Author Topic: Chapter 1  (Read 14065 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 1
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:04:44 AM »
Part 1: Ripples in a Pond

Chapter 1

A light breeze whipped through the tall grass, rustling Jaas’ short-cut hair. She closed her eyes for just a moment, enjoying the sensation while she still could. Even though the last snows had melted over a month ago, the sun’s warmth still barely cut through the chill in the air. Jaas shivered as she looked around.

Half of the world seemed perfectly normal, even idyllic. A steady, quiet river flowed its inexorable way south. Plains spread out on both sides, covered with grass and dotted with the occasional tree. Mountains rose off to the east, and a dense forest grew to the west. But when she turned around to look at the other half, a jet-black barrier intersected the river, extending dozens of leagues to both east and west. The barrier remained completely opaque despite the noon-day sun, just as it had been for centuries now.

It looked like a hole in existence itself.

Jaas had studied this phenomenon for years now, and others had done the same for much longer than that. The time had done nothing to decrease its impressiveness, though. Each time she saw it, Jaas still felt overwhelmed by its sheer magnitude.

This wasn’t like any old brick wall, or the more powerful magic barriers she’d studied as part of her training. In fact, it wasn’t really a barrier at all, because objects didn’t bounce off of it. Anything that slid into that inky black abyss was just… gone.

Early on, Jaas had kept on instinctively trying to look up in an effort to see the top of the barrier, even though she knew there wasn’t one. People had tried going over it, and repeatedly failed. Just as the multiple attempts to dig under it had found the exact same result. It seemed to have no end, above or below. As for side-to-side, she knew that the barrier was roughly oval in shape, and that it encompassed an entire city. The city, if the histories were to be believed. Vasiriah had once been considered the most powerful city in the world.

A soft, high-pitched humming noise behind her signaled a new arrival. Jaas sighed and turned around. Speaking of holes in existence…

The hum was coming from a circular portal which had opened up just above the grass. As she watched, her assistant stepped out and waved a hand behind him to close it again.

“You’re late,” Jaas accused him, though she was careful to keep her voice mild. He’d always been a kind soul, with easily bruised feelings.

“I know. I would have come another way, but I just-” he looked down at his webbed feet briefly. “I just wanted to make sure no one was following me.”

Jaas grimaced and put a hand on his shoulder. “For the last time, Lem, you don’t need to worry. No one ever comes this close to the city anymore, and the next patrol that has even a chance of seeing us won’t pass by until early evening.”

Like most of his people, Inelem was tall, perhaps two heads taller than Jaas. Lem was a Pescah: a race of water-breathers from the other side of the nearby ocean. She’d read about others like him, but he was the only one she’d ever seen. From what she’d been able to learn about him over the past few years, Lem was an exception to his people in several ways. His mastery of portal magic was especially unusual for his kind.

Jaas had a working understanding of using magic for interdimensional travel—enough to pass muster at the Bresorian Academy they’d both attended—but Lem was a true prodigy. He could open a larger portal than anyone she knew, and could maintain it longer as well. Portals couldn’t be moved once opened up, but Lem could spin them, and even open them from great distances away, provided he knew the area well enough.

That skill alone would have guaranteed him a life of privilege and luxury back home, but Lem had wanted more out of life. He didn’t like to talk about it, but Jaas suspected he’d applied to the Academy against his family’s wishes. It had taken a while, but the school authorities had eventually—and reluctantly, from what Jaas had heard—admitted him. They weren’t exactly known for embracing outsiders.

It couldn’t have been an easy decision for him, either. For one thing, Pescah couldn’t breathe air. He’d needed magic treatments in order to survive out of water—long, painful and expensive treatments. She was sure that walking had been no picnic for him at first, either. As tall as he was now, this was after his spine had compressed under what most people considered to be normal gravity. She remembered her final year at the Academy, watching this… low-tier fishperson lurching across the grounds from class to class and feeling sorry for him.

Jaas was just grateful he’d stuck it out. Lem had graduated a few months ago, and agreed to be her assistant. He was quite good at it, too. Despite all his other obstacles, one of his biggest hurdles had been his own hesitancy. Lem had been nervous, first out of fear of disappointing his new employer. Recently, it was more because of the work they were doing together. It was forbidden, after all.

