As some of you know, I’ve been working on a novel the past few months. It’s a (semi) young adult dystopian fiction/fantasy story.
I finished the novel up this past Sunday, and thought I’d post the first chapter for feedback. This is the first time I’m posting any of it somewhere public, so any sort of feedback would be helpful (ie poor phrasing, grammatical errors, or if it just sucks as a whole.) This first chapter introduces you to the world as well as one of the main characters. Hope you like it.
Chapter 1: Skyler
Skyler often wondered if the sound of the wind howling ever haunted anyone else’s dreams the way they did his. Until he was older than he would have liked to admit, he would lie awake in his bed every time he heard the sounds, waiting for something that had neither a face nor a name to appear.
It wasn’t just the way it crept up on him like it was getting closer and closer each night, or the chills he would get on the back of his neck, or even the stories, repeated over and over again to children like a daunting nursery rhyme. It began in the days when monsters had first crawled from the depths of the Abyss. When the Goblins and War-Wolves had snuck into houses like shadows and stolen babies from their cradles and sucked their bones dry. It began during the time when humanity learned that magic could no longer protect them from the evil that prowled in the darkest depths of their world.
Then, when monsters and demons walked the earth for the first time, was when the wind began to cry in screams of protest.
That was how you knew they were coming. That was how you could save yourselves and your young. Except in a town like Sheepsgate, Skyler assumed. Because there was nowhere close enough to their old town to run to.
Nowadays, things had changed. As quickly as they had come, the creatures had retreated into their bottomless crack in the earth, or died and crumbled to dust in the desert. Soon after that, the creatures who possessed good magic became scarce too. For a while you would hear that someone saw a pixie in the woods, or a unicorn trotting on the opposite side of a lake. But soon these creatures became myth too, and people carved them into wood and stone and prayed to them along with their Gods. The few human magicians who survived the monsters attacks followed closely after, becoming uncommon and eventually disappearing altogether.
Skyler’s grandmother had said to him: “The air was once so thick with magic that you breathed it into your lungs. Our Earth was special, and so were we. But now our blood is dry and normal. Now our world is dying and our fate will follow”.
His mother told him that this was absolute nonsense. “You’re lucky to have been born when you were”, she said, “The age of magic was not for us. Human’s never had a knack for it the way those creatures did. Now is the time for man. Now is the time for invention. This is your world now, and it is safe.” And he tried to believe her.
But on cold desert nights when the wind howled, he felt anything but safe. He felt as if there were something in his bones that ached for him to run, but his head was too sensible to comprehend why.
He rarely felt safer than when he was on the back of a galloping animal. His family owned a small horse ranch: just less than three acres wide. Out of their ten mares, most were old and tired, and their one stallion hadn’t been able to carry a rider in a number of years. But his fifteen year old pony ran with all the vigor and boundless determination of a colt, and because of this, they made an unspoken agreement to be best friends for as long as they both shared this love.
His neighbors would often see them rushing out of the stables, kicking up dust as they galloped away. They always headed in the direction of the distant purple mountains, a destination they would never reach, but could always run towards.
“That boy ought to marry a nice girl”, they would say to each other, as they stopped working on their fields for a moment to watch, “that’s bound to slow him down”.
But Skyler doubted it, and so did his mother.
She attempted to push him towards a few girls his age, but their town was small, and it didn’t take any sensible girl long to realize that there was something simply off about him.
“He’s rather jumpy”, one had said to her, after sharing a dinner with their family, and watching him nervously pull his bread apart. “He always seems frightened”.
“So he does”, his mother said with a sigh. But that was the worst she would say about him. His father on the other hand, spared no one’s feelings when it came to his youngest son.
