[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.]
“I think I should go back,” Jason said. He’d been mulling the matter over in his head throughout breakfast. He didn’t want to make Bothan angry, especially after experiencing his temper, but he didn’t feel right about simply disappearing from Lore’s Haven. He was sure they were wondering where he was.
“Go back?” Bothan asked. “Lad, you know as well as I that there’s no way back. We’re both stuck here, and all we can do is try to make the best of it.”
“No. I mean back to Lore’s Haven.”
Bothan straightened in his chair. “Back there? Are you daft? Jason, have you already forgotten what I told you last night?”
“I know. I haven’t forgotten, but I really need to go back and get some answers. Besides, my dad is still there. I can’t just leave him.”
Bothan bowed his head, his fists clenching and unclenching on the table top. Jason braced himself, but the big man’s shoulders suddenly relaxed.
“Aye, you’re right,” he said. “A man has to make his own decisions and then live with the consequences. And, it warms my heart it does, to see your loyalty to your father. But I’d not be telling you the truth if I didna say I was worried about you, lad.”
“I know. I have to admit, I’m a little worried myself. But I have to at least get my dad. I promise I’ll be careful.”
“Aye, all right. I’ll send you back. But first I have two things I’d ask of you.”
“Wait here,” Bothan said, and then left the room. After a moment, he returned with a smooth, oblong stone about the size of his thumb hanging from a leather cord. He gave it to Jason.
“Wear that,” Bothan said.
“What is it?”
“It’s called a summoning stone. If you find that you want to come back here, just hold it tight in your hand and concentrate on me. I’ll know, and I’ll open a portal that’ll bring you here.” Bothan grasped Jason’s shoulders. “I may not be able to keep you from going back, but I can make sure you have a safe way to get away when you need it. I think you’ll be glad of having it.”
“Um, okay, thanks.” Jason slipped the cord over his head. The stone rested a few inches below the hollow of his neck, hidden by his tunic. It felt strangely warm against his skin. He looked at Bothan. “So, you said there were two things you wanted to ask me to do. What was the other one?”
“Wait until tomorrow to go back.”
Bothan sighed heavily. “I’ve been here a long time, lad, and a good portion of that time has been spent alone. It’s good to have someone to talk to again. I didn’t realize how much I’d been missing simple conversation.”
“I’d be able to tell you more about the things you really need to know. Things like as not the Circle’s forgotten to tell you. And I would like to hear what our world is like now as well.”
“I don’t know. I’m sure my dad is worried about me.”
“One more day is all I’m askin’,” Bothan said. He gave Jason a sorrowful look. “I beseech ye, Jason.”
He felt his resolve crumble away. “Okay,” he said. “One more day. But first thing tomorrow I really have to get back.”
“Splendid! Oh, lad, you have my thanks for your kindness. And first thing in the morning, I’ll send you back to your father, I will indeed.”
“Be on your guard,” Gatlor said. “Something feels amiss here.”
He adjusted his grip on his sword as they approached the outskirts of Brayden Fenn. Their group consisted of himself, Seerka, Calador, and four Warders from the Haven, which the High One had insisted accompany them. The forest was completely silent except for the soft crunch of their footsteps on the path. Not even a breeze rustled the leaves overhead. The Warders watched their surroundings intently as they moved slowly along the path. Seerka’s eyes were almost completely black, with just a ring of gold around the edge. Calador’s face did not betray any expression, but he gripped his axe firmly as he brought up the rear.
The village did not have a travel portal, so they had taken a portal to Edgewood, a quarter day’s journey away. Even if there had been a portal in Brayden Fenn, Gatlor would have insisted upon using the other. He did not walk into the middle of any situation without first knowing what to expect, knowledge they did not have in this instance.
He spotted the first buildings through the trees and signaled the group to stop. He scanned the village but could not detect any movement.
He turned to Seerka. “Do you hear anything?”
The cat-man’s ears swiveled forward and his eyes took on a feline intensity as he focused his senses on the village ahead of them. After a few moments he shook his head.
“Blood and bones!” Gatlor growled. “We need Lenai here.”
“Indeed,” Seerka agreed. “Her skills would prove very useful in our present situation.”
“Well, nothing to be done for it,” Gatlor said. “Come on.”