He’d brought her pack along, and she wasted no time going through it. Despite his fidgety nature, or perhaps because of it, Lem had an eye for details. He’d followed her instructions to the letter, bringing everything she’d asked.

“Thanks,” she said approvingly, as she rummaged through the bag. She gazed back up at the barrier, and then looked over at him. “We’re gonna make history, Lem. We’ll be known far and wide for this, just you wait.”

It was an important moment for both of them. Their first few weeks out here had been theoretical—working on ways to get into the city safely. Then they’d started making progress, based on Lem’s observations on the river itself. Now they were close to their goal—so close she could almost taste it!

Lem only stared over her shoulder at the pitch blackness. “I hope you’re right, but we still have a lot of work to do before we can even test your theory.”

“Then we shouldn’t waste time,” she said with a smile, sitting cross-legged and emptying her bag out on the grass between them. “Come on, let’s get it done.”

-.-

Arico gave a short cry of pain and jumped up and down, holding his injured shin. His foot slipped in the dirt, and he fell unceremoniously on his rear. Tula trotted away, bleating in protest and favoring her own hurt leg. At least she was still penned in, unable to escape to the field.

Arico gingerly examined the skin under his torn pant leg. Tula’s horns weren’t particularly sharp, but she’d put a lot of effort into the thrust. Yup, he was bleeding all right. Fortunately the wound looked clean enough. With a resigned chuckle, he stood carefully and semi-hopped his way over to the nearby fence.

Shaking his head, Arico slipped through the gate and limped his way over to the wide barrel next to the barn. The next Ritual of Waters wasn’t for another week or so, but he still had enough to wash the wound. He grabbed a nearby cloth and wrapped his leg; he’d get some ointment for it back in the cabin, but first he had to see to Tula.

“Come on, girl,” he coaxed as he climbed over the fence again. Tula gave him a reproachful look and kept her distance. For a goat, she was pretty smart.

Arico took a deep breath and then darted at her. He was just fast enough to grab her leg—thankfully one of the good ones—and flipped her over in the dirt. She protested loudly, kicking at him, but he held his grip and kept her on her back. With his free hand he grabbed a rope from the fence post and tied her three good legs together so she couldn’t keep kicking. Then he finally took a look at her left rear hoof.

There was a thistle, lodged in deep just where the hoof ended and the flesh began. Wincing in sympathy, Arico took a breath, and then in one swift, smooth motion grabbed the end of the thistle and pulled it out. Tula bleated loudly again, but he held her tight so she couldn’t wriggle free. She calmed down after a few moments, once he’d cleaned and started wrapping her leg.

“You’d better stay off this foot for now,” he advised her casually, and wondered if he could pick her up and move her with his own injured leg. He knew from experience that if he just untied her, she’d rip that bandage off in no time and go running around again.

Looping the rope around her bandaged leg, he secured it and stood to go get the herbs to make her sleep. As he approached the fence post a hand reached out to him, gripping a bundle of hops wrapped in wheat.

Arico grinned slightly and took the bundle. “Thanks.”

His father watched as he carefully unwrapped and fed the bundle to Tula. Goats weren’t known for being too particular about what they ate, and Tula was no exception. The wheat was enough to disguise the bitter hops, and she took the whole dose. Granted, feeding farm animals one of the ingredients for making beer wasn’t a good idea in the long term, but it worked well as a painkiller. Soon she was relaxed enough that he felt safe untying her and putting her in one corner of the barn to rest.

Arico had forgotten how chilly it was outside; he shivered and rubbed his arms. Without hesitation, his father pulled the cloak from his own shoulders and wrapped it around Arico. They closed the barn doors together, and headed back to the cabin they’d shared since he was three.

His father was called Durhu. He had been both deaf and mute for as long as Arico could remember. It was something the villagers nearby had needed to adjust to, but to Arico this had always been normal. Durhu had been an exceptional father, teacher, mentor and friend. He’d taught Arico to read lips and then to read letters—though the latter had to be done in secret. Sadly even Durhu, who’d had a lifetime of practice lipreading, could only get so much of what was told to him. Arico had learned to understand his handtalk just as well, but he was one of only a handful of people who could.

