ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 23

[Posting this chapter a day early since I’ll be laying on a beach tomorrow and staying as far away from a computer as possible.]

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 23

Despite the chaos of the Tuathans flooding into the Heiron, Dylan was able to make his way through the arches and up to the tower’s library level.  General Myndehr and several Shadarlak went with him, and for once Dylan was glad for their presence.  They kept him from getting crushed by the tall Tuathans crowding through the arches.  Dylan had always been nervous in large crowds of tall people—it was a natural Orlenian fear—but large crowds of panicked tall people pushed him to the edge of his self-control.

The crowds thinned around the seventh level, as most sought the refuge of the various floors rather than continue all the way to the top of the Heiron.  Dylan walked quickly toward the library at the end of the long, ornate hall.  Several women priests wearing scarlet sashes stood near the door, and they said something in Tuatha, putting their hands up to stop Dylan.  He could not understand what they were saying, so he turned to Lee and asked, “Where’s Abraeu?”

Lee shook his head.  Through the door and past the priests, Dylan saw Melahara across the room standing at one of the windows looking down.

“Melahara,” Dylan shouted.

She turned and frowned when she saw Dylan.  A book case had been blocking Ollis Gray from Dylan’s view, and Ollis poked his head from around the shelves to see who was yelling.  The frown he gave Dylan made Melahara’s seem like a mother’s smile for her newborn.

“I have almost forty men armed with revolvers and sabers,” Dylan yelled to them through the priests standing in his way.  “Let me help.”

Lee said in his ear, “Excellency, not even a company of Shadarlak could withstand lightning strikes.  There’s nothing we can—”

“We can’t sit in this bloody tower forever,” Dylan growled.  “We need them to get through this, and they could obviously use any help we can give them.”

As Dylan said this, Melahara approached the priests barring his entry.  “It is all right, let them pass.”

The priests gave Melahara a wary look, then moved aside to let Dylan, Lee, Myndehr, and the five Shadarlak enter the library.  Melahara said, “I am sorry you and your men got caught up in this battle, Dylan Edoss.  We did not think the Fomorians could attack Fedalan so soon.”

“How can we help?” Dylan asked.

Ollis strode toward Dylan and said, “What makes you think your men can do anything against what’s out there?”

General Myndehr said heatedly, “My Shadarlak are the best trained soldiers in all the—”

“Follow me,” Ollis said, then turned and strode back to the window.  Myndehr gave Dylan a questioning glance.  He rolled his eyes and followed Ollis.  Dylan was getting tired of the Tuathan leader’s lack of respect.  Dylan may not be the official Speaker anymore, but he was a guest in their city.  He would have thought a political leader like Ollis, even one so isolated in the Beldamark, would have a bit more diplomatic skill.

Ollis pointed down to the ground and said, “Are your men trained for that?”

Myndehr looked down, and her eyes widened in shocked horror.  Embarrassingly, Dylan was not tall enough to peer down at the ground, so he stood on a nearby chair without bothering to ask permission.  Lack of diplomacy could go both ways.

The sight below almost made him stumble off the chair.  What was once a green field of grass fifty paces wide surrounding the Heiron, was now a mass of writhing, snake-like tentacles similar to what had attacked the train in Doare.  Amidst the tentacles were misshapen figures darting about the field.  Some of the figures looked like dogs with extra limbs and their own spiked tentacles.  None of the beasts looked exactly the same, and all had shapes and colors that could have only come from the dreams of madmen.  The mass of monsters and tentacles stretched from the foot of the Heiron to the buildings of Fedalan fifty paces away.  Amazingly, none of the tentacles or monsters touched the Heiron doors, maintaining a ten foot distance from the tower.

“Why aren’t they attacking?” Dylan asked when he found his voice again.

“The Heiron is imbued with Ahura’s essence,” Melahara said.  “The Tainted cannot touch it, nor can Fomorians use Angra to penetrate it.”

“Where did those things come from?” Cursh asked.  His pale, sickened face matched how Dylan felt.

“They are the Tainted,” Ollis said as he stared down at the terrors below.  For once his voice held something other than annoyance.  Dylan thought it might have been sorrow.  “They were once natural animals from the forest.  Some were even people.  Harrowers cannot create anything, but they can certainly destroy, as is their nature.  They take a part of Ahura’s creation and use the power of Angra to warp it into something that was not meant to exist.  Better to die a painful death than become one of the Tainted; at least you’d be dead.”

“Can they be killed?” General Myndehr asked.  She continued staring at the Tainted forms, and her face was more grim than Dylan had ever seen it.  If he was not mistaken, he would have thought she was afraid for the first time in her life.

“Not by guns or swords,” Ollis said, turning away from the window and staring at Dylan.  “Like I said, Edoss, your men are useless in this fight.”

“So what is your plan?” Dylan asked.  “You tell me I’m no use to you, so you must have a way to break this siege on your own, yes?”

Ollis narrowed his eyes at Dylan, and his bald forehead reddened.  Before he could say anything, Melahara said, “We have options that we are considering.”

“Then I suggest you consider them a little quicker,” Dylan said.  “Whoever is controlling those things has herded your people into one location.  Now we are holed up in a place from which there’s no escape.  It’s the perfect scenario for a slaughter.  Whoever is controlling those things surely knows he can’t penetrate this tower, and I doubt he’d go through all this trouble to force you here without knowing a way to come in and get you.  Or at least force you out when you begin starving.”

Ollis continued to glare at Dylan, but his glare now contained a hint of worry.  He quickly glanced at Melahara, then said, “We must open the Jars.  It is the only way.”

“That is exactly what they want us to do,” Eblin said from the doorway as she limped into the library, leaning heavily on her staff.  Behind her walked Fatimah, who looked like she was about to fall over from exhaustion at any moment.  Supporting her was Taran Abraeu, half of his white shirt stained in dark red blood.

“Doctor?” Lee said.

“I’m fine.  It’s not my blood.”

“What do you mean ‘it is what they want us to do?’” Ollis asked Eblin, ignoring Taran and Fatimah.

Eblin limped forward until she was at the window and looking down at the writhing Tainted below.  “If we open the Jars within the Heiron, the Furies will break through the charms holding the Tainted outside.  When that happens, the Tainted will be able to attack, and the Fomorians will rain down lightning and Ahura knows what else on our heads.”

Ollis opened his mouth to say something, then closed it as he thought about what Eblin said.  Dylan had no idea what they were talking about, and decided he did not wish to know.

“However, there may be another way,” Eblin said.  Putting her hand on Fatimah’s shoulder, she said, “Go on, priest, tell them what you did.”

Fatimah looked up at Melahara and Ollis through weary, half-closed eyelids.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I studied the Book last night without my Master present.”  Both Melahara and Ollis frowned, but said nothing.  “I found an incantation that enabled me to create a shield around myself and others.  A shield that cannot be penetrated by Tainted or Angra.”

“That’s impossible,” Ollis said.  “No Tuathan has the strength right now for such a—”

“I saw her do it,” Abraeu said.  “She saved the lives of six priests with her shield.  After she collapsed, two other priests copied what she did and Wielded an even bigger shield.”

Fatimah gave Taran a weak smile, then said to Melahara and Ollis, “They had to copy the shield because this fool ran out to save Rylan Jordak after he was mauled by two of the Tainted.”

Dylan stared at Abraeu with a new respect.  He had not figured the doctor to be the type to run onto a hot battlefield,  even though he was General Abraeu’s son.  Dylan realized he should not have judged a man’s fighting courage before he had actually seen him in a fight.  He had seen the loudest braggarts run at the first sound of gunfire, while it was the quiet ones that often stood their ground.

Melahara asked Abraeu, “What do you mean ‘copied?’”

Abraeu shrugged.  “They said the same words and did the same actions.”

“Where are these two priests?” Ollis asked, glancing behind Abraeu and Fatimah.

“They haven’t regained consciousness yet,” Fatimah said, leaning against a tall bookshelf.  “At least not by the time we left them in the hospital.”

Eblin said to Melahara and Ollis, “Our cautious approach to relearning how to Wield the Aspects will not serve us now.  If two priests can simply copy another—without spending days learning the incantations—then we can teach all of our priests to create the shield.  Even the lay Tuathans.”

Melahara sighed.  “But it will mean every Tuathan who Wields the shield will fall unconscious immediately afterwards.”

“Not if one priest Wields the shield into existence,” Fatimah said, “and then another simply maintains it.  Maintenance takes only a fraction of the Aspects as the initial Wielding.”

Eblin raised an eyebrow at Fatimah.  “It is a good thing someone has been studying ahead of her assigned lessons…”

Fatimah lowered her eyes, but Ollis said, “She’s right.  If a few priests do the initial Wielding, then the remaining priests can maintain it while the people in the Heiron escape.”

“Escape to where?” Melahara asked.

Dylan said, “The Compact will take you.”

Melahara glanced at Ollis, but she could not catch his eye before Ollis said, “You have no authority to make such an offer, Edoss.  Your government will not comply with anything you promise us.”

“They will,” Dylan said.  “Throughout this entire journey I’ve seen things that have changed my beliefs forever.  Once my people see what you can do, they will understand that you are our only hope to defeat these Fomorians and harrowers when they come after the Compact.”

“The Speaker is right,” General Myndehr said abruptly.  Dylan looked at her, saw that she held her head high and gave Ollis Gray the same glare she would have given one of her captains if he questioned her orders.  “I have been a committed Pathist all my life.  The things I’ve seen have made me…question some of the things I’ve been taught.  Skepticism is a good thing, but it must not blind us to the reality before our eyes.  It will be difficult at first, but I believe our people will accept you.”

Ollis narrowed his eyes doubtfully.  “Even if that were true, how do we get to your territory?  It is hundreds of miles from here across sea and land, separated from us by a nation that is more hostile to us than the Compact.”

