STATE OF THE
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Warbreaker Prime: Mythwalker Chapter Ten
The following is a draft chapter of Brandon’s unfinished novel Mythwalker from 2001. Brandon later repurposed some elements of this story into Warbreaker, Mistborn, and The Way of Kings.
Devin ducked backward, parrying two blows at the same time. Voko and Ralan moved with the efficiency of practiced teammates. They used their height difference to their advantage, Voko striking low and Ralan attacking high. Devin was impressed by their ability—together, they were able to put him on the defensive.
However, there were problems—especially with Voko. Though his clumsiness wasn’t as prevalent when he was fighting, it was still there. He stumbled far more often than he should, and his attacks weren’t very well controlled. In addition, his method of fighting didn’t suit his body type very well. Now that he had a choice, he preferred to use a long thin Kkoloss dueling blade rather than a weapon that would make use of his Kkell-enhanced strength.
Devin was surprised. Voko should have been more skilled—in some ways, he acted like a man who had been fighting all of his life. He reacted like a warrior; he had the reflexes, and the battle sense, of one accustomed to fighting. His actual skill, however, was pathetic. His thrusts were awkward, his movements forced, and he lacked control. Even more, it was easy to sense that he was frustrated at his own inability.
Devin waited carefully for an opening, and eventually one came. Ralan swung his weapon at Devin’s head. As the man attacked, however, Devin realized the swing was a feint. Devin had long since given up on trying to understand his strange battle instincts, and so he just acted on them.
Devin leapt forward, right at the taller man’s weapon. Ralan blinked in surprise, obviously trying to change his swing. However, he had already started to pull back. Devin pushed past his weapon, hopping over Voko’s attack—which had been intended for his legs—to rap the flat of his blade on Voko’s shoulder.
Except, the strike missed.
Devin turned his head in shock, barely parrying Voko’s follow-up attack. The three continued their sparring, moving across the small clearing the men used for sparring practice. What had gone wrong? Devin should have hit easily—the blow had been aimed directly for Ralan’s shoulder. It was almost like . . . something had pushed his blade away. Just like the Guards they had fought a month ago, on that first raid.
Devin paused, lowering his weapon slightly and catching Ralan’s eyes. The tall man looked down with shame. The motion was brief, but Devin caught it—Ralan was hiding something.
The fight progressed, and Devin let his mind wander slightly. Ralan bore the enhanced muscles of a Guard who had taken the Sserin Kkell Oath. Yet, he seemed able to push weapons away from him like Guards from house Ddoven. How was that possible? How would a man from Sseria gain access to another nation’s Kkell power?
Voko cursed, and Devin refocused on the battle. The shorter man lay on the ground, rubbing his side where Devin had unwittingly delivered a blow. Ralan stood a few steps away, holding his arm. Devin barely remembered hitting him.
Devin lowered his weapon, blinking in surprise. He’d defeated them both when he wasn’t even concentrating on the fight.
“By Hess, Dev,” Voko cursed, rising and wiping the sweat from his brow, “why were you holding back?”
“What do you mean?” Devin asked, walking over to retrieve Voko’s weapon and handing it to the squat man.
“What do I mean?” Voko asked. “You were obviously just playing with us. If you’d tried as hard at the beginning as you did just now, you would have defeated us right off.”
Ralan nodded, picking up his own blade. The taller man’s face was still troubled, and he refused to look Devin in the eye.
“Stop whining, you two,” Hine said from the side of the clearing, where he stood with a dozen or so rebels. “If Devin wanted to let you practice, all the better.”
Voko sighed, then chuckled. “I suppose you’re right, Hine. Thanks, Devin,” he said with a nod, walking over to take a drink of cleanwater from the bucket. Ralan followed less enthusiastically, eyes downcast. Devin watched him with a slight frown.
“All right, scrants,” Hine ordered to the rebels. “Your show is over—now get to work.”
