First draft of the prologue to The Talented Series, a story of when magic left Arendal.
| Prologue -
When the ground had stopped shaking, and the burning light of a thousand suns had faded to near total darkness, Rhyan finally lowered his hands and opened his eyes. Where before had been gentle rolling hills and dense forest that gave way to vast meadows filled with flowers, there was only a gaping wound carved several thousand yards into the earth. The chasm stretched out of sight in both directions, smoke rising thick and black from its hidden depths. Rhyan felt a hand on his shoulder and turned suddenly, hands raised to cast a bar of light into the heart of whatever stood near him, until he recognized the man standing beside him. "It is finished, brother," Symon said softly. "The Fallen are sealed within the core. Our world is safe from the taint of their touch."
"But at what cost, my friend?" Rhyan asked, trying not to stare at the empty socket where Symon's right eye had been. "What devastation has been wrought at their hands that we do not yet know?"
"I'll learn to see with the other one," Symon chuckled. "I won't get my eye back, but my other wounds will heal."
"Yes, but I'm afraid that one never will," said Karlen, who had just joined them. His eyes were fixed on the darkness that seemed to radiate from the crevasse, feeding the smoke that rose and blocked the sunlight from reaching the ground. "Neither time nor our Talents can repair the damage we've caused."
"What we did was necessary; what had to be done to stop the Fallen," Panya said calmly. She stood at the front of the remaining Talented who were still alive, all of whose eyes were fixed on the tall, slender woman. Calm was not Panya's speciality, so it drew attention any time it happened.
"My sister is right." Lauryn's strong, commanding voice broke the silence among them. The oldest of the Sisters was also the strongest, maintaining her solid composure even as she held a cloth to the open wound that had been left on her arm when her left sleeve had been torn away. "With more time, maybe we could have discovered some other choice, but the Fallen forced our hands. Still, the consequences of our actions will take some time to discover."
"More time than we have, I'm afraid," said Lysa. Neither the oldest, nor the tallest, Lysa led the Sisters because she was the strongest Talent among them. "By sealing the Fallen within the core, our powers have trapped the natural heat as well. Winter will soon fall upon every land. The time has come for us to step aside, and let the world rebuild on its own."
"Surely you can't mean to leave the injured where they lie?" Makael asked. Strongest of the Healers amongst the Talented, his concern for the lives of the soldiers was also the greatest. "They followed us here to help us fight. We can't leave until we've helped everyone."
"Most are beyond our help now, brother", Rhyan said, "but we will not leave until we've searched this whole area for survivors. Pair up any way you like, and fan out to the north of the gap here. Stay together at all times, in case an Agent of the Fallen still lives. They will hurt you if they can manage it, even though their masters are gone."
The Talented were comfortable enough with each other after the thousands of years they had worked on Arendal that most groups moved off in combinations of male and female. Only two groups went as Brothers or Sisters. Symon, who had no dislike for the Sisters, but still preferred to work only with his Brothers, went with Deryk, slightly to the northwest. Skya and Kalina, who were blood sisters as well as Talents, went in almost the same direction to the east. When the groups had distanced themselves from the smoldering fissure, Lysa came to where Rhyan was standing, watching the Talented search for the injured.
"Where do we start, brother?" she asked. "The damage here is bad enough, and we haven't seen what the rest of the world looks like. It could take months just to restore this area, and then..."
"There's not enough time to fix it all, Lysa," Rhyan said, cutting her off, "nor is there truly a need. We will do what we can to plant the seeds of hope in this place, but we must return to our home, and we must stay there while Arendal rebuilds."
"Without us, you mean? You're asking us to leave?"
"I am telling you that it is what must be done, for the good of this planet, my sister," Rhyan said. "I would not choose to leave either, but that's not up to us to decide. It has never been our place to shape this world, only to protect it. By sealing the Fallen, we've given Arendal a chance. It must fend for itself for a time."
Lysa was unable to hide her sadness; her normally strong voice sounded broken and defeated when she spoke again. "I can't bear the thought of leaving these people alone Rhyan. After everything that has happened, after all of the lives that have been shattered by the Fallen, to leave them to face this alone..."
