There Comes At Last This Poison - Scene 1, first draft

Rhiannon pushed open the door to the Giddy Gryphon. Before it was more than a crack open, she heard a martial shout and then a thud as something heavy, likely a body from the sound, crashed against the door. She gave the door a harsh shove and it flew open with a second thud as the unfortunate on the other side was flung back the way they came. She stepped inside and looked around. A group of Fallen sitting near the door were staring at her, some with alarm and some with interest. One Fallen man was standing, still in a fighting stance, looking angry. He’d been looking forward to that fight, she supposed. His erstwhile opponent was lying at his feet, groaning and attempting to push himself up.

“Dude,” Rhiannon addressed the standing fighter, “there’s a time and, more importantly,” she rapped the door with her knuckles, “a place.”

For a moment she thought he might come at her, and an infinitesimal amount of magical power pulsed outward from her soul and bounced back a moment later, reporting on what it had encountered. There were a few people behind her, outside, and a lot in front of her. Nothing she didn’t already know. Two of those sitting had more power than average, one enough to be a sorcerer, but only barely and she looked to old too have just finished training.

The man sitting behind the standing fighter grabbed his arm and the moment passed. Rhiannon turned away and there was a quiet, hissed conversation behind her. She wondered what they were saying, but her curiosity wasn’t enough for her to stick around. It was her first time inside the Gryphon, having only passed by before, and she walked slowly toward the bar on the left wall, taking the opportunity to look around.

The majority of the floorspace was occupied by long tables, running back to front, the benches beside them separated barely enough to walk between them. The squeeze was clearly necessary; even this late on a Wednesday evening they were mostly full. On the left side of the room was the bar and on the right was a stage. A band was playing, made up of three musicians playing a sitar, a clarinet and drums. Rhiannon couldn’t hear anything but the drums from near the door, but she made a note to get closer after she ordered. She had to find out what that sounded like.

Something interesting was going on down the back of the tavern, or so Rhiannon assumed from the crowd gathered in front of it. Something else to check out once she’d ordered some food. She walked up to the bar, noticing the woman behind it was giving her an odd look. Not hostile, perhaps curious? Rhiannon had felt a few pulses from the tavern’s patrons, that was normal in and around the Fallen Enclave. When she felt a pulse from the bartender hit her ward, on the other hand, it felt like it was directed at her, especially when she noticeably straightened up as Rhiannon approached.

“M’lady Rhiannon?” she asked.

Rhiannon wasn’t entirely surprised that someone would recognise her, but the ‘m’lady’ was entirely unexpected. Interesting.

She nodded to the bartender. “That’s right,” she said, “is the kitchen still open?”

“Of course. What can I get for you?”

Rhiannon looked up at the chalkboard next to the bar. “Steak with the works, please, medium,” she said, “and a pitcher of Pimms.”

She paid and the bartender passed her a buzzer. Thanking her, she strolled down the bar towards the crowd at the back of the room. Closer in she could look over their heads to see what seemed at first glance to be a brawl in progress. After a little observation it became clear the fighting was at least semi-organised; none of the pairs of fighters interfered with each other and there were people calling out odds and taking bets in a professional manner. The audience certainly seemed to feel safe enough at a distance that could have easily gotten them embroiled in a genuine bar brawl.

Rhiannon watched a while, taking particular interest in two pairs of fighters. Most of the duelling duos were engaged in fairly traditional fisticuffs and wrestling; there was some range of skill, from clumsy swinging to combinations that wouldn’t be embarrassing at an MMA tournament, but nothing you couldn’t see on a good sports channel. The first exceptional pair were doing much the same, but with a degree of speed and force that was clearly superhuman. The man would throw a punch that sent his female opponent flying, and she would right herself in the blink of an eye and block his follow up attack before delivering an equally devastating kick.

Rhiannon was impressed. She’d thrown a punch or two in the past and was pretty sure people didn’t get up from hits like that without medical assistance. Sending out another pulse, she found both fighters had the magical reserves of experienced sorcerers, but there was a funny feeling to their power. English didn’t provide a good vocabulary for magic, but if pressed she’d have described it as ‘static’. Most souls flowed more.

