Chapter Three: Barkarnas Island



by

Josie Beaudoin







A Rian man with dark skin and curly brown hair brought a meal to the main cabin. The Landers tucked in eagerly, their appetites finally restored.

“Excuse me, may I ask you a question?” Morgan asked as the man turned to leave.

“Of course,” replied the Rian.

“Where's Jasper?”

“The Captain is busy right now, is there something I can help you with?”

“But the storm is over, isn't it? What is he busy with now?”

“Repairs. The ship took some damage during the storm, and now we have to repair it.”

“Damage?” Kemen said, alarmed. “Is everything – I mean, are we – what's wrong with the ship?”

“No danger, this is quite normal. Every storm leaves a mark. Just enjoy your meal.”

“Well why is Jasper doing it?” Paige was exasperated. “Isn't he the captain? Can't he just order someone else to do it? He is in charge, isn't he?”

The Rian stared at her in confusion, then sighed.

“I've never traveled with Landers before,” he said at last. “In fact, it's almost unprecedented. You honestly don't understand, do you?”

A glance around the room showed him shaking heads from everyone.

“A captain is only captain because they deserve it,” the Rian said.

“Because he's the Prince, right?” said Paige. “And this is his ship, isn't it?”

“That he is royalty does not enter into it. That he owns the ship does not enter into it. Jasper earned his position through his actions, he was not given it. He could have remained an ordinary hand, but he worked his way up to the captaincy.”

“But he owns the ship,” Paige persisted. “Doesn't that automatically -”

“No,” the dark-skinned man answered with an amused smile. “Rank must be earned. Jasper is our captain because he is the best sailor on the ship. He is a good leader, a good worker, the best navigator. He owns the ship, true, and he could choose to be a passenger and do nothing. But that is not his way. If it were, you would still be in Erlaya.”

At that moment the cabin door opened and Jasper strode in. He nodded briefly to his friends, but went straight to a chest by his desk, pulled out some charts and began leafing through them.

“Jasper! We were just -”

“We're off course,” Jasper said. “The storm took us off course. Which chart – ah, there it is! Compass, sextant... why are these... I haven't used these in an age. Excuse me, must go.”

The door swung shut behind him, and Jasper was gone as quickly as he had arrived.

“Did he just say we're lost?” Kemen asked.

“He didn't feel lost to me,” Galen said. “Just busy.”

“It's good to have him back,” the Rian said. “Emmy is a good sailor, but no one is better than the Captain. He'll have us back on course within a day, you mark my words.”

Kemen followed Jasper up on deck, curious to see what the implements were and how they worked. He overheard two Rians talking to each other.

“I wish I could have seen it,” groused one youngster.

“You're not old enough to be up on deck risking your life,” Emmy said.

“I'm older than Pearl, and she was up there.”

“Pearl is an adult. Don't worry, you'll have your turn eventually. Captain isn't going to let the ship go down before you're old enough to ride a storm. Some girls just develop faster than others.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Usually he seethed, but not today. Today he raged. A hundred years? How dared they? Mohan was livid. A hundred years on this godsforsaken rock with nothing to do but think.

Contemplation, the priestess had called it. Let him stay and reflect upon his crimes. Time will soften his anger and rage. Give him time to balance his soul. She was a gentle and loving woman. He hated her with a passion that nearly blinded him.

“I’ll soften her head,” he growled. Time had never softened him, it had only fed his rage more fuel, more power. His soul was an ever-hardening lump of coal slowly being compressed year after year into a perfect diamond of hate. And now this final blow, almost more than he could bear.

They had taken her from him.

He bore it, as he bore everything now: with hate. He had no choice in the matter, after all. He was made of hate, generating it and consumed by it in a neverending cycle. Neverending. Every time he believed himself to have fathomed all possible meanings of that word, it would catch him again, trip him up mid-stride. And he hated that. There was only one thing he hated more.

They had taken her from him.

The thought tore through him like thunder, seared him with the inevitable blinding lightning. If she were here, he thought, a century would be nothing, a minor annoyance like a mosquito’s bite. A setback, a delay, but not a failure. And there it was: he had failed her. He was here and she was not, and he was helpless to change it. Helplessness was not something Mohan faced with equanimity. There had to be something he could do, if only he could think of it. Nothing in the world would stop him if he had a plan to follow, a path beneath his feet. He looked down at his feet, as if asking them which way to go, but his feet said nothing. Lolling in the gravel beach with nothing to do suited his feet just fine, but not his mind. That, at least, could never be chained to this miserable island for a hundred years. How dared they?

The ignominity of it appalled him. Captured. He had blundered in the extreme, underestimating his foe. He wouldn’t do that again. He would have preferred by far to have been killed in battle, defending her with his last breath. No one would have been able to fault him or call him a failure then. That would have been noble, a good death. Any death would be a good death. But to live without her?

They had taken her from him.

