© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
This is Chapter I of the Book II of the Broken Worlds trilogy, By the Rivers Dark. The entire novel will be made available for free, chapter by chapter, as it is written. Book I of the Broken Worlds trilogy, RIse of the Dragon Riders is available here.
I. Brave New World
Deep in the Great Eastern Region a lonely figure hastily hiked the slippery gravel slopes of a shadowy mountain. He fought hard against loose rocks and every step was torture, but his features were determined. He clenched his teeth, wiped the sweat off his brow when he paused briefly, but each time he pressed forward, hard and resolved. The world around him was violent and dark, and the mountain rumbled from time to time when savage underground quakes shook its core. Stones spilled down the slopes, large and small, but they all somehow missed the lone traveler. Winds howled around him and the dark sky was brightened only by distant flashes of lightning. The moon was long gone, its face unseen for months; the stars too, kept hidden behind heavy stacks of black clouds that stretched over the entire sky. Antalea had changed: gloomy and grey before, now it turned dark and sinister, and everywhere Jake Starwanderer looked, he saw the foul mood of the Cursed god.
Darkness clouded his mind, too, and his thoughts was no less menacing than that of his nameless nemesis. Shaping, too, became easier for Jake now; much of it was instinctive, like protection against falling rocks. His pensive and distant mind formed a defensive barrier and he reshaped the path of falling objects without even thinking about it. The rocks changed their course at the last moment—a lucky bounce, some might say—but it was Jake's mind at work, naming and renaming the world around him, shaping the moments and the reality in his favor. He could, too, reshape the mountain slopes to make his journey easier, but he chose not to; he relished in the tortuous hike, the punishment of it a pleasure, the shooting pain in his muscles a hurtful reminder of his failure to protect Dominic.
Nightmares came every night and Jake hardly slept anymore. His eyes were set deep inside a sunken, sallow face, pain and fatigue permanently etched into his features, and Darkness lurked just behind his brooding gaze. Shadows gathered in his mind and clouded the goodness, stifled the joy and fed the despair he had felt for months. In the nightmares, he saw Dominic devoured by flames, his silent and anguished scream frozen in a time-capsule, a moment of horror suspended in time and stretched into eternity, hanging before Jake's eyes each time he closed them. And each time it was the same, and each time he clawed the air when he opened his eyes, and he reached out with a terrible cry, his fingers desperately fighting against a moment that was slipping away, his brother beyond his reach, always, always just beyond his reach and trapped in a nightmare. And each time he woke, tears streaked Jake's face and each time his resolve hardened and each time more shadows gathered in his mind until sometimes he felt nothing but the Darkness. In such moments he sought solitude. He mounted Kale and they traversed the dark sky, a ruined world beneath them. They weaved between monstrous twisters that ravaged the earth below, his dragon fighting hard against their pull, his wings beating furiously against the unforgiving winds. They rose higher and Jake opened the clouds before them like dark curtains with a wave of hand, but nothing more than darkness lay behind them and each layer he peeled away produced another, until he surrendered and they soared through the night that was the Cursed's pensive mood, Jake's head tightly hugging the dragon's scaly neck. Sometimes in a fit of madness, Jake commanded Kale to land in the middle of the emptiness, the ruined world that once thrived, and he ran blindly, his muscles hurting, and he relished in the pain and the suffering—like he did now. The only thing he felt, the only feeling that broke through the Darkness was pain, and so he ran and he fell, he picked himself up to run again, he clawed his way up the gravel slopes of shadowy mountains that spewed volcanic ash and covered the world with layers of blackness. The Darkness had hardened his soul until he felt nothing, and so he ran to feel the pain, to feel something other than the void and the Darkness—to feel something, anything, just to know that he was still human.
Today was the same: the Darkness chased him through the wasteland of what once was and the nightmare followed closely on a gust of wind burdened by rain. Shadows had gathered in his mind, dark clouds that stacked higher than his shaping gaze could penetrate, memories of things that he did not want— like the memory of Dominic dying, his little brother giving his life to save them. Like the memory of things he had not really seen: the image of his little brother tortured in the Land of Shadows, and a memory of the Nameless laughing while Jake reached desperately to pull his brother out of the flames.
