Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Road of Thorns: Novel Excerpt 2

©2011 Johnny Domawa
All Rights Reserved

(Asaas is an Applai word meaning Whisper. It's actually the title of one other novel I am writing and this one is actually entitled The Road of Thorns. This is the continuation of Chapter 1 of the novel that is a work in progress about a man trying to make his way in the world. Enjoy) 
A small hunched figure waddled into one of the many side alleys of Damrells Akaw district. Anyone looking would presume that it is an unano, probably looking for a fence to dump his day’s take from the Damrell market. Many such thieves roamed the streets and everyone knows that merchandise of shady origin would always find its way into the narrow dank alleys of Akaw. As such he was unmolested as he navigated the maze of corridors.
If one were to see his movements though, in its entirety, one will be able to see certain inconsistencies. For one, he seemed too fluid to be one of the small folk and the way he avoided others he meet deftly signified that he was not one of the common thieves. He also seemed to stop at the most unlikely places for a fence to exist if that was indeed what he is looking for. One would see him motionless near a gutter and then later beneath an awning or a garbage pile. He also seemed to be in continuous motion, walking in erratic circles. He would appear in a specific point and then reappear an hour again from a different direction.
But no one seemed to notice as everyone was caught up in their own worlds to care and if ever anyone were to wonder what he was up to, they would soon find themselves languorously sleepy. They would sleep and afterwards wake up with no recollection at all why they had slept at all. Any hint of interest from a sentient being towards him would be similarly erased. And not just one creature found himself sleeping that day. Fifteen thieves and twenty hooligans found themselves waking up robbed by the end of the day, a curious recipient of karma.
As the twilight neared, the figure finally finished his curious walk. He finally straightened up in front of the butcher shop, the once hunched stunted figure magically stretching into the size of a man. The butcher and his three customers and the drunk outside slept like babies in an instant only to wake up dazed a few minutes after, looking at each other curiously, the drunk suffering a mild concussion from the impact of his head striking a table and the butcher wondering why he was on the floor.
The now man-size figure, still draped in his formless robe disappeared into the alley behind the butcher’s shop, a blind stop that led into the questionable shop of Lamon, the glutton, purveyor of questionable magical artifacts that worked only half of the time.

After four sessions with his different classes, Jax finally retired into his study, safe at least for the moment from the jeers of his students. He sprayed the room with a fragrant perfume he had bought from a western merchant for a fortune and broke a vial of flower essences. It was futile, he knew. Experience taught him that even when he covered himself with fragrances, his detractors would still howl and agonize over his smell. Only the hope that maybe for this time, it would work, kept him doing the same thing over and over. Even when nearly half of his salary went into every imaginable treatment possible.
Plugging his ears shut from the outside noises, he picked up a parchment from his desk. He gingerly spread the brown paper like it was the most precious thing in the world on top of his cleared desk. He reverently flattened it, gently tucking its edges into the scroll reader’s holders.
Finally finished, he surveyed the contents of the scroll with a smile, a smile filled with hope, the desperate smile of a man who had found his final redemption.
Written in the scraggly handwriting of a common message maker, was the clear cut call for alchemists. Wanted, it said, alchemists, engineers, architects and master masons. For riches and glory, come to the land of the misty mountains, where your future awaits. Come to –
The word had been muddled before, probably from water but in his own careful script, he had rewritten over it the words. MADANA.
The country of hope –
My promise of a new beginning –
Far from the taunts of Phema where he can start anew. He caressed the scroll. He had come across it from one of his travels into the docks where he spent a lot of his time to escape the heckling from his neighbors and students. In the docks where the smell of stale barrels mixed with the grime of the world, nobody cared for his own smell. The gruff sailors, who probably laugh at the mention of baths made room for him without reservation in their pubs. Though he himself on more than one occasion wretched at the ripe smell of the docks, in that small part of his home city, he could forget at least for the moment his own troubles.
During one of those excursions, he had come across a drunk sailor from Madana who was carrying the parchment with him, for the purposes of rolling tobacco. Recognizing the promise it offered, he had bought it on the spot to the gameful laughter of the sailors that witnessed its sale.
He had kept it in his desk as an alternative to the vial that he kept in the hidden compartment of his dresser and now, it loomed in his consciousness. He had decided finally that it was time to search for that new start. More of the same would just result in his body degrading to the point that he will not be able to muster the strength for the journey.
It was now or eternal sleep by his own hands. The choice was clear.
He rerolled the scroll and deposited it gently in its case. From the same drawer, he produced a bunch of papers. These, he dumped into the table. A lifetimes work, he thought wistfully, a treatise on the beneficial essences of the mamela plant. It would have been his ticket to academic recognition but now, it will remain unfinished. Madana would probably not have the mamela plant or the advanced extracting machines that is available in Phema’s Alchemical Guild.
But it was a sacrifice worth giving up. A colleague of his would buy his research.
He looked at the notes longingly. It symbolized a life he was leaving behind, a life he thought he would live until his death. A boring life for some but a life he had wanted.
Now, it was over.
He returned the papers into their bindings. Together with the scroll case, he deposited it in his bag. He opened each drawer in the desk but everything has been emptied of their contents. He ran his eyes over the familiar surroundings. It would be his last time in that study. His resignation letter to his dean had already been delivered and his affairs have been arranged.
He was filled with regret and for a moment, he felt too sad to leave but as the truth settled, he roused himself up. He removed his earplugs and jumped reflexively as the giggles of students gathered outside to gossip about him reached his ears. He steeled himself then with purposeful strides went for the door.
The giggling stopped almost immediately as he opened the door. A group of girls respectfully bowed at him, as if nothing had happened. He smiled at them, wishing them the best silently. It was a parting gift of sorts. He even exchanged small talk with one of them, whom he knew as the ringleader.
I’d leave with a smile, he thought and then he left.

