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First chapter below. This chapter serves to introduce the protagonist, give a little bit of background about her, and set the tone for her attitude. It also introduces the concept of magic, grounds the reader in the first of three main settings for the work, and sets the main conflict in motion. I'm also attaching this via PDF in case that's easier to read, because the formatting on this forum is a little wonky whenever I try to copy and paste my work into it, and I cannot get it to single-space for the life of me. Apologies in advance for my technological inadequacy 1. When Bryn woke in the morning, she was already late. Did it even count as morning if you’d only slept two and a half hours? She stumbled out of bed and discovered that her ankle hurt. Really hurt. She could barely put weight on it. She’d collapsed in her jeans, too tired to deal with undressing, and now peeled them off to glimpse the damage. Even she had to admit it was pretty bad. Swollen to twice its normal size, puffy around the edges, hot to the touch. She’d scraped it up good. She didn’t feel any broken bones when she probed at it, but what did she know? She’d never broken an ankle. It must have been from jumping out of the window at Ottessa’s Trinkets. The drop was farther than she’d gauged. She had landed crooked, when she thought back on it. Just what she needed. How was she supposed to wait tables? Her consolation was the dragonfly pendant, now tucked safely into her box of treasures, and the knowledge that she’d gotten out of Ottessa’s Trinkets without anyone catching her. She showed up to her shift anyway, limping the whole way. She didn’t know the daytime bartender well yet -- she’d only been working here for three weeks, after all -- but he seemed nice. She petitioned him for a swap, begging for mercy. “Luke, I feel like such an asshole for even asking,” she said. “It’s just that I really need the money. I swear I’ll do all the barback work.” Luke stared hard at her for a minute. They worked at Hardigan’s, an Irish pub that sold breakfast but did most of its honest business in booze and bar food. This shift was usually dead anyway, no matter if you were waiting on the booths or bartending. Bryn was here as a new hire, and still paying her dues on the shifts no one else wanted. She had no idea why Luke volunteered for this time slot so often, but he normally manned the bar from open till four. “Fine,” Luke said finally. “What’d you do, anyway?” “Twisted my ankle on the stairs. It didn’t seem that bad last night.” Bryn dragged one of the barstools behind the register so she could take her weight off the ankle. Her gut ached for a shot of whiskey. That’d take the edge right off, guaranteed. "You hear all the commotion downtown last night?” Luke said. “No,” Bryn said, without batting an eye. “What happened?” “Someone broke into Ottessa’s. Stole some jewelry or something.” “Oh, wow. I didn’t think things like that happened in a small town like this.” She reached for a rag to wipe down the bar. “Oh, please. We’re suburban, not immune to crime. Somebody stabbed a psychic at one of her readings last month not that far away from Ottessa’s.” “Stabbed a psychic?” “Yep. Some little old Korean lady, read tarot or something. It ended up being the daughter’s ex-boyfriend.” “Must have been before I moved here.” "Maybe. Where are you from?” Luke glanced at her. He’d never asked her this many personal questions before. Someone was feeling chatty. “Florida,” she said. “Beach town. Waitressing gigs were always good near the water. All that salt air makes people hungry.” “I’ve never been to Florida,” said Luke. “I don’t recommend it,” she said. “Couldn’t stand the humidity or the jackass frat boys. Or the alligators.” She shuddered. Primeval, lurking monsters. One used to sun itself on the lawn across from her apartment complex, and she’d watch it warily from her bedroom window, transfixed by its alien eyes. “I only stayed there for six months.” “Where were you before that?” “Texas.” She reached for the paring knife and started to slice limes to paper-thin slits. The bar was still empty, but she wasn’t feeling any more inclined to talk about her past. "Moved around a lot, huh?” Luke plopped down in one of the chairs and swung it around so he could sit backwards and face Bryn while she worked. He had exceptionally long legs. “Not always.” “Where’d you grow up?” “What’s with the Twenty Questions?” “What’s with all the avoiding answering them?” Luke grinned. “You’ve been here for the better part of a month, but no one knows anything about you.” “That’s so not true.” Bryn’s knife slipped, and she hissed, put her hand to her mouth to suck at the sudden splash of blood. “You okay?” Luke jumped up. Before she could answer him, the bell on the door jingled and the day’s first customer walked in. They heard a low exchange with the hostess, who was unusually sober for someone who always got high in the bathroom on her lunch, and then the customer headed into the restaurant and hooked toward the bar. She slid a coaster over to him. The man looked at her. He had the darkest eyes she’d ever seen, the pupils and irises bleeding into each other. His hair was dark and trim—too long for the military even though he had a martial demeanor. She didn’t know why, but something about him made her blood run cold. "Can I get