ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 14

[Sorry this one is late. Holiday weekend, and all. :-)]

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 14

Karak sat in his carriage watching the cargo ship Hutina float toward a deepwater stone pier at Yaro Docks.  The time was close to midnight, so gas lamps hung on hooks above the pier, providing the four longshoremen with enough light to gather the Hutina’s lines.  The longshoremen securely tied the ship to the dock within a minute.  As soon as the gangplank was lowered, Karak watched the crew and the longshoremen haul a large crate off the ship.  A Compact customs official—someone Karak had bribed dozens of times before—approached the crate, stamped it with the Compact seal without even opening it, and waved it on toward the nearby wagon.  The longshoremen threw oiled tarps over the crate, concealing it from the curious eyes of unbribed authorities and other onlookers.

Karak smiled.  The whole process took less than five minutes.

Karak knocked three times on the interior ceiling of his coach.  His driver turned the horse to follow the wagon transporting the crate.  They wound their way through the Low City, the quarter of Calaman that most respectable citizens declared immoral and filthy, but where they all ended up at one time or another in their lives.  It was Karak’s home and place of business.  He knew there would always be a flourishing trade of gambling, whorehouses, and opium dens, no matter how many laws a government passed against them.  Karak understood human nature, understood that even in the darkest times there were certain businesses that would always prosper until humanity faded from history.

Once the wagon reached the Low City, Karak knew they were safe.  Most of the people wandering the dark streets were alone, with hoods over their heads or wide-brimmed hats pulled low.  Karak knew of several Parliamentarians who frequented his establishments, along with many powerful merchants and military officers.  None would comment on anything they saw here, for that would only raise questions on what they were doing in the Low City to begin with.

Businesses in the Low City did not advertise their wares like the “legitimate” businesses in the rest of Calaman.  Whorehouses and opium dens were illegal in the Compact (though it was relatively easy to bribe an official here and there to look the other way), so they could not post signs above their establishments.  Word of mouth was the only advertisement these places had.  All of the buildings along the winding cobblestone streets would have looked deserted had it not been for the people walking—usually stumbling—in and out of their doors.  Most of the gas lamps on the streets were dark, for the city government had ceded de facto control of the Low City to its denizens…which Karak controlled.  Though he had the power to order someone to keep the lamps lit, he knew the Low City’s clientele preferred the shadows.

After a twenty minute ride through the Low City, the wagons arrived at the rendezvous point inside a complex of abandoned grain silos.  The night outside was moonless and cloudy, the only illumination coming from the glow of thousands of gas lamps in the city.  Once Karak’s carriage passed through the doors, they closed behind him.

Crane, dressed in an impeccably tailored blue suit and matching blue tri-corner hat, stood in the center of the silo holding a torch.  Five cloaked and hooded men, all holding torches, stood behind Crane.

Karak stepped out of his carriage and approached Crane and his men.  The cloaked men gave Karak an uneasy feeling, like when he saw what Crane had done to his plant several days ago.  Every bit of their skin was covered, and they stood unnaturally still, holding the torches above them with cloth-wrapped hands.  The horses harnessed to Karak’s carriage and the wagon pulling the crate snorted nervously.  The drivers got down from their seats and patted the noses of each horse, soothing them with soft words, though the drivers looked as uneasy as the animals.

“Your package is delivered, Mr. Crane,” Karak said.  “Now I believe we have a transaction to complete.”

Crane walked around to the wagon, swinging his walking cane as if on a noonday stroll along the waterfront.  He used the cane to lift the oiled tarp and inspected the crate.  He leaned in, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath through his nose.

He smiled.  “You are a man of your word, Mr. Frost.  But there is one more task I must ask of you before our transaction is complete.  You must kill your drivers.”

This drew shocked gasps from the drivers, and the horses began to whinny, sensing their masters’ fear.

Karak laughed.  “These men are Klahdera.  They are sworn to me and I to them.  They would sooner slit their own throats than talk to the authorities.  Don’t worry, your secrets are safe.”

Crane shrugged.  “Very well.”

The men in cloaks behind Crane dropped their torches.  Tentacled arms shot from out of their cloaks with sickening cracks and moist slithering sounds.  The ends of the tentacles wrapped around each driver’s neck before he had time to scream.

But Karak had a revolver in his hand aimed at Crane’s face just as quickly as the disguised monsters had struck.

“Release them,” Karak growled.

Crane laughed.  “Or what, you’ll shoot me?”

Karak pulled the trigger and blasted a hole in Crane’s forehead, spraying the cloaked men behind him with Crane’s blood and brains.  Crane’s body fell to the ground on its back.  From the rafters above, revolver fire opened up on the “men” in cloaks.  The cloaked men unwrapped their tentacles from around the drivers, the men slumping to their knees gasping for air.  The cloaked men fell to the ground as holes exploded all of their bodies from the Klahdera men Karak had posted in the silo’s rafters before Crane had arrived.

He always had a back-up plan.

The cloaked things stopped moving.  The gunfire stopped.  Besides the sounds of Karak’s men coming down from the silo rafters, all was quiet.  Karak walked over to Crane and stared at his body.  There was a small hole in his forehead and a large pool of dark blood spreading on the ground from the back of his head.  Crane’s eyes stared up at the ceiling, and his lips wore with the same grin he had just before Karak shot him.

Primas Maed stood next to Karak, while Castle, leading the rest of Karak’s men, aimed his two silver revolvers at one of the cloaked men he had killed, poking its body with a toe.

“Can’t trust anybody these days, my Lord,” Primas said, looking down at Crane and holstering his revolver.

“That’s why I keep you around,” Karak said.  He walked over to the wagon carrying the crate and whipped the tarp off the back.  “Now let’s see what’s in this thing.  Castle, those things are dead.  Come over here and help me with this.”

The large Klahdera man holstered his revolvers in the belt around his hip, then leaped up onto the wagon with Karak.  Another Klahdera man tossed Castle a crowbar, which Castle used to pry open a corner of the unmarked wood box.  Karak used another crowbar to pry open the other ends, and they soon had the lid off and leaning to one side of the wagon.  A terrible odor sprang from the box, making Karak wince and Castle begin to cough.  It was as if a thousand rats had rolled in their own dung and then died inside the box.  Through teary eyes, Karak looked inside.

The crate was filled mostly with straw, but in the center was a chest made of black stone about two paces wide and long.  The chest looked extremely old, for the white paint in the carvings on its lid was nearly gone from weathering, as were the rounded corners.

“Bloody Mercy,” Primas said, covering his mouth and nose.  “What’s in there?”

Karak pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and put it over his mouth and nose.  It did not help.

“My Lord,” Castle said, covering his nose with his sleeve, and looking at Karak with more fear in his eyes than Karak had ever seen before.  “This stench is supernatural.  Those men over there were supernatural.  We should leave this place now.”

Karak was inclined to agree with Castle.  Nothing about this whole job was “natural.”  He almost wished he were a good Pathist, who could simply shrug off his nervousness—and yes, fear—and leave the boxes here in this crumbling silo.

But that was a luxury he did not have.  The Klahdera Overlords would be most displeased if he happened to return to them without bringing the item for which Crane was willing to pay forty thousand han.

But that didn’t mean he had to open the box right now.

“All right, let’s get the lid back on,” Karak ordered.  Castle was only too eager to comply, practically lifting the lid and placing it back on the crate by himself.

As Karak pounded the nails back into the crate, he heard Primas say, “Lord Karak…”

When Karak looked up, he saw Crane standing in front of Primas with his same death smile.  He wiped away the blood trickling from his forehead with the back of his hand, then licked it with a nauseating slurp.

Primas fired at Crane, emptying his revolver into Crane’s chest by the time Karak and Castle were able to draw theirs.  Primas’s bullets did nothing to stop Crane, who strode over to him, stuck his fingers into Primas’s throat and ripped it out.  Primas fell to the ground, his body jerking, while Crane threw the bloody gore in his hand to the ground.

Karak’s men fired at Crane, but the bullets affected him less than a stiff morning breeze.  The cloaked men behind the Klahdera rose up and wrapped their grotesque tentacles around the necks of Karak’s men.  The Klahdera men screamed as claw-tipped tentacles began tearing at their throats.

Crane leveled his black eyes at Karak and said, “Kindly step away from my crate, Mr. Frost.”

Then his hand shot toward Karak, elongating into a tentacle with five taloned fingers.  Karak dove off the wagon and ran for the closed doors to the silos.  He did not think, could not think.  He acted on animal instinct alone, not bothering to look back as the screams of his men ended in wet gurgles, cracking bone, and rending flesh.

Karak used his shoulder to slam the doors open, and then ran until he collapsed in front of his tavern.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 13

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 13

Taran felt more at home on a swaying ship than most of his companions.  While he stood on the bow, watching the front of the ship rise and fall in the waves, many of the Speaker’s aids, and a few Shadarlak, leaned over the side of the ship emptying what was left of their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners into the Gulf of Pagilah.  Even the Speaker looked ill, though he fought back his nausea stoically.

Taran shook his head.  In a relatively land-locked country, where train travel was commonplace, travel by water had become the choice of foreigners and exporters.  Taran had grown up sailing with his father and grandfather on Lake Maximohr, which could be just as violent and wild as the Gebremeden Sea or the open ocean.

The journey to Markwatch took little less than a day, compared to the three days it would have taken if the mission had traveled the dirt roads that snaked through the forests of Turicia.  That country had not yet taken to the idea of modernity, much less trains, and it had taken lengthy negotiations to get them to accept a wiretype line through their country so the Compact could communicate with its embassy in the Turician capital Goray.

The town of Markwatch was one of the largest towns in Turicia, though it was slightly bigger than Kaneta and much older.  Stone walls twelve feet high ringed the town’s northern boundary facing the forest, while Markwatch Keep, a large, multi-spired stone castle, sat atop a hill that dominated the center of town.  Besides the tall lighthouse on a small island a mile offshore, the castle was the first thing Taran saw as the sloop approached.

The sloop crept into the town’s dock.  The crew set the anchor and tied docking lines to rusted metal cleats on the stone pier, all with experienced proficiency.  It was a little before midnight, so once again the Compact mission entered a town that slept.

From the railings of the sloop, Taran saw the Lord of Markwatch, Sirucz Ven Demeg, standing in front of three other bearded men who looked thin and haggard.  Ven Demeg had the same black hair and dark beard as the King of Edellia, but Ven Demeg was just as thin as his advisors and did not have the smiling eyes that King Hamacz had.  Speaker Edoss descended the gangway to the dock and made the customary bows to Lord Ven Demeg.  They talked a few moments, and then Edoss said something to General Myndehr.  Myndehr turned and issued orders to Captain Latish, who then bellowed out to his Shadarlak to begin unloading the ship.

The Edellian crewmen stood by as the Shadarlak unloaded their gear, not helping as they had in Sydear.  Rumors of the incident at Kaneta had already spread among the crew, creating palpable tension between the Compact passengers and the Edellians.  Though Taran loved to sail, he was quite happy to be off the Edellian ship before another incident exploded.

“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss called from the dock, motioning him over to Lord Ven Demeg.  Taran grabbed his large duffle sack, slung it over his shoulder, and walked down the gangway to the Speaker.

“Dr. Abraeu is the Compact’s only Mystic expert,” Edoss was saying to Ven Demeg.  The Lord’s eyes were tired and vacant, his chin pointing more toward his chest rather than held high like King Hamacz.  With the quiet, exhausted shuffling of the dockworkers nearby, Taran was getting an uneasy feeling about Markwatch.

Ven Demeg nodded his head, and said in a deep voice, “Welcome to Markwatch, Dr. Abraeu.  I would be most interested to hear your opinions on the Blessed Ones and”—pointing to the sky—“Ahura and Angra.”

There was not a hint of an accent in Ven Demeg’s voice, which surprised Taran, since Turician and common Recindian were such different languages.

But Taran was more interested in Ven Demeg’s terms for the Mystics.  To the Turicians, the Mystics were the avatars of Ahura and Angra.  Most Turicians had a prophetic faith in the Mystics, that the Mystics would return when the world needed them most.  Taran assumed the appearance of the rings would be a celebrated event in Turicia.  But the hollow faces of Ven Demeg and his advisors, along with the dockworkers, told a different story.

“Thank you, my Lord.  I would be most honored to discuss my theories with you.  I was wondering why—”

“There will be time for talk at my dinner table tonight.”  Ven Demeg turned to Edoss.  “Excellency, these carriages will take you and your advisors to Markwatch Keep.”

Edoss bowed, then ordered General Myndehr to march the Shadarlak to the Keep.  Ven Demeg held open the door to one of the carriages for Edoss, who climbed in, followed by Lee Cursh, two Shadarlak, and Taran.  Ven Demeg climbed in last.  General Myndehr chose to march with her men to the Keep.  The carriage lurched forward as soon as Ven Demeg shut the door.

The town at the foot of Markwatch Keep was eerily quiet, even for midnight.  In many sections, there were no souls on the streets, even outside taverns and inns.  There were even sections where many of the homes and buildings had recently burned to the ground.  Taran gave Ven Demeg a questioning look.  The Lord of Markwatch stared back at Taran, his eyes in shadow.

“The night after Ahura and Angra returned,” he said in a quiet voice, “a terrible pestilence began in the surrounding farms, then spread to Markwatch.  People vomited blood.  Blood poured from their eyes, noses, ears.  Oozing sores covered the infected.  Our healers could not determine how the disease passed from person to person, for there were healers who cared for the sick from the beginning and never developed a single sore.  But then a farmer on the outer fringes of my lands would develop the disease even though he had no contact with the infected.  It killed over half the population of Markwatch within a week.”

Ven Demeg stared at the empty buildings.  Taran thought Ven Demeg did not see empty buildings, but the corpses that must have once been piled high around them.

“And after a week, the dying stopped, just as suddenly as it began.  Those who were sick recovered within a day.”

With fevered intensity, Ven Demeg declared, “It was Ahura who saved us from the Angra-spawned plague.  We had not shown proper respect to the gods when they re-appeared, so the Blessed Ones allowed the Angra plague to punish us.  Once we showed proper repentance, the plague stopped.”

Ven Demeg returned his gaze to the empty streets of Markwatch.  Down one of the streets littered with razed buildings, Taran saw a figure sitting in front of a collapsed house, a lantern by its side.  The figure rocked back and forth.

“What do you mean by ‘proper repentance?’” Taran asked.

