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View Full Version : Black Hand (2350 words. Epic Fantasy)



John Galt
October 7th, 2014, 11:09 PM
Chapter 1

The morning was bitterly cold and a thick fog covered the makeshift market. Merchants, old and young, littered Traders’ Road. Most were native, born of long lines of traders, and some were foreign and unaccustomed to the abuse. Drunken ronin and Shinra priests tried to cheat the weary merchants, as they always did. Heiko knew to distance himself from the other merchants. Merchants had to display their wares and trinkets, but Heiko was known. Heiko the Haggler, they called him, sat hooded in a dark corner of the makeshift market.

“Blades, blades! Get y’ good steel here, sharp and sure. Blades, blades! Finest steel in the land, be careful or y’ lose a hand! Blades, blades!” A merchant’s voice rang through the narrow street.

The fog had begun to clear, everyone peered at the shouting merchant. He was a foreigner, everyone knew. No trader dared profit on the sale of swords, let alone in public. His hair was straw-coloured, but his brows were leather-brown. His makeshift wrapped rags provided little protection… Protection was to the merchant as a sword was to the bushi, or the hammer to the artisan.

Fool, thought Heiko, blade ownership is forbidden… and you’re no bushi.

“You, merchant pig!” hollered two sentinels of the Emperor stationed in the market, “Sword trade is banned by decree of Emperor Tokugawa-ra. There’ll be no blades here.”

The sentinel bushi wore tar-black armour plating on each arm, and golden plates on each shin and thigh. Each piece of armour was marked by the golden half-moon and sun of the Emperor. They were young, and carried themselves like young emperors. They were no emperors, though, and probably sons of some old bushi warrior line.

“We’ll be taking these… and maybe some payment for… er… tax… yes, traders’ tax,” chimed the second sentinel.

“I paid m’ taxes… traders’, priests’, and whatever bloody tax your idiot Emperor can think of,” retorted the merchant.

One guard drew his blade. “Defiance tax, I think then… But no coin… blood,” he said, bringing his steel through a thin leg of the merchant’s table. “See this?
Real steel. I can make you feel it right here, and no one will care.”

The merchant’s legs seemed to break with his table and he fell into the moist morning ground. The two guards began to laugh and confiscate the steel.
“We’ll let you off for now, parasite,” said the sentry as he chuckled and began to move off.

“N-No… don’t take them… I-I don’t have any—.”

The young sentinel brought his blade down with a fearsome force.

“Wait,” muttered Heiko.

The sentinels were no giants, but they were above Heiko. Stronger too.

The guard’s blade froze just a hair from the fallen merchant’s cowering face. Both guards looked incredulous.

“Who do you think you are?” barked the sentinel.

“No one. Those for sale?” inquired Heiko, indicating the steel loot in the guard’s arms.

The guards looked off-balance, but the blade barterer looked relieved.

“You have three blades… how’s forty Koban sound?” proposed Heiko.

“Sounds cheap,” replied the guard, with his sword at the floored merchant’s throat, “Eighty sounds better. Good steel, these.”

“Sixty has a nice ring to it.”

“So do the cells. Seventy and I don’t arrest you for purchasing weaponry.”

“Seventy and you let him be.” Heiko indicated the merchant at the end of the guard’s steel.

The guard threw his head into a nod and Heiko shook his hand.

“Fair trade for fair goods,” declared Heiko, producing the coins in a bag.

The guard’s face twisted, as if the words sparked some misplaced memory. The pair move off, counting the coins on their bare hands and laughing boisterously.

“And fair death for fair fools,” said the merchant as he rose to his feet, “Heiko the Haggler… never thought I’d meet y’, let alone in these parts with swine like ‘em… Seems y’ only got the first part of y’ words this time—”

The guard counting the coins begun to choke, his neck turned as black as their armour, and his eyes begun to bleed, veins in his neck turned coal-coloured. He clawed at his face, as if there was an unyielding itch beneath the skin. Blood begun to pour from his ears and nose as he fell to his knees. His partner stood helplessly as he brought blood and bile from his throat.

“Seems I spoke too soon,” corrected the merchant, “Not a fair death, some would say.”

