"...Richard S. Tuttle, who I believe is one of this century's leading authors of innovative fantasy tales."

Patricia Spork, eBook Reviews Weekly


Island of Darkness

Chapter 1

Aakuta swept into the Vandegar Temple Through the unnatural windstorm that blew great columns of sand across the face of the building. Thousands of Jiadin warriors dressed in various Khadoran uniforms were converging on the ancient temple. The dark mage knew that the Jiadin had nowhere else to go. Both the free tribes of Fakara and the clans of Khadora now hunted them. Vandegar Temple was the only place that many of them could think of to return to. That is exactly why Aakuta had chosen to visit the ancient temple himself.

As Aakuta stepped through the door of the temple, he released the magical dust storm and cast a spell causing the interior of the building to be filled with an unnatural fog. Jiadin warriors shouted with alarm as the dense fog spread through the building. Aakuta ignored their shouts and headed for the stairs. With the aid of another magical spell, the dark mage swept the temple for the sound of a familiar voice. He smiled darkly as he detected the voice that he was looking for. Using the spell as a guide, Aakuta worked his way through the fog towards the voice.

The mage moved cautiously as he avoided the Jiadin warriors that were trying to navigate through the thick fog. Eventually, he found the room that he was looking for. He slipped through the doorway and moved silently to one of the corners of the room. He listened carefully as he allowed the fog to dissipate from everywhere except his corner of the room.

“This place gives me an ill feeling,” commented a Jiadin warrior. “No fog should come out of nowhere like that one did. I think the spirit of Grulak has poisoned this place.”

“Stop with the nonsense,” chided Brakas. “Grulak knew no magic, and if he had a spirit it would be killing people not filling the temple with fog.  I think you are just trying to avoid the conversation.”

“What is there to avoid?” snapped the warrior. “Whatever scheme you have hatched since our defeat in Khadora is nothing more than a wish. Twice we have been misled into battle by the likes of you. There is not a man left alive who will ever follow you again.”

“It is not me that you have to follow,” retorted Brakas. “With Zygor dead, Vand will send another mage to lead you. You just have to gather the men and wait for him to arrive.”

“Why should we wait?” countered the warrior. “Veltar led thousands to their death. Zygor did as well, and what do we have to show for it? While we starve to death, the free tribes are filling their bellies. You are wasting our time, Brakas.”

“I am just asking you to wait around for a few days,” pleaded Brakas. “I know Vand will send a replacement promptly. He seems to have some way of knowing when one is needed.”

“You are not listening, Brakas,” snapped the Jiadin warrior. “It is not the amount of time that we have to wait that matters here. The men are not going to fight for some wizard again. We were not only attacked by Khadorans this last time. We were also attacked by our Jiadin brothers.”

“I know,” frowned Brakas. “I was there, too, you know. I do not understand where they came from. And just who was that other mage? I have never seen him before.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that this Vand just might have opposition where he comes from?” questioned the warrior. “I am not comfortable around mages any more. I just don’t trust them.”

“Well I am not a mage,” assured Brakas.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” spat the warrior. “I don’t trust you any more either. You have been nothing but trouble since you joined the Jiadin. We were strong enough to conquer all of Khadora before you and the mages showed up. Look at the Jiadin now. We are nothing but starving beggars. You wait for your mage, Brakas. Me and the men will be long gone from here.”

“And where will you go?” inquired Brakas. “There is no place for you to go now. You are all hunted men. The Khadorans will kill you on sight. The free tribes will do worse. Worst of all, the new mage will be looking for you when he arrives. You might as well make yourselves comfortable and wait for him to arrive.”

“Not in this lifetime,” snarled the Jiadin warrior as he turned and stormed towards the door. “In fact, I may just come back up here with a few dozen men to teach you a lesson about toying with the Jiadin.”

The warrior stormed out of the room, and Brakas kicked a chair across the floor. Aakuta could almost feel the fury and frustration in Brakas from his place of concealment. When he was sure that the warrior was long gone, Aakuta flicked his wrist at the door. It slammed shut. Brakas turned abruptly and stared at the door. Aakuta chose that moment to walk out of the small pocket of fog in the corner.

