(If you missed it, you can read Part One here)
Most consider me mad. Perhaps I am. I don’t really care what they think. Honestly, there are few I would trust with the truth.
I am Marcel, and like my sister, an Empath. More precisely, I am an Earthspeaker. The first to claim that title in more than a hundred years.
The dormitory was too quiet. The usual voices had apparently abandoned me. Even Jana had shut me out. That’s how I knew Andreú had found her up above the orchard.
A thick air of anxiety covered the entire Empath compound. The unusual quiet only added to the heaviness. I wished Jana would return. And not for the first time, I regretted telling Andreú where she could be found.
I paced back and forth across my tiny room. From window to door, four paces, turn, four paces back. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two, three, four.
Something had happened up above the orchard. I could feel the shift in Jana’s mind. Would she come to me? I ceased my pacing, coming to a stop facing the door as I considered going to her instead.
Before I could make up my mind to go and open the door, however, the tower bells rang out, strident and insistent. Bong, bong. Bong, bong. Bong, bong.
My heart raced, as if it might burst free from my chest. I broke out in a clammy sweat, and I thought I might black out, or vomit. Maybe both. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. I thrust my hand into my pocket and gripped the tiny owl figure I carried there. A gift from Jana. It brought little comfort to me now, though, as the bells continued to ring. Bong, bong. Bong, bong. Bong, bong.
There was no choice, I had to go. With a shaky breath, I put my hand to the knob. I’d no sooner touched it, and there came a terrible pounding on the door. I jumped back, tripped on my own feet and crashed against the wardrobe. The door flew inward and there stood Andreú.
“Marcel,” he said without surprise. “Jana thought you might still be here. Come on. We’re all called to the Hall.”
Jana hadn’t come. And instead, she’d sent Andreú to fetch me. Like I was some sort of wayward child.
“I was on my way, Andreú. There’s no need—.”
Andreú actually grabbed my arm and pulled me physically from the room. I shook him off violently and stepped away.
“Marcel, there’s no time for this. We must go.”
“Leave me be. I can walk on my own.” I paused to carefully close and lock my door before following Andreú into the corridor.
The Hall was filled with every Empath still at the compound. I hesitated at the door, but Andreú shoved me in ahead of himself. The cacophony that erupted around me was overwhelming. I clapped my hands over my ears in an effort to block out the sound but the voices in my head – the anxious thoughts of everyone in the room – assaulted me.
‘Jana, where are you?’ I wailed inside my own mind.
‘Breathe, Marcel. I’m on my way.’
I tried to focus on her presence in my mind. Tried to focus on my breathing, like she said. Andreú put his hand on my shoulder, directing my attention to the front of the room. Headmaster Anton had come to stand at the center of the dais, his hands upraised over the crowd in an attempt to silence the whispers.
I pulled my hands from my ears and shoved them into my pockets. Still focused on blocking the noise in my head, I didn’t hear what Andreú was trying to say to me. My hand found the owl, and I clutched it as if my life depended on it.
“I’m afraid I have grave news.”
Silence finally fell across the Hall as the Headmaster began to speak. The anxiety level only sharpened, however, and it was an effort for me to hear the Headmaster’s words.
“A rider has just arrived from the front. The Jut’ma have pressed south harder and faster than anyone anticipated.”
Headmaster Anton continued to speak, but his words were lost to me as I battled my anxious thoughts. My breathing had grown erratic and my heart pounded painfully.
When he was finished speaking, Jana still hadn’t come. As people began to filter out of the Hall, the Masters sorted each Empath into their respective groups – the Healers, the Sighted and the Speakers. Jana still had not come. I couldn’t breathe, my feet refused to move.
“Marcel, we need to go.” Andreú said beside me, giving me a light push as he tried to move me.
“But, Jana—. I can’t—.”
“She’ll catch up. You know she will.”
His voice was soft, but filled with impatience. I tried to ignore him, instead focusing on Jana’s presence in my mind. She said she was on her way. I would go to her then.