Ven Demeg still gazed at the streets of Markwatch.  “It was my responsibility to ensure my people were prepared for the return of Ahura and Angra.  It was my responsibility to ensure they showed the proper reverence for the gods.  It was my failure, not theirs.  It was my duty to suffer, not them.”

When he turned back to the Compact men, his face was more sunken than it had been moments before.

“In days of old, it was the king’s family that paid for the king’s sins.  So I put my entire family to the sword.  Once I did, the dying stopped.”

 

“Now I understand why the Compact abandoned religion long ago,” Ladak said to Taran while washing his face and hands in the bowl of water Ven Demeg’s servants had set out for them.

The room on the third floor of the Keep was small, maybe five paces by ten paces, but felt like a ballroom compared to the cramped quarters of the bunk Taran had shared with Ladak on the train, and the even more cramped hold on the sloop.  There were two small beds on either side of the room, both with well maintained quilts and blankets finely embroidered with silver swirls and whorls on dark green fields.  Taran sat at a small desk next to the paned glass window thumbing through a treatise on Turician theology where it concerned the Mystics.  Night had fallen, and Taran was barely able to make out the words from the small candle on the desk.

“That wasn’t religion,” Taran said, flipping through the pages of the book.  “It was desperation and madness.  There’s nothing in Turician theology that says a king or lord has to sacrifice his family to appease Ahura.  There are legends that speak of Turician kings burning their families so the old gods—pre-Ahura—would grant them victory in battle.  Even then there was nothing about killing the royal family to atone for a lack of faith.”

Toweling his hands and face, Ladak said, “Well, simply having dinner with the man was enough to make me want to run to the nearest Pathist Teacher.  He actually believes that murdering his wife and three sons was what stopped the plague.  What do you think?  Was it natural or caused by harrowers?”

Taran shook his head, shutting the book and eying the bed through a stifled yawn.  “We’ve seen that harrowers can control the weather and turn living creatures into monsters.  Why not unleash a plague?”

Ladak climbed into the bed across the room from Taran, and  said, “How do we fight an enemy who can strike us with plagues?”

Taran stared at the dark sky through the clouded window.   “With the help of the Mystics.”

Only they can cure Mara of her own plague.

Ladak grunted.  “I suppose we’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”

“Yes,” Taran said.

He felt the familiar surge of excitement over meeting the Mystics, a feeling he welcomed over the constant terror and unease he had felt throughout the journey here.  Tomorrow he would meet the Mystics.  Tomorrow he would meet the people who would return his daughter to him.

 

 

That night Taran dreamed of fire and blood.

He stood before his house in Calaman.  It was the only house still intact, for the surrounding block was a charred ruin.  The stink of burnt flesh mingled with the rotting corpses festering in the ruined buildings and on the street.  He ignored it all, and walked up the steps to the door to his home.  He entered the house, saw Teacher Owhn Feshaye sitting on the couch consoling Adhera, who leaned against Owhn’s shoulder crying.  She was naked.

Owhn looked up at Taran and said, “I’ll take care of her now, lad.”  He gave Taran a leering smile, then lifted Adhera’s chin and kissed her deeply.

Taran turned away and climbed the stairs to Mara’s room.  As he reached the top, he saw a shadow enter Mara’s room at the end of the hall, and then heard her cry.

“Papa!” she screamed.

Taran wanted to sprint forward, but as is typical in dreams, his feet would not move as fast as he wanted.  He could only shuffle forward in small steps.  He wanted to yell out to her, to let her know he was coming, but he could not open his mouth.  All the while he heard her crying for him.

After an eternity, he reached the closed door to her room, then pushed it open.  Mara lay on the bed on her back, her sleep clothes stained yellow from recent vomit.  Blood seeped from her eyes, her ears, her nose.  The shadow hovered above her, its black wispy, tendrils stabbing at Mara like spears.  She looked at Taran, her long black hair wet with sweat.  When she opened her mouth, a gout of blood spurted from her mouth and ran down over her chin.

“Help me,” she cried in a gurgling voice.

Taran could not move, but he found his voice.  He screamed at the shadow, “Get away from her!”

The shadow continued stabbing at Mara, but a face formed in the chaotic swirling mass.  It was not a face that Taran recognized, but it was distinct in its features.  The nose was long and pointed, the eyes set far apart, and it wore a well-trimmed beard that was barely more than stubble.  Though the face swirled in a black mist, Taran knew that its hair was reddish.

“You want me to stop?” the face asked in a harsh whisper, then laughed at Taran.  “So stop me.”

Taran could not move or even speak.  The shadow continued to stab at Mara, and her sudden screams of anguish and horror were like nothing he had ever heard come from a human throat.

Ladak woke him.

“Doctor?” he said, a hand on Taran’s shoulder.  “We have a big day ahead of us.”

Taran looked up at Ladak through sleep covered eyes, confused for a moment.  The dream was still vivid in his mind, and he wondered if Ladak was part of the dream.  Ladak stared at him.  “Are you well?  You look pale.”

Taran swallowed a spitless swallow, his throat dry from the night’s sleep.  He blinked his eyes again, then said, “I’m fine.  Just didn’t sleep well.”  Was this conversation a dream…?

Ladak nodded, then sat on his own bed to lace his shoes.  “I can imagine.  You’re about to meet the people for whom you’ve been searching for ten years.  You must be quite excited.”

Taran slowly swung his legs out of bed and reached for his pants.  “Yes.  Excited.”

For the moment, his mind returned to the Mystics and how he was about to fulfill a quest that started when Mara was struck down with the Blood.  But he could not help but feel that the dream had something to do with them, for he felt uneasy about meeting them now, whereas before last night, it was all joy.  The dream felt more real to him than being awake in this small room in Markwatch Keep.  What did the shadow mean when it said, “So stop me?”  And whose face was in the shadow?

Taran gathered his gear and made his way down to the stables with Ladak.  The Keep was ancient, old even before the Faith Wars.  It had dark hallways made of granite where not even a candle burned.  There were very few servants in the halls, but the ones he saw were subdued and walked about with lowered heads.  The horror of the plague and Ven Demeg’s “cure” was bound to fill the residents of Markwatch with grief and despair.  Taran wondered if this town would ever recover.

Taran and Ladak found the stables near the western gate of the Keep.  Most of the Shadarlak were there organizing themselves into squads.  There were maybe three dozen Shadarlak now, since the attacks during the journey had depleted them from the fifty that had started in Calaman.  Taran didn’t think it could be possible, but the men who remained wore harder expressions and seemed more focused than when they had set out.  They went about their preparations without a word.

Ladak went to see to his luggage, while Taran approached the Speaker as he talked to Ven Demeg.

“Once again I want to apologize, Excellency,” Ven Demeg said in the same deep, subdued voice he had last night.  “The plague even struck our animals.  Many of our horses succumbed to the Angra scourge.”

Edoss shook his head.  “Please do not apologize for events that were beyond your control, Lord Ven Demeg.”

Taran winced, and saw Ven Demeg’s eyes flash briefly.  Ven Demeg believed the plague was entirely his fault, and Taran knew that to say otherwise was to say that he killed his family for nothing.  Edoss seemed to catch his error as soon as he said it, and he quickly added, “You are a wise ruler and you have done everything within your power to take care of your people.”

Ven Demeg’s face continued to twitch a few moments, and then he said, “Here are the guides who will take you to the border.”

He motioned to two men striding through the Keep’s open western gate.  Both wore green cloaks with pins that were molded into the crossed-spears crest of Ven Demeg’s house.  One man was in his middle years, with gray flecks in his reddish-brown hair, while the other was barely past twenty and looked remarkably like the older man.  Taran instantly recognized them.  Judging by the smiles they gave him, they also remembered him.

Ven Demeg said, “Ulrike Laneve and his son Alton.  They own land near the Beldamark border, and they also guide Turician pilgrims to the Markers.  They will take you along the swiftest route.”

Both of the guides bowed to Edoss.  “My Lord,” they said with a heavy Turician accent.

Then to Taran, Ulrike said, “It is much good to see you again, Abraeu.”

“Happy to be back, Ulrike,” Taran said, clasping hands with the older guide.  “I only hope this expedition goes better than my last two.”

“Ahura lights your way this time,” Ulrike said.  “The Blessed Ones will invite you for sure.”

Edoss and Cursh gave Taran questioning looks, and Taran said, “Turicians believe that no one can enter the Beldamark without an invitation from the Mystics—er, Blessed Ones.”

Cursh asked the two Turicians, “Have you ever been into the Beldamark?”

Both looked at Cursh as if he had just asked if they had ever jumped off a mountain top.  “No, sir,” Ulrike said.  “The Blessed Ones not ever invited us.”

“How do you receive an invitation?”

The two guides looked uncomfortable, and glanced at Ven Demeg, who gave them a blank stare, then nodded.  Taran remembered how guarded Turicians were about their religion.  Speaking of Turician theology with outsiders was usually forbidden to common folk, requiring the permission of either a priest or a commoner’s lord.

Ulrike turned back to Cursh.  “You die, sir.  If you have lived virtuous life, then Blessed Ones take you to their realm where your spirit enjoy eternal life.”

General Myndehr approached as Ulrike talked of dying.  “We have an invitation from those who claim to be the Blessed Ones.  They asked us to come here.  Surely they will not try to kill us?”

Ulrike shook his head.  “The Blessed Ones are of truth.  If they say they want to meet you, they want to meet you.  If they want to kill you, they will tell you so.”

Cursh said under his breath, “That’s a relief.”

Edoss said, “General, are your men ready?”

He seemed impatient to get on with the trek through the Markwatch wilderness.  Taran wanted to ask the guides more questions, but he figured he would have time during the march.

The same carriage pulled up that had taken Taran, the Speaker, and Cursh to the Keep yesterday, with the same driver and the same horses.  Ven Demeg pulled open the door for the Speaker, who thanked him and climbed aboard.  Once Taran and Cursh were inside, Ven Demeg closed the door.

Through the open window, Ven Demeg said to Edoss, “May the Blessed Ones favor you, Excellency, and your mission.”

Edoss nodded, and then the carriage rolled forward through the western gate and into the cobblestone streets of Markwatch.  The empty buildings in the town soon gave way to empty homes, and then farm fields that were overgrown with a month’s worth of weeds.  Scavenging animals—and humans—had already stripped the fields of harvestable produce.

The morning sky was gray and the air was misty, making even the tall green pines covering the surrounding hills look as gray as fresh-spun wool.  There was no sun to be seen, yet the rings of Ahura and Angra still penetrated the thick clouds.  Taran still marveled at that, that the rings could be simultaneously of the sky, yet apart from it.  He tentatively scanned the Angra ring—the mere sight of which made him cold—for the tendrils he saw during the Calaman storm and the harrower attacks, but he saw nothing.  Nor did he see tendrils coming down from the Ahura ring, making him wonder if Ahura Mystics drew their powers from the rings in the same way as the harrowers.

Ulrike and Alton strode quickly down each winding path and road on which they led the column.  Often times the hard packed roads became nothing more than two-wheel tracks before turning back into hard dirt again.  Ulrike and Alton took many turns, making Taran wonder if the Turicians deliberately designed the road to the Beldamark to confuse as many people as possible.

Edoss and Taran stepped out of the carriage occasionally to walk with the two guides, asking them questions about life next to such a mysterious land.  Both Turicians were quiet at first, but soon opened up to Edoss when he continued to press them.

Ulrike’s family had lived on the border for hundreds of years, and not one of them had ever heard of someone entering the Beldamark and returning to tell the tale.  Many had tried to enter, and were magically turned around, heading back in the direction from which they came, not even remembering that they had turned.  Those who watch someone walk past the Markers will see that man suddenly turn around with a blank expression and begin walking the other way.  Unless he is stopped, or “awakened,” he will walk all the way back to his home without remembering the journey.  Once home, all feel as though they had awakened from a dream.

Around noon, the column stopped in a large clearing for lunch and rest.  Ulrike told Edoss and Taran that the column was making good time.  Ulrike said that they should reach the Markers in another three hours.  At first Taran was a bit impatient that it would take them three hours to march another ten miles.  He was so used to the comforts and convenience of train travel that he quickly forgot that outside the Compact and parts of Edellia, this was how the majority of humanity traveled.  To Ulrike, the whole column was moving at an astonishing speed.

Just as Ulrike had estimated, the column arrived at the Markers after another three hours of marching.  The Markers were simply two stone columns as tall as a man on either side of the two-wheel track that ended abruptly in a clearing in front of the stones.  Ten paces past the stones were tall pine trees clumped so close together that the light of day could not penetrate much farther than another five paces into the forest.

They had reached the border of the Beldamark.

Taran took out his pocket watch.  It was near half past noon.  The Shadarlak sergeants shouted orders to the men to form up and secure their flanks, even while General Myndehr told Captain Latish to have his men keep their sabers sheathed and their revolvers holstered if the Mystics should happen to appear.  But she also ordered him to ensure their revolvers were loaded.  Taran could not blame them for being cautious, but he knew in his heart that they had nothing to fear from the Beldamark Mystics.  He could not offer any proof of this, but it was something he was as sure of as he was standing there.

Taran walked to the Marker on the right and studied its carvings once again, just as he had done on his previous expeditions.  The glyphs were faded by time and erosion, but they were carved deep enough to view.  They told him that it had not been the Mystics who had erected these Markers, but the local Turicians.  They had began simply as markers of the place where the magic of the Mystics turned the uninvited away from the Beldamark, but they soon became religious relics to the Turician pilgrims.  Farther down, near the base of the Marker were carvings in somewhat modern Recindian, the common language of the continent, asking for the “favor of the Blessed Ones who dwell in the Heavenly Lands.”

Edoss came over to Taran.  The Speaker’s dark eyes squinted as he peered into the shadowy forest.  “You’re the expert, Doctor.  Do we wait for them or do we enter?”

“We have to wait, Excellency.  Any attempt to enter without permission might—”

Taran’s eye caught movement in the forest.  At first he thought it was a deer or some other animal, but three shapes materialized out of the trees and mist.  All three were draped in an amalgamation of animal furs, with hoods that left their faces in shadow.  They held walking staves, though the way they navigated effortlessly through the underbrush of the forest showed a dexterity that seemed to make the staves unnecessary.  They walked straight toward Taran and Edoss.  Several Shadarlak rushed over to Edoss to encircle him, but Edoss angrily told them to stay behind him.  The three tall, fur-clad figures seemed to ignore the Shadarlak, but remained focused on Edoss.