Blank incomprehension. He could not grasp its implications at all. He had a dozen dozen times turned to her to express his grief, his pain at losing her, only to see that she was not there and re-experience the pain again, doubling and redoubling itself. The jolt of pain, the indrawn breath of shock - - it never stopped. The constant stab of panic would scatter his thoughts, reducing his brilliant mind to chaos. His thoughts were anarchistic, wild. They had done this to him, shattered the mirror of his soul, destroyed the foundation of his life.

They had taken her from him.

He raged at his solitude. He raged at her absence. He raged at his inability to think of anything else. He raged at his self-evident madness.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“We have to land.”

“I know, but where?”

“Emmy, there's only one place within range. We have to go there.” Jasper pointed at the chart.

“Captain, you can't be serious.”

“We don't need lumber, only a harbour.”

“That's not a harbour, it's... we can't land there.”

“It's only a curse, Emmy. There's nothing left there that can hurt anyone. The Lady needs to dock, and Barkarnas is the closest place. Why do I have the feeling I've had this conversation before?”

“Oh I don't know,” Morgan said, coming up behind them. “It's not like there was a certain cursed forest you were told to stay out of.”

“It wasn't cursed.”

“Actually it was. You just got lucky.”

“The people were cursed, not the forest.”

“Jasper, where are you taking us?”

“It's an island called Barkarnas. Some people say it's cursed, some people say it's haunted. I say it's a safe harbour for the Lady while we do some repairs. Look at her.”

Morgan, up on deck for the first time since the storm, looked about. Even to the uneducated eye, it was obvious the ship was damaged. Crew scurried about cleaning up what they could, but the Eleli Rei was hurting.

“Are we going to sink?” Morgan asked.

“No breaches in the hull,” Jasper assured him. “but we're listing to starboard and barely moving. Barkarnas is the nearest dry land for weeks in any direction. Emmy.”

Jasper nodded to his first mate, who began issuing orders to the crew. It was clear she was reluctant, but having had her say, she now bent to the task at hand.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Rage, however justified, however all-consuming, was exhausting and could not endure forever, even if those caught by it did. Eventually the pain would ebb, and he was allowed to think of other matters. Practical matters. Like vengeance.

They had given him food, of course, and tools, a rough shelter. Bare essentials, really. His food would be replenished bi-annually, which to him meant that they were giving him two hundred opportunities to escape. Surely they would slip up at least once. His own incarceration proved that no one was perfect, and he knew he was far wiser than they. If he could fail so could they, and he would be ready when they did. Already they had made grievous errors - setting a limit on his exile and allowing him food. If they were too stupid or blind to see it, he would not tell them he needed no food to survive. What did they think, that he would starve to death? He chuckled at the grim joke. If the fools had any sense among them, they would have encased him in a block of concrete and sent him to the bottom of their beloved sea. But they had even less understanding of immortality than he did, an ignorance he had every intention of exploiting.

In the mean time, what? How would he wile away the years until they grew careless enough to let him escape? Barkarnas was a small island, little more than a rock jutting out from the waves, and home to scraggly weeds, a few birds, and now him. A grand insult, but one that he refused to let crush his spirit. He would build a house, far better than the miserable hut they had slapped together for him. Stone would be transformed from uselessness into splendour. It would take years, of course, but he had nothing else pressing to do. All his needs were provided, actually, and he had nothing but leisure.

Whistling, he took up a rock from the stony shore and began scratching floor plans on a somewhat flatter stone nearby. He must have a design before he began cutting stone. Mohan was nothing if not deliberate. If the sea-people thought he would spend a century repenting they were sadly mistaken. He would spend it plotting revenge. And building a new house, since that did not require too much actual thought.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Land ho!” The traditional cry came from a child perched high in the riggings. Soon the rest of them were swarming up the ropes, eager to catch a glimpse of their destination. Morgan squinted up into the maze of sails and ropes doubtfully.

“Is that really safe?” he asked.

“Well I think all of us have fallen out of the riggings once or twice,” said a nearby Rian. “It teaches caution and coordination. Besides, who wants their child to live in fear?”

“I don't think I shall ever understand your ways,” Morgan said.

“Well really, Morgan, I climbed in The Tree all the time when I was younger than that,” Paige said.

“That's different, Paige.”

“How?”

“Well... suppose they fell in the water and drowned? And the deck is harder than the ground.”

“Oh believe me,” said the Rian, “the water is much harder than the deck. It's very rare, though, to hit the water. In fact, it's fairly rare that they fall in the first place. There are plenty of things to hold on to should you slip up there.”

“There it is! I see it!” Paige said. “Look, Morgan, dry land at last!”

“Don't be too anxious to see it,” the Rian warned. “That island is cursed. I'm praying I don't have to set foot there, but it may be inevitable.”

“Now who's superstitious?” Paige asked. “When we were on our way here, Jasper took us right into a cursed forest and nearly got us killed. He mocked us for being afraid.”

“The Captain has no fear in him,” was the answer, “but I'm telling you, this land is evil. You'll stay on board the ship if you know what's good for you.”

“Well what's the curse? I mean, what's wrong with it?” Morgan asked.

