Working on the rewrite of Journey of the Caged, and I figured I’d share the new introduction with you fine folks. Keep in mind, this is unedited and rough, but it will give you an idea of what I’m going for. Be warned – violence and bloodshed ahead.
The soft crunch of snow was the only mark of Scale’s passing. She slipped through the trees like a phantom, contorting her body to dance with the branches and the trees. There was no need for light by crystal or torch. Hundreds of yards beyond the copse of evergreens, the village of Dovanya burned.
Even this far away, the reek of cooked flesh reached Scale. It disgusted her, but it was not the first time she’d smelled fire-lit bodies. If she lived through this, she doubted it would be the last. Her stomach churned, as it always did, but she dismissed it with ease borne of her training.
There was only one reason for the attack on Dovanya, and that troubled her. The village held no particular value and none of its loggers and trappers were anyone of note. The screams of the remaining handful of its inhabitants had to be a trap. Its creator knew Scale would understand this, just as she understood Scale would have no choice but to spring it.
Behind Scale, four other Executors fanned out among the trees in a rough wedge. All of them grizzled professionals, they made as little sound as her, Singer and Pen crept along carefully at her flanks, watching for anyone coming for them in the darkness. Sleet and Boulder took the rear. True to his name, Boulder was as big as a mountain and struggled the most with the silence their work necessitated.
Another scream split the air. Shrill. Feminine. Pain at first, then agony as the scream became a shriek. Whatever Whimper was doing to these people, Scale didn’t want to know, but she would have to, and soon.
A voice at her ear murmured, “We have to move in or she’ll kill them all.”
Scale fought back the urge to punch Pen. The man knew better than to speak until she broke their silence, and he was ten feet off his position. Her fist rose, but not to swing at him. Instead, she gestured to her left and jutted out two fingers. Take your position, that gesture said, and without another word, Pen moved, knowing he’d just been silently chastised.
They circled the village at a distance. Scale wanted to find the right angle of approach, but Whimper had scouted this place well. The dense trees might have looked as though they crept right to the village’s edge, but the loggers kept a quarter mile circle of land free from any foliage directly around the village, no doubt with plans to build a wall at some point or another. Too late now. A few might survive this night, but Dovanya itself was finished. Not a house or shop remained that wasn’t sending plumes of oily black smoke in the air.
The survivors had been gathered in the center of the village in the husk of what had once been Dovanya’s gathering hall. The mass of flesh blocked whatever was going on.. Every now and then one of them was plucked from the line to replace the last victim. They weren’t killed quickly, either. Some of the townspeople returned to the group missing fingers, eyes, ears. At least three tried to run while Scale and her Executors circled the village, only to be brought down by one of Whimper’s mad band. Fourteen of their number stalked Dovanya’s cobblestone streets, following no discernible pattern that Scale could figure out. All of them carried bows or crossbows, but beyond that, there was no consistency to their armor or weapons. Some wore full suits of chainmail tarnished by blood, gore, and soot. Leather and furs adorned others, and a few walked with no protection save the cloth on their back. Much like the Executors hunting them, not all were human, either. Three giants made the others look like children, and a pair of bony-scalped Noreem kept their gleaming, jewel-like eyes fixed on the forests around them. Those two would need to be taken out first, or else their innate psychic senses would feel new presences among their group. The range wouldn’t be a problem for any of the Executors, but once the Noreem were down, they would have to advance quickly on whoever was left, or the bodies would risk being discovered.
Finally satisfied she had a lay of the village, Scale stopped to issue an order to fall back to a predetermined point a quarter mile back into the forest. The others melted away into the darkness, but she hesitated, watching the village burn as the latest victim’s screams cut short. Act soon, and they might save a few more villagers from what would be a horrifically gruesome death, but Whimper would almost assuredly have traps in wait. Act slowly and plan, more would suffer, but the lives of the innocent were secondary to capturing or killing the madwoman at the center of all this. If Whimper lived, many more than just those in Dovanya died.
A new scream ripped through the air. Scale turned away, and though every part of her wanted to run to the meeting point, to hurry, she kept her calm and eased through the ancient woods.
The five met in the hollows underneath an ancient, huge tree. Snowfall and rain had washed away the earth under her gnarled roots, leaving a six-foot-wide cavern where the five could speak quickly and quietly. One of them waited beyond the tree. Anyone else might not have noticed, but Scale’s body had been forever altered by the Executor transformations. Focused as she was, Scale could hear someone draw a breath and release it.
“Boulder,” she murmured, and the man stepped out, his bow in his hands. He nodded and hurried down the side of the embankment to join her and the others under the tree.
