[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 watched the bird circling high overhead. The yellow color told him it was a fortunewing, but it was too high for him to tell if it was the same one that seemed to be following him.
He looked at his surroundings. Bothan’s home was considerably larger than Reyga’s, and was in the middle of a forest. A warm breeze blew from the south, carrying an odd odor that Jason didn’t recognize. It seemed familiar somehow, and mildly unpleasant, but he just couldn’t place it.
He walked back into the house. He missed his dad. The initial pain that had torn at his soul was now an empty place inside, where memories of his dad occasionally tried to punch holes in the walls of his heart. A tear started, but he wiped it away quickly. Bothan said to store up the pain. Keep it for when he would face the Circle again.
He sat down in one of the padded chairs and leaned his head back. He’d had another of the dreams last night. He closed his eyes and remembered…
“Yes you do, and I’m going to teach you how to use it.”
“Why? Why do you need me? Why not just let things happen the way they’re meant to and leave it at that? Besides, how do you know I won’t just make things worse?”
“Jason, I understand your confusion, but there really is no other way. If you don’t use your power, for either side, one of two things will happen. If the Altered stay out of it, the people of this land will be at war for years. If the Altered get involved, this world could be torn apart.” She shook her head. “You must choose. No matter which side you decide to take, the results will be better than the alternatives. You can’t deny your place in this.”
“I don’t get it,” he said. “How come none of the other Altered seem to care? Why is it so much more important to you than them?”
“They don’t know about what’s going on, and…” Nyala bowed her head, staring at the ground without saying anything for several seconds. Then, in a quiet voice she said, “Because it’s my fault.” She raised her head, and he could see the pain in her eyes.
“What do you mean? What’s your fault?”
She waved her hand. “All of it. Everything you see. The way this world is now. It’s all my fault.”
“I don’t understand. How can the way the world is be your fault?”
She ran a hand through her hair. “I suppose you deserve to know. Reyga’s already told you about the Devastation, right? About the weapons that were used? The ones that created openings to other realities?”
“Well,” she said, “I was the one that created them.”
“What? You made those weapons?”
“Well, I didn’t actually design the weapons themselves. But I was the lead researcher on the team that developed the technology behind them.”
“You were… Wait a second. That would make you, like, fifteen hundred years old!”
“Pretty well preserved for my age wouldn’t you say?” she asked with a wan smile. “We’ve learned that the more dimsai ability a person has, the longer they live.”
“Wow,” he said. He wondered how strong they had to be to live that long. “So you were trying to open holes to other universes? Why?”
“That wasn’t what we were trying to do. We were trying to find a way to break down organic material. We called it protophasic technology.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Well, we figured it out all right. The only problem was that it only worked on living tissue.”
“What did it do?”
“The process essentially disintegrated organic material into its elemental components, while leaving inorganic material unharmed. When we realized it only worked on living tissue, we tried to shut down the project immediately.”
“Tried? What happened?”
“Part of our funding came from the military. Even though we’d been at peace for generations, we still kept our military strong. ‘Just in case,’ the leaders said. When the High Command found out what the technology did, they came in and took all of our research.” She shrugged. “Naturally, someone leaked it to the other side. Two years later, protophasic weapons, the ultimate clean bomb. A year after that, the Devastation.”
“How did that cause the rifts? Did your research cause any?”
“No, but our tests were conducted on a small scale, affecting a very limited area. Nothing in our calculations pointed to anything like that.”
“Then it really isn’t your fault,” he said, “if the military took your research away. You tried to shut it down. Who knows what they might have changed?”
“I appreciate the thought, Jason, but I was the one who conceived the idea of protophasics. If I had never thought it up, the military would never have gotten their hands on it.”
He didn’t agree, but he knew he wasn’t going to be able to say anything that would change her mind if she’d been blaming herself for fifteen centuries.
“So a rift opened up and this dimsai stuff came through?”
“But how come you and the other Altered are so much stronger than anyone else? Did you just learn how to use it first?”
“I suppose you could say that, at least in part. We didn’t have any choice. We had to learn, and quickly. What happened to us went far beyond just learning how to control this new power.” She laughed a little. “Ironic as it is, I became a victim of my own creation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you really want to hear this?”
