Publishing is a long and winding road. It’s easy for me to get lost in the “find an agent–sell a book” loop and forget about the actual writing sometimes. Which is funny, because the writing–the storytelling–is the reason I’m doing all of this in the first place.
Over the years since I’ve been brandishing words, I’ve accumulated a significant chunk of first chapters. Many of them start books that make it all the way to “THE END,” while others never make it past “CHAPTER TWO.”
I thought it may be a fun idea–and honestly a bit of catharsis–to start digging through those old manuscripts and posting the first chapters. They’re not all nice and clean. They’re not all finished books. Not a one of them has been in a published tome to-date, and for some of them that may never change. But I think there’s some value in going back through the stratified layers of my writing archive and casting some of it out to the wild, unwashed masses. (I’m not judging–I didn’t shower until about noon today myself.)
I’m not really posting these in any order. And as you’ll discover soon enough I run the gamut from grimdark fantasy to contemporary love stories to adventure books for kids. It’s all a bit scattershot, but I think there’s something at the core of each of them that’s the type of story I like to tell.
I’m going to open up with the grittiest. Let’s just rip this bandage off so we can move on to brighter things next week, shall we?
A TALE OF JADE AND CHRYSANTHEMUM is a book that’s complete, and has gone through one revision pass. It could use a few line edits I’m sure. It’s a gritty fantasy about a teenage girl monster hunter in a barren kingdom where women–all women–are slaves. She’s heard rumors about an empire in the north that’s ruled by a woman, however, and as you can imagine eventually those two collide. It’s grim. It’s gruesome. It doesn’t really pull any punches and some of it can be hard to read. But this was me in the fall of 2013 and so here we go.
Chapter 1 – CHRYS
Chrys swallowed her rising fear as the sulfuric snort from the sleeping dragon’s nose enveloped her. If not for the leather armor she’d fashioned for herself that simple breath alone would have killed her. But if the dragon awoke, nothing would save her from the true breath—the fire that had consumed an entire village a fortnight ago, in this distant western end of the desert. Her thumbs, dried and cracked, sent scattered daggers of pain through her hands as she gripped the wooden shaft of her spear, preparing to strike. The obsidian tip glinted in reflected light from the cave mouth behind her. She closed her eyes and recited a silent prayer to Ahar in her mind—a prayer for protection, for forgiveness. A prayer for her spear to strike true. All other hunts had led to this one. The manticore and its poisonous fangs, the trolls with their stone-hard skin—all practice. They had provided her enough bounty to keep herself and Viol fed, but only barely. After collecting the bounty on the dragon of Svartii, however, she would never have to hunt again.
Azure scales covered the dragon’s bloated body, fed full of goats and their shepherds, the fruits of its raid on Svartii. A female—yes, she could sense it now, as the beast’s dreams came to her. Dreams of fire, of flight—of a freedom Chrys herself had never experienced, would never experience. Hers was a life underground, constantly on the run from cave to cave, from village to village, hoping never to be discovered for what she truly was—a girl of sixteen turns.
The dreams—and all other thoughts—were what helped her rise above all the guilds that hunted down the beasts that threatened the desert. Some guilds took fifty men out to kill a pack of wild beasts only to return with fifteen or fewer—and yet they signed up for the hunts, risking death, for a chance at sharing the rewards offered by the temple. She’d accomplished more than any of those guilds all by herself. All due to her ability to read the thoughts and emotions of those around her—an ability she shared only with her sister, and no other she had ever met.
Chrys sucked in a deep breath between gritted teeth, the sour taste of the leather facemask filling her mouth. She plunged the obsidian-tipped spear into the dragon’s sleeping eye. The creature screamed, the roar deafening her as it echoed all around the cavern. Everything descended into a dreamlike state, as if happening far away, underwater. The dragon raised its head and up she went with it, vise-like grip on her spear handle, tip embedded into the creature’s eye. Milky liquid drained from the punctured orb as the creature thrashed and Chrys held on for her life, praying to Ahar that her spear’s handle wouldn’t break. She needed leverage, needed it now, to drive the spear all the way into the creature’s brain before it crushed her against the cave walls.