Her words trailed off as her voice gave way to silent tears. Where they fell on the blackened earth, the darkness cleared away to expose the living soil beneath, and the beginnings of small flowers began to force their way free of the death around them, straining to find the sunlight still being swallowed by the smoke and ash. "They're never alone so long as we exist," Rhyan said. "We may not be here with them much longer, but they all carry us deep inside them, whenever they hope, or dream, or love one another." He watched the flowers blooming on the ground at their feet, joined now by soft shoots of grass that spread to cover several squares of land beneath them. A gentle breeze had begun to blow, softly stirring the tiny plants where they stood. "Already, life returns to reclaim what is has lost. The winds have arrived to clear their sky of the stain of evil. When the others return, we'll see any survivors they find to their homes, if they still exist. The rest can accompany us back home, and we'll find a place for them."
"And then we'll sleep, not knowing when we will return," Lysa said.
"There's one more thing as well, sister. We must sever the bond between Starfall and Morningstar."
"You can't mean that," Lysa said, failing to hide her shock at what her Brother had said. "The bond is sacred. Without our connection, we lose part of our Talents." "Which we won't need while we sleep, Sister. It's safer to break that bond our own rather than have something happen to it that we can't stop." Rhyan's expression softened when he saw how Lysa was taking his words. "Our Guardians will only be able to do so much for us while we're gone. The connection can be restored when we awake." "We won't be able to tell the others," she said after a moment. "They wouldn't understand, and we can't risk them trying to stop it."
"I agree," Rhyan said. "It is time to call them back; we need to be on our way home."
Alpin awoke with a start, but his fear quickly subsided, drowned out by the burning pain in his shattered leg. A wide gash ran down along his thigh, crossing his knee from left to right, and stopping just above his left ankle, where his foot was pinned between a log that had once been a limb of a spruce tree. He and his brother, Aldair, had taken refuge under the spruce when the sky had begun raining stone and fire; it had worked until a fireball the size of one of Alpin's barns had hit the tree, splintering it into thousands of pieces and sending him and his brother flying.
Knowing that every second he stayed on the ground could bring him a step closer to death, Alpin searched the area around him for a way to free his leg. Part of a broken steel lance lay near his right arm, missing its handle, but still long enough to provide some leverage. Alpin shoved the point of the lance in under the log close to where his foot was trapped, and then pushed it upward, lifting the log ever so slightly until he was able to work his foot out from underneath. He managed to push himself to his feet, leaving all his weight on his right leg as he looked around for signs of other survivors. Alpin was now physically as well as mentally exhausted, but he began to limp his way down the small hill where the spruce had stood, heading towards the ridge just to the south. That was where the fighting had been the fiercest; where it was said the Talented were locked in battle with the Fallen.
Thick smoke still choked the sky in that direction, and the ground was still heavy with ash and debris. An eagle passed overhead, wings spread to their full eight feet to catch the thermals rising from the battlefield. Watching the mighty bird soar off to the southeast, Alpin noticed two shapes materializing in the smoke; dark figures clothed in black, one broad and taller than most men, the other slender and of an average height. He wasn't sure if he should try to run, or stand his ground and face them, but when he turned to take a step in the other direction, the pain shooting through his shattered leg was too much for him. Left with no other option, Alpin turned to face the approaching men. When they walked clear of the smoke, their clothing was more distinguishable, and Alpin felt relief wash over him. Both were clothed in black coats which stopped just above the knee, a sinuous band of white running across the chest and opening into a circle of white over the heart. Inside the circle was the swirling tree-like insignia of the Talented. Black, tight-fitting pants and knee-high black boots completed their look; the Brothers certainly stood out in a crowd. The taller, broad-shouldered man had ten white bands encircling his upper arms, meaning he was of a higher Talent than the other man, who was several inches shorter, and so thin he seemed to be almost starving and had only nine bands on his left arm, and eight on his right. However it was this smaller fellow who addressed him first.
"I am called Symon, Seventeenth Talent of the Brotherhood." He gestured to the other man. "This is my companion, Deryk. May we know your name, soldier of Arendal?"
"I am called Alpin, from the town of Andril in the land of Candria," he replied. "I appear to be the only survivor of my company."
"You appear to be the only survivor at all, my friend," Symon said. "Your leg looks pretty bad. My Talent is strongest in Healing; will you accept my help?"
