First Kill

Introduction

This one is from such an early draft that I almost forgot I had it, which would have been a shame, because I am very fond of it. In the scene, Arlen sets a trap for a wind demon on the roof of the Duke’s Library in Fort Miln, so that he can study it up close.

This scene was one of the earliest I ever wrote, and was cut and replaced by the previous excision, Canon Apocrypha, which was also later cut. Like Canon Apocrypha, the scene takes place at the end of Chapter 12, “Library”, and is a further expansion on Arlen’s quest to separate fact from fiction with regard to the corelings, and how finding a way to fight and kill them is the driving force in his life.

Why It Was Cut

I cut this scene for pacing. While a dark and somewhat thrilling and satisfying event in Arlen’s young life, I felt that it gave away too much too quickly, offering a glimmer of hope and easing tension for both Arlen and the reader at a time when the story should be building that tension upwards. I wanted Arlen’s first kill to mean more, and to keep the reader scared of the dark a little longer.

Scene

As weeks went by, Arlen finished the benches and tables, and began working late at night, telling Master Ronnell that he was warding the floors and bookshelves, so as not to disturb scholars at work. In truth, it was as much to avoid Mery, though it was clear she was upset and wanted to speak with him.

He knew he had been wrong to take his anger out on her, but he knew it could easily happen again. She confused him, and he had no idea what to say to her, or what to feel. She had been brainwashed into believing the imaginings of self-important and fearful men, trying to find some divine explanation for the way things had always been. Arlen had found another copy of the Canon of the Holy Men in the Library, there were many versions, and had read it through. The rest angered him as much as the beginning. It was filled with self-abuse, blaming all of the ills of the world on mankind’s sin, and then spoke prophecies of a Deliverer to come and herald the Creator’s forgiveness and the end of the plague.

Arlen had discussed this with Cob and Ragen at length, and thought he understood how this had happened. It was easier to accept that the misery in life was the unalterable design of some abstract being than it was to get up and face that misery head-on. It was easier to pray for the Deliverer to come and vanquish the corelings than it was to risk lives and money and years on building warded roads or—Creator forbid—fighting them oneself. It was a nice thing to believe, he supposed, but how could a man of such learning as Master Ronnell actually find sense in these words?

He remembered one text:

“You shall know the Deliverer on sight
For he shall be marked upon his bare flesh
And the demons will not abide the sight
And they shall flee terrified before him.”

What was the likelihood of that? Would every man with a birthmark be considered a potential Deliverer, or was it so vague that no man would dare to test it?

As he gathered warding supplies into a bag and picked up his spear one night, Arlen put the thoughts from his head, but held on to the anger they brought. It was not the fault of the people, even the Holy Men, that the world had come to this. It was not the fault of some Creator. The blame could be laid in only one place, and tonight, Arlen hoped that he could get back a touch of justice.

Arlen had been planning this night for months, ever since he and Cob had first warded the roof to the Library. As he ascended the steps, he felt a flush of excitement he had not felt since darting across his yard at dusk in Tibbet’s Brook. In the year and more since the breach, he had spent all his time indoors, safely warded from the evils outside. That was fine for a mason or even a Warder, but not for a Messenger. He needed to know his enemy, and tonight, he meant to begin his education.

Opening the door to the Library’s roof, Arlen walked out to the edge and looked out over the night city, breathing deeply of the crisp, cold air. The roof was kept clear of snow, and the wards were active. Here and there light from the guard posts and the occasional building could be seen, but most people were long since asleep.

Occasionally, he saw a flash as a wind demon struck the net below. The Library, as one of Miln’s tallest buildings, was above the city’s wardnet, woven by stone wards at the guardposts along the walls and the tops of certain buildings.

He looked up, taking in the sky. Up in the mountains, the stars were bright enough to see by. They were beautiful, another thing taken from man by the corelings. He welcomed the anger that came with the thought.

Arlen stepped to the center of the roof, out of sight of the guardposts, or any who might chance to be awake and look up. Working quickly, he laid his spear beside him and unhooded his lantern, creating a circle of light to work by. He took a series of wardstones from his bag and prepared a circle some ten feet wide, then laid a cloth across more than half of it, tying the cloth to some rough twine.

He looped the twine about his spear, then tied the other end to another piece of cloth. This he threw over the primary wardpost on the roof, disabling the roof’s net. Satisfied, Arlen walked back to his half-covered circle and knelt down to wait, spear in hand.

A wind demon spied his light and swooped in to investigate. The creature shrieked at the sight of the boy, but approached cautiously, trained to fear the sting of the city’s wards. It swept the tip of a wing across the roof’s edge, and feeling no pain, banked around and swooped down at Arlen.