The other notable duel involved no contact at all. Rhiannon didn’t need a pulse to sense the power crackling between the two sorcerers, as one raked the other with lightning while she responded with flurries of glowing birds that exploded against his wards. She’d never seen a spell duel before, and was instantly fascinated. The wards and spells in use were far too complicated for her to work out on the fly, but she felt she was getting a rough idea of what was happening. The rhythm of the woman’s birds exploding was doing something destructive to the man’s wards, beyond just the power behind them, while his lightning seemed to be deflecting off her wards to little effect. Rhiannon sent out a few pulses in quick succession; his power reserves were running out much faster than hers, and it seemed like she had it all wrapped up.

Then there was a bright flash around the woman, and a brighter flash as her wards repelled the first, and suddenly her reserves were close to nothing.

“Concede!” she cried out, and her opponent lowered his hands and they bowed respectfully to each other.

The crowd watching gave a chorus of cheers and boos depending on whether they’d won or lost money. Rhiannon wondered about the bright flash; she’d felt a considerable amount of energy flaring out, but neither of the duelists had seemed to cast a different spell. She resolved to ask her mentor the next chance she got. In the ring, the duellists had turned to leave. The woman walked away and the man seemed just about to follow her when his gaze landed on Rhiannon. To her surprise, his eyes suddenly burned with rage. Rhiannon raised her brows quizzically and he stalked off. Odd. She’d have sworn she’d never seen him before.

Some of the audience were turning to go, and Rhiannon tapped a passing woman on the shoulder. “Excuse me.”

“Hmm?” the woman stopped and looked Rhiannon up and down. “Can I help you?” she purred.

Rhiannon smiled. “It’s my first time here, and I was wondering how the fights are set up. Are they booked in advance, like a band?”

The woman shook her head. “No, anyone can go up and have a fight if there’s a space for them. Sometimes they go up to settle a dispute, or just blow off some steam.” She gave an admiring glance at the breadth of Rhiannon’s shoulders. “You thinking of going in? I’d watch that, but you might have trouble finding an opponent.”

“Not before I’ve eaten,” Rhiannon said, holding up the beeper. “After that, we’ll see.”

“You said it’s your first time here, yeah?” the woman asked, and Rhiannon nodded. “You should come sit with me and my friends. Don’t want to fall into bad company, eh?”

“Sounds good,” Rhiannon said with a smile. “I’m going to keep looking around, but I’ll find you once my food’s ready.”

“Great! I’m Yafi, by the way.”

“Rhiannon,” she said, shaking Yafi’s hand.

After she’d left, Rhiannon turned back to the fights and caught the last moments of the other match that had interested her. The two fighters were on the ground; the woman having gotten her opponent into a tight arm and head lock. He tried jumping up and smashing her into the floor a few times, and when that failed to dissuade her, conceded. Rhiannon walked away toward the stage, the crowd cheering and booing behind her.

The band was still playing, and while there was little room to dance the people sitting on the nearest bench had turned around and were tapping their feet appreciatively. Rhiannon didn’t recognise the song; she didn’t even recognise the style. If a description were demanded of her, she might have said it sounded Irish by way of China. There was no reason to expect that Fallen music would resemble anything from Earth, though. It might not have that much in common with their pre-Fall music, they remembered so little.

Still, it had a beat and the musicians were competent, and Rhiannon listened with interest until her beeper went off and she made her way back to the bar, looking over the tables for Yafi. She found her, sitting in a group of people who seemed to be listening to one of them talk more than having a conversation. Taking her plate, pitcher and glass, she made her way over to them.

Yafi was sitting next to the redheaded man - boy? He looked young, but he might just be small - doing the talking, and she looked up as Rhiannon approached.

“Hey there, Rhiannon!” she said loudly, with a cheeky grin.

The redhead looked up and Rhiannon saw wide eyes in a pale, narrow face for a moment before he suddenly jumped up and fled. If she wasn’t loaded down with her dinner she might have given chase, just for the sake of it. As it was, she took his seat.

“Was it something I said?” she asked.

“Something he said,” the man opposite replied with a smile.

“He’s been going on about you as if he’s your best friend,” Yafi said. “Guess he wasn’t expecting to be called on it quite like that.”

“Never seen him before in my life,” Rhiannon confirmed.

“Better off that way,” an older woman down the table opined, “little rat cheats at cards.”

There was a lot of frowning around the table at this pronouncement. Fallen took fair play seriously.

“So, are you really the High Lady’s apprentice?” Yafi asked.

“Mrs Raithwaite? In the sense that she’s teaching me sorcery, sure,” Rhiannon said.

