As I mentioned here, Wizards of the Coast has graciously authorized me to post monthly excerpts from my forthcoming novel, The Godborn (book II of the Sundering Series), in the lead up to its October 1 release.
I’m posting a total of six excerpts. They started in April and will go through to September. None will contain spoilers. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to feature different characters in each excerpt, so you get a sense of the players, the tone of the book, etc.
What follows is the fifth excerpt (the first is here, the second is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here). This bit features Vasen Cale (first introduced in the fourth excerpt) and the mysterious Orsin. Writing these two reminded me some of Jak and Erevis — yin and yang.
I hope you enjoy.
A voice broke the spell of solitude. “Well met, Dawnsword.”
Surprise pulled a rush of shadows from Vasen’s flesh. He turned to see one of the pilgrims standing on the path a few paces behind him. The man had come with the most recent group from the war-torn Dalelands.
“The light keep you,” Vasen said, recovering himself enough to offer the standard greeting between believers. “Are you . . . lost? I can escort you to the abbey if—”
The man smiled and approached. He wore a gray cloak, dark breeches, and a loose tunic. The compact stride of his lithe frame wasted little motion.
“Oh, I’ve been lost for years. But maybe I’m finding my way now.”
The man’s eyes struck Vasen immediately—pupilless orbs the color of milk. Vasen might have thought him blind had he not moved with such confidence. Tattoos decorated his bald head, his clean-shaven face, and his exposed neck—lines and spirals and whorls that made a map of his skin. He held an oak staff in his hand and carved lines and spirals grooved its length, too.
“I didn’t hear you approach. Orsin, isn’t it?”
“So I tell myself these days. And you’re Vasen.”
“Aye. Well met,” Vasen said, and extended a hand.
Orsin’s grip felt as if it could have crushed stone.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Orsin asked. “I was just . . . walking the vale.”
Ordinarily Vasen preferred to prepare his mind and spirit in solitude. But he remembered the Oracle’s admonition—“Things change, Vasen.”
“Please do. I was just walking, too. And the company of a brother in the faith would be welcome.”
Orsin hesitated, an awkward smile hanging from his lips.
“Something wrong?” Vasen asked.
“Not wrong, but . . . I should tell you that I’m not a worshiper of Amaunator.”
Given the context, the words struck Vasen as so unlikely that he thought he might have misheard.
“What? You’re not?”
Orsin shook his bald head. “I’m not.”
Now that he thought about it, Vasen did not recall seeing Orsin at dawn worship, or at any of the Oracle’s sermons, or at anything else associated with the faith. Concern pulled shadows from Vasen’s skin. He tensed.
“Then what . . .”
Orsin held his hands loose at his side. Perhaps he read the concern in Vasen’s face. “I’m not an enemy.”
“All right,” Vasen said, still coiled, eyes narrowed. “But are you a friend?”
Orsin smiled. The expression seemed to come easy to him. “I was, once. I’d like to be again.”
“What does that mean?” Vasen asked.
“I ask myself the same thing often,” Orsin said.
Vasen’s faith allowed him to see into a man’s soul, and he saw no ill intent in Orsin. Besides, the man would have been magically interrogated in the Dalelands before being brought to the vale. And had he been hostile, the spirits of the pass would have barred his passage. Still, Vasen could not imagine anyone other than a follower of Amaunator risking the Sembian countryside to come to the abbey.
“I’m . . . at a loss,” Vasen said. “I’ll need to tell the Oracle.”
“Oh, he knows.”
Orsin smiled, shrugged. “He does.”
“I’m confused. Why are you here, then?”
Orsin’s milky eyes were unreadable. “That, too, is something I often ask myself. The answer, usually, is happenstance. I just follow the wind.”
Vasen could not quite make sense of either the reply or the man. He could tell Orsin was not giving him the entire truth, yet he sensed no lie in Orsin’s words.
“You’re a strange man, Orsin.”
“Would it surprise you to know that I’ve heard that before?” Orsin chuckled. “Does this change your answer? May I still walk with you?”
“Oh, I insist you walk with me now.”
“Very good, then,” Orsin said, and used his staff to scribe a line in the dirt before their feet.
“I hesitate to ask,” Vasen said. “What’s that you just did?”
