[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.]
Jason’s eyes flew open. The window showed nothing but darkness outside. Several candles provided a pale flickering light. He looked around the room, and saw Lenai standing against the wall again. She appeared to be studying something at her feet. As he watched, her skin ran through a parade of different hues and shades. At times, parts of her body would vanish completely, and then reappear while another part disappeared in its stead.
After a few moments, as if she felt his gaze, she lifted her head and looked at him. Her skin and clothing returned to their normal colors, and Jason could almost feel the wall going up around her.
“That was cool,” he said. When she didn’t answer, he continued. “How do you do that?”
“Make your skin and clothes change colors like that.”
“All of my people have this ability,” she answered, but offered no further explanation.
“Well, that’s quite a talent.”
After a few uncomfortable moments, he tried again. “You know, you don’t have to stay here like this. I’m fine.”
“As I have said before, honor demands that I repay my debt to you.”
“Even if I tell you it’s not necessary?”
“Well,” he said, “I think it’s only fair to tell you that I don’t plan on going one-on-one with any more lizard men. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to throw myself in front of a rampaging charnoth any time soon either. So how long do you think this is going to take?”
“It will take as long as need be.”
“Until you feel like this debt you think you owe me has been repaid?”
“That is correct.”
He thought about Reyga’s advice. “Well, since I don’t plan on giving you any opportunity to save my life in the near future, maybe we could work something else out.”
Her eyes flared. “Have a care what you ask of me,” she warned.
“No, no,” he said quickly. “It’s nothing like what you’re thinking. Well, at least nothing like what I think you’re thinking,” he added.
She eyed him. “Very well, human. What would you have of me that you would consider fair payment for my debt to you?”
“Well, first of all,” he said, “would you please, please, please stop calling me ‘human’? My name is Jason. I would really like it if you would call me by my name.”
She didn’t answer for a moment. Finally, she nodded, “Very well. I will call you by your name. But this is not enough to consider my debt paid.”
“Yeah, I figured you’d say that. So, how about this? When they let me out of here, you show me around Lore’s Haven. Who knows?” he added. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and keep me from falling out a window. That would make us even.”
“If the Circle allows, I can show you the Haven and grounds,” she agreed. “But that still does not satisfy my debt.”
“Well, there was one other thing I was going to ask.”
She waited for him to continue.
“I was hoping maybe you could tell me more about yourself, and about your people.”
He could see her tense up. “Why do you wish to know about my people?”
He sighed. This was turning out to be harder than he expected.
“Reyga told me your people are misunderstood,” he said. “He said humans don’t trust the Shanthi, and the Shanthi don’t trust humans. But he also said most Shanthi value honor more than anything. I just want to learn about your people so I don’t offend you or any other Shanthi I might meet. That’s all.”
She studied his eyes as if they would reveal a different truth behind his words. He was sure she was about to refuse, when she nodded slightly.
“Very well,” she said. “I will call you by your name, show you around Lore’s Haven, and tell you about my people.”
“And about yourself.”
“And about myself,” she agreed, after a brief hesitation. “You would consider this sufficient to repay my debt to you?”
He shook his head. “I don’t feel like you owe me anything at all. The question is: do you think this is enough to make us even?”
She thought about it. “What you ask is difficult for someone of my race, but I will agree to this as repayment of my debt.”
“Good,” he said. “Now, I was wonder—” The girl held up her hand, stopping him mid-sentence.
“Rest now. It is still several hours until first light,” she said. “The High One wishes to speak with you immediately following Firstmeal. After you meet with the High One, I will show you Lore’s Haven.”
He thought about arguing, but his better sense won the day. He let his head drop back onto the thin pillow.
“Go back to sleep, human,” she said. As he started to sit up to remind her of their agreement, she held her hand up once again.
“My apologies,” she said. “Go back to sleep, Jason.”
Satisfied, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Lenai watched the young man as he slept. She was not sure what to make of him. When she had been given the assignment to join the group escorting him to Lore’s Haven, she was certain she knew what to expect.
