Opening Sequence of my Latest WIP

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Denise Tanaka

Denise RobargeTanaka
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This one is freshly sprung out of my head. I'm letting it sit, for the yeast to rise, so I'm not ready to dive in for nitpicking and rewrites (if needed). Even so, I'm curious if the opening sequence sets the right mood and tone, and if my POV character is reasonably engaging?

I think I chopped it around 1,100 words or so.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

[Untitled, Work In Progress]

Ghosts lingered around the place of their death like wisps of smoke rising out of an extinguished fire log. So many ghosts, he thought. So many failures. So many greedy idiots.

Unlike those who had come before, Chance took time to survey the ruins of the remote mountaintop. He rode his horse Zember on a slow, studying walk around the rim of the brick pit. Whatever this place used to be—the temple of a lost religion, or the castle of a forgotten lord—it was all gone, and only the basement remained as a round hole in the earth.

Snow sharpened the glare of midday sun off the whiteness of freshly fallen powder. His eyes narrowed. He frowned deeply. Though barely in his twenty-third year, creases hardened at the sides of his mouth.

Why does she want this so badly? The question would have to wait until – or if – he returned with the prize.

The object rooted in the brick crater was too large to be hauled out with a rope. It was roughly spherical, as if an auroch bull had curled up for a nap and its fur had sprouted countless porcupine spikes. Yet this thing had never been alive. Its spikes appeared to be obsidian glass, the black crystal born of volcanic fire.

From every angle of viewing the object, only the tips of its spikes were visible. Each had the length and girth of a horse’s leg. It would not be possible to reach into the core without being impaled like the ghosts of so many foolish men.

The spiky tips extended from all sides of the sphere to within an arms’ length of the pit’s walls. There was barely enough space for one person to stand in between the rocks and the pikes. He observed a few of the ghosts reliving the last moments of their lives. Their skeletons, still clothed, lay twisted in the snow-dusted sand. Climbing down into the pit would be a tricky maneuver as the man-made bricks were brittle. Many a fool had tumbled off the walls to be impaled on the lance-like spikes.

Chance dismounted. He tied off the reins to one of many charred stumps of what was once a pomegranate tree. Whatever sort of building had once been here, it used to have a garden that had continued growing out of control long after the residents had gone. More recently, someone had burned a clearing around the pit to make room for a wagon; perhaps one of the lingering ghosts below, or perhaps one who had come to his senses and gave up.

He patted Zember’s broad shoulder, more for his own comfort than the animal’s. The slap of his glove on that grayish-blue hide was solid and real, unlike the ghosts that only he could see. The horse lowered his head to a resting position.

He tied a rope to the stump. He looped the braided cord around his waist. Gripping the slack in his gloved hands, he backed away and downwards into the pit.

Bricks cracked and crumbled away from his boots. Chance staggered, clinging to the rope in mid-air. Ghosts like morning fog blurred his view of their fate that he almost shared. He blinked at the cold sweat dripping into his eyes.

Slowly, methodically, he let out the rope’s slack. His toes against the vertical rock kept him balanced. Don’t rush, don’t rush, he advised himself as his boots came to settle at the bottom. Dry snow crunched. Beneath the frost was sand.

He rotated his shoulders to step in between two of the larger spikes. He came alongside a ghost of a more recently deceased fellow, one who had not yet lost the shape of the man he had once been. Milky-beige, nearly solid, every detail of the man’s form remained clear: the layers of his cloak and tunic, his gauntlets and arm braces, his leather cowl, his whiskers, and the astonished expression of his eyes. The fellow had been trying to reach into the center of the sphere with a shepherd’s crook. The spike was a crossbar forever implanted into his gut.

Not impaled, he thought. Studying the spikes more closely, Chance saw they were not smooth like icicles. Ridges ran the full length. Narrow at the tips, they widened into crisp bevels extending deeper into the center. He gingerly rested his hand against it.

The sharp ridge sliced across the palm of his thick glove.

“Boggers,” he mumbled.

He stepped away from the ghost and the crumpled heap of its mortal remains. Blood dripped a trail of red spots in the snow. From a pouch at his belt, he pulled out a linen kerchief stained with his sweat from days gone by. It was not clean but it was all he had to wrap the gash across his palm.

He rested his back against the rock wall. He uncorked a leather-wrapped glass flask at his belt. A few gulps of tepid flat beer quenched his thirst and refreshed his mind.

One option would be to abandon the quest. He could simply return home without the prize. Mother would be disappointed, but then, she usually was. Her loud scolding voice played in his imagination. What went wrong? Why couldn’t you figure it out? Such a simple puzzle! Aren’t you my clever boy? You’re my boy! You see things that no ordinary flesh-and-blood man can see. You know the secrets of the world that I have taught you! You have a destiny to be so much greater than what you are! I don’t understand how you failed this errand. Was I wrong about you?

He took another swig of the flask.

Looking up to the rim of the pit, he observed his horse and saddle. A bed roll and enough provisions were packed on those broad haunches to last three or four days. The nearest trading post was a week’s journey. If he beat the blizzard coming down from the north, he might make it.

Snowflake flurries swirled like moths around the black spikes. He exhaled and his breath was a cloud of mist. His cheeks prickled. He looked down at his feet and the frost caked on his boots.

If I get caught in a blizzard and freeze to death on the open road, Mother will gloat over my ghost. Better to go home empty-handed. I can leave her any time.

Metal glimmered near the feet of the beige ghost. Not a knife.

Curious, he picked it up from the snowy sand and shook away the frost. It was a bell of exquisite craftsmanship, finer than any bell that a town crier would carry. A handle of rosewood supported a tarnished silver cone. Ancient letters were etched into the silver—the language of kings of bygone days. He cocked one eyebrow to remember his mother’s lessons. The inscription read: a gift of eternal wisdom to the first king His Majesty Davarche.

“Wisdom,” he murmured. “How did a bell give the ol' king wisdom?”
 
I think the tone is one of the strongest aspects here - you've definitely caught the vibe of eerie desolation. The setting is well-described and you do a good job of raising a lot of questions about the character and his situation for the reader to follow.

Perhaps the third paragraph could be cut as too distant, and the seventh and all but the first sentence of the eighth for pace. The writing itself is largely clean and effective.

Nice work!
 
I find the writing to be quite good, but the images seem rather scattered. I get a sense that in an attempt to perhaps avoid what might have looked like clumps of infodump, everything was scattered which almost creates an image that the POV is rather scattered and unfocused.
There are the ghosts and the crumbling dead terrain and the object itself and the bones around it and then more about the spikes of he object then the ghosts and then the object and ghosts and the crumbling wall around the object and the spikes and ghosts.

My only suggestion would be to experience this as the main character might which is the terrain as he rides up and then the pit and perhaps the object and how they look as he approaches then a great description of the beauty and the deadliness of the spikes or pikes and then finally the bleached bones scattered below with remnants of clothing still intact.

Then have him venture down at which point you might mention the ghosts until he reaches the bottom where he comes face to face with the freshest of ghosts. I liked the place where he discovers that there are more dangers than just being impaled and his overall reaction.

I just felt a bit like we were advancing and retreating a lot in the narrative without much focus until you reach the end. For me this caused the tone to move up and down unevenly, where it might work better to deepen the mood by starting at the edges and working all the way into the ghostly presences.

Just one feeble opinion. The writing is compelling enough.
 
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