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The Thief of Reason

Prologue

By Madoka MoriPublished 2 days ago 12 min read
Second Place in The Fantasy Prologue
105

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

My father wept when I made my pledge, a rare thing. The tears fell from behind his mask like warm, summer rain. His attachment to me was a failing on his part, a stumble upon the Path. Yet I was gladdened to see him weep for me; a failing on mine. Later, upon my journey, I kept the memory of my father’s tears close, and felt a little less alone.

He knew my heart leading up to my pledgeday, had counselled me to pledge otherwise. He bade me listen to the wisdom of his age over the fire of my youth. I would not.

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

I made my pledge before the clanmothers and the gathered clan, in that place precious to us where we laid the dead to rest. The graves around outnumbering the living by a good margin. So few of us now. In my earliest memories I recall pledgedays where five or six would pledge at a time, receiving their masks amidst great celebration. Over time, fewer and fewer. Mine was the first pledgeday in many years, and I pledged alone.

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

I received my mask in silence, and all about were silent also. There were no cheers. No celebration as the clanmothers inscribed my mask with its first sigil. They thought as did my father: this was a pledge of death. Perhaps they were right. But it is said both friend and foe are better met face-on. Death comes for us all regardless; whether we seek it or run from it.

Better met face-on.

I provisioned myself for the long trip to the Valley. Strips of dried venison and rivertrout, bars of honied grain wrapped in hiso leaf. My blowpipe and several small ironwood blades, my hatchetknife. A fine cloak. A good leather pack and waterskin. I did not hurry in my preparations, but nor did I dawdle unduly. Within a week of receiving my mask I was ready to leave.

The night before my departure my mother came to the family tent bearing a gift. I knelt before her.

“There were not always dragons in the Valley,” she said, “that is true. Who are you, though, who would see them gone from that place once more?”

I kept my silence. She reached down and hooked a finger under the chin of my mask, lifting my face to meet her eye.

“Many have made this same pledge. None have seen it through. What makes you think that you shall succeed, where so many have failed?” Her eyes bored into mine. “Arrogance, perhaps.”

Her words stung me. “I cannot know where the Path leads, clanmother. I can only pledge to walk it.”

“And yet there are… less convoluted Paths. Why pledge yourself to this one? Many believe that you wish for death.”

“All Paths lead to that place in the end,” I said.

She held my gaze a moment longer, her eyes bright behind her much-adorned mask.

“That is so,” she said. She gestured at the hide-wrapped bundle beside her. “Open it.”

Attachment is the root of sin. Attachment leads to desire, and greed, and pride. These things lead to dragons. The elf-clans forsook attachment and pledged themselves to the Path after the extinction of the dwarfs. What happened to them shall not happen to us. And yet… some things were not so easily discarded.

My mother’s gift was an ancestral weapon, an heirloom of our people. A glaive made before the fall of elves and dwarfs, before the rise of dragons. Half its length was unadorned, elegantly-curved blade; the other bare metal hilt. It was light as a faded memory and sharp as loss. The craft to make such weapons had long since been forgotten, or abandoned. In the world entire there were maybe a score or fewer of such blades remaining, likely all within the treasure-hordes of kings of the young races. I cradled it, quietly agog.

“The hilt shall need wrapping,” she said, “a pleasant distraction on your journey, perhaps.” She stood and left without a further word. I knelt there holding the blade for a long while after.

The next morning I left the village. My father and sister walked me to the edge of the clearing. I bade them both farewell. My father did not weep this time. My sister gave me a wasp-orchid, her favourite. She would soon have to give up favourites, take her own mask. I rested my hand upon her cheek for a moment.

Then I left.

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

It took three weeks just to walk clear of the Sea of Trees. By the time I emerged into the open skies of the highlands the hilt of my glaive was wrapped in soft rabbithide, my sister’s orchid pressed and dried in a twist of cloth in my pack.

I followed the ridge of the Broken Hills south and west. Free of the tree cover I had spent almost my whole life under, I found the going quick but cold. The windswept rocks of the hills provided scant cover or game. The Sea of Trees stretched at my back: endless, abundant, safe.

Six nights after leaving the trees behind I was set upon by bandits as I hunched over my meagre cookfire, trying to roast a rockpidgeon I had managed to fell with my blowpipe. Through luck, or my inattention, or the winds that howled constantly, they were able to sneak up on me.

“What have we here, then?” said a man almost as wide as he was tall, as he emerged into the wan circle of light thrown by my fire. I stood up in alarm, straight into the grasp of two more humans behind me. “Fuck me,” said the man holding my right arm, “this is a tall one.”

