[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.]
Brin Jalasar sat by his window, staring with unseeing eyes at the scenery below. Cale is gone. The thought dropped endlessly into the empty chasm of his soul, leaving echoes of its passing as it fell. Cale is gone…is gone…gone… The strike against the enemy army had provided only a temporary respite from the pain. The satisfaction he drew from seeing the creatures blasted into the air quickly dried up and blew away like the dust on the arid wind the Topaz Loremaster had created.
He drew a ragged breath as the realization hit him once more that he would never see his youngest son again. Then a tingle on the back of his neck told him he was not alone.
“Behold the noble Ruby Loremaster, master of stone and earth,” a whispery, shifting voice said.
Brin turned, and then stood as he saw a mass of shifting shadows in the corner.
“Who are you? What do you want?” he demanded.
“Who I am is not important. What is important is this.”
Every inch of his body suddenly felt as if it were on fire. He tried to cry out, but no sound would come. The intensity of the pain drove him to his knees. He reached for his own power, but not so much as a spark answered.
“Do I have your attention?”
He managed a nod, and then gasped as the burning agony disappeared as abruptly as it began.
He struggled to his feet, drenched in sweat from the brief ordeal. The breeze from the window, which before had been cool and pleasant, now felt like the icy winds of Landsleep. His muscles twitched and jumped with the memory of the pain.
“What do you want with me?” he whispered between clenched teeth.
“I have a small task for you, Ruby Loremaster. A task you may even enjoy.”
“What kind of task?” His muscles slowly unclenched, the spasms easing.
“I want you to kill Jason Bennett.”
“That is of no concern to you. Do not forget, Jason Bennett is to blame for what happened at Brayden Fenn. He is to blame for the death of your son.”
“That has yet to be proven,” he grated. How dare this creature use the memory of Cale’s fate in such a way? Although he had been ready to condemn the Far Planer when he first learned of his son’s fate, he had been in too much shock to be rational. Later, he realized that even though the boy was the most logical suspect, his guilt must be proven first before justice could be carried out. “I will not murder anyone, not even Jason Bennett, simply because you order it. Why not deal with him yourself?”
“Because I choose to have you do it.”
“I will not.”
“Do not be hasty, Loremaster. You have already lost one son. Do not forget that you have two others.”
His two elder sons appeared before him. As he watched, the stone of the floor encased their feet, creeping up their legs. He heard their cries of pain. They cried out to him to save them. He was the Ruby Loremaster, keeper of stone lore! Surely he could rescue his own family from its grip? He called on his power, but nothing came. He was helpless to stop the horror he saw before him. No, no, no… He beat and clawed at the stone, but it moved higher. Their voices became hoarse whispers as the stone constricted their chests. Then they were unable to speak at all as the stone covered their mouths. All he saw now were accusing looks of betrayal from their eyes, and then those were gone also. Only columns of grey stone stood where his sons had been.
“No!” he sank to his knees once more, sobs tearing at his chest. It felt as if his heart must surely burst. Not his family too! He looked up to see their encased bodies again, but they were gone.
“This is the fate that awaits them, stone master, should you defy me.”
He could not allow that to happen. Losing one son was bad enough. To lose all three would destroy him. Nevertheless, he was horrified to hear himself whisper, “When do you want it done?”
“Your wisdom serves you well, Loremaster,” the shadow said, making his title sound like an insult. “Anytime within the next two days will suffice.”
His gaze dropped to the floor, but he nodded.
“One more thing, Loremaster. Do not tell anyone of our conversation. If you mention a single word…” He saw the columns of stone again. “…not even the combined power of the Circle will be enough to save them.”
Jason followed Reyga through the halls of Lore’s Haven. They were quieter than ever, the people going about their business quickly, or clustering in small groups sharing subdued conversations.
As when he’d gone to breakfast, after the polite greetings, the people watched as he and Reyga walked by. He saw some of them whispering to each other, their eyes never leaving the pair.
“Here we are,” the Loremaster said at last. “These are Lenai’s quarters.” He turned to Jason. “I believe she will see you,” he said in a low voice. “I would ask this of you, please help her to see that she shares no blame in the recent events. I know she feels that she has failed in her service to you and to Lore’s Haven. From your earlier remarks, I believe you know this to be untrue?”
“Then help her to accept it as well,” Reyga said. “I would not see her continue to punish herself in this way.” He turned back to the door and knocked. “Lenai, it is Loremaster Reyga. May I speak with you?”