“Alright,” she said, and took a deep breath. “My family had gone on a picnic with some friends of ours.”
“Family?” Jason asked. “You had kids?”
“One. A son. He was about your age when it happened. Anyway, we were out in the country when everything started. We didn’t even know the weapons had been fired until we looked up and saw one dropping toward us. We tried to run, but it was no use. We hadn’t even made it back to our vehicles when it detonated. My own invention had tracked me down.”
“The weapon went off, and then the protophasic wave hit us. Even if I’d known what to expect, I wouldn’t have been prepared for it. The pain was beyond anything you can imagine. I could feel my body coming apart. I was horrified.”
“How did you survive?”
“I’m not entirely convinced we did. But this rift just happened to be the one where the dimsai came in. The only thing I can think is that, as our natural cellular bonds were destroyed, they were replaced with dimsai. We all passed out from the experience. When we woke up, we were changed. Altered. It didn’t take long for us to realize we weren’t strictly human anymore. It did take us some time to figure out what we had become. But none of that matters if you don’t learn to use your power. And I have to make sure none of the others find out I’m teaching you.”
“How are you going to do that?”
She smiled. “By taking you someplace that none of them will ever think about looking.”
He opened his eyes. The memory ended there. He thought about what it would be like to have that kind of power. Part of him was eager to have it, but another part was afraid of what he might do. His dad always told him that revenge was a waste of energy, but even though the fires that had raged within him before had died down to ashes, there were still embers smoldering underneath that could flare up without warning.
That was the part that scared him.
Tal sat back in his chair, his fingers idly tapping the armrest. “Three armies,” he said, repeating what Gatlor had told him. “What are their total forces?”
“Between the three encampments, we estimate twenty thousand,” Gatlor replied.
Twenty thousand. The Haven forces were outnumbered two to one. An enemy army of twenty thousand was bad enough, but to have it in three different locations complicated matters even further. Attack one with enough force to have a chance for victory, and the other two would be free to move.
“Where are they?”
Gatlor spread a map out on the table. “Three thousand two days east of Dronnin in the Scorched Plains, seven thousand three days southwest of Brayden Fenn, and ten thousand three days south of Dronnin along the Shonta.” He pointed at each location as he named them off.
Tal leaned forward and studied the map. His eyes went from one location to the next, then to Lore’s Haven to the north, and back to the armies’ locations.
Without looking up from the map, he asked, “Do we know the makeup of the armies? What races we will be facing?”
“From what the scouts could see, the Scorched Plains force is mostly Trellin with a small number of Manarachs. The two armies in Barrenrock are a mixture of Trellin, Manarach, human, and a sprinkling of other races,” Gatlor answered. “Bear in mind, High One, that some of the races, such as the Grithor, avoid light, so would not be seen by the scouts during the day.”
“Which would mean the force we face may be even larger than we believe.”
“Why have they suddenly banded together? Ordinarily, these races would be at each other’s throats.”
“I have no answer for that, High One, but, intending no disrespect, the question is meaningless. Regardless of the ‘why,’ we face what we face. Such questions can be discussed afterwards.”
Tal laid his hand on the map, as if trying to feel the armies moving underneath his palm. “Captain, I am not a warrior. As the head of the Pearl Order, my areas of expertise are history and legend, neither of which will give us an advantage in the coming battle.” He looked at Gatlor. “I would like you to begin drawing up plans. Consult with Loremasters Delani and Brin as well as Apprentice Borin of the Obsidian Order, as he will be Chon’s successor once the Circle can confirm him.”
“Of course, High One,” Gatlor said. “In truth, I have already begun.”
“I expected nothing less, Captain.”
Jason wandered through the house, bored. Bothan had been gone several hours, and hadn’t said when he would be back. He idly picked up odds and ends, examined them, and then discarded them.
When Bothan left that morning, he’d told Jason that he liked the idea about getting the other races together, and had arranged to meet with some of them. He’d said he would like to take Jason with him, but some of the races could be a little unpredictable when it came to strangers. Jason didn’t mind. In the time he’d been here, Bothan had never been farther away than the next room. He was ready for some time alone.
