[For 14 weeks, beginning on March 19th, on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’ll be posting chapters of book one of my Far Land Trilogy: Jaben’s Rift. I hope you enjoy it. The first part is here. I’d love to hear any feedback.]
Gatlor smiled with grim satisfaction. He was staring at the back of the enemy army from the top of a rise behind which he, a hundred archers, and a score of saiken waited. Although initially skeptical of Jason Bennett’s claim, he had been convinced when Jason was able to identify the Orders of several students presented to him. Then the High One summoned Lenai and she confirmed the presence of two unknown Shanthi within the keep.
His first impulse had been to capture the spies and get what information they could from them, but Jason had suggested another plan. From what he was seeing now, the scheme was working perfectly. The enemy forces waited in a low plain, facing away from them. Their attention was on the unmistakable glow of portals over the next set of hills. They expected the next Haven attack to come from that direction. They expected it from there because that was what he and the Circle had deliberately discussed for the benefit of their unseen visitors.
After the initial battle, it had been clear that the Haven forces could not survive a head-to-head war with this massive horde. Now they hoped to reduce the enemy numbers with as many quick strikes and withdrawals as possible.
He signaled the archers. The men and women moved forward until they were just below the top of the ridge. A hundred drawn bows mirrored the motion of his arm as he slowly raised it, keeping his eyes on the enemy. The initial volley would strike in the heart of the mass of fighters below.
He watched the army as it milled about. They needed to be sure the enemy did not see the source of the first attack. Now. He dropped his arm, and the soft thrum of a hundred bowstrings answered. With a quiet hiss, the arrows soared into the air. The archers nocked another arrow into their bows and waited for his next signal.
He watched the arrows’ descent. Even from this distance, he could hear the fatal sounds of their arrival. Almost immediately, a roar went up from the center of the army. The fighters at the back strained to see what was happening, their attention fixed on the shouting.
He signaled again. The archers moved up to the top of the ridge and fired another volley into the nearest ranks. Then they turned and sprinted down the back of the ridge toward two portals. The saiken not holding the portals stepped to the top of the ridge and sent blazing bolts of dimsai into the confused army below. They sent a second blast of power into the mass just as a bolt of dimsai detonated against the ground just below them. That was their signal to run for the portals, as the enemy surged up the ridge, roaring and howling in outraged fury.
He waited for the last saiken to clear the ridge, and then he sprinted after them. The archers had already gone through the portals and the saiken were just a few steps away. As the first saiken entered the portal, the enemy crested the ridge and sent arrows flying after them. The last saiken was ten paces from the portal when he fell, an arrow in his shoulder. Gatlor dragged the man to his feet, and the two of them stumbled toward the portal.
He glanced over his shoulder. One of the Trellin, faster than the others, was bearing down on them. Gatlor gave the saiken a shove toward the portal and drew a dagger from his bandolier. An instant later, the lizard man crumpled to the ground, the hilt of the dagger protruding from one eye socket.
Gatlor grinned fiercely. Their blood could stain the plains just as his warriors’ had. Time for the second part of the attack. The archers would be coming back through the other portals. Their orders were to move to the crest and fire at will into the rear of the army, which had originally been the front.
He heard a fresh roar from the enemy forces. The Haven archers were pouring as many arrows into the ranks as they could. The leading edge of the horde slowed as they heard the new commotion, looking behind them, and then back at him, clearly not sure where their rage should be directed.
Their confusion was short-lived as commanders in the ranks bellowed orders. Most of the enemy turned back toward the new attack. Three score renewed their charge toward him.
He wanted nothing more than to bury his blade in as many enemy fighters as possible, but he knew today was not the day for such things. There would be another time.
He drew his sword and held it to the sky as he shouted his defiance at the approaching creatures. Then he turned and ran through the portal. Today did not make up for the first attack, but it was something…it was something.
Brin stared at the dagger lying across his knees. Troubled eyes stared back up at him from the reflection in the blade. How can I do this? The thought of what he was going to do tore at very soul. How can I not? The possibility that the shadowy being might carry through on its threat was even more unbearable.
When his wife, Sharyn, died fifteen years ago, his sons became the center of his world, followed closely by his duties to the Circle. He remembered how proud his family had been when he told them he was to be Loremaster Farris’ apprentice. His sons could not wait to tell their friends. The love and pride in Sharyn’s eyes made every minute of tedious study, every hour of practice and lessons, worth the effort he had put into them twice over.
He thought about his predecessor, Loremaster Farris. He remembered sitting by the old man’s bedside as his final moments approached. Even on the brink of death, Farris’ eyes gleamed with pride in his Order, and in his apprentice.
