Homecoming


#1

So a while back, we did something we called “Lazy Iron Writer.” I think? Anyhow, this was my entry, even though I can’t seem to actually find it on the Sliver webboards anywhere. (it’s possible I dreamed this) Near as I can tell, this is the first Proper post set in Aryth in a good long while. Have any of you ever had that experience where you dig up something you wrote a while ago, read it over, and actually find yourself a little surprised by it because you don’t remember how it ended (and, for that matter, only vaguely recall writing it in the first place)? That was me finding this post in my files early this morning. Enjoy!


#2

The Glory Tower.

By anyone’s estimation, this would be considered a famous landmark. Even in its current condition: a fragmented, humble base of rubble. The circular foundation still remained, and a small monument had been erected in the center – a commemoration of all those that died during the War with the East.

But as I sat there, on that day, beginning a new page in my journal just as I was unknowingly beginning the next stage of my life, I came to realize with some divinely given clarity that this “Tower” holds within it no more glory than the wilting grass and weeds that cling to what’s left of it. It is a dead and ruined thing that pales next to other landmarks in the Web – things I’d never seen or touched but only heard of, as in rumors from those who were fortunate enough to have left Aryth and see the other lands and people beyond the Gate.

All of Western Aryth had been a shadow of its former self since the end of the war, after the “Night of the Hyps.” That was nearly fourteen years ago now – basically my entire life. While I was grateful, always, to the five people who had been appointed with my care, as I came into my teenaged years I grew increasingly resentful of being forced to life in a place dominated by so many shadows of the past. Shadows of times that were greater, that were happier. Forced, instead of seeking out my own greatness, to simply be content with surviving – surviving, which my dear Sa’Laithe seemed to insist was above all the most important thing for me.

But it was becoming tiresome, despite how sweetly, in her honeyed tones, Sa’Laithe attempted to placate me. I grew up in the shadow of a tower I’d never seen, which had been destroyed before I was born. My mother left without a word after the Night of the Hyps – or so Velrand had told me – and my father was in Guardia, ruling as King over one of the Four Great Powers of the Web of Worlds, and fighting horrific wars that all of my five surrogates insisted it was best I remained apart from.

I think the day it all began, the day I first conceived of my homecoming – which would, oddly, see me all but abandoning the only home I’d ever known throughout my childhood – I was sitting up on the hill where the Tower once stood, with my books and my pens. And the thought had actually touched the very tip of my consciousness when Velrand found me.

“Alexander,” came the old man’s voice, as he ascended the hill. Velrand always knew that this was where he could find me; it was my favorite place to just be alone with myself and avoid my studies. On finding me, just as every time before, Velrand placed his hands on his hips and wore his practiced scowl. “Come lad. There’s drillin’ to be done. I’ve a solid notion you’ll have gone soft before supper if we’re not back into your routine, thanks to that Sa’Laithe takin’ you to the Flower Fields.”

I, of course, pretended not to hear the old soldier’s bleating and braying. I kept my attention to the sketches I’d made… the sketches that meant nothing to me at the time, but which grew in significance each time I looked at them, each time my hand and pen repeated the pattern.

“Alexander Atrus Crant’za,” Velrand said, as he completed the march from where he’d first spotted me to the edge of the old Glory Tower’s grounds. “Come, now. I won’t ask again.”

He said that so often – “I won’t ask again” – and yet he kept asking. Pardon the observation; I just find it amusing. Still, whenever he said that, it was a sign that I was trying the man’s patience. And as I grew older, it somehow made me feel worse every time I did so. I quickly shut my book and hopped off the stone.

“There’s my lad,” Velrand said, as he scruffed up my hair with his massive, calloused hands. Even then, big as I’d grown, he could still fit my entire head into the palm of his hand. “You didn’t forget how to hold a sword while Sa’Laithe had you off lookin’ a flowers like a wee girl now, did ya?”

I just smiled and shook my head, inspiring a laugh from Velrand as we moved down the hill, through more ruins of the old capital city that once rung round the Tower, toward the humble shack where I’d been sheltered and protected for fourteen years.


#3

From the time I was very young, I had taken quite nicely to the quiet life that I had seemed destined for. For all intents and purposes, I had a happy home and family life. My family consisted of five others.

Velrand Augustelair was as good as a boy could expect for a surrogate father. Having seen fifty three winters come and go, he was by far the oldest of my keepers, and took what he must have felt was his rightful place at the head of our strange little household. Velrand was a former General Master Archer from Truklan, and had what he termed the distinct displeasure of having to serve in the wars that would ultimately lead to the decline of Western Aryth. This was all that he would say or tell me about the wars, but it was words more than he dared to speak of either my father or mother.

Though he was gruff and forceful, I nonetheless appreciated and loved the old soldier. He had taught me so much: swordsmanship, archery, riding… his lessons, he said, would prepare me to be a better soldier. Most importantly, he had instilled in me a sense of honor – more priceless than anything else I could have been taught. It prepared me not only to be a better soldier, but to be a better person, a better man.

Then there was Sa’Laithe. She was as much a mother to me as anyone could be. You’d never suspect her of being as mothering as she was to look at her; I’d easily call her the most beautiful woman in the Web, even if I’d only been to a few places in the Web up to then. She cooked for me, cleaned my clothes, and took me aside whenever Velrand wasn’t watching and taught me what she said the old soldier had no concept for. She encouraged my drawing, my writing. She took me from the Glory Tower to see what wonders of Western Aryth remained. She taught me songs, and dances. If Velrand gave me honor, Sa’Laithe gave me my soul.

Vormin Oricent was one that I would term the third of my keepers. I regard him as perhaps an older brother, or an uncle maybe. He worked closely with Velrand in developing my physical skills – Vormin, you see, was Camooran, and as I understand it he was a great Moonsennin player before the war. As often as I could tolerate it (and then a few times after that), Vormin would remind me he was once styled “Stormin’ Vormin” by the roaring crowds who would come to watch his games. As much as Velrand, but perhaps moreso, Vormin taught me the mind behind the game. He taught me to think on my feet, to strategize, to plan. That, he said, had been his secret to being so great at Moonsennin.