"Of course," Alpin said. "I knew the Fallen were powerful, but I didn't expect that so many would die." A shiver ran through him as Symon's hands touched his leg; ice and then fire passed through his body as the bone and flesh repaired themselves. When the Brother lifted his hands, Alpin testing his weight on his leg. Not only did it hold, it felt as though a younger man's leg had been switched for his old one. "That's incredible! It feels better than new."
"It was my calling to Heal," Symon said. "Ever since I was a little boy and I fixed a horse's broken leg, it has brought me happiness to fix wounded flesh. Alpin, I'm afraid we have some unpleasant news for you."
"When the Fallen passed through Candria," Deryk said, "many of our Brothers and Sisters met them there in battle. Where the fighting was fiercest, the Fallen literally pulled the ground out from under their foes. When the ocean claimed the sunken lands, many cities were lost. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Andril was among them."
Alpin sat down hard on the ground as his legs gave way. It felt as though rather than healing him, Symon had drained all the energy from his body. "My wife, and my daughter... and my brother's family. You should have left me to die here. I truly have nothing left now."
"You are still alive, Alpin," said Symon, "which is most important of all. Though you've lost the ones you love, there is still much you can do; still many reasons to live. If you'll come with us, perhaps we can provide you with an alternative."
Alpin let these words sink in slowly. The slender man had the right of things; he was still alive, if alone and without those he loved. And all he had worked to build; his home, and his workshop, and all the many carvings he had spent hours perfecting. All was lost now. "It will take a lot of time for the wounds of loss to heal," Alpin said quietly. "Wounds not even you can heal, Symon. Still, as you say, life continues on. I can still do good things for this world. I am strong, and able, and I can help rebuild what the Fallen have destroyed. I will go with you."
"We are glad to hear it, Alpin," Symon said, looking at Deryk. "You may just be able to help more than you could possibly imagine."
The smoke wasn't as thick on the south side of the ridge when the Brothers returned with Alpin, who was stunned by the sight before him. The ground looked ragged, lined everywhere with swaths of scorched grass and strewn with fallen trees. The forest here had not been large, not compared to some of those in the north lands, but the loss was substantial. At the bottom of the unnatural hollow below them, several of the Talented, the men in their black with white trim, the women in the same clothing with the colors reversed, were gathered together in small groups. "How many of you are here?" Alpin asked.
"Only the thirteen strongest came this far south," Symon answered. "The rest stayed elsewhere to watch for Agents trying to cause trouble while we weren't looking." One of the Sisters below noticed them as they came down the slope of the hollow and pointed them out to the others, and a man in black started walking up the hill towards them. He was of average height and build, maybe a few inches taller than Alpin and Symon, but short of Deryk's towering frame. His hair was a dark, sandy brown, tightly curled and cut short, his eyes were a deep crystal blue, and he wore twelve bands of white on each arm.
"Another survivor," the man said when he reached them. "That makes two."
"A terrible price to pay to lose so many," Deryk said. "Where is the other?"
"Skya and Kalina are with her," the man said, pointing down to two of the Sisters kneeling on the ground in the hollow. The petite girl with short black hair had her hands on something on the ground, while the other just watched her. Alpin assumed that they were kneeling over the injured woman they had found. Then something about the situation moved Alpin to speak.
"They found a woman here? A woman who isn't one of you?"
"That's most unusual, isn't it Rhyan?" said Deryk. "No one would bring a wife or daughter to a battle like this."
"Or a mistress, for that matter," Symon said with a small laugh. "How would she have gotten this far on her own?"
"What's more unusual, brothers," said Rhyan, "she's dressed as a soldier."
"A tag-along. What ever possessed her to sneak into one of the companies?" Symon asked.
"Perhaps our Sisters can ask her when she wakes," Rhyan answered. "She was unconscious when they found her. Lysa told me they're taking her back to Morningstar, to ask her to be their Guardian."
"Not a bad choice," Symon said. A wicked grin had crept onto his face. "A girl who likes a fight would serve them rather well I think."
"Which brings us to our new friend here," Rhyan said as he turned to face Alpin again. "I imagine my Brothers here haven't told you why I wanted to see you?
"They told me you may have an answer for what I should do with my life, now that all I had is gone. You mentioned the Sisters taking the woman they found to be a Guardian? What does that mean, exactly?"