you a drink?” she said. The man placed his hands gently on the bar in front of him, as if putting down weapons. “Coffee,” he said. “With a double shot of Jameson’s.” “Coming right up,” Bryn said. She couldn’t stop staring at his hands. His fingers seemed, just for a moment, to have an extra joint. Obviously impossible. He locked his cool gaze onto hers. She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, and turned quickly to grab fresh coffee. Her ankle screamed. “What’s wrong with you?” the man said. Bryn’s spine iced up. She poured carefully. The familiar scent of coffee grounded her. “Sorry?” she said. "You're favoring your left leg,” the man said. She set the coffee mug on the bar and grabbed a shot glass to measure his double. How closely was he watching her? “I sprained my ankle,” she told him. “Seen a doctor yet?” “No rest for the wicked,” she said with forced cheer, smiling stiffly as she poured the Jameson. He accepted the mug, wrapped those long fingers around it. Part of the whole bartending gig entailed small talk with customers, and sometimes with customers you would literally never speak to on a normal day. Bryn was usually good at it, even though everything about this guy was off putting. “Long morning?” she asked the guy with the same forced smile. What was wrong with her today? “Long week. Long life.” He snorted. “Too long.” He took a long sip of what Bryn knew was scalding hot coffee, but showed no discomfort at all. Just swallowed and set the mug back down. “Uh, well, enjoy? Let me know if you need anything.” A few more guests trickled in after a minute or two. They ordered the more conventional brunch items, and Bryn busied herself with making mimosas and Bloody Mary’s, keying in the eggs benedict and Irish fry up orders from the bar. And the man just sat there and gulped his coffee, staring broodingly into the mirror that lined the back of the bar. He took great big mouthfuls of his drink but didn’t ever seem to need a refill. Then it got absurd. It had been more than an hour since he’d first come in. He’d been drinking steadily from his cup since then, but hadn’t needed a single top off. She paused in front of him. “How are you doing?” He met her gaze and the intensity in his eyes hit her again. “Fine,” he said. “Maybe a refill? Double shot again.” He pushed his mug to her side of the bar. As it slid over, Bryn watched it happen. Right in front of her eyes, the liquid in the mug drained as if by magic, and where a mostly full cup had been not a moment before, now he offered her a slightly stained but definitely empty vessel. Bryn stared. She could have sworn his eyes twinkled at her. Everything felt knocked off kilter. She pushed down hard on her injured ankle, sending a spike of pain through her nerves. It steadied her enough that she could grab the mug, the coffee pot, the liquor. What the hell? “You should really see a doctor, you know,” the man said. “Thanks for your concern,” she snapped, and shoved the guy’s coffee at him, harder than necessary. “It looks like you’re seeing things,” he said. Bryn stopped cold. “Not good for your health,” he continued, voice low. “Seeing things and stealing things. Both high risk.” “Excuse me?” she said. “You heard me.” His hand shot over the bar and caught her by the wrist. She jerked back, but he didn’t let go. “Be careful,” he said lowly. “They’re taking notice. And they want you back.” “What?” she whispered, eyes wide. "They sent the huntsman. He’s out of the Near Lands already. See a doctor, and then run.” At this, she yanked hard away from his grip. This time he let go. His nails scratched at the tender inside of her wrist. She stumbled, then fell, hard. Her arms windmilled and her ankle faltered beneath her weight before she landed square on her ass. Great; more body parts that would ache later. She scrabbled at the rubber mat flooring behind the bar, shooting upright. The mug sat empty and accusatory before her. The man was gone. His barstool was tucked in, neat and perfectly aligned, as if no one had ever been there. Bryn couldn’t remember the first time she heard about the Near Lands. Maybe in the first foster home. Maybe her real home, before that. What she did know for sure was that she’d been told the stories by someone else. The memories felt to her like drowning in white noise, submerging yourself in cicadas or static or waves. They all began with, “Once upon a time, in a faraway land,” but then they diverged. A quick summary of the tale you thought was coming, then a reversal. And what a reversal! The Near Lands were the antithesis of Fairyland. Grim and dark and bloody. These weren’t the sparkling, sanitized tales of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for children. Bryn told herself the stories over and over again. She’d never been so entranced by anything in her life, not even Barbie dolls or Power Rangers or Pokemon. Sometimes — like with the dragonfly story — she knew a new story, or a new detail about the Near Lands. They blossomed into being, out of nothing, like they’d always been there. Many exasperated foster parents and case workers had marveled, What an overactive imagination! The obsession with a fantasy world had caused her a lot of problems. Enough that a normal person would likely have given up on the Near Lands long ago. Her few friends were a little creeped out by her intensity. Caretakers suspected