They stopped right before the Markers, then they pulled back their hoods.  There were two women and one man, all with pale complexions, red hair, and thin, almost gaunt faces.  The man was older, with a gray-flecked beard and long hair that fell around his neck.  He wore a light green dyed sash over his furs that was tied like a belt around his waist.  The two women, one older and one younger than Taran, wore their hair in a single braid that ran down their backs.  The younger woman had a scarlet sash tied around her waist, while the older woman wore a light green sash similar to the man.

Taran was a little stunned at their appearance.  He had not expected the Mystics to be bathed in radiant light, but nor did he expect them to look like beggars from the Wild Kingdoms.

Edoss bowed to the new arrivals. “I am Dylan Edoss, Speaker of the Recindian Compact.  Are you the ones who invited me here?”

The older man and woman looked to the younger woman.  She spoke to the other two in an elegant, flowing speech that sent a jolt down Taran’s spine.

Ancient Mystic!

Taran was among the first Recindians in a thousand years to hear a Mystic speak that language.  He could discern several words, but most were pronounced in ways he did not recognize.  What Taran could make out was that the younger woman translated what Edoss had just asked.  The older man and woman spoke to the younger woman, and Taran heard something about Edoss being late.  Although it could have been something about Edoss being early.  It was definitely something about Edoss’s arrival.

The young woman turned to Edoss and said in sharp Recindian, “I am Fatimah of Kulon Fields, Priest of Ahura, and Servant of the Holy Seat.”

Taran stared at the young woman, astonished that she had such a strong command of Recindian, despite her people being secluded in the Beldamark for a thousand years.  How did the Mystics stay educated on Recindian languages?  Surely the language had changed in the last millennium.

The younger woman pointed an open hand to the man and said, “This is Dornal of Fedalan, Servant of the Worldly Seat.”

Dornal nodded to Edoss, and then the young woman motioned to the older woman and said, “This is Ida of Defallon, who also serves Worldly Seat.”

After the older woman nodded to Edoss, the young woman said, “The Tuatha of the Beldamark greet you, Dylan Edoss, and welcome you into our lands.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 12

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 12

“I will not lie to our greatest ally,” Dylan told Lee, hoping the finality in his voice would dissuade Lee from further argument.  It was three hours past midnight, and Dylan had not slept since the night they had left Calaman, so he was in no mood for debate.  But Lee persisted.

“I’m not saying you should lie,” Lee said in a low voice, “just don’t volunteer any information.  If King Hamacz finds out about Kaneta, he may not transport us to Markwatch.  Not even Jeluha had heard of the incident, so Hamacz likely doesn’t know either.”

The train’s second Edellian stop at the village of Jeluha—hardly more than a train depot—had gone well, considering what a tragic disaster the last stop had been.  It enabled the train to take on enough coal for the rest of its journey.  The station manager was friendly, despite his curious glances at the train’s broken windows and bullet riddled exterior.  Edoss had ordered the conductor to tell him it was Cossop raiders who had attacked them en route.  The manager nodded sympathetically, and gave no indication he had heard of the firefight in Kaneta.  This only emboldened Lee’s efforts to persuade Dylan to lie to King Hamacz.

Dylan shook his head.  “No.  I won’t begin my administration’s first meeting with a friend of the Compact by keeping something like this from him.  We will acknowledge our actions and offer any form of restitution the King deems appropriate.  I’ve made my decision.”

Lee leaned back in his chair and stared out the window.  Dylan regretted snapping at him, but he was too tired, scared, and frustrated over the past few days to apologize.

With the late hour, Dylan saw few people on the streets of Sydear’s outlying areas.  Scattered clay homes became small villages, then towns with street lamps illuminating empty cobblestone roads.  The night was cloudy, yet the rings shone through in all their supernaturalist splendor.  Dylan realized a thought like that would have made him wince just a month ago.

The train’s arrival in Sydear was a mixed blessing.  On one hand Dylan was happy to be in a city that had not seen the destruction wrought on the frontier towns by the Angra harrowers.  Nor had it had a storm like Calaman.  On the other hand, he had to tell King Hamacz, the Compact’s most faithful ally through both Mazumdahri wars, that his Shadarlak Armsmen had killed several Edellians in Kaneta.  Lee’s fears were valid, but Dylan felt he had no choice but to be honest with the King.  How could he meet the King face to face and not tell him about the incident?  What would Hamacz think if he learned the news after Dylan had met with him and used his ships to get to Markwatch, yet “forgot” to mention the tragedy?

The train bypassed Sydear’s Jewel of the North Station—almost a replica of the Revela Street Station in Calaman—and continued on to the wharves on the waterfront.  Though the train would get curious looks from the dockworkers reporting for their morning shifts, at least it would not be throngs of Edellians in the public train station watching the approach.  Dylan knew that rumors of his “secret” arrival in Sydear would eventually get out.  The goal was to keep the news a “rumor” for as long as possible, at least until they were on their way to Markwatch.

When the train reached the wharves, it slowed to a crawl, then lurched to a stop near several grain silos to the left, and the Gulf of Pagilah on the right.  Fishermen on the Gulf might notice the train, but the silos would block casual spectators from the city itself.

Outside the train sat a nondescript coach with curtains over its windows.  The driver stood next to the horse, checking its harness and paying no attention to the train.  Another man stood next to the coach—head held high, back straight—and approached the conductor as he stepped down from the locomotive.  They spoke a few words, and then the conductor motioned the man onto the Speaker’s car.

The man was well dressed, though not in the customary livery Dylan knew from meeting other Edellian agents of the King.  Dylan was grateful for that.  A King’s man standing on the wharves at four o’clock in the morning would certainly draw attention from any passers-by.  The agent glanced at the broken windows and damaged furniture in the Speaker’s car, but his smooth face gave no sign of curiosity.

The man bowed low, then said to Dylan in a smooth Edellian accent, “Honored guests, I am Cavares Aisha, the Word of King Hamacz.  King Hamacz requests the honor of meeting the new Recindian Compact Speaker at your convenience, Excellency.”

Dylan stood, as did Lee and General Myndehr.  “The honor of a meeting with the King is mine,” Dylan said.  “Lead the way, Word Aisha.”

Aisha bowed again, then turned and exited the car.  Four Shadarlak fell in behind Aisha and in front of Dylan, while four more proceeded behind Dylan.

Outside the car, the Edellian air was cold.  The clouds released a misty drizzle that made the air even colder.  Dylan ignored the chill—for it was nothing compared to an Orlenian winter in the Perla Mountains—and strode after the Word, who stopped in front of the curtained wagon.  The Word opened the carriage door, and a tall man with a dark, well-trimmed beard and the clothes of a wealthy commoner stepped out.  He towered several inches above Dylan’s tallest Shadarlak, but he had a warmth in his eyes that made his size less intimidating.  Dylan hoped that friendliness still existed after this meeting.

The King bowed, as did Dylan, and then said, “Excellency, welcome to Sydear.  It is unfortunate this visit must remain secret, for I would hate to think you would form an opinion of my city based on what you see around you.”

The King smiled ruefully as he glanced at the dirty wharves, where boxes of cargo sat nearby and the smell of rotting fish was strong enough to cut with a saber.

“Your Highness,” Dylan said, “from what I saw of the city coming in, you have much to be proud of.  And it is an honor to finally meet the Recindian Compact’s greatest and most trusted ally.”

“Thank you, Excellency.  I understand your time is limited, so I will escort you to your ship.  It has been stocked with the supplies, provisions, and horses you requested.”

King Hamacz extended his hand toward a pier, where Dylan saw a sloop tied to the dock.  Dylan told Lee to have the men transfer their supplies to the ship, then followed the King, with the Shadarlak in tow.

The King frowned at the train as they turned toward the docks.

“Excellency, I’m curious as to what happened to your train.”

“The damage you see is what makes my mission to Markwatch all the more important,” Dylan said.  “We were attacked in a Compact village on the way here by those who know how to wield the power of the rings above us.  This person was able to create…monstrous creatures.  I suppose there’s no other way to explain them.  We barely got away.”

The King gave Dylan a sharp look.  “We have just received word today of these attacks near the Perla Mountains.  Many of my plainsmen still have faith in the Old Ways, that the rings herald the end of time, so I thought they were simply the imaginations of a simple people.  I thought perhaps the Cossops were playing games.  But now, hearing the same reports from the Compact Speaker and a Pathist…perhaps the end times are here.”

“Hopefully my mission will prevent that.”  Dylan paused, and then said, “There is another matter of which you must be aware.  On our way here, there was an incident in the town of Kaneta, just north of the Perla Mountains.”

“Incident?” the King asked.

“Your people there are frightened.  Something has attacked them the previous few nights, which made many people try to barter their way onto my train.  We did not have the room so…”

The King’s friendly demeanor began to evaporate, and he regarded Dylan with a blank stare.  “What happened?”

“The bartering turned into a panicked riot.  One of my men was shot, killed.”  Dylan stopped and looked directly into the King’s eyes.  “The rest of my men returned fire from our train.  I don’t know how many Kanetans were hurt, but seven of my men were killed in the return fire.  I wanted to tell you this personally.  I apologize for any loss of Edellian life, and I offer the resources of the entire Compact to make any restitution you deem appropriate for this unfortunate accident.”

The King closed his eyes and lowered his head, then looked past Dylan at the sleeping city of Sydear.  “Seven of your men died,” Hamacz said.  “I would say blood has been paid in blood.”  The King sighed.  “But once news of this becomes common knowledge, it will be difficult for me to maintain our alliance.  My people grow weary of the war with Mazumdahr.  Even though it is in a cease-fire and only minor skirmishes occur, Edellian men are still dying in those skirmishes.  A Mazumdahri ambassador visited me two months ago offering a separate peace treaty.”

Dylan was stunned.  He hesitated, but asked, “What did you tell him?”

Hamacz smiled sadly.  “I told him I would think on it.  You must understand that we do not have the resources that you in the Compact have.  My country is large in land, but few in people.  We were once nomads, not all that different from the Cossops.  We have no industry other than what we learn from you, nor the population to sustain a long war, which this war has become.  My people are tired.”

The King shook his head.  “I know the Mazumdahri are trying to break our alliance.  I know what will happen if they do.  But I fear the unrest in my country will be far worse if this war does not end soon.  And I fear that this incident in Kaneta will be all my people need to demand that we make peace with Mazumdahr now.  Without you, if necessary.”

Dylan stared numbly at his scarred train.  It looked as if the train had been target practice for a company of Mazhumdahri musketmen.  Edellian soldiers helped the Shadarlak unload the Compact mission’s gear onto oxen-pulled wagons that slowly rumbled back and forth between the docked sloop and the train.

What would happen if the Compact suddenly lost its most steadfast ally?  It was only with Edellia’s alliance that the Compact had been able to hold off the Mazumdahri onslaught on its northern border.

Dylan said to the King, “You must know that peace can only come if we stand united.  Their entire civilization is geared toward expanding this religion they’ve built up around their ‘Immortal King.’  If they destroy the Compact, it will only be a matter of time before they come after you and the other free nations of Recindia.  Your Highness, I fear for the continent’s future if Edellia makes a separate peace.”

“As do I,” the King said sadly.  There was a quiet moment as they both watched the Shadarlak and Edellian soldiers load the sloop.  The King broke the silence and said, “Perhaps the Mystics will be able to help you.”

At that moment, Dylan knew the King had already made his decision.  The Mystics were now the Compact’s only hope in fending off a redeployed Mazumdahr.  Without Edellia to worry about on its northern flank, the Mazumdahri would surely concentrate all their forces on the Compact.

Dylan realized that by giving the him an Edellian boat to take to the Beldamark, the King was trying to help the Compact one last time.

Just before he ensured its destruction.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 11

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 11

Taran sat in a chair next to one of the broken windows in the Speaker’s car, his wool overcoat buttoned to the top against the frigid mountain air blowing through.  Unfortunately none of the other car windows were intact, so there was not a warm place left on the train besides in the locomotive.

The train had reached its highest point in the Perla Mountains, and was descending into Edellia.  Beyond the fir-covered mountains below, Taran saw the Edellian foothills begin not five miles away as the sparrow flies, though the train still had to make a serpentine route down mountain passes, making the entire journey more like twenty miles.  He had traveled this route twice before, in failed expeditions to the Beldamark.  He would have enjoyed the breathtaking view just as much this time if he had not been so nervous about what they would find in Kaneta.

When the train reached the Edellian plains and approached Kaneta, the Shadarlak checked their revolvers and made sure their sabers were easy to find on their hips.  It was not long before Taran heard the locomotive’s engines die out after burning the last of its coal.  All he could hear now was the creaking and rumbling of the train, and the screeching of metal as the engineer applied the brakes all the way down the mountain tracks.

When the train finally rounded the last jutting mountain, Taran saw the scenery change from walls of rock interspersed with fir trees, to rocky hills, to rolling hills covered in a carpet of lush, emerald grass.  The engineer let off the brake a bit more, allowing the train to pick up speed in a straight sprint down the Edellian foothills.  It was faster than Taran ever remembered traveling in a train, but they would need the speed to coast into Kaneta.

After almost fifteen minutes of watching the grass and hills blur past the train, the conductor entered the car, a relieved smile on his face.

“The station in Kaneta returned our flash signals.  They’ve welcomed us to stop for fuel.”

The easing tension in the car was palpable, and many of the aids smiled at each other.  The Shadarlak, however, maintained their grim watch despite the apparent good news.  Taran was inclined to feel the same way as the Shadarlak, and judging from Edoss’s furrowed brow, the Speaker’s tension had not eased either.

A twinge of fear returned when Taran saw the outlying homes of Kaneta.  The town sat on the edge of a small lake called Dacava Lake.  The last time Taran had traveled through the town, children and adults sat on their front porches gaping and waving at the train as it rumbled by their homes.  Now every window was boarded up with fresh lumber.  Many homes had broken windows, and a few had recently burned to the ground.  There were no fishing boats dotting the lake, as Taran had remembered on previous trips, and a large number of boats were haphazardly beached on the gravel shores as if blown there by a storm.

The train soon approached the tall stone walls of Kaneta proper.  Occasional raids by migrating Cossop horsemen from the Komenda Steppes were a fact of life out here, and sturdy walls meant you could keep safe supplies for the winter.