“There’s something not right in that boy’s head”, he would mutter as he watched him build small castles from dirt and twigs in their front yard. When Skyler was six years old, his father took him hunting and saw that he was not eager to make his first kill the way most boys were. He screamed when his father shot a possum and sobbed when he carved out the meat and cooked it for their dinner. Skyler couldn’t plow fields with the raw strength that his oldest brother could. And he couldn’t build sturdy houses the way his second eldest brother could, either. By the time he was ten, his father never talked about him, and a hard scowl would appear on his face whenever anyone mentioned Skyler’s name in passing.
“Your father’s just thick”, his mother once said to him, hugging him close. He was ten years old, and crying because his father had brought his two brothers to the next town over on business, and left him behind. “Thinking and feeling aren’t things he’s good at”, she murmured into his hair, “You are normal. You’re normal, and perfect”. He would later wonder if she was trying to convince herself.
But he was not normal. And he doubted there was ever a moment in his life that fooled anyone into thinking he was. Skyler liked staring into the open plane of the desert. He liked the vast nothingness that it was, and what it represented. He liked the idea of possibilities; of his life unfolding in many different directions, each one leading him somewhere fantastic. He wanted something that he had neither heard about nor seen: a faint whisper in the back of his subconscious, telling him that his life was coming to a very abrupt halt, and he would soon need to change course.
He was sixteen when he rode his pony to a watering hole about five miles away from his town. They had stopped for a rest, and she had lain down on a patch of grass. He leaned his back against her for warmth, as the wind picked up and rubbed his hands together, but they only got colder. He thought of the flame that burned in the tiny stove in his house, and suddenly felt a strange energy coming from within them. When he parted them, a tiny flame erupted from his palms and quickly extinguished itself into a puff of smoke.
That was when it began. Not significant, not an epiphany, just a simple flame.
Skyler stared at his hands for quite some time before muttering, “What was that?”
“Fire”. It was a very prominent voice; deep but feminine. He looked every which way. There was no one, only his pony staring back at him. Somehow her eyes looked more intelligent than they had five minutes ago.
He was quiet for a good while, as they stared at each other. Finally he shook his head and turned away, “Horses don’t talk”, he said to himself.
“Well, I’m not a horse, I’m a pony, and that’s an entirely different matter”, came the voice again.
He turned around quickly. The words had come from her lips, and she was looking at him again in that strange manner. “How so?”, He asked. He heard of a strange plant out in the desert that could make you hallucinate things if you ate enough of it. Perhaps he had inhaled a small leaf of it.
“We’re smarter for one”, she said, without missing a beat “And we’re not quite so elegant, so we don’t waste time or intellect being vain. But I suppose the reason for this would be: you are clearly a magician. And seeing as you have no one else to talk to, you’ve given me the ability to speak.”
“Magicians don’t exist”, Skyler said shaking his head, wondering if he was even stranger than everyone thought.
“Well of course they do”, his pony replied, “You remember those stories Grandmother told? Her second husband was a magician.”
Skyler stared at her in disbelief. “She’s not your grandmother. She’s mine.”
“It doesn’t quite feel that way”.
“Well it should. You are a horse.”
“A pony. We’ve been through this.”
Skyler sighed. “yes”.
“Then you agree with me now?”
“Well…” Skyler thought through the stories he had heard about magicians. “I haven’t got any markings. Magicians have markings”.
“Not when they first get their magic”.
“Yes they do”, he retorted. “For every spell they can cast, they get a marking. If I had conjured fire out of thin air, that would require a spell. But I’ve got no marking to prove it.”
But it wasn’t long till Skyler saw a little symbol appear on his skin. It emerged on the inside of his left ankle; orange, tiny, and written in a language he could not read.
‘So I’m a magician’, Skyler thought to himself, and tried to stop worrying about it from then on.
This plan, however, turned out to be quite difficult. Because one fire spell was more trouble than he had expected.
It seemed to go off any time he was upset or angry, and this happened frequently. He’d burn clothes and bed sheets while folding them, when his father walked by and called him lazy or peculiar. Smoke would trail after his footsteps when he saw anyone pointing and whispering at him in town.