her of having some kind of obsessive delusion about this alternative fairy tale universe. They gave her tests. They sent her to counseling, where a woman with cats’-eye glasses asked her repeatedly if the stories were metaphors for Bryn’s life. The way she knew these stories couldn’t be explained. They felt like gospel to Bryn. They made her feel loved; they gave her a feeling of purpose. She was a curator of lost objects. In a world where adults frequently forgot her, and other kids routinely shunned her, she was a guardian of lost words. In the fourth grade, Bryn’s class had done a unit on ancient Greece. In one of her worksheet packets, Bryn found a drawing of an old crone inside a cave, huddled over a steaming fissure in the earth. The caption said, “The Oracle of Delphi hears prophecies.” She’d known instantly she, too, was an oracle, hearing stories from another world. But she made the mistake of telling her teacher, and she was in mandatory sessions with her guidance counselor by lunch. She finally had to lie and tell them she’d just been trying to freak out the other kids. She’d wanted attention from the teacher. She would not lie again. Eventually she learned to keep it to herself. That was why she’d valued Ronnie so much when he first took her in. He told her other people didn’t matter, but if the Near Lands meant something to her, then they did. Once he’d won her loyalty, once he started pushing her into work, the flattery ended. Near Lands Chapter 1 - NY Write to Pitch 2022.pdf
Prologue 13 Years Ago 7:08 PM Liz Liz hated sunsets. And the late September sky was already awash in bruised hues, outlining rows of gnarled apple trees against the slash of dark horizon. She knew most people enjoyed the colorful blurring of day into night, but those same people had clearly never hunted—or been hunted—by dragons before. They were deadliest at dusk, when mottled dragon scales became nearly invisible in the riot of color. Somehow, creatures with wingspans larger than most commercial aircrafts were rendered almost undetectable. Liz was hot beneath her fatigues; sweat pooling at the base of her spine as she lay flat, propped up on her elbows, rifle pressed into her left shoulder. She had orders, like the half dozen other strike teams peppering the ridge overlooking the valley on either side of her. Whatever they were looking for tonight was supposed to be big—big enough to warrant pulling most of her class out of training for a rare demonstration. She blew out a slow, measured breath. “We probably won’t see anything anyway,” Joseph grumbled. Her older brother sounded listless, agitated even. She settled deeper into the shadow of the nearest apple tree, peering through her scope, ignoring the sour smell from rotting apples strewn about her. “You ok?” she asked instead. He sat just a few feet from her, back pressed against some of the large rocks that formed their cover, rifle laying placidly in his lap. His gaze drifted down into the valley too, but he didn’t look happy about it—also unlike him. Joe loved the hunt, and he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But his hazel eyes were faintly glazed with ... boredom? Worry? She was used to him being assured—the oldest, the best of them. Her skin tingled, and she shifted her weight nervously, repositioning her sights. She concentrated on her elbows sinking into the damp earth, the sound of the wind rustling leaves around them, and the steadiness of her own breathing. The orchard trees were getting murkier by the second between the dark and fog that seemed to be drifting in. She frowned. The fog was moving in fast. Too fast. Something snapped to their left, and their bodies simultaneously sharpened with motion. Liz swung her legs around and focused her rifle, wincing as her headset crackled to life in a too-loud gurgle of static. Her hand flew up to her ear to silence the garbled commands struggling to coming through. Static flared painfully, and then the line went dead. “What the—“ She looked back, and paused. Her brother’s face had formed a sort of wordless question, eyes wide and mouth parted slightly. “Joe?” He launched to his feet without a word—and without his gun—bolting through the tangle of branches behind them in a frenzied burst of motion. She didn’t wait. She should have waited. He’d always been faster than her—damn him—but she ran anyway, ducking fruit laden branches and slipping on slick, smushed apple beneath her boots. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. They were trained to cover ground quickly and quietly, but Joe was crashing through branches and trees. They might as well have been shining a spotlight on their location. It didn’t make any sense, and the full realization of what that meant slammed into her as she rounded the trunk of a particularly large tree and barreled right into Joe’s broad back. Siren Song. Her brother was standing in the middle of a small clearing, face turned skyward, gaze cloudy. They’d always been decently matched for height and strength, but even as she threw both arms around him and shoved him towards the treeline, he scrambled away from her. “I’m here,” Joe shouted upward, the fog curling around them. “I’m sorry,” he said, but not to her. She tried to wrestle him towards cover, ignoring panic sluicing through her at the noise, at Joe’s Siren-addled brain, at the way the orchard seemed to