Edellian superstitions about the Mystics attributed to them everything from foul weather to disease.  Dylan would worry about getting the Tuathans through Edellia when the time came, but right now he had to get them to break the siege and escape the Heiron.  The Tuatha were the only hope the Compact and the continent had against the Angra harrowers out there.  Lee was right, the Shadarlak and the Compact army could not withstand lightning strikes, no matter how well trained they were.  This was a different war that required different weapons.

“I will find a way to get you to the Compact,” Dylan said.  “You need to figure out how to get your people out of the Heiron.”

Melahara frowned, but said nothing.  She glanced at Ollis who said to Dylan, “There is a way for us to defeat the Fomorians attacking us, but it would involve doing something that—”

“Ollis,” Melahara said threateningly, but Ollis ignored her.

“—most on the Master Circle refuse to do.”

“What is it?” Dylan asked.

“They are called the Delving Jars—”

“Ollis Gray,” Melahara shouted, surprising everyone in the room at the sound of her voice.  “You know you are forbidden to speak of this outside the Circle.”

Ollis took a step toward Melahara, who stood her ground.  “We just lost over a hundred Heshmen tonight.  How many more do we have to lose before you realize we are in a fight for our survival?  How many more Tuathan lives will it take for you to accept that we must do what we have to do to survive?”

“I thought you said these Jars would break the charms on the Heiron and let the harrowers attack it?” Dylan said.

“Not if we open them outside the Heiron,” Ollis said.

“What are these Jars?” Dylan asked.  Eblin only smiled at Dylan.  Ollis and Melahara ignored him, staring at each other like two circling wolves.

Taran Abraeu cleared his throat and said, “I’ve read some legends of the Delving Jars.  They contain the very essence of Angra.  Chaos and death.”  He glanced at Fatimah, who only stared at Abraeu.  “If I’m not mistaken, there are three jars.  When a jar is opened, the Furies within will do whatever the opener asks, as long as the task embodies the essence of Angra.  You could not open a jar and ask the Fury for a bumper crop, but you could ask it to make your neighbor’s crops whither and die.  Or the population of an entire city.”  Abraeu looked at Fatimah, and asked, “Am I correct?”

Fatimah said nothing, but Eblin said, “You are close, Dr. Abraeu, but not entirely correct.  I can say that the Delving Jars were captured by our ancestors a thousand years ago before the Fomorians could use them.  They have been sitting in our vaults ever since.  To open the Jars would be to give up our identity.  Better we perish as a people than become like those whom we fight.”

“Why don’t you put the question to the people?” Ollis asked Eblin.  “Why don’t you ask them whether they want to use the Jars to destroy our enemies, or whether they want to sit and watch their families starve to death in the Heiron?”

Eblin gave Ollis a sad smile, then said, “I will admit that I am tempted to use the Jars.”

Melahara gasped, but Eblin continued.  “But we do not know what will happen once the Furies are released.  We do know that if we release them within the Heiron, the Aspects that protect us will fall.  And so may the Aspects around the Beldamark, which protect this land from the uninvited.”

“We don’t know that will happen,” Ollis grumbled under his breath, shaking his head like he had said the same thing dozens of times.

Dylan said, “The ‘uninvited’ are already here.  I don’t think you have you a choice now.  If these jars are the only thing that will save your people, then you must use them.  If you die, the continent will fall to these Fomorians.  Isn’t that what Ahura created you to prevent?”

Eblin’s lips tightened into a thin line.  She shifted her gaze to Melahara, who only stared outside and down at the shifting masses of the Tainted.  Dylan also looked down at the horror below.  The moon and the stars illuminated glistening beasts and their tentacles, and the orange glow from the fires burning throughout the city cast the creatures in an abyssal light.  It was a sickly, undulating sea of gray, black, red, and yellow forms.  Dylan felt more nauseas looking down at it than he ever had looking up at the Angra ring.

“We must convene the Circle,” Melahara said in a quiet voice.  Then she swept her gaze from Eblin to Ollis to Dylan.  “We will abide by the Circle’s decision.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 22

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 22

After an hour of sitting in the shadows of an abandoned street trolley, Karak finally saw movement in the bushes near the Hallowed Bridge.  It was only a shudder of the bushes, but on a windless night, it was enough to tell Karak that something alive hid there.  Then, amazingly, a small flame appeared as someone lit his pipe, removing all doubt that a man inhabited those bushes.  Karak shook his head in disbelief, feeling a little insulted.  If this was the quality of assassins the Klahdera had sent against him, they must not think much of him at all.

He waited another fifteen minutes before making his way to the bridge.  He wanted to be sure the soon to be dead man in the bushes was the only one.  The bridge was located next to a disposal yard for old, broken machinery and scrap metal.  Pipes and tubes and gears lay about the dark yard, the grisly remains of disemboweled factories.  Karak had to use his assassin’s skills, skills he had not used in a long time, to avoid making noise in this cemetery of metal.  He stepped slowly, carefully toward the dead man in the bushes near the bridge.  That old feeling of the hunt and the impending kill made Karak’s blood rush in his ears and his heart beat faster.  His hand tightened around his knife’s hilt, the blade blackened by fire to avoid giving off a glint in any light.

He approached the bushes from behind and stayed close to the mounds of metal that lined the river front.  He wore black clothes he had stolen from several vagrants, but he had washed them first to avoid giving off a stench that would announce his presence.  He blended in well.  The small light from the assassin’s pipe might not have been noticed by someone walking or riding by on the bridge above, but it was like a lighthouse on a stormy night to Karak, guiding him onward and keeping the would-be assassin’s location known.

The fool.

Ten paces from the assassin, Karak saw the back of his head.  A cold knot formed in Karak’s stomach.  He stared at the man’s head for a moment, not believing—or not wanting to believe—what he saw.  His emotions ran from betrayal to sadness to anger in a moment.  When he regained the cold objectivity of the trained assassin, he sprang forward.

He pulled the man’s golden pony tail back and put the knife at the base of his throat.  The man’s hands scrambled for the revolver sitting on his lap, but Karak growled into his ear, “Keep moving and this knife will come out the back of your neck.”

The man froze, then chuckled.  “Hey, Karak, you scared me.  I thought you were one of the Overlords’ boys.”

“Really, Marwa’jin?” Karak said.  “So you’re here to watch my back while I take Silek’s han?”

“Why else would I be here?” he asked.

“I want you to pick up your revolver by the barrel with your thumb and forefinger, and hand it to me slowly.”

Marwa’jin sighed, inching his hand down to the revolver’s barrel.  “Karak, you’re awfully paranoid for—”

Marwa’jin tried smashing the back of his head into Karak’s chin, but Karak was ready for such a move.  He jerked his head to the side, then brought the hilt of his knife down on the back of Marwa’jin’s head.  It did not knock him out, but it dazed him enough so that Karak could grab the revolver as it slipped from the blond man’s hand.

Karak pointed the gun at Marwa’jin’s head as the blond man looked at Karak through half-focused eyes.

“I’m insulted that Silek sent one man for me,” Karak said.  “And only his bed boy at that.”

Then Karak made his voice deadly serious.  It was not hard.  “Why?” he asked, not really expecting an answer from Silek’s Swornman.

But Marwa’jin shook his head to clear it, then snarled at Karak.  “It’s your head or his, Karak.  Simple as that.”

Then he lunged at Karak.  Karak pulled the trigger and blasted a hole through the blond man’s left eye.  He fell backward, dead before he hit the ground.  Karak half wanted to empty the revolver into the Swornman’s chest, just to make sure he was dead.  Given the event that got Karak into this mess to begin with, he did not think it was such an unreasonable feeling.  He stamped it down quickly, though, since one gunshot was enough to draw a passing constable’s attention.  Five more would bring down a squad.

Karak would have preferred to take the man with his knife, but plans had changed.  He had to adapt and change with them.  He put the gun in one of his coat pockets, then jogged up the incline to where the first support columns of the stone bridge met the land in front of the water.  He searched the column for the false bricks Silek had told him about yesterday, but could not find anything loose.  Karak would have been surprised if he had.  Silek had been setting him up all along.

Knowing he had lingered, he ran down the incline and made his way back through the machinery graveyard, all the while struggling to keep his emotions under control.  Allowing anger or fear to cloud his decisions now would only get him to do something stupid and die.  Silek allowed his fear to overcome him, and it had cost him the life of one of his best Swornmen.  Karak had let fear overcome him in the silo with Crane, and look where it had brought him.  Revenge was a good thing, even a strong motivator, but it was something to pursue in a smart way.

Karak found himself walking back toward the Low City, realizing his feet had made his decision for him.  He was tired of running and tired of being betrayed.  Crane, Silek, and the Overlords were about to find out why Karak was once considered the best assassin in the Klahdera.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 21

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 21

The Compact camp was in ordered chaos.  Shadarlak ran about securing their arms, sabers, and forming up into ranks on the orders of shouting sergeants.  Taran saw Edoss and his aids encircled by ten Shadarlak holding sabers and revolvers.

Taran called out to Edoss as he ran by.  “Fatimah said to go to the Heiron, you’ll be safe there.”

“Abraeu,” he yelled.  “Where are you going?”

“I’ll be right back,” Taran said, then continued on toward his tent.  When he reached the tent, he flung aside the flaps, dug into the large bag he had brought on the trip.  At the bottom was his father’s old revolver.  He grabbed the revolver and the bandolier of bullets, and then ran back to Edoss.

The Shadarlak had formed a square around Edoss, two ranks deep and shoulder to shoulder.  They let Taran through with grunts and frowns, then closed ranks again.  Once the Shadarlak were set, they began to march toward the Heiron, keeping the same square shape.

All around the green uniformed Shadarlak, Tuathans screamed and yelled as they ran from their homes in the town and toward the Heiron.  There were hundreds of Tuatha, mothers and fathers carrying crying children in their bed clothes.  Some carried large sacks, while others held knives and strung bows, with quivers full of arrows strapped to their backs.