“What’s she like?” The man on her other side asked.

Rhiannon thought about it. “She acts like an upper-class grandmother most of the time,” she said, “very proper, but friendly. Kind of weird since she looks about thirty, but that’s magic for you. Good teacher, too. Knows what the problem is when I’m having trouble with something.”

He nodded at this, and Rhiannon got down to her dinner as the conversation moved on. When the Gryphon’s staff put ‘the works’ on the menu, they knew their business. Along with the steak was roast potatoes and plantains, pickled jackfruit and cabbage, and mushrooms in gravy, topped with a fried egg. She tried the cabbage. It looked a bit like kimchi, but rather than being spicy it was mouth-scouringly sour. She experimented further, trying the different combinations. It was the culinary equivalent of the music - the goal was something not on Earth and only partially recalled, but there was definitely a goal in mind.

Her new companions’ conversation had turned to other matters. “I haven’t seen him myself,” the man opposite Rhiannon said, “but I’ve heard he’s pretty as they come.”

The woman down the table snorted. “You sure he’s related to her then? No disrespect for the woman, but she’s not much to look at.”

“Who are they talking about?” Rhiannon whispered to Yafi.

“The Marshal’s nephew,” was the answer, “the first time anyone’s had a relative fall! It’s been the talk of the enclave for weeks!”

Rhiannon nodded, thinking the other woman wasn’t being quite fair to the Marshal. The head of the enclave’s peacekeeping force wasn’t a beauty, but she had a distinctive crone-like formidableness that was at least memorable.

“So what’s he like?” she asked.

“I’ve never met him,” Yafi replied, “but I’ve seen him in the square once or twice. He’s not exactly my type,” she added, with a warm smile at Rhiannon, “but I see what they mean when they say he’s pretty.”

“So what is your type?” Rhiannon asked with a grin.

“Oh, this and that,” Yafi said, affecting casualness. “Muscles are nice.” She added, eyeing Rhiannon’s arms.

Rhiannon winked at her. Flexing her bicep might have been laying it on a bit thick.

“You!” snapped a voice from behind her. She turned around to see the victorious sorcerer from the duel. “You claim to be the High Lady’s apprentice?”

Rhiannon shrugged. “Sure. What’s it to you?”

“What makes you think you deserve such an honour?” he demanded.

She took a sip of her drink and affected contemplation. “Well, she asked me and I said yes. I’d say that about covers it. Why do you ask?”

“You may mock me,” he spat, “but you are a native of this wretched, magicless world! How could you hope to grasp the truths of sorcery?”

“I do have a very good teacher,” Rhiannon said. Before he erupted, she continued, “You think you’re more, ah, deserving of the honour?”

“Of course!”

She took another sip and put the glass down. “It’s not actually my call, of course. Her ladyship does as she pleases. But how about we show each other what we can do?” she suggested, indicating the duelling area. “Impress me, and I’ll put a good word in with Mrs Raithwaite. Fair?”

There was a long pause. Rhiannon regretted putting down her drink. Eventually he nodded stiffly. “Very well.”

Rhiannon grinned and hopped up from the bench. “Come watch!” she suggested to Yafi and her friends, then led the way to the back of the tavern and tapped a likely looking bookie on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” she said, “this gentleman - sorry, I didn’t get your name?”

“Glesan,” the sorcerer said sourly.

“Glesan and I are going to have a spell duel. How do we get set up?”

The bookie turned back around and looked at the duelling pairs. “There’s a space right there,” she said, pointing. “Give me a few minutes to get myself and my colleagues sorted out, if you would. Could I get your name, please?”

“Of course, I’m Rhiannon,” she said, and led the way to the empty square. Thinking it might help gather an audience, she pushed a little more power into her inborn spell and noticed, as expected, more heads turning toward her. She wasn’t entirely sure how the spell worked, but Mrs Raithwaite had explained to her that it was something like gravity, but for souls. Spiritual weight, she’d called it. Massive things bent space-time and smaller object fell down the bend towards them. Her soul was heavy and bent some kind of magical medium, dragging down the souls around her. In the physical world, it manifested as attracting attention, even when she was, as now, just standing in the duelling square watching the crowd.

The bookie and some of her colleagues were also gathering an audience, and between their efforts, Rhiannon’s magic and Yafi and her friends, they soon had the biggest audience of any of the fights. Of course, Glesan’s last duel had as well. Magical fighting was more popular, she supposed. The bookies were calling out the odds they were offering; most of them favoured Glesan quite heavily.

