So I’ve mentioned before that I’m working on this sort of epic-literary-sci-fi-fantasy thing, and I finally finished the first draft of the first chapter.
And . . . since this site is as much about the process of writing as it is actual writing, I’m sharing said draft with you guys, today! (Hopefully you don’t hate it!)
The Pale Wastes
Colossal dust devils carved their way through the ravaged North Pangæan badlands, whipping microscopic particulates of obsidian and various corroded metals through the air like tiny, invisible daggers. Only the hardiest vegetation grew near the borders of Valamyr to the west and Anukhan to the east. Boastful adventurers claimed the further they trekked into The Pale Wastes, the more the terrain shifted from ordinary desert to desolate, inhospitable moonscape. As they approached the invisible delineation bisecting the continental rift, the less the land became capable of supporting anything. Indeed, all but the most hardened turn back well before ever crossing the rubicon.
Despite the savage elements raging through such a hostile environment, a lone figure trudged through nearly knee-deep sand, a dark balaclava barely visible underneath a thick fur-lined hood pulled close to his face.
Kneeling to shield his water skin from the swirling dust and ubiquitous sand, the lone trekker—a man of grizzled countenance—took a small sip of water, just enough to moisten the cracks in his parched tongue and cheeks. He knew resupplying during the latter stages of this expedition would be out of the question, so he’d packed and carried everything he might conceivably need. Shielding his eyes and scanning the skyline, the man confirmed the soil surrounding him has been utterly depleted—it was truly, in every sense of the word: dead. Even the sand had lost its color. Giant, swollen dunes of pale grey and ecru stretched endlessly toward the horizon in all four cardinal directions. The pair of dowsing rods the man had packed, just in case the rumors of small veins of underground water was true, rested splayed and inert in his clenched fists.
The man unwillingly began to recall tales of the badlands more frightening than any camp fire ghost stories. Travelers recounted a feeling utter disorientation as soon as they enter The Pale Wastes, of feeling mercurial and uncannily . . . adrift. The man remembered being told repeatedly that North could only be determined by orienting himself within the plane of an imaginary meridian while trying to face the rising sun—a strategy predicated, he thought, upon him surviving the night to actually see the rising sun. . . .
The Pale Wastes was one of the last truly mysterious regions within the North Pangæan landmass. Its landscape was empirically hostile to life; its weather patterns were altogether unpredictable, and rumors of its ostensibly nonexistent water supply were all in fact true.
Caravans of merchants, traveling performers, enigmatic mountebanks, and wayfaring nomads had attempted to navigate the perilous unknown between the two great empires of North Pangæa. However, no records exist in either the vast libraries of Valamyr or Anukhan confirming anyone making it successfully to the other side by going through The Pale Wastes . . . and only a small number of those who began the trek—once realizing their potentially fatal error and turning around—had ever made it back to where they’d started.
The hooded man saw the last of the nomads the day before. He figured he’d ventured deeper into The Pale Wastes than even the most honored nomadic shaman dared, men who’d earned renown for their bravery in tempting the Fates while collecting obscure artifacts for tribal ceremonies.
Ultimately, travel by land between the two great empires had always been restricted to the narrow sliver of harsh land south of The Pale Wastes, an isthmus-like landbridge known as The Skypath—a natural structure that looked as if the earth beneath it had simply disintegrated or fallen away into the chasm below—as well as the seas to both the south and north of the continental landmass. The northern seas, however, were under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Laxdæla Archipelago that made up the southern, seafaring provinces of“The Frozen Islands.” No ships crossed the Laxdælan Strait without consent of Thane Kirill Magnusson’s high council, headquartered in Skallgård, the capitol and epicenter of the Frozen Islands, nestled within a pocket of the lower Vatnsdæla highlands overlooking the sea. Skallgård was considered by Valmyrians and Anukhanutans alike to be impregnable.
