to a priestess.
Sister Ada seemed to realise the traitor’s plan at the same time as I did, and despised him for it. “Mother Xia strike you dead,” she cursed him under her breath. Still, the knife at her back drove her forward, one slow, steady step in front of another.
When Sister Ada finally reached the temple gates, she paused as she stood before the two guards, generally at ease as they allowed the converts of Rivoden to return to the streets of the city, following the morning service. There was a moment of silence as the two guards took note of the three of us. No doubt, they wondered what business brought three young acolytes to their gates.
“Blessing of the All Mother upon you, my brothers,” Sister Ada greeted them awkwardly.
“And on you, little sister,” one of the guards replied in a friendly tone. His eyes stayed fixated on her, clearly waiting for Sister Ada to explain who she was and what assignment she had been tasked with that required her to leave the temple, but she remained silent. While Sister Ada may have been in fear of her life, she would not lie before the Goddess. Instead, she simply continued to walk, passing through the gates as if it were simply to be expected. The two guards looked at each other, confused and suspicious, as if each were waiting to see if the other would object to Sister Ada leaving. When neither of them did, Brother Keon gave me a light shove, forcing me to move. Breath stilled, heart pounding, I took five steps forward, and just like that, for the first time since I had taken my vows to the Goddess, I was outside the temple gates.
I was dumbstruck. Only a few moments ago, I had resigned myself to an inevitable death, and now I was walking free outside the temple? Surely it couldn’t be that easy!
It was not.
We had not walked more than a handful of feet from the temple gates before one of the guards decided it was best to voice his concerns. “Excuse me!” he called out after us. The three of us walked on, ignoring the guard as if we had not heard him, or thought he was speaking to someone else. “Excuse me, Sister!” The three of us quickened our paces. Brother Keon to get as far away from the guards as he could. Sister Ada, no doubt, to put as much distance as possible between herself and the knife in Brother Keon’s hand. And myself… In truth, I think I acted on pure instinct. I was in danger. I wanted to escape. But before we could even make it out of the view of the guards, I began to hear screams of horror coming from the temple. Our luck had run out. Elder Tau had been found.
“Murder!” I could hear one of the priestesses scream. “Apostates! Deserters! Murder!” And with that, Brother Keon’s plan was destroyed. The elder who supervised the boiler-room had been found dead. The three acolytes who had last been working in the boiler-room had just walked through the city gates together. It would not take a genius to put the pieces together. Before that could happen, I felt Brother Keon take a tight grip on my arm. Dropping the knife that he’d had concealed up his sleeve, he grabbed hold of Sister Ada, and together, the three of us ran.
You know, in spite of it all, I cannot help but laugh as I look back on that naive, pious little boy I used to be. As I fled the temple, running for my life from the people that would mutilate my body and send my very soul into eternal damnation if I was caught, my last thought was, “But who will stoke the fire?”
I do not know how long we ran. Brother Keon led the way while I was simply dragged behind. To me, the memory is a blur of swerving around corners, dodging pedestrians and the calls of the guards crying “Murder!” as they slowly closed the distance between us.
Eventually, our brief escape attempt was cut fatally short. We reached a dead end at the upper city’s airship harbour. A vacant dock that left us nowhere to run but straight into the path of the advancing temple guards.
“You see!”Sister Ada yelled as she snatched her arm free of Brother Keon’s grip. “You see what happens when you try to run away from the All Mother! Did you really think this was going to work?” Brother Keon made no response. He didn’t even seem to be listening to what she was saying. He was too busy staring over the edge of the harbour, as if there might be a small airship or a lower level dock he might escape to. There was nothing. Our only escape was a sheer drop straight to our deaths. “It’s over now,” she all but wept. “You’ve dug your own grave, Brother! And you just had to drag me into it, didn’t you?”
“I’m sorry!” I interjected, as if her anger were directed at me rather than Brother Keon. After all, if I had not swung that shovel, if Elder Tau was still alive, none of this would have happened. “I couldn’t stop him. I didn’t know what to do!”
“Oh Xia, they’re going to arrest me,” Sister Ada exclaimed, her eyes going wide with fear as the realization hit her.”They’re going to think I had something to do with this! They’ll put me on trial for murder!”
“They won’t!” I tried to assure her, but when I considered it, I realized how the situation must have looked to everyone else. The three of us had walked through those gates together. The three of us had ran. To anyone in the temple, it would appear that we were all as guilty as each other. “I’ll tell them,” I promised. “I’ll tell them I killed Elder Tau, and Brother Keon forced you to run away. None of this was your fault.”
“They’re going to flay us,” I heard her whisper as she watched the guards draw closer and closer towards us. “They’re going to kill us all.”
