Defiance| Book Three

Chapter One – Genesis

“Hello Ryland.”

Ryland’s back was pressed against the locked door. He stood within a large, sterile room comprised of white walls and high ceilings. Before him was a bedroom-sized glass box prison—a room within the room. Inside that was an ancient, time-worn man sitting at a plain metal desk. But this wasn’t just any man. This was none other than Gabrial Penumbra—the Patriarch himself.

Ryland’s hands shook like dry leaves. His heart was pounding in his ears, and his teeth were clenched tight. He blinked, and the old man was suddenly before him. Three inches of glass were all that stood between Ryland Walcott and the most prolific mass murderer in human history.

He grinned, revealing gums that just barely clung to the roots of long, yellowed teeth. Penetrating eyes stared out from sunken sockets, the pupils of which contracted and expanded rhythmically.

“I was hoping they’d bring you to me,” spoke a voice from inside his head.  “Such a fragile mind. Tell me Ryland, are you here to cast the first stone?”

Ryland was paralyzed by fear. His eyes darted, searching for another exit. There wasn’t one. The only way out was the door behind him, and it was locked tight without so much as a doorknob.

Ryland felt a sickening and pervasive sensation probing the surface of his mind, like a ravenous worm seeking the quickest path into a slab of rotting meat. It poked and prodded, searching for vulnerabilities, until it discovered the memories of his father.

Those memories rushed to the forefront of Ryland’s thoughts, and the foreign invader within his mind exploited his anger, shame, and frustration, using his darkest emotions to enter with ruthless force. The invader rifled through his memories, his fears, and his desires. At the same time, Ryland sensed a deep well of pain, rage, and shame that was not his own. There was a current of horrifying darkness threading through it, taking root and spreading like a vile parasite. Ryland gripped his head and screamed, but no sound escaped his lips. It felt as if thousands of needles were penetrating his brain. His mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood, and all at once, the pain vanished.

Ryland blinked, and found himself in a wide open field of knee-high grass. His heart was hammering at full speed, and his chest heaved, as if he’d been running a marathon. Something wasn’t right. He felt…different. He looked down at himself.

What’s happened to me?

His own body was gone, replaced with that of a child, no more than seven or eight years of age.

Ryland furrowed his brow in confusion. He strained, trying to remember how he’d arrived there, but the memories were either gone or out of reach. A string tugged at his right hand. Ryland looked down at it, then followed its length several feet up where a white kite bounced and played on the wind under a clear blue sky.

Memories filled his head, but they weren’t his own…were they? He recalled building that kite with his older brother, Eurig.

I don’t have a brother, he thought.

Nevertheless, Ryland felt powerful emotions of love and respect for him. Eurig wasn’t just his brother, he was his best friend. More memories flooded in. He recalled the time Eurig had taken the blame after they were caught filling Prospector Cano’s boots with porridge…and the time Eurig stood up for him when Bregan Wellson wouldn’t stop bullying him. Then there was the warmth of his mother, cradling him after he’d broken his arm falling from the outer walls. He remembered sneaking treats from the pantry for Eurig and their sister Caprice, and the three of them sword-fighting in the gardens, pretending to be knights and mercenaries.

It all felt so real that Ryland had trouble distinguishing the memories from his own.

I’m an only child, he insisted.

The thought generated confusion and conflict in his head, but it was fleeting, and even the name ‘Ryland’ began to fade. He was Gabrial, and these were the fields of Sunnmor, the northern territory of his father’s kingdom.

This is home.

Gabrial felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Life was simple. He had the love of his parents, his sister Caprice, and Eurig. He smiled, gazing up at the bright blue sky, and began to run. The kite trailed behind him, climbing higher into the sky as he gained speed. His smile turned to a grin and he laughed.

It works perfectly. I can’t wait to show Eurig!

He knew his father would be angry with him for sneaking away from his lessons, but he simply could not resist.

There was suddenly a sharp pain in his foot, and he went tumbling over the grass and rocks at full speed. He finally came to a stop, lying motionless. Then, the pain hit. He groaned, tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. After a few minutes, the pain finally receded. Gabrial slowly sat up, and wiped his face with his sleeve. It came away red. Blood dripped down over the bridge of his nose, and he tentatively reached up to feel the wound on his forehead. He frowned. I’m going to be in so much trouble…

My kite!