writhe and breathe around them with every sound they made. “Don’t listen to them—Joe, it’s a Siren Song.” Only one kind of creature sent out a Siren Song, robbing you of reason right before the kill. She raised the butt of her rifle, prepared to knock him out if it meant saving him—but then he was looking at her, eyes clear and confused. “Liz?” he asked hoarsely. She opened her mouth to respond, but never got the chance. Pain exploded above her knee as something big and sharp pierced her leg. Her vision went white – shit, shit, SHIT as she hit the ground hard and felt a sudden warmth saturating her pant leg. And she was bleeding …. dragging … dying … against pebbles and something was pulling her towards the trees. She writhed and clawed at exposed roots but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t catch hold of anything as her nails split and fingertips muddled, couldn’t wriggle around to see what had a hold of her, even though she knew—she knew. Blood streamed down her thigh and pooled at her stomach, fire streaking through her veins, as she managed to finally stare into the face of a dragon too large to have crept up silently behind her. But there he was, his dark snout streaked with her blood and his toothy grin clamped firmly around her thigh. Green eyes the size of saucers gleamed in the coming dark. He hoisted her up several feet into the air before she even had a moment to draw a dizzy breath, acid burning in her throat. She’d dropped her gun. She reached weakly for the Dragonsbreath grenade attached to her belt. She looked down the nose of a grinning marbled grey and black dragon, whose pointed snout and hand-sized teeth were sunk firmly into her leg as he beat his powerful wings and rose into the air. Class 3. Young Male. He rumbled in his throat, but he hadn’t roasted her, which either meant he couldn’t manage a strong enough flame to reignite his sparks so quickly, or he didn’t want her dead … yet. She groaned as she tried to reach up and beat at his nose, gasping as his bite tightened, blurring her vision. She was going to throw up. This was all wrong. Her brain still rattled off the stats anyway: Wingspan 30 feet. Controls weather patterns. And, in a moment of blinding clarity, she realized: you’re too small. You’re not the dragon we’re looking for. The dragon rumbled again, in a gurgle that almost sounded like laughter. She hung five feet off the ground—ten—as her reaching fingers finally closing around the Dragonsbreath. Her hands shook as she met the Class 3’s glare—her fingers slick with her own blood as she yanked it free and pulled the pin. Green eyes narrowed. “Boom.” she hissed. All of her was screaming—burning—as she wrenched her arm back and hurled it towards his stupid grinning face. B O O M. She hit the ground hard, gasping. She could hear the furious roar of the Class 3 overhead, watched as the Dragonsbreath’s green fire climbed up the side of his maw, the acid burning through scale and bone as it raced up snout to spine. She watched until he drifted out of focus, the glow of the green fire illuminating the frantic beating of his wings as he tried to escape the flames. Breathtaking. She just watched the dragon burn, his agonized screeching splitting the night. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She lay gasping, aching everywhere—her ears ringing. She blinked once, twice, trying to clear her head as the Class 3 drifted hazily out of focus. Her limbs were leaden, and her hazy vision was abruptly replaced by the alarmed face of her brother. “Liz? Liz?” His dark hair was askew, eyes wet and wide. She’d never seen him cry. His hand was heavy on her thigh, pinching and tearing; his face tightened in horror, “Your leg—” She didn’t know specifics: specifically where she was hurt, specifically where fire coursed through her, specifically where residual Dragonsbreath acid was eating through her own clothing. Everywhere was pain and fire—acid and burning nausea building in her chest, and she would be sick ... she would be sick and— He pressed a finger to his mic, calling for help that roared to dullness in her ears. She wouldn’t be conscious for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, to her this time, yes. She tried to grasp the hand that had wrapped around her own, his fingers tightening. Joseph was screaming again for help, for backup, for anybody, and then there was another shattering roar, one she felt as much as heard through her entire body. But it didn’t matter. Joseph never even saw it coming. In one snap of too-large teeth, his entire torso disappeared in a maw that emerged from the fog and engulfed. Dragon saliva hissed as it sprayed the ground. Teeth the length of her forearm, three times bigger than the Class 3’s, missing her by inches. Its immeasurable form darkened the too-bright sky—incomprehensible. Impossible. No matter how much she tried after, she couldn’t recall what happened after. Did she reach for him? For her gun? Her radio? Did she scream? She must have screamed. Did she just lay there and wait to die? She wished she knew. Would it make a difference if she knew? All she could recall was how her brother’s legs had dangled as they drifted, almost lazily, before disappearing into a muddied swirl of a sherbet-colored sky. She didn’t remember the moment when he ceased to be. She couldn’t seem to forget when she realized he was gone.