For nights on end, the man had heard strange, inhuman sounds carrying like ominous whispers on the wind from deep within The Pale Wastes. The last Holy Men he’d spoken with claimed the sounds were malevolent voices of dæmons and creatures even more fell. Men of Science in the remotest Valmyrian outposts had long posited that the sounds were aural productions of the shifting winds caroming over- and across the irregular rock formations unique to the continental rift.
Of course it was impossible for anyone to say definitively whom was right. Year after year, the pale, ecru sands of the Badlands claimed more and more of the grassy savannas that made up the outer edges of both Valmyrian and Anukhan Empires. Priests and savants alike fretted about the encroaching sands and the ever-shrinking hectares of remaining soil fertile enough to sustain agriculture.
For now, the man was only concerned with conserving his food, his energy, and most importantly, his water.
While the man’s instructions for this solo campaign into the wastes were both intricate and explicit—that is to say in detailing and prioritizing the gear he would need, securing the nonperishable comestibles he was to pack, plotting the route he should take through the badlands to avoid getting lost, etc.—the description of what it was he was looking for, the actual object itself, was vague at best. The man and his employer had mutually agreed that a single explorer would surely draw far less attention than an fully equipped anthropological team on an official field expedition, or a specialized military incursion—even a small one.
Being told that he’d know it when he saw it (ostensibly) had not exactly instilled confidence in the man. Truth be told, the man was not sure his employer knew what the object he was to retrieve looked like either. The sheer amount of banking credits he’d been promised alone made taking this job a virtual nondecision, which was to say nothing at all of an official writ of diplomatic immunity in The Frozen Islands, the man was beginning to believe the Fates had changed their minds about him.
Placing his back to the brunt of the wind, he pulled a weathered piece of vellum from his vest and read over the closing lines for the umpteenth time.
… You are doing an incredible service, Samael, not just to me, but to everyone. What has been lost in the rift, the object we seek, is a gift to all people of Pangaea, not just Frozen Islanders or Valmyrians, or even Anukannans. After you find your way back to Skallgård, you will finally have a chance at a quieter life without the need to look fearfully over your shoulder. The Fates will smile upon us all, Gods willing.
Thn. Kirill Magnusson
Smile indeed, Sam thought to himself as he folded the parchment up and tucked it safely back into his vest. Samael Assur Banipal—just Sam to his compatriots, sky pirate and explorer-for-hire—had only seen four-and-thirty summers, middle-aged by most people’s standards, but the life of a sky pirate was not typically defined by its longevity, and Sam was hardly “most people.” Until he could retrieve whatever it was Thane Kirill wanted so badly, he would remain a wanted man in each of the Three Empires. Sam had basically pillaged and pilfered his way into infamy, and it seemed that nothing short of finding an highly desirable object (…or perhaps it is multiple objects I am looking for, he mused) that could possibly bring a true peace to three empires on the verge of war in perpetuum, would guarantee his freedom; even if only in The Frozen Islands, Thane Kirill could likely work his diplomatic alchemy to gain Sam favor in Valamyr as well.
Even Thane Kirill could not publicly grant Sam a writ of immunity until he had secured whatever he had been sent to find. If taken into custody before completing his mission, Sam would almost certainly face a lifetime in prison, his only hope in that case was for being captured by the Valmyrian Yeomen rather than the Anukhan Imperial Guard. Sam’s standing with the law in each of the Three Empires was a tenuous factor requiring that this again be a one-man mission. That someone in a team would turn Sam in for the sizable bounty the very first chance they got was all but a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, the price for Sam’s freedom was that he should bear this burden by himself. However, the significance—should he succeed—had not been at all lost on him. Sam stopped his reveries just short of imagining celebratory parades being thrown in his honor. It was still true that either fame or infamy suited him particularly well.