“The honor of the Ruby Order now lies on your shoulders, Brin,” he whispered. “I have given you all of my wisdom. I have faith that you will make me proud.” He had smiled at Brin, and then he was gone, his wisdom going to join those who had gone before. Although Brin had thought himself prepared for it, the finality of his master’s passing seemed to suck some of his own life away as well. He vowed then that he would prove worthy of Farris’ faith in him.
While not as vocal as Loremaster Delani, he was just as fierce in his determination to serve the Circle and to uphold the honor of his Order to his dying breath. But now, what he was about to do would cast a stain on everything he had ever done. It would sully the Ruby Order for generations to come. Worse yet, it would betray the faith and pride of the one person who had mattered most, his beloved Sharyn.
The eyes in the dagger hardened as he thought again about how the being had used the memory of his son. There must be a way out of this! He searched for possibilities, probing and prodding even the most outlandish ideas thoroughly before discarding them. He had trained his mind for decades to look at every situation from as many different angles as possible. If he could just find the right way of seeing this, he knew he could find a way to keep from committing murder, and yet save his sons from a hideous fate.
His breath caught. That was it. He knew what must be done. He could almost hear Loremaster Farris’ voice in his head asking, “Are you certain of this course?” He nodded to the memory of his previous master. It would be risky, and he could only hope that it would work, but he could see no other way.
“And did you kill any of them?” Bothan’s voice trembled as he glared at the Trellin leader. The creature writhed inside a cocoon of dimsai.
“We…wounded…one,” it managed to rasp through the pressure.
“Ah. Well then,” Bothan said. “As long as you wounded one.”
The creature made a strangled sound as the pressure increased.
“You wounded one?” Bothan roared. “One? I lose over three hundred of my army, and you tell me you wounded one? One!” The Trellin’s feet lifted off the ground as the pressure increased with Bothan’s rising fury.
“Pleeasssz…” the lizard man hissed. A trickle of blood trailed from one nostril. “The ssspy told usss they would attack from the north, not the sssouth.”
“And did the idea of sentries never cross that pea-sized brain o’ yours?” The dimsai flared as, with an expression of disgust, he tossed the creature aside. It landed a short distance away, thin plumes of smoke rising from the scorched corpse. He absently watched the smoke rise while he thought about its report and its implications.
“What will you do now? If they continue to attack like this, they will chip away at your forces until they can defeat you.”
He turned to the shadowy figure behind him. “Aye,” he said. “Like as not they’ve discovered our spies.” He shook his head. “Sure and I’d like to know how. Clearly, they used them against us.”
“Why don’t you simply attack the keep directly and be done with it?”
“Why don’t you?” he snapped back, his anger flaring.
The eyes in the shadow blazed. “Do not forget to whom you speak.”
He forced his anger down. “Forgive me, Lord Regor. It was my frustration speakin’. It’s just that I don’t see why the others are opposed to this. You’re working to bring the glory they once had back to them.”
“It is not that they are opposed as much as it is that they are unaware. We are bound by an ancient agreement.”
He’d heard this before, even if he didn’t understand it. “And you cannot even—”
“I cannot,” Regor said. “I risk much even being here, and even more by giving you the power that I have. If the others realize what I’m doing, they may take action against me.”
“Well then,” he said, “to answer your question, no ordinary army could take Lore’s Haven. Built as it is on the plateau, and with all of the saiken and power at their disposal, we would have a better chance fighting the wind.”
“So what will you do?”
“Whether they intended it or no, they sent us a message,” he answered. He looked at the corpse again. “We send one back.”
Jason scanned the Circle chamber, looking for any disembodied auras. It had taken no small amount of concentration, but he’d discovered he could turn the vision off and on. He was very pleased about that. If nothing else, it meant that he could walk down a hallway without feeling like he was drifting through a psychedelic fog. When he was convinced there were no unseen guests, he nodded to the High One.
“Loremasters,” Tal said, “it would appear that our strike yesterday was successful. Captain Gatlor tells me he estimates the attack eliminated several hundred of Bodann’s army while we escaped with only one injury. Pell, from the Topaz Order, was wounded, but I am told he is recovering in the healing area.”
Kalen nodded. “Thanks to the expert care from Loremaster Seryn’s students, he should be back to his duties within two days,” he said.
“Excellent,” the High One said. “Clearly, these deceptions will only be effective temporarily. Jason has assured me that this room is clear for the moment, so let us plan our next attack.” He turned to Gatlor. “Captain Gatlor, do you have any ideas regarding our next move?”
Jason was only half listening to the conversation as Gatlor began discussing his next plan of action. His attention was on the Ruby Loremaster.
Brin was agitated, his eyes moving from the podium to Jason and just as quickly away. His jerky gaze crawled across the floor, jumped to Jason, and then away again. All the while his fingers picked and worried at a fold in his robe.
