ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 6

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 6

Taran placed his last dry towel around the leaking window in his basement office.  For the last two days, the rain had fallen non-stop, though thankfully there had been nothing similar to the storm that had devastated Calaman several weeks ago.

Water dripped from the old window in the cracked walls on the other side of the damp basement.  He sighed, knowing the humidity in the air was slowly destroying the Mystic books, parchments, and artifacts he had collected over the years.  Not even a visit from the Science Minister himself had been able to convince the College administrators to let him move these priceless tomes to the drier basement in Shalliford Hall.

He rolled up his sleeves once more and went back to his desk in the corner.  At least the desk was dry…for now.  He turned up the flame on his table lamp and returned to the text he had been translating.

There were two knocks on the door to his office, then a pause.  Taran smiled, knowing that it was either a student or Arie.

“Come in,” Taran called out.

Arie entered with a grin, his thinning white hair plastered to his head with rain water.  He shut the door firmly behind him.  The door, like everything else in this “office,” had a tendency to not latch properly and creak open.

“Don’t you have an umbrella?” Taran asked, handing Arie a small dry handkerchief.  Arie took it with a nod of thanks and wiped his face.

“I didn’t want to waste time looking for it,” he said.  “My boy, I’ve some wonderful news.”

He clasped Taran’s shoulders, and said, “Edoss is sending a delegation to the Beldamark, and they want you to come with them as their Mystic translator.”

Taran stared at Arie for a moment, unable to find the words to respond.  He leaned back against his desk.  “What made them decide this?” he asked, unable to think of anything more intelligent to say.  I’m going to meet the Mystics, was all he could think at the moment.

Arie shrugged.  “I don’t know, but the mission is quite secret.  I’m the only one at the university who knows.  They wanted me to tell you because they did not want to alert the Zampolits if you received another visit from a government official.”  Arie grinned.  “That and so I would not report you missing to the constables when you leave.”

“When?” Taran asked.

“Tomorrow night.  You have to be at the Revela Street Station by midnight, and you are to bring whatever you feel will help you to translate the Mystic language for the delegation.  Beyond that, I don’t know anything else.”

Taran shook his head, looking at the bookshelves filled with tattered manuscripts behind his desk.  “Tomorrow night.  That should be enough time to gather—  Wait.  What do I tell my wife?”

Adhera was a former Pathist Teacher who hated Taran’s obsession with Mystics.  And it was one of the reasons their marriage was on the verge of dying.  They slept in separate bedrooms, staying together only to care for their Blood-stricken daughter.  Taran doubted she would believe him if he told her he was accompanying a secret government delegation to the Beldamark to meet with Mystics.  He had already visited the Beldamark twice with no results.  How would she react to a third visit when it took him days to persuade her he had to go on the first two?

Arie shrugged uncomfortably, knowing full well Taran’s situation.  “It is likely something she might not believe, even if you could tell her.”

Taran frowned, but Arie continued.  “The public’s confidence has been shaken with the rings and with the storm, at least here in Calaman.  If word were to leak out that the government is sending a delegation to the Mystics, essentially validating a supernaturalist idea…well, some in the government seem to think the people would run riot in the streets.”

Taran shook his head.  “I understand the need for secrecy, Arie, but Adhera is my wife.  She’s going to want to know where I’m going and why.  I’ve never lied to her.  I won’t start now.”

“All right, I will make you a deal.  Tell her that I am sending you to the Beldamark for research purposes.  I will back you up if she should ask me.  However, you cannot tell her that the government is coming with you.  Agreed?”

Taran agreed reluctantly, though he still did not like keeping anything from Adhera.

After Arie left, Taran spent the next hour creating a list of the books he wanted to take with him on the journey.  When he was finished, he decided he’d pack the books tomorrow.  He extinguished the flame in the lamp, locked the door, and climbed the dank, narrow stairwell to the world above.

The hardest rain had let up, but there was still a heavy mist in the air.  Taran pulled out his umbrella against the chill fog and tried to sidestep as many puddles as possible.  He chose to walk home rather than take the steam trolley.  The trolley would get him home in five minutes—he figured he would need longer than that to work out how he would explain his trip to Adhera.

But the walk home did not take as long as he had hoped.  He lived on a street less than a half mile from the university, with houses separated by an alley no more than a pace wide.  After two years, he still had trouble distinguishing his house from the others.  It was a comfortable, two-story townhouse, but not as spacious or well-built as the one they had to sell after the university cut his salary.

He swung open the wrought iron gate in front and climbed the five stairs to the porch.  Lamps were burning in the living room.  Taran could see that someone sitting in the chair next to the window, and it was not Adhera.  He did not like the feeling he got seeing that familiar form.  Taran closed his umbrella, shook the rain off of it, and entered his home.

Adhera sat in the rocking chair near the hearth, a small fire burning in it.  On the couch near the window was Owhn Feshaye, the neighborhood Pathist Teacher and the man under whom Adhera had apprenticed during her Teaching years.  He was a kindly man with a kindly face, full white hair, and spectacles with thicker lenses than Taran’s.  Owhn was the kind of Teacher that inspired all who listened to him to better themselves and care for their loved ones.  But tonight, Taran felt nothing but dread and a little anger at seeing Owhn sitting on the couch, for he knew what was coming.

“You’re late,” Adhera said.  Her tone was not accusatory, but wearily stating a fact.  She looked more tired than usual, and Taran was instantly concerned.

“Something came up.  Arie has an assignment for me.  Good evening, Teacher.”

Owhn stood, extended his hand with a comforting smile, the kind of smile Taran assumed he gave people just before he gave them the Mercy.

“Hello, Taran.  It’s been a long time.”

Ever since the Blood had struck Mara, and his subsequent quest for the Mystics, Taran had not attended the neighborhood’s weekly Pathist service.  Not because he did not believe in their precepts, but because they did not tolerate his.  And he was tired of the pitying looks he received from his neighbors, or the whispers and snickers behind his back.  He decided several years ago that it was best to spare Adhera the embarrassment and simply not go to the services.

Taran shook Owhn’s hand, nodding.  Then he looked to Adhera, who stared at the fire with her hands on her lap.  Taran ached to touch her, to put an arm around her.  When was the last time he had put his arm around her…?

“Forgive me for being blunt, Teacher,” Taran asked, “but why are you here?”

Owhn’s smile gave way to concern.  “Adhera asked me to come tonight.  She was looking for council on how to talk to you.  I think you know what about.”

“I’m not going to letting you stick a syringe full of poison into my daughter,” Taran said.

“Taran,” Owhn said, shaking his head, “you make it sound like murder.  It is Mercy that we are giving her; it is freedom from the torture she endures every day.  Scientists have spent eighty years searching for a cure for the Blood, with no success.  You know as well as I that it is the only way to relieve Mara’s suffering.  You know it’s the only way to save her from unspeakable pain during her last days.  Won’t you sit so we can talk?”

“No.  If this is why you’re here, then I’m going to bid you good night.”

“Taran—”

“Leave, Owhn,” Taran said, his voice rising slightly.  But only slightly, for he did not want to wake Mara if she was asleep as usual at this hour.

Owhn glanced at Adhera, who gave him a small nod.  He reached for his flat-brimmed gray hat on the couch and set it on his head.  He put a soft hand on Taran’s shoulder as he walked out the door without saying a word.

When Owhn was gone, Adhera looked up at Taran through tears brimming around her eyes.

“She screamed all day, Taran,” Adhera said.  Her voice was like a whisper, but it made him flinch.  “And they weren’t the usual screams, the ones that end after a few seconds.  These were shrieks that lasted until my baby’s throat was raw and she couldn’t make another sound.  These were so loud that one of our neighbors wiretyped a constable.  He had to come in and see for himself that I wasn’t torturing our daughter.  I had to endure the looks he gave me as to why we she hadn’t received the Mercy yet.  Why we’ve let her—”

“Enough,” Taran said.

He sat on the edge of the couch and put his head in his hands.  He wanted to scream, to release his own frustration.  He new the terrible pain his daughter endured every day.  And he knew the emotional agony Adhera endured every day caring for Mara, accommodating Taran’s refusal to give Mara the Mercy.  For a Teacher to give the Mercy to a child, the law said both parents must approve.  Taran had refused for the last six years, even though Adhera had wanted it ever since Mara was diagnosed.

Taran looked up at Adhera.  Tears flowed freely down her face, and Taran wanted nothing more than to hold her.

How she must hate me, he thought.

But he stayed on the couch.  “Arie is sending me to the Beldamark tomorrow night.  To find the Mystics.”

Adhera closed her eyes, then gave a bitter laugh.  “Mystics.”

Taran tried to reach for her hand, but she stood before he could take it.

“It’s different this time,” he said.  “The rings have changed everything.”

He stood and reached for her shoulders, gently turning her around to face him.  “I know it this time.  I know I will find them.  And when I do—”

“You’ll what?”

She shrugged out of his grip and backed away from him, her arms wrapped around her shoulders.

“You’ll bring them here?  You’ll tell them to magically heal our daughter?  Just like you said the last two times you went to the Beldamark?”

“I will.  I told you I would.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, shaking her head.  “I can’t watch Mara suffer like this.  Not any more.”  Adhera’s control fell, and she wept.

This time she let him take her into his arms, and she sobbed into his chest.  “I hate you,” she said.  “I hate you for making me do this…”

Taran closed his eyes.  “If I don’t come back with the Mystics this time…then I will give my consent for the Mercy.”

Adhera pulled her head away from Taran’s chest, looked up at him with those brown eyes that he had fallen in love with so long ago, when they had everything.

“You will?” she asked, a tremor of hope in her voice.

Taran nodded, though he did not want to.  I’m lying to my wife, he thought.  Something I swore I’d never do.

But he also swore he would never kill his daughter.  He did not know what he would do if he could not find the Mystics this time, but he knew he would never let Owhn or any other Teacher lay a hand on his little girl.  Even if he had to kidnap her and flee to the Wild Kingdoms.  He would never give Mara to the Pathists.

Even if he had to leave his wife behind.

“How long will you be gone?” Adhera asked, hope filling her eyes for the first time since Mara had been diagnosed.

“Arie thinks it will be two weeks.  We leave tomorrow at midnight.”

“Two weeks,” she said, pulling away from him again, her voice bitter.  “Mara has endured for six years.  I suppose two more weeks of suffering won’t matter.”

She turned and walked up the stairs.  He heard her open Mara’s door, pause for a second, and then quietly shut it.  When Adhera shut the door to her own room, Taran was left standing alone in a silent house.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 5

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 5

Compact Speaker Dylan Edoss stood on the Speaker’s Office balcony on the fifth floor of the south Parliamentary Tower staring up at the rings that had burst into existence ten days ago.  Dylan squeezed his hands behind his back, the posture of standing “at ease” a hard habit to break from his army years.

What are they? he wondered.  More importantly, What do they mean?

And did they cause the storm?  Though the finest weather Teachers in the Compact assured him, yes, the storm was strange but perfectly explainable, he knew in his heart the rings were somehow responsible.

He looked down at the city, a cold anger spreading from his chest as it did each time he saw the carnage.  A large black swath, where still no lamps burned, ran down the middle of the city, right past the Parliamentary Towers.  Or what was left of them.  He glanced at the ruins of the north and east Towers to his right.  He tried not to think of the horror the hundreds of people inside those Towers must have felt as they came crashing to the ground, or the people in the shops and taverns at the base of the towers, buried alive in an instant.  It had been six days since the last live person was pulled from the rubble.  Now only bodies were being found.

Dylan sighed grimly at the irony of his situation.  On the day he was sworn in, when he had taken the Speaker’s oath before Parliament, there was a part of him that wished for a crisis to prove his worth, to prove his election was a wise choice.  He was elected by an equally divided Parliament, where not even his electors fully supported him.  He longed for a way to prove to them all—opponents and supporters—that he deserved the Speakership, that he would keep the Compact secure by working toward peace with Mazumdahr, not outright conquest.  When he had joined the army, it had taken the First Mazumdahri War to prove to his squad mates that even an Orlenian “dwarf” could fight just as hard and tenaciously as his taller Recindian cousins.

But as he looked down on a devastated Calaman, he muttered, “I wanted a crisis.  Not…this.”