Loreana stretched into her hotel bed with the blissful countenance of a young girl. It was one of the private pleasures she occasionally gave herself. While many in the Seeker organization perceived her as a laced-up woman with issues using the strict regimen of their code to get away from something, that was only the outward manifestation of her will. In the privacy of closed doors, she indulged herself in the simple pleasures of feminine wiles. She had silks and laces, perfumes and jewels, all of a girl’s best friend. For despite her chosen path of life, she was still a girl at heart.
She brushed an errant lock of hair from her eyes. Her source of personal vanity, her long luxuriant red locks are usually confined in a tight bun when she is outside but inside the sanctity of doors, she lets it loose in all its glory, glorious curled tresses that would be the envy of women everywhere.
She stood up, a stray thought suddenly entering her mind. She brushed her hair as an afterthought as she mulled it over. Ios had left her, one of the rare instances that the captain actually left her. For as long as she remembered, Ios never once left her alone. He would always be a shout away, an ever present fixture in her life. For him to leave her, in a strange city nonetheless, would mean that her father had summoned him. She had always known that her father would make sure that she was protected. It took her a while to realize that the assigned protector was the sullen eyed champion. He was five years her senior, already a High Seeker Initiate when she entered the organization. A brooding warrior, he was one of the knights that have devoted their lives to arms and forsaken all other paths. A loyal dog, she once thought, blind pawns to greater powers. She had resented him but had grown to accept his place in her life. Not one to seek her favors, he kept a respectful distance, until she grew to accept him as a trusted colleague.
He had gone into one of the towns that border the capital of Phema and had left orders that she take the time while he was gone to take in the sights of the city. The order was as unusual as his actions. This would mark the first time Ios actually left her alone and the sudden realization was strange to her. She did not know what to make of it.
She strode to the balcony. They were quartered in the best merchant inn the city had to offer: a soaring building built in the face of the cliff that overlooked the shining city of Phema. She had one of the penthouses all to herself, a luxurious haunt that reminded her of her rooms in the royal palace. Not that she pined for her past life. At least here, she only has her mute eunuch for company, free from the idle gossip of royal ladies and maids that fussed over every minor detail of her life.
The warm air that greeted her momentarily stopped her. She realized that she had not tied her hair in it its customary confines. This time, she felt adventurous. She had hid herself for far too long in the mask of a devoted Seeker. Pulling the gossamer gown around her, she moved towards the edge of the balcony and peered into the gathering darkness. A cool breeze from the sea blew gently across her face and she inhaled inwardly the gentle tang of saltiness that mixed with it. She stared across the awakening city before her. It suddenly held an allure that gripped her. Mostly cooped up in her mission, she never really got to enjoy the diverse cultures she had encountered. Save for some forays into the market every now and then for trinkets when the time allowed it, she never truly got to enjoy herself as a tourist in one.
Perhaps now, she would have the time to finally experience one.
A stifled gasp broke her musings. She turned towards the sound. It came from the room below hers. It was the quarters of the males of her Seeker group. Standing with his mouth open, Olwen, Ios’s squire was staring at her. She smiled, wondering what was running in the young man’s mind. In truth, she was just four years older than the wiry squire but would doubtlessly be much, much older in his mind. This would be his first time to see her without her trademark bun and Seeker uniform.
She winked at the boy which broke the spell. Olwen blushed and turned away from her.
She laughed and returned her gaze into the city.
Yes, perhaps this time, she could really absorb the sights of maybe just this one city.