First, he was a Far Planer. Although she had not had the opportunity to meet very many Far Planers, they all tended to be the same. Without exception, every one of them turned out to be either ignorant, naïve, self-centered, or some disagreeable combination of the three.
As if being a Far Planer was not enough, he was also a human, and not just a human, but a human male. With very few exceptions, one of whom being Reyga, every human male she had ever met had been boorish and crude. She knew human males found her attractive. More than once, she had been forced to teach them proper courtesy. One had even gone so far as to put his hand on her. She had instructed him in the correct manner in which to treat a Shanthi female. He survived the lesson. Barely.
There was no reason to expect this one to be any different, no matter how much the Circle wanted to see him. When he first mentioned working something out, she was afraid she was going to have to kill him on the spot, and risk the wrath of the Circle later.
However, his requests were not what she had expected. This bothered her. She prided herself on being able to discern what type of person someone was, and human males were the easiest of all to read. The things he had said and done had taken her by surprise.
She did not like being taken by surprise.
First of all, he had saved her life. When the Trellin threw her to the ground, she had been knocked almost unconscious. Though most of her recollections were vague, there were a few things that were clear. She remembered him running toward her. She immediately assumed he was in league with the Trellin and was now coming to finish her off. She had been too groggy to defend herself, and could only wait for his killing blow.
Then he leaped over her. She managed to turn around just in time to see the Trellin plunge its bloodfang into his shoulder. She realized then that he had just saved her life. She felt an uncomfortable mixture of surprise that a Far Planer would sacrifice himself for a stranger, irritation that she was now in a human’s debt, and a guilty relief that he would not survive long enough for her to have to repay that debt. A wave of shame washed over her as she recalled that feeling of relief. It had not been an honorable reaction.
And just now, his requests had also been unexpected. She had studied his face and eyes when he asked for information about her people. If there had been even a hint of deception, she would have refused. No matter how hard she tried, she could sense no ulterior motives in him.
She felt another unusual mixture of emotions as she watched him sleep. Part of her was annoyed that his words and actions had caught her off guard. Another part was apprehensive as to what the days ahead would bring, and how much she could safely reveal about her people. And then there was still another small part of her that wondered if Jason Bennett was one of those rare humans that was actually worth knowing.
The only thing she was certain of was that she would have to be on her guard with him. Perhaps he was just what he appeared to be, but her Shanthi nature also had to consider the possibility that this was all an elaborate deception, staged for reasons known only to him.
She studied him. When she was satisfied that he was asleep, she resumed the self-discipline exercises he had interrupted.
The High One was sitting at a large table with several thick books spread open in front of him when Jason was escorted into the room the next morning. Jason thought that if it weren’t for the robe and staff, he would look like any number of farmers back in Missouri, with their salt-and-pepper hair, and silent scrutiny of anything new or different. Despite his rather ordinary appearance, the air of authority about him was unmistakable.
With a gesture, the High One dismissed the Warders and Lenai. Then he came around the table.
“Welcome,” he said. “I am pleased to see you up and about, young man. I hope you are feeling no lingering effects from your ordeal?”
“I’m okay,” Jason replied. “That lady Loremaster, Seryn, she’s something else.”
“Yes. Seryn is a credit to her chosen path, and we are fortunate to have her among our numbers. Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Tal Vardyn, Pearl Loremaster, and High One of the Circle of Nine.” He gave Jason a formal bow.
Jason tried to be civil. “Yeah, nice to meet you.”
Tal raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Loremaster Reyga mentioned you were somewhat displeased when you learned of my instruction to withhold certain information from you.”
“’Displeased’ is hardly the word for it. I was mad. I still am a bit. Why didn’t you want me to know about dimsai?” Jason asked, his irritation beginning to show. “What’s the big deal?”
“That, my young traveler, is what we are here to discuss,” Tal answered evenly. “I make no apology for my decisions. I only hope that once you hear what I have to tell you today, you will understand why I felt it necessary to withhold certain information.”
