View Full Version : Conjurer: A novel in progress

January 15th, 2011, 03:49 AM
Here's a short segment of a project I've been working on for a few months. Please pull no punches, tell me honestly what you think of it, and most importantly, how to make it better! :D


Alton was only aware of the frantic beating of his own heart.

He wanted to run, to escape, but at that moment his numbed body seemed to be made of carved stone rather than flesh. A creeping cold inched up his wiry limbs, engulfing what was left of his sensation. Pins pricked the back of his neck, cool sweat dripping slowly down his back. Each rattling breath was more laborious than the last, his chest constricting, stifling his breath. His own frail wheezing was the only sound in the silent hall. It felt like great snake was slowly tightening its girth around him, its icy coils threatening to swallow him under the mass of freezing flesh. His hands felt cold and numb, so that he was almost unable to feel his nails biting deep into flesh, or even the gentle ooze seeping from between petrified fingers. He shivered. It felt as though a cold draft was blowing gently through the corridor, cutting into his exposed flesh. Whether it was, or if the cold was a manifestation of his fear Alton was not certain. It hardly mattered. He knew only with inexplicable certainty that should he shift even slightly, his entire body would fragment, shattering like dropped glass. He continued to remain very still, eyes unblinking, remaining rigidly fixed upon the Door
Alton was gently shaken awake by the gradual slowing of the train. Peeling his face gingerly from the brass windowpane, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His vision took only a brief moment to adjust to the smoky oil lamp which illuminated the cramped interior of the cabin. The country side had evened out at least, as he was no longer jostled continually by the trains ungainly passage. Outside, the day had taken a turn for the worse, the sky having taken on a sickly ashen color which grew darker with each passing moment. The occasional rays of sunlight which pierced the mantle of ash were becoming increasingly infrequent, and the light itself became increasingly pale and colorless. The rich greens and earthen browns which had dominated the gently sloping landscape were muted by the cloying ash which saturated the air. The heavy forests which had followed him distantly for the majority of his journey were now conspicuously missing, blackened, twisted fields of stumps the only sign that they had existed. Even past the ash, the grasses and shrubs were noticeably frailer looking, and dotted the ground with decreasing frequency. It was all unmistakably District 4. Alton smoothed out the scowl which marred his brow.

He pulled in his thickly woven cloak more tightly around his body, drawing the small, filthy lamp closer. Despite himself, he could not help but shiver. The air held a distinct chill which had been absent merely hours before. He leaned back into his lumpy seat, eyes focused blearily on the flickering flame of the lamp. He felt a fleeting sense of recognition, the dance of the flame illuminating for a brief moment the darkened crags of his memory. His recollection was cut short as the flame flickered feebly for a final time before snuffing out in a puff of oily smoke. The room faded, faint gray light from the windows now the only source of illumination. Dark tendrils undulated against the walls, writhing like a mass of shadowy worms, roiling in the murky corners of the room.

Alton shivered again, blowing the fumes away from his face. Reaching forward, he snapped his fingers, letting the small spark roll smoothly from his outstretched finger onto the exposed wick. Sputtering for a moment, the spark drowned in the puddle of oil. Alton grimaced but made no further effort. Instead he reached into his pack, removing a small leather pouch. Pouring the contents into an open palm, he toyed for a moment with an ornate tobacco pipe. The cool, universal smoothness of the wood against his fingers pleased him, as did the brass knob which acted as the mouth-piece. The mouth of the pipe was carved into the likeness of a dragons head, small, shaped iron spikes acting as the teeth. The gaping maw filled to the brim with fine pipe weed, its hearty fragrance clearing his nostrils of smoke. The slender, graceful stem was etched with the Imperial insignia, the Red Eagle. He brushed a finger musingly over the etching. It was a small, delicate carving. It was also all that outwardly set him above the herd of Commoners. He considered for a moment lighting his pipe, but with all the oily lamp smoke still clogging the air, he decided against it. He managed a final whiff of the pipe-weed before storing it back into his pack. Shifting listlessly, he turned once more to the window.

In the distance, he could vaguely discern through the thickening smog great, spindly towers, lancing upwards as though to spear the sky. Blackness smoldered steadily from their tips, the smoke drifting lazily into the air, adding to the already formidable cloud which smothered the city. He knew that the structures themselves must have been unfathomably large, for the city was still many miles away and would likely have been invisible, even without the blanket of blinding ash. Lip curled slightly, he turned away. He was slightly disappointed; the very center of the Imperium, the greatest Empire in a thousand years, and it was little more than several towers partially obscured by filth. His contempt stretched even to what hed seen of the country itself. Even the areas which were free of the ash were melancholy; permanently gray skies, the same dark greens stretching over the moors and hills, small stone hamlets dotting the somber English countryside. The surrounding landscape ahead was cloaked almost entirely by the billowing clouds, which extended far into the heavens before merging with the sky. Alton turned his gaze once more to the colossal smokestacks. Curiously, the uniform color of the air made it appear almost as though the great, skeletal towers were jutting through the clouds, and not straining to reach them. He could still see nothing of London.

