by Rob Steiner
“Now try what I just showed you on my harrower,” Ladak said, pointing to the blank-faced Tuathan beside him.
Taran retained control of the Angra tendril, and placed his left hand on the heart of the gray-faced harrower. He felt the raging torrent of Angra consume his body, mind, and heart, but through the exhilaration, he maintained his focus.
“The human body,” Ladak said from beside Taran, “is infested with bacteria. With Angra’s help, we can find them and destroy them.”
He used the Aspects of Earth and Spirit to search for the organisms Ladak described, bacteria that maintained life and distributed death. His search through the harrower’s body was like sticking his hands into a decomposing corpse—it left Taran nauseous, but he continued the search. Where were they…?
There. The harrower’s Tainted body still retained enough of its former biology to sustain the bacteria it once held in life. Taran narrowed his focus on the bacteria in the harrower’s small intestines, and then…strangled them. He felt as if he were using his own hands to kill each one of the millions of bacteria swarming about in the harrower’s gut. When he could find no more, Taran opened his eyes and reluctantly released Angra.
Ladak looked at Taran. “Even killing something as small as bacteria makes one feel like a god, yes?”
Mercy help me, it does, Taran thought. But he did not have to say anything for Ladak to give him a knowing smile. “Perhaps you will become one of us after all.” Ladak turned his head slightly. “And it looks like you will have a chance to prove it right now.”
His right hand shot into the air and, simultaneously, his left hand pointed to the woods next to the road. Angra struck Ladak’s hand as fast as lightning, and Fatimah was pulled out of the woods, landing with a hard thump at Taran’s feet.
Ladak bent to one knee and lifted Fatimah’s chin with his fingers. Her eyes held defiance, but her chin quivered.
“I could smell you from a hundred paces,” Ladak said.
Ladak turned to Taran. “Now prove you are a man of your word and kill your first Tuathan.”
Taran stared down at Fatimah. Yes, the voice said, kill her, and then kill them all.
“Taran,” Fatimah said. “You are not one of them.”
She tried to stand, but Ladak forced her down to her knees again.
“Is she right, Taran?” Ladak snarled. “Kill her now, or my harrowers will. After they kill you.”
All three harrowers raised their hands, black tendrils of Angra connecting to each one. Ladak also held an Angra tendril.
Kill her, the voice screamed in his mind. Then kill them all!
Taran looked down at Fatimah, the dark voice irresistible. He began to raise his hand—
A crack sounded from behind him, and the top of a harrower’s head exploded. The harrower staggered backward, but he righted himself again. Everything above his forehead was a mass of gray, glistening meat. More firing erupted from the huts near the road, and from the trees near the huts. Taran saw Shadarlak hiding behind trees and in the windows of huts, firing at the harrowers, hitting most of them but doing very little to knock them down.
Taran heard Ladak grunt. He turned and saw Ladak’s black coat disappear into the woods on the left. Without thinking, Taran ran past the harrowers—who were walking towards the firing Shadarlak, ready to call down lightning from the black clouds gathering above—and plunged into the woods after the Fomorian.
When the firing started—which seemed like an eternity after she had been pulled from the forest—Fatimah dropped to her belly and put her hands over her head, praying to Ahura that the Shadarlak aim was as good as they promised it would be. The harrowers were concentrating on the concealed Shadarlak, and walked right past her. Maybe they thought she was dead. She did not know or care, just as long as they left her alone.
She glanced about and saw Taran disappear into the forest. Ladak was gone, so Fatimah assumed Taran was chasing the Fomorian.
Or fleeing with Ladak?
She leaped to her feet and ran to where Taran had entered the woods. As she passed the tree line, she heard the first explosions of lightning strike the Shadarlak positions. Pine branches and thorny bushes scratched her face and clothes, but she gave another silent prayer that the Recindians would not pay too dearly for helping her retrieve Taran.
Taran raced through the woods, spotting Ladak’s black coat, then losing it for a time. He’d hear rustling over the lightning strikes behind him to see Ladak dart out of sight again. Taran kept on him, listening for Ladak’s footsteps over his own pounding heart and haggard breathing. Taran lost the sound of Ladak’s flight, but then picked up a fresh trail of blood in the dead branches and needles on the forest floor.
Find him and destroy him, the dark, mad voice whispered in his mind, or he will find and destroy you. And then go back and slaughter the Tuathans.