Jake swallowed the tears and continued his desperate climb. He slipped repeatedly on the loose rocks; he fell and picked himself up again and again, his legs hurt and pain permeated his entire being, but he clawed forward on all fours, reached frantically for the next rock, the next outcrop and he pulled himself up, one more time, one more step, one more, until beyond the next one he hoped not to remember how he failed to protect his little brother. He choked back the tears and again he slipped and fell. He slammed into the gravel slope belly-first and scratched his face against a sharp rock, and finally, finally, he did not move. He remained still on the slopes of the dark mountain, black sky above him, howling winds raging madly around him, and the rain coming down hard. Jake panted and relished in the pain that washed over him, bloomed deep inside and exploded throughout his muscles. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes to the dark stacks of clouds that brewed above him; twin tornadoes ravaged the sky, heavy clouds swung violently from side to side, and thunderous flashes lit up the darkness. Rain came down hard and beat against his face, and water mixed with tears.
Jake sat and covered his face with his hands. The storm raged all around him, but he remained sheltered inside a small sphere, a Protection Charm—and inside the sphere, he remained dry, except for the tears, and he was safe here except that his heart was broken. He conjured up the sphere without even realizing it, an instinct of a shapeformer. And he sat for hours until the storm had passed and the sky cleared; dark clouds dispersed, the violent storm dwindled, the sky calmed though it was still covered by darkness that never ceased. He rubbed his forehead and rose to his feet. Slowly, defeated, Jake hiked the remaining distance to the top of the mountain, leaning against large rocks when strong gusts of cold wind rocked him from side to side. Finally, he reached the summit and here he stood, eyes closed, arms open, dark sky above him, and winds raging around him. Edges of a long robe escaped from beneath the fur-trimmed coat, and flapped behind him in the wind—a golden robe that denoted him as a Lead Scholar and Mage Proper.
Jake heard them below. They were exactly where he expected them to be: a band of orcs, several dozen; he was not sure how many. It did not matter: a dozen, two, a hundred. He was a shapeformer so there might as well have been a thousand. He opened his eyes and looked down, and he saw them, huddled around small fires. A hunting party perhaps, or a war-party; he did not know. Their dark, grotesque faces were painted red and black, they sported primitive weapons, and their monstrous, beefy bodies were covered in black leather armor. They did not see him yet as they posted no sentries, confident that no one was foolish enough to venture into this wasteland in the weather such as it was. Antalea, drenched in the god's dark mood, was a world more to their liking now, the orcs, the goblins and other unholy beasts. Darkness they liked and in the night they relished, but the wind and the rain still forced this party of orcs to seek refuge against a handful of large stones scattered on the slope of the mountain.
Jake's eyes focused on them and he slowly removed the hood from his head, and exposed his long blond hair to the savage gusts of wind. His eyes were dark and keen, and they mirrored the flashes of lightening that scarred the sky above him. He watched in grim silence the orcs that puttered around the camp fires. They shoved and elbowed each other out of the way, spitting and snarling; but in this dark, cold and windy world they did not wish to brawl, so they settled down quickly. With their strong, sharp teeth they impatiently pulled apart half-cooked rabbits that roasted over small fires.
The young shaper began a steady descent and approached the small party of the Wicked's minions. There were many such marauding groups in Antalea and their presence did not indicate a larger threat. The beasts were emboldened by the perpetual night that covered the world after the god's mood turned sour once it was clear he had lost the Black Army and that the scales had tipped ever so slightly in favor of people and dragons. He bred more orcs and goblins in response and flooded the world with his minions. People, dragons, dwarves, they scrambled back and dug in deep behind their city walls and inside their hidden mountain dwellings. The world changed and it was a world where creatures of night walked free.