The dozen men grumbled slightly, but did as ordered, walking out onto the field with their practice swords to begin sparring. Devin shook his head with amusement—from their grumbling, one would assume that they’d been forced into practicing. However, every single man had volunteered for training. Hine had insisted that volunteering was vital. However, now that they had given their word, the older warrior was incredibly strict.
Before he let them into the practice, Hine required every man to swear that he would come to the sparrings every single night. In addition, Hine required absolute obedience—both to him and to Devin. The men had quickly learned that Hine’s practices were a serious endeavor.
And, slowly, the men were gaining a sense of discipline. Devin watched with marvel as the practicing began. The men were nowhere as competent as the Guards he had seen, but even after a month they were far better than they had been. Devin strolled over to stand next to Hine, who was watching his students with a discriminating eye.
“They’re improving,” Devin applauded.
“They’ll still have a hard time against Guards,” Hine replied with a grunt. “They don’t have a Kkell power. Besides, they don’t have a sense of unity. They like to fight as single men—they don’t trust their neighbors.”
“They’ll get better,” Devin guessed.
“Probably,” Hine admitted.
“Hey, Sir!” one of the men, Sevn, said, pausing his sparring.
Devin looked up. Sevn and his companion were looking toward Devin, not Hine. Even though the large Guard was their instructor, they had come to see Devin as their leader for some reason.
“Yes?” Devin asked slowly.
“Sir, would you show us how to do that move you used?” Sevn asked. “The one where you hit both Voko and Ralan at the same time?”
Devin paused. Move? He didn’t even remember defeating the two men, let alone know what move he had used.
“You’re not good enough for that kind of thing yet,” Hine called back. “Keep practicing—we’ll move on to advanced techniques later.”
“All right,” Sevn said with a sigh, favoring his good leg as he turned back to his sparring.
Devin watched with embarrassment. “I wish they’d stop asking things like that, Hine,” he confided quietly.
“They respect you, son,” Hine replied, scratching absently at his missing ear as he spoke. “They want to be like you.”
Devin felt himself flush. Hine’s words brought Devin’s shame to the surface. He’d been forced to confront it the first day he came to practice, where Voko had asked for some pointers on swordsmanship. Devin had been surprised to realize he couldn’t give any. He might have developed awesome fighting ability, but for some reason he couldn’t teach what he knew to others. His mysterious ability still baffled him; he was in no position to understand it himself, let alone impart it to the rest of the camp.
“I’m not worth their respect, Hine,” Devin said, watching them with discerning eyes. “I’m just a kid—I only turned seventeen a few weeks ago.”
“You’re tall for your age,” Hine replied. “Besides, they don’t look at your age, kid. They look at your ability.”
“Ability I shouldn’t have,” Devin mumbled.
“I didn’t spend years practicing like you, Hine. I just seem to be able to fight for some reason. My ability didn’t come from effort and perseverance.”
“You have it nonetheless,” Hine said. “Besides, your skill might be why they want to emulate you, but it isn’t why they want to follow you.”
Devin frowned. “Why, then?”
Hine shrugged. “They like you, son. They respect you. You’re the thoughtful type, and you care about doing things right. However, at the same time, you care about people. Men will follow a leader anywhere if they trust him. There isn’t time for thinking on a battlefield—men don’t have the luxury of making strategic or moral judgments. They have to trust that their leader knows what he’s doing.”
Hine paused, taking a slurp from his canteen, then wiping the water droplets from his beard. “Hey, Delef!” he bellowed, “keep your sword tip up! You’ll end up with a blade in your gut if you keep fighting like that!”
Devin fell silent, watching the rebels fight. Hine had been right—now that they had a little structure, they had begun to develop discipline as well. When he first walked into camp a month before, the miscreants had looked like they’d sooner stick a knife in him than do what he said. Now, however, they did as Hine ordered. They complained, they cursed, but they did it. The practices were gaining popularity as well. The camp had only gone on one raid during the last month, but the attack had been a gruesome one. The Lord had taken his time putting a stop to the battle, instead sitting with his carriage window open and watching with interest.