His roaming brought him to the back of the house. He’d been through the house more than once, but this time something made him look around a little more carefully. A hairline crack in the stone wall caught his eye. Wonder if this world has ants, he thought. He followed the crack upward until it took a sharp right turn. That’s kind of odd. A few feet over the crack turned downward again.
“This isn’t a crack,” he said. “It’s a door.”
He put his hand on the stone and pushed. It didn’t move. He tried a little harder, still with no success. He put his shoulder against the stone and pushed as hard as he could. The stone didn’t budge. He looked for a handle, or some way to open the door, but he didn’t see anything.
“Crud.” He turned away, defeated. He’d only taken a few steps when he heard a click. He looked back over his shoulder. The door stood open a few inches. He could see a small sliver of another room through the narrow opening. Craning his neck, he scanned as much of the room as he could, looking for any sign of movement.
“Hello?” he called out. No answer.
He pushed the door open a little more, ready to spring back at the slightest motion. When the door’s movement provoked no reaction, he pushed it open further. Still nothing. He opened it all the way and walked into the room.
It was a medium sized room, with a table set against one wall and shelves lining the opposite wall. A single well-upholstered chair sat in the center, facing a small portal hanging on the wall opposite the door. A square table sat beside the chair, holding a couple of scrolls, a candle, and an empty metal chalice.
Scrolls, and an assortment of vials and bottles filled the shelves. Papers, cloth, and other items covered the table. As his gaze roamed across the clutter, he saw a cylinder of twisted metal strands almost hidden underneath a fold of brown fabric. He walked over and pushed the cloth back, feeling barely healed wounds tearing open.
“That looks like the staff Chon had,” he said. The thought brought the image of the blade plunging into his father’s chest out from the dark place where he had pushed it. Do they all have staffs like this? No, he knew that wasn’t true, because Reyga’s staff was made of wood. Maybe it just looks a lot like it. He hoped that was all it was. He pulled the staff out from underneath the cloth.
As he pulled, he heard a metallic scraping sound. He dragged the fabric off the table. A blood-stained dagger lay on the table, its curves an exact match for the curves that had burned into Jason’s mind as he watched his father die. His heart pounded against his ribs. No!
“Now how did you get in here?” a voice behind him said.
He dropped the staff on the table and spun around. Bothan stood just inside the door. The staff slid off the table, clanging to the ground. Questions and accusations filled his thoughts, too entangled for him to express any of them. He stared at his ancestor, his mouth filled with words that wouldn’t come.
Bothan looked at the staff on the ground, and then his eyes moved to the table.
“Well and well,” he said. “I suppose I should have done away with that, but I have ever had a weakness for trinkets with memories attached to them.”
Jason felt like he couldn’t get enough air. “He was working with you?” His emotion threatened to choke off his words.
Bothan gave him an odd look, and then a slight smile appeared on his face. “Aye,” he said. He appeared unmoved by Jason’s outrage. “He was working with me.”
“Why? Why did he kill my dad?” He wished for the power to come, begged for it, so that he could avenge his dad. But whatever power he supposedly had didn’t answer.
“He released your father! And he released you. The Circle had bewitched your father. Now he knows the truth.”
“The truth? The only truth I care about is that you helped kill my dad, and you made me believe it was the Loremasters.”
“It was the Loremasters!” Bothan roared. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then continued in a lower voice. “If they would have listened to me none of this would have been necessary. But as always, as has been for centuries, the Circle knows best, and none can gainsay them.”
“It was you,” Jason said, suddenly understanding. “You were the one that wanted to keep all the knowledge, and only the people you thought should have it would get it.”
“There’s a bright lad. Aye, that’s the truth of it. How better to be sure that those with the knowledge wouldn’t use it against you?” He waved his hands around. “But these bletherin’ Loremasters think everyone should have it. They call themselves caretakers of knowledge and of Teleria. They’re fools.”
“No,” Jason said. “You’re the fool if you think I’m going to stay here now that I know the truth.”
