Why is this here?
Because for the time being, I’ve decided to shelf this project and focus entirely on A Fate Entwined. However, seeing as people have always asked me when they could read Incarnate, I figured it wouldn’t kill me to put the first chapter online. So here you go.
Chapter One – Humility
Dale stumbled forward, a bag pulled over his head. With each step he braced for another push from his captors, sweat dripping down his neck. Through the sack he could make out coloured bonfires pass by, as they led him down the streets of Florynn, from the mayor’s makeshift prison to gods-knew-where.
People sang and danced despite the warm night, drunk with wine and glee. At the mercy of his escorts, Dale continued past them, unsure whether they looked his way or not. Most, he assumed, would be too drunk to care.
“Surely this isn’t necessary,” Dale said, knowing he would be ignored. “I didn’t even do anything that bad.”
Another shove was the only response he received. They hadn’t said a word since taking Dale from his cell. He wasn’t even sure why the town needed town guards, let alone ones that took their jobs so seriously.
Trying to ignore the smoke that broke through his potato-sack hood, Dale kept moving forward. As if the heat from the hottest day of the year wasn’t enough, celebratory fires made the streets an unbearable furnace. Covered in a long cloak, Dale felt the warmth rising straight to his head. Even the volcanoes of Kako couldn’t be this unpleasant.
“What’s this fella done?” asked a drunken man, his voice right in front of Dale.
The guards pulled him to a stop, as the reek of beer passed through his sack. Dale winced, wishing they could move on. Combined with smoke, the stench made his stomach turn. With all his willpower, he tried not to add vomit to the unholy mixture.
One of the guards laughed. “He’s a thief,” she said. “Stole a bag of silver eyes from Mayor Vendan. Luckily we got them back.”
Dale smiled in spite of the heat. He shook his boot, checking that his last remaining coin was still there.
“Mayor Vendan thinks he could provide some entertainment for the festival,” said the other guard. “If you’re interested, come to the Eternal Flame.”
Under his breath, Dale swore. They were going to the most dangerous place in town for somebody like him. Although, on a night where bonfires littered the streets, he supposed it was much the same as anywhere else.
The guards pushed him along, and Dale began to plan. There would be no escaping whatever punishment lay ahead. He had accepted that many hours ago. So long as he survived without being exposed, things would work out. Then he could return to Harold Vendan’s office and steal his stuff back.
After a few more minutes of walking through the haze, Dale could see a growing fire of orange through his sack. With his clothing stuck to his skin and his bound wrists slick with sweat, Dale hoped it would soon be over. They stopped near the Eternal Flame.
Several minutes later, when Dale was sure he would collapse from the constant waves of heat that thrashed against him, footsteps came toward them.
“Unbind him,” said Mayor Harold Vendan. “Then leave us. I would speak to our friend alone.”
One of the guards pulled his arms, taking out a knife and cutting his bonds. Dale reached for the sack, but Vendan pushed him back, against the wall of a building.
Then the mayor grabbed the potato sack and tugged it back, pulling the hood of Dale’s cloak along with it. When Dale reached to grab his hood, Vendan pushed his hand away.
Light burst across Dale’s eyes, intensifying his dizziness brought on by the heat of the Searing. The Eternal Flame roared beneath a pergola, a dozen feet away from where they stood. Across the open square, several fires of differing colours sat, attended by people celebrating the start of a new year.
Standing before the fire that burned all year long was a wooden framework, three holes for his arms and head.
Mayor Vendan had his blond hair combed back and his shirt buttoned all the way to the neck. Over it he wore a lavish black vest, as if it was appropriate for the season.
His head uncovered, Dale felt beats of fear pounding against his chest. Harold had a look in his eyes that suggested, already, he knew the truth. With a long glance behind Dale, Harold took a step back and let the light of the Eternal Flame engulf them.
“So, you are shadowless,” he said, raising his chin and puckering his lips. “And yet you have kept it hidden all these years, since you and your brother moved here.”
Dale remained silent. He swallowed, throat tight. It was over, after all his effort. Everybody would know come the morning.
“And they called you the Shadow of Florynn,” Harold said with a laugh. “I hope you have enjoyed our little game of cat and mouse. The next time somebody reports a theft, I will know who to come looking for.” Harold Vendan looked toward the pillory and smiled. “It is a good thing Cyan Tresshold is out of town. He might not approve of such punishment for a fellow shadowless.”
