A Creative Encounter
written by j. leigh
original publication on deviantart.com: click here
*note–the Jathen depicted here is not the same Jathen depicted in Way Walkers: Tangled Paths–rather i wrote this first and just fell in love with the name.
In the cleared space of the earth, Jathen dragged his stick along, creating little gullies of line that formed an unrecognizable pattern. At least at first, fore as he squatted there in the underbrush alongside his companions, the task he’d begun solely to occupy his time began to take shape and form, the soft scrapping of sand turning into a picture. Scratch, scratch, a few little lines there, a few longer ones here, and done! The eighteen-year-old wiped a few strands of scraggly russet hair from his equally dark brown eyes and smiled somewhat, surveying proudly his little work. Crude, he had to admit, but not bad, not bad, when considering his medium. He’d scratched together a little horizontal dragon that he’d taken the liberty of making appear to be swimming down a waterfall. Inspired suddenly, he added a few real stones to the base, creating a rocky whirlpool at the bottom.
“Pretty good,” Mace murmured from beside him, the long-time compatriot scuttling a tad closer to inspect it as well. “You’ve a bit of talent there, Jath,” he grinned, his lopsided and gape-tooth smile a testament to his years of a fighter’s lifestyle. Indeed, Mace’s face was nothing nice to look at, a myriad of scars and a multi-broken nose gave him a rather nasty physical pretense. He wasn’t too bad on the personality side though, in fact out of the lot of the raiders, Jathen found his company the most appealing. “Too bad you’re just lowly bandit-scum like the rest of us.”
“Quit screwing around,” Sorret hissed at them in a harsh whisper from above, then slipping down from the tree he had been perched in, sent Jathen’s little artwork scattering with a quick slide of his foot.
“Hey,” Mace defended the younger boy to their leader, “What you have to do that for? It was good, and he wasn’t bothering anybody with his sketching. Chasing the boredom away if anything- we’ve been watching this road for hours and haven’t seen hide nor hair of a mark. Kid’s got a talent to keep my sanity going, what’s wrong with that?”
“Talent? Pah,” Sorret scowled down at them, “One does not fill their bellies with talent of that type, no. What really fills out the change purse is to be Talented in magic or some-such useful Ability. So unless Jathen’s gone and Awakened to some unknown power and can flip travelers upside-down with his mind and make the job all that easier, don’t go messing with any other stupid, time-wasting crap!” His head jerked sideways toward the road, “Now, come on, there’s somebody coming up the path, I got a signal from the other half of the group.” He scrapped his foot along the sketch again, searing the last of it away as he moved sideways through the trees, off toward their expected conquest.
“Ass,” Mace muttered then moved after him, leaving Jathen alone with nothing but scattered stones and blurred lines.
Hitching his battered short sword up, he sighed and left the destroyed masterwork behind, like so many dreams that had come before. His older brother Sorret was right; Jathen was no major Talent, to dream of the laid-back life of those who melded craft and magic to make a living. His was a more practical calling; money was to be had on the highways by brute strength of numbers. Never mind that there were those in the world who believed you could evolve your soul through the creative process itself, or that Jathen had once imagined himself there, amongst the followers of Bree, Child of Creativity. No, best not to dwell on such silly old daydreams; he wasn’t born to such a life, and had not the Talent to pursue a Path to Spirit on his own. Swallowing the bitter taste of regrets long past, he moved silently forward toward the road, catching up quickly with his brethren.
“What we got?” he asked softly when he came beside them in the line, the three crouching unseen in the underbrush, eyes affixed upon the road ahead.
“Not much,” Mace snorted, “But looks like one you’d like, Jathen- traveling artist by the look of her pack, maybe we can snatch some real pencils for ya this time round.” He jabbed the younger boy playfully with his elbow, but Jathen frowned, unamused.
Sorret was even less-so as he spat back at both of them, his face an older and harsher version of Jathen’s. “Shush. Stop being such idiots! Like ya said, it’s just an artist. Might not even be worth stopping- but it’s been hours, and we need every bit of coin we can snag. Let’s take her quick, and be done with it.”
