I recently finished the second draft of a story I’m working on, and I decided to share it online. I’m sharing one chapter at a time, and the story is about 487,000 words right now (roughly 5 paperback novels in length, give or take), so this will take awhile.
I estimate that 2nd draft is about 80% of the way there, story-wise; but 80% is not 100%. This chapter might show up in the final story completely unchanged. It might show up with minor changes, or heavy revisions; or might be cut from the final draft completely. If it does remain, it might be in a new place in the story or the same place.
* * * * *
When Danur woke, he was lying on something cold and hard.
He shifted, biting back a groan as his aching back dug into the ground. But his eyes were triumphant. It had worked!
The whirlpool had been a test, a portal between Mortal Realm and Island that had to be crossed. But not crossed the way he had initially expected. It was overcome, not through strength of arms, but through a willingness to die. When he had launched himself into the whirlpool, letting go of his fear of death to do what was necessary, he had fallen through it and into another realm. The Island.
He climbed to his feet, muscles protesting. Even his body did not like being slammed into a wall of water and then plunged through a whirlpool. He staggered to hands and knees and then pushed himself to his feet.
Then he stood up straight, forcing his shoulders back; and dusted himself off. He didn’t know when D’Arthur would come out to meet him, and he would not bargain with the God of Death looking like a weakling.
But D’Arthur wasn’t there. Danur looked around.
Stretching before him and behind was…gray. Gray sand, rough and coarse under his fingers when he had planted his hands on it. Cold and a little wet. But it extended all the way to the horizon, perfectly flat without even dunes or depressions in the sand to break up the flatness.
And above him, more gray. Clouds enveloped the sky. Not dark and heavy with rain, not ready to storm and lash the land with wind and lightning. Just…gray. gray and flat. The clouds didn’t even look like they were moving; they just hung there in the sky, uniform and bleak.
He craned his neck, and high above he could see what must be the sun. Not a ball of yellow fire, not here. It wasn’t even visible. But there was a slight lightening to the clouds directly above him, a corona of paler gray.
Danur nodded to himself, suspicions confirmed. So this Island wasn’t a part of the Antechamber, not truly. Not if he could still see the sun, faint and feeble behind the clouds as it was. It was a mixture of Antechamber and Mortal Realm. And the sun was in the same position it would be in the Mortal Realm, the same position it had been before the storm and the whirlpool had appeared out of nowhere.
He returned to his observation, cool and calculating. The books had told him a little of what to expect. But they had been written centuries ago, and some of them disagreed on key details. He needed to learn about this land, to understand it; and where he had a choice, he would rather trust his own observations.
To his left stretched the ocean. But not the same ocean he had sailed in, not unless it had changed dramatically. This ocean was gray and…flat. Almost as flat as the sand. It was almost still; only small waves broke the stillness, moving gently towards shore to lap lethargically at the beach.
And to his right…Danur let out a long breath. On this, at least, the books had been right.
To his right stretched a wall of mist. The wall seemed to stretch forever to either side, vanishing into the horizon; and Danur thought maybe it did stretch forever. Distance was…strange, here. As strange as magic.
He wasn’t in the Mortal Realm anymore, and this mist proved it. Things like forever were possible now in a way that they wouldn’t be in his own land.
The wall of mist stretched impossibly high too, up and up and up until it merged with the clouds. Danur’s neck strained as he followed it up.
The mist was the only thing that looked alive here. Even the air around him felt dead. There was no wind; not even an occasional breeze, and the air just…hung there. On him. Still and dead and a little bit clammy.
But that mist…that looked alive. Felt alive, in some way he didn’t quite understand. It was snow white, white as pure new frost or as the silk of Illidrea’s favorite gown. And it moved. Ribbons of mist wove through and around each other, a complex lattice that strained and confused the eye.
And, in some way, even the mist felt wrong. Beautiful, pure, dancing and swirling endlessly. But he could feel in his bones a desire not to go any nearer.