Jake approached the orcs fast and without fear, choosing to remain in the open, his long blond hair windblown. The creatures did not see him until he stood at the edge of the circle of light given off by their fires. They jumped to their feet then, snarling and growling in surprise, grabbed their weapons and fixed leather armor among the clatter, tightened up belts and snapped clasps into place. Within moments they formed a small circle around the young man, jagged swords gripped tightly by clawed hands, muscles tensed under the primitive armor. They snapped their sharp teeth and twisted their savage features in hideous grins, snorting and grunting like animals. Jake watched them fearlessly, his head tilted slightly, and he saw the leader push two orcs into the night with a couple of short barks—no doubt to make sure the young human was alone and not a scout for a larger force. The youngster smirked, his mind swelling with Darkness that he barely restrained, fury bubbling just beneath the cool surface, spells and charms running madly through the emptiness of his thoughts as instinct took over. He clenched and unclenched his fists.
"Bringer of Chaos," the orc leader grunted. "I know who you are."
"Then why are you still here?" Jake Starwanderer asked. "You should be running for your life." He looked over the dozen creatures that surrounded him. "You all should be running for your lives."
The orcs chuckled crudely and elbowed each other, weapons and armor clattering. Jake was motionless. He closed his eyes.
"Kill him," the orc leader barked.
Two brutish orcs lunged forward with weapons raised high, their torn and creased snouts open in a savage war cry. Jake's eyes remained closed and he made no movement, but the creatures suddenly hollered in surprise as a great gust of wind clutched them and raised them high into the air. The others followed with their eyes and watched the two orcs spin in a savage dance of death above them, twist unnaturally in the violent gusts of wind that threw them from side to side, smashed them repeatedly against one another until they were nothing more than two bloody and lifeless sacks of meat. Weapons clattered to the ground from the height and then the two ruined bodies crashed hard against the earth, unnaturally embraced—legs and arms broken and oddly bent, faces smashed and animal features barely recognizable.
The orcs quieted and stood surprised, gazing at their two dead companions. Jake opened his eyes finally and looked at the creatures from below his furrowed brow, his head low, his gaze ice. Like a snake, his hand shot forward from beneath his robe and then the weapons flew out of the orcs' suddenly lifeless hands. The beasts watched in disbelief as the crude blades and axes raced from all sides towards the Bringer of Chaos and then stopped abruptly a mere hand's breadth away from his unblinking eyes. Jake's index finger completed a small circle and the weapons turned; their sharp, glistening points and edges now faced their owners. He tilted his head and glanced around, noting with dark pleasure the look of horror on the savagely twisted faces of orcs. They looked at one another in shock and then turned to flee, pushing and shoving each other out of the way, shouting and tripping over each other to scramble from the path of their own murderous weapons. Jake watched them skitter away to hide behind rocks and boulders, then flicked his wrist slightly and sent the crude weapons after them. Swords and axes shot forward, chased down their owners and sunk into their backs, cleaved their heads, and pierced their breasts. The orcs fell in scores, one on top of the other, blood fanned everywhere, and Jake Starwander watched the carnage with a grim scowl. When it was over, he called a broadsword back into his hand and walked the small clearing now riddled with bodies of lifeless creatures. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to face the orc leader who leaped out of the darkness. The creature tore an axe out of a body as it raced to meet him, an animal howl on its twisted lips. Jake looked with unblinking eyes, terrible Darkness swelling inside his mind, his gaze as black as the Cursed's night. The orc fell forward abruptly, belly first against the ground and smashed his already twisted and mutilated face against the sharp rocks. He looked down in disbelief to see that his legs had changed to stone and weighed him down, tying him to the ground.
"My power is such that you cannot defeat me," Jake said with a stern gaze as he approached the struggling orc, dragging the long broadsword behind him. Sparks fanned out from beneath the sharp blade as it skipped over the rocks. The orc snorted and grunted; he tried to free his stone legs from the merciless ground that held them dear; his clawed hands searched for the axe to hack them off so that he could crawl forward to meet his foe. Jake watched him for a moment and then swung the sword hard and crashed the crude weapons down on the orc's exposed head. The creature shuddered and then lay motionless. The young shaper left the sword wedged in its head and walked away. As he left the clearing, he halted for a moment because he heard a rustle behind him. A small gesture and a dark thought, and two swords suddenly jumped from the ground and raced into the darkness. The blades disappeared and in the night Jake heard painful grunts followed by two heavy thuds that meant the death of the two orcs that were sent before to check the area.