Jax nervously clasped his robes around him as he walked briskly in the darkened alleys. He hoped that no one would take interest in him or recognize an inner city dweller hidden in the carefully chosen frock which he hoped would allay suspicion. After all, he was in the Akaw district, which even the City Watch had all but given to the dregs of society. Careful study of the district’s citizens had resulted in his getup for tonight and he prayed that he would pass as one of them. Even his gait, which tired him was adapted from that of a leper to further deter any untoward attention.
Through his deep cowl, he glanced at the scratches on the walls that served as the names of the complex Akaw alleyways. He had paid dearly for the directions for this one specific shop and he knew that he had to conclude his business this night.
Everything has already been set, his belongings which he would not carry with him had been sent to his mother or sold, his essential survival things have been packed and only one more thing was missing: a wizards familiar.
As a midlevel alchemist, he was not licensed to have one so he could only avail of one through illicit means and that means going into the Akaw. He was not even sure if the shop he was told about was real or if the goods he was looking for was available but he had to try. For he knew that a familiar would be a good thing that would tip his chance of success and as a pragmatist, if something was there that would increase even in the remotest his survival in the new world he was looking for, he would try it.
He tripped and for a moment, he was gripped with panic as he fell into the grimy pavement. He struggled to stand and wildly looked around him, his heart pounding but the group of miscreants that noticed him simply shrugged and returned to their businesses. No one approaches lepers, the thought came into him. He laughed and the miscreants turned to him again. One of them spat in his direction.
He stood up, a little dazed but now his new found confidence had banished his fears.
He spat back at the miscreants who grimaced at him.
He suddenly saw in them all the faces that have reviled him all the years. He spat again.
This is for four years of torture – he silently screamed.
And with the adrenaline coursing through his veins, he picked his way again towards his destination, his misgivings for now forgotten.
He wondered if his decision to shy away from confrontation all those years was folly. The exhilaration of hitting back and the suppressed desire to get even pulsated in his mind, filling him with a strange feeling of fulfillment for a lack of a better word. He had chosen to be a pacifist and look where he is now. If he had chosen then to lash out at his detractors, would his life have been any different now, he wondered but he did not like what it insinuated.
He is not a violent man. He is a thinking man. Ill will answered with ill will never makes things right. It always makes it worse and he is someone who valued the true meaning of peace and the price to be paid for it. But pacifism did not work for him, he sometimes wondered if his decision to be silent has worsened it.
But there is nothing to be done. His situation has reached a point where escape is the only logical position left for him. And he is here now, carefully navigating his way in the deepest recesses of the city he had once thought as home for something that will help him make a fresh start.
And he prayed that it was the right thing to do.