And then there was Sames. My brother, or at least I feel toward him that he is. Sames was Rodanese, Velrand said, and his parents were killed in the war. Velrand was close to both Sames’ mother and father, and after their deaths it fell to Velrand to care for him – the honorable thing, Velrand told me. He’s two years older than me, but sometimes doesn’t act it. Or, perhaps it’s I who acts a bit too older than my not-quite-fourteen years sometimes.

The last member of this family of mine, here in the ruined Glory Tower city, was a fellow I know by no other name than “Reinman.” He just showed up one day at breakfast, and before any of the others were awake he spoke to me, at length, on a number of topics. He told me that Velrand and Sa’Laithe had not been entirely truthful with me, that there was more to me than I knew, and that I had a destiny unrealized. It was from Reinman that I first learned about the Kingdom of Guardia, that my father was its King, and that my mother was a powerful Tane Cenrum. I was only four or five at the time, so much of what he said went clear over me. It’s only in retrospect, knowing what I do now, that I think back on his insane ramblings back then and see what connections he was trying to make.

Of course, the only connections that were made that first morning Reinman showed up were with his gangly, hairy, rag-covered body and the stones Vormin and Velrand threw at him as they shooed him away from the house. He tried several times after that to talk to me, tell me more of what I hadn’t been told by my keepers, but following his first appearance both Velrand and Sa’Laithe had learned to keep an eye out for the hermit. They told me he was from Rein – leading me to refer to him, in the innocence of my youth, for the first time as “Reinman” – and that alone was reason enough to keep him away from me. Still, despite the violence that Velrand would threaten – going so far as to unsheathe his sword and once or twice to shoot arrows in his direction to scare him away – Reinman kept appearing. When I was eight, a creature that Velrand called a Hyp (my first encounter with this term) attacked the house. No one would tell me what the creature was after, why such a horrible thing had attacked us – except for Reinman, who, after he’d brutally killed the thing with his fists, teeth and nails, looked in my direction and said it had come to kill me.

After that, Reinman was much more welcome in our home, though Velrand still tried to be near when the hermit tried to speak with me. They could not keep him silent, though. I learned basically all of what I knew of my real parents from him and his stories. But I gleaned these clues in fragments, picked out and pieced together from his rambling, insane scramblespeak. I could not tell if this was the characteristic insanity that Velrand told me was to be found in all those from Rein, or if it was, in fact, coded speech designed by Reinman to give me what I needed to know without alerting the old soldier. I know I risk breaking the hearts of my other keepers for even thinking this, but I truly believe Reinman to be the wisest and bravest of my surrogate family.

After all, how brave to follow after me with Sa’Laithe – who, more than even Velrand, had so strong a distaste for my Reinian friend – when she took me on that fateful morning to the Marabonian Flower Fields?


#4

Everyone in my family was understandably concerned after the Hyp attacked. Had Reinman not been lurking around the way he always did, even Velrand conceded that the creature would very likely have killed them all. (and for fear of risking even accidentally paying Reinman a complement, the old soldier refused to speculate how Reinman was able to so easily, so brutally and thoroughly dispatched the thing, other than to suggest that it was because he was lucky, or “sneaky, like all Reinians are”) But even given the danger that the attacking Hyp represented, very little about our life in the ruins of the Glory Tower changed.

For one thing, we didn’t move. Vormin had strenuously urged us to do exactly that, but both Velrand and Sa’Laithe were against the idea. As I understand things now, we were in hiding from someone or something, and Vormin believed that the Hyp had been sent by whoever or whatever that was. Velrand said that moving wouldn’t help – in fact it could lead to greater danger. Sa’Laithe agreed with Velrand – though this didn’t stop them from butting heads over the issue of our “field trips.”

“Field trip” was Sa’Laithe’s word for it. Velrand had no kind name to give the practice. What it was, was Sa’Laithe taking me out to actually experience this world I was growing up in: my homeworld, Aryth. She alone among my three “parents” recognized the need of a young boy to experience more about the world than an obliterated town peopled with broken stones and echoes of memories. He’d never been fond of the idea. At first I assumed it was simply because the old soldier was a stodgy stick in the mud, and that there was very little he loved or appreciated but for riding, archery and swordplay. It was only after the Hyp attack that he seemed more free with explaining his opposition: I, for whatever reason, was viewed as a threat to some people in Aryth. And if it was known who I was, while in the company of Sa’Laithe, touring Aryth, both she and I would be targets.

Sa’Laithe did give Velrand some ground on the matter in the years after the Hyp attack. But secretly I would still go with her to market in the nearby village, I would interact with the “helpers” in the village who knew of our secret and agreed to keep it (and us) safe. Velrand would find out later, of course (he always did), but Sa’Laithe would remind him that he had taken similar risks in bringing me to the horse farm to teach me riding. And that – if anything in Aryth could at all – shut him up.

But when I turned thirteen, Sa’Laithe first brought up the prospect of taking me to the flower fields. She said that she had gone with her mother to see them for the first time at thirteen, and it was an experience she had wanted me to have. Unfortunately, she hadn’t spoken of this with Velrand before bringing it up at my birthday dinner, and it ended up resulting in one of the loudest arguments I had ever heard the pair of them have (which was really fine by me, because on the pretense of sparing us from the fight the adults dismissed me and Sames to go out and play in the ruins with Reinman). Even after my birthday, the tension over the issue of a field trip to the flower fields was thick in our home. Sa’Laithe daring to bring it up would bring she and Velrand right back to where they were at the birthday dinner.

