Now, as promised, here is the rough draft of the prologue of my next book. I've wanted to do a fantasy book for several years, and made several attempts at starting it, but only recently did I get the inspiration to make it more original and worthwhile than the usual "intrepid band of heroes on a noble quest to overthrow an evil magic warlord" thing. The setting has also now fully shifted from a purely fantasy land, to a fictional continent located in the real 14th century world, to an entirely real location which I was delighted to discover fit my purposes perfectly, as if God created it just so that someday I could write this story. I read about it while researching in "The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time" by John Kelly, which is a fascinating but sobering read. (Some Mormons who mistakenly think that intimacy is a synonym for sex may be confused by the title.)
Feedback, positive or negative, is welcome. I already know some stuff like the names and details about Catholicism and whatever will probably need to be changed for accuracy, but I was too impatient to finish researching before starting the book. I apologize that the copy-pasting process has made the formatting inconsistent.
Tauric Peninsula, AD 1335
Nicolai hadn’t slept well even once since laying his beloved Isabel to rest in the earth a couple months ago, after the birth of his third child, but he had been particularly on edge since the big red star had appeared in the night sky last night. This morning, on awakening, he had discovered one of his cows dead, desiccated, with only a pair of puncture wounds in its neck to indicate what had happened. He didn’t know if there was a correlation, but whatever was going on, he needed to stand guard and put a stop to it.
He stood a few meters from his hut, gripping his sword, eyes and ears trained on the nearby stable for the slightest indication of distress. He didn’t want to venture too far from the hut until he needed to, because his young son and infant daughter were sleeping inside. His was a modest but sufficient farm with several others nearby. His neighbors were equally on edge, though only a few of them had also had their livestock killed.
To the east lay the thriving port city of Caffa and the Black Sea; to the west, the small town of Solkhat preceded seemingly endless steppes; and to the southwest the steppes gradually gave way to a mountain range. None of it had ever held much interest for him. His livelihood was here and he only traveled when he had to, which was not very often.
Nicolai nearly swung around decapitated his eight year old son. “Zach!” he said. “Don’t startle me like that!” His tone softened as he relaxed. “You’re supposed to be in bed, my boy.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Zach. “I feel… scared.”
Nicolai hadn’t told him about the cow, but the tension was palpable. “You feel it too, eh? Well, I don’t know if anything will happen tonight, but we mustn’t take any chances. It isn’t safe for you out here.”
“What’s that new star for?” Zach asked, pointing to it as he noticed it for the first time.
“I don’t know,” said Nicolai. “But nothing good. In times past a new star heralded the birth of the Son of God – perhaps this one has to do with Satan.”
“You think it’s dangerous?”
Nicolai sighed; clearly Zach wasn’t going to bed until his curiosity was satisfied. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “But something demonic killed one of the cows last night.”
Zach gulfed, and shivered from more than the night air. “Werewolf?”
“I don’t think so. A werewolf, like a normal wolf, would have torn her apart. She was intact, but something had sucked the blood out of her. I’ve never heard of vampires going after livestock before, but maybe…” He shrugged. “Anyway. You really need to get inside before –”
The urgency in his son’s voice caused him to look before his mind registered the words; then it took him a moment longer to comprehend what he was seeing. A sort of disc shape was rapidly descending from the sky, glowing in the dark, ringed around the edge with multicolored circles that flashed and emanated light, but did not flicker or move like fire. As it grew closer, a low-pitched wub-wub-wub-wub-wub sound became audible.
Nicolai turned pale. “Into the house, now!” he cried, giving Zach a shove. “Go!” He glanced back at the strange object and crossed himself.
“But dad, it’s so cool! What is it?”
The object stopped and hovered in the air some distance above his field, continuing to make the sound, and then his wheat began to flatten itself – not all of it, but in some sort of circular pattern that he couldn’t quite make out from this vantage point. Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it zipped away faster than it had come.
“Dad, what is it?” Zach repeated.
“I have no idea,” said Nicolai. “I’ll investigate this. Get to the house and watch Jamille.”
Zach ran off and did as he was told. Nicolai stepped forward, cautiously, toward his field, sword at the ready. It was his father’s sword, and had seen plenty of action in the Crusades, though he himself had never killed anything with it. Still, he had practiced enough to be confident against most opponents – but not this thing, whatever it was.
As he got closer, though, his ears picked up another sound, a skritching from the direction of the stable, almost forgotten in the excitement. It was followed by the lowing of a cow, sounding confused at first and rising in high-pitched alarm at the end. Nicolai ran toward it and flung open the door.
What he saw took his breath away. Another cow lay dead, and crouched over it was an apparition he had never seen even in his nightmares. It looked vaguely like a wolf, but appeared to be bipedal, and had smooth hairless blue skin. As it looked up from its kill, he saw that it had two prominent fangs like a vampire, and two bright red multifaceted orbs for eyes. They glistened with some undiscernible emotion at the sight of him.
Then it propelled itself off its hind legs and lunged at him, like a frog, letting out a bloodcurdling cross between a gargle and a howl.