The camp had lost six men. However, not a single one had been from amongst those that had been attending Hine’s practices.
Now, nearly a third of the camp participated, and that number grew by a few each week. Devin looked over the men, nodding to himself. He knew them all, of course—he knew every man in camp. He maintained his place as cook, more because he liked the interaction he gained with the men than because he wanted to do what Quin ordered. The rebels who had joined Hine’s practices tended to be the more ingenuous or determined portion of the camp—the type who were willing to suffer a little embarrassment, and spend a little time, in order to become something better than they had been.
Ix fought with them, of course. The shadowling managed to hold his own, carefully paying attention to every one of Hine’s instructions with interest. He wasn’t an excellent fighter, but neither was he horrible. In fact, he reminded Devin of himself, before he’d somehow learned to fight. Ix was completely average, almost painfully so.
Meeve sparred with Ix at the moment, the young Guard excited at the prospect of learning to use a sword. It was almost as if he had forgotten about his once attempted desertion. Voko and Ralan had taken positions of sub-commanders beneath Hine. All three continued to report to Devin. Devin shook his head, not sure whether to be flattered or embarrassed.
A sound came from behind, and Devin turned to see a familiar form approaching. Skeer waved enthusiastically.
“Sorry I’m late,” Skeer said. “One of the scouts returned from town, and I wanted to listen in on the briefing. It was very interesting.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully, as if trying to reinforce the meeting’s clandestine nature.
Devin rolled his eyes, sighing quietly as Skeer approached and watched the combatants with a discriminating look. “They’re improving,” he announced. “But their motions lack the proper enthusiasm!”
With that, the lanky man grabbed a practice sword and threw himself into the session, randomly choosing opponents. He attacked with a wild, uncontrolled style. The rogues didn’t know what to make of him—some tried to parry his blows to avoid embarrassing him. Others—the majority—obviously didn’t care about Skeer’s feelings, and proceeded to trounce him soundly. Skeer took every defeat without blinking, however, smiling and throwing himself at another opponent, screaming crazily all the while.
Devin shook his head. “You have to respect his energy,” he noted.
“If nothing else,” Voko added, watching with a shake of his head.
Hine shrugged slightly. “The world could do worse,” he said simply.
Devin raised an eyebrow at the cryptic remark.
“Skeer has passion,” Hine explained. “A fool he may be, but he’s a fool with dreams. It’s better to be an idiot with goals than to be a genius who accomplishes nothing, son.”
Devin watched the sparring, his arms folded in thought. Skeer continued to rush around like a caged bird, attacking random people. The longer Devin had spent in the camp, the more he had realized how little the other men thought of Skeer. He was more than just a figurehead, he was considered the camp fool. His ignorance of that fact only heightened the bandits’ enjoyment.
“Do you ever wonder if what you’re doing here is right, Hine?” Devin asked.
“What do you mean, son?” Hine asked.
Devin regarded the combatants. “We’re training bandits, Hine. We’re making them better killers, and their only foes are Guards who try to do their jobs.”
“That’s odd,” Hine said slowly. “I thought we were training rebels.”
Devin snorted. “That’s Skeer’s delusion, Hine.”
“It’s a delusion because he can’t make it happen, son, not because it isn’t a worthy goal.” The gruff warrior stood, looking over the group of sparring men. “Another man, one they trust, could do a lot of good with this group.”
Devin frowned thoughtfully. Even after all he had seen, it was difficult to contemplate what Hine suggested. Rebellion. All he had been taught, all he had learned from priests, family, and friends went against the concept. Eruntu followed Kkoloss—doing otherwise gave one Ki-Ssu. Ki-Ssu brought damnation, an eternity of torment at the hands of the Demon God and his Desicrates.