The train plodded on for several more miles without event before his eyes were better able to penetrate the blackness draped over the rest of the city. The air seemed so thick that even the rhythmic pounding of the engine, a mere hundred meters away, seemed somewhat subdued, as though the speed of sound itself was slowed to a crawl. In the distance, Alton could now see through the ash to glimpse his first of London. The hundred foot walls which surrounded the perimeter of the city began to heighten, the unbroken slab of grimy obsidian inching towards the sky with each passing moment. At this, even Alton balked. The walls of London were renowned as the greatest in the world, but Alton has dismissed this claim as the propaganda of the Ruling Caste. It was difficult to determine why the walls were so daunting, for despite their size, there were forts along the Russian front which were at least as tall. Perhaps it was the uniformity of the stonework, the single slab of hewn stone rising as though it was pushed from the bowels of the earth.

Ashen flakes began to drizzle gently, their color so similar to that of the air that he failed to notice them until they landed upon the window. The dark flecks melted upon contact with the warped, dirtied glass; it took little time before the ashen rain had covered the entire surface, choking what faint light remained. Alton turned to face the opposite window, its surface still relatively untainted by the black rain. Outside, the train had reached the very outskirts of the city, which lay just beyond the menacing walls. Several miles from the Southern Gate, the great black ring of stone now towered high above even the tallest buildings which lay outside of it. It appeared a small mountain of perfectly uniform rock, smooth as glass and black as coal. Or rather, black from coal. The train turned jerkily to the east, bumping Alton from his seat. Cursing, he hastily picked himself up; he was thankful he was the only one on in the cabin. From his new angle, the turrets had suddenly become visible. Hed failed to notice them earlier, as they blended in perfectly with the rest of the wall. From the small, narrow portholes, he saw the barrels of dozens of cannons protruding slightly, like hornets hiding in their nest. The burnished brass glinted every so often as the sun would allow. Most of the light was now entirely blotted out by the high walls and the ash in the air. The cabin darkened completely, so that Alton could not even see the other end of the small compartment. The cabin rattled as steel scraped against steel, the train slowly stammering, shaking Alton out of the last of his drowsy stupor.

Pressing fingers over his aching, sleepy eyes, he attempted to focus his thoughts, mind still heavily clouded with exhaustion. His journey had been a long, unpleasant one, the end still safely out of sight. Vainly, he tried to recall the content of his already fading dream, but it was as though he was attempting to hold water in a cupped hand, entire passages leaking through his fingers. He squeezed his eyes shut, blanking his mind easily. Hed felt young. Younger than hed felt in many years, not yet a man but a child. Disjointed images raced through his wearied mind, shadowy recollections clouding and distorting themselves in his minds eye. He could save only the most basic details before the rest fled back into the murky recesses of memory. Thered been a Door. It had been very important. A dimly lit stone corridor. Fear, an overwhelming sense of terror. Cold. A rhythmic pounding. Shouting.

His brow furrowed in concentration as he fought a losing battle against his mind and memory. What few images remained melted away like fog in the morning, the last vestiges of dream drifting so as to become imperceptible from his consciousness. He fought for another few minutes, digging and deciphering, but his focus broke before he could discern any further details. He raised a hand to soothe the aching muscles of his clenched brow. Hed had a vague feeling that perhaps it was his life before, before everything. Perhaps he would have felt a notion of nostalgia, even romanticism for that time, had he remembered anything before the Institution. As it was, the void which those memories left had long since been filled.

The train finally skidded to an ungainly halt, breaking Altons reveries. Collecting himself, he blanked his mind once more of his prior thoughts, re-arranging his plans. He shifted his weight, the moth eaten velvet seat beneath him creaking quietly in protest. He shook himself, splashing a capful of cold water from his canteen onto his face. He felt somewhat revitalized, if dazed from the shock. He rubbed his eyes once more, dismissing his idle dreams. It mattered little, after all. It was irrelevant, after all. Even if documents still existed from those many years ago they were no doubt buried in insurmountable piles of insignificance. Effectively, his past had been lost, and forever would be. Raking locks of hair from his eyes, he rose to his feet, and collected his pack and staff, both neatly arrayed, from the seat across from him. Collecting the small, oil lamp from the rickety table in the center of the cabin, he snubbed the still smoldering wick with a moistened finger. The scent of burning oil and smoke slowly abated, giving way to the stench of mothballs and rotting mould. His lip curled with disgust. He despised the district trains, but since the Commoners had nearly no use of them, they remained in their current state of rundown disrepair. The Sector had many rails lines which were much more to his liking; however they passed through District 4 without stopping, having no need to rest in the industrial cesspool. He was on a tight schedule, and therefore was forced to favor the disheveled District trains, of which there remained only one. Over the intercom, a cool genderless voice sounded from behind the crackle of static.