Of course it came as no surprise that Arico had been a very quiet child. Durhu had owned a dog—specially trained to come and get him if Arico had been crying as a baby. That had been years ago, before they’d moved here. Arico didn’t even remember the dog.

As a youngster, Arico had grown accustomed to holding his tongue. When they’d eventually moved here, Durhu had encouraged him to meet a few others from this patch, and he’d learned to speak more clearly. He had friends from elsewhere as well, who’d helped him learn how to speak normally. Neither he nor Durhu ever mentioned them though, for their own safety.

Tellek patch was one of dozens on the edge of the city. With only a fraction of the patch taken up by the city wall, the rest of the land was arable—if not ideal—for farming. It was a pleasant enough place in which to grow up, if a little boring at times.

For his friends here in Tellek, anyway. Arico wasn’t bored. He was constantly leaving in secret for his training, and coming back just as covertly.

His father touched his arm to get his attention and signed, I just got back from Endu’s. Hallo… he hesitated briefly, a grim expression on his face. Hallo has asked for the Ritual of Separation.

Arico stared at him. “I… didn’t know it was that bad. I’m so sorry.” He gave his father a brief embrace.

Hallo was a farmer as well, but like most people in Tellek patch, he also had a secondary occupation. He made candles, and he seemed to enjoy it very much. He was much older than Arico, so they’d never gotten to know each other very well. Arico mostly thought of him as a sort of distant uncle, but Durhu was a different story. He and Hallo had been close friends for nearly twenty years now. Hallo’s wife had died over five years ago and he had no other living family, but nearly the entire village held him in high esteem.

Two weeks ago he’d been tending to one of his cows and she’d kicked him in the chest. Hallo had seemed fine at first, but in a great deal of pain. Endu had taken a look at him and determined that one of his ribs had been cracked open, letting bits of bone float free inside his chest. She’d performed a chirgury (she was the only person in Tellek who knew how) to remove them, but it seemed she’d missed some.

Hallo had only gotten worse since then. According to Durhu, his pain was now so severe that he’d soiled himself just trying to stand up. And another chirgury so soon after the first one would be no better than a death sentence: he’d probably die the moment she opened him up.

“When will it happen?” Arico asked softly, signing as well as speaking.

Tonight, just after sundown, Durhu answered. The word has already gone out. They’re preparing a meal, and the penet has been told.

He sighed, and pulled a bit of paper from his coat. Still, life must go on. Endu made another list for you. He handed it over.

Arico made a noise of protest. “But I’m just getting warm again,” he stretched, trying to get the ache out of his back and leg. “Can’t it wait?”

Durhu only gave him a wry look, and Arico shook his head. “I guess not.”

Do you want to take Endu or the boys with you today?

Arico looked over the list. “No, this is all pretty common stuff. I won’t need any of them for this.” He quirked a smile. “At least one of us should get the day off. And even if it does take longer than usual, I should be back in plenty of time… for the ritual.”

Sounds good. Part of that fence looks ready to fall apart, so I should look at it before sundown. I’ll have some dinner ready for you by the time you get back. He grimaced a little. And we can’t forget the Ritual of Waters, either. It’s just over a week away, and we need to have our tithe ready.

Thinking grimly of that as well, Arico got up and picked out one of his favorite winter coats. He paused to glance at his father’s increasingly lean form; he’d been losing weight again. “Just be careful not to overdo it again, mi’he,” he used the ancient term affectionately. “Perhaps I should talk to Widow Mirren first, and ask her to stop by and make sure you’re doing well.”

His father gave him a horrified glance. You wouldn’t dare!

Mrs. Mirren was a good, kindly woman, but she had a tendency to see men as collections of flaws that needed correcting. And she’d been giving more and more signs that Durhu was likely to be her next ‘project’.

Arico let a hint of a smile through his serious front, “Well, I won’t have to if you take it easy, will I?”

Durhu responded with an overly-dramatic look of woe, and slowly shook his head in protest. Oh, what did I do to deserve such a manipulative child?

“No more than I did, to be cursed with an overly stubborn father!” Arico responded as he backed out the door. “Don’t test me!”
« Last Edit: April 11, 2022, 10:24:23 AM by Daen »