Cautiously, the group moved forward. There was no sign of the villagers. His eyes swept the buildings and the ground for any clue to what might have happened, but saw nothing that offered any explanation for the villagers’ strange absence.
“Blood has been spilled here,” Seerka said. “The smell is inescapable. There is also another odor that I am not familiar with, but it is…unsettling.”
Gatlor drew in a deep breath, but his sense of smell could not equal the Ferrin’s. However, he knew the feline warrior well enough to accept what he said without question.
“Spread out,” he ordered. “But take no chances. If you find anything, report it immediately.” The others nodded and fanned out into the village. He turned toward the center of town. Perhaps something there would explain where the villagers had gone.
He scanned his surroundings constantly as he walked. The doors to several of the houses stood open although there was no movement inside. In some of the houses, he could see patches of blood-soaked floors, but no bodies. As he turned a corner, an almost imperceptible sound from the thick foliage overhead caught his ear. At the upper edge of his vision, he saw something dropping toward him. He dove forward and rolled to his feet, spinning around with his sword at the ready. As he saw what had fallen from the trees, he felt a dizzying moment of recognition. A bloodstained child’s doll stared up at him.
With an effort, he tore his eyes from the toy and looked up. Four arm lengths above him, the glazed, dead eyes of Liana stared back at him, a look of terror forever frozen on her young face. He swallowed hard as an unfamiliar twinge of sorrow ran through him. The girl reminded him of his niece. For just a moment, he imagined how he would feel if it were his niece’s eyes he was looking into, then a shock ran through his body as his eyes swept over the silken strands encasing her.
“Manarachs?!” Tal could not keep the shock from his voice. “Captain Gatlor, are you certain?” As he saw Gatlor’s eyebrow rise slightly, he held up a hand. “Forgive me, of course you are certain. I was simply unprepared for such a report. We have not had any incidents with Manarachs in three generations. We thought they had died out.”
They were standing in the Circle audience chamber. Tal and one or two of the other Loremasters gathered there after Secondmeal each day to meet with the residents and hear their concerns, but he had ordered the chamber cleared when Gatlor strode into the room, his face grim.
“Of course, High One,” Gatlor said. “I found it hard to accept myself when I first saw the trapsilk, but there is no other explanation. There were no survivors that we could see.”
Tal rubbed his forehead. “The timing of this is most disturbing. Tell me, did you see any sign of Jason Bennett in your search?”
“No. But as soon as I realized what had happened, I ordered our return. Our small group could not have stood against an attack by such creatures. As we were leaving, I did see that it looked like the villagers’ bodies were all hanging from the trees over the village, but I would recommend a much larger force if you wish them recovered.”
Tal tried to quiet his racing thoughts. Manarachs? Where had they been all this time? And why had they chosen to reveal themselves in such a violent fashion? Why now? As he opened his mouth to speak, a Warder ran into the audience chamber.
With a hasty bow the Warder said, “High One, please forgive the interruption, but Dronnin has been destroyed.”
“What?” He could not believe what he was hearing. “How do you know this?”
“The sister of one of the residents lives nearby in Water’s Edge. When she went to Dronnin this morning to see her sister, she found the village burned to the ground and the people slaughtered.”
“Could they determine who was responsible for this attack?”
“Yes, High One,” the Warder said. “Trellin bloodfangs were found in several of the dead.”
Tal’s mind was spinning. First Manarachs and now more Trellin? And all apparently coinciding with the disappearance of the young Far Planer. It seemed almost inconceivable that the events were unrelated. He drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he forced his thoughts into order. He needed his mind clear, and he needed to reassure the Warders that he had a firm grasp on the situation. As the chaos in his mind settled, he knew what they needed to do first.
He straightened, trying to project an air of confidence. “Contact all of the villages in which we have contact portals,” he said. “For the smaller villages that do not have a contact portal, contact the main village in their province and have them make contact with the villages under their jurisdiction. We must determine if this is a terrible coincidence or if there is something else at work here, and I want those reports before nightfall.”
“We will begin at once, High One.”
“Also,” he said before the man turned, “have the commanders of the Circle Guard and the Warders come to my quarters immediately, and notify all of the Loremasters that we will meet following the evening meal.”