“You?” exclaimed Brakas. “You are the one who killed Zygor and led the Jiadin against us in Khadora. What are you doing here?”

“Aren’t you afraid that the warriors will come back up here and tear you to shreds?” asked Aakuta.

“No,” scowled Brakas. “They talk tough, but they don’t want to mess with me. They know that Vand’s mages favor and protect me. Who are you?”

“You may call me Aakuta,” the dark mage smiled under his hood as he approached Brakas. “I heard you mention that Vand was sending a replacement. Where and when will he arrive?”

“I don’t give that information out to anyone,” Brakas replied adamantly. “Who paid you to attack us in Khadora? I can pay you more to work on our side.”

“That is very generous of you,” Aakuta said charmingly. “When and where will this magician arrive?”

“I don’t sell out my friends,” insisted Brakas. “I will tell you nothing.”

Aakuta’s hand shot out and grabbed Brakas by the throat. The Fakaran’s eyes bulged as the mage tightened his grip, cutting off the air to the Jiadin’s lungs.

“You don’t have any friends,” scowled Aakuta, “and if you did, you would sell them for a copper, just like you did to the Zaldoni. And as for Vand’s people protecting you from me, you just need to dwell on what happened to Zygor. I will ask you one more time. Where and when? Answer or die.”

Terror covered the face of Brakas as the Jiadin tried to indicate that he would tell the mage what he wanted to know. His lungs burned, and his eyes felt like they would pop out of their sockets. Suddenly, Aakuta released Brakas. The Jiadin dropped to his knees and gasped for breath.

“Speak,” commanded the dark mage.

“Down near the mouth of the Meliban River,” gasped Brakas. “He will arrive by boat. I don’t know exactly when, but I think it will be soon. Vand has spies all over the place. He seems to know everything that goes on here.”

“Will it be one man alone?” asked Aakuta. “Or will others drop him off?”

“He will arrive in a small boat,” answered Brakas. “He will destroy the boat. Zygor said they never come more than one at a time. That is all that I know.”

“Then you have outlived your usefulness,” Aakuta declared as he grabbed Brakas by the throat again.

Brakas tried to scream for help, but the mage’s grip was already too tight. Aakuta tightened his grip and lifted the Jiadin off the floor. He held Brakas aloft as the man struggled for breath. Eventually, Brakas stopped struggling. Aakuta tossed the body to the floor and strode for the door, a new dense fog already forming before him.

* * *

The morning sky was gray, and a light drizzle dampened the air as Larst, First Minister of Omunga, rode towards the small farmhouse on the outskirts of Okata. The squad of Imperial Guards, which was escorting the highest-ranking official of the country, looked around warily. The mood was always tense when the First Minister met secretly with the Star of the Sakova, as the two nations had been bitter enemies for centuries. The squad leader’s eyes scanned the dim landscape looking for any sign of Sakovan warriors. He saw nothing that posed a threat to the dignitary, yet he remained tense and ready to spring into action.

Larst’s mind was preoccupied with the upcoming meeting with Lyra, the young woman who led the Sakovan nation. He paid little attention to where he was going. He left such trivial details to the Imperial Guards, so it was slightly startling to him when the squad leader called a halt and issued orders for his men to disperse and secure the area.

“We are here already?” Larst asked distractedly.

“We are,” replied the squad leader. “Please wait until my men have secured the area and searched the building.”

“That is hardly necessary,” shrugged the First Minister as he dismounted. “The Sakovans have shown that they harbor no ill will towards us. This is not my first meeting with Lyra, and it will not be my last. Have your men wait outside.”

Larst strode to the door of the small farmhouse and knocked loudly. The door opened immediately, and Lyra smiled at the Omungan.

“You are early,” greeted the Star of Sakova. “Please come in.”

“You are a ray of sunshine in this dreary day,” smiled Larst as he entered the farmhouse. “Did you travel here alone?”

“I am never permitted to travel alone,” replied Lyra as she led the First Minister into a small sitting room, “but we are alone in this house. We can speak honestly about the situation regarding our two nations.”

“That is refreshing,” Larst said as he sat down next to Lyra. “The Imperial Guards wanted to search the house before allowing me to enter. I suppose it will take a long time before our peoples can trust one another.”