The wind was relentless. It knew but one force, which was sub-gale. It did not break for recuperation; it was indifferent to the weariness of travelers. Likewise, the skies above The Pale Wastes were never clear. The ominous cloud cover offers not even the smallest glimpse of the sky, not ever. In these badlands, reprieve from the elements had always been an alien concept. Indeed, Sam understood from the very first step of this journey why travel by foot is always heartily discouraged.
Yet the promise of a spotless record was far too enticing to pass up. Not setting out into the wastes was yet another foregone conclusion.
The irony of the entire ordeal was not at all lost on Sam either. The – at first – insidious metamorphosis from trade courier to sky pirate, like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, never seemed like a situation open to reversal. . . And yet that was exactly what Thane Kirill had offered him. Reversion. Regression. Emendability. While perhaps not a fresh start, it would at least be some kind of start nonetheless. Sam figured he was getting too old for fresh starts anyway.
The terrain of The Pale Wastes rolled and pitched capriciously. Flat, hard-packed sand and clay gave way to undulating steppes and switchbacks. Jagged bits of metal protruded through the tops of dunes like fingers probing untested air. In fact, Sam thought, probes would be a good idea if they didn’t require a team of scientists and an equal number of lab assistants to run all the gear. He himself was the canary for this particular coal mine. In any case, it was clear to Sam that the air was bad; it even tasted bad and burned a little, not unlike ammonia. A few leagues back, the air’s abrasiveness was mild, barely noticeable. Now it seemed like he could sense the air becoming fouler with each step. It was no wonder the metal scraps he saw were so corroded, worn away nearly to red dust, the ferrite was all but completely oxygenated, corrupted. It was all wasting away, dissolving into the winds.
Sam could only speculate as to what once stood beneath his feet. Often the various scraps of rusted metal looked like everyday supplies, items one could find at any smithy worth his weight in iron and steel. However, a few times now, Sam had stumbled over the edges of massive, twisted beams, the ends of which looked like girders used to construct the wondrous skyline of Skallgård. However, he realized that most of whatever these girders once built was submerged below the sands and likely lost to time and memory.
Sam had enough experience navigating the North Pangaean seas to know that icebergs hid most of their mass below the water’s surface, invisible to sailors taking turns in the crow’s nests of hapless freighters. There were always men who would try to keep an eye out for wayward ice, only to sound the alarm too late as tons of ice ripped through the iron and steel of the ship’s hull, opening a rent in the side that seemingly could not grant ingress to the icy seas fast enough. Lower decks filled with gelid, briny seawater that signaled the ship’s death knell before swallowing it whole, silently sending the sinking mausoleum to the ocean’s floor. Like the foul air here, the salt in the water expedited the oxygenation process and the sea would leisurely digest its meal. Indeed, the sea was patient, preferring to savor its prize, wasting nothing, ultimately returning all the raw material back to Pangæa.
Sam’s thirst, he realized, had caused him to become fixated on water of any kind. He knew he must consume his fresh water sparingly; he had only packed enough supplies for the amount of time he’d estimated he needed and no more. Extra weight would have burned energy needlessly. He refused to let his water supply dip below half before either finding what he was looking for, or turning around empty-handed. This trek was a mission of precision. Sam knew he’d need every last drop to get back to the Game Face, both his airship and his home.
It amused Sam that he had long evaded the Geist Telung—the “Ghost Division” of the Royal Air Force at Skallgård—using one of their own greyhound class airships, so incredibly quick and nimble! Ironically, he’d actually won the Game Face, semi-legitimately, playing cards with a swaggering captain, fresh out of Skallgård’s flight academy who clearly had less common sense than he had confidence (or scruples, apparently). The only time Sam had been in jeopardy of losing his new ship was when he encountered Thane Kirill’s middle son, commander of the Geist Telung, Geir, when Geir had lead a small pack of greyhound fighters on a dark ops recovery mission. Word only reached Thane Kirill after the pack had engaged Sam and his smallish pirate fleet. Unquestionably, the Thane’s son was as good a pilot as Sam had ever seen, taking out two of the larger and much slower zephyr class transport ships that had gone down spectacularly taking with it two weeks worth of plunder and fourteen of Sam’s men.