He tried to spend most of his free time a couple miles away with his pony, where it did not matter if his magic was seen. But he knew this tactic would not last forever.
About a month after he had gotten his marking, his mother stopped him on his way to the stables.
“I’ve barely seen you at all recently”, she said. Her forehead was wrinkled with anxiety, and her dark brown eyes looked larger than normal. “You do remember what tomorrow is?”
“Erm…no?”, he replied, trying to remember if they were having neighbors over for supper.
“It’s the yearly ceremony”, she said in a quiet voice, “It will be your seventeenth”.
Skyler’s eyes widened. “Oh…”
Each year, their town had a ceremony to celebrate everyone growing one year older. It would be his mother’s forty-second, his father’s forty-third, his eldest brother, Tobias’s, twentieth, and his other brother, Kearnin’s, eighteenth, and his seventeenth. Traditionally, on a boy’s seventeenth, they would announce to the town what they planned to do for their lifework. Last year had been Kearnin’s seventeenth, and he had announced that he planned to work as a carpenter. His father had never been more proud.
“Have you thought about it at all?” she asked, her voice timid, but hopeful.
“Well…”. He hadn’t thought about it. He hadn’t even realized the ceremony was so near. But she was looking at him so nervously, and with such anticipation, he answered without thinking. “Yes, I have”
A look of instant relief came over her. “Oh wonderful! What is it?”
“No, never mind. I want to be surprised”, she said, “It’s a sensible work, isn’t it?”
“Good. Your father will be pleased”. She smiled and put her hand on his cheek affectionately before rushing off to do laundry.
Skyler wandered to the stables looking dumbfounded and confused. He tried to think of something clever to say. A lifework that he could do, or that at least the town would believe he could do.
He pictured himself standing up in front of the entire town and saying, “I’ve decided to practice fire magic”, as they hurled rocks at him.
He consulted with his pony, who had very little to say about the matter.
“Can you give me another carrot?”, she asked when he explained the predicament to her.
He reached over her stall and held out a small dry carrot-the ones his mother had deemed unfit to eat. “But, what do you think I should say?”
“Say you’ll be a magician. Say that this town now belongs to you, and that everyone must do what your pony says.”
“You know I can’t tell them”.
“Make something up”.
“I don’t know what to say”
“Just say something”.
“You’re no help at all”.
She crunched loudly on the multiple carrots in her mouth and said, “Should have thought of that before you decided not to make any human friends. Shouldn’t you? These problems seem trivial to me.”
Skyler ran his hands through his thick black hair and closed his eyes. “I’ll think of something”, he murmured to himself, “I have to”.
By the following evening, his mother had worked herself into frenzy. She ran between the kitchen and her sewing machine about twelve times every hour, and had cooked almost enough food for nearly thirty people.
Skyler had scrubbed himself clean, and put on his least shabby articles of clothing, which included a grey pair of slacks that had belonged to his brother, a deep green tunic with his riding boots. He combed his shoulder length black hair and pushed it away from his eyes. He found the world strangely more intrusive without his shaggy bangs to hide behind. But when his mother saw his appearance, she smiled so widely that it almost made the whole thing worth it.
“Look how nice Skyler looks when he’s not covered in dirt. Doesn’t he look nice Toby?”
His eldest brother, Tobias, looked up from the saddle he was sewing, and shrugged with an indifferent look on his face.
“He looks far less peculiar than he usually does”, said Kearnin as he continued to polish his shoes.
Skyler ignored both of them and began helping his mother in the kitchen. About two minutes later, his parent’s bedroom door opened, and his father stepped out. His long white hair was neatly tied back, and his beard was trimmed. He wore his shirt tucked in and dress shoes in place of his usual work boots.
Skyler placed his hand on Kearnin’s shoulder as he passed by, “Father’s coming?”
“Surprised?” Kearnin replied with an arrogant smirk. “Mother convinced him when she said you’d actually chosen a lifework”.
His father met his gaze and gave him a small but definite nod before sitting down in his usual chair.