Taran wondered how the hundreds of fleeing Tuatha were going to fit through the open doors at the base of the Heiron, but he saw that not all of the residents of Fedalan were running for the doors at the front.  Portcullises on the left and right sides of the Heiron creaked and groaned as they rose into the ceiling, and the panicked mobs split into three streams toward each portcullis.  General Myndehr continued to shout orders to her Shadarlak to make for the doors at the top of the steps.

Taran never heard the blast of lightning that struck several dozen paces away.  He flew through the air and landed hard on the marble steps of the Heiron.  After a moment of wondering if he were still alive, he sat up, his ears still buzzing, and peered through a shower of dust to see that the large green square of Shadarlak had dissolved.  Most of the Shadarlak were on the ground, shaking their heads, while some were already scrambling back to their feet, sabers and revolvers at the ready.  Two Shadarlak helped Edoss to his feet.  Another shouted to a dazed General Myndehr, who sat on the ground blinking the dust from her eyes.  Miraculously none of the Shadarlak were seriously hurt.  There was a blackened crater two dozen paces to the left of where the square had been, the cobblestone road torn to pieces.  Taran stood on shaky legs, then went to pick up his revolver several paces away.

The Shadarlak square re-formed on shouts from Captain Laesh, and Taran went back to stand next to a dust-covered Edoss.  They continued in a double-time jog up the steps to the Heiron.  There were more lightning strikes behind them and to the south, but the Shadarlak did not stop until they reached the top of the stairs.  They pushed their way through the crowds, and Taran winced as he saw several Tuathans fall into each other when they were shoved aside by the Shadarlak formation.

When the Shadarlak in the first line of the square reached the large doors into the Heiron, they halted and then parted to allow the Shadarlak in the center to rush Edoss and his aids inside.  Taran was pressed into the Heiron’s long hallway while most of the Shadarlak remained outside to take up covering positions around the door.

At the end of the hallway, in the large circular room with the magical arches, frightened Tuathans streamed into both arches toward other levels in the Heiron.  Several female priests with scarlet sashes directed people into one arch or the other.  The Tuathans chattered nervously, most speaking too fast for Taran to make out their words.  The mood inside was a tense calm, though Taran believed a panicked riot would ensue if someone dropped a pot on the floor.

“Taran Abraeu!”

Taran turned, saw Fatimah weaving through the crowd toward him.  The Shadarlak would not let her through their cordon around Edoss, so Taran squeezed his way outside their protection so he could hear her among the din of Tuathan voices echoing in the chamber.

“You will be safe in here,” she said, as she was jostled about by the people flowing past her.  “Angra cannot penetrate these walls.”

“What’s happening outside?”

As soon as he asked, a series of loud explosions, one after the other, shook the tower.  Taran looked down the hall toward the open door through which he had entered and saw lighting strikes tearing up the lawn within paces of the Heiron.  The Shadarlak outside had retreated within, and were pulling the large wood doors closed.  At the other entrances on the left and right, Taran saw people outside surge forward with panicked screams.

“There are still a lot of people out there,” Taran yelled to Fatimah.

Fatimah did not speak, but rushed back toward the Heiron entrance to the right.  Taran followed her, not knowing what he was going to do, but considering it better than standing there in the claustrophobic crush of people.

Fatimah pushed open a small door cut into the side of the large hallway from which the people were streaming.  Taran followed her into the small dark corridor that ran parallel to the main hall, trying not to think that it was more claustrophobic in here than it had been in the arch room.  Torchlight filtered through the arrow slits in the walls, and Taran caught glimpses of people shoving and yelling in the main hall to get farther into the Heiron.

At the end of the corridor, Fatimah touched a metal plate on the wall, and a stone door rose silently into the ceiling.  They exited into the entryway between the portcullis and the entrance’s large wooden doors.  There were still dozens of people outside trying to get in amid the lightning strikes coming down all around the Heiron.  When they saw the open door, they rushed through it.  Fatimah and Taran ran back the way they came, just ahead of the wave of frightened Tuatha, and exited into the circular arch room again.  A stream of people followed them out.

Fatimah then ran to the other side of the circular room and opened a similar door into another dark corridor next to the crowded main hall.  Taran followed her to the end of the corridor and watched her open the stone door at the end.

The scene on the north side of the Heiron was just as chaotic.  Lightning blasted the town from small black, roiling clouds, setting most of the log structures on fire.  Dozens of people still pushed and screamed to get through the Heiron’s doors.  Fresh corpses and blackened body parts lay strewn about the lawn from where the lightning had found unfortunate victims.

Rather than run back inside, Fatimah stayed to direct people through the new door she had just opened.  Taran did the same, though his broken Tuathan speech and modern Recindian clothes drew confused glances from most of the people.  Once everyone had gone through the doors, Fatimah cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled up to a window above the portcullis, ordering the priests up there to lower the heavy gate.

As the iron bars of the portcullis began to creak lower, they heard a cry from the buildings a hundred paces away on the other side of the Heiron’s lawn.  Four priests wearing scarlet sashes, followed by three bearded men with spears came running from out of an alley and sprinted to the closing portcullis.  Behind them, Taran heard something smashing its way through the alley.  Something large.

Fatimah screamed to the portcullis operator to stop.  The iron bars halted halfway to the ground.  The fleeing priests and their guards were fifty paces from the Heiron when the smashing noises behind them stopped.

Six misshapen forms burst from the ruins and galloped after the seven Tuatha sprinting for the Heiron.  Taran would have thought the monstrosities were wild boars, had they not snake-like tentacles whipping from their mouths.  Their hides were pale and glistened in the moonlight, and they released cringe-inducing howls that sounded like the un-greased gears of a steam trolley.

The tentacles of one of the beasts grabbed the ankle of a fleeing Tuathan man and yanked him off his feet.  The beast jumped on him, followed by another one, and then mauled the screaming man.  The four other beasts continued on toward the six remaining Tuatha.

Taran stepped out from under the portcullis and aimed his revolver at the two monsters mauling the Tuathan man.  He fired two shots that echoed off the Heiron and the buildings across the grassy area.  Both shots hit one of the monsters in the head, tissue and black fluid spraying from the beast’s skull.  The bullets got the beast’s attention, and it howled its grating scream, then ran back toward the ruined buildings.  The other beast continued its grisly attack, and Taran fired two shots at it, hitting the head again.  The second monster fled back into the dark alleys, howling with pain and rage.

But the four other monsters continued on toward the six Tuatha who were almost at the gate.  Before he could train his revolver on the last monsters, he heard Fatimah’s voice grow unnaturally loud as she uttered an ancient Tuathan phrase that Taran could not translate.  He glanced at her, saw her right hand in the air, and the left pointed at the wide-eyed Tuatha and the monsters chasing them.  A thin film of blue light, with the consistency of a bubble, spread out from her hand, first enveloping Taran and then the Tuatha who were only ten paces away.  When the boar-like monsters ran into the film of light, they disintegrated into a fine gray dust that seemed to drift in the air before dispersing in the wind whipped up by the unnatural storms.

The six Tuatha scrambled beneath the half-closed portcullis and collapsed just in front of the wood doors.  The portcullis dropped the final four feet as the Tuatha lay on their backs, eyes closed and breathing heavy.  As soon as they were through, Fatimah fell to her hands and knees, her head lowered as if she were about to vomit.

Taran looked back outside toward the alley where the two monsters he had shot were skulking.  He saw motion in the shadows, and he heard more grunts.  Then movement on the grass caught his eye.  The man the monsters had mauled was crawling toward the Heiron.

“Open the gate,” Taran yelled.  “That man’s still alive.”

Taran wondered why the gate operator had not started cranking the gate open when he realized he had yelled it in Recindian.  He called again to the operator in his broken Tuathan.  After a few moments, the portcullis opened again, but only five feet.  Taran slipped through and ran for the crawling Tuathan.  He trained his revolver on the shadows where the two boar-monsters howled and paced.

When Taran reached the bearded man, he was still crawling, but moaning nonsensically.  Taran tried not to look at the terrible bites all up and down the man’s torso and chest.  He holstered his revolver, leaned down, and pulled the man’s arms over his back and hoisted him onto his right shoulder.  The man screamed, and Taran could feel the man’s warm blood flowing down around his neck and back.

“I’m sorry,” Taran said in Tuathan.  “We’re almost there.”

Through gritted teeth, the man said in Tuathan, “They’re coming.”

The boar-monsters howled again, and the thumps of hooves rapidly approached from behind.  All of Taran’s strength went into pumping his tired legs—still wobbly from the lightning blast—toward that half-open portcullis only twenty paces away.  Through the gate, Taran saw several priests with scarlet sashes emerge and raise their right hands, and point their left hands toward Taran.  The same film of light Fatimah had created raced forward and enveloped Taran with a cold tingle that seemed to give his legs a little more strength.  He did not turn to see what happened to the boars, but he hoped the bubble of light had done to them what Fatimah’s had done to the first group.  He no longer heard their shrieks immediately on his heels.

The priests who had Wielded the shield around Taran slumped to the ground, their backs against the Heiron, their eyes barely open.  Several other people clad in buckskins and wools came out and helped Taran with the man he had rescued.  The Tuathans carried the wounded man in to the Heiron.  Taran ducked beneath the gate, then sat against one of the walls, his lungs on fire and unable to take in enough breath.  The portcullis gate crashed shut, as if the operator chose to let gravity bring the gate down rather than the brake.

Taran glanced at Fatimah, who was sitting up with her arms around her legs.

“That was a brave thing you did, Taran Abraeu,” she said, staring at him through exhausted eyes.  “My people will not forget it.”

“You…would have done…the same for me,” he said between pants.

