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Monday, January 15, 2007

Chapter Nine: On the Brink

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James quickly came to realize that he had not entered into the same sort of paralysis he had when Dulien had spoken to him. Even so, voices rose up inside his mind and his vision went from clear as day to dismally blurry. He could see a flurry of figures, moving so fast he started to think that time was either passing him by at an alarming rate, or skipping like a rock on the water. From moment to moment, depending on the pattern of his vision, he could hear voices spoken from the real world, but before he could make out what was being said, the world of chattering entities drew him back into the fray.
There were so many voices. He couldn’t focus on any one of them. Some were male, some female, and some even inhuman. Together they formed a loud, animalistic roar, all begging for his attention. He dared not focus, but for reasons he couldn’t be sure. A deep yearning inside his very person wanted to speak and mold with those within his mind, converse with them, but his mind fought against it as if it knew that nothing good would come of it. If he tried, his mind resisted, forbidding him from doing anything it disapproved of. He could only assume that this side of him represented logic, his logic.

His vision faded back into the real world again. A scene played out before him, as if from a movie he had once seen. Triska and Pea—as best he could tell from their blurred appearance—spoke over him in sharp whispers.
A lyphon,” Triska said, her voice warbled. “Here? How?
I don’t know,” Pea said.
Then the scene continued, muffled beyond his recognition, until it finally receded as his vision phased out again. His mind felt utterly cluttered, as if he could focus on nothing. He started to sense that he was moving, up and down, up and down, in a swing-like fashion. It was dizzying. Pulses of sound, as if someone were barking orders through water, overcame the voices. He was not grateful, though, as the pulses furthered the nauseating dizziness.
His vision returned to the real world, now a different scene. Someone, a woman, crouched over him, her giant eyes hovering inches from his face and her twisted nose nearly touched his lips. He couldn’t feel her, but in his hazy vision could make out the wiry hair that ran along her ears and down her neck, ghostly white.
Virnum,” she said, and then the scene passed away and he found himself back amongst the voices, the throbbing, and the pulsing.
A flash of light filled the foggy world, and, to his delight, he found himself slipping from the state of paralysis and into a deep, rejuvenating, and altogether amazing sleep.
When James broke away from the nothingness of his dreams he was overcome with pain unlike any he had ever felt before. Searing, agonizing, and unrelenting pain that made it altogether impossible to determine the origin. His head hurt. His body hurt. Even his jaw muscles hurt, preventing him from groaning or making any unnecessary motion that might trigger further pain—though he couldn’t fathom any pain more excruciating.
While his eyes were in working order, he was unable to truly make out his surroundings. The room seemed…different. He couldn’t quite explain it, partly because the pain prevented him from focusing fully on any one thing at a time. Eventually he managed a tiny cry. Inside he cheered at the monumental feat.
The wiry-haired woman from before appeared, poking her head into his field of vision like a giant bird. She eyed him; he tried to look back. Then in a tiny, whispery voice she said, “Virnum,” and the pain subside enough so he could bear it. He finally managed to see the features of her face. She had a long, thin face that forced her mouth to look as if it were constantly wording an ‘o’. Her skin was darker than his, but he couldn’t tell if it was because of her race or from exposure to the sun. For clothes she wore a pair of tattered robes over a supertunic that failed to hide her worn and beaten body from years of age and hard use. The robes were burned at the edges of the sleeves.
She has lived a long, hard life, he thought.
The woman walked away to a nearby table where she poised herself over a stone jigsaw puzzle.
James felt ignored, but thankful nonetheless that he could now manage to move with only minor discomfort. The pain had gone from unbearable to livable. He hoped it would go away completely.
Sitting up, he took in his surroundings. He was no longer in the dining floor of the keep within the Lord’s Hold. Rather he had been taken during his slumber to a small, yet cozy little room with one window next to a shining iron door opposite where the wiry-haired woman mused over her puzzle. He shook his head to find that the darkness still prevailed outside. The room itself was lit by several enormous candles twice as large as his arm, irregular numbers of wicks stuck into them—nine, four, seven, twelve, and more. The stone walls were covered in framed paintings of armor clad soldiers, noblemen, and gryphons. Among the furniture were two round tables, a pair of gold-lace covered rocking chairs that looked comfortable enough to make even the most raggedy old person feel at home, and two straw beds—one of which he lay in, covered in three layers of quilted blankets. Other than the wiry-haired woman, he was alone.