The balcony door opened behind him, and he did not have to turn to know his Chamberlain, Jac El’Sha, stood in the doorway holding the Speaker’s sash.

“The Ministers are waiting for you, Excellency.”

Dylan turned to Jac and allowed the tall Gahallian to drape the sash over Dylan’s shoulder and adjust it around his waist.  It was made of green silk trimmed in gold, bearing along its breadth the crests of each member state in the Recindian Compact—the gliding eagle of Gahall; the rearing stag of Lakonia; the snow-capped mountain of Orlen; the white oak of Ankrom; and the rising wave of Levaken.  The sash was specially made for Dylan, since only taller Gahallians or Lakonians had ever worn it during the Compact’s 200-year existence.

Once Jac finished adjusting the sash over Dylan’s white coat with gold embroidery at the sleeves, he looked Dylan over with the critical eye of a man who had done this job most of his life.  When he finished, he said, “You are ready, Excellency.”

“Thank you, Jac.”

The Chamberlain bowed his head, then led Dylan through the balcony doors and into the Advisory Hall.  Two Shadarlak Armsmen, protectors of the Speaker, stood on either side of the door to the Hall.  They wore finely pressed green uniforms with shining black boots, gold tri-corner hats with green trim, each holding oiled muskets with gleaming bayonets.  Both saluted Dylan as he neared them by dropping the butts of their muskets to the ground and putting their left arms over their chests.  Dylan knew these men were not simple show pieces.  At any hint of danger to Dylan’s life, they would launch into action like coiled springs and kill anyone who threatened the Speaker.  They would not even hesitate to kill Dylan’s own wife if she were threatening him with physical danger.

Jac opened the door to the Advisory Hall and walked just inside the room.  He announced, “The Speaker of the Recindian Compact.”

Dylan heard several chairs move as everyone in the Hall stood.  He strode through the door without looking at the assembled Ministers, taking his seat at the head of the long rectangular table.  The Speaker’s chair was another item that had to be “adjusted” for Dylan—the chair sat on a platform six inches high so that Dylan would not have the table’s edge at his neck.

Once Dylan was seated, his Ministers sat.  There were fourteen in all, including their various aids, who stood behind their respective Ministers waiting to run off and gather information for their boss at a moment’s notice.  The room was well lit with gas lamps due to the early morning hour, which made the room a little stuffy, despite the open windows to Dylan’s right and the cool autumn morning outside.

Dylan knew that all his Ministers—except maybe Lady General Rida Myndehr to his right—were not thrilled with his preference for early morning meetings.  Dylan supposed it was the residual soldier in him that drove him to get as much done as possible before sunrise.

Lee Cursh, a Gahallian and his advisor since his first term in Parliament, sat to his left and was maybe the only civilian in the room who did not look tired.  After fifteen years of working for Dylan, he supposed the man was as used to getting up before dawn as General Myndehr.

Dylan put his hands on the table and said, “You all have a copy of today’s agenda, and it should be no surprise as to what tops the list today.”

Some of the Ministers gave weary chuckles.  As it had been for the past ten days, the rings and the clean-up efforts underway in Calaman dominated his daily meetings.

Dylan turned to his Science Minister, Thell Demiati.  “Minister Demiati, it was your task to conduct research into the rings and report your preliminary findings to me today.  What have you found?”

Dylan felt a twinge of guilt at the overwhelming pressure he had put on the Science Ministry lately.  He knew the Ministry had been working nights and days trying to come up with theories on the rings and the storm.  Thell had purple circles under his eyes and his thinning gray hair seemed a little thinner this morning.  Thell ran a hand through his hair, then adjusted his spectacles up his long, Lakonian nose.

“Excellency, my people have fanned out across Calaman’s universities and they have sent wiretypes to every university in the Compact.”  He paused to clear his throat.  “Despite this effort, valid scientific theories as to the origin of the rings and the storm continue to elude us.  All we have are speculations.  Three speculations, actually, which I want to report to you today, Excellency.”

Dylan said, “If speculations are all you have…”

Demiati cleared his throat again.  “The first is that the rings are the debris of a comet that encountered the atmosphere and disintegrated before it could reach the ground.  However, we know of no elements that could create the strange swirling colors in the first ring and the absolute blackness in the second.  Not even our most powerful telescopes can detect what they are made of, because we cannot observe any actual material.  It is as if the rings are made of solid…mist.”

Demiati frowned at this, realizing how contradictory his words sounded.

“Our second speculation is that the rings are the result of the sun’s rays interacting with the magnetic field surrounding the world.  This effect has been reported at extreme northern latitudes by trading vessels near the Isles of Sheek.  However, all reports of this effect state that the colors in the sky are fleeting, there one moment and gone the next, unlike the rings which have never dimmed since they appeared.  And there have never been reports of a completely black ‘light’ in the sky.”

Demiati turned another page, cleared his throat again, and then ran a hand through his gray hair.  He gave the Pathist Minister sitting across from him a nervous glance.  Adella Kericia, her long black hair formed into a tight looping braid behind her back in the Teacher fashion, stared back at Demiati, waiting for him to continue.  Dylan had brought Adella on his Advisory Hall meetings because she came from a more liberal faction of Pathism.  Dylan was nominally Pathist himself—just enough to advance through the Compact’s political ranks—and he wanted a Pathist Minister who would not condemn as heretics any of his Ministers who deviated from orthodoxy, like some of her more fundamentalist brothers and sisters had done in the past.

Still, she was the Pathist Minister, and Demiati was obviously nervous about saying something she would not like.

“Our third speculation,” Demiati said, his voice cracking a little, “is somewhat…unconventional.  After considerable debate within the Science Ministry”—some of Demiati’s young aids standing behind him had the looks of men standing before a firing squad—“we decided that we would present it to you, Excellency, since your exact orders were—”

“To give me all theories, no matter how unconventional,” Dylan interrupted, losing his patience with Demiati’s stalling.  “I remember what I said.  What is your third ‘speculation,’ Minister?”

“The rings, perhaps, may have something to do with the…ancient Mystics,” he said.  He took a deep breath, emotions warring on his face—relief that he said what he wanted to say, along with abject terror at a possible heresy charge being thrown at him.

Silence descended on the table.  Not even the aids to the Ministers moved.  Everyone stared at Demiati with wide eyes, and then one by one, they turned their gazes to Dylan.  Even Adella seemed too shocked to say anything.  She looked at Demiati as if she did not know whether to laugh at him or rebuke him.  Lee Cursh to Dylan’s left leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and looked out the windows across from him with a thoughtful stare.

It was the Lady General Rida Myndehr on Dylan’s right that broke the silence.  “You must be joking,” she said.

Adella was the next one to regain her wits.  “‘Mystics,’ Thell?” she asked, a wide disbelieving smile on her lips.  “You’ve been working too long.  You need some rest.”

A small fire of anger flashed in Demiati’s eyes.  Dylan had only known the man for two years, but during that time, he knew that Demiati hated having his integrity or his work taken lightly.

“It is an unusual theory, yes,” he said, “but we have actual evidence to support this speculation.  At least enough to bring it to His Excellency’s attention.”

Demiati turned around, and one of his aids handed him a large, dusty book that looked to have been copied by hand centuries ago.  Demiati opened the book, flipped through the pages until he found a hand-drawn picture that filled one entire side of the book.  He put the book on the table and pushed it toward Dylan.

“That picture was copied and re-copied from a similar book written a thousand years ago during the Faith Wars.”

Dylan leaned forward and examined the picture.  It showed two groups of robed people on opposite sides of a large river.  One side wore white and the other wore black.  Both sides raised their hands…and seemed to draw energy from two circles in the sky.  One of the circles was multicolored while the other was black.

Adella also leaned forward, studying the picture.  “Where did you get this?”

“From the only Mystic expert in the Compact.  A Dr. Taran Abraeu of Calaman University.”

General Myndehr looked up from the picture, her brows raised beneath her close cropped black-gray hair.  “General Abraeu’s son?”

Demiati nodded.  General Myndehr grunted and then looked back at the picture.

Dylan remembered General Abraeu very well—he was Dylan’s commanding officer in the First Mazumdahri War twenty years ago.  General Abraeu had earned the Laurels of Parliament for his actions in the Battle of Linz, holding off almost 1500 Mazumdahri pikemen in the Growan Pass with only a hundred Compact musketmen.  Abraeu’s efforts had allowed Compact reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of the battle and eventually turn back the Mazumdahri invasion.  Dylan had been one of the men in Abraeu’s company that terrifying week, and to this day he would follow Tobias Abraeu into any battle.

Dylan remembered hearing six years ago that Tobias’s son Taran had a daughter who suffered from the Blood.  The illness, according to newspapers, drove Taran insane.  He spurned a lucrative university career to study the supernaturalist legends of the Mystics, a quick path to unemployment and ostracization.  Dylan frowned, wondering just how reliable Demiati’s theory was if it was based on information from an alleged madman.

As if responding to Dylan’s thoughts, Demiati said, “Dr. Abraeu is not mad.  I’ve spoken to him myself.  His beliefs may be a bit strange, but his mind is clear.”

Lee Cursh leaned forward and spoke for the first time during the meeting.  “All right, Minister, so you have three ‘speculations’ on the formation of the rings.  Obviously the third one is un-scientific at best.  What evidence do you have to support the first two?”

Dylan appreciated Lee’s ability to give people a way out of any hole they dug for themselves by changing the subject.  Here was Demiati’s chance to end the incredulous looks by all the other Ministers and their aids.

“Nothing,” Demiati said desperately.  “We have no evidence at all to support the first two speculations.  They are only the most logical explanations, and that’s all.  Only the theory that the rings have something to do with the Mystics has any sort of corroboration.”

“Yes,” Adella said, pushing the book back to Demiati without looking at it, “hand drawn paintings in old books that may or may not be fake.  I’m surprised at you, Thell.  You of all people should know that supernaturalism does not explain—”

“This is all I have,” Demiati said, the normally soft-spoken scientist’s voice rising to almost a cracking shout.  “My people and I have spent the last ten days going over all the evidence, interviewing specialists, and conducting our own research.  We’ve barely slept eight hours during all that time.  And in ten days, we’ve found nothing to explain these rings, let alone the storm.  Now you can sit there and call my findings ‘supernaturalist’ all you want, Adella.  But it does not change the fact that according to all we know about the sciences, these rings should not exist.  The only thing we have that has any kind of corroboration is the Mystic theories of Taran Abraeu.  So if you have anything to refute those theories, Adella, then please tell me.  Maybe I could sleep again.”

Adella looked a little stunned at Demiai’s outburst and was about to reply when Dylan decided to forestall a shouting war at an Advisory meeting.

“All right,” he said, raising his hand.  When the Speaker raised his hand, the Ministers listened.  “I want to know if the rest of you have heard anything regarding Minister Demiati’s three theories, or if you have other explanations—explanations with evidence—that he did not find.”

Dylan met the gazes of each of his Ministers, and each one shook his or her head.  When Dylan looked to Foreign Minister Geren Kayn, he was about to shake his head when one of his aids whispered something in his ear.  Kayn’s face turned red, and he whispered something angrily back to the aid.

“Minister Kayn?” Dylan said.

Kayn looked at Dylan, embarrassment and anger warring on his reddening face.

“I’m sorry, Excellency.  I’ve just been informed that nine days ago my office received a wiretype from our missions in the Turician capital Goray.  It was a message from a small Turician town called Markwatch near the Beldamark.  It seems that several people claiming to be…um, Mystics, came out of the Beldamark and delivered a message to Lord Ven Demeg of Markwatch asking to meet with you there in ten days.”

Dylan stared at the Foreign Minister, trying to control his own anger.  “And why am I being told this now?”

The Foreign Minister swallowed, glanced at his aid once, and said, “Apparently, Excellency, the mission attaché thought it was a joke.”

Dylan wanted to laugh out of frustration, but kept a straight face.  He glared at all his Ministers and said, “As of this moment, I want everyone to direct their staff to relay any information—no matter how supernaturalist it may seem—that has anything to do with the rings.  Is that clear?”

The Ministers nodded.  Adella looked like she’d just been ordered to dig a latrine, but she nodded as well.

Demiati said, regretfully, “That is just more piece of corroborating evidence for the Mystic theory.  According to legend, nobody goes in or out of the Beldamark.”

