by Rob Steiner
Taran was searching the stacks of books in the library for texts on healing when he saw the Master Circle exit the arch down the hall from the library. From the looks on their faces, something terrible had happened. Fatimah gave him a worried glance, then shook her head slightly. The Circle entered the room as if they had just heard about the death of a loved one.
Edoss and Cursh turned from watching the mass of Angra monsters below to face the Circle. Melahara said, “The Jars are no longer an option.”
“Why?” Edoss asked.
He stepped down from the chair on which he had been standing. Taran admired the way the small Orlenian managed to make even that action seem regal.
“That does not matter,” Ollis said. “We must proceed with a different plan. We have decided to use Fatimah’s shield to get our people to the nearest Guardian, where we will use it to go to Markwatch. The Turicians will accept us.”
Edoss frowned. “The Compact will also accept you.” He shifted his gaze to Melahara, who returned it with a sad one.
“In time, perhaps,” she said. “But for now, the Circle wishes to flee to a place that is known to us, where there is no doubt that the people will accept us.”
Edoss gritted his teeth. “If you didn’t think the Compact would take you in then why did you even contact us in the first place?”
“I know you want to help us, Dylan Edoss,” Melahara said gently. “But your authority in the Compact right now is in doubt at best. We must go where we know we will be welcome.”
Edoss sighed, stared at her a moment, and then nodded. “If that is what you wish. At least let my people help you get there. What can we do?”
Melahara smiled, glanced at Ollis who gave her a resigned nod.
“We hoped you would say that,” she said.
As the Master Circle and Edoss went over their plan on getting almost five hundred Tuatha from the Heiron to Markwatch, Taran caught Fatimah’s eye, then nodded his head toward one of the windows away from the rest of the leaders. She glanced at Eblin, who was engrossed in the planning conversations, then walked to where Taran was standing.
“The Delving Jars are gone, aren’t they?” he asked.
She stared at him a moment, then asked, “What makes you think they are gone?”
Taran smiled. “Answering my question with a question tells me I’m right.”
Fatimah glanced back at Eblin, then looked at him again. She whispered, “They may never have been here to begin with.”
“I had a dream,” Taran said abruptly. “Two months ago, the night the rings appeared in the sky. I dreamed of three containers: one black, one white, and one red. All of them had unrecognizable markings. And I think they were in Calaman, for I saw the containers sitting on a stone road next to the Hallowed Bridge which crosses the Veda River. The lid of the black container suddenly flew off…and that’s when I awoke.” For reasons he could not explain, he chose to leave out the part of the beautiful, but deadly spirit that lunged at him. “I dreamed of the Delving Jars, didn’t I?”
Fatimah’s silence confirmed Taran’s suspicions.
“It was only a few days after the dream that I came across references to them in my old books. How could I dream of them before even heard of them?”
Fatimah stared at him wide-eyed, then flinched when Eblin called, “Fatimah?”
Eblin limped toward them, resting heavily on her staff with each step. She frowned, making Taran feel like he had been caught passing notes in class.
“Fatimah, please fetch Master Davin of the Heshman Guard and bring him to the library. He is on the first level near the south entrance.”
Fatimah bowed her head, then left Taran without looking at him. Eblin watched her leave, then turned to Taran.
“My Apprentice is as curious about Recindians as I am sure you are about us,” she said. “But there were will be time enough for the exchange of knowledge after we have escaped our present predicament.”
“I think what I told Fatimah was a bit more important than simply ‘exchanging knowledge,’” Taran said. “You people have more secrets than the Klahdera.”
He was about to explain the Klahdera to Eblin, but she said, “Other than the obvious difference that the Klahdera is a crime organization and the Tuatha are a nation, that is not a bad analogy. We are both ‘underground’ organizations whose membership must remain secret if we are to survive. You would guard your secrets, too, if you had to survive in a world that was hostile to your people, Dr. Abraeu.”
Her smile faded and she took on the air of a stern commander about to berate a soldier who’d fallen asleep during watch. “What did you tell Fatimah? And I want the truth, for she will tell me later what you discussed anyway.”
“It’s not a secret,” Taran said defensively. He hated the way Eblin made him feel like he was first-year student. And he hated that he acted like a first-year around her. “I simply told her about a dream I had the night the rings appeared.”
When he told her the dream, her expression did not change, but she asked, “How did it make you feel when you woke up?”
“Afraid. Paranoid. As if I could never trust anyone again. And yet…”
“It felt familiar. I don’t know if it was the containers or the feeling of paranoia, but the dream had a familiar quality. But I’d never had that dream before in my life, at least not that I can remember.”
Eblin’s stare shifted past Taran’s shoulder and out the window. “Turn around and tell me what you see.”
Taran turned and saw four black tendrils from Angra spiraling down into the town just beyond the writhing mass of tentacles and Tainted beasts. He could not see where the tendrils touched the ground, for they were hidden by the small log buildings and thatch-covered roofs.
When Taran told Eblin what he saw, he was surprised to see her lips grow thin—it was the strongest reaction he had ever seen from her.