Inside Lamon the gluttons shop, it was dark. The proprietor, a great blob of a man remained motionless in his recliner draped in shadows. Only his rather loud snoring and the heaving of his chest as he breathed remained as signs of his life. Save that, nothing stirred in the room, a large one filled almost to capacity with various bric-a-bracs that were littered haphazardly around his sleeping form.
But he was not alone, not this night at least.
From one side of the room a shadow extricated himself and silently slinked towards the sleeping hulk. It hovered around the recliner as if peering into the nature of its quarry and for a moment, it seemed to pause as it hung in the air.
Then, as if its mind had been made, tendrils began to emanate from its body and silently extended to the man.
The first struck Lamon’s cheeks and the big man bolted upright in surprise. For a moment, he seemed disoriented as he brushed his cheeks but then he saw the shadow in front of him and his face blanched. His mouth opened to a shout but it was immediately filled up by the elongating tendrils, filling it up and stifling the scream.
The big man flailed, scattering the nearest objects down into the floor. His eyes bulged from their sockets in a vision of pure terror but his machinations were futile. The shadow continued to flow into him, through his nose, his ears and his mouth.
Finally, his eyes rolled upwards and the flailing of his limbs stopped. His body gently rolled off his seat to crumple on the floor like jelly.
A long eternity passed. His body lay unmoving.
Then slowly, a fatty hand snaked up and took a hold of his seats arms, then another. The hands clasped the huge chair and then like a scene from a nightmare, a giant body followed. Its head was snapped back, the bloodshot eyes lifeless and the long stubby tongue flailing from an opened mouth that dribbled in thick saliva. The huge body with the lifeless head stood up. It started to flex its limbs, the lolling head almost an afterthought. Then it seemed to sense something.
The two hands grabbed the head and straightened it.
Slowly, the eyes rerolled and the sparkle of life returned into them. The tongue which was starting to darken was retracted and the newly animated lips smacked shut. Lamon, or someone who is Lamon had regained his body’s functions.

Ios followed the old man with impatience. He was not someone who took his vows lightly and leaving Loreana alone even for a while made him jittery. Though his current orders took precedent over his former ones, he could not still shake the feeling that he was committing something that he will regret later.
And the vague nature of the order did not sit that well, either. If not for the authentic mark of his liege, he would have dismissed it. But orders were orders, particularly when it came from his liege.
The old man, he had met in the small village in the outskirts of Damrell had commanded him to follow but what he thought was another short journey became long as now, they were deep in the wilderness following a game trail, stung by gnats and mosquitoes and dodging creeper vines and remoras. At least that was how he felt. In front of him, the old man seemed immune to them all, deftly dodging obstacles while nimbly keeping a constant, almost effortless walk.
Ios wondered who the old man was and what urgent reasons had compelled his lord to override his previous orders, and why they had to go to such lengths to get to the rendezvous. Already, his calves were getting knotted. Though he was a warrior in his prime and supposed to be at the peak of his physical strength, he was finding his body getting heavier by the minute and to think that the distance they have covered, though long was not near enough to his limit.
His body, however, cried different. The last time he felt this tired was when he volunteered to lead the new Seeker recruits in their wilderness death hike, a rugged journey on foot through deep wildlands for five days and nights straight without sleep. And his body only felt the strain in the fourth day.
This walk was just five hours in relatively better terrain. Was he getting old, he wondered.
Finally as if in answer to his unspoken desire, they cleared a dense clump to a clearing. It was nothing more than a dead spot in the forest, one of the many inexplicable things that dotted the continent. Like all dead spots only the bare earth was present. No hint of vegetation or life was there. Around its edges, one could see that they have exerted all efforts to avoid it, twisted branches, diverted stems and corkscrewed vines marked its boundary.
The old man stopped in the middle and stood there motionless, his back on him. Ios bent to the ground and tried to rest sore muscles but still in a position to draw his sword if the need arose. He peered around, his warrior senses marking the likeliest spot for an ambush if there was one and positioned himself.
He stared at his motionless guide. Were they resting, he wondered. Did the old man sense his tiredness and chose the place to give him a breather. He felt insulted by that insinuation but he was thankful. Already, his breathing has normalized and the dull ache in his calf muscles has receded. Once more he felt goosebumps.
Without a noise, the old man turned to face him and Ios nearly dropped to the earth as the visage bore upon him. Instead of the grizzled face of the old man, it was the commanding countenance of his lord. He recovered and dropped to his knees, his eyes to the ground.
“My lord” he stammered. He wondered if he had seen an illusion. Part of him thought that it was a trick, that the new orders have been a farce to get him away from his real mission. That this was all a clever ploy. But the automatic response that his body did upon seeing his lord’s face was unquestionable. He would have known if it was a trick right? He longed to raise his eyes to confirm but again years of in built responses kept him on his obeisance. His body dared not risk it.
“You may rise, my dear soldier.” The rich baritone voice was unmistakable. Its air of strength that was laced with just a hint of steel was inimitable. And looking up, Ios risked reproach by glancing at his lord’s eyes. Red on blue pierced through him and he felt suddenly exposed as if everything about him has been laid bare.
This was his lord, indeed.
And he shivered, almost uncontrollably.


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