As we approached the door, I noticed a small commotion off to the side. It was Jana. She was here. I tried to push my way through to her, even as she was trying to push into the Hall. The exiting crowds prevented her.
“Jana, go to the barracks as you’ve been instructed.” Master Jorel was there directing Empaths as they left the Hall. “Get your team ready.”
“He is part of my team,” Jana insisted, still pushing to get to me.
“The Headmaster has another assignment for him. You must go.”
“Jana!” I called out.
“Marcel, there you are.” Headmaster Anton appeared at my side. “Come with me, son. I have a special task for you.”
“I was told he’d be assigned to my regiment.” Jana had managed to push her way to my side and I took her hand.
“He has been, child. Go on and prepare for your departure.”
I clutched Jana’s hand tighter, reluctant to let her go again. But Headmaster Anton grew stern and Jana had to back down.
‘It will be alright, Marcel.’ Jana’s voice whispered across my mind, though from what I saw in her eyes, I wasn’t convinced she believed that.
Andreú put a hand on my shoulder, startling me. Until that moment I’d forgotten he was still behind me.
“We’ll meet you back at the dorms when we’re all done,” he said as he moved around me. He took Jana’s other hand in his. His eyes held a confidence I knew to be false, belied by the fear I could feel trembling just beneath his surface bravado. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
Reluctantly, Jana pulled away from me and I was left to follow after Headmaster Anton alone. I felt unsteady on my feet as I followed him. When I glanced back over my shoulder, Jana gave me a brave smile and Andreú waved.
We arrived at Headmaster Anton’s study to find another of the Empath mentors bent over the desk studying a scroll or map. It rolled closed when the mentor straightened and turned toward us. My stomach knotted when I realized who it was.
“Ah, Marcel,” Master Tenzin greeted me, taking my unoffered hand and pumping it up and down. It was a strange western custom I’d never come to appreciate. “Good of you to come. The Captain will be with us momentarily.”
“There’s no sense in waiting for the Captain, Tenzin,” Headmaster Anton said, moving away to stand behind his desk. “Go on and show the boy the texts.”
“Yes, yes. Quite right. Come, boy.” Master Tenzin waved me over to the desk, indicating an untidy heap of scrolls. He picked one up, sending another careening off the edge of the desk onto the floor. It rolled to a stop against my boot.
“These scrolls have been in the archives for decades, maybe centuries. No one really knows.” Master Tenzin spoke all in a rush as he opened the scroll across the desk, shoving all the others to the side. I cringed inwardly, waiting for more to fall.
I bent to retrieve the fallen scroll, but finding no room to set it down with the others, I continued to hold it. With an end of the scroll in each hand, I spun it around and around as I tried to follow Tenzin’s discussion of the open scroll.
“See here,” he pointed to a passage of text on one side, “this tells of speaking to the wind, and here, to the earth itself. With this knowledge, you could move mountains.”
“Mountains, boy! Think of it!” Master Tenzin’s face shone with a terrifying gleam I couldn’t identify.
“I can’t do these things.” I had glanced over Master Tenzin’s translations of the old texts. They spoke of manipulating the wind, the rivers and the earth. Hurricanes and earthquakes.
“Of course you can, boy. You’re an Earthspeaker. This is your power. Your Gift! These scrolls will tell you how to use it. You could change the course of this war.”
“Read, boy,” Tenzin thrust a fat finger at the scroll. “It’s all right here.”
There were no other living Earthspeakers. I was the first in a hundred years or more. If these scrolls could tell me anything about my gift, anything at all…
My heart was racing and my vision darkened around the edges. I stuffed a hand into my pocket and clenched the tiny owl as I struggled to breathe. The tiny reminder of my connection to Jana, was the only thing that kept me from shaking apart.
“I thought I was to join my sister.” My voice sounded hollow and far away.
“Do not worry for your sister. She is capable of looking after herself.”
“You don’ t understand,” I insisted. “She and I—.”
“Yes, yes,” Tenzin said with a sneer. “You share a bond. This bond holds both of you back. You are capable of much more. I can take care of that for you.”
Tenzin lifted his hand as if to place it on my head. I cringed away from his touch.
