by Rob Steiner
The Compact camp was in ordered chaos. Shadarlak ran about securing their arms, sabers, and forming up into ranks on the orders of shouting sergeants. Taran saw Edoss and his aids encircled by ten Shadarlak holding sabers and revolvers.
Taran called out to Edoss as he ran by. “Fatimah said to go to the Heiron, you’ll be safe there.”
“Abraeu,” he yelled. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back,” Taran said, then continued on toward his tent. When he reached the tent, he flung aside the flaps, dug into the large bag he had brought on the trip. At the bottom was his father’s old revolver. He grabbed the revolver and the bandolier of bullets, and then ran back to Edoss.
The Shadarlak had formed a square around Edoss, two ranks deep and shoulder to shoulder. They let Taran through with grunts and frowns, then closed ranks again. Once the Shadarlak were set, they began to march toward the Heiron, keeping the same square shape.
All around the green uniformed Shadarlak, Tuathans screamed and yelled as they ran from their homes in the town and toward the Heiron. There were hundreds of Tuatha, mothers and fathers carrying crying children in their bed clothes. Some carried large sacks, while others held knives and strung bows, with quivers full of arrows strapped to their backs.
Taran wondered how the hundreds of fleeing Tuatha were going to fit through the open doors at the base of the Heiron, but he saw that not all of the residents of Fedalan were running for the doors at the front. Portcullises on the left and right sides of the Heiron creaked and groaned as they rose into the ceiling, and the panicked mobs split into three streams toward each portcullis. General Myndehr continued to shout orders to her Shadarlak to make for the doors at the top of the steps.
Taran never heard the blast of lightning that struck several dozen paces away. He flew through the air and landed hard on the marble steps of the Heiron. After a moment of wondering if he were still alive, he sat up, his ears still buzzing, and peered through a shower of dust to see that the large green square of Shadarlak had dissolved. Most of the Shadarlak were on the ground, shaking their heads, while some were already scrambling back to their feet, sabers and revolvers at the ready. Two Shadarlak helped Edoss to his feet. Another shouted to a dazed General Myndehr, who sat on the ground blinking the dust from her eyes. Miraculously none of the Shadarlak were seriously hurt. There was a blackened crater two dozen paces to the left of where the square had been, the cobblestone road torn to pieces. Taran stood on shaky legs, then went to pick up his revolver several paces away.
The Shadarlak square re-formed on shouts from Captain Laesh, and Taran went back to stand next to a dust-covered Edoss. They continued in a double-time jog up the steps to the Heiron. There were more lightning strikes behind them and to the south, but the Shadarlak did not stop until they reached the top of the stairs. They pushed their way through the crowds, and Taran winced as he saw several Tuathans fall into each other when they were shoved aside by the Shadarlak formation.
When the Shadarlak in the first line of the square reached the large doors into the Heiron, they halted and then parted to allow the Shadarlak in the center to rush Edoss and his aids inside. Taran was pressed into the Heiron’s long hallway while most of the Shadarlak remained outside to take up covering positions around the door.
At the end of the hallway, in the large circular room with the magical arches, frightened Tuathans streamed into both arches toward other levels in the Heiron. Several female priests with scarlet sashes directed people into one arch or the other. The Tuathans chattered nervously, most speaking too fast for Taran to make out their words. The mood inside was a tense calm, though Taran believed a panicked riot would ensue if someone dropped a pot on the floor.
Taran turned, saw Fatimah weaving through the crowd toward him. The Shadarlak would not let her through their cordon around Edoss, so Taran squeezed his way outside their protection so he could hear her among the din of Tuathan voices echoing in the chamber.
“You will be safe in here,” she said, as she was jostled about by the people flowing past her. “Angra cannot penetrate these walls.”
“What’s happening outside?”
As soon as he asked, a series of loud explosions, one after the other, shook the tower. Taran looked down the hall toward the open door through which he had entered and saw lighting strikes tearing up the lawn within paces of the Heiron. The Shadarlak outside had retreated within, and were pulling the large wood doors closed. At the other entrances on the left and right, Taran saw people outside surge forward with panicked screams.
“There are still a lot of people out there,” Taran yelled to Fatimah.
Fatimah did not speak, but rushed back toward the Heiron entrance to the right. Taran followed her, not knowing what he was going to do, but considering it better than standing there in the claustrophobic crush of people.
Fatimah pushed open a small door cut into the side of the large hallway from which the people were streaming. Taran followed her into the small dark corridor that ran parallel to the main hall, trying not to think that it was more claustrophobic in here than it had been in the arch room. Torchlight filtered through the arrow slits in the walls, and Taran caught glimpses of people shoving and yelling in the main hall to get farther into the Heiron.
At the end of the corridor, Fatimah touched a metal plate on the wall, and a stone door rose silently into the ceiling. They exited into the entryway between the portcullis and the entrance’s large wooden doors. There were still dozens of people outside trying to get in amid the lightning strikes coming down all around the Heiron. When they saw the open door, they rushed through it. Fatimah and Taran ran back the way they came, just ahead of the wave of frightened Tuatha, and exited into the circular arch room again. A stream of people followed them out.
Fatimah then ran to the other side of the circular room and opened a similar door into another dark corridor next to the crowded main hall. Taran followed her to the end of the corridor and watched her open the stone door at the end.
The scene on the north side of the Heiron was just as chaotic. Lightning blasted the town from small black, roiling clouds, setting most of the log structures on fire. Dozens of people still pushed and screamed to get through the Heiron’s doors. Fresh corpses and blackened body parts lay strewn about the lawn from where the lightning had found unfortunate victims.