And for the first time since leaving the Calaman region, Taran saw actual people outside the train.  A cluster of seven men watched them from horseback on the road leading to the town gates—closed, though they were open the last two times Taran had been there.  The men wore coats and breeches made of gray and brown wool, and all wore wide-brimmed hats.  Each one had a musket strapped to his back, with rusting bayonets that looked older than the Perla Mountains.  The men eyed the train warily, as if they were not sure they wanted to rejoice at the sight of it, or begin shooting out the remaining windows.

When the train finally stopped, Taran remembered there was no way to get it going again unless they refueled.  If they could not get fuel in Kaneta, they were walking back to Calaman.  And Taran did not relish going back the way they came.

The Kaneta station, which sat outside the walls of the town, was no more elaborate than the Compact stations they had passed.  In fact, it was less so.  There was not even a raised platform, nor a covered waiting area with benches for passengers.  Two Kaneta men stood on the hard-packed dirt road next to the tracks.  Though their clothes were relatively the same as the cluster on horseback, they at least looked a bit cleaner.

The conductor disembarked and talked briefly with the men, who shaded their eyes as they stared at the train.  Taran knew the conductor would not tell them who was on board, but he knew Kanetans were not stupid.  Shadarlak Armsmen stared at them from the broken windows of each car.  Anyone on the continent would know there were important Compact officials on board and that they had been through a fight.

The conductor finished talking with the men, who eyed the train a few more moments before returning to a small red-tiled wiretype office next to the tracks.  Taran noticed more people peeking at the train from the open town gates a couple dozen paces away.

The conductor entered the car, frowning.  “The station manager has agreed to sell us some coal, but not as much as we need to get to Sydear.”

“Why not?” Cursh asked, wincing as he inadvertently bumped his wounded arm against the table.

“He says their supply train from the Perla Mountains never arrived last week, so they’ve had to use coal from the train depot to heat their homes.”

“Have there been other trains?” Edoss asked.

“We’re the first one to come from the south in three days.”

General Myndehr asked, “What is their security situation?”

“They didn’t say much,” the conductor said, “but they’re afraid of something.  They’ve been attacked the last three nights straight.  They said it was by Cossops, but I don’t think that’s true.  Cossops wouldn’t put the fear in their eyes that I just saw.  Whatever it was, they lost eight men so far and they’re frightened about more attacks tonight.”

“These are plainsmen, as tough as they come,” Myndehr said.  “For something to scare them that bad…”

Edoss asked the conductor, “Have they received any wiretypes from the south recently?”

“I didn’t ask, Excellency.”

“Lee, draft a wiretype message explaining what’s happened to us, then send it to the first Compact train station that answers the ring.”

“Yes, Excellency,” Lee said, then called Flynt over, who furiously wrote down Lee’s message.

“Captain Latish,” Myndehr called out.

Latish holstered his pistol and stood at attention before Myndehr.  “General.”

“Escort Mr. Flynt to the nearest wiretype office.”

“Yes, General.”

Taran asked Edoss, “May I go with Mr. Flynt?  I’d like to get information from the locals on what they saw last night.”

It was not the only reason Taran wanted to go into town.  He also wanted to wiretype Adhera to see if all was well in Calaman.  Taran did not think a request like that would be granted, given the secrecy of their mission.

Edoss hesitated a moment, but nodded.  With a stern look that would have done Taran’s mother proud, he said, “Do not stray from Captain Latish.  You’re rather important to this expedition, Dr. Abraeu.”

As Flynt copied down Cursh’s message, Taran took off his overcoat but kept on the lighter brown jacket he wore underneath.  The air was warmer on the plains, but a chill wind still blew down from the Perlas.  Once Flynt was ready, Latish and another Shadarlak named Teol escorted Flynt and Taran off the train and into Kaneta.

They first stopped at the wiretype office next to the train station, but the grizzled ticket agent said the wiretype had been damaged and that they might want to try the public wiretype at the town’s only tavern, the Grand Steppe Inn.  With a fearful glance at the two men the conductor had talked to—who stared at him with hooded eyes—the agent refused to say how the station’s wiretype had been damaged.

The four Compact men entered Kaneta through the open gate.  The thick, heavy logs that made up the gate had fresh gashes in them, and the yellow clay walls around them were streaked with black spatters, as if someone had swung a brush dripping with black paint at the walls.

Most of the town’s buildings were made of yellow clay, and roofed with either red tiles or thatch from the brush near Dacava Lake.  The main road into the town was hard packed dirt that looked as if it had not seen rain in years.  Men and women sat in separate clusters watching them pass, whispering to each other, making Taran feel like he was part of a carnival act.  The mood of everyone he passed was either fearful or tense.  Taran rested his hand on the butt of the old revolver at his hip.

They found the Grand Steppe Inn, a two-story clay building, in the middle of town.  Inside the dark tavern room, two men sat in a corner staring at an eches board, their muskets leaning against their table.  Two more men sat at a table near the door eating a hot soup with a savory smell that made Taran remember he had not yet eaten breakfast.  A barmaid stepped out of a back kitchen carrying two pints of frothy liquid, and started when she saw the Compact men standing in the doorway.

“Welcome, sirs,” she said, in a thick Edellian drawl.  She put the pints down in front of the men eating soup, then wiped her hands on her apron.  “What canna get for you?”

“Good morning, madam,” Flynt said, bowing his head.  “Do you have a wiretype?”

She pointed to a hall in the back of the small tavern’s common room.  “Straight back and turn right.  Mr. Gwynder should be on the wiretype right now.  He’ll take care of you.”

“Thank you,” Flynt said, then proceeded to the hall.

When Taran went to follow, Latish put his hand on Taran’s shoulder.

“I thought you wanted to talk to the locals, Doctor.”

Taran turned and said, “I do.  And I figure the wiretypist might be a good person to start with.  They always know all the gossip in town.”

Taran then looked at Latish’s hand, and Latish removed it, but followed Taran into the wiretype room.

A short, round man with a balding head sat in a chair before the wiretype machine studying a sheet of paper.  He must have also been the Grand Steppe’s owner, for he wore the stained apron of a tavern keep.

“Mr. Gwynder?” Flynt asked.

The man jumped, turned wide-eyed, but then looked eager when he saw potential customers.

“Ah am, ah am.  Do yous need to send a wiretype?”  Gwynder reached out his hand for the paper Flynt was holding.

“Yes, sir.  And it is a private message.”  Flynt motioned to Gwynder’s seat in front of the wiretype machine.  “May I?”

“Ah have to count the words to know how much to charge you.”

Flynt took several gold han coins from his pocket and put them in Gwynder’s outstretched hand.

“That should be more than enough to send a book over your machine.  I only want to send a half-page…and I don’t want any questions.”

Gwynder’s eyes went wide at the coins in his ink-stained hand.  He pocketed the gold, and then relinquished his seat with a smile.

“Of course, of course, sir.  Can ah get you any drink?  Food maybe?”  When Flynt shook his head, Gwynder said, “Your friends maybe?”

Latish and Teol just stared at the man, but Taran said, “No thank you.”

“You folks off the train, ah take it?”

Flynt looked at him with impatience.  “Yes.  Now, sir, if you don’t mind.”

Gwynder nodded, apologized, and then left the room.  Flynt said to Latish, “Make sure no one comes in here.”

Latish glanced at Taran, then nodded.  Latish and Teol went to stand in the hallway.

Flynt shut the door, then said to Taran, “You have two minutes to send a wiretype to your family.”

Taran tried to look confused rather than startled.  Flynt said, “Latish may think you’re a security risk, but I know if I had a family, I’d want to make sure they were safe.  Especially after last night.”

Taran murmured a thank you, then sat in the chair as Flynt went to stand near the door.

Taran suddenly had no idea what to say to his wife that would not violate the secrecy of the mission.  He decided on a brief message, just to say that he was all right and that he missed her and Mara beyond measure.  It was short and simple, but hopefully enough to get her to respond right away if she was at the house.

He typed in his wiretype number, then waited a minute for the switchboard operators further south to reroute his message.  The bell next to the wiretype rang two short bursts followed by a long one.  Taran slapped the desk with his hand.  The call had not gone through.

Flynt sighed.  “Let me try Vigilance.  It was the last standing town we passed before Doare.”

Taran stood and leaned against the door, disappointed and worried.  He should have expected this, but it was a frustrating nonetheless.  After Flynt entered the number for Vigilance, the same “message not received” bell rang.

Flynt shook his head.  “I’m going to try our embassy in Sydear.”

Message not received.  

Flynt stood.  “No way to warn anyone coming from the Compact and no way to tell the north what’s happening.  And that greedy bastard knew the lines were down, yet he took my money anyway.”

Flynt and Taran passed Latish and Teol, who fell into step behind them as they left the tavern.  Mr. Gwynder smiled, said, “Until tomorrow, sirs,” the traditional Edellian good-bye.

Flynt stopped before Gwynder.  “The wiretype lines are down and you still took my money.”

Gwynder looked shocked.  “The lines are down?  They were up just as you walked in.  Ah’m sorry sirs, there’re no refunds once you try to send a ‘type.”

Taran saw the men who had been playing eches now had their hands on their muskets, eyeing him, Flynt, and the Shadarlak.

Flynt noticed the rising tension, and mumbled, “Better get those lines fixed.”  He turned and walked out of the tavern.

Gwynder smiled, two bottom teeth missing.  “Of course, sirs.  Until tomorrow, sirs.”

Taran exhaled when they exited the tavern and followed Flynt down the hard dirt road back to the train.

When they rounded a corner, a man carrying two large bags over his shoulder blocked their path.  Behind him was a small woman wearing a head scarf, holding the hands of two girls who were no more than five years old.  A pre-teen boy carrying several more shoulder bags stood next to his father.  All five looked at Taran and Flynt with pleading eyes.

“I’ll give each of you five Compact han for your tickets on that train,” the man said desperately.

Someone from a nearby cluster of men with muskets strapped to their backs called out, “Bariam, you coward.”

“That’s right,” Bariam shouted back.  “After what we seen the past three nights, ah want out of these here walls.”

Another man in the group, this one older, said, “Hold your tongue, Bariam.”

He said it with a quiet voice, but a voice used to being obeyed.  It made Bariam pause for a moment, then he turned back to Taran and said, “Six han, for each of you.  Please, ah must get mah family out.”

“Why?” Taran asked.  “What happened here?”

Bariam paused, gave another fearful glance at the men with muskets, who were now walking over to him with warning glares.  He was about to say something, when someone behind Taran shouted out, “I’ll give you ten han.”

Taran turned and saw another man rushing up to him, his wife behind him holding an infant.  Both parents looked just as desperate as Bariam and his family.

Flynt said, “Our tickets are not for sale.”

Then Flynt pushed past Bariam.  Taran and the two Shadarlak followed, but Bariam walked beside them, pleading, “Ah’ll give you all the han ah have.  Please!”

Two more families joined the crowd now gathering around Taran, Flynt, and the Shadarlak, blocking their path to the train only a hundred paces away.  The Kanetan musketmen tried to push back the crowds starting to gather, calling them cowards for not staying to defend their town, threatening them with a bayonet in the gut if they did not back off, but nothing worked.  Men and women materialized from out of the buildings around Taran, all screaming for passage on the train.  People were even running toward the train and trying to climb aboard.  It was turning into a full-fledged riot.

A gun shot exploded next to Taran’s head, and the crowd hushed.  Latish was pointing his revolver at the sky, then leveled it at the crowd, as did Teol.

“Stand back,” Latish shouted.  “Make way!”

The crowd in front of them immediately backed away, fear and anger on their faces.  A dangerous combination, Taran thought.  Fear would make them do something desperate, and anger would ensure that desperate act was violent.

When Taran, Flynt, and the Shadarlak were fifty paces from the train, another shot rang out.  Flynt grunted next to Taran, then slumped to the ground.  Taran reached down, turned him over, saw a pool of blood spreading from a neat hole in his black coat right in the center of his chest.  Flynt stared at the sky with dead eyes.

After that, chaos.

The pleading families disappeared into nearby buildings, while other Kanetans began firing their muskets at the train.  Latish and Teol grabbed Taran and dragged him toward the train, leaving Flynt behind.  Bullets whizzed by Taran, striking the ground, taking chunks out of the train.  Shadarlak on the train fired back at the crowd from already broken windows.  The train’s locomotive had already started moving, and Taran, Latish, and Teol leaped onto the last car as it moved past them gaining speed.  Inside the car, they stayed low to the floor.  Bullets slammed into each side of the train, breaking windows that had not already been broken from the nightmare attacks in Doare.  The shooting leveled off as the train picked up speed, passing the town’s walls and the sporadic clay dwellings beyond.

Taran and the Shadarlak made their way to the Speaker’s car, passing several wounded men being tended to by other Shadarlak.  Most had flesh wounds on their arms or past their temples, but Taran saw one man on the floor with blood flowing from his neck and mouth.  He gurgled and grabbed at the Shadarlak trying to patch the hole in his neck.  Taran looked away.

When they entered the Speaker’s car, Edoss’s eyes were afire.

“What happened?”  He looked past Taran and asked, “And where’s Flynt?”

Latish saluted the Speaker, then said, “Mr. Flynt was killed during the mob’s attack, Excellency.”

“What?” Cursh asked.  “How?”

“He was shot,” Taran said before Latish could report.  He gritted his teeth over the memory of the bloody hole in Flynt’s chest and his dead eyes.  “These people were terrified, desperate to get out of Kaneta, so they mobbed us, trying to negotiate their way on board.”

General Myndehr asked, “Is that how the shooting started?  We heard two shots, and then a bloody battle broke out.”

Latish said, “I fired first, General, but only into the air to disperse the crowd.”

Taran admired Latish’s willingness to take responsibility for possibly starting the riot.  Latish held his head high, ready for any discipline the General might hand out.

Taran said, “And it seemed to work, too.  Until Flynt was hit.”

Edoss slammed a fist on the table.  “Bloody fine mess, firing on citizens of the Compact’s closest ally.”

He sat down, put a hand over his eyes and rubbed his temple.  Then he asked, “What about the wiretype, did Flynt get that through?”

Taran shook his head.  “The wiretype lines were down.  To the north and south.”

Cursh said, “At least news of this won’t reach Sydear before we do.”

Edoss snorted.  “Small consolation.”  Then he turned to Taran.  “Did you find out anything about what made these people so frightened?  Was it fear of the same things that attacked us?”

“Absolutely,” Taran said.  “They were terrified about the recent attacks on their walls.  There were some who tried to bully the others into staying, but it wasn’t working.”