“Just because something is taught, son, doesn’t mean it is right,” Hine said quietly, as if he knew the thoughts passing through Devin’s mind.
“I don’t know, Hine,” Devin said with a shake of his head. “The priests—they say otherwise. What do I believe? I knew good men amongst the priesthood—men I trusted.”
“Good men can perpetuate a bad system, son,” Hine said, turning to look him in the eyes. “I don’t blame them. In a way, they’re as much a victim as the rest of us. Someone needs to change things.”
“But me?” Devin asked.
Hine shrugged, looking back at the men. “It’s the job of those who can, son. Responsibility comes from situation as often as it does from rank.”
Devin stood silently. Responsibility. When had he gained it? When had he asked for it? Hine spoke as if the system were an easy thing to change—as if simply by resisting, Devin could alter the workings of eight nations.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Hine said quietly. There was a slight pain in his voice. “The Guard . . . it is supposed to be a place of glory. A place of service. Except, that service is twisted. Corrupted. You think this is bad, training your bandits to survive. We killed other men. Every day, we killed other men. We didn’t do it for protection, or even for wealth. We did it to entertain the Kkoloss.”
Hine fell silent for a moment. Devin turned, and was surprised to see a small tear forming in the corner of Hine’s eye. The large warrior didn’t wipe it away—he just continued to stare forward. After a moment, he regained his composure enough to keep speaking. “Eruntu are forced to kill Eruntu. Kkoloss are taught to enjoy it. Skaa are taught they have to be slaves, lest they lose their souls. All men are taught to ignore those below them. And the priests are forced to teach others that it’s all right. This isn’t order. This isn’t good. The worst part is, I’m sworn to uphold it. I can’t do a thing, son. I took my Oath. I can’t stand against him. Not yet.”
Hine turned, looking directly at Devin. There was fire in his eyes, not unlike that in Skeer’s eyes. “But,” Hine added, “I can help others to see.”
Hine fell silent, turning away, and Devin turned his eyes back on the combatants, slightly embarrassed at what he had just witnessed. As Devin did so, his eyes fell on Skeer. The bandit leader got knocked down and struck consistently, but each time he threw himself back into the combat. His resolve didn’t weaken with each defeat—if anything, it seemed like his enthusiasm grew.
“He may be a fool,” Hine whispered, “but he’s right.”
Something firmed in Devin’s chest—something that had been building for some time. It had begun years ago, with the races. It had come to fruit as he watched his friends get slaughtered, and it was fueled by the memory of the poor Skaa. The man Devin had killed.
“I took no oath, Hine,” Devin whispered.
“It will be a difficult path, son,” Hine said. “You’ll stand against eight kings and the Emperor himself, not to mention Hess. There will come a time when you wish you hadn’t made this decision.”
A short distance away, Skeer got smacked in the head with a practice sword. He tumbled backward onto the grass. A few moments later, however, he pushed himself back up onto his feet and recovered his sword.
You shouldn’t give up just because you know you’ll fail. The words—his father’s words, delivered by Talla—drifted back into his mind. Some things are worth doing because of the doing, not because of what you accomplish. He still remembered the conversation he’d had while pruning with his mother. It seemed so long ago.
“I’ll do it anyway,” Devin said.
Devin met Hine’s eyes and held them for a moment. Eventually, the old soldier nodded. “I’ll help you as much as I can, son. I won’t kill a Kkoloss, but I’ll follow you.” There was pride in Hine’s eyes.
They stood for some time more, watching the sparring—Devin pondering the decision he had just come to. Eventually, Voko wandered over and took a sip from the water barrel—cleanwater Devin had boiled earlier in the morning.
“Apparently old Skeer had another meeting with several of Quin’s city spies,” Voko noted.
Devin smiled. “So he mentioned. Did he say anything to you?”
Voko shrugged. “He wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave in and asked him what happened in his ‘secret’ meeting. Then, of course, he snorted indignantly, told me he’d never talk, then proceeded to relate the entire meeting to me.”