“Where am I?” he said to himself, not expecting a reply.
To his surprise the woman spoke in a soft, collected tone. “North of Naz’ra, and just a hair below Ammond’s glorious quarters.” She didn’t look up from her puzzle.
“Oh. How are my friends?”
“They will survive. For now at least, though I cannot say what lies in their futures. Only one can do such a thing.”
“Aye, the black one himself. An ashen coal dispensing his hatred as far as his wide plumes of smoke can reach.”
James looked down for the first time and examined his shoulders, remembering the attack from the night before. He had been bandaged tightly. He couldn’t see the wounds and with the pain running through his entire body he had no way of knowing how well they had been healed. It concerned him enough that he had barely escaped death, but mostly he was concerned with the condition of his body. There’s not much more I can take.
“Will I be okay?” he managed to ask.
“You will live, doomed as you are.”
“The touch of the black one resides within you. He knows your soul. He now knows your blood and flesh. You are doomed.”
“What was that creature?”
“One of the race that does not exist. A lyphon.”
He was confused. “But they do exist.”
James groaned. The woman wasn’t making any sense. From the way she spoke to him he had gotten the impression that she was either strange or completely mad. Either way led him to stop asking questions under the assumption that he would get little useful information from her.
He took in his surroundings again, doing his best to ignore the pain that had now become a dull throb. Next to his bed was a small oak table. Engraved in each of its four corners were simple shield knots that resembled tic-tac-toe boards with the four corners closed by half-circles. On top of the table were his book, a fresh change of clothes including another cowl of dark blue, and the blackened egg that he had forgotten to give to Triska. He started to think that he might be stuck with it for the duration of his stay in the Farthland, and probably on through any travels he might take in other parts of Traea.
Feeling lazy, he imagined his book floating across the floor and into his hands. Nothing happened. He tried again with the same effect. Disappointment filled his face as the spell failed over and over, yet he couldn’t be entirely sure he was actually casting anything at all. Finally he rolled the covers from his legs and started to get up until a knock on the door drove his, and the wiry-haired woman’s, attention away. The woman stood and let in Pea who ambled past her cautiously and greeted James as warm as possible. She sat back at her table and resumed putting together her puzzle.
“James, my dear little lost boy, how are you?”
James couldn’t help but smile. He was ecstatic to see the Littlekind again. “I’m in a little pain, but I think I’m alright.”
Pea nodded. “Ammond will be visiting you as soon as he finishes with the other council members. Nora is in a bit of a mood. Then again, she’s always in a bit of a mood now isn’t she?”
He and Pea both snickered at that. Then Pea told him a story about Nora before she became a council member. She had once had the brilliant idea of using her abilities in healing to put a stop to the horrible mistreatment, as she put it, of livestock in Nirlum, a large village within the next valley. Her spells had backfired and rather than stopping the animals from dying she’d increased their fertility rates astronomically so that by the beginning of the second season it wasn’t the livestock who were suffering. The people of Nirlum had plenty of meat, but in the process had lost nearly all of their crops to the overwhelming numbers of animals that were impossible to keep track of and control. In the end, hunters and the like had to be called in from nearby villages and cities to help with the issue. Thus began the Feast of Kings, a celebration held once a year at the start of spring in which villages and cities eat, drink, sing, and dance for two days as a marker of the day when Nora had left Nirlum with her metaphorical tail between her legs.
“So you see, Nora is mostly bitter because we all celebrate the time of her failure. It’s quite ironic really. She wanted to stop the bloodshed, but instead managed to spark an entire tradition of bloodshed.”
James laughed, then feeling somewhat guilty said, “Were the animals really being mistreated?”
“Oh, I really doubt it. They’re killed quickly. Nobody likes hearing animals suffer.”
He agreed. He had never been to a slaughterhouse as there wasn’t one in Woodton, and he had never actually left the valley where his home sat. Somehow he knew he didn’t want to go. Something about knowing how an animal was killed and prepared so he could eat made him think he might lose interest in meat altogether. He saw that as a loss, for he truly enjoyed the flavor of meat.
“Pea,” his tone serious, “that thing, lyphon, or whatever you call it. It came here for me. Luthien sent it. He had orders to bring me alive, or kill me.”
Pea’s face went flat. “Yes, I imagine so. Lyphons are an interesting breed, for sure.”
“She said they do not exist,” he indicated the wiry-haired woman, “but they do exist.”
“It’s not a matter of whether they exist or not. James, they can’t exist.”
