There likely isn't an author he's read who hasn't had an influence on his writing, but several have had a larger impact than others. The worlds crafted by Christopher Paolini (Alagaësia) and J.R.R. Tolkien (Middle Earth) heavily influenced his creation of the world of Stonorial in his "Trials of Transcendence" series. And while innumerable authors have no doubt helped shape his style and voice, it was the writing of Steven Erikson that taught him how to use the perspectives of many characters to craft scenes and build emotional ties between the characters and their readers.
His first book, "Start of the Storm: Trials of Transcendence Volume I" was released in March 2020 and he is currently hard at work on Volume II. Follow him on Goodreads, on Facebook at Transcendent Publishing House, and on Twitter @TranscendentPH and watch for special behind the scenes looks and sneak previews in the coming months.
It was another storm at another time. Farther north, but just as powerful. It caught no fleet of warships, only one small fishing vessel. But this storm, too, was destined to reshape the fate of Stonorial.
Eræn’s parents were fishers, so he too would be expected to construct his own fishing boat, take a wife, and spend the entirety of his life fishing. But that would not be expected until the onset of his sixteenth year. He still had two summers of freedom, yet he couldn’t help but wonder how Ellæn felt about fishing…
Eræn was from a small village with no name. It had no name because it was all its citizens knew. Sure, there were stories of other people and other places, as well as the occasional stranger telling of fantastic journeys through fantastic lands. But the villagers were content with their lives.
It wasn’t a large village, so the villagers were close and families were closer. Women took on the work of their husbands at marriage, and children were trained in the same when they reached their eighth year.
And so it came to be on a warm, spring morning, long before the sun’s rays reached over the horizon, that Eræn and his parents joined the village’s other fishers sailing out to sea. Rumors of fish the size of their boat had been whispered about the wharf for weeks, and Eræn’s father had finally decided the day was ripe for pursuit. It was said that if you sailed until land was just out of sight, you could find their waterspouts on the horizon. Eræn’s father claimed to have sailed beyond sight of land with his own father, but Eræn had never before seen only water on every horizon.
Nervous at that thought, he jumped as his father clapped him on the back eagerly. “I tell you, son, just one of these behemoths could set us up for the year!”
Eræn could not deny the excitement he felt. He enjoyed the tang of the salt air and the chill of the sea breeze as it blew through his close-cropped, disheveled dark hair. His father’s bravado was contagious, and it swept him up in the thrill of the hunt. Yet even if the rumors of the great fish were exaggerated and they returned home with little more than shrimp, Eræn would count it as no loss. He treasured these days spent with his parents more than ever after the death of his sister, a victim of winter’s cruel bite.
Still, a sense of longing settled over the young fisherman as he gazed west at the vast land painted by dawn’s first light. It always seemed to him that as they sailed farther and farther east, the land around his small village grew larger and larger, swallowing it whole. He yearned to venture beyond the constricting bounds of that small world. He clung to the words of the minstrels’ tales each Harvest. He had even learned to read and write that he might secretly record every detail. He forestalled the boredom born of hours at sea by imagining the adventures that waited for him beyond the village walls.
He sighed heavily as the sun began its climb above the western horizon, revealing more of the great continent that was his unknown home. Alas, forbidding Crotaurr... The distant, ever-expanding Temparr Empire... Real places? Or merely manufactured by minstrels? I suppose I’ll never know…
As if sensing her son’s thoughts, Eræn’s mother joined him at the boat’s side, the rising sun lighting her face, softening features lined by years at sea, exposed to sun and salt. She gently put an arm around him, whispering encouragingly. “I see your thoughts, my Minnow. They run off through the plains as surely as we run before the wind. Perhaps it’s just the pattering of an old woman, or perhaps a mother’s intuition, but I think the sea’s not meant to be your home. The winds of change run this day, and I feel the fates have more in store for you.”
Eræn’s brow furrowed at his mother’s words, but she said no more, only hugged him close to her side before turning to help his father with the sails. She left him with much to think about as the sun rose higher and the shoreline shrank into nothingness on the horizon. Finally the time came when he peered out and could see the land no more. As far as his eye could stretch toward every horizon, there was naught but water.
His father noticed him turning in place to take in the ocean on all sides. “Quite a sight, eh, son? Makes you feel small. Reminds me that we’re not really in control out here.”
Eræn frowned. “I don’t think I like it. It feels…unnatural.”
“Aye. We are but visitors on this sea. Reliant on her fickle whims.” His smile faded to a frown as he observed the skies to the southwest.
Dark clouds were unfolding across the sky with great speed, a turbulent wind preceding them. Eræn’s father rushed to the mast to bring down the sail as the small boat was buffeted by the first of the sudden storm’s waves. Eræn and his mother rushed across the tilting deck to help, but his father, seeing them, waved them away. They could barely hear him above the howl of the wind.
“Get below deck! I’ve got this! Go!”
Eræn made to help him anyway, but his mother grabbed him by the arm and began dragging him toward the hold. His father almost had the sail pulled down when they were struck by a furious gust. It caught the sail, ripping it from the burly man’s hands, but a trailing buntline wrapped itself around his forearm. Eræn watched in horror as his father was lifted from the deck by the errant sail. Sheets of rain covered his ultimate fate as he was carried out over the waves.
Eræn wanted to rush to the side. He wanted to throw his father a line and pull him from the surf. But he was stunned into paralysis. His father was a rock. He couldn’t be shaken. No problem, no obstacle was too great for him to overcome. Yet he was gone. Eræn could not process the loss. It had been too sudden, had happened too quickly. He simply collapsed to the deck in agony.