The forest ended abruptly before a clearing of saw grass covered sand dunes. Footprints in the sand led up and over one of the dunes. Fearing a trap, Taran stopped, and then made his way around the dune, along the edge of the forest clearing. When he rounded the dune, he saw Ladak laying on his back, the top of his head pointing down the hill as if he had fallen and slid on his back all the way down the dune. Taran saw a large stain of blood covering Ladak’s entire chest on the white shirt beneath his black coat. Ladak’s face and lips were as gray as one of his harrowers. He turned his head slightly and smiled when he saw Taran.
“All these gifts from Angra and I can’t even stop a bullet,” Ladak said. He started laughing, then coughed up a gout of blood.
Taran walked slowly to Ladak. Dark blood was caking the sand around Ladak’s back.
“Wouldn’t mind giving a bit of that Ahura healing, would you?” Ladak rasped, and then laughed again, which sounded more like a wet gurgle.
Taran picked up a piece of heavy driftwood next to his feet. He looked at it a moment, wondering how it had ended up so far from the seashore. He swung it high above his head with both hands as if he were about to chop a piece of wood, and brought it down on Ladak’s head.
The point of the driftwood hit nothing but empty sand. Ladak’s body had disappeared.
Taran did not have time to look around before the bolt of lightning struck the ground several feet from him. He did not hear the bolt, nor did he feel its electricity, but he felt his body flying through the air. He landed silently in a pile of dead seaweed. He stared up at the sky, all blue except for the small black, roiling cloud above him. The sun was higher in the east now, shining into Taran’s eyes if he looked through a break in the woods a mile away. Beyond that break, he saw the blue waters of the Gulf of Pagilah.
Ladak stepped in front of the sun, his tri-corner hat blocking it. Taran noticed that the sleeve of his left arm was stained with blood, slick and glistening.
Though Taran’s hearing was beginning to return, he could not make out Ladak’s muffled words. He did understand, however, Ladak’s actions. He raised his right hand to Angra, and a black tendril snaked down and connected with Ladak. He bent down and put his hand over Taran’s heart. Taran knew what was going to happen.
You were too slow, the dark voice said. You are now his slave.
Unable to do more than groan, Taran closed his eyes and pictured Mara’s smiling face in his mind, the kind of smile she used to give him before the Blood struck. At least his last free thought would be of his daughter.
Ladak’s hand abruptly lifted away from Taran’s heart. Taran opened his eyes to see Ladak staring at his hands and body with a horrified expression. A blue, glittering shield surrounded him. He raised his right hand to Angra again, but no black tendril appeared. Ladak cried out in frustration, and then his gaze stopped on the top of the sand dune.
Fatimah stood at the top, her hand raised to Ahura and a beautiful, multi-colored tendril caressing her body. She had cast a barrier around Ladak, and he was now powerless.
But no less murderous. Ladak picked up the driftwood Taran had used to dispel Ladak’s illusion, and scrambled up the sand dune toward Fatimah with a feral shriek. Seeing the danger, she released Ahura and ran back down the other side.
Taran found the strength to turn over and make himself stand. On shaky feet, he raised his right hand to Angra and felt the chaotic power fill him. As he remembered Ladak doing, he Wielded Air and Spirit to form a hand around Ladak’s torso, and then dragged the Fomorian back down the dune. Cursing and screaming at Taran, Ladak tried to stand, but Taran Wielded Ladak’s arms to his sides and his ankles together.
Still holding on to Angra, Taran stooped down to both knees in front of Ladak and snarled, “Now you’re my slave.”
Ladak’s terrified eyes bulged satisfactorily.
Yes, the dark voice said, use him! He will make a powerful harrower for you.
Remembering the Wield Ladak was about to use on Taran, he put his left hand on Ladak’s heart—
Gunfire filled the air, and several holes appeared in Ladak’s chest. Ladak grunted, and then a third shot shattered his skull, spraying blood into Taran’s face. Startled, Taran fell onto his back, losing his grip on Angra.
When he looked up again, Fatimah was striding down the sand dune with a smoking revolver in her hand. Then she aimed the gun at Taran.
“Do I have to kill you, too?” Fatimah said in a shaky voice, her eyes welling with tears.
