Crossing the Imaginary Line with Jeanine Berry
The Heart Stone. From the moment he learned of its existence, Aren Lohenrin, an adept of the Temple of the Sky Gods in Ruthher, knew he was destined to penetrate its secrets. The fist-sized purple crystal pulsed and glowed like a living thing, yearning to burst with the immense knowledge and Power the legends said the ancient Sky Gods themselves had stored within it.
The Heart Stone was too powerful for a human to touch. Humanity’s grasp of the khi power was still too feeble. Yet when Aren stared into the stone’s shimmering violet depths, he heard it whisper his name …
Now plague stalked the streets of Ruthher and the death toll was mounting. The healing skill of the adepts of the Temple had failed to stop the reign of death, and the Sky Gods were silent. Aren knew he must defy the ancient laws and seek the secrets of the Heart Stone … even if it cost him his life. But even he could not foresee how a single act of defiance would change the world forever.
The Secret Sky is the first book of the Dayspring series.
An excerpt from Chapter Three of The Secret Sky
The winding streets of Ruthher were deserted; the only light came from the pale curve of the moon high in the sky. Aren stood in the middle of the small courtyard at the front of the house and turned to face the wind. The cold air blew through his garments, taking away the stink of disease. Above the peaked tile roofs of the houses and shops a river of stars blazed across the velvet night.
Each star called to his soul in its own voice. He felt a desperate urge to spread his arms to the wind and fly beyond space and time, to where the secrets of the sky were kept, to the Timeless Sphere where the Sky Gods dwelt. The universe was so vast…the khi power so infinite. Once it had seemed such a blessing to know that the Sky Gods watched over Atlaua. Once he wanted nothing more than to serve them in their sacred Temple. Those dreams no longer brought him any joy. A dark presence stalked these quiet streets and the people who slept behind the shuttered windows, a presence he was powerless to stop…unless. But that was forbidden.
He shivered in the cold wind and pushed the thought away. The stars were starting to fade before the promise of dawn when he finally reached his home, a comfortable town house about two blocks from the Temple. When his wife still lived it had been a welcome refuge from the cares of the priesthood.
He placed a hand on the gate and stopped, looking into the walled courtyard in front of the house. He could hear the trickle of water in the fountain; see the dim gray outline of the bench where she loved to sit. After a long day of healing in the Temple, he would sit at her side and Terien would play at their feet. It never mattered if he was too drained to talk. Nenei would laugh and squeeze his hand and chatter about her day while he drank in the warmth of the sun and let the khi power fill him in great replenishing waves.
The memory vanished and he stood in an empty courtyard in the dying night. As he placed his key in the lock his lips twisted in a sour smile. Where could he flee from these memories? The house was worse. Since Nenei’s death he could find no place of peace where his soul could rest. Every corner held some sweet memory of her, some bitter reminder of his failed dreams.
He pushed open the oaken door and walked inside. The house was dark and he stumbled over one of Terien’s wooden soldiers lying on the floor. That was odd. Usually, the boy put everything away in the box by the window before going up to bed.
Aren moved on through the common room and into the kitchen where a fire smoldered in the hearth. A table and chairs stood in front of the fire and his old servant Hadzar sat slumped over the table, his head on his arms, dozing. Aren frowned. It was not like Hadzar to leave Terien’s side—he usually slept on a cot in the boy’s room. He stuck a taper in the fireplace, and used its flame to light the candle on the table. As it flared alight, the old man jerked awake.
Hadzar pushed back his chair and stumbled to his feet. The deep lines around his mouth turned down. He clutched his gnarled hands together and placed them over his heart in greeting.
Aren glanced from his servant’s worried face to the staircase that led from the kitchen to the upper bedrooms. Why was Hadzar down here waiting for his return?
“Young master Terien—” Hadzar licked his lips. “He has a fever.”
Shock drove a knife blade of fear into Aren’s chest. As the pain froze him, his heart squeezed tight and stopped beating for a moment. Then it stumbled back into its old rhythm. But the universe had changed between those two tortured heartbeats.
“When did the fever start?”
“At suppertime. He wasn’t hungry. You know how unusual that is.”
Aren nodded. Terien was an active boy, always running and playing, with an appetite to match. He was strong, but he was only ten summers old.