A tight smile crossed Bothan’s face. “I’ll give you one chance to change your mind, laddie. You may have power, but you can’t use it. Join me and I’ll teach you. With your help, this whole affair can be done and over quickly, with as few lost as possible. Without your help, I’ll still win, but the war will drag on, bodies will pile up like snow during Landsleep, and the Shonta River will run red with blood. You don’t want that on your head now, do you?”
“Good. Then it’s settled. You’ve made a—”
“I mean,” Jason interrupted, “no, I’m not going to join you.”
The big man eyed him. “You sure about that, lad?”
“Well then,” Bothan said, “you leave me no choice. ‘Tis a shame, really, all that power goin’ to waste.” He raised his hands.
“So you’d kill a kinsman? I thought that meant something.”
A smirk twisted Bothan’s lips. “I may have overstated my feelings of loyalty toward my kin. Goodbye, lad.”
Jason suddenly felt as if his entire body was in a vice. The pressure drove the air from his lungs. He could feel the crushing force over every inch of his body. Then he felt a tickle deep inside of his mind, which quickly grew to a tingle spreading throughout his body. His lungs screamed for oxygen, even as the tingling grew stronger. He was certain that he was about to either explode or be crushed to death, but he didn’t know which.
“Stop.” A new voice broke in. The pressure vanished. He sank to his knees, bracing his hands on the cold stone floor as he desperately drew breath into his tortured lungs. The tingling he thought would turn his body into a shower of sparks faded as well, gone back to the secret place from which it had sprung.
“What are you doing?” He heard Bothan protest. “He needs to be done away with!”
He forced his head up, blinking his eyes to clear the spots from his vision. The new arrival looked like nothing more than a roiling black shadow with two eyes blazing at him from the darkness. My hero?
“Yes, he must be killed,” the figure said, dashing his hope for a rescue. “But you do not have the power to do it.” The voice shifted and swirled in Jason’s ear.
“Not have the power? He canna resist me! The pup canna use his power. I was just about to finish the job when you showed up.”
“No,” the shadow countered, “you were just about to die. Not being able to control the power and not having any are two very different things. In your attempt to kill this boy, the backlash would have destroyed you.”
Bothan’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Jason. “Fine then. So what do we do now?”
The fiery gaze turn to Jason. “I will destroy him.”
“You will not,” a familiar voice said. Jason turned to see the sparkling form of Nyala.
“Nyala,” the shadow said. “Do you think to gainsay me? How? Even you know I am the stronger between us. You cannot stop me.”
“Perhaps not, Regor,” she said. “But if you touch this one, I will see to it that the others know. They would not be pleased.”
“How do you know I don’t already have their support?” he asked.
“If that is the case, then do what you will,” she said. “But are you so certain of that support as to test it?”
For several tense moments, no one moved as the two Altered faced each other. Jason didn’t know how long the standoff would last, but he knew who he was rooting for.
Finally, Regor stepped back. “Very well,” he said, “he is yours. Take him.” Jason breathed a sigh of relief. “But be warned, my dear,” the shadow continued. “The time is fast approaching when that support will be assured. If we have not reached an understanding between us by then, I cannot vouch for the results.”
“I believe you understand my position perfectly,” Nyala said. “It will not change.” She turned to Jason and held out her hand. “Come.”
“Watch your back, laddie,” Bothan said. “Chon might not be the only one in the Haven working for me.”
Jason took Nyala’s hand and stood up. Then they left Regor and Bothan behind.
Reyga stared at the texts, hoping to see something missed the numerous times he had studied them before. His destruction is our hope. His denial is our doom. Histories and legends were not his strong point, being the purview of the Pearl Order, but he hoped to find something that would give them some direction. Did the prophecy require Jason’s death to save Teleria? And what, or whose, denial would doom Teleria? He pushed the papers away and rubbed his burning eyes. If the High One was unable to find anything useful, he certainly was not going to find anything new. His thoughts turned toward Lenai.
It had been more than a sixday since she had learned of Elira. In that time, no one had seen her other than the healer that checked on her each day. Reyga tried to visit her the day after she left the healing area, but she told him through the door that she was tired and wished to rest. He said he understood and would come back in the morning. The next day she gave the same answer to his knocks. After three days of this, he decided to leave her be and let her deal with what had happened in her own way.
