by Rob Steiner
Compact Speaker Dylan Edoss stood on the Speaker’s Office balcony on the fifth floor of the south Parliamentary Tower staring up at the rings that had burst into existence ten days ago. Dylan squeezed his hands behind his back, the posture of standing “at ease” a hard habit to break from his army years.
What are they? he wondered. More importantly, What do they mean?
And did they cause the storm? Though the finest weather Teachers in the Compact assured him, yes, the storm was strange but perfectly explainable, he knew in his heart the rings were somehow responsible.
He looked down at the city, a cold anger spreading from his chest as it did each time he saw the carnage. A large black swath, where still no lamps burned, ran down the middle of the city, right past the Parliamentary Towers. Or what was left of them. He glanced at the ruins of the north and east Towers to his right. He tried not to think of the horror the hundreds of people inside those Towers must have felt as they came crashing to the ground, or the people in the shops and taverns at the base of the towers, buried alive in an instant. It had been six days since the last live person was pulled from the rubble. Now only bodies were being found.
Dylan sighed grimly at the irony of his situation. On the day he was sworn in, when he had taken the Speaker’s oath before Parliament, there was a part of him that wished for a crisis to prove his worth, to prove his election was a wise choice. He was elected by an equally divided Parliament, where not even his electors fully supported him. He longed for a way to prove to them all—opponents and supporters—that he deserved the Speakership, that he would keep the Compact secure by working toward peace with Mazumdahr, not outright conquest. When he had joined the army, it had taken the First Mazumdahri War to prove to his squad mates that even an Orlenian “dwarf” could fight just as hard and tenaciously as his taller Recindian cousins.
But as he looked down on a devastated Calaman, he muttered, “I wanted a crisis. Not…this.”
The balcony door opened behind him, and he did not have to turn to know his Chamberlain, Jac El’Sha, stood in the doorway holding the Speaker’s sash.
“The Ministers are waiting for you, Excellency.”
Dylan turned to Jac and allowed the tall Gahallian to drape the sash over Dylan’s shoulder and adjust it around his waist. It was made of green silk trimmed in gold, bearing along its breadth the crests of each member state in the Recindian Compact—the gliding eagle of Gahall; the rearing stag of Lakonia; the snow-capped mountain of Orlen; the white oak of Ankrom; and the rising wave of Levaken. The sash was specially made for Dylan, since only taller Gahallians or Lakonians had ever worn it during the Compact’s 200-year existence.
Once Jac finished adjusting the sash over Dylan’s white coat with gold embroidery at the sleeves, he looked Dylan over with the critical eye of a man who had done this job most of his life. When he finished, he said, “You are ready, Excellency.”
“Thank you, Jac.”
The Chamberlain bowed his head, then led Dylan through the balcony doors and into the Advisory Hall. Two Shadarlak Armsmen, protectors of the Speaker, stood on either side of the door to the Hall. They wore finely pressed green uniforms with shining black boots, gold tri-corner hats with green trim, each holding oiled muskets with gleaming bayonets. Both saluted Dylan as he neared them by dropping the butts of their muskets to the ground and putting their left arms over their chests. Dylan knew these men were not simple show pieces. At any hint of danger to Dylan’s life, they would launch into action like coiled springs and kill anyone who threatened the Speaker. They would not even hesitate to kill Dylan’s own wife if she were threatening him with physical danger.
Jac opened the door to the Advisory Hall and walked just inside the room. He announced, “The Speaker of the Recindian Compact.”
Dylan heard several chairs move as everyone in the Hall stood. He strode through the door without looking at the assembled Ministers, taking his seat at the head of the long rectangular table. The Speaker’s chair was another item that had to be “adjusted” for Dylan—the chair sat on a platform six inches high so that Dylan would not have the table’s edge at his neck.
Once Dylan was seated, his Ministers sat. There were fourteen in all, including their various aids, who stood behind their respective Ministers waiting to run off and gather information for their boss at a moment’s notice. The room was well lit with gas lamps due to the early morning hour, which made the room a little stuffy, despite the open windows to Dylan’s right and the cool autumn morning outside.
