(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity — or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
Hours passed and the morning slid away into afternoon. The sun rose high in the sky casting short shadows along the mountain face. James slung his freshly washed pack and all his other items over his shoulder. His sword was tied snugly to his pack and he looked longingly at the wall of trees ahead. Ti’nagal lay far below the mountain, to the east. He wished he could see it from where he stood. He knew the risk of going there. If Luthien is there, he thought.
James had not quite gotten over the horrible battle, and he knew that it would take far more time than a few hours, and more than a warm and soothing bath, to clear his mind of all the horrors and fear than blew through him like a torrent of wind. Yet he refused to see his reaction as abnormal. He had seen far too much death in the last couple of days to believe that he was weak. I’m only twelve.
Pea and Darl stood by, looking to where the mountainside declined to the east.
“We should be able to reach Ti’nagal tomorrow evening,” Darl said, running his hands through his beard. “You are welcome to join us.” Indicating the Lean.
“I have nothing left in this sacred place. And I would not wish to remain here knowing that my guard has fallen and the place I was bound to look after has become a corrupted bough of carnage.” The Lean shifted as if wind passed through him.
“Very well.” Then Darl started off into the trees. Pea and James followed and the Lean simply glided through the shadows, appearing here, disappearing there, and reappearing again.
This time there was no path to follow. Darl had to push his way through the brush and bushes, trampling anything else that got in his way. Birds chirped in protest; squirrels and other small animals scurried away as their hiding places were crushed to the ground. James didn’t like it, destroying things along the way, but he realized that there was no other way through the woods that would lead to Ti’nagal.
The woods, however, did not last long. Soon the trees and brush broke away to expose a mishmash of rock—boulders dozens of times larger than James, cliffs that fell to regions unknown, and farther below a massive chasm that divided the mountain into two pieces. Beyond he could see a short field that stopped abruptly as an immense tree line formed—the Forest of Gall. Ti’nagal lay some distance away where the mountains blocked his vision. He knew there were rivers there too, many that Luthien would be forced to cross to take the city.
James had not read about Ti’nagal in the etiquette book, but he got the impression that it was not a large city—not like Arlin City. We can’t stay there long. Luthien will destroy that place too. How much of his army survived the battle in Arlin City? How many will survive Afeir? There were other places in the valley too, he remembered. Nirlum sat not too far from Arlin City, and there were villages throughout the entire valley. Those villages would be burnt to the ground in minutes.
He shivered the thoughts away. He couldn’t think about it anymore.
Darl guided them down the hill at a fast pace. James slipped and fell several times; Pea luckily had the strong hands of someone far bigger than him—namely James—to catch him in his moments of inelegance. The Lean had the easiest journey of them all seeing how he could neither be affected by the physical world, nor could he affect it. He simply glided along, occasionally passed in and out of shadow, and seemed otherwise unhindered by the foreboding journey.
High noon passed and the sun rested above the point of the mountain behind them. Darl paused every so often for no more than a few minutes. James, though despising the journey and wanting to collapse and take a breather every moment, refused to stop for too long. Ti’nagal would not be visible for hours and he didn’t want to get lost in the dark trying to find it.
Hours glided by as if they were minutes. Darl avoided the crack down the middle of the mountain, instead cutting across the mountain face to the eastern side. The occasional sprout of trees forced them to take a longer route, but slowly, and surely, they reached the bottom of the mountain into grassland. Far off was the Forest of Gall and James came to realize just has massive it truly was. The trees were tall, larger than the redwoods back home he had become familiar with. They were so tall that their twisted limbs and branches made them look almost as if they were living beings. He imagined them with faces just as twisted.
Darl allowed them to rest for a moment and James, though anxious to get on with the journey, gratefully took the opportunity to site down. Darl passed the pouch of water around and everyone but the Lean took their fill.
James felt stronger now, more so than when he had first come to the Farthland. Something had happened to him, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Perhaps it had to do with his mentality on the whole situation. Regardless, he began to sense that his endurance had increased and it couldn’t have been entirely from all the physical strain he had been forced to deal with.
“We need to move soon,” Darl said. “Ti’nagal could easily be a day and a half journey from here.”
The Lean appeared next to James. James flinched, still not used to the spirit’s constant random presence. Then he calmed and looked at the Lean questioningly.
“I am sorry for your suffering,” the Lean said.
James didn’t say anything; or rather he didn’t know what to say.
“You have endured what many, even soldiers, have not. That makes you mighty.”
He shook his head. “I’m not mighty.”
