by Rob Steiner
Despite the chaos of the Tuathans flooding into the Heiron, Dylan was able to make his way through the arches and up to the tower’s library level. General Myndehr and several Shadarlak went with him, and for once Dylan was glad for their presence. They kept him from getting crushed by the tall Tuathans crowding through the arches. Dylan had always been nervous in large crowds of tall people—it was a natural Orlenian fear—but large crowds of panicked tall people pushed him to the edge of his self-control.
The crowds thinned around the seventh level, as most sought the refuge of the various floors rather than continue all the way to the top of the Heiron. Dylan walked quickly toward the library at the end of the long, ornate hall. Several women priests wearing scarlet sashes stood near the door, and they said something in Tuatha, putting their hands up to stop Dylan. He could not understand what they were saying, so he turned to Lee and asked, “Where’s Abraeu?”
Lee shook his head. Through the door and past the priests, Dylan saw Melahara across the room standing at one of the windows looking down.
“Melahara,” Dylan shouted.
She turned and frowned when she saw Dylan. A book case had been blocking Ollis Gray from Dylan’s view, and Ollis poked his head from around the shelves to see who was yelling. The frown he gave Dylan made Melahara’s seem like a mother’s smile for her newborn.
“I have almost forty men armed with revolvers and sabers,” Dylan yelled to them through the priests standing in his way. “Let me help.”
Lee said in his ear, “Excellency, not even a company of Shadarlak could withstand lightning strikes. There’s nothing we can—”
“We can’t sit in this bloody tower forever,” Dylan growled. “We need them to get through this, and they could obviously use any help we can give them.”
As Dylan said this, Melahara approached the priests barring his entry. “It is all right, let them pass.”
The priests gave Melahara a wary look, then moved aside to let Dylan, Lee, Myndehr, and the five Shadarlak enter the library. Melahara said, “I am sorry you and your men got caught up in this battle, Dylan Edoss. We did not think the Fomorians could attack Fedalan so soon.”
“How can we help?” Dylan asked.
Ollis strode toward Dylan and said, “What makes you think your men can do anything against what’s out there?”
General Myndehr said heatedly, “My Shadarlak are the best trained soldiers in all the—”
“Follow me,” Ollis said, then turned and strode back to the window. Myndehr gave Dylan a questioning glance. He rolled his eyes and followed Ollis. Dylan was getting tired of the Tuathan leader’s lack of respect. Dylan may not be the official Speaker anymore, but he was a guest in their city. He would have thought a political leader like Ollis, even one so isolated in the Beldamark, would have a bit more diplomatic skill.
Ollis pointed down to the ground and said, “Are your men trained for that?”
Myndehr looked down, and her eyes widened in shocked horror. Embarrassingly, Dylan was not tall enough to peer down at the ground, so he stood on a nearby chair without bothering to ask permission. Lack of diplomacy could go both ways.
The sight below almost made him stumble off the chair. What was once a green field of grass fifty paces wide surrounding the Heiron, was now a mass of writhing, snake-like tentacles similar to what had attacked the train in Doare. Amidst the tentacles were misshapen figures darting about the field. Some of the figures looked like dogs with extra limbs and their own spiked tentacles. None of the beasts looked exactly the same, and all had shapes and colors that could have only come from the dreams of madmen. The mass of monsters and tentacles stretched from the foot of the Heiron to the buildings of Fedalan fifty paces away. Amazingly, none of the tentacles or monsters touched the Heiron doors, maintaining a ten foot distance from the tower.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Dylan asked when he found his voice again.
“The Heiron is imbued with Ahura’s essence,” Melahara said. “The Tainted cannot touch it, nor can Fomorians use Angra to penetrate it.”
“Where did those things come from?” Cursh asked. His pale, sickened face matched how Dylan felt.
“They are the Tainted,” Ollis said as he stared down at the terrors below. For once his voice held something other than annoyance. Dylan thought it might have been sorrow. “They were once natural animals from the forest. Some were even people. Harrowers cannot create anything, but they can certainly destroy, as is their nature. They take a part of Ahura’s creation and use the power of Angra to warp it into something that was not meant to exist. Better to die a painful death than become one of the Tainted; at least you’d be dead.”
“Can they be killed?” General Myndehr asked. She continued staring at the Tainted forms, and her face was more grim than Dylan had ever seen it. If he was not mistaken, he would have thought she was afraid for the first time in her life.
“Not by guns or swords,” Ollis said, turning away from the window and staring at Dylan. “Like I said, Edoss, your men are useless in this fight.”