There was no answer at first. Jason thought she either wasn’t there, or she wasn’t going to acknowledge her visitor. Then he heard her voice.
“Loremaster Reyga,” she said through the closed door, “please forgive me, but I still have not recovered fully from my ordeal. Perhaps another time?”
Reyga turned to him. “This is the same answer I have received each time I have come,” he whispered. Then he turned back to the door. “Lenai, I have Jason Bennett with me.”
This time, the silence from the other side of the door lasted so long Jason was sure that Lenai wasn’t going to answer at all. Just as Reyga raised his hand to knock again, the latch turned and the door opened slightly.
“Loremaster Reyga,” she said, still concealed behind the door, “if you would, I would speak with Jason Bennett alone.”
Reyga looked as if he’d expected her reply, but hoped for another. He gave Jason a meaningful look and walked back the way they’d come.
Jason waited for some sign from inside the room. Seeing none, he cleared his throat. “Uh, Lenai?”
“Please come in, Jason Bennett,” she said in a flat, dull voice.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the room. It was a small room, sparsely decorated. A bed sat against the wall across from the door. Dark curtains covered the lone window. Sconces on the walls at either end of the room provided light, and a small table by the bed held a pitcher, a mug, and a small charcoal sketch of a man, woman, and three children. A wooden stool sat in the corner opposite the bed. He turned as Lenai closed the door behind him.
Her appearance shocked him. It wasn’t so much that she looked different from before, as much as it was her demeanor. Where before she had been confident and sure of herself to the point of aloofness, she now seemed diminished somehow. When she had shown him around Lore’s Haven, she had always met his eyes almost defiantly. Now her gaze wandered across the floor, only occasionally jumping up to him, then just as quickly away. Her eyes were rimmed with red, and her skin had a distinct grayish pall to it.
“Jason Bennett,” she said in a tone that reminded Jason of their first meeting, “I will be brief.”
“I thought we agreed you’d call me Jason.”
She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Just as I failed to safeguard you, I am afraid I must also fail in this regard.”
“Jason Bennett, I apologize for my inability to protect you. I failed you, and for that I ask your forgiveness.”
“Lenai, there was nothing you could have done.” He was getting an idea of how frustrated Reyga must be.
She gave a harsh shake of her head, still not looking at him. “Jason Bennett, I have given you my apology. Now I must ask you to leave me be.”
“Help her to see that she shares no blame.” Reyga’s words echoed in his head. How could he do that if he couldn’t even talk to her? If she wouldn’t even listen to him? He searched his mind for a plan. What could he do?
“No,” he said, as a sudden inspiration flashed through his thoughts. “I don’t accept your apology.”
Her head snapped up, a spark of anger in her eyes. “No? Do you believe the apology of one who has failed, as I have, to be beneath you? Or is my disgrace not enough for you, that you feel you should shame me more?”
Well, that got her attention. Now what? He didn’t know what to say next. He forged ahead, hoping the right words would come out.
“No, nothing like that. Lenai, there’s nothing wrong with your apology. It’s just that it’s not needed. You don’t have anything to apologize for.”
She stared at him for a moment, and then turned away. “I would not expect a Far Planer to understand.”
“So explain it to me,” he shot back, putting as much sarcasm as he could into his voice. “From what I hear, no one could have stopped what happened. What could the mighty Lenai of the Shanthi have done that no one else could have?” He was trying to keep her just a little angry, anything to keep her talking.
She clenched her fists, then relaxed them as her shoulders sagged. “I…I do not know,” she replied, shaking her head. “But—”
“But nothing,” he interrupted. “Lenai, the person behind all this has more power than anyone on the Circle.” He didn’t know if she knew about Chon, but he decided to tell her anyway. Maybe it would snap her out of her self-condemnation. “He even killed Loremaster Chon.”
She turned back to him. “Loremaster Chon is dead?”
“Yes. Apparently killed by the same man that took me, and would have killed me too. The same man who used you. My ancestor, Bothan McFarland.” He took a deep breath. “You know him better as Bodann.”
She didn’t move, but Jason saw a sudden tenseness in the line of her shoulders and neck. “Bodann is one of your kinsmen?” she asked, an edge to her voice.
“Yeah,” he said. “After he found out we were related, he wanted me to join up with him. I was gonna do it too, until I found out he was behind what happened to my dad. When I told him no, he tried to kill me.”
