[For 14 weeks, beginning on March 19th, on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’ll be posting chapters of book one of my Jaben’s Rift trilogy: From a Far Land. I hope you enjoy it. The first part is here. I’d love to hear any feedback.]
On the Road
“So, what’s a chaotic rift?” Jason asked. They were sitting in a small clearing, taking a short rest break to have lunch.
Reyga chewed his food for a moment, then swallowed and said, “Most of the few remaining rifts are stable. In other words, they are anchored at both ends. Where the rift is today is the same place it was yesterday, and the same place it will be tomorrow. Such anchor points do not bind a chaotic rift. One or possibly even both ends fluctuate constantly. A path that led to your neighbor’s house yesterday, may lead to another world today. Thus the name.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “You seemed to think it was pretty amazing that I had come through one. Why? Am I the only person to ever come through a chaotic rift?”
The three escorts had been listening. When Jason asked this question, Seerka answered, “No. There have been a fair number of travelers who have come to Teleria through chaotic rifts.”
“Aye,” added Gatlor around a mouthful of food, “but most of them did not survive the journey.”
Jason looked at Reyga. “Is that true? Most people who come here through a chaotic rift end up dead?”
“I am afraid so,” Reyga said. “It is an unfortunate truth that for most of those who have come to our world through a chaotic rift, the trip has proven to be fatal.”
Reyga thought for a moment, and then said, “Consider our world. The surface upon which we stand is but a small fraction of the total area occupied by the planet. There is all of the area below the surface, and the oceans, as well as the atmosphere. Because chaotic rifts are not anchored, they can open up anywhere at all. You were very fortunate that the rift you came through chose to open up at ground level.”
Jason felt rather thick headed as he said, “I’m not getting you. What are you trying to say?”
Gatlor tossed aside a small bone he had picked clean, and spoke up. “What he is trying to say, Far Planer, is that the rift you came through could just as easily have opened up far above the surface, deep underwater, or even somewhere inside solid rock. If it had opened up in any of those places, we would not be having this conversation right now, and I would be sitting comfortably in some tavern with my feet propped up, having an ale.”
“Does that really happen?” Jason asked, shaken by the thought.
“Oh, yes,” Seerka replied. “Gatlor usually puts his feet up when he has an ale,” he finished with a wink.
Reyga gave the cat-man a look of exasperated amusement, and then turned serious as he answered Jason. “There have indeed been recorded incidents where the body of a Far Planer has fallen from the sky, or washed up on the ocean shore.”
“And what he said about solid rock?” Jason asked, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Reyga replied. “In all of our recorded history, there have been very few that have come unharmed through a chaotic rift.”
“We know of only two, now three, instances where a traveler has come safely to Teleria in this manner. Actually,” he added, “tomorrow we will be passing through a village where one of them dwells. He arrived about thirty years ago or so. If we see him, I will introduce you to him.”
“What about the other?”
Reyga hesitated before replying. “His arrival was much further in the past,” he finally said.
“Oh,” He thought about what it would be like to suddenly find yourself high in the air, or deep underwater, or worse.
Shortly, the brief respite was over, and it was time to get back on the road. As they walked, Jason glanced at the woods on either side of the road. He’d been trying all morning to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Lenai, with no success. He hadn’t seen anything that gave any sign that the Shanthi girl was nearby. He was starting to think there was no one out there to be seen.
As if reading his thoughts, the Loremaster said, “She is there. She scouts ahead to ensure that we are not approached without our knowledge.”
Jason shot him a look. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
Reyga gave a little laugh, and replied, “You have spent most of the journey thus far peering into the woods. It was not difficult to surmise what, or should I say who, you were looking for.”
He felt his face growing warm as he heard the chuckles from the three escorts. He’d tried to be circumspect, but apparently, subterfuge wasn’t his strong point.
Eventually, the sun sank toward the horizon, sending streamers of gold and crimson stretching across the sky. As the shadows lengthened, Gatlor announced it was time to find a place to set up camp for the night. Not much farther along they came to a place the warrior deemed acceptable, and the company stopped. As the escort began unloading supplies, Reyga motioned for Jason to follow him.
“While the others are setting up the campsite, we need to find wood for a fire,” he said.
Jason didn’t think he could take another step, but forced his aching feet to move as Reyga set off into the surrounding trees. Fortunately, there was an abundance of deadwood to be found, so in a very short time the two had accumulated an impressive pile of wood for burning.
He was sure they had gathered more than enough to last through the night when Reyga turned and headed back towards the forest. Jason was ready to drop. “Hold it,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s enough?”
Reyga didn’t stop, but called over his shoulder, “One more trip should suffice. Come.”