“Yes, High One.”
“One more thing. Do not speak of this to anyone in the Haven, not even your families. Consider that a direct order from the Circle. I want to know exactly what it is that we face before this news gets out.”
Tal could not remember a meeting of the Circle that he had looked forward to less than this one. As he had waited for the reports to come in from the towns under the protection of Lore’s Haven, he had hoped against hope that the two villages were merely horrible aberrations, rather than a sign of something larger on the horizon. His hope was short lived as he learned of two more attacks. Now he faced the unenviable task of passing this tragic and disturbing news to the other members of the Circle, and to one member in particular. As he faced the curious stares of the Loremasters, he knew he could not put it off any longer.
“Four of our villages have been attacked,” he said bluntly.
A collective gasp went up from the Circle. “What?” “Which villages?” “By whom?”
He raised his hands to quiet the Loremasters. When they were silent, he went on. “The villages were Dronnin, Shandil, Heartwood,” he met the eyes of the Ruby Loremaster, “and Brayden Fenn.”
All of the Loremasters turned to Brin. He stood slowly, his knuckles white on the arms of his chair. It was clear that it was taking every ounce of his self-control to maintain his composure.
With just a slight tremble in his voice, he asked, “Were there any survivors?” His eyes begged for an answer that he clearly knew Tal could not give.
Tal had never had a more difficult time saying one word. “No.”
Brin closed his eyes and clenched his fists, letting out one soft moan. Then he opened his eyes. “And do we know who is responsible?” he asked.
“Dronnin was attacked by Trellin, as was Heartwood. Shandil apparently disappeared into the earth. We can only assume the Grithor are involved in some way.” Tal paused for a moment, and then continued. “Brayden Fenn fell to Manarachs.”
Brin grabbed at the arms of his chair, and then carefully lowered himself back into his seat as other voices spoke up. “Manarachs?” “Are you sure?” “How do we know it was Manarachs?”
Seated to either side of Brin, Seryn and Kalen laid sympathetic hands on his shoulders as he bit down on one knuckle of his clenched fists, his eyes once more tightly shut, silently mourning the loss of his son.
With a glance at Brin, Chon stood up. “High One,” he said, in a more subdued voice than was normal from him, “how do we know it was Manarachs? No one has seen one in over a hundred years.”
“I sent Captain Gatlor and some of his men to investigate this morning after receiving a disturbing report from one of the inhabitants of the Haven. It was he and his men who made the discovery and determined that Manarachs were responsible.”
“This morning?” Delani asked. “High One, please do not take offense, but why were we not told of this earlier?”
“Perhaps that would have been the best course,” he said, “but I did not want to raise any concerns until we knew more certainly what the situation was.”
T’Kel spoke up. “How did we find out about the other villages?”
“While the captain was giving me his report, one of the Haven Warders came to me with news of Dronnin. It was then that I instructed the Ward commanders to make contact with the villages under our protection.” He met each Loremaster’s eyes. “Looking back, I see now that I should have notified you at that time, but I was blinded by the hope that we would discover these were the only two incidents. As you can see, it was a futile hope. I ask your forgiveness and understanding for my actions.”
Jarril stood. “What do you propose we do now, High One?”
“I have already ordered the Ward commanders to start sending out regular patrols of the surrounding areas so that we are not caught unaware should an enemy decide to attack here. I have also given orders for the Circle Guard to increase their patrols of Lore’s Haven, and that the patrols are to consist of a minimum of three guards. I do not want a repeat of what happened to Lenai to occur again.”
“All of this without notifying the Circle?” Chon asked.
“I felt time was of the essence,” he said. “I gave these orders as soon as I received word of the third and fourth villages. By then I had already called for a meeting of the Circle.” Chon did not look satisfied by his answer.
“Has the Shanthi regained consciousness yet?” T’Kel asked. “Perhaps she could provide additional information.”
Seryn shook her head. “Lenai still sleeps. I do not know how much longer it will be before she awakes.”
“And there is still no word about the Far Planer?” Delani asked.
“No,” Tal answered. “The Warders and the Guard have searched all of Lore’s Haven and the surrounding countryside. No sign has been seen of him.”
“I told you we should have killed him,” Chon said. “None of this would have happened if the Circle would have listened to me.”