He returned to his chair, and motioned for Jason to take another.
“Please,” he said, “be seated and be comfortable. Are you hungry or thirsty? I can have refreshments brought in if you like.”
Jason shook his head as he sat. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“I understand Loremaster Reyga has told you of our world and a bit about our society,” Tal said. “Tell me, how much have you learned about Loremasters?”
Jason thought for a moment. “Well, Reyga said a Loremaster is someone who studies a certain area of knowledge, and that they spend their whole lives trying to discover new things about it. From what I can see, it looks like Loremasters have some sort of authority or prestige to go along with it.”
Tal nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “And is that all you have learned of Loremasters thus far?”
“He didn’t go into a whole lot of detail.”
“Very well then,” Tal said, “let me tell you a bit more about the Loremasters and the role we play in our world.” Without waiting for a reply, he settled more comfortably into his chair and began.
“In the year 97 PD—that is, Post Devastation—a man named Agathon Saltor realized that, without intervention, all of mankind’s knowledge not already lost in the Devastation would soon vanish. If that happened, man would find himself thrust back into ignorance and darkness. It was Agathon who developed the system of Loremasters. He began to search throughout the land for men and women who possessed certain qualities.
“First, they had to have an extraordinary desire to serve and protect our world and its people. He was seeking a willingness to do whatever was necessary, even to the point of self-sacrifice, to defend Teleria against any dangers.
“Next, they had to possess a strong intellect. They had to be able to learn, comprehend, and retain vast sums of knowledge. This needed to be combined with a quick mind, able to assess any situation instantly.
“Finally, they had to be among those who possessed the strongest emerging talents for the use and control of dimsai.”
“Dimsai is not native to Teleria,” Tal explained. “It entered our world through one of the rifts. Over time, some of the races developed a certain control over this mysterious power. From among those who have the strongest abilities, the Loremasters are chosen.
“After searching for almost ten years, Agathon finally found nine men and women whom he thought would be able to undertake the task of rediscovering the knowledge mankind had amassed over the centuries. He charged them to devote their lives to the discovery of new knowledge in their selected fields, as well as to the protection of that knowledge.”
That sounded odd to Jason. “Wait a second,” he said. “Why would they need to protect knowledge from anyone?”
“This question has been asked before,” Tal said. “In order to give you a complete answer, let me first explain that the Loremasters do not hoard knowledge, but instead see that it is passed on to those who will use it to benefit the people of Teleria. A craftsman who uses wood,” the High One gestured toward the table, “would be given training and assistance in woodworking techniques, both old and new, that would help him or her provide the highest quality products to our people.
“Now, as to who would try to take such knowledge, suppose a forging technique were discovered that would produce superior weapons or stronger armor than anything we now know. And suppose only one person knew about it. If that person were to fall into the hands of a warlord bent upon conquest, what would prevent this warlord from overrunning Teleria and assuming control? That is our purpose, to see that such knowledge does not fall into the hands of those who might use it for their own gain.
“In the case of our hypothetical forging technique, the Loremaster would take this knowledge and pass it on to the artisans and craftsmen who deal in metalwork. Thereby, the knowledge is preserved, and used for the greater good of Teleria.”
“Okay,” Jason said, “so Loremasters are the good guys. But that doesn’t explain why you didn’t want me to know about dimsai.”
Tal was silent for a few moments, studying Jason. “I am not entirely certain how much I should tell you,” he said. “Although, I suppose you should know that Loremaster Reyga has told me he believes you can be trusted.”
“Well, it’s nice to know that somebody here trusts me. But it’s not like I asked to come here or something like that.”
“True enough,” Tal admitted. “But what we, and by ‘we’ I mean the Circle, are trying to determine is whether or not your arrival in Teleria is truly nothing more than an accident, or something more.”
“What do you mean? What else could it be? Do you think I came here deliberately, or someone brought me here on purpose? Why?”