“You can’t prove that I did all those thefts,” Dale said with gritted teeth.
Harold shook his head. “I can not, but I know it was you. I have suspected for a long time, and finally you will be punished.”
With a snap of his fingers, Vendan called the guards back. They grabbed Dale by the arms and pulled him forward. Dale offered no resistance. Only Vendan knew he was shadowless.
In some ways, that was a good thing. If Vendan revealed it to the citizens of Florynn, they might not participate in the public humiliation. On the other hand, Dale could think of nobody more cunning. Vendan would find a way to punish him further with that information.
As the guards opened the pillory and put his hands inside, Harold pulled Dale’s hood back over his head. Then they pushed him down, head and arms within the holes of the frame. They placed the top back, trapping Dale within the device.
The mayor dismissed his guards again, stepping around the pillory and leaning toward Dale’s head. Already his back ached from the awkward way he had to hold himself.
“You will be released at dawn. For some reason, you have hidden that you are shadowless from the community. I will respect your decision to do so. However, were you to reveal yourself, they might stop your punishment. If the people feel they should release a shadowless man from his torture, so be it. But you may have to prove it to them first.”
Harold Vendan tugged on Dale’s hood again, dropping its edge over his eyes. “I hope that’s not too difficult, given your current predicament.”
Dale thought he could withstand the man’s taunts, but the last one got the better of him. He spat at the man’s fancy shoes, grinning as the mayor growled in disgust. The coin in Dale’s boot rubbed against his ankle. Despite the discomfort, it reminded Dale how satisfying it had been to steal from this prick, even if it had been the theft that got him caught.
That satisfaction was taken away as Vendan moved around the pillory and smacked his fist into Dale’s stomach. His body pulled back, caught against the frame. Wood scraped against his neck, digging into his skin.
“Enjoy the festival, Dale.” Vendan said. Then he called out to the gathering crowd throughout the square. “After many months, the Shadow of Florynn has been caught. Now he comes to provide entertainment for the dawn of a new year! Gather your rotten fruits, vegetables, whatever you can muster. Make jokes at his expense. For the harm he has done to you, I leave the punishment in your capable hands.”
Harold chuckled behind Dale as the plaza filled with excitement. The people before him moved about, preparing for the humiliation they would bring. Then the mayor walked ahead, through the crowd. He did not even seem interested in watching the punishment unfold.
Dale supposed that after all this time, he probably deserved something like this. His brother certainly would have thought so. There had been many times that Kitt considered turning him in. But for all his talk, he had never done so.
It wouldn’t be so bad. They would hurl rotten food at him, it would stink and his clothes would become covered in filth, but his secret would be safe. He could withstand some humiliation for that.
But as minutes passed and the people prepared, Dale realised how cruel Vendan’s punishment had been. He stood hunched over, not even ten feet away from the Eternal Flame. It almost seemed to grow larger as the pain in his back increased. After several minutes, his clothing felt like it was on fire. From his boots to the gloves that were awful to wear at the best of times, it was all burning. By the time the first rotten piece of food was thrown, he begged for it to be over.
Dale threw his head back, desperate to remove his hood, uncaring if they noticed that his skin cast no shadow. Anything for one gust of wind caressing his face. But even that was denied to him. With his head restricted, his hood barely moved as he thrashed about.
Then the true punishment began. Screams of both anger and joy came toward him, from the dozens of townspeople, most of them drunk. They threw rotten food of immense variety, a tomato striking him first, directly in the face. Juice dripped down his chin, as more food came his way. His only relief was that few of them had good aim. Nonetheless, food exploded around him, unleashing smells that would have made the gods’ stomachs turn.
Dale doubted that he had wronged any of them personally. Of the two thousand people in Florynn, he had only stolen from twenty. Thefts large enough to last him a season, spread out over four years. And yet they had called it an epidemic. Crime rarely came to Florynn, which was why it had been so easy.
Something hard struck his head, making a headache he’d developed even worse. At first, he thought it a rock, and worried they had decided to stone him. Panic spread through his mind, until he looked to the ground and saw that it was only a potato.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Dale shouted, his voice no doubt unheard amidst the enjoyment. His throat constricted as he breathed in the foul smells around him.