“Bloody Edellian pride,” Myndehr said, shaking her head.  “They never talk about their own troubles to outsiders, even if they need help.  Perfectly willing to help others, but won’t take it.”

The conductor entered the car and said to Edoss, “We took on enough coal to get two-thirds of the way to Sydear, Excellency.  We will have to make one more stop.”

Edoss nodded as he stared out the window at the passing plains of emerald grass.  Then he looked at Taran with a pleading glare.  “These Mystics better be worth all this.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 10

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 10

‘Zervakan het gaklai na Zervakan,’” Taran explained to Edoss, Cursh, and General Myndehr in the Speaker’s car.  “That is what I think I heard.  It’s an ancient Mystic dialect.  Now I don’t know what ‘het gaklai na’ means, but I think Zervakan means something like a ‘equal’ or ‘maker.’”

It had been several hours since the attack in Doare, and the train had not dared stop in any of the villages it passed.  For they were all destroyed or still burning.  There had been no more attacks by things similar to the Doare creatures.  But near three o’clock in the morning, while Taran was in his cabin searching his books for a translation of the madman’s shouts, the train passed a hillside a hundred paces from the tracks.  Taran saw what looked like a carpet of human limbs without torsos slithering over each other like mating snakes.  Moonlight reflected off the glistening mound, and the limbs swayed back in forth in unison—like a wheat field moved by a breeze—as the train sped by without slowing.

“Which is it?” Cursh asked.  “‘Equal’ or ‘maker?’”

“I don’t know for certain,” Taran said.  Cursh went to fold his arms, but winced as he touched his bandaged arm.  He let his arms fall to his sides again.  Taran knew he risked the ire of Cursh who seemed to have no patience for people who said I don’t know.  But the truth was the truth.

Taran put a large sheet of paper with pencil rubbings in the middle of the table, and Edoss, Cursh, and Myndehr gathered around to look at it.  Only one lamp burned in the car, giving off enough light to cast an eerie yellow glow on everyone’s faces.  General Myndehr refused to allow any more light for fear of the car being targeted again.

“I copied these pictographs from a stone tablet I found in Edellia near Sydear three years ago,” Taran said.  “They flow from right to left.  The first picture shows two beings fighting each other.  The second shows a larger being pushing the two fighting beings together so that they become one.  I believe this Zervakan must be what the Mystics called the First Cause, the creator of the universe.  The source of both rings.”

“I’ve never heard the term First Cause,” Cursh said.  “Why do the Mystics call their creator that?”

“Well there is a philosophical theory that nothing exists unless it is observed.  Taking Observation Theology to its logical conclusion, there had to be someone or something around to observe the universe before there were humans, otherwise there would be no world from which humans could evolve.  In other words, how did the universe begin if there was no one around to observe it?  This eternal being is what the Mystics called the First Cause, for it was the first to observe, and thus cause, the creation of the universe.”

Myndehr laughed.  “No wonder nobody has heard of that theory.  It’s supernaturalist gibberish.”

Taran countered, “Just because a theory contradicts current beliefs does not make it ‘gibberish.’”

“Of course,” Myndehr said, “but extraordinary claims must have extraordinary evidence to support them.”

“Spoken like a good Pathist,” Taran said.  “The rings aren’t evidence enough for you?  That thing in Doare?”

Edoss interrupted.  “Can we get back to the problem at hand?  Why was this man shouting this at us?”

“I don’t know why he would be shouting at us.”

Taran remembered the madman’s crazed glare that seemed directed specifically at him.  But it could also have been a trick of the shadows.  Taran shuddered when he thought of the man pulling bloody clumps of hair from his head and throwing them at the train.  Those were not the actions of a sane man, no matter which theory you believed.

“Somehow Angra’s touch must have driven him mad,” Taran said.

“‘Angra’s touch?’” Cursh asked.

“He had this black glow around him,” Taran said.  “A tendril of dark light came all the way down from Angra and was touching him.  It must have driven him mad.  I saw something similar in Calaman during the storm.  There were two tendrils of black light reaching down into the city, to what must have been harrowers.”

Cursh said, “We received no reports of ‘tendrils’ coming from the black ring during the storm.  Are you sure it wasn’t just part of the storm?”

“Before a few hours ago, I thought they were.  But after seeing that glow around that man…”

General Myndehr said, “And what where those creatures that attacked us?”

“I believe those creatures were once normal animals, maybe people.  But they were changed.  That’s what the harrowers did—they warped living beings into monstrosities they could control.  That man must have been a harrower.”

General Myndehr shook her head.  “One man destroyed an entire village?  Where did he come from?  I thought all the Mystics were in the Beldamark.”

Taran said, “I think we may have to accept the possibility that some Mystics are among us right now.  Maybe our next door neighbors.  Perhaps some are harrowers.”

The General leaned forward, anger flashing in her eyes.  “And we’re taking the leader of our nation right to them?”  She turned to Edoss.  “Excellency, I commend you for your bravery and commitment to this mission.  But with all due respect, there is bravery and there is foolishness.  As the Shadarlak commander, I must insist we end this mission and find a way back to Calaman.”

Edoss stared at the darkness outside the train windows.  “No,” he said quietly.  “We continue on.”

Taran interrupted the General as she was about to continue.  “General, the Mystics who contacted us are not harrowers.  The legends say that the Mystics who fled to the Beldamark were priests who helped humanity.”

“And according to your own words,” Myndehr said, “the Mystics fled to the Beldamark because humanity turned on them.  Maybe it’s finally payback time.”

“Revenge is not what they want,” Edoss said, staring at the pictograph on the table.  “I felt no hostility during my vision.  I saw a culture that only desired peace.  The only negative emotion I felt from them was fear.  Besides, if I’m to understand Dr. Abreau, harrowers cannot…call on Ahura, correct?”

“That’s right,” Taran said, pleased that at least the Speaker was beginning to open his mind.  “Your vision was prompted when you invoked Ahura.  Harrowers can not call on Ahura, or vice versa.”

Edoss looked at each one of his Ministers with a fire that matched General Myndehr’s.  “My friends, the Mystics I saw are afraid of what will happen to the world if we do not help each other.  This ‘harrower’ in Doare is only the beginning.  They are already burning our cities and turning our people into Mercy knows what.  We need the help of the Beldamark Mystics, and they need ours.” He gave Myndehr a sharp look.  “We continue on.”

The General sat back, her arms folded and her face in shadow.

The conductor entered the car, approached the table, and said, “Excellency, we must stop for fuel at the next station.”

General Myndehr said, “You’ve gone through your backup stores already?”

The conductor nodded grimly.  “We only have enough for ten more miles.  After Brehke, there is no place to stop until Kaneta in Edellia.”

Edoss nodded.  “How long until we reach Brehke?”

“Fifteen minutes, Excellency.”

Edoss looked at General Myndehr, and she nodded.  She stood and went to her Shadarlak lieutenants, issuing orders to have all men armed and ready for combat when the train stopped.  The men saluted, then rushed off toward the passenger cars where their men were stationed.  Taran hoped fifty Shadarlak Armsmen—among the best trained military units in the Compact—would be enough to hold off more of the corrupted creatures and harrowers controlling them.

Though he did not say it, he thought General Myndehr was right to be concerned for the Speaker’s safety.  He doubted the Mystics who had sent the Speaker the letter had dangerous intentions, but harrowers were now roaming the land causing the chaos and destruction they had witnessed in Doare in every village since then.  What if the harrowers were also in Edellia, a vast nation of plains and forests through which the train needed to travel for two more days before reaching the port at Sydear?

But Taran was not going to voice his thoughts.  Even if he had to march through an army of harrowers and their grotesque creations, he would do so.  This mission was Mara’s only chance for life.

The Shadarlak gathered all the train’s civilian passengers—about a dozen, including Edoss and his aids—into the Speaker’s car, then posted Shadarlak at the windows of all four of the train’s passenger cars.  As the train slowed, Taran loaded bullets into his father’s old revolver, hoping he still remembered how to shoot straight.

Ten Shadarlak gathered at the windows, five on each side.  The train began to slow for the Brehke station.  They all had their revolvers drawn, pointed at the floor.  They eyed the sparse homes that crept past the windows, searching for movement or signs of danger.

The sun had not yet risen, but it had turned the eastern sky orange, enabling Taran to get a good look at the town.  In between the Shadarlak crouching at the broken windows, he saw a town that simply looked asleep.  None of the buildings he saw were burned or damaged in any way.  But he saw no one walking the streets, nor horses tied to hitching posts, nor dogs, nor birds, nor anything alive besides the pine trees surrounding the village in its mountain valley nook.

Taran saw the platform creep by until the train lurched to a stop.  Nobody met them, nor did Taran see any bags.  Besides the hiss of steam from the locomotive, all was quiet.

Then Taran heard General Myndehr’s voice outside from near the locomotive shouting orders to her men.  Boots fell on the wood platform, and Taran saw the gold tri-corner hats of the Shadarlak rush past the windows on the station side of the train.

A Shadarlak abruptly opened the car door, making all the civilians jump, including Taran.  “Dr. Abraeu,” he said, “General Myndehr needs your counsel.”

Taran took a deep breath, holstered his revolver, then followed the young soldier out the door.  He passed Flynt and Ladak, who gave him wide-eyed stares that did not ease his anxiety over leaving the relative safety of the train.

Taran stepped down onto the platform.  The station was small, with one platform and a long, covered bench for passengers to escape the sun and rain as they waited for their trains.  A small office with a closed window and drawn shade was the only nearby structure.  Beyond it, no one appeared on the dirt road outside the stone buildings of Brehke, though the town looked to have at least a hundred residents.  For what was surely an agricultural community, it was odd that the residents were not up and about before dawn.

Taran shivered, and it was not from the cold mountain breeze.

The young Shadarlak led Taran to the right, where General Myndehr stood with her back to him and looking down at the platform.  Two Shadarlak flanked her, their eyes constantly moving.  More men stood in lines in front of the train’s engineers as they maneuvered a coal shoot above the locomotive’s fuel bin.

When he approached Myndehr, she turned, then pointed to the platform.  “Look familiar?”

Taran stared at the wood floorboards.  He knew he should not have been surprised.  Written in large, wide strokes that filled the entire platform, were the Zervakan pictographs that Taran had just shown the Speaker.  The strokes were in dark red.

“Blood,” Taran said, staring at the pictographs.

“So it would seem.”

Yes, they were the same pictographs, all up and down the platform.  Taran shook his head, wondering what had happened to the residents of Brehke.  Judging from the amount of blood—

The engineers cursed in terror and disgust.  Taran looked up to see human limbs, torsos, and heads flowing out of the coal chute and into the fuel bin.  One of the engineers immediately shut off the flow from the chute when he saw its grisly contents.

“Mercy,” General Myndehr breathed.

A sudden, maniacal howl echoed off the mountains, followed by a terrible laugh that made Taran’s hair stand.  The laugh went on and on, as if the being making the horrible sound had no need to breathe.  Taran turned around, searching tree shadows along the steep mountain incline above the train for the insane laughter’s source, but saw no movement in any direction.

A gunshot cracked from one of the passenger cars, followed by another, and then all the Shadarlak were firing in all directions.  Taran took cover next to the train as General Myndehr screamed for her men to cease fire, waving her arms above her head.  The men on the platform stopped firing, but it took another minute before order was restored on the train.

Once the firing ceased, Taran heard the laughter again, as if it had continued throughout the firestorm.

Myndehr ordered her men back onto the train, then shouted to the conductor to get the train moving again.  The train was already creeping forward before all of the men had returned, making them leap onto the car steps to scramble on board.

Taran rushed back to the crowded Speaker’s car, found everyone staring out the windows in grim silence.  Taran glanced out and saw human remains flying through the air and landing in the grass, brush, and platform with wet slaps.  The engineers were shoveling the gruesome cargo out of the coal car.

The conductor entered the car, his face tired and pale.  “We cross the border into Edellia in five miles, Excellency.  There is a town twenty miles past the border that should have coal.”

“Twenty miles?” Cursh said.  “You said we only had enough coal for ten.”

“We do, but the border is the high point of our ascent into the Perla Mountains.  Once we cross the border, we will be able to coast down hill all the way to the Edellian town of Kaneta, which has the coal.”  Looking at Edoss, he said, “But if Kaneta is lost…”

Edoss nodded.  “Do what you have to do.”

Edoss and his aids began discussing possible options for what to do if Kaneta had also been overrun.  Their discussions were drowned out by Taran’s thoughts as he watched the passing mountains and trees.

Why were there so many harrowers out here?  Where had they come from?

And were they in Calaman right now?

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 9

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 9

Taran was startled awake by a sharp knock on the cabin door.  He glanced outside the train window, saw the sun was low in the sky, and realized he had napped longer than he wanted.

Chen Flynt rose from the bottom bunk across from Taran, put a book down on the blankets, and slid the door open.  A tall, thin, white-haired man stood in the passage, his blue eyes searching the cabin until he found Taran.

“Dr. Abraeu, you are invited to dine with the Speaker in ten minutes.”  Then the man turned and left.

Flynt shut the door, regarding Taran’s shocked expression with a smile.  He went to his small bag and took out a comb.

“I think you’ll need this, Doctor.”

Taran felt his hair, and then took Flynt’s comb.

After unsuccessful attempts to smooth out his wrinkled clothes, Taran pulled his long hair back and tied it with a green ribbon at the nape of his neck, then left the cabin and made his way towards the Speaker’s car.

Taran passed through two Shadarlak cars before arriving at the entrance to the Speaker’s car.  The two Shadarlak guarding the door stopped him, searched him, and then made him wait while one entered the car to announce his presence.  When approval was given, one of the Shadarlak opened the door and bowed his head as if Taran were a Parliamentarian.

The Speaker’s car was decorated the way Taran thought a Speaker’s car would.  Small framed paintings and sequoia photographs of Compact heroes and events adorned the walls around the curtained windows.  Red-cushioned chairs with ornately carved, wooden legs sat next to small tables that were just as ornate.  Lamps with sculpted pewter bases sat atop each table.  Most were lit, for the sun had already set behind the hills in the west.

At the far end of the car was a small table where Speaker Dylan Edoss and his advisor Lee Cursh sat, both dressed in the usual dark suites of government officials.  Behind them stood the white-haired man who had come to Taran’s cabin, his back straight and his hands clasped in front.