He looked down at his hand for the string, and found it empty. Glancing behind, his heart sank as it floated away, high on the breeze.

He looked down at his leg, and found another painful gash on his shin. The fair skin around the wound was bruised and already yellowing. Gabrial took a deep breath, attempting to channel the strength of his older brother Eurig. It was then that he noticed something peculiar about one of the rectangular stones beside him. It was mostly buried—only just peeking up out of the ground. There was something carved into its flat surface. Gabrial traced his fingers along the strange, unfamiliar script. He looked around and found more weathered stones. Some were buried, but others were jutting out of the ground. Had he not been looking closely, he’d have easily missed the unnatural, half-buried stones arranged in a broken circle around him.

Gabrial pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, examining them as he slowly made his way toward the center. With the curious distraction, the pain of his injuries receded into the background. In the center of the circle he found a much larger, flat square stone, covered in moss and more beautiful engravings. One of its corners was missing, revealing not soil, but darkness below.

Gabrial was filled with excitement, and the pain of his wounds was nearly forgotten. He absolutely loved the old stories of the ancients his father would tell, and here he’d found a mystery that looked straight out of one of those legends.

Gabrial fit his fingers into the hole, and lifted. He pulled with all his strength, until the wound on his forehead throbbed, and more blood dripped down into his eyes. He wiped it away absentmindedly, and looked around for something he might use to pry it open.

His eyes came to rest on a rock the size of a small gourd. He grasped it and pulled until the hard ground eventually relinquished its grasp. Gabrial lifted the stone triumphantly into the air, then smashed it down on the broken corner of the large, flat stone. There was a loud crack, and another chunk of the square stone broke away, clattering and tumbling in the darkness. Gabrial peered through the hole, which was now larger than his hand.

He lifted the small boulder once more, and brought it down, further cracking the flat square stone. He felt some guilt destroying something so obviously ancient and beautiful, but his curiosity was too powerful to ignore. He continued smashing until the flat square stone had been completely broken, its crumbling fragments crashing into the hole. Dust rose up into the sunlight, and Gabrial coughed, peering down and fanning away the dust.

Stairs! he thought with elation

Where the large rectangular stone had been, there was now a large rectangular hole. Sunlight shone down into it, revealing ancient stone stairs descending further into darkness.

Gabrial’s heart beat faster. The excitement was overwhelming. His mind raced at the possibilities of what might be down there.

There could be ancient treasure…the bones of an old king…or magic, like father tells of! Eurig is going to love this!

Gabrial slowly got to his feet and crouched before the hole. It was several feet down to the first stair, but he figured he could lower himself without too much trouble.

He grinned and sat down at the edge of the hole, dropping his legs into it. Gabrial hesitated. He peered down into the darkness, and doubt began creeping in.

Maybe I should wait for Eurig, he thought.

But that would mean heading home, and there was little chance he’d be allowed out again in his condition…

Gabrial steeled himself and resolved to take a quick look, without going too far in. Then at least he could tell Eurig what was down there. He nodded to himself, and proceeded to lower his feet down to the first stair. The air here smelled musty and old. Gabrial imagined how many centuries it had been since the last time anyone set foot here, and his nervous excitement returned.

He stepped tentatively from stair to stair, unconsciously favoring his uninjured leg as he avoided the rubble. After taking several steps down, bracing his descent with a hand on the rough-hewn stone walls, he turned to look back. The square of sunlight above seemed far away, and the light failed to reach much further. Gabrial bit his lower lip.

Maybe this is far enough…Eurig and I can come back with a torch—

He nearly jumped out of his skin as a glowing blue light coalesced along the ceiling. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from, yet it illuminated the passageway with wispy glowing tendrils of mist. Gabrial descended the last few stairs, stepping into a long, stone hallway. Awe-inspiring engravings covered the walls from floor to ceiling. There were great ships with massive sails, dancing on the curling waves of a wild ocean. The light swirled across the murals, making the oceans appear alive. In the sky above, great beasts, nearly as large as the ships, soared effortlessly on the wind, their enormous wings billowing like sails. In the distance were mountains, floating up above the seas. Their peaks climbed high into swirling clouds.