Devin smiled, shaking his head. “So, what did happen?” Devin asked.
“Same thing that happens every time, apparently,” Voko noted.
“Nothing?” Devin asked.
“Precisely,” Voko said with a smile.
Devin didn’t smile, however. Quin claimed it was too dangerous to let the camp members take forays into the city—and he was probably right. If the thieves were allowed into the capital, they would probably get themselves into trouble—or, more likely, get the entire camp into trouble. As a result, only Quin’s hand-picked scouts were allowed to visit the city to search for information on caravans and watch for signs of danger for the camp.
However, Quin never released what these men discovered. Devin didn’t like being dependant on Quin for information. He knew that most of the scouts’ findings went only to Quin, despite Skeer’s ‘meetings.’ Quin was a clever man—he made certain that he had a monopoly on information.
Something is going on, Devin decided. He had sensed something in the scouts—they always went immediately to Quin, and they seemed nervous lately. Quin was hiding something important, and Devin wanted to know what it was.
If I’m going to change things in the world, Devin thought, I’m going to have to start with the camp.
Devin pulled back from the fighters a little bit, waving Hine and the others to join him. Voko nodded, catching Ralan’s eye and waving the large man over to join them. Ix, who had been sparring with the mute, followed.
“I think Quin is hiding something from us,” he said quietly as soon as the others had joined them.
“That much is obvious,” Voko noted, leaning back against a tree trunk.
“As a human—a member of a group of beings that are prone to develop favorable or unfavorable associations dependant on mood and circumstance,” Ix said, “I do not like Quin very much.”
“Agreed,” Voko said. “He reminds me of a Kkoloss general. We fight, he stays entertained. You’ve noticed that he always hangs back when we enter combat? He’s never without three or four lackeys to protect him, either.”
Devin shot the taller warrior a look, and Ralan immediately flushed, looking looked down at the ground. Quin’s not the only one hiding something. However, that was a problem for another time.
“Well, what do we do?” Devin asked.
“We need information, Dev,” Voko said. “We have no idea what’s going on in the Holy City. The Emperor’s wedding is probably getting close, and that means festivities and—undoubtedly—increased security. We could be in danger out here, and never know it.”
“I agree,” Devin said. “So?”
“So, son,” Hine said, “we send a spy of our own.”
“We’ll need to do it quietly, though,” Devin agreed. “There’s no need to let Quin know what we’re doing.”
“One man then,” Hine said.
All eyes turned toward Voko. “Um,” he said, “I guess you want me to volunteer?” he asked.
“Ralan’s a mute,” Devin said, “and Ix is far too . . . noticeable. That leaves you, me, and Hine. I’ve never been to a city, let alone the Holy City. Hine’s, well . . .”
“Blunt,” Hine filled in.
Devin nodded. “That leaves you, Voko. You’re the only one. Besides, you’ve always struck me as a bit on the sneaky side.”
“I resent that,” Voko grumbled. “But I’ll do it. It’s been a while since I tried anything like this, but, well, we’ll see.”
“All right,” Devin said. “You should go now, while Quin expects us all to be training. How long will it take you?”
Voko shrugged. “I’ll probably get there around dusk. Give me a couple of hours to sniff out information, and I’ll return sometime just after midnight. That way, no one will see me get back.”
“Do you think you can sneak back into camp?”
Voko smiled. “Most of Skeer’s ‘rebels’ are about as good at watching as they are at fighting. I could stumble over a stack of pots—which, by the way, wouldn’t be surprising, considering my current state—and they still wouldn’t notice me.”
Devin nodded slowly, resting his hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “Hess’s blessing, Voko.”
Voko smiled in response. Then he was gone, taking off through the trees in the direction of the capital.
Devin blinked away sleep, coming awake with a stretch. The summer mornings weren’t as chilly here in the forest as they had been back on the mainland, for which Devin was thankful. He rolled over, noting Voko’s mat a short distance away. It was undisturbed—the man hadn’t returned yet. He wasn’t too worried—something must have detained the man.
