Well, I figured I was far enough along I could start posting some short story starters. I want to stress that this story has only had minimal editing and is very much a first draft.
If you like the concept and want to see the story continued, let me know. I'll be having a poll after all the stories are up so people can decide which one I should work on.
So without further ado, please enjoy the first chapter of the tentatively titled The Man Who Talked to Himself. (Please tell me if you have a better name. Please!)
Variel winced, body trembling as he dragged himself up the burning stairwell. Flames surrounded him, the very manor itself threatening to collapse at any moment. Still, his heart beat, and while it beat he would not stop. Sword clutched in one hand, breathing shallow and ragged, he fought to the top of the landing. Time was running out, every drop of blood a grain of sand in the hour glass.
With a loud crack the chamber doors gave way to his boot, revealing the Traitor's room. Flames gorged themselves on bookshelves and furniture as the Traitor, burned and bloody, waited, leaning against a large wooden desk.
“So this is how it ends?” he asked, a smile crossing his lips. “You strike me down in cold blood?”
“I assure you, when this ends, both our blood will be quite warm.”
The Traitor's smile melted into a sneer. He screamed and swung his arm across the desk, sending papers and books flying into the flames. “You're a fool! No matter what we'll both die here!”
“Then at least I die having made a difference in the world.”
The Traitor opened his mouth to protest once more but was silenced; a long, thin blade buried in his chest. The Traitor collapsed. Variel fell to his knees, tired eyes looking upward. Through large windows licked by fire he could see the city. The mansion groaned and the floor beneath him quaked. Perhaps if he were younger, stronger, he could make it, he could leap free. No. The fall would surely kill him anyway.
His time was over, his life well spent. Variel gave a short groan of pain as he fell against the desk. Eyes closed, he waited as the mansion gave way, flames and debris consuming him.
Nigel sat on the cold floor, sweat beading around his brow. The cold night air blew through the rickety hovel, the breeze playing with the end of an unfinished scarf lying along the arm of a wooden chair. Amelia's chair.
He swallowed hard, eyes unblinking.
“Nigel!” Pathinway's boys. They were finally here. “C'mon Nigel!”
The door threatened to fall from its hinges under their incessant pounding. His eyes scanned the room for something, anything he might use to defend himself.
“We got your sister, Nigel. 'Ow much longer before we 'ave your money, huh?”
Nigel gripped the edge of a small table, forcing himself to his feet. His eyes settled on the window. He wasn't sure where he'd run, but what choice did he have?
As the door fell to the ground Nigel leapt for the window. With half his body free, a strong hand grasped his collar, pulling him back quickly. Before he could say a word, a fist met with his midsection, doubling him over. He looked up to speak, but the three men gave him no chance, taking turns driving their oversized fists into his stomach.
He spat blood, gasping for air as they finally stopped, kicking him over onto his back.
“Now, Nigel, where is Pathinway's money, huh?”
It took him several seconds to draw enough air to answer. “I... I need more time.”
“Ooo... tha's not a good answer, Nige. You've 'ad plenty o' time,” another replied.
The first one crouched beside him, the bright sunlight through the window silhouetting him. “How about this, Nigel? If we don't have the money tonight, we take your hand instead. If we don't have the money after that, well... I don't think Pathinway's going to let your sister go. In fact... pretty face like that...”
“No!” he shouted. “Please... please just give me a chance.”
“Tonight, Nigel. Or Amelia-”
“No!” In a burst of rage the battered Nigel leapt at the larger man, screaming, arms reaching for his neck. He never got close. He slammed against the floor, the man's fingers wrapped tight around his throat.
“Hey! Pathinway said to give him-”
“Sod it! He ain't getting the money. Not tonight, not ever!”
As his vision blurred and darkened, the last thing Nigel saw was a butcher's knife gleaming in the sunlight.
His eyes opened. The smell of fire and blood was gone. His lungs filled with air. Where was he? He was staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. A sharp pain stung his arm as he felt someone slamming his wrist down against a hard surface. He turned. His hand was pinned against a small table. His hand? Only a moment of contemplation before the gleam of the blade caught his eye.
In a flash his hand was clear and the blade was buried in the wood. Before his attacker could respond the table was flipped, knocking him back. His friend turned, drawing nearer. He needed a weapon. By the chair, a knitting needle. To his feet, dodging the new attacker's grasp, the needle gripped, finding its way to his assailant's eye. Blood. Screams. A third man entered, drawing a sword. The blade sliced through the air, but he dodged. His feet danced deftly across the floor. He caught the swordsman's arm, ducking under and driving his elbow into the man's stomach. The first man was up again. A quick spin, placed him behind the swordsman, a knee knocking him forward and burying the blade in his companion's chest.