Rain pelted his frozen figure and somewhere, a great distance from his mind’s retreat, something was tugging at his arm. His mother’s panicked voice finally broke through his incapacitation, jolting him back to awareness. The deck was listing hard to starboard, and his mother was employing all her strength to keep them both from toppling into the crashing waves. Keeping low and struggling together, they tumbled down the steps into the hold.
They lost all sense of time and direction as the storm raged, carrying them northeast through the Ægis Sea. As days passed, they slept when they were able, rationed their supplies, and tried to pump what water they could from the hold. They spoke little, for there was little they could say. Their loss was too ripe, their situation too bleak.
Then sometime in the darkness the fourth or fifth night of the storm, the small vessel was thrown broadside into a strand of rocks. The side of the hull was shattered and sea water rushed in amongst its hapless passengers. The fishing vessel disintegrated as the storm continued to grind it against the reef. Somewhere amongst the flotsam Eræn struggled for life.
As water rushed into the hold, he and his mother fought to swim clear of the doomed boat, but they were separated by the fierce waves and swirling debris. Eræn clung to an empty water cask and was able to partially pull himself above the ocean’s grasp. He searched for his mother amongst the wreckage throughout the night as he was pushed by the ebb and flow of the tide. He thought he’d caught sight of her bobbing to the surface several times, but each time she was lost again to the waves. Finally the storm surged, and Eræn was dashed against the rocks.
He lost consciousness but somehow still clung to the remains of the shattered cask. As he drifted through the night, he faded in and out of awareness. He saw his mother surface before him and desperately reached for her, but then she was gone. The next time the world returned, his father’s face floated in front of him in the waves. It seemed sad, filled with regret and longing. But when Eræn blinked, the image changed to that of a sea creature’s tail flicking above the surf before receding away into the distance and darkness set in again.
A soft warmth seeped into Eræn’s body as he slowly regained awareness. His head throbbed and his body ached. He felt battered and bruised all over, but he was alive. That alone was shocking. Nothing seemed broken, and though water still lapped at his body, he was lying on solid ground. He slowly climbed to his feet and took stock of his surroundings.
He was on what appeared to be a narrow, grassy island stretching along the coast of a larger land mass. The strait running between him and the mainland wasn’t particularly wide. He figured he would have little trouble swimming it when he was more rested. But it was the southern end of the isle that drew his attention. It was dominated by the largest object he had ever seen. He knew it must be a tree, but the trees he knew were small and stunted, growing along the shore near his village. This had a trunk wider than the home he’d grown up in and stretched to a height he couldn’t begin to describe.
But it looked diseased. The tree’s thick bark was a sickly gray, with sporadic patches missing altogether. Its needles were brown, many of them carpeting the ground beneath it. Stretching his limbs, Eræn cautiously approached the colossal tree. He felt miniscule under its broad reach. Gently, he laid a hand on the fetid gray bark. It felt spongy, as if rotted.
He was saddened by the plight of the tree. It was easily the most majestic living thing he’d ever seen. Perhaps it’s just not meant to live so near the saltwater. He trailed his hand along the bole of the tree as he slowly paced off its substantial circumference.
“Ow!” Eræn withdrew his left hand from the tree and sucked on the end of his middle finger. He pulled it from his mouth, examining the gray splinter embedded beneath the skin. It was too deep to do anything with. Guess I’ll just have to wait ’til it works its way out.
He continued around the tree, still marveling at its size while lamenting its ill health. He fervently wished there was something he could do for it. Even as he had the thought, a sudden jolt of pain from the splinter made him flinch. Startled, he stared down at his finger, then looked back to the tree. As he watched in wonder, a dark cavity opened in the tree’s trunk.
The hole was about chest high and not much bigger than his fist. He tried to peer inside, but the darkness was absolute. It was as if the light was being sucked into the opening and devoured. He wasn’t sure how, but he sensed a pulsating pestilence emanating from the hole and knew the source of the tree’s disease lay within.
He only hesitated for a moment before plunging his left hand through the opening. The darkness immediately assailed him. It began as nausea but quickly progressed to wracking pains that shot through his core. He began to lose control of his body, but he pushed back, fighting against the encroaching darkness. His fingers brushed the mass pulsing within the tree and another wave of pain swept through him. Almost there…! His hand closed around a small, round object within the impenetrable blackness and he struggled to pull it into the light.
Sunlight seemed to flee from the orb of darkness in his hand, but it couldn’t escape. Suddenly, before his eyes, the globe shattered to dust. The dark powder swirled in his hand as if riding on circling winds, then streamed into his middle finger where it had been punctured by the splinter. He shrieked with agony. The wracking pains began again with renewed vigor, forcing him to his knees.
He stared at his hand through tear-filled eyes. He could see the darkness taking his body. His hand seemed to siphon the light from the air around it. He looked on in horror as the blackness climbed his left arm beneath his ragged sleeve at an inexorable pace. The arm shook violently, and though he had lost all feeling in it, he could feel the darkness’ invasion. It was reaching out, clawing for his heart and once there he knew he would be lost to it completely.
As it crested his shoulder and slid past his collarbone, he could take it no longer. He was shivering violently, the gelid feel of ice streaking through his veins and what little strength he retained after his night at sea failed him. He lost consciousness and collapsed onto his back as the first tendrils of darkness began their descent through his chest.
