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.
Miles away from the village and its orchards, Prince Vevinn Vas Kkeris regarded his troop schematics with annoyance. Sseria was planning something.
King Denn Vas Sserin had dominated the Kkoloss military contests for the majority of the last century, and his victories had gained him a favored position in the Emperor’s courts. The Kkoloss military contests—or, the Games as many preferred to call them—were as old as the Empire itself, dating back to the days just after the Demon God. A Kkoloss who proved to be a good commander not only earned prestige within his own Sept, but the respect of other Houses as well.
Vevinn had been involved in the wars a relatively short time—barely a decade. Still, he had proven himself a competent leader. His father, the King, had placed him in command of the ongoing contest against Sseria, and Vevinn had done well. For the first time in decades, Kkeris had defeated Sserin troops consistently.
However, Vevinn was coming to understand enough about battle to wonder if his successes, his prestige, and his glory could all just be a hoax. It had been too easy.
Sseria’s Kkell power, that of Strength, made its Eruntu Guard formidable fighters. Their dominance of the Games was a historical fact—other generals won battles and gained glory, but Sseria had the most impressive record. Vevinn’s own house, House Kkeris, maintained a close second. Due to the Kkeris’s Kkell power of Skill, Vevinn’s troops were the most adept fighters in all of Kkorimar. The Kkell Power, however, was more diluted than Sseria’s Strength—Vevinn’s Eruntu Guard were impressive fighters, but their power also made them better than average dancers, card players, and weavers. Skill was an incredibly powerful Kkell, but Strength often proved more applicable in pure battle.
Vevinn had come into command knowing that he faced a mighty opponent. He hadn’t really expected to win—in recent decades, facing Sseria had turned more into a test of how well one could lose than an actual struggle to win. And yet, Vevinn had succeeded. For more than three years now, his troops had dominated those of King Sserin.
Vevinn sighed, rolling up his schematic and walking over to his window to look out over his troops. The Eruntu trained on a beautiful green field, marching and practicing formations. A short distance away a batch of new recruits stood in a small group, their eyes wide as they looked around. They had just arrived from the mainland, and had yet to take the Kkell Oath. Vevinn spared a quiet smile as he watched the Eruntu boys. Though nowhere near as stupid as Skaa, Eruntu were still relatively dense. Most of them considered the near-desert plains and twisted trees of the mainland to be lush and fertile. They were quite unprepared for the glory of Shakall Hess, the Holy Island.
There was no point in beginning their training yet—why teach them now, when in a few days they would be gifted with the Kkerin Kkell power? Once they had taken the Oath, their learning speed would increase monumentally. They would pick up swordsmanship, archery, and marching much more quickly, progressing at nearly twice the speed of one who had not taken the oath. And that was just the Eruntu fraction of the power. Vevinn, who was first Sept, could learn ten times as fast as a regular Kkoloss.
Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, Vevinn thought, watching his troops practice. They were a fine outfit, disciplined and well-trained. True, they didn’t bear the pure physical strength of the Sserin warriors, but they were much better swordsmen. Why shouldn’t Vevinn be winning? Anyone who had ever picked up a weapon knew that strength was no substitute for ability.
Yet, even as he persuaded himself, a small voice itched at the back of his mind, warning him to keep an eye on King Dunn Vas Sserin and his apparently inferior armies.
“Hess’s Blessings, Vevinn,” a smooth voice said behind him.
Vevinn spun, turning from his troop marchings with a smile. He had been far too focused on the Games lately—he hadn’t even heard her approach. Vevinn felt his heart begin to beat a little more quickly as his eyes fell on Siri.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said slowly.
Siri snorted, raising an eyebrow. She defied rules and traditions—the soul of Kkoloss society. Many people found her offensive. Vevinn found her intoxicating.
With her deep red hair and delicate features, Siri could have been a princess of the Sserin Female Kkell, instead of just a lowly fifth-Sept cousin. However, she was also a third-Sept daughter of Kkell Dass, a minor house associated with House Sserin. It was from House Dass that Siri drew her Kkell power. The Dass female power was a valuable one indeed, and made up for her relatively unimportant bloodline.
She was enough of a catch, in fact, to be considered a fitting wife for a first-Sept prince such as Vevinn.
Siri smiled, strolling forward to stand right in front of him.
Vevinn blushed. “You’re too forward,” he chided.
“And you like it,” she replied with a smile, looking up at him.
“It is improper for you to be here,” he said, though he did not push her away. Her handmaidens waited uncomfortably a short distance away, near the base-house’s door. They were used to Siri’s eccentricities.
“Improper to visit my fiancé?” she asked lightly.
“We are not betrothed yet,” he reminded. “I still have yet to win your hand.”
“A formality,” Siri announced, peeking out the window beside him, looking over his troops. Vevinn had been right—she shouldn’t be visiting him here. She was directly related to House Sserin on her father’s side, and her mother’s House had sworn fealty to King Dunn Vas Sserin. She was technically a member of the opposition. However, at that moment Vevinn didn’t care. The Games were, after all, only games.
“Formalities make up our lives, my lady,” he reminded. “We are Kkoloss.”
Siri smiled at the comment, noting its irony. She was dressed like a Kkoloss Lady, wearing a one-piece silk dress that was tight around the bosom and waist, but long and flowing down below. She wore pink this day—one of her favorite colors—with purple embroidery that went all the way down her sleeves, which were far longer than her hands.