“The Oathbreaker was bound here,” said the Rian. “His very essence permeates the entire island. For a hundred years he was bound here. He should never have been released. Setting him free is one of the most foolish things my people ever did.”

“The Oathbreaker? You mean Laric? Laric was here? When?”

“I'm no scholar,” he admitted, “but several thousand years at least. I'm sure the Captain would know. Look, there's the harbour.”

Barkarnas Island was a grim pile of stone rising up out of the water like a fist. Low, scraggly bushes sheltered a few nests, but there was no other life to be found. One spectacular sight greeted the eyes of the reluctant visitors: a graceful building of native stone, sitting with authority atop a hill.

“Oh that's lovely,” Paige said. “I can hardly wait to see what the inside looks like.”

“I don't know,” said Morgan. “I've got a bad feeling about this.”

“You couldn't get me in there for any money,” the Rian man shuddered. “It's unnatural, that place is. If you had any sense about you, you'd stay here while we do these repairs.”

“I'm going,” Paige said.

“Yes,” Morgan said to the Rian, “with my sister, common sense has little to do with anything. And if she's going, we're going to keep an eye on her.”

“I guessed as much,” Jasper said as he came up beside them. “If I thought it would work, I'd forbid it, but I think I know better by now. I'll see who I can spare, but we have a lot of work to do.”

“You think there's someone up there that could hurt us?”

“No one living, certainly,” Jasper said, “but this land was his home for a hundred years, and no one knows what may be lurking in that house.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


What was so frustrating, he reflected as he sat on the broad steps of his new house, was that he did not know how they had done it to him. The spell had not even been cast in his presence. His power had not been stolen though, that much he sensed clearly enough. Losing the Song had been an interesting sensation, but not painful as most of his own victims reported to him. This was more like a shadow descending, turning the world grey and lifeless, more like the sun going behind a cloud than setting. He could sense that like the sun it was still there, still shining far above, but he could not see it, could not use it. How had this been accomplished?

Rage would avail him naught. In one sense the old priestess had been right. He must remain calm, thinking things out with logic and reason. He had been cut off from the source of his power. How would he do that to another? It was a question he had never needed to answer before. Now he must approach it as though he were going to cast that upon someone else. But he could not intuit the process with the Song, for that was gone. He felt like a raw novice.

So what had his master taught him? The old man had long since been burned to ash on his pyre and given to the winds, but he still lived in Mohan’s memory. Everything has a place in the ordering of the world. He heard the voice in his mind, the old wheezing rattle speaking in the old tongue. Pleasant memories of home, of youth, of joy. No. Emotion has no place here, not now. Remember fact, not feeling. What had the old man said? He couldn’t focus on it. The emotions insisted on being felt. Visions flashed through his mind unbidden, stabbing like knives into his very soul, visions he’d banished and ignored for years. The smell of his wife’s hair. The feel of her under him and around him as they cried out with their shared joy. The wonder of holding his newborn son for the first time, and the other sons that followed. Weathering the dark bitter winters with music and tales and laughter, huddled together under snug roofs while storms raged outside, they had been like turtles withdrawn into the shells of their safe homes, life and light inside, death and darkness without.

A very specific memory hove up and engulfed him. It was his first contribution to the village as a sorcerer. A caravan of them travelled every year down the river to the sea to barter and trade for supplies they lacked. Mohan had made the journey many times before, but he was so proud to be accompanying them this year in his official capacity of Protector. Like a child, he hoped there would be trouble that would allow him to prove himself to his people. He was not disappointed. Three nights out from the village they were attacked by a dragon.

It was a small dragon to be sure, but a good first test of his powers and ability to stay calm in a crisis. The creature could not have been more than a hatchling, but fast-moving and wily. The spears meant to scare it away whizzed through the air harmlessly as it darted back and forth in the blackness, frightening the horses with its shrieks and flame spurts. Mohan had reached out with the Song and felt the thing’s hunger, its cunning. But he also felt its movements, like an extension of his own body. He knew which way it would turn next, and he turned with it, closed eyes tracking it as it circled and spun. Then it opened its mouth to spray them again with flames, and he struck before the little monster could spit. There was only one place a dragon was really vulnerable, even one so young as this. He focussed the Song, hurling it through the air with perfect precision.

“Burn!” he cried, and burn it did. He pushed the flames, amplified by his own power, deep back into the hatchling’s throat, not allowing it to exhale. Confounded, the beast dropped to the ground, writhing and twisting. Then there was a sudden ‘whumph,’ and the dragon lay still. It was quite dead.

His friends all turned and looked at him as though seeing him for the first time, a stranger in their midst. Mohan fairly glowed with delight as he took the dragonling, no larger than a child of five, in his arms and drew its hide open with one of its own claws, which was really the only thing that would penetrate the thick skin. Satisfied with their efficacy, he removed the claws one by one, and then the teeth as well. He was suddenly a man of, if not considerable wealth, then at least a good windfall. More than that though: he was a man who had earned the respect of his companions. That was worth a hundred dragons to him.