Had he not been otherwise engaged, Eræn would have seen the immediate effect that removing the orb had on the tree. The moment his fingers brushed it, a sentience awoke within the tree. The dryad had spent centuries shielding her tree from the darkness that had been implanted but had herself finally succumbed to the pain. For decades she and her tree had remained in stasis, not seeing, nor hearing, barely surviving against the pain. But that simple, caring touch had awakened her.
Tendril could see the boy reaching, reaching for the orb. She could hear his sobs of agony. She wanted so badly to stop him, to drive him away, to make him leave them to their fate. But she was so weak. The disease still pulsed through the tree. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even call out.
Then the boy’s hand closed on the virulent orb and for the first time in nearly a millennium she felt the darkness recoil. It fought for purchase as the boy slowly pulled the orb from the tree but it couldn’t maintain its grasp. It was dragged back from her, then it was gone entirely. Relief was immediate.
The tree’s bark began to regain its color as did its needles. Its limbs strengthened and its roots gripped the soil with renewed fervor. Tendril was free from anguish for the first time in centuries. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d stepped from her tree. The last time she’d basked in the sun, danced in the wind. The last time she’d drank in the rain or ran through her roots. But, her joyful anticipations were interrupted by a shriek. The boy!
In her relief Tendril had forgotten the boy. The boy who had saved both her and her tree at great expense to himself. She couldn’t comprehend how any mortal—let alone one not fully grown!—could take on so much pain. She returned her gaze to the scene before the tree in time to see the boy collapse. His entire left arm was black, and she knew the vile darkness would not be long in taking his heart unless she could stop it.
In an instant Tendril flickered from her tree and appeared next to the boy. The sea breeze was bliss, but she couldn’t stop to enjoy it. She ripped open his ragged shirt and gasped at the extent of the darkness’ invasion. It had fully engulfed his left arm and shoulder. Long, black fingers shot across his chest, reaching out, claiming territory, centimeters from his heart. Only the Light could stop its advance; only the Light could hold it back.
The dryad thrust her palm against the boy’s sternum. I’m not a paladin, nor a priest, but Light help me save this boy! It felt as if the warmth of the sun intensified on her back. A barrier of radiant light formed a circle on the boy’s chest around his heart, but it needed energy to push back against the darkness. Recognizing this, Tendril began feeding it her own life force. Its appetite was voracious. She watched as the light thrust out and the ebon fingers began to retreat. She pushed harder, committing more of herself to the effort, but before the darkness had receded beyond his shoulder, she was spent.
She hesitated. If she gave anymore of herself, there would be no recovering. But if she didn’t, the darkness would take the boy’s heart. He was so willing to give himself for what he must only seen as a tree. He deserves my full efforts no matter the cost. The fate he faces is worse than death. She gathered her force of will and prepared to commit everything.
Opening her last reserves to feed the rapacious light, Tendril suddenly found herself filled with a vast energy that was not her own. She smiled and let it use her as a conduit. It seemed the great coastal redwood that had housed her spirit for so long had fully recovered and had chosen to commit its own reserves of energy to the fight.
The light’s intensity grew as it battered back the darkness, advancing down the boy’s left arm. The closer it got to his hand, the more the infection fought back. Tendril sensed the puncture in his left hand and hoped the darkness could be forced out the way it had entered…until she felt the splinter. The truth hit her as the invading darkness was forced to retreat up the wrist into his hand. There will be no removing this burden from him. I can only hope to contain it.
The dryad left her spirit behind to continue channeling energy to the light as it held the darkness in place and flickered back to her tree. She followed its roots deep beneath the earth to a hidden barrow. Amassed within the barrow was Tendril’s hoard which had not been visited in centuries. Here lay treasures collected over millennia: Gems, old coins, chests, armor, weapons. Treasures tributed to the great tree by misguided worshipers, given as thanks for the dryad’s help, or salvaged from shipwrecks off the coast.
Tendril knew there must be something within that could help. Something with the Light’s blessing that would hold back the darkness. She pushed aside a pile of daggers, some of them still stained with sacrificial blood, and began to dig through armor and trinkets. She considered bracelets and vambraces, even gauntlets and gloves, but none had the blessings required. Then a sudden memory struck her, and she lunged for a small, partially-rotted, wooden box. She opened it and there in front of her was a narrow gold torc designed to be worn on the wrist. She remembered the day it had been presented to her, long ago:
A burly, brusque paladin suddenly appeared before her tree, calling out. “Dryad! Come out o’ yer overgrown twig fer a moment!”
More out of curiosity than for any other reason, Tendril appeared before the dwarf. “Speak, Dwarf.”
He tossed the small wooden box at the dryad’s feet, the torc spilling out. “Keep it safe. Someday it’ll be needed.”
With that he turned and left.
Odd as the encounter had been, somehow Tendril knew that today was that day. Taking the torc with her, she climbed back up through the network of roots and flickered to the boy’s side, reuniting with her spirit. The light was still containing the darkness, holding it within his blackened hand, so she quickly slipped the chaste torc around his wrist. Using her innate magyk, she sealed it in place. It would be able to stretch and slide but could never be removed.
As it locked into place, the torc absorbed the light at the its lower edge and the draw on Tendril’s energy ceased. The darkness battled at the torc’s upper edge but couldn’t pass. It was contained.
The dryad’s eyes were drawn to the boy’s black hand. It seemed to be devouring the sunlight from its surroundings. Tendril found this disturbing and distrusted its touch. She quickly returned to her hoard far below and retrieved a worn, brown leather glove. Careful not to touch the dark skin, she pulled the glove over his hand, obscuring the evil beneath.
The boy’s breathing had returned to normal and the dryad knew he would soon awaken.
