Authors: Brian Rathbone
Wayward Spirits - A prelude to The Dawning of Power
A World of Godsland Young Adult Fantasy Prequel Shorty Story
***plus bonus YA content!***
Copyright © 2011 by Brian Rathbone.
White Wolf Press, LLC
Rutherfordton, NC 28139
Not all journeys begin with a destination; some are launched by ideas alone.
--Aerestes, Captain of the Landfinder
* * *
A hand reached from the darkness and pulled Benjin into a narrow alley. The other hand closed over his mouth, but it was unnecessary, as he already knew the culprit.
"Hush," Wendel said, as he pulled his hand away. The annoyed look on Benjin's face did nothing to stifle his grin. "Just hold tight until the rest have gone by. I don't want any wagging tongues to spoil our fun this time."
Benjin winced. Whenever Wendel referred to "our fun", it generally meant his amusement and Benjin's terror. Though they had been friends since childhood, Benjin wondered how long it would take for Wendel to get them both killed, or just locked up. Though no one could prove it had been them, their recent 'horse manure in Master Edling's chair' prank had everyone looking at them sideways. This, Benjin knew, was no time to be taking more risks.
When Nat Dersinger walked by, mumbling to himself, Benjin felt a moment of compassion. The poor young man seemed to attract unhappiness, and he wore it like a very heavy cloak. Even the way he hung his head and dragged his heels while he walked gave the impression of the universe pressing down on him--having a madman for a father probably had something to do with it. Wendel, on the other hand, looked as if he were ready to explode with energy. There was a gleam in his bluish-green eyes that made the girls blush, and a swagger in his walk that had even older men stepping out of his path. Sometimes Benjin wished he could muster the same courage that seemed to come naturally and unbidden to Wendel.
"They're all in there. Let's go," Wendel said.
"If we don't go to class, they'll make us take it again. You heard what Edling said last time, didn't you?"
"What's Edling going to do? Tell everyone we didn't complete our studies and that they shouldn't hire us? I don't care if he does. I'll be training horses and you'll be working at the mill come fall whether we go listen to Edling ramble on or not. He probably won't even notice we're not there."
Benjin scoffed at that. Master Edling was probably already thinking of ways to punish the boys. Still, the thought of showing up to class late, and bearing the brunt of Edling's ire in person was no more desirable, and they were already late. "I don't suppose one more missed class will hurt anything."
A familiar feeling of tense anticipation filled Benjin's gut.
Wendel just grinned at him. "I've a little coin. Let's get Grumman to get us some sausage breads."
From shadow to shadow, the young men moved as if their lives depended on secrecy; it was part of the game. Baker Hollis swept his front walk, like he did every morning, and the boys waited until his back was turned before dashing across the cobbled-stone avenue to the bushy hedge that ran along the alleyway behind The Watering Hole. Even this early in the day, the stables were a busy place. Benjin and Wendel had to wait until Grumman finally sat down on a bale of hay for a break.
"Psst. Hey Grumman," Benjin half-whispered, half-shouted. "Can you get us some sausage-breads?"
Looking like a knobby gnome, Grumman scrunched up one side of his face and pulled his loose-hanging lips into a frown. "Who's over there a hidin'?"
Wendel stepped out first, as he always did, and Benjin followed. It was a familiar pattern.
"Ain't you two willow rats supposed to be at the academy?"
"Master Edling is hungry and asked us to come get him some sausage breads," Wendel said with an overlarge smile and an air of innocence.
"Uh huh, and that's why you was hidin' in the bushes, was it?" Grumman said, one eyebrow raised and making his expressive face look lopsided.
"We didn't want to get you in trouble or nothing, and you know Miss Olsa don't like us in there," Wendel said.
"Well, you're right about that part at least. She says you're a right pain in the britches, and that ya ain't got no sense, and there's no room for the likes of you in her kitchen. That's what she says." Grumman crossed his arms over his chest and squinted at them.
"Yeah. I know," Wendel said; his smile never faded. A pair of shiny coins appeared in his hand. Benjin was always amazed at what Wendel could accomplish with only a smile and a coin.
Resting in the shadow of the hedge, and licking their fingers after devouring the sausage breads, Benjin had to admit that this was far better than sitting through another boring class.
"When you find 'em, bring 'em my way," Came an angry voice from not far away. "They're not so big that I can't whoop 'em."
"Dad sounds pretty mad. We'd better go."
"Go where?" Benjin asked.
Wendel just shrugged, "I think the fun is about to begin."
Both had played at stealth before, and they must have done an admirable job of it, as they were able to escape town without attracting any further attention. Not wanting to walk along the road where Wendel's father, Marix, would certainly be traveling at some point in the afternoon, they traveled along game trails, along with a few paths known only to them.
"Now we're really going to be in trouble," Benjin said. "Maybe we should just go back."
"Go back? Now? No way. That would just be admitting we did something wrong. And isn't that what all this coming-of-age garbage is all about? Aren't we supposed to be taking control of our own destinies? So what if we do that a few weeks early. I say it shows initiative."
Wendel did have a point. The future was coming faster every day, and Benjin wondered what life planned for him.
"Do I look like I want to spend the rest of my life working with a pitch fork and smelling like horse manure? Do you know what it's like to have a girl wrinkle her nose at you and tell you that you stink?"
"No, but she was right. You do stink."
"Stuff a melon in it," Wendel said, taking a half-hearted swing at Benjin, who laughed and dodged it easily.
* * *
With the auburn rays of the afternoon sun came the realization that they would need to return home soon. The uneasy feeling was all too familiar, and also part of why Wendel seemed so ready to rebel. Every time he got into trouble, he felt an even greater need for freedom--for the right to live his own life and make his own mistakes, no matter what they may be. Benjin had always shared some of his friend's feelings, which was why he so often found himself facing discipline, but he did not have the fire that burned in Wendel's eyes. For him, a safe and uneventful existence did not seem like such a bad thing, but it was like asking Wendel to live in a cage.