Tal’s fingers tapped upon the table. At last, he said, “In order to answer your question, I must give you some information that I must confess I am not entirely comfortable revealing to you. However, as Reyga has spent more time with you than any other, out of respect for his wisdom and council I will proceed.” He leaned forward and clasped his hands.
“There is a prophecy that was given over eight hundred years ago. According to this prophecy, a person named Jaben would come to Teleria, holding the fate of our world in his hands. As is often the case with prophecies, names and phrases can be somewhat different from what they actually turn out to be. When Loremaster Reyga told me your name, I found it uncomfortably close to the name given in the prophecy.”
“So you think I’m this Jaben person? That I’m some kind of savior or something?”
“Or destroyer,” Tal said, looking him directly in the eyes, “if indeed you are the Jaben of the prophecy. In truth, we are not certain what role Jaben will play. That is why we have been so cautious with you. Should you be Jaben and prove to be false, we did not want you to have any more information than what was necessary to reveal.”
“And if this Jaben is supposed to save your world instead of destroying it, did you ever wonder how he’d react to your suspicion of him?”
“Of course,” Tal sat back. “Therein lies our dilemma. How would we know which path Jaben would follow? And would our actions toward him affect which path he chose? As High One of the Circle, the decision on how to proceed fell to me. I decided to err on the side of caution. If Jaben’s path is to lead to the salvation of Teleria, then I could only hope that he would understand, and forgive us.”
He thought about what the High One had said. It made sense, presented that way, but he still couldn’t help feeling annoyed.
Finally, he said, “So, this whole situation is all just because of my name? Because it sounds a little like this guy in your prophecy?”
“Not entirely,” Tal responded. “There is, of course, the fact that you are a Far Planer, the first one we have had in recent years.”
Tal laid his hands flat on the table. “Understand, Jason Bennett, that what I am about to tell you I say only because of Loremaster Reyga’s trust in you. I want you to know that.”
“Very well. There is also the experience Reyga had when he used dimsai on you.”
That startled him. “What experience?”
“Occasionally, when one uses dimsai on another sentient being, certain things about that being are revealed to the one using dimsai,” Tal explained.
“What things?” he asked, suddenly feeling very exposed.
“Different things,” the High One replied. “Thoughts, emotions, sometimes plans and intentions. It is generally considered an unwelcome intrusion, and that is one reason why we try to avoid using dimsai on other sentient beings. Additionally, if the intended target is able to use dimsai as well, the events can be unpredictable, sometimes even disastrous. However, because of your distraught condition when you arrived, Loremaster Reyga did not see any alternative, although he found the experience rather disquieting.”
“Why? What happened to him?”
Tal leaned forward again, studying Jason intently. “Loremaster Reyga sensed something in you,” he explained. “It was something he had never experienced before.”
“What was it?”
“He did not know,” Tal answered. “He could only describe it as the sense of something on the verge of awakening.”
“Awakening?” He thought about that, and then asked, “Did Seryn say she sensed anything?”
Tal shook his head. “No. It is doubtful that she did. Those who choose the path of the healing arts spend years training their minds in order to prevent such an intrusion. Because the use of dimsai on others is essentially a requirement of their Order, they must learn how to shut out anything that may be revealed about their patients. It is an extremely difficult discipline to master. However,” he added, “even if she were to sense something, the oath she took upon becoming a healer would prevent her from revealing such information except under the most dire circumstances.”
Jason tried to stay calm, but the thought that there might be some unknown ‘thing’ inside of him, whatever that meant, filled him with apprehension. If I had just stayed at Uncle Nyall’s house, he chastised himself. He heard the High One draw a breath as if to speak, and looked up.
The High One wasn’t looking at him, however, but over Jason’s shoulder. “Nyala!”
Jason turned and saw a shimmering being, seemingly composed of thousands of iridescent sparks, stepping into the room from out of thin air. Jason could see two shining white orbs where the eyes would be as it turned to them.
“High One,” it said in a whispering voice that echoed throughout the room, “I would speak with this one.”