That mist, the books said, was what separated the Island from the Antechamber proper. On the Island, mortals could come to bargain with the God of Death, could survive for a little while. But in the Antechamber…that was purely the realm of the dead.
“Looking for your dead lover, mortal?”
The voice was like the rasp of death, coldly drawn from a dying person’s lungs. Danur spun.
Before him, suddenly, was a man.
An old man. Danur looked at him, keeping his features smooth. Not letting the terror that gibbered inside of him show.
This was the God of Death. Oh, he didn’t look dangerous; just a bent old man, shoulders stooped with age, features lined like paper that had been creased and re-creased a thousand times. But everything living in Danur recoiled from this being. Inside, he felt small and weak and helpless, a small child facing down a bully on the streets who wanted him dead.
Even more than the mist, the God of Death felt wrong to Danur. A man was not meant to face his own death but once, at the end of his life. But here, staring him in the eye, was not just his own death but the deaths of every man and woman in the Mortal Realm.
Danur forced his traitorous feet not to take a step back, forced the horror and the gibbering fear to stay off his face and out of his eyes. And looked D’Arthur, coldly, up and down.
The God of Death wasn’t much to look at. Just an old man, gray hair hanging around his shoulders, skin like wax stretched too tight over fragile bones.
But his eyes….
They were black, even the irises; black and hungry and gaping. As Danur met those eyes, they gaped wider, and he felt himself almost jerked off his feet. Like those eyes were sucking him towards them, into them.
With a growl Danur planted his boots in the sand, standing up straight once more. He didn’t break eye contact. His own eyes, blue and cold as a hawk’s glare, pierced into D’Arthur.
Never let them see you sweat.
Just because he was afraid didn’t mean D’Arthur had to know that. Ruthlessly, he took the gibbering fear inside him and squashed it.
The God of Death gestured to the wall of mist with one wrinkled, bony hand.
“Your lover is right inside those walls. Why don’t you get her out? A little thing like a wall of mist has never stopped the great Danur.”
Danur didn’t even glance at the wall of mist. He had considered that, but his books had warned him. No man could enter that wall of mist and come out this side again; it was an impermeable barrier between the Island and the Antechamber. Once someone was dead, they could only cross that line with the help of a God.
He kept his eyes fixed on D’Arthur.
“I think not, D’Arthur. We both know that if I cross, I can never return.
“I want Illidrea back, and I’m willing to bargain. Are you willing to make a trade, or would you rather waste my time with transparent attempts to kill me?”
The God of Death smiled. Cold and cruel and dangerous.
“Fine, mortal. We can bargain. I can do anything…for a price.”
Danur shook his head. He had seen this coming. The way D’Arthur’s statement was worded, any price Danur paid would just get him to the bargaining table. I can bargain…for a price.
“I’m not going to pay just for a seat at the bargaining table. Cease these childish games, D’Arthur. Are you interested in a bargain or not?”
There. He had to get the God of Death just a little off-balance. Not scare him–he didn’t know if he could scare a God–but remind him that Danur was not a rabbit to be hunted. In every arena outside of the Island, he was the hunter.
D’Arthur had to remember that, or this whole plan might fall apart.
“Now,” Danur said. “I expect Illidrea to be returned to me, alive and in perfect health, in precisely the same state that she was before she drank from that poisoned chalice. What price will you ask of me to see it done?”
He knew the price he was willing to pay; knew the price he wanted to pay. But it was crucial that D’Arthur was the one who came up with it. This whole illusion would only work if D’Arthur believed that he was the one setting the terms.
Danur watched the God of Death considering, and fought the urge to swallow. He was walking a tightrope, a hundred feet above a circle of knives. Slip just a toe one way or the other, and he and Illidrea would spend an eternity in the Hellscape.
No, he ordered himself. Ruthlessly he quashed the doubt. This plan would succeed. It would, because there was no other option.
“I want a hundred thousand souls,” D’Arthur said coldly. “One hundred thousand dead humans, killed by your hand or at your command. Within one year. When you kill the one hundred thousandth, I swear by the unbreakable oath of a God that I will return Illidrea to life. Just as she was before she drank from that chalice, and not one iota different.”