When Taran entered, Edoss stood and extended his hand.  “Dr. Abraeu, thank you for dining with us tonight.”

Taran had not known many Orlenians, so it was a bit odd for him to look down on the Speaker of the Recindian Compact, who was no taller than a ten-year-old Gahallian child.  But what Edoss lacked in height, he more than made up for in build.  He had wide shoulders and a barrel chest, with a lean face that told Taran the man had not sacrificed his military exercises for his political career.

Taran took the Speaker’s firm handshake.  “Excellency, it’s an honor to meet you.”

Edoss motioned him to the third open chair at the table.  “This is my chief advisor, Lee Cursh.”

Taran and Cursh shook hands, and then Taran sat down.  Edoss asked, “Tea, Doctor?”

Taran nodded, and Edoss asked the white-haired man, Jac, to fill the cup in front of Taran.  The black tea steamed and smelled of orange spice.  Taran poured a bit of cream into it and sipped it as Edoss stared at him.  Once Jac had filled their cups, he exited the car through the door behind Edoss.  Taran glimpsed a cook finishing up dinner, the scents of garlic, butter, and frying bacon making his stomach rumble audibly.

Not knowing what to say to the most powerful man on the continent, Taran glanced out the windows.  The moon was rising full next to the swirling colors of Ahura.

“Lovely evening.”

This seemed to break Edoss out of his reverie.

“Yes, it is.  Lovely.”

Edoss took a sip of his tea, then set the cup back down in its saucer.  The cup rattled a bit from a sudden lurch by the train, but no tea spilled.

“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss began, but then paused thoughtfully.  “I know that you’ve had to mislead your family regarding the purpose of this trip.  I wanted to personally apologize for the awkward position I’ve put you in.”

Taran bowed his head.  “I appreciate that, Excellency.”

“This journey would cause quite a stir in my government if it became common knowledge before I left,” Edoss said, frowning.  “Only Mr. Cursh, Mr. Demiati, General Myndehr, and their close advisors know where we are going.  And most of them think I’m mad for it.  Not even the leaders of Parliament know about it.”

“People being people, they will talk,” Taran said.  “They’ll wonder where you’ve disappeared to for two weeks.”

Cursh leaned forward.  “We know people will find out, but we wanted to be well underway before that happened.  To avoid any delays or unpleasant questions.”

“But if this mission is a success,” Edoss said, “the only questions will be how to work with our new friends the Mystics.”

“And if it’s not?” Taran asked.

Edoss and Cursh glanced at each other, then Edoss said with a grin, “I will be the shortest serving Speaker in the Compact’s history.  Pun intended.”

Taran laughed.  With that bit of self-deprecating humor, he understood how Edoss’s charm had enabled him to buck decades of tradition to become the Compact’s first Orlenian Speaker.

Jac opened the sliding door from the small kitchen and carried in a large platter with three covered plates.  Taran marveled at his ability to move about the shaking train without spilling the platter.

Taran’s stomach rumbled when Jac removed the silver cover from his plate.  He was greeted by three large, steaming crab cakes wrapped in bacon, several stalks of buttered asparagus, a small loaf of dark bread, and a stem of grapes.  Taran fought the urge to simply dig into the feast, having been to enough state dinners with his hero father to know he had to wait for the Speaker to pick up his fork first.  Thankfully, Edoss wasted no time beginning to eat, and Taran quickly followed.  The meal was just as delicious as it looked and smelled.

Jac left the car again, and Edoss continued.  “So what has your research told you about visions given by the Mystics?”

“Visions?”

“Where one seems to be taken to another place.  Visions that feel as real as this table or the movement of this train.”

Taran swallowed the food in his mouth, then said, “Not much information exists on the entirety of the Mystics’ powers.  All I know is that they were revered as avatars of Ahura and Angra, who were themselves worshiped as gods before and during the Faith Wars.  The Mystics were renowned for their abilities to heal or kill with a touch.”  Taran looked at the Speaker.  “Did you have a vision?”

Edoss smiled.  “We wouldn’t be on this journey if I hadn’t.”

Taran set his fork down, the feast forgotten.  “Tell me everything.  What did you see?  Did you see actual Mystics?  What did they tell—?”

Edoss held up a hand.  “One question at a time, Doctor.”

Taran was embarrassed that he had grilled the Speaker of the Compact like he was a graduate student applicant.  “Apologies, Excellency.”

“I admire your passion.  It assures me that I made the right decision to bring you along.  Now, as to what I saw.”

Edoss described the vision with a glassy, far away gaze, reliving the event.  Taran grew more enthralled with each detail, from the Speaker’s “flight” to the Beldamark to the fact that nobody on the balcony had seen the Speaker move.

When he finished, Edoss said, “All of that happened after I looked up at Ahura and said the words the Mystic letter told me to say.  You can understand why I would not want that experience widely known.”

Taran was thrilled.  The Speaker’s experience was confirmation that Mystic powers were not exaggerated, that they not only had magical powers in the past, but in the present, at this moment.

Oh, Mara, I’m so close.

Taran said, “Now that the rings have reappeared, the Mystics can do the things ascribed to them in legend.  And we likely don’t know the half of what they can do.”

Cursh asked, “Are they dangerous?”

“In all my research, I’ve found that certain factions are no more dangerous than any other group of humans.  But there are some factions that are quite dangerous.  Evil, in fact.”

Edoss asked, “How do we know the dangerous factions from the not-so-dangerous?”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door.  Edoss called out, “Yes.”

A Shadarlak Armsman strode in, saluted, and announced, “The conductor wishes to inform you that the train is about to stop in Doare to fuel the locomotive.”

Doare was one of the last stations before the Perla Mountains and the vast steppes of Edellia.  Taran glanced outside, could see the outlines of small farm houses passing by in the growing darkness, and he noticed that the train was now at a slight upward angle and moving slower than it had on the plains outside Calaman.

“Thank you, sergeant,” Edoss said.

The Shadarlak turned and strode out of the car.  When Edoss looked back at Taran, Taran said, “Right, the dangerous from the not-so-dangerous.  I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that, Excellency.  At least not until we actually meet them.  Nobody has seen a Mystic in over a thousand years.  Frankly, I don’t know what to expect.  I can tell you legends of what they used to be, but I have no idea what they are now.”

“Can you speak to them?”

“I wouldn’t think communication would be a problem,” Taran said.  “The letter they sent proves they know Recindian.”

“I’m not worried about them talking to us,” Edoss said.  “But if they should speak their own language in front of us, I’d like to know what they’re saying.”

“Again, I won’t know until I meet them.  I’ve studied their ancient languages, and I have a grasp of their grammar.  But I have no idea if I’m even pronouncing their words correctly.”

Taran thought he had a good understanding of the Mystic language, but he wanted to keep the Speaker’s expectations realistic.  One of his father’s gems of wisdom was to set your superiors’ expectations low, then deliver more than they expect.

Edoss grinned.  “I don’t like going into negotiations where I don’t know what the other side is saying, Doctor.  I hope you’ll be well-practiced before we reach Markwatch.”

It sounded to Taran more like an order than a statement.  “I will do my best, Excellency.”

The train continued to slow until it finally stopped at the Doare train station.  Taran glanced out the windows, but saw nobody standing on the platform, though it was difficult to tell since the lamps had not yet been lit.

Jac returned to the car and filled each tea cup, then took away the empty plates.  Edoss produced a small pipe, filled it with tobacco from a pouch in his coat, and lit it.  The fragrant tobacco smoke was tinged with cherry and spices, and made Taran want to run back to his cabin and get his own pipe.

Cursh stamped some tobacco into a pipe, then asked Taran, “How do these Mystics do what they do?  Are they even human?”

“None of the texts I’ve found agree on one theory.  Some say—”

A gun shot echoed from the back of the train, causing Taran to jump.

Edoss said, “What the bloody—?”

A second shot rang out, followed by another, then an eruption of fire.  Several Shadarlak burst into the Speaker’s car, their revolvers drawn, their eyes scanning the car for threats.  One extinguished all the lamps in the car.  Edoss jumped up from his chair, followed by Cursh, and then Taran, and rushed to the windows on the platform side of the train.

One of the Shadarlak whispered, “Speaker, you must not go to the windows.”

When Edoss ignored him, the Shadarlak motioned two men to stand on either side of the Speaker.

The darkness on the platform prevented Taran from seeing much, though he noticed an orange glow that pervaded the entire station and the sky beyond it.  The scent of smoke was stronger near the train’s open windows, and Taran could not believe he previously mistook it for the train’s own coal furnace.

A large fire burned in the middle of Doare.  Judging from the size of that glow and the embers floating in the smoky air, it looked as if the entire town was burning behind the station building.

Then the most inhuman, animalistic scream Taran had ever heard pierced the night.  Taran covered his ears, but it did not block out that awful howl.  The scream reverberated inside Taran’s head, weakened his muscles, his bowels.  It carried on for what seemed like minutes, and then stopped.  Taran glanced around the car, saw that every other man had his hands to his ears and wore a pained expression.

Motion on the platform outside caught his eye.  He recoiled.  Several glistening forms were crawling along the ground toward the train.  The wavering orange glow of the town fire made shadows leap and twist, but he thought he saw—

A long gray tentacle, like from a squid washed upon the shores of Lake Maximohr, shot through the open window next to him.  It caught Cursh on the arm, wrapped itself tightly, and yanked the Speaker’s advisor toward the window.

Cursh screamed.

Several Shadarlak grabbed Cursh.  One of the Shadarlak drew a saber and sliced off the tentacle, sending Cursh and the Shadarlak holding him sprawling backward.  The other part of the tentacle retreated out the window, spewing black blood in its wake.  The inhuman shriek came again, and Taran wanted to cry out from the despair and terror with which it filled him.  More tentacles shot through the windows, thrashing about and pulling at the pictures, lamps, and curtains.

As the Shadarlak fired their revolvers and slashed at the tentacles with their sabers, Taran saw the misshapen head of one of the creatures poke through a window.  It was a bulbous, oozing nightmare of a face, with no symmetry or recognizable features other than the oblong opening where dozens of yellow-gray teeth shone, some dangling bits of flesh from the thing’s last meal.  It howled again, staggering Taran into the dinner table behind him.  He covered his ears and screamed to drown out that sound.  Anything to stop that sound.

The train lurched forward.  The tentacles were at every window now, and some even had what seemed like clawed human hands at the ends.  They thrashed and whipped about the car.  They grabbed anything they could reach, including the Shadarlak, but the Speaker’s bodyguards chopped off each tentacle that slithered through the now broken windows.

As the train gained speed, the tentacles fell out of the car.  Taran continued to hear gun shots from up and down the train.

The terrible howling stopped.  Taran was loath to go to the windows again, but his scientific curiosity overrode his fear and disgust.  He crept forward, past Edoss who was wrapping a tourniquet around Cursh’s bloody arm, and peered out one of the shattered windows.

The train was passing through the outskirts of the town.  Several homes were blackened skeletons with wisps of smoke rising above them, the fires having burned themselves out only hours before.  In the ruins of one of the homes, Taran heard someone shouting.  He was about to alert the Shadarlak that someone needed help, but the words died on his lips.

A man in the embers was illuminated by a cold, black light that enveloped him from a tendril of darkness reaching down from Angra.  He screamed words that Taran could not understand.  He pulled chunks of hair from his head and threw them at the train.  Several of the hideous forms that attacked the train writhed about him, some made up of nothing but greasy entrails while others—more horribly—had the warped bodies of humans, but with hideous, chitinous protrusions on their naked flesh.

And the man seemed to be screaming at Taran.

Taran suddenly understood some of the words he was saying.  They were ancient Mystic, though with a pronunciation different from what Taran had studied.

Taran rushed past the Shadarlak to the car’s door.  The Shadarlak captain, Latish, called from the other side of the car not to open the door, but no one was close enough to stop him.  He charged into the next car.

All the Shadarlak in the next car looked out the glass-less windows, their revolvers and sabers drawn.  Several slimy tentacles lay on the floor in pools of black, stinking blood.  Taran picked his way through the men, then entered his own car, passing Flynt and Ladak in the cramped hallway, ignoring their frightened questions.  In the last car on the train, Taran went to the door at the end, squeezing between two Shadarlak with muskets aimed at the night behind them.

The man in the burned house continued screaming.  Taran struggled to listen to the words as the train’s locomotive picked up speed and noise.  The train was soon out of hearing distance, but the man continued to gesture and shout, the monstrosities at his feet writhing and caressing him with their tentacles, hands, and grisly limbs.

The man ran to the side of the train tracks, his creatures following him, and then pointed to the tracks.  With impossible strength, the nightmarish tentacles and limbs tore up the iron tracks and wooden slats, destroying both sets of tracks going in either direction.

A Shadarlak grunted, an older man with a scar along his chin.  “Looks like we won’t be taking a train back to Calaman.”

Another Shadarlak holding the muskets asked Taran in a frightened voice, “What are those things?”

Taran said nothing, just stared at the gruesome mass and the man who continued shouting at him.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 8

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 8

Taran willed the trolley to go faster, but it ignored him, plodding and sputtering along at the same speed despite his growing impatience.  His train for Sydear would leave in fifteen minutes, and he guessed the steam trolley was maybe five minutes away.  He figured another five minutes to run through Revela Street Station, and then another five to store his luggage on the train.  Five minutes to spare was too close for him; he liked being so early that he was the one waiting.

It couldn’t be helped, though.  His goodbyes with Mara and Adhera had been hard.  Mara because his heart broke every time he had to be away from her, and Adhera because their final words were more bitter than civil.  He assured her that he’d return alive and with a miracle cure from the Mystics.  She ignored his assurances, instead wanting the exact day he would return so he could give his consent for the Mercy.  This prompted him to attack her lack of faith in him, to which she replied that the faith he chose six years ago didn’t inspire her confidence in his judgment.  It was an old argument, and Taran chose to leave before they both fired new shots in an already painful exchange.

The trolley finally pulled up to Revela Street Station, a looming monolith of a building, with six marble columns three stories high and a line of sculpted friezes near the flat roof depicting the march of science and reason throughout the Compact’s two hundred year history.

Taran leaped off the trolley, despite being weighed down with several shoulder bags of books, artifacts, and a few changes of clothes.  He had also packed his father’s old Compact army revolver, a gift when Taran was fifteen and when Tobias Abraeu still hoped his son would join the military.  Taran had always enjoyed the lessons his father gave him with the revolver—how to shoot, how to clean it, proper care—but he never once considered the military life to be for him.  It took a few heated arguments for Tobias to accept it.