“Mmm,” the Lean knelt over into his shadow, “perhaps not now, but soon you will be.”
James looked away and said, “Did you ever have a name,” in an attempt to change the conversation. I don’t want to hear about how well I kill or how great I may be, he thought.
“I believe I once did. But that was a long time ago. Leans often spend millennia alone. We lose touch with who we once were. I cannot tell you my past, nor how long I have been in Arnur. Nor can I tell you anything of the history of Arnur. I simply exist and bare no knowledge of the past.”
“You don’t remember the things that are most important. Who you are, where you came from, your own name.”
“They are trivial things.”
He juddered in disagreement. “No. Who you are is more important than what you do.”
“Who are you?”
“What do you mean who am I? I’m James. You know who I am. It’s you I’m concerned about.”
“Your name defines who you are?”
“No…” he stopped and curled his brow.
“If your name does not define who you are, then who are you?”
He leaned back and dropped his chin. He tried to think of the words to explain, but none came.
“Don’t be too proud about stumping him,” Pea said, apparently having heard the entire conversation, grinning wide. “He has book smarts, but I think his logic is a little skewed.”
“I am incapable of feeling proud.”
“Shame.” Pea inclined his head and gently tipped his hat. The little man still held onto what little civility he could.
“My logic is just fine; it’s this crazy world that makes it seem skewed.”
“Yes, of course. The crazy world that defies so many rules.”
“I’ll tell you this. If I were to come to Earth with you, could you say that your commuters…”
“Computers,” James corrected.
“Computers, yes. Could you say that I would find them logical?”
“No. You don’t know how they work. They would seem like…”
James saw Pea’s point. “Yes.” Pea was right. Magic seemed so illogical and bizarre, but to an outsider so would the technology he had come to adore. Computers and websites would be like invisible forces and winds guided by song.
Pea, satisfied with his point, nodded his head and walked away. James could tell he hadn’t insulted the little man, but at the same time he thought maybe he had. Instinct, he told himself.
James turned back to the Lean. “So you can’t remember your name?”
“Then we’ll have to come up with one for you.”
“I don’t require a name to exist.”
“No, but it would make talking with you a lot easier.”
James looked away and examined the grasslands before him. What do you name a spirit? He twirled ideas around in his head. Names came, but none seemed right. Finally he decided to give it a rest, told the Lean he would come up with one later, and stood up. He didn’t want to sit any longer. He was tired, but not too tired to stop moving closer to Ti’nagal. Darl seemed to understand his intentions and in a matter of seconds began walking through knee high grass.
The Lor Range split right in two to create the enormous valley where Arlin City and Nirlum sat—though the people of the Farthland pluralized valley for no real reason at all. They were on the opposite side of the eastern most split of the Lor Range, which jutted out for several miles into a blunt point. Opposite of that, nestled in a miniature bay of mountains, was Ti’nagal.
James guessed that they had at least fifteen miles before they would be able to see their destination. The sun had already begun to creep behind the mountains. Long, deep shadows stretched across the landscape and what remained of the sun’s light shined dark orange on the horizon. He took a moment to peer back to where Arnur stood; only he could not see the sacred place. Who is Zagra? What did that Master say in that strange language?
James was grateful that the grassy floor along the mountains was relatively flat. He didn’t much care for the rocky terrain they had been taking. His feet felt the same.
When night had finally fallen, the stars began to shine, and the moon slowly made its presence known in the distance, Darl halted the group. They had stopped just near the tip of the blunt projection of mountains. There Darl started a small fire from the branches of a group of nearby bushes, produced a handful of food items and began cooking a crudely simplistic meal.
“I’ll take the watch tonight,” Darl said.
“And since you all hated my cooking last time, I’ve prepared warm salted meat and some roasted vegetables instead.”
Pea made a face. Darl tossed a potato at him.
“You’re welcome to cook your own meal.”
Pea harrumphed. “Yes, well I imagine if I could bring an entire banquet I wouldn’t be walking this rather deadly path.”
“And you’d likely be dead.”
Pea glared at that, took his share of the food and resigned to munching in silence on the opposite side of the fire. James, too, grabbed a slab of the meat and two chunks of something that looked like a carrot. He chewed the meat and winced. The salt overwhelmed the flavor of the meat. He shook off the feeling and wolfed down the rest of the meet before slowly chewing the carrot-like chunks he had been given. When he bit down he realized that they weren’t really carrots, but could easily be in the same family of vegetables. They tasted like carrots in the beginning before becoming like a potato. The flavor was dull, but he ate anyway.