When they reached the trade gathering, he wandered amidst necessities and luxuries, and his eye fell upon an amazing spectacle. Laid out on a black bearskin among other curiosities from distant lands unguessed, he saw a small piece of clear golden stone inside of which was a perfectly formed beetle. The trader told him it had been tree sap which had rolled over the hapless insect then later turned to stone. It mesmerized him, enchanted him, the very idea of it was so beautiful. Nothing would do but that he must bring it back to his beloved. He bartered hard for it, and in the end won the precious prize with one of his dragon’s teeth.

He’d returned home triumphant, flushed with success. The villagers hailed him as a conquering hero, and he felt it. The caravan told the tale repeatedly, framing it in wild and glowing terms. He drew his beloved aside, her eyes glowing. For one of the few times since they had met, she seemed to be truly impressed with him rather than gently tolerant of his boyish eagerness. They walked in silence to their special grotto by the river, and there he gave her the stone, the beautiful amber with its perfect beetle.

She was as surprised as he had been, which was very gratifying, but her wonder immediately turned to grief instead of delight. How awful, she said, to be trapped like that, unable to move or breathe, then left in plain view, one’s ignominious end on display to the world forever. The tiny miracle that had attracted him like a lodestone only repulsed her, and she grieved for the resin’s victim. Then suddenly the stone glowed and smoked. With her own considerable magic she had burned the entombed beetle to ash, freeing its soul from captivity. The heated stone cracked, then shattered to bits, and a tiny puff of ash blew free on the wind.

She had forgiven him though. She knew there had been no malice in him, that he was not responsible for the beetle’s imprisoning. And in time she even admitted that despite its horror the stone had been beautiful. They had married, with her family’s blessing, and made a home together, together filled it with sons. They both wanted a daughter, but never had one. The closest they came to it had brought them both an undying grief.

On his island prison, trapped like the beetle, Mohan howled as the memories ravaged his soul. A wind of pain swept into every corner and crevice of his being, tearing open old wounds with heartless ferocity. In years past, when the pain and grief had overwhelmed him, he had immolated himself in his frenzy, self-annihilation being preferable to the unrelenting misery, but it only served to briefly make his body hurt more than his heart. In times like these there had been borne in upon him the true meaning of the word ‘immortal’. But that power was denied him now, his magic stripped away so that he lay helpless like the jellyfish that periodically would wash up on the shore. There was not enough fuel to build a traditional fire. Here on this scrap of stone in a desert of water, he understood the pain of the beetle, but for him there was no release, no soul-cleansing fire.

He screamed and screamed, screamed again. This unbearable torment must be avenged. And it would be avenged.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Bartok was chosen to accompany them, and also Tamar and Nyda. Armed to the teeth, they ushered their passengers into a longboat and were lowered into the water. Ashia chose to remain on the ship, but the rest of the Landers were eager to get ashore. Only Morgan and Galen had any reservations about it, but even they welcomed a chance to feel solid land under their feet again. The remains of an old pier were visible, stumps of ancient beams sticking up from the cold water. It was several hundred yards further along the shore before they found a place to land and dragged the longboat up onto the gravelled beach.

Brand was ecstatic, his face lit from within.

“Imagine,” he said. “Just imagine. This is a holy shrine no Erlayan has ever seen!”

“It's not a shrine,” Nyda said, “it's a house. He lived alone. No one ever worshipped him here, or spoke to him, or looked at him. We provided him with a shelter, but not this. ”

“Then who built it?”

“He did, of course,” Nyda shrugged. “No Rian would do this for the Oathbreaker. When we released him, set him ashore, the boat that carried him was burned. It was polluted.”

“Polluted?” Brand was outraged. “You have no -”

“Oh, let's not talk theology now, people,” Bartok said. “You want to have a look at your shrine-house-pile of rock thing, let's go and get it over with.”

They headed up the rocky shore towards the house. As they drew nearer, Galen pulled Morgan to one side. The others passed on ahead.

“I'm not certain you should be going up there, Magister,” Galen said. “This place reeks of anger and pain.”

“Do you think Paige is in physical danger? Or anyone else?”

“No, not physical, but there's something wrong about this. There are hurtful things here.”

“I imagine there are. Let's go catch up with the others.”

The rest of the party had stopped to wait for them at the foot of a broad staircase that led to the house. Brand and Kemen stared about in reverent awe, while their Rian companions looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“Come on!” Paige urged. “What are you waiting for?”

“Patience, Shadow,” Morgan said. “We don't know what's in there. Let's use our heads before we use our feet.”

“It's an old abandoned building, sure, but it's made of stone. How dangerous can it be?”

Morgan stared at his sister reproachfully.

“An old abandoned building erected by an evil magician thousands of years ago,” he said. “Let's not forget that, shall we. I've little doubt it's structurally sound, but that doesn't mean it's safe.”

“He should never have been released,” Bartok said.

“What I don't understand is how he was imprisoned in the first place,” Galen said. “He is the most powerful magician in the world. How could he have been captured?”

“Dangerous company in which to ask that question,” Morgan growled softly, and Galen realized too late what he had said.

