Below is the first chapter of the second draft of my book. I’ve decided to post it chapter by chapter, as I finish each one. The first draft took me around three months to write, so I’m hoping to finish the second before the end of the year. This is a work in progress, so please feel free to leave with me your thoughts.
“Why did you kill me?” he asked, wisping around her as a planet around a star.
“You’re not going to follow me home, are you?” Mary asked. Her sword was sheathed behind her back. The blade was warm from the fight.
“Nowhere else to go.”
“Everyone went home. You need to die.” Mary didn’t look at it. Her eyes remained straight and that was the key to ridding oneself of a ghost. Just don’t look.
He twirled around so that his misty body floated in front of her. He was all faded grays, but the blood that circled his neck was red, fresh. “I tried to surrender.”
“They ordered a kill and I delivered.”
“Hey, Mary!” a man said. This man was alive. “Mary Gold!” The streets were crowded with walking people heading here or there, home or to their work or the market or the arena or elsewhere. This man’s voice boomed over the noises of the street.
Mary knew who he was. She stopped, although a certain part of her wanted to ignore the man.
The ghost glanced over at the shouting man and said, “Looks like someone you might want to be worried about.”
“Just another journalist,” Mary said. Annoyed people brushed past her on the street. “He won’t talk to you.”
“You’re a hard one to catch,” the robust man said, catching up to where Mary stood. He panted and wiped at his forehead. “I have a few questions. If you don’t mind.”
Mary said, “I’ve got some time.” She hoped the ghost would turn away from her and attach himself elsewhere if she took her time with an interview.
“I’m Al, Al Lichtenstein,” the man said. He extracted a tablet and a stylus from a bag that he carried.
“I know who you are, Albert,” Mary said. She shifted her weight to one leg. Passerby either grumbled or stared as they passed. “We’ve met a few times before.”
Albert said, “Ah, but you can never know with you gladiators. Excuse me, gladiatrices.” A walking man bumped into Albert. He ran a large hand through his wispy hair, glancing at the ghost. “Perhaps we can take this to a place with less crowds, eh?”
“Lead the way.”
Albert started walking. “There’s an excellent pub not so far from here, just a couple of streets down, I’d say.” His feet waddled, making circular motions.
The ghost said, “I know the place.” He swirled around through Al, who shivered at that moment, to face Mary. “It sucks, you should leave.”
Mary said, “You leave. Now.”
“Don’t talk to it,” Albert said, turning his head to look at Mary but obstructed by his large neck. “Talking only makes it stay longer.”
“Don’t whine, Albert. I have more experience than most with ghosts.” She followed as Albert led her across the street. Crowds parted for Albert, clearing the way for Mary, or maybe it was the ghost for whom they parted.
“Almost there now.” He pushed forward through the crowds with thirsty determination. “I’ve drank in this hole for years.”
“Years of drunkenness,” the ghost said. “That’s exactly what you want in a journalist. Might as well drown the lot of them.”
“Don’t be so fatalistic,” Mary said. She touched the hilt of her sword for assurance it was still there.
“I believe it’s within my rights.”
Albert said, “Shh. Shush.”
“You can’t shoo me way, no matter your size.”
“My first question,” Albert said, holding the pub door open for Mary. “You have a history of letting these pests follow you. Why do you insist upon recognizing their existence?”
Mary said nothing until they had sat down and found a spot, although there was much deliberation upon where they should sit. They settled for a corner table, the desired spot miraculously empty in the frenzy after an arena match.
“I don’t see the harm,” Mary finally answered after taking a seat.
“Indeed,” Albert said. “What is the harm of letting a fly go free within one’s home? A nuisance is but an inconvenience.”
Mary said nothing. A waiter arrived and asked what drinks everyone would be having. Al ordered wine, Mary ordered a brandy, and the ghost ordered an ale, but received nothing.
Albert said, “Well, then. On to my next question.” He cleared his throat and the noise was loud enough to warrant a few stares from strangers. “You’re aware of course, that the team you just defeated was the King’s team. Your quite offensive strategy is unusual given the history of–”
“Stop,” Mary said. I defeated the King’s team, she thought. “I was not aware.”
Al’s eyes opened wider as his brow drew down. “Surely, you research your opponents. It is the law that everyone has the right to know whom they are fighting in the arena, their records, their statistics. This is information given to every team, weeks before the match’s scheduled date.”
“My team.” Janice fell back behind a column. Two men, thirty feet ahead, guarded the stairs. Mary nodded at Janice and ran across to find cover behind a large marble block. They charged at Mary with their swords, while Janice fired arrows that split bone. “We train to adapt.”
“I see. That is certainly an interesting development.” He sipped his wine and wrote a quick note, wiping his forehead upon completion of each task. “The great Mary Gold refuses to research her opponents. Shocking, indeed.