However, although Siri looked like a Kkoloss woman, she hardly acted like one. She reached over to Vevinn and put her arm around his, letting her sleeve slip down her arm and expose her delicate fingers. “Ah, Vevinn, you’re so Hess-cursed formal all the time.”
He was about to reply. However, at that moment, her hand touched his. An instant sense of peace swept through his body as her Kkell power bled into him. House Dass, the Kkell of Healing.
A Dass woman’s touch instantly healed one of all maladies—whether they be physical pains, mental inanities, or simple fatigue. Of course, when the woman let go, all of the injuries returned, completely unchanged. But, for a moment, the person fortunate to be touched felt a physical and mental wholeness like unto pure serenity.
Siri was only third Sept, so her touch wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. She couldn’t temporarily regrow lost limbs or heal a sword-thrust to the bowels. However, the touch was still powerful. The scar on Vevinn’s hand—which he’d had since childhood—shrank upon itself and disappeared. He felt invigorated, his senses more acute, his mind heightened to complete clarity. Kkell Dass’s female power was one of the most valuable lesser powers on the continent. Its women would have been queens, not just duchesses, had the healing effects been permanent.
However, as soon as Siri let go, Vevinn’s scar returned. His exhaustion slowly returned. The fatigue hadn’t seemed burdensome before—it was only midday, after all. However, compared with peace he felt when Siri touched him, it was noticeable.
“I’ll be watching the Games, Vevinn,” Siri informed, walking back to join her ladies-in-waiting.
Vevinn watched her go, his face flushed, his breathing hard. He found it very difficult to turn his mind back to his troops and his conflict with House Sserin and its strangely impotent forces.
Devin cut at a small branch with his saw. It came free easily, breaking off in his hand, and he dropped it down below. The wood would be taken and sold—while cleanwood had no inherent structural superiority over saltwood, many considered it a sign of prestige, and would pay highly for cleanwood furniture. On the other side of Devin’s tree, Talla hummed to herself as she pruned. It was rare for Devin and his mother to be assigned to the same team—Mayor Brene rearranged the work teams regularly, though no one knew why.
Devin turned back to his work. His cuts weren’t as neat or precise as those of his mother, nor he apply the pitch as cleanly. Still, he worked with relative quickness, his hands moving almost by rote as they pruned as he had been taught a year before.
The race was now a month over, but Devin was still feeling its aftermath. He had failed again. This time, however, his failure had been more revelatory. This time he had cheated and had still lost. The realization was harsh—he had finally come to grasp the extent of his own inability. Even when he cheated, he failed.
And so, following the race, he had been unable to recover his usual optimism. What was there to be optimistic about? They mayor, bowing under pressure from the other mothers, had ruled that Devin’s cheating disqualified him. Devin’s fifth-place victory had been taken away. Instead, the official record said that Devin had never finished the race—a shame even beyond taking last place.
Devin sighed, dropping another branch down below, aiming it so he didn’t hit a passing water-carrier. The Eruntu paused at the base of the tree, pouring both of his buckets on its trunk.
“That’s what I should be,” Devin mumbled, watching the water-carrier. “Why has Brene allowed me to stay on pruning detail? I belong down below, hauling water with the unskilled. In fact, maybe I should just go work in the Skaa fields.”
Talla listened to her son’s words with dissatisfaction and more than a little worry. Devin was not a moody boy. He was solemn, true, but rarely self-pitying. Something had changed in him over the last month, and the alteration frightened Talla. Devin’s loss during the last race had snapped something within him.
Even more frightening than the change in Devin was her own inability to help him. She had tried everything she knew to cheer the boy up, but it appeared that she was powerless. In the end, Devin was convinced that he lacked uniqueness. Talla’s mother’s instinct churned within her—she saw her boy wounded and disparaged, but couldn’t do a thing to aid him.
This is one thing he’ll have to decide on his own, she told herself. Until Devin acknowledged deep in his heart that he wasn’t a failure, he would never find success. Talla could not make that decision for him.
Though, perhaps I can nudge him in the right direction, Talla thought. Oh, please help me find a way to help him.
“You can be happy anywhere if you know who you are,” his mother mumbled, almost unintelligibly.
Devin looked up. He could barely see Talla’s form through the branches. “What?” he asked, pulling his woolen coat closer as a spring breeze rustled the branches.
“Did you say something, Devin?” Talla replied in a normal tone, poking her broad face between two branches.
“No. You said something,” Devin explained. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
“Oh,” Talla said, turning back to her pruning. “That. It was just something your father used to say.”
Devin paused, his handsaw held limply in his hand. “My . . . father?” he asked. Talla rarely spoke of Devin’s father—he had died when Devin was just a child. Talla had loved him very much, however—that much Devin knew. She had moved after his death, coming to the village that was now Devin’s home. She said her old home had reminded her too much of Devin’s father. She tended to get tears in her eyes whenever the man was mentioned.
“Yes,” Talla said quietly.
“Tell me about him,” Devin requested eagerly. It wasn’t the first time he had asked, but he had never received much of a response. The subject still brought his mother too much pain.
“Your father was . . . a good man, Devin,” Talla said eventually. She resumed her pruning as she talked, but Devin couldn’t force himself to do likewise. He stood completely still upon his ladder, listening lest he miss a single word.