Reyga stood. “There is no proof that Jason was behind this! Your accusations are unwarranted.”
“You blind yourself, Reyga,” Chon returned, rising to his feet. “One of our Circle Guard is attacked, one of our most promising students dies as a result of that attack, and four of our villages are destroyed along with everyone who lived in them. All apparently since the mysterious disappearance of this Far Planer. I suppose you would have us believe this is nothing but coincidence.”
“I would have you withhold your judgment until we have more facts,” Reyga snapped.
Brin spoke up unexpectedly, eyes burning. “The facts are that the prophecy says ‘The last to arrive, he will already be here.’ And the fact that his father somehow came to our world before him would appear to fulfill that part of the prophecy. I see no reason to ignore the rest, no matter what your personal feelings may be toward this boy.”
“Aye,” Chon added. “His destruction is our hope.”
“Loremasters,” Tal broke in, “we have already had this discussion, and agreed to a course of action. Whether the decision we reached together,” here he looked pointedly at Chon, “will bode well or ill for us, it is a decision with which we have to live. Now please, take your seats and let us deal with the matter at hand.”
As Chon and Reyga sat down, Jarril stood and said, “Then I will repeat my question, High One. What do you propose we do now?”
Tal looked into the eyes of the Loremasters. He did not want to pursue this course, but felt he had no choice. “Four villages being attacked at apparently the same time is not a coincidence,” he said. “It is a blatant act of aggression. I do not wish to wait until we hear the reports from the scouting parties, only to find that the reports came too late.” He gripped the edges of the podium as he continued. “Loremasters, I believe we must prepare for war.”
The quiet room was abruptly abuzz as the Loremasters murmured to each other.
“War?” Jarril asked, his feline eyes focused on the High One. “Against whom? Unless there is more you have to tell us, we do not yet know who is responsible for these attacks.”
“I do not need to see the hand wielding the blade to know that I am bleeding,” he said into the silence that followed Jarril’s question. “I need only know that I have been attacked, and prepare myself for the next blow as best I can. Those responsible will be revealed in due course. However, I do not believe it wise to wait until then to begin our preparations.”
He scanned their faces. A mixture of emotions warred on their features.
“A day we had hoped would not come now appears to be on the horizon,” he said. “I must confess, never in my life have I hoped to be wrong until now. But I would rather be wrong by preparing for something that does not happen, than to be wrong by failing to prepare for something that does.”
Jason was dreaming he was back in the High One’s chambers. He turned to see the shimmering being.
“High One, I would speak with this one.”
Once again, Jason found himself inside the sphere, staring into the creature’s starry eyes. This time, however, the being spoke. Its voice seemed to echo inside his head.
“Don’t be afraid, Jason,” it said. “My name is Nyala, and I’m not going to hurt you.”
He released the breath that, until that moment, he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“Okay,” he said. “Uh, no offense, but what are you?”
“The question is…what are you?”
“What do you mean? I’m just a seventeen-year-old kid. Wait a second.” He thought for a moment, mentally counting on his fingers. “Make that eighteen. I just had a birthday.”
The creature shook its head. “Oh no, Jason, you are much more than that.”
“Yes,” Nyala nodded. “You are Jaben. You are the hope of this world.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down. Nyala’s shining eyes and sparkling skin were a bit unnerving. “You mean that prophecy the High One was talking about. Are you sure about that? I mean, c’mon, I just turned eighteen.” And I didn’t even get to celebrate it, he thought. “How can I be the hope of your world?”
“That is what you must discover. That is why we are here.”
“You’re gonna tell me?”
“I will tell you what you need to know. I will teach you as much as I can, so that you will be able to do what you must. But, in the end, you will have to make a choice.”
“A choice? What choice?”
“Patience, Jason. All of your questions will be answered, but you will not remember the answers until the proper time.”
“Because your choice must be made freely, and a choice based only upon what someone else has told you is not truly free. There are things you must learn and experience on your own. People you must meet and judge for yourself. Paths you must follow based solely upon your own truths, without any interference from the knowledge I will give you.”
“So how will I know when this choice has to be made? Will I just suddenly remember everything?”
“You will remember parts of what transpires here as the time is right. When the time comes for you to decide, you will have the knowledge you need to choose.”
