by Rob Steiner
Taran stood across the street from his townhouse on University Avenue, beneath the canopy of the café two blocks down. It was a black night made even blacker by the drenching rain that had been pouring all day and most of yesterday. Science Ministry experts assured today’s newspapers that this weather pattern was normal and not like the devastating tornado of four months ago.
Taran knew they were right.
The steam trolley chugged up the hill from Taran’s left, and then stopped a block down from the townhouse. He saw that a pro-Edoss poster had been hastily glued to the door near the back of the trolley: “Free Dylan Edoss!” it proclaimed in large black letters on a white background.
Taran had read in Edellian newspapers that Edoss had been arrested on treason and heresy charges as soon as his ship from Turicia had docked in Levaken. It was a heavy-handed move for Adella Kiricia that seemed to be backfiring. While most Compact citizens—with the exception of the Orlenians—supported Edoss’s removal from office, ordering Edoss arrested and held without trial for simply traveling to the Beldamark had most people scratching their heads. For if Edoss had been on a heretical fool’s errand, according to Kiricia, then why was she so desperate to stop him from telling his story? It made some curious enough to read Edoss’s smuggled—and illegal—writings from his cell in Granthahm Prison in Calaman.
Now a small but vocal group was gluing posters all over the city, and had even started publishing a newspaper on Kiricia’s anti-Constitutional arrests of Edoss’s supporters, along with Edoss’s descriptions of the Tuathans. Taran had read several issues of the newspaper but saw nothing regarding the current location of the Tuathans. All Edoss said was that they were safe and “girding themselves for the coming war with Angra’s servants.”
Gas lamps illuminated the interior of the trolley, showing it empty but for two men with sooty faces and a single woman. When the trolley stopped, the woman exited with a brief smile for the trolley driver. Once she stepped off, the trolley steamed up the hill, passing Taran with a warm, wet breeze and the harsh sent of coal.
Taran watched Adhera walk wearily up the sidewalk to the house, her black umbrella held above her head. She entered the house, and then a few minutes later, the nurse who had been watching Mara left, opening her own umbrella and walking back the way Adhera had just come.
Taran jogged across the street, ignoring the soaking rain, and took the steps to his porch two at a time. He was about to open the door, but paused. It’s been three months, he thought. Will she even let me in?
He knocked. A minute went by. Then the circular greeting hole in the center of the door opened, and Taran could see Adhera’s eyes through the metal bars.
“Hello, Adhera,” he said.
She stared at him for several moments, the expression around her eyes unchanging.
“Can I come in please? The weather is—”
The greeting hole slammed shut. Taran was about to knock again when he heard the bolts on the door pulled back. Adhera opened the door, and then walked away into the living room without a word. Taran entered, removed his jacket and hung it on the coat pegs next to the door. He walked into the small living room where Adhera sat in the rocking chair she had used to nurse Mara after her birth. Her arms were folded, and she stared at the smoldering embers in the iron wood burner in the corner. Taran sat down on the couch across from her. The living room was so small that their knees were less than a pace apart.
“You’re working two jobs?” he asked.
Without looking at him, she said, “Three, actually. My Pathist Teacher credentials have been revoked. The only work I can find is house cleaning or grocery clerkships. Nurses aren’t free, you know.”
Taran sighed. “I know this is a feeble thing to say after what I’ve put you through, but I’m sorry, Adhera. I’m so sorry.”
She finally looked at him, her eyes glistening. “Sorry? You’re right. It is feeble. They told me you were dead. Never told me how, or where, just that you died a ‘hero.’ Some comfort. It crushed me, Taran. I thought all my love for you had died when you refused Mara the Mercy, but I guess it hadn’t.”
She shook her head. “And then you send me that wiretype two months ago saying you’re alive, saying that you would be home in another week.”
“I know. I was…delayed,” he said.
After he had sent Adhera the wiretype, he had gone to the Sydear train station to book passage to Calaman. Before he reached the ticket counter, he saw one of the clerks putting up a poster with his face on it on a bulletin board behind the counter. The poster said he was a “known associate” of the “revolutionary” Dylan Edoss, and the Compact was offering an unprecedented 100,000 han for information leading to his capture. He ducked out of the office. He had tried getting onto wagon trains, but found his face staring back at him at their ticket offices. He was forced to walk back to Calaman, hitching rides on private wagons that were traveling south. To avoid Edellian authorities—and Angra harrowers—he had stuck to roads that paralleled the Trans-Recindian Railroad, then turned east at the Perla Mountains, crossing the Komenda Steppes and entering the Compact through the Burrick Pass. He had not seen any sign that Angra harrowers had visited the towns through which he passed.