“Everything’s unfair,” replied Heiko, “That’s the only fair thing in this world. Gather your goods… they’ll be looking for the cause.”

“What’s t’ cause, if I may?” asked the merchant, as he gathered his blades.

“A certain something,” replied Heiko, “Coated on the fake coins.” Heiko held up his covered hand, “Guards cut their hands often, so it spreads quickly.” They
chuckled.

“You know who I am. You are?” asked Heiko as the pair moved into a narrow alley along the trading street.

“You’re Heiko the Haggler… But me, I’m just a lowly merchant. Goro, I’m called.”

“We’re both lowly in this land. I have business to attend.”

“Wait… Here… was m’ dad’s,” said Goro, handing Heiko a dagger, “Pretty, it is, might fetch a pretty sum.”

The dagger had a black handle encrusted with gold. It felt smooth, as Heiko ran his hand over the grip. The steel blade was wrapped in fine red lines which seemed to pulse when Heiko held it. The pulsing made the dagger feel alive, as if it had a beating heart.

“Was a fair death y’ prevented… there’s a fair trade,” said Goro as he walked off.

Bloodstring, thought Heiko.

The bloodstring trade was forbidden centuries ago, after the defeat of the Red King. The Red were merciless people, and the result of their cruelty was bloodstring. Torn from the bodies of living captives and laid in steel at the forge. Bloodstring never rusted, never wore, never broke. Some had said it even gave the user strength beyond the Emperor. The Shinra priests condemned it as an evil practice, and an evil power, unholy and undeserved.

Heiko tucked the dagger beneath his cloak and started on his daily route. He started at the crafters, buying trinkets and selling tokens. He moved down the trading street, from stall to stall, procuring fried thornpear and glimmering jewels.

The market was bustling. Merchants, farmers, bushi and nobles all caked into one crowd under cool sun. The crowd grew too dense for Heiko’s liking.
Heiko found a nearby bench and claimed it for his own. His rest was disturbed by a tall, dark-haired young man wearing a light tunic.

“Mysterious one, aren’t you, Heiko,” said Kouta, poking Heiko’s shoulder.

Kouta was a rice farmer who housed a strong dislike of tax and shoes, both of which he considered unnecessary. He was thin, but had a fair amount of muscle. Heiko and Kouta grew up as gutter-born children, and became friends in the gutters of Kyo, a poor district in Shintu.

“Not very mysterious if you discovered my presence,” replied Heiko.

“Fetch the rice tomorrow, before the quarter’s collectors come prancing… Bastards think they’ll take my rice and leave me nothing. I’ll show them.”

A brooding man emerged from the shadows in a faded green uniform. He was a monster of a man, standing nearly eight feet tall with arms of iron. His black hair covered his beardless face and draped onto his green armour. The crest of the armour was broken with a red line.

A ronin, thought Heiko, noticing the red line through the armour's marking.

“What’s this I hear of cheating the collectors?” said the Green Tower, “I’m all for giving them puppets a good knock… You two probably got some good things, if you’re willing to cheat the collectors. Probably some rich merchant bastards, aren’t you? Let’s see, take it out.”

“Robbing unarmed men half your size,” said Kouta, “unfair, isn’t it?”

“Everything’s unfair, Kouta,” said Heiko, removing his hood.

“I know you… Heiko Half-Price… There’s a sum on your head, you know… fair sum, it seems.” The Tower drew his blade. “No blades? Oh, you’re just dirty merchants, filthy parasites. But I got the right to a blade, says the Emperor.”

The Tower swung his blade at Kouta, nicking his cheek, but Heiko pulled Kouta back just in time. Heiko and Kouta darted around the maze of alleys, like mice from a tiger. They dodged men, women, carts and stalls, throwing every possible obstruction at the beastly pursuer. Kouta grabbed melons and fish and flung them at the green titan, one fish struck his forehead. The strike, however, only made him angrier.

Heiko led them through the alleys, which he knew well. They lost the green man and their breath.

“See what happens when you talk about business here? You’ll get us killed one day,” said Heiko.

“Yes, yes, lecture me all you like, but we’ll probably die by the blade at some point, Heiko.”