Taran only hoped Tobias was still proud of a son who chose a life of ostracism over a prestigious career at the university.  Tobias never criticized Taran’s decision to pursue the Mystics, but Taran knew it had to be tiring for his father to deflect the barbs he received from friends and colleagues, not to mention the public scrutiny in the newspapers.

Taran sprinted up the steps to the massive open doors leading into the cavernous train station.  He charged past dark, quiet vendor stalls, a few passengers and beggars sleeping on benches, and two workmen painting white the door trim of exits to the platforms outside.  He looked for platform seven, saw the locomotive puffing coal smoke and steam into the night sky, and headed in that direction.

As he approached, he saw a dozen porters storing a large pile of gear into one of the train’s box cars—suitcases, shoulder bags, and sealed crates.  What surprised him was that there was also a contingent of Shadarlak Armsmen milling about outside one of the passenger cars.  Their dark green uniforms were crisp, their gold tri-corner hats without blemish.  Though they talked quietly among themselves, their demeanors were alert and professional.

The Speaker himself is going to the Beldamark? Taran thought.  He had assumed perhaps the Foreign Minister, but the Speaker?  He wondered what the Pathist hierarchy thought of that.

The Shadarlak eyed Taran as he ran toward the train, several putting hands on their revolvers.  A captain with two gold laurels on his collar strode up to Taran with an upheld hand.

“Excuse me, sir,” the young captain said.  “What’s your business here?”

Breathless, Taran said, “I’m Dr. Taran Abraeu.  I’m the Mystic interpreter.”

“Do you have papers?”

Taran dropped his shoulder bags, then rifled through the one in which he stored the letter Arie gave him.  For a brief moment, terror seized him when he thought he forgot it at his office.  But he found it, pulled it out, and handed it to the waiting captain.  The captain inspected the letter, and seemed to read it several times.  He looked Taran over again, and then called over his shoulder, “Elon!”

An even younger Shadarlak jogged up, saluted, and said, “Sir.”

“Take this to Mr. Cursh with my compliments and ask him to please identify Dr. Abraeu.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said, then ran to the second passenger car from the locomotive, and leaped up the steps.

The captain continued staring at Taran, and Taran began to feel as if he were a rabbit being sized up by a wolf.  The Shadarlak behind the captain stood at ease, but all looked like coiled springs ready to draw their revolvers should Taran so much as sigh.  He knew the Shadarlak were fanatical about protecting the Speaker—not one Speaker had been assassinated in the one hundred years they had been charged with the Speaker’s safety—but Taran never realized how intimidating they might be when their attention was focused on him.

After several tense minutes of sweating under the glare of the Shadarlak, the young man jumped out of the passenger car and jogged to the captain.

“Mr. Cursh identified Dr. Abraeu through the window.  He’s cleared, sir.”

The captain nodded, then handed the letter back to Taran.  “Sir, please leave your gear with the other bags over there.  It will be inspected, and then returned to you in your assigned bunk on the train.”

Taran hesitated.  “Just so you know, Captain…?”

“Latish, sir.”

“Captain Latish, I have a revolver in this bag that I brought—”

“No firearms will be allowed in the presence of the Speaker,” Latish said without letting Taran finish.  “Your weapon will be secured and kept safe.  Now please leave all of your gear in that pile.  Sergeant Macliesh, please search Dr. Abraeu for any other weapons.”

One of the large men behind Latish approached Taran.  Taran said, “I can assure you that I don’t have—”

“It’s standard procedure, sir.  Carry on, sergeant.”

“Lift your arms please, Doctor,” Sergeant Macliesh said in a tone that was not gruff, but meant to be obeyed.  Not wanting to cause the train to wait any longer, Taran submitted to the patdown, having his coat turned inside out, his suspenders checked for knives, and his boots inspected for hidden compartments.  All the while, the other Shadarlak stood watching him.

After the search, and feeling like a criminal, Taran boarded the train and was told by the conductor to proceed to cabin three in the fourth car.  Taran opened the sliding doors to find two other men laying on the bunk beds in a cabin that looked too small for one man.  There were three bunks in the walls of the cabin—two on one side and one on the other.  A small gas lamp on the wall next to the window illuminated the cabin in a flickering light.

The two men stopped chatting when he opened the door.  Both were dressed in black suits with white shirts, marking them as aids to either the Speaker or the Ministers accompanying him.  Taran was surprised to recognize Kumar Ladak on the left bottom bunk, an unlit pipe in his mouth.

“Our Mystic expert has arrived,” Ladak said with a smile.

Taran put the one bag the Shadarlak allowed him to take on board on the free bunk above Ladak, then extended his hand in greeting.

“Nice to see you again, Mr. Ladak.”

“Likewise, Doctor,” Ladak said, shaking Taran’s hand.

“Is Minister Demiati on board?”

Ladak chuckled.  “No.  Unfortunately the Minister is afraid of train travel so I’m to be his eyes and ears on this little expedition.  But between you and me…I think he’d rather not be associated with the Speaker’s Mystic quest once the papers find out about this journey.”

“Not a wise move for a Science Minister, I’d imagine,” Taran said.

Taran looked at the other man.  He sat on the bunk opposite Ladak, had dark hair pulled back in a pony tail, and a thick mustache favored by most male Pathists.  He extended his hand, which Taran shook.  “Chen Flynt, Mr. Cursh’s aid.”

Taran nodded a greeting, then climbed into the top bunk and situated himself so that his feet faced the window, allowing him to see outside.  He saw several more train platforms in the lamp-lit darkness, but all were deserted.  Of course they would be; the Shadarlak would not allow common people anywhere near the Speaker.

Ladak and Flynt were engaged in a debate over the message from the Mystics—or “Tuatha,” as they had called themselves in the letter.  Ladak argued that the Tuathan message was genuine, though like a good Pathist he doubted the Tuathans were really Mystics.  Flynt, however, thought the Mazumdahri had sleeper agents in Calaman who witnessed the storm, drafted the “Tuathan” message, and then tapped the wiretype lines to send the message, making it seem like it had been sent immediately after the storm.  Flynt thought they were simply riding into a Mazumdahri ambush.  Taran did not engage in the debate, nor did the two men ask his opinion, which was fine with him.  He just wanted to sleep, physically exhausted from his run through the station and his emotional good-byes to Adhera and Mara.

After another fifteen minutes, the train’s horn bellowed, and the car lurched forward with a hiss of steam and the screech of steel wheels on rails.  Once underway, the debate between Ladak and Flynt cooled until they were both silent.

Taran stared out the window, watching the city float by, turning from densely crowded townhouses to sparse stone homes, and then fields, forests, and hills, all illuminated by the full moon and the rings of Ahura and Angra.  Over the next hour, they passed occasional towns, but never slowed even when passing a station.  Most stations were dark and silent at this time of night, anyway, but Taran did see some people sitting on the platforms waiting for early morning trains.

Taran dozed for a while, but was awakened when a Shadarlak private opened the door without knocking and announced that their bags could be picked up in the baggage car at their convenience.  He shut the door without another word.  Ladak and Flynt seemed amused.

“So much for bringing our bags to our cabins like we were promised,” Flynt said, rolling out of his bunk.

“They’re Shadarlak,” Ladak said.  “Not porters.”

After retrieving some of their baggage—not all of it, since there was hardly room in the cabin for their bodies, let alone bags—Taran’s bunkmates settled in for the night time voyage.  The motion of the train was soothing, and it soon produced snores from the other men.

But Taran could not return to sleep after his initial dozing.  Excitement over finally meeting Mystics warred with memories of his lies to Adhera and his assurances to Mara before he left—as he sat in her bed stroking her long black hair, wet with pink sweat—that he would make her well again.  He tried not to let the thought of failure enter his mind.  Though he did wonder how far into the Wild Kingdoms he could get with a sick daughter.

Sleep finally took Taran, but gave him up too soon when the rays from the rising sun shined in his face through the window.

He spent most of the day watching the farms, plains, and forests speed by, and studying his Mystic language books.  He was excited to find a reference to “Tuatha,” but it referred to an ancient city on the coast of the Gulf of Pagilah in what is now Edellia.  Perhaps the Mystics who fled to the Beldamark were originally from this city, and took its name as the name of their tribe.  It was a puzzle he would have spent days or weeks working through his texts to figure out, but he knew he needn’t bother—in a few days he’d have a chance to ask the “Tuatha” himself.

When Taran’s eyes grew tired from all his reading, he took a few strolls around the train, but could not go much farther beyond two cars up because the Shadarlak blocked his way to the Speaker’s car next to the locomotive.  So he decided to go to the back of the train, three cars down from his.  The last car was a coach car filled with Shadarlak, some sleeping, some playing cards, and others standing watch, their eyes scanning the countryside for hidden threats.  Taran thought the biggest threat out there would be a herd of cattle roaming across the train tracks, but the Compact was still technically at war with Mazumdahr and enemy saboteurs had been known to attack passenger trains when the fighting still raged.

Taran made his way to the door in the back of the car and stepped outside.  The fresh air of the plains was exhilarating compared to the stifling, coal-haze atmosphere in Calaman.  There was a bench to the right of the door, and Taran sat down to watch the tracks, the trees, the hills, and the occasional farmhouse disappear over the horizon behind him.

After passing the time with his thoughts about Mara and the Mystics for almost an hour, Kumar Ladak stepped outside and sat on the bench next to Taran.

“You never realize how big this country is,” Ladak said, “until you have to travel across it.”  Ladak filled a pipe with tobacco, lit it, and puffed on it thoughtfully.

“Is this your first trip to the north?” Taran asked.

“Mercy, no,” Ladak said.  “In fact, I was just in Sydear last week setting up the logistics for this trip.  Long voyage, but a beautiful one.  You?”

“I’ve been to the Beldamark twice,” Taran said.  “Or at least attempted to go there twice.  The first time I made it to Markwatch, but could not enter the Beldamark.  The second time, we tried to enter at Markwatch again, but were denied entry at the last minute by the Turicians.”

“Bloody Turicians,” Ladak said.  “They weren’t even going to let us into their country for this mission.  Lucky for us, though, they had a miraculous ‘revelation’ from Ahura that that was what the ring wanted.”

“What kind of revelation?”

“They didn’t say.  But one day they were against us coming, then the next day they were falling over themselves to invite us in.”

“Interesting.”

Ladak and Taran silently watched the landscape slip by for a few minutes, then Ladak said, “I understand your daughter has the Blood plague.”

Taran said, “Yes…”

“And you haven’t given her the Mercy.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Ladak, I’d rather not talk about it.”

“I just wanted to say that I admire your resistance.”

Taran stared at Ladak.  It was unheard of for a committed Pathist, much less a member of the Ministry of Science, to oppose the Mercy.

Ladak smiled.  “I’ve never been a big fan of it, nor am I an Ahura cultist.  I’m a committed Pathist, but the Mercy just never sat right with me.  I can understand when it comes to the Blood, but too many people these days want it for conditions that are potentially curable.  You’d be surprised how many people in my position agree.”

“I would have thought it was zero.”

“It’s very dangerous to one’s career and reputation to oppose certain tenets of Pathism,” Ladak said.  “Not all of us are as brave as you.”

“You have no idea what you can do when your child’s life is at stake.”

“Having no children myself, I can only imagine.  Do you have a picture of her?”

Taran smiled.  “Always.”

He pulled out a frayed sequoia photograph from the pocket in his jacket and handed it to Ladak.  It showed him, Adhera, and Mara, all dressed in their best clothes, posing in front of a white background, proud expressions and hints of smiles on their faces.

Taran remembered every detail of that day six years ago.  The photograph was taken in a studio two blocks from their old house in Calaman’s wealthy Hegron district.  After the photo they had gone to one of the new iced cream parlors that were opening all over the city, a place called Hegron Confections.  As they sat in the parlor, Mara gobbling up the iced cream, Taran noticed a drop of pink sweat at her brow.  He had ignored it, knew what it might be, but could not accept it.  Later that night, Mara woke up screaming and coughing up gouts of blood.  She was diagnosed with the Blood the next day.

The photograph was the last one they ever took together.

Ladak looked at it for several moments, and then handed it back to Taran.  “You have a beautiful family.”

Taran nodded, took the photograph and placed it back in the left pocket inside his coat.  “I appreciate you telling me all of that.  It helps to know I’m not alone.”

Ladak stood.  “I thought it might.”  He put a hand on Taran’s shoulder and said, “I hope the Mystics are what you want them to be.  You deserve it, my friend.”  Then Ladak opened the door and entered the car.

Taran sat on the bench a while longer, hoping that Ladak was right.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 7

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 7

Karak Frost sipped his green tea loudly, prompting a look of annoyance from Echol Dyer across the eches board.  Karak raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m sorry, does that bother you.”

“You know it does,” Echol growled, and then turned his attention back to the board.  A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his brow and above his lip.  Echol was in quite the dire situation—he was down three pieces and about to loose four hundred han.

Not to mention his life.

Six of Karak’s men sat around the table, some fingering their daggers, waiting for the order to slit Echol’s throat.  But much to their credit, and to Karak’s pride in them, they controlled their fury and only stared at Echol with cool eyes.  It was more than Echol deserved for his betrayal.  He was lucky Karak didn’t cut off his manhood right now, but Karak was a fair man and was giving Echol the chance he did not deserve—defeat Karak in eches, and he would live.  Lose, and….

Karak slurped his tea again, drawing another scowl from Echol.  Karak smiled, set his cup down.  “My apologies.  I don’t know why I keep doing that.”

Echol looked back at the board for a few moments, and then his face brightened.  He moved a piece triumphantly and said, “Mate in two, which earns me back the four hundred han I lost plus two hundred for the mate.”

Karak looked at the board, studied it for a moment.  “Why you beat me, Echol.  I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Karak leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers on his broad chest, affecting a look of disappointment.  “Well, Echol, I’m a man of my word.  You will live.”

Karak turned to his captain, a large brute of a Gahallian named Castle.  “Give Mr. Dyer his two hundred han, castrate him, and then let him go.”

Echol’s eyes bulged satisfactorily.  “What?”

Two of Karak’s men seized Echol in iron grips, preventing him from getting any fool notions of escape in his fool brain.

“Wait,” Karak said, “strike that.  Castrate him first, then give him his two hundred, and then let him go.”