“Good luck to you, Eræn. Our thanks go with you. May we meet again under better circumstances.”
With that the dryad flickered back into her tree, prepared for some much-needed rest.
In its slow, methodical way the great tree took in all that had happened. It had awakened to find its spirit near the point of no return, fighting to save a small animal from the same, dark disease that had infected itself so long ago. Realizing that the small animal had somehow removed the infection from it, the tree lent a small portion of its energy to help in its succor.
As its spirit worked, the tree considered the animal lying there on the ground. In the millennia spanning its life, the great redwood had seen many such animals come before it. For creatures so small, they always seemed to cause vast commotion. The tree had seen them pull down droves of its kin for their own selfish needs. It had stood witness to forests of them felling each other in anger or in greed.
But sometimes they could be surprising in their care. It had been one single such animal who had spread the seed of the tree and its kin, giving rebirth to the forest that lay beyond its branches. And now this one that lay at its base. It was smaller and scrawnier than many the tree had seen before. What made this one special? Why would such a small animal take on such great pain?
The tree wasn’t sure why, but as its spirit settled amongst its roots to rest, it felt the need to thank this creature for its compassion. The tree remembered an event, centuries past, that somehow seemed linked to this day.
Shortly before the curse had descended upon it, the tree had witnessed a similar animal approaching from the north. The animal had been gravely injured and seemed desperate as it had thrust something into the tree’s trunk. Almost immediately it had fallen and died. The object still remained deep within the tree’s bole but perhaps it had a purpose with this new creature. The tree parted its flesh and brought the object to the surface.
Fare well, little one.
Eræn jolted awake, panicked. He could still feel the taint of darkness within him, clawing, clutching, vying desperately for his heart. He had to fight it, had to push back! He looked down at his arm and was surprised to see smooth skin, reddened from his time sailing in the sun, showing through the holes in his sleeve. It was then that he noticed the glove.
He slowly worked it from his hand. He was shocked when the gold torc came into view and horrified by what lay beyond it. The features of his hand were gone. He could no longer make out the hair, the lines, not even the fingernails. His entire hand was jet black and he could feel it drawing in the sunlight. He felt reinvigorated. His head cleared, his joints loosened, and his thirst, while not quenched, was pushed from the forefront of his mind. A wave of terror washed over him.
What has happened to me? I feel this darkness, this death, within, yet am nourished by it. How was it drawn back from my heart and where did this gaudy bracelet come from?
Eræn tried to pull the torc from his wrist but couldn’t. It was sealed. There was no clasp by which to open it. As he tugged at it, he noticed that it could stretch, but not enough to pull it over his hand. Instead, he pulled it up his wrist, partway onto his forearm. He froze in horror.
The darkness hungrily pursued the torc up his arm. He felt its renewed attempts to assail his heart but saw that the torc held it in check, forming a barrier it could not pass. Appalled, he shoved the gold band back down to his wrist, the black shadows retreating before it, and tugged the glove back on. His heart raced. Who did this to me?
Eræn looked around for signs that someone else had been there but found nothing. There were no tracks, no disturbances, only the crash of the waves and the rustle of the sea breeze through the tree’s needles high above.
He faltered, staring at the tree in awe. It looked healthy. The only sign of the disease that had poisoned it lay in the brown needles carpeting the grass below. Its bark was now a rich, deep red. The strong branches were now verdant with healthy needles.
As Eræn approached the tree once more, a glimmer at its base caught his eye. He bent down and pushed aside tall grass. There before him was what appeared to be a golden hilt with a large emerald embedded in the pommel. The grip was wrapped in dark green leather with some kind of gold sigil set in and was protected by a sturdy fist guard which looped across the front and was adorned with small spikes.
The minstrels’ tales had been filled with magical weapons—particularly swords—and Eræn could almost convince himself that this was one of them. He had never seen anything so ornate and to find it here, in the middle of nowhere, embedded in a tree... It all just seemed too strange.
He looked down at his gloved, left hand. There was obviously something unusual about this tree and pulling things from it didn’t seem to be a good idea. But Eræn felt inexplicably drawn to the hilt. He pictured the heroes from his favorite stories and tried to imagine them just walking away from such a fantastical oddity. He couldn’t.
He reached out his right hand and gingerly touched the hilt. Nothing happened. There was no pain, no strange feeling. Cautiously, he wrapped his fingers around the grip and pulled. It slipped easily from the wood, more easily than Eræn expected. He nearly lost his footing but caught himself. Suddenly, before he could examine the blade, he was paralyzed by a wave of power that ran through his body.
A new presence awakened through him and suddenly Eræn was no longer alone inside his head. He heard a dusty voice, sounding as if it hadn’t been used in centuries, speaking directly into his mind:
“Ahh… Finally one who is worthy. This burden is now yours to carry. Hold it well. Guard the land and its peoples, protect them with your life. As for me, my soul has found release.”
With that, the presence dissipated into oblivion.
The power coursing through him surged and Eræn could feel changes coming over his body. He felt stronger, faster. The world seemed to shrink before him, but in actuality, he realized he was growing taller. A world of new awarenesses blossomed in his mind and he could no longer process all that his senses took in.
As the power slowly dulled, Eræn regained control of his body. He realized he was still gripping the hilt and released it in fear, allowing the sabre to fall to the ground.
A sharp pain bit at his left wrist. Eræn removed his glove once more, trying to avoid looking at the black hand. Like the rest of him, his arm was now bigger and the golden torc was cutting into his skin. He gently tugged at the metal. It expanded at his touch, relieving the pressure. He slowly flexed his hand open and close to get the blood flowing through his wrist again.