“He was in the Guard, you know,” Talla continued.
“What!” Devin said, nearly dropping his handsaw in surprise.
“Yes,” Talla continued. “He served for a full ten years before he was wounded and had to return to the orchards.”
Devin stood, stupefied. His father, a Guard member? He’d dreamed that such might be true, but he’d never really believed it. “It must have been hard for him, returning to a normal life,” Devin said, trying to imagine what it would have been like to leave the glory of the Guard behind.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Talla asked, snapping a branch free. “But, that’s the thing, Devin. He claimed he liked working in the orchards as much as he liked being a part of the Games. In fact, he said he liked it more.”
“Impossible,” Devin said. Everyone knew that being a Guard member was the most fulfilling duty an Eruntu could perform.
“Are you calling me a liar, Shorty?” Talla demanded, chuckling to herself.
“No,” Devin said quickly. “It’s just that . . . how could he like this as much as serving the King? I mean, orchard work is so mundane.”
“Everything’s mundane if you do it long enough,” Talla said, slapping a bit of pitch on the place where she had removed the branch. “Your father said that his military unit was filled with men who didn’t know how to do anything but complain. They complained about how much they had to march, how little they were paid, how long they had to train, and a whole host of other things. To them, fighting in the Games had become nothing more than a job. Just like orchard work.”
The Games, just like orchard work? The concept boggled Devin’s mind.
“‘A man will be happy anywhere, as long as he knows who he is,'” Talla repeated. “That’s what your father would always say. ‘You shouldn’t give up just because you know you’ll fail. Some thing are worth doing because of the doing, not because of what you accomplish. And, if you have to do something, you might as well do your best.'”
Devin snorted. “What if your best is still only average?” he asked.
“It’s not average for you then, is it?” Talla noted.
Devin stood uncertainly on his ladder, but Talla said no more. So, eventually he continued his pruning. His mind, however, focused on the things his mother had said. What kind of man had his father been? A warrior who was forced to return to orchard work? Had his words about the Guard been rationalizations—a reaction to his injury?
Devin snapped a branch free and dropped it below, then moved to work on another one. His hand paused halfway to the branch. There was a fish swimming in the air just beside his hand.
Devin stared at the odd sight, dumbfounded. As he looked closer, he realized it didn’t exactly look like a fish. It was of the same general shape, with wing-like fins and a fishy mouth. Its fins were too big, however, and its tail too stumpy. Its body was ridged, but looking more closely it seemed more like skin than it did scales. If it was a fish, it was like none Devin had ever seen before.
And, somehow, it was hovering in the air beside a branch, watching Devin with its large lid-less eyes. It didn’t flap its wings-fins, though they ruffled slightly in the breeze. It was a deep blue color, with beautiful slivers of purple running along its body. It was about half the size of his palm, a little bigger than a coin.
“Mother!” Devin hissed. “Look at this!”
“What are you—” Talla cut off as she pushed a branch. She squinted, looking closely. “By Hess,” she mumbled. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Devin said with wonder.
“Some kind of bird?” Talla guessed.
Devin shook his head. The gesture spooked the small animal, however, and it shot away. Devin followed it with his eyes, surprised at the speed it obtained. It looked almost as if it were swimming—except, of course, that there wasn’t any water.
Devin shook his head, turning back to his work. As he did so, his mind turned back to his father, and soon the strange creature was forgotten.
That night, Devin left the orchard alone. His mother had decided to stay behind and chat with some of the other women. She was so irresponsible sometimes—there was work to be done back at their house, but all she wanted to do was gab.
So, Devin turned in his pruning tools by himself, then slowly walked to the check-station. The station—where the mayor’s office could be found—was the only way out of the orchard. It held carefully-supervised rooms where the workers could change clothing, careful overseers watching for signs of stolen fruit. The clothing-change was enforced even in the spring, when there wasn’t any cleanfruit on the newly-budding trees to be taken. Theoretically, the people could still try and steal a branch or two of cleanwood. Of course, Devin couldn’t believe that anyone would try to steal from the orchard. What Eruntu would so expressly go against the will of God, Emperor, and King?
Devin changed out of his work uniform, a thick jumpsuit, and into a pair of leggings and a shirt, covered by a sweater his mother had made him. Somehow, despite all her goofing-off, Talla still found time to do such things. The sweater was, of course, perfect. That was just the way Talla was. She did everything well, unlike her son, who was hopeless.
Or was he? His father had been in the . . .
Devin snorted at himself, pulling the sweater on and making his way out of the men’s changing room. Why did it matter what his father had been? Devin himself wasn’t changed by that fact. He was still completely average.
But, maybe his problems had come because he hadn’t known. If he’d realized that his father had been in the Guard, maybe Devin would have worked harder. Maybe he would have run a little faster. Maybe he would have made it into the Guard himself.
Devin paused beside the check-station’s outer door. That wasn’t the point, was it? Devin’s father had claimed the Guard was the same as working in the orchards. How could that be?
With a sigh, Devin pushed the door open and walked into the pass-room.
“Kneel, child,” the priest of Hess said, sitting in a chair on the side of the small chamber.
Devin did so, kneeling on the soft cushion as he did when he left every day. He didn’t look up, though he knew what the priest would look like. Bludu was an older Eruntu with white silk robes—the only Eruntu Devin knew who wore silk. He would be wearing an elaborate flat-topped hat with trails of silk that hung down over his ears and down his back.