Before he could react, the being stepped toward him, and he found himself inside a glimmering sphere, mesmerized by the creature’s gleaming eyes.
He didn’t know how long he stood there waiting for the creature to speak, when it said, “You will remember when it is time.” With a silent flash, the sphere surrounding them disappeared, and they were standing in the High One’s chambers.
The creature turned to the High One and said in its echoing whisper, “A word of advice, High One. Treat this one justly. He is all you hoped…and all you feared.” Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the being was gone.
In the silence following the creature’s abrupt departure, Jason and the High One simply stared at each other. After a few moments, Jason shook himself and took a deep breath.
“What was that?” he asked.
“What did she say to you?” Tal asked in a shaky voice.
“She?” he said. “That was a ‘she’? How do you know that? What was she?”
Tal waved off Jason’s question. “What did she say to you?” he demanded.
“She didn’t say anything,” he said, taking a step back uncertainly. “Well, she said I’d remember when it was time, but that was all.”
The High One scanned the room as if expecting the being to reappear at any moment. “You will remember when it is time…when it is time,” he mumbled to himself absently. His brow furrowed in concentration as his gaze dropped to the floor. “It has been centuries,” he whispered. “Why here? Why now?”
“What is she?”
“That thing,” he repeated. “What is she?”
Tal’s troubled gaze returned to Jason. “Oh yes, yes.” He smoothed the front of his robe. “She is called Nyala,” he explained. “She is one of a small group of very powerful beings called the Altered. From what we can gather, stories about them began shortly after the Devastation. None of the few fragments of records that we have recovered from before the war makes any mention of them. They have not been seen in centuries, and most have decided them to be nothing more than myth and legend. I only knew who Nyala was from the descriptions that have been passed down.”
“There’s more than one? How many?”
“According to the tales we have heard, there are seven Altered. They do not, so far as we know, intervene in our affairs. However, legends say that in the years immediately following the Devastation, they were much more involved in our world. Apparently, the results of their involvement were not always what we would consider to be positive. From what I have been able to learn, you are fortunate that it is Nyala who has taken an interest in you. The others would not have been as gentle. Now,” the High One continued, looking at Jason intently, “I must ask again. Are you certain she did not say anything else to you?”
He shrugged. “It’s not like she had much time to say anything. She just said I’d remember when it was time, and that was it.” He shook his head. “Nothing else.”
Tal gave Jason an odd look. “Jason,” he said, “how long do you believe you were with her?”
“I don’t know. Not very long. A few seconds, maybe a minute, tops.”
“Young man, in the time that Nyala spoke with you, I could have traversed the whole of Lore’s Haven and returned with ease,” Tal said.
“No way!” Jason was shocked. “There’s no way I was in there that long.”
“Indeed you were. And obviously, whatever it was that Nyala said to you, she does not feel the time is right for you to remember it. This is most puzzling.”
“What did she do? Could you see anything?”
Tal shook his head. “I am afraid not. You both were totally hidden from me while you were in the sphere.”
“Did you try to get me out?”
“Any such effort would have been wasted. According to the tales told of the Altered, the power of the entire Circle combined is no match for even one of them. I did not wish to test that today and risk incurring their wrath. I could do nothing other than wait and hope for your safety.”
The two stood silently for a moment. Presently, the High One said, “Well. I had planned on speaking with you longer, young man, but I believe we could both do with some time to think about this morning.”
He couldn’t argue with that, and simply nodded his agreement.
The High One continued, “There is a feast planned for this evening in your honor. I hope you will find it enjoyable and the food to your liking. The Circle would like to meet with you the day after tomorrow. Perhaps after that we can continue our conversation.”
“Yeah, that’s fine with me,” he said, still thinking about the shimmering being.
“Very well.” Tal opened the door. “I will see you at the feast tonight. You are welcome to look around and familiarize yourself with the Haven. I am sure there is much you would like to see, and Lenai can answer any questions you may have. Until this evening, then.”
Jason nodded at the High One and walked out into the corridor, where Lenai was waiting for him.