The dragon’s mind filled with thoughts of raging fire.
Twirling about on her spear handle, Chrys flipped up onto the creature’s head, just in time to dodge the fiery breath it unleashed. The heat from the blast seared her back even through the armor she wore, and she knew that time was running out. The creature rammed its head against the cavern’s rocky ceiling, but its thoughts telegraphed its every intent an impossibly short moment before, and Chrys deftly rolled to one side or the other, dodging the blows before they came. At last, standing atop the creature’s snout, staring into its one good eye, feeling its anger and wrath as it realized what was happening, she gripped her spear handle and braced herself against it, pushing it deeper into the creature’s skull.
And then it took flight.
The dragon barreled down the cavern, throwing Chrys off her feet. Her spear handle snapped as the dragon burst out of the darkness and into the scorching sun of the desert. She slammed against the bony ridge between the creature’s eyes as it soared up, wind whipping past her, slapping her leather armor against her singed back. She had come prepared for this. Chrys pulled one end of a rope out from under her armor and slipped the pre-tied loop around a plate on the dragon’s spine. The other end she’d tied around her chest, where it chafed under her armpits in the blasting heat of the sun and sand. This dragon was not getting away.
Quickly, hand over hand, Chrys clambered back down the dragon’s spine toward its head. Great blobs of mucus and blood dripped away as it soared over the dusty ground below, leaving a dotted trail of gore in its path. She braced herself against its forehead, grabbed the end of her spear, and pushed with all her might.
A vision of eggs came to her from the dragon’s mind, and a desire to protect them above all else. An emotion underscored with fear and dread. The dragon banked hard and Chrys lost her balance, tumbling out into the open air. The rope snapped taut, tearing the breath out of her. Pain swirled around her chest as she fluttered in the wind behind the dragon, spinning, spiraling, sky over sand, sand over sky. She gasped for breath, fought the urge to vomit. The rope. Yes. Chrys grabbed the rope and began pulling herself back toward the terrified beast as her legs dangled in the open air. She would end it, and then she would find all of its eggs and end them, too.
Reaching the dragon’s body once more, she scrambled to the head and yanked her spear out with a visceral shout. The dragon roared and belched a stream of fire down, leaving a charred streak on the ground below. Chrys plunged the spear into the dragon’s other eye. The beast lost altitude, tearing through the air toward the cliff wall. The ground zipped past—so close she could reach out and touch it. Sheer rock rose up before them. She pulled on the spear, embedded in the creature’s blinded eye, in an attempt to steer it, but to no avail—Chrys could feel the dragon’s fear, fought against it, lest it overwhelm her as another’s fear had done once before. She could not afford to succumb to such mortal fear right now. Viol’s life depended on it.
Up! she screamed at the dragon’s mind, reaching for the obsidian dagger at her belt, preparing to cut herself free and tumble to the ground before impact. The dragon squealed, disapproving. The massive beast tucked her wings in and accelerated.
Chrys cut herself free, curled into a ball. Her left arm hit the ground first, and she tumbled to a stop just in time to see the dragon crash into the stone wall. The creature’s thoughts and emotions flashed out of existence in Chrys’s mind. The stone cracked beneath the impact. Chunks of the cliff wall rained down from the cloud of dust stirred up by the dragon’s final dive. The lifeless beast lay crumpled in a pile at the base of the cliff.
Breathing came in short, rapid huffs—her heart beat even faster. Fear slowly melted away into relief as she studied the madness of the carnage around her—the dragon of Svartii was dead.
And then she remembered the eggs.
She found them in the back of the cave, seven alabaster spheres, cool and smooth to the touch. She slipped her leather gloves off and traced their surfaces with her calloused fingers. No voices called out to her mind, no emotions reached her—the eggs held no dragon spawn. With a swift kick she shattered one of the eggs, spilling its green yolk out onto the cavern floor. The six remaining eggs would feed her and Viol for weeks. The satchel she’d left outside couldn’t carry more than one, but the beast itself could hold many within its rapidly cooling skull.