The boy had chosen his spot carefully, and the demon had to pull up short of striking range to avoid slamming into the stone wall of the roof access. The creature shrieked again, and landed upon the roof.
Tensed, his heart pounding, Arlen remained coiled on one knee as the demon approached. He watched it closely, marking once more the awkward gait, and waited.

At last, the coreling gave a cry and rushed at him, talons extended. Arlen sprang away, landing in a roll and pulling on his spear. As the twine pulled taut, the two cloths fell away, completing the circle in which the demon stood and reestablishing the net around the roof at once.

The demon cried in agony as the circle was completed, severing the tip of one wing. Ignoring the creature, Arlen walked over and picked up the bit of membrane and claw, inspecting the bone and cartilage, avoiding the black ichor that leaked from the edge. He ran a thumb along the talon, feeling its sharpness, and nodded in satisfaction. He wrapped the wing in an oiled cloth and put it in his bag.

He took up his lantern and brought his attention back to the howling demon as it kicked and beat against the wards. He smiled as it tried to take wing and fly away. He had angled the stones to form a cone, and the wards flared brightly as the demon struck the top of its prison.

After a time, the coreling seemed to see the futility of trying to break through the wards, and turned its attention back to Arlen, hissing its hatred.

Arlen held up his lantern and circled the beast slowly, memorizing everything he saw. The demon was over seven feet tall, but Arlen doubted it weighed a hundred pounds. The membrane of its wings was stretched from the talons at the end of its arms to those of its clawed feel, webbed with several thinner bones jutting from joints on the arm. The wings, along with the ridge along its back, were translucently thin.

Putting down the lantern, Arlen took his long spear in both hands. The wooden shaft was eight feet long, with a barbed metal point extending ten inches further. Arlen had sharpened it himself, and knew it could cut thick leather as easily as soft cheese. He circled as the demon watched warily. No human had ever challenged it before, Arlen suspected, but it was trapped and injured. Arlen thought he saw a touch of fear in its eyes. He relished that look.

Moving with sudden speed, Arlen stabbed forward, striking hard into the demon’s ribs, then pulled back just as suddenly. The demon screamed and struck its wing clumsily at the spear, too slow.

Arlen looked at the tip of the spear, and was unsurprised at the lack of ichor. It was no secret that demon flesh was tougher than leather. He could tell he had hurt the creature, though, for it was brushing its arm at the tender spot, glaring at him. Arlen laughed, and the demon charged at him. As it struck the wards, the boy lashed out again, harder.

This time, with the added momentum of the enraged coreling, the spear tip did break through the demon’s skin, if only barely. An oozing black ichor tinged the first half-inch of the metal. Arlen had an urge to lick the ichor and laugh with glee.

Circling again, Arlen moved slowly, his spear held low until the coreling ceased to pay attention to it, focusing on the eyes of its hated captor. The two locked wills, and Arlen found the demon wanting. He struck at its wing, stabbing his spear right through the membrane.

He yanked the weapon back quickly, leaving a jagged hole in the wing. A sense of contentment, of order, washed over him. The very thing that gave these corelings dominion over the skies, the thing that allowed them to bypass the wards that kept other corelings at bay, was their weakness.

Arlen studied the tear. It was not enough to keep the creature from flying. He made a mental note to design a spear tip that would inflict more damage on the vulnerable wings, something with longer, serrated barbs.

The demon screamed and pounded at the wards, but the effort was useless. He stabbed at the creature’s eyes, trying to test their vulnerability, but the wind demon had come to respect the spear, and cringed back whenever it was brought up.

“Mark the lesson well,” Arlen advised the demon. “I will teach it to your brothers before long.”

* * * * *

Arlen rose from his seat as dawn came, laying down his sketches of the demon. The bag with the creature’s bit of wing was already inside, safe from the sun until he could study it further. He walked to the demon and tried to meet its eyes, but the coreling was focused on the horizon. A terrified warble came from its throat as it regarded the purple sky, beginning to redden. It began to claw at the wards frantically.

Arlen circled, watching coldly as the coreling gave up trying to escape and curled into a ball, throwing a wing across its eyes as it shook in fright. The sun crested the horizon, and the demon shrieked, its skin already starting to sizzle and brown.

The boy watched every moment, noting with clinical dispassion each blister that appeared on the smoking skin. The sun rose higher, and the demon screamed in agony as it burst aflame. The smoke it gave off was putrid and foul, and Arlen was forced to back away, unable to withstand the poisonous stench. Still, he refused to look away, even as his eyes stung and teared. The wind demon fell to the roof, twitching as its flesh burned away. Finally, it convulsed its last and lay still. The flames died, and a mountain breeze collapsed its frame into a pile of ash.

Arlen walked over and ground it beneath his boot, his spittle sizzling on the last embers.