“Yes, legend,” Adella said.  “Or it could be because the Turicians do not allow anybody in.  And this very well may be a joke, Minister Kayn.  The Turicians are all Ahura cultists anyway.”

The Beldamark had long been claimed by Turicia, though there were no Turician cities or towns anywhere along its coast.  The Turician navy patrolled the shores of the Beldamark, turning away any ship that attempted to land there.  The Compact and Turicia had good relations, despite the popularity of supernaturalist Ahura cults inside Turicia, so no officially sanctioned Compact ships had ever attempted to land on the mysterious peninsula.  Dylan had always heard folk tales about how all who tried to enter the Beldamark are turned away by magic and cursed for the rest of their lives with boils.

Demiati asked Kayn, “Did your mission say what these Mystics looked like?”

Kayn questioned the aid through whispers, and then the aid turned and practically sprinted through the exit door on the other side of the room.  Kayn turned to Dylan and the rest of the Ministers and said, “My aid will return shortly with the entire message.  It did have more information, but he did not remember it all.”

General Myndehr said, “Well, regardless of what the wiretype says, my first thought is that it’s a Mazumdahri trick.  Excellency, I would not recommend going to Markwatch, not while we are still officially at war.”

Despite five years of a cease-fire, Compact and Mazumdahri forces still faced each other from their trenches across a mile-wide expanse of desolate, cratered landscape on the western front.  Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty had broken down just before Dylan assumed the Speakership, negotiations that he had pledged to his war-weary country to resume.

Minister Kayn leaned forward.  “The Mazumdahri are not likely to send messages impersonating Mystics.  Their society is so devoted to the worship of their Immortal King Savix that even saying the word ‘Mystic’ would earn them the guillotine.”

The guillotine was one of the more barbaric things about the Mazumdahri.  When the Mazumdahri conquer a town or city, they gave its residents the Choice: worship their Immortal King Savix, endure the branding of his holy symbol on their cheek—a sword contained in a circle—or lose their heads to the guillotine.  To ensure the populace knows the Mazumdahri are serious, the town leaders are executed (if the leaders have not already fled the town).  Watching someone lose his head in that vile machine prompted most people to opt for the branding, even though it meant a lifetime of slavery to Savix’s whims, or in reality the whims of the King’s Priests who really ran the country.

General Myndehr laughed at Kayn.  “They have attacked us twice defying all logic.  What makes you think they’d have any problem with impersonating Mystics?”

“Because, strange as it sounds,” Kayn said, “they would never do anything to deny the divinity of their Immortal King.  Even if it is a lie and even if it meant they would win a war.  It’s their version of a code of honor.”

Lee asked Myndehr, “What would the Mazumdahri have to gain, despite the obvious fact of assassinating or kidnapping the Compact Speaker?  Surely they know that we’d only elect another, and then attack them on all fronts.”

Myndehr laced the fingers of her hands on the table and spoke to Lee as if he were a child who asked the purpose of gunpowder.

“They have no concept of how a republic works.  They assume we believe our Speaker to be ‘divine’ just like their king, and they assume we would react the same way they would react if their Immortal King died—it would be the death of a god and the end of their civilization.  I’ve fought these people most of my life.  They’re insane.”

Kayn’s aid rushed in, breathless, and handed the Foreign Minister a sheet of paper.  Kayn read it, his eyes growing wider the more he read.

He looked at the aid.  “Are you sure you received this nine days ago?  What was the time?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning, sir,” the ashen-faced aid said.  “Four hours after the storm.  I still have the date-time stamp on the original wiretype.”

Kayn looked back down at the paper again, re-reading the message silently.

“Minister Kayn?” Dylan asked impatiently.

Kayn looked up.  “Yes, of course, I’m sorry, Excellency.”  He bit his lip once, then began:

 

To the Speaker of the Recindian Compact and his peoples, we the Tuatha dei Beldamark greet you in Ahura’s name.

With the recent fall of the Barrier and the appearance of Ahura and Angra in the skies above our world once again, it is imperative that we meet to discuss our mutual defense against the coming scourge of Angra, for we know that you have already been attacked by the Tainted storms and that your capital city lies in ruins.

We request your presence in Markwatch at noon ten days after you receive this message.  Guides will meet you there to take you into the Beldamark.

We understand that it may be hard for you to believe we are what we say we are.  Therefore, we propose a demonstration.  Please look to Ahura in the sky above.  When you are ready, call out, “Ahura, show me the Tuatha.”

We look forward to meeting you.

 

Adella said, “Excellency, this is silly.  This message could have come from anyone.”

“I agree,” General Myndehr said to Dylan.  “This is obviously a trap.”

Demiati said, “But how could they have known about the storm that struck Calaman four hours after it had.  It took a day to get the trains going again, and another two days before the wiretype lines were repaired.  Until then nobody outside the city had any idea what happened.”

Adella shook her head in disbelief.  “You really think this message is from a Mystic, Thell?  A Mystic?”

“At least I’m willing to keep an open mind,” Demiati said, giving her an accusing glare.

Lee said to Dylan, “I suppose there’s one way to find out for sure…”  His eyes darted to rings outside and then back to Dylan.

Dylan smiled.  “Well the worst that can happen is that we’ll get a chill.”

Besides Adella and Myndehr, the assembled Ministers chuckled.

Dylan stood and went to the door behind him that led from the Advisory Hall to the Speaker’s office.  All fourteen Ministers followed.  He nodded his assent to the Shadarlak Armsmen standing on either side of the door, who did not try to bar the Ministers from entering.  Dylan proceeded to his balcony on the other side of the room, behind his large mahogany desk, and opened the double doors.  The air was still cold, but the sun was rising in the east, turning the clear sky purple.  The rainbow ring shone brightly in the sky, its colors swirling as usual, while the black ring still made him uneasy.

The balcony was large enough for fourteen Ministers and their aids to crowd onto, though barely.  After a few seconds, Dylan checked with the taller Lee, who nodded that everyone was now on the balcony.  When the assembly had quieted, Dylan looked up at Ahura and, feeling a little foolish, said, “Ahura, show me the Tuatha.”

There was a flash of light, and then he was flying over the city, towards the north, the cold morning air tearing at his hair and clothes.  He picked up speed until the Perla Mountains were a blur.  He was over the Edellian Steppes and above the Gulf of Pagilah before he started screaming.

He shot across the shore of the Beldamark, past several tall obelisks made of white marble, and into the depths of the mysterious peninsula.  The heavily forested land below was dimly lit by the rising sun.  Tall firs, pines, and yews passed beneath him in streaks of green and brown.

And then he stopped.  He floated above a small town built with structures of logs and clay.  A white tower made of the same marble as the obelisks loomed as tall as the Parliamentary Towers over the town’s center.  Dylan guessed the town held no more than 5,000 people, and he could see several of them walking about below dressed in furs and heavy, gray wool cloaks.  The ones who did not wear a fur hat had brownish-red hair and the fairest skin Dylan had ever seen on a human being.

He only had a moment to give the town a cursory glance, when he was moving again, this time to the northeast.  He stopped again in mid-air and floated over another town, but this one had been recently destroyed.  Dylan was stunned to see a swath of destruction through the center of this town similar to the one in Calaman.  All that was left was debris and stone foundations.  Nothing stirred.  Dylan wondered if the people had abandoned it, or if they had all died in whatever had destroyed it.

Dylan felt another tug, but this time it was in reverse.  He careened backward over the Beldamark’s forests, over the calm waters of the Gulf of Pagilah, past the plains of Edellia and over the Perla Mountains, faster than his flight out, faster, faster, until—

He was on the balcony again.  He lay on his back being held up by a surprised Lee.

Jac push through the crowd and stoop before him.  Jac was not only Dylan’s chamberlain, but a skilled medical doctor as well.  He put a hand on Dylan’s forehead, which Dylan brushed away.

“I’m fine, Jac,” Dylan said.  “Just…”  Dylan looked at Lee and asked, “What happened?”

Lee glanced at the other Ministers before looking back at Dylan.  “The rainbow ring flickered a little after you said the words.  Then you shouted and fell back into me.”

Dylan waited for more.  When Lee did not say anything, Dylan asked, “That’s all you saw?  What about me?  Did I…do anything?”

Lee shook his head.  The Ministers and aids behind him looked curious.

“Why?” Lee asked slowly.  “What did you see?”

Dylan wondered for a moment if telling everyone what had happened was a good idea.  It was obvious that the others had not seen him soar off into the sky, even though that is exactly what he remembered doing.  How sane would he sound explaining that to a balcony full of people who only saw Dylan fall into Lee’s arms?  Stories of Dylan’s collapse would get out, and it would be all the excuse his political opponents needed to call for a Parliamentary vote of no confidence in him.

All this flashed through his mind in a second, and he decided to wait and tell Lee later on.  For the rest of them, he ordered, “Everyone inside.”

The Ministers and aids filed through the double doors and stood before the Speaker’s desk.  Dylan sat behind it, gathered his thoughts for a moment, then said, “Minister Kayn?”

Kayn stepped forward.  “Yes, Excellency.”

“I want you to wiretype your mission in Goray and find out everything they know about these purported Mystics, or Tuathans, or whatever they call themselves.  What they wore, what they looked like, and I want that information on my desk by the end of the day.  I also want you to ask the Turician ambassador everything he knows about the Beldamark.”

“Yes, Excellency,” Kayn said.  “Anything in particular about the Beldamark, Excellency?”

Everything he knows.  Minister Demiati?”

The haggard Science Minister stepped forward.  “Yes, Excellency.”

“Did Dr. Abraeu tell your investigators what he thought the Mystics might look like if they existed today?”

Demiati looked at one of his aids, who shook his head.  “I will find that out, Excellency.”

Dylan nodded, then looked to the rest of his Ministers, who stared at him with a mixture of concern and confusion.

“I am afraid I must cut this meeting short.  Leave your reports on the city’s repair and recovery efforts with Jac, and I will contact you if I have any questions.  Dismissed.”

The Ministers and their aids shuffled out of the Speaker’s office, no one saying a word.  When all had left, Lee sat in the chair across from Dylan.  “What happened to you out there?”

Dylan sighed, then said, “I saw them.”

He watched disbelief, then fear wash over Lee, but the Gahallian regained his composure and asked, “So what do we do now?”

Dylan appreciated Lee’s unquestioning belief in Dylan’s experience.  But it was an odd question from Lee, considering he was always the first to tell Dylan what he should or should not do in a given situation.  Dylan stood and faced the windows to his balcony, where the sun was peeking over the horizon and the strange rings split the sky.  He clasped his hands behind his back.

“I don’t know,” Dylan said.

Obsession Cycles

I’ve rediscovered chess. Again.

Right now all I want to do is play chess, read about chess, do chess puzzles, study my old chess games (yes, I record them…), install chess software, etc. I’ve entered another USCF correspondence chess tournament. I’m searching for local chess clubs on the off chance I’ll get a free night to play over-the-board (I only play correspondence and/or internet chess, since having a first-year medical resident for a wife and a 6-year-old daughter don’t leave much time for over-the-board play).

But give it another few months, and I’ll burn the chess obsession right out of myself. Just like I’ve done the last 10-15 years.

Chess isn’t the only “obsession cycle” I go through. I have my Magic: The Gathering cycles, fantasy sports cycles (which I tend to burn through faster than other obsessions), and “I’m-gonna-freelance-in-my-spare-time” cycles. My reading tastes seem to burn just as brightly — I just came out of an epic fantasy cycle, and I’m now in a space opera cycle. In a few months, I’ll go into a mystery cycle and read any mystery that falls in my lap (or onto my Kindle).

Fortunately my fiction writing “obsession” is the only thing that’s stayed constant my whole life. I’m at least disciplined enough to finish my writing quota and then reward myself with my obsession-of-the-moment.

Do you have any “obsession cycles”? What are they and how long do they last? And please keep the comments clean… 😉

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 4

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 4

Fatimah awoke to a crowd of grim but curious faces staring down at her.  She tried to sit up, but fatigue hit her with the force of a falling tree.  She lay back down, hardly able to move her hand to brush the loose red hairs from her eyes.