"We should go," Benjin said.
"Yeah. I suppose we should," Wendel agreed, kicking a nearby stone in frustration.
It was a quiet hike back toward the farmland where they lived, only the sound of their boots on the forest floor accompanying them. Darkness was growing deeper when they moved into a clearing; both knew the place and that they were now not far from the wagon trail. Long shadows bathed the clearing mostly in violet with highlights of orange and blue. Near the center stood a black mass that moved with the wind; the rustle of leaves and the smell of moldy soil filled the air.
"What in the world is that?" Wendel asked, stepping forward, but then he took two steps backward when the dark shape moved, unfolding itself. Before them stood a towering figure in robes of darkness. Within his hood waited a face shaped by pain with sunken eyes surrounded by shadow, and hollow cheeks covered in translucent skin. The burnt orange light made him look all the more unnatural.
"Do not fear. I have come only to speak with you," Matteo Dersinger said, his voice deep and resonant.
Under the gaze of a madman, Wendel could find no words and responded only with silence.
"I believe you know my son."
"If he were stronger, I would not be here, but he is weak, and I am looking for someone much heartier."
"I-" Benjin began to say, but Matteo just stared down at him and silenced him with nothing but a thought.
"You may leave," Matteo said to Benjin. "It is your friend to whom I wish to speak."
Part of Benjin was tempted to leave, to run and not look back, but that was the part he needed to leave behind, the voice he must quell if he were ever truly to become a man. In the next moment it didn't matter, since Matteo turned his gaze on Wendel, and Benjin might well have ceased to exist.
"I am told that you have no fear. It would appear that I am misinformed."
"I'm not afraid of you," Wendel said, puffing out his chest as he did. "You just surprised me before."
"Hmm. Perhaps. What would you say if I told you that the world was in grave danger, and that a hero was needed to save us all?"
"I'd say you should stop by the playhouse. I hear their casting the part of "crazy old coot", and I do believe you've nailed it.
"What they say about your sharp tongue is true, I see. And what of your prowess? Would you care to bring me down?"
Matteo seemed to further unfold, and only then did Benjin realize that the madman held his staff. Those who had seen it up close agreed that it was without peer. None could say how it had been made, or when, or by whom. It was but another piece of the mystery that was Matteo Dersinger.
Benjin sucked in a sharp breath when Wendel flashed out into the growing darkness, grabbing onto Matteo's staff as he did, looking as if he would sweep the leg's out from underneath the taller man. But that wasn't what happened at all. A brief spark of light leaped out to meet Wendel's outstretched hand, and there was a loud pop. Something that looked like a striking snake was seared into Benjin's vision, and he looked back up to see Matteo's fist strike Wendel's chest. His friend flew backward for a short distance before crashing to the ground with a grunt.
"You have proven that you are either brave or a fool. Get up and do not come at me again, or I will not go so easy on you the next time."
Pulling himself slowly from the grass, Wendel stood, looking like he'd been mule-kicked. Benjin couldn't be certain, but it looked as if his clothes were smoking.
"I will now ask you again. What would you say if I told you that the world was in grave danger, and that a hero was needed to save us all?"
"I'd say that I am that hero," Wendel said, as he wiped his chin, looking down to see if there was blood. Benjin coughed.
"Hmph." Matteo looked doubtful.
Wendel stood up to the insult, looking as if he might take one more try at Matteo's defenses. Matteo chuckled, deep and low, so that it almost sounded like a growl.
"Will you do what must be done then?"
"Maybe if I knew what it was that needed to be done," Wendel said, raising his hand in exasperation. "You make no sense, old man. And you may have gotten in a lucky shot, but don't try me again, as your luck will run out."
In that moment the world grew dark, and only a feral light cast from the staff illuminated Matteo's angry visage. He seemed to grow taller and more imposing--he blotted out the rest of the world and commanded them to listen.
"The goddess Istra will come again, and the mighty will be laid low. Terror and fire will rain from the skies, and one will come to rule them all. One will come to be the death or the savior of them all!"
Silence followed the echoes of his words, which surely had been heard across the valley.
"And?" Wendel said with a look of annoyance.
Matteo nearly growled, but then he just smiled, which Benjin found even more frightening. "You must go to the Greatland and find out everything you can about the return of Istra. The Zjhon have knowledge they are hiding from the world, and we must know what it is. That is what must be done."
Snorting, Wendel bent over with laughter, "The Greatland? Really? You want me to go to the land of fairy tales and legends? Should I fly there?"
"I have arranged a ship."
Those words reduced Wendel's arrogance to silence. "You're serious, aren't you?" Wendel asked.
No one could look more serious than the man that currently towered over them.
* * *
"This is ridiculous," Benjin said for what seemed the fifteenth time, the weight of the bag that Matteo had brought for them weighing on him more than just physically. How had the man known they would come? "You can't just leave. What would I tell your father? It would break your mother's heart."
"Just tell them that I'll be back."
Benjin snorted. "So I'm just supposed to walk all the way to the Arghast desert with you, watch you get on some strange ship, and then walk home. Alone."
"Or you could come with me," Wendel said. It left a silence to hang between them.
Benjin walked with his head hung, trying to find a way to make the madness stop. Never would he have guessed this day would end with his best friend leaving on a journey from which he might never return. Everyone had heard the old tales about the Greatland, but none really believed it existed. After all, no other peoples had made contact with them for thousands of years. What evidence was there that anyone else even existed? Those who had sought to find the Greatland in the past had never returned, and Benjin considered that a pretty good indicator.