[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 tossed in his sleep, turning his head from side to side as he dreamed…
“Where are we?” he asked. He and Nyala stood at the edge of a forest. After her strange pronouncement about where she was going to take him, she’d opened up a portal that led here. The sky above was overcast, and occasional flashes of red and purple streaked overhead. Many of the trees bordering the forest, their trunks snapped like kindling, rested amongst their fellows like drunks after an all-nighter. He could see murky columns of smoke in the distance, and here and there across the plain, patches of scorched and blasted earth lay open like raw wounds.
She surveyed the vista, a bleak look in her eyes. “Well,” she said, “it’s not so much a question of ‘where’ as a question of ‘when.’”
“Right now, we are almost fifteen hundred years in Teleria’s past. I picked this time because the dimsai is at full strength, but the other Altered and I haven’t learned how to control our powers yet. This way they won’t be able to detect you as you train.”
“Wait a second. You can go into the past?”
“If you have a clear image in your mind of where and when you wish to go,” she answered, “and if you have the power.”
“So why not just go back and take care of your problem in the past, before it becomes such big deal? Or for that matter, why not just go back and tell yourself to stop working on your new technology?”
“I wish it were that simple,” she sighed. “I did try, when I realized I could open portals into the past. But I’ve found that if you go back past a certain point, the timeline is set. Even if you change something, events reshape themselves so that the present is still essentially the same. It’s like tossing a pebble in the middle of a lake. The ripples last for a little while,” she shrugged, “but at the shore the lake remains unchanged. And I can’t take the chance of changing anything that’s happened since the Covenant for fear of triggering a war between the Altered. As far as telling myself to stop my research, well, I can only go back to when the dimsai first entered our world. By that time it’s too late.”
“Oh.” He scanned the desolate landscape. “This is what was left after the Devastation?”
“This is one of the more untouched areas. The survivors won’t find this forest for another year or so.”
“So, the dimsai created the Altered. Did it create the other races too?”
“Most were created by dimsai. The energy had very erratic effects when it swept through our world. Some of the races are combinations of two different species, while in other cases only certain traits from one creature were imprinted upon another. A few of the races, like the Dokal, came here through the larger rifts, most of which collapsed after a time, leaving those who came through stranded.”
“But not all of the rifts collapsed.”
“No, not all,” she said. “The area where the remaining rifts are is named, rather appropriately, the Riftlands. It’s a very unpredictable area, and dimsai doesn’t always work there. Because of that, even we Altered avoid the area, since we can’t be certain we would survive should the dimsai that’s become a part of us fail.”
He wondered what it would be like to find that the force that was holding you together was slipping away.
“Come.” She turned toward the tree line. “It’s time to begin your training.”
He followed her as she led the way into the forest. Five minutes later, they entered a clearing. A small cottage sat at one end.
“Who lives here?” he asked.
“You do,” she said. “Your training will take some time, and I can’t go back and forth between times again and again without being noticed. So, we’ll stay here until you’ve learned what you need to know.”
“Here? But what if whatever it is I’m training for is over by the time we get back?”
“We’ll return just shortly after we left. No one will know we’ve gone anywhere.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “So how long will this take? Are there spells to learn, or hand gestures or stuff like that? Am I gonna need a staff or something?”
She smiled a little. “The first thing you have to learn is that the dimsai power is not summoned by staffs, jewelry, or gemstones. Nor is it controlled by drawing mysterious symbols in the air.” She held out her hand and a small crackling ball of light appeared, hovering above her palm. “The Loremasters use those devices and trappings to help them focus on what they want the power to do, but that’s not what summons the power. The only reason such rituals are necessary for them is because they believe they are necessary.” The glowing ball winked out.
“So what makes it work?”
“Passion and focus,” she answered. “Either alone can call the dimsai, but passion without focus can be dangerous. That’s why children must be taught how to use their power. Fortunately, a child’s attention span is limited, so their passion is fleeting, usually not on any one thing long enough to do any real damage until they begin their studies.
“On the other hand, focus without passion is weak. The dimsai may respond, but not with enough strength to do much. You must learn, as any dimsai user, how to use your focus and your passion together. Those who attain the rank of saiken lo do so because of their great passion for what they do, and because of their determination to master their power. Only when you have both passion and focus will you be able to accomplish your goals.”