“Now, back to my question, about your offensive strategy, I–”
Mary interrupted, “I have to go.” She swallowed the last of her brandy, while Albert had had only a few sips of his wine. Mary stood and started to walk away. “Thanks for the drink.”
“Wait! Just a few more questions.” Albert remained seated with his wine, unable to leave the glass behind.
Mary weaved her way through the crowded pub and toward the door, bumping into strangers and causing grunts. Few would recognize her outside the arena, outside of her gear and without her helm. She opened the door into the still crowded streets, crowded with the throngs of people who had so recently cheered the deaths of others.
The ghost was absent. Must have finally died, Mary thought. I’ve been doing nothing, a ghost as well among the living. People who see their own purpose. And what is mine? The King Dragon’s team, defeated. There must be some other challenge.
She walked in the direction of her home, a good mile away. She could have taken the tram, but walking gave her a chance to reflect upon her actions in the arena, if she could ignore the noise of the streets.
All this practice biding my time, and I’ve gotten too patient. Jesry would be around for the next match if I had ordered the charge to the final hold just a couple minutes earlier. It will be hard to replace him.
The King’s team…
Best to let it simmer, not think too much about it.
Ahead, Mary saw a crowd gathering around Andre Strong. He was large enough to make other gladiators appear as normal sized men. After Mary had faced him for the first time and his team had defeated her’s, he had asked her if she wanted his autograph.
“Andre, Andre!” the crowd was cheering. “Let me touch you!”
“Just a bit of your sweat in this vial.”
“A lock of your hair to keep.”
“A drop of blood from that cut!”
Mary crossed the street to avoid meeting him, but he saw her. “Mary!” he called, his booming voice ever more boisterous than Albert’s. “Come, let us talk!”
His crowd was watching her, and probably wondering who this person was whom Andre called over by name? Somebody famous, no doubt, although none recognized her.
His presence didn’t leave her much of a choice. Best to just get it over with.
Mary said, “Andre, it’s been a while.” She held out her hand and tried to smile.
Andre ignored the hand and bear hugged her, his body sweat rubbing into her hair and skin. “Oh,” he said. “It’s been too long since we have last seen each other.” He finally released her from his grip.
“Well,” Mary said. “You know.”
“We have fought many battles. Yet we remain friends” Andre spoke as much for Mary as for the crowd, who gathered around him and listened to each dripping word. “Tell me, Mary Gold, how was your last match? I hear you defeated the King Dragon’s team. That’s quite an accomplishment, eh?”
“Yes, well, I do my best.” Mary shrugged and glanced in the direction of her home.
“Indeed, we must all do what we can, although I would pick my enemies more carefully.” He laughed and the crowd laughed with him. A joke. “And what is this, behind you? A pest!”
Mary turned and saw the ghost behind her, its neck still red. “Die, already.”
“Now, don’t speak to it. There’s a trick to these things. We must ignore them and they will go away.”
“Ignore me all you like,” the ghost said. “I will continue to speak. And Mary, I must speak with you.”
“Back, you!” Andre said. Mary recognized his pose as an attack position. “Let mother death take you into her arms.”
The ghost floated skyward. His sad eyes looked down on Mary. She looked away and said, “I really must be leaving.”
“Of course. I will not hold you any longer, my dear. Off you go, now.”
Mary never had a chance to say goodbye.
“And there goes the great Mary Gold, ladies and gentlemen,” Andre said to the crowd. “Remember that one well. One of the most unappreciated holders in the sport.”
Out of earshot. Mary walked down the street in sweet anonymity, leaving Andre and his fans behind. He would talk about the arena. The arena is a bloodbath, she thought. A way for those tired of life to gamble themselves, their souls. My own soul is one lost amongst the spirit of the City.
Mary looked around and saw all the people wrapped up in wools and linens in the dead of winter. The sun blew up the sky and clouds were absent. It should have been a happy day. It should have been a day of games and feasts, but Mary saw all the people, huddled down and only surviving. They existed and their purpose was just as clear as Mary’s.
“I need help,” the ghost said. It floated down from behind Mary.
Mary said, “I thought you left.” She shook her head. Passerby turned odd looks in her direction. Her sword marked her as a gladiatrix, and a strange one she must have been to acknowledge the presence of a ghost.
“I won’t die yet. I’m actually becoming quite comfortable in this new form.”
“I only killed you a few hours ago.”
“So recently was it?” The ghost shook its head, the blood dripping from its neck to fade away in the air. “You’re the only one who will talk to me. I am less than a fly to most. You are a holder, are you not?”
“I was. I am nothing now, and you are matter. You know the job of a holder. We charge in, swords drawn and ready, sweeping through any enemies in our path to take the hold. It is the most glorious position.”