“I tried to get here as fast as I could,” he said. “And what I said in the wiretype is true. I know how to cure Mara.”
“Mara is receiving the Mercy next week,” she said, as if it were a simple treatment for a stomachache. “You are officially dead, so I have sole authority to request it.”
“Adhera,” Taran said, leaning forward. “I can heal Mara. Please let me see her.”
Adhera shook her head, and then laughed mirthlessly. “Even now you won’t give up your fantasies. I can’t live on wishes, Taran. Nor can Mara.”
“Then let me see her so I can prove it to you. At least let me see my daughter one last time before you send her to the Pathists.”
Adhera stared at him, and then sighed. “She’s finally sleeping, so be quiet.”
They walked up the stairs together and stopped at Mara’s room. The door was slightly ajar. Upon entering the room, the familiar smells of vomit and stale urine assaulted him. Mara lay on her back, dressed in her usual white sleeping gown. She had pushed her blankets to the end of the bed, likely during one of her episodic convulsions. Adhera went in and pulled the covers up so that they covered Mara’s thin frame, and then tucked them gently beneath her chin. Mara stirred a bit, turning her sleeping face toward Taran. A thin line of pink drool streamed from her mouth, and Adhera wiped it with a clean handkerchief. Taran had to hold back a sob when he saw how gaunt and pale Mara’s face had become in the four months he had been away.
Once Adhera had placed the blankets, Taran sat down softly next to Mara. “Oh, my sweet girl,” he said.
Without raising his hand, Taran reached for Angra. The chaotic power filled him instantly, and he sighed with pleasure. It had been months since he had Wielded Angra or Ahura. Angra’s surging currents raged in him, almost making him forget what he wanted to do. He put his hand on Mara’s chest and searched her body for the organisms that were killing her. They were buried deep in her blood, her muscles, her bones, and her brain, so he had to delve further than he had ever gone with the harrower back in the Beldamark.
Mara’s chest heaved. Her eyes sprung open and her back arched. He was aware of Adhera yelling at him, telling him to stop what he was doing, but he screamed something back to her, not knowing what it was, only caring that it made her leave him alone. Mara thrashed about in the bed, grunting and moaning, her eyes rolling into her head, but Taran went deeper still.
He found the Blood feasting on her spinal chord and its connections to her brain. Now that he had them, he willed them all to die. They screamed at him most pleasingly before withering away to nothing. Their destruction seemed to fill him with more power and a sense of satisfied vengeance.
Now kill the rest of them, the dark voice said, speaking for the first time in months. Start with the girl, and the power you feel now will be like a breeze to a tornado.
Taran shut his eyes tight. “Ah…”
Do it! the voice screamed.
Taran opened his eyes and let go of Angra. Mara looked up at him. Her eyes were clear and focused. For the first time in six years, they were clear and focused.
Oh, Mercy, please let it be true…
“Daddy,” she said again, “why do you look so old?”
Taran felt a smile spread across his face, then a laugh, and then hot tears streamed from his eyes as he hugged Mara so tight that he had to let her go when she gasped.
“Mara…?” Adhera said from behind Taran.
Taran released Mara and turned to Adhera. She gave him a questioning look. He nodded. “It’s gone. The Blood is gone.”
A choking sob escaped her throat. She sat on the other side of the bed from Taran and hugged Mara tight.
“What’s wrong, momma?”
Adhera laughed, and said, “Nothing. I’m so happy. I’m so happy…”
When Adhera pulled back, Mara wrinkled her nose, and then asked, “Why does it smell so bad in here?”
Taran said, “You’ve been sick a long time. Do you remember any of it?”
Mara was thoughtful for a moment. “I had a really bad headache after we had iced cream…and that’s it, until waking up right now.”
Adhera said, “You can sleep in my room until we clean out your bed tomorrow.”
Then Adhera looked at Taran. “What…what did you do?”
Taran sighed. “It’s a really long story.”
She stared at him for a while longer, and then her eyes widened. “You have to leave.”
Taran nodded. “I know. I can’t stay in the Compact too long—”
“No, I mean you have to leave right now! I…I wiretyped the constables when I saw you at the door. They’ll be here any minute.”