Singer held a heat crystal, already lit and hooded by a treated pouch. The others held their hands around it, warming themselves before the fight ahead. Boulder joined in, and after a sip of water from her waterskin, Scale joined them.
“Your counts,” she murmured. “I had fourteen.”
“Fourteen,” Boulder agreed.
“Fourteen,” Singer and Pen said, but Sleet shook her head.
“Fifteen. One of the crowd had a knife,” Sleet said.
“Could be hiding it away until the time was right to escape,” Boulder said.
“Can’t take that chance,” Sleet said. She quickly outlined the description – a man of indiscriminate height, salted black hair, a gold loop through one ear. Easy enough to single out thanks to the jewelry. That was an extravagance few in this village could afford.
“Orders?” Pen asked, frowning as if he were tasting something rancid. He’d wanted command of this, but their Preceptor had chosen Scale for her determination and cold, calculating nature. To kill a monster, they needed someone capable of seeing the grand scope of things. Pen was clever, but brash and tended towards impatience.
“We divide up by road,” Scale said. “I’ll take the northernmost road and the first Noreem. Pen, you have the northeast. Singer, the southeast and the Noreem on that route. Boulder, the south, Sleet, southwest. Singer, your mark crossed by a hut twice. It’s the best cover you’ll have for concealing the body. Stay there. If you find a shot on Whimper, take it, but do not let yourself be seen until the rest of us are openly engaged. If that happens, choose your targets and bring them down. Sleet, you’ll have a line of sight on me. When I’ve taken my Noreem, you will advance first with me. Find a target and take them silently if you can.”
Boulder’s sleepy yellow eyes closed to slits, and he frowned. It was unsurprising he wouldn’t want Sleet out in front first. The duo had been fucking most every night this trip. The old laws said that Executors should not mate, but no one was left in this dying part of the world to care. Only six Preceptors remained on the continent, and of the Executors themselves, their numbers would maybe hit triple digits if they were all gathered within the same conclave. Civilization was continuing its slow, hungry shuffle westward, as it had for hundreds of thousands of years.
Sleet caught her man’s arm and squeezed it. The White Ink in her veins flared momentarily with even that minute flexing of her muscles. She shook her head, and Boulder finally nodded, but he still didn’t look thrilled. Once this was over, Scale was going to have to address the little flares of disobedience. It was getting out of hand.
Her orders to the rest were simple. Wait for an opportunity to draw one of Whimper’s people out, take them silently, and creep forward. They all knew the odds of this being successful were slim, but the rest agreed without a flicker of emotion, even Pen. There were no final rousing words from Scale, no last message to her Executors. They were killers, and they’d been told to kill. The machinery was ready. Now all she had to do was set it loose.
The five slipped away into the darkness, each ambling slowly towards their positions. Scale’s was the furthest away from the tree, so she kept far away from the village and circled around in nearly complete darkness, her Ink-enhanced eyes picking out roots and brambles just moments before she potentially stumbled into them. Come spring, those roots would hang like tentacles from the bases of the tree, knotting and curling in intricate, wild weaves stripped of dirt and foliage. But for now, that winter, they were little more than dusted nuisances, and had there been another foot of snow, even Scale might not have been able to navigate them without a better light.
But she did, and in the darkness as she twisted towards her position, she passed first Singer, then Pen. Singer never noticed her. Not a surprise. Of all of them, Singer was the best shot but a terrible woodsman. Give her a city to haunt and she was in her element, dashing from rooftop to rooftop or swirling amidst the masses of people, not an easy feat for anyone marked with White Ink. Here in the woods, Singer was second only to Boulder for the amount of noise she made in the brush, and she was far more apt to lose her way.
Pen noticed her passing, tensing as he heard her approach. To his credit, he kept his eyes on the village, an arrow in hand but not yet nocked. His approach would be the trickiest, given the lack of viable cover. The three houses in front of him were little more than piles of rubble at this point, but if Pen went low and stayed there, he stood a good shot of reaching the next line of buildings. As much grief as he might be giving her, there were few others Scale actually wanted on her side in an out-and-out fight. Pen might be hotheaded and too quick to action, but his skill with his longsword more surpassed any in their band save for Scale herself, but that wasn’t the weapon of choice for her, not that mission, not for Whimper.
A few minutes more of careful traversal and she slid into position behind a massive tree, easily five feet wide, its branches loaded with snow. She stared around the edge, making one last count. Her heart didn’t beat any faster or slower with the knowledge of the violence to come. Live or die, she allowed no excitement or fear to cloud her mind as she counted Whimper’s people.