“Can I bet on myself?” Rhiannon asked, and received a nod. She soon found the bookie that thought the least of her, offering 5 to 1 odds against, although most of the other bookies were quickly changing their odds to match, not wanting to lose business. A $50 bet later, some of them were reconsidering that stance, and a few gamblers were jumping in on her side before they could change their odds.

She felt a few pulses hit her ward, and saw some frowns from cautious faces in the crowd. Unlike the web wards most sorcerers used, Rhiannon had a void ward, which negated any magic that hit it, including pulses, making it impossible to judge her power reserves. Sorry guys, she thought, you’re going to have to go with your guts.

Syrene had told her void wards weren’t commonly used, and indeed she hadn’t noticed any on her few visits to the enclave. Person-sized blind spots were hard to miss. Web wards were preferred for their efficiency; they were actually a mesh - or web - of dozens of small wards, each designed to deflect or unravel a part of oncoming magic, expending only a fraction of the power the defeated spell contained. Void wards simply stopped anything with an equivalent expenditure, running the user out of power at least as fast as their attacker. Their only real advantage was their simplicity; they were easy to create and weren’t vulnerable to resonance effects or other tricks like Glesan and his opponent had used before.

That simplicity gave them the reputation of something only used by clumsy amateurs, which admittedly was not entirely unfair in Rhiannon’s case. She didn’t plan on winning this by skill, anyway.

“Ready to get this thing started?” she asked, looking from the bookies to Glesan. The bookie she’d spoken with before gave her a thumbs up, and Glesan nodded curtly. “Great. Hit me with your best shot.”

He didn’t. While Rhiannon started charging power, he wove a complex spell that looked to her like another ward. Temporary wards were something she vaguely remembered Syrene mentioning; harder to channel power into but easier to manipulate on the fly than static wards. Maybe a little more power then, she thought.

Rhiannon had only one real offensive spell; banelight, more or less the equivalent to a void ward in that it was simple to use, worked on anything, and required an excessive amount of power compared to more complex options. It wasn’t suitable for duelling use in any case, leaving gruesome, rotting wounds that would take a long time to heal even for a sorcerer, if she underestimated the effectiveness of his wards.

Instead, she channelled her power into another ward; her force ward, protecting against physical blows and projectiles. It functioned similarly to the void ward, negating the energy of anything that hit her and letting it fall harmlessly to the ground. Unlike the void ward, it could be actively used to knock away objects or, in this case, people. Glesan’s ward would presumably shred the resulting force punch, but only as long as his energy held out.

Most sorcerers didn’t have that much more energy than ordinary people. Having a bit more than twice as much, as Glesan did, was considered usual for a sorcerer who had just finished their training, which traditionally took seven years of full time study. While some were born with more than others, most grew their souls’ ability to store power through constant use and practise.

Rhiannon only had three years of after-school lessons, where they could fit in around her other extra-curriculars - hockey, kung fu, a job - accounting for her woeful grasp of magical theory. This should have left her with scarcely more power than an ordinary person, but that would be reckoning without her natural power to increase her spiritual weight. A power she’d had since quickening, and which until Syrene had taught her, she’d been unable to turn off. More than eighteen years of constant, active use, combined with a little natural extra, had given her a soul that held more power than the rest of the Gryphon’s patrons together.

Her ward infused with power that matched Glesan’s entire reserves more than twice over, she launched her attack. To his credit, he didn’t panic despite the absurd and unexpected amount of magic headed for him. He adjusted his wards and braced himself, hoping for the best. Rhiannon’s power unravelled and dispersed at an astonishing rate, but it kept coming. His temporary wards failed one after another, and his main web flared like fireworks as it struggled to protect him. At last it ended, and Glesan sank to his knees, wards glowing feebly.

“Concede,” he rasped out.

Rhiannon strode over and offered him a hand up. “That was pretty good,” she said, “I thought I might have overestimated those extra wards you put up; didn’t want to knock you into the wall. They held up great, though.”

“I… I appreciate that,” he said, “and I thank you for the duel. I had not expected to face such power from you.”

Rhiannon nodded. “I figured. Void wards, huh? Does that answer your question, about why the High Lady’s teaching me?”

He looked stunned for a moment, then chuckled. “Yes, indeed. You could not have a tutor less powerful than yourself.”