What’s going on with him? In his time in Teleria, Jason hadn’t seen anyone acting like this. The only time that had been close was after Nyala’s first appearance in the High One’s chamber. Even then, after the initial shock, the High One had quickly composed himself.
Gatlor was answering a question from Loremaster Jarril when Brin stood up.
“No,” Brin said, almost as if speaking to himself. He shook his head. “No.”
Gatlor stopped speaking as the High One stepped back up to the podium.
“Loremaster Brin, do you have a question?”
Brin stared at the High One. “A question?” His gaze jumped to Jason and then back to the High One. “Yes, a question.” He blinked at the floor, his lips moving without a sound. Then he looked to the podium. “Why are we here?” He raised a hand to his mouth, stroking his lips absently. “Why are we here? Is that the question I want to ask? I can’t…I can’t remember.” His other hand was buried in his robe.
The Loremasters exchanged glances as Brin took a hesitant step toward the dais. Gatlor moved to the side, frowning as he watched the Ruby Loremaster’s strange behavior. Seryn was studying Brin intently.
“Loremaster Brin,” she said, “are you well?”
Brin looked at her as if surprised to see her in the room. “Well? Of course I am well. Why would I not be well?” His gaze wandered across the room. “Of course. Why would I not be well?” He looked at the High One. “But you asked…yes…I have a question. A question. It was…it was…”
His eyes leapt to Jason’s face, fixing him with a glare that set Jason back in his seat. “Yes, a question. Now I remember.” He raised one hand, pointing a shaking finger at Jason. “Why is he here?”
“What? Me?” Jason gaped at the Loremaster.
“What? Me?” Brin mimicked Jason’s voice. “Yes, you! You are the reason for all of this.”
Several of the Loremasters rose to their feet. Gatlor’s hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. “Loremaster Brin,” the High One said. “What are you—”
“Chon was right! All of this is your fault!” Brin shouted at Jason. His raised hand, still pointing at Jason, shook violently and his eyes were wild.
Jason stood and moved so that his chair was between the two of them.
“You are the reason my son is dead. Why are you still alive?” Brin’s robe flared out as he pulled a long dagger from underneath it. With his free hand he gestured toward Gatlor, who was drawing his sword. With a rasping ring of metal, the sword ripped out of Gatlor’s hand and slammed back into its scabbard.
“Brin!” several voices shouted.
“No more!” Brin shouted back, and lunged toward Jason.
Jason couldn’t move. He’s going to kill me. He felt like he was in a trance. He couldn’t even raise his arm to defend himself. The thought of his impending death immobilized him. Suddenly, everything seemed to move very slowly. He saw the light sliding along the blade in Brin’s hand. He saw Gatlor pulling futilely at his sword. The High One and the others surged forward, but he knew they were already too late. He watched the dagger carve a gleaming arc through the air as Brin raised it over his head.
Then Brin was lying at Jason’s feet, a pool of blood spreading underneath him. With a strangled sound, Jason stumbled backward until the wall of the Chamber stopped him.
“What the…? What happened?” he blurted, his heart pounding. He wrapped his arms over his chest, tucking his hands away to stop them from shaking.
For a moment, no one answered, no one moved. Then the High One rushed to Brin.
“He tripped and fell on his own dagger,” Gatlor said, looking confused for the first time Jason could remember.
“Brin,” the High One said. He grasped Brin’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back. Brin’s eyes were closed and the hilt of his dagger stood up from underneath the ribs on his right side. The metallic smell of blood filled the air as a dark stain spread on Brin’s tunic.
“Seryn,” the High One said, but she was already moving to Brin’s side, her hands flaring with power. She knelt and moved her hands over the wound.
“This must be done delicately,” she said. “Backlash from a saiken lo could be deadly.” She focused on the wound. After a moment, she quenched her power and sat back. “I have stemmed the flow of blood somewhat,” she said, “but we must get him to the healing area without delay. He is fortunate the blade entered where it did or he could easily be dead already.”
Bent over Brin as he lay on the table in the healing area, Seryn focused on her work, using her power to mend torn muscle and flesh back together. She worked with precision, using as little dimsai as possible in order to prevent revealing any secrets Brin may have. The Ruby Loremaster was not an unfriendly man, but he did tend to be a rather private man. While members of the Diamond Order often had to use dimsai on their patients, they did their best to respect the privacy of those under their care. There was also the potential for backlash, which became more of a concern the more power a patient had. With a saiken lo, extreme care had to be taken.
“There now, Brin,” she murmured as she finished, “that should do it.” She did not expect an answer. Brin had not moved since they carried him in and laid him on the table, so she was startled to hear him whisper her name. She looked up at the High One, standing on the other side of the table. He was watching Brin intently.
“Brin?” she said. His eyes were barely open, but he was looking at her. “I apologize. I did not realize—”
“Deeper…” he whispered.