Fatimah returned to the library with a tall, red-bearded man wearing a black woolen coat that looked to be a uniform rather than used for warmth. Stitched on the left breast was a scarlet spiral that looked like the sea shells Taran used to collect from the shores of Lake Maximohr as a child.
Fatimah led the tall man to Eblin, who said to him, “Master Davin, the Circle wishes your input on their plans to break the Fomorian siege. Please come with me.”
Davin nodded, then held his arm out for Eblin. She took it, and they both walked over to where the Circle and Edoss were talking over a map rolled out onto a nearby table.
Eblin had been a bit more pale as she walked away, and Fatimah seemed to notice this. She clenched her jaw several times, lost in thought while watching Eblin lean over the map before the Circle. Taran glanced outside and saw two of the black tendrils of Angra retreat back up to the ring, while the other two seemed to move at a walking speed toward each other.
“They are moving about the town,” Fatimah said, following Taran’s gaze, “probing for weaknesses.”
Then she studied Taran’s face if he were a dissected toad in a biology lab.
“You mean the Fomorians,” he said.
She nodded slowly, then said, “You see them.” It was more of a statement rather than a question.
“I don’t actually see the Fomorians, but you can tell where they are when they call on Angra. Those black tendrils should make them easy to find, shouldn’t they?”
She gave a shaky exhale. “You have seen them all this time.”
“Of course,” he said. Then he narrowed his eyes at her. “Just like everybody else. Right?”
“No, not like everybody else. At least no one who is a Mundane. Only the Tuatha and the Fomorians can see the power of Ahura and Angra descend.”
Taran stared at her. Then he blinked, and before he could stop himself, he laughed. His laughter must have been loud, for he glanced at the Circle and the Recindians, who all giving him strange looks. He didn’t care. Fatimah’s inference that he was either a Tuathan or a Fomorian was absurd. He was born and raised in Calaman; he was a Recindian.
And yet it frightened him beyond all reason. For a part of him had always known he was different. He had always had strange, detailed dreams of ancient people, objects, and events. Despite his thoroughly Pathist education, he had always felt—known—that the world was an infinitely more complex place than what his five senses could describe. And the ease and quickness with which he had put his faith in the Mystics when Mara had fallen ill not only surprised his family and friends, but himself as well.
But he had come to the Beldamark to find the Mystics, not to find out he was one.
Through his outburst, Fatimah watched him with a mixture of fear and pity.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Taran suddenly growled in a low voice. “I’m not what you think I am.”
He then turned and retreated into the library before he lost control of his words.
He wandered through the rows of shelves containing old books, browning parchment rolls, and the smell of paper that had been ancient before the Compact was even founded. He soon reached the end of the library, and climbed the stairs to the platform that contained the Crucible, the Window, the Book of Ahura, and dozens of other artifacts that Taran could spend a lifetime studying. Three middle-aged female priests stood around the Book studying the open pages, talking quietly about an incantation. Taran was able to follow most of their conversation, and knew they were looking for defensive Wields they could easily teach all Tuatha. From their grim voices they were not having much luck.
Taran wondered if the book in his Calaman office really was a copy of this Book of Ahura. Could it have filled with words when the Barrier had fallen? It was enough to distract him from—
“There is a way to be sure,” Fatimah said from behind him, and he flinched. “Ask your Recindian companions if they can see the tendrils right now.”
Taran glanced at Edoss, Cursh, and General Myndehr talking with the Master Circle, their backs to the windows where he clearly saw the black tendrils from Angra snaking into the town. He thought back to the attack in Doare and how he had described the tendrils then, but no one had corroborated his sighting. He just assumed nobody had noticed them. But he did not question everyone on the train. Perhaps some of the Shadarlak had seen it, but never reported it because no one asked them.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I am not a Tuathan, or a Fomorian. My parents were both Recindians, like their parents. My ancestry is well documented.”
“I do not have the answers, Taran,” she said. “But I do know that only Tuathans and Fomorians can see the tendrils you describe. Have any of your Recindian companions claimed to see such a thing? Would you like to ask them right now?”
Taran did not want to question them. What if they could not see the tendrils? The events of this journey had done much to vindicate his Mystic research, and they no longer thought he was a crackpot eccentric who was blinded by grief over his daughter’s illness. But would they believe him if he suddenly claimed to be a Tuathan or even a Fomorian? Taran did not want to go back to the ostracization he had worked so hard to overcome.
To change the subject, Taran nodded to the three priests studying the Book of Ahura. “What are they looking for?”
“They are searching for weapons we can use against Angra.”
“I though Ahura did not allow the Tuatha to destroy anything.”
“We cannot destroy life that was created by Ahura, but we can destroy the Tainted,” she said. Then glancing outside at the black tendrils. “Or Angra harrowers, if we encounter them in battle.”
Taran shook his head. “It’s been two months since the Barrier has fallen and you haven’t found defenses against Angra? What have you been doing for eight weeks?”
Fatimah gave him an icy glare, and he regretted snapping at her. “It is not as easy as simply reading the instructions and then performing the act. Wielders must recite incantations, put their minds at peace—”
“Those two priests who copied your shield down there caught on quick,” Taran said.