Chrys turned to leave the cave, to set about the grisly job of sawing off the dragon’s head. Sunset wasn’t far off, and it would take hours to remove the thing with the puny saw she’d brought. The desert grew more hostile with every passing minute—caught outside at night, she would attract every unsavory bandit for miles around. Not to mention the hunters of other guilds who always tailed her, always attempting to steal her kills after letting her do the hard work. Most were smart enough to be afraid of her—Slayer, they called her. But others weren’t nearly as cautious.
As she approached the mouth of the cave, something tickled the back of her mind. A thought, nearby, yet somehow distant and unformed. The stream of thoughts flowed through her. A warm darkness that she could fall asleep in, curled up, content. Perfect safety.
One of the eggs was alive.
She crept back to the stash of eggs, sloshing through the gummy yolk on the rocky floor. Hand caressing each egg in turn, but finding nothing. These were all dead inside—and yet, the flow of emotions continued, stronger now. From below.
Chrys shoved the eggs out of the way, frowning as two cracked open adding to the mess on the ground, but there, under all the rest, lay a silver sphere, polished to a shine. The curious object was devoid of any marking save one—a black circle with crescents carved out of it, giving the general impression of a claw. The cracked skin of her fingers slid over its surface effortlessly. Smooth and warm, radiating heat from within. Whatever this was, it looked nothing like the others. She’d never seen anything so fine, so perfectly spherical and polished. She lifted it with ease, turning it around, looking for some signs of an opening but finding none. If she could only take one egg home, this was the one.
Outside, she lay the strange egg beside her satchel and pulled out her saw. The flow of warm contentment from whatever lived within the metallic sphere helped carry her through her grisly work of chipping scales away with her knife, of getting the saw wedged in just so, the grueling rocking back and forth as the saw did its job.
When the blade cut into the ground, there was a hiss in the air behind her, and the warm thoughts turned cold. Chrys turned, wiping the sweat from her brow with a blood-soaked hand. The metallic egg had opened up in two neat halves. Standing there in the middle of them was a perfect replica of the dragon she had blinded and killed, save for its miniature size.
No, not like this. The baby seeing its mother for the first time—the way she saw her own mother beheaded. Viol had been a mere baby, crying at all hours, and her mother had been up with her tiny sister for countless nights in a row. The request from her father had been a simple one—water from the well out back to quench his thirst after a long day working the smelter. When her mother had suggested he get his own water, that she needed to rest, he had taken a blade to her throat without warning or hesitation. It was a sight Chrys had seen all too many times—it was normal, a woman’s punishment for breaking the most sacred laws of Ahar. And yet when it had happened to her own mother, she could not accept it. Deep within her soul she knew it was wrong—yet who was she to question the will of Ahar? And now, this baby dragon stood here, seeing her standing over its own mother, gore-soaked blade in hand.
Mother? the silent voice cried out again in her mind.
She let the saw fall to the ground. This was her responsibility now. A price to pay to feed herself and her sister. But if any of the other guilds ever found out she consorted with the very creatures they fought against, her reputation would be finished and they would have her killed.
Mother! Warmth and contentment flowed once more from the dragonling as the tiny creature curled up in one half of the metallic egg and dozed off.
Chrys wept. And after she wept, she set to tying up the dragon’s head and preparing it to drag back to Halone, miles east of the charred village of Svartii, where she would claim the bounty that would sustain herself and Viol forever and always. No more hunting, no more death.
The comfort of that thought was not long-lived. Thoughts of gold and revenge came to her, and in the distant sands she saw the men those thoughts belonged to cresting a sand dune. Yellow-dyed leather armor studded with iron rings that jingled as they walked gave them away as hunters from the Storm guild, the most prominent of all hunter guilds. Ever since she’d killed the giant—her first bounty—they’d been following her, claiming she stole the kill from them. Chrys credited most of her fame as a hunter not on her ability to take down such monstrous threats singlehandedly, but on all the complaining the Storm had done about her.
After making sure her own armor covered everything that could give her away as a girl, she leaned back against the dead dragon’s head and folded her arms over her chest, staring at the men as they trudged through the sands toward her. Her obsidian dagger clutched tight in one hand, ready to strike. She prayed to Ahar that moment wouldn’t come. Her sins were already too many.