Before he knew what he was doing, Gabrial stood before the textured mural, sliding his fingers along its grooves. It was so detailed, crafted with such incredible skill, that it appeared animated in the dim blue light. Eventually, Gabrial tore his attention away from the scene. He peered ahead, and found the hallway’s end. There was something beyond it.

A treasure room, perhaps?

The sound of running water echoed faintly. He continued toward it, and soon reached the opening. His eyes widened, and he gasped at the sight before him. He stood at the threshold of a large, circular cavern. A thick shaft of light streamed in at an angle from above, revealing even more incredible engravings along the walls. Depicted in them were sea vessels so enormous that the waves before them were like splashes in a pond. Buildings rose from them, and Gabrial realized with wonder that these were cities, floating on the ocean waves.

His eyes were drawn toward the center of the cavern, where a beautiful, tall stone archway stood, raised up on a grassy mound with small yellow flowers peppered throughout. Encircling the mound was a moat of water, which flowed in from a hole at the right of the cavern, around the grassy mound, and out through a hole on the left. Gabrial walked forward, toward a small stone bridge that led over the water, and onto the mound where the archway stood.

The whole thing was like a dream—more incredible than his wildest imaginings. A breeze blew, and the salty scent of seawater filled his nostrils. Gabrial smiled as he crossed the bridge and stepped onto the grassy mound. He continued forward until he stood before the stone archway. It too was engraved with great detail. Unfamiliar scripted letters—similar to those on the stone covering the entrance—decorated its surfaces. At the top was a keystone with three wavy lines, stacked on top of each other.

Ever so slowly, Gabrial reached out to touch the stone of the archway. He had to feel its grooves, if only just to convince himself that what he was seeing was real…that this wasn’t a dream. The tips of his fingers touched the stone.

“Ouch!”

He jerked them away as a sharp pain jolted through his arm. He sucked on his throbbing finger, and watched with wonder as the runes and shapes in the stones of the archway began to pulse and glow.

Gabrial took a step back, and his eyes grew wider still as the open air within the archway began to shimmer like bright sunlight reflecting off liquid glass. It grew brighter, and soon he was left squinting through his fingers. In a radiant flash, the blinding light was pulled into the center, where it rippled back out again and disappeared.

What was that?

Stunned, he stared dumbfounded at the perfectly reflective mirror filling the archway. Upon seeing his reflection, he grimaced. His forehead was a mess, smeared with dried and crusted blood. He carefully swept his scruffy black hair away from it. His pants were ripped where his leg had smashed into the rock, and his shirt sleeves were smeared with the blood he’d wiped out of his eyes.

He took a deep breath, but it was only a brief moment before the wonder of this cavern overcame his worry. He stepped toward the mirrored surface, and noticed something strange. Each time he moved, his reflection was delayed for a split second before it followed. He waved his arm in a big circle, and his reflection hesitated for an instant before doing the same. He furrowed his brow, and stepped closer, as did the reflection.

The closer he got, the more he began to notice something distinctly liquid about the mirrored surface. Standing directly before it, Gabrial slowly reached out his hand. His reflection did the same, and his fingers met the surface, sending small ripples through it. It felt icy cold, though it wasn’t painful. He pressed his fingers forward, and they met a subtle resistance. A wondrous smile dawned on his face as he pulled his hand away and examined his fingers.

Eurig is going to—

The reflective surface rippled away from the center to the edges, and the archway was no longer a mirror, but a doorway to somewhere else. Gabrial looked with awe over a sea of dark, churning water. Above it, a shroud of roiling thunderheads blanketed the sky, and in the distance, a great structure jutted out from the water at an angle. Peering forward, he felt there was something odd about it. As he followed the unusually straight lines of the structure down to where they met the ocean, a realization hit him. This was one of the city-vessels depicted on the walls of this cavern; only this one was tilted at a steep angle, and half submerged.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he got the distinct impression he was not alone. He swallowed, and took a step back from the archway. A strong wind blew in through it, pushing back his hair and sending sea-spray into his face.