I am not much older now than I was then, but I think I understand why it was so important to her that she take me to Marabon. Sa’Laithe is still quite young, but she has no children of her own. It’s apparent that she thinks me her own child, as much as my feelings for her are quite mother-like. All of the hopes, all the dreams she had growing up of becoming a mother, she’s invested them in me. I satisfy something in her that is innate. It warms me to think that someone else in the Web could have such strong protective, loving feeling for me. I’ll never forget it.

I don’t remember how, exactly, Sa’Laithe tricked the old soldier and managed to get me out of our home with her. I suspect that she had Vormin help her – although I can’t see why he would, because both he and Velrand seemed to see eye-to-eye on the matter. It may even be that Velrand finally relented and allowed the trip to happen – this is probably the most likely answer, as I never heard them fight about it ever again. But however it happened, Sa’Laithe took me and Sames with her one morning, and when I noted that we were moving in the wrong direction to be going to market, she smiled that beautiful brown-lipped smile she has and told me: “We’re not going to market, Alex. We’re going someplace far better.”

From where we lived at the old Glory Tower ruins, it would be a week’s journey, overland on horseback, to reach the fields. Sames and I had to share a horse – Sa’Laithe could only get two, and Sames wasn’t good enough a rider to control one on his own – and we had to take backroads and camp out rather than stay at the inns along the way. Still, though, it was, by all accounts, a good trip. It was the farthest away from home I’d ever been, and though I didn’t have much of a chance to read, write in my journal or sketch (hard to do any of those things well while holding the reins) there was amazing scenery all along the way. We took the main road through Rodan, then straight North after we crossed into Camoore. We skirted round Rein’s “border” (“inasmuch as it has one,” Sa’Laithe told us), and passed tentatively into Marabon.

At the crossing from Camoore to Marabon, Sa’Laithe told Sames and me some of the stories of her time spent after the war. Before the war and everything that came at its end, with Hyps run rampant across the West, Sa’Laithe had been married to one of the old Panarch’s cousins – an ugly, fat man she told us. Despite being so young, and a woman (she told us that women didn’t have a lot of power in old Marabon), and related to the old Panarch (who nobody really liked, it turned out), she became greatly respected for helping to rebuild the country and keep everybody safe and fed in those earliest post-war days. Even so, she told us, the new Panarch didn’t like her very much, which was why she didn’t live in Marabon anymore, and also why crossing through Marabon had to be done very carefully. Sames told Sa’Laithe not to worry, and that he would protect her. I had to keep myself from laughing out loud… Sames? On a bad day I have him beat at drills, even if he is two years older.

The danger to Sa’Laithe (and her “protector” Sames) was short-lived, for it wasn’t long after the crossing that we started to see several brightly colored flowers to either side of the road we were on. Excitedly, I pointed out each one, but Sa’Laithe just laughed and asked me to be patient, assuring me (even as the frequency, number and size of flowers became greater and greater) that we had a small ways to go yet. So we continued, passing through and skirting around the borderlands until we came to a rise in the land. And as we crested that rise, it swept down into a lush valley that was literally carpeted with flowers of all different shapes, species, sizes and hues.

I’m not too afraid to admit that the sight was breathtaking. Sames and I were off our horse before Sa’Laithe could say “Here we are,” but she did anyway. I looked back for only a moment to see the delight that was plain on Sa’Laithe’s face before I was racing Sames down the hill and toward the flowered vale.

The race continued off the hill and down through the field. Sa’Laithe followed us, still on her horse and leading ours alongside her by the reins. I am usually very, very good at estimating the distances I travel overland; I know, for instance, about how many miles from the edge of the ruins to the market at the village (about four miles – or just a bit over 27,000 steps), and again how many miles from the ruins to the gray, ashen fields outside of Sinen (even though Velrand said I should never, ever go there – which is why, when I sneak off to go anyway, I can’t go by horse). But stomping down that hill at speed with Sames fast on my heels, I lost all track of time and space. I could have run for hundreds of miles, and I’d never even guess it. The bees and the butterflies that were playing on the flowers weren’t angered or frightened by the sudden arrival of myself and my brother – I think they started to play along, flying alongside us, cheering us on (or perhaps joining in the race themselves).

In time, we came to a slight thinning of the flowers, as the earth opened up onto the bank of the river Tyme. Here we stopped and Sa’Laithe caught up to us with the horses. She dismounted and we spread out a blanket to have a picnic there, though she cautioned me that the waters were dangerous and I shouldn’t touch them.

I listened to her – surprisingly, because I know myself fairly well and that doesn’t sound like me at all. But the truth of it was that I was entranced by the flowers. If I looked very closely at them, focusing on a single patch of blossoms, it seemed as if I could detect some pattern, some rhyme or reason to the growths of the different colors, sizes and shapes of flowers. And it would remain consistent as long as my gaze moved very slowly from one patch onto the next. But if I looked away and returned again, the pattern would be gone and it would just be a random assortment of blooms.

I couldn’t tell you, exactly, how long Reinman had been following us. Sa’Laithe had been alert all during our ride off from the Tower ruins – or so she had claimed – and yet his sudden appearance at our picnic scared the very life out of her. Both Sames and I were delighted that he’d come along after all, but Sa’Laithe was decidedly less so. He indulged with us and helped himself to the bread and cheese that Sa’Laithe had packed for us to enjoy at the flower field, and without any urging he favored us all with a festive dance and a song played on a grass-flute. The dance was little more than a wild series of gesticulations, and the “song” was ruined about halfway in when the urge took Reinman to eat the flute he’d just made from the grass. But Sames and I were just as entertained by him as always. Perhaps even moreso, since his sudden appearance was such an unexpected delight.

When he was tired from dancing, Reinman collapsed and took a nap in the flowers. As he slept, Sa’Laithe told Sames and I of some of the history of the flower fields… the stories of some of the famous people who’d come here and the trouble they would get into later in life. She told us about the first time she was brought to the flower fields, when she was a girl about our age. I dared to ask about the river, and why it was dangerous, and she told us that it was dangerous because it flowed out from Source.

