© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
This is Chapter V 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.
It was a tradition now that Egnatius Drusus and Julius Laurentius took their morning tea while walking the halls of the Eastern Towers. They set aside that time in the early hours of the day while everyone else slept to share observations regarding their remarkable young allies from the foreign world. Both felt responsible for Jake and River, and as the youngsters blossomed and turned into adults in these terrible times—growing, changing and evolving right in front of their eyes, sometimes too quick for them to even realize—the two Scholars wanted to ensure they guided them to a correct path and advised them in accordance with their conscience, but also with theirs and Antalean best interest in mind.
"Jake's grief over his brother is troublesome, Magus," Julius said when they stopped by an arched window and sipped the hot drink. "The Darkness inside him grows and so does his power, and it is a worrisome combination."
Outside, the night was endless. Turan was relatively peaceful, calm like the eye of a storm, while outside of its walls torrential rains flooded the Plains of K'Aldahar, earthquakes shook the earth and shifted landscapes and monstrous hurricanes raked the ground deep, leaving behind terrible scars, deep ravines that quickly filled with raging waters. Turan prevailed against the elements thanks to the powerful Gathering and Protective Charms, engineered by Decimus Tibertius and boosted by the shaping skills of many Scholars all working tirelessly around the clock. The city was in a globe against which tidal waves clashed and upon which the quakes crashed and softened.
"The dark lord feels his hopelessness and he feeds it with dreams and nightmares," Egnatius replied with a nod. He watched absently the distant flashes of lightning and listened to the far away sounds of rolling thunder. "He is much more efficient than any vampyre in planting seeds of despair. And Jake's pain, in turn, feeds the Nameless and increases his power. They are two great shapers, and there is a connection forged between them now. The Nameless has nurtured it ever since the battle with the Black Army, ever since he learned of Jake's power."
"The boy's power grows," Julius repeated. They picked up their slow walk again, teacups floating in front of them, always one step ahead. "He's ready to take the next step, but with the Darkness that clouds his mind, I hesitate before helping him take it."
"Of course, you're right to be uncertain," the Magus commented after a long pause during which the only sound in the halls was their footsteps. "It is a big risk to take. Giving Jake such power, and now..." He hesitated. "Connecting him to the source of our strength may be dangerous. If Darkness overwhelms him and he is pulled in by the Nameless, we could forever regret our mistake."
"Forever could be a lot shorter if that is to be the case," Julius said gravely. "Two such shapers ravaging Antalea... We would not last." He paused. "Perhaps then, the risk is too great to undertake? Perhaps we should wait until Jake overpowers the Darkness and frees his mind from the anguish."
"Time is running out, young Julius," Egnatius remarked. "Jacob must take the next step, regardless of the risk. Otherwise he will never become the shaper he is destined to be."
"Perhaps the risk outweighs the gain in this case?" The Younger Scholar probed again.
"If the images I saw in the palantir, if they are to come true—if Jake is to become the greatest shaper in Antalea and if he is to lead our armies into battle against the Nameless, then no risk is too great. Don't you agree?"
"You said yourself, though, that what you see in the orb are mere possibilities. They are not predetermined outcomes of our actions."
"Correct," Egnatius Drusus replied. "But if the possibilities are to come true, then certain preconditions must be met. The possibility cannot be fulfilled if we negate Jake the right to take the next step in becoming a shaper."
"If we give him the artifact, it will catapult him into a level of strength that only few ever know." Julius decided against arguing further, noting that the Magus had already made up his mind. "Most Scholars can only attain the power Jake already possesses now through the use of the artifact; it amplifies their power. But Jake, he can do things without such help, things that others can only dream of. What will he do when he is given such power? Where will it end?"
"If Jake does not become the shaper he is meant to be—a true Bringer of Chaos—then everything we are doing is for nothing. Riders, Slayers, dragons and dwarves, all of our armies combined will not be able to stand ground against the Murderous. The preconditions for this particular outcome are already met: the Nameless is more powerful than any of us, many times over. The Weaver has withdrawn and observes. It is our battle and our destiny. River will persuade the dwarves to join the struggle; I am certain of it, just as I am certain that Caitrin Lightborn will overcome her grief, accept the burden of leadership and she will become a great Commander. But all of our struggles, battles, and sacrifices will amount to nothing if Jake does not fulfill his destiny. The Darkness is in his mind, as it should be, because to be a shaper means to bring chaos to an orderly world. A shaper's greatest power is the ability to balance the world on their fingertips. There is a fine line between creation and destruction. And forming requires the shaper to have a fluidity which, unfortunately, can sometimes work against them. To move seamlessly between the worlds, between the moments that are shaped and reshaped; between different outcomes and futures; to see the balance of probabilities laid bare in front of you, to move between love and hate, happiness and despair; how strong do you have to be not to succumb to Darkness and madness? You and I are both shapers, but we have only glimpsed the power that Jake possesses."
"Does he have that strength, Egnatius? Can he carry the burden?"