Mary charged into the hold. The opposite entrance revealed her only present opponent, Wes Lively. They fought, clashing and twisting and beating each other into the walls. “It’s not so romantic as that,” she said to the ghost.
“My point is that you know the fear that all holders feel. When you charge in and you know that you are going to die, and the day you die might be today. We are trained to break through that.”
“Yes, through practice and practice.”
“Right. I was a holder and I knew that fear and I broke through it. You see the result. There’s nothing like it, to be a ghost, but I wanted to die after watching Albert pour his wine over a cheese pie. I thought about death, about the real death and not this halfway body I wear now.
“And I saw something.” The ghost floated a little higher in the air and then drifted down. “Shadows moving in the dark. I felt my soul drifting away…” His spirit stretched thin into the mouths of tentacles that grasped him and brought him toward the dark, the shadows in the corner of the pub. Al, he tried to say, Al help me.
“Was it just death?” Mary asked.
“This was evil, something other than death, a prison. I’ll remain a ghost for long before I am bound there.”
“You’ll have to die sometime. Nothing lives forever.” She ignored the stares on the narrow street.
“My will is strong.”
“You fought well.” Everyone is afraid of death, Mary thought, of shadows in the dark. “I had to kill you.”
Mary walked into the alley that led to her apartment. “Hey!” she shouted as a bucket of shit and piss emptied onto the street from above. She looked up and spotted the culprit, a man three floors up. “What the hell! The sewer is three blocks down.”
“Look where you’re walking!” he shouted back. He shook his head and spit and drew his upper body through the window and back into his home.
Mary shrugged the incident away. The ghost remained motionless when Mary started to walk. “What?” She said.
“It went through me,” the ghost said, its form shivering.
She lived on the second floor of a four story building outside of the strong walls of the City. Her apartment was modest. A kitchen, small living area, bedroom. All the necessities of shelter and life and little more.
She walked inside and turned on the radio. A disc jockey’s voice blared through the speaker, “…CELEBRATIONS TODAY. THE CITY GUARDS ARE OUT AND WATCHING, SO REMEMBER FOLKS, DRINK SLOWLY AND BRING YOUR FLASKS.”
Mary turned down the volume and walked into her kitchen. The radio said, “In our news for the day, we hear there is more trouble at home even as our soldiers return victorious against the other City’s forces, which, as we all know, finally settled the dispute of who owns the marble rich areas of the Dank Forests.”
She placed more fuel on her cooking fire and gathered water from her basin. She poured the water into a pot and set the pot on the stove to boil.
The ghost said, “Making tea, are we?”
“Shh,” Mary said. “I’m trying to listen.”
The radio continued, “…attack was believed to have been carried out by rebels who claim that the King Dragon is but a fraud. That’s right, folks. There’s someone who thinks that one who provides food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and who has love for all is a liar. A cheat. A steal.
“Well, I can tell you that I, for one, do not agree with this person, and believe that the barbarians behind these attacks deserve to be executed, without trial. Death is the only true justice. It’s up to us true citizens to carry it out.”
Mary turned the volume down as a band began to play a song about falling in love.
The ghost said, “Something is out there.” It swirled around in the air behind her.
“You’re just afraid of death.” Mary tried to relax on her couch in the living area. She let her limbs go limp. “You’ll feel better when it’s done.”
“You have to listen. You need to understand what I saw here.” It floated two feet high. It hands begged. “This was more than some nightmare, some mere dream to ignore upon waking.”
“It was death and I’m sure it was horrible.” She closed her eyes and tried to drown out the noise of her neighbors arguing. Shouts and screams drifted upward from the street. “You really need to leave.”
The cold of the day was the worst part of it all. Mary never liked to fight in the cold.
A knock at her door. The ghost asked, “Who is that?” A second knock at her door.
“A noisy person,” Mary said. She was still, determined to relax.
“Mary, open the door,” an outside voice said. The door muffled the sound. “It’s me.”
Just go away, she thought. I’ll just ignore everything and drift away.
A third knock at her door. “Come on, open up.”
“Fine,” she said, as the teapot whistled. She removed the pot from the stove before answering the door. “Who the hell–”
“It’s me,” Gat said, standing at her door in a wool cloak, its hood pulled over his head. Strands of his brown hair poked out from underneath and twitched when he moved. “I just want to talk to you.”
“I fought today.” Mary shifted her weight to one leg and blocked the entrance. “Don’t stress me out like this. I’m really asking you here.”
“If you asked me here then I should stay.” He smiled.
Mary wondered if he was a demon. “I should just kill you. I could kill you and who would ask questions?”
“You’re not that type of person, Mary.” Gat chuckled at some joke inside his head. “That’s why I love you.”
Behind him, men and women walked up and down the stairs and milled about the terrace below. Mary sometimes spent her time on the balcony, watching children play games of hide and seek. They would laugh and giggle and she would wonder what that was like.