“Source,” she explained, “Is the wellspring of mana. From Source, the magic flows in rivers, out from Aryth and into the Core, then down again and onto the Fringe. It pools on planets, brings life and inspiration to all things. Source touches, at the highest point in the Bloodbane Mountains, far to the North, the waters of a river. That river flows down out of the Bloodbanes, and circles through part of the West before impossibly flowing up and back toward Source again. This is the river Tyme. It is imbued by Source with great power – and like mana itself, this water must be handled with great care. It’s the magic in the water that causes these beautiful flowers to grow for miles and miles through the flower fields.”

Sames asked if he could take some of the water home and use it in a soup. After Sa’Laithe was done laughing, Sames hurtfully explained that he was tired of being second to me in our magical instruction – at which point I allowed myself to smile confidently and suggested that maybe Sames should take some of the water. Sa’Laithe, however, told us it didn’t quite work that way. Sames was greatly disappointed by this.

Soon it came time to pack our things and get going again. We would ride until well after nightfall, make for the Camooran side of the border and then set camp. As Sa’Laithe gathered up the picnic into her bundle, I moved for Reinman and asked her how he would get back home – hoping that she would consent to letting him ride back with us. And before she could answer me, the strange fellow was up and screaming wildly.

I backed away from him, genuinely frightened of him for the first time since I’d met the man. I could barely do anything before he’d grabbed me by both my wrists, screamed unintelligible gibberish in my face and thrown me clear off my feet and into the coursing river.

I heard Sa’Laithe scream as I went under the water.


#5

The old soldier didn’t ask me any questions when we finally returned from our trip. He and Vormin were out in the ruins, as though waiting for us, after we’d walked ourselves back to the ruins after returning the horses.

Reinman was gone by the time Sa’Laithe and Sames were able to fish me out of the Tyme’s waters. When I saw Sa’Laithe and Velrand embrace, and she whispered into his ear just before they moved away from us to talk, I knew very well that they were going to be discussing what the Reinian had done. Sames and I both feared that, perhaps, we’d not be allowed to play with Reinman ever again.

We went to bed like always the night we got back home. I woke up just as I always did, and Sa’Laithe gave me my chores to do, and then I snuck off to be by myself with my books up at the old foundation stones. Just the same as always. Even if things weren’t the same anymore.

I filled pages and pages in my sketchbook with the things I saw in the river. I saw a castle on a hill. I saw large, metal men who were built and not born, living and talking machines. I saw ships that sailed in the sky, I saw magic made by machines and not Cenrum.

But the hardest thing of all for me to sketch out, the hardest thing for me to write about, even now I can barely put words to it. I saw myself, but it wasn’t really me. I was different somehow. I’d struggled, grappled with the thought of my Tyme-born vision all during the journey back home. That night it plagued my dreams. And even as Velrand lead me away from the ruins, I could not help but perceive again the way in which I had seen myself… and try, for the life of me, to make some sense of it.

“You’re too easy to read, boy,” Velrand said, as he let me pass him, swatting my rear with his wood practice sword as I went. “You’ll need guile to you if you’re going to survive as long as I have.”

We drilled longer that day, I remember. He didn’t have a kind word for me then.

“Idiot,” he called me, as he swept one of my legs out from under me. He brought his sword point to my neck and shook his head as he stood over me. “This is what I get for letting Sa’Laithe take you out flower pickin’. That’s nothin’ a man should be doin’, pickin’ flowers. You should’ve been home at study.”

Velrand walked away from me without offering me a hand up.

“Now look at you,” he said. “You’re further from a man than before you left. Disgraceful. That’ll teach you, I think.”

He beckoned me forward, and I lunged. As expected, he scored another point off me. And for extra measure, he planted his boot into my rear and sent me forward. My face and arms caught the grassy earth, as Velrand clicked his tongue disapprovingly behind me.

“Never again, boy,” Velrand said, as I stood and turned to face him again. “I know better now. It’ll never happen again… Now. Attack.”

He honestly thought I didn’t know he was being harder on me than usual. Punishing me, in his own way, for going with Sa’Laithe. Before our trip to the flower fields, he would at least let me score a point or two by way of encouragement. But here he gave nothing, and did everything he could to make me feel bad about what had happened.

I let him, because I loved the old soldier. But there came a point when the words hurt too much.

“You’re slow,” Velrand said, after disarming me and elbowing me in the sternum. I staggered back and raised up my hands. He laughed. “Pick it up and try again, boy,” he said. “When you stop handlin’ that thing like one of your precious flowers, maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

My hand gripped the hilt of my practice sword.

“Advance,” he said.

But I decided I was through advancing. Instead I stood there in ready pose, sword level, left leg behind me and firm, while my right was ready to move me in whatever direction I needed to go.

“I said advance,” Velrand said, but again I ignored him. I just looked him in the eyes, calmly, more confident than I had before. His face twisted with impatience, but I just smiled and, for good measure, twirled the sword in my hand the way Velrand had showed me.

“Cocky bastard,” Velrand said. The word – bastard – stung me, but I let it slide as part of an old soldier’s vernacular. If I’d let it throw me I might not have seen the twitch in his leg that foretold his charge forward. And then I wouldn’t have been ready.

But ready I surely was. Without so much as a cry, he bounded toward me. A highly adept swordsman, Velrand was within striking range in mere seconds, and his feet moved such that I could not count the number of paces he took to reach me. But his feet faded from my attention almost at once as I focused instead on parrying his first attack, and landing my counter on his side. There was a satisfying “thump” as my wooden blade struck the hard leather of Velrand’s beastplate. Wide-eyed, the old soldier backed off a moment.

This was the opportunity I exploited to begin an assault.

