by Rob Steiner
Besides the shuffling of Tuathan feet and their occasional murmurs, Fedalan was unnervingly quiet to Taran’s sensitive ears. He wished he could hear something: scurrying animals, open doors creaking in the wind, something. The occasional peal of thunder ahead was all that broke the silence.
Taran kept his hand raised to Ahura, feeling content that the ring’s power still flowed through him. His arm didn’t feel numb at all, as he would’ve expected after keeping it raised so long. He had only walked maybe five hundred paces—almost half way to the gates of the town—before Fatimah began questioning him on his strength.
“Remember,” she said, “tell me as soon as you feel any weariness.”
“Blurred vision, pains in your chest—”
“—the desire to sleep, visions—”
“Fatimah,” Taran said, “you are making it hard for me to concentrate.”
“Ah. Forgive me.” She remained quiet for another fifty paces before she started questioning him again. Taran almost wished for an Angra attack just to distract her.
But they reached the town’s gates and no attack came. The storm, which Taran thought would be on them the moment they stepped onto the road out of town, seemed to stay ahead of them, but did not dissipate. It was becoming harder for him to hope it was natural.
The town gates were breached in the Tainted attack several nights ago, though “breached” did not describe their current condition. It looked as if the thirty-foot tall wood gates had suffered a barrage from a company of Mazumdahri cannons. There was nothing left of the ornately carved gates but splinters and jagged shards of wood. The stone walls to either side of the two gates had also crumbled under the terrible onslaught, creating a mound of debris that Taran and the Tuatha would have to climb. He could not determine what had destroyed the gates, for there were no scorch marks indicating lightning strikes. The wood looked to have been twisted and torn. He just hoped he didn’t have to face whatever had done that.
Climbing the pile of debris was a challenge in normal conditions, for the pile of loose wood and stones constantly shifted under Taran’s feet. But climbing the pile while holding onto the Aspects was a nightmare. He could only steady himself with one hand, while he held his right hand above his head holding onto the multi-colored tendril of Ahura. Several times he almost fell, only to have Fatimah or another priest steady him before he impaled himself on a jagged beam of wood. Through the entire climb, the part of Taran’s mind that was not focused on maintaining the shield wondered how Myndehr and the other Tuathan priests had made it over this pile without their horses breaking a leg.
Once over the pile, Taran continued walking up the road without looking behind to see if all the Tuathans were following. There were others who would see after the civilians; he had to focus on maintaining the shield. One task at a time.
Fatimah again questioned Taran on his strength, but Taran ignored her. He still felt more alive than he ever had in his life, more aware of his surroundings. He could do anything. He was not going to grow fatigued any time soon. When Taran did not respond, Fatimah stopped asking. For now.
He walked by small log homes surrounded by plots of overgrown land. Stray dogs peered at him from under porches, and some even walked through the shield with wagging tails, sniffing and barking playfully at the Tuathans behind Taran. With all the Tainted that had attacked the Heiron, Taran was surprised to see any living animals within the vicinity of Fedalan.
The sky ahead of Taran kept its black, angry color, and blue-green lightning flashed between clouds. The storm still seemed to pace them, staying maybe a half a mile ahead, as if leading them. Taran’s gaze strayed to the road ahead, hard packed and dry—
Fifty paces ahead, a girl stood in the middle of the road, facing him. Her hair was black and hung over her face in wet strands, and she wore a tattered white shift.
“Fatimah,” Taran said, “is she one of yours?”
“Who?” Fatimah asked from Taran’s right.
“The girl ahead of us. Is she one of your people?”
Fatimah was silent, and Taran risked a sideways glance at her. She stared up the road, her eyes squinting, but not focusing on the girl less than thirty paces in front of them. The girl had not moved since Taran first spied her, and he could not understand how Fatimah—
And then twenty paces away, just outside the shield’s reach, Taran recognized her. He stumbled a bit, and then stopped.
It was Mara.
She looked at Taran with pleading eyes. Blood ran from a wound on her forehead above her hairline, and bloody scratches and dark bruises covered her arms and legs.
