No hyperbole or anything here – just the first chapter of a manuscript, for your reading pleasure, free of charge. Download the PDF here.

[spoiler]
CHAPTER ONE

Field Trip

Asherian rifled through his satchel for what seemed like the hundredth time. The tonics and salves stuffed therein were still in order. They were his own creations, carefully prepared for the widely and highly-anticipated class trip. He sorted through his belongings as he approached the Conveyance. Most of the other apprentices had already found their seats among the various cushions. Alchemists didn’t often begin working with Conveyances until their twentieth year, and Asherian had just celebrated his eighteenth. This was a chance for him to see one in action up close, and he wasn’t about to miss it.
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If you’ve forgotten anything,” Tahri said, “it’s too late to go back now.”

A good alchemist always knows what’s in his satchel,” Asherian replied, still rummaging through the jars. “Even if he’s just taking a stroll around a corner.”

I thought we necromancers were supposed to be the paranoid ones.” Brynn brushed the dark hair out of his eyes. He smiled at Asherian’s rummaging. “Alchemists are seen as useful to the Cities, with their transmutations and concoctions. On the other hand, we make people angry when we poke around old crypts and open up dead bodies. We’re tragically misunderstood.”
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Maybe if your Elder associated more freely with the others, you wouldn’t have such a shady reputation.” Tahri shrugged.

My father sees Jekel on a regular basis.” Asherian sighed and closed his satchel. “It’s not like he does nothing but sit brooding in the shadows, probing the bones of long-dead Citizens for their secrets.” He didn’t add that seeing Jekel, the gaunt Elder of Tel-Uzgul, had made Asherian’s skin crawl every time they’d met. Some nights, Jekel’s grinning-skull smile crept into his dreams.

Brynn smirked. “Not every night. Just on the weekends.”

Tahri rolled her eyes. “And you wonder why we consider you necros creeps. Asherian’s father makes it a point to be seen every day, in the streets or shops. Like a good Elder should.”

I prefer the shops in Tel-Enaris.” Vineera didn’t look up from her nails. She had been showing Tahri how show she could create a small illusion that changed their color based on her mood. As she studied them, they slowly faded from light blue to green. “They’re closer to the surface, so their goods are much more fresh than what’s available up here. The food is practically straight out of the soil. Up here it’s all finished products, but in Tel-Enaris, you get the raw ingredients, the real thing.”

That’s not all you’ll get in Tel-Enaris.” Brynn leered at the women.

Vineera glared at him, her nails quickly turning red. Asherian shook his head and pulled his journal out of his satchel. Soon enough, Instructor Yilid would arrive to get them moving on the field trip, and he wanted to glance over his notes on Gravity Wards before they were in the air. He wouldn’t be able to read and watch the Instructor or Wards in action at the same time, after all.
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Eyomic approached, having risen from where he’d sat by himself. Asherian rolled his eyes and tried to lose himself in his notes before Eyomic could pull him and every apprentice in earshot into an unwanted discussion on rules and behavior.

Oh, great, the Guardian’s here.” Brynn scowled and spread his arms wide in the manner of a crier, bellowing as if reciting an epic tale of old. “Fear his mighty sword, especially ye necromancers, who violate the Codex just by breathing!”

He’s not a Guardian yet. We’re all just apprentices.” As soon as he spoke, Asherian silently cursed himself. The last thing he wanted to do when Brynn and Eyomic got into it was draw attention to himself.

Apprentice or no, each of us should already do our utmost to uphold the Codex.” Eyomic looked from one face to another amongst his classmates. “And one thing the Codex calls upon us to do is respect one anothers areas of study as well as our privacy.”

Tell that to the seers.” Brynns characteristic grin didnt waver. “They might be peering into your dreams, after all. Or watching you while you bathe!”

The seers that do are punished.” Vineera looked up at the apprentice Guardian. In spite of her defensive tone, her nails had shifted to a dark green. “Didn’t a few of them get exiled just last week?”

Indeed.” Eyomic seemed quite pleased to discuss the dispensation of the Cities justice. “The seers had been looking into the dreams of some Counselors, trying to gain information on the latest debate on non-Citizen rights. They were interested in influencing the upcoming vote on an amendment to the Codex that would allow non-Citizens more reign within the Cities. For this indiscretion, they were tried and exiled. The vote is expected to take place today, and in light of this, I doubt non-Citizens will have their expanded rights any time soon.”