“Yet you live,” Lenai said. “Is your power greater than his?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I haven’t even figured out how to use my power yet, if I even have any. For some reason, the Altered are involved in this whole mess. Nyala stopped Bothan and another Altered she called Regor from killing me. She brought me back here.”
She searched his face, then her gaze dropped to the floor. “Still,” she said, the edge gone from her voice, “if I had chosen another passageway, or if I had returned you to your quarters sooner…”
“You still don’t know what might have happened,” he said. “Listen, I’m not going to accept any apology, because nothing that happened was your fault.” He held up his hand as she opened her mouth. “If you still think you have to make something up to me,” he moved over to the stool and sank down on it, “then tell me who I can trust around here.”
She frowned. “I do not understand.”
“Look, my ancestor may have done some pretty bad things, but he told me stuff that Reyga and your High One held back. He also said things about the Circle that, if true, I can’t agree with. The fact is, I don’t know who’s telling the truth, who I can believe. There’s so much stuff going around in my head that I can barely even think.”
“I see.” She stared at him, secret thoughts lurking behind her dark eyes. Then she said, “I believe I may be able to help you in that respect, Jason Bennett, but you may not like what it will involve.”
The chair slammed against the wall, splinters flying in all directions from the force of the impact. Pieces of wood and ceramic that had once been décor and mugs littered the floor around the chair. Gatlor glared at the wreckage, and then looked around for something else to throw. He had thought the cold rage from the day before was gone, but today, after his discussion with the High One, it filled him again. A knock at the door stopped him before he could find another projectile. Without waiting for an answer, the door swung open.
“Forgive me,” a smooth voice said, “but I sometimes find human rituals confusing. Does destroying your quarters make it easier to accept what happened yesterday?”
He scowled at Seerka as the cat-man stepped into the room. “No, but the punishment I deal out to my belongings does not get passed along to my men.”
Calador ducked into the room. “For which, I am certain, your men are grateful,” he said.
“I am quite certain.” He ground his teeth. “Is there a point to this intrusion, or should I just add you two to the pile?”
“A point?” Seerka asked. “Perhaps it is merely two soldiers checking on their commanding officer.”
“Or perhaps,” Calador added gently, “it is just two men checking on a friend.”
He looked at them without answering as his breathing gradually slowed to a more normal pace. Then he walked over and closed the door behind them.
Still facing the door, he balled his hand into a tight fist and lightly punched the hard wood. “All of the scouting parties were killed,” he said without turning. “All told, almost a thousand men and women were lost yesterday.”
“A terrible thing,” Seerka said.
“War is a terrible thing,” he answered, turning to them. “A terrible thing that destroys even the best of men.”
“All soldiers understand the risks of what they do,” Calador said. “Just as the members of the scouting parties understood the—”
“I have lost men before!” he snapped. “I understand duty and honor and risk as well as any man.” He sat heavily in the chair he had kicked. “But I have never lost so many in such a short time. And never to an enemy who seemed to know my plans as well as I did.”
“Aye,” Seerka said, “that is most disturbing.”
“Which?” he asked bitterly. “That we lost so many, or that we apparently have a spy among us?”
“Both, of course,” Seerka answered. “But only one can we change.”
“Even so,” Calador said, “but only if we can determine who the spy is. Do you have any suspicions?”
He shook his head. “No. It would have to be someone privy to our plans, and I mean all of our plans. That would only be the Circle and my officers.” He stood and began pacing the room. “But I cannot imagine anyone in either of those groups being a traitor.” He kicked a broken mug out of his path.
“Perhaps someone in the Amethyst Order?” Seerka suggested. “They could observe the meetings of the Circle through the eyes of a small animal, perhaps a mouse.”
“That is another possibility,” he agreed, still pacing.
“I do not envy the one who suggests that possibility to Loremaster Delani,” Calador said.
He grunted but didn’t answer. The Amethyst Loremaster would almost certainly see even the mere suggestion as an affront to her and her Order. She handpicked her students, and then only after a series of tests and interviews more rigorous than any other Order.
“Although, if that proves to be the case,” Seerka mused, “the guilty one may need more protection from Loremaster Delani than from you.”
He stopped pacing, thinking again about the men and women whose blood still stained the ground at the edge of the Scorched Plains. He looked at the Ferrin from under lowered brows as the cold invaded his soul once more. “Not by half,” he said in a voice that promised retribution.