by Rob Steiner
“Hold your fire!” Dylan shouted to the thirty Shadarlak around him.
In uncharacteristic panic, the Shadarlak had begun firing at the Tainted creatures that were slamming themselves into the Tuathan shield a few paces away. But the creatures only destroyed themselves in a grisly explosion of yellow blood and tissue whenever they simply touched the shield. No use wasting valuable ammunition when the shield was doing all the work.
The musket-fire tapered off as each sergeant restrained his men. Dylan went to Captain Laesh, Myndehr’s second in command.
“Captain, no firing unless those things get through the shield,” Dylan shouted above the rain, thunder, and shrieks of the Tainted.
The wide-eyed captain nodded. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Laesh nodded toward the shield. “I’m not used to fighting…those…behind one of…these…”
“I know, Captain. This is new to all of us. We have to trust the Tuathans. If this shield falls, we’ll need our ammunition.”
“Yes, sir,” Laesh said. He turned and started passing the order on to his subordinates.
Dylan made his way through the agitated Tuathans toward the front of the column, his four Shadarlak bodyguards surrounding him. He saw Fatimah with her arm raised and continuing to walk at a brisk pace, her face twisted in concentration and effort. Taran Abraeu was nowhere in sight.
Dylan saw Melahara talking to Eblin, who rode in the front seat of a single horse-drawn wagon with a canopy over the rear, but nothing above the driver and Eblin. Her white hair was plastered to her head, and her gray woolen cloak was soaked.
“Where is Abraeu?” Dylan asked.
Both Melahara and Eblin frowned, and Melahara said, “He ran off into the woods.”
“The woods? Why? When?”
Eblin said, “Seems he saw something that interested him more than maintaining the shield.”
“What did he see?”
Melahara said, “Pomar said he told Fatimah that he saw a girl in the road. Then he ran off. But Fatimah never saw a girl.”
“We have to find him,” Dylan shouted over a fresh lightning strike, and the howls of Tainted exploding themselves against the shield. “We can’t just leave him behind.”
It was more than his duty as Speaker of the Compact talking. It was his loyalty to Tobias Abreau that would refuse to let Dylan abandon his former commander’s son to certain death in these woods. Tobias Abraeu had seen Dylan and the rest of his men through the “hopeless” Battle of Growan Pass during the First Mazumdahri War. Dylan would be damned if he left the man’s only son behind without trying to find him.
Melahara said, “No one is going into those woods to find Abraeu. If you have not noticed, Speaker, we are under attack. It would be suicide for whoever went.”
“I thought Taran was this ‘Zervakan,’ your savior,” Dylan growled. “How can you leave him behind?”
“He left us,” Melahara shot back. “Maybe he is not what we thought he was.”
“Whatever he is,” Dylan said, “he is one of my men. And I don’t know about Tuatha, but the Compact does not abandon its citizens. I’m going after him.”
From the wagon, Eblin said, “You will die without a shield, Speaker. The harrowers and the Tainted will be too much for your guns, even if all of your Shadarlak accompany you.”
“Maybe,” Dylan said. Then he looked at Melahara. “But do you really want let Taran Abraeu be captured alive by all those harrowers and Tainted?”
Much to Dylan’s satisfaction, the implications of Taran’s capture by the Fomorians was not lost on Melahara. Her frown deepened, and she glanced at Eblin. Eblin’s mouth curled in a smile, and she gave Melahara a look that seemed to concede Dylan’s point.
Melahara turned around to the priests walking with Fatimah and shouted, “Pomar!”
The short, thin red-haired young woman turned and jogged over to Melahara, bowed her head, and said something in Tuathan.
“I want you to Wield a shield for Speaker Edoss and his men, and then accompany them into the woods to find Taran Abraeu. I choose you because, like Fatimah, you were the only one to see where he went into the woods.”
Pomar’s eyes widened a moment, glanced once at Dylan, then said in heavily accented Recindian, “As you say, Mother Seat.”
Dylan said to Melahara, “Thank you.”
He turned to gather the men he would lead into the woods after Abraeu. He selected five men—Captain Laesh would allow no fewer—and gathered them toward the rear of the long column of Tuathan civilians. The sodden and terrified people gave him curious glances when they saw him, Pomar, and the Shadarlak jogging back toward Fedalan, but they continued forward without saying anything. Most were too preoccupied with flinching as each screaming Tainted monster smashed itself against the shield, or with the lightning strikes exploding into the grounds outside the shield, or the sheets of rain soaking them through.
Judging by Melahara’s explanation alone, Dylan knew what Abraeu thought he saw. Only a vision of his daughter could have made Taran abandon his promise to the Tuatha. And that meant someone or something was targeting Taran. Dylan had never left behind one of his men when he was a sergeant in the First Mazumdahri War, inspired by the examples set by Taran’s own father. He would find Taran.
They stopped at the end of the column. Twenty paces ahead was the edge of the shield, which slowly moved toward them at the same speed as Fatimah’s walk at the front of the column.
“There,” Pomar said, pointing to a break in the woods. “He enter there.”
There were no Tainted within the woods that Dylan could see. The attacks seemed to concentrate on the middle of the column, from the left and right.
Dylan looked at Pomar, who was only a couple of inches taller than him. “Thank you for doing this.”
“Thank you, Edoss. I love to Wield. Especially against Tainted. They kill my brother in first attack.”
She said this in a matter of fact manner, which seemed to make it even sadder to Dylan’s ears. He nodded.
“Stay close me, please. Ten paces, yes.”
When Dylan and the Shadarlak did so, she raised her hand and said the incantation for the shield. Dylan watched as the bubble of blue-white energy appeared where her open hand was raised, and expanded to engulf them all with a comfortable margin of five paces all around them.
As the edge of the main shield advanced toward them, Dylan said to his men, “I don’t have to remind you to stay within the shield perimeter.”
Dylan heard their “Yes, sir’s,” and saw them all gripping their revolvers and sabers tightly. To Pomar, Dylan said, “We’re ready when you are.”
She nodded, and then walked forward. They stepped out of the safety of the main shield and into the woods where Taran had disappeared.