Taran sat motionless, propped up on his elbows, staring at the surprising figure of Fatimah. She held the revolver in both hands pointed at his chest, her stance wide like a trained soldier. She must have studied the Shadarlak well.
“I saw what you were about to do,” she said, stopping five paces from him. “I had to kill him. Or you would have made him a harrower. And for the sake of my people and the sake of your soul, I could not let you do it.”
Taran closed his eyes and lay on his back. I’m every bit the monster Ladak was, Taran thought with despair.
Yes, the voice said. So take that gun from her and shoot her with it. Then wipe out the whole lot of them on the beach. They would do it to you…
Taran put his hands on his head. “Stop…”
Fatimah thought he was talking to her, because she said, “I will not. You told me just a few days ago that our choices and actions are what define us, not the stations we were born into. You are a Zervakan, and that means you can Wield Angra. But that also means you can choose not to.”
Oh, Fatimah, Taran thought, you have too much faith in me.
He opened his eyes and stared at her. Without raising his hand, he called on Angra, and a flash of the black power surrounded him in an instant. Before Fatimah could fire, he blocked the blood flow into her brain, causing her to pass out. She fell to the sand in a heap, the gun falling from her hands.
Taran stood and walked over to her. He turned her over so that her face was not in the sand, and then gently picked her up. He trudged up the dune, and then placed her in the sand at the top, in plain view of anyone coming from the forest or from the beach path to his right. Someone would come soon—if they were not attracted by the gun shots, then they would surely notice the Angra and Ahura trails that had been Wielded here. He removed some hair from her sleeping face.
“Good-bye,” he said. When he heard movement in the woods, he ran into the trees in the opposite direction.
“Sir,” Captain Laesh shouted to Dylan, “over here!”
Without the long legs of the Shadarlak, Dylan’s jog through the forest was more of a sprint just to keep up with his men. At least the low hanging branches were not as much of a problem for him as they were for the Shadarlak. Trade-offs, he thought.
When he reached the sandy clearing, he saw Laesh bent over Fatimah on top of a steep sand dune. Four Shadarlak stood around him, their eyes scanning the forest. Another eight Shadarlak surrounded Dylan.
Dylan trudged up the dune and stopped before Fatimah. “Is she alive?”
“Yes, sir,” Laesh said. “No wounds that I can see.”
Dylan scanned the clearing and saw Ladak’s body at the bottom of the other side of the dune. From the looks of him, he was surely dead, but after the things he had seen the past two months, Dylan was not going to take that for granted. He ordered three Shadarlak to train their revolvers on Ladak and fire if he should move.
“Any sign of Abraeu?” Dylan asked Laesh.
“Not yet, sir,” Laesh said. “There are a lot of tracks about, but we should be able to pick up his trail.”
Fatimah took in a sudden breath, and then opened her eyes. She blinked several times and squinted up at Laesh. She looked confused for a moment, and then her eyes widened.
“Taran,” she said. She tried sitting up too quickly, and then fell back on her elbows.
“Easy, miss,” Laesh said.
“Taran’s not here,” Dylan said. “What happened?”
Fatimah told him.
“I really thought he was going to kill me,” she said, her eyes brimming.
A single cannon blast rung out from the ships at Tsall’s piers. There were no other blasts, which meant the ships were calling him back so they could depart.
“Captain,” Dylan called out to Laesh, who was conferring with one of his lieutenants at the bottom of the dune. “Abraeu’s trail?”
“No, sir. His footprints end at the edge of the forest here. Beyond the tree line…there’s nothing.”
Dylan looked at Fatimah. “Can he just…disappear?”
Fatimah shook her head. “I do not know the extent of his abilities. Maybe. I never thought anyone could Wield without raising a hand to one of the rings, but he proved me wrong there.”
She put a hand on Dylan’s arm. “He does not want to be found. Perhaps it is best we not look for him. My people still want to judge him and they would certainly find him guilty, especially after what I witnessed.”
“But isn’t he dangerous? If what you say happened, should he be allowed to roam free?”
Fatimah slowly said, “He could have killed me. But he did not.”
She stared at him for a few moments, allowing the words to sink in, and Dylan nodded. He turned around and said, “Captain, we’re going back to the ship. Recall your men.”
Fatimah smiled. “He is the Zervakan. He will do the right thing.”
Dylan scanned the forest into which Taran had disappeared. “I hope so.”