He idly swirled the contents of his mug, breathing in the warm, soothing aroma. She was too calm, he thought. He had seen Lenai angry, confused, delighted, and even frightened once. He knew her better than he knew anyone else at the keep, and he was certain he knew how she would react to how she had been used.
When they told her what had happened, he fully expected to see shocked outrage, or perhaps a wrathful vow of vengeance. Her quiet acceptance of what they had said worried him, a concern only aggravated by her refusal to see anyone, not even her ch’tasa.
A slight sound behind him interrupted his musings. He turned in time to see a sparkling form appear. His chair clattered against the floor as he jumped up.
“Nyala!” He had never seen an Altered before. His experience was limited to what he read in the texts and what the High One had told him. Now she was in his quarters, for reasons he could not begin to fathom.
“Loremaster Reyga,” she said, “I return to you that which was lost.” Then she was gone. In her place stood Jason Bennett.
“Jason?” Reyga said. Jason stared at him without speaking. Reyga wasn’t sure if he should approach the young man or not. Then the stoic expression on Jason’s face crumbled and he sank to his knees without a sound, tears beginning to flow down his face.
She drew a deep breath of the crisp air blowing across her high vantage point. He would come. She was certain of it.
“You opened that door,” he said from behind her.
She didn’t turn. “Yes,” she answered. Nothing more.
“Why? What do you hope to accomplish? He doesn’t know how to use his power.”
She smiled to herself. “Then why are you so afraid of him that you would kill him and risk exposing yourself?”
When he didn’t answer, she put on a calm expression and turned to face him. He studied her.
“You’re up to something,” he said after a moment. “Even after fifteen centuries, I still know you well enough to tell that.”
She feigned innocence. “No more than you. If you will withdraw from this little game, so will I.”
“Why do you care? If you don’t want to be worshipped then don’t be. Just stay up here brooding for all eternity. What difference is it to you if the rest of us decide we’re tired of being confined to legend?”
“Because I know what we’ve become, and it isn’t difficult to picture what this world would be like with gods and goddesses like us.” She shook her head. “You still don’t get it, do you? This is still our world, no matter how much it and we may have changed. I don’t want to see it turn into what it would become.”
As he looked at her, a grin crossed his features. He laughed. “You do realize you’re wasting your time, don’t you?” he asked, when his laughter died. “The boy doesn’t have enough time to learn how to even tap into his power, much less control it.”
“Then he’s no threat to you or your little puppet,” she answered. “There’s no need for you to concern yourself with him.”
He looked puzzled. “You’ve changed,” he said. “You were always a strong woman, but you were never this…” He searched for a word. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “But you were always open with me when we were together. Now you’re different.”
“I suppose a person can change over a millennia and a half.”
“I suppose so,” he said. Then, as if settling something in his mind, he nodded. “Fine. The boy has nothing to fear from me…for now.” He pointed a finger at her. “But if it looks like he may somehow sway the outcome of our ‘little game,’ as you call it, I will deal with him personally.”
Her jaw clenched. “If you try to do anything to Jason you will have to deal with me first,” she snapped back.
“Jason? Wh—?” Then he stopped and put a hand over his mouth, his eyebrows rising. After a moment, he dropped his hand. “Now, I see. I didn’t understand before, but now I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You do know this boy isn’t Kevin, right?”
That stopped her. Kevin? Their son, Kevin? Of course she knew Jason wasn’t Kevin. Just because they were close to the same age, and had similar looks… A shock ran through her. Was it possible? Was that why she had gotten involved? Because Kevin didn’t need her anymore and Jason did? No, she thought, that’s ridiculous. But the thought, once planted, refused to leave, and the pain it brought surprised her.
He was still watching her, apparently wanting to see how she’d react to his statement. She forced herself to laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Of course, Jason isn’t Kevin.” Then she stopped laughing, and her brows lowered. “There is no more Kevin,” she said.
“Of course,” he said, rolling his eyes. “There is only Nivek.”
“That’s right,” she nodded. “And Nivek is not Kevin.”
“You keep telling yourself that, my dear,” he said, “and maybe someday you’ll even believe it.”
Then he was gone, leaving her alone with only the chill breeze for company.