Fatimah said nothing, but continued watching Taran.  Even he did not know what had spurred him to run onto that corpse-strewn field, with lightning exploding all around him and horrifying monsters attempting to rip a man apart—

He turned and retched noisily onto the portcullis.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 20

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 20

“You have condemned our people, and you know it,” Melahara told Ollis in low, threatening tones.  They were tones Fatimah had never heard from Melahara, tones that would have had any Acolyte running for cover, and most Priests for that matter.  But Ollis remained stone-faced before Melahara’s anger.

“He is not the Speaker, therefore he has no power to negotiate,” Ollis said.  “He cannot help us.”

Fatimah was glad to stand behind Eblin, who sat between Fatimah and the two most powerful people among the Beldamark Tuatha.  All five members of the Master Circle sat at a round table in the highest room of the Heiron, their Apprentices standing behind them.  Windows from the four slanted stone walls on each side let in the light from the setting sun, though little of it was able to pierce the thick gray clouds.  Fatimah saw the swirling colors of Ahura—she tried her best to ignore the nauseating emptiness of Angra—and its light gave her comfort in a room filled with tension.

“That may be,” Melahara said, “but you had no reason to insult them by throwing them out of the Heiron like stray dogs.  Edoss could very well regain the Speakership, and then where will we be?  We just insulted the only man on the continent that could protect us.”

Ollis laughed.  “The Recindians would never protect us anyway.  They fear us.  They would never let us settle in their lands.  It is the reason we retreated to the Beldamark and it is the reason why we should stay.  I’ve said this from the beginning.”

Melahara shook her head, closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.  “We have already had this debate.  Fomorians have infiltrated the Beldamark and Tuatha are dying every day from their attacks.”

Ollis slammed his hand on the table, making everyone jump except Melahara.  “Then we fight them!  I will not give up my home so easily.  For better or worse, the Beldamark is our home.  We don’t need the Recindians, with their faithless ways.  They despise us just as much as the Fomorians do.  As always, we are alone, and I say we do whatever is necessary to protect our families and our homes.  I say we open the Delving Jars.”

Fatimah frowned, as did three other members of the Master Circle.  Two others, however, nodded their heads in agreement with Ollis.  Predictably, Nyram Suul agreed with Ollis, as she did with almost everything he said.  But the surprise was Ocrim Tylea.  He had always been a strong ally of the Holy Seat, though he made his living as a blacksmith selling knives, arrowheads, and other weapons to the Worldly Seat.  Perhaps the business of war was too tempting for him, Fatimah thought cynically.

Eblin said, “If we open the Delving Jars, we cease to be Tuatha and become like the Fomorians.”

“We will be nothing like the Formorians,” Nyram Suul said, her graying red hair worn around her shoulders like a man.  “We would only open the jars for the intention of destroying the Fomorians.  Is that not what we use the Aspects of Ahura to do?  It is nothing different.”

“It is different,” Eblin replied, as if instructing a student.  “It is the side effects of opening the Jars that is forbidden by Ahura.”

“We don’t know that will happen,” Ollis said, “but we don’t have a choice.  We don’t have the strength to fight the Fomorians any other way.  Besides, we may not have the luxury of following the law as closely as we would like.  Especially with our survival at stake.”

“The law is what makes us Tuatha,” Eblin said.  “I would think the Worldly Seat would recognize that.”

Ollis scowled, but said nothing.

“Besides,” she continued, “we do not know where the Fomorians are at any given time.  How would we know where to open the Jars when the Fomorians disappear almost as quickly as they strike?”

“I’m not saying we open the Jars for a single Fomorian attack,” Ollis said.  “All I’m saying is that it should be an option if we are faced with a concentrated attack by many.”

“Ahura do not let it come to that,” Fatimah muttered to herself.

A little too loudly, for Eblin gave her a sideways glance and said, “Well said, child.”

Fatimah felt heat in her cheeks, bowed her head, and then tried to melt into the wall behind her.

Ollis leaned forward.  “If a Pathist Teacher is now the Speaker of the Compact, what chance do we have of negotiating an alliance with them?”

Melahara opened her mouth to speak, but Ocrim cut her off.  “None.  We all know the Pathists hate everything we are, everything we believe.  That is why I say—”

“You have had your say,” Melahara said.  “We need to see how this plays out.  Dylan Edoss may return to Calaman and regain his Speakership, but then he may not.  If he does not, we must still extend our friendship toward the Pathist Speaker.  All the signs tell us that the Compact will fall to Angra without an alliance with us.  If it has not already happened.  And if when it does, not even the Pathists will be able to deny ‘supernaturalism.’”

“Do not be so sure,” Nyram said.  “Neither the appearance of Ahura and Angra nor the Fomorian weather attack on their capital city changed their beliefs.  They ignore anything that does not conform to their preconceived ideas.  Even extraordinary events.”

Ocrim Tylea folded his hands on the table.  “Perhaps we should abandon the idea of forging an alliance with the Compact?  What about Turicia or Edellia?”

Melahara sighed and shook her head.  “We have been over this as well.  There is no one else.  Turicia would be a faithful ally, but they are no stronger than we are; less, in most respects.  Edellia is large, but the Edellians fear us as much as the Pathist Compact denies us.  Phadeal in the east is no more than a loose confederation of city-states so isolationist that they don’t even come to the defense of a fellow city-state when it’s attacked.  Khur in the west is no better than Phadeal.  And the Wild Kingdoms in the south care nothing for the troubles of the north, even if those troubles would eventually affect them.”

“There’s always Mazumdahr,” Ollis said quietly.  Fatimah wanted to shake her head in amazement at the man’s foolishness.  First, he suggests using the Delving jars, now he suggests an alliance with the Mazumdahri?

Eblin echoed Fatimah’s thoughts.  “The Mazumdahri are what the Fomorians were two thousand years ago.  We may as well cut our throats right now and spare our people a slow death.”

Melahara’s gaze swept the entire Circle.  “Like it or not, the Compact is the anchor that keeps the continent from drifting into anarchy.  If the Compact falls, so does the continent.  An alliance with the Compact is our only hope for survival.”

“The other continents—” Nyram began, but Melahara cut her off.

“—are the responsibility of the Tuatha on those continents.  Recindia is our historic responsibility.  Once things are stabilized here, then we can worry about helping the others.”

Ollis quietly asked, “What if we need their help?  The Guardians have obviously been destroyed or disabled throughout the rest of the world.  How do we contact them?”

Melahara paused.  “We don’t.  At least not right now.  Right now, we concentrate on this continent.”

“And what have your Priests discovered about those responsible for bringing down the Barrier?” Ollis asked.

Fatimah winced, for it was the one thing with which Ollis knew he could challenge Melahara.  The Priesthood had been studying the ancient texts around the clock, and had even conscripted Acolytes into the research.  They were sure the Barrier was impregnable from the outside…but breaching it from the inside was a possibility almost too frightening to contemplate.  For that would mean someone had used the Guardians left behind by the ancient Tuatha to channel the Aspects into boring a hole through the Barrier.  And since none of the Guardians in the rest of the world seemed to be working—the Window would have detected them by now—then it had to have been the Beldamark Guardians that were used.  Only Tuatha could have triggered their magic.

Fatimah could not believe any Tuatha would betray everything they were to release Angra back into the world.  But at this point it was the only plausible explanation.

Melahara cleared her throat.  “We have not been able to identify them.  Yet.”

“If I may say,” Ollis said, glaring at Melahara, “finding those responsible for the Barrier’s fall should take precedence over the negotiations with the Recindians.”

“It does,” Melahara said.  “But we can walk and talk at the same time.”

“What progress have you made?” Ollis pushed.

“Nothing new since we spoke last night.”

Ollis frowned, but leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms as if he were pleased with himself.  The relationship between the Worldly Seat and the Holy Seat had historically been adversarial, but Ollis Gray and Melahara could have been one of the most adversarial, and had grown more so since the Barrier’s fall.

The rest of the meeting covered more mundane things like Fedalan’s upkeep.  Garbage was piling up in the streets and refugees from the surrounding farms and villages were pouring into Fedalan at an alarming rate with terrible stories of Fomorian attacks.  Housing was plentiful in Fedalan—its population, and that of all the Beldamark Tuatha had been declining for decades—but each house needed to be cleaned up and repaired.  The meeting ended with the Circle deciding in a 3-2 vote—Melahara and Eblin against, Ollis and the rest for—for sending Dylan Edoss back to the Compact with a request to meet the new Speaker.

Once the meeting was over, Fatimah asked Eblin if she could go down to the Recindian camp and tell them the decision of the Master Circle.

“You may,” Eblin said with a tired voice.

She leaned on her staff while walking slowly back to her apartment on the Heiron’s fourth level.  Fatimah had never seen her Master so weary, and she knew the investigation into the Barrier’s fall, along with preparation for the now cancelled negotiations with the Recindians, had taken much from her already frail body.

Fatimah walked with Eblin back to her apartments, just to make sure her Master arrived all right, then went back down to the Recindian encampment in front of the Heiron.  Fatimah counted thirty small, two-man tents arranged in neat rows on one of the grassy fields in front of the tower.  The Recindians had taken up as little room as possible, and had even set their cook fires on the cobblestone road next to the field.  The Tuatha had supplied the Recindians with wood for their fires.  Fatimah sadly thought that wood from all of the abandoned homes and buildings throughout the city would keep Fedalan warm for years.

Fatimah saw several Tuathan Heshmen standing nearby smoking pipes and watching the Recindian camp, while several Recindian soldiers sat around campfires eyeing the gathered Tuatha.  She regretted that she could not bring the Crucible out here and let them understand each other’s words.  Eblin had taught her that most arguments stem from miscommunication.  The Crucible would have gone a long way toward reducing the wary glances they gave each other.

She approached three Compact sentries at the border of the camp and she asked in Recindian where she could find Dylan Edoss.  One of the men asked her to follow him.  He led her around several tents until she saw Edoss and his advisor Lee Cursh sitting next to a fire.

Edoss stood when he saw her.  “Fatimah, welcome to our camp.  What brings you out here?”