Tahri shuddered at the mention of exile. Brynn was undeterred.
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That’s propaganda. They probably just lost control of themselves when they were in Tel-Enaris being… intimate.” He waggled his eyebrows at Vineera, whose nails again turned crimson.

I suggest you mind your tone, Brynn.” Eyomic crossed his arms. He might have known the Codex better than anyone and handled abjuration well, but neither of those facts excused his behavior as the pinnacle of the class’s behavior.

It’s Yilid’s job to discipline him, not yours.” Asherian still wasnt sure why he was bothering with getting involved. These two were like oil and water, and no alchemy he knew would get them to mix properly, let alone see eye to eye or even share in a joke.

You’re the son of an Elder Councilor,” Eyomic said. “Doesn’t even the implied insult towards a fellow Citizen, and a lady at that, bother you in the slightest?”

So Brynn’s a jerk,” Tahri said. “Ash is right, it isn’t your place to lay down the law.”

The children of the Elders are on my side!” Brynn crowed.

That doesn’t make you any less of a jerk,” Vineera replied. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my City. We have our fun, to be certain, but it’s for the good of all Citizens, not just for our own pleasures.”

That’s true. Ash’s sister is often seen at Doran ven Tel-Enaris’ grand balls.” Tahri sat back against her cushion with a smile, likely recalling such a ball.

My Elder does throw fantastic parties,” Vineera agreed. “And Elienah’s a delight.”

That she is.” Asherian paused. “You can’t ever tell when she’s going to have one of her visions, though. Then again, maybe that’s what makes her such an attraction at parties.”

You sure it’s not the way she looks?” Brynn leered. “Those long honey locks, bright blue eyes, nice big-”
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I’ll thank you to stop right there,” Asherian stated.

And here I thought it was the Instructor’s place to lay down the law,” Brynn persisted.

That was before you started talking about my twin.” Asherian didn’t look away from Brynn, trying to hide his anxiety. Next time, Ash, keep your nose in your damn books.

Let’s not come to blows, you two.” Eyomic looked from Brynn to Asherian and back again. “I don’t want Yilid to hold up the trip because you decide to have a scuffle on or near the Conveyance.”

Who do you think would win?” Vineera tapped her chin. “My money’s on Brynn. I bet he fights dirty.”

Tahri looked them both over. “Asherian’s the more capable apprentice, and I’ve seen his staff forms. He isn’t bad. He’d have reach over Brynn, who just has his rod.”

I’ll have you know I practice with my rod every night.” Brynn realized hed walked into a trap as Vineera gave a light chuckle.

Oh, I’m sure you do.” Tahri grinned and looked to Vineera. The girls dissolved into giggles as Brynn’s face turned red. Asherian gratefully returned his attention to his journal. He flipped past his notes from the last several months of study, and the diagrams and circles related to the project on which he’d been working with Tahri’s elder brother, finding an open page to begin sketching the Conveyance. Tahri looked over his shoulder at his sketch.

It’s actually shaped more like a teardrop, not quite that round.”

I’m more concerned about the Gravity Wards than the actual hull configuration.”

I’ve seen you sketch Gravity Wards before, though. In miniature,” Tahri added after a moment. “Are they really going to be so different on a Conveyance?”
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Asherian looked up from his sketch. Apprentices milled around the courtyard, some unwilling to step onto the Conveyance and claim a cushion. The long alabaster spires of Tel-Urad stretched into the morning sky around them, sunlight playing on the stained glass windows. A small Conveyance floated by, an alchemist standing in its center with two non-Citizens on either side carrying large crates. Asherian pointed with his pen towards the passing platform.

The sigils along the outer rim of the circle are more numerous” He flipped back in his journal to show her an earlier sketch, showing several small Gravity Wards lined up. “In a miniaturized form, there doesn’t need to be that much detail. A Gravity Ward of this size isn’t going to be moving people or cargo, but something rather small instead.”

Like what?” Tahri asked, her hands still on Asherian’s shoulders as she watched his face.

Asherian paused, looking back at her. In his zeal to explain the intensity of his study, he’d forgotten how sensitive some of his material was. There was also the fact that Tahri’s eyes had an intensity to them, a glimmer he didn’t see unless she was looking at him.