Lightning forked in a chain reaction through the darkened clouds. Thunder rumbled soon after. Gabrial caught subtle motion out near the horizon. He squinted, and saw a small, black speck in the sky. He watched tentatively, and took another step back as he realized it was moving closer. An ominous fear crept into his bones. Something was not right with this place. Everything in it seemed angry. The sea, the sky, the wind. It was as if the world were flailing desperately, trying to wrench itself free from some unseen attacker.

Gabrial was transfixed as the dark shape grew nearer; it was traveling with incredible speed. White ocean spray fanned out from either side as it sped toward him, cutting a path in the water below. Faster and faster it came. Gabrial’s heart raced, and his anxiety reached a fever pitch as he realized that whatever it was, it was seeking him out.

In an instant, it was upon him. A dark, imposing figure filled the archway as the water splashed down behind. Gabrial stumbled backwards and tripped, falling to the ground. The sounds of the sea, wind, and thunder had ceased. All that remained was that of his own shaky breath, the beat of his heart, and the rush of blood in his ears. The figure in the archway towered over him. Try as he might, Gabrial could not will his eyes to focus on the ever shifting and blurring nightmare standing before him. His eyes ached with pain, and he turned away.

An unnatural despair flowed over him, and he was drained of every last warm and good feeling he had ever known. In its place was a gaping hole, filled only with despair and hopelessness. Wherever this dark place was, he would surely remain here for all eternity.

Whether by the fear that held him, or some unseen force of this fell presence, he was rooted to the spot—frozen, like a hare caught in the hypnotic gaze of a deadly viper.

As the panic set in, something inside him stirred, and a part of Ryland awoke. At that moment, it seemed the figure looming over him, striking fear into all four chambers of his heart, was his father, Austere D Walcott. A spark of defiance flared within him, and the silhouetted figure suddenly came into sharp, terrifying focus. The monster was covered head to toe in corroded black, blood-smeared skeletal armor. White bone peeked out from it in places, covered in crusted blood as if the armor itself were alive. From the shoulders hung a ragged, faded cloak, ending in tatters on its back. Its helmet bore two curved black horns, extending back from the forehead. And perhaps most disquieting of all was the child’s face depicted on its cracked silver faceguard. The figure raised a gauntleted hand and slowly tilted the faceguard up. Beneath was a perpetually churning mass of flesh, blood and bone. The skin tore before Gabrial’s eyes, cracked, and boiled, collapsing back in on itself as more was churned to the surface, taking its place.

Ryland retreated back into the depths, and Gabrial’s experience was once again his own. The horror standing before him blurred mercifully back out of focus.

Terror wracked his mind.

Gabrial covered his face and willed himself to awaken from the nightmare.

“It’s not real it’s not real it’s not real.”

The figure stepped forward out of the archway, its heavy boot thumping onto the withering grass. Gabrial could feel the heat of its gaze. His hands were wrenched away from his face, and an invisible force gripped his chin, tilting it upward.

“Harbinger.” The voice was gravelly and guttural. It sounded as if it were reaching him through a tunnel from far away. “You will prepare this world for my coming.”

Gabrial attempted to close his aching eyes but was unable. He cried out as invisible hooks sank into his arms and legs. The tugging sensation that followed was unnerving. He felt enormous tension, as he was slowly dragged out from his body. The pain wasn’t physical, but it was excruciating nonetheless. He could feel the tether between himself and his flesh straining like a rubber band pulled to its limit. He glanced back and saw the terrified look on his own face.

When he looked forward again, Gabrial was met with a dark, oily shadow drifting out from the towering figure before him. The shadow descended toward him, drifting closer and closer. Gabrial braced himself, but felt only icy cold as it passed through him. He looked back toward his body and watched as the oily shadow came to rest on his skin, and was absorbed completely. The tension holding him was suddenly released. Gabrial slammed back into his body with incredible force.

Ryland fell backwards through darkness into icy cold water. His eyes shot open as he was jolted awake. He was again standing in the cold prison chamber. Gabrial Penumbra stood before him, on the outside of the glass. Ryland’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest and he slammed back into the closed door behind.

Gabrial’s mouth opened into an unnaturally large oval, revealing a swirling mass of cracked and burned flesh. It slowly rippled in on itself.

“Let me out of here!” he screamed, slamming his fists on the door behind him. He could hear someone fiddling with the lock, but the door wasn’t opening.