Fatimah knew from her studies that many Recindian diplomats smiled at your face while plotting your downfall in their minds.  In Dylan Edoss, however, she sensed a man who was genuinely polite and honorable.  She had liked him from the moment she met him.

Which was why she hated telling him the Circle’s decision.  His face fell, then he nodded.

“I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing in their position.  But know this, I will sort this out and I will return.  If you will invite me again, that is.”

“You will be most welcome when that time comes,” Fatimah said.

“We’ll break camp tomorrow morning,” Edoss said.  “Will you guide us back to Markwatch?”

“I will, Excellency.”  Then she looked about the camp surrounding their fire and asked, “Where can I find Taran Abraeu?  I promised that I would speak to him.”

Edoss pointed to a tent four down from the right.  She bid him and Lee Cursh good night, and then walked to Abraeu’s camp site.  There was a cookfire in front of it, with two men smoking pipes and talking quietly.  She remembered them as aids to Edoss’s Ministers.

They both stood when she approached.  If nothing else, the Recindians seemed to have good manners.

“Good evening,” said one of the men through a bushy, gray mustache that hung over his lips.

“Is this the tent of Taran Abraeu?” she asked.

“Yes, but he said was going for a walk around that obelisk, oh, about ten minutes ago,” the mustached man said, checking a small pocket watch attached to his vest.  It was a device that Fatimah could not imagine owning.  How could knowing the exact minute of the day be so important?  Punctuality to the second was one of the Recindians most peculiar habits.

Fatimah thanked the men and walked in the direction they pointed.  She did not have to walk far before she found Taran Abraeu, leaning his back against the trunk of an oak tree that had lost all of its leaves for the autumn, smoking a pipe and staring up at the Heiron.

Without turning his head, he said, “What makes it glow like that?”

Fatimah looked up and realized he was referring to the Heiron.  There was a bluish aura around the entire tower, except for the tip, which had a golden shimmer that persisted at night.  She had lived around the Heiron most of her life, so she sometimes forgot what a beautiful structure it was, especially against the dark sky.

“The ancient builders imbued it with the Aspect of Fire,” she said.  “They wanted it to be a beacon to all Tuatha from across the Beldamark.”

“It’s beautiful,” Taran said wistfully.  He looked into the sky, clear of clouds for the first time in days, and at the ever-present bands of Ahura and Angra.

“My daughter Mara is suffering from a terrible illness,” Taran said, his voice distant.  “And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.  She’s had it for six years, and for six years I’ve studied Mystic legends with the hope of finding you so that you could use your powers to heal her.  Now that I’ve found you, you tell me there’s nothing you can do.”  Taran gave her a mirthless smile.  “I just realized that I spent every waking moment for the last six years to find you, when I should have been spending that time with Mara.”

Fatimah put her hand on his arm, and they were both quiet for several minutes.  Then she asked, “Will your daughter recover?”

Taran shook his head, still staring up at Ahura.  “Unless she is given the Mercy, she will die a painful death.”

“Murder,” Fatimah muttered before she could stop herself.  She glanced at Taran, who looked down at his feet.

“There was a time when I supported the Mercy,” he said.  “I had always thought those who opposed it or wanted it illegal were selfish, and didn’t want to let their loved ones rest, even if it meant letting them suffer a terrible death.  Now I…”

Taran took his pipe from his mouth and knocked it against the tree, dislodging the tobacco ashes from it.

“My wife wanted to give Mara the Mercy as soon as she was diagnosed with the Blood.  I refused.  Mara was already in tremendous pain, but I would not allow my daughter to die without doing everything I could to heal her.  Even though the Blood is incurable.  The slide to death is slow, painful, and messy and…  My wife has hated me ever since.”

Fatimah did not know what to say, so she said nothing.  She had studied the Compact’s arguments for the “Mercy” and still found it to be nothing more that legalized murder.  Never mind that Ahura forbade the taking of human life, the Mercy smacked too much of a society that did not want the inconvenience of taking care of its sick and disabled.

“So I started looking for the Mystics,” he said.  “I gave up a promising career in the University and began chasing a myth.”

The man’s sorrow was so terrible that Fatimah wanted to say anything to him that would give him some sort of hope for his daughter.  She knew Eblin would be angry over what she was about to tell Taran, but the man deserved some hope.

“There is a prophecy,” Fatimah said slowly.  “Well, more like a myth.  It says that when the First Cause sees that the balance between Ahura and Angra has shifted too much in one direction, it will send a being that will bring Ahura and Angra back into balance.  That being will have the powers of both Ahura and Angra, and will fight for the side that is the weakest.  This being may fight with the Tuatha if the Fomorians become too powerful…or with the Fomorians if we win.”

Taran listened attentively, and Fatimah could see that his scholar’s curiosity was pushing back his sorrow a bit.  But only a bit.

“I’ve never heard this before,” he said.  Then realization dawned on him.  “This being has come before.  A thousand years ago.”

Fatimah nodded.  “Much history was lost during the last war and our retreat into the Beldamark, but we do know that it was this being that helped my ancestors erect the Barrier.”

“It was the Barrier that not only blocked Angra, but Ahura as well.”  Taran looked at Fatimah.  “Your people gave up their powers to save the world.”

“It was the sacrifice they made so that the Fomorians would not win.  My people were losing, and losing badly.  It was either that or relegate humanity and ourselves to Fomorian enslavement.”

Fatimah looked up at Ahura and wondered what the ancient Tuatha must have felt when they decided to erect the Barrier.  They would never again feel the love of Ahura coursing through their bodies, nor be able to look up at those swirling colors and feel peace.  From just the limited time she had had with Ahura in the sky, and with Wielding, she did not know if she could give that up.  Despair filled her heart whenever she thought that she might have to.  The only way to defeat Angra this time might be to erect another Barrier.

Taran stared at Fatimah, intensity blazing in his eyes.  “What is this being called?”

“The Zervakan,” Fatimah said.

Taran’s eyes had grown wide, and he licked his lips.  “Would the Fomorians recognize this being when they see him?”

“By sight?  I doubt it.  They might be able to sense the Zervakan if…”  Taran was frowning, staring off in the distance.  “What is wrong?” she asked.

He looked at her, then said, “On our way here, we passed through a town that had been destroyed by a harrower or Fomorian.  He was mad, but he yelled something at the train as it went by him: Zervakan het gaklai na Zervakan.

Fatimah felt her heart skip a beat.  “This Fomorian shouted that to you or your train?”

Taran swallowed.  “Well…he seemed to be looking at me at the time.  But I don’t know if it was because I was the only face he saw, or if it was a trick of shadows, or if he really was…looking at me.”

Fatimah grabbed Taran’s arm and started pulling him toward the Heiron.  “You have to tell Melahara.”

At that moment a horn sounded from the city’s western boundaries.  Fatimah stopped, listened.  Three short bursts, followed by three more.  Another horn sounded to the north—three and three bursts—and then to the south, near the lake.  Fear threatened to freeze Fatimah’s limbs.  Taran grabbed her arm.

“What are those horns?” he asked.

“Fomorians are attacking the city,” she said.

She looked up at the nauseating presence of Angra.  Several tendrils reached down to areas north, west, and south of the city.  Tendrils from Ahura swirled down to the same locations, but some stopped before they could reach the ground, then retreated back to Ahura.

The Tuatha calling them had been killed before the tendrils could reach them.

“Warn your people that an attack is coming,” she said to Taran.  “Tell them to go to the Heiron.  Go now!”

She did not wait to see if he obeyed before turning and sprinting toward the Heiron.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 19

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 19

Despite the stunning news that Dylan Edoss had been deposed as Speaker of the Compact, Taran could not make himself concentrate on the argument Edoss was having with the Tuathan leaders over who was the Compact’s legitimate leader.

The books and artifacts that filled the Tuathan library were too distracting.

He stood on the platform above the library, staring at shelves that held thousands of leather-bound books, scroll tubes, and loose pieces of parchment.  Along the entire length of the wall with the windows on the right were five-shelf cases that held intricately designed bowls, and small statues of men, women, and strange creatures.  There were white and black scepters made of stone, and clubs that seemed hastily carved from driftwood.  Crowns of gold glinted in the meager light from the windows, while crowns of ivy looked as fresh as if they had been picked this morning.

Here was the collected knowledge and art of a culture that had disappeared from Recindia a thousand years ago, and had existed for a thousand years before that.  Taran wanted to run down and read every book and inspect every artifact.  This was one of humankind’s greatest treasures.

He did not hear Fatimah approach until she spoke.  “I believe I would have the same look on my face if I stood in one of your libraries,” she said.

“There’s nothing magical about Recindian libraries,” Taran said.  “You won’t find any bowls that make you understand foreign languages or windows that show you what is happening hundreds of miles away.”

“All vessels containing wisdom are magical,” Fatimah said, “even if they are not blessed with the Aspects.  The knowledge contained in your libraries is just as valuable and just as interesting as the knowledge down there.”

Taran smiled.  “I suppose you’re right.”

He glanced beyond her shoulder.  A book sat on a stone pedestal similar to the one which held the Crucible.  It was two hands long and a hand and a half wide, bound in brown leather with a symbol on the cover that Taran recognized.

“I know that book,” he said, hurrying past Fatimah toward the pedestal.  It was the same book he had in his basement office.  It was the book with blank pages and symbols on the cover that he could never decipher.

He looked back at Fatimah.  “I have a copy of this in Calaman.”

Fatimah’s mouth opened in shock.  “You have a copy of the Book of Ahura?”

“The ‘Book of Ahura,’” Taran said, staring at it.  “Yes, I’m sure of it.  But the pages are all blank, and I could never decipher the runes on the cover.  What is it?”

“It is the only book known to us that tells us how to Wield the Aspects of Ahura as the ancient Tuathans did.  For a thousand years our copy has also been blank.  But when the Barrier fell, the words suddenly flared onto the page.”