She was right. I could speak up on Sister Ada’s behalf, but who would believe the word of a traitor and a murderer? No. This was the end, for all of us. I could only stand there and watch as the guards grew closer and closer. And then, all of a sudden, they were gone.
I felt Brother Keon seize the back of my robe. I heard Sister Ada scream as he grabbed hold of her as well. I was pulled two steps back, and then, and I placed my foot down, I found there was nothing left to stand on.
The air swallowed me. The wind lashed against my skin and rattled my bones inside my body. A single second was all it took, but it seemed to drag on for an eternity, the whole world disappearing before my eyes. Through haze and fog and darkness I fell. And then, I died.
Thank you so much, Miz! I'm really, really happy you said that. Honestly, I got to the point where I thought that the writing was just bad, and I think that was because I had been working on the chapter for so long that none of the ideas seemed exciting to me anymore, which is why I really needed outside perspective to tell whether or not it was any good.
Who said it was an accident? ... Oh yeah! The protagonist. The very reliable protagonist. Sorry, my bad. Forget I said anything. ^_^
Yeah, I definitely need to flesh out the religion a lot more and then edit the chapter accordingly.
Thank you very, very much for the detailed review, Miz. I really appreciate it and it's really encouraging. Can I also ask as a favor, what did you think of the characters of Eko and Ada? I know there's not an awful lot to go on here but I'm worried that Eko may come across as too whiny and Ada might come across as a bitch. Not really sure.
Also, I'm not sure I'm happy with where the story ends, so may end up adding a Chapter 1.5 before Chapter 2.
Good to know! ^_^
Quick update! Very proud of how quickly I managed to write it. I call this Chapter 1.5, because I'm not quite sure what to do with it. I can either put it at the end of Chapter 1, at the beginning of Chapter 2, or have is as a teeny tiny chapter on it's own. Will decide later.
Important changes to the previous chapter:
1. Chapter 1 now takes place in the evening rather than the morning.
2. Keon's name is now Kian. I figured I should change it since Keon contains all the letters in Eko, and I thought that made the names too similar.
I have heard it said that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. That you see a bright light at the end of a tunnel, or that you can hear the voice of which ever deity you pray to, welcoming you into the next life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s experiences. All I can say is that when I died, there was nothing. No visions, no thoughts, no intense, eye-opening revelations. I was simply gone… Until I wasn’t.
I do not know how many times Brother Kian had beaten his hands on my chest before I finally retched out the water that had filled my lungs. My senses all returned to me at once in an overwhelming flood of feeling. The image of Brother Kian leaning over me became a blur as the lights of the lower city lamps almost blinded me. I could just about make out Sister Ada’s voice thanking Xia for my survival over the painful ringing in my ears. The foul taste of the heavily polluted water caused my to roll on to my side and vomit up whatever remained in my stomach. More than anything though, I felt pain. Pain that agonised every inch of my body. Pain that burned through my chest with every breath that I took. Pain that completely enveloped me to the point I wished Brother Kian had just left me to die.
“What… What happened?” I managed to gasp out between wheezing, arduous breaths.
“Try not to move,” Sister Ada advised me, kneeling by my side and holding her hands over me to get a better reading of my injuries. “You drowned, Brother Eko. You weren’t breathing at all. You were dead! You must’ve been gone for ten minutes or more. It’s a miracle, Brother. Mother Xia brought you back!”
Brother Kian scoffed at that, obviously annoyed at having the credit for my survival given to the Goddess after he’d spent so long trying to revive me. I barely noticed. To me, the information just didn’t make any sense. “I drowned?” I asked, completely bewildered. This may seem a strange reaction to you. Considering the fact that I was drenched from head to toe and vomiting up salt water, you would think that drowning would be a rather logical guess. But that is certainly not what it felt like to me. “It feels like I fell onto a pile of bricks!”
“You landed on your back,” Sister Ada explained. “The impact must’ve knocked you out as soon as you hit the water. No surprise from that height. You’re lucky to be alive.” I saw her wince as her hands lingered above my chest. Eyes closed, she muttered a prayer to Xia to grant her a clearer vision of the damage that had been done. “Two fractured ribs,” she told me regretfully. “I’m afraid I’m not much of a healer. Hold still, let me see what I can do.”
Pulling her hands away from me, Sister Ada clutched at the golden pendant of the All Mother around her neck. Closing her eyes, she whispered a healing prayer to Xia. As the love of the Goddess moved through her, the medallion began to glow, and I could feel the divine healing power of Xia washing over me like a wave of holy energy. In a matter of seconds, the pain was completely gone.
“It worked,” I declared, staring dumbly at Sister Ada with awe struck admiration. “You healed me!”