She opened her eyes again and focused on the faces around her.  Her cheeks felt hot under the gaze of the most powerful priests in the Beldamark.  Her Master, Eblin of Luesing, looked down on Fatimah with a small grin playing on her elderly face, the thin white brows above her blue eyes arched.  Lilla of Bryndis, the Master of Healing and Ailments, stood over Fatimah, studying her like a shepherd inspecting a sick lamb.  And the Holy Seat herself, Melahara of Fedalan, stood at the food of her bed, hands clasped behind her back and wearing a glare that made Fatimah feel like an Acolyte again.

“Well,” Melahara said, “the girl doesn’t seem to have gone mad.”

Lilla held a candle up to Fatimah’s face, studying her eyes.  “No,” Lilla said, “her mind is clear.  Fortunately she did not Wield enough to cause permanent damage.”

Fatimah tried to rise again, and this time she was able to support herself on one elbow.  She was on a bed in the Heiron’s hospital ward, though it was a private room away from the twenty beds in the common ward.  The walls were filled with shelves holding jars of colorful liquids, powders, and herbs.  A table in the corner was littered with bowls, more jars, and parchments.  Rays of sunlight shown through a window above Fatimah’s bed, illuminating dust motes floating in the air.

Fatimah asked Eblin, “What happened to me?”

Eblin smiled.  “Wielding Ahura for the first time will fatigue most Tuathans.  Even the tiny bit you Wielded.”

Eblin poured water from a pitcher into a tea cup and handed it to Fatimah.  She did not know how thirsty she was until she drank the cup down in two gulps and asked for more.

“You Wielded Water,” Eblin explained.  “You used some of the water in your body to put out Deacon Olma’s candle.  Which, by the way, made her quite angry.”

Fatimah nodded as she gulped down a fourth cup of water.  This one seemed to satiate her thirst for the moment, so she asked, “But it was hardly a drop.  Why am I so thirsty?”

“Because you did it wrong,” Eblin said.  “You used the water in your own body, when you should have drawn Water from Ahura.  You were lucky you did not call for a bucket of water.  You might have drained all your blood.”

Fatimah shivered, berating herself for trying to Wield when she knew how dangerous it could have been not only to her body but her mind.  Her studies were rife with tales of Tuathans who had Wielded too much of Ahura at once, driving them mad with no hope of a return to sanity.

But the temptation of trying something that no Tuathan had done in a thousand years had been too great.

“How long was I asleep?” Fatimah asked.

“Over a day.”

When Fatimah felt her eyes go wide, Eblin said, “Do not fear, priest.  With time and practice, you will be able to Wield far more of the Aspects of Ahura than you can imagine.  We all will.”  Eblin’s elderly face was bright with more excitement than Fatimah had ever seen.

Eblin’s enthusiasm and happiness were infectious.  Fatimah smiled, and then tears welled in the corners of her eyes.  This was what her people had dreamed of for the last thousand years, ever since—

Fatimah’s chest froze, and she looked at Eblin.  “But the Barrier is down.  Angra has returned as well.”

Fatimah remembered the chill she felt at simply glimpsing the black band that stained the morning sky.

Eblin nodded.  “We know.  But we are already working on a plan….”

Eblin glanced at Melahara and Lilla, who were whispering back and forth over the parchment on the table in the corner of the room.  Melahara then looked at Fatimah and said, “That is why I summoned you yesterday.  Can you stand yet, priest?”

Hearing the Holy Seat call her “priest” was such an honor after spending the last eight years being called “child” that Fatimah forced her feet off the bed and stood on shaky legs that threatened to betray her.  But she held her balance, walked to the table, and bowed.  Fearing that she would simply topple over, Fatimah straightened a little sooner than protocol dictated.

“You have summoned me and I have obeyed, Holy Seat,” Fatimah said formally.  “How may I serve?”

Melahara glanced at Lilla, who bowed to the unspoken command, left the room, and then closed the heavy banded door behind her.  Eblin gathered her wool skirts, hobbled over to the bed, and eased herself down onto one of the corners.  Fatimah was left to stand despite her Wielding mishap.

Melahara said, “As it is obvious you are aware of the return of Ahura and Angra, I will skip that part and go to our plan on what we will do about it.”

Fatimah kept her gaze on the marble floor, too embarrassed to meet the Holy Seat’s eyes.  “Mother Seat, I apologize for Wielding without—”

Melahara waved an annoyed hand at Fatimah.  “Never mind that now.  Eblin, explain to Fatimah her task.”

Eblin smiled at Fatimah.  “Would you like to meet the Recindians?”

Fatimah stared at Eblin a moment.  Contact with the world outside the Beldamark was forbidden.  For one, the outside world was a dangerous place for Tuathans.  People on the continent had once burned Tuathans at the stake for perceived evils after the Faith Wars and the rise of the Barrier.  Even today, in some backward enclaves of their civilization, they shot suspected “Mystics” with their muskets.

But to be asked to meet the Recindians, a culture that she had studied throughout her years in the seminary…  From the technologically powerful Compact, to the theocratic Mazumdahri, to the superstitious Turicians, to the prideful Edellians.  Their languages, their customs, their history—Fatimah thought she new them all better than most Recindians knew themselves.  To actually talk to a Recindian and not simply observe them through the Window…well, that was something she never thought the Holy Seat would allow.

Fatimah opened her mouth, but only gibberish seemed come out.  “I, I, yes, I would very much like a meeting—but with, er, who would I…?”

Eblin laughed, the lines around her eyes deepening.  “No doubt you have many questions, priest.  Before you ask them, let me tell you what your task is.”

Eblin’s smile disappeared.  “With the Barrier gone, our people will need help battling our ancient enemy, the Fomorians, who are sure to emerge like a dormant plague.  But the Recindians, the Compact in particular, will also need our help, for they have no idea what they are about to face.  Their culture has evolved a phobia of anything ‘supernatural,’ so they will not believe the threat they face until it overwhelms them.”

After studying the Compact for so many years, Fatimah doubted they would even believe the threat then.  Pathism had inspired them to create wondrous technologies like steam engines, wiretypes, and muskets, not to mention a government based on popular consent—a rarity in all the world.  There was much to respect about Pathism.  But to Fatimah, it lacked a soul.  She worried that Pathism’s denial of the ‘supernatural’ would keep the Compact from opening their eyes even when the Fomorians were turning their families into harrowers, or worse, Tainted abominations.

She supposed it was not their fault for evolving such beliefs, for it was their culture’s response to a terrifying event—the apparent abandonment of humanity by Ahura a thousand years ago.  After the Barrier went up, the Recindian Mundanes in the lands of the Compact went from believers, to lost sheep, to doubters, to what they were now—hagan‘dhor in the ancient Tuathan tongue, or “faithless” in modern Recindian.

Eblin continued.  “Yesterday we sent a rider through the Guardians to the border with Markwatch with a message for the Recindian Compact’s Speaker.”  Eblin grinned mischievously.  “Along with a little proof that we are who we say we are.  We have extended to him an invitation to meet us here, in Fedalan, to discuss our common resistance to the coming Fomorian threat.  Since you are one of the few Tuathans who knows the Recindian languages, not to mention my Apprentice, you will meet the Speaker at the Markwatch border and escort him here to Fedalan.”

Eblin shifted her woolen cloak around her small frame to keep out the autumn chill that not even the tall fire in the hearth could abate.  She said to Fatimah with a weary smile, “I must say that I am quite jealous of you.  You will be among the first Tuathans to officially meet a Recindian in several hundred years.”

Fatimah blinked.  “You will not be meeting them, Master?”

Eblin shook her head.  “After 83 years, my health is not what it used to be.  Even for a small journey of ten miles.  But I will be here to meet them when they arrive.”

Not only was Fatimah going to meet a Recindian, but it would be the actual Speaker of the Compact, leader of the most powerful Recindian nation on the continent!  But a disturbing question came to mind.

“Master, what if he doesn’t come?”

Eblin nodded.  “We were worried about that too.  But we received word yesterday that Calaman suffered a harrower attack similar to the one that destroyed Grayven last night.  We noted it in the message, which should pique his interest.”

Fatimah started.  “Grayven and Calaman were attacked?”

Melahara, who had been silently listening to Eblin until now, said, “There are harrowers, and possibly Fomorians, in the Beldamark.”

Such a declaration from the Holy Seat had the impact of a Recindian cannon.  Tales of harrowers and Fomorians had always been told by older siblings to frighten younger siblings, and there were even the occasional accusations thrown about by neighbors who held grudges against each other.  But in the thousand years since the Tuathans retreated into the Beldamark behind the protective magical walls of the Guardians and the Barrier, there had never been a documented finding of a harrower, much less a Fomorian, in the Beldamark.  But if Grayven, the Beldamark’s second largest city, had been destroyed….

“From what the survivors have told us,” Melahara said, looking down at a parchment on the table in the corner, “there was a ‘black cyclone that descended from a clear night’ within moments of the Barrier’s fall.  It raged through the center of Grayven, obliterating every home and building there.  Yesterday the same thing happened in Calaman.”

Eblin shook her head in disgust.  “Our enemies already grow strong while we can barely extinguish a candle without falling unconscious for a day.”

Melahara said, “It is the nature of Angra.  It has always been a quick path to strength, and our Fomorian cousins have apparently wasted no time.”  Then to Fatimah, she said, “Which is why we must create an ally out of the Compact.  It is the most powerful nation on the continent, and will be able to rally the other nations once the Fomorians build their armies of harrowers and Tainted.”

Fatimah shuddered to think of entire armies filled with black-eyed harrowers, former humans magically enslaved by Fomorians and given the ability to Wield Angra.  There would also be the twisted, tortured monsters Tainted by Angra Wielding.  Any living thing could be Tainted by a harrower, from grass to human beings, and the result was an entity that was warped into nightmarish shapes that could only be called the embodiment of madness.  It was a mercy for Ahura Wielders to destroy such creatures, one of the only ways in which the Aspects could be Wielded to take life.  Though “alive” was not an accurate term for the harrowers and Tainted.

Melahara cleared her throat, looking almost uncomfortable.  “There is another matter that we need to discuss.  One of a delicate nature.”

Melahara glanced at Eblin, and then said, “Now that we know for certain that Fomorians exist in the Beldamark, we must keep our guard up around everyone…even fellow priests.”

“Mother Seat, are you suggesting there are Fomorians among the priesthood?” Fatimah asked.  “We all went through the Trials, we all were judged by the Guardians.  How could a Fomorian have come through that without being revealed?”

Fatimah wanted to laugh at the absurdity of a Tuathan priest being a secret Fomorian, but only last night she would have laughed at the thought of the Barrier falling, or meeting the Recindian Compact’s Speaker.  The world had taken a surreal turn, but Fomorians among the priesthood…?

“Some followers of Angra,” Melahara said carefully, “are not exclusive to the Fomorian race.  History tells us that many mundanes followed the Black Ring.  What is not well known is that some Tuathans did as well.”

Even though the Holy Seat and Master Eblin, two of the most respected priests among the Tuathans, were telling her something was true, Fatimah still could not accept it.  “I do not understand.  Why would a Tuathan follow Angra?  Tuathans cannot Wield Angra, so what is the point?”

Melahara smiled sadly, said, “Tuathans were once mundane, too.  We still have mundane desires and passions, and some of those desires are for power or immortality.  Tuathans may have evolved better ways to control those desires, but we still have them deep in our souls.  Some Tuathans have, in the past, fallen for Angra’s lies and temptations, even priests.  There is no reason to believe that none will now.”

Fatimah knew she risked the Holy Seat’s ire by continuing to argue, but she felt like there was something Melahara was holding back.

“You think some of our own people brought down the Barrier,” Fatimah said.

Eblin glanced at Melahara, an eyebrow raised.  Melahara sighed, and then nodded.

Eblin turned back to Fatimah.  “We do not know for sure.  All we know is that the Guardians were somehow used.  And none of the priests conducting their vigils at the Guardians returned the night the Barrier fell.”

Fatimah felt almost as weak as she had when she regained consciousness.  So it was true.  Only Tuathan priests knew enough about the Guardians to activate the Aspects of Ahura in them.  Only Tuathan priests could enter the Guardians for prayerful vigils that maintained the Aspects, a ritual that Fatimah had performed at the Grayven Guardian just last week.