Fatimah stepped forward, opened the book, and gently turned the old pages.  Every page displayed words, diagrams, tables, and hand drawn pictures in all colors.  Taran even recognized the script in which it was written—a stylized calligraphic version of ancient Tuathan.

“May I?” Taran asked.  Fatimah nodded, smiling at his eagerness.

Taran turned each page as if it was made of spider webs, but to his surprise the pages felt as sturdy as any page in a book published in the Compact.  The copy in Calaman was the same, which had been one of the things that sustained Taran’s faith in the Mystics.  For how could a book a thousand years old stay in such good condition without magic?

“How many copies were made?” Taran asked Fatimah as he studied an index in the front of the book.

“We do not know,” she said, “but we believe it was not many.  When the Barrier went up and my ancestors retreated into the Beldamark, they lost almost every book and artifact they had created.  What you see in our library is all they could save, a mere fraction of what once existed.  Even copies of the Book of Ahura, the very book that would help us remember our abilities, could not be saved.”

Taran shook his head.  “I could spend years studying this one book.”  He suddenly laughed.  “It looks like I will.  I have my own copy.”

Fatimah looked uncomfortable.  “The Tuatha will need that copy if we are to regain our strength and become what we used to be.  The Fomorians are already becoming more powerful than—”

“Fomorians?” Taran asked.

“What you call the harrowers,” she said.  “Fomorians were like the Tuatha once, but thousands of years ago they chose to follow Angra.  Harrowers are their creations, slaves who were once people, warped and twisted and tortured by Angra until they become—”

“Fatimah!”  Ollis Gray strode over to them, his brow furrowed, his glare resting on Taran.  He reached to the Book of Ahura and slammed it shut.  “This is not for your eyes,” he said to Taran.

“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss called from the top of the stairs leading down to the library’s lower levels, “we’re leaving.”

“Leaving?” Taran asked.  “We just got here.”

“We invited the Speaker of the Recindian Compact,” Ollis said.  “Mr. Edoss is no longer the Speaker, therefore he is no longer welcome.”

Taran looked at Fatimah, who in turn stared at Melahara with shock.  Melahara glared at Ollis’ back, but she said nothing.

“You mean we have to leave the Beldamark?”

Ollis turned and walked to the stairs where Edoss was standing.  He passed the Speaker—former Speaker—without looking at him, then said over his shoulder, “Fatimah, please take the Recindians back to their encampment.  They need their rest for their return journey tomorrow morning.”

Fatimah said to Melahara, “Holy Seat?”

“Do as he says,” Melahara said, then turned to Edoss.  “I apologize, but the Worldly Seat has final authority in all governing matters.  You must take a message back to your new Speaker asking her to come here.”

Edoss shook his head.  “I will be back, once I’ve sorted out this mess in my country.  But if I don’t come back, nobody else will.  Adellia is an initiated Pathist Teacher.  She will never come here.  It would be an admission that supernaturalism is a real force in the world.  If you understand anything about us, you must know that’s something she cannot admit.”

Melahara smiled wearily.  “Some among my people have the same sort of…bias about you.  As the Worldly Seat just demonstrated.”  Then she said to Fatimah, “Escort our guests back to their camp.”

Fatimah bowed her head, then asked Edoss and the other Recindians to follow her.  Taran could not hold back his anger and frustration at the turn of events.

“This is ridiculous,” he said, not moving.  “We’ve come too far and endured too much to get here.  We can’t go back without at least learning who you are, what you can do.  And you can learn from us.  We have a lot to offer you.  We can give you food, technology to keep you warm in the winters—”

“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss said in a commanding tone.

“No!” Taran shouted.  “We can’t go back without them!  Mara will die.”

Taran closed his mouth, and then sat down on a bench nearby, his head in his hands.  He would not go back to Calaman empty-handed, not when his daughter’s life depended on him.  He remembered Fatimah’s explanations that they could not heal diseases, but he would not think about that now.  Maybe there was something in the Book of Ahura he possessed that would tell him something different.  After all, Fatimah admitted that the Tuatha had only begun to learn about the powers the ancient Mystics possessed.  Perhaps there was something in the Book that enabled them to cure diseases.

There had to be.

There was a soft hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Fatimah regarding him with sympathy.  “I will come to your camp later on and we can talk about whatever you want.”

Taran saw Edoss’s three Shadarlak standing behind her, looking at him as if they were trying to decide how they would carry him out.

Taran sighed, then stood and followed Fatimah, Edoss, and the other Recindians down the stairs, with the Shadarlak behind him.

Taran took in the entire library and tried to burn it into his memory.  It might be the last time he saw it, and he wanted to remember it.  For the first time in his life, he gave a silent prayer to Ahura.

Don’t let Mara die because of my failure here.

Ray Bradbury

I may be among the few sci-fi/fantasy writers who was never influenced by Ray Bradbury’s stories. Oh I respected his work, like most writers do, but his real influence on me came from his writer-to-writer advice.

It was advice that finally helped me put a leash on my internal editor.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I spent my childhood and high-school years writing knock-offs of my favorite books and movies — basically the same stories with alternate endings. But I was always stymied when trying to create something original. My internal editor over-analyzed every idea, or tried squeezing perfection out of each sentence to make it sound like the authors I admired. All before I wrote down a single word.

Then in 1991 I read How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, a compilation of essays from successful genre authors, with Ray Bradbury being one. He mostly advised creating word lists of things that scare you, and thus from those lists would emerge story ideas. That was a cool trick — and one I use today — but it was the following passage that opened my eyes:

In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for style, instead of leaping on truth, which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

“Really?” I thought after reading that. “I don’t have to obsess over the first draft or make it perfect?” I glared at my internal editor. He gave a nervous chuckle, and then fled the room.

Bradbury’s advice to essentially “write fast without thinking” liberated my writing. Cliché, I know, but that’s how it felt. Many authors have offered the same advice over the years, and I would’ve figured it out eventually, but Ray was the first person who articulated it to me in a way that clicked.

With that one simple concept in mind, I can now write a thousand words per hour on most days. My stories may not be brilliant examples of high literature, but at least I can finish them.

And then unleash my internal editor on the second draft.

Thanks for the career-changing advice, Ray.

Cross-posted at New Podler Review of Books.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 18

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 18

Karak stood in the shadows of a doorway across the street from the Breakers Inn and Tavern, watching people pass in and out of the swinging doors.  Raucous laughter and singing floated from the bright interior, and Karak saw through the main window many bodies moving back and forth in the lamp-lit common room.

The Breakers was one of the busier taverns in the Low City, attracting mostly Low City residents or sailors from the merchant ships docked in Calaman for the night.  Business was brisk despite the late hour and the continuing drizzle.  Karak was not surprised.  It was one of his inns, and he had made sure they all had the stoutest ale and plumpest whores in all of Calaman, maybe even Gahall.

Or at least the inn had been his.

Karak pulled his long, loose hair over his face as more people passed by.  His normally blond hair was more brown and greasy now.  He looked and smelled like one of the usual vagrants that haunted the Low City’s corners and crevices searching for shelter.  He had rolled in piles of horse dung throughout the day to keep people from looking too closely at him.  Ironic that the worse he smelled, the more people tried to ignore him.  And the farther away people stayed from him, the better chance he had of evading Klahdera assassins.  At first he had to keep from gagging, but he was finally getting used to the smell after two days of wanting to retch.

At least the smoke from the Orlenian quarter helped with the dung stench.  Karak glanced at the glowing orange sky less than twenty blocks from the Low City.  The Orlenians had been rioting ever since their favorite son, Dylan Edoss, had been kicked out of the Speaker’s office.  Not even their Parliamentary leaders could calm their anger.  Karak normally hated riots—it was bad for business.  People wanted a relatively safe place to indulge their vices.  But at least this riot kept most Klahdera Swornmen on Antahl Street to ensure the violence did not spill over into their Low City territories, which meant fewer Klahdera looking for him.

Every time Karak thought about what got him into this situation, he felt sicker than when he first rolled in dung.  He had left his men to die with those…things.  He had lost loyal friends in that silo.  And Crane.  Karak had shot the man in the forehead, yet he got up as if the bullet hole were a bug bite.  Though Karak came from the Wild Kingdoms in the south, where supernaturalist beliefs still existed, he had spent most of his life in the Pathist Compact.  It was hard for him to accept what he saw, but he was a man who trusted his senses.  It was even harder for him to accept that he had run from a fight like a craven dandy.  Never mind that his cowardice had earned him a death sentence from the Klahdera Overlords.

The swinging doors of the tavern fell open and the man he was waiting for strode out, accompanied by three men as large as Castle, their hands resting on the butts of their revolvers and their eyes searching the dark streets.  The Klahdera Overlord wore a black tri-corner hat, with a pony-tail of steel-gray hair hanging at the nape of his neck.  He was well dressed in a crisply pressed black suit.  He still retained the large build that helped him survive the harsh climb up the steps to Klahdera Overlord.  He nonchalantly smoked a cigar, content after a couple of hours with Karak’s whores—Sammilia was his favorite, Karak remembered.  The Overlord strode down the street as if he were the king of Low City.  In a sense, he was.

Karak affected the stagger of a drunk, stumbled forward, and crossed the street toward the Overlord.  He dodged a carriage, prompting curses from the driver, and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Overlord.

“Spare a penny, my lord?” Karak said, holding a grimy hand out and keeping his head low so that his hair fell over his face.

One of the Overlord’s men, a Kingdomer by the looks of his long blond hair tied back in a single tail, shoved him out of the way without a word.  A second one used his forearm to push Karak onto the street.  The Overlord did not even look his way.

“I reckon the weather is finer in the Kingdoms this time of year, my lord,” Karak said.

The Overlord stopped, then turned slowly to stare at Karak.  The Overlord’s men followed, but the Overlord said, “It’s all right, Marwa’jin.”