“Magister, I didn't -”

“Shut up,” Morgan said. “Let's just get up there.”

Morgan's anger swept him to the top of the steps three at a time and into the house. The others caught up with him as he paused just inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the light. Galen hung to the back of the group, stung by his master's anger.

There had been carvings on the steps and outside of the house, but these had been badly damaged by millennia of wind and water. As the party's eyes adjusted they saw that the interior was even more lavishly decorated than the outside, and much better preserved.

“Are you sure this wasn't a temple?” Kemen breathed. “The pictures, look: this one shows people bowing down.”

“Laric is the only one who has ever dwelt here,” Bartok insisted. “These carvings have to have been done by him, and for his own pleasure. They say what he wants them to say, nothing more.”

“The Jomma,” Morgan said, examining the picture. “Those people are Jomma, aren't they? 'They saw me as' – no, not saw... 'knew me as worthy, and treated me thus,' it says.”

“You can read that?”

“Mostly. It's a dialect I'm not familiar with, but it's readable.”

“What does it say?” Paige asked.

'I gave them life,'” Morgan read, “ 'then they knew me as worthy and treated me thus.' It's not quite clear if that word is 'treated', 'served', or 'worshiped'. It could be all three.”

“I told you,” said Brand.

“It's not a temple, cousin, it's his diary,” said Morgan. “He was writing his own history on the walls. At least, his history as he wanted to remember it.”

“Look at this carving. There's a woman standing next to him. Who is she?”

“He's taken plenty of wives over the centuries,” Morgan said. “I have no idea who this one is. Perhaps he'll tell us somewhere.”

Morgan studied the script chiseled so long ago in the stones. “Ah, here it is! No, that's not a name. Well that's odd. 'I gave My Beloved life, and they worshiped her before me.'

“They worshiped me, too,” Paige said wistfully. Everyone turned to look at her.

“Well not these they, obviously,” she said, “but the Erlayans. I was an Aiyana, you know. It was nice being semi-divine.”

“It was an illusion foisted upon you by the most evil man in the world,” Morgan said, angry and astonished.

“I know. But it was a nice illusion.”

“While he was brutally torturing your brother!”

“Well I didn't know about that part, did I?”

“Come along, Highness,” Galen stepped in. “Maybe we should explore some of the other rooms. Perhaps there are more interesting pictures to look at elsewhere.”

“It doesn't matter, Galen,” Morgan said. He lowered himself to a short bench that ran along the wall. “No matter where she is, the damage is already done.”

“No, I think I will leave,” Paige said. “It's clear my opinion isn't welcome here. You didn't enjoy your experience, so obviously I cannot have enjoyed mine. It doesn't work that way, Morgan. I'm not saying what happened to you was good, I would never say that in a thousand thousand years, but I wish you would stop blaming me for not stopping it. I didn't know!”

“I didn't expect you to rescue me, Paige, I expected me to rescue you! But not only did I not rescue you, you didn't want to be rescued even if I could have! Couldn't you be at least a little upset about that in hindsight?”

“I think you're being upset about it enough for both of us. I'm alright, Morgan, nobody hurt me and nothing bad happened to me. Why are you so angry about that? It's not my fault he didn't torture me too. What do you want from me? I'd kill him if I could for what he did to you, but not for what he did to me.”

A silence fell across the room that was accentuated by the wind whistling through empty windowframes. Paige turned and disappeared into another room with Kemen and Brand trailing after her.

'Hurtful things,'” Morgan murmured. “And so you were right, Galen.”

“It's embedded in the stones, Magister, his need to hurt, his anger, his pain. The danger is not in the building, it's inside ourselves. As long as we stay here-”

“I'm not leaving without her. Let's just wait for awhile.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Archard, with all due respect, I think we -”

“Don't call me that, Bartok.”

“But I thought that was the proper title for the Shield.”

“It is. I'm not the Shield. Not anymore.”

“With all due respect, I think it's clear this place is getting to you,” Bartok said. “Perhaps we should wait for your sister outside?”

“I'm not leaving without her. Go outside if you want, I don't care.”

“Sir, I'm not sure it's sa-”

“Fine,” Morgan snapped, “I'll leave.”

He stood up from the low bench and stalked out of the room on his long spindly legs, deeper into the house. Galen and the two Ria listened to his footsteps receding into the distance.

“Let him be,” Galen said.

“But won't he just get worse the longer he stays here? I'm feeling edgy myself, and I don't like the idea of hunting for him after dark.”

“He won't get worse,” Galen assured him, “and this island is small enough that he can't get lost. Not from me, not from Ruby.”

They waited in silence, and Galen continued to peruse the walls. Though he could not read the words, the pictures were often quite graphic enough to tell Laric's story. One motif that was repeated constantly was that of a human skull, which Galen thought made sense enough in a general way. Then he saw something that made him suspect it meant something more.