Nicolai sidestepped the beast and swung his sword. The creature’s head flew one way as its body staggered on and slumped to the ground. There was less blood than he had expected – in fact, he wasn’t even sure if the sticky light blue sheen on his sword blade could be considered blood. But there was no time to worry about that now, or investigate his kill, because at that moment he heard Zach yelling from the house, “Dad!”
As he ran, he heard the gargle-howl sound again, and then Jamille was crying, and then he was in the house and another one of the creatures was staggering back from the basket where she lay, with three crossbow quarrels sticking out of its chest. Zach stood across from it, the weapon in his hands. As it shook its head and seemed to regain his composure, Nicolai hurled his sword like a javelin, impaling it and pinning it to the far wall. It thrashed and howled for a moment and then was still.
Zach’s eyes were wide with terror. “What is it?” he whispered, breathing hard. “A demon?”
“I wouldn’t expect demons to be killed so easily,” said Nicolai as he lifted Jamille from her basket and attempted to soothe her, “but I can’t imagine what else it could be. There was another one in the stable. Shhh,” he said to Jamille, “it’s okay, daddy’s got you.” As she began to stop crying, he set her back down and moved to block her view of the dead creature while he removed his sword from its chest and let it slump to the ground.
“Then you were right,” said Zach. “The star has something to do with Satan. Now I really can’t sleep.”
“Tell me about it.” Now that he had time to think, Nicolai examined the sticky blue substance on his sword. He dared to rub at it and feel its viscosity. It stuck to his finger like tree sap, though it wasn’t nearly so thick. He dared to sniff it; it was odorless. He didn’t dare to stick it in his mouth.
As his adrenaline faded away, the fear began to really set in. How many were out there? They were easy enough to dispatch one at a time, but he couldn’t hold off an entire crowd, especially if they surrounded the house or the stables. He couldn’t protect all the livestock and both his children. If only Zach were a little older – if only Isabel were still alive – and then his heart froze as he heard the sound outside again.
Zach heard it, too, and his eyes grew even wider.
“Give me that. Take this.” Nicolai hastily exchanged his sword for the crossbow. “I’m going to take care of it. Stay here.”
The sword was heavy; Zach could barely lift it, though he had practiced with it a couple times when his father wasn’t looking. As Nicolai went out the door, he followed behind, disregarding the order.
The disc was hovering over the field again. This time Nicolai didn’t hesitate, and began firing at it right away. The quarrels seemed to have no effect for a moment; then it tilted, angling its underside toward him. In its center an opening appeared and began to glow like the lights around its edge. Holding his breath, Nicolai took quick but careful aim and fired at this opening, hoping it was a weak spot.
His hope was validated when the disc exploded, showering thousands of pieces of burning metal on the ground below; but he hardly noticed, because the opening had already released a ray of bright pink light that washed over him and burned his skin from his bones in an instant. Behind him, Zach’s cry of panic was cut short.
Father Mason was devout and unshakable in his faith, but somewhat unorthodox in his practice, preferring to follow his own judgment and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit without regard to protocol or tradition. He had even nearly gotten himself excommunicated once or twice, but his service to the Church was indispensable. He was in charge of the monastery in the mountains, and it was there that he was returning on this night after conducting some business in Caffa with his headstrong young protégé, Gregory.
Though he was, of course, concerned about the strange red star, he became far more concerned about the flames and smoke that came into view as they left the city. Upon reaching it, they found that the unfortunate farmer’s neighbors had already put out the fire before it entirely destroyed the stable or reached the house, and were milling about talking amongst themselves in fear and confusion.
“You see, Gregory,” he whispered, “this is why the Holy Spirit told us to return home immediately, rather than stay the night.” More loudly, he called to the farmers, “Hello there! What’s all this about?”
They all began to chatter at once, but eventually he got the gist of what had happened. Already on the alert because of the red star and dead livestock, they had come running in response to strange noises, and a few of them had been in time to see the disc explode as the field burst into flame.
Gesturing for Gregory to follow suit, he crossed himself, dismounted and commenced his investigation. The first thing he noticed was that the smaller of the charred corpses clutched a sword, buckled and twisted from heat but still recognizable. This he took and handed to Gregory for safekeeping, feeling that it could still be useful. There were several shards of burnt metal scattered around as well, and he pocketed one to examine later.
Then he headed for the stable. The wall adjoining the field was mostly gone, and the roof partially so, but the rest of the structure was intact. As Father Mason headed for the door, one of the farmers put an arresting hand on his shoulder. “Don’t go in there,” the man warned, his face ghostly white. “There’s something terrible in there… some kind of dead demon…”
“If it’s dead, there’s nothing to worry about, is there?” said Father Mason with a smile, gently brushing him off and stepping inside. Behind him, Gregory crossed himself again and looked around nervously.
Inside, the cattle were shifting around and chewing in an agitated yet silent manner, as if in shock. Father Mason knelt by the decapitated creature on the floor, took out his notebook, and made a quick but detailed sketch. He had never seen anything like it before, and was intrigued.