He yanked his cloak off his shoulders, and tossed it onto a chair. “Why didn’t you send for me at once?”
Hadzar’s grief twisted his mouth, deepening the lines on his leathery cheeks. The old servant lowered his head. “I did not know where to find you, Adept.”
Guilt stabbed at Aren as he recognized the truth of that gentle reproach. He’d been out since the previous dawn, visiting the sick. He’d intended to return hours before, but was stopped by one frantic stranger after another, dragged from house to house like some magical talisman sure to heal any ills. By nightfall he’d found himself at the other end of Ruthher.
“I expected you back at any moment.” Hadzar was still explaining, his voice anxious. “If I’d known you would be gone so long I would have sent to the Temple for Adept Judador.”
“I understand.” Aren rubbed his forehead to ease the sharp pain behind his eyes. “I spent the night healing others when I should have been here where I belong. The fault is mine, not yours.”
“You are here now.” Hadzar attempted a smile. “I know the Sky Gods will answer your prayer and Terien will soon be well again.”
Aren clapped a hand on the old man’s shoulder and squeezed, trying to reassure them both. He knew better than anyone how quickly the plague was spreading. Death picked victims as they walked through the markets, blew in on a warm breeze as a housewife threw open a window, passed from mouth to mouth as lovers kissed. He should have rushed home hours ago. Hadn’t he learned yet that he wasn’t immune to the thunderbolts of fate?
A prayer raced through his mind as he hurried up the stairs. Perhaps this long silence was a test of faith as Zevir insisted; perhaps the Sky Gods listened. Aren halted outside Terien’s door. He stilled his rapid breathing and stepped inside.
A lamp, turned low, stood on the table by the bed. Terien lay sleeping, a soft rosy glow on his cheeks. Aren blew out a sigh of relief and reached out to touch his son’s forehead. The smooth young flesh blazed with heat.
With a soft moan of despair he dropped to his knees at the bedside and opened his senses to see the khi. Even with his power so drained, he could discern the dim outline of the energy field around the boy, see the spreading patches of darkness. He bit down on his lip. This fever was a fierce one. Sometimes a quick fever could cause damage to the aura, then disappear overnight. The Sky Gods could not possibly be so cruel—they would not take both the boy and his mother. A few potent herbs, a touch from the healing energy in his hands, and Terien would be well again.
The sleeping boy moaned and shifted position, his eyelids flickering. Aren felt his heart melt as he stared down at the oval face, so like Nenei’s. Terien had her fine bones and wide-set, sapphire eyes; his tangled black hair and tall, thin frame. Somehow their love lived on in this child. Nothing must harm him.
Aren brushed a few damp curls off his son’s forehead, then braced himself and centered his hands, palms downward, over the child’s navel. Ignoring the exhaustion brought on by the last few days, he moved his hands in a broad sweeping pattern, feeling the patterns of energy that flowed beneath him. The force that filled his son with life was a living river of light that danced through and around the boy. But that vital energy was touched with darkness as a stronger, colder energy ate away at its source.
Aren pressed his eyes shut and centered his thoughts deep within. The energy burned like two flames in the palms of his hands as he searched for the blockages in his son’s life force and worked with delicate touches to unravel them. Yet as quickly as he would unravel one another would form. Terien’s life energy stayed bound up, sluggish.
With a groan Aren brushed Terien’s hair back off his forehead, trying to take comfort in that small gesture of tenderness. Small gestures were all that was left to him, it seemed. If only his mastery of the khi power were greater…if only the Sky Gods would speak again…He braced himself for one more sweep and felt the sensitivity in his fingertips flare and die. A headache began pounding in his temples. He knew the signs—his store of khi energy was exhausted. He turned his palms up and stared at them, cursing their uselessness, cursing his own weariness, cursing whatever it was that kept the Sky Gods silent.
The soft whisper shattered his anger. A fresh wave of love filled his heart as he bent over his son. Terien’s eyes were open, watching him.
“I feel hot, and my stomach hurts.”
Aren forced a smile to his lips and got up from his knees to sit on the edge of the bed. “You have a fever, son. I was waiting for you to wake up so I could give you some medicine.”