Just an artist, Jathen’s mind spun, No, artists can be Way Walkers too, followers of Bree. They are energy-manipulators, and can alter matter, making ink and paper spring to limited life to fight their battles for them. No, best move with caution for this one. Jathen snagged Sorret’s sleeve to relay his thoughts before he had slithered forward.
Begrudgingly, the older man worked his lips around, thinking as his brother spoke softly, then replied, “Yeah, you’re right, Jath. Mace, get the crossbow up on her- don’t let her reach for anything out of her pack, and don’t let her move her hands none. She reaches for anything, shoot her in the head.”
“Right,” Mace nodded, cocking his bow with a grim line to his mouth. It may seem cold, but Followers of Bree could be trouble- a few quickly drawn lines and a few muttered words and they’d be fighting a dragon born of ink and paper that could not technically die. So they waited, poised as their quarry rounded the bend and came into view, strolling along the road without a care.
As the traveler came within view, they stepped out, Sorret first, then Jathen, with Mace with taking up the rear. They came out slowly, almost friendly, so not to force their mark to bolt; they had learned, after so many years of it. “Hello there,” Sorret called, not quite threatening, but with a certain air of greed. He had his sword out, casual at his side, but drawn non-the less. Jathen stood beside him, his own weapon still sheathed, while Mace cocked his crossbow from somewhat behind and to the far side of the little traveler, a safe but deadly distance. With that unnerving greeting, the traveler halted, and Jathen got a good look at her for the first time.
She was youngish, in line with Jathen at perhaps only seventeen, with short hair cut in a bowl-top that was a startlingly bright gold even in the filtered light of the shadow-casting trees. Clad in russet and green, her brilliant hair was crowned with a dark green velvet cap that looked placed more for appearances than practicality. Her build was slim but athletic, and she looked to be accustomed to walking long distances with her thick canvas pack. Bushes and scrolls peeked out from the top of it, while bells and strings of gold coins dangled at the bottom, almost waving at the bandits like a coy enticement. Otherwise, she had no visible weapons or shows of wealth, but for her luminous eyes in the color of amber-green. Had they been gems they’d be enough to feed their rough crew for a year. Those intense eyes watched the line of bandits, waiting.
“I’ll make it simple, no quips or fluff,” Sorret smiled grimly, “Hand over the pack, those dangling coins and anything else ya got of value, and we’ll let ya keep walking. Don’t, and well,” he flexed his fingers on his sword-hilt, “You won’t be walking no-where no more.”
Normally, most travelers would balk and cry, stutter or try to flee, some showing of fear or defiance. This girl however, did none of it; instead she simply blinked at Sorret a moment, her eyes almost confused, then replied without a trace of emotion at all, “Taking from others against their will violates the first law of Spirit.”
Jathen’s heart bubbled, worried- there were many in the world that were devout, but he was fairly certain only a Way Walker would respond so assuredly in the face of danger. The others must have felt it too, for Mace raised and clicked his crossbow at fully ready, while Sorret lowered his head, his words a deep growl of authority. “Yeah, yeah, I’m not interested in being preached to, little girl. So be good, or we’ll go and violate the second Spirit law on you- ‘do no harm’.”
Her chin shot up, an interesting and somewhat jarring expression on her face, one of bemusement. “So, it is not out of ignorance that you act,” she said simply, smiling, “Then I have my right to defend.”
“Hey,” Mace called, and she turned her head somewhat to eye him, “None of that, now, little artist. We don’t want ‘ta hurt ya, but we will. Now drop the pack down- none of that crazy drawing-magic stuff.”
“Humm,” she sighed, pulling her straps away from her body, letting the pack slide down slowly as she still eyed Mace’s readied bolt with her green-amber orbs, “Very little ignorance, it seems.”
“Yeah, we dealt with Way Walkers before,” Sorret snidely pointed-out, his sword up, “You Bree Followers all aren’t so tough without your papers and pens. Now step away from the pack over there, and we’ll be on our way, same as you, little artist.”