Dylan knew that all his Ministers—except maybe Lady General Rida Myndehr to his right—were not thrilled with his preference for early morning meetings. Dylan supposed it was the residual soldier in him that drove him to get as much done as possible before sunrise.
Lee Cursh, a Gahallian and his advisor since his first term in Parliament, sat to his left and was maybe the only civilian in the room who did not look tired. After fifteen years of working for Dylan, he supposed the man was as used to getting up before dawn as General Myndehr.
Dylan put his hands on the table and said, “You all have a copy of today’s agenda, and it should be no surprise as to what tops the list today.”
Some of the Ministers gave weary chuckles. As it had been for the past ten days, the rings and the clean-up efforts underway in Calaman dominated his daily meetings.
Dylan turned to his Science Minister, Thell Demiati. “Minister Demiati, it was your task to conduct research into the rings and report your preliminary findings to me today. What have you found?”
Dylan felt a twinge of guilt at the overwhelming pressure he had put on the Science Ministry lately. He knew the Ministry had been working nights and days trying to come up with theories on the rings and the storm. Thell had purple circles under his eyes and his thinning gray hair seemed a little thinner this morning. Thell ran a hand through his hair, then adjusted his spectacles up his long, Lakonian nose.
“Excellency, my people have fanned out across Calaman’s universities and they have sent wiretypes to every university in the Compact.” He paused to clear his throat. “Despite this effort, valid scientific theories as to the origin of the rings and the storm continue to elude us. All we have are speculations. Three speculations, actually, which I want to report to you today, Excellency.”
Dylan said, “If speculations are all you have…”
Demiati cleared his throat again. “The first is that the rings are the debris of a comet that encountered the atmosphere and disintegrated before it could reach the ground. However, we know of no elements that could create the strange swirling colors in the first ring and the absolute blackness in the second. Not even our most powerful telescopes can detect what they are made of, because we cannot observe any actual material. It is as if the rings are made of solid…mist.”
Demiati frowned at this, realizing how contradictory his words sounded.
“Our second speculation is that the rings are the result of the sun’s rays interacting with the magnetic field surrounding the world. This effect has been reported at extreme northern latitudes by trading vessels near the Isles of Sheek. However, all reports of this effect state that the colors in the sky are fleeting, there one moment and gone the next, unlike the rings which have never dimmed since they appeared. And there have never been reports of a completely black ‘light’ in the sky.”
Demiati turned another page, cleared his throat again, and then ran a hand through his gray hair. He gave the Pathist Minister sitting across from him a nervous glance. Adella Kericia, her long black hair formed into a tight looping braid behind her back in the Teacher fashion, stared back at Demiati, waiting for him to continue. Dylan had brought Adella on his Advisory Hall meetings because she came from a more liberal faction of Pathism. Dylan was nominally Pathist himself—just enough to advance through the Compact’s political ranks—and he wanted a Pathist Minister who would not condemn as heretics any of his Ministers who deviated from orthodoxy, like some of her more fundamentalist brothers and sisters had done in the past.
Still, she was the Pathist Minister, and Demiati was obviously nervous about saying something she would not like.
“Our third speculation,” Demiati said, his voice cracking a little, “is somewhat…unconventional. After considerable debate within the Science Ministry”—some of Demiati’s young aids standing behind him had the looks of men standing before a firing squad—“we decided that we would present it to you, Excellency, since your exact orders were—”
“To give me all theories, no matter how unconventional,” Dylan interrupted, losing his patience with Demiati’s stalling. “I remember what I said. What is your third ‘speculation,’ Minister?”
“The rings, perhaps, may have something to do with the…ancient Mystics,” he said. He took a deep breath, emotions warring on his face—relief that he said what he wanted to say, along with abject terror at a possible heresy charge being thrown at him.
Silence descended on the table. Not even the aids to the Ministers moved. Everyone stared at Demiati with wide eyes, and then one by one, they turned their gazes to Dylan. Even Adella seemed too shocked to say anything. She looked at Demiati as if she did not know whether to laugh at him or rebuke him. Lee Cursh to Dylan’s left leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and looked out the windows across from him with a thoughtful stare.