“Taran what’s wrong?” Fatimah asked from someplace far away. “Taran, the shield is faltering!”
“Mara,” he whispered. But how…?
“Taran!” Fatimah screamed. “The shield!”
Mara seemed to be crying, for tears left tracks down her dirty face. Then she turned and ran into the forest.
Taran heard Fatimah begin the shield incantation just as he lowered his hand and released the tendril of Ahura. The world of the Mundane crashed into him—his reflexes and senses felt muddled and slow, like he was under water. His movements were like in a dream, his hearing was muffled, and his sight had become blurry and unfocused.
He ignored it. He charged through the faltering shield and toward the place where Mara had disappeared into the forest.
The weight of the shield was crushing Fatimah, but she held it up. The Aspects of Air and Spirit threatened to tear her soul apart, all while she reveled in Ahura’s joyful ecstasy. Fatimah heard the priests around her begin the shield incantation.
“Do not Wield!” she cried through gritted teeth. “I cannot hold this for very long and you will be needed.”
The last thing she wanted was her back-up priests unconscious when she inevitably faltered.
Through Aspect-enhanced eyes, Fatimah saw Taran inexplicably disappear into the forest. How could he have abandoned us? she thought, struggling not to let her dismay break her concentration. What had he seen to make him run off like that?
She continued walking forward, as fast as she could make her feet go. She was aware of the panicked cries coming from behind her. They, too, wondered why the Zervakan had run off into the forest. What could she tell them?
Fatimah heard Melahara’s voice behind her throwing questions at the priests.
“What happened to Abreau? Why is Fatimah holding the shield?”
She did not want to break her concentration simply to tell Melahara that she did not know where Taran went. But one of the priests explained, “He said something about a girl, and then he ran off into the woods over there.”
“What girl?” the Holy Seat asked.
At that moment, the storm that had threatened since they left the Heiron leaped on them like a wolf on a wounded lamb. Rain deluged the Tuathans and lightning strikes just outside the shield showered them all in dirt, mud, and shards of trees. The thunder was deafening, yet through it Fatimah heard the screams of her people. Thankfully, none of the lightning strikes fell within the shield’s perimeter. Priests on either side of the road struggled to keep people from taking cover in the tree line thirty paces from the road, but several dozen slipped through and ran for the trees.
No! Fatimah had time to think before lightning rained down on top of each running group, leaving behind only blackened craters and showers of dirt and limbs. That horrible sight kept others from trying the same thing.
“Two Angra trails to the right,” Pomar Aliin shouted from behind Fatimah.
“Do you see the harrowers?” Fatimah asked, keeping her eyes on the road ahead. I must hold on…
“No, they are in the trees. There’s another one to the left…near where the Zervakan entered the forest. That’s three trails.”
Fatimah cast an involuntary glance toward the left, but returned her gaze to the road when she felt a slight weakening in her hold on the shield.
“Do you see the Zervakan?” Melahara asked Pomar, just as a bolt of lightning exploded right on top of the shield. Fatimah felt the shield bend dangerously inward. But it did not break.
Fatimah wished she could have held up just as well—she fell to her knees, but managed to keep her hand up and her hold on to Ahura. The priests around her rushed to pick her up, and she gladly accepted their help.
“Do you need me to take over?” Pomar asked, but Fatimah shook her head. She had felt like the weight of the shield would crush her when she first took over, but she was getting used to it, and she even thought it felt a little lighter now.
What she worried about was more lightning strikes. She did not know how long she could hold up the shield if the harrowers decided to concentrate their strikes on it.
Gunfire from the Shadarlak behind her almost made her lose her hold on Ahura again. “What is happening?” she yelled.
Pomar started walking backward and craned her neck to get a better view over the Tuathans behind her.
“It’s coming from the Compact Speaker’s location.” Then she gasped and said, “Blessed Ahura…”
“What?” Fatimah asked. “What’s happening?”
“Tainted,” Pomar said. “They’re all around us.”