His assailant stared at his now lifeless companion, releasing his grip on the weapon. A quick kick flipped table up, the butcher's knife now free and pressed against the throat of the final foe.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?!” he repeated, the blade biting into the thug's neck.
“I's me! Jonny!”
“Where am I?”
“I – I don't understand.”
“I swear if you don't answer, your blood will join your cohorts' in staining this floor! Now, where am I?”
“Ollen! Uh... y-your house!”
“Ollen?” He took a moment to digest the words. Ollen. The city of the Traitor. However he escaped the flames, he didn't travel far. “And you? You work for Moorin?”
“Pathinway! Jim Pathinway!”
An unfamiliar name. A lieutenant perhaps?
“Pathinway? He wants me for Moorin's death?”
“I dun' know Moorin! He wants yer money!”
“I owe a debt to no man.”
The thug nodded. “Yes!”
“I have every reason to end you here. Do you understand?”
“Yes! Gods yes!”
“Good. I will let you live, but tell Pathinway I owe him nothing. And if he comes for me again I will do to him what I've done to your companions.”
“Tell him this!”
The thug fell to the floor, blood trickling from his neck and urine from his leg. He scurried to the door, daring to look back only once before fleeing.
With a quick flip the blade shot into the wall. It was a crude, uncouth weapon. But that sword? A disgusting squelch of blood and bile spilled forth as he took his new weapon, pausing only to stare at the hand that held the blade. This wasn't his hand. He lifted it, letting the light shine over the unfamiliar skin.
“Variel,” he said, “what has happened to you now?”
A mirror. He had to find a mirror, had to confirm his suspicions. He wandered through the city, the same city his army had invaded. Eyes darted from unfamiliar building to unfamiliar building. No signs of battle, no burns or ash. The city was by no means clean or prosperous, in fact is was run down filthy, but the signs of warfare were absent.
He tried to orient himself. If he could find the Traitor's manor, he could find his way from there. Perhaps even to a mirror.
Focus. He had to maintain focus. So many questions running through his mind, it was enough to make him dizzy. First, he had to figure out if he was truly in Ollen. Next, find the local authority, figure out where allegiances lay here. After that, eventually he would have to return to his unit, to his king. And maybe somewhere in there he'd find a damned mirror and figure out what happened!
Variel had never spent considerable time in slums or even lesser neighborhoods. Moving from building to building, shop to shop, he became more and more concerned with the lack of mirrors. Did no one in this city care about their appearance? He looked around at the rags the people wore, the dirt that stained their faces. Clearly not.
Finally stopping at a tavern, the warrior scanned the darkening sky. Clouds were drifting in and out. The air was muggy and he could feel the moisture around him. Well, it certainly felt like Ollen. As he lowered his gaze, the shine of light on water caught his eye. It was a rain barrel, glinting in the light, standing beside the tavern. It would do!
Variel rushed to the container, rotating around it to let the light hit the water. A stranger stared back at him from the rippling surface. Where was his golden hair? His blue eyes? A mess of a human being looked up from the water, hair matted and dirty, face darkened with filth. He couldn't take it.
The water splashed and run onto the ground as his dunked his head into the barrel, scrubbing and washing, hoping that he might somehow strip away the stranger's face, but still, it stared back at him from within the barrel.
“'Avin a bath, Nigel?”
He turned to see another pitiful creature stumbling from the tavern. It couldn't be much past noon, but this man was clearly intoxicated already.
“Do you know me?” Variel asked.
“Wha-? You 'avin a go at me, Nigel?”
“Of course. Just... thought you might not recognize me clean.”
“Ha! 'Bout as good a disguise as I figured you'd come up with. Hiding from Pathinway, eh?”
“You ain't staying 'idden for long. I 'eard he had thugs looking for you. Best watch your back.”
“I'll be sure to do that,” Variel replied, looking for an escape. “Best keep moving then, right?”
He turned, making for the tavern door.
“Oi! 'Ope things work out for your sister.”
“My what?” Variel replied instinctively.
“Still got water in yer ear?”
“Oh, sister! I... thought you said something else. I'll give her your best.”
“Pff... good luck with that.”