He wondered if perhaps the man were mentally unsound.
“Lines mark borders, a beginning. This is before,” Orsin said, and used his staff to point to one side of the line. Then he pointed to the other side. “This is after. I hope there’s a friendship on this side.”
The words, so guileless, touched Vasen.
“Then I do, too,” Vasen said, and together they stepped over the line. Orsin’s steps were so light on the undergrowth that they made almost no sound.
“Where are you from?” Vasen asked him. He made a note to ask Byrne and Eldris about Orsin. In particular, he wanted to know how Orsin had slipped through the interrogation they performed on all would-be pilgrims. A non-worshiper getting through suggested a problem. The battles being fought in the Dales could not be an excuse for carelessness.
“I’m from the east, Telflammar,” Orsin said. “Do you know it?”
Vasen shook his head. It was just an exotic name he’d heard from time to time, although perhaps coming from Telflammar explained Orsin’s exotic appearance.
“It’s very far from here,” Orsin said, looking off in the distance. “It was . . . changed in the Spellplague.”
“True, true,” Orsin said. “And you? Where are you from?”
Vasen made a gesture that took in the vale. “I’m from here.”
“Not Sembia, no. Sembia belongs to the Shadovar. I was born in this vale, and it belongs to us.”
“Us,” Orsin said. “You’re . . . not Shadovar?”
Vasen had heard the question often from pilgrims and it no longer offended him. “No. I’m . . . something else.”
“Something else, but . . . akin to shadows, yes?”
Vasen held up a hand. “Listen. Do you hear that?”
Orsin looked puzzled. He cocked his head. “The water?”
Vasen nodded. “The cascades. They’re the first thing I hear when I lead pilgrims to the vale or return from taking them home. Hearing them, I know I’m home.”
“You walk much but never far.”
Vasen liked that. “Yes. Never far. Are you interrogating me, Orsin of Telflammar?”
“So it seems,” the man said with a grin. “You’ve spent your entire life here?”
“Since the day I was born. Only the Oracle has been here longer. All the others, even the abbot, rotate in and out. The gloom is not for everyone.”
“No, but it calls those it calls,” Orsin said. “And nothing lasts forever.”
Orsin’s words reminded Vasen of the Oracle’s words earlier. His expression must have turned somber. Orsin picked up on it.
“I’m sorry. Did I speak out of turn? I meant that the darkness couldn’t last forever.”
Vasen waved off the apology. “No need for sorry. Your words just put me in mind of words someone else said to me recently.”
“And if anything can last forever, I fear it’s this darkness.”
“I think not,” Orsin said.
Vasen smiled. “You’re sure you’re not a worshiper of the Dawnfather?”
“Very good,” Orsin said with a chuckle. “Very good.” The end of Orsin’s staff put little divots in the earth as they walked. “Where are we walking?”
“I’m just following the wind, same as you.”
They came to the river’s edge. The burbling water, shallow and fast moving, cut a groove in the valley’s floor. Trees jutted at odd angles from the steeply sloped bank. Round rocks like cairn stones lined the bank. Vasen felt a chill, and it reminded him of the dream of his father.
Directly across the river stood another pair of pilgrims—a middle-aged man with a scarred face who held the hand of a plump, long-haired woman, probably his wife.
Vasen held a hand aloft in greeting and called, “The light warm and keep you.”
The pilgrims stared at him for a moment, finally raised their hands in a tentative wave, and mumbled an echo of his blessing. They hurried on without another word.
“My appearance makes some uncomfortable,” he said, pointing a finger at his eyes, which he knew glowed yellow in dim light.
“My appearance does the same,” Orsin said. He looked in the direction the pilgrims had gone. “Seems unfair, since they owe their safety to you.”
“Fairness does not enter into it,” Vasen said. “It’s my honor to serve.”
“And true service often demands solitude.”
Vasen heard something forlorn in Orsin’s tone, an echo of his own feelings. “You speak as one who knows that firsthand.”
Orsin nodded. “I do.”
“Well, neither of us walks alone today, yeah?”
“Very good. Not alone. Not today.”
Abruptly, Vasen made a decision that surprised him. “Come on. I’ll show you a place.”