Rather than run back inside, Fatimah stayed to direct people through the new door she had just opened. Taran did the same, though his broken Tuathan speech and modern Recindian clothes drew confused glances from most of the people. Once everyone had gone through the doors, Fatimah cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled up to a window above the portcullis, ordering the priests up there to lower the heavy gate.
As the iron bars of the portcullis began to creak lower, they heard a cry from the buildings a hundred paces away on the other side of the Heiron’s lawn. Four priests wearing scarlet sashes, followed by three bearded men with spears came running from out of an alley and sprinted to the closing portcullis. Behind them, Taran heard something smashing its way through the alley. Something large.
Fatimah screamed to the portcullis operator to stop. The iron bars halted halfway to the ground. The fleeing priests and their guards were fifty paces from the Heiron when the smashing noises behind them stopped.
Six misshapen forms burst from the ruins and galloped after the seven Tuatha sprinting for the Heiron. Taran would have thought the monstrosities were wild boars, had they not snake-like tentacles whipping from their mouths. Their hides were pale and glistened in the moonlight, and they released cringe-inducing howls that sounded like the un-greased gears of a steam trolley.
The tentacles of one of the beasts grabbed the ankle of a fleeing Tuathan man and yanked him off his feet. The beast jumped on him, followed by another one, and then mauled the screaming man. The four other beasts continued on toward the six remaining Tuatha.
Taran stepped out from under the portcullis and aimed his revolver at the two monsters mauling the Tuathan man. He fired two shots that echoed off the Heiron and the buildings across the grassy area. Both shots hit one of the monsters in the head, tissue and black fluid spraying from the beast’s skull. The bullets got the beast’s attention, and it howled its grating scream, then ran back toward the ruined buildings. The other beast continued its grisly attack, and Taran fired two shots at it, hitting the head again. The second monster fled back into the dark alleys, howling with pain and rage.
But the four other monsters continued on toward the six Tuatha who were almost at the gate. Before he could train his revolver on the last monsters, he heard Fatimah’s voice grow unnaturally loud as she uttered an ancient Tuathan phrase that Taran could not translate. He glanced at her, saw her right hand in the air, and the left pointed at the wide-eyed Tuatha and the monsters chasing them. A thin film of blue light, with the consistency of a bubble, spread out from her hand, first enveloping Taran and then the Tuatha who were only ten paces away. When the boar-like monsters ran into the film of light, they disintegrated into a fine gray dust that seemed to drift in the air before dispersing in the wind whipped up by the unnatural storms.
The six Tuatha scrambled beneath the half-closed portcullis and collapsed just in front of the wood doors. The portcullis dropped the final four feet as the Tuatha lay on their backs, eyes closed and breathing heavy. As soon as they were through, Fatimah fell to her hands and knees, her head lowered as if she were about to vomit.
Taran looked back outside toward the alley where the two monsters he had shot were skulking. He saw motion in the shadows, and he heard more grunts. Then movement on the grass caught his eye. The man the monsters had mauled was crawling toward the Heiron.
“Open the gate,” Taran yelled. “That man’s still alive.”
Taran wondered why the gate operator had not started cranking the gate open when he realized he had yelled it in Recindian. He called again to the operator in his broken Tuathan. After a few moments, the portcullis opened again, but only five feet. Taran slipped through and ran for the crawling Tuathan. He trained his revolver on the shadows where the two boar-monsters howled and paced.
When Taran reached the bearded man, he was still crawling, but moaning nonsensically. Taran tried not to look at the terrible bites all up and down the man’s torso and chest. He holstered his revolver, leaned down, and pulled the man’s arms over his back and hoisted him onto his right shoulder. The man screamed, and Taran could feel the man’s warm blood flowing down around his neck and back.
“I’m sorry,” Taran said in Tuathan. “We’re almost there.”
Through gritted teeth, the man said in Tuathan, “They’re coming.”
The boar-monsters howled again, and the thumps of hooves rapidly approached from behind. All of Taran’s strength went into pumping his tired legs—still wobbly from the lightning blast—toward that half-open portcullis only twenty paces away. Through the gate, Taran saw several priests with scarlet sashes emerge and raise their right hands, and point their left hands toward Taran. The same film of light Fatimah had created raced forward and enveloped Taran with a cold tingle that seemed to give his legs a little more strength. He did not turn to see what happened to the boars, but he hoped the bubble of light had done to them what Fatimah’s had done to the first group. He no longer heard their shrieks immediately on his heels.
The priests who had Wielded the shield around Taran slumped to the ground, their backs against the Heiron, their eyes barely open. Several other people clad in buckskins and wools came out and helped Taran with the man he had rescued. The Tuathans carried the wounded man in to the Heiron. Taran ducked beneath the gate, then sat against one of the walls, his lungs on fire and unable to take in enough breath. The portcullis gate crashed shut, as if the operator chose to let gravity bring the gate down rather than the brake.
Taran glanced at Fatimah, who was sitting up with her arms around her legs.
“That was a brave thing you did, Taran Abraeu,” she said, staring at him through exhausted eyes. “My people will not forget it.”
“You…would have done…the same for me,” he said between pants.
Fatimah said nothing, but continued watching Taran. Even he did not know what had spurred him to run onto that corpse-strewn field, with lightning exploding all around him and horrifying monsters attempting to rip a man apart—
He turned and retched noisily onto the portcullis.