The blond-haired Marwa’jin reluctantly motioned the other two men to stay back, but he and they kept their hands securely fastened on their revolvers.

Overlord Silek approached Karak, squinting at his face, trying to peer beyond Karak’s hair.  Then he laughed, shaking his head.  “Mercy, Karak,” he said.  “You smell like a stable.”

Karak grinned.  “Keeps away the curious.”

Silek’s laugh faded.  “You lost your entire crew, and that’s one thing the Overlords won’t forgive.  They’re going to kill you, boy.  And there’s nothing I can do about it this time.”

“I know,” Karak said.  “You’ve done more for me than you should have done.”

Silek shrugged.  “Kingdomers need all the help they can get in this country.  Someone did the same for me once, now I do the same for you.  Or did…”

Silek scanned the street with his sharp gray eyes.  “You shouldn’t be here.  You need to get out of Calaman, get out of the Compact.  Go back to the Kingdoms.”

“That is my plan, old friend,” Karak said, then hesitated, embarrassed at what he was about to ask.  “It’s just that…I don’t have any money.  I cannot get back to my inns, they’re being watched.  And Klahdera owns all the banks where I keep the rest of my money.”

Silek chuckled.  “My boy, you never did plan ahead, did you?  I have secret stores of han all over the city just in case I…well, just in case.”

Silek sighed, then said, “All right, I’ll tell you where to find one of them.”

He gave Karak directions to the Hallowed Bridge, which crossed the Veda River on the north side of Calaman, just outside the walls of the Old City.  It was a place Karak knew well, for he had taken possession of many a smuggled shipment there.  It was quiet, virtually abandoned, and he would not attract attention.  Ironic to think he had probably stood next to a large store of Silek’s gold on several occasions.

“Thank you, my friend,” Karak said.  “I will not forget this.”

“You had better not,” Silek said with his usual wry grin.  “I expect repayment with interest.”

Karak smiled back, and was about to turn away when he looked back at Silek.  “That business back in the silo was bad.  Really bad.  Did anyone go there after…after I was there?”

Silek glanced back at his men, then said in a low voice, “All they found where the bodies of your men.  Or what was left of them.  Now I know you would never intentionally allow such a thing to happen to your men, but intentions are irrelevant with the Klahdera.  You know that.  Results are what count, and you failed spectacularly.  Ten Swornmen were killed that night.  Ten of your Swornmen.”

“You don’t have to remind me,” Karak growled.  “I was there.  I saw it all.”

Karak then calmed himself, and shook his head.  “Something bad is going to happen in this city, I can feel it.  My advice probably doesn’t mean much these days, but you should leave the city for a while, too.  At least a few weeks.”

Silek laughed.  “You’re not going supernaturalist on me, are you Karak?”

“Yes,” Karak said, with as deadly serious of a voice as he could manage.  “After what I saw two nights ago, yes I am.”

Silek’s smile melted.  “I don’t care what you saw, boy.  What I care about is that the longer you stay in this city, the more likely you’ll get a bullet in the back of your head.”  Glancing around at the people on the street, Silek said, “I think we’ve talked long enough.  You’d better go.”

Silek turned without another word, and was immediately surrounded by his Swornmen.  Karak stood on the sidewalk watching his patron until he rounded a corner.  He glanced about the street, saw nothing but vagrants, drunks, and those looking for a place to get drunk, then wrapped his raggedy cloaks around him and set off toward the Hallowed Bridge.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 17

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 17

“These are our saviors?” General Myndehr muttered to Dylan as the column marched into Fedalan.

Dylan was thinking the exact same thing.

Truth be told, he had begun to worry as soon as he saw the Tuathan guides.  They were clad in furs and buckskin like three Cossops from the Komenda Steppes, with wild red hair and pale skin.  They certainly were not the Mystics of childhood stories—shining white robes with auras of beautiful colors surrounding them.

The outskirts of the Tuathan “city” only increased his worry.  These were people who had not advanced much beyond the technology of a thousand years ago.  They lived in thatch huts and what looked like hastily made tents of stitched animal skins.  Older women tended to small plots that looked to be the corners of larger fields.  Beyond the small plots, weeds choked what little crops of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots the Tuathans grew.  Dylan had no farming experience, having been raised in a mining community near the Perla Mountains, but even he could tell when a field had not been tended in over a month.  Most of the small huts they passed were deserted, and their Tuathan guides would not explain why.

“All will be explained by the Seats in Fedalan,” the girl Fatimah had said.  She seemed to want to tell him more, and ask him questions, but a stern look by Dornal and Ida always closed her mouth.

When the column had marched to the top of a hill, they saw Fedalan in the valley below next to a small lake.  The town was made up mostly of the same huts and tents they had passed, which was why the most striking feature of the town made Dylan begin to hope again.

A tall white obelisk rose up from the town center, twice as tall as the Guardian through which they had passed.  Gold plating covered the top half of the obelisk’s point, making it glitter in the meager sunlight.  Dylan wondered how bright the tip would shine if the clouds ever cleared over this depressingly gray land.  Nearer the obelisk were one-story buildings made of logs, but not much more advanced than the thatch huts beyond the center of town.  Small chimney’s pumped out smoke from the buildings surrounding the tall obelisk, while the huts and tents outside that town’s center looked empty and neglected.

Halfway down the hill into the valley, four men clad in buckskin and armed with spears walked out of the woods.  All four wore their red hair long with many small braids at the ends, each with full beards.  They ignored the Shadarlak surrounding Dylan, who immediately put their hands on their revolvers, and went to confer with the Tuathan guides.  After talking quietly for a few moments, the men warily eyed the column of Shadarlak, then stood off to the side of the road to watch the column enter the town.

While walking into Fedalan, Dylan’s brief hope again turned to despair.  The small buildings on the outer fringes of the town looked to have been abandoned long ago.  Many had shutters that were nailed closed, while others had gaping holes in the roofs and collapsed porches.  Several dogs, skinny and feral, whined at the column as it marched by.

The closer the column came to the white obelisk, the more signs of community Dylan saw.  The first commerce Dylan encountered were the noxious odors of a tanner’s shop.  The shirtless tanner sat on a stool using a sharpened rock to scrape loose hair off a large hide.  He continued his scraping, but glanced up now and then at the column as it passed.  Beyond the tanner shop, here and there, candles burned in some of the homes, and Dylan noticed wet laundry—wool skirts, pants, and blankets—hanging on lines strung between the huts.

Near the foot of the obelisk, all of the homes and buildings were occupied and of a sturdier wood construction than the thatch huts they had passed.  Actual commerce took place here, in addition to serving as living quarters for most of the population.  A blacksmith, shirtless, sweaty, and wearing a large leather apron, hammered at a small, glowing, embryonic knife.  Nearby sat a large box filled with unpolished knives that had not yet been fitted with hilts.  Two other sweaty, red-haired blacksmiths stood in the back of the same shop hammering glowing metal.  Dylan wondered where they got the metal, for surely these people could not have much of a mining industry.  His question was answered when he saw large piles of rusty metal pots and field tools behind the smithy.

The column passed a tavern, where six gaunt men in buckskin and wool, with unstrung bows attached to their backs and knives at their belts, stood holding clay cups, whispering to each other while the column marched by.  Merchants selling potatoes, turnips, cabbages, and carrots, called out to the column in their incomprehensible language, trying to sell produce to their town’s strange new visitors.  Most of the Shadarlak ignored the merchants, while some shook their head politely.  One merchant rushed toward Dylan, holding a wool blanket and talking animatedly about it, but Dornal and Ida pushed him away before General Myndehr or the Shadarlak surrounding Dylan could get any rougher with the man.  Dylan had ordered his men to keep their revolvers holstered, and he was pleased to see them obeying that order despite the strange surroundings.

“Not even the Turicians live like this,” Lee said in a low voice from Dylan’s right.

As they drew closer to the obelisk, small groups of dirty children ran alongside the marching Shadarlak, staring at the soldiers with wide, curious eyes.  Dylan saw Dr. Abraeu reach into his pocket and give one of the smaller girls a chunk of hard candy.  The girl put it in her mouth, smiled up at Abraeu, then ran off.  Abraeu stared after the girl for a few moments, sadness plain on his face.

The column rounded a corner in the road and saw the base of the obelisk before them.  It was even more impressive up close.  It looked to be ten stories tall, rivaling the height of the Parliamentary Towers.  It was cut from smooth white stone, without seams that Dylan could see.  Starting around the third floor, windows dotted the obelisk’s smooth white exterior, all the way up to where a large balcony encircled the top.  The obelisk did not have the same weathering that had eroded the arches around the smaller obelisks, and looked to have been built months ago.  Wide steps led to thick wood doors that were swung inward, and Dylan could see the pointed spikes of a portcullis gate jutting from the ceiling above the doors.

About a dozen Tuathans descended the steps as the column approached.  They also wore buckskins, wools, and furs, although their clothes seemed better made than the Tuathan masses.  And more colorful.  Some of the Tuathans wore sashes dyed a light green, while some wore sashes dyed scarlet.

Two of the Tuathans led the group, an older man and older woman walking side by side down the steps.  A hush fell over the people in the square, and all eyes trained on the two Tuathans.

Dornal, Ida, and Fatimah went to the two, bowed, and said something in their language.  As the Tuathan leaders proceeded down the steps, Dylan ordered the Shadarlak standing in front of him to move behind him.  Infuriatingly, the men first looked to General Myndehr before moving, who nodded.  Dylan turned to Abraeu.

“Doctor,” Dylan said.

Abreau nodded, falling into step behind Dylan.  Dylan hoped the good doctor was about to earn his keep on this mission.

Fatimah stood between the two Tuathan leaders and Dylan, then said, “Speaker Dylan Edoss, may I present Ollis Gray, the Worldly Seat of the Beldamark Tuatha.  He oversees the worldly administration of Tuathan affairs.”