“Did you fulfill your duty with a mind central to our Lord Hess?” the priest asked with a crackling voice.
“Yes, Blessed One,” Devin replied, his head bowed.
“Did you speak no ill of his Holiness the Emperor?”
“I did not, Blessed One,” Devin said.
“Did you seek the interests and will of King Dunn Vas Sserin?”
“Yes, Blessed One,” Devin said.
“Did you obey the Kkoloss in every deed?”
“Yes, Blessed One.”
“Did you take anything that did not belong to you?” the priest asked with a quiet tone.
“No, Blessed One.”
“Then go on your way and sleep well within Hess’s protection, child,” the priest bid. “Fear the return of the Demon God and pray for the protection of the Mythwalker, who will come.”
Devin rose and left through the door on the other side of the room, passing into the waning daylight. He walked slowly, his thoughts troubled. He had always wished for information about his father, but he had never suspected that he would find the knowledge so troubling.
Why would his father claim to like orchard work as much, if not more, than Guard work? Had he been bitter about his injury and forced return to the village? Talla didn’t seem to think so. Perhaps the man had never meant to be a warrior at all, and had known that he didn’t fit in. Perhaps he had won the race by some sort of fluke.
Except, that didn’t make sense. Why would Talla marry a man such as that? Devin’s mother was nearly perfect—she would have found a man who met her high standards. It made sense that she would marry a Guardsman. Perhaps Devin’s father really had enjoyed orchard work.
Devin looked up, watching the sun set as he walked. In the distance he could see the Skaa working in their fields—they wouldn’t be allowed to go back to their hovels until the sun actually fell.
Is my life really that bad? Devin wondered. I could be a Skaa, after all.
Then, finally, Devin realized something. He remembered that he had actually enjoyed working in the orchards the year before. He remembered the comradery of the picking teams, whose intelligent, purposeful work had somehow been more fulfilling and enjoyable than Devin’s boyhood games. He remembered the smell of the orchards, watching the trees grow and change through the seasons, and the satisfaction of a day’s worth of picking. He remembered the pride he had felt as he was finally able to bring a few amberite coins back to the home to help his mother.
Despite his dreams of the Guard, Devin realized that he had indeed enjoyed working in the orchards.
If you have to do something, you might as well do your best. It wouldn’t be that easy, he knew. But, if he was going to do something, Devin decided, he might as well enjoy himself.
Suddenly, Devin felt cold. He looked up, almost convinced he was being watched. The sun was gone, and dusk had fallen around him. It wasn’t really that dark yet. But still, he felt odd. Watched. Devin turned nervous eyes around himself, mentally cursing himself for a fool. He hadn’t been able to respond to the darkness the same way since he had found the black altar.
He still tried to convince himself it had just been a rock, but for some reason the discovery had set something off in his mind. If the Desicrite might be real, then what about the other tales he had heard? What about the priest’s words? Would the Demon God really return again? It was a founding tenant of his religion, but he hadn’t ever really thought of it as concrete. The legends were true, of course, but they were things for another time. A time when strange creatures walked the earth, when the Demon God had waged war for control of Kkorimar.
Bowing his head, Devin hurried home to his home, where he quickly lit a lantern to chase away the gloom.
Mayor Brene, three-time fifth-place winner in the Guard Race, most respected man in the village of Mikkif, chief overseer of Lord Kkenn Val Sserin’s qualla orchard, was having a good year. Years when the orchard produced well were good ones for Brene, while the opposite was true for years when the orchard did poorly.
Brene sat in his office, a small saltwood building at the edge of the orchard complex. On his desk were scattered several small piles of papers—production reports from the various teams of pickers. It was late in the season—the quallas had begun ripening over a month earlier, and the pickers were fully employed trying to get each fruit before it dropped from the tree. Many Kkoloss wouldn’t eat bruised fruit, and such had to be sold to wealthy Eruntu merchants, severely lessening their worth.
At that moment, however, Brene wasn’t worried about bruised fruit. The pickings were going well, and the men were happy. The orchard was producing more cleanfruit than it ever had before. However, even in his prosperity, something was bothering Brene.
Brene liked things neat and orderly. He liked to understand his surroundings. Even as a child, his mind had been a calculating one. He had not taken fifth place three times in a row on accident—he had studied the course, figured out the best way to run it, and projected what kind of time he would need to arrive in fifth place. Not fourth—Brene had never wanted to join the military—and not sixth. Fifth. Every year.
He liked to think such ability to plan and understand percentages was what made him such a good overseer. An orchard and its workers were like an enormous creature, each person a specific piece of the body designed for a specific purpose. The trick was to find out which workers were hands, which were feet, and which were part of the head. Brene spent his days reorganizing groups of workers, seeing which combinations worked the best and which people were most productive in which job.
Brene had been running Lord Kkenn’s qualla orchard for ten years now, and Mikkif village was the most productive producer in the region. Brene’s men worked better, more efficiently, and more happily than any other under Lord Kkenn’s control. And, most importantly, each person fit into his or her proper place, doing the job that Hess had obviously designed them to do. Brene had never found a worker that he couldn’t place.