The surprise attack ended almost as swiftly as it had begun when the Geist ships seemingly vanished into thin air, which gave empirical evidence, Sam figured, as to how the division likely got its name. Sam’s suspicions had been confirmed when, an hour or so later, he received an encrypted tele-cable from Thane Kirill himself, apologizing for his son’s off-the-books recon and recovery mission. As “dark” as the ops were that were carried out by the Geist Telung, the mission Sam had accepted from Thane Kirill was even darker, black, in fact—no written record of the mission’s details existed anywhere. If Sam was captured, he would face swift justice, tried as a pirate in whatever jurisdiction he was apprehended within—the penalty in any of the three sovereign territories would almost certainly be death, with a small chance at life in prison. Some consolation prize…
As such, if all went according to plan, Sam could start over in the North under the protection of Thane Kirill. Skallgård would begin diplomatic negotiations with Valamyr and Anukhan as well as paying reparations for damages incurred both during– and in the wake of– Sam’s . . . excursions (for there was almost always collateral damage).
There was also always the question of if things went according to plan. Sam thought about that fact as he watched the sun’s lower edge kiss the very top of the furthest dunes. He knew he had an hour, maybe two, before darkness blanketed the colorless wastes and that familiar inimical chill set in. For a span of eight hours, aside from the corroded scraps of metal, Sam had seen naught but low dunes peppered throughout the landscape. The desolation here seemed truly infinite. He frequently felt a rush of trepidation, a sense that perhaps he’d been walking in circles, yet his lodestone assured Sam his path had been straight and true thus far.
The fading sunlight cast long, macabre shadows, the only visible markers that could pass for beauty this far into the Pale Wastes. The shapes spawned by the dull light weaving itself over dunes large and small seemed impossible, mirage-like. It was little wonder that Sam initially ignored what appeared to be an outcropping in the distance. The ground nearest the mirage sloped downward where harsh-looking serrated rocks jutted as if they had been pushed through the soil by giants deep within the earth, creating what seemed like adequate shelter from the swirling sand. If it had not been in Sam’s current path, he likely would have chalked it up to optical tricks of the sand and sun’s fading light. Yet Sam stayed his course and nearly tripped over more of the same rock that had just barely breached the surface of the sand. When he looked up, he saw that, not only was the outcropping very real indeed, but that it was also directly in front of him.
This pronounced outcropping offered what had been the only true respite he’d encountered so far in The Pale Wastes. Visibility was limited to no more than five or six spans in the best conditions, that is to say simply blowing wind and sand, though not quite a desert tempest of which occurred not infrequently. Sam felt thankful for this. He decided to start a fire as the sun started to go down. Or rather, he assumed it was going down. He could not actually see Pangaea’s sole star; it was simply that the temperature had begun dropping rather steadily and his eyes were forced to strain to see what had just moments ago been clear. It was as if the overcast sky were leeching the light away from the sun rather than the effect of Pangæa’s natural rotation.
The flames licked the dry, open air as their shadows cast eerie silhouettes to and fro, shapes that acted as if they were endowed with humanlike will and intelligence. Yet the flames did more than dance; they seemed to conspire against their physical form, twisting the light around the outcropping’s deepest interior spaces, hitherto concealed by the encroaching darkness. What Sam could see was ostensibly a pit, oddly rectangular in shape with unnaturally straight edges cut into the earth. Someone had excavated something here. In fact, Sam realized, it was almost certainly an old dig site, though how old, he could not say.
The sun had finally dipped low beyond the dunes furthest from him, closest to the horizon. The flickering light of the fire was too dim to make out individual shades of beige in the soil around the pit, but the tactile feel of the dirt was remarkably dry, even for a desert. Ribbons in the soil layers indicated that the bottom of pit was significantly older than the sand-level surface. If, as Thane Kirill had written, he would know it when he saw it, then whatever he was sent here to find must surely be here—or at least it had been here at some point. . . .