Pea took a seat on the small table nearby. “There’s a reason why they are not written about in that book of yours and why people are so inept at dealing with them. In order for them to exist means that the fabric that holds this world together is torn. They are much like you, not from this world, but they come from a world that can be entered, but cannot be escaped. They live among the dead. Feeding. Murdering. Torturing. They are the faces you meet upon your death if you have led a life of evil.”
“Hell?” Pea looked put off by the word. James decided to explain. “Where I come from some believe there is a place called Heaven and a place called Hell. If you are good, you go to Heaven. If you are bad, you go to Hell. Heaven is supposed to be paradise. Hell is much like what you just described. A place of pain and torture.”
“This Hell is much like the world lyphons come from. We call it the Land of Our End. Loe. But this Heaven you speak of is not like anything we in the Farthland believe. If you lead a just life you ascend into the Halls of the Great Father’s and cease to exist altogether. You become the energy that fills the void in the sky.”
He thought about that. It seemed so dismal to think that when you died you could either be sent into a land of pain and torture or cease to be at all. Then again, he concluded that such beliefs made living life to its fullest a more serious statement than back home. Any moment could be your last. He wondered what other beliefs the people and creatures of Traea had.
“One cannot escape Loe, not even the beings that are born there. No. This is why lyphons cannot exist here.”
“But they do exist.”
“We know that one exists. They are fast creatures, vile, and altogether unpleasant. Gryphons are at least regal. Capable of dignified behavior. Lyphons are just…horrid. How it exists I cannot say. Something is amiss.”
And disgusting looking, he thought, recalling the face of the one that had attacked him. The thought sent a shiver down his spine. He dared not face such a creature again, not so long as he had the will to prevent it. His shoulders ached as if in agreement.
“When it had me against the wall. I tried to use magic. I’ve used it before, just a little bit, and mostly by accident, but,” he paused for the right words, “this time it didn’t work. I felt the magic leave me, and then, everything began to leave. I felt my very life being torn out of me as the magic poured into the lyphon.”
Pea nodded as if he understood. “There’s not much we know about lyphons, but you cannot use magic directly on them. They cannot use magic either, but they can kill you if you misjudge and attack them directly with a spell or use an enchanted weapon.”
Another knock on the door forced the wiry-haired woman to get up from her puzzle. She glared angrily as Triska came into the room, then returned to the puzzle once again.
He didn’t immediately stand, but rather beamed brightly at Triska, who in return hustled over and started to give him a hearty hug before he yelped in pain. She let go of him and covered her mouth in apology.
“Thank goodness you’re alright,” she said as her eyes glazed over as if she were about to cry.
“A close one indeed my boy,” Pea said.
“Indeed,” and he broke out in laughter. He discounted the sharp pains that came with each expelling of air. “How long was I out?”
“The better part of two days I would say. But who can really tell?” Pea shrugged his shoulders, pointing a tiny finger to the window.
“Two days?” It seemed like such a long time to be sleeping. The longest he could ever recall sleeping was just over thirteen hours on the first day of summer vacation. He had been so tired from running around like a wounded animal at school. By the time the final day had ended he could do little more than lift his arm, which gave him a sense of joy because that meant nobody could force him to write anymore essays that day. Then he started to think about how many days he had been in the Farthland. Six, he guessed, though he gathered he would never be quite sure.
“Part of it was because of Nub,” Pea indicated the wiry-haired woman who didn’t seem at all interested in the conversation. “She’s a spellweaver. She put you into a very deep sleep.”
He stopped himself from asking why, thinking better of it. After all he had been in a horrible state after the attack. He knew that being in a deep sleep made it far easier to heal his wounds and for his body to battle the infections or bacteria that might have found their way into his bloodstream. Then again, the deep sleep hadn’t rid him of the pain he knew his wounds were causing. Perhaps an infection had already set in, something of which he wasn’t sure how to combat. Back home doctors would have examined his blood, injected him with a cocktail of antibiotics, and sat back like the scientists they wished they could be watching for results. Here in the Farthland—or anywhere in Traea for that matter—the best he could expect from modern medicine were healers who, while entirely capable of caring for wounds and common diseases, were likely incapable of understanding the complexities of the human body, nor the possible complications that might arise due to an attack by a creature that otherwise shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Essentially, he was skeptical of how well Triska, or even the wiry-haired Nub, had taken care of him.