Taran jumped up, went to Mara’s window, and parted the drapes a sliver. He scanned the dark street to the left and the right. He saw no one—
Wait. In the dark shadows of the grocer’s shop across the street and three doors down, Taran saw the faint outline of a man. Then he saw two constables round the corner and stride toward the house. Both nodded to the man in the shadows.
“I’m so sorry, Taran,” Adhera said. “They told me to contact them if you ever came home. If I had known you could really do…do what you did, I never would have wiretyped them. How could I have known?”
Taran turned to her. “It’s all right. You didn’t know.”
He went over to Mara, who was trying to get up, but her muscles were so weak from almost six years of lying in bed that she shook with the effort. Taran gently pushed her back down to the bed, and then hugged her again.
“I have to leave for a while,” he said. “But no matter where I go or how long I’m gone, know that I love you more than anything in this world. Do you believe me?”
Mara nodded her head as tears began to glisten in her eyes. “Why are you leaving?”
“Momma will explain it to you, but I have to go now.” He stood, backed away to the door so that he could look on his daughter for as long as possible.
Mara raised her hand in a feeble wave. “Goodbye, daddy.”
Adhera followed Taran as he raced down the stairs. When he was halfway down, he stopped when he heard knocking at the front door.
“The alley?” Adhera asked.
“They’ll have that covered, too.”
He looked at Adhera, said, “I’m going to do something that will seem…unbelievable. Promise me you won’t panic.”
She gave him an irritated look. “After what you just did, you think there’s anything you can do now that would surprise me?”
Taran grinned. “I never stopped loving you, Adhera.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “There are so many things…”
The knocking came again, louder this time.
Taran said, “I’ll contact you when I can.”
Without raising his hand he reached for Ahura. The joy and peace that flowed through him was a calm river on which he could relax and let his fear float away. He searched for the right combination of Air and Spirit to create the illusion around him. When he found the Aspects, he molded them together and draped them over his body.
Adhera gasped. “Taran?”
The illusion stifled his voice as well, so he could not answer her. In response, though, he continued down the stairs, hoping the creaking steps would let her know where he was.
It worked. She followed him down the stairs, and then went to the door, where the constables knocked a third time. Opening the door, she said, “Thank you for coming, constables, but I’m afraid he left already.”
Taran stood in a corner of the room, watching the constables over Adhera’s shoulder. The gas lamps on the street illuminated their faces enough that he could see them give each other doubtful glances. One of them said, “Whose wet rain coat is that on the peg behind you?”
“My husband’s,” Adhera said without hesitation. “I used it tonight. It’s much roomier than my old coat.” She took a step back and said, “You’re welcome to search the house, if you’d like.”
They looked at each other again, and the first one said, “Thank you, ma’am, we would.”
They both entered, wiping their feet as best they could on the floor mat, then split up, one heading for the stairs and the other heading toward the kitchen and Taran’s old office.
“Be sure not to disturb my daughter,” Adhera whispered after the constable heading to the stairs. She continued to hold the door open despite the damp, chilly air rolling in. Taran took the hint and stepped quietly out the door and into the rain.
As Adhera shut the door, she whispered, “I love you, too.”
The door shut with a click, and Taran heard her muffled voice talking to the constables.
Taran glanced up and down the street. The man in the shadows of the grocer’s entry was still there, so he walked in the opposite direction. He maintained his hold on Ahura until he had rounded several corners and was over a mile from his house. He paused at an empty trolley stop shelter and waited there until a trolley chugged up the hill from the east.
Just as he remembered, releasing Ahura was like falling through the ice and into a cold, hard world. But this time, the worry and fear that had once greeted him was gone. It was the same worry and fear that had plagued him for the past six years.
Mara is going to live.
The trolley stopped in front of the shelter, and Taran stepped on. Neither the trolley driver nor the two other passengers gave him a second glance, though Taran was without a coat and soaked to the skin from the rain. He sat down in the back of the trolley and smiled at his reflection in the glass.
Mara is going to live.
He knew he had to leave the Compact, that he would most likely flee to the Wild Kingdoms to get away from the Compact’s long reach. He had no idea what he would do then, nor how long he would run.
But none of that mattered now.
Mara is going to live.
For the first time in six years, Taran Abraeu was happy.
Karak Frost opened his eyes and focused on Savix’s smiling face.
“Welcome back, my Zervakan harrower.”