Brene frowned to himself, staring down at a sheet of paper. Brene was one of only ten Eruntu in the village who could read more than their own name—three of the others were in the priesthood, and the rest were scribes who had been hired from the capitol city. The scribes kept notes for Brene, keeping track of which workers were on which teams on which day.
Brene held one such list in his fingers at that moment. It was a simple listing, not unlike hundreds of others. There shouldn’t have been anything important about it. Yet, it stupefied Brene.
Near the beginning of the season, Brene had noticed a pattern amongst his work teams. For some reason, certain teams tended to be more productive than others. Usually when that happened, Brene quickly discovered a reason for the discrepancy. Either the team had been given a disproportionate number of skilled workers, or there had been some physical reason—such as a tree that had grown and unusual number of quallas.
This time, however, he hadn’t been able to find any pattern behind the success. He had split the group apart, but the strange productivity had manifest itself in another part of the orchard. The oddity had bothered him for much of the season—another overseer would never have even noticed it, but to Brene the mystery was baffling. He hadn’t been able to sleep at nights because of the way it teased at his mind. He had been nervous and irritable, even though the orchard had been producing very well. This one single oddity had nearly been enough to drive him mad.
And then, he had noticed the pattern. One factor was the same about every single one of the mysterious overproducing groups. His name was Devin.
Everyone in the village knew Talla—she was hard to ignore, despite her lack of height. Talla was one of the most outspoken, domineering people in the village. One either hated her or loved her, and there were far more positive than negative. Brene himself was fascinated by the woman—though he would never mention that fact. Even though Brene’s own wife had died years before, it wouldn’t be proper for the mayor to get involved with one of the orchard workers.
Unlike his mother, however, Devin was completely unnoticeable. Brene hadn’t even known the boy’s name until he had come to work at the orchard two years before. Devin wasn’t outspoken like his mother, though neither was he withdrawn. He never seemed to get into trouble, and he made no more mistakes than the average orchard worker. He wasn’t a fabulous picker, but he was a consistent producer. Brene always liked to put the most consistent people in picking—he’d rather have one bruised fruit for every hundred than a dozen bruised one day, and not a single one for the rest of the week.
In fact, looking at the ledgers, Devin had produced in exactly the median range nearly every week he had worked at the orchard. There was absolutely nothing special about the boy. He was unremarkable—it was no wonder that Brene had missed linking him as the connection between the mysterious increases in productivity.
The thing was, as unremarkable as Devin was, for some reason those who worked with the boy did better at their picking. Devin always remained the same, performing exactly as expected. However, no matter what the job—whether it be pruning, watering, or picking—his team always seemed to benefit from his presence.
“This makes no sense whatsoever,” Brene declared, standing and walking toward the door to his rooms. He kicked absently at a zquiz that had been sunning itself on his doorstep and walked out into the orchard. He would just have to see for himself what was so special about this boy.
Devin carefully plucked the qualla from the branch. The bright pink fruit was soft and fuzzy to the touch, but its skin was relatively hard. The thick skin was a good thing—it helped protect the fruit from bruising. Nothing but perfection was acceptable for Hess’s chosen.
Devin placed the fruit in the basket tied at his side. He had never tasted a qualla—even the bruised and rotting fruit was collected and sold to wealthy Eruntu. However, he could imagine the flavor. It would taste pure, like the cleanwater his mother gathered from rain. Secretly, Devin suspected that the Eruntu were special in Hess’s eyes. After all, they were the only ones who could eat both saltcrops—which were relatively plentiful, thanks to the Skaa—and cleancrops.
Of course, cleancrops were far too expensive for a simple orchard worker to eat. But, Devin didn’t let it bother him. At least he could drink cleanwater—Skaa couldn’t even do that. Cleanwater was poisonous to them—standing in the rain blistered their skin, and could even kill them if they didn’t seek shelter.
His basket full, Devin decided to climb down his ladder to deliver his fruit. This was his favorite time in the orchards—the picking season. Pruning was interesting and useful, and he enjoyed caring for young saplings because of the potential he could see within them, but nothing compared to picking. The scent of quallas was in the air, sweet and rich, and the Eruntu could finally see the products of their year-long labor.
Devin reached the bottom of the ladder and began to walk towards his team’s collection station. Around him, a double row of trees extended in either direction. The massive trees’ limbs were burdened down with quallas—careful pruning had encouraged the trees to grow only the largest of fruit. However, if the orchard workers weren’t careful to pick the fruit before it grew too ripe, branches could crack beneath the stress. During picking season, all the women of the village—not just the widows like Talla—were recruited for the effort. It was the busiest time of the year.
“Hess’ Blessing, Vere,” Devin said, passing the tree beside the one he had been picking. An older Eruntu with long white sideburns turned, smiling and waving as Devin passed.
“Watch that far limb to your right, Vere,” Devin warned.
The man looked down with surprise, realizing that he had been leaning against a particularly laden branch, one that was obscured by some larger limbs around it. The smaller branch might crack soon if it weren’t harvested.
“Hess!” he swore. “I didn’t even see that.” Vere took a few steps down his latter and began to pick on the new branch.
Devin continued to walk, moving down the line of trees. Once he had determined to enjoy orcharding, he had found that activities which had once seemed boring had instead become intriguing. There was a great deal to be learned about orchard work. Growing fruit wasn’t just about watering trees and picking the quallas when they appeared—there was plenty for the curious mind to discover.