Many of the tableaux contained scenes of death and horror, with bodies in various stages of destruction, including skeletons. These were all rendered individually, each one unique. One skull, however, was repeated in precise detail over and over, the same couple of teeth missing, the same jagged hole in the upper left of the forehead. It appeared often in the borders or to be hovering over a scene. Occasionally it was in the hand of Laric himself, clearly distinguished in the pictures by the rays of light he carved around himself.

“I wish I could read these,” Galen muttered to himself.

“I don't,” Nyda said with a shudder. “There's nothing good here. I wish the others would come back so we can leave.”

“Go look for them,” Galen suggested. “Well, Paige and her entourage, at least. I'd really recommend you leave Morgan alone for awhile.”

“How long a while? What could be so interesting about this place that you wouldn't all leave at once?”

“Aren't you even the least bit curious about this?” Galen asked, turning to her. “This is a record thousands of years old, lost knowledge. Who knows what information here might help us someday?”

“Help? This place is cursed. There's no help here.”

“Knowledge of bad things can be inverted to do good,” Galen said. “Ignorance is the worst enemy. What you don't know, what you don't understand, these are the things that will kill you, and you'll never know why. Best we learn all we can of him if we're going to fight him.”

“I don't want to fight him, I just want to stay out of his way,” Tamar said. Nyda and Bartok nodded agreement.

“The Lander has a point, though,” Bartok said. “The captain may call on us to fight the Oathbreaker someday. I doubt reading these walls will help us, we'd be fighting his soldiers, not him, but it's something we should all be ready for. He seems to think something big is coming.”

“It is,” Galen assured him, “and reading these walls may significantly help me. Why don't you leave me to it, and head back to the ship?”

“No, sir, we're under quite strict orders from the captain. We all return together.”

“Then get as comfortable as you can – we may be here awhile. Morgan and Paige both need to calm down a bit.”

The Ria sighed, and Tamar leaned against the main door frame, sword in hand. Bartok stationed himself at the doorway Paige had gone through, and Nyda where Morgan had gone. Galen returned to studying the walls.

“Paper,” he muttered. “We should have brought paper and ink. Next time.”

“Next time?” The words came in unison from three mouths.

“Now listen,” Bartok said. “Bringing morbidly curious Landers on a brief sight-seeing expedition is one thing, but we're not coming back.”

“I didn't ask you to,” Galen said without turning away from the wall.

“But we can't let you come up h-”

“You've already seen the worst this place can do, Bartok,” Galen said. “It eats at peoples' emotions. There are no monsters or demons here except the ones we bring with us. So there's nothing for your swords and bows to protect us from. Stay on the ship. Help with the repairs. I for one am glad to have solid ground under my feet again, and the others feel the same. We're not used to life on a ship.

“I could spend years studying this place. I imagine my master will wish to return as well, when he's feeling better. There's a wealth of information on these walls that should not be lost.”

“Can't return if he doesn't leave. Where is he?”

“Nursing some very severe wounds of the soul. Leave him be.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Morgan stormed out of the main atrium almost blindly. She truly did not care. The fact of it stung as hard as any other. He wandered dark corridors, doorways letting in light from unshuttered windows now and then. The house was huge, far larger than it had seemed from without. He found stairs, followed them down into darkness. The house descended into the living stone, and still the carvings covered every wall, unseen and unread.

When the dim light from the stairs finally faded into true black around a corner, Morgan found a room, went to a corner and laid down to pray. Please let me wake up, he begged. Please, Vatha, let this be just another dream. Let me wake in my cell. He put his hand down to the floor, but there was no familiar softness. The wall was also hard stone, and he could feel the ubiquitous carvings. This was not his cell. Is this real? he wondered, not for the first time. Is it possible that I won't wake up there again? The illusions were always based on joy, not pain, and there's enough pain here for a hundred cells. Am I in the real world? He was not sure which he would prefer. He debated the possibilities back and forth in his mind until he drifted into a fitful sleep.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Where's Morgan?” Paige came back to the atrium and sat on one of the benches. She was puffing slightly, unused to the rapidly increasing weight of her belly.

“Sleeping,” Galen said. “He hasn't been this upset since he, uh … 'found' Ashia.”

“He's making me crazy,” she said. “Galen, why is he mad at me for not being hurt? I would have thought he'd be happy about that, but he's furious. I never know what to say, and I get so tired of guessing, of being scared to say the wrong thing. What does he want from me?”

“You're siblings,” Galen said. He went over to Paige and knelt beside her. The others moved off, content to stare awestruck at the 'holy' pictures on every wall. “How did you handle fights when you were younger? Surely you fought growing up?”

Paige looked at him blankly.

“Fight? Me and Morgan? Never. Not ever never. Only since he woke up.”

“He's changed a lot since then, Andreider. He's not the same man you knew.”

“Well I haven't changed. Is that what he's mad about?”

“You have changed,” Galen told her gently. “You may not see it, but he does.”

“How have I changed?”

