Brine Denbauk had heard it said, on more than one occasion actually, that he never looked closer to God than when he was playing his flute. The speakers were referring to his God-given musical talent, of course—not to mention his preternatural hand-ear coordination—but Brine had still thought it an odd thing to say, especially when the people saying it were disciples, and the place it was being said was a monastery.
     But ever the diplomat, Brine had always thanked his fellow disciples for their kind words and offered them a happy smile in return, knowing that deep down inside—deeper even than the place where common sense was formed—the person was only being nice.
     It was only later, when he was alone in his dorm, and with his thoughts, that these statements had a fiercely corrosive effect on Brine’s conscience. His flute, as any good disciple knew, was an evil anchor to a wicked world, and Brine—not to put too fine a point on it—was supposed to be one of those good disciples.
     So how was it that his interaction with the evil anchor brought him closer to his God? In Brine’s humble, Amian opinion, that simply could not be. Therefore, if there was even a shred of truth to these kind and well-intended statements, what was he doing wrong as a disciple?
     He had brooded on this for several ages, endured no end of metal turmoil and internal anguish, then finally, during one of his midnight outings with Miriana—an outing which involved no more physical contact that the occasional holding of sweaty hands—he’d brought the issue to her attention.
     He could always trust Miriana to speak her mind, even if what she were speaking was something he didn’t wish to hear. So bearing this in mind, he’d slipped the flute from his lips, sat up gingerly from the blanket, and asked the question that was tearing him apart.
     And she had giggled at him.
     Overhead, a million-billion stars twinkled and burned the midnight sky, and Miriana Faily tittered at her man-friend.
     If it’s used to His glory, she had said, once the giggles and grins had subsided, any evil anchor can be an instrument of His righteousness.
     Any anchor? Brine wondered, again having his doubts. Because he knew full-well that when he reached for his flute, he wasn’t thinking, Okay, here we go, gona tune myself with God now, gona draw from Him the spiritual nourishment my hungry soul requires. No, he was reaching for the flute and thinking, Okay, let’s have some fun, and he told Miriana so, and she’d giggled at him again.
     Why should the two be mutually exclusive? she had asked. Why should you enjoy yourself in the morning and then commune with God in the afternoon, Brother Brine? Considering all good things come from the Maker, why would you believe this silly pastime anything less than divine?
     Then it was Brine’s turn to let his eyes lose focus, taking in the stars and thinking very hard that his woman-friend had an excellent point. He was still trying to process it when she let loose with another, this one even more profound than the first:
     You have a peace about you, Brother Brine. While you’re playing, you look utterly calm with yourself, like all of your cares and worries have melted away.
     And when Brine pointed out that what she was saying was blasphemy and that such peace came only from his prayers during the Time of Peace and his Wogol studies before bed and their long chants on the holy days, she had agree with him.
     You have the same look then, too, she had told him, only it’s not as strong.
     And to that, Brine didn’t know what to say, so he’d said nothing. He’d lifted his flute to his lips and started playing once more, secretly thinking—in the back of his mind—that he agreed with her…at least a little.
     Playing his flute did cleanse his mind, and it did so in much the same way that hard work cleansed the body and long prayers cleansed the soul, but was it divine? Was his ability to dance his fingers along the holes, and to change the pressure of his exhalation, a true miracle?
     It seemed rather miraculous in Brine’s book; A man in his early twenties playing complex melodies with the speed and dexterity of an accomplished veteran? That certainly sounded like the definition of a miracle, which—the last Brine checked—was an unexplainable event that boggles one’s mind.
     Not that Brine would ever be caught speaking such a thing aloud. Oh, no. It was one thing to be blasphemous, but prideful? He couldn’t stomach pride, and to speak of his talent as a miracle seemed to be the height of arrogance as far as he was concerned.
     Hey, look at me! the statement seemed to suggest. Look what I can do!
     Interestingly enough, when Brine made music with his flute, he had never needed to mention the miraculous nature of his talent. He needed only to play his merry tunes—his fingers dancing along the shaft—and his gawking spectators would reach the conclusion on their own.
     On this dark and troubled night, however, as the estranged disciple prepared to go searching for his look of utter calm, there were no gawking spectators to be found. There was only Brother Brine and his flute and the handful of woodland creatures still residing in the gardens. Everyone else in Castle Arn—or most of them, he would imagine—were still sleeping soundly in the comfort of their beds.
     Lucky them.
     It was nothing Brine intended to do, and he was not pleased to be doing it, but it appeared as though he’d asked his good friend insomnia to sleep over for yet another grueling night.
     It had started three nights prior, the day he’d watched six of his father’s closest friends carry his father from a flatbed wagon to his final resting place. Since then, Brine had gone through the motions—listening to the advisers argue about how to find their missing king, or whether they should even bother, or if they did find him, what they should do about these bone-headed missions—and then Brine would say his goodnights, retire to his room, and wonder if tonight would be his lucky night.
     So far, none of the nights had proven lucky and each consecutive day began to blur into the next, distinguishable one from another only by his nightly ritual of prayers and Wogol studies (which, by now,  was followed closely by his new nightly ritual of lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling).
     On the first night, he hadn’t really been surprised, not with his mind whirling with thoughts of his purpose and his heart reeling from feelings of grief. But on the second night, he had felt so exhausted from having not slept the previous night that he was sure the curse would end. He hadn’t even bothered to slip on his night robes or wash his greasy face. He’d simply laid the Wogol on the nightstand and collapsed upon the mattress.