I moved faster than I ever had before, fire and passion igniting and animating my arms and legs as I pressed the attack. Velrand, a veteran, was able to adapt quickly despite his initial surprise. There were no more words, merely grunts of frustration as I picked away relentlessly at his defenses. Each one of his parries I had prepared for with a follow-up attack, and every counter he managed to muster I deflected and threw right back at him.

This exchange culminated in my disarming of the old man, and thrusting my sword-point to his neck. But this prompted a response that I did not anticipate from the old soldier. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him become quite so angry, quite so hurt, as he was then. Rage and pain filled his eyes. Without a sword, he spread open his palm and directed it at me, and a gust of wind caught me in the chest and blew me over backward.

There was another wind, stronger this time, that caught Velrand’s sword up off the ground and returned it to his hand. Before I could recover my feet and sword, the old soldier was standing over me. His chest was heaving with his breath, his eyes wide, his face strained.

He held his sword to me, just staring in disbelief. His mouth tried to form a question, his mind tried to make some sense out of what had just happened.

As he struggled, I brought my knee up to my chest and struck out with my foot, stomp-kicking the old soldier in the groin.

Velrand squealed and collapsed to his knees. I stood slowly, deliberately, and took his own sword from beside him. He looked up at me, gasping, as I broke the wooden weapon on my knee, and told him that he should never call me a bastard again.


#6

It was some time later that I told my family what my plans were. I had given a great deal of thought to my visions from the river, and determined that they had charted out a course for me and my life. My family – my four, sometimes five closest and dearest friends – had protected me from harm for my entire life up till that point. For that, I made certain to thank them profusely. But I also made them aware that I was becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that their protectiveness, their care, may have been standing in the way of something larger, some destiny that, until my trip to the flower fields, I had been entirely ignorant of.

Velrand said nothing as I spoke. He’d hardly said a word to me since the last time we trained together. Barely looked at me, even. But Sa’Laithe looked near to tears as I described to them everything that I now knew. The bits of information I first started to gather when Reinman came into my life, and the clarity to those jumbled scraps that was offered by my dip into the Tyme. I told them that I now knew the name of Pendouris, and wanted to take it for my own. I knew my mother’s name was Elayne, and that my keepers had not been entirely truthful with me on the subject of her whereabouts.

I also knew that there was a doorway in Sinen that would take me into the wider Web, and from there I could make my homecoming to Guardia. Perhaps take my rightful place at my father’s side. Or, maybe just visit before returning home to Aryth. I didn’t know just yet what I would like to do, except that I wanted to leave this homeworld of mine and go to see the rest of the Web.

When I was finished, my family said nothing. And this was when I told them I was well aware of the dangers. I was aware of the Hyp that had been sent to kill me. I was aware that there may have been some who viewed my existence as dangerous. Which was why, I told them, I would need them to come with me, to protect me, and travel with me on this road I was about to embark upon.

“You know nothing,” Velrand finally said, looking at me for the first time in weeks. “Unless the Tyme or that loopy Reinman taught you the name Balic, and what it means.”

I’d not, in fact, heard the name Balic before. Sa’Laithe didn’t react well to Velrand when he uttered the name. Vormin looked at me, worried-like – the way he usually did right before he would come up with some excuse to sweep me and Sames out of the room so that Velrand and Sa’Laithe could talk something over. But Velrand silenced them all with a look, and then looked at me, and then his entire body seemed to unshoulder some enormous burden as he told me of this Balic.

Balic, he said, was a man from my father’s world, the Gate Dimension. He’d been a leader in an army of wizards there, an army of wizards that my father had to leave Aryth to go off and fight against. When that army was destroyed, Balic was one of only a handful of the evil wizards that were left unaccounted for. He fled Gate, and somehow found his way into Aryth.

At that time, we were living in Rodan. Velrand said he was the one who had been entrusted with my care, though he wouldn’t say how he knew my mother or even when he’d met her. But he told me that he was as devoted to her as any soldier of Truklan, and he was honored when she chose him as my guardian. Sa’Laithe and Vormin came along later, after Velrand had moved with me and Sames to Sinen. Some things that Vormin said lead me to believe that perhaps Sa’Laithe and the old soldier were in love once, while we lived in Sinen, but no one said any more of it after Sa’Laithe told Vormin to “shut it.”

Balic’s arrival, Velrand said, changed everything. He came in through the Gate and lived in Sinen quietly for a time. But soon his dark magic seduced a number of the Cenrum in Sinen to become his disciples. Velrand insisted that his plan was to rebuild his army of defiler-wizards in Aryth, then continue his bloody war, hopping from dimension to dimension, with the aid of the Arythian Gate. Arythian magic, mingled with the “defiling” that Balic had learned from his dark and evil master, would prove to be a deadly and dangerous thing.

Balic had siezed control of Sinen so quickly that the Rodanese were stunned and unsure of what to do. Rodan had never had an army, but the remnant of an organized force that had been mustered during the war with the East ventured to respond to Balic and his followers. They were turned away effortlessly by Balic and his disciples.

Velrand became angry as he spoke of what happened next. Lacking the organization of Tane Cenrum that had been lost with the destruction of the Glory Tower, the Five Great Nations found they had little power to do away with Balic, so instead they capitulated to him. They permitted him to remain as the Sorcerer-King of Sinen, a sixth “Great Nation” in effect, so long as he did not strike out against them.

This gave Balic free reign to do whatever he pleased to the town and its people. And it was here that Balic began his search for me.

The Disciples of Balic spoke of prophecy, of a child of the King who had killed Balic’s master. They went from house to house, interrogating families with newborns, looking for this child. Scores of children were killed in the days and weeks after Balic was given legitimacy by the powerlessness of the Five Great Nations. No news of these developments was able to reach the outside Web – Balic controlled who came in and who went out.

This was when the bond between Velrand, Sa’Laithe and Vormin was formed, as they pledged to escape Sinen and keep me safe. The night that they ran from the city was just before the Disciples’ hunt for me intensified. They’d got out just in time to escape horrors that were too terrible for the old soldier to even imply – I only found out about them much later on.