“The history of our struggle is not so easily washed away,” agreed the Star of Sakova. “These meetings are historic. They mark the first generation to actually sit down and discuss our differences. It is exciting.”

“That is it,” nodded Larst as he gazed at the notes he had prepared for the meeting. “We have covered much in the last few meetings. I believe we left off in the last session while discussing a road through the Sakova. It would aid travel for Omungans seeking to reach the opposite coast. Have you thought about it?”

“I have,” nodded Lyra. “I think several roads will be permissible. A road from Gatong to Zaramilden would be fairly short and connect the two cities that are currently the farthest apart by existing roads. Another road from Campanil to Tanzaba, and one from Tanzaba to Breele, would make travel much easier for all Omungans.”

“That is much more than I had hoped for,” smiled the First Minister. “Zaramilden has long been cut off from the rest of Omunga by the Wall of Mermidion, and the other two roads would speed commerce greatly. Your offer will bring cheers from my people. No one will doubt the sincerity of the Sakovan desire for peace.”

“We are sincere about peace,” smiled Lyra. “Sakovans and Omungans will work side-by-side to build these roads. By the time they are completed, our peoples will have learned to trust one another.”

“Excellent,” beamed the First Minister. “What can we do in return for your offer?”

“We do not seek anything in return,” answered Lyra, “but I still have concerns about the Omungan army. I heard that General Didyk has recently journeyed to Khadora. The general has never embraced peace with Sakova. Do you know why he was in Khadora?”

“Didyk in Khadora?” frowned Larst. “This is the first that I have heard of it. I agree with your apprehensions. There is no valid reason for such a trip as far as I know. Are you sure about this?”

“I am positive,” nodded Lyra. “As you are aware, not too long ago some Omungans used the pretense of war with Khadora as an excuse to attack Sakovans. I do not wish to see that happen again.”

“Nor I,” Larst said adamantly. “I will look into this trip when I return to Okata. I will not allow our generals to foment trouble between our peoples. We have enough problems with this strange disease affecting our crops and animals. We do not need to add war to the mix.”

“Is the disease still spreading?” Lyra asked with concern.

“Rapidly,” nodded the First Minister. “It is unlike anything we have ever encountered. It not only infects our crops, but now our animals are dying. It has spread around the country like a flash fire. There is no part of Omunga that does not suffer from it now. I think the first priority of the new Katana will be to address the starvation of the people.”

“Has a new Katana been chosen yet?” questioned Lyra.

“Not yet,” Larst shook his head, “but I expect it to be addressed at tomorrow’s meeting of the Katana’s Council. The council’s search has been exhaustive this time. Every town and city has been questioned for nominees. The next Katana will truly represent the people of Omunga.”

“Excellent,” smiled Lyra. “There is little chance of someone like Alazar gaining control of Omunga then. He was a disaster for all of us. I would not be surprised to see your name at the top of that list, First Minister.”

“That has been mentioned,” blushed Larst. “I am humbled by such praise from my countrymen, but I will assume nothing until the council votes. Whoever is chosen, I will back him completely.”

“I am sure that you will,” nodded Lyra. “I would like a full report on this disease issue, if you can arrange that. Sakovan crops have not been stricken. Perhaps we can make food shipments to those areas that suffer the worst.”

“That would earn the Sakovans great praise from my people,” beamed the First Minister. “Still, I feel like our agreements are all one-sided. The Sakovans are always the givers, and the Omungans the receivers. This hardly seems fair.”

“Peace means more to the Sakovans than anything else you could offer,” smiled Lyra. “We are happy to help our peaceful neighbors in any way that we can. Do not feel as if these agreements are one-sided. We are very happy with what you are offering.”

Larst stood and bowed slightly to the Star of Sakova. “You are a wise leader, Lyra,” he said. “You have given me much to bring to the Katana’s Council tomorrow. We will see peace between our two countries. There is no other possibility when we can sit and work out agreements such as these. Have a safe trip back to your homeland.”

“I shall,” nodded Lyra as she rose. “When shall we meet again?”