“Uh, huh,” he said. “So what are my goals?”
“That is something only you can decide.”
“Y’know, that answer is getting kind of old.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s the only answer I can give you.”
He opened his eyes. A pale pre-dawn light gave the room an eerie luminescence. He tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but the memory from the dream filled his thoughts. Passion and focus.
He slipped out of bed and walked over to the window. Staring up at the fading stars, he played her words over again in his head. Passion for what? Focus on what?
Then he thought about his ancestor. Why had he told Chon to kill his dad? What did it accomplish? He leaned his head against the cold stone frame of the window. The questions kept coming faster and faster. Even though Bothan had Chon kill his father, was Bothan right about the Circle? And if Chon was working with Bothan, were there others at Lore’s Haven too? Maybe others who might try to do something to Jason? Or maybe even pretend to be his friend and then betray him when the time was right? At this point, he didn’t know who to believe. For all he knew, even Nyala could have her own agenda, just using him as a pawn in some game between her and the other Altered.
Last night, Reyga had told him about the pitched battle in the Scorched Plains. All those people dead and it was his fault. He had been the one to suggest getting the other races together. Even though he hadn’t meant an army, it had still been his idea. He thought about the man with his son on his shoulders and wondered if he had been among those killed. Even if that man hadn’t been there, Jason was sure some of the fallen had left now-fatherless children behind. He knew how it felt to lose his father. The thought that he could have caused others to feel that kind of pain mocked him.
He walked back to his bed and sat down, pulling the cover around him to ward off the morning chill. He didn’t move until the sun had fully risen and a voice at his door told him that Firstmeal was ready. Then he and his crowd of questions went down to eat.
Tal entered the dining hall as he did every morning, nodding in answer to the greetings he received. He scanned the room looking for Reyga. He saw him speaking with some students on the other side of the room and started in that direction. As he drew closer, Reyga glanced up. The Emerald Loremaster excused himself and came over to him.
“Greetings, High One,” Reyga said with a bow.
“Good morning, Reyga. How fare you this morning?”
“As well as could be expected, given the circumstances. What were our losses?”
“According to Captain Gatlor’s estimate, we lost over nine hundred men and women,” he said. “Were it not for his quick thinking, it could have been much worse.” He glanced around the room and spotted Jason coming in, the Warder assigned to him waiting at the door. “So, young Jason has returned to us,” he said, wanting to change the subject. He watched as Jason sat down and was brought a plate of food. “And in a most unusual way.”
“An apt description, High One,” Reyga said. “It would appear that Jason continues to attract some interesting attention.”
“Most interesting,” he agreed. “You had a chance to speak with him last night?”
“Tell me what he said.”
He listened as Reyga relayed his discussion with Jason from the night before. Reyga had not spoken long when Seryn joined them. After greeting the Diamond Loremaster, Tal motioned for Reyga to continue. When Reyga mentioned the Altered showing up to assist Bodann, Tal stopped him.
“Are you certain Jason said Regor?” he asked.
Reyga nodded. “Yes, that is the name Jason gave me. He was fairly certain that was the name Nyala used.”
Tal only half listened as Reyga finished his tale. If he had to pick just one of the Altered that he would prefer to avoid, Regor would be the one. The texts made ample mention of the propensities of the Shadow Lord, and the fact that he had not been averse to using his power in whatever way suited him. Of the seven, he was one of the strongest. The thought of Regor supporting Bodann could complicate things a hundredfold.
He realized Reyga had stopped talking and looked up to see Reyga and Seryn watching him. He shook his head. “This does not bode well. Bodann’s power was formidable before. With Regor aiding him, his hand is considerably stronger.”
“But if Nyala can hold him off…” Reyga let his sentence trail off.
“Let us hope she can,” he said. “But then there is also the matter of Jason Bennett.”
“What do you mean?” Reyga asked.
“He has turned his back on us once already. If he does possess the power that the prophecy implies, and if he learns how to use his power and joins up with his ancestor again, I do not see how we could stand against them.”