It was the Lady General Rida Myndehr on Dylan’s right that broke the silence. “You must be joking,” she said.
Adella was the next one to regain her wits. “‘Mystics,’ Thell?” she asked, a wide disbelieving smile on her lips. “You’ve been working too long. You need some rest.”
A small fire of anger flashed in Demiati’s eyes. Dylan had only known the man for two years, but during that time, he knew that Demiati hated having his integrity or his work taken lightly.
“It is an unusual theory, yes,” he said, “but we have actual evidence to support this speculation. At least enough to bring it to His Excellency’s attention.”
Demiati turned around, and one of his aids handed him a large, dusty book that looked to have been copied by hand centuries ago. Demiati opened the book, flipped through the pages until he found a hand-drawn picture that filled one entire side of the book. He put the book on the table and pushed it toward Dylan.
“That picture was copied and re-copied from a similar book written a thousand years ago during the Faith Wars.”
Dylan leaned forward and examined the picture. It showed two groups of robed people on opposite sides of a large river. One side wore white and the other wore black. Both sides raised their hands…and seemed to draw energy from two circles in the sky. One of the circles was multicolored while the other was black.
Adella also leaned forward, studying the picture. “Where did you get this?”
“From the only Mystic expert in the Compact. A Dr. Taran Abraeu of Calaman University.”
General Myndehr looked up from the picture, her brows raised beneath her close cropped black-gray hair. “General Abraeu’s son?”
Demiati nodded. General Myndehr grunted and then looked back at the picture.
Dylan remembered General Abraeu very well—he was Dylan’s commanding officer in the First Mazumdahri War twenty years ago. General Abraeu had earned the Laurels of Parliament for his actions in the Battle of Linz, holding off almost 1500 Mazumdahri pikemen in the Growan Pass with only a hundred Compact musketmen. Abraeu’s efforts had allowed Compact reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of the battle and eventually turn back the Mazumdahri invasion. Dylan had been one of the men in Abraeu’s company that terrifying week, and to this day he would follow Tobias Abraeu into any battle.
Dylan remembered hearing six years ago that Tobias’s son Taran had a daughter who suffered from the Blood. The illness, according to newspapers, drove Taran insane. He spurned a lucrative university career to study the supernaturalist legends of the Mystics, a quick path to unemployment and ostracization. Dylan frowned, wondering just how reliable Demiati’s theory was if it was based on information from an alleged madman.
As if responding to Dylan’s thoughts, Demiati said, “Dr. Abraeu is not mad. I’ve spoken to him myself. His beliefs may be a bit strange, but his mind is clear.”
Lee Cursh leaned forward and spoke for the first time during the meeting. “All right, Minister, so you have three ‘speculations’ on the formation of the rings. Obviously the third one is un-scientific at best. What evidence do you have to support the first two?”
Dylan appreciated Lee’s ability to give people a way out of any hole they dug for themselves by changing the subject. Here was Demiati’s chance to end the incredulous looks by all the other Ministers and their aids.
“Nothing,” Demiati said desperately. “We have no evidence at all to support the first two speculations. They are only the most logical explanations, and that’s all. Only the theory that the rings have something to do with the Mystics has any sort of corroboration.”
“Yes,” Adella said, pushing the book back to Demiati without looking at it, “hand drawn paintings in old books that may or may not be fake. I’m surprised at you, Thell. You of all people should know that supernaturalism does not explain—”
“This is all I have,” Demiati said, the normally soft-spoken scientist’s voice rising to almost a cracking shout. “My people and I have spent the last ten days going over all the evidence, interviewing specialists, and conducting our own research. We’ve barely slept eight hours during all that time. And in ten days, we’ve found nothing to explain these rings, let alone the storm. Now you can sit there and call my findings ‘supernaturalist’ all you want, Adella. But it does not change the fact that according to all we know about the sciences, these rings should not exist. The only thing we have that has any kind of corroboration is the Mystic theories of Taran Abraeu. So if you have anything to refute those theories, Adella, then please tell me. Maybe I could sleep again.”
Adella looked a little stunned at Demiai’s outburst and was about to reply when Dylan decided to forestall a shouting war at an Advisory meeting.