Finally, after all those thoughts played around in his mind and a soft nod from the Fearl approved, he said, “her name is Nub?”
“Well, according to her,” Triska said, looking at Nub briefly as if questioning it as well. “There’s no real way to know her real name if she’s lying.”
Triska started to speak, but was abruptly cut off by Nub. “Because we’re completely mad.” She said it proudly as if it was her one claim to fame.
“It’s a common thing among spellweavers,” Pea said. “I’ve only known one spellweaver. He was partially sane. Then again, that means she was partially mad as well, which defeats the purpose.”
James went back in his mind to what he had read in his book. Spellweavers were restricted magic users. They grew up like any normal person might until at some point before they turned ten voices and uncontrollable fits of insanity overtook them. Words flowed through their minds and mouths as if something entirely alien controlled them. It was a wonder that any of the spellweavers could end up anywhere close to sane. Then it all abruptly stopped. On their tenth birthdays they were gifted with an Oere—a single word by which all of their magic would be placed. But they didn’t call them spellweavers simply because of that. No, spellweavers were just that, weavers of spells. They designed blankets, hats, and anything imaginable through the process of weaving, all the while humming or singing their Oere. When it came time to use their Oere for magic, their woven things would burn or disappear entirely. A spellweavers’ life depended upon the breadth of their weaves, for if all of it were to burn away, the weaver would die. Somewhere nearby Nub had a place filled with the things she had created. And, some of those things had burned away. Guilt and sadness hit him, for he imagined they had been beautiful items that were long gone because of him. But, such was the lot of spellweavers who’s craft developed and brightened even as they knew one day those things might never be seen again.
“Now, my boy,” Pea started again, patting James on the leg, “you rest up a bit before Ammond comes in to interrogate you, and we’ll see you around dinner time. Whenever that may be.”
“Oh, he’s just joking of course,” Triska said reassuringly.
“We Erdluitle’s are quite fond of jokes.”
“But not necessarily good at them.”
Pea scowled at her. “Yes, well I must say we sure have a better sense of humor it than some.” James knew he was talking about Darl.
With that, they said their goodbye’s to James and quickly left, leaving him once again alone with Nub who had by then nearly finished her puzzle. It was a large puzzle, but upon further inspection James realized that it envisioned nothing but a shimmering silver color. Each of the thousands of pieces was the same color, and when Nub put them into a proper place, the lines faded away creating a single solid structure. At one point she attempted to place a piece that didn’t belong. In response, the puzzle spat it to the side and she angrily grabbed it and glared down like a child in a staring contest.
James had suddenly grown very fascinated with Nub. There was so much magic in Traea, yet, despite that it seemed so limited. Here, someone who might very well be capable of constituting enormous amounts of stored energy, was limited by her sanity. She could make spells, sure, but because of her inability to fully devote her mind to the entireties of magic she could never really do anything. Her mind limited her to one major talent, in this case the art of healing. He realized that at home, someone like her would have been institutionalized, deemed completely insane and locked away from society or dosed up on drugs. Yet, here in this far-reaching and different world, she was recognized for the talents she truly possessed. He wondered what other insanities, quarks, and the like were seen as redeeming qualities, or were gateways to the seemingly unending knowledge of magic. The magic he had been given hurt him if he used it too much and made him fuzzy when he tried to use it sparingly. And it seemed to fail him in times when he didn’t truly need it. Perhaps that is another limitation. It can’t be used for unnecessary things.
He admired Nub, though he couldn’t be sure why. She could do things that he couldn’t, then again so could most around him. But, like him, she seemed in a way to be lost in a different world, the world of her mind. He too had that, both in his Fearl and in the fact that he was an off-worlder.
James eventually found it in him to try to sleep again. He felt awake, but couldn’t help thinking that his body could use the rest. So he lay there attempting various tricks to force himself to sleep. He tried reading, a trick he had once learned by accident once when he had the desire to stay up all night on a weekend. When that failed he counted imaginary sheep. He saw them as clear as day in his mind jumping over a white fence onto a grassy knoll. That too failed and he quickly ran out of options. He just lay there staring at the ceiling.
Then, as unexpected as it could be, sleep came to him, driven by a deep desire from the Fearl and his body combined. His eyelids drooped and then he was out.
James hadn’t slept long before a loud pound on the iron door rang through the building. He woke with a start and Nub, who still sat at her puzzle, slammed her fists into the little table, groaned angrily, and stood, cursing all the while. She reached the door and let Ammond in, who turned and gestured for several men outside to remain there. Nub glared rudely and returned to her puzzle.