“I didn't know you before, my lady, but he did. He senses it. I don't get any more than that from him, but I don't need to. Five years have passed, nearly six, and everyone changes over time. Each of you is expecting the other to be like they were when you last saw each other, but neither of you ever will be. Even if you had never come to Erlaya, you would have changed, but it would have been more subtle, and most likely you wouldn't have noticed it in each other, because you would have changed together. But you've been apart, and both of you have changed so much it's as though you're strangers. Nothing will undo the changes in either of you, and it's difficult getting to know who the other person is when you are blinded by what you think you already know.

“Your brother has changed far more than you have. He has all the memories of you growing up together, but it's as though those memories belong to another man, as though they happened to someone else.”

“Well if he's not the same, who is he?”

“A very good question, Paige, and one that even he doesn't know the answer to. You need to be patient with him.”

“I was being patient, but how long is this going to take? I recovered, why can't he?”

“You are recovering much more quickly than he, but he has the more grievous wound. He will never recover, not fully. You need to learn to love the man that he has become, and stop looking for the man he was. He is still your brother, and he still loves you – intensely – but you have to accept that things are never going to be like they were.”

“I want them to be,” Paige whispered, her eyes brimming. “I miss him. You sound a lot like him, you know. The old him.”

“I imagine so,” Galen said. “I'm a magician. I wonder how much the changes you notice in him are due to the years you spent apart and how much to the fact that he no longer has his Vada. Losing his power was one torture among many, but living without it is entirely different. I'm not certain he'll ever truly adjust to it, he will always feel the loss of it like the loss of a limb or a sense. I know that he is in pain, but I can only imagine what it feels like to lose what he's lost.”

“He told me it felt like all of us were dead, but walking around. That none of us were real. That seeing and touching things didn't make them real.”

“Without the Vada. Gods, I can't imagine living like that. Your brother is incredibly strong. I remember that day, you know, when Laric... when... well I was there. I felt his pain that day, but that was from the outside and I was amazed he lived through it. How much worse it really must have been I can only imagine, I can't know. You don't find strength like that every day. You should be proud of him just for being alive. It wasn't easy.”

“What do you think he wou-”

“Hold on...” Galen said, and his eyes closed. Paige waited. This was familiar. Morgan had done it all the time when they were growing up.

Ruby?

You see any other magicians around here? The captain wants to know why you're not back yet.

Is something wrong?

No, he's just concerned.

How are you doing this?

The usual way. Come on, it's time to come back.

Alright, I'll tell them.

See you soon.

“It's time to go back to the ship,” Galen said at length, opening his eyes.

“Thank God Almighty!” said Tamar. “Let's get out of here!”

“The rest of you go on ahead. I'll find Morgan and meet you by the boat, alright?”

“Galen, this place is huge,” put in Kemen. “Do you want help searching?”

“No, I can find him faster on my own. Take care of Paige.”

Kemen nodded, and they all went outside. When he was sure they were well on their way down the steps, Galen turned back into the dim and followed Morgan's trail through the maze of corridors. He found the stairs, followed them down, and soon knelt by his master's sleeping form.

“Morgan?”

A hand slapped on cold stone in the darkness.

“I'm not home, am I?”

“No, sir, I'm afraid not. It's time to get back to the ship. The others are waiting.”

“What happened? Is anyone hurt?” Morgan was suddenly wide awake.

“No, Ruby says everything is fine. We just need to get back on board for the night.”

“Ah. Well let's go then.” Morgan grunted as Galen helped him to his feet. “I presume you can find the way out of here?”

Galen smiled in the darkness. Morgan had actually gotten himself lost, deliberately. Galen had not thought of that, but it was obvious.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. My stomache says it's time for dinner. Am I right?”

“Your stomache always says it's time for dinner,” Galen tentatively ventured some humour. “I'm sure Alta will be able to find something for you to eat.”

Morgan, groggy again and soul tired, responded to the jibe. “She's a good woman. A good cook and a beautiful woman. Do you suppose she'd leave Terrin for me?”

“No, but don't let that stop you. I'm sure he wouldn't mind.”

“Gaaah, I don't think I could ever get used to that. They're married, but they're not married. They're just … what are they? I don't understand it, and it's been explained a dozen times.”

“They're Rian, sir, and they're in love. As near as I can figure, that's good enough for them.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know, sir.”

They had reached the top of the stairs, and began tracing their way back to the atrium. Morgan looked around as they went.

“Holy Vatha, look at this. No, stop, Galen, look at this. These carvings are everywhere!”

“I know. His entire life story up until around two thousand years ago, as near as I can tell. I can't read the writing, but there are some very intriguing scenes.”

“Look here, look what he says here...” Morgan had stopped and was perusing a wall. Galen took him by the arm and led him away.

“We can come back later, Magister, but right now they're waiting for us at the boat.”

“Why?”

“Because you're hungry, remember?”

“Hungry. Right, of course I'm hungry. I'm starving. So what are we doing just standing around? Let's get back to the ship.”

Morgan's head began to clear as they left the building, and by the time they had reached the others at the longboat he was much more lucid. Once back on the ship he had quite regained his usual mood. He was still hungry, though.

“That place is priceless,” he remarked over a lavish dinner. “I want to go back first thing in the morning. How long will we be here in dock, Jasper?”