Now arriving in London, District 4; please leave through nearest exit. Have a nice day.
The intercom faded to a static crackle. Alton rose from his seat, stooping slightly, and with long, purposeful strides left the dank cabin and entered the terminal, not without a little relief.

The terminal was quite as miserably maintained as the ailing train, and smelled even worse. The floor tiles were nearly all cracked and displaced, revealing the underlying layers of chipped stone and concrete, stained with blood, vomit and coal dust. It reminded Altonn of many a corpse he had seen, the skin having rotted and peeled away in patches, by exposure and by scavengers, revealing the underlying layers of rotted flesh it never took very long. He dismissed the distasteful thought. The walls were smudged with such thick layers of ash and grime that they appeared a midnight black, almost appearing to have been charred by flame. Vandals had long since defaced whatever clear space remained with obscenities and vulgar language and slogans, crudely formed characters cut and painted onto the walls. Barrels which had been once used as fire pits were leaned against the walls, some still smoking from a previous use. A bundle of filthy blankets lay in the far corner, shifting slightly as the person beneath it released a putrid breath. The smell of burning coal, stale sweat, burnt garbage and vomit permeated the area, saturating the air. Alton nearly gagged in disgust. The attendant station had long since been boarded up and similarly looted; the most rotted boards from the door and windows lay scattered and broken on the floor, the others having long since been burned. The entire complex was in utter disrepair; Altons rhythmic footfalls echoed loudly off the grimy walls with each step. His hard leather boots and carved staff sounded like muffled thunder, the small clouds of dust and ash thrown up by his feet cushioning his steps.

For a man of only twenty and one, Alton hardly needed an aid in walking; he was still tall, fit and strong, his wiry, athletic build not having yet entirely filled out into its prime. However, the Commoners had their preconceptions and expectations, and Alton was only too happy to amuse them. Robes and staff were now quite an archaic look, but one that nonetheless pleased Alton. He was quite proud of his staff in any case, and needed little prompting to show it off. Five feet of polished onyx, wreathed in carved veins of ivy, and tipped with an exquisite carving. The end of the staff forked in two, each end carved into the likeness of a naked branch. Above, lay a perched raven, carved so finely and delicately that each individual feather was visible when the light fell upon it. Hooked talons grasped each branch, the razor claws digging into the wood like polished stakes. Baleful, luminous eyes lying above a cruelly curved beak, slightly agape as though the animal had been caught in the act of loosing a cry. Its wings were symmetrically spread, each carefully detailed feather polished to a darkly dazzling brilliance. It was a sinister, yet beautiful and oddly majestic carving, too fine and detailed to have been carved by hand. Altogether, it was a magnificent piece, and it rarely left Altons person.

His robe was much less flamboyant; a simple woolen travelers cloak, commoners attire. His feet were adorned with worn, dusty brown leather boots, faded and creased with age and travel. Simple breeches and an unadorned woolen tunic covered his legs and torso, both of an unremarkable shade of brown. A gray, thickly woven traveling cloak was wrapped around his shoulders, staving off the chilled, sunless air. The weight of his ceremonial Witching robe was pressed comfortably against his flank, safely secured in his rucksack. Dressed in traditional commoners colors, gray and brown, it was his staff and height alone which would set him apart from those who inhabited the metropolis.

A particularly large dust cloud washed over him, causing Alton to hack into his lapel, suppressing a violent fit. How he hated the districts and their filth. He felt a desperate longing for the safe, clean seclusion of his flat in Sector 1. It was boring perhaps, but nothing which couldnt be cured with drink and women. Alton struggled to remember the last time he had touched flesh for pleasure and not business. He let pleasant fantasies tingle in his minds eye as he approached the doors to the terminal, both of misshapen and stained glass. He left the wretched terminal, entering the city streets.

Outside the dingy terminal the conditions were little better. The air was slightly less stale, if as foul, although the near constant rain of ash speckled his clothes and hair, to his great annoyance. Striding through the snaking alleyways, he felt distinctly claustrophobic, the distastefully architected buildings hemming him in, choking him. Everywhere, the same roughly carved, low lying buildings of a subdued gray clumsily made and awkwardly positioned. They reminded him unpleasantly of a mouth of unequal, overcrowded stony teeth, the writhing mobs of people strands of fetid meat trapped within the gaps. He ducked down another winding alleyway, knocking over an elderly woman. She fell to the ground, unmoving save to cry out in pain. He hardly paused, and neither did the crowds massed around him. He glanced up around him, his lip curling contemptuously at the rugged walls of stone. They seemed to go on forever; Alton imagined a view of the city from the eyes of a bird, and expected to see a rippling sea of grubby stone.