“Much depends upon tomorrow’s council meeting,” pondered the First Minister. “If a new Katana is chosen, my schedule will be quite busy for the next fortnight or so. I will post a message as I have done in the past.”

“That will be fine,” agreed Lyra. “If you can get that report on the disease, post it as well. I will have someone pick it up.”

“I will do that before the sun sets today,” offered Larst as he reached the front door of the farmhouse.

The Star of Sakova watched as Larst mounted, and the Imperial Guards escorted him towards the road to Okata. As soon as the Omungans reached the road, two figures stepped out of the shadows near the barn. The two women hurried towards Lyra.

“How did it go?” asked SkyDancer. “It was a short meeting.”

“It did not need to be long,” smiled Lyra. “Larst is truly interested in peace. They may choose a new Katana tomorrow. I hope Larst is the one chosen. He will lead Omunga towards peace with Sakova.”

“The Imperial Guards were very upset with Larst for leaving them outside,” interjected StormSong. “They suspected a Sakovan ambush inside the farmhouse. The fools do not understand the power of our Star. You could have wiped out their entire squad without effort.”

“I prefer not to think in those terms,” frowned Lyra. “We must learn to look at things differently if we are to have peace with the Omungans. We must not always think in terms of defeating them.”

“That is just how StormSong evaluates everything,” chuckled SkyDancer. “To her, all of life is a battle.”

“Well that must change,” Lyra said sternly. “Peace requires many adjustments, and that includes our attitudes towards the Omungans. We must not think of them as adversaries any longer.”

“I want to see true peace before I let my guard down,” retorted StormSong. “We have never been able to trust the Omungans before. Why should this time be any different?”

“Because I want it to be,” sighed Lyra. “Go get our chokas. We will discuss your attitude on the ride back to StarCity.”

* * *

The First Minister of Omunga returned to his office in the Imperial Palace in Okata. His mood was jubilant as he reviewed the papers on his desk. Several other ministers had mentioned that they felt that he was to be nominated at the meeting in the morning. Larst found the thought of becoming the Holy Katana exciting. He would be in a position to truly affect change in the country, and one of the first things he would do would be to sign a peace treaty with the Sakovans. A knock on the door interrupted Larst’s musings.

“I am glad to find you here,” smiled Karnic as he entered the office. “I was looking for you all morning.”

“I had other things to attend to,” frowned the First Minister. “You have enjoyed a close relationship with me for months, Karnic. I have never let anyone know as much about me as I have told you.”

“Well,” smiled Karnic, “I must know all about you if I am to write an accurate history of your rule. I have heard that you will be chosen as Katana tomorrow. This is a big moment in your life. Why are you not celebrating?”

“Because I have to wonder who you are,” Larst replied bluntly. “I sent Imperial Guards to Zaramilden to inquire about you. Nobody has ever heard of you. How can that be?”

“Zaramilden?” echoed Karnic. “Why would you send anyone there to ask about me?”

“That is where you said you were from,” frowned Larst. “I do not like being lied to. What exactly are you up to?”

“I am a historian,” shrugged Karnic. “I told you this months ago. I fully intend to write your life story to preserve it for future generations. I am not surprised that no one in Zaramilden remembers me. I said I was born there, but that is not where I grew up. My family moved to Duran when I was but a babe.”

“Duran?” questioned the First Minister. “Why didn’t you explain that to me earlier? You led me to believe that you were from Zaramilden.”

“I never thought that I would be the topic of discussion,” shrugged Karnic. “I am merely a historian here to write about you. My life is insignificant in the scheme of things. If it will make you feel any better, please send the Imperial Guards to Duran and have them ask about me. I assure you that I am quite well known there.”

“Very well,” sighed Larst, as he appeared to dismiss the issue. “You do understand why I must verify your story. You have had unprecedented access to the First Minister of Omunga. While you have done nothing unusual for a historian, I have an obligation to make sure that you are who you say you are.”

“Absolutely,” Karnic nodded vigorously. “You would be remiss if you did not verify my credentials. Besides, now that I know about your investigation, I look forward to you receiving the report about me. While you have been very gracious to let me pry into your life, I am eager for you to understand that I am perhaps the most respected historian in the country. I have done histories for every major family in eastern Omunga. I am quite proud of my work.”