Gabrial’s face was now almost completely replaced by the opening of his mouth.

Maker help me,” Ryland whispered.

The door pulled open, and he fell backwards out of the room. The guard slammed the door shut, and the lock slid into place.

“Get me out! Let me out!” Ryland shouted, limbs flailing as he scrambled back.

“Ryland! Ryland it’s okay! You’re out!”

Strong hands gripped his shoulders, holding him in place. He looked up from where he sat on the floor and found Hatch sitting in a wheelchair, looking down at him with concern.

Ryland’s cold terror slowly began to melt, and was replaced with red hot anger.

You!” he growled, standing to his feet.

“You locked me in there with that monster!”

Hatch looked past Ryland and waved off the guards. “Tell me what you saw, Ryland.”

Never mind what I saw. I could have been killed—or worse! Who are you people? What’s your game?”

“Had you been in any physical danger, we would have intervened. As soon as you asked us to open the door, we opened it,” Hatch responded calmly.

Physical danger? The boiling Patriarch nearly chewed my face off!”

Hatch exchanged a brief look of concern with the guards, and turned back to Ryland. “That’s not possible.”

“First you try to kill me, now you call me a liar—”

“Come,” Hatch rolled his chair toward the prison cell door and gestured at the small window.

“I’d rather not,” Ryland said, glaring at him.

“He can have no influence beyond this door. Come, see for yourself.”

Ryland eyed Hatch with skepticism, and slowly rose to his feet. He stepped cautiously up to the door, and peered through the window. Just as Hatch had said, Gabrial sat within his cell. Both his hands were resting flat on the steel table, and his head was bowed.

Ryland furrowed his brow and turned to Hatch. “He must have moved. He was outside the glass.”

Hatch took a deep breath. “Gabrial Penumbra is a man of exceedingly powerful telepathic acuity. You saw what he wanted you to see…though this is the first time anyone has reported seeing him outside the glass.”

“Wait a minute, you put other people through that nightmare? What kind of a sick—”

“Yes.” Hatch removed his glasses, giving Ryland a hard look. “And I would do so again, without hesitation.”

Ryland stared at him, shocked by the steel in Hatch’s once calm and thoughtful voice.

“As you might have ascertained,” Hatch continued, “Gabrial Penumbra has not been the Patriarch of New Arcadia for some time.” He rubbed his eyes and replaced his glasses.

“Not the Patriarch…” Ryland frowned. “Then who…”

“That is precisely what we are hoping to learn. The survival of our species may depend on it.”

Ryland ran a hand through his hair, considering the implications. Was any of what I saw real? It certainly felt that way. If what Hatch said was true, then someone…or something powerful enough to unseat Gabrial Penumbra held the last of humanity in its grasp. A shiver ran down his spine as he remembered the shadowy figure that had turned his veins to ice only moments ago. The intensity of the experience was beginning to fade, and he began to feel in control of his emotions once again.

“Will you tell me what you saw?” Hatch asked.

“Fine,” Ryland said firmly. “On one condition.”

Hatch looked at him, waiting expectantly.

“You want my help, I want full disclosure. No more surprises.”

Hatch nodded. “That’s fair, Ryland. You have my word. Now tell me, what did you see?”

Ryland shifted uncomfortably. “I was a young boy…but not myself.”

“How old?”

“I’m not sure…maybe seven or eight years.”

Hatch nodded. “Go on.”

“I think…it was like I was him—Gabrial. I…he was playing in a field, and found an old place, underground.” Ryland recalled the oceanic engravings on the walls, and the small mound of grass surrounded by water. “It was beautiful. There was this stone archway, standing by itself. I touched it, and it…” Ryland grasped for the words to describe it.

“What did it do?” Hatch asked.

“It opened up. Like a window to somewhere else.” Ryland recalled the dark force speeding toward him.

Harbinger.

“Something…came for me.”

Hatch turned abruptly, rolling his wheelchair toward the exit. He paused, glancing back. “Come, we have much to discuss, and the others will be waiting.”

“Others?” he asked, but Hatch was already rolling out of the room. Ryland took another deep breath, and followed after him.

Defiance

The Aeternum Chronicles

October 16, 2018