Orsin’s eyebrows rose in a question but his tongue did not utter it.
Vasen followed the bank of the river for a time. Ahead, through the thinning pines, he saw the cracked, pale face of the eastern wall of the vale, and above it, crags like teeth. The shadows of the mountains fell across the forest, darkening the already dim air further. Vasen felt the deepening darkness draw around him like a blanket, thick and comfortable.
He turned right, leaving the river behind. The ground sloped upward, and the pines, older and taller than elsewhere in the vale, towered over them. The scrub overgrew the walking path.
“Few come this way,” Orsin observed.
“I usually come here alone,” Vasen said. He’d always felt drawn to it.
“Thank you for letting me accompany you, then.”
Eventually they came to Vasen’s destination: a large tarn of still, dark water. Tall pines, the oldest in the vale, ringed the water, standing silent, dignified sentinels. One of the tall pines bordering the tarn had fallen over years earlier, blown down in a storm, perhaps. Half of its roots lay exposed, and a portion of it extended out into the tarn. Weather had stripped it of much of its bark, but still it lived.
When they stepped within the circle of the trees, sound seemed to fall away. The distant rush of the cascade, the stirring of birds, the hum of the wind, all diminished. Near the tarn there was only stillness, silence, shadows.
Orsin spoke softly. “This place is waiting.”
Vasen nodded. “That’s always been my feeling, also. I come here to meditate and commune with the Dawnfather. Although . . .”
He did not say that the tarn pulled at the part of him he owed to Erevis Cale, the dark part, the shadow.
“Although?” Orsin prodded.
“For other reasons, too.”
Orsin looked at the earth, the trees, the tarn. “I don’t think this is the Dawnfather’s place. None come here but you?”
“None but me for a very long time,” Vasen acknowledged. “What do you mean, this isn’t the Dawnfather’s place?”
Orsin did not answer. He glided forward, his pale eyes fixed on the dark water. Vasen followed, his skin inexplicably goose pimpled.
“Who are you, Orsin?” Vasen asked. He felt as if much hung on the answer. He wondered why he had brought the man with him to his place of solitude. They’d only just met. He’d been walking with the man for half an hour and Vasen knew essentially nothing of him. “I think I should take you back to the abbey, explain matters to the Oracle—”
“I’m a walker,” Orsin said over his shoulder. He reached under his tunic to remove something, a disc of some kind, a symbol. “A hopeful wanderer. And a congregation of one.”
Orsin was nodding. “This is the symbol of my faith. This place doesn’t belong to the Dawnfather, but it’s holy still. And now I know why my path brought me here, why you brought me here.”
Kneeling at the water’s edge, Orsin held the symbol—a black disc bordered with a thin red line—over the water.
Vasen did not recognize the symbol but felt as if he knew it. He froze when shadows flowed up from the surface of the water to enwrap the symbol, twisted around Orsin’s hands. Orsin murmured words, a prayer, that Vasen could not hear.
Vasen looked at his own hands, also leaking shadows. His entire body was swimming in them, wrapped in them. Once more, he felt as if he were living life in a story written for him by another.
Write the story.
Orsin stood and turned to face Vasen. His white eyes widened slightly when he saw the mass of shadows swirling around Vasen.
“This place was left here. For me, maybe, but I think more likely for you. You’re connected to it. So I’ll ask you the same question you asked me. Who are you?”
Vasen looked at his hands, leaking shadows.
“You’re a shade but not a Shadovar. How? Tell me.”
Vasen cleared his throat. He tried to pull the shadows back into his form but they would not diminish. “My . . . father.”
Orsin took a step toward him, his fingers white around the disc of his holy symbol.
“Who was your father?”
Vasen looked past Orsin to the tarn, its deep, black water. “His name was Erevis Cale.”
Orsin’s hands fell slack to his side. “That . . . can’t be.”
“You’ve heard his name? I thought you came from the east.”
Orsin took his symbol in both hands, held it to his chest. “Erevis Cale died more than a hundred years ago. You’re too young to be his son. It’s not possible, is it? How can it be?”
“Magic sent my mother here while I was still in the womb.” Vasen took a step toward Orsin, toward the tarn. “How do you know my father’s name?”
