Authors: Terry C. Simpson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Epic, #New Adult & College, #Sword & Sorcery, #Fantasy, #Soulbreaker, #Soul, #Game of Souls, #Epic Fantasy, #the Quintessence Cycle, #The Cyclic Omniverse
eedar Giorin ran. Not out of fear, not for training, not because of some urgent mission, but for the simple joy of it.
Surrounded by the chatter and songs of wildlife, fallen leaves piled underfoot like a brown and orange quilt, he darted past the trunks of great white ash trees. Lances of sunlight that pierced the thick canopy were his guides; the brightness ahead was his goal. Neither grabbing branch nor wormy roots could stop him. The salty taste of his sweat offered an odd counterpoint to the rich scents of wet earth and detritus, but the world was as it should be. He was one with all around him. They shared a single heartbeat, the same soul. Here, near the eastern edge of the Treskelin Forest and the meandering River Ost, he could almost forget about the thing that dwelled deeper inside the woods, the thing that lived within him. Almost.
He banished the thought and willed his legs to pump harder, grinning as the rhythmic pad of boots announced his brother’s presence. Keedar glanced over his shoulder. Tanned skin glistening, Winslow sprinted, brow furrowed, green eyes intent, his face looking for all the world like a bushy-maned korgan cat as it chased its prey. In the months since their rescue, Winslow had sworn not to cut his hair until his father was freed from King Cardiff’s dungeons.
A stab of melancholy threatened to override Keedar’s good spirit. Unlike him, Winslow was handling the change in fortunes well. At times Keedar found himself envious of his brother. With how far Winslow had fallen, from courts and balls, people bowing before him, to becoming a criminal, an outcast lower than a commoner, Keedar had expected his brother to be at a loss. Instead, Winslow embraced his new life, smiled more than Keedar remembered him doing as a noble.
Still studying his brother, Keedar realized they’d broken from the shadow of the dense canopy a moment too late. The toe of his boot clipped a root, and he lost his footing for a few heartbeats. All the time Winslow needed to pass him. Before he could right himself, Keedar pitched forward into the mattress of humus at the forest’s edge.
“I win!” Winslow exclaimed as he leaped off a rocky outcrop and landed with a splash in the murky pond below.
Groaning, Keedar rolled onto his back. Winslow would never let him live down this defeat. In the trees above him, two gomerans hung upside down from a branch, pointing at him with their bony fingers, teeth showing as they screeched in what seemed too much like delight. He made a face at the furry creatures before he sat up, got to his feet, and followed in his brother’s footsteps, soaring off the outcrop’s edge, and out over the muddy water.
He took a breath a moment before he splashed into the pond’s cool embrace. When his downward momentum slowed, he pushed back to the surface and burst from the water, shaking his head from side to side, sandy hair flying. The pond tasted of mud and whatever else they’d kicked up from the bottom, but he didn’t care. It felt good to be out of the Treskelin’s constant heat that beat down like a metalsmith’s forge. A flock of ducks swam away, protesting the disturbance in a cacophony of dissonant quacks. On the shore, a few deer stared toward the young men before resuming their drink.
“That’s a silver round for me, dear brother,” Winslow called, merriment dancing in his eyes. “I’ll be looking to collect as soon as we’re home.”
“Curse my luck,” Keedar said, scowling.
“Was nothing lucky about it.” Winslow treaded water, hair plastered to his face. “Not only did you lose focus, but you also forgot that you don’t have eyes in the back of your head.”
“Bah,” Keedar said, “admit it, I had you beaten.”
“Me? Beaten?” Grimacing, Winslow pointed at himself. “Last I checked, the victor would be decided
the pond … not at the clearing’s edge, or on the shore …
the pond. I distinctly recall hitting its surface first.”
“Fine, fine, gloat now. Next time, you’re mine,” Keedar said.
Winslow glanced all around them, brows furrowed. The concerned expression made Keedar freeze.
“What is it?” Keedar whispered, heart rate increasing. He scanned their surroundings. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. He refocused on his brother.
Winslow shrugged. “I was simply hoping to meet this young lady you intended to make yours, but it seems she’s eluded us both.” He offered Keedar a wink and a grin.
“Bastard.” Keedar charged through the water.