“Marcel, don’t be afraid. I can help you. Let me remove the bond. I’ll guide you. Help you with your gift.”
“No!” I took a step back away from him.
A sound at the doorway had us both turning as the grim-faced Captain Vaska entered the study.
“Captain,” Master Tenzin greeted him, turning his greedy eyes away from me at last. “Come in. Did you bring the map?”
“This is the one you spoke of?” Captain Vaska examined me, his eyes moving over me from head to toe, clearly finding me wanting. “This is the one who can turn the war in our favor?”
“Yes, yes. This is Marcel, the Earthspeaker.” Master Tenzin took the Captain’s arm, pulling him toward the desk. “Come, show us your plan.”
Captain Vaska frowned at the cluttered surface, not sure where to put down his map until Master Tenzin cleared a space for him. As he spread it out, I could see lines and marks, but had no idea what they meant.
“The regulars are entrenched here,” Captain Vaska said, indicating a spot on the map. A squiggly line moved through it, and a pair of strange marks flanked it. He traced a finger along the line from another spot. “We’ll march up the river here to join them. We’ll draw the Jut’ma into this valley. Once they’ve committed, you,” Vaska pointed at me without glancing away from the map, “bring down these cliffs here, and disrupt their advance.”
“Bring down…?” I stumbled over the words.
“You are the Earthspeaker, aren’t you?”
“I, uh—.” I looked back and forth between Captain Vaska and Master Tenzin. They both watched me with expectation. “I can’t do that. I don’t know how.”
“Read the texts.”
Master Tenzin scooped up the pile of scrolls and thrust them into my arms. One fell, and it rolled under the table. I watched it as it rolled, the seal turned over one, two, three, almost four times before it rolled out of my sight.
“Take them all.” Tenzin retrieved the fallen scroll, adding it to the pile in my arms. “Read through them tonight.”
“Yes, tonight. We march out in the morning. We are only two days from the battlefield.”
“Yes, yes.” Master Tenzin turned back to the Captain, urging him to continue. Though I tried to listen to the plan he outlined, my mind spun with all I’d heard, with what I held in my arms. Could I really learn to use my gift? Before I knew it, the Captain finished speaking and Master Tenzin was ushering me out the door.
Two days. Two days. The words repeated in my mind as I walked back to the dormitory, Master Tenzin’s scrolls clutched against my chest. Two days. It was already late. The others, it seemed, had been given their instructions and released long ago. Two days. Two days.
Once I got back to my room, I set the scrolls down on my desk. I lined them up in a neat row, seals facing upward. I touched each in succession – one, two, three, four, five.
The fifth scroll was shorter, and didn’t want to lay flat alongside the others. Instead, it rolled away. I pushed it back, only to have it roll away again. When I examined it, I discovered one of the ends was bent.
I pushed it back against the others, holding it in place. This scroll was noticeably older than the others. The newer scrolls were likely translations from older documents that probably hadn’t survived.
With a bit of a start, I realized this scroll wasn’t one of those Master Tenzin had handed to me, but was the one I’d picked up off the floor. My hand trembled and a strange, guilty fear settled in my gut as I thought he hadn’t intended me to have this one.
I pulled my hand away and stood abruptly. I circled the room, lighting every lamp and candle I had. I stood in the center of my room and stared at the scrolls. I felt Jana’s touch brush across my mind and I pushed back, insisting I was fine.
Finally, with a deep breath I returned to my desk to learn my fate. A gust of wind rattled my shutters as I sat down, making me jump. But it didn’t seem like an angry wind, so I turned my attention to the scrolls.
I started with the newer ones. I skimmed through Master Tenzin’s translations before examining the original texts. I could feel the hidden power in the words, but I wasn’t sure how to put it to use.
Voices swirled around me, even within the protection of my own room. The compound was in uproar as everyone prepared for departure. Prepared for battle. Fear, above all else, made the air heavy. I felt it like a great weight on my chest, making it difficult to breathe.
The scrolls spoke of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, stories that hinted at the power of the Earthspeaker. Master Tenzin’s translations were adequate, better than I could do myself. But still, I was missing something. They were all the same yet different.