Devin pushed off his blanket, standing and walking out into the darkness of pre-dawn. He needed to build up the morning fire to prepare for breakfast.
Devin froze, hand on the side of his tent. The camp was still—completely still—but something was wrong. He felt cold. He felt watched. Slowly, he turned his eyes to the side, somehow knowing what he would see.
Five dark forms stood a short distance away, their bodies seeming to meld and flow together with the darkness around them. They stood in an inverted ‘V’ formation, and they were watching him—he could tell that, despite the fact that their faces were pools of blackness.
Devin stood, paralyzed, feeling fear sap the strength from his body. Nothing else in the camp moved—the guards must have fallen asleep again. There was just the silence, Devin, and the five figures. Devin had almost forgotten about them—had almost convinced himself that he’d never really seen them. The last time had been over a month before, on his first night in the Guard. Then, the five figures had been part of a dream—or so he’d told himself.
They stood quietly, the writhing blackness of their bodies seeming to seep toward him. These were no dreams, not fatigue-induced visions. They were real. Five forms. The priests had spoke of five figures. The Shadein; head Desicrates in the Demon God’s legions.
“Oh, Hess . . .” Devin whispered in horror.
The five forms took a step forward, their legs moving in unison. They seemed to be made of darkness itself—darkness that churned and wove, like they were made from smoke. Deep, thick, black smoke.
Devin’s body released him, and he took a step backward before the creatures. “What do you want?” he hissed, his voice weak from fear.
“Sulevin Mass,” the lead form whispered in a voice that sounded like coals being doused with cold water. “Sulevin Mass. Mythwalker Seavistris.”
The forms took another step forward. Devin yelped, suddenly finding his voice. He turned, scrambling toward the firepit. The night’s fire, left alone by slumbering guards, had burned down to simple coals. Uncertain what else to do, Devin snatched a branch from the woodpile—a branch covered with dead, brown leaves.
“Mythwalker Seavistris . . .” the Shadein mumbled, all five speaking together, their voices like a chorus of dying animals. They strode forward mechanically, their hands reaching for Devin.
Devin slammed the top of the branch into the fire. The brittle leaves immediately ignited, blazing to life and shining light across the camp. The Shadein immediately vanished, their dark essence literally tearing apart before the light and scattering back into the darkness.
Devin stood, sweating and breathing heavily, his improvised torch crackling in his hand. He clutched the wood for a long moment, then immediately turned to the fire, desperately throwing branches onto it, building it high even after the sun had begun to rise.
Devin made a simple breakfast—broth and biscuits. His mind was preoccupied with what he had seen. The Shadein. They were creatures of legend, horrible demons often mentioned by the priests. Had Devin really seen them? Why would they appear to Devin? He found no answers to the questions.
Ralan was the first one to rise. The quiet man wandered over to where Devin was stirring, and sniffed at the broth.
“Voko hasn’t returned yet,” Devin noted.
“Do you think something happened to him.?”
Devin fell silent. A few moments later, an odd thing happened. Ralan spoke.
“You’ll keep my secret, won’t you, Devin?” Ralan asked. The words were thick with accent—he drew out his vowel sounds and his intonation sounded awkward.
“Where are you from?” Devin asked.
“Ddoven,” Ralan explained. “I was a cleancrop farmer until I was recruited into the Guard.”
“The . . . Ddovish Guard?” Devin asked.
“So, you do have a different Kkell power!” Devin exclaimed.
“The Kkell of Repulsion,” Ralan replied quietly. He bent over, picking up a piece of bark. He held it in his hand for a moment, concentrating, then released it. The bark whipped out of his hand, propelled directly away from his body off into the woods. It flew about thirty feet before dropping to the ground.
“But your muscles . . .”
“I took the Oath twice,” Ralan said, looking down at his feet.