My three guardians had each learned some small amount of magic – Velrand had studied with the Air Tanes (like any good soldier should), Sa’Laithe had learned the art of the Fire Tanes, and Vormin was practiced in Water magic. Together they came to the Glory Tower ruins, tapped into the mana that was dormant in the broken stones – mana that had been put there by the most ancient of Verund Cenrum – and used it erect a barrier that would keep Balic’s evil defiling away.

When I asked them why my mother did nothing to stop Balic, no one said a word. The room was deathly quiet, until Velrand told me that no one could stop Balic, and that Balic was the reason why we had to stay in the ruins of the Glory Tower. Balic was the reason why Sinen was off-limits to me, and why I could never go out into the wide Web of Worlds.

And that was when Reinman appeared.


#7

Reinman spoke more plainly and eloquently than I had ever heard him before. Velrand was out of his seat with a dagger in his hand the moment he saw the old Reinian come in through the door, but as he spoke Velrand relaxed. He told us that he had lost many friends to the Disciples in Sinen, and that he himself had been tortured by them – which was why, he explained, he was just a touch more bizarre than the average Reinian should be. But the experience had left him with something, a belief in their “prophecy” and its veracity. Which was why he had spent hours in meditation, learned to tap the mana and weave the strands entirely on his own, and tracked me down as relentlessly as the Disciples and the Hyp that they had conjured to do their killing for them.

“It is time to stop hiding,” he told us then. “It is time for the son of Derik and Elayne, the offspring of a Guardian King and an Arythian Verund, to show what stuff he’s made of.” (it gave me goosebumps up and down my arms to hear him talk about me like that)

We pledged there, the six of us (yes, Sames too), to liberate Sinen and finish what my father began by doing away with Balic and his evil once and for all.

We took three days to prepare for our march to Sinen. Velrand went to the village and secured us horses – though Reinman said he wouldn’t ride, so the old soldier ended up taking one back – and armor and swords. Sa’Laithe and Vormin saw to our other supplies, while Sames and I spent some quaity time with Reinman – who reverted to his normal, crazy self purely for our entertainment.

The morning we’d appointed for our departure I remember with an unusual clarity. I remember sitting in the saddle atop a brilliant chestnut-colored stallion (by far my favorite horse, whom I’d ridden many times before when Velrand gave me riding lessons), watching as Sa’Laithe filled my saddle bags with food to eat during the trip. She touched my leg and looked up at me, and I leaned down to kiss her forehead, to reassure her. She told me to stay safe and to let her and Velrand take the lead. I didn’t say anything to her as she walked away to mount her own horse.

I remember Velrand pulling his horse up alongside me. He looked me up and down, smiling at me from behind his big bushy beard. “You’ve grown into a fine man, Alexander,” he told me, before trotting his horse up ahead to talk with Sa’Laithe.

Just before we got underway, I turned round and looked back at the small house, the hut made of earth and Glory Tower stones, the only home I’d ever known. I wondered if it would be the last time I’d ever see the place, and had time for little other thought before I heard Velrand lay into his horse and we were then at a full gallop.

It was an insane thing, and impossible thing. Six against a small cult devoted to a powerful wizard. What chance did we have? I suspect both Sa’Laithe and Velrand were resigned to this being, essentially, suicide. But the alternative must finally have struck them as less appealing: they must have come to some realization after Reinman’s speech that there was no kind of life to be had, hiding out in the ruined Glory Tower. At least charging headlong into Sinen, five horsemen and one loopy Reinian (running on all-fours and somehow able to keep up alongside), we would go out in one final blaze of glory – true glory – and maybe, just maybe, take Balic down a notch or two in the process.

And if we were really, exceptionally lucky… we’d even kill Balic on our way into Hell, and make a better life for everyone in Aryth, and the Web outside.

We arrived in the ashen fields, on a hill overlooking the town. The ash and gray, dead earth all around us were a result of the defiling magic that Balic and the Disciples practiced, Velrand told me. That is the root of Balic’s power, of his evil: the magical arts are a practice of give and take between the wizard and the mana that’s all around us. But Balic and his defilers take without giving; they burn mana, lay waste to all life around them in the name of more and more power. This was why the ground around Sinen was dead or dying for miles outside the city… why, if left unchecked, more of Aryth would succumb to this poisonous practice.

As he spoke, I could see Velrand inspiring himself with the righteousness of our cause. He was ready, then and there, to charge right into the center of the town screaming bloody vengeance for nearly thirteen years of tyranny in Sinen. But Vormin stopped him, looked at the town, and began to think.

I mention again that Vormin was once “Stormin’ Vormin,” the greatest Moonsennin player in Camoore’s history (or so he would say). And while he would readily admit that he was probably the strongest, fastest and most skilled player on the field, he would often claim that his successes came not chiefly from his superlative athletic ability, but rather from his ability to strategize: assess, plan and anticipate what the other team would do, and prepare for all eventualities.

In observing the town, Vormin noted no defensive structures or barricades: only the city wall and a single watch point on the road leading into down, likely for allowing merchants to enter the city. His plan was to split up: Reinman would be responsible for sneaking me and Sames into the city, while Vormin, Velrand and Sa’Laithe would talk their way past the guards.

Velrand was very clear on his not liking this plan, but after some discussion it was clear that the old soldier had no better ideas apart from “charge with steel drawn and kill what you can before we meet our inevitable and violent deaths,” which by comparison was not very popular with anyone other than Velrand.

Sames and I left our horses on the ridge, tied to an old and dead tree, and followed Reinman as we skirted the road and approached the town from the side. Even though he had made the entire journey sprinting on all-fours like a dog, Reinman seemed to not be very tired at all. And again, he also carried no weapons – but having mauled a Hyp to death with little more than his fingernails and (what was left of) his teeth, I suppose you could argue he really didn’t need a sword.