Shaking his head, Jason wiped the dust off his hands and shuffled after him. As he entered the trees, he realized the Loremaster must have been walking faster than he thought. Reyga was nowhere in sight.
“Hey! Where’d you go?”
“This way, Jason,” Reyga’s voice replied from up ahead. “Come this way.”
He followed Reyga’s voice, and soon found the Loremaster standing in the middle of a ring of large trees. “What’s wrong? Why are we just standing here?”
“I want you to meet someone, my boy.”
Jason looked around at the circle of trees, but didn’t see anyone. He gave Reyga a confused look and said, “Um, are you feeling okay? I don’t see anyone else here.”
A slight smile played about the corners of the Loremaster’s mouth as he said, “Lenai?”
“Yes, Loremaster?” said a female voice.
Jason spun around, almost tripping over his own feet. He looked in all directions as he regained his balance, but he didn’t see anyone.
“Lenai,” the Loremaster said with fondness in his voice, “would you humor an old man and say ‘hello’ to my young friend, Jason?”
“Only because you ask it of me, ch’tasa,” said the voice. Jason was sure he was looking directly at the spot the voice was coming from, but he still could see no sign of the Shanthi.
As if a cloud concealing her from view had dispersed, the girl appeared. She stood almost as tall as Jason, and had a lithe, athletic build. She wore a sleeveless tunic and breeches that came down to the top of her bare feet, and had charcoal hair that dropped just past her shoulders. Jason gaped at her. He’d been looking at the exact spot where she had been, and he hadn’t been able to detect her at all. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure what to do. He’d been trying to catch a glimpse of her all day, and now that she was standing right in front of him, he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Greetings, human,” she said. “I am Lenai.” There was no welcome in her voice, and her dark eyes had a watchful, guarded look in them. Jason thought she looked fairly human, except that her skin shifted hues occasionally.
“Uh, hi,” he managed, and then mentally kicked himself. That was lame.
Lenai gave him a slight nod, and then turned to Reyga. “Loremaster Reyga,” she said in a friendlier voice, “if you require nothing else of me, I need to resume scouting the area.”
“Of course, my dear,” Reyga said with a smile. “Please return to your duties, and forgive me for the interruption.”
“No forgiveness is necessary, Loremaster,” she returned warmly. “I am always at your service.” Then, with another cautious nod to Jason, she turned toward the woods and vanished as if she had stepped into a thick fog.
As soon as the girl disappeared, Jason found his voice. “You mean that’s it? Just a ‘greetings, human’ and that’s all?”
“For now. And even this was asking much of someone of Lenai’s race. Most humans will live their entire lives without ever seeing a Shanthi. I was not sure if she would grant my request, but she too is very curious about you.”
Jason snorted. “Yeah, she looked real curious. She couldn’t leave fast enough.”
Reyga chuckled and began walking back toward the camp. “Do you remember what I told you before about her people being very secretive? Had she not been curious, you would still be wondering what a Shanthi looks like. And she was correct in that she has other duties.”
“I suppose. How did you know where she was? I couldn’t see anything at all.”
“I did not know where she was,” Reyga replied. “I knew she would be near, simply because we were away from the campsite, and part of her duties as a member of our escort is to watch over us, you in particular. But I could see her no better than you. The Shanthi are masters of concealment and stealth.”
Jason thought about that for a moment, and then asked, “What was that she called you? Shetasa? What’s that?”
“Ch’tasa,” Reyga said, giving it the proper pronunciation, “is a Shanthi word that is a bit difficult to translate into our language. The closest that I could explain it would be to say that it means friend, although it implies an intimacy that goes far beyond ordinary friendship.”
“You mean you’re like…together or something?” Jason asked. The idea alarmed him, although he wasn’t sure why.
“Together?” replied Reyga. “I do not underst— Oh!” He came to a stop as comprehension dawned in his eyes, and then he burst into laughter. “No, no, my boy!” he guffawed. “Goodness, no! I am far too old for a girl of her age!” As his laughter abated, he took a deep breath. “Oh my,” he chuckled, “let me see if I can explain this.”
The Loremaster thought for a moment, and then said, “Things you would not do for your best friend, you would do for your ch’tasa, and secrets you cannot tell your closest family member, not even your own lifemate, you can tell your ch’tasa. It is more than both friend and family, and yet it is like neither. It is not a word the Shanthi use lightly and Lenai honors me greatly by using it with me. Long ago, the Shanthi believed that to consider another person as ch’tasa was to actually give them part of your own soul.”
“Wow,” Jason said, as he digested Reyga’s words. “So how did you become Lenai’s ch’tasa?” he asked, and then held up his hand as the Loremaster began to reply. “Wait,” he said, “let me guess. That’s part of that story you can’t tell me, right?”