     Sleep will come now, he told himself. It will come from the walls and from the floor and it will smother me like a warm and heavy gas, pressing me into the mattress and forcing out my thoughts.
     And when that didn’t happened, he rolled onto his side and counted more sheep than the prairies of his homeland would know what to do with. And when slumber still refused to fall, he rolled onto his back and tried clearing his mind by picturing a fluffy white cloud as it floated across the sky. And when that didn’t work, he opened his eyes wide, stared through the ceiling, and prayed to his God to knock him out cold. But God wasn’t taking request this late at night and the disciple had gone on staring at the ceiling, his sleep an elusive animal in the wilderness of his mind. 
     Needless to say, on this night—his third in a row of nauseated sleeplessness—he had decided to try something new. He made his prayers and he read his Wogol and he even laid there on the bed for a time, counting the various bovine and watching the various clouds, but he only let this go on for so long before putting his plan into action.
     After a certain number of sheep, he latched the gate on his imaginary pasture, rolled himself out of bed, and set out to test Miriana’s theory about his flute. Because if her theory were accurate, then his flute would bring him the utter calm he craved and his sleep would come quick. And wouldn’t that be nice…
     The difficult part of the experiment, he knew, would be finding somewhere secluded to practice the theory. At this time of night, the other residents of Castle Arn would be sleeping and anywhere inside the castle would be relatively close to either the bedchambers or the roving guards. And even though Brine wouldn’t be disturbing the guards, he didn’t really want them to see him playing his flute in the dead of night. Most of them already thought he’d lost his mind by shaving his temples and growing a wauk. They didn’t need more ammunition.
     So, slipping his flute inside his robes and pretending he was moving for the privy, Brine snuck quietly to the one place in the castle where he knew no one would be watching…Although, along the way, he began to wonder if hiding his flute were even necessary. There were no sentries in the upper levels of the castles, no guards in the main hall downstairs, and no watchmen at the primary exit leading to the garden. In fact, as he crept into the larder at the rear of the kitchen, he realized that he hadn’t seen nor heard another living soul; no pacing guards, no barking dogs, not even the scurrying of a mouse. 
     Thinking it was too good to be true, he hurried through the kitchen entrance, barged into the leafy shadows of the gardens, and saw that it was too good to be true. Not that there were any guards standing watch out there, but that was only because there probably wasn’t any room for them with all the roiling vegetation.
     He shut the door to the food preparation area and stared out at the foliage and weeds encroaching up the steps. Gone were his thoughts of deserted corridors and empty halls and in their place were thoughts of compost and fertilizer and the vast amount of organic refuse that had been hauled out the door behind him and cast into this super-garden.
     What had happened…?
     As a boy, the gardens of the castle were kept trim and neat and the blades of the lawn rarely rose above the laces of his shoes. Now, however, as he stepped off the kitchen steps and into the place where he had once frolicked as a child, his sandals were met with grasses and weeds that rose halfway up his shins. It felt like crossing the Southern Sway all over again.
     Gradually, and with great care, he edged out into the dense undergrowth and felt around with his feet for the flagstone path that had been there tens ages ago, knowing full well that if he didn’t locate the path, he would never find his special destination, at least not without the aide of some light.
     When he’d been a child, there had been hanging lanterns positioned throughout the flowers and shrubs and lighting the way for those visiting the ground during its twilight moments. But it seemed that lantern maintenance, along with grounds maintenance in general, had been sorely neglected here of late. Needless to say, without a trail of plate-sized rocks cutting through the mercurial wilderness, Brine had no bearing by which to navigate. Tens ages ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. He would have launched himself into the gloom and grass and he would have been seated by the frog pond in a matter of heart-pounding moments.
     But now, with his memory faded, and the darkness absolute, and the place grown up like a Gabawteen wilderness…
     His sandal lit on something hard, flat, and grassless, and he breathed a thankful sigh of relief. Okay, he thought, stepping onto the stone, one down and a hundred or so to go. But now that he’d found the general direction of the path, locating the individual stones would be no trouble at all. The grass itself, on the other hand—sprouting up between the stones and trying to trip him with every step—presented him with an unholy nightmare of obstacles.
     He moved maybe five yards or so and knew in his heart of hearts that there was no chance this jungle-like lawn was the result of compost and pig crap. The real culprit, he knew, was the previous moon cycle of happenings that had prompted Jaysh to authorize the missions and that had stolen the men and women of Jashandar away from their usual duties, duties such as standing guard in the castle halls or scything grass in the royal gardens. These people were now digging wells in the Promise or guarding sheep in the Sway.
     For all Brine knew, the royal groundskeeper could have been standing in the Western Sway right now, probably staring into the darkening sky and wondering what he was going to do if the thing that squashed cows and crumpled bears lit on him in the night…Take a little off the sides? Chip the bark and hope for termites?
     Brine wasn’t worried about the mystery killer yet, but he would be once he settled down in the reeds and reflected on what the shepherd boy had said to him all those nights ago. For now, he was more concerned with what slithered on the ground than what moved across the sky. Because the things that slithered on the ground and coiled in the reeds would have taken to these neglected gardens like barn rats to the hay.