“It would make things harder,” she agreed. “I’m going to finish my dinner. You have a good night; I’ll mention your warding skills to Mrs Raithwaite next chance I get.”

“You are most generous in your victory,” Glesan said with a slight bow. “Enjoy your evening. I believe your companions wish to congratulate you.”

Rhiannon turned around; Yafi and her friends were among those cheering for her. A few of them seemed to be slightly wealthier as well. She waved and walked out of the duelling square.

Yafi broke out of the crowd and hurried up to her. “That was amazing! One spell!” she enthused. “How did you do that?”

Rhiannon grinned. “I have a few tricks up my sleeves,” she said with a wink, pulling Yafi closer.

Yafi looked at her strong and notably sleeveless arms and giggled, reaching up to wrap her arms around Rhiannon’s neck. “I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more.”

Rhiannon lifted her up into a kiss. “I think that could be arranged,” she said.

Comments

  1. Hi Dhavaer, I came over from Love Joy Feminism and read through it. Congratulations on your first post in 3 years. I'd like to ask though, would you like a critique?

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    Replies
    1. I'd love another perspective, thanks.

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    2. Hi Dhavaer, here are my thoughts.

      You have good flow to your writing. I’ve been looking through it and your writing is varied in just the right way. You’re not repeating the same type of sentence nor reusing words. The paragraphs are the correct length and used correctly.

      I was able to read through the entire story and the writing never pulled me out once. It kept moving at a brisk pace and didn’t get lost in random meandering. Even when you started describing the back ground and dropping info you didn’t slide into an infodump and kept everything going.

      The only possible issue is the use of “Dude” in the second paragraph which felt a little out of place.

      Your conversations run well and are believable.

      In short, your technical writing is fantastic, and I see no areas that you need improvement on.

      Presentation wise, I do see two areas that could be improved, both connected to each other.

      The first is that you tend to write is a very cinematic fashion. You’re very focused on speaking and movement. I get the feeling that when you write you see what’s happening like you’re watching a TV program with Camera pans.

      What makes a story interesting however is emotions and opinions. Take the first paragraph for example. What does Rhiannon feel about this? What are her emotions? What is her opinion?

      Doing a quick word search I see that the word ‘Thought’ only comes up 7 times in the entire scene and the fact that it’s Rhiannon thinking only comes up once. We never get her thinking about anything so we’re not really in her head, we’re only seeing her from the outside.

      In the middle of the story she’s challenged to a duel and informed that she’s not worthy to be an apprentice. How does this make her feel? Is she contemptuous? Angry? Insulted? Or just amused? We get a lot of how she thinks others feel, but never anything about how she herself feels.

      What this means is that Rhiannon comes across as a very robotic character.

      The second issue is that we don’t really know what Rhiannon wants. This is the single most important part of a character. A plot can be described as a character wants something and something is preventing them from getting it. And interesting desire is what makes an interesting character.

      Looking at these scene Rhiannon does not take action, she is acted upon. The major conflict in this scene, the fight, is instigated by someone else. As a result this fight really doesn’t tell us much about Rhiannon, it tells us a lot about Glesan.

      I’m reminded of the online web serial “A Practical Guide to Evil” which starts in a similar way and we quickly learn that Catharine is fighting in pit fights to earn money so she can pay her way to the Imperial Academy. First scene, character established, we know Who Catharine is, What she Wants, and What her Obstacle is.

      That’s the sort of thing that draws a reader in. We want to root for the protagonist, we want to see them overcome their obstacles, and so we need to know what the character is trying to accomplish.

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    3. Thanks for the feedback. :)

      I'm glad you found the technical aspect of the writing solid. I was a bit worried about two aspects of that: I thought I might have been too infodump-y when it came to the duel and that the dialogue might have been sort of disconnected - not enough description between lines. Glad to get some reassurance on that.

      I see what you mean about showing thoughts. I definitely do visualise the scene as a film; I feel the need to keep track of where everything is to make sure the events are coherent, and this does take away from showing thoughts and feelings. Fortuantely I think that should be fairly straightfoward to fix in the second draft.

      I kind of get you on the point of agency, although I would point out that while it's Gelsan who instigates the confrontation, it's Rhiannon who makes the challenge. I think fixing the first point and showing what she's thinking and planning should help this point as well.

      Thanks again, I really appreciated you write up and all the detail. Cheers!

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