“To choose what?”
“To choose what will become of our world.”
“What? Hold on. Wait a minute.” He shook his head as the full impact of the words struck home. “I…I…no. No! I can’t decide the fate of your world. I’m eighteen, for crying out loud. Half the time I can’t even decide what to watch on TV. The fate of a world? Forget it!”
“I am sorry this has fallen on you, Jason, but you cannot avoid your destiny. You must make this choice.”
“Sure, that’s easy for you to say,” he shot back, forgetting his fear. He waved his hand at her. “You’re some kind of…of super being or something. You probably decide the fates of worlds before breakfast. But I’m just a regular human being. We don’t usually make those kinds of decisions, before or after breakfast.”
“I understand how you feel.”
“Yeah, right. How could you?”
As he watched, the sparkles surrounding her faded, until he was looking at a woman about his mother’s age, with russet-colored hair and dark brown eyes. She gave him a slight smile. “Because we’re not as different as you think.”
He looked around, trying to locate the source of the new voice.
“Wake up!” the voice repeated.
His eyes popped open. His ancestor stood over him.
“Jason, it’s time to get up, lad.”
“Wha..?” He rubbed his eyes. It had been a dream? Or had it been the first memories coming out, like she’d said would happen? He took a deep breath, trying to clear the fog from his head. If it had been a memory, then he could expect this sort of thing to happen again. I’ll just have to wait and see. Then another thought occurred to him. The Altered were human? He didn’t know if that was significant or not, but it was an interesting piece of information.
“I’ve got Firstmeal prepared, lad, as soon as you’re ready,” Bothan said, interrupting his contemplation.
“Okay, I’ll be out in just a second.”
Bothan nodded and left the room.
He laid there thinking about the things he and his ancestor had discussed the night before. Bothan had told him that he was stronger than any Loremaster on the Circle. Jason asked why Bothan didn’t simply take over and set things right, if the Circle was as corrupt he had said.
“Well, lad,” Bothan had answered, “while I’m sure I could handle any one of them alone, perhaps even two or three together, I canna stand against the combined power of the entire Circle. Besides,” he added, spreading his hands, “I’m not wanting to pick a fight with them. No one wins something like that. I tried to reason with them, but they would have none of it. The only reason I left was because I had come to fear for my own safety.”
And now Jason was about to go back to the place his ancestor had left out of fear for his life. He didn’t know if it was the best idea he’d ever had, but he wasn’t about to leave his dad there if what Bothan said was true.
When he came out of his room, Bothan was already seated at the table, a plate piled high in front of him. He looked up as Jason walked in.
“After we eat, I’ll send you back to Lore’s Haven and your father,” he said. He started to turn back to his meal, and then stopped. “That is, if you’re still wanting to go.”
“Yeah. If nothing else, I have to make sure Dad’s okay.”
“Aye, all right then,” Bothan said. “Well, let’s eat, and then I’ll send you back. I still dinna like the thought of you bein’ back in the hands of the Circle, but I’ll respect your wishes. You still have the summoning stone?”
He pulled the amulet out of his shirt. “Right here.”
“Good. Keep it close and keep it out of sight. I hope you’ll not be needing it, but I’m thinking you’ll soon be glad you have it.”
“Why do I need to keep it out of sight?”
“If any of the Loremasters see it, they’ll know it for what it is, and like as not they’ll know who gave it to you. You won’t be keeping it long if any of them see it, so keep it tucked away.”
He dropped the stone back inside his shirt.
Bothan nodded. “Good. Now let’s eat. I’ll not be sending you back with an empty belly,” he said with a grin and a wink.
Bothan watched the portal blink out of existence, taking Jason back to Lore’s Haven.
“Do you think it wise to send him back to the Circle?” a sibilant voice said from behind him. “His power, untapped though it may be, is greater even than yours.”
Bothan turned to look at the shadowy figure that had appeared after Jason’s departure.
“He has power, ‘tis true,” he said, “but he doesn’t know how to use it. Besides, he’ll be back soon enough. And when he returns, he’ll be more than willing to take up our cause against the Circle.”
“You have a plan, then.”
“Oh, aye,” Bothan grinned. “I do indeed.”