“So what is your plan?” Dylan asked. “You tell me I’m no use to you, so you must have a way to break this siege on your own, yes?”
Ollis narrowed his eyes at Dylan, and his bald forehead reddened. Before he could say anything, Melahara said, “We have options that we are considering.”
“Then I suggest you consider them a little quicker,” Dylan said. “Whoever is controlling those things has herded your people into one location. Now we are holed up in a place from which there’s no escape. It’s the perfect scenario for a slaughter. Whoever is controlling those things surely knows he can’t penetrate this tower, and I doubt he’d go through all this trouble to force you here without knowing a way to come in and get you. Or at least force you out when you begin starving.”
Ollis continued to glare at Dylan, but his glare now contained a hint of worry. He quickly glanced at Melahara, then said, “We must open the Jars. It is the only way.”
“That is exactly what they want us to do,” Eblin said from the doorway as she limped into the library, leaning heavily on her staff. Behind her walked Fatimah, who looked like she was about to fall over from exhaustion at any moment. Supporting her was Taran Abraeu, half of his white shirt stained in dark red blood.
“Doctor?” Lee said.
“I’m fine. It’s not my blood.”
“What do you mean ‘it is what they want us to do?’” Ollis asked Eblin, ignoring Taran and Fatimah.
Eblin limped forward until she was at the window and looking down at the writhing Tainted below. “If we open the Jars within the Heiron, the Furies will break through the charms holding the Tainted outside. When that happens, the Tainted will be able to attack, and the Fomorians will rain down lightning and Ahura knows what else on our heads.”
Ollis opened his mouth to say something, then closed it as he thought about what Eblin said. Dylan had no idea what they were talking about, and decided he did not wish to know.
“However, there may be another way,” Eblin said. Putting her hand on Fatimah’s shoulder, she said, “Go on, priest, tell them what you did.”
Fatimah looked up at Melahara and Ollis through weary, half-closed eyelids. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I studied the Book last night without my Master present.” Both Melahara and Ollis frowned, but said nothing. “I found an incantation that enabled me to create a shield around myself and others. A shield that cannot be penetrated by Tainted or Angra.”
“That’s impossible,” Ollis said. “No Tuathan has the strength right now for such a—”
“I saw her do it,” Abraeu said. “She saved the lives of six priests with her shield. After she collapsed, two other priests copied what she did and Wielded an even bigger shield.”
Fatimah gave Taran a weak smile, then said to Melahara and Ollis, “They had to copy the shield because this fool ran out to save Rylan Jordak after he was mauled by two of the Tainted.”
Dylan stared at Abraeu with a new respect. He had not figured the doctor to be the type to run onto a hot battlefield, even though he was General Abraeu’s son. Dylan realized he should not have judged a man’s fighting courage before he had actually seen him in a fight. He had seen the loudest braggarts run at the first sound of gunfire, while it was the quiet ones that often stood their ground.
Melahara asked Abraeu, “What do you mean ‘copied?’”
Abraeu shrugged. “They said the same words and did the same actions.”
“Where are these two priests?” Ollis asked, glancing behind Abraeu and Fatimah.
“They haven’t regained consciousness yet,” Fatimah said, leaning against a tall bookshelf. “At least not by the time we left them in the hospital.”
Eblin said to Melahara and Ollis, “Our cautious approach to relearning how to Wield the Aspects will not serve us now. If two priests can simply copy another—without spending days learning the incantations—then we can teach all of our priests to create the shield. Even the lay Tuathans.”
Melahara sighed. “But it will mean every Tuathan who Wields the shield will fall unconscious immediately afterwards.”
“Not if one priest Wields the shield into existence,” Fatimah said, “and then another simply maintains it. Maintenance takes only a fraction of the Aspects as the initial Wielding.”
Eblin raised an eyebrow at Fatimah. “It is a good thing someone has been studying ahead of her assigned lessons…”
Fatimah lowered her eyes, but Ollis said, “She’s right. If a few priests do the initial Wielding, then the remaining priests can maintain it while the people in the Heiron escape.”
“Escape to where?” Melahara asked.
Dylan said, “The Compact will take you.”
Melahara glanced at Ollis, but she could not catch his eye before Ollis said, “You have no authority to make such an offer, Edoss. Your government will not comply with anything you promise us.”
“They will,” Dylan said. “Throughout this entire journey I’ve seen things that have changed my beliefs forever. Once my people see what you can do, they will understand that you are our only hope to defeat these Fomorians and harrowers when they come after the Compact.”