His eyes wandered over the black fist; he couldn’t help it. He could feel the evil pulsating from it. He hated it and it hated him. The darkness was fighting for control, but the torc stood in its way.
On a whim, he squatted down and pressed his open palm to the grassy ground. The hand shivered as a wave of cold death overcame it. Eræn could feel that death spreading from it, stretching out to leech the life from the living things around it. He was revolted by what was working through him. What have I done? What is becoming of me? I have to fight this!
He tried to lift his hand from the ground but couldn’t. He strained to hold back the death spreading from it, but the darkness was aware of his efforts and slipped from his grasp. He wasn’t sure how, but he could sense the pain, the terror, in the surrounding plants. He could hear the final gasps of insects below the soil. He knew he needed something more than his own, fumbling mind to stop it.
The glint at his wrist caught his eye. Eræn embraced his newfound awareness and probed the torc with his mind. A warm power emanated from it. He could feel light and life contained within, looking for a conduit to reach out and rein in the slowly spreading wave of death. He opened himself to that power and bridged the gap. A white globe of radiant light encircled his black hand. The darkness was contained within and the nauseating wave of death halted, cut off from its source. The globe of light slowly constricted and conformed to his hand, becoming a shimmering, fluid glove.
Eræn jerked his hand from the ground and the light dissipated. The inky darkness of his hand again seemed to feed on the surrounding sunlight. He stared in horror at the palmate patch of dead grass below him. His mind drifted out, probing for any hint of life in the small area, but he hurriedly reeled it back. He didn’t think he could handle the brutal extent of the damage he’d caused. He quickly found the glove he’d let fall in the grass and retrieved it, careful to use his right hand.
As he hurriedly pulled it back into place, covering the atrocity his left hand had become, he caught sight of something on the palm of his right hand. He opened it flat and gasped. An intricate circular symbol was branded into his skin there. It looked like some kind of seal or sigil. He examined it closely, running the forefinger of his gloved hand over its outline. Within the circle to the right was a large tree with two mountains behind it to the left. Stalks of grass spotted the plain stretching in front of them and a river ran from behind the mountains around the side and across the bottom of the sigil.
The only place this could have come from…
He lifted the sabre from where he had let it drop. When he gripped the hilt he felt an immediate connection with the blade. He examined the leather-wrapped grip and the gold sigil set into it. It was an exact match to the brand on his palm. When he clasped his hand around the grip, the sigils lined up. He felt heat growing between his palm and the hilt, but it quickly faded away.
The sabre felt light and well-balanced. It swung easily, but Eræn felt clumsy with it. The blade was about the length of his arm and gleamed silver in the dying sunlight. At its base, just above the fist guard, was engraved the same sigil with its mountains, tree, plains, and river.
What does this mean? What does it represent? Clearly this is no ordinary blade. What has happened to me? I hardly recognize myself. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what to do.
Eræn carefully slid the sabre through the frayed twine serving as his belt and looked around. Beyond the narrow strait, on the mainland, he could see trees stretching both north and south beyond his line of sight. Here and there, larger trees similar to the one on the island towered above the rest. To the northeast rising out of the forest loomed a high cliff face with what appeared to be the ruined remains of a tower looking down on him. There were no signs of living inhabitants anywhere to be seen.
He turned back to the sea, calm now in the sun’s waning rays. It looked peaceful, inviting to a fisherman. But Eræn was a fisherman no more. Now he was…well…something else.
His eyes couldn’t help but scan the waters for signs of the boat. A few pieces had washed ashore, little more than broken boards and tattered ropes, but his mother was nowhere to be seen. Something inside him broke.
“Mother!” He repeated the cry as he ran wildly up and down the rocky coast of the island. “Mother! Where are you?!”
He frantically searched amongst the seaweed for any sign of her but to no avail. He couldn’t even see any rocky outcroppings large enough to be the one their boat had been driven into in the storm the night before. Finally, out of energy, hungry and dehydrated, heartbroken and alone, he collapsed into the sand on the shore near the lone tree. He cried and wailed, shivering in fear and self-pity until sleep finally took him.
Sometime in the night Eræn awoke in a haze. A thick fog seemed to hover around him, sitting low on the ocean’s surface. He climbed slowly to his knees and squinted out into the thinning mists. The water was perfectly still, no waves broke on the shoreline. It was like a continuous sheet of glass.
He rubbed his eyes. I’ve never seen water this calm before. Something strange is going on. There was a soft splash and two bumps appeared on the ocean’s flat surface. Is that…? This must be a dream!
He jumped to his feet, ran to the water’s edge, and began to wade out into the shallows.
“Mother! Father! You’re alive!” He could see their faces clearly. They hovered forty feet off shore, heads and shoulders above the waves. Eræn was determined to get to them. They were alive and he knew could drag them to shore!
“Son, stop! Come no closer.” His father’s voice rang out, clear and strong. “We are beyond your reach now.”
Eræn stopped, still water over his knees. His face fell, painted with hurt and confusion. “But…I can see you. You’re right there. I can swim that far. I’ll help you to shore!” He started forward again.
This time his mother stopped him. “Eræn, no. Your father’s right.” Tears began to well in Eræn’s eyes as his mother continued. “It’s okay. We’re okay. Our time has not yet come.” She smiled and wrapped an arm around his father. “Our time on Stonorial isn’t over but we can’t stay here.”