“I am genuinely sorry, Jason,” Reyga said. “If I could tell you, I would, but…”
“Okay, okay.” Jason gave up. “Maybe someday I’ll hear it. It’s not like I’m not going to have enough time, since you tell me I’ll be here for the rest of my life.”
“I truly hope to be able to tell you someday,” Reyga said, “but right now we need to get back to the camp. No doubt they are starting to wonder what has happened to us.”
With that, the young man and the old Loremaster headed back toward the campsite.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and the band of travelers set out once more on their journey. After a few hours of walking, they approached another small village.
Gatlor turned to the group as they reached the outskirts of the village. “This is Gildenfell,” he told Jason. Then he addressed the rest. “It is still somewhat early for the midday meal. However, this is the only village we will pass through until we are almost to Lore’s Haven. We will stop at the inn in town to rest, eat, and replenish the supplies we have used thus far.”
Gildenfell was considerably smaller than Drey’s Glenn, and it had a much more relaxed air about it than had the bustling market town. The seemingly haphazard scattering of drab buildings they passed didn’t show nearly the variety of the previous village.
As they walked along the packed dirt road that served as the main thoroughfare, they were met with curious stares from townsfolk along the way. Some gave them greetings, which the escorts and the Loremaster returned courteously. The children they passed were particularly fascinated by Calador. A few mustered the courage to greet the huge Dokal warrior, who answered their greeting with a nod.
Eventually, they came to a small wooden building that apparently served as a combination of roadside inn and tavern. A weatherworn sign swung over the door, creaking in the slight breeze, but Jason couldn’t read the writing on it. He looked around as they went inside. The six or seven patrons that were present glanced up, and then did a double take as they saw the warriors. A few appeared to know who Reyga was as well, for they leaned over to their companions and began exchanging muffled whispers as they eyed the party.
The inn itself was rather nondescript. They were standing in a large central room with ten or so small tables scattered about. The wood floor had been worn smooth, with dirt ground into the grain that no amount of cleaning would ever remove. A rough wooden bar stood to one side, with a few aging barstools in front of it, and in the back of the room a staircase led up to the shadows of the second floor.
A balding, pot-bellied man Jason assumed was the innkeeper came out from behind the bar, wiping his hands on his apron. He clearly knew who Reyga was because he stopped in front of the Loremaster and bowed clumsily as he said in a rough voice, “Welcome to Carilian’s Roost. I am Kellar, the owner. It is an honor to have you in my establishment, Loremaster Reyga. It is indeed. What can I get for you and your party?” He was a rough looking man, and it was obvious that had he been addressing anyone other than a Loremaster, the courtesy would not have been as evident.
Reyga nodded a greeting to the innkeeper and said, “Water and whatever your special of the day is will do nicely, thank you.”
As Kellar bowed again and went to retrieve their food, the Loremaster surveyed the room until he found what he had been looking for.
“Ah, good,” he said. “I was hoping he would be here. He usually spends most of his time here these days.”
Jason followed Reyga’s gaze, and saw, almost lost in the shadows at the back of the room, a figure sitting with his back to them. Jason hadn’t noticed him when they’d entered the room. His clothing appeared to be the same drab brown of the woodwork in the tavern.
“Who is he?”
“Remember me telling you yesterday that one of the other people who came to Teleria through a chaotic rift lived in this village?” As Jason nodded, Reyga said, “That is he. His name is Brusha. Come, and I will introduce you.”
While the escort took seats at one of the tables, Jason followed Reyga over to the lone figure. When they drew close, Reyga said, “Greetings, Brusha.”
Without turning, the man replied in a voice ragged with age, “Reyga? Is that you? It is good to hear your voice. Please, sit with me a while.”
Jason thought the man’s voice sounded familiar, but couldn’t decide whether he had actually heard it somewhere, or if it was just a voice from a dream.
“I would enjoy that,” Reyga said, “but it will have to be another time. I have brought someone I would like you to meet. He is a young Far Planer by the name of Jason Bennett.”
At the sound of Jason’s name, the man stiffened, and his drink, which he’d been raising to his lips, fell from his hand, spilling across the table. He struggled to turn around in his seat, his voice quavering. “Bennett? Jason Bennett? Can it be? Jason, is it really you?”
As the man turned toward them, Jason felt the blood drain from his face, and his ears began to roar. He thought he might pass out again. This couldn’t be! It was impossible! The frail man who now faced him had to be in his nineties, perhaps even older. But there was no denying what his senses were telling him. As their eyes met, he knew it was true. He knew this man. He had seen those eyes every day of his life, since the day he had been born. Even though he felt like he couldn’t breathe, he forced one word out from between his numb lips…