Skyler managed a small smile in response, and then returned to peeling carrots for his mother’s stew.
By the time they left the house, Skyler was covered in a cold sweat. He could see smoke rising from the bonfire that was built annually in the middle of the town. Soon the sun would dip below the horizon and the town square would glow in a dim orange light.
“Son”, he heard his father’s voice behind him. Skyler ignored it, assuming he was addressing Kearnin or Toby. But then, he felt a firm hand on his shoulder, “Son”, his father said again. Skyler looked to his left; his father was beside him, his small grey eyes fixated on him with a much less menacing look than they usually did. “Well, I must confess, we were all a little bit worried about you. You’re a bit of a strange one. It’s been far past time for you to grow up, I hope you’ll make me proud.”
Skyler nodded and gave his father another weak smile. But his stomach was beginning to churn, and his heart was beating loudly. He tried to picture himself living in Sheepsgate fifty years from now. Waking up, doing his lifework diligently, asking his neighbors how their children were doing, living a modest life. Not only was he sure he would never want it; he didn’t even think he was capable of it.
When they arrived at their town’s square, everyone was drinking, eating and dancing. Skyler recognized one of their neighbors, drunkenly trying to flirt with a girl half his age, and a few of his parent’s friends gossiping in a corner with drinks in their hands.
He tried to stay close to his brothers, but they soon hurried off to meet their own friends, and so he was stuck awkwardly wandering around by himself. He chatted with Mr. Abney, the man who owned the town’s only shop, which sold furs, hard candy, and tacky jewelry. He attempted to talk to Molly, a girl whom he had been friends with when he was younger, but she only laughed loudly and whispered something to her friend.
And so he decided to drink. He had never tried wine before, and he had to admit, he didn’t much like it. But he found that with each cup he drank, he became more comfortable with the situation, and his nervousness seemed to shrink away. He would stand in a circle with people his own age and laugh when they laughed, even though he didn’t understand the joke. Suddenly everything was funny and lighthearted. He didn’t know why he had been so nervous.
But before long the ceremony began, and in a matter of seconds, everyone became quiet and serious. They sat in a large circle around the bonfire, and the Mayor, a short fat man with a sweaty forehead and bad teeth, stood and said a few words about the youth growing into adults, and accepting a responsible, meaningful life. Skyler didn’t listen to very much of it. Everything seemed hazy, and he kept glancing behind him at his mother who would then squeeze his shoulder and smile encouragingly.
And then it began. On the opposite side of the circle, a boy whom his father had taught to horseback ride stood and said he planned to take over his family’s beet farm. A girl who he had played hide and seek with once as a child stood and said she was engaged to Peter Craw, her next door neighbor, and would soon bear a son. Ron Barker, his parent’s best friend’s son announced that he planned on being a baker, something he had always been talented at. And they continued like that for some time. Before he knew it, the boy next to him stood and started talking about his love for boiling leather. It was Skyler’s turn next. What was he going to say again? He’d had a plan, he’d had a speech, but somehow all of it seemed hazy now. Suddenly, his mother was tapping him on the shoulder. He looked up to see about five hundred eyes on him. It was his turn, he realized. He stood, and wiped his palms on his slacks, nervously.
“Erm I’m…I’m…”, he stuttered. He knew people looked at him when he was in town, or whispered as he rode his pony into the desert, but he had never in his life felt this many eyes on him. “I’m proud to be here”, he mumbled, “I’m proud to be a part of my family, they are all…diligent…” His palms were sweaty again, even though he had cleaned them a moment ago. The fire seemed to be getting hotter and hotter; he could almost feel it burning his face. “My whole life, I’ve always loved horses, especially riding…”, a girl to his right turned around and whispered to someone behind her, they both giggled. Skyler felt even more heat rush to his face. “I…I wanted to find something to do with my life that is reasonable, but that I also love…” He could have sworn the fire was getting bigger and brighter. “Erm…I-I…”. But he wasn’t imagining it, because suddenly everyone else was looking at the fire too. It was growing larger and larger and began crackling loudly. “Stop!” he yelled, but it didn’t obey him, it sparked and suddenly, a flame shot at him. Suddenly, the town erupted into screams, and began to scatter.