“And they paid for it. They were still unconscious when I went down to fetch Master Davin. Without the practice, powerful Wields can make Wielders very sick. Maybe even kill them.”
Taran turned to her and said, “So show me how to Wield.”
Fatimah looked shocked, then glanced furtively at the Master Circle. “I cannot do that. It is forbidden for students to Wield without a Master present.”
Taran smiled. “If you’re so sure I’m a Mystic, then why not a real test? Even if I can see the tendrils and none of my companions can, that doesn’t prove I can Wield, does it?”
Fatimah stared at Taran. “Even if you can Wield, you cannot heal your daughter.”
The challenging smile melted from Taran’s face, but he didn’t reply.
Fatimah glanced at the priests looking over the Book of Ahura, then at the Circle below. She motioned Taran over to a table littered with parchments and books on the other side of the platform, near the Crucible and away from the priests. She told him to sit down, then she sat on the other side of the table and faced him. She pushed away some of the books and parchments in front of them, then pulled an unlit candle between them. It was burned halfway, and hardened wax had dribbled down its length to form a small pool in the brass holder at the bottom.
She put her hands on the table, palms down, and told him to do the same. “You are going to light this candle by Wielding the Aspect of Fire. First you will say the incantation that I will repeat to you. While you say the incantation, you will think of a time in your life when you felt the most loved, and a time when you loved the most.”
Taran nodded that he understood, so Fatimah said, “Clear your mind and repeat after me: ‘Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame. Quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.’”
Taran said, “Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame. Quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.”
“Again,” Fatimah said.
Taran repeated the words, and then again when Fatimah told him to continue. As he said the words, Fatimah said, “Continue with the incantation, but empty your mind of all thoughts.”
He tried to force all thoughts from his mind while still focusing on the incantation. He soon felt his body relaxing for the first time in days, but he did not allow himself to dwell on the thought.
“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame—”
“Now think of the time you felt most loved,” Fatimah said over Taran’s chant.
“—quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call,” Taran continued.
An image leaped into his mind of a time when he was a child, no more than five years old. He had had a terrible dream, and he had gone into his parent’s bedroom, crying and frightened. His parents let him climb into bed with them, then they wrapped him in their blankets and told him pleasant stories of talking rabbits, squirrels, and birds playing and singing together. His mother would start a story, and then his father would finish it, and then they would switch for the next story. It became a game to both of them to see who could come up with the funniest beginnings and endings. They even let Taran begin and end a couple of stories on his own. All three of them had laughed most of the night away. He had never felt so loved.
“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame—”
“Once you have that memory, think of a time when you loved the most.”
“—quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.”
Without question, the time he loved the most was the day Mara was born. Holding her in his arms for the first time, her small face sleeping contentedly after the trauma of birth, he loved her so much that his soul ached. It still did whenever he looked at, or even thought about, Mara.
“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame, quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call. Quiet is the…”
Over and over he repeated the incantation, and over and over he relived those memories of love and happiness. His heart felt light, and he imagined that anything was possible. The peace that settled over his body made him feel as if he were floating above it, and he caught a fleeting image of the top of his head as his body sat at the table in front of Fatimah.
“…quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call…”
“Now reach for Ahura, find the Flame, and direct it toward the candle’s wick,” Fatimah said.
Without thinking of what she meant, the part of Taran that floated above his body reached a hand for Ahura in the sky. His spirit could see the ring. The colors had stopped swirling and became the primordial elements of existence. He felt the kiss of warm Air on his face, dipped his hands in cool Water, dug his toes into the soft soil of Earth, and watched the blinding white light of Spirit envelop him in love and peace. He soon found the orange and yellow streaks of Fire permeating Ahura’s ring, and then grabbed on to them and held them with both hands.
A surge of energy that he had never known rushed through him. His entire body felt aglow with a fire that was neither painful nor hot, but as comforting as a warm bath on a winter’s day. The part of Taran that had reached for Ahura’s ring rushed back to his body in an instant whirlwind.
And then Taran’s eyes flew open. Without remembering he had done so, he found that his right arm was raised in the air and his left was pointing at the candle wick. He focused his gaze at the wick, and it burst into a blue-white flame that seemed to shine as bright as the Fire he had seen in the ring.
Then the flame on the wick began to expand. It ate away at the top of the candle, melting all of the wax until the entire candle was a boiling puddle in the holder. But the flame did not stop. It continued to eat at the candle holder, and then it leaped to the table.
To Taran’s horror, the flame jumped onto the left sleeve of Fatimah’s woolen dress. She screamed and began to pat the blue-white flames with her other hand covered by the right sleeve, but the flames did not go out. The fire only continued to climb up her arm.
Without thinking, Taran left his body again and returned to Ahura, grabbed the Water he had felt there (not taking a moment to wonder how he could “hold” water in his hands) and brought it back to his body. An explosive torrent of water appeared in the air above Fatimah, the table, and Taran, soaking them all. The fire was extinguished, but the deluge flooded across the floor and flowed down the stairs in a waterfall. Fatimah stared at him through the drenched red hair that covered her eyes.
Taran suddenly felt an exhaustion that he had never known in his life. He did not remember falling to the floor.