“Mmm,” she murmured again, stepping away as Jathen came forward to take her pack. Her wide eyes watched him, and Jathen was left feeling as if he was being sized-up by a mighty feline for dinner. “Not so tough at all,” she whispered. Trying to ignore her and the creeping sensation that was galloping up his back, Jathen began to examine the pack. It would seem she was an artist, though he could not tell if the supplies within were the kind ment to weave magic and make fantasy live. There were clothes and some more money as well, not a lot, but they could cannibalize all the supplies and fetch a nice sum on the black market. He was about to happily relay as much to the others, when the girl began to hum.
At first, Jathen thought it no more than the nervous musings of an anxious victim, but as he shifted through her belongings, the sound shivered up his spine, catching his breath. Slowly, subtly at first, the notes began to knell, weaving a strange tune that started to worm its way into his brain. Turning to the sound, he saw her humming away with her fingers in her ears, and a separate mental alarm went-off inside his skull. What was this, this humming? Way Walkers only specialized in one craft, no Follower of Bree could be both a creator of inky monsters and a bard. What was happening shouldn’t be happening- unless they were dealing with something, else. Out of the corners of his vision, he saw Mace and Sorret waver, Mace’s crossbow dipping and Sorret clutching his head. Attempting to stand, to flee, Jathen was hit with the deeper vertigo as well as she continued on, the weird tone piecing his mind and making the world soft and malleable.
And then, it became painful.
It was only a single, stark sound, a high-pitched note of a finale that seemed to suddenly cut through them all, stealing breath and nearly breaking his heat. Jathen fell, and around him the others did too, clutching their chests and heaving. What filled his soul then was despair, so deep, so maddening he could not fight the welling of the sorrow, and despite his best intentions, began to sob uncontrollably, unreservedly. It was as if every misery, every sorrow he had done any who’d crossed his path was felt then, in that moment in his heart, so full of misery he was certain it would burst.
And then, the sound stopped.
Jathen sputtered hard, the breath in his lungs seemingly turning against him as he lay there, stunned and broken, not of body, but of soul. So she is a Walker of Bree, how funny, he thought in what he imagined to be his death throes, such a coincidence, that I’d be thinking about the likes her just before meeting one…
There is no such thing as coincidences.
Opening his eyes to the sound of the intruding voice inside his head, he was surprised to see her standing over him, bright sunshine hair framing her exquisite amber eyes. Oddly enough she smiled at him as she crouched down, those eyes crunching up in an expression that was positively radiant; so much so that all fear and sorrow seemed to leave him. Still grinning, she reached out and stroked his forehead, the effects of her dazzling song slipping away, and his heart and lungs freed from their restricted movements. “You’ve a creative mind,” she said, that voice still holding a hint of chime, but this was a tone of possibility, not destruction. “Perhaps you are meant to use it for something other than this life, hum?” With that she smiled again and nodded at him, standing. “Your friends will wake in a bit. Maybe you can run away before they do, hum?” Then she winked and turned, leaving him still lying in the road as she gathered her pack and re-hoisted it onto her back.
Startled, but regaining strength and sense, he sat up a touch and called out after her. “And do what, exactly?”
“Whatever you want, Jathen,” she called back without turning, though she waved her hand out in a saluted goodbye. Using her foot, she kicked away Mace’s crossbow from where it had fallen, back closer to his head, the unfired dart aimed accusatory at his rough face. Laughing lightly, she then hopped right over Sorret’s motionless body, as if he were merely a branch fallen across the road. “I believe you’re fond of sketching Amber dragons!”
Stunned again, he lay there in the middle of the road, flanked by a loudly wheezing Mace and a silent Sorret, absolutely dumbfounded. She had known not only his name, but the hidden desires of his heart. I wonder, he thought, sitting up to stare at her slowly fading figure, as he realized she had left him her coins and a single brush, there beside him. If I just met the real Bree, Child of Creativity herself. Plucking up the coin and pocketing the brush, he would like to think so. He stood, saluted his brother in much the same fashion as she had seen him off, and then left his battered sword beside Mace. Where he was going, he would not need it.
Jathen walked away.