"The Tree of Change has awoken and is asking for him," Egnatius said somberly without answering the question. "Take him to the Guardian. He will decide. It is beyond our control now. The Tree shuddered and sensed Jake's power. He must go through the trials and he must succeed. He must be given the artifact."
"I will talk to him and get him ready."
"Go today if you can. Time is of an essence. You should return before River brings news from the dwarves. Take Gaius Procius, he will also benefit from something other than grief."
Julius gave a short bow and started to walk away. His empty tea cup landed softly on the sill of an arched window. The Younger Scholar halted after several steps and turned. "What if the Guardian senses Jake's Darkness and does not grant him the artifact?"
"Then we are all doomed," Egnatius Drusus answered grimly.
Julius Laurentius studied the Magus for a moment in silence, and then he simply turned and walked away.
The Younger Scholar found Jake in the Needle Tower, amidst the books he liked so much. The Room of Books was his sanctuary and it was where he always escaped to when the Darkness got a hold of him or when the world was too much.
"You spend a lot of time in here lately." Julius sat in the chair opposite the young man who looked back with unblinking eyes. Darkness turned and rolled behind his gaze and Julius had to look away from his deadened stare.
"Why are you here, Julius?" Jake asked brusquely. "To tell me that I must fight it, that I must not succumb and not give myself in?"
"I already told you all that," the Younger Scholar replied calmly. "You know all that." He took his pipe out of the deep pockets of his robe, and charmed it to burn. Sweet scent of smoke filled the air. Jake watched him as the Scholar again dug into his pockets and retrieved another object which he placed on the table between them. The young man leaned in and glared at it hungrily. It was nothing more than a simple piece of dead wood, twisted and oddly shaped, but Jake knew exactly what it was, though he had never seen it before.
"Your wand!" he exclaimed and reached for it. But the artifact withdrew from his grasp and slid across the table into the open hand of Julius Laurentius.
"Indeed," the Scholar said. "I apologize. The artifact only recognizes me as its master and no one else can wield it."
"I knew you had a wand, I knew it," Jake remarked excitedly, his eyes fixed on the strange piece. "How does it work?"
"Wand?" Julius repeated, turning the word in his mind. "I'm not familiar with the word. This is the artifact, a piece of the Tree of Change. It chose me as its master and it amplifies my power. It allows me to focus my energy and channel my shaping thoughts."
"How can I get one?" the young man asked quickly. Julius studied his eyes and the dark clouds rolling through the boy's deep gaze.
"You need to understand what it is first," he remarked. Jake looked at him with impatience from beneath his furrowed brows and a creased forehead.
"Tell me then," he stated curtly.
Julius puffed on the pipe and turned his attention to his artifact. He studied it in the light of the fire, admiring its odd shapes and curves.
"The good god Anui, before he was defeated by his brother, before the Nameless erased his own name from the Loom of Life and thus escaped the Weaver's control, the good god Anui was the greatest shapeformer this world had ever seen. But before he came here from the cosmic abyss of nothingness, Antalea was just a lifeless rock where nothing survived. It was Anui that gave it shape and form, it was Anui that breathed life into it and turned it into a beautiful world. And to do that, he shaped a tree and this tree became the Tree of Change and it is the heart of the world. The tree grows on an island in the Ocean of Mists, where no man can dwell and where no creature can live. It is the embodiment of our world's fluidity and it is the source of our power. It was the source of Anui's power."
"And the wand...the artifact?" Jake questioned.
"When the Tree senses a shaper born–when he or she is ready– it sends a shudder through the fabric of space and time, and calls for the shaper to come forth."
"And it called me?" the young man asked impatiently. "Yes, right? You wouldn't be here otherwise if it didn't."
"Indeed," Julius replied coolly. "The Tree of Change senses your power and is calling you forth to submit to the trials."
"Trials, what trials?" Jake furrowed his brow again.
"Egnatius wishes me to take you to the island to meet the Guardian. He will put you through trials to determine whether you are pure of heart and worthy of wielding the artifact. If you pass, a fragment of the Tree will be given to you, as it was given to me long time ago."
"What trials?" Jake demanded again.
"I cannot tell you," the Younger Scholar replied apologetically. "The trials are different for each one of us because they take place on a different plane of existence where you are tested against your weaknesses. The Guardian alone can guide you to them. He can see into your heart and devise trials that will determine your worthiness. And, remember Jake; his decision is final. There are no second chances."
"So if I fail..."
"Your growth as a shaper will be stunted. You will never reach your full potential. Only the artifact can take you to the next level."
"And this Guardian, who is he?"
"God Anui had many children," Julius said. "Dragons were his favorites. But he formed others as well, and one such child was the Guardian. He was not evil, but... grotesque. He is difficult to look upon," the Younger Scholar finished quickly. "But he is gifted in other ways."
"Like reading your mind?" Jake scoffed.
"Anui decided to bind him to the Tree of Change and make him the Guardian, thus ensuring that the Tree is safe and that the artifacts will not fall into the wrong hands."