When he had finished Darl moved away from the fire so that he no longer sat in the light. James put his pack under his head, curled up, and tried to sleep. He watched the flames as they flickered randomly, sparks shooting up and disappearing into the night air in a mock representation of the cycle of life. His eyelids became heavy and he fell asleep.
James began to wake and first considered slipping away to speak with Dulien, but it occurred to him that he had nothing to say to the spirit of his Fearl and instead he allowed himself to come fully into the conscious world.
Dawn had not yet arrived, and wouldn’t arrive for a few hours. Night clung desperately to the last moments before the sun would force its way over the horizon and present itself in all its bright glory.
He sat up and groaned as he stretched his neck. Then he noticed that the fire had been put out, leaving behind barely smoldering embers.
“Shhh,” Darl said harshly in a whisper.
James made eye contact. Darl pointed to his eyes and then out into the darkness of the grassland. He turned his gaze and tried to see whatever it was Darl wanted him to see. In all the black he could barely make out the dark shapes of the mountains, let alone where they begin and where the grassland became forest. Then something shifted, a shadow, a blade of grass, or something else. He squinted. It moved again. The motions were swift and sly, almost catlike, but he still could not make out what it was.
James gasped as the Lean sprang into existence next to him, visible only by his beady white eyes. He managed to stifle it, but was unable to avoid the stern glare of Darl.
“Lyphon,” the Lean said. The Lean strained with his voice, trying as much as possible to keep quiet. The task was more difficult it seemed for the Lean; James could tell. For a spirit with no true control over the physical world, whispering was nearly impossible.
“Are you certain?”
“No, but it is a monstrous creature. Blood runs from its maw and flesh dangles from his claws. It is not yet aware of your location.”
“We’ll have to face it.” Darl slunk back and produced his sword.
“Neither of us can use magic on it,” James whispered, indicating Pea with a slight shift of his arm.
“There is a pass not far from here,” the Lean said. “Just between the first and second mountains.”
James cringed. The Lean’s voice was too loud. He feared that the lyphon might hear and discern their exact location. “Is it safe?” He tried to lower his voice to give the Lean a clue.
“I do not know. It was safe a millennia ago.”
“I say we risk it Darl,” Pea said, also in a low whisper. “If anything we might confuse the lyphon, perhaps get it lost in there.”
Darl seemed to ponder this, though James could not be entirely certain what expression found its home on the old man’s face in the dead of night. Light breathing and the occasional sigh were the only indicators that Darl was in deep thought.
It seemed like an eternity before Darl finally spoke.
“We take the pass,” Darl said. “Can you go ahead and check if the pass is still safe?”
“I would get there no faster than you would. I cannot materialize where I have no been before.”
Darl grunted quietly. “Let’s move…”
None of them hesitated. In less than a minute everything was packed tightly, packs were slung over shoulders, and swords drawn. James carried his sword delicately, the image of the carnage in Arnur still fresh in his mind. He wasn’t sure if he could defend himself again like he had there, but he knew he would have to at some point.
Walking in the dark, even though some light filtered in from the moon beyond the mountains, proved to be far more difficult than James had anticipated. Even Darl seemed to have trouble. Bushes seemed to come out of nowhere; rocks seemed to pop up from the ground to grab at unsuspecting feet. Twice James nearly toppled over managing to save himself only by thrusting is sword into the ground. Darl and Pea faired no better. The enormous shadow of the two mountains, between which the pass nestled, looked like hulking black forms reaching for the sky, their points like two hands placed together in a praying stance.
The pass, unlike the gold path to Arnur, presented itself brightly, or rather darkly, in between the mountains. It stuck out like a sore thumb as soon as some glimmer of light hit it. It was not like any path James was familiar with. Though little light reached it, he could tell that both walls were curved and relatively smooth as if they once formed a circle. And indeed they once had. The ceiling now found its home in pieces on the floor, leaving the path open to the night air and the pitch shadow of the mountains. James surmised that the path would only be fully lit at noon when the sun rested straight overhead.
James tripped over a rock and this time could not stop himself. He landed hard on his stomach on another rock and felt his sword slip from his hand and clang loudly to the ground. No berating came, though he had expected Darl to whirl around on him to sling every imaginable insult his direction. I’m lucky this time, he thought.
He stood up and delicately worked his way around the rock. He took baby steps until his foot hit his sword. It clanged and he grabbed it quickly. A heavy hand slapped him in the back of his head. He winced, but didn’t say anything.
