The sheer scale of epic fantasy attracts me. I love stories with many interesting characters and multiple settings. In the Rys Rising series, I developed two civilization, each under the influence of a magical race. The characters include magical beings and the humans under their dominion. I weave their various stories together to tell the tale of a great war from all sides involved.
In the third part of the series, New Religion, I added a new character who is forced to join the holy war as a teenager. This character allowed me to explore the phenomenon of child soldiers and how young people can be molded into killers.
Excerpt from New Religion:
Memories of home receded from Khage’s reality with every passing day in the Nolesh Forest. His abduction had thrust the present into preeminence in his mind. The past was so out of joint with his current existence that reconciling them was too difficult.
His rough recruitment had taught him about the brutality that his captors were capable of, but since the first awful day his treatment had improved. Although he remained tied to his group of boys, they were allowed to wash in a stream and they were being fed a thin gruel. They spent their days listening to lectures from men called rysmavda. These men reminded Khage of priests from his village temple, but now they spoke only of Onja. Everyone was to renounce Jayshem, Zatooluh, and Opeti. The rysmavda told them the blessings of the Goddess would enrich her followers. Continually the boys were told that the false powers of their former gods had only been tricks to keep the boys and their families poor and forever working. The rysmavda urged the boys to fight for Onja so that their families could enjoy prosperity instead of fruitless drudgery.
These messages penetrated Khage’s heart. He was too disoriented to track the days, but not many had passed before he began to believe that he could help his poor struggling family by spreading the wisdom and benevolence of Onja. His lecturers told the boys that some day they would return to their villages as heroes. Wealth and prestige would be theirs, and their families would gratefully praise them for freeing the lands of false gods and miserable lies.
As engaging as these fantasies were, Khage thought most often of the High Priestess Loxane. He had not seen her since that day when the Kezanada lord had spoken to them, but the hope of seeing her again made Khage forsake thoughts of escape, which was likely fatal folly anyway.
Today Khage would be tested on the lessons of the priests. If he could properly recite his devotions to Onja, then he would be untied. Khage listened to his final lecture attentively, determined to pass his test. The chance to be free of the dirty noose around his raw neck sharpened his mind considerably.
The boys were lined up in the gloom of the shady forest. The rysmavda receded to their encampment, but Kezanada remained watchful over the boys. Still tied to his fellows, Khage found the tedium stressful. His stomach growled. The midday bowl of gruel seemed not to be forthcoming today.
The afternoon dragged on and the boys shifted uncomfortably in their bonds. Khage ached to be free of the leashing. Trying to measure the passing of time, he tracked the golden glare of the sun that partially penetrated the tree canopy. Little of the sky was visible, but Khage imagined the open blue beyond the mass of trees. He still was not used to the ancient forest. It was much more colossal than the woodlands near his village, and he had never even ventured deeply into those. His people had generally worked at clearing the trees and opening more fields. The forest was something to be pecked away at and its mysteries only dipped into. But now Khage was perhaps irretrievably lost inside the wide unmapped reaches of the Nolesh. The encircling womb-like trees enclosed him in a living totality. Its presence was intimidating but also compelling. If he could learn this place, he could become part of its massive living force and benefit from tapping into its power. That was how the Kezanada seemed to be. They slipped in and out of the trees as comfortably as Khage had once crossed open fields of grain. Thinking of fields, he suddenly longed for the relaxing openness where he could see all around, but then he recalled the toil that those fields had required and how it would have someday bowed even his strong back. The rysmavda had said that he must be grateful for his chance to serve Onja’s higher purpose.
At last three rysmavda returned. They wore blue robes or vests over regular clothes. Khage noted eagerness on their faces, and assumed they were hopeful that their students would pass.
A Kezanada advanced and drew a knife. The boy at the end of the line cringed from the warrior, but he only cut the boy’s noose free from the line. Tugging on the dangling rope, the Kezanada yanked the boy to his feet. With wide eyes, he was led to the rysmavda.
Out of hearing of the others boys, the first boy was put on his knees before the rysmavda who took turns questioning him. Khage watched the rysmavda, and their deepening frowns did not bode well. Eventually the garbled answers of the quaking boy became intolerable and one rysmavda threw up his hands in disgust. A Kezanada seized the boy by the noose and beat him with his thick fist. The other boys watched painfully as their fellow was punished for his failure.
The next boy was cut from the line and taken for testing. He weathered his testing and the Kezanada cut the noose completely from his neck. This boy was then told to wait in another area.
Khage watched apprehensively as each boy was taken before the rysmavda. Three more passed and two more endured the beatings of failure. Then it was Khage’s turn. When the Kezanada cut him loose, Khage stood up. He was almost as tall as the warrior, and he looked at him directly. Khage’s brave glare did not interest the warrior who flung the boy before the priests.
On his knees, Khage faced his teachers. They were of middle age, and their severe expressions were drifting toward boredom as they repeated their questions.
Khage wrangled with his anxiety and braced himself with determination. The questions came swiftly.
“Who is the keeper of your soul?”
“Onja,” Khage replied.
“Do you reject false idols?”
“Name three blessings of your Goddess.”
“Healing, peace, and mercy.”
“Who deserves mercy?”
“The believers of Onja.”
“How do you show your faith in your Goddess?”
Khage faltered. The prayers of affirmation that he had been taught suddenly eluded him. He glanced at the nearby Kezanada, who rubbed his knuckles.
“Fight for her!” Khage blurted.
One of the rysmavda smiled at the exceptionally desirable answer.
“Who do you fight for your Goddess?”
The rysmavda assessed him in silence. Khage averted his gaze. He took deep even breaths. He was not hobbled by the other boys now and intended to defend himself if the Kezanada tried to beat to him.
When the Kezanada grabbed his arm, Khage was on the verge of lashing out when he realized that he was only being directed toward the group of boys who had passed.
Jumping to his feet, he stared in shock at the rysmavda who regarded him without any appreciation for the significance of the moment. He had never succeeded before. He had never been instructed and then tested. He had not even known such things were possible for him. Elation briefly drove the stress from his body. The Kezanada cut the noose from his neck, and he privately swore to Onja that he would do anything to make sure that the noose was never put back on. Perhaps this was her first mercy as he began to serve her great purpose.