“The Speaker is right,” General Myndehr said abruptly. Dylan looked at her, saw that she held her head high and gave Ollis Gray the same glare she would have given one of her captains if he questioned her orders. “I have been a committed Pathist all my life. The things I’ve seen have made me…question some of the things I’ve been taught. Skepticism is a good thing, but it must not blind us to the reality before our eyes. It will be difficult at first, but I believe our people will accept you.”
Ollis narrowed his eyes doubtfully. “Even if that were true, how do we get to your territory? It is hundreds of miles from here across sea and land, separated from us by a nation that is more hostile to us than the Compact.”
Edellian superstitions about the Mystics attributed to them everything from foul weather to disease. Dylan would worry about getting the Tuathans through Edellia when the time came, but right now he had to get them to break the siege and escape the Heiron. The Tuatha were the only hope the Compact and the continent had against the Angra harrowers out there. Lee was right, the Shadarlak and the Compact army could not withstand lightning strikes, no matter how well trained they were. This was a different war that required different weapons.
“I will find a way to get you to the Compact,” Dylan said. “You need to figure out how to get your people out of the Heiron.”
Melahara frowned, but said nothing. She glanced at Ollis who said to Dylan, “There is a way for us to defeat the Fomorians attacking us, but it would involve doing something that—”
“Ollis,” Melahara said threateningly, but Ollis ignored her.
“—most on the Master Circle refuse to do.”
“What is it?” Dylan asked.
“They are called the Delving Jars—”
“Ollis Gray,” Melahara shouted, surprising everyone in the room at the sound of her voice. “You know you are forbidden to speak of this outside the Circle.”
Ollis took a step toward Melahara, who stood her ground. “We just lost over a hundred Heshmen tonight. How many more do we have to lose before you realize we are in a fight for our survival? How many more Tuathan lives will it take for you to accept that we must do what we have to do to survive?”
“I thought you said these Jars would break the charms on the Heiron and let the harrowers attack it?” Dylan said.
“Not if we open them outside the Heiron,” Ollis said.
“What are these Jars?” Dylan asked. Eblin only smiled at Dylan. Ollis and Melahara ignored him, staring at each other like two circling wolves.
Taran Abraeu cleared his throat and said, “I’ve read some legends of the Delving Jars. They contain the very essence of Angra. Chaos and death.” He glanced at Fatimah, who only stared at Abraeu. “If I’m not mistaken, there are three jars. When a jar is opened, the Furies within will do whatever the opener asks, as long as the task embodies the essence of Angra. You could not open a jar and ask the Fury for a bumper crop, but you could ask it to make your neighbor’s crops whither and die. Or the population of an entire city.” Abraeu looked at Fatimah, and asked, “Am I correct?”
Fatimah said nothing, but Eblin said, “You are close, Dr. Abraeu, but not entirely correct. I can say that the Delving Jars were captured by our ancestors a thousand years ago before the Fomorians could use them. They have been sitting in our vaults ever since. To open the Jars would be to give up our identity. Better we perish as a people than become like those whom we fight.”
“Why don’t you put the question to the people?” Ollis asked Eblin. “Why don’t you ask them whether they want to use the Jars to destroy our enemies, or whether they want to sit and watch their families starve to death in the Heiron?”
Eblin gave Ollis a sad smile, then said, “I will admit that I am tempted to use the Jars.”
Melahara gasped, but Eblin continued. “But we do not know what will happen once the Furies are released. We do know that if we release them within the Heiron, the Aspects that protect us will fall. And so may the Aspects around the Beldamark, which protect this land from the uninvited.”
“We don’t know that will happen,” Ollis grumbled under his breath, shaking his head like he had said the same thing dozens of times.
Dylan said, “The ‘uninvited’ are already here. I don’t think you have you a choice now. If these jars are the only thing that will save your people, then you must use them. If you die, the continent will fall to these Fomorians. Isn’t that what Ahura created you to prevent?”
Eblin’s lips tightened into a thin line. She shifted her gaze to Melahara, who only stared outside and down at the shifting masses of the Tainted. Dylan also looked down at the horror below. The moon and the stars illuminated glistening beasts and their tentacles, and the orange glow from the fires burning throughout the city cast the creatures in an abyssal light. It was a sickly, undulating sea of gray, black, red, and yellow forms. Dylan felt more nauseas looking down at it than he ever had looking up at the Angra ring.
“We must convene the Circle,” Melahara said in a quiet voice. Then she swept her gaze from Eblin to Ollis to Dylan. “We will abide by the Circle’s decision.”