“What did he do!?” he heard a woman shriek.
“Freak! He’s cursed us!”, someone else yelled.
“N-no”, he stuttered. His heart was racing, he had forgotten how to breathe; the fire raged higher into the sky. “It-it’s okay”, he shouted into the audience of screaming running people, “Please-”
A fist seemed to appear out of nowhere, and in a moment, he was lying on the ground, his mouth full of dirt and blood.
He sat up quickly and instantly regretted it. Everything was mayhem. Houses were on fire, women ran carrying children. He saw Harry Bram, a boy a few years older than himself screeching with his right sleeve engulfed in flames.
Skyler pushed himself to his feet and immediately felt sick. Everything around him was a blur of black and red. Suddenly, he thought of his mother, and took off at a dead run towards his house. He hadn’t seen her since before he started his speech, why would she have left without him? He’d never forgive himself if something had happened to her.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he reached his house and saw that it was not up in flames. But he could hear the horses whinnying in fear, and shouting coming from inside. He hesitated for a moment. What would happen if he went inside?
Suddenly he felt a hand grab his arm and pull him behind the tool shed. The same hand then promptly slapped him in the face, swift and hard.
He then laid eyes on the bearer of the hand, and his heart felt as though it was dropping. His mother stared back at him, her brown eyes wide, angry and fearful.
“Mom I…” He didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. He was frightened and still drunk.
“I knew it”, she said simply. In the midst of chaos and flames, her voice was as level as ever. “I knew there was something about you”. Her voice sounded almost dreamlike. “I knew there was something. But this…”, her eyes welled up, suddenly he felt horrible.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do this. It just happened-“, but she held up her hand and he immediately stopped.
“I know Skyler. I know”, she said. Her voice felt hollow, and sad.
“What will father do? Should I go in and explain?”
Her eyes darted to his in panic. “No”, she hissed. “No, Skyler. You need to leave.”
“What? No I can’t-”, but she grabbed his head tightly, her fingernails digging into his scalp. It hurt, but it also steadied him.
“Your father will kill you”. She said it very clearly, but he still felt as though he heard her wrong. His father was stubborn and blunt, but Skyler had never thought he was truly cruel. “Take your pony”, she said, pulling a small bag from behind her, “Ride to the purple mountains. Do not stop until you reach them”.
“Why would I go there?” He asked, “The next village is closer. I could hide-”
“That’s not the place for you”, she said, “That’s not a place for magicians. The purple mountains are”. She shoved the bag into his hands, and pulled him to a stand. “No matter what”, she said, “You will always be my son. Go.”
So he went. His pony was panicking when he reached her, and needed absolutely no persuasion to gallop as far away from this town as possible.
“What did you do?” she asked, as he climbed onto her back from the fence.
“I-I just…”, he thought of the flame spitting at the circle of people as they screamed and ran. “I made a mistake”.
“That sounds like an understatement”, she replied. And then they were off.
Skyler was still hazy from the wine, and barely felt the cold nip at his face. He kept waiting for shouting, and the sounds of horse’s hoofs in pursuit of them, but there was nothing.
His pony ran faster and with more persistence than she ever had before, and after a few hours, Sheepsgate was nothing but a speck in the distance. As the mountains got closer, they only looked more monstrous. He couldn’t understand why his mother had told him to go there. Even if magicians used to come here, what did it matter? No one had seen one in decades.
Perhaps she had only meant for him to hide there, until she could come looking for him. His heart sank quickly when he remembered their conversation and realized that she had never said she would find him. She had only said that he would always be her son. He glanced up at the mountains towering in the distance, thinking that those words did not leave him much reassurance.