James concentrated on his footing. His eyes somehow had adjusted enough to the point where he could at least see the dark forms of the rocks before he stepped on them. This allowed him to maneuver around large ones, but he could not avoid ones that risked coming loose, and as a result he found that every step was a shaky one.
An hour passed, or at least what he thought was an hour, and a single shine of light filtered through the sky painting it a dark blue. The sky gradually grew brighter finally bringing form to the pass. Dawn approached at a crawl. James smiled internally, but on the outside he could express nothing but concern. With light coming through the pass, any creature could easily see them. Darkness had both been their friend and foe.
The Lean disappeared for a brief moment. Before he could blink the Lean reappeared next to Darl.
“It still follows,” the Lean said, rising up and down as he passed over the rocky terrain. “Not far, but gaining.”
Darl grumbled. “We’ve no choice.”
“Right,” Pea said.
Darl dropped his pack hard on the ground. “Pea, I want you behind James and I. We’ll keep him busy so you can work your magic.”
“There’re plenty of rocks for me to use. So long as he doesn’t move too fast…” Pea trailed off and placed his pack gently on the ground next to Darl’s.
James let his pack fall to the ground as well and gripped his sword fearfully. He had faced the lyphon before and it had instilled such fear in him that even the thought of having to face it again brought chills. The wide toothy grin was still fresh in his mind. Regardless, he raised his sword, ignoring the weight his subconscious tried to add to the weapon.
“Don’t lunge,” Darl said to him. “Just keep it back. Let it make the first mistake. We have the upper hand so long as we have numbers.”
The lyphon appeared through the shadows farther down the pass. It walked like a giant house cat, its muscular shoulders rippling with each step it took. Blood dribbled from its mouth and struck the ground, seeping into the earth. Soon he could hear its claws clack-clacking on the rocks and the familiar wet pant. The lyphon walked, apparently content to move at a slow pace rather than wasting energy.
“Turn back where you came from,” Darl said with conviction, sending his voice in an echo through the pass.
The lyphon did not stop; rather it continued forward until it stood twenty feet away. Then it began to pace back and forth while watching with its two wicked cat eyes. James thought he heard the creature laugh, but second guessed.
“Hand over the boy and you can go on your way,” the lyphon said.
“Are you the one they call Nara’karesh?”
“I have been called that.”
“And you are a beast from Loe?”
“Then I cannot give you this boy. Not so long as I still live.”
Nara’karesh made a vibrating wheezy sound—a laugh of sorts. “You cannot defeat me.”
“We have once. And we will again. We are prepared now.”
Another wheeze. “You defeated me in closed quarters. Here,” Nara’karesh looked side to side, “there is open ground. Plenty of space to move. I ask this one last time, as a request from my master and a show of good will. Give me the boy and you will be spared.”
Darl stood firm. James shook, but maintained his composure to some extent.
“Then your fates have been decided.”
With that Nara’karesh leapt from its rock and bound at an amazing speed up the side of the pass, curling around and coming up from behind James through the shadows that still held control over the sun. James turned just in time to face the creature and held his sword at the ready. Nara’karesh raised its bulk and lashed forward with a claw. It struck his sword, but he managed to get it back up just as Darl lunged forward with a strike. The beast fell away and circled again. This time James knew what to expect and turned smoothly and faced the creature again. Claws slashed at him, he dodged, batted the arms away, but before Darl could come in for a strike the beast jumped back.
The earth suddenly shook. James wobbled and regained his balance. Nara’karesh laughed louder this time.
“The earth is so easy to corrupt here!” Another shake.
“The blood from his mouth,” Pea said, levitating a large jagged stone nearby, “it’s from Loe. He’s corrupting the earth.”
Nara’karesh raced forward again. Pea let loose his stone. It flew like an arrow through the air, but the beast rolled sideways effortlessly and continued forward. The stone hit the ground at such a speed that it shattered and sent shards in every direction. James covered his face as bits slammed into his arm and body. He grunted as a few left scratches and small cuts in his skin, then he pulled his arm down and found the beast jumping through the air, claws extended and bloodied mouth wide open like a gaping hole of putrid death.
James brought his sword up, but too late as Nara’karesh knocked it from his hand and pushed him to the ground. Another stone launched through the air, but the beast easily moved aside with a long cat-like leap, perching for a brief moment on a tall pointed rock outcrop, then slipped into a series of shadows and moved across the center of the pass in a blur of black fur.