“Hess!” Devin exclaimed. “You can do that?”
“I thought one would replace the other,” Ralan explained. “But instead I got them both. I’ve been trying to hide it. If it were discovered, I would have been executed for being a spy.”
“But,” Devin said slowly, “you were going to be executed anyway.”
Ralan smiled. “Good point.”
“So, how did you . . . ?”
“It’s a long story,” Ralan said simply. He didn’t elucidate.
Finally, Devin just shook his head. “I won’t say anything to the others,” he promised.
Ralan nodded. “I’ve hidden it from Voko, but I think Hine’s figured me out. It’s Hess-cursed hard to hide anything from that man.”
Voko. The as the morning progressed, Devin was growing more and more worried about the man.
“Give Voko a little more time,” Ralan suggested. “He might have been forced to spend the night in the city for some reason. If something important is happening, there might be a curfew.”
“I suppose,” Devin said. A few minutes later he had breakfast started. The camp rose around them, men grumbling and yawning as they stirred. Many stayed in bed long past dawn—there was really nothing to get them up.
As he stirred, Devin realized an uncomfortable fact—Voko had only gone because Devin had ordered him to. If he had been caught and associated with the bandit camp . . . Devin might have just ordered a man to his death.
Hess, Devin thought, stirring with anger. Why are they so determined to follow me? I’m not worthy of their devotion. I’ll only get them all killed.
He sighed, forming the biscuits and placing them in the clay oven. Perhaps now the others wouldn’t listen to him. If he hadn’t been so determined to find out Quin’s secrets, Voko wouldn’t have been in danger.
Quin’s tent began to vibrate, and a moment later the enormous bandit pushed out and into the light. Devin watched with disinterest as Quin mumbled something to a lackey, then wandered over to Skeer’s tent and knocked on the warning post. A muffled call came a moment later, and Quin entered.
Devin paused, looking up from his work. He almost hadn’t noticed the event, but now his eyes opened wide with shock. Quin, visiting Skeer? Usually the larger man tried to ignore Skeer as much as possible.
Speculation was interrupted as a crashing sound erupted from the far side of the camp. Something was pushing its way through the underbrush—something very noisy. Devin stood, reaching for a weapon—as did several of the other camp members.
Just then a very tired-looking, very disheveled, and very, very drunk Voko burst into camp. He stood for a moment, wavering tipsily as he looked over the camp members, then promptly collapsed with a grunt.
“He’s drunk,” Hine announced, leaning back from the sleeping man.
“We noticed that,” Devin replied, looking over Voko. It had taken the efforts of both himself and Ralan to drag him into the tent. Now he was snoring loudly, the blood vessels of his face red from heavy drinking.
Devin shook his head. “What could have happened?”
Ralan just shrugged; he had gone back to his mute persona to hide his accent.
Devin shook his head. Unfortunately, there was little he could do but go back to fixing breakfast. They wouldn’t get any answers until Voko slept off his alcohol. The day progressed like most—Devin finished breakfast, then immediately began on lunch. Once lunch was simmering, however, he had time to reflect. So, like he often did, he decided to go running.
He left the camp behind, lightly jogging along a thin trail through the woods. He didn’t know why he still liked to run—he no longer had to worry about training for the Guard race. All those years of jogging, however, had predisposed him. He thought better when he ran, and he felt like he had more energy.
He also liked being away from the camp and its people for a short time every day. The path was familiar to him now, and he ran it without difficulty. He was becoming accustomed to the forest atmosphere, different as it was from the mainland. The ground was more uneven and covered with underbrush, roots, and fallen branches. It also felt odd to have the canopy overhead—he couldn’t look up and see an open sky anymore.
Still, there were things he liked about the forest. He liked that it wasn’t quite as hot during the day, nor as cold during the night. He liked the feel of life around him—the forest even smelt more fertile than the mainland had.