And so, to keep himself occupied, Devin had begun to ask questions and learn. He had discovered that there was much more to pruning than he had assumed. You pruned a tree one way if you wanted it to produce larger fruit, but a completely different way if you wanted to encourage it to grow more branches to produce in the future. Most of the orchard workers didn’t really understand the distinction—they were all simply taught one of the pruning methods, then assigned to work on trees that needed their particular aid. Knowing the different methods didn’t really do Devin any good, but it did make orcharding much more interesting.
There was so much he hadn’t seen before. Even watering was more complex than he had assumed. The overseers added nutrients to the water to help the trees grow, the amount of nutrients depending on the tree’s age. Trees had to be watered with relative precision—too little water would produce dry fruit, but too much could harm the tree itself.
The more Devin asked, the more had come to understand about the trees. Of course, that much had been expected. But, as he had taught himself, Devin had slowly come to realize that there a much more complex and interesting subject for study in the orchards. The workers.
“Hess’s Blessing, Devin,” a voice said from a nearby tree.
Devin paused as Gellen, a thin man of about twenty-five years, climbed down from a nearby tree. Gellen’s qualla basket was full, and so Devin waited for the man so they could walk to the collection station together.
“Hess’s Blessing, Gellen,” Devin said as the older man approached. “How is that new little boy?”
Gellen’s face immediately split into a grin, and he began to tell Devin of his youngest son’s latest antics. Devin didn’t have to say a word—Gellen was quite pleased doing all the talking.
Gellen always seemed more happy working when he was thinking about his family. It had taken Devin a little while to realize at first, but as long as Gellen had at least one opportunity a day to tell a listening ear about his family, he worked better. Devin could change the man from firm depression to light-hearted optimism simply by mentioning one of his children.
Devin nodded encouragingly as Gellen talked. There was something invigorating about understanding people—they were so much more complex, so much more vibrant, than orchard work.
Vere liked to start picking at the top of a tree, often ignoring branches down below. Divri was one of the best workers in the orchard, as long as his mind wasn’t on some woman who had flirted with him the day before. Tef could fall asleep anywhere—even standing on a ladder. However, if you spoke with him every once in a while, he could keep working all day without tiring.
This was what Devin enjoyed most about orchard work. At first, after his resolve months ago, he’d had to force himself to be happy with his position. However, as he’d grown to know the people, the need to force himself had gone away. Now, finally, he truly loved what he did. Not because of the work itself, but because of who he could do it with.
The two men handed their baskets to a couple of women and got a pair of empty ones. The women would package the fruit in large, padded saltwood crates for shipping to Shakall Hess, the Holy Isle.
Gellen continued chatting through the exchange, then kept on going as they walked back to their trees. However, the ‘conversation’ eventually turned from Gellen’s family to how much he hated a couple of particular overseers. Devin didn’t pay the words much heed—most of the orchard workers liked to complain, and the overseers were often the source of their dissatisfaction. Of course, if it weren’t the overseers, then it was their blisters, their hurting feet, the way the town gossip treated them, or a host of other complaints. Devin saw the complaining for what it was—the people weren’t really unhappy, they just couldn’t convince themselves that they were happy either.
Devin parted with Gellen at them man’s tree, then walked over to make certain that Vere wasn’t in danger of breaking another branch. The elderly picker had already done that once this year, but fortunately it had been a small one. Another mishap, and Vere would be put on watering duty for certain—something his family couldn’t afford, since waterers earned a third the pay of pickers.
After checking Vere, Devin made certain to call up to Tef to make certain the man wasn’t dozing, then climbed back up his ladder. He knew he wasn’t the best worker in the orchard, but that didn’t really matter to him any more. Others would pick more, others would prune more beautifully, but Devin definitely enjoyed himself the most.
Brene shook his head in confusion. He stood at the collections table for the better part of the day—the strange action earning him uncomfortable looks from the village women stationed there. He watched the boy Devin deliver several loads of fruit—he even followed the boy to his tree a couple of times.
Brene could see nothing extraordinary about Talla’s son. Devin seemed to get along well with the other workers—extremely well, in fact. When the boy wasn’t picking he was always walking or talking with someone else. Besides that single item, however, the boy seemed completely ordinary. He delivered an average number of baskets, and his fruit was picked with the normal number of bruises.
Yet, obviously there was something special Brene wasn’t seeing. The statistics never lied. Somehow, the boy had the ability to understand and help others despite his own relative mundanity. Devin himself was not excellent, but he could produce excellence in others. It was an odd combination.
It was enough for Brene. The mayor smiled, turning away from the collecting station. Now that he had finally found an answer to his problem, all seemed right in the world. Devin would be trained as an overseer as soon as he reached the proper age. It would be an unconventional move, and some would probably complain—after all, the other overseers had all taken either fifth or sixth place in one of their runs. Brene would not be dissuaded, however. He wasn’t the one who had made the decision—it was the numbers.
For the third and final time, Devin stood in a line of boys beside an Eruntu Guard Captain. “We’ll take the first four who reach the other entrance to town,” the man announced. Then he paused. “And no cutting through the woods,” he added with a slight smile.
Devin blushed. This wasn’t the same man who had come the year before, but apparently word of Devin’s exploit had spread.
“You may begin,” the Guard announced.
Devin took off at a dash, joining the twenty-four other boys in the race. However, this time something was different. Devin didn’t care if he won.