Sinen was surrounded by a low wall that was originally ornamental, but over the years of Balic’s rule had become more about keeping the Sinenites in and everyone else out. Barbed wire – brought in from the outside Web – looped round the top of the wall, and infrequently there were iron spikes that jutted out from between the brick and mortar. Human bones littered the ground and filled a shallow ditch that rang all the way around the walls. All of it together made very plain that the Disciples were trying to get across to us the message that we probably weren’t invited.

But that didn’t stop us, of course. Reinman was the first one up the wall, leaping up in a single bound and steadying himself by grabbing hold of one of the iron spikes, and after he chewed through the barbed wire (yes, you read that right), he reached his gangly arms down and helped me and Sames over. We were in an alleyway behind and between two buildings, and could see the main road leading into the town square. Up ahead, we heard the sounds of battle, and I knew then that perhaps Vormin’s Moonsennin skills didn’t really translate into effective infiltration techniques. Sure enough, as the three of us came out onto the road, we were able to catch a glimpse of Velrand landing a killing blow on the last of the guards. Sa’Laithe and Vormin stood with bloody swords over three more bodies. Vormin pointed in our direction then, but then pointed behind us, up the road.

Attention had been drawn to us, and from the large building at the town’s center, men and women wearing the same blood red robes as the gate guards were streaming out to investigate. Some had weapons – swords, spears and so forth – while others wielded objects I did not at the time know: advanced, technological weaponry from the outside Web. Guns, they are called, generally. Many of them.

On seeing them, Reinman issued a loud, piercing scream. You would likely have been able to hear his cry for miles around – certainly, everyone in Sinen heard it. People came to their windows, stepped outside their shops, and otherwise came to the street to see what exactly was going on and what had made that inhuman wail.

We all watched then as Reinman loped toward the oncoming Disciples like an enraged beast. He rolled, ducked and weaved under weapons fire and spells, and then finally came within striking distance, lashing out with his arm and raking his filthy nails across one of the defilers’ faces. Thus distracted, the rest of us had an opportunity to advance further, and so we did, quickly. Disobeying Sa’Laithe, I was in the lead, while Sames fell behind Velrand, and the five of us charged forward.

The battle was long, and difficult. And we took injuries, even as we piled our dead enemies before us. But something happened as we fought that none of us intended.

The people of Sinen watched, and they saw, for the first time, someone showing them that the Disciples could be resisted. That they could be killed.

It was as we were driving off the first wave that I first noticed we had been joined by a small group of townsfolk – men mostly, wielding shovels and pitchforks. Some fell, but in smaller numbers than the defilers, and soon our ranks expanded and grew. Soon it was women fighting with us, armed with their kitchen knives. Then older townsfolk joined us, and then men and women who were better equipped. Some knew some spells and used them to heal and aid us, others had armor and weaponry of their own – hidden from the Disciples until just such a time as they would be needed.

Our momentum pushed us forward and it became clear that Balic’s cult was not so large after all: with thirty of his Disciples lying dead in the center of town he was down to only a handful left at his command. The fear and intimidation that Balic had used to control Sinen to this point were gone: I and my companions had relieved them of this burden… or so I thought. For this was when Balic appeared.

His presence was awe-inspiring and terrible. He wore black robes, stylized, with accoutrements of human bone adorning his shoulders and strung around his torso. His head was shaven, and red paint smeared in patterns and sigils across his face and barren scalp. Apart from the red paint, there was no color to Balic: he was as ashen, gray and dead as the earth for miles around Sinen. His eyes were dull, lifeless; plain milky white orbs like the eyes of a blind man. A chill ran through us, the mob that was fighting his Disciples, from just looking at him. I would learn later that this is the final toll of defiling: Balic had lost something fundamental, something human, some part of his soul. In the end, you can’t just take without giving. Whether you realize it or not, something is taken from you.

But to a man like Balic, who is concerned with only greater and greater power, the price was likely negligible. Whatever inhumanity he had taken on as a result of his practice, he had lost none of his vaunted potency. I saw this firsthand as he unleashed a wave of energy in our direction, and scattered the lot of us like leaves before a gusting wind.

We five (Sames, by this point, was fleeing with several of the townsfolk) recovered quickly and attacked Balic one after the other. First Vormin, whirling through the air with the skill of a Moonsennin center, spinning his blade and feet while balancing himself upside-down on his off-hand. This was to little effect, as Balic knocked aside the attacks with a pair of axes (fashioned from large blades fixed into femurs) and then pushed Stormin’ Vormin aside just in time to greet a spinning, dancer-like attack from Sa’Laithe. Again, with his bone axes, he repelled her and was able to take on the additional travail of dealing with Velrand, who made his strikes in tandem with Sa’Laithe’s. Balic laughed as he indulged my guardians in this dance, and when he’d had his fill he pushed them both away with a blast of magic.

Reinman and I stood by as Balic walked toward us, slowly. Fear was starting to grip me. I wanted to rush forward and attack… but I had just watched my surrogate parents be cast aside by this terror as if they were nothing. It is a disheartening sight, to see the people who are supposed to protect you bested so easily in combat. How could I even presume to attempt what they had just now failed at?

“Stand at bay and tremble, Dark One!” Reinman shouted, taking a step forward and pointing with his blood-spattered hands. As he spoke, his natty, dreadlocked hair and beard bounced up and down. “Do you realize now who this is? Do you see now that you have failed and your prophecy has come to pass!? BEHOLD, yea, despair! The son of Pendouris Crant’za be upon you!! Here is the spawn of the King that murdered your master! Here is the one that be fated to end your reign of tyranny!! WE ARE COME TO FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOOOOOOUUUUU!!!

By the end of his speech Reinman was slavering and foaming at the mouth. His speech degenerated rapidly into a string of oaths and curses as he abandoned my side and charged madly at Balic, screaming out his pain at the memory of the torture he suffered while in the Disciples’ custody.