Sam briefly considered that someone might have beat him to the site, but quickly dismissed the thought. He was no archaeologist, but he was fairly certain that whatever had been in this barrow—for what else could it have been?—was gone long before Thane Kirill thought to look for it. It stood to reason that the Thane was after something else. And if the excavation marks were as old as they appeared, how old must whatever had been buried here have been? He’d have to wait until the morning to snap a few heliotypes of the space, but he was at least able to start jotting notes of what he saw immediately. Perhaps a combined visual and written record of what he found was all that Thane Kirill wanted. Had he guessed that the barrow would be empty and simply sent Sam here to verify? It seemed doubtful. But if so, how could this unremarkable discovery create a lasting peace that would displace the current precarious state of not-war the three empires of Northern Pangaea shared? What was everyone playing at? Sam felt uneasy about the entire situation.
Sam ran his hands over the edges of the rock and soil. They felt much smoother than they looked, like the rock had undergone a process not unlike vitrification, yet rough enough to suggest significant wear over time. Such precise cuts . . . Sam mused. No shovel or pickaxe could have dug out this pit. Sam thought of the countless vitrified forts he’d personally seen over the years, stone structures situated on hills offering strong defensive positions, their form having been determined by the contour of the flat summits they enclosed. But never had Sam seen one dug into the ground. Unless. . . he ruminated, I’m standing near the summit of a truly prehistoric mountain. . . . His mind reeled at what that might imply.
The walls of the pit were approximately twelve spans deep, give or take. At least one thing was certain amidst so many pressing questions: something large had been removed from the earth with an uncanny level of engineered precision. Where some of the soil had crumbled away under the weight of years—perhaps centuries, or millennia—Sam could see solid stone walls, proof that the pit had indeed once been a fort or storehouse of some kind before it was presumably converted into a tomb. Something had been buried here, he was sure of it. But that the fort itself was of primary interest was clear. Whatever had once been buried here had been removed and Sam found himself wondering whether the buriers might not have also eventually been the retrievers.
Sam also realized that whatever had been removed would have been far too massive for him to simply drag out of the badlands on foot and pulling a simple travois. Thane Kirill would certainly have known that too. He’d had to have known Sam would discover an empty barrow in the middle of nowhere. There simply had to be something else here, something the excavators either forgot or even perhaps left on purpose.
No sooner had the thought flit across his mind than a tiny glint caught his attention from his periphery at the bottom of the pit. He looked to where he thought he saw the spark and noticed another nearly imperceptible flicker when, again, when the erratic light from his fire danced just so, illuminating the bottom of the pit. He only caught sight of it for a split second. The light from the fire gave off poor effulgence, akin to the dying light of a spent heliotype flash. If he hadn’t already been hyper-attuned to looking for something, he likely would not have seen it at all. However, as his eyes adjusted to the post-twilight darkness of the alcove and surrounding wasteland, there was no question he’d seen something.
From his pack, Sam removed the rope ladder he’d purchased from a gypsy salesmen in Sennec, the last semi-official trading post before the wastes. Unfurled, the ladder was the length of two tall men, which should be long enough, he figured. He staked down one of the ends into firm and solid soil far enough away from the edge of the pit that he should manage to avoid pulling the stakes out upon his descent. At least he hoped so. Falling into the pit, dragging the ladder with him would be a certain death sentence.
Once satisfied with the ladder’s security, he began climbing down. The pieces of rowan he’d dragged out on his travois would burn slow enough for him to leave the fire unattended for a short time. Thus down he went, one sure foot after another, keeping mindful of his hand positions as well. The last rung dangled three or four spans from the bottom. Dust plumed upward when he dropped to the pit’s floor. Like the walls, sections of the floor also appeared to have been vitrified. Combined with layers of ultra-fine dust, traction came at a bit of a premium. Sam found the best footing to be where clods of dirt and mud had fallen in from above.