“All right,” he said, raising his hand. When the Speaker raised his hand, the Ministers listened. “I want to know if the rest of you have heard anything regarding Minister Demiati’s three theories, or if you have other explanations—explanations with evidence—that he did not find.”
Dylan met the gazes of each of his Ministers, and each one shook his or her head. When Dylan looked to Foreign Minister Geren Kayn, he was about to shake his head when one of his aids whispered something in his ear. Kayn’s face turned red, and he whispered something angrily back to the aid.
“Minister Kayn?” Dylan said.
Kayn looked at Dylan, embarrassment and anger warring on his reddening face.
“I’m sorry, Excellency. I’ve just been informed that nine days ago my office received a wiretype from our missions in the Turician capital Goray. It was a message from a small Turician town called Markwatch near the Beldamark. It seems that several people claiming to be…um, Mystics, came out of the Beldamark and delivered a message to Lord Ven Demeg of Markwatch asking to meet with you there in ten days.”
Dylan stared at the Foreign Minister, trying to control his own anger. “And why am I being told this now?”
The Foreign Minister swallowed, glanced at his aid once, and said, “Apparently, Excellency, the mission attaché thought it was a joke.”
Dylan wanted to laugh out of frustration, but kept a straight face. He glared at all his Ministers and said, “As of this moment, I want everyone to direct their staff to relay any information—no matter how supernaturalist it may seem—that has anything to do with the rings. Is that clear?”
The Ministers nodded. Adella looked like she’d just been ordered to dig a latrine, but she nodded as well.
Demiati said, regretfully, “That is just more piece of corroborating evidence for the Mystic theory. According to legend, nobody goes in or out of the Beldamark.”
“Yes, legend,” Adella said. “Or it could be because the Turicians do not allow anybody in. And this very well may be a joke, Minister Kayn. The Turicians are all Ahura cultists anyway.”
The Beldamark had long been claimed by Turicia, though there were no Turician cities or towns anywhere along its coast. The Turician navy patrolled the shores of the Beldamark, turning away any ship that attempted to land there. The Compact and Turicia had good relations, despite the popularity of supernaturalist Ahura cults inside Turicia, so no officially sanctioned Compact ships had ever attempted to land on the mysterious peninsula. Dylan had always heard folk tales about how all who tried to enter the Beldamark are turned away by magic and cursed for the rest of their lives with boils.
Demiati asked Kayn, “Did your mission say what these Mystics looked like?”
Kayn questioned the aid through whispers, and then the aid turned and practically sprinted through the exit door on the other side of the room. Kayn turned to Dylan and the rest of the Ministers and said, “My aid will return shortly with the entire message. It did have more information, but he did not remember it all.”
General Myndehr said, “Well, regardless of what the wiretype says, my first thought is that it’s a Mazumdahri trick. Excellency, I would not recommend going to Markwatch, not while we are still officially at war.”
Despite five years of a cease-fire, Compact and Mazumdahri forces still faced each other from their trenches across a mile-wide expanse of desolate, cratered landscape on the western front. Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty had broken down just before Dylan assumed the Speakership, negotiations that he had pledged to his war-weary country to resume.
Minister Kayn leaned forward. “The Mazumdahri are not likely to send messages impersonating Mystics. Their society is so devoted to the worship of their Immortal King Savix that even saying the word ‘Mystic’ would earn them the guillotine.”
The guillotine was one of the more barbaric things about the Mazumdahri. When the Mazumdahri conquer a town or city, they gave its residents the Choice: worship their Immortal King Savix, endure the branding of his holy symbol on their cheek—a sword contained in a circle—or lose their heads to the guillotine. To ensure the populace knows the Mazumdahri are serious, the town leaders are executed (if the leaders have not already fled the town). Watching someone lose his head in that vile machine prompted most people to opt for the branding, even though it meant a lifetime of slavery to Savix’s whims, or in reality the whims of the King’s Priests who really ran the country.
General Myndehr laughed at Kayn. “They have attacked us twice defying all logic. What makes you think they’d have any problem with impersonating Mystics?”