Danur forced his eyes to widen, like that number was too great. It wouldn’t matter one way or another, of course. But no sane man would take a first offer like that if he really intended to follow it through.
He shook his head.
“Ten thousand souls, to be delivered on a timeline to be determined. A hundred thousand can’t be done, not even by me. I would have to raze every human city in the land.”
The God of Death stepped towards him, booted feet sinking into the cold wet sand, and suddenly seemed to grow. His height didn’t change, but suddenly he loomed with the force of his power. Suddenly those cold black eyes were gaping, massive and hungry, and threatening to pull Danur headfirst into them.
Danur didn’t have to feign his fear. He staggered back, eyes widening before he got himself under control.
“Do not presume to bargain too much with me, little mortal. I know what you can do, and I know what you cannot do. My eyes on the Mortal Realm are not as cloudy as some fools seem to believe. I know you can crush the entire human lands into dust, and I know you would gladly burn them to ash just to bring Illidrea back.”
Then he seemed to shrink down. Pull that aura of terror back into himself.
“Still, little mortal, I am in a merciful mood today. And it struck me that there is something I want even more than the deaths of a whole kingdom.
“I want innocent souls delivered to me. I want souls who have never killed except in self-defense, who have never stolen, who have tried to do right by their fellow man and woman, who have never beaten someone smaller and weaker than them just to watch them scream.”
His eyes tightened, and Danur didn’t think it was part of their game. Like he remembered the people who would beat those who were smaller and weaker, just to watch them scream; remembered them and did not like them. Danur took a careful note in the back of his mind.
“Understand, little mortal; every soul that ever lives belongs to me in the end. Every one of them. They all die, and when they die they are mine to cast into the Hellscape for ten thousand years.
“What I crave is not more death; what I crave is the cessation of life. Because before any man dies, he is free to live on the Mortal Realm. And however good or bad the Mortal Realm is for that man, it is a paradise compared to the Hellscape. A paradise,” sneered D’Arthur, “that is ill-deserved and ill-used by those lucky enough to find themselves in it. But still, a paradise.
“Take that paradise away from ten thousand souls, rip it from the arms of the people who most deserve it, and I swear on my oath as a God that I will raise Illidrea from the dead, in full and perfect health, as soon as the ten thousandth soul is killed by your hand or at your command.”
The rage in D’Arthur’s face, the malice twisting that mouth and radiating like heat off of that bent frame, almost made Danur reconsider. His mouth was dry.
He had done a lot of monstrous deeds in his life, and he had no regrets. Had killed and tortured and pillaged, had put whole towns to the sword when they came between him and his goals. And he would do it all again in a heartbeat.
But this? Working with a creature this cruel, this hateful towards everyone who had ever lived?
Danur licked his lips, getting moisture back into his mouth.
But D’Arthur was right about one thing. If this was the only way, he would do it and not look back. Would burn the world into ash and never shed a tear as he did it, if it got him Illidrea back.
“Timeline?” he asked.
D’Arthur waved one hand airily.
“I think a year should be enough time, now that the number of souls is set so low. Unless you are far less competent than I’ve been led to believe.”
Danur forced himself to meet the creature’s cold hard stare. He did the quick calculations in his mind. Ten thousand souls. That would be about one city’s worth, if he was smart. Multiply that by the ratio of guilty to innocent souls, and he would probably have to destroy three or four cities.
Of course, his intention was to destroy only one. He kept his features smooth, kept any hint of that plan off of his face. Even three or four cities, he could destroy within one year.
And if he kept bargaining…Danur was a good liar, but the longer he bargained the greater the chance of letting something slip. Best to end this quickly.
“A year,” he agreed. He shook the creature’s hand, fighting back his body’s revulsion as he touched the God of Death. The old man’s hand felt clammy and dead, like a corpse that was somehow still moving.
And as they shook hands, the weight of the bargain sealed itself on Danur like a lead cloak around his shoulders.
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