“They were all Fomorians?” Fatimah asked in a weak voice.

“Not likely,” Melahara said.  “There are twenty-five Guardians throughout the Beldamark, with a priest saying vigils in each one at all times.  The odds of all twenty-five containing priests loyal to Angra at one time are too great, never mind the implausibility that twenty-five of the two hundred priests in the Beldamark are traitors.  Maybe two or three, at most.  No, we believe the priests saying vigils that night are most likely dead.”

Fatimah shuddered, and then realized with a jolt of sorrow that a priest named Keahra from her home town of Kulon Fields, who had been ordained on the same day as Fatimah, had been assigned to the Grayven Guardian the night the Barrier fell.  Fatimah grew up with Keahra, played in the same small caves just outside Kulon Fields, and traveled to the Heiron in Fedalan together to join the priesthood.

Rest with Ahura, my friend, Fatimah prayed silently, refusing to even entertain the thought that Keahra was a traitor rather than a martyr.

“So you must be on your guard when you escort the Speaker here,” Melahara said.  “Not only are there traitors and harrowers among us, but there are also those Tuathans who do not trust the mundanes, who will think this alliance is a bad idea.  They still have not forgiven the mundanes for driving us into the Beldamark a thousand years ago.  And they still believe that the mundanes will only wage war against us once we reveal ourselves to them.”

Fatimah nodded, still numb to the thought of Keahra’s death and Tuathan traitors.  Melahara stared directly at Fatimah.  Fatimah was still new enough of a priest to flush a little under the Holy Seat’s gaze.

Melahara said, “I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining the secrecy of what we have just told you.  My first choice was to have Eblin escort the Speaker, but…”

Melahara glanced at Eblin.  The old Master’s bright blue eyes were as intelligent and sharp as ever, but her wan, sagging face showed that her elderly body did not match its youthful mind.  Eblin coughed a bit, and then pulled the furs even tighter around her neck.

“I could make the journey if I wanted to,” she said with her characteristic stubbornness.  “I just don’t want to slow everyone down.”

Melahara gave Eblin a fond smile, and then turned to Fatimah.  “Though the fall of the Barrier has no doubt been a shock to our people, they have held on to their wits so far.  But if word of traitors in the priesthood were to get out, there would be panic.  We must stay strong and patient, we must begin the education of our people into the Wielding ways again.  But it must be a slow process.  Tuathans cannot learn to Wield out of fear, but out of love for Ahura.  Fear will only lead more of our people to the Black Ring, and that is what almost destroyed us once before.”

Fatimah knew all of this, but politely let the Holy Seat talk.  It was not the place of a newly ordained priest to interrupt the Holy Seat.

“Once we receive the Compact Speaker’s response,” Melahara said, “we will tell you the time and date of your meeting.”

“In the meantime,” Eblin said through a raspy voice, but with a wink, “I suggest you practice your Recindian.”

Despite the sorrow and fear she felt after learning about Keahra, Fomorians, and the danger to the Beldamark, Fatimah left the Heiron’s hospital ward with a quickness to her step that took her all the way back to her small, one-room apartment in the tower’s third floor.

She was going to meet Recindians.

© 2012 Rob Steiner

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 3

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakanabove for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 3

The rain began when Taran was a hundred paces from Shalliford Hall.  Taran broke into a jog, cursing himself for not bringing an umbrella, though he never could have held the umbrella while carrying the musty old books, scrolls, and maps overflowing his arms.  The materials were some of the most important manuscripts he had collected during his years of Mystic research.  He had no idea whether any of them would answer the questions of the Speaker’s agents, but he at least wanted references on hand in the unlikely event they asked something he did not know.

Taran glanced at the cloudy, rain-swollen sky.  The bands of light that the morning newspapers were calling “rings of comet debris around the world” were still visible, though somewhat obscured by the gray clouds.  The ring with the swirling colors, combined with the moving clouds below it, gave Taran a somewhat dizzy feeling, as if he were moving the opposite direction in which he was walking.  The black ring was a dark gash in the sky running parallel to the rainbow ring, diffuse around the edges but blacker than onyx toward the center.  It made Taran as uneasy as he felt during Mara’s grim, weekly checkups by Dr. Hyt.

His right foot plunged into a cold puddle, bringing his attention back to the road.  Plenty of time to stare at the rings later.  Right now he had to get his suddenly valuable artifacts to the Dean’s office before they were a sodden heap of wood pulp and pig skin.  The ivy-covered Shalliford Hall, housing the university’s College of Recindian Cultures, was less than fifty paces away.  Taran ran the rest of the way just as the skies opened with a deluge of rain and peals of thunder.

Taran approached the door just as a young male student was leaving.  The young man held the door for Taran, and Taran thanked him gratefully.  Shalliford Hall was one of the oldest buildings on campus, and the smell of its musty interior tended to amplify during rain storms.  Taran set his load of books on a dark wood bench near the door, shook the rain out of his coat and hair, and wiped his spectacles with a semi-dry handkerchief.  He gathered up his books and made his way quickly up the marble spiral stairs in front of the door.

On the second floor, he passed several rooms where professors were expounding on “virtue for virtue’s sake,” the core tenet of Jonah Luten’s history changing book, The Path.  All tenured professors were Pathist, as were most government officials, merchant lords, guild masters, and anyone who wanted to move up in Compact society.  About the only people who were not reliably Pathist were the Ahura cults in the Compact’s northeastern mining towns.  But then their coal and iron ore were so important to the Compact’s economy that no one could afford to ostracize them.  Taran wondered what they thought when they looked at the sky this morning.

But freedom to deviate from Pathist dogma was not a luxury someone in Taran’s position could enjoy without consequences.  Before the Blood had struck Mara, Taran was a rising star in the College of Recindian Cultures, an expert in nations, creeds, and histories for people across the continent.  He had just achieved his tenure, and was free to study and research any topic he wanted.

But after the Blood found Mara, when modern medicine could do nothing for his little girl, Taran single-mindedly pursued the legends of the Mystics.  He had always had a passing interest in them all his life, and he was familiar with much of their mythology.  But he knew their legendary healing powers were the only hope his daughter had of averting the Mercy that Pathism recommended for people with the Blood, the only “cure” for a disease that ensured its victims died screaming.

But a good Pathist’s pursuit of reason and logic did not mesh with belief in a legendary race of beings that could supernaturally heal with a touch.  Taran’s research budget was cut in half, then quartered, and then halved again.  He was banished to an office in the basement below the Steam Engineering department, doomed to listen to the clangs and whistles and bellows of students above him working on the latest steam and coal-driven technology.  Taran knew the only reason the university did not fire him outright was because his father, General Tobias Abraeu, was one of the Compact’s greatest heroes in the First Mazumdahri War.  Taran did not like having a position because of his father, but neither did he relish searching for another job with a sick child at home and a wife who could no longer find employment as a Pathist Teacher because of his beliefs.

Which reminded him that he forgot to wake Adhera and tell her where he was going.  His first class was not until noon, so he was responsible for washing the blood-tinged night sweats off Mara in the morning.  He sighed, then decided to wiretype his house after the meeting.  He did not look forward to returning home later to Adhera’s accusing eyes.

The heavy oak door to Arie’s waiting room at the end of the long hall was cracked open, so Taran backed his way in while still balancing the load in his arms.  There was no one in the small waiting room except for Arie’s assistant tapping the keys of a wiretype at her desk.

The young woman looked up from the machine, then turned back to it when she saw Taran.

“They’re waiting for you inside, Doctor,” she said absently, tilting her head toward Arie’s closed door.  She did not bother to help him with the doorknob, so Taran shifted the books to one arm, used his fingers to turn the knob, and shouldered his way into the room.

Taran stifled a groan when the first person he saw was Metia Turcio’s frowning face.  She stood to the right of Arie’s desk, her back against the wall, her arms folded beneath her expansive bosom.

It was a common joke around the College that she had been the department’s Zampolit for so long that she had approved the Pathist orthodoxy of each brick used to build the Hall a hundred years ago.  It was a joke no one dared say to her face, however, since she had the power to make a professor’s life miserable.  It was Metia who had Taran banished to his current office because his supernaturalist beliefs could not be allowed to “infect the other professors.”  Taran heard that Metia wanted him fired outright, but was stopped by administrators who were friends with Taran’s father.  On principle, Taran hated that fact, but what choice did he have?

Arie Seazell stood up from his desk and extended his arms to Taran.  “Let me help you with those,” he said, taking the books and scrolls beginning to slip from Taran’s grip.

Arie had been a junior professor when Taran’s mother, Jajeh, became the department’s librarian.  While Jajeh worked, eight-year-old Taran would roam the library, sometimes sitting in a corner for hours reading about Recindian history, philosophical theories, or scientific treatises on everything from astronomy to zoology.  Taran had become somewhat of a protégé to almost every professor in the department, especially Arie who told Taran that if he kept receiving good marks in his schooling, he might get a job at the university one day.

Taran could not imagine a better job than to read books and research all day, so he decided that that would be his future.  Tobias Abraeu had not been thrilled about his only son’s career choice, hoping instead that Taran would carry on the family tradition of a career in the Compact military.  But when he saw the excitement in Taran’s eyes when he opened a new book or learned a new fact, Tobias accepted that his son’s destiny would take a different road.  That and Taran believed his mother’s influence had helped ease Tobias’s disappointment.

Arie placed the books and scrolls on an already impressive pile of books and scrolls on the desk.  He nodded to the man who stood up from the chair in front of Arie’s desk.

“Taran, this is Kumar Ladak from the Ministry of Science.”

Taran shook hands with Ladak.  The man was dressed well in a pressed, spotless black suit common to government officials.  He wore an uncomfortable smile.  Taran had seen that smile many times.  No doubt Ladak was cringing at the thought of speaking to someone who—as Metia no doubt already explained—had supernaturalist beliefs.

Arie motioned Taran to a third chair to the left of Ladak.  A second chair on Taran’s right was empty, which he assumed was because Metia refused to sit next to him.

“Doctor Abraeu,” Ladak began, his full, gray mustache twitching, “you have no doubt seen the…phenomenon in the sky this morning.  The Recindian people are uneasy and want answers.  The Speaker has ordered the Science Ministry to interview the brightest minds in Calaman’s three universities for any ideas regarding the phenomenon’s origins.  My associates are now interviewing astronomers, chemists, physicists, Teachers, and even philosophers of…unconventional beliefs.  My task is to—”

“Interview the Mystic cultist,” Taran said, grinning.  When Ladak began to protest, Taran said, “It’s all right, sir, I’m used to it.”

He glanced at Metia who continued frowning at him.

Arie smiled.  “Mr. Ladak, Doctor Abraeu is the Compact’s leading expert on Mystic legends.  He has gathered the finest collection of ancient Mystic artifacts and documents on the entire Recindian continent.  If the phenomenon has anything to do with the Mystics, Dr. Abreau will know it.”

Taran smiled at his friend, always grateful for Arie’s support, especially in front of government officials and Zampolits.

Ladak looked at Taran, almost afraid to ask the question.  “Do you, er, have any theories about the phenomenon from a…Mystic perspective?”

“Yes I do,” Taran said.  “According to the documents I’ve collected and the artifacts I’ve studied, the return of the rings in the sky heralds the return of the Mystics.”

Metia’s voice exploded.  “Which means donkeys will start flying and fish will start talking, is that it?”

Taran shrugged without looking back at Metia.  “I suppose it’s possible, if the Mystics willed it so.”

All the legends indeed said the Mystics had extraordinary abilities, magical powers that could bend nature to their wills.  But he mostly said it to annoy Metia.

Metia calmed her voice, but she strode to Arie’s desk and leaned her fists on it, staring down at Taran and the official from the Science Ministry.  With a cold, level voice, she said, “Mr. Ladak, these rings are nothing more than comet debris orbiting the world or something else just as natural.  You should be questioning astronomers and physicists, not wasting your time on this…supernaturalist.”

One of the greatest heresies a Pathist could be accused of was being a “supernaturalist,” someone who shunned science, logic, and reason for beliefs that could not be empirically observed.  Like the belief in Mystics or gods or magic.  Though no one called him that in polite company, Taran had long ago accepted that it was what he was.