I woke the next morning to a pounding on my door. I didn’t remember climbing into my bed. Perhaps that was because I hadn’t. I lay atop the covers, still fully clothed.
“Marcel! Wake up! We leave in an hour.”
I sat up with a groan. My head felt stuffed full of wool. I looked around the room, vainly trying to remember what I’d done the night before. Every candle had burned down to nothing, and even my lantern had guttered and gone out. The early gray of dawn peeking through the window shutters provided the only light, and everything appeared shadowed and unfamiliar. Finally, my gaze fell on the jumble of scrolls on my desk and I remembered my task.
I moved to the desk and began rolling the scrolls and packing them into my bag. Some I set aside. They provided no unique information, and would only take up space.
I splashed some water on my face and changed into a fresh set of clothes. I threw my cloak over my shoulders and swung my bag onto my back just as the summoning bells began to ring. I stood at my door trying not to let the panic overwhelm me, breathing as Jana would tell me to do.
We were two days out from the war front and the Captain pressed us hard the first day. I wondered how we could possibly arrive in any condition for fighting.
When we stopped for the night, camp was set up quickly and a meal prepared. Everyone was exhausted, but anticipation kept us from falling immediately into our bed rolls.
After eating, I moved away from the other Empaths gathered around the fire eating their supper. They laughed and sang a little too loudly, as if they could lift the oppressive air of impending doom by the sheer force of their wills.
I found a place as far from them as I could while still having enough light from the fire to see. I balanced my bag on my lap and pulled out one of the scrolls to read it again. My fingers traced the lines on the old parchment. It was a map of sorts, or more likely, a diagram. Tenzin hadn’t bothered to translate the Caulish words that defined the illustration, and I still struggled to make sense of them.
“Marcel.” Jana sat down beside me, bringing with her a lantern. I watched the flame flicker as she set it down at her feet. “Don’t you have those memorized by now?”
She leaned against my arm, examining the scroll I held. Still, I watched the flame of her lantern. Shadows danced around it like mad sprites seeking an escape from the aether. I shifted my foot away as one stretched toward me.
“Will you really do this?” Jana asked, tapping a finger on the scroll. The motion caused my bag to shift and when I tried to correct the balance, it fell open and another scroll spilled out.
“What’s all this?” Andreú joined us then, sitting on the log so that his knee touched Jana’s. He picked up the scroll that had fallen out of my bag.
“That’s not you concern.” I snatched it back from him, causing another one to fall. What was he doing here?
“Marcel,” Jana said with reproach, laying her hand lightly on my arm. “It’s all our concern. If you try this,” she tapped the scroll again, “without knowing if you even can?”
The laughter from the other Empaths grated on me, especially since it was in such contrast to what they felt on the inside. Every last one of them was anticipating the coming battle with varying levels of horror and terror. Jana, on the other hand, made no attempt to mask her fear. But her fear felt different, misplaced somehow. I realized with some shock her fear was not for the battle ahead, but for me.
“Jana, what else can I do?” I asked, my voice low and strained, wishing Andreú was not so close. “I can’t do what they do.” I waved the scroll in my hand toward the other Empaths. “What you do.”
“You can, Marcel,” she insisted. “And I’ll be right there with you. You know that.”
We didn’t march out the next morning as planned. Instead we were awakened before dawn by shouts and screams and the sounds of battle. I sat up with a start, grateful I’d left my boots on. I’d been issued a sword and I strapped this on, though it would remain useless at my hip.
I emerged from my tent into chaos. The soldiers ran through the camp as if chased by unseen demons. I could feel the tug of fear on my own mind forcing me to search around for the source of everyone’s panic.
Squad leaders scrambled to pull their teams together. I searched frantically for Jana. Our link told me she was nearby, but I could not see her in the chaos.
‘Jana! Where are you?’
Jana called to me again and I let our link guide me to her. I was impressed at how quickly she’d managed to pull together her squad of soldiers. She pulled me into the center of the squad along with two other Empaths.