With a slash of Balic’s axe, Reinman crumpled to the ground in a heap. He writhed, painfully, as he bled, but bundled his rags into the cut and attempted to stand and face the Defiler again – until Balic extended his hand in Reinman’s direction. Inky black wisps, like charcoal smoke, flowed up from Reinman and into Balic’s hand, and Reinman turned deathly pale. His hair – matted and filthy – crinkled away into ash and dust, and his eyes blanked out and rolled back into his head. With mouth agape, Reinman fell back down to the ground. The blood that continued to ooze from his wound was now a murky black color.

I watched, shaking, as Reinman breathed his last. Helpless, I turned to look for Vormin, Velrand or Sa’Laithe to come to my aid, but they were all held fast to the ground by Balic’s power.

The remnant of Balic’s minions – ten or so, perhaps less, of the red-robed Disciples – had gathered behind their master, leering at me, uttering curses at my paralyzed companions. The townsfolk who had once so proudly, defiantly stood with us now watched from far away. Sames, thankfully, was there with them… I prayed he wouldn’t do something stupid, like trying to help me.

“I wonder,” Balic said to me, as he took a step closer, “If your friend spoke true. Tell me, boy: what is your name?”

I gripped my sword, held it before me, trying desperately not to shake too badly as I backed away. “Alex,” I answered him.

“Alex,” Balic repeated. “Have you a family name? – not that I, of all people, would begrudge you if you didn’t.” Intending this last part as a joke, Balic laughed, and his Disciples with him.

I stiffened my lower lip. “Crant’za,” I said.

Balic chuckled. “Crant’za, you say?” with a flourish, the two bone axes were gone, dissolved into the air around him, and Balic clasped his hands together. “Well, then it seems you are indeed just the little bastard I’ve been looking for all these years.” Balic grinned then, and held out both of his hands, palms facing me. “Now just hold still, boy. This is going to hurt… a lot.”

It did hurt, as Balic’s power infected me, pulled at my mana, drained me into him. I suspect that I have my mother to thank, though, for my ability to survive this attack long enough to call my wits to me. I’m told she was the most powerful wizard Aryth had ever seen, and so, summarily, I imagine that if I was born with even a fraction of her power, my mana would have been a meal too difficult for even Balic to swallow whole.

Even so, he seemed to enjoy the process, even if it took longer than he might have thought. He threw his head back in ecstacy. The fool must have forgotten I was standing three feet in front of him and holding a bladed weapon.

With practiced precision, just as Velrand had taught me, I lunged forward. My first stab caught Balic in his gut. The blade slid in easily, and I felt it grind bone as I wrenched it free. His power was out of me then, and he looked down at me with some combination of disgust and surprise. Perhaps even a touch of embarrassment – definitely, this was far from being Balic’s finest moment.

Before he could act, I stabbed him again. This time he screamed and fell backward, into the stunned arms of his Disciples who, not knowing how to react, dropped him and backed away.

Staggering, Balic clambered up the stairs of the town hall, but I followed after him with a quickness to my stride. I had just watched him kill Reinman; the reversal now was very pleasing. Fear was evident on his dead, inhuman face. I relished that, drank it in; it gave me the fuel that I think a fourteen year old boy needs in order to go so far as to take his first human life. (such that, in this case, the life I was taking was still in any way “human”)

I stabbed him again, this time into his chest, crunching past the decorations on his robe that were fashioned from the bones of his victims, slipping easily between his ribs. And again. He clawed desperately at the stairs above him, turning over and showing me his back. Which I then stabbed, three times. And then a fourth. His wails were pathetic; black blood was coursing down over the steps and the Disciples were backing away in horror now – only, by this time Velrand and the others were free, and they cut the red robes down without mercy or pause.

It took a very long time for Balic to finally die, but with each cut I gave him, I felt some of my mana return, and some of the life restored to the land around us. When at last he moved no more, I turned and saw my companions there waiting for me, watching me. I dropped my blackened sword, letting it clatter down the steps of Sinen’s town hall, and ran into the arms of Sa’Laithe, my body shaking and my eyes welling up with tears.

“It’s all right,” Sa’Laithe whispered to me, as she kissed me and stroked my hair. And when she said that, it was. But having finally a moment to stop and think, with the adrenaline rush subsiding, I realized that I had just lost a friend, and the tears kept flowing.

“Before we go home,” I said, pulling away from Sa’Laithe, and speaking to both her and Velrand at once, “Can we bury him? Please?”

Velrand just stared at me. “Bury who?”

I turned, and Reinman’s body wasn’t there anymore. He was gone.


#8

A year has come and gone since we killed Balic and freed Sinen. The Rodanese returned in force when they heard that Balic and the Disciples were gone, but they found little in the way of a welcome. The townsfolk wanted to keep Sinen independent, as it had been under Balic. Queen Vyslin herself is said to have signed off on the order to allow Sinen to stay free. For me, that was a lesson in the grace and wisdom possessed by a truly noble, righteous monarch. I swore I would never forget it.

My family and I returned back to our home at the Tower ruins. We were no longer hiding, but home is home all the same. It turned out I wasn’t quite ready to leave after all… killing Balic had raised for me more questions than it had answered. But still, it was nice to know that the Gate was always open if I did want to go out into the Web and see that castle on a hill that the Tyme had shown me. With Balic dead, all of Aryth was ready once more to rejoin the Web of Worlds.

And as for Reinman… I don’t think he’s dead. That may just be my hope; and in fact Velrand says it’s much more likely his corpse dissolved into ash after Balic drained him. But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Balic’s death returned what he had taken from Reinman. And maybe Reinman is alive, and out there somewhere, finally avenged on the Disciples.

If he is alive, I haven’t seen him since that day we stormed Sinen. But my hope is that, if he’s out there, he’s gone someplace he can call home.