Eræn sniffed. He tried to wipe away the tears trickling down his cheeks with a sleeve. “B-But…but we can be together, right? I can come with you…”
But they were sadly shaking their heads. Eræn broke down into tears, laying his face in his hands.
His father’s voice grew stern. “Son, the time for self-pity is behind you. I know you’re sad, scared, confused. A lot has happened that you don’t understand. But our family has been chosen.” Eræn wiped his face again and opened his mouth, but his father held up a hand, shaking his head. “No, I don’t know why. But we have been. And each of us must embrace our role. You especially. You’re no longer the boy you were; you must learn to be the man you’re meant to be.”
Eræn’s face twisted in anguish. “But how? How do I learn who I am—what I am? I know nothing of this new world!”
“Seek the tower.”
“Seek the tower? What tower?! Where?! Why?!”
Eræn’s father shrugged and shook his head. “Seek the tower. That’s all I was told. It’s there you’ll find your answers.”
His mother looked at him in the moonlight. He could see the longing behind her eyes, but she suppressed it. “We love you, Eræn. We’ll meet again. We’ll be here when you call.”
Eræn watched as his parents turned away and sank beneath the waves. “Wait! Come back! Don’t leave me!”
Something flickered above the water, then all was still again. The fog seemed to be rolling back in and Eræn, numb, found himself gliding back to shore. He collapsed in a trembling heap and soundless sea faded away.
“Wait… Come back… Don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me…”
Eræn woke with a start. Gasping, he sat up. The sun was shining brightly as it rose to the west across the ocean. The tide was out but he could hear the waves washing against the shore.
“It-it was just a dream…” He touched the bottoms of his tattered pants in confusion. “But…why are my pant legs wet…?”
Eræn suddenly jumped to his feet and spun around at the sound of a snort behind him. His eyes widened in surprise as he stared at the herd of horses now grazing on the isle. All thoughts of damp pant legs and mysterious dreams fell away.
Looking past the horses toward the mainland, he saw that with the tide out his island was no longer an island. A muddy stretch of ground pock-marked with tide pools now connected it to the mainland. Guess I won’t have to swim…
He turned his attention back to the herd. Wild horses had been prevalent on the plains to the northwest of his village and many of the farmers there had bred domesticated ones to carry goods and work the fields. But these horses were bigger and less stocky. The herd was mostly made up of roans, black or brown dappled through with white.
The fully-grown horses were spread across the island, calmly grazing on its tall grasses while several foals cantered around them, nickering playfully. One colt slowly approached Eræn, curious. Unlike most of the herd, this one was solid black rather than mottled. Eræn could feel the hot, humid air expelled by the colt’s flaring nostrils. He held still, allowing the young horse to come to him. The colt slowly leaned in, laying its head against Eræn’s side. It whinnied softly and nuzzled against him.
Eræn slowly reached out his hand. “Hello, Colt.” Very gently, he placed his right hand on the colt’s left flank.
A noiseless thud reverberated through Eræn’s body. The tall grasses around them were pushed outward, lying down in a circle, and the other horses froze in place, staring in their direction. The colt reared and whinnied loudly. Eræn took a step away as, wild-eyed, the horse stamped and snorted in fear.
Where his hand had lain on the rear quarter of its left flank, the solid black colt now donned a white handprint, the strange sigil black in its center. Eræn felt a connection to the colt similar to that of the sabre, but more alive, more fluid. He could sense the colt’s feelings; he knew its needs.
In much the way he had probed the torc the previous day, Eræn reached out with his mind toward the colt. His consciousness gently met another quite alien to his own. He could feel it frantically lashing out in fear and confusion. Taking a deep breath, he embraced it. His eyes widened in amazement. His mind slipped over the colt’s, his gentle touch bringing it comfort. The young horse settled, side stepping to lean against Eræn once more.
Eræn knew that somehow a bond had just been formed. Using his mind, Eræn urged the colt to step forward. It did. He urged it back to the same result. He envisioned the young horse galloping off around the tree, leaping a patch of grass, and rearing on its hind legs in front of him. It almost seemed the horse was doing it before he thought it. The colt whinnied, clearly enjoying their game. Eræn threw his arms around the colt’s neck, burying his face in its mane. It felt wonderful to have a friend in this strange, new world.
As he lifted his head, Eræn noticed the colt’s herd crossing back to the mainland. The path connecting the island was noticeably narrower. Eræn looked over his shoulder. As he’d suspected, the tide was coming in.
A black dappled mare cautiously approached him, much the way the colt had. Her mind seemed to brush his own and he sensed a great sorrow in her. She sniffed at him, then nudged him with her nose in acceptance. The mare turned to the colt and nuzzled him softly. Their noses touched and Eræn sensed a goodbye. Then she turned and followed the rest of the herd across to the mainland.
Eræn stood back and waited for the colt to trail after her, but deep down he knew the young horse wouldn’t. They were soulbound now and belonged together. Eræn rested his hand on the colt’s back and they watched the herd gallop down the shore until it disappeared. He could feel sadness in the colt but excitement was welling beneath the surface.
The path to the mainland had been almost entirely reclaimed by the ocean and Eræn realized that if he didn’t want to spend another day on the island—no food, no water—they’d better get across. They began the half mile crossing, sloshing through mud and muck, but before they reached the opposite shore they were wading. As they made the crossing, Eræn scanned the mainland, wondering what he should do next. He took in the forest and above it on the cliff, the ruined tower. It seemed ominous, but there was something about it…
‘Seek the tower.’ Startled, Eræn’s eyes darted from side to side, searching the shallow waves around him; he could have sworn he heard his father’s words once more. The dream! But could it really mean anything? It was just a dream…wasn’t it? Finding no signs of anyone but Colt in sight, he looked back to the tower and shrugged. “I guess it is shelter and a good view of the area if nothing else. Any objections, Colt?”