“Well,” smiled Larst, “you certainly do ask enough questions to accurately record a person’s life. Where did you hear about my potential nomination to become Katana?”

“Everyone in the palace is whispering about it,” grinned Karnic. “This search for a new Katana has been exhaustive. When you are chosen as the next leader of Omunga, you will be rightfully proud that you were chosen because you are the most qualified person in the country. That is something to be very pleased about.”

“I only seek to do the best that I can for Omunga,” Larst replied with a touch of embarrassment. “If I am chosen, I will devote my life to making Omunga a better place to live.”

“I have no doubt that you will succeed as Katana as you have succeeded in everything else you have done,” Karnic smiled politely. “I understand that the Katana is surrounded with special magical shields to protect him from assassins. When does that actually take place? And will I be permitted to record your comments during the process?”

“You are assuming a great deal,” countered Larst. “I have not been chosen yet.”

“Assuming that you are,” conceded Karnic.

“The use of magical shields to guard the Katana is well known,” replied Larst, “but the actual composition of the shields is a very closely guarded secret. I doubt that the Monitors will allow you to observe the procedure.”

“Well, a doubt can be overcome,” Karnic responded with optimism. “When does it occur? Is it right after the selection process?”

“Oh yes,” nodded Larst. “It is the first thing done to a new Katana. The Monitors take their task of protecting the Katana very seriously. The shields will be applied within minutes of the selection.”

“And that is likely to occur tomorrow morning?” mused Karnic. “Even if it is not you, it will be tomorrow that the decision is made. Isn’t that right?”

“That is the purpose of tomorrow’s meeting,” Larst nodded as his mind began to drift towards the meeting that would occur in the morning.

The room was silent for several moments as Larst thought about the upcoming meeting and the possibility of being chosen as the next Katana. Karnic walked over to the wall covered with bookshelves. He perused the numerous volumes that had been collected by First Ministers over the ages. He stopped and gazed at a particularly old volume. Its title suggested that it dealt with the genealogies of the early Omungans.

“Have you read all of these books?” Karnic asked, breaking the silence of the room.

“No,” the First Minister shook his head. “I have little time these days for reading. Why do you ask?”

“There are some valuable books in your collection,” responded Karnic. “A few of these are ancient.”

“They are the collection of the First Minister,” shrugged Larst. “I presume that they have been collected over the generations by every First Minister since the founding of Omunga. Their value is of no import. They will never be sold. They will remain here for the next First Minister.”

“As it should be,” nodded Karnic. “Still, they must be very interesting to read, like this old tome about the origins of the Sakovans.”

“The origin of the Sakovans?” echoed Larst. “I don’t remember seeing that one. It would be interesting to read. There is so little that we truly know about our neighbors.”

“It doesn’t look like it has ever been read,” Karnic commented as the First Minister started towards the bookshelves. “It must be as old as Omunga.”

“Then it would be a treasure indeed,” Larst said excitedly as he moved in front of Karnic and bent down to search the shelf. “Which one is it?”

Karnic’s hands shot out and grasped both shoulders of the First Minister. Excruciating pain shot through Larst as he gasped for breath.

“What are you doing?” he croaked weakly. “You are hurting me.”

“Not for long,” Karnic said softly with a smirk on his face. “I cannot allow you to receive those shields tomorrow. They would make it impossible for me to assume your body. Thank you for telling me the story of your life, Larst. No one will ever doubt that I am really you.”

The First Minister’s body stiffened, and Karnic’s body disappeared in a puff of smoke. Karnic’s clothes floated to the floor and landed in a heap. The new Larst grabbed the bookshelf and eased his body erect. He stretched cautiously as the feeling of his new body took hold of him.

For several minutes, Larst stood still, holding the bookshelf for support. Finally, he smiled and stretched with excitement. The First Minister bent down and scooped up the old clothes of the historian. He walked to the fireplace and threw the garments into the fire. He strode to the desk and sat in the luxurious leather chair and reviewed the papers on the desk. He knew when new guards would relieve the Imperial Guards outside the room. Until then he had to remain in the office so that no one would notice that Karnic had never left the room.


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