There, her Nareem was strolling down the street, idly swinging a sword in a full lazy circle. The gray-skinned creature was a full head shorter than Scale, and practically emasculated. Bony knobs jutted out of his skull in every direction, and he reached up to fondle one as he strolled. No one else was coming. The nearest of the rest of the brigands knelt by one of the burning houses, digging through the remains of a pantry.
Without consciously realizing she was going to even act, Scale drew an arrow from the quiver at her back, nocked it, brought the bow up, and fired. The arrow punched into the Nareem’s neck, a splash of crimson hitting the snow behind him. He fell backwards, dropping and clutching the arrow. It was no use. His long, thin fingers fell away as Scale darted forward to move the body into the nearest building. The Nareem was as light as a child, and when she dragged him, his mouth lolled open to reveal his slightly forked tongue. The burnt-out remains of the building still smoldered, but she found a path to a mostly intact cabinet and jammed the Nareem inside, listening intently.
No alarm. Good. She hoped Singer was having similar luck.
But as Scale finished concealing the body, at the heart of the village, someone strummed a guitar. A fast, jaunty tune started up, and within a moment, a pair of heavy drums joined in. Scale snapped a glance behind her, but no one was coming. She drew another arrow and ran through her options, her mind a whir of calculations. Stay here, Scale was as good as dead. There was no visibility and if she was pincered between the burned-out house’s two doors, she was finished. The home across the street offered her some protection and a better vantage point. Scale ran for it, keeping low, her white shrouds hopefully acting as some sort of camouflage to hide her black skin and the White Ink of her veins. She slid into place around the open door, peeking out just far enough to watch what unfolded.
The three musicians were spaced in front of the entrance to the meeting hall. Whimper leaned against the doorframe. Like Scale and her Executors, the Ink ran through her veins too, but along with the alchemical changes to her body, every inch of Whimper’s skin was disfigured and scarred, leaving her looking like one of the gnarled roots Scale had just passed by. As Scale watched, she pushed off the doorframe and began a slow, shuffling dance, her limbs jerking as though they were being controlled by a puppeteer. She gyrated in wide, lopsided ovals, eyes cast up to the sky. Closer and closer to the townspeople Whimper drew, the three long braids atop her otherwise bald head whipping around as she whirled faster and faster. A blade blurred in her hands and one of the townspeople fell away screaming, clutching the spurting ruin of her ear. Just as fast, Whimper drove the blade across a man’s throat – not horizontally, but vertically, ending with the knife buried up to its hilt in the meat under his jaw.
One of the townspeople leaned forward and vomited noisily, and Whimper grabbed this one by the back of her hair before… kissing her forehead. She danced away again, laughing, and shouted to the sky, “Come on, then, brothers and sisters! Come for me!”
The drums nearly drowned out the guitar player. The townspeople’s heads turned towards something, and it didn’t take long to figure out what. One of the giants dragged Singer through the snow, leaving behind a trail of crimson. Scale almost drew and fired, but there was no saving Singer. The giant’s axe was still stained with the gore of having split her head nearly in two.
Go swiftly into the Ether and the After, Scale said silently.
The drumming and the guitar stopped, as did Whimper’s dancing. Her face a mask, she stepped forward delicately and ran a finger along the ruins of Sleet’s skull.
“I am sorry, sister,” she said, her voice clear and shockingly melodic. She lifted her finger to her mouth, tasted it, and nodded at the giant. Carelessly, he hefted up the body again and started to carry it towards a stack of others they’d killed that night, but before he could finish unloading Sleet, someone cried out, and three arrows punched into the giant’s chest. The huge creature glanced down, laughed, and looked up just in time to catch the fourth through his eye and into the back of his skull. He fell backwards, still holding Singer’s body as he died.
No, Scale wanted to shout. This is what she wanted.
Steel clashed against steel and someone screamed. Not one of Scale’s, thankfully, but another brigand roared in that direction. The snow crunched near Scale and she tensed, drawing the knife at her belt, but whoever rushed by didn’t see her and she didn’t see them. Another bellow, this one deafening. No doubt from the other giant. More steel clashing. Whimper turned for the drummers and the guitarist and twirled a finger. They started up another tune, and she danced along merrily, gripping the sides of her pants as though she were wearing skirts as she kicked out her feet. Quick as a snake, she was back among the townspeople, her aim no longer torture, but murder. There was no saving them either, but she was drawing close now, so close Scale could almost fire.
Three more arrows found their marks. Two brigands went down, another stumbled to his knees before a second arrow joined its brother, this time finding his heart. That would be Sleet, and Boulder’s titanic roar matched that of the giant’s somewhere further to the southeast. If Whimper was concerned, she didn’t show it, and continued her bloody massacre, drawing down on the last cluster of men and women, licking the edge of her blade.