Even more numerous than the concrete shanties were their inhabitants; the city seemed packed to the brim with people. Alton could barely navigate without being swept up and thrown about by the slow moving sea of the ever present mob. Still, his progress was relatively swift as he cut a swath through the mobs, deftly sliding through the smallest openings, slithering along like an eel. He was constantly surrounded by the same gaunt faced, pallid, sickly, dead eyed automatons, slowly shuffling through the slums. None dared to meet his gaze. How he hated the Districts.

Removing his engraved pocket watch from a pocket in a single smooth motion, he paused a moment to admire the graceful workmanship. His Standard, the Raven perched in the Tree, stood engraved in delicate lines into the facet of the golden case. Inside, was stamped in bolded imperial script The Bold Survive in the archaic tongue of Latin. Many faceted gemstones were placed around the face, each set apart by ninety degrees. Flipping the heavy lid casually with his gloved thumb, Alton examined it briefly before returning it to his pouch. An hour before noon; he had ample time.

Sauntering out into the main streets, a vital spring returned to his step, Alton made his way briskly over to the nearest guard. Alton was a tall man, but the soldier before him was a giant. The crimson standard of the Imperium emblazoned on his broad chest, an eagle of blazing gold, one talon gripping a bloodied spear, the other a swath of red cloth, soaring through a silver field. It was quite impressive to behold, the fine workmanship clearly evident, and the most appealing thing Alton had seen all day. His short, long bladed spear and heavy rectangular shield gripped in hand, polished breastplate gleaming, the hulking form before Alton was the picturesque soldier of the Imperium. The soldier upon noticing Alton gave a crisp salute, bringing his lance to bear. Alton returned salute graciously.

Sir! The mans voice was a low, smoothly rumbling growl, which reminded Alton of a large predatory beast at rest. The assessment was probably not far off the mark.
At ease, soldier. The mans shoulders relaxed somewhat, though his posture remained formal and uptight, his gaze resting somewhere over Altons left shoulder. He could not help but sigh inwardly.
Could you tell me where to find the Gallows? The man nodded, scratching his bearded face with a free hand.
Sir. Continue down this street, take the second right, then the third left after that. The Witching Square shouldnt be more than a ten minute walk from here.
Alton thanked him before disengaging with difficulty back into the filthy torrent of Commoners. Altons thin veneer of calm, self assurance threatened to break with each grubby hand that brushed against him. His fingers whitened around his staff, painfully digging into the stony wood. The sooner he departed this wretched place, this District 4, the better. He took mental solace in his mission. It would bring him peace. It always did. It would not be long now.

Alton looked towards the center of the sky, where he knew the sun would soon rest in a few short minutes. It was nearly time.


January 15th, 2011, 07:00 AM

First off, let me say that I enjoyed reading your excerpt, as it is a very well written piece.
I do however have a humble opinion about certain things.
I do not know if you intended this to be a first chapter for a book, or if it is somewhere in the middle. The dream grabs my attention, and asks me to read further which is good. I like it as you are posing a scene with enough detail that you are painting a vivid picture in the reader's mind. You are also posing questions, which asks the reader to keep going to figure out what is going on.
Yet, after this scene, you continue to paint a picture, and I fear may be going a little overboard. I'm goign to try to explain this, forgive me if it doesn't make sense.
In my humble opinion, you may be going a little overboard in your descriptions. You are giving a lot of descriptions with every sentence, that you are wanting the reader to see and imagine it how you are seeing it. Your detail is amazing, yet you are not leaving much room for the reader to imagine upon it. Part of what keeps me going in a story is picturing it in my own mind. By placing so much emphasis is setting the background, and the details, I fear the actual story may be getting lost. Let your reader imagine upon what is going on, and give them room to move, and hit them with the actual message/point of what you are trying to convey. I am hoping this makes sense.

I think you have done a very nice job in setting things up, and I would like to see this move forward into something. I would like to commend you on your detail and how you bring so much emphasis to your character, and trying to set everything up to how it is detailed. I don't know if I could ever be that descriptive. Nicely done, and I hope to see you post more! =D>

January 15th, 2011, 11:05 AM
Sorry, I don't post critiques for people who only have 1 post and who aren't actively in the community. If I see this change, I don't mind coming back and giving you my opinion. Best of luck though.

January 15th, 2011, 02:06 PM
I like this.
It grabs my attention and makes me want to read more.
I do agree with what kimmigo5 has said that it is a little over discriptive as i found i struggled a bit to let my own imagination work alonside your story.
I would like to see more!