Somewhere above his head, Dale knew that the moons smiled down at him, enjoying his misery. The twins never agreed on anything, but they would share a laugh over Dale’s misfortune. Not until the azure sun banished Kalo and Kako from the sky would his humiliation be over.
The worst of it all didn’t even strike him. It landed right below his face, the lettuce disintegrating on the stones. Never before had he smelt something so disgusting. He wished to be back with the drunk man, breathing into his face. That would have been like sniffing roses.
Dale lost his sense of time. All he knew was the pain and stench. For a moment, it would seem as if his punishment was over, only for it to begin all over again. His body and mind begged him to tell them the truth. He was shadowless. They should have been bowing down and worshiping him, as they did Cyan Tresshold.
But he held on. They could never know.
When the fire behind him faded for a second, Dale had tears falling to the ground, mixed with the juice of rotten food. His back felt release from the fire, and Dale realised that for a time, the crowd had returned to their celebrations.
“Come on, I need a hand with this.”
Dale tried to look up, twisting his neck. At the edges of his vision he saw a hand grab the wooden frame that kept him in place.
“Push against it,” the woman said, “it’s too heavy.” She snapped her fingers. “Dale, I need your help.”
He tried to place her voice, but he was so exhausted. Sweat covered every inch of his body. With a shake of his head, he realised it was Kethra.
Although his back felt as if it had been trampled by a stampede of horses, Dale pushed against the frame, feeling it shift. Kethra pulled, releasing Dale his torture.
Trying to stand straight, Dale fell to his knees as he pulled himself out of the pillory. Kethra crouched next to him and grabbed his arm, moving away. “We need to go, before they see us.”
“The guards?” Dale said, his voice barely escaping his throat.
“Kitt has them distracted. He said he could only give us a few minutes.”
Dale nodded as he dragged his body along with Kethra, trying not to be a burden. They moved around the Eternal Flame, its heat still grazing the side of Dale’s body. It was the closest he had ever been to it, and he had no plans to come back.
“Thanks,” he said, looking up at Kethra. “I owe you.”
As they stepped behind a building, leaving the square, Dale could not resist the urge to fall to the ground and lie down. Although he tried, Kethra kept a hold on his arm, refusing him.
“No time to rest. Kitt will meet you at the Dancing Donkey.” She rubbed her hand along his back, aiding deep pains he hadn’t even realised were there. “It won’t be long before they wonder where he’s gone.”
He looked back at her. “How can I repay you? They might have killed me.”
Kethra stood straight and pushed her brown hair back. “Don’t be so dramatic. But for starters, you can pay for your bread the next time you come around. Maybe I’ll get you to do me a favour or two, as well.”
“Looks like I’ll be going to Ishon for my bread from now on,” he said, cracking his back.
“You wouldn’t give up my bread even if a bakery opened next to your house.” She shook her head with a laugh. “Get going, he’s waiting for you.”
Dale tried to give a warm smile as he turned away.
“And by Destice, make sure you visit the bathhouse some time.”
* * *
With the tavern only a few streets away, Dale stopped and removed his boot. From it he took his only remaining silver eye. Only four hours ago it had been the property of Mayor Vendan. It would have to do for now. Somehow, he’d get the smug bastard back.
As he put his boot back on, Dale rubbed the coin, wishing for the luck of Destice. He’d need it to confront Kitt. Then he continued through the alleyways, approaching the Dancing Donkey with growing anxiety.
Blue light from a nearby bonfire crept down the alley, throwing the shadow of a town guard up against a wall. The silhouette held an arming sword in its scabbard, and a bucket in one hand.
Dale stepped around the corner, ready for whatever punishment his brother had prepared. He slipped the silver coin into his pocket.
Turning at the sound of Dale’s footsteps, Kitt lifted his wooden bucket and laughed. “Brace yourself,” he said.
With barely a moment to do so, Kitt let the water loose, flying toward him. Using his cloak as a shield, Dale was struck by the wave, soaking his clothing. Water dripped from the black cloak, hitting the cobblestones below. Despite the irritation it would bring, Dale was grateful for the short release from the Searing’s heat.
Dale shrugged. “Barely.”
In the light of the street fire, Kitt’s auburn hair looked brown. He took a step forward and looked down at Dale. “That’s gonna take a few days to wash off.” He placed his empty bucket on the ground. “So, they finally caught the Shadow of Florynn.”