“I really don't want you going back there, Morgan.”

“I don't see why. There's nothing on the island more dangerous than gulls, and they don't seem to come near the house. Jasper, you should see the place, it's beautiful, and the carvings on the walls must be written down so I can study them when we leave. Besides, you're the one who wasn't afraid to come here in the first place. Why the reluctance now?”

“I'm not afraid to use the harbour to make repairs. That's different.”

“You know I can't swim, right?” Morgan asked.

“Yes.”

“Well I'm going over there tomorrow. Do we understand each other?”

Jasper sighed.

“You're not going over there alone,” he said.

“Of course not,” Brand said. “I'm going with him.”

Heads turned in surprise. Since his visit to the house Brand's attitude had improved immensely, but this seemed a bit much.

“You want to help me over there?” Morgan asked.

“Help you? No. I want to bask in His Holy radiance. If a boat is going ashore tomorrow, I will be on it. I do think what you are doing is good, though.”

“Really?” Morgan cocked an eyebrow at his cousin.

“Certainly. You will be recording the Holy works for those who have never had the opportunity to read them. I look forward to your translations. In fact, if you require any... what I mean to say is that... well... perhaps I can be of assistance in your sacred task. I have good, legible handwriting. The house is vast, and I doubt you shall be able to record all of it on your own. With my help, and presumably that of your... apostate apprentice,” Brand spat the words out with contempt, but continued, “we shall be able to record much more of the text.”

“Well that sounds... very generous,” said Morgan. “I would appreciate your help, I think. Galen? What say you?”

“I do not need his permission!” Brand protested.

“Actually, you do,” Morgan said. “Unless my 'apostate apprentice' here is convinced of your sincerity and harmlessness, you're not setting foot in that house again. Thanks to the monster who corrupted your mind, I cannot read you myself.”

“He is sincere, Magister,” Galen said in his soft voice. “His motive differs from ours, but his objective is the same; he will not hinder our efforts, and he will record the texts as accurately as he possibly can. And he's right, an extra pair of hands would be most useful.”

“Very well, he's in. How about you, Kemen? Would you like to revisit that place, or stay with your lady?”

“S-sir, I'm – I mean she's not – I don't-”

“Relax, soldier. You know what I mean. Would you care to make yourself useful on shore tomorrow?”

“I'm no scholar, sir,” Kemen said, “but if there's anything I can do...”

“We'll find a use for you, I'm sure,” Morgan said. “Well that's decided then. Jasper, are you going to send armed escorts again, or are we to be treated as adults this time?”

“Someone has to row you out there and bring you back,” Jasper pointed out. “Morgan, won't you reconsider this idea of yours?”

“I'm going over there,” Morgan said. “How I get there is up to you, brother.”

“Yes, alright, I heard you the first time. Same compliment, I suppose.”

“You know, they don't have to stay. They could take us out there and come back to the ship to work. We'll have Kemen with us if somehow there's any danger, which there isn't, and Galen as well. We're not exactly helpless. Ruby can confer with Galen when it's time for us to return. You've got no reason but superstition, have you?”

“He lived there for a hundred years, Morgan. His presence is bound to have left a mark.”

“Oh, it did, no question. Marks all over the walls.”

“And what about magics?”

“Your people defanged him for his stay, did they not? How did they do that, by the way? It's one thing I'm sure he will not have written down, a vulnerability like that. And why did they ever restore and set him free again?”

“I don't know, Morgan, I wasn't there at the time.”

“He should have been hacked to bits and set in concrete and sunk to the bottom if you ask me,” Morgan said.

“God, that would have been the end of all of us! The Mer would love to work with him if they ever had the chance. They would have had him freed in no time, and with their power combined with his, the Ria would have been destroyed centuries ago. Then where would you be?”

“The who?” Kemen asked.

“The Mer,” Jasper said.

Blank looks greeted him from most of the company.

“Fog!” Jasper swore. “Landers! You don't even know who they are?”

“Sea monsters, aren't they?” said Morgan.

“No, they're human enough. They are the ones who live below the sea.”

“Humans who live underwater?” Paige asked, skeptical. “How do they breathe?”

“They have gills, of course,” Jasper said. “Look, you really don't know this?”

“Oh for Quphic's sake, Jasper, of course we don't!” Paige was exasperated. “You Ria are so secretive about everything, it's a wonder us Landers know anything about you at all. Now you're all shocked and offended that we don't know these things we've never heard of. If you want us to know about something Rian, you have to tell us!”

“Humans don't have gills,” Galen pointed out in his soft voice. “Are you sure these are?”

“I've fought them. I've killed them. They're as human as you and I. They are the damned. God cast them out, cast them into the Depths when She split the lands from each other. They were given gills to keep them in the sea, to stop them from invading the land. Surely something as elementary as the three races of … no, you really don't. Alright, Paige, you needn't glare so. You're right. I just forget that you're not Rian. Take it as a compliment.

“You should all get some rest now. It seems you're determined to have a big day tomorrow.”














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