Terien smiled, and the smile transformed his face into an image of Nenei’s. Aren swallowed hard. His wife was dead these three years—at least she did not have to face this terrible fear. If only his love could protect their son. But love had not protected her when a startled horse bolted in the marketplace, his hooves striking out at bystanders. A powerful blow to her swollen stomach had started a miscarriage. She’d bled to death in the streets before any healing priest could reach her. What good had his glorious gift been then? Her grave was in the valley behind the Temple with other faithful servants of the Sky Gods.
Aren fumbled with the pouch at his belt and drew out another container. There was only one left. He would have to hurry to the Temple and get more. But how could he leave with Terien so ill?
“Here. Swallow this down, and you’ll feel better soon.”
The boy obediently swallowed. Aren watched the muscles in his son’s throat working and tried to suppress his growing fear. Terien was so innocent. What kind of heartless god would let him suffer? Three hundred years ago, when a plague had struck Ruthher, the Sky Gods had reached down from the Timeless Sphere and stopped it. But this time…silence.
Aren pressed his lips together, holding in his anger, forcing his face to stay calm. Terien must not see how upset he was. The boy was watching him, his eyes full of intelligence. He patted his son’s hand.
“I’ll get Cook up and have her make you some broth. You must try to eat it for me.”
Terien lay back on his pillow with a sigh. “I’m sleepy.”
“Sleep then. It will help you get better. Hadzar will wake you when the broth is ready.”
He kissed one hot cheek and tucked the covers up around his son’s shoulders. Terien shut his eyes. A moment later his breathing fell into the regular rhythms of sleep, although a little fast—the fever. Aren crept from the room and pulled shut the door. Holding a finger to his lips, he motioned Hadzar down the steps.
“My son is very ill.”
“Is it the plague, Adept?” The servant blinked, his eyes worried, his hand going to the amulet he wore around his neck—no doubt blessed by one of the priests in the Temple for good luck. Hadzar still believed his prayers would be answered, that the Sky Gods would speak again at any moment.
“It may be.”
He did not even want to put the possibility into words, for that would give it reality and power. The sick faces he’d seen during the long night rose up in his mind, and he shuddered. How could this nightmare happen in Ruthher? The city of the Temple was supposed to be sheltered forever under the protecting wings of the Sky Gods. How could he fight back against silence?
The Heart Stone holds their wisdom. Zevir’s words echoed in his memory. A vision of the stone flashed through his mind. Its facets glittered, taunting him with the secrets it contained. What did it matter if the gods refused to answer if he could tap into its hidden knowledge? Zevir continued to forbid him to touch the stone, but the need for answers was urgent. The secret to fighting the plague might lie within those gleaming facets.
Aren looked down at the expectant face of his servant, a plan forming in his mind. He owed it to his son, and to his healing oath, to take a risk.
“Watch over Terien,” he commanded, drawing the last vial from his pouch. “Give him this at the noon hour if I have not returned by then. I think I know a way to get the help of the Sky Gods.”
Hadzar’s face brightened as he took the vial. “Yes, Adept.”
A pounding started on the door.“Stay with Terien,” he told Hadzar, as he hurried away. It was barely past sunrise. Only the desperate came pounding on a priest’s door at such an hour.
“Adept Lohenrin!”“Please, sir!”
The pleading voices broke over him like an all-engulfing wave the moment he opened the door. Five people stood outside in the early dawn. Desperation flowed out of them like a river, threatening to sweep him up and pull him out into the sea of despair where they floundered.
“My wife has a fever.”
“My daughter is terribly sick.”
“Can’t you come at once? Both my parents are ill.”
Aren held up a hand to stop their babbling. A reluctant silence fell over the group. He saw the fear that narrowed their eyes and puckered their mouths. The plague was moving through the city with terrible speed.
“I know you are afraid.” He spoke in the calm, measured tones he’d learned in the healing shrine. “But the Sky Gods watch over us even in their silence. I am on my way to the Temple to seek the answer we need.”
He pushed through them, avoiding their eyes so he couldn’t see the pain and terror that would trap him into staying and trying to help.
“How long until you return, Adept?” one shouted at his back.
“As quickly as I can,” he promised, and hurried on, his thoughts on the task ahead.
Could he touch the Heart Stone and survive? He did not know.