“Suppose so,” Dale said, his cloak already drying off. “Guess it’s time to move somewhere else.”
Kitt gave Dale a slight push back. “Perhaps it is time for you to get a job, instead.”
This again? How many times had he tried to convince Dale to find something else to do?
“You’re joking, right?”
“I should have turned you in years ago, little brother. If Vendan or Tresshold found out that I knew it was you, I would lose my job. But I didn’t, because I hoped that one day you would decide to do something better with your life. You got caught. It’s over now.”
Dale pulled his hood up, although it still stunk. Both his hair and hood were soggy, thanks to Kitt. “Doesn’t mean I have to stop. I just have to be more careful.”
“What do you mean?” Kitt said, turning away. “You know what, if you end up in prison again, it’s not my problem.” His brother took a deep sigh. “I have to get back to work soon. I’m going give Sariah a quick visit. You coming?”
A lump caught in his throat. “I can’t,” Dale said.
“Vendan didn’t tell anybody I’m shadowless. I’d like to keep it a secret, while I can. No doubt he’s working out some way to use it against me already.”
Kitt shook his head and stepped toward the Dancing Donkey. “Vendan isn’t a bad man. He’s not plotting anything. You’ve upset a lot of people, so you needed to be punished. Surely you can see that.”
“I know, but you didn’t see the look in his eyes. He enjoyed every second of punishing me. In any case, I still can’t go in. Not without my hood up.”
Turning back, Kitt placed a hand on Dale’s shoulder. With his other hand he pulled down the hood. “People pay much less attention than you think, especially on a night like this.”
Although it went against his every instinct, Dale knew that his brother was probably right. They would be too drunk to care about his lack of shadow. Besides, he could use an ale.
After knocking on the door twice, it opened to a woman with her dark hair tied and an apron around her waist. Sariah’s eyes grew along with her smile.
“Kitt, Dale, come in. Forgive me, I have to keep working. We’re busy.”
“Sorry to bother you,” Dale said. “Kitt insisted on it.”
Kitt nudged him in the side.
“It’s no bother,” said Sariah, leading them into the kitchen. “I’ve always got time for you guys.” She stood back at her bench and cut into a pumpkin.
Chatter from rowdy and drunk patrons spilled in from the common room. Dale thought he could hear conspiracy of kings pieces hitting boards, between mugs and coins clinking. He itched for a game, but knew it would have to wait.
“I heard they caught the Shadow of Florynn,” Sariah said, raising her eyebrows at him. No doubt Kitt had told her the truth, at some point. Looking down at Dale’s damp and dirty clothing, she added, “I would hate to be him right now.”
Dale nodded. “I think he could use a drink.”
With a single motion he removed his cloak, unable to stand the kitchen’s extra heat, placing it by the doorway. Dale stepped through to the common room, leaving Kitt and Sariah to talk alone.
In front of the bar stood Botto, the tavern’s heavyset proprietor, a group of children sitting before him. The Dancing Donkey was well past its capacity, but Botto still found space to tell a story.
“Let me tell you of how this place got its name,” he said, as he turned back to the bar and took two small cups. He spotted Dale at the edge of the crowd and smiled, then passed the flavoured water down to the children.
“When I was a farmer, I had a donkey by the name of Willum.” Botto recounted the fabricated story with emphatic hand gestures that matched his large frame.
Dale returned the smile, although Botto could not see it. The man had many versions of the story, and even Dale wasn’t sure which was true. This one, however, was Dale’s favourite. They had come up with it over a game of conspiracy, and only performed it together.
“My brother Bruce always wanted to get off the farm and become a magician. One day, the two of us had a fight, and he threatened to cast a magic spell on Willum. I didn’t think he would do it.”
“But alas,” Botto continued, “Bruce chanted and waved his arms around.” He flapped his own arms, making the idea even more ridiculous. “And Willum danced. A dancing donkey! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Willum didn’t stop dancing, and Bruce laughed and told me he would dance himself to death. I took Willum to the Moonstide festival the next day, and almost drowned in the gold we earned.”
More children had gathered now, weaving their way through the crowded tavern. “Is it true?” one of them asked. “I didn’t think donkeys could dance, even with magic!”
Dale pushed through the crowd and stopped next to Botto. “It’s true,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “I was there and saw the dancing donkey myself on that fateful day. My papa took me to the fair as a treat. I could never forget it.”