The horse simply neighed and splashed the rest of the way through the rising tide to shore.
“Hey! Wait for me!”
Standing at the edge of the new land, Eræn stared at the forest in front of him. The trees—at least here at the edge—all looked to be coniferous. The dark green mass of branches formed a living ceiling well above the head of a man, leaving the forest floor a heavily-shaded, open maze of empty trunks with a carpet of soft, brown needles.
“Well, Colt, unless you know of a path—”
Eræn’s mind was suddenly bombarded by images of rolling, grassy hills. He could feel the open air streaming through his mane, the sod flying beneath his hooves. The bright sunlight warmed the black hair on his back.
Eræn pushed back with his own mind. “Stop that!”
Colt nickered and stamped.
“I get it. You prefer open fields and sunlight. But unless you know a way to get to that tower through open fields and sunlight… No? Okay, then. We have no choice. Let’s go.”
Eræn got his bearings, knowing they needed to head generally north, and they set off. As they weaved a straight path through the trees, Colt stayed close by his side. The young horse was full of energy and continuously nudged at Eræn, nearly knocking him over several times. Eræn could tell that the colt wanted them to run together, a sort of equine bonding.
After being nudged for what seemed the hundredth time, Eræn stopped and turned. “I know you want us to run, but I can’t keep up with you! And you’ve not yet grown strong enough for me to ride…”
Colt snorted with indignation and shook off Eræn’s grip.
Eræn sighed with resignation. “Fine. I’ll run as long as I can.” And with no other warning, he took off.
Colt neighed loudly, rearing up on his hind legs, then galloped after him.
Eræn was surprised at his new speed. Growing up, he’d run across the plains with other children from the village. He’d been fast, but never this fast. He couldn’t outpace Colt by far, but the trees were a blur as he darted between them. Eræn kept them headed in the right direction as they ran, joy overwhelming all other emotions for the moment. After nearly half an hour of running at an all-out sprint, Eræn slowed to a walk. He was breathing heavily, but amazingly he felt that with a short rest, he could run again—if he wanted to.
As they walked, still heading mostly north, Eræn took in the wildlife around him. Though he recognized that the trees were a type of evergreen, they were nothing like the stunted, coastal hardwoods he was used to. Birds chirped and flitted between branches above his head but he didn’t recognize them. He could see blue, yellow, red, even orange—a far cry from the white, or sometimes brown sea birds that irritated fishers, trying to steal the day’s catch. Strange, furry animals scampered up and down the tree trunks, playing tag with each other. He even caught sight of a pair with large bushy tails.
“It’s like a whole new world, Colt.” He glanced over at the horse. “Well, not for you, I suppose. But I’ve never seen anything like it.”
After they’d been traveling for a couple of hours, Eræn caught sight of sunlight reflecting off the stone of the cliff through the trees to his right. They left the confinement of the forest and approached the cliff face. Eræn looked up. The escarpment stretched high above him, several hundred feet at this point. He couldn’t see the tower from where they were, but knew it was up there somewhere.
Eræn laid his right hand against the stone. His mind spread out across it, exploring every crack and crevice. He quickly identified several paths of hand holds and foot holds that would get him to the top. He glanced down at Colt’s feet.
“I don’t suppose you can climb a cliff with those hooves…”
The horse whinnied excitedly and Eræn was again bombarded with images of gliding effortlessly through lush meadows.
“I said quit that! I get it, you like running.” He shook his head, looking at the cliff again. “I guess we’ll have to find another way up.”
He followed the stone face to the southeast with his eyes and noticed that it appeared to get steadily lower. It also looked like the land along its base slowly rose and he hoped that if they followed the cliff far enough there would be a way up.
They traveled that direction—the cliff to their left, forest to their right—for half an hour. The ground at their feet was climbing higher and the sheer, rock wall at their side was declining. Finally they came to the place where the two met. The cliff dwindled to nothing and the tree line made a sharp turn and continued northeast like the colonnade of some verdant palace.
Eræn and Colt turned back and faced the way they’d come. A clearing stretched ahead of them atop the cliff, and in the distance to the north the ruined tower was now visible. They started back that way, this time following the top of the precipice. They walked along the rim as it rose higher and higher above the forest. The view as they approached the tower was awe-inspiring.
Eræn could see that the forest stretched far to the east and south, the ocean to the north and west. North of the forest a river flowed into the sea through a wide delta. Northwest of the tower the land came to a rough promontory and the spume of rolling waves broke against a rocky island that sat out off the coast. The tower itself stood at the end of the grassy clearing where the cliff came to a point.
The austere structure looked as if it hadn’t been used in centuries. The top several stories appeared to have separated from the base and now littered the ground around the tower with rubble. Vines climbed over the surface, slowly working at cracks and joins, expanding them, pulling the stones apart. The windows were vacant, wooden shutters rotted away long ago.
They walked around the tower, looking for a door. As they did, Eræn took in every detail, searching for signs of life. Something caught his eye and he froze. Leaning against the tower’s wall was a large stone disc. It was cleanly broken in two but there was no mistaking the design on its surface. He held his right hand up next to it. It was the same sigil he’d found on the sabre.
He stepped back in shock and tried to re-evaluate its meaning. The stone disc had likely once adorned the side of the tower. The only conclusion Eræn could draw was that the tower and the sabre must both be related to the same group or person. But who…?