Ladak cleared his throat and ran a hand through his thin white hair.  “I appreciate your concern, Zampolit, but the Science Ministry has already questioned those individuals, and so far none have a credible theory as to why these rings have appeared around the entire world.  Despite what’s in the newspapers this morning, Ministry astronomers say that no meteors or comets were detected during their observations last night, nor have they received such reports from other observatories around the Compact.  In fact, they say that to create the rings we see now would have taken the explosion of a meteor or comet that would have generated more destruction than the flash of light people saw when the rings appeared.  Our telescopes can’t even determine the composition of these rings.”

Ladak sighed.  “No scientific theory we know of can explain what these rings are and why they appeared.  So the Speaker has ordered us to explore…alternative theories, regardless of how foolish”—a quick glance at Taran—“er, I mean unconventional, they may be.”

Metia grunted, then said in a low rumble, “The new Speaker is a fence-sitting Orlenian whose Pathist principles are no greater than his stature.”

Taran dared not smile at Metia’s grumbling.  Ladak’s explanation must have annoyed her for her to resort to juvenile comments over Speaker Edoss’s height (Orlenians rarely grew over five feet tall).  And anything that annoyed Metia was a good thing for a man whose career had suffered mostly by her hands.

Ladak said, “Be that as it may, we still need to question Dr. Abraeu without interruption, Zampolit.  If you cannot stop another unconstructive outburst, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave.”

Metia’s fists clenched.  She tried to stare down Ladak as if he were a first-year professor she caught uttering supernaturalist ideas to his students.  Ladak returned her glare, unblinking.  Metia glanced at Arie, who sat in his chair with his hands folded on his desk.  She frowned, then leaned back against the wall, her arms folded.  She did not look at Taran.

“Dr. Abraeu,” Ladak said, “you say these rings herald the return of the Mystics.  If my mother’s bedtime stories are correct, the Mystics died out thousands of years ago, if they ever existed at all.”

“Oh, they existed,” Taran said.  “Some say they died out, but I think they hid themselves.  After the Faith Wars, the continent was in ruins.  The Mystics had lost their powers during the wars so they could not alleviate the suffering.  So the starving, diseased mobs naturally blamed the Mystics for everything, and began hunting them down.  Without their powers, the Mystics were easy prey.”

“Why did the Mystics lose their powers?” Ladak asked.

“That’s where the rings come in,” Taran said.  He grabbed one of the books he had brought, flipped through a few pages, then put the large, dusty book on the desk for Arie and Ladak to view.  On the right page, was an ancient drawing of a group of people in white robes, all with one hand raised toward a multi-colored circle in the sky above them.  Tendrils from the circle reached down and touched each upraised hand.  On the other side of the picture were a group of people in black robes with one of their hands raised.  Tendrils from a black circle above them touched their upraised hands.  Each group pointed their other hands toward the opposite group.  Multi-colored light shot from the hands of the white-robed people, while black rays shot from the hands of those wearing black.  The streams of energy met in the middle of the picture above a large bridge spanning a river, and exploded into a burst of black and white.

Taran said, “According to the theology of our Turician neighbors to the north, there are two gods.  Ahura, the Source of All Order, who inhabits the multi-colored ring.  That is where the good Mystics get their power.  And Angra—the god the Turicians call the Source of All Madness—inhabits the black ring.  That is where the Mystics loyal to Angra, or harrowers, get their powers.”

“Ahura and Angra,” Ladak said, stroking his mustache.  “They were the mythological gods of the two sides during the Faith Wars, yes?”

“Yes,” Taran said.  “But after the Wars, all Mystics lost their powers, the good and the bad.  I believe it was because the rings disappeared.”

Arie said, “Why did they disappear?”

Taran shook his head.  “There are no records or even myths explaining what happened to the rings.”

Ladak stared at the book.  “So where did the Mystics go after the rings disappeared?”

Taran searched through his pile of documents until he found a map of the northern Recindian continent.  He rolled the map out, showing the entire region from the southern shores of the Gebremeden Sea to the northern tip of the Beldamark.

Taran pointed to the Beldamark.  “After the Faith Wars, I believe the Mystics fled here.”

Metia sighed disgustedly behind Taran, and Ladak looked up at Taran with a diplomatic grin.

“Yes, I’ve heard stories about the Beldamark,” Ladak said.  “Any ship that tries to land there is turned away by sudden storms, and those who try to walk into the Beldamark from Markwatch in Turicia find themselves turned around walking back toward Markwatch again.  All stories.”

“Not exactly,” Taran said.  “I’ve been to Markwatch.  I’ve tried walking into the Beldamark and found myself walking the other way.  Just like in the ‘stories.’  I would have walked all the way back to the town, too, if my guides had not stopped me and woke me up.”

Metia snorted, but Ladak asked, “So does the appearance of these rings mean that good and bad Mystics are going to start pouring out of the Beldamark?”

Taran shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

Metia said, “You don’t know.  What have you been doing for the past six years, Dr. Abraeu?  Are you saying all these books and artifacts you’ve collected are worthless?”

“Of course not, Zampolit.  But these books only tell me the ancient legends of the Mystics up until their disappearance after the Faith Wars.  History has lost any information about what happened to them after the Wars.”

Arie asked, “What about the Ahura cults in the Perla Mountains?  Wouldn’t they know something about the Mystics?”

“Not much more than what I’ve already told you,” Taran said.  “The Ahura cults have never written anything down, preferring instead to pass on their legends and rituals orally.  And they’re so scattered and disorganized among the Perlas that villages within five miles of each other may have completely different legends and rituals.”

“The Turicians have no more information to give you?” Ladak asked.

“The Turicians are very guarded and private about their faith,” Taran said.  “But I’ve learned the main tenets, which are a belief in Ahura, that the Mystics are Ahura’s angels, and that it is Turicia’s sacred duty to keep the Beldamark safe from intruders.  Everything else in their sacred texts is just moral dogma and rules for everyday living.”

Metia laughed.  “So you’re telling us that from all your research, you’ve found no definitive proof that the Mystics even existed, much less are alive now?”

Arie and Ladak looked at him, expectant.  There was a flash of lightning outside Arie’s window, and thunder rumbled across the city seconds later.

Taran said, “I have pictures in books that—”

“Yes,” Metia said, “‘pictures in a book,’ which are likely the works of fantasy by a bored farmer.  I’m telling you, Mr. Ladak, this discussion is a waste of your time and bordering on heretical.  You should be searching for the scientific and logical causes of these rings.  Just because they’re a mystery to us now, doesn’t mean they’re supernatural.”

Taran turned to Metia, pointed at the picture in the book, and asked, “How do you explain the rings in this picture?  Rather large coincidence, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” she said.  “But a coincidence nonetheless.”

Ladak looked at Taran’s stack of scrolls and books.  “Is there anything else in here that discusses the rings?”

“Well…I have no other pictures like this one,” Taran said.

Arie asked, “Do you have any other books or artifacts in your office that might help?”

Taran knew Arie was trying to help him, and he was grateful.  But he also knew that nothing he had would offer the definitive proof for which Ladak was searching.  If Taran had found that proof, he would have been vindicated long ago.  Now, it seemed not even the appearance of the rings was enough.

Taran shook his head.  “What I have here are the most informative texts.  The rest of the books and scrolls I’ve collected tell the same histories or contain apocryphal legends that I’ve proven wrong by more reliable sources.  Other than that, I have an old book with blank pages, and statues that depict Mystics with their hands raised like in the picture here.”  With a hopeful grin, Taran said, “I’m afraid if you want more current information, you’ll have to go to the Beldamark.”

Thunder from the storm rattled Arie’s window as Ladak took out a pen and a small journal.  As he wrote, he said, “So to summarize, Dr. Abraeu, you believe that these rings are named Ahura and Angra—er, which is which again?”

“Ahura is the colored ring and Angra is the black ring.”

“Yes, good.  So, you believe that the appearance of these rings heralds the return of the Mystics.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“Very good.  Now then, what will happen if these Mystics return?”

Taran shrugged.  “I suppose it’s possible they may start fighting each other again.”

“And what can we expect if that happens?”

Taran took another book from the pile on Arie’s desk, flipped through it, and opened it to a larger picture.  “Here’s one from a book I wrote.”

Metia snorted.  “How did you ever get a publisher to print one of your books?”

“I published it myself,” Taran said, then pointed to the sequoia photograph of a small mural painted on part of a wall.  It showed horrific scenes of destruction: cities in flames, the ground splitting open, stars falling from the sky, and bodies too numerous to count laying amidst the destruction.

“I actually have this mural in my office, if you’d like to see it in color, Mr. Ladak.”

Inspecting the photograph with a frown, Ladak said, “That’s quite all right, Doctor.  I believe I get the point.”

Taran said, “One thing you must understand is that the Mystics were a race that wielded a power that defies all laws of science as we know them.”  Taran heard Metia sigh at his heresy, but he continued.  “If these people return and start fighting again, our civilization will be caught in the middle.  We will have to choose sides just as people did a thousand years ago.”

Ladak grinned.  “Well I imagine we’d ally with the good faction, the one that worships this Ahura ring.”

“Many will, but many others could be lured over to the side of Angra.  Many from within our own culture.  During the Faith Wars, there were a lot of people openly working for the harrowers on the promise of power, riches, and immortality.  Who’s to say that a sizable part of our own population won’t be seduced the same way?  Or maybe even entire nations?”

Ladak finished writing just as another flash of lightning and peal of thunder rattled Arie’s window.  The violence of it drew Taran’s gaze away from Ladak and to the wind-bent trees outside.

“Well, Dr. Seazell, Dr. Abraeu, Zampolit, I’d like to thank you for…”

Taran ignored Ladak’s offered hand and went to the window behind Arie’s desk.  He pulled back the cream colored, lace drapes.  A large cloud so black it seemed to be a hole in the sky clawed its way across the horizon from the south.  It was the only black cloud in a grayish sky.  Black lightning forked to the ground every few seconds, accompanied by explosions of thunder that now shook the walls of Arie’s office.  The cloud was low, obscuring the three, seven-story Parliamentary Towers almost two miles away.  Arie, Ladak, and even Metia crowded around the window next to Taran.

Metia said, “Just because that’s an odd storm doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.”

“You’re right,” Taran said.  “But whatever it is, it’s coming this way fast.”

A black funnel cloud formed slowly in the sky at first, then struck the ground next to the Parliamentary Towers as fast as one of the lightning bolts.  The cloud immediately cut two of the Towers in half, sending each half crashing to the ground in great explosions of debris and dust, the impact rattling Arie’s windows two miles away.

Metia gasped.  “All those people…”

Taran could only stare at the destruction, his horror stamping out his ability to speak or think.

Around the monstrous cloud—now almost a half mile in diameter—more buildings, trees, and even a few steam trolleys were thrown into the air like leaves on a windy autumn day.  The tornado’s roar was already deafening.

Arie yelled, “The basement.  Now.”

He strode to the door of his office and into the waiting area.  He told his assistant—who was staring out her own window—to get to the basement.  Taran, Ladak, and Metia followed Arie into the hall, which was quickly filling with students heading to the stairs.  Thunder shook the building, growing louder with each explosion and flash of lightning.  Some of the male students laughed it off, showing their courage in front of the young women, but most students did not seem to be in a laughing mood.  They followed their professors with fearful eyes and startled glances at the creaking roof, as each gust of wind seemed to tear off a chunk of the building outside.

Taran was following the students when he suddenly had an idea.  He raced back to Arie’s office, ignoring Metia’s protests.  He went to the window in the office again and pulled back the lace curtains.

The funnel cloud was closer, almost on top of the university.  Green and black lightning flashed within the cloud, forking to the ground.  Taran saw one of the forks cause a townhouse just outside the university grounds to explode into flames.  An acrid stench filled the air, like when he walked past the chemistry labs in Yedric Hall.

Taran looked past the cloud and up at the rings.  The swirling colors of Ahura were completely obscured by the cloud, but Angra’s blackness showed right through.  Just as he expected, thin, black tendrils snaked down from Angra into the cloud, like Angra was feeding the storm’s fury.  Another larger black tendril touched the ground to the east of the cloud, near Calaman’s Orlenian Quarter a few miles from the university.