They wrestled for a bit, laughing and submerging each other before they tired. They swam to shore and flopped back on the gravelly sand, staring at the expanse of cerulean blue above them. Keedar had grown accustomed to the recent storm clouds. To see the sky this clear was a good sign.
“Now … I’m starved,” Winslow said.
“Same here.” Keedar’s stomach growled as food came to mind. “Fashion a few spears and catch some fish?”
“Or, we can use only our hands and soul, see who gets the most.”
Keedar smiled. His brother liked to prove himself whenever he found the chance. “Not much of a challenge with me being a melder now.”
“Perhaps I’ll get
Keedar snorted. “Let’s make it reasonable, shall we? I’ll snag an adult yellowtail before you can catch two of their babies.”
“That’s an insult,” Winslow declared with a shake of his head. “You’ll scare them off just getting to their breeding ground. By then, I’ll have caught mine.”
Smirking, Keedar nodded at his brother’s boast. “Be that as it may, I still insist. All I ask is that you allow me to get a reed before you begin. Three silver rounds this time.”
Winslow sat up. “Fine, your coin to lose.” He rubbed his hands together. “I can live with two victories over you in one day.”
“I bet you could.” Keedar stood and strode down the shore to where reeds populated one end of the pond.
Days like this, filled with enjoyment, had been scarce over the past months since they fled Kasandar. They spent most days mired in a litany of exercise, training in soul, or preparing for the Fast of Madness: the trial that would see them acknowledged as melders. Keedar had barely passed his test, just managing to gain the first of his inner cycles in the process. Winslow’s turn was a week away. The thought of the Fast brought on a shiver.
Movement on the sheer face of the Cliffs of a Thousand Sorrows caught his eye. He squinted, trying to make out the white forms on the grey and brown strata. Crag goats, he decided, still straining to make them out. A few of them were lower than they normally climbed. Odd. Despite the wealth of foliage in the Treskelin, the animals preferred to scale the cliffs for sparse offerings or spent their time in the Parmien Forest’s frigid confines. He supposed he might have done the same if he was a korgan cat’s favorite course.
Above the cliffs, snow crowned the Parmien in white. He still marveled that two forests in such close proximity to each other could be so different. While winter had swallowed much of the land, and had made robes of ice for the Parmien’s trees, it could not penetrate the Treskelin Forest’s oven-like grip. Not unless the great ash trees allowed it. Keedar shook his head.
Despite knowing all living creatures possessed soul, he hadn’t expected the Treskelin’s ash trees to perform a meld. It was one thing to learn that intelligent beasts like derins could accomplish the feat, but completely another to discover that something as mundane as a tree possessed the ability. Thinking on it made him acutely aware of the day’s heat, the sweat on his brow, and his thick beard.
When life returns to normal the first thing I’ll do is shave you.
He scratched at his chin.
If it ever returns to normal.
Keedar let out a long, slow breath.
After a quick glance over to his brother, he waded into the water. Searching among the reeds he found one that was young, supple, and long enough for the task he had in mind. He separated it from the others with his dagger and then cut it near a joint before returning the weapon to its sheath at his waist.
“Ready?” Winslow called across the distance, waist deep in the pond.
Keedar waved once, and then popped the end of the reed into his mouth. He envisioned the thirty-two vital points around his body, soul flowing through them like blood. Three wispy rings enclosed each point, and within them were the cycles. He recalled when the rings were smooth circles before the Fast of Madness. Now they had ten sides. His soul itself had also changed during the test. Countless ten-sided ring combinations, so small he could never had made them out with his bare eye, comprised his soul.
the first cycle, preventing the natural leakage of soul. A nimbus sprang up around his body like a white, misty haze. With the third cycle,
, he solidified the nimbus around his nose and mouth only, extending it along the reed’s length in a layer no thicker than a blade. Then he lay back in the water, made his soul heavier than normal, and allowed himself to sink. Weight control had been one of the harder abilities to learn under Keshka’s tutelage, but it was one the old man insisted upon. No water penetrated the application of
Using his feet, arms, and a little soul to propel him, Keedar maneuvered out toward the pond’s center. The water was a murky haze above him, the sky a wavy blue. Fish flitted by.