Curiosity piqued, Eræn scaled some of the fallen stones and peered through a tall, narrow window. Sunlight pierced the tower’s gloom and he could clearly make out the lower level. It was completely open, surrounded by empty bookshelves. A large table listed in the center of the room, one leg missing, and the only visible chair sat against the opposite wall, upholstery rotted away. Books were strewn about the cold, bare floor, likely thrown there by countless ocean storms. Looking upward, he noted a heavy, wooden chandelier hanging sideways by a single chain, a few misshapen wax candles still clinging to their holders. Further along the ceiling, off to one side, an opening led up to the next level. The remains of a rusted out, iron spiral staircase hung down through the hole but no longer reached all the way to the floor.
Eræn sighed. He could see no clues to help him unravel the origins of the sabre. In fact, the room appeared to contain nothing particularly useful or valuable at all. But it was shelter. At the very least he needed somewhere safe to stay while he figured out what to do next.
The window was too narrow to squeeze through, but he could make out the inside of a wooden door a little farther around the tower. He climbed back down then he and Colt continued around to the door. It sat at the top of three worn and cracked stone steps. The heavy oak door was weathered but amazingly not rotted.
Eræn carefully climbed the steps and reached for the doorknob. The iron handle was completely coated with rust, so just to be safe he turned it with his gloved left hand. It wouldn’t budge. He put his right hand over his left and cranked with all his considerable new might, but still nothing happened.
Perhaps it has swollen in the damp ocean air. Still twisting at the handle with his left hand, Eræn pounded against the solid wood with his shoulder. He pushed and pulled, shook and shoved, but to no avail. He let go and stepped back to reconsider. As he did, flakes of rust rained from the knob. He looked at the handle closely, rubbing more of the orange flakes from its surface. The sigil was engraved here too.
It was exactly the same size as the one on his hand but was a mirror image. Eræn realized that were he to grasp the knob with his right hand, the sigils would match up perfectly. He didn’t know what to expect but after everything else he certainly expected something to happen as he did just that.
He reached out his hand. The instant his palm pressed against the metal, a soundless shockwave reverberated through the air around him. The door swung in easily. The room that lay before him looked far different than what he’d seen through the window.
The chandelier no longer swung from one chain, but instead hung from the center of the ceiling, its multitude of candles casting soft, welcoming light on the room below. Directly beneath it the massive table now stood on all four legs with three ornate chairs arranged around it. A large tome stood open on the table, the bookshelves were full of books and other intricate instruments, and the windows were paned with glass. Off to the side the spiral staircase now reached all the way to the floor which was carpeted with a plush, dark green rug.
Eræn gawked. He had never seen a room so grand. “But… How?”
He slowly backed down the steps away from the building. His shock only grew. He stopped next to Colt trying to process the reality before him.
“What is this place? What just happened?”
He stared up at the tower, now whole once more. Where rubble had been there were now gardens. The stone disc sigil hung above the door, solid again, and the stairs, though still worn, were no longer cracked. Vines that had torn at the crumbling outer walls were simply gone, the stones smooth and well-joined.
Eræn had never been sure if magyk was real but after these last two days he had no more doubts. He had always hoped he might see it firsthand, but now that it was here in front of him he was uneasy. He wasn’t passing this up though. The minstrels’ heroes never just walked away.
“You wait out here, Colt. I’ll go see what’s inside.”
As he entered the tower a strange feeling came over him. There was an unnatural whoosh of air and suddenly a fire was crackling in the hearth. Oil lamps hanging on the walls came to life, burning brightly.
“Hello! Is anyone here?” He listened intently but heard nothing.
There were so many things to look at, so much to explore. He didn’t know where to start. He edged over to the table and the large book caught his eye. It was opened a little past the halfway point and looked to be some kind of journal. He flipped a few pages and realized it had been left on the final entry.
It appeared to be dated at the top, but the author hadn’t used any system he could recognize. However, though the writing was cramped and tight, the language was easily recognizable. He skimmed the page and was taken aback. There were bloody fingerprints along one margin and in the bottom, right-hand corner was the sigil. Intrigued, he began reading:
I’ll not recover from these wounds. The one who gave them follows closely and will be here ere the day is through. I’ve no hope of escaping him. My soul has already been invested in the sabre but this creature is cloaked in shadow. He would take the blade and make it his own. I’ve not yet made the arrangements to choose an heir and he has the power to force my hand. Unless I find a way to protect the blade Stonorial is in grave danger. I’ve but one course of action and must hope it will work. I fear the long wait that is ahead for my soul, yet I will face it for the good of Transcendence.
If you read these words then I must have found success and the blade is yours, for only the one who bears its mark can reopen this tower once sealed. You are now the Ranger, keeper of the land and its peoples, holder of great powers and even greater responsibilities. You’re likely scared and confused but I wouldn’t have chosen you were you not fated for this.
I feel him on the horizon! Alas, my time is up. I am found. If I’ve any hope of these words being read, I must get to the coast! This journal contains all you need to know, all you must learn. Start at the beginning, read everything. Twice. I leave you in the hands of all who have come before. Until we finally meet…
Eræn stepped back from the journal. As he’d read, he’d at first been shocked, but as he’d continued, acceptance, determination, and somehow even peace had settled over him. His father’s dream words found him once more. ‘Seek the tower. It’s there you’ll find your answers.’
This was his destiny. This was the man he was meant to be.
“So. I’m the Ranger… I guess I have a lot to learn.”
He pulled up a chair and turned the Journal to the beginning.