“It’s hideous,” Gregory whispered.
Father Mason smiled. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“Well, this beholder says it’s hideous.”
“And this one concurs.” Father Mason closed his notebook and stood up. “But the question is whether that’s just a fundamental trait or just our aesthetic preference. In other words, is this a demon, or just a previously undiscovered beast, perhaps driven out of hiding by the clearing of the forests?”
“Then what about the flying disc?”
“Beats me.” There was a sticky substance oozing from the creature’s neck; he rubbed at it, sniffed it, and then cautiously put some in his mouth. It tasted like very strong vinegar and he spat it out hard. “Let’s check out the house now.”
“If you insist, Father,” said Gregory, casting a wary glance back at the dead beast and crossing himself again.
As with the stable, the farmers had stayed outside the house, and for the same reason. Inside, Father Mason took note of the second dead creature and was about to sketch it when he took note of something else – an infant in a basket, sleeping peacefully, as if oblivious to what had occurred just a few meters away from her. He crept over to her and gently lifted the basket up. “Ah,” he said. “This one will be needing a new home now.”
“Poor thing,” said Gregory.
Asking around outside, they found that her name was Jamille, but that no one had the resources to take her in at the moment. Gregory was getting agitated and discouraged, but Father Mason just smiled. He’d suspected as much, because the idea was already formulating in his mind as to what he should do.
“Saddle up,” he told Gregory. “I’ll sketch the second one from memory when we get back, and get the coroner’s report on my next visit.”
“We can’t take her back with us,” said Gregory.
Father Mason smiled to himself. “We’re not going to.”
Gregory’s eyes bugged. “You don’t mean –”
“Of course,” said Father Mason. “Where else?”
Gregory just shook his head, stupefied.
Their journey took them into the mountains, the moon overhead casting long eerie shadows which seemed to carry a sense of foreboding that they never had before. Single file, they traversed a path that was treacherous enough in the daytime, but they could have navigated it in their sleep, as they had taken the route back and forth from the monastery many times.
This time, however, they took a detour they had traveled far less often, and which most of the brethren would prefer them to never travel at all. Just before dawn, this path terminated at the entrance of a large cave which descended deep underground – how deep, they had no idea, because neither of them had ever set foot in it.
Father Mason dismounted with Jamille’s basket in hand; she had slept soundly through the entire trip. He walked up to the entrance, taking care to stay just on the outside of it. He crossed himself, cleared his throat and called out, “Hello! Milo, are you home?”
There was a long, pregnant silence. Then a low growl reverberated off the cavern walls and seeped out to them, carrying with it the stench of death and making the earth vibrate beneath his feet.
“Right then,” said Father Mason. “We have someone that we’d like you to meet.” He set the basket down on the ground and nudged it just beyond the cave entrance.
A pair of glowing, reptilian eyes became visible in the darkness, and the growl morphed into a voice. “You brought me a snack,” it said. “How thoughtful.”
Gregory blanched, but Father Mason smiled, perfectly calm. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “You’d swallow her in one gulp and still be hungry. Where’s the point in that? Actually, I was hoping that you would be willing to raise her to adulthood.”
There was a disbelieving scoff. “You’re giving me the hassle of reproduction, with none of the benefits?”
“She needs a guardian,” said Father Mason, not wavering. “You need companionship. Don’t think we’re unaware of how lonely you are.”
“Papa John wouldn’t approve.”
“His Holiness has bigger things to be concerned about. Besides, he trusts my judgment implicitly.”
The baby stirred slightly, stretching her arms and wrinkling her nose, but did not wake up.
“Eh, whatever,” said Milo. A massive claw nearly as large as the basket itself reached out of the darkness and pulled it in. Then the eyes disappeared and the stench dissipated as Milo turned around and headed back into the recesses of his cave.
“Have fun, and God be with you,” Father Mason called after him.
Gregory could contain himself no longer. “Are you out of your mind?” he said. “Why not save the trouble and just throw her to a pack of wolves?”
“You know that Milo isn’t just any dragon,” said Father Mason, smiling as he mounted his horse. “He’s our dear friend.”
“Um, I think not. A friend is someone who cares about you.”
“Relax,” said Father Mason. “We can trust him. I wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been led to by the Holy Spirit.”
Gregory restrained himself from rolling his eyes, but continued to press the issue as he got on his own horse. “The Holy Spirit? Are you sure about that? If you thought the Holy Spirit had told you to jump off one of these cliffs here, would you do it?”
“Of course,” said Father Mason. “I learned long ago to trust that no matter what the Holy Spirit tells me, it has a good reason.”
“And what might that reason be here?” said Gregory, gesturing back at the cave.
“I don’t claim to know for certain,” said Father Mason. He looked back at the cave himself with an almost wistful look. “But I do feel that very soon, and for quite a while, this will become the safest place that she can possibly be.”
He looked forward again and galloped off, hoping to reach the monastery before sunrise.