Messages, maybe.” Asherian decided to let her in at least a bit. “It’s something your brother and I have been working on.”

He’s mentioned that, in the few moments I’ve seen him. To be honest, I don’t think any of us were expecting him to become an Elder so soon after our father’s death.”
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He was a good man,” Asherian said, resting his hand on hers. “My father misses him.”

Thank you.” Tahri smiled at him. There was a moment of loaded silence between them, and Tahri seemed about to say or do something when the bellowing voice of their instructor broke the moment as he approached the class.

Onto the Conveyance, pupils. Today I am taking you into the Wilds.”

A slight ring of white hair framed the balding pate of the instructor, who continued giving commands as he shepherded his charges onto the Conveyance. Finally, once the apprentices were aboard and situated on the lush cushions strewn about the platform, Yilid raised his staff. The Gravity Wards on the bottom of the Conveyance came to life in response, emitting a blue glow as they lifted the vehicle and its passengers into the air. In short order, they flew out from the Cities of Light. Asherian turned to see his home and those of his classmates from a new perspective.

The Celestial Spire formed the focal point of the Cities’ slow orbits, a staggeringly tall obelisk of Magistone raised by Justinian at the conclusion of the Exodus five generations prior. The Cities, their Gravity Wards even more intricate and wide than those on Conveyances, looked strikingly similar from below, like six nearly identical circular platforms rather than six distinct and proud bastions of arcane might.
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The lowest City, Tel-Yzgoth, remained visible in the late morning sun rather than disappearing from sight or appearing as a cloud. Asherian knew that the City’s Elder, Zareena, liked to make her City disappear from time to time so that the City of the Dead, Tel-Uzgul, would appear to be the lowest of them. From what his father had told him, she thought it was hilarious.

The Conveyance moved swiftly over the fields below the Cities of Light, coming closer to the surface. Ponderous beasts of burden worked the fields at the direction of their non-Citizen masters, who waved at the Conveyance as it flew by. The class was guided over the shimmering blue water of the reservoir, which provided clean water for all behind the Magistone Wall, which was the final barrier between the territory claimed by Justinian and the savagery of the Wilds.

There was no hesitation or warning from Yilid as he piloted the Conveyance with his will, sailing them over the Wall. There were few Guardians walking its ramparts, but they too waved to the Conveyance. Eyomic waved back vigorously while Brynn sat against his cushion shaking his head.

You won’t get into the Guardians any faster by kissing their asses.”
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I was being polite.” Eyomic sat back and crossed his arms. “They waved, so I waved back.”

They waved,” Vineera agreed, “but you were making a fool of yourself.”

Don’t women from Tel-Enaris make fools of themselves on a regular basis?” Eyomic bit back.

We have our fun, as I said,” Vineera replied smoothly, “and if you made a fool of yourself with us on occasion you might not be so uptight. Besides, I thought making disparaging remarks against a fellow Apprentice was offensive.”

That was not-

Pupils, your attention please,” Yilid said, ending the argument. “Coming into the Wilds, as we are, it would behoove each and every one of us to be on our guard. This is an untamed land, anathema to our kind. Everything beyond the Wall is dangerous to us and should be feared.”

Is it true that we have no means to control the spell-eaters?”

In a sense, Tahri, that is correct. The necromancers of Tel-Uzgul and abjurers of Tel-Oron collaborated to create an autonomous force in the Wilds to seek those who might grow too powerful or vengeful against the cities that cast them out. After all, some might consider exile as a punishment for some of the less severe violations of the Codex a bit too exacting. However, those are the laws that were established by Justinian. Break the law, face exile.”
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And consider yourself lucky if your magic and soul stay intact.”

True enough, Eyomic. Excision can be used as a supplement to exile, or sometimes as a replacement should mitigating circumstances prevail.” Yilid regarded his pupils. “But the question was not about those exiled from the Cities, but rather the means of controlling them. The spell-eaters, since their creation, have been a subject of much debate. The Guardians claim the creatures are too vicious, and the necromancers say they arent effective enough since they are incapable of breeding, so they cant increase their own numbers. That, Tahri, is the one method of control we have over them the denial of procreation.”