Adult yellowtail eels began to appear, bodies like tanned leather, tapering to their namesake tails. They were as long as he was tall and as thick as his leg. Distant cousins to the giant lida sea worms hunted by the Farish Islanders, yellowtails were a Kheridisian delicacy. Some even claimed that rare yellowtails survived this migration and egg laying period here in the Treskelin’s lakes and ponds and would make their way out to sea and evolve into lidas. Keedar doubted it. He’d seen a lida once. The beasts could swallow a small boat.
Keedar focused on a yellowtail as it glided on a slow path that would take it directly above him. He called on
to solidify his soul around his arm, and then used
to meld, manifesting a dagger like the one at his waist. As the eel passed his toes, Keedar lightened his soul in slow increments, causing his body to naturally float up, well aware that the yellowtails reacted only to disturbances on the surface. Within inches of touching the eel, he snapped his hand out, and speared the eel just below the head. He surged out of the pond, arm held aloft. The other yellowtails scattered.
Holding the yellowtail above his head was like lifting the body of a young bull, but he had already magnified his arm for added strength. Eyes like black orbs stared at him as the eel thrashed against capture and death, the lower half of its body whipping the water into a torrent. Blood trickled down Keedar’s arm, dripping from his elbow into the pond before the disturbance created by the eel swept the redness away.
A glance up the pond brought on a grin. Winslow gave the water’s surface a frustrated slap and stalked to the shore, a single baby yellowtail slung over his shoulder.
“So much for two victories,” Keedar yelled.
An hour later they were basking in the sun, allowing their clothes to dry, and enjoying a meal of roasted yellowtail, the soft, succulent meat making Keedar wish for some curry. The fire they’d built was little more than smoldering coals.
“Things like what you did today,” Winslow said, holding up a large chunk of eel, “is why I crave to take the trial, to learn as much melding as possible.”
“I remember when I felt the same way.”
“And you don’t anymore?”
“It’s not that, it’s just … the Fast of Madness—” Keedar cut off. Although he wanted to speak of the trial, a part of him couldn’t. Not with someone who had yet to take it. The forest itself enforced the pact of secrecy. Keedar guessed it had to be some kind of unbreakable mindbend.
“Well?” Winslow asked, expression hopeful.
“You’ll see when your turn arrives,” Keedar said.
“Fine.” Hope became a glower.
Feeling the need to change the subject, Keedar asked, “This son of yours, are you looking forward to seeing him?”
“Soon, one day soon.” Winslow gazed across the pond toward the cliffs. “I want him to know his father, not experience the same doubts that I had.”
Keedar hadn’t grown with those doubts, but he could understand them. Uncertainty often niggled at him when he thought of Delisar and Keshka. It was a hard thing learning that the person who raised you as their son was not your father. So many questions surrounded the issue that he routinely brooded over the past and future.
“Do you believe what Uncle says about us being Dracodar?” Winslow asked.
“Yes. Mother was one,” Keedar said. “I still have nightmares of her golden scales.” That wasn’t his only reason for believing. The scales beneath his own skin haunted him. At times he could trace the individual edges, could see the rounded shapes bulging. Their growth began during his test and continued as his ability with soul increased. Ever since his mother’s death he’d longed for the change. Now he was uncertain if it was a good thing.
“I still can’t remember her,” Winslow said with a shake of his head. “Although Uncle Keshka removed the meld that had blocked my memory, I still can’t recall much.”
“You wouldn’t. Not from that time. You’d just been born. Even when I think of those days I can’t remember you. Much of that time is a blur, a dream. It’s often hard to tell what’s real and what wasn’t. At least the parts my mind dredges up.”
“But you act as if you
she was real.”
“That’s because she was. Every part of me says so.”
“It’s just so much to fathom, all these changes …” Winslow’s eyes took on a dreamy cast. A moment later a wisp of a smile crossed his features. “There’s some good in it, though. Not only will I finally be a melder, but also a Dracodar. It will be like the stories.”
“Hopefully.” Sentiments like that last reminded Keedar that although Winslow could be as overbearing as any adult, he was still young, not a man grown.
“Imagine the possibilities.” Winslow’s eyes shone. “We can help free my father, avenge Mother …”