Vasen’s hand went to the hilt of his blade. Suspicion lodged in him, grew. Orsin seemed not to notice, or not to care if he did.
“Erevis Cale was the First of the Shadowlord.” Orsin brandished the symbol, held it out for Vasen to see. “The First of Mask.” Orsin was shaking his head, pacing now along the edge of the tarn. “I was led here to see this, to meet you, but why? I don’t see it. I don’t see it.”
Vasen said nothing, could say nothing, just stood in the midst of the shadows gathering around them. He let his hand fall from the hilt.
Orsin stopped suddenly, looked over at Vasen.
“This is their place, Vasen. Mask. Your father. This is their place.”
For a moment Vasen could not speak. His dreams of Erevis Cale reared up in his mind, dark visions of a cold place. “No. Mask is dead. Erevis Cale is dead. This can’t be their place.”
“I keep the faith alive, Vasen,” Orsin said. He gestured at the fallen tree. “It’s like that tree. Uprooted by a storm, broken on the rocks, but still it hangs onto life. So, too, does the Shadowlord’s faith. In me and maybe a few others.”
“You . . . worship a dead god?”
“Not quite dead,” Orsin said. He pointed at the tarn as if it signified something. “This tarn is different from all of the others in the vale, yes?”
Vasen stepped to Orsin’s side, his eyes on the water. “It is. Deeper. No one has touched its bottom.”
The faint light of the dying, shrouded day cast their darkened reflection on the water, faceless and black, only half formed.
“Once. The water gets too cold and the depth is too great. It’s like . . . a hole.”
Orsin inhaled deeply, put a hand on his hip, and looked up at the mountains. “I think I’ve stood on this ground before.”
Vasen shook his head. “You’ve never been to the abbey before. I’d remember if you had.”
Orsin smiled, no teeth, just a faint rise at the corners of his mouth. “There was no abbey here, then.”
Vasen could not control the swirl of shadows around him. “The abbey has been here since before you were born.”
“The spirit is eternal, Vasen,” Orsin said, nodding at some truth only he understood. “The body is not. Before going to its final rest, a spirit is often reborn into a new body. Sometimes this happens many times.” His white eyes looked distant as he fixed them on the dark water of the tarn. “But the essence of the spirit, its core, is the line that tethers its lives to one another through time. A thread that connects them all.”
Vasen thought he better understood the tattoos on Orsin, the grooves in his staff. “And you . . . ?”
“Have been reborn many times.” He smiled. “It seems I have a disquieted spirit.”
“Are you—? I don’t—”
“I’m not human, Vasen, at least not fully. The essence of the planes runs in my veins. In the Dalelands they called me a deva. But I’ve been called other things in other places, in other lives. Aasimar. Celestial. But deva suits me well enough. And Orsin suits me best.”
Vasen tried to process everything he was learning, to make sense of it. “And you came here—?”
Orsin shrugged. “Following the thread of previous lives. I told you the truth. I follow my feet where they lead.” His gesture took in the tarn, the vale. “I’m here now to see this. To see you, I think.”
Vasen felt the threads of his life being drawn into a knot, his dreams of Erevis, the Oracle’s words, Derreg’s admonition to be prepared, the appearance of Orsin.
“Why? To what purpose?”
Orsin disappointed him with a shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just walking a path that allows me to meet those I’ve known before. That’d be pleasant, I think.”
The hairs on Vasen’s neck stood on end. “Us? Then you think we’ve known each other before?”
Orsin smiled. “I believe so.”
Vasen had no words. He didn’t know if he believed Orsin, but he could not deny the connection he felt with the deva. He’d felt it the moment he’d seen him, like reuniting with an old friend. That was why he had brought him to the tarn. That was why he had tolerated the questioning.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” Orsin said. “You’ve renewed my faith. It had been . . . flagging.”
“You’re welcome?” Vasen managed.
“Very good,” Orsin said, chuckling. The deva tucked his holy symbol back under his tunic and took another look around. “Odd, not so, that a place holy to the Shadowlord is in a place holy to the Dawnfather?”
“Perhaps not so odd,” Vasen said, thinking of his own soul, his own life, the tarnished holy symbol he bore.
Orsin watched him and seemed to take his meaning. “No, perhaps not. Shadows require light, after all.”