“At some point, but not at this point. I have much to do before my head rots, I’ll have you know, money to make and--”

The green beast came crashing through an alley, breaking a garment stall and rushing at Heiko, sword drawn. In an instant, the raging green barbarian was in within reach of the pair. In another, his sword was at Kouta’s throat. Heiko felt the moment linger. Each passing inch the blade swallowed was like a knife to Heiko’s gut.

The beast roared as his blade cut the air under Kouta’s chin. Heiko drew the bloodstring dagger, but he lacked the speed and strength needed to slay the beast. As he unsheathed it, his lips moved without his leave and a roar of his own filled the ears of all the market-goers, as if it rung in each man’s head.

“Move!” roared Heiko and the dagger’s red lining glowed.

The Tower was thrown back in a green flash. His blade barely broke Kouta’s skin. His monstrous body crushed a woman and a stall. Heads turned and eyes gazed. Sentinels drew their blades.

After a moment’s pause, the market emptied. Merchants abandoned their wares, some parents their children. Even guards cowered and ran with their tails beneath their legs. Women screamed, children cried, dogs barked. They know what’s coming… Judgment.

Kouta’s eyes widened, unable to decide a course of action. He froze, blood dripping from the cut dealt by the green man, and stared at Heiko.

“W-What did you do? You’re not marked… T-They’ll come, t-they know, they see all. Y-You’ll be judged… W-Why? You should’ve let him take my head… Now we’ll both die. We can’t run… T-They’ll catch us...” muttered Kouta, staring blankly at the ground.

Heiko had no answer. No clever rebuttal, nor witty jape. The Shinyu accepted no bargains nor pleas. They judge, they reap. Death was easier to cheat.
The marketplace went dark, a thick mist begun to form. Small hovels near the trading road locked windows and door. The mist grew thicker with each passing moment. Heiko and Kouta stood, awaiting the arrival. Heiko sheathed the dagger.

A ghostly figure came creeping from the shadows, cloaked in white. Under the white-grey cloak was a thick black fog which leaked from the seams. Beneath the cowl was no face, only a thick smog as dark as death. The figure did not walk, but hovered above the ground, leaving a spot of ash. The smog at the end of the cloak’s sleeves spilled out in the shape of hands. Screams filled Heiko’s ears. Kouta cowered behind a merchant’s table.

The Shinyu hovered, extending its hands of smog and pointing its bone-thin fingers at Heiko. Heiko covered his ears to block out the screams, but his efforts were in vain. The screams of the Shinyu filled his head, growing louder, and louder, and louder.

Heiko closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, the Shinyu was floating in front of him. It stood as tall as the Green Tower, staring at Heiko. Judge me justly thought Heiko as he closed his eyes.

The Shinyu extended a ghostly black hand and pulled Heiko by his brown covering.

“You have stolen. You have cheated. You have killed. You have stolen our gift, used it without our choosing. You will steal. You will cheat. You will kill,” declared the black figure, as it moved Heiko’s face to its cowl. Its voice was thick and bellowed above the screams. As it spoke, the street blackened entirely.

“Thief. Cheat. Murderer. Glutton. You are not worthy.”

The dust that swirled along the Traders’ Road froze.

Is this how it ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper?

A fist-sized stone flew at the Shinyu through the darkness. The stone passed through it, but it flared in anger and expelled a sharp scream.

“If we die, we die together,” declared Kouta through the darkness.

“But not today. I have money to make and cheaters to cheat,” replied Heiko.

Heiko drew the dagger, clasping it firmly in his right hand. It glowed, buzzed and pulsed violently. The Shinyu turned its gaze to Kouta. Heiko brought the dagger to its neck, tearing the white cloak. Black smog leaked from the piercing and the Shinyu screamed at Heiko.

“Unworthy!” it shouted.

It grasped Heiko’s forearm. Heiko’s cloak burned in black flame, and in a moment, the Shinyu’s hand burned Heiko’s skin, releasing a hiss. Heiko twisted the dagger, forcing the Shinyu to release its grip. It screamed as it spun wildly, breaking the abandoned tables and carts and colliding with ill-constructed homes along Traders’ Road.