The stranger didn't elaborate, only dismissing him with a wave and moving out into the street. This raised several new questions for the hero. Stepping into the tavern, he looked for an out of the way table to think. Sliding in, he began laying out the information he had: this wasn't his body, something was off about Ollen, and whoever people thought he was apparently owed money to someone named Pathinway. And what was that bit about a sister? It was a lot to process, but he had to figure out his next move. He'd need a place for the night. That thug had mentioned his house. Or at least his generous host's house. No. If someone was after him, or more likely the body he was using, they already knew that place. And likely they weren't pleased with his handiwork.
“Hate sleeping next to corpses, anyway,” he muttered.
“Oh, is that how you pogue the hone these days?”
Variel, lips curled in a most offensive frown, turned to see a young woman, ratty hair tied back and clothes marked with various unknown stains. She might be pretty with a proper miracle, but as she stood he wasn't certain if she was a beggar or an employee of the tavern.“I beg your pardon!”
“Beg all you want, Nige, you ain't getting' any of this. And you ain't getting any drink until you pay Darrel what you owe.”
Variel quickly composed himself, trying to ignore the woman's vile tongue. Her profession was quite clear now, and that deduction made it impossible for him to hide his sneer.
“What? Got nuffin to say? That's a first.”
“Madam, I've had quite the day and I could use some quiet and solitude.”
“Ooo... look who learned some fancy new words. Amelia teach you those? Bless 'er heart, girl doesn't deserve a brother like you. Now if you haven't any money, you can piss off, Nigel. Darrel doesn't want you taking up room.”
Variel stared at his hands for a moment, absorbing the information this woman had inadvertently shared with him. It was helpful, but he had more pressing concerns.
“Perhaps we've gotten off on the wrong foot,” he started, checking his person for money of some sort. There was none. “I've had quite the distressing day and I could use a friendly face and some place to stay for the night.”
“Pff... well it ain't with me.”
“Well of course not; I wouldn't have the coin in any case.”
Fire flared in the woman's eyes as she reached for a large, metal decanter. It was the last thing the hero saw before his world went black.
“Oi! Emma! What'd I tell you about beating the customers!”
Nigel rubbed the side of his head, slowly moving up to his knees. He could hear Darrel and Emma going on about something behind him, which made him wonder why they were in his house. He wiped off bits of straw and dirt the floor left on his face, taking a moment to suss out his surroundings.
“The Mule?” he wondered aloud. That couldn't be right. Last he remembered Pathinway's boys were... “Amelia!”
He scrambled to his feet, only stopped by the pain digging through his skull like an ice pick. He stumbled for a moment before falling into the bar, gripping the surface to steady himself.
“And you,” Darrel said, seizing the man and hoisting him straight. “You know I don't want to see you 'less you got my money.”
“Oh, please Darrel... I don't need anyone else giving me that line,” Nigel muttered, rubbing his temple.
Darrel pulled his hand away, inspecting the large bruise that was forming across the side of his face. “She dun a right number on you. Emma! Get him straightened out. Then get him out of here.”
“What? He said I -”
“I don't care!” Darrel said, disappearing back behind the bar.
Emma growled lowly as she repeated her boss's actions, peeling Nigel's hand away from his face. “You deserved it, you know.”
Nigel tried to think of what she could be talking about, but thinking hurt. Agreeing was easier. “Probably. But... how'd I get to the Mule?”
“On yer feet, I reckon,” Emma replied, rubbing a rag spotted with brown and green stains across his feet.
It felt nice. Cool. To be honest, it felt nicer just to have someone treat him like a human being, to show him a measure of compassion. At least he could always count on Emma for that. As her touch grew less gentle and the pain returned, so did thoughts of his sister.
“What about her?”
“She – she's...” He looked around, pulling away from her touch. Last he remembered he was being roughed up by Pathinway's boys. A quick look down confirmed his hands were still attached. But what was – Oh Saints... he had Jonny''s sword. Why did he have Jonny's sword? With dreadful curiosity he pulled the blade free, causing Emma to recoil. She barked out a warning about the weapon, but it didn't register. He was too busy inspecting the blade. It couldn't be Jonny's, could it?
He sat the blade along the bar. It wasn't particularly intricate, but most folks in this neighborhood relied on clubs and knives. This sword... it was unmistakably Jonny's. But what did that mean? Why would the people he owed money to give him a sword? And why would he be at the Drunken Mule without any money? Darrel hadn't served him in weeks. Darrel.
“What?” the tavern girl asked cautiously.
“I think I'm supposed to kill Darrel.”
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.