From the look on Reyga’s face, it was clear that he could not accept such an appalling thought.
“If I may, High One,” Seryn spoke up.
“Of course, Loremaster Seryn.”
“As you know, the duties of the Diamond Order often require us to use dimsai on others. And with that use sometimes comes an intimate knowledge of the patient being treated, even with our training to prevent it.”
“As you also know, the oath we take upon entering the Diamond Order prevents us from revealing anything we learn about the patient, except under the most dire circumstances.”
“And I would never ask you to violate your oath.”
“I know, High One,” Seryn said with a smile. Then she turned serious. “You should know that the last time I examined Jason, I did learn something about him, something I dare say he has not yet learned himself. While my oath prevents me from telling you what I learned, I can tell you this: When the time comes, I will stand with Jason Bennett.”
Jason picked at the food on his plate. Much to his discomfort, he’d been escorted to the hall by one of the Warders posted outside his door. The people they passed in the corridors nodded politely, but then watched out of the corners of their eyes as he and his escort walked past. He breathed a sigh of relief when the soldier stopped at the door. The thought of eating with an armed man looking over his shoulder didn’t appeal to him.
He saw Reyga on the other side of the room, speaking with the High One. They both wore solemn expressions. Considering what Reyga had told him the night before, he understood why. Then Seryn walked into the room and joined them. He turned back to his plate, pushing the food around without any interest in eating it.
He thought about his encounter with Bothan and the other Altered. Obviously, that had been the one Nyala had spoken of in his dream memory, the one that wanted to be a god. He wondered what the shadowy figure had been like before they had all changed. What would it be like to be at odds with someone for over a thousand years who used to be a friend?
“Watch your back, laddie.” Bothan’s parting words came back to him. Did his ancestor really have someone else in the keep working for him? If so, then he hadn’t really gotten away from him after all. He wondered who it might be. A crafter? A soldier? For all he knew, it could be the Warder waiting for him at the door. Or even one of the Loremasters. They’d kept information from him too. He hunched slightly over his food, feeling suddenly very vulnerable.
He jumped at the sound of his name. He turned to see Reyga standing behind him. He looked across the room to where Reyga had been, but the High One and Seryn had already left.
“I seem to have a talent for startling you,” Reyga said.
He tried to still his heart, which had jumped into his throat when he’d heard his name. “Yeah, seems like it,” he replied.
“The High One would like to meet with you after you have finished eating.”
He looked at his still half-full plate. “It may be a few minutes.” He didn’t really feel like talking with the High One. He knew the man would ask questions he wouldn’t want to answer. On the other hand, he had a few questions himself.
“That will be fine. Just let me know when you are finished. I will be sitting over there.” He pointed to where he had been speaking with the High One.
“I’ll be over as soon as I’m done.”
Reyga dipped his head, and then turned and walked back toward his seat.
Although he wasn’t that hungry, he picked up his fork and started eating. The High One may be waiting for him, but he wasn’t sure if the High One was ready for him.
The High One and Gatlor looked up from a map when Jason and Reyga entered the room. The warrior looked even more dour than usual.
“Should we come back at another time, High One?” Reyga asked.
“Not at all, Loremaster Reyga. We were just finishing.” He nodded to Gatlor, who quickly rolled up the map and tucked it under his arm. On his way out, the warrior inclined his head to Reyga. “Loremaster Reyga,” he said. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he also nodded to Jason. “Jason Bennett.” Then he left the room.
That was odd, Jason thought. It was certainly a far cry from how Gatlor had acted toward him the first time he had returned from Bothan’s.
The High One motioned to some chairs around the table. “Please. Be seated.”
Once they had taken their seats, the High One looked at him. “Jason—”
“Did you find Chon?” One of their own had killed his dad. He didn’t feel like listening to anything they had to say until they explained why.
The High One stopped, clearly not used to being interrupted, but then nodded. “Yes, but—”
“Did he tell you why he killed my dad?”
He saw a touch of irritation flash in the High One’s eyes. Frankly, at this point he didn’t care. They owed him answers.
“Loremaster Chon did not kill your father,” Tal said.