“You three, shield the soldiers. We’ve got to push back this Jut’ma attack before everyone flees.”
The battle wore on. The rain of arrows continued unabated. Jana and the other soldiers fought continuously, sword and shields swinging endlessly. I grew weary, drained of energy like I’d never experienced before.
I became aware of a particular presence as I continued. A presence at the heart of the enemy’s forces. One that seemed to have also taken notice of me. He was a powerful Empath, and I could feel him pressing against my mind, searching for a weakness.
It was Jana who pushed back, our minds working almost as one. While she continued to battle with sword. While she continued to pull her soldiers around her, constantly filling the gaps so that I remained surrounded. For a brief moment I marveled anew at her strength.
That’s when it happened. The focus shifted from me to her. I couldn’t protect her in the same way she protected me. I pressed back with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t battle it all on her own. I felt her struggle.
Where was Andreú? I had lost track of him early on in the battle, though he’d fought to stay near Jana. I had no extra energy to reach out to him for help. Nor could I reach any other Empath who might be nearby. They were all busy battling within their own circles.
The Jut’ma Empath pressed harder. I fought against him, but it was not my strength that held him back. He pressed all the harder at Jana. He sent more soldiers against our little circle. All around me men fell to the sword and spear. He had found my weakness, but I could not find his.
If I couldn’t battle him in his way, maybe I could use mine. I thought of the plans laid out by Master Tenzin and Captain Vaska. I tried to pinpoint the enemy’s location. If I could just…
I stretched out my mind in a way I’d never done before. The voices of all those around me paled as I searched for the deeper, subtler voices underneath. The voice of the wind was one thing. It whistled all around, whispering, touching. The voice of the earth was buried deep beneath all the others, and when I found it, a thrill shuddered up my spine.
I reached out hesitantly to this new voice. Something hit me like a fist to the stomach, forcing me back a step. Jana recoiled from it as if burned. I reeled against the onslaught of voices as she fought to right herself.
The Jut’ma Empath sent his voice surging into my mind. At the same time, the invading army pressed forward with renewed frenzy. Men were falling all around Jana. Wave upon wave of arrows rained down on us, and I was unable to send them all back.
I felt, rather than saw it when Jana was first struck. I staggered back in unison as if the arrow had pierced my own shoulder. With a mad cry, I reached out again to that deep, earthen voice. This time I did not hesitate.
A low tremble began under my feet. I used my whole body to speak to the earth, stamping my foot as I surged forward, clapping my hands together in front of me. A rumble began at my feet and shot forward into the mass of battling warriors.
The earth rolled away from me like a wave on the sea. But the earth didn’t respond the way I’d expected. It was stronger than I anticipated. I had to wrestle with it to maintain control.
The recoil from the Jut’ma was intensely fierce. The warriors surged forward with renewed energy. Jana and the others were pressed hard. I saw more fall. Jana was struck again, a sword stroke to her leg. And again on her sword bearing arm. I fell to one knee with the pain of her injuries.
We were surrounded. I sought out reinforcements, but I could sense nothing but chaos outside the ever tightening circle.
Jana went down, a sword thrust to her abdomen. The wall holding back the voices crumbled, and I was consumed with blackness and noise.
The voices clamored at me. Reached out invisible hands to grasp at me.
I may have screamed. I was no longer sure of anything except that she was gone. I was alone. Alone with all those voices, and no one to carry it with me. I had failed her. I couldn’t protect her. I had to end this. But the noise. There was too much noise.
I stepped past Jana, hardly knowing what I would do. I had to stop this. Had to put an end to all the noise. The air was too thick to breathe. My eyes burned.
I did the only thing I knew. I called to the voices I could understand. I spoke to the wind, and it swirled up and through the valley in a great rush. I spoke to the earth. I lifted my arms, and the earth answered. The ground shook, and a great roar filled the valley. I was aware only that this new sound buried all the other noise. All the other voices.
I spoke, and the earth answered. It swallowed their cries with its roar.
(c) 2018 T. A. Hampton
Read the conclusion in Part Three, coming next week!