Jake gave a wry smile. No loose ends. Not anymore.
He pulled his hood up and turned the collar against the savage gusts of wind that continued to ravage the slopes of the dark mountain. He walked through the darkness slowly, descended to the Plains of K'Aldahar and started for where he knew Kale to be waited for him.
Some time later Jake and River sat at the edge of the dale where the dragons lived. They had a blanket under them and they wrapped themselves in furs to protect against the cold and the wind of the world as it was after the defeat of the Black Army. The dale itself was protected somewhat from the wrathful shaping thoughts of the Murderous god—Decimus Tibertius and his acolytes watched over that—but even here, the darkness seeped in. Even here the sun dimmed, the green withdrew and the birds' song was quiet. Even here, where the Children of the Sun lived and where their magic was strong, where Calista the Dragon Queen lived—even here, the Cursed's poisonous thoughts left a mark.
The youngsters sat in silence and watched the dragons graze the grass and pick the fruit from the boughs that hung low to the ground. The grass was not as lush as Jake remembered it, and the fruits were smaller. He picked up a pebble and threw it absently forward; he watched it bounce down a gentle slope and halt in the grass.
"Do you still have the nightmares?" River asked without turning to face him. Her eyes were on Calista, who rested some distance away from them. The dragon's colorful frill was tucked away, wings flat against her sides, and her eyes closed. Only her spiky tail moved from side to side, very much in a dog-like manner, and the young girl smiled at the sight of it. But her thoughts were grim. She looked at Jake finally and saw that he was miles away. There was a wall between him and the rest of the world. Dominic's death—his sacrifice—shook the boy to the core. He teetered on the brink of darkness, a place River knew very well. It was a place Egnatius Drusus told her to leave and to forget, and she did. Now Jake was there and there was no light in his world.
"They will end," she whispered. Her hand found his and she squeezed it gently, but he did not return the caress. He was still far away, swallowed up by the dark. "I miss him, too," she added hesitantly after a short pause.
He came back then, Darkness shifted and he turned to her, a small smile on his lips. His eyes had color again instead of the infinitely sad veil. "I know you do," Jake said. "But I'm not sure my nightmares will end," he added. "They are getting stronger."
"It's the Nameless," River said. "He is toying with your pain."
"Perhaps," the young man replied with a nod. He picked up another pebble and weighed in his hand. "Or maybe it's me? My conscience not giving me peace?"
"It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could've done," River said with a scowl. "It was Dominic's choice. He stayed the course, like the Weaver said. He did what was needed."
"Did he now?" Jake's voice was bitter. "And how did that turn out? The world plunged into darkness, the orcs and goblins are out in scores, our people are hiding behind city walls and skulking in the mountains. What did his sacrifice give us?"
"A chance," River replied quietly. "A chance to fight back. Your power is great and it's growing every day. The Riders, the Slayers, they all look to you for leadership now."
"I'm no leader," young Jake said with an impatient waive. He closed his hand over the pebble and when he opened it again, it housed a great giant moth. River looked away.
"Talk to Julius and Egnatius," she said after a while. "They can help."
"I'd rather be here," Jake replied grimly.
"I'm leaving for Kinsborough tomorrow," River stated. "The Slayers are reeling back from all their losses and trying to rebuild and protect their community. They need help."
Jake released the moth and watched it fly away into the growing darkness.
"You shouldn't be here alone," River added after another short pause. "Go back to Turan. They need you there." She touched his shoulder. "And you need them. You can't go chasing shadows in the darkness every day."
"I know," Jake said with a quiet sigh. "But I can't sleep."
"There are potions you can drink and charms that can be done..."
"No," he interrupted her sternly, then reflected and added quietly. "No. I need this. It's the only thing I have left of him."
There was a long pause.
"Just don't get lost in it," River said finally.
They sat in silence for some time longer while the night grew around them.