“Deeper? I do not understand.”
“Are you in pain? Is there damage that I missed?” she asked, her power flaring up on her hands once more.
“Deeper. Please.” Then he was unconscious again.
She thought the damage repaired, but he had come as close to begging as his weakened state would allow. While Brin always graciously accepted aid when it was offered, it was extremely rare for him to ask for it. There had to be something she was missing.
She focused her power on the wound, sending her senses past the repaired flesh, deeper into his chest. No other damage. She cautiously increased her power. Still nothing.
She stepped back, going over the sequence of events again. He was here because he fell on his dagger. He fell on his dagger because of his irrational behavior in the Circle chamber. Perhaps he meant something other than the wound. Something had to have caused him to act as he did.
“I do not see any more damage. But something else must be wrong for him to ask for a deeper examination. With your permission, High One, I would like to check for any other trauma that may have affected his actions.”
When the High One nodded, she moved up and placed her hands above Brin’s face. She hesitated for a moment, and then called up her power. I hope he understands. She sent her power into his head, looking for anything unusual that could have caused his actions in the chamber.
Her initial probe revealed nothing, so she focused her power more deeply. She still did not see any sign of damage or… She gasped as his thoughts filled her mind.
“Seryn?” the High One asked.
She did not answer, focused on what she was seeing. This was unthinkable! The images, and what they implied, shocked her. This was what he wanted her to find. She waited until they finished, then let her power drop.
“Oh, Brin,” she breathed, laying her hand on the sleeping man’s shoulder.
“Seryn, what did you see?”
Brin stirred, his eyes opening slightly. He looked at Seryn. Seryn nodded. “I saw,” she said.
“Tell them,” he whispered, then slid back into unconsciousness.
“Tell us what?” the High One asked.
She looked around the room. “We need to find Jason Bennett,” she said.
“Why would Brin deliberately fall on his own dagger?” the High One asked.
They were back in the Circle chambers. Jason was there to make sure no unseen visitors were around. At Seryn’s request, several of the strongest saiken lo also held a ward around the room to prevent any intrusions.
“He felt it was the only way to save both his own sons as well as Jason,” Seryn answered. “One of the Altered threatened to kill his other sons unless Brin killed Jason.”
As he heard Seryn’s description of what she’d seen, Jason knew who the shadowy figure was. Regor. The scene in the chamber had been nothing but an act in case Regor was watching. Regor would see Brin try to kill Jason, but fail due to his own clumsiness.
Delani stood. “So, already faced with a war we may not win, we now find ourselves in the midst of a conflict between the Altered?”
Nyala! he shouted inside his head. He didn’t know if she could hear his thoughts, but he had to try. Nyala! Can you hear me? No answer.
“So it would seem,” the High One answered. “From what Jason has told me, Nyala stands between him and the Shadow Lord. Apparently Regor has decided to use others to commit his crimes.”
Not getting an answer from Nyala, he tried a different tack. Crin! Are you listening? Although he still didn’t get an answer, somehow he knew Crin heard him. Crin, you have to tell Nyala what Regor is doing. He relayed what Seryn had discovered, hoping the bird would be able to pass along the message.
“What are we to do?” T’kel was saying. “We cannot stand against one such as he.”
“But if Jason is important enough to attract the attention of the Altered, we cannot simply give him up either,” Reyga said.
“Are you saying we should defy Regor?” Kalen asked.
“You don’t have to,” Jason said. Crin was relaying Nyala’s response. “Regor is bluffing. He can’t actually touch anyone without making the other Altered angry.”
“Jason,” the High One said, “do you know something you have not told us?”
“Yes and no,” Jason answered. “I didn’t know about the bluff until just now, but there are some things that I haven’t mentioned.”
The High One frowned at him. “I thought we agreed there would be truth between us.”
“I know,” he said, “and I’m sorry. But I was ordered not to tell you anything by someone who…well…they outrank you.”
“An Altered,” Reyga said. “Nyala?”
“Yeah. I’m still not sure if I’m supposed to say anything or not, but I think you need to know.” He could feel Crin’s disapproval. I’m tired of hiding, he thought to the bird. They have to know. He sensed the mental equivalent of a sigh, but Crin didn’t protest.
“Jason,” Reyga said, “will revealing this place you in any danger? I can only speak for myself, but if that is the case, I trust you without it.”
“As do I,” Seryn added.
Seryn’s agreement startled him. Reyga’s he had expected, but Seryn’s profession of faith made him wonder what she’d seen when she examined him. While he appreciated their confidence, he hoped it wasn’t misplaced. He still didn’t know how to use his power.
“I appreciate that, Reyga, Loremaster Seryn,” he said, “but I’m tired of secrets. I want you to know what’s going on.”