"I was hoping you would ask that," Rhyan said. "Change has come to Arendal; change that is beyond our control. The Talented are here as servants of mankind, and of Arendal itself, and in times like these, rather than force the shape of the world to come, we must wait, and watch, and let Arendal reform as it will. The people must guide its path, not us."
"I'm not sure I understand completely," Alpin said after a moment had passed. "That is to say, I believe you when you say you must not interfere, but why do you of all people need a guard?"
"The Talented do not pass great lengths of time the same way you do Alpin," said Deryk. "While we could wait for enough time to pass before lending ourselves to Arendal again, I'm afraid that the temptation to help your kind proves too strong for even the best of us. It's just our nature to help."
"What he means," Symon added, "is that some of us can't keep their noses out of other people's business." Deryk shot the smaller man a stern look, but Symon continued on before he could say anything. "We have a way to fall asleep, outside of time, and outside of this physical world. That way we can remain available if we are needed, but we can also remain apart so that things can happen on their own."
"But while our spirits wander, and our bodies rest, there is no one to look after Starfall for us," Rhyan told him. "There are things which must be kept safe inside our sanctuary; things which a brave person might attempt to destroy. If any harm were to befall our bodies, or some of our sacred possessions, it might be possible that we would be unable to return here. We need you, Alpin, to make sure that never happens."
"So you need me to be the first Guardian, and lead the way for those who follow me?" Alpin asked.
"Actually, we only need one Guardian," Rhyan said. "If you choose this path, it is binding for as long as Arendal lives. The Guardian of the Talented does not age, or need sleep, nor do they feel any pain. Simply put, it is immortality that we offer you in exchange for your help."
"You mean for a lifetime of servitude?" the soldier asked, sounding insulted. "You spend a hundred lifetimes resting while I keep the floors swept and the fires warm, is that it?"
"You misunderstand the importance of the Guardian, Alpin," Symon said. "You won't be our serving girl, but our protector. You'll learn of who we are, and from where we draw our powers. It is a position of honor and responsibility; to protect those who protect all of Arendal."
"I see," Alpin said. "But how is this possible? How can you possibly keep me alive for that long?"
"There is..." Rhyan paused a moment, trying to find the right words. "You might call it a rite of passage. A magical ceremony whereby we transfer something of our abilities to you. As our presence leaves Arendal, a small portion of it will come to reside in you as a gift."
"It's difficult to explain in a short amount of time," Symon added. "But you'll have a lifetime or two to read our histories in the Spire of Starfall. They can tell you anything you ever wanted to know."
Alpin gave himself a moment to think. He had no reason not to trust them; they were the Talented, after all. The legendary protectors of Arendal, and wielders of a mighty power. Still, the thought of being eternally bound to them made Alpin hesitate. They offered him an opportunity to do more with life than he ever could have imagined, but at the same time he wasn't sure he wanted to live so long, knowing he had already left his loved ones behind. The thought of his family dragged his anger out from under the rest of his emotions. The Fallen had destroyed his life, as well as the lives of thousands of other people on the planet. He figured that revenge was probably not a quality that the Talented admired, but if he were to take them up on their offer, he would be able to help them defeat evil wherever it may rise up.
"I agree to become your Guardian," Alpin said finally. "I'm not sure I'm entirely ready for eternity just yet, but I also know I'm not ready for life to end. There's too much I can still accomplish, and I'm going to need all the time I can get."
"Very well," Rhyan said, letting out a relieved sigh. "Time is short. We must be on our way home. Symon, would you and Deryk please get everyone ready?"
"Of course, my Brother," Symon said. "Come, Alpin. Help us gather the others."
When the Talented had reassembled in the bottom of the hollow, the sun was almost touching the horizon in the west. While the Brothers made their final arrangements, Alpin found himself staring at the mighty gap in the ground to the south. The smoke that had been issuing in copious amounts was only rising in small patches now, as if the fissure were gasping intermittently along its length. The walls of the small canyon were a dull black, with occasional glinting shimmers like sunlight reflecting off polished glass. Alpin looked over to where the Sisters were gathered a few feet away, busy with their own preparations. He found it interesting that they were not cooperating with the Brothers in this matter, preferring to remain apart. Alpin had been meaning to ask someone why this was so, but they were all so preoccupied that he was hesitant to interrupt them. He had also been hoping to get a look at the survivor the Sisters had found, but the two whose care she was in shot vicious glares at anyone who came too close.