For a few moments, Sam simply stood, letting his eyes readjust to the darker portion of the pit. He couldn’t immediately see where the object that’d dully reflected the light from his fire might be. He tried readjusting his perspective to mimic his view from above. He regretted not tossing down a smaller branch of lit rowan to serve as a torch. He had enough sulfur and lime to spare a little. He made do without. Precarious as the stakes were, unnecessary trips up and down the ladder were reckless, openly inviting disaster. Instead, Sam padded over to where he thought the object should be.
A few moments passed and then he saw it.
Almost imperceptible in such low light, the flicker was still unmistakable. Sam wracked his brain trying to determine what type of material could reflect such a dim light, but came up with nothing. He reached down to touch the object that again became invisible when he kneeled above it. Its surface was distinct from the rest of the floor—unbelievably smooth despite there being more hard-packed dirt around it, a stark contrast from the rougher textures of the stone and soil elsewhere nearby.
Sam immediately knew that the most of the object was buried in the floor. He anticipated that it might not budge at all. Even so, Sam unsheathed the dagger he always kept strapped to his boot for when circumstances became most dire. Very fine Valmyrian steel, he’d claimed it from the former Geist Telung captain of the GameFace when he’d commandeered the ship. The airmen from Skallgård of course considered it a highjacking, but Sam was never one to quibble over minor details. In any case, despite plenty of use, there wasn’t even a scratch on the blade; the edge was as sharp as ever.
He slid the blade into the floor along the longest edge of the object, carefully so as not to damage it. By the texture alone, Sam concluded that the object was almost certainly made of some kind of crystal or exceptionally hardened glass. The first few layers of the floor were dirt, which quickly gave way to the same vitrified stone surrounding the pit. Incredibly, with a little bit of extra muscle, Sam was able to wedge the dagger’s blade between the stone and the object, just enough to allow him to wrench the dagger back and forth in a concerted effort to pry the object loose. After nearly a bell, with his forearms burning and trembling from the effort, there was a distinct crack and the object came free of its stony prison.
Holding it in his hand, there was no question the object was some kind of crystal. It was shaped like an obelisk, and incredibly heavy at that. He’d need to get a better look at it in the fire light above. Securing the crystal obelisk in his satchel, he climbed back up the ladder, being every bit as careful on his was up as he was on the way down.
When Sam finally sat down and examine the crystal, he came up with more questions than answers. To his eye, it looked like a lapidated chunk of quartz crystal, only much shinier. To his hands, it felt like a couple ingots of lead. The occlusions were significant, yet somehow, also looked artificial, as if a jeweler had etched them personally to identify the stone should the need ever arise. This seemed to Sam like a lot of unnecessary extra work. Also odd was that the surface was perfectly smooth; the visible imperfections were somehow all internal.
Could this shiny rock really be what Thane Kirill had sent him traipsing through the badlands to recover? It had to be. He’d definitely have to ask once he returned to Skallgård. Thinking ahead, Sam realized he was already not at all looking forward to navigating the seemingly endless lengths of sewer tunnels, wading waist-deep in shit for half the time just to gain entrance to the keep at Yggdrasil. He hoped Thane Kirill could put a rush on his paperwork afterwards so he could at least use the front doors like a normal guest. Yet, until he was proclaimed clear, the sewers beneath Skallgård were infinitely the safest bet. In any case, he’d need to ask the Thane a number of questions when he saw him. There were too many things he just didn’t know, too many questions without answers, questions creating more questions. Sam could usually do a job without needing to know more than what he was told, but something about all of this made him uneasy. Things weren’t adding up and it nagged at him.
Maybe he was just getting too old for high-jinx like this.
*[O.E. Rølvaag reference/homage here too obvious?]