“No!” Echol screamed.  “You said you’d—”

“—let you live if you beat me,” Karak said.  “And that’s what I’m going to do.  Believe me, Echol, you’re getting off easy here.  Not only did you take a bribe from the constables and turn over one of my brothels, but you raped two of my whores.  Now betrayal for money I can understand.  Mercy, I’ve done it myself.  But rape…well, Echol.  I can’t abide rapists, even whore rapists.”

Karak said to Castle, “Tell Doc to make sure he doesn’t bleed to death.”

Castle nodded, then motioned the other two men to take the screaming, crying Echol into the back room where Dr. Huror was waiting with a dull scalpel.

As Karak began putting the eches pieces back into their ornately carved box, Primas Maed stood up from the chair in which he was sitting behind Karak and helped with the pieces.

“You let him win,” Primas said, grinning.  “Even I could see the ‘mistake’ you made.”

“What is the one thing a serial rapist values more than his life?”

Primas raised an eyebrow.  “Ah.  Fitting.”

Echol’s muffled shrieks began from behind two doors and a thick basement wall.

Echol had cost Karak more than just the revenue from a single brothel.  He had cost Karak the respect of the Klahdera Overlords, many of whom wanted Karak’s throat slit just for the fact that he was a Wilder, a man of the southern Wild Kingdoms, a mindless barbarian who did not have the brains to run the Klahdera’s operations in Calaman.  Only Overlord Silek, Karak’s sponsor, had protected him thus far.  Would this debacle cost Karak even Silek’s support?  If it did, Karak might find himself floating face down in Lake Maximohr in much worse condition than Echol.

Though Karak’s office was in the basement of a tavern in what many considered the seedier side of Calaman, he saw no reason for the basement to look like a basement.  Ornate tapestries of wondrous landscapes lined every inch of the walls.  Beneath them were carved chairs and tables from the finest carpenters in Levaken.  And the stone floors were lined with intricately patterned rugs from Mazumdahr (just because the Compact had enemies didn’t mean Karak had to forgo the simple pleasures in life).

Which reminded him…

“Is that Mazumdahri gentleman still waiting to see me?” Karak asked.

Primas nodded, browsing the newspaper on Karek’s desk.  “I suppose so.  Or at least he was the last time I was upstairs.”

Karak gave Primas the “Look,” which always seemed to move Karak’s men into action.  It worked.  Primus stood, heading toward the stairs leading up to the tavern.  “I’ll go see if he’s still here.”

Karak set the eches box on top of one of the Levaken tables near his desk.  He went to the body-length mirror beneath the one window in his office, and inspected his clothing and hair.  Silek once told him that appearance was everything when it came to making business deals.  If you looked like a beggar, you’d make deals like a beggar.  When you looked like a lord, you made the other man make deals like a beggar.  Karak’s fine blue silk coat had not a wrinkle on it, nor did his black breeches.  His black boots shone like polished onyx, and his oiled blond hair and trimmed beard had a similar sheen.  Whatever this Mazumdahri man wanted, Karak was prepared to make him pay for it.

Primas soon returned with the Mazumdahri gentleman.  The man was tall, thin, and without the long beard traditionally worn by Mazumdahri men.  His blond hair—with more gray than blond around the temples—was pulled back in a pony tail as was the Compact fashion of the day.  The man wore a decent maroon coat, though not as finely woven as Karak’s.  He had a weathered face that seemed timeless.  Karak could not determine if it was an old face or a middle-aged one that had seen too much excitement.

The man looked more like a native of the Wild Kingdoms than a Mazumdahri.  Karak supposed he wouldn’t want to go advertising who he was, especially in a country with which his native land was technically at war.  Yes, this man was trying to fit in, which meant the business was illicit.  More the better from Karak’s point of view—it meant larger profits.

Karak motioned to a chair in front of his large desk.  “Please sit, mister…?”

“Call me Crane,” the Mazumdahri said, without a hint of an accent.  Crane’s voice was deep, steady, without emotion, and his eyes held Karak’s gaze easily.

Crane sat in the chair and crossed his legs casually.  Primas sat in the other chair next to Crane, while Karak sat on the ornately carved mahogany throne behind his desk.  The throne was a two hundred-year-old relic from one of the Wild Kingdoms in the south.  Legend said that every king who sat in this chair had to kill the king before him to attain it.  Karak liked that legend.  It reminded him of how things were done in the Klahdera.

“So,” Karak said, folding his arms, “you’ve been trying to meet with me for the past three days.  You must have a rock solid streak of patience to wait that long to see a humble tavern owner.”

Crane smirked.  “We both know you are no ‘humble tavern owner.’”

Karak looked at Primas, said to him, “What else could I be?”

At that moment, Echol screamed again.  Though still muffled, the sound was louder than the noise of the crowd upstairs.  Karak stared into Crane’s eyes, saw no hint of fear or shock at the sound.

A challenge, Karak thought.

Crane took the black riding gloves off his hands and casually draped them over his crossed legs.  “My sources tell me, Mr. Frost, that you are a man of your word.  That when you say you’re going to do something, you do it.”

Karak feigned embarrassment.  “Well.  I’m honored to know that I have a good reputation among your sources.”

“They also say you know how to get things done…discretely.”

“The privacy of my customers is most important to me.”

“And they say you are good at avoiding legal entanglements,” Crane said, ignoring Echol’s continuing screams.

“Damnable lies,” Karak said.  “I’m a legitimate business man who runs a successful, legal tavern.  Just who are these sources of yours?”

Crane reached into his coat, and Karak heard the clicking of a small revolver in Primas’s hand, the barrel pressed against Crane’s temple.  Crane smiled, slowly pulled a bag out of a pocket inside his coat, then placed the bag on Karak’s desk.  He leaned back in his chair, and said, “Perhaps that will ease your conscience.”

Karak made no motion to the bag.  He knew from the clinking that it held many large coins, and if they were Compact coins, the bag was worth over 10,000 han.  Karak stood up from his throne, walked around the desk, and leaned against it facing Crane.  The older blond-haired man regarded him with cold gray eyes.

Karak nodded to Primas, who lowered the revolver, but held it on his lap pointed at Crane.

“Who are you and why are you here?” Karak asked quietly.  “Enough games.”

“I have a large crate that I need to bring into the city,” Crane said.  “With the war on, all incoming shipments are closely inspected.  And items the size of mine will attract undue attention from the Calaman customs officers.  My employer would like to avoid that.  I’ve been told you are someone who could help him.”

“You didn’t answer my first question,” Karak said.

“I represent certain interests that would like to remain anonymous.”

Karak snorted.  “Yes, I figured that one out on my own.”

Then Karak walked over to the potted ficus tree standing beneath a small, barred window, the only source of sunlight in Karak’s basement office.  He inspected the soil and saw that it needed watering.  Karak liked the tree because it did not require a lot of light to thrive.  Just like him.

As Karak poked the soil with a hand rake to aerate it, he said, “You have to see this from my perspective, Mr. Crane.  I don’t know you.  I’ve never heard of you.  You could be Shadarlak for all I know.  Why should I trust you?”

Crane sighed, then closed his eyes.  He kept them closed and his brow furrowed as if he was growing more angry by the moment.  He began to mutter something under his breath, and Karak glanced at Primas, who shrugged.

Then Crane’s eyes fluttered open.  They were completely black.

Crane turned his head to the ficus next to Karak and muttered a few words in a strange language that sounded more like grunts and whispers than words.

Karak heard a moist cracking sound come from the tree.  The trunk had burst open, and black pus-like ooze flowed from the wound.  The pus climbed up the trunk as if it were alive, quickly covering the branches and green leaves.  The branches turned a sickly yellow, and purple veins pulsed within them.  The leaves twisted into red, uneven shapes, with throbbing thorns at the edges.  And they began to move.

Karak jumped away from the tree, the hand rake up and ready to defend himself.  Crane laughed, and Karak saw that the man’s eyes had returned to their icy gray.

“Can a Shadarlak do that?”

Karak looked at Primas, who was still pointing his revolver at Crane, but staring wide-mouthed at the transformed tree.

“Primas,” Karak said.  “Show this man out of my tavern.  And don’t let him back in again.”

Primas blinked as if coming out of a dream, then pointed the revolver at Crane’s head.  “You heard Mr. Frost.”

Crane smiled, and then stood.  “I understand this is all difficult to take in.  I will return tomorrow when you’ve had a chance to sort this out.”

Karak tried holding back his anger, but he snarled at the Mazumdahri.  “Did you hear what I said?  I said I don’t want to see you again.”

Crane reached into his jacket, pulled out another bag of coins and threw them on the desk next to the first bag.  “Are you sure, Mr. Frost?  Consider this compensation for your time…and your tree.  Keep the han, but think about what I’ve told you.  There is more—much more—if you decide to take my job offer.”

Karak eyed the second bag, guessing it held roughly the same as the first.  Twenty thousand han just to think about a job.  Karak did not like the feel of this, not at all.  This strange witch-man had just turned his ficus into a writhing mass of…well, a writhing mass.  And now he gave Karak twenty thousand han just to think about a job offer.  This was not right at all.

But twenty thousand was more than he made in a year running this tavern.  And it would more than make up for the loss of his brothel.  If there was more where that came from for smuggling one crate…

“All right,” Karak said.  “I’ll think on it.  But on one condition.”

Crane signed.  “As if twenty thousand han was not condition enough…  All right, Mr. Frost, what is your condition.”

“Kill that thing.”

Crane smiled.  “It’s already dead.”

Then he stood from his chair, put his gloves and hat on, and said, “I will return tomorrow at noon.  Please have an answer for me by then.  I will show myself out, thank you.”

Crane opened the door to Karak’s office and shut it with a quiet click.  Karak looked at Primas, who stared at him wide-eyed, then Karak shouted, “Castle, get in here!”

Castle came lumbering in, wiping blood from his hands with a small rag.  “My lord?”

“Come with me,” Karak growled.

He rushed through a door at the back of his office and up the outer fire escape stairs to his second-floor apartment above the tavern.  He strode through the apartment, decorated in the same fashion as his basement office, and threw open the double-glass doors to the balcony above the street.  The air was cool and fresh compared to the nauseating stench in the basement coming from the plant Crane had bewitched.  Merchants along the narrow alley had already set up their wares for the day, shouting out deals and sales to passers-by, many of whom looked like they couldn’t afford what the merchants were selling.  Karak leaned on the railing of his balcony, watching the street below him.  Crane exited the tavern and turned left, walking at a leisurely pace.

“That man in the maroon suit,” Karak said to Castle.  “Follow him.  I want to know where he goes and what he does for the rest of the day.  Move!”

For a large man, Castle could move rather quickly.  He charged out of Karak’s apartment and was on the street in seconds.  He slowed to the same pace Crane used, keeping to an unnoticeable distance.  Karak stared after them for minutes as Crane stopped now and then to inspect some item.  Castle stopped as well, picking up something from one of the street vendors and briefly haggling over the price.  Karak smiled.  Castle was not only the toughest of his lieutenants, but among the smartest.  A useful combination in this business.

Karak walked back downstairs to his office.  Primas was inspecting the writhing plant—from a safe distance—which seemed to be disintegrating into a gray puddle of pulp by the moment.  After another minute or two, the tree was nothing more than ashes in a pot of dead soil.

“How did he do that?” Primas asked, still staring at the tree.

The question echoed Karak’s thoughts.  But then his eye caught the bags of han still sitting on his desk.  He went to them and emptied them onto his desk blotter.  As he suspected, twenty thousand han glittered back at him.  Just for thinking about Crane’s offer.

And what was Crane?  How did he…do whatever he did to the ficus?  Karak had seen and done many twisted things in his fifteen years among the Klahdera, but none compared to what he just witnessed.  If he started telling people about what he saw, his enemies in the Klahdera would use this as the excuse they needed to eliminate him.  He had embarrassed many of the Overlords by out-performing their groomed Gahallian protégés.  They would say that Karak was a supernaturalist barbarian who could not be trusted as the Klahdera family’s “Lord of Calaman,” a highly prestigious position among the Recindia-wide Klahdera.

“We tell no one of what happened here,” Karak said to Primas.  “Do you understand?  No one.”

Primas nodded with an expression saying he would rather forget he ever saw Mr. Crane.  Then he looked at Karak and asked, “Do you think Crane has anything to do with the rings in the sky?”

Primas’s hand went to the Ahura medallion beneath his shirt.  Though Primas was Gahallian, his family had been in one of the numerous Ahura cults that sprang up every now and then in the Gahall countryside.  Primas had left the cult when he was a teen and came to Calaman to earn his way.  Though Primas had abandoned the cult, Karak sometimes wondered if he had abandoned its beliefs.

Karak laughed.  “Primas.  And here I thought you were a good Pathist.”

“Strange things have happened ever since those rings appeared,” Primas said, still staring at the dead plant.  “Not just the storm, but I’ve heard rumors that people have been found in the gutters…changed.  Like your tree.  Strange cries and moans from dark alleys, and clawed shadows reach for the unwary.  I didn’t believe any of it either.  Until now.”

Karak sat down at his desk, staring at the gold.

“We need this job, Primas.  After the debacle with Echol, the Overlords need one excuse to have me and you feeding the sharks in the Gebremeden.  If this employer of Crane’s is willing to pay us twenty thousand han just to think about a job, imagine what he’ll pay if we take the job?”

Primas still looked uncomfortable.  “My Lord, I say we forget this job.  Nothing good can come of it.”

Karak sighed.  “If we take this job, the money we make will strengthen Silek’s ability to support us.  It will show that we can run Calaman better than one of those snot-nosed legacy Lords the Overlords have wanted to appoint ever since we took over.  Mercy knows Echol’s betrayal hurt us.  But if we can give the Overlords the han we earn from Crane…well, they’ll see that we’re still useful.  And the only way we survive is if we are useful.”

Karak knew he did not need to persuade Primas to follow his wishes.  Karak was the Klahdera Lord of Calaman, and a simple order was enough to get Primas to do anything.  But Karak new that true leaders not only had the obedience of their men, but their faith.

Primas met Karak’s gaze, and declared, “I understand what’s at stake, my Lord.  And I will not lie to you that I have great reservations about this.  But as always, your will is my will.”

Karak stared at Primas a moment longer, gauging the man’s strength.  Karak found it satisfactory, and nodded.  “We will take this job that Crane has offered.”

Staring at the tree, Karak said, “But Mercy knows I don’t like it any more than you do.”