“Unworthy!” it shouted as it faded away and light returned to the street, but none dared return to their activities, or emerge from their hiding places.

Heiko’s vision was hazy and his hearing ringing. He examined his half-burned cloak and burned forearm. The Shinyu left a black burn in the shape of its hand. The skin boiled and crusted, pitch black with blood oozing from the imprint. It hissed and produced a black smoke.
Kouta emerged at Heiko’s side. They stared at one another, and laughed the way only men who had escaped death could.

JR.
October 8th, 2014, 11:44 PM
Hello Mr Galt, whoever you may be.

Firstly, your writing style feels fairly natural. It flows well at the start. That was my first impression. It certainly reads better than the last full price book I (regretfully) bought.

Firstly, makeshift market, makeshift market, makeshift wrapped rags. I think the first two work well but the third needs a thesaurus.

Why do the sentinels only have armour plates on their arms, shins and thighs?

Why do the sentinels stutter about taxes when they confiscate the blades? They sound like a Python sketch. Have you ever heard a cop pull someone over for speeding and say "err.. and I'll, ah, issue you this, um... tax. Yes, tax."

"Idiot Emperor" ... "defiance tax!" Again, I would think he's breaking the law. The worst possible in most empires: Lese majeste. Usually punishable by death. Still a major crime in many kingdoms, and beyond strange that these guards don't even take notice.

"Bringing his steel" I really did get that he hacked a leg off here. I had to go back and re-read it after the table fell.

"above Heiko" Pretty sure Heiko hasn't moved underneath the guards here, but seems written along those lines.

"Threw his head" Sounds painful

"never thought I’d meet y’, let alone in these parts" I don't know how to pronounce this. I would think it was written that way because of the way it runs into the next word, but in this sentence it stands alone.

I hope there was a good reason he murdered that guard. And not the other one.

Would you like me to go on?

John Galt
October 9th, 2014, 12:00 PM
Hi, JR.
Thanks for the feedback, very much appreciated. This was a first draft, so I welcome all criticism.
I definitely agree on the "makeshift wrapped rags" needing a thesaurus.
The armour of the sentinels could do with revision as, evidently, I didn't articulate the style of the armour well enough. I think I'm fighting the current by not using traditional knights' armour (i.e. European armour) and using more Eastern, feudal Japanese style (samurai). I will probably try to blend the two more effectively or describe more vividly as readers would picture the traditional armour as they read (opposed to the intended samurai-esque armour)
The reason they stutter was primarily because they're robbing him under the semblance of tax. I suppose I could revise that and possibly make it more explicit.
"Idiot Emperor" was an oversight of mine. I suppose I was caught up in the moment :icon_cheesygrin:. Especially considering the feudal Japanese empire (the primary area of inspiration) was a religious leader more so than a political one.
There are reasons for him murdering one and not the other. Cardinal of which being he is, in some ways, fair, ironically (in that the other guard really did very little, save play pack mule). The living guard also serves a purpose in the next chapter to advance the plot.
Thanks for your feedback. Much appreciated!

JR.
October 9th, 2014, 02:33 PM
No problem, JG. The stuttering guards may have tripped me up more than most people because I live in a place where they don't bother hiding that they're shaking you down. Also, the country next door has been having ongoing civil strife, so lese majeste laws are used fairly frequently. But unless you're targeting 'Young Adult', I think its important that fiction lives up to real life counterparts, so that people are not pulled out of their suspension of disbelief.

JamesR
October 11th, 2014, 08:52 PM
I enjoyed the political aspect very much. I think it embodies a lot of the problems our society is currently facing. I do agree though that using a thesaurus to widen the vocabulary may be a good idea. I personally have a rule where I don't use the same adverb/adjective more than twice in a single short story or chapter.

Plasticweld
October 11th, 2014, 09:25 PM
John for a first draft or rough, it reads very well. Having a few eyes look at it and pick up on some of the details is always a big help. Good story line I would certainly continue on and keep reading.


Welcome to the forum John, Jr and JamesR. Nice to see you guys here, writing and critiquing...Bob