“Come in,” she said. She walked to the living area, tea in hand. “Just sit down.”
Gat shut the door and followed her with a puppy grin. “Thank you for talking to me. I just want to hang out, you know? You and I can be friends.”
“I didn’t say I would talk to you.” Mary sipped her tea and stood facing Gat, who sat on her couch. “You said you wanted to talk to me. Okay, talk to me. Go.”
“What? I don’t understand.” He squirmed in his seat and searched for words in a puddle of mud. “Just, let’s talk together.”
“I’m giving you the opportunity to speak to me. It is not one that I often afford. If you have something to say then you say it. Now.”
“Let’s just hang out, listen to the radio. Something like that.”
“Damnit, Gat.” Mary’s tea slopped around in its cup. “You need to stop. Your constant badgering alone is grounds for a fair kill.”
“You really mean it.”
Mary frowned at Gat’s gaping mouth. His eyes swelled up and his face turned red. She wanted to look away.
“I love you. I really do.” He wiped a tear from his face and gazed upon the floor. “And you would kill me.”
“Gat,” Mary said. “You’re acting as though you’re worth loving.”
Tears streaked his cheeks.
“Do something with your life. You’re just a bum, living in the slums and begging.” Mary’s eyes penetrated his. “If you want to be loved by someone, do something.”
Gat muttered a few words.
“What?” Mary said. Leave, she thought.
“I could give you everything.” His eyes burned beneath the hood of his cloak. His lips were tight, his teeth the guardians of great secrets. “I have the ultimate power.”
“You have nothing.”
“I have everything. I will lay waste to the City and everyone who lives here.” He swept his arm out in front of his body and stood. “I will be the only one left alive and I was going to spare you, Mary. I wanted to let you live.”
“You’re drunk, Gat.”
“I am not drunk!” He shouted so hard that he stumbled. “Drunk? Drunk with power? With rage?! Everyone is going to pay, especially you, Mary! Everyone who wronged me, everyone who was mean to me, who belittled me.”
He cried, and mucous exploded from his nostrils. His voice near screaming, “Bastards!”
“Get out of here before I kill you.” Mary had drawn her sword and held it above her head, poised to strike. She didn’t bother to wipe the tears from her eyes.
“I leave because I want to.” He walked to the door with his head trained on the floor. He stopped, turning to face Mary. “You could have loved me. But he’s right. You’re just scum.”
Don’t say anything, Mary thought. He’s baiting you.
Gat walked outside and left the door open.
Mary sheathed her sword and shut the door. She collapsed on her couch and filled her lungs with deep breaths.
The ghost said, “Well, that escalated quickly.”
“Why are you still here?” Mary complained. “There’s nothing I can do for you.”
“I think there is.”
“Don’t kill me again.” The ghost swirled down to float in front of her as she sprawled out on her couch. “A joke.”
“Am I laughing?”
“It does not appear so, although I have already forgotten much of what living is like. Would I know laughter if I saw it?” He stared at Mary for a few moments. “I don’t know.”
Mary sighed. She sat up, lifted the tea cup from its perch on her unpolished wooden table and sipped it. “I’m trying to stay calm, if that helps.”
“Of course it does. Back to the matter at hand. That person you spoke with.”
“Wouldn’t call it speaking…”
“Right. That dipshit who yelled at you; I noticed something about him.” The ghost looked toward the door and his voice became a near whisper. “He is the thing I saw in the pub.”
“So…why are you still here?” Don’t take it the wrong way…
“I’m wondering the same thing.” It drifted in the direction away from the door, looked down at itself and stopped with a shiver. “I’m dead. I should be able to accept that.”
“To cross over to the true death would be to accept that man as my eternal dominion.” If a ghost could sigh then it would rise a little higher in the air and lower itself down once more. “I felt my existence slipping away into his mind. And his mind was all dark thoughts and evil desires. I won’t die yet.”
“He’s gone,” Mary said, shaking her head. “You can die now. He left.”
“I still feel his presence. It permeates the entire City.”
I’m done, Mary thought. “Look, that’s fucking ridiculous. Gat is insane, he’s a bum. He just mutters to himself all day and wanders around the slums. He doesn’t even pop by here often; that was the first time I’ve seen him in a few months. You need to forget about your fear and die.”
“It is not fear!”
“Then leave me alone and let me drink my damn tea!” Mary was exhausted. She remained seated, but sat straight up, tea in hand. “Just leave.”
The ghost looked into her eyes for a few moments. “Fine. I will leave you to your devices.” It floated up through her ceiling and was gone.
“Finally,” Mary muttered. She leaned back and sipped her tea. On the radio, the band began to play a song about fighting in the arena, in honor of the day’s festival.