James marveled at the lyphon’s speed. He had no questions now as to how the creature had managed to sneak up on all the soldiers in the Lord’s Keep in Arlin City. Now he fully understood just how dangerous this creature was.
He scrambled to his feet and followed the creature with his eyes as it made a wide arc around them. His sword was lost somewhere in the shadows. Then the creature stopped and took a couple steps forward and paused.
“You realize the pointlessness of your actions, don’t you?” Nara’karesh said, stepping forward once more.
Darl turned to face the creature, having apparently lost site of it. “Nothing is pointless if it serves a good cause.”
“And in your death you would be serving a good cause?”
James searched for his sword again, but it was nowhere to be seen.
“If my death serves to stall Luthien in his insanity, then yes.”
“So be it. I will take pleasure in cleaning the flesh from your face.” Nara’karesh washed a dribbling dark tongue over its lips.
James quivered, then looked above the lyphon. There just above where the pass became mountain, embedded deep within the rock, was a protrusion of stones. He eyed it for a moment, then turned ever so slightly to Pea and said, “Follow my lead.” Then he mouthed the words ‘look up’, hoping that Pea would be able to see the motion in the dark.
“Why do you serve Luthien?” he said. “What’s in it for you?” He pulled at the magic in the back of his mind, yanking huge torrents of it and hoping he wouldn’t pull too much. As he did this he slowly moved back and farther down the pass, placing a little more distance between he and the lyphon.
“I do not serve Luthien. I only serve the one who seeks to use his power.” Nara’karesh moved around to the center of the pass, taking elegant strides. “I have free reign in this world when opposition is put to rest. Free reign to do as I please for as long as my physical being can survive.”
Magic whirled to life behind him; Pea had caught on to his plan. Almost enough, he thought.
“So you seek to disrupt the balance between Loe and the Halls of the Great Fathers for your own selfish reasons,” Darl broke in.
James glanced at Darl. He’s in on it too.
“Loe is a lovely place,” Nara’karesh took a quick step forward and grinned as the three flinched and moved back. “I’m afraid it has grown quite stale in these last few decades. I am keener to fresher meats, ones that have not been tainted by judgment.”
A sudden acute sense of his surroundings sent James’ mind into a spiral. His magic and Pea’s were sending throbs of whirling energy around him. He could feel it through his fingertips pulling at the very depths of his mind. There’s so much.
Nara’karesh roared with phlegm filled laughter, the sound of which seemed to shake the earth, or perhaps it was simply the overload of energy pulsing through every tip of his body that gave him that sense.
“You cannot use magic on me, not unless you wish me to consume your soul. This is pointless.”
Magic overwhelmed him now, brimming over his senses like a cup filled too quickly with bubbling liquid. Then, when he could hold on no more he said, “This magic…” pausing, shaking and nearly toppling backwards, “is not meant for you…Nara’karesh…” Then he released it, guiding it with the help of Pea like an arrow into the protrusion of rock, his hand raised weakly, curved. He could not see the energy rippling out of him, but he could feel each wave as it tore through him with no care for his body. Yet, no pain affected his senses, only a sense of relief. The resonating sound of invisible force slamming against rock blew down through the pass like wind. His hair flittered back, sand and dust pushed into his eyes.
Then Nara’karesh realized what his intentions were and looked up just in time to see the entire outcrop rip out of the mountain and come crashing down in an avalanche of rocks in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
The complete look of surprise on the lyphon’s face made James smile even as he fell backward. He held tight to his vision with what little energy he had left. He had to see the outcome of his efforts.
Nara’karesh turned, genuine fear deep in its blood-red eyes. It roared a blood splattering, wet and ear splitting roar akin to a lion and a bear combined. The lyphon bounded forward, fear and vengeance clear in its snarling face.
The entire weight of the mountain seemed to crash down into the pass. A wave of rocks careened into Nara’karesh. It cried out in vein—a deep whimper like a massive dog. Rocks rived the creature from the ground. Dust, like a wall of darkness even darker than the near lightless world of the pass, washed forward.
Then complete and utter darkness overcame him—darker than when even the moon could not shine its light into the pass, darker than when the moon could not shine at all. It was darkness unlike any he had experienced for here he was awake and conscious of his surroundings.
The dust forced its way into his lungs. He coughed, and then covered his face. The rumble of rocks still sounded, echoing seemingly forever down both ends of the pass. He lay there with a hint of satisfaction and the feeling of paralysis as all his energy finally left him and he found that even thinking about moving hurt.