Tahri nodded. Asherian looked up from his notes and sketches, pausing in his recording of Yilids movements and whispered arcane commands. Tahri was as attentive as she always was in class, a trait Asherian had admired in her since Cahrn, her brother and his colleague, had introduced them during one of Asherians many visits to Tel-Arae in pursuit of his work.

Instructor, is it true that other sapient beings used to live in and around the Wilds?” Vineeras nails were a deep blue as she hugged her knees close to her body, her full attention on Yilid.

Those are the myths. Stories tell of the old races, elves and dwarves. Given the nature of the Wilds and how much it has grown since the Exodus, it is doubtful such creatures still exist. If they did, however, it would fall to us as Citizens to ensure our Cities are protected and the will of the Council of Elders is allowed to govern. We have been gifted with magic, after all, a blessing denied to others. It is our duty to weild such power in the interest of our freedom and maintain the peace in Acradea.”
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Asherian returned to sketching and taking notes in his journal. He jotted down observations on the movements Yilid made and the way the Conveyance responded. The instructor fielded more questions about the Wilds, the possibility of exiles finding ways to survive and how the Cities would respond if the exiles were to rise up. Yilid was flatly denying any such possibility when the Conveyance bucked violently, the instructor taking his staff in both hands to maintain control of the craft.

Large simian creatures, visible in the lush canopy of the Wilds, were howling and throwing boulders at the Conveyance. Each had two sets of arms, and most clung to trees with their lower set of appendages while hurling rocks or beating their chests with the others. They had white fur on most of their bodies, and their open yowling mouths revealed long and sharp incisors that could pierce the tough skin of a captured citrus fruit as easily as they could a human jugular vein.

Asherian got to his feet, looking back towards the Cities of Light. He could barely make them out, the Celetial Spire a white line against the light blue of the sky. He turned back to his instructor as he studied the creatures hurling boulders at them.

I take it those are not spell-eaters.”
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Not even close, Asherian. These are called gondrills. They are no serious threat to us, but pay attention, pupils!” He turned his attention to the gondrills wih a sneer. “Poor pathetic wretches.” He raised his staff, uttered an incantation and pointed with his free hand. One of the circles on his staff began to glow, and a mirror image came to life on the surface of the tree. Its bark burst into flame as the alchemy transmuted it violently, causing the gondrills to shriek in surprise and release the tree, some trying to beat out the fires that spread across their furry arms, while others plummeted to their deaths in the darkness of the forest below.

The fire consuming the foliage of the tree began to spread to others, but Yilid seemed in no hurry to douse the flames. Other apprentices got to their feet, rattling off evocations or conjurations to attack the simians. In short order the gondrills had either fallen or swung out of sight, the last one looked pleadingly towards the Conveyance before the branch in its grip turned to air with a popping sound. The class broke out in cheers, applauding their Instructor, who turned and bowed grandly as if he’d just put on a show for their amusement.

You will see, young apprentices,” he declared triumphantly, “that nothing that dwells in the Wilds, be it creature, criminal or even spell-eater, is a match for-”

His declaration was cut short and the staff slid away from his hands. Turning, he looked to Asherian, who felt his heart drop into his gullet as he saw the fletching of an arrow protruding from Yilid’s throat, the metal tip having missed his spine but dripping with pinkish blood. Gurgling in wet futility, Yilid dropped to the smooth floor of the Conveyance, which began to plummet.
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The other apprentices screamed and grabbed for handholds, which were hard to come by in the open-air vessel. Asherian kept hold of his staff, reaching out with his will to regain control of the craft. The sketches he’d been making came to his mind, and he focused on the lines and sigils of the Wards, which responded to his need. The Conveyance righted itself and, for a moment, Asherian felt a surge of hope.

Feeling the eyes of the other apprentices on him, Asherian pointed the Conveyance south, towards Tel-Urad, towards home. The sound of a gondrill crying out caused the hope to drain from Asherian, as the few remaining and wounded simians re-emerged to renew their assault. Some of the apprentices responded in kind, throwing bolts of lightning and conjured lances at the creatures.