Another clang of steel, and there was Boulder, fighting two of Whimper’s people at once, his huge longsword crashing down against their blades over and over again. He didn’t need to vary up his attacks. Unlike Whimper herself, her men were just that – men. Under Boulder’s onslaught, they stood no chance, and though one of their swords bit deep into the treated leather faulds protecting Boulder’s gut, he took the blow without faltering and buried the edge of his blade in the man’s neck. Boulder snarled as he yanked the blade free and kept going with the motion, nearly severing the other brigand’s arm at the elbow. That man screamed and screamed, and Boulder laughed in his face right up until a spear punched through his back and out through his guts.
His longsword falling, Boulder glanced down at the giant’s spear, surprised more than pained, and gripped the edge with his enormous fists. He pulled another foot of the spear out, then snapped off the edge. The giant behind him gurgled its pleasure until Boulder whipped around with the foot of spear in his hand. Reciprocating the giant’s mortal wound, Boulder stabbed the creature in the gut with the hunk of sharpened wood, once, twice, three times, four times. The rest of the spear still protruded from his back, and as the giant fell, Boulder fell too, clutching the creature’s shoulders for support as long as he could manage until he toppled, blood streaming out of his mouth as he stared up at the snow silently.
Sleet shrieked her rage out of sight. An arrow buried itself a foot from Whimper’s head in the blackened walls of the meeting hall. The brigand’s leader danced and danced, seemingly uncaring about the next four arrows that all missed their mark by mere inches. Though she was firing too wildly, Sleet had the right idea, and Scale took the opportunity to slide out of the building she’d been hiding in and rushed towards the next one.
What few members of Whimper’s band formed a line around her. A twang of a bowstring’s release caught Scale’s ear, and she very nearly jumped, realizing how close it was to her. Someone had fired just a half a block away, and her eyes scanned the streets, looking for the newest of Scale’s people. Someone sprinted between houses, bow at the ready, an arrow in hand. Pen. Scale breathed easier until she heard Sleet’s soft whimpering.
She was dragged before Whimper’s band and dropped unceremoniously on the ground. The arrow jutting out of her back was not a fatal blow, but it looked as if it might have severed her spinal cord. Sleet pushed herself up on her hands, staring up at Whimper as she tried to hold back her cries of pain. The music fell silent again.
“Whichever one of you did this is going to get your wish,” Whimper called out. She no longer danced but stared out among the houses curiously. “Horace? Tollen?”
“Even crippled, she’s still a threat,” Pen called.
“Ah, a brother,” Whimper said. She sounded neither delighted or surprised. “Come out so I can thank you properly.”
Pen did, and Scale fought down an urge to bury her quiver in his guts. Traitorous bastard. Sleet had been the best of them in more ways than one and he’d offered her up for… what? He could have slipped away. Could have left them all behind.
“I want a wish,” he called out.
Yes, there it was. The wishes from the Wish-Giver. Whimper had many names besides her self-picked Executor one, and Granter and Wish-Giver were chief among them. Anything you wanted that she could provide, and she’d give it to you – if the deal was right.
Whimper’s scarred lips twitched in a gross approximation of a smile. “Well, let’s start with a name.”
“I’ll fucking k-kill you,” Sleet gasped, crawling towards Pen.
“A writer?” Whimper said, ignoring Sleet as she snickered. “A poet?”
“No. I killed another trainee with one.”
There was a dark chuckle at that from the guitarist, and Whimper smiled even brighter. “A good name, then, and evocative of my own. Brother Pen, if you’re so inclined…” She gestured at Sleet. Pen hesitated just a moment, then drew his sword. “Ah. Not that.”
Whimper tapped her lip, then gestured at a woodpile against one of the houses. “One of those should do, I think.”
Pen frowned, but he didn’t waste any more time, sheathing his sword again and going for one of the heavier logs. Sleet spat into the snow and bloody muck as he sauntered back, the wood in his hands.
“Coward,” she said.
He wasn’t looking at her, though, but the street beyond. To Scale. Pen’s eyes closed once, twice, three times, and if she was given to emotion, Scale’s throat might have hitched. Maybe it did anyways. Those three blinks were an acknowledgement, a message.
I am doing what I have to.
The log came down, landing first on Sleet’s upper back. She screamed and fell forward, her nose mashing into the snow. Pen’s grin didn’t touch his eyes as he brought the wood up and down again and again. The transformations left all their skins as tough as hides, and Sleet’s bones did not shatter easily. Up and down went Pen’s arms, seeking out the vertebrae along Sleet’s neck. One of the drummers banged his instrument with every swing. He switched to Sleet’s skull, and her muffled screams and curses turned to gurgles and nothingness.