“Not exactly,” she admitted with an apologetic shake of her head. “I’m not much of a cleric, I’m afraid. All I did was numb the pain receptors to your brain. I can’t actually knit your ribs back together. You’ll have to be very careful. Try not to strain yourself or put any pressure on your ribs. Time and the Mother’s love will set you to rights.”
With a sigh of relief that I would recover, I looked up at the sky above me and could not even see the airship harbour that we had fallen from. The Upper City was entirely obscured by a thick cloud of smog that left an eerie red hue in the sky. I could only guess at how far we had fallen.
“What about you?” I asked Sister Ada, concerned. “Are you okay?” After all, I had broken two of my ribs, been knocked unconscious and temporarily drowned. The others seemed to have faired relatively well, all things considered.
“I landed on my feet,” Sister Ada explained. “Broke the surface as soon as I hit. Got a nasty, sprained ankle, that’s all.”
“What about you, Brother Kian?” I asked, turning to the older acolyte. He merely shrugged his shoulders in response. What ever injuries he may have sustained, he clearly didn’t think them worth bringing attention to.
“What about him?” Sister Ada scoffed bitterly. “He’s the one that got us into this mess! If it wasn’t for him, I’d be in the temple praying right now, instead of shivering on a beach in the middle of nowhere.”
I understood Sister Ada’s anger, though I can not say I shared it. While escaping had not been my idea, I personally found shivering on a beach in the middle of nowhere a preferable fate to being tried and convicted of murder, and buried alive without even the hope of salvation. “You don’t blame me?” I asked her curiously. After all, if the accident had never happened… Well, things would be a lot different for all of us.
Sister Ada considered this for a moment, as if deciding whether or not she should be angry with me. Eventually, she shook her head, realizing that whatever I had done, I was the closest thing she had to an ally in her current situation. “I blame you for what happened to Elder Tau,” she determined. “I don’t blame you for what happened to me. At least you tried to stop him.” Sister Ada gestured to Kian with a glare of contempt. “That means you’re still loyal to the Goddess, at least.” Brother Kian merely rolled his eyes, clearly unphased by anyone’s opinion save his own.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself up to a sitting position to get a better idea of my surroundings. We were on some kind of beach, if you could call it that. The sand was a dirty grey colour, the water a murky brown and the shore was coated in a revolting concoction of foam, litter and sewage. I did not want to think about what was in all the water I had swallowed.
“Where are we?” I asked, eyes scanning my surroundings for any sign of civilization and finding none.
“The Under City,” Sister Ada replied. “Somewhere outside the gates, luckily. We definitely don’t want to be inside the city when night comes. It’s a dangerous place down here. The people… They aren’t like the Rivoden converts who visit the temple. Those people might be strange, but they’re civilized, you know? Intelligent. They’re lost souls who come to us looking for the Mother’s love. Down here, they’re savages. That’s why the nobles built the Upper City in the first place. To protect the scholars and scientists from all the criminals down here. It’s a wicked place, Brother. We need to get back to the temple as soon as we can.”
“But…” I stammered, confused, as Sister Ada seemed to have forgotten one very important point. “What’ll happen to us when we get there?”
She paused, contemplating. The longer she thought about it, the less happy she seemed with whatever scenarios she was imagining. “I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “We’ll be called before the High Priestess. There’ll be a trial. We’ll need to explain ourselves.” Fixing her eyes on me, she pierced me with a direct appeal to my very morals as a servant of Xia. “I’m counting on you Brother,” she beseeched me. “To explain that Kian forced me to leave. That I didn’t have a choice!”
I was trapped. My fate inside the temple had been sealed. Not even my soul would have a chance at salvation. Now that I had escaped, I could start a new life. Atone for my sins. Serve the Goddess some other way. To return to the temple with Ada would be suicide. I had every reason to refuse her and only one reason to agree… Because it was the right thing to do… Damn.
“And me?” I asked hopefully. “You’ll speak up for me, won’t you? You’ll tell them that it was an accident? That I never meant to kill Elder Tau?”
The pause that followed said it all. It utterly broke my heart. Sister Ada and I had served at the temple together for years. We knew each other. Understood each other. I thought she was my friend. But she would not tell the High Priestess that Elder Tau’s death had been an accident. She wouldn’t say it because she didn’t believe it was true.
“It’s getting dark,” she finally spoke, declining to answer my question at all. “We should build a fire. We need to keep warm and dry our clothes as best we can.” Before I could say another word, Sister Ada got to her feet and stumbled away, heavily favouring her right leg. It clearly hurt for her to walk, but it seemed she would take any way out to avoid this conversation with me.