His jaw dropped. How could they deny it? Did they think he was stupid? “I saw it myself!” he exclaimed. “I watched him kill my dad! How can you sit there and tell me he didn’t do it? He—” Jason stopped as he felt a hand on his arm.
“Jason,” Reyga said, “Loremaster Chon is dead. In fact, he was already dead when we were in the training yard.”
Jason stared at him. “What?” Chon was dead? “But I saw him.” Already dead?
“You saw someone who appeared to be Loremaster Chon, as did I,” Reyga answered. “But we found Chon’s body shortly afterwards wearing the same clothing he had on the previous night, not the clothing we saw in the training yard. Upon closer examination, we discovered he had been dead for several hours, most likely killed the previous evening.”
He couldn’t think. If that hadn’t been Chon… “Then who killed my dad?”
Reyga glanced at the High One. “Actually,” he said, “we do not know if your father is dead or alive.”
“Jason, after the incident in the training yard, the body was taken to the healing area for examination,” the High One said.
“Were they able to heal him?” he asked, ready to jump up and run to the healing area.
The High One shook his head. “No. The body was quite dead.”
“The body? That’s my dad you’re talking about.”
“Actually,” the High One said, “it was not.”
“Huh?” He knew what he’d seen. What he didn’t know was what they were talking about.
“Loremaster Seryn examined the body,” Reyga told him. “It was not your father. In truth, it was not even human.”
“How is that possible?”
“Apparently, whoever, or whatever, was killed in the training yard had been altered to look like your father.”
“But why? Where’s my dad now?” A spark of hope leapt up inside him.
Reyga shrugged the spark away. “No one has seen him.”
“So who killed Chon? Whoever did that has to know where my dad is.”
The High One shook his head. “We cannot be certain,” he said, “but whoever did possesses a great deal of power. We do have our suspicions, however.”
Bothan. His ancestor’s words came back to him. “I’m sure I could handle any one of them alone.” But was it him, or was it someone else here working for him? Or was there even anyone else at all? What about Regor? How much of what Bothan had told him was true, if any?
He looked around the room as the thoughts swirled in his head. Where’s my dad? Why would someone want to make it look like he’d been killed? His gaze passed over the shelves and decorations without seeing them.
“Jason?” Reyga asked.
“Hmm?” he said. “Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about what you’d said.” If his dad hadn’t been killed, then that meant he had to be somewhere. “It’s a lot to take in,” he added. It was almost too much. He needed to change the subject.
“Is Lenai okay?” He remembered the night Bothan grabbed him, and the sound of Lenai’s shout just before a blast of power blinded him.
Reyga glanced at the High One, who nodded.
“The night you were abducted we found Lenai unconscious,” Reyga said. “Nothing we attempted would revive her. Loremaster Seryn’s pupils healed all of her physical injuries, but she still did not awaken.
“Under Seryn’s supervision, her most experienced student, Elira, conducted a deeper probe of Lenai. During her examination, she apparently triggered a reserve of power that had somehow been placed within Lenai. Elira was struck by dimsai from Lenai’s body.”
“What happened to her?”
“Elira did not survive the attack,” Reyga said.
Bothan again. How many more? “I’m sorry. What about Lenai?”
“Seryn and her students were able to treat her. She has recovered from the ordeal.”
“Does she know about Elira?”
“How’d she take it?”
“Not well, I am afraid. She has not left her quarters for over a sixday.” Reyga hesitated, and then went on. “You should know also that she blames herself for your abduction.”
“What? That’s crazy,” Jason said. “Why would it be her fault?”
The High One spoke up. “Lenai feels she failed in her duty to protect you, and has thus failed the Circle. She believes this has dishonored her.”
“But what else could she have done?”
“Precisely what we have tried to tell her,” Reyga said. “She still believes she failed.”
He thought for a moment. “Do you think I could talk with her?”
Tal shook his head. “She refuses to see anyone save the healer assigned to her.”
“Actually, High One,” Reyga said, “she might see Jason.”
Tal’s expression invited Reyga to continue.
“As a Shanthi, Lenai will feel compelled to ask Jason’s forgiveness for her failure to safeguard him, just as she asked Loremaster Seryn’s forgiveness for the death of Elira. Her sense of honor will demand it of her. In truth, Jason may be the only person Lenai would see.”