James smiled and started to get up to bow before Ammond stopped him.
“Please, stay. You’ve been through far too much to bow to me now.”
He leaned back again.
“I see you are better, though not all too well.”
“I feel okay,” he said. It was true, the pain had gone down several notches, but it still lingered sharper on his shoulders where the lyphon had dug its claws.
“Good, that is very good. James, I am afraid that we cannot keep you safe here. Not for long at least. I’ve arranged for you to be taken to Arnur. It’s a sacred place, but I think we can keep you protected there until we know fully what to do.”
“Where is it?” For he had not read about such a place before.
“High in the Lor Range. It’s a temple from a time when many still believed in gods. It’s a far and difficult journey, but there we can keep you safe, secret, and out of Luthien’s hands.”
“What of my friends?”
“Pea gratefully agreed. Darl, though rudely, stated he was obligated to be there. They will resume your training there. Gammon wished to remain here with his family, which I am happily willing to allow. He has vowed secrecy. Triska has yet to decide.”
“She has a business here.”
“And family.”
“She has a brother. They seldom see each other, but they are family after all.”
James never knew she had family in Arlin City. He knew about her children, at least a little, but not of her brother. I wonder what he is like. Is he like her? Warm? Kind?
“You’ll be sent with the next shipment of supplies tomorrow. If all goes well. Sometimes things go a little slower than expected.” At that Ammond beamed, and James returned the gesture. “Still, you will be safe until we know what to do.”
“Thank you.”
“Of course,” again Ammond smiled.
“I really am grateful for all you have done. Truly,” Ammond remained silent to let him finish. “You’ve given me such hospitality. Treated me better than I could have ever hoped. You are a great leader.”
“Well, don’t count me into the hall of great leaders just yet. I may be a lively old man,” there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “but I’m not short of mistakes. None of us are.” Ammond patted James on the arm. “In due time you will learn that even the greatest of leaders are really just normal people like yourself.”
James believed it.
“Have you eaten?”
He shook his head.
“Then I’ll have some food sent up. You need to rest. Those wounds will not heal lest you do. Take care James.”
Then Ammond left the room, much to the dismay of Nub who became irritated as the iron door slammed shut. Then, in a glorified celebration of triumph, Nub jumped up, wailed joyously and presented the completed puzzle to James. He looked and marveled at the scene now shown in the silver sheen. A great mountainous landscape filled with emerald green trees that stretched all the way up to the snow line, reflected in the pale blue waters of a shimmering lake. Before he could ask where this place was, Nub lifted it high above her head and threw it across the room. The puzzle crashed into the far wall and shattered back into its original pieces.
James looked back at her. “And what purpose did that serve?”
She shrugged. “It’s easier to start over this way.” And as if she had done it a thousand times over, she went to the wall and began to pick up the pieces, placing them in a small tin bin.
Then something echoed through the silence. At first it sounded like a deep rumble, as if an earthquake were shaking the earth somewhere beyond. But, the sound came again, and this time he listened, hearing the deep brass of a horn. Another horn, higher and brassy sounded in response. The deeper horn blew again, resonating so loudly that he could hear each of the vibrations. And again, the high horns, close and within the walls of Arlin City, called out.
Nub looked him in the eye, and he knew immediately that something was wrong.

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1 comment:

  1. Finally I get a chance to comment, apologies for how long it sometimes takes me to get to it)

    This chapter felt like breather. A welcomed chance to catch your breath after massive exertion. James' brutal attack required time to heal and what a great way to do it. We have a new character, Nub, who is a spellweaver. I like the fact that she's nuts (or is she just more honest than everyone around her?)

    Looking at Nub, Triska and Pea and the abilities of the Ferl, magic in traea is taking on some unique characteristics, that is compared to magic in other stories and fantasy games etc. Practioners of magic are characterized by their limitations. Does anyone or anything have unlimited access to magic? I guess we'll have to wait and see, especially where Luthien is concerned.

    The more metaphysical asects of the chapter, LOE and Halls of the Great Father were a little weak. Well maybe not weak but certainly undedeveloped and I will hold off because James is heading to Arnur, a perfect place to develop these concepts. becoming part of "The Force" or being in Hell seem like incompatable opposites in a belief system. And I absolutely cringed at James' explanation of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, but that's the Fundie in me.

    Another great chapter. Breathers over.