Brother Kian quickly accepted the plan and headed towards the main land. With nothing else to do, I assisted the others in their search for anything that could be used as kindling. There was not a lot we could use. No trees seemed to grow in this area. No plants or flowers, barely even any grass. The soil of the Under City was practically baron. Eventually we found a half dead berry bush and Sister Ada and I managed to scratch up our hands rather badly, snapping off dry branches for tinder. Luckily Brother Kian saved us from that rather unpleasant task when he found the remains of an old lobster trap washed up on shore. After snapping it to pieces and adding the few twigs and branches we had gathered, we managed to construct a barely serviceable bonfire. Just as the last rays of sun were disappearing over the horizon, Sister Ada gave up a prayer to Xia and a little spark of flame slowly burst into life.
The three of us sat in a circle, sharing intense glances of suspicion, all benefiting from the fire’s warmth, but none of us truly trusting the others. Sister Ada believed I was a murderer. Brother Kian was a heathen and a traitor to the Goddess. Sister Ada clearly despised Kian, and Kian… Well, as always, he kept his thoughts to himself. I knew I could not rely on either of them, but for now, we had to keep peace. At least until the sun rose again.
“I’m going to get some rest,” Ada told us firmly, laying down on the sand and cushioning her head against her hands. “We’ll worry about what comes next in the morning.” She closed her eyes then. Whether or not she managed to sleep, I cannot say.
A long, awkward silence followed. I stretched my hands out towards the fire, both longing for and dreading the dawn of the next day. What would I do? If I could not convince Sister Ada that Tau’s death had been an accident, what hope did I have in convincing the High Priestess?
As a stark contrast, Brother Kian did not seem in anyway burdened with concerns for the morrow, the lucky scoundrel. He lay on his back, hands behind his head, looking up at the sky. The fog of the Under City didn’t leave much of a view. There was no moon, no stars as visible as far as the eye could see, yet Kian smiled. Smiled as though there were no place in the world he would rather be. I could not understand him. How could anybody forsake their vows to the Goddess and feel no remorse? Even I, who would likely have been executed if I had stayed, would not have even considered leaving the temple if Brother Kian hadn’t forced my hand. I both hated and envied him. Hated for his utter betrayal of Xia, the temple, and everything I believed in. Envied because he was able to leave it all behind so easily, without shame or regrets. Something I simply couldn’t do.
“It was an accident, you know?” I told Kian, matter of factly. I do not know why I brought it up. In truth, I don’t think he even cared. Maybe, I just hoped beyond hope that there might be one person in this world who would believe me. “The shovel must’ve slipped in my hand, that’s all. I would never hurt Elder Tau. I couldn’t. He was like a father to me. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
Kian did not reply. But then, I had not expected him to. He had not spoken a word in seven years.
Sadly, not all acolytes who entered the Temple of Sister Keisha were as devoted as Ada and I. From what I had heard, Kian had been a trouble maker from the day he arrived. He questioned authority at every opportunity, talked during service, skipped lessons, neglected his chores and provided a terrible influence on the younger acolytes. What’s worse, he had been the most deceitful child the temple had ever seen. He has spread falsehoods against some of the Elders at the temple. I do not know exactly what he said, but I know that the lies had been so vicious, so abhorrent, that the High Priestess was forced to issue an order of silence to all who had heard them, to stop the lies from spreading to the city.
Kian was out of control. His maliciousness had almost destroyed the reputation of our beloved temple. The elders needed to take control before things got out of hand. That is why they had to cut out his tongue.
Oh, I forgot:
3. Method of execution for monks has been changed from flaying to immurement. Apparently they used to do that to naughty nuns. ^_^
Why's Ada dumb? I was going for selfish but not dumb, so whatever it is, I should probably fix that. :p
Fair enough, she is definitely naive. ^_^
All kneel before the Baron of the Wasteland! ^_^
So... I probably won't be writing in this thread for awhile. I am still working on the story, but I found that basically I have been putting a whole lot of time and effort into making my chapters as perfect as possible, before realising a little later down the line that what I've written in Chapter 1 completely contradicts stuff that I've written in Chapter 3, so I have to go back and change it all.
So basically, I've decided that what I'm going to do is write a zero draft first. Just a really rough, messy draft that I write as quickly as possible without spending hours browsing a thesaurus for the perfect word, or doing loads of research and outlining to describe the perfect surroundings, because knowing me, I'll just have to go back and delete half of it anyway.
So, I'm going to get my messy draft done as quick as possible (planning on NaNoWriMoing it, though I doubt I'll actually be able to win) and then work on making it actually good once I've finished the first draft and I have a clear idea of all the important things that I'm going to need to change.
Then I'll write a first draft which is actually decent enough to show other people, maybe hire a few alpha readers. Then I'll write a second draft based on the feedback I get and how people think I can improve. Then I'll probably write a couple more drafts to make the words prettier, and hopefully I'll be able to come up with something nice and shiny by the end.
Will let you know how I'm getting along after NaNoWriMo ^_^