"And the Nameless, has he not tried to destroy the Tree or take it for his own?"
"The island is hidden. Despite all of his power, the Nameless cannot locate it."
"So when do we leave?" Jake asked next.
Julius studied him carefully. "Pack for a three day journey," he said finally. "We will leave at noon with Gaius Procius."
The Younger Scholar left the young man alone in his room. For the first time in a long time, Jake Starwanderer smiled. Finally, his own wand. Whistling a happy tune he went back to his room, and started throwing clothes and weapons together into a travel bag.
Unbeknownst to him, far away in the Land of Shadows, the Nameless deity grinned too. His connection to the young shaper has grown considerably since it was first forged. Piece by piece, Jake's mind was invaded by the Murderous' toxic thoughts.
After six months and six days, the god finally rose from his dark throne from where he looked over the Land of Shadows. He stretched his tall frame and his giant shadow danced on the wall behind him. It twisted and turned, living its own life, and great raven wings sprouted from his shoulders and stretched impossibly to cover the entire rugged face of the cliff, the top of which disappeared high in the cavern ceiling inside a thick, swirling stack of toxic clouds. Out in the darkness black dragons soared, emitting sharp crows from time to time, as they scoured the fiery world below them, their hawkish eyes—marked by a web of black poisonous veins—looking for the one soul that eluded them: the dæmon whom their master feared.
The god stepped off the pedestal where the iron throne sat and approached the edge of the crag that overlooked the anguished world. Thousands, millions of distorted faces turned over in the fiery rivers; ethereal features swam in the great fires burning between the giant columns, and above all this, there was a steady stream of terrible, tortured screams. The god looked and listened, and he was pleased. The Land of Shadows was his finest creation and soon—if time was ever a measure for the deity—the same would befall the rest of Antalea. Already, his dark mood took the world over and reshaped its landscapes. Eternal darkness, massive quakes that shifted mountains, and savage winds ravaged the realm. His minions overran the lands and forced those who opposed him to seek refuge in places where no one looked. This was only the beginning, however—the god was gathering strength and planning his next move.
The monstrous deity beckoned over a creature that skulked along the edge of the light, hiding in shadows—a hanadir. His name was Mackenzie King and he was a no less terrifying beast than Evergreen Atwood was. The god had formed several dozen such creatures to serve as his officers, captains and, in rare cases, generals. Evergreen Atwood was an exceptionally vicious and loyal beast. His loss was a great blow to the Treacherous god and terrible anger swelled inside him when he first felt his minion's demise. But now he called forth his brother who was slightly smaller than the towering General, but just as savage looking. Long canines protruded from his thick, meaty lips and his small eyes looked on with an insatiable hunger.
"My lord," Mackenzie King rasped as he approached. "You called me?"
"There is something I need you to do," the deity remarked.
"Anything." The hanadir was eager to please his master and he would welcome any chance to prove that he was no less useful than his brother before him. With the death of Evergreen Atwood, he had an opportunity to sit at the right hand of his terrible god.
"A small party of Riders will soon enter the Ocean of Mists. They will no doubt be carried by dragons and they will cover a great distance quickly. I need you to track them." He looked keenly at his servant. "Can you do it?"
"Of course, master," the beast replied. His twisted features shaped into a caricature of a smile. "I can track the scent of humans for leagues. They will not escape me."
"Take Alaia and a the others," the Nameless said. "Gather a party of your most trusted orcs and go now."
"I will kill them for you."
"No," the god said with a slight shake of head. "Track them and do not let them see you. Finding their destination is far more important to me than having them dead."
"But their filthy beasts will sense our dragons," the hanadir protested slightly. "We will be discovered."
"I will make them invisible to the dragons' eyes," the Murderous replied coolly. "They will not see you."
The god mentally summoned his Black Queen of the Land of Shadows and when Alaia swooped down on her giant wings, he approached the edge of the crag. The dragon crowed softly and hovered in front of him, her great wings beating the air and raising clouds of dust.
"Gather your brethren and go with the half-breed," the god instructed her. "Help him. But be patient, my dear. Dragons will be there, but they must not discover you." Alaia snorted and shook her shapely head. A black frill opened and closed quickly, a flash of anger.
"Your time will come." The god calmed her and extended his long arm to touch her. The terrible dragon shuddered under his touch. "You want the dragons to suffer. You want Calista to suffer. She was the chosen of my silly little brother, and you, with all your power, you were always left in the shadows. You want to show the world just how much greater you are than your sister ever was." A dark smile visited the god's solemn features. "But this mission is more important than your vengeance, than your war with the dragons and with your sister. If we find the Tree of Change, the war will tip back in our favor."
Alaia crowed into the fiery darkness and flew off into the night. The Nameless turned and motioned for the hanadir to go as well.
"Do not fail me, Mackenzie King," he said after him. "The consequences of your failure in this matter would be a major setback to my plans. And it would displease me greatly."
The beast swallowed hard, bowed to the ground, and skulked away into the darkness.
<< Chapter IV: Bringer of Chaos to be continued...