“Because, strange as it sounds,” Kayn said, “they would never do anything to deny the divinity of their Immortal King. Even if it is a lie and even if it meant they would win a war. It’s their version of a code of honor.”
Lee asked Myndehr, “What would the Mazumdahri have to gain, despite the obvious fact of assassinating or kidnapping the Compact Speaker? Surely they know that we’d only elect another, and then attack them on all fronts.”
Myndehr laced the fingers of her hands on the table and spoke to Lee as if he were a child who asked the purpose of gunpowder.
“They have no concept of how a republic works. They assume we believe our Speaker to be ‘divine’ just like their king, and they assume we would react the same way they would react if their Immortal King died—it would be the death of a god and the end of their civilization. I’ve fought these people most of my life. They’re insane.”
Kayn’s aid rushed in, breathless, and handed the Foreign Minister a sheet of paper. Kayn read it, his eyes growing wider the more he read.
He looked at the aid. “Are you sure you received this nine days ago? What was the time?”
“Ten o’clock in the morning, sir,” the ashen-faced aid said. “Four hours after the storm. I still have the date-time stamp on the original wiretype.”
Kayn looked back down at the paper again, re-reading the message silently.
“Minister Kayn?” Dylan asked impatiently.
Kayn looked up. “Yes, of course, I’m sorry, Excellency.” He bit his lip once, then began:
To the Speaker of the Recindian Compact and his peoples, we the Tuatha dei Beldamark greet you in Ahura’s name.
With the recent fall of the Barrier and the appearance of Ahura and Angra in the skies above our world once again, it is imperative that we meet to discuss our mutual defense against the coming scourge of Angra, for we know that you have already been attacked by the Tainted storms and that your capital city lies in ruins.
We request your presence in Markwatch at noon ten days after you receive this message. Guides will meet you there to take you into the Beldamark.
We understand that it may be hard for you to believe we are what we say we are. Therefore, we propose a demonstration. Please look to Ahura in the sky above. When you are ready, call out, “Ahura, show me the Tuatha.”
We look forward to meeting you.
Adella said, “Excellency, this is silly. This message could have come from anyone.”
“I agree,” General Myndehr said to Dylan. “This is obviously a trap.”
Demiati said, “But how could they have known about the storm that struck Calaman four hours after it had. It took a day to get the trains going again, and another two days before the wiretype lines were repaired. Until then nobody outside the city had any idea what happened.”
Adella shook her head in disbelief. “You really think this message is from a Mystic, Thell? A Mystic?”
“At least I’m willing to keep an open mind,” Demiati said, giving her an accusing glare.
Lee said to Dylan, “I suppose there’s one way to find out for sure…” His eyes darted to rings outside and then back to Dylan.
Dylan smiled. “Well the worst that can happen is that we’ll get a chill.”
Besides Adella and Myndehr, the assembled Ministers chuckled.
Dylan stood and went to the door behind him that led from the Advisory Hall to the Speaker’s office. All fourteen Ministers followed. He nodded his assent to the Shadarlak Armsmen standing on either side of the door, who did not try to bar the Ministers from entering. Dylan proceeded to his balcony on the other side of the room, behind his large mahogany desk, and opened the double doors. The air was still cold, but the sun was rising in the east, turning the clear sky purple. The rainbow ring shone brightly in the sky, its colors swirling as usual, while the black ring still made him uneasy.
The balcony was large enough for fourteen Ministers and their aids to crowd onto, though barely. After a few seconds, Dylan checked with the taller Lee, who nodded that everyone was now on the balcony. When the assembly had quieted, Dylan looked up at Ahura and, feeling a little foolish, said, “Ahura, show me the Tuatha.”
There was a flash of light, and then he was flying over the city, towards the north, the cold morning air tearing at his hair and clothes. He picked up speed until the Perla Mountains were a blur. He was over the Edellian Steppes and above the Gulf of Pagilah before he started screaming.
He shot across the shore of the Beldamark, past several tall obelisks made of white marble, and into the depths of the mysterious peninsula. The heavily forested land below was dimly lit by the rising sun. Tall firs, pines, and yews passed beneath him in streaks of green and brown.