“Abreau, what in Luten’s name are you doing?” Metia shouted from the open door over the exploding thunder outside.  “Get away from the window!”

“Look at this, Metia,” Taran said, pointing to the black tendrils of Angra reaching from the cloud and into the city.  “Is this just a coincidence?”

Metia raced over to Taran, and without looking at the window, punched him in the jaw.  Taran felt the world black out for a moment and he fell back onto the small table next to the window.  The large woman pulled his arm around her shoulder and half carried, half dragged him out of the office.  He was too dazed to resist.

The halls were already clear, except for a few stragglers racing for the spiral staircase.  Through the haze of pain, surprise, and anger, Taran heard the roof above them crack and groan under the storm’s onslaught.  They reached the stairwell just as the windows in the second floor classrooms exploded.

In the stairwell were several dozen students who had not yet made it down to the basement.  Through the screams and shouts of the panicked students, Taran heard Arie shout from below, “Taran, what happened?”

Taran looked down through the dim, dusty haze, and saw Arie making his way up toward him and Metia.  “I thought you were right behind me.”

He grabbed Taran’s other arm and tried to wrap it around his neck, but Taran pushed them both away.  “I can walk on my own,” he said.

The students crowding the staircase continued downward, past the exploding windows on each floor, and down into the storage basement.  Almost a hundred other students and faculty were already in the basement, huddling near the dank, moldy walls.

Ladak pushed through the students when he saw Arie, Taran, and Metia.  He pointed behind them, “There’s more space back there.”

All four moved toward the back of the basement, and stood before two life-sized marble statues of old Calamanian kings from three hundred years ago.  Taran glanced up at the small window just above his head.  The bushes outside were being shredded by the strong winds and rain.  Loud cracks and rips echoed from above them as the storm tore through Shalliford Hall.  Taran no longer heard any of the boastful male students laughing, as the realization sunk in that the building may collapse on top of them.  Everyone stared up at the groaning floorboards, willing them to hold strong.  For what seemed like an eternity, the storm raged outside.

And then it stopped as if someone switched it off.

Taran looked up at the window, saw that the bushes were no longer moving and that rain no longer fell.  As Taran watched, the sun began to light up the grounds.

Ladak stood on a box and gazed out the window through which Taran was looking.  “It’s over?”

“That was rather sudden,” Taran said.  He then waded through the students toward the stairs.

He made his way to the first floor, stepped past broken glass, stray papers, debris from the walls and ceiling.  He looked up at several holes and gashes in the ceiling allowing sunlight and torrents of water to flood through.

Taran stepped outside and looked up.  Ahura and Angra shown in the clear blue sky, but there was no storm cloud in any direction Taran looked, not even the rain clouds from earlier.  One moment the black cloud had filled the sky above the city, and then it had disappeared.  Taran looked to Angra, but saw no black tendrils reaching down to the city like when the storm raged.

He looked down the hill into the valley in which most of Calaman sat.  Two of the three Parliamentary Towers had toppled, and a mile-wide swath of destruction marked the storm’s path through the city.  The path wound its way through the valley from the north and ended at the docks on Lake Maximohr.  Beyond the docks, the sky was blue, and the green waters sparkled in the sunlight.

Behind him, Arie, Ladak, and Metia stared at the sky with as much shock on their faces as he assumed was on his.

Ladak said, “I think the Speaker will want to hear more about your Mystic theories, Doctor.”

© 2012 Rob Steiner

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 2

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 2

“I am Fatimah of Kulon Fields.  I’ve been summoned by the Holy Seat.”

Fatimah stood before the large, slanted wood desk of Olma Merhtash, Deacon to the Holy Seat. The Deacon did not look up from the parchment on which she was writing.  Even with Fatimah’s height, it was difficult not to stand on her tip toes to meet the Deacon’s eyes.  Fatimah had heard that the Holy Seat’s assistant acted like she had all the power of the Holy Seat herself.  With three decades of service, Fatimah supposed that Deacon Olma thought she was the Holy Seat.  No doubt she did much of the Seat’s work.

Fatimah waited for the older woman to finish what she was doing, knowing that the Deacon would not interrupt her work for a newly ordained priest, no matter if the Seat had summoned her.  Fatimah treated her wait as another lesson in Patience, lessons that were still fresh in her mind with her ordination only three weeks past.  For Fatimah, it was the hardest lesson to master, and one that she constantly practiced.

Like now.

Questions raged in her mind, the least of which was why the Seat had summoned Fatimah for a personal audience.  It was highly improper, for Master Eblin should accompany Fatimah on any audience with the Seat.  Though Fatimah was now ordained, she was Apprenticed to Eblin of Luesing, Master of Languages, and member of the Tuathan Master Circle.  For the next five years, Fatimah would study the Recindian languages and culture under Eblin’s guidance.  As tradition dictated, Fatimah would learn nothing else, and was thus forbidden to perform tasks during her Apprenticeship that did not relate to her studies.  Fatimah hoped that Eblin would not be angry with her for coming to the Seat’s quarters.  But when three large, stern Heshmen knocked on her Heiron apartment door at dawn demanding she dress for an immediate audience with the Seat, she felt she did not have a choice in the matter.

Deacon Olma placed her pen in its quill, blew on the parchment to dry the ink, sprinkled fine sand over it, and then rolled it into a small scroll.  She placed the scroll into a wood tube, capped it, and sealed it with a dollop of hot, red wax.  She pulled the handle to a bell behind her desk.  A young female Acolyte—for all Tuathan priests were female—with a white sash wrapped around her waist, appeared from a door to the right of the desk.

The Deacon handed the Acolyte the scroll.

“Master Simmish,” the Deacon ordered.  The girl nodded, and then ran out the door Fatimah had entered and up the stairs toward the raven cages on the tenth floor of the Heiron, the great, ancient obelisk in the center of Fedalan that was home to the Tuathan priesthood and government.

Deacon Olma’s gray-green eyes then regarded Fatimah as if she were another Acolyte.  It grated on Fatimah, for she had earned the right to a little respect from other priests once she was ordained.

But Fatimah kept these thoughts from showing and returned the Deacon’s appraising look with Patience.

“The Holy Seat is meeting with the Master Circle at the moment,” the Deacon said.  “Sit down.  I do not know how long it will take.”

Fatimah turned on her heel and sat down at one of the wood benches across from the Deacon’s desk.  She had been fast asleep less than a quarter of an hour ago, almost dragged out of her apartment by the Seat’s bodyguards as if the Heiron was on fire, and now she had to wait only Ahura knew how long before the Seat explained why she needed a Recindian languages Apprentice before dawn.

She took a deep breath.  Practice your Patience…

Fatimah glanced out the thick glass windows to her right, focusing on the sliver of a rising sun beyond the dark, forested hills to the east.  Sunrises always calmed her, for they reminded her of her childhood on her family’s sheep farm.  Fatimah and her papa would take the sheep out of their pens early—

A strange twinkling in the sky near the window’s edge drew her eye from the sun.  She leaned forward.  The light looked to be a rainbow, but she had never seen one in the pre-dawn sky.  She stood and went to the window to get a better look.

The “rainbow” was a band of swirling colors that spanned the sky from north to south.  But what made her heart freeze was the black band next to it, as if all light had been cast from it, and all that was left was an abyss in the sky.

She gasped.  It was Ahura and Angra.  The Barrier had fallen.

She stumbled backward, and then rushed to the Deacon’s desk, breathless.  She pointed to the window, tried to find words to communicate the enormity of what she saw.  Fatimah did not take her eyes from the sight, for fear that both bands would disappear and the Deacon would think her to be an overexcited Acolyte.

Almost bored, the Deacon said, “I know, child, the Barrier is gone.  That is why the Holy Seat is busy with the Circle at the moment.”

Ignoring Olma’s reference to her as “child,” Fatimah stammered, “But when?  How?”

“Regarding the ‘when’, it was over six hours ago.”  The Deacon gave her a curious look, and asked, “Did you not see the flash of light?  It turned night into day all across the world.”

Fatimah shook her head absently.  “I am a heavy sleeper.”

Olma frowned, and then continued.  “Well, as for the ‘how,’ that is what the Holy Seat and the Circle will tell us when the time is right.  Now please have a seat, child, before you fall down from excitement.”

Fatimah stumbled back to her seat, her gaze locked on Ahura, the Avatar of Creation.  She tried not to look at Angra, or what the priesthood called the Avatar of Chaos.  Its emptiness made her feel too cold and queasy.  She supposed it was her Tuathan blood, for it had evolved over millennia to feed off of Ahura’s grace…and to shun Angra’s blasphemy.

How could the Barrier have fallen?  What did this mean for the world?

Does this mean I can—?

Fatimah gave the Deacon a wary glance, but she was busy writing another parchment.  Remembering her lessons in Wielding history and methods, Fatimah practiced her Patience, allowing every muscle to relax and her mind to travel to a place and time where she was most at peace.  She remembered a crisp spring day when she was a small girl, sitting on a hill with her father watching the sheep feed on the season’s new green grass.  Her father was honing a shearing knife on a leather band in preparation for the wool harvest the next day.  The weather had finally turned warm after a long cold winter, with a blue sky and a warm, humid wind that was more to Fatimah’s liking.  She knew her mother would have hot tea ready for them when they returned to the farmhouse at dusk.  She had felt so content, so peaceful….

Fatimah opened her eyes and concentrated on the candle that lit the Deacon’s desk.  Calm and at peace, Fatimah raised her left hand, imagining herself touching the rainbow-like band in the sky.

And Ahura overwhelmed her.  She had never felt such love and peace in her life, not even in the sweetest, most comforting moments with her father and mother.  Tears sprang to her eyes, and she wanted to stay in this joy forever.

But she knew that staying too long would destroy her mind, or so the legends said.

With all her will, she drew Ahura into herself and called on Water.  In her mind, she felt it in her hand, cool and clean, and then she focused it toward the candle on Olma’s desk.

There was a pop in her ears, and then the candle winked out with a hiss.  The Deacon looked up at the candle, then at Fatimah.  Realization dawned on her face, and she cried, “What did you do?”

Before Fatimah could answer, the room spun.  The dark corners and tapestry covered walls became one large blur, and she tumbled off the bench.

© 2012 Rob Steiner

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 1

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Chapter 1

Taran Abraeu knew he was dreaming, but the horror he felt was quite real.

He stood in the middle of a wide stone bridge above a black, fast-moving river.  A gray mist covered the banks.  Above him, the sky swirled with every color imaginable, making him dizzy just looking at it.

On the bridge in front of him were three stone boxes.  One black, one red, and one white.  Strange black engravings covered all three, words from a language Taran did not know, but was sure he once had.

The lid of the black box jumped, landing slightly ajar on top of the box.  It jumped again, and this time it fell onto the bridge’s red-brick road.

Taran peered inside.

White mists swirled in the box, and a black lightning flickered.  The face of a beautiful woman with red hair materialized.  Taran was unable to look away.  The corners of her mouth lifted in a smile.

Jagged, yellow encrusted teeth leered at him.  Her eyes turned as black as a shark’s.

She lunged—

Taran awoke to the chiming of the wiretype receiver on the nightstand beside his bed.  The little bell rang twice, paused, rang twice again.  Taran took a moment to calm his shaking body from the dream, then flipped the lever next to the chime.  The wiretype keys in his office downstairs start tapping the message.

Taran lay his head back down on his sweat-soaked pillow.  The street lamps outside illuminated the fine cracks in the ceiling’s plaster, and he wondered how long before the cracks leaked water.  And then wondered how he’d pay for the repairs with his reduced university salary and Mara’s ever increasing doctor fees.

Accepting that sleep was futile, Taran rose from the bed, put on his round spectacles, and went to his office to see about the wiretype.

He passed Mara’s room, the door slightly open.  He peeked inside, saw that his daughter’s eyes were closed and that she was sleeping in the same position in which he had placed her last night—on her back, with her head tilted slightly toward the window on the other side of the room.  After Mara’s six years with the Blood, he did not know why this disturbed him every morning.  Adhera would tell him that it was because he still expected Mara to bound out of bed one morning like she had before she caught the Blood.  It would never happen again, she would say angrily.

Well, Adhera was wrong about that, and it was a disagreement that had driven them to separate rooms.  Taran glanced at the door across from Mara’s, saw Adhera’s sleeping form in the street light seeping through her windows.

