by Rob Steiner
The storm was fading when Fatimah stumbled the second time, almost losing her grip on Ahura.
“Enough, Fatimah,” Melahara said beside her. “Rina, take over the Wield from Fatimah.”
Fatimah was about to object, but Melahara said, “You will give up the Wield, priest.”
The tone of Melahara’s voice reminded her of the unflinching obedience required of her when she was an Acolyte, and it was that more than anything that made her give up the Wield to Rina. The small, dark-haired Rina took over the Wield with a fearful expression, as if she were suddenly carrying the weight of the world.
But Fatimah saw nothing more. She collapsed to the ground as soon as the wonderful peace and joy left her body. She did not pass out, a fact that meant she was growing stronger, but she could hardly move her head much less stand. Several Tuathan Heshmen carried her back to the small covered wagon on which Eblin was riding and laid her on blankets that had been prepared for the priests recovering from their Wields.
Eblin poked her soaked head into the wagon from the driver’s seat and smiled proudly at Fatimah. “You did well, priest. Remarkable strength you have…for someone who was supposed to have only Wielded six times.”
When the Barrier fell, Melahara had decreed that priests could only Wield in the presence of their Masters. Fatimah had only Wielded six times in front of Eblin, but, contrary to Melahara’s decree, had practiced many times on her own.
Fatimah barely had the strength to form the words, “Have they found Taran?”
Eblin’s smile faded. “Dylan Edoss has gone to look for him. Pomar Aliin went along to shield him and his men.”
“It has been an hour.”
Fatimah was not only shocked that Taran had been missing an hour, but that she had been Wielding for that long. She now understood why it would be so easy for the undisciplined to continue Wielding until they died from exhaustion. While holding Ahura, time seemed to stop and speed up simultaneously. The peace she felt while embracing Ahura was…addictive. Even now she wanted to Wield, to find that joy again. Even now, when she knew that to do so would mean certain death.
“Fatimah,” Eblin said, “do you remember exactly what he said before he ran off into the woods?”
Fatimah thought back to what Taran had said a mere hour ago, which felt like last week. He had been walking along, setting a quick pace, when he stopped and asked Fatimah about a girl in the road. But Fatimah had not seen a girl. She told Eblin this, and Eblin frowned.
“The harrowers know so much more about their lost powers than we do,” Eblin said. “We have yet to create convincing illusions.”
“The girl was an illusion?” Fatimah asked. And then before Eblin could confirm her suspicions, Fatimah said, “He thinks he saw his daughter.”
Eblin nodded. “Nothing else would have made him run off like that.”
Fatimah suddenly felt energy flowing through her again, and she sat up. She marveled that she had the strength to walk, though she knew that Wielding would be out of the question for at least the next half hour.
“How did the harrowers know about Taran’s daughter?”
Eblin’s normally affable face was dark when she looked at Fatimah. “From what I’ve read in the ancient texts describing Angra powers, they can only generate convincing illusions if they have seen their subjects. The harrower who created that illusion has seen Taran’s daughter, and is likely someone Taran knows—”
“There is a harrower in the Compact delegation?” Fatimah said.
Eblin raised her eyebrow at Fatimah’s interruption.
“Do we know who?” Fatimah asked.
“It could be any of them. Certainly not one that is within the shield, for he could not have generated the illusion.”
“Then the harrower is out in the woods somewhere with Taran.”
She gathered her waterlogged cloak around her and jumped down from the wagon and onto the muddy ground. The rain had lessened since she entered the wagon, and there were no more lightning strikes, but the clouds were still black and ominous. And the Tainted no longer attacked the shield. The quiet, dark woods were almost more eerie than the Tainted shrieks.
“Where are you going?” Eblin asked from the front seat of the wagon.
“To find Taran,” Fatimah said. She stepped in a puddle of mud that was deeper than she thought. It soaked her leggings, but she continued on through the Tuathans behind the wagon. With all they had been through, they could only give her passing glances—most gazed fearfully at the clouds or the dark forest on either side of the road.
“Fatimah,” Melahara called out from behind, but Fatimah ignored the Worldly Seat. Unfortunately, a large Tuathan, a farmer from the looks of him, stopped her and said, “I think the Worldly Seat is calling for you, priest.”
Unable to ignore Melahara any longer, she turned. “Taran Abraeu saved the lives of six Heshmen two nights ago. Something he did not have to do. We cannot leave him behind. He would have gone after any one of us.”
Melahara glared at Fatimah. “Really? He chose to leave over five hundred innocent people unprotected to go chasing an illusion. I know he thought whatever he saw was real, but nevertheless, we now know that we can never trust him again.”
“But if he saw his daughter—”
“Yes, his daughter. And as long as she lives, she will always have a hold on him that his responsibilities as the Zervakan can never break. The Fomorians now know this, and they will use it to turn him against us. We cannot risk that. He is too powerful, and our numbers are too few.”
Melahara sighed. “If he returns, Taran Abraeu must be killed.”