He watched the faces of the other boys as they ran, seeing the excitement in the eyes of those who were doing well and the frustration in the eyes of those who soon fell behind. There was so much passion, so much anticipation in those eyes. And it was all in the pursuit of a goal none of them really understood.
I don’t want to win, Devin realized as he jogged along the familiar road, feeling the spring breeze around him. He wasn’t just ambivalent about the results of the race—he actually wanted to lose.
The thought was so ironic that he burst out laughing. Several of the other boys gave him odd looks, then went back to their mad scramble, trying to force their bodies to produce beyond what was possible. Why did they even run? The boys all practiced with those of their age—even Devin had begun running with his friends again this year, despite his growing love of the orchards. They knew who was going to win. Why even have a race?
Why was Devin racing? However, despite the thought, he continued running. Even if he didn’t care about winning, he still knew he should do his best. The race was a tradition in the village. If you have to do something, you might as well do it the best you can.
So, he ran. He ran passed the enormous Skaa fields on his left. He ran past the line of trees on the right. He ran, breathing deeply of the crisp air, noting as his passing frightened a small group of creatures from the bushes beside the road. The small animals flitted into the air, moving almost like fish. Lills, they were being called—some reference from the Book of Hess. They had been growing more and more common, and the people were almost beginning to take their strange existence for granted.
Devin watched the four lills swim away, smiling slightly to himself. In the end, he had decided to run the Guard race because he actually enjoyed running. How could he not, after all the time he had put into practicing?
Devin simply ran, barely taking heed of the other boys as he jogged. He did notice one oddity, however—a man in bright red livery leaving the city. A courier of some sort, Devin guessed. Sometimes messengers made rounds through the villages with verbal letters for the families of Guard members. This one looked more important than those, however—more like the personal messenger that had come to announce when Reven had been made a Guard Captain a few years back.
The man was travelling away from the village, however, and so Devin passed him quickly. The rest of the run went uneventfully, and eventually Devin strode back into town, puffing to himself. There was a group of people congratulating the winners of course, and Devin took a short break then went over to join them, shaking the hands of the four enthusiastic boys who had achieved their goal. For once, Devin understood how they felt. He had won too, just in a different way.
As he shook Quillin’s hand, he noticed something odd. The Kkoloss Lord standing in the background. A Kkoloss came every year to proceed over the race, of course, but usually they stayed inside until the very end. Hess’s chosen avoided mixing with Eruntu whenever possible.
This time, however, the Kkoloss stood outside the mayor’s house. He was a tall man—even for a Kkoloss—standing at least seven feet tall. His body rippled with muscles—even his hands and fingers seemed thick with sinew. His bright red hair hung shoulder’s length around his neck, and he wore bright steel armor instead of silks—moving around in the metallic suit as if it weighed nothing. In his hands he clutched a smooth yellow sheet of paper, and there was a strange look on his delicately-featured face. A look of . . . confusion.
Devin shrugged—the ways of the Kkoloss were none of his concern. He turned to the crowd and sought out his mother as the stragglers began to wander into town. Talla smiled up at him, handing him a skin of cleanwater melted from snow.
“That was almost a disaster,” Devin said, gulping down the water with a smile. It was clean and cool, remarkably free of the salty taste that Devin associated with food.
Talla laughed. “Almost is right, Shorty,” she said. “You gave me quite a scare.”
“What do you mean?” Devin asked with a frown.
“You don’t know?” Talla asked.
“Know what?” Devin replied.
“You took fifth place, Shorty,” Talla explained, squirting some water in her own mouth.
Devin froze, his jaw dropping. “Fifth?” he asked with surprise. One place away from winning—and he hadn’t even tried. If he had actually been concerned with winning, he could easily have . . .
“Hess,” he whispered in amazement. What would he have done if he’d actually won? It would have been a disaster.
“Go,” Talla said, nodding toward soldier at the front of the square. “That doll of a captain is trying to gather you together. If you can, try and find out what his name is and if he has leave any time soon.”
Devin rolled his eyes in exasperation, but allowed Talla to push him back toward the line.
“Quillin, Dorse, Varan, and Kitif, step forward,” the Guard Captain announced.
Four boys stepped out of line.
“Do you four swear to take the Kkell Oath and serve His Majesty, King Dunn Vas Sserin, with loyalty and honor?”
The boys nodded in the affirmative.
“Then,” the Captain, said, “I welcome you—”
“Captain, wait a moment,” a voice snapped in Kkoloss.
The crowd grew still, the boys in the line frightened. What had the Kkoloss Lord seen? Had they done something wrong?
The Kkoloss lowered his sheet of paper, his colorful eyes unreadable.
“This year we will take them all,” the Lord announced. “Tell the boys to gather their things—we leave within the hour.”
Devin moved methodically, grabbing bright pink qualls and placing them into the basket at his side. He moved with practiced hands—he had been picking for months now. The growing season was almost over, and winter was quickly approaching. Soon, the trees would drop their leaves and being their season-long hibernation.
Devin’s ladder positioned him right amongst the tree’s branches, and he could smell the sweet tangyness of the fruit. That was, of course, the closest he would ever come to tasting it. Clean-fruit was extremely valuable; there were few places in the nation where the land was salt-free enough for the trees to grow. The perfect fruits would go to Koloss across the continent; the rotten or bruised fruit would be sold to rich Erunt merchants. Smell would have to do for Devin.