Asherian saw a boulder hurtling towards him out of the corner of his eye, but refused to break his concentration until the last moment. He ducked, the hard surface of the stone making contact with the back of his skull in a glancing blow instead of braining him. The impact caused him to swoon, tipping him over the side of the Conveyance. The last sensation he had before the blackness closed over him was the renewed screaming of his doomed classmates.
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Pain is what roused Asherian. Pain and the taste of blood in his mouth. Slowly, he opened his eyes, finding himself looking up at the verdant canopy of the Wilds. He was surrounded by birdsong. Asherian was used to hearing birds singing; many people in the Cities kept them for their voices. But never before had he heard them in such great number. It was unnerving.

The birds and some small mammals moved between the trees, unaware or perhaps uncaring of his presence beneath them. Something was missing from the jungle’s symphony. As Asherian tried to take stock of his situation, he tried to figure out what. He winced as he sat up, feeling his left ankle throbbing in pain in tandem with the back of his head. It occurred to him, then, in the wake of that small vocal sound he made: nobody else was making sounds. There were no other human sounds around him. No moans, no cries for help, no other coughs or wheezes, nothing.

His staff lay nearby, miraculously unbroken. He picked it up and got slowly to his feet, leaning heavily on the staff since his left ankle wouldn’t bear his weight. Thinking through the fog of pain in his head, Asherian looked around, taking stock of the situation. The Conveyance lay snapped in twain, half tangled in the trees far above his head and half buried in the ground. His classmates were strewn like broken dolls amid their scattered belongings, eyes blank. Yilid dangled not far from Asherian, his robes caught on a branch; the arrow that had slain him was clearly visible where it had split his neck.
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Asherian looked into his satchel and groaned softly, as he saw that most of the contents of it had been spilled in his fall. All of his preparation had been for naught. The totality of his failure consumed him. He looked around at his feet, seeking unbroken containers. He had to focus on the goal of gathering up anything that could help him, rather than things beyond his control. His journal was the only thing that had stayed in his satchel. He finally saw a small unbroken container, a fine item of cut glass his sister had given him that morning. It wasn’t much and the water that had been inside it was long gone, but it was a start.

While most of the herbs and raw ingredients hed used had come from market stalls and not the plants or other sources from which theyd been harvested in the tracts of land below the Cities, he knew enough to spot leaves, flowers and other indications of where he could find what hed need. But the tools required to refine raw materials into alchemical tonics and poultices, as well as the means to contain them, were less likely to be scavenged from places untouched by man. After a few minutes of searching the satchels of his dead classmates, Asherian came across a mortar and pestle which somehow had fared better in the crash than their owner. Relieved at this fortunate turn of events, he continued searching until he found a few containers that were unbroken and emptied them of their contents when he found them to be full of cologne or spirits.

He was bending to pick up one such container when he froze, a low growl coming from the trees behind him. It didn’t sound like a gondrill or any of the smaller animals; it sounded far too large. He spotted a large rock nearby and was about to hobble to it when the apprentice at his feet touched his wrist. Startled, Asherian fell, finding himself looking down at the blood-stained face of Tahri. She struggled to reach for him, her breath a very quiet and very wet sound. She opened her mouth to speak but no sound came from her lips, only blood.
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Asherian covered his mouth in horror. Tahri still moved, trying to touch him. The growl was louder, now, and the underbrush at the far side of the clearing rustled. The girl spat out a mouthful of blood, but she had so little strength that it merely rolled down her chin. Asherian scrambled to get away, and a sound more terrifying than the growl came to him as he hobbled for the rock.

No…” Tahri whispered. “Please… don’t leave me.”

Asherian threw himself behind the rock, clutching his staff and satchel of scavenged goods to his chest. He dreaded breathing too loudly, and had to clamp his mouth shut once again. The underbrush that had rustled now snapped under the weight of something pushing through it. Ash took a deep breath and dared to turn his head to glance around the side of his hiding place, and rapidly ducked back, regretting his daring and having to hold down a new surge of terror.

Spell-eater.

The long, serpentine horror slithered into the clearing, drawn by the scent of dead Citizens. Its four blood-red eyes scanned the bounty, falling on Tahri. Its arms reached from under the scaly hood for her. With a hiss of pleasure, it sank its razor-sharp teeth into her body, the girl unable to make a sound above an agonized whimper as it began its gluttonous feast. Asherian closed his eyes tight, stifling his sobs as in the midst of the sounds of the spell-eater devouring her, he could have sworn he heard her whispering his name.
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