“So that’s it, is it?” The largest of the four, arms thicker than her body, flexed his muscles and drew a crescent sword. “I’d heard you weren’t nearly as big as legend had me believe, but the Slayer, barely bigger than a baby girl?” She sensed no fear in any of the four men—their thoughts had already moved on to how they were going to spend all of their money. They dismissed her small size, they convinced themselves this was going to be an easy fight. Except for one.
“Be careful.” A sandy-haired boy with dark olive skin stepped back, nervous. He didn’t look a turn older than she. Eighteen turns at best. “His reputation is well earned—look at that thing!” The boy pointed his blade at the dead dragon behind her.
“What’s that?” A third man, face wrapped entirely in bandages save for his eyes, looked down at the metallic sphere. “Is that the Jade Empire’s mark?”
The Jade Empire? She’d heard only faint whispers of that dark land in the distant north, a land ruled by a woman—a land that spit on the divine will of Ahar. And a land, she’d last heard, who made their primary business the destruction and conquer of all other lands. If she hated her father for what he had done, she hated the heresies of the Jade Empire even more.
The baby dragon awoke, rising up out of the metallic egg, and looked around.
“I knew it!” The big one raised his sword. Spit flew from his mouth. “He’s planting them. It’s all a setup! No wonder he kills ‘em so easy—he’s raising the damned things!” He swung his sword down at the baby dragon. It looked up at him, feeling no fear, not understanding anything about life outside of warmth, comfort, Mother…
Chrys flew at the men, every tool in her arsenal at her disposal, twirling and dancing around them as they fumbled to catch her. A slash here, a stab there, incapacitating them, dropping them to the ground with well-placed thrusts. She had learned to dance from feeding the wild coeurls her father raised for pit fighting, always having to be on her toes to avoid their electrifying tendrils and snapping jaws. Taking down the four Storm guildsmen cost her barely an extra breath—feeding coeurls was a much more taxing experience.
When at last they all lay on the ground, the final one breathing his last breaths, she took off her mask and leaned down to give him a good look at her face in the fading light of day. His face twisted up, eyes wide, thoughts of betrayal, of shame, of confusion racing through his mind. She fought against them, mouth set grim, as she pulled her face close to his.
“Forgive me.” She placed the blade of the dagger at the man’s throat. “Please,” she begged through her own tears. “Ask Ahar for forgiveness on my behalf.” And then with a quick slash she sent the man to heaven.
Chrys hid the bodies in the carcass of the dragon after sawing its abdomen open, spilling out half-digested sheep and shepherds in a foul-smelling slurry. The big one proved the most difficult to move, but she suffered through it with prayers of penitence. It was her lot in life to suffer—the lot of all women to suffer for the sins of man. Once the bodies were dealt with, she slipped out of her leather vest and pulled up the blood-stained cloth tunic she wore beneath. Sweat and salt assaulted her senses, mixed with a tinge of blood. The first chill desert winds of evening blew across the faded pink chrysanthemum, tattooed onto her abdomen at birth. Chrys studied the seven scarred lines she’d carved across it through the turns, one still red. She flinched as she touched it.
Taking her dagger in her hand, she carved four new bloody lines over the flower. Four lettings of blood to atone for her sin of murdering Ahar’s chosen. She started to pull her shirt back down, to staunch the bleeding, but then she added one more line above the rest. A line for the baby dragon’s mother.
Slipping the baby dragon in his strange shell into her satchel, Chrys took up the rope and began the long, slow trek of dragging the dragon’s head across the desert. More Storm hunters would be on her tail soon, but if she could make it to the ruins of Svartii she would be safe for the night. There was still food there, still fire and warmth. Pain flashed through her fresh stomach wounds as she pushed onward. Her thoughts went to Viol, her sole purpose, her focus, the thing that drove her. She thought of the purple violet tattooed onto her sister of only four turns, of how pristine and unscarred it was.
Chrys pledged to Ahar that she would do everything in her power to keep it that way.