“Wow,” the child said, and several of them muttered to each other. “What happened to the donkey?”
Smiling to himself, Dale laughed at the absurdity of the story. He had only been one year old for the last Moonstide festival, almost two decades ago.
“It was as my brother said,” Botto explained. “The next day Willum fell unconscious from all the dancing. The dancing donkey danced no more. I spent all the coin building this tavern, which I named after ol’ Willum.”
The children chatted amongst themselves for a minute, the story over. Soon enough they had all run off or returned to their families.
“An excellent performance,” Dale said, turning to Botto.
“Not too bad yourself. It’s a fun story to tell, even if it is ridiculous.” Botto walked back around the bar and grabbed a mug. “You here for a game of conspiracy? Try not to lose this time.”
Dale laughed. “Do you even remember the last time I lost?”
“You mean when you knocked the pieces to the floor, swore you’d never play again, then refused to pay your bet, and I had to drag you outside and pay it myself?”
Looking to the floor, Dale hesitated. “That’s beside the point. It was years ago. Anyway, only a drink tonight.”
After filling the mug with ale, Botto passed it over the bar. “On the house, for your part in the story.”
“Thanks,” Dale said, taking the drink. “May Nomadé smile upon your year.”
“And you too, lad. May she bring you safe journeys and travels, wherever you may go.”
Sipping at his ale, he walked back to the kitchen and grabbed his cloak, tucking it under his arm. Dale fingered Harold Vendan’s coin again, smiling. Even if he never got the man back, it would serve as a reminder of his thievery spree. It was a coin worth more than any he had stolen before.
Ahead, Kitt gave Sariah a kiss on the cheek and turned away, leaving the tavern. Dale moved next to her, putting his back against the wall as he continued to drink. The ale provided a much needed relief from the heat and humidity of the Searing.
“He all right?” Dale asked, unsure why his brother had left so soon.
Sariah took a deep breath and continued cutting vegetables. “He’s just stressed. We’re still trying for a baby,” she said. “The tonics we’re using to help aren’t cheap.”
Dale stood straight and pulled his hand out of his pocket. He took a large gulp of his drink, while a slight sting of guilt tugged at him. In his pocket was a silver eye that did not belong to him, and yet Sariah and Kitt worked hard at honest jobs, but were struggling. Perhaps he should have given it to them.
“Coin is tight at the moment. Kitt’s hoping for a promotion, but it doesn’t look likely.” She paused. “I should focus. I’ll see you at home, all right?”
“Sure,” Dale said, “see you later.”
Finishing his drink, Dale placed the mug on a counter, then followed his brother out of the tavern.
His fingers caressing the coin again, Dale winced as he stepped into the warmth of Kortan’s tropical north. Kitt stood to his right, looking to the cobblestones.
Dale joined him in looking down, as he gripped his stolen coin tight. It was a symbol of his victory over Harold Vendan. He couldn’t give it up, no matter how much it might help Kitt.
“If you get caught again,” Kitt said with a sigh, “I’m not going to be able to bribe the other guards into looking away. Next time, you’re on your own.”
Giving no response, Dale only nodded. Next time, he wouldn’t get caught. His next theft would be much smaller, unlikely to be reported or even noticed.
Kitt turned and grabbed Dale by the shoulder, his grip firm. “People like you, even if you’ve got a few rough edges. Do something that would make Mum and Dad proud.”
“I know, Dad had some rough edges too, but it wasn’t like that. He wouldn’t condone what you’re doing. It’s over, Dale. Get a job. I’m sure Botto would let you work here.” Kitt looked back to the tavern’s door. “You’re like a son to him.”
Dale kept his hands in his pockets. The words cut, reopening wounds from years ago. Although the good moon was glowing blue above his head, he recalled a day where its counterpart had been a stain of fresh blood in the sky.
Throat tight, he said, “We’ll see.”
With half a smile, Kitt took his hand off Dale’s shoulder. “That’s the best I’m going to get from you.” Then Kitt shook his head, smile broadening. “I have to go. Enjoy the night, brother. A new year is upon us, and Kalo greets it full in the sky.”
Frowning, Dale looked down. “They’ll see me. I might not have long before Vendan reveals my secret.”
“Then go read one of your books, or visit Solitary Hill.” He hesitated. “Just stay out of trouble. Please.”
Kitt gave him a quick hug, then took off at a jog.
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