A tengu hopped on a boulder near the broad man. “Look at the mask, the mask,” she cried, pointing with her vestigial wing-claws. The broad man - I assume the leader - drew back in shock and recognition.

“Elf!” he shouted, but it was too late. Held fast on each side as I was, I leapt up and backwards, smoothly somersaulting to lock their wrists against each other and twist free. I had drawn an ironwood dagger from my belt and jammed it into the man on the right’s ear before my feet rejoined the ground. It stuck fast in the bones of his skull. I abandoned it there, drawing my hatchetknife from its sheath in the small of my back.

The human that had been holding my other arm held up her hands to protect her face, so I sliced across and low to unzip her belly, turning the motion into a spin to bring the hatchetknife down in a blow to the neck once she clapped her hands to her stomach to hold in her spilling viscera. A clean kill. She fell to the ground, the wound in her neck pumping out her lifeblood in slowly weakening loops. The man to the right sank to his knees, gingerly touching the knife jutting from the side of his head, looking at no-one, his fingers fluttering daintily over the hilt like bees pollinating a flower. He started to keen; a high, strange sound.

I stared at the tengu and the broad man across the fire. They had the chance to run, then. I gave them that at least. They didn’t take it.

The broad man recovered from his shock first. He drew a massive, iron axe from his belt and brandished it, roaring wordlessly. The axe alone probably weighed as much as everything I carried put together, but in his huge hands it moved easily. He charged through the fire, scattering coals. I ducked his first swing and dodged to the left, where my pack lay. Strapped to my pack was my mother's gift.

The glaive slipped from its scabbard, the warm light of the fire and the cool light of the moon mingling and dancing on its yard-long edge. The broad man never got a second swing. As he turned and lifted the axe above his head for a two-handed blow I cut laterally across his forearms, severing them both. The ancestral blade slipped through flesh and bone alike as if I were cutting a cake. His forearms thudded to the ground heavily, still gripping the axe.

Blood gouted from his suddenly-terminated arms and landed sizzling in the remains of the fire, giving off great clouds of steam that smelled - horribly - like cooked pork. The broad man stared at his stumps quizzically, as if trying to make sense of a riddle. I ran him through the heart and he fell.

The tengu still stood upon its rock. Her avian face was incapable of expression, so whether she felt fear or anger I do not know. Surprise, maybe. It had only been the span of a dozen heartbeats since the broad man had announced himself. She puffed up her feathers and met my eye. She was no coward. She gathered herself and opened her beak.

DROP IT,

she said. Her words vibrated in the air strangely, as if echoing within a large cave. I felt her will behind those words, the way they bypassed my ears and brain and instead sought to speak directly to my essence. She had the Art. She was quite skilled in it, too.

I carefully laid my glaive on the ground, away from the patches of earth sodden with blood.

COME HERE.

I stepped over the body of the broad man and approached without haste. She unsheathed a vicious, hooked tulwar. No doubt this was a thing done many times before on nights just like this one: her fellows accosting a small band of travellers, and slaughtering them like lambs as they stood before her, entranced and defenceless.

STOP.

I stood within easy reach of her now. A tear slipped down the feathers of her face. It was hard for tengu to weep - they lack many of the ducts for it, in their eyes. By killing her compatriots I had likely doomed her to a slow, lonely death out here in the wilds. The bond of outcasts is a powerful one; the dispossessed cling to one another like those drowning. My people know this well. I was impressed at the control of her Art she showed through her grief.

She moved to draw the tulwar across my throat.

I reached up and grasped the wing-wrist of her blade hand. She showed surprise then, tengu or no.

STOP. StoP! wAi-

With my other hand I drew the small hunting-knife from my belt and slid it up under her ribs, pushing until her feet lifted off the rock she stood upon. She was so very light. I held her there as she struggled, beak opening and closing soundlessly; I had punctured her diaphragm, and she could not draw breath to speak. I wanted to tell her that it would not matter regardless, that her Art would not help her against me. The Path girt me against such things, and trying to grasp my essence was like trying to catch a fish with one’s hands. But I said nothing, and she died there, wriggling uselessly, in silence and confusion.

Do you think me cruel? Feigning entrancement for the surprise of a killing blow? Do you think she asked herself such questions, when she put travellers to the blade as they stood there meek and uncomprehending as cattle? Do you think she explained what was happening to them, at the end?

After that night I made no fires.

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

As I moved along the highlands towards the coast there were other lights at night. The lamps of ships out to sea, plying the trade routes between the Valley and their home ports. The ever-increasing dots of campfires, most cleaving to the coast road. The great multihued smear of colour to the North, warping and shifting silently in the night sky. The remains of the war. A blight of raw, mutilated essence that served gravemarker to the age of elves and dwarfs and the declaration of the age of dragons both. I tried not to look at it.