And then he stopped. He floated above a small town built with structures of logs and clay. A white tower made of the same marble as the obelisks loomed as tall as the Parliamentary Towers over the town’s center. Dylan guessed the town held no more than 5,000 people, and he could see several of them walking about below dressed in furs and heavy, gray wool cloaks. The ones who did not wear a fur hat had brownish-red hair and the fairest skin Dylan had ever seen on a human being.
He only had a moment to give the town a cursory glance, when he was moving again, this time to the northeast. He stopped again in mid-air and floated over another town, but this one had been recently destroyed. Dylan was stunned to see a swath of destruction through the center of this town similar to the one in Calaman. All that was left was debris and stone foundations. Nothing stirred. Dylan wondered if the people had abandoned it, or if they had all died in whatever had destroyed it.
Dylan felt another tug, but this time it was in reverse. He careened backward over the Beldamark’s forests, over the calm waters of the Gulf of Pagilah, past the plains of Edellia and over the Perla Mountains, faster than his flight out, faster, faster, until—
He was on the balcony again. He lay on his back being held up by a surprised Lee.
Jac push through the crowd and stoop before him. Jac was not only Dylan’s chamberlain, but a skilled medical doctor as well. He put a hand on Dylan’s forehead, which Dylan brushed away.
“I’m fine, Jac,” Dylan said. “Just…” Dylan looked at Lee and asked, “What happened?”
Lee glanced at the other Ministers before looking back at Dylan. “The rainbow ring flickered a little after you said the words. Then you shouted and fell back into me.”
Dylan waited for more. When Lee did not say anything, Dylan asked, “That’s all you saw? What about me? Did I…do anything?”
Lee shook his head. The Ministers and aids behind him looked curious.
“Why?” Lee asked slowly. “What did you see?”
Dylan wondered for a moment if telling everyone what had happened was a good idea. It was obvious that the others had not seen him soar off into the sky, even though that is exactly what he remembered doing. How sane would he sound explaining that to a balcony full of people who only saw Dylan fall into Lee’s arms? Stories of Dylan’s collapse would get out, and it would be all the excuse his political opponents needed to call for a Parliamentary vote of no confidence in him.
All this flashed through his mind in a second, and he decided to wait and tell Lee later on. For the rest of them, he ordered, “Everyone inside.”
The Ministers and aids filed through the double doors and stood before the Speaker’s desk. Dylan sat behind it, gathered his thoughts for a moment, then said, “Minister Kayn?”
Kayn stepped forward. “Yes, Excellency.”
“I want you to wiretype your mission in Goray and find out everything they know about these purported Mystics, or Tuathans, or whatever they call themselves. What they wore, what they looked like, and I want that information on my desk by the end of the day. I also want you to ask the Turician ambassador everything he knows about the Beldamark.”
“Yes, Excellency,” Kayn said. “Anything in particular about the Beldamark, Excellency?”
“Everything he knows. Minister Demiati?”
The haggard Science Minister stepped forward. “Yes, Excellency.”
“Did Dr. Abraeu tell your investigators what he thought the Mystics might look like if they existed today?”
Demiati looked at one of his aids, who shook his head. “I will find that out, Excellency.”
Dylan nodded, then looked to the rest of his Ministers, who stared at him with a mixture of concern and confusion.
“I am afraid I must cut this meeting short. Leave your reports on the city’s repair and recovery efforts with Jac, and I will contact you if I have any questions. Dismissed.”
The Ministers and their aids shuffled out of the Speaker’s office, no one saying a word. When all had left, Lee sat in the chair across from Dylan. “What happened to you out there?”
Dylan sighed, then said, “I saw them.”
He watched disbelief, then fear wash over Lee, but the Gahallian regained his composure and asked, “So what do we do now?”
Dylan appreciated Lee’s unquestioning belief in Dylan’s experience. But it was an odd question from Lee, considering he was always the first to tell Dylan what he should or should not do in a given situation. Dylan stood and faced the windows to his balcony, where the sun was peeking over the horizon and the strange rings split the sky. He clasped his hands behind his back.
“I don’t know,” Dylan said.