As he ran, Devin’s mind drifted to his concerns. Voko’s reappearance was a relief, and it left his mind open for other concerns. Things that had been bothering him for some time—the appearance of the Shadein only brought them to the front of his mind.
Devin wasn’t a fool—he knew that something strange was happening to him. All of his life, he had never been able to achieve anything beyond base averageness. No matter how hard he tried, he had only been able to achieve competence—never excellence. For some reason, that had all changed after he got captured.
In the last month, Devin had somehow learned to fight, to cook, to ride horses, to pick locks, to whittle, to heal, and to play coins. Each activity was something he had never, or rarely, attempted. And now, for some reason, he had managed to become a master at all of them.
In each case, it was the same. He couldn’t explain where his skill could come from—or even how he did what he did. He couldn’t instruct others in swordplay, even though he could easily defeat the best of them. He couldn’t teach others how to cook because he couldn’t explain why he did certain things—he only knew that he had to do them.
The ability not only baffled him, it embarrassed him. Why should he gain skills with no effort when others worked for years with less progress? He felt like he had cheated somehow.
Maybe this is how it always is, Devin wondered, tromping past a massive trunk as he followed the path. Perhaps this is how it is for the skilled, the ones I always envied. Maybe they don’t have to do anything to learn.
But why had Devin suddenly become one of them? He couldn’t answer that question. He had always dreamed of being able to prove himself. He hadn’t realized the envy in others—or the guilt in himself—being successful would bring.
He pondered such questions for most of the hour-long jog, but arrived at no conclusions. Fortunately, though it had been mentally unproductive, the run proved physically exhilarating, and he returned to the camp in a far better mood than when he had left. When he entered camp, he immediately noticed Ix standing near the fire. The shadowling waved for Devin energetically.
“What is it?” Devin asked, breathing deeply as he slowed to a walk.
“Voko, who I was very frightened for because he is my friend and I don’t want to see him injured, is beginning to wake up,” Ix explained. “As humans, we are very curious to see what he has to say. Right?”
“Very,” Devin affirmed, taking a gulp of water from the perpetual steam-barrel he kept beside the fire. “Let’s go.”
Ix nodded, leading Devin back to their tent. Devin pushed inside, where he found a groggy Voko sitting up on his mat.
Voko saw Devin and immediately flushed. “Hey, Dev,” he mumbled.
Devin raised an eyebrow. “You had a good night, I see,” he noted.
Voko shrugged. “Some people won’t talk unless you consent to have a little drink with them.”
“A little drink?” Hine asked with a snort.
“It’s been a while,” Voko said. “Perhaps I overdid it a little bit.”
“I am very happy that you have returned, Voko,” Ix said, kneeling beside Devin with wide-eyed honesty. “Tell me, what is it like to be drunk? As a human, I should probably try it, right?”
Voko grunted, holding his head and sighing. “Definitely,” he said. “I’d hate to think of someone going through life without knowing the pleasure of a hangover. I don’t suppose any of you have anything to drink.”
Devin snorted. “Where did you get the money?” he asked, sitting down on his mat.
“From some . . . associates,” Voko said.
Devin raised an eyebrow, sharing a look with Hine. However, before they could pursue the matter further, Voko interrupted.
“I got your information, Dev,” he said. “It took a while—at first, the only thing most people can talk about is the wedding. It’s happening in a few weeks, you know.”
Devin nodded. He hadn’t known the time frame, but he’d known it was approaching.
“Anyway,” Voko said, “you’ll never guess what people are saying about the Eruntu Rebellion.”
Devin paused. “They’ve heard of us.”
“Oh, you could say that,” Voko said with a smile. “It appears that—”
He was interrupted as a form burst into the tent. “Hey, Voko’s awake!” Skeer said happily. “That’s great.” Skeer looked around furtively for a moment, then he smiled and winked at Devin, obviously trying to look enigmatic. “Guess what, Devin. We’re going on another secret mission! Intrigue, stealth, mystery!”