The High One nodded as Reyga finished. “Perhaps. I leave it to your discretion then, Loremaster Reyga. When we are finished here, if you wish to show Jason to Lenai’s quarters, I have no objection.” He turned to Jason. “Now, young man, since we cannot answer all of the questions surrounding the events in the training yard, let us focus on those questions that we can answer.”
“Well, to start, after the incident in the training yard, you said your ancestor was right. Can we assume that he was your initial abductor, and the person to whom you returned?”
He thought about denying it, but he knew what he’d said. Besides, what difference does it make now? He nodded.
“So, you were not entirely truthful with us when you first returned to Lore’s Haven. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that you lied to the Circle. Is that correct?”
He took a deep breath and let it out noisily. “Yes, I lied,” he said. “I didn’t know who I could trust. To tell you the truth, I still don’t.”
“You feel Bodann is preferable to us?”
“Preferable? No. Whatever happened to my dad is his fault, and Elira’s death, and most likely Chon’s. He would have killed me too if Nyala hadn’t shown up. But you’ve both lied to me too, so I’m not so sure I want to be on your side either. Maybe me and whatever power it is I’m supposed to have should just sit this one out.”
“I realize we withheld the knowledge of the dimsai from you,” the High One began, “but—”
“I’m not talking about the dimsai. That I can almost understand. What I’m talking about is the prophecy. You forgot to mention certain parts that I might have had a couple of problems with.”
“What did Bodann tell you?” Tal asked.
“He told me that my destruction is your hope. He told me the prophecy says for your land to live, my land must die.” He crossed his arms. “If you plan to invade my world, you better just kill me now, ‘cause if I do have power, and if I can learn how to use it, I’ll do everything I can to stop you.”
“Jason—” Reyga began.
“Loremaster Reyga,” the High One said, holding up a hand to forestall Reyga’s comment. Tal sat back, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair and lacing his fingers together. “Very well,” he said, “it is time for total candor, since we see where caution has gotten us. Yes, we withheld certain information from you. While that is not actually lying, it is also not completely telling the truth.” He leaned forward. “So, first of all, the prophecy. In its entirety, the prophecy says
“From a far land, Jaben shall come.
The last to arrive, he will already be here.
Powerful and powerless,
Our hope and our doom are in his hands.
His destruction is our hope.
His denial is our doom.
For our land to live, the far land must die.”
“See?” Jason said. “’His destruction is our hope.’ ‘For our land to live, the far land must die.’ Seems pretty straightforward to me.”
“On the surface, yes,” the High One said. A tight smile crossed his face briefly. “You might find it interesting to know that Loremaster Chon’s interpretation of the prophecy was much the same as yours.” Jason’s mouth clapped shut when he heard this.
“Fortunately,” the High One went on, “we are not quite so hasty in our interpretation as Loremaster Chon was.”
“So what do you think it means?”
“We are still studying it,” the High One said. Then his gaze softened a bit. “Jason, I am telling you the truth when I say that no one here has any designs against you, and we are not planning on invading your world, even had we the ability to do so, which we do not. The prophecy is not so clear when you begin to truly study what it says.” His eyes hardened again. “But in the interest of complete truth, know this: If it turns out that your destruction is required for me to save my world, I will do whatever is necessary to achieve that end, even should it cost me my own life. I can do nothing less.”
For a few uneasy moments, they stared at each other. Finally, Jason spoke. “Okay. I believe you. And believe it or not, I appreciate you being truthful with that last part too. So you should know that I don’t want to see anything happen to your world either. And to be totally honest, I have no idea how I’m going to make a difference, one way or the other. I just don’t see what I can do.”
“That remains to be seen,” the High One said. “So, we are agreed then. No more half-truths or withheld information?”
“No more withheld information, either way?” the High One asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Either way,” he agreed. “I’ll tell you whatever I can.”
The High One stood. “Very well,” he said. “I would like to continue our discussion, but at the moment I have matters to which I must attend. I will send for you later.”
Jason nodded, and the three of them filed out of the room.