Taran closed Mara’s door and continued to his office, down the narrow stairs and past the small living room.  The wiretype continued to tap at the paper tape emerging from the unstained wood case.  He read the sender number at the beginning of the tape and frowned.  It was from the Office of the Dean of Continental Antiquities.  Taran wondered what was so important that old Arie Seazell would wiretype him at an hour when even Calaman University groundskeepers still slept.  The message read:

“Dr. Abraeu, be at my office in one hour for a conference with officials from the Speaker’s office.  Look to the sky if you want the reason.”

“Speaker’s office?” Taran wondered out loud.  The Speaker?  What could officials from the Speaker of the Recindian Compact possibly have to say to him?

Taran was an expert in a field that had long ago become the stuff of ridicule among universities across the Compact, and even most other nations on the continent.  His classes on the ancient Mystics were popular among students looking for a diversion from their “real” studies of history, science, and Pathism.  Taran had given up a lucrative and prestigious career in Recindian history six years ago, just after the Blood struck Mara, to pursue the Mystics.  Legends of their healing powers were enough to drive Taran’s decision, though he had always had a passing interest in their mythology all his life.  “Mythology” had become his last hope to save his daughter.  For if he could find them, or at least find out how they had healed their sick, perhaps he could avoid the only prescription the Compact’s Pathist society had for his daughter’s condition…

So why would the Speaker’s office want to talk to him, a man whose Pathist orthodoxy was suspect at best, heretical at worst?

And what was the last line “look to the sky” about?

Taran walked to the window in the living room of his small townhouse.  As always in a city of Calaman’s size, people were up and about at all hours, walking along the sidewalks or riding in horse-drawn carriages, hooves clomping on the cobblestone street.  A steam trolley filled with a dozen people huffed and sputtered past his window, belching black coal smoke from the stack on its roof.  Its blue uniformed driver rang the bell to warn off two men in black suits and tri-corner hats standing in the trolley’s path and staring at the sky.  A lampman was extinguishing the gas lamps across the street with a long pole that had a small soot-caked hood at the end.  The lampman looked up into the sky with a nervous frown, and then hurried on to the next gas lamp.

Taran looked up at the violet sky—

The wiretype fell from his hand.

© 2012 Rob Steiner

Door Jam Novels in Fantasy/Sci-fi

In a recent email conversation with fellow author David Drazul, I mentioned that I’d grown tired of large fantasy/sci-fi “door jam” novels (books so big they could prop open a heavy door) due mainly to their emphasis on minutiae world-building over fast pacing.

When I think back to what I’ve read over the last year, books three and four of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are the only door jam novels I finished. Erikson is a brilliant writer, but by the time I reached the middle of each book, even his work had me antsy for the end.

I’d love to read Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings, as I’ve heard good things about it, but at a thousand freakin’ pages, I can’t help but think of all the slimmer books I could read in the time it would take to finish that one.

The only door jam fantasy I want to read is the last Wheel of Time book. I started the series back in the ’90s because I heard it would be three books. Then three turned into six, which turned into nine, then twelve…until it’s now at the fifteenth and final(!) book due for release in January. I’m invested at this point. But I’d never start the series right now considering its length.

I gave up on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series because it felt like he was heading into Wheel of Time territory (and partly because I have the luxury of watching the DVDs).

It took my discovery of Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series for me to see that a fantasy/sci-fi novel doesn’t need to be a door jam to have quality world-building. Colin McComb’s debut Oathbreaker, Book 1: The Knight’s Tale (which I reviewed) is another example. Both Cook and McComb present their complex worlds and characters with visceral, compact prose that keeps their books under 250 pages without making them feel “thin.”

What are your favorite fantasy/sci-fi novels, with quality world-building, that are relatively short (e.g., under 300 pages)?

Or do you love the door jam novel? If so, why?

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Prologue

I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday. It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you’re uncomfortable getting something for nothing, you can hit the PayPal Donate button in the Tip Jar section to the right. If you donate more than $3, I’ll send you a non-DRM ebook once the book is published (summer 2012). If you donate more than $20, I’ll send you a printed copy.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

Summary

Reason and science gave the Recindian Compact wondrous technology like steam engines, telegraphs, and gunpowder. The world had order. It made sense.

Until one night two multi-colored bands of light appeared in the sky, spanning the horizons like rings around the planet. Soon after, unnatural storms assaulted Compact cities. Whispers spread of ghoulish creatures haunting Compact forests. And then a message from a legendary race called the Mystics – ally with us to fight the growing evil or we all perish.

Desperate, the Compact’s leaders turn to disgraced history professor Taran Abraeu. Taran once tried to save his dying daughter in a failed search for the mythic healing magic of the Mystics. His family and colleagues mocked him. Now his research may save them.

When Compact leaders ask Taran to accompany a secret delegation to the Mystic homeland, Taran is swept up in an adventure that forces him to fight a horrifying enemy that only he among all his people can comprehend.

 

ZERVAKAN

by Rob Steiner

 

Prologue

Keahra fled through the dark forest, ignoring the brambles that tugged at her cloak and flesh.  She did not know where she was going, nor did she care.  As long as it was farther and farther from the Guardian obelisk.  She even feared stopping to listen for her pursuers.  She was a prisoner to Fear, contrary to everything she had learned as a Tuathan Acolyte.  But her order had never prepared her for this.

It took a blind fall into a small creek to stop her panicked flight.  The cold water shocked her mind and body into forgetting its panic, and she reasserted her control.  She paused and listened for the two murderers.

The sounds of cracking branches and rustling leaves drifted to her in the still night.  They were coming.

She looked around, saw a small alcove where the roots of a nearby oak tree had made a natural cave in the embankment.  She eased her cut and bruised body through the frigid, muddy water toward the root cave, maneuvering herself all the way into the dark shelter.  She calmed her breathing, and then waited in the cold, chest-deep water.

Her pursuers grew closer until Keahra heard their voices and footfalls at the top of the bank.

“Wait,” a man said in a deep, angry voice.  Keahra assumed it was the same man she had watched stab poor Jyla in the heart back at the Guardian.  “Listen.”

A pause, then in a loud whisper, “I don’t hear anything.”  It was a woman’s voice, sounding as cruel as the man’s.  The woman had held Jyla down while the man took her life.

The woman said, “We have to find her.  They can’t know, not yet.”

“It’s all right,” the man said.  “We’ll find her once Angra comes.  We need to get back to the obelisk.  It’s almost time.”

Angra?  Keahra had heard stories about harrowers infiltrating the Beldamark ever since she was a child, but she always thought they were tales to keep Tuathan children in line.  Be good, or the harrowers will come for you, her father would say.  They can’t have children like normal people, so they take bad children to raise as their own.  Even as a child, Keahra knew the tales were nothing but tales.

But now…

Only minutes ago, Keahra had walked to the Guardian outside the town of Grayven to relieve Jyla’s vigil.  When she rounded a corner along the two-wheel track through the woods, she saw a large red-haired woman holding a crying Jyla’s arms behind her back.  Keahra arrived just in time to see the man plunge a dagger into Jyla’s chest.  Jyla’s eyes grew wide for a moment, then settled into an unseeing stare.  The red-haired woman let Jyla fall to the ground.  That was when she looked up and saw Keahra.  Without thinking, Keahra fled through the woods.

So if these vile people were harrowers, what were they doing at the Guardian?  The obelisk Guardians were among the last places left in the Beldamark that held the magical Aspects of Ahura.  Whatever they wanted to do, it was not for Ahura’s glory.

With the heavy weight of priestly responsibility, Keahra knew she had to go back and see what the harrowers were doing at the obelisk.  If she could return to Fedalan and report to the Master Circle everything she saw, they would have more information with which to formulate a plan of action.  Whether or not these people were harrowers, they were murderers, and Keahra would not let them get away with the murder of a fellow priest and friend.

Keahra waited until she no longer heard the murderers before she crawled out of the muddy pool beneath the tree roots.  Wet, cold, and dirty, she made her way quietly through the thick, brambly woods to the Guardian, pausing now and then to listen for movement.  She took a roundabout way back, not wanting to risk returning along the same path she had used to flee.  Animals scurried away from her in the dark, each one causing her heart to skip a beat and forcing her to stop and listen for the sounds of pursuit.

As she neared the Guardian, she took even more care not to make a sound.  Every crushed pine cone or rustle of her cloak made her wince.  When she reached the clearing of manicured grass encircling the obelisk, she looked on in shock at the Guardian’s golden tip.  A gray light waxed and waned from the tip…something only legends said it was capable of doing.  Not since the Barrier had gone up had the obelisk been activated like that.  Not for a thousand years.

Keahra sensed the forest around her hush, as if every animal and tree had stopped to see what came next.  Keahra had the same feeling of expectation, that any moment would bring—

The gray light pulses quickened, speeding up to the point where it seemed to solidify.  It made no sound, nor did the forest.

A blast of energy exploded from the Guardian, sending a wave of cold air at Keahra that made her stagger backward.  A gray beam of light shot into the night sky toward the stars.  The beam arced slightly to the northeast, its head growing fainter, but still remaining bright.  Keahra was astounded to see other beams arcing into the sky from what she assumed to be distant Guardians from around the Beldamark.  Keahra counted twenty-five beams, from all twenty-five Guardians.  The beams sped toward each other, heading toward a single point in the dark heavens.

After several seconds, the beams from all the Guardians met.  A flash of light brighter than the midday sun exploded soundlessly, and Keahra had to turn her eyes lest she be blinded.  She spent several seconds blinking away the starbursts filling her sight before she looked at the sky again.

Two parallel bands of light stretched across the sky from the northern horizon to the southern horizon.  One filled with swirling colors, like a rainbow reflecting off a shimmering pond; the other blacker than any darkness Keahra had ever seen, making the night sky behind it bright as the moon in comparison.  The rainbow-like band gave Keahra feelings of warmth, joy, and peace when she stared into its swirling colors.  The black band, however, seemed to claw at Keahra’s soul.

She wanted to turn away from the black band, but her eye caught two black tendrils snaking down from the band, like trails of ink dropped in a glass of water.  Her heart leaped into her throat for a moment, for the tendrils seemed to speed straight for her like two bolts of dark lightning.  But at the last moment, they veered toward the Guardian, piercing the now unlit golden tip as if it were no more solid than a wall of mist.  Keahra stared at the black tendrils as they undulated about the tip of the obelisk like angry snakes.

The wood door at the base of the obelisk shattered.  Keahra turned away just as her back was pelted with the door’s needle-like splinters.  She dove to the ground, ignoring the wood shards in her shoulders and back, and then peered through the undergrowth at the entrance.

One of the murderers, the woman, flew out the door and landed hard on the grassy clearing, tumbling over and over before stopping.  She leaped to her feet, one of the black tendrils touching her left hand raised above her head.  The man ran out the door, paused for a moment, his crazed eyes finding the woman, a snarl twisting his bearded face.  His left hand was also raised above his head, and a black tendril touched it.  He screamed in a language that was alien yet familiar to Keahra, then charged toward the woman.

The woman stood her ground, waited for the man to come within ten paces before pointing her right hand at the man.  A wave of black energy shot forth and enveloped the man.  Terrible nausea seized Kearha, but her discomfort was nothing compared to what enveloped the man.  He screamed a terrible, animal-like howl when the black energy hit him.  She saw the man as if through heat waves shimmering off beach sand during high summer.  The man’s features melted, merged, then folded in on themselves.  His screams changed, grew deeper and then shrill, impossible from a human throat.

The woman kept the black energy flowing over the man as he fell to his knees—or what became his knees in his new tortured form.  He no longer made any sound, but the woman laughed maniacally, shouting in the same strange language the man had used.  She did not stop until the man dissolved into the ground, leaving a blackened, wet patch of earth where his body had been.

Keahra wanted to vomit.  She held back the urge, but in doing so, she involuntarily grunted.

The woman’s head whipped around, and she stared straight at Keahra with glistening, obsidian eyes.

Keahra’s body froze beneath that unnatural gaze.  As the black energy engulfed her, she retained enough of her wits to realize she would be Ahura’s first martyr in over a thousand years.

© 2012 Rob Steiner