As he worked, however, he could almost imagine how the fruit would taste. It would be free of the extreme salty bitterness that accompanied Skaa-grown crops. It would be clear and fresh, like clean-water. Perhaps he shouldn’t have ever tried clean-water—then he wouldn’t know how good clean-crops could taste.
It was said that Koloss could only life on clean-water, that they would die if they only drank salt-water. It wasn’t poisonous to them, like clean-water was to Skaa, it just refused to give them the sustenance they needed.
Devin paused suddenly, his hand reaching for a bright round quall hanging a short distance away. There, sitting in front of his hand on a large branch, was an amazing sight. A zquiz. Right there, in front of him. Devin regarded it with a dropped jaw.
He’d seen zquiz before, of course. Everyone had. The creatures were extremely hard to catch, but they were by no means rare. No, the oddity here was how unconcerned the zquiz seemed with Devin’s own presence. He was close enough that he could almost touch it.
The creature was about the size of a man’s fist, and its four smooth legs gripped the branch with their prehensile fingers. Its blue body was smooth, almost glassy, and its foot-long tail slumped off the side of the branch and hung below it. Its dominant feature, however, were its eyes. They were enormous, bulbous things that were at least half the size of the zquiz’s head. They stared ahead unblinkingly, transfixed by the quall hanging above it.
Every boy dreamed of catching a zquiz and training it to become something magical and grand. Devin only knew three boys who had actually ever managed to catch one of the creatures, and none of their ‘training’ had worked. Of course, a boy could still dream. Few zquiz lived to maturity. But, if they did. . . .
The zquiz before him began to shake and vibrate. Devin held absolutely still, watching with awed eyes. He had heard so many stories about zquiz transformations, but he had never thought he would see one himself. The small creature continued to shake violently, its skin pulsing and rippling. The creatures arms and tail suddenly pulled into its body and became one squirming mass. Its shape seemed to lose form.
Then, with a final undulation, the zquiz’s body snapped into shape and stopped moving. There, sitting on the branch before Devin, was a perfect imitation of a quall. There was only one difference—this quall was blue instead of pink. The zquiz had reached maturity.
Devin reached out hesitantly, poking the zquiz. It looked and felt like a quall in every way—except for the color, of course. Zquiz never changed color.
Devin waited just a moment, then reached out and picked the zquiz-fruit. It came free just like a regular quall. He studied the fruit with amazed eyes. Zquiz were the enigma of the continent. He’d never thought he would see—
“You!” a voice snapped.
Devin spun so fast that a few of his qualls bounced free from his basket, plummeting to the ground below. Joven, Head Foreman of the oarchard, cursed as he saw the spill, shooting Devin an angry look.
“What’s your name again?”
“Devin, sir,” Devin said weakly.
“You’re Talla’s boy?” Joven said.
“Well, Hess take you, I don’t care how good a worker your mother is. If I catch you loafing, you’re out. You understand?”
“And don’t be thinking of eating any of those qualls!” Joven said threateningly.
“No, sir,” Devin stuttered. “I wasn’t loafing, honest. It just—”
“Stop your excuses!” Joven bellowed. “Just get back to work.”
“But, sir,” Devin said, holding out the zquiz quall.
“To Work!” Joven reiterated.
“Yes, sir,” Devin said with a sigh, dropping the zquiz quall into his basket. His mind was just as quick to return to work as his hands, however, as he pondered what he had just seen.
He’d never seen a zquiz transform. He knew that they did—he had seen objects that zquiz had become. However, he’d never seen one in the actual process of changing. It would remain a quall for the rest of his life—once a zquiz chose a shape, it never changed again. The creatures mated early in life, and then spent the rest of their existence either finding something to become, or imitating the shape that they had chosen.
What made it decide to become a quall? Devin thought with confusion. Zquiz were weird—they were said to be curious creatures, full of wonder. Devin didn’t know about that much—it seemed like that was ascribing too much intelligence to them. Regardless, no one understood why they chose the shapes that they did.
Devin’s eyes shot down at his basket. The zquiz-quall sat amongst the fruit he had picked, its bluish skin standing out from its pink surroundings like a dark blotch of mould. What should he do with it? Leave it where it was? If he did, the foremen would probably just assume that a zquiz had found its way in to the quall bins and transformed there.
Why do I even care? Devin wondered. It’s just a zquiz. But, for some reason, when he emptied his basket he took the zquiz-fruit out and placed in the bottom of his empty basket. He continued to do so until the sky began to grow dark, for some reason keeping the zquiz-fruit hidden from the overseers. When it came time to leave for the day, he hid it in his shirt and kept it with him.
All right, I’ve been fiddling with Mythwalker. I’m not exactly certain what angle I want to take Devin’s character from. Izzy made the point to me that I was trying to both have him be average and distinctively incapable at the same time. She was right—I was trying to see if I could pull it off, but I wasn’t very satisfied with the result.
It’s a hard decision to make. Do I make Devin into something of a klutz, someone who can’t do anything right until he gains his powers? Or do I just make him incredibly non-distinctive? The klutz idea would provide more contrast, but I’ve seen it done so much that it seems a little steriotypical to me, not to mention obvious.
It took me most of the night, but inspiration finally struck. I figured out Devin’s personality.