Nine days after the bandits, I made the lip of the Valley. I looked down upon it and the city it contained.

The city of the dwarfs was still there, after a fashion. Cyclopean ruins jutted like broken teeth along the jawline of the Жеlоb River, all the way back to where it emerged, sluggish, from the great cavern systems beneath Mount Vargr. The dwarfs’ heavy, monolithic structures seemingly melted, or warped, or simply smashed. From these stone ruins sprouted a profusion of rickety structures, shacks and towers and tenements constructed from scavenged timber and repurposed rubble.

Many dozens of ships lay at anchor in the great estuary of the Valley, pilot boats and barges and tenders of great variety swarming about them to shuttle goods and crew between the wharves and where the ships lay at anchor. Even from this distance I could hear the din of this warren of the young races infesting the wreckage of the old. The cries of stevedores and whores, beggars and merchants carried across the vast gulf of frigid air.

It was late in the day and I would not make the valley floor before nightfall, so I made my camp on that high cliff overlooking all. I sat on my bedroll nibbling the last of my dried meat and watched as the Valley sank into gloom. Lights gleamed into being one-by-one; first here, now there, until they covered the floor of the valley like stars in the night sky.

Except for one place. One district remained free of lamplight: the largest ruin, a tower of black ouslite, set in the center of the Valley like a prize flower in a garden. It loomed over all about it, monolithic and dark, and I knew then where my quarry made its lair.

There were not always dragons in the Valley. I will see them gone from that place once more.

Perhaps my father was right. Perhaps mine was a death-pledge.

Fantasy
105

About the Creator

Madoka Mori

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Outstanding

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (53)

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  • Emily Marie Concannonabout 13 hours ago

    I am happy to see this got top story! :)

  • Em Starrrrrabout 15 hours ago

    This is epic, Madoka! The use of the refrain throughout is such a clever thing. Love it...not surprised it did well in the challenge.

  • Jason Basarabaabout 16 hours ago

    Congrats, well written and interesting story

  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydredabout 19 hours ago

    Congratulations on your top story

  • THE SPEAR SISTERS2 months ago

    So wonderful!

  • Blake Booth3 months ago

    You killed it. Absolutely amazing. Can't wait to read more from you.

  • Bugsy Watts3 months ago

    I am in awe of your storytelling. Amazing!

  • Brian DeLeonard5 months ago

    I loved the clear details and nice action. Congratulations on the win!

  • Shadow James5 months ago

    Congratulations!! Great read! Wonderful writer!

  • Neil Chang5 months ago

    Congratulations! This was such a good read. I love your ability to bring the page to life. Bravo.

  • A.K. Noctua6 months ago

    Impeccable. The words felt tight, and concise. And your story was enticing. Congrats!

  • Rebecca Ridsdale7 months ago

    I was captured! Thank you!

  • Sherry Cortes7 months ago

    This piece should have won 1st. I was sucked right in to the world and wanted it to keep going. Congratulations on winning 2nd, though. That’s no small feat!

  • N. S. Robbins7 months ago

    Great prologue! Great setup. I connected with your style and flow. This is clearly the winning entry in my mind.

  • Made in DNA7 months ago

    CHILLING.

  • Amelia Jane Malins7 months ago

    Wow! I can see why you were chosen as one of the winners. This writing is pretty exceptional and I love the story structure. More subtle and layered than a straightforward into action style like I wrote! congrats!

  • mark william smith7 months ago

    i will be following your stories. i read the winning vocal fiction story, which was quite exceptional.

  • Irene Mielke7 months ago

    You have great story telling skills.

  • P.K. Lowe7 months ago

    A breathtaking read. The way you weave a story is incredible. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, keep up the amazing work 💖

  • Penny Fuller7 months ago

    Beautiful work. It's clear why this was one of the winners. Great job.

  • Tammo gaming7 months ago

    I like the idea and where the story is headed, but for me it's hard to keep reading about someone who I know nothing about a name, or a description would have been nice I don't even know if they are a boy girl other, or even how old they are.

  • Jen Gossoo7 months ago

    The world you've created feels so unique-- I would like to know more about the history & traditions of the clans. Your descriptions are so eloquent & effective (I actually cringed reading the killing scenes). Your writing is enthralling!!

  • Sara Rose7 months ago

    Congratulations! This transported me to a different world. I really loved the moment when the main character resists the Art of the tengu. That was so suspenseful and satisfying!

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