There was no better time to finish this. Scale nocked an arrow, drew a breath, and darted out around the corner, eyes only seeking Whimper.
But she was not there.
A massive form rocketed into Scale from the side, knocking her clear across the street and into a half-burned strut of a building. Bow and arrow still in hand, Scale rebounded, turned, and fired straight into the thigh of the third giant. It roared and grabbed at her again, but Scale was already ducking under its arms and dropping the bow, going instead for the morning star strapped across her back next to the quiver. As the giant came at her again, Scale buried the spiked mace in its knee, dropping the creature. It took another swipe, more to ward her away than cause any pain, but she dove for the bow and arrow, and came up with it just as Pen was turning to face three of Whimper’s people. He shouted savagely, dropped the wood, and raised his fists to the sky before the three edges of their swords buried themselves in his guts and neck.
Rising to her feet again, Scale nocked another arrow and spun. The giant finally managed to pluck free the morning star, but it was too late. Scale, just a foot behind him, drew and released, the arrow driving almost all the way through the great creature’s skull.
She grabbed at another arrow, turned, drew, and released into one of the men standing over Pen’s quivering body. He dropped too, as did the next man, but Whimper dropped from the exposed rafters of the house next to Scale, sword in hand. Scale didn’t hear her, not on a conscious level, but something tripped her instincts and she fell sideways. Whimper’s first cut sailed harmlessly overhead, and Scale brought the bow up to meet the second one. Wood and steel connected, and both the Executors’ arms shivered from the impact. The blade cut deep into the wood of the bow, and Whimper didn’t bother trying to yank it out. Instead, she went for the morning star, and Scale jumped to her feet, grabbing at an arrow from her quiver to stab her mark.
Except there were no arrows left. One of her tumbles sent the arrows spilling out of the quiver, and she grasped at nothing but air moments before the morning star’s spikes buried themselves in her shoulder.
Whimper grabbed her throat with her free hand and lifted the other woman straight into the sky. “Thank you, sister,” she murmured. “This was a fine test. I would honor you with a wish, if you like.”
“S-sure,” Scale said. Her whole arm was numb, save for the shoulder. Something was wrong there too – a shattered bone, maybe, given how hard she’d been hit. “I wish Calos himself would fall out of the sky and incinerate you.”
“I’ll work on that one,” Whimper said, grinning. Black rot had taken over most of her teeth, and Scale saw her opportunity – a meager one, but an opportunity.
When Whimper jerked the morning star out of her arm again, Scale punched her. The blow didn’t have much force to it even for an Executor, but three of Whimper’s teeth shattered anyways. The brigand leader spat out the remains and growled something wordless, but Scale’s hand was at her belt, coming up with her knife. Whimper dropped her just in time to try to block the blade with the back of her hand. The knife sunk deep, the blade punching through bone, and Whimper screamed. Her men finally rushed to aid her, but Scale was already running for the forest’s edge.
An arrow whizzed past her shoulder. A second didn’t miss its mark, grazing her side. Scale cradled her ruined arm as she hit the edge of the village, not daring to look backwards. Another arrow scraped her leg, a fourth her scalp, and then she was in the tree line, dashing madly not for the rendezvous point along the snow-packed highway leading to the village, but the river running parallel to it. More arrows sought her out in the trees. She made no effort to lose them.
If the brambles had been dangerous for her before, now they were doubly so. She took only a moment to dig out a crystal and lit it with five hard squeezes. It bloomed to life, and she cast its light before her as she jumped over half-buried fallen trees and roots.
A quarter mile. A half mile. Another arrow, this one scraping her bad arm. She didn’t even feel it, but Whimper’s people were gaining on her. Maybe she was bleeding out, or maybe Scale just was in shock, but she wasn’t nearly as fast as they were and the river was nowhere in sight. Just as she thought about turning to make one last pitiful stand, Scale hit a sharp decline and skittered to a stop before she dropped down over the edge.
Yes, there, the river, barely caked over in ice. Scale put the crystal between her teeth, shimmied out of her quiver and the sheath at her back, and cast one glance behind her. She was there, she was right there, her hand dripping crimson on the ground, a sword in one hand, her White Ink veins glowing with the exertion.
“I’ll be seeing you again,” Scale promised her.
“I look forward to it… sister,” Whimper replied.
Scale grinned savagely, and as a bowstring twanged, she fell backwards, punching through the ice and into the screamingly cold water underneath.