Ollis Gray, with more white than red in his beard and on his balding head, wore a light green sash with several gold symbols over his buckskin tunic and breeches.  He regarded Dylan with narrowed eyes, as if Dylan had just tracked mud into his home.  Reluctantly, Gray gave Dylan a quick bow of the head.

Fatimah then pointed a hand at the older woman and said, “May I present Melahara of Fedalan, the Holy Seat of the Beldamark Tuatha.  She is the Tuathan spiritual leader and the leader of all Ahura priests in the Beldamark.”

Melahara was a tall, handsome woman who looked to be in her upper-middle years.  She had long, reddish-gray hair tied in a single braid that hung over her right shoulder.  She wore a red sash with gold symbols over her buckskin dress.  She bowed, smiled warmly at Dylan, then said something to Fatimah.

Fatimah said, “The Holy Seat welcomes the Tuatha’s Recindian children back to the Beldamark.”

Children…?  Dylan thought.

“On behalf of the Recindian Compact,” Dylan said, “I thank the Tuatha for inviting us into your lands, and I look forward to a long lasting partnership between our two peoples.”

The Compact would not be subservient to anyone while he was Speaker, Mystics or not.

Fatimah translated Dylan’s words to Melahara and Ollis, and if they had any objections, their faces did not show it.  Melahara continued to smile warmly, while Ollis still wore a sour face.

Translating for the two Seats, Fatimah said, “Your men are free to set up their tents on the lawn in front of the Heiron.  You and your advisors are invited to stay inside the Heiron, if you choose.”

Dylan nodded to Fatimah, then bowed to Ollis and Melahara.  “Thank you for your kind offer, but my place is with my men.  I will camp with them.”

Ollis and Melahara nodded at Fatimah’s translation, then Melahara said through Fatimah, “Though you must be exhausted from your long journey, we regret we have much to discuss that cannot wait.  You and your advisors are invited to join us for dinner as soon as you see to your men.  Is this acceptable?”

Dylan looked at Myndehr, who said, “We will have our camps set up within the hour, Excellency.”

Dylan said to Fatimah, “I look forward to joining you within the hour.”

Melahara smiled, while Ollis had already turned to walk back up the stairs to the open doors.

Once the Shadarlak set up camp, Dylan gathered Lee, Abraeu, and General Myndehr.  Fatimah stood nearby, but out of earshot, talking to an elderly woman with long, thinning white hair tied in a braid that draped over her right shoulder.  The older woman seemed to be one of the Holy Seat’s priests, for she wore the same scarlet sash as Melahara.

Dylan turned to his men and said in a low voice, “Do not let the appearance of these people fool you into thinking they are weak or unintelligent.  They’ve shown that they have some of the powers attributed to them in legend—by healing Dr. Abraeu and by those arches we walked through.  We live in disturbing times, times that are challenging some of the beliefs on which our civilization has been built.  Keep your eyes—and minds—open.”

Abraeu nodded his agreement, while Myndehr and even Lee seemed uncomfortable anticipating what they would hear and learn in their discussions with the Tuathans.  He did not care if they were uncomfortable—Mercy, he had not breathed easy since the rings appeared!—but he expected them to obey his commands.

Dylan marched up the steps to Fatimah and the elderly woman, who stopped talking when he approached.

Fatimah said, “Speaker, this is my Master, Eblin of Luesing.  She has taught me your language and much about your culture.”

Leaning heavily on her walking staff, Eblin gave Dylan a kindly smile and bowed her head.

“Speaker,” she said in flawless Recindian, “I have looked forward to meeting people of your nation face to face since…well, my entire life.  Welcome to Fedalan.”

Dylan thanked Eblin, and then introduced Lee, Abraeu, and Myndehr.

Eblin smiled at them all, then said, “I will take you to the library.”

Eblin turned and walked through the obelisk’s large doors with the slow pace of someone with terrible leg pain.  For a moment, Dylan wondered why she was even on her feet, or why the Tuathans had not healed her like they had healed Abraeu.  But he realized that if she was a “Recindian expert,” she would have climbed out of her deathbed to meet Recindians.  Dylan saw the same thrill in her eyes that he saw in Abraeu’s.

The steps leading up to the large double doors were well worn with age and the footfalls of countless Tuathans.  Dylan marveled at the thick wooden doors, almost two stories tall and banded with iron.  He suspected they could have withstood three or four canon blasts before buckling.  Above the doors, a large iron portcullis was withdrawn into the ceiling.

A long white hall with lit torches in stone sconces stretched beyond the doors.  The ceiling was maybe twelve feet tall, and the width of the hall could have comfortably held three wagons side by side.  Dylan noticed slits in the hall on either side.  Arrow slits, to be exact.  He was beginning to think this obelisk—or Heiron as the Tuatha had called it—was not only the location of the Tuathan leadership, but the last refuge of its people should the town ever come under attack.  From what little Dylan had seen of it, the Heiron was a formidable fortress, albeit one that would not last long against a battery of modern cannon.

Thirty paces into the obelisk, the hall opened into a large, circular anteroom lit by skylights at ten pace intervals on the walls two stories above the floor.  The white walls were adorned with aged and fading tapestries with incomprehensible pictographs similar to what had adorned the Markers on the border of the Beldamark.  Dylan glanced at Abraeu, who was studying the tapestries with keen interest, his lips moving as he read the symbols printed on each.  Dylan made himself remember to ask Abraeu later what the tapestries said.

In the center of the room were two freestanding arches about twelve feet high, both at sixty degree angles to each other.  Dylan immediately recognized them as the same style and construction as the arches in the forest, for the rooms he saw through them did not exist on the other side of the arches in the anteroom.  On the right was a shadowy, torch-lit room without any daylight streaming into it, while on the left was a room lit by the gray sun, but with different shadows than the room in which they stood.  Eblin shuffled through the arch on the left, followed by Fatimah.  Through the arch, Dylan saw Eblin walk toward another arch set at a sixty-degree angle from the one she just walked through.  Dylan glanced at his men, all of whom stared at the arches with wonder and a bit of fear—except for Abraeu, who looked at Dylan impatiently, waiting for him to lead them.

Fatimah turned, smiled at them from the other side of the arch, and said, “The builders of the Heiron thought this would be easier than stairs.”

Dylan smiled, and then strode through the arch.  As with the arches in the forest, it was like walking through a normal doorway.  The new room he entered had a shorter ceiling, and was lit by windows at the end of three hallways thirty paces from the arches.  Through the large windows, he could see the tops of the trees on the hills surrounding the town, so he knew he was at least two stories above the ground.  He turned and followed Eblin and Fatimah through the second arch, entering a room much like the one he just left.  They seemed to be walking in circles, always walking through an arch on the left that was connected to the previous arch, with both arches at sixty-degree angles.  It would have been like a spiral staircase right up the center of the Heiron if the arches had been stairs.

After passing through the seventh arch, Eblin turned left toward one of the hallways that led out of the circular arch room.  Dylan was startled to feel like he was in the Parliamentary Towers, for the architecture—white stone walls with gray, tiled floors—was very similar.  Even the tapestries and paintings that hung on the walls were of a similar feel—vistas from the mountains, the sea, and the plains.  But where the paintings and tapestries in the Parliamentary Towers depicted Recindians, the paintings and tapestries here showed ancient Mystics in iconic poses standing before masses of people who seemed to be worshiping them.  Other paintings showed Mystics with flaming swords fighting shadows that reached out to them and wrapped the Mystics in misty tentacles.  There were many alcoves in the walls, some holding small busts of men and women who were obviously important, while others displayed porcelain bowls of all colors and sizes with beautiful etchings of various shapes and patterns.  Dylan marveled that people who lived in such primitive conditions could create such works of art.

At the end of the hall was a large oak doorway that Fatimah had to push open for Eblin.  The elderly woman smiled at her pupil, then walked inside.

The room was large, at least three stories tall, fifty paces long, and twenty paces wide.  Each wall was filled with books, scrolls, and loose sheets of parchment, with ladders leading up to each of the three levels.  Two more rows of shelves ran down the center of the room, each at least ten feet tall and having its own ladder on rollers so that one could move it up and down the row.  Dylan was no scholar, but he knew this was a library to rival the Library of the Compact in Calaman.  He only had to look at Abraeu’s awed face.

Eblin led them to the right, past tables filled with books and scrolls, where six young female priests in their teens wearing scarlet belts stared at the Recindians.  An older woman in her middle years near the table said something in the Tuathan language, and the young priests quickly put their heads back down to their parchments.

Eblin and Fatimah led them to the far end of the library where an ornate, dark wood staircase led up to the second level.  Fatimah helped Eblin climb slowly, and when they reached the top, they saw Melahara and Ollis standing next to a large red and white clay bowl on a white stone pedestal.  They argued in low tones, but stopped when they saw Dylan top the stairs.  Melahara put on the same warm smile she had used to greet Dylan earlier, while Ollis seemed more frustrated than before.

Eblin and Fatimah led Dylan and the other Recindians to Melahara and Ollis.

Eblin said, “Translating between the Seats and yourselves might get tedious, which is why we suggest that you all touch the Crucible so that we can all hear each other’s words as they were meant to be heard.”

Dylan looked at the bowl, then at Eblin.  “You mean touch that bowl?”

“Yes,” Eblin said.

Predictably, General Myndehr said to Dylan in a strained voice, “Excellency, I have no problem with the ‘tediousness’ of translation.”

Which Dylan heard as: There’s no bloody way I’m going to let you touch a bloody supernaturalist bowl in this bloody supernaturalist land.

Before Dylan could say anything, Abraeu stepped forward and said, “What do I have to do?”

Eblin guided him over to the bowl, while Ollis and Melahara put their fingertips on the bowl’s rim.  Fatimah stood beside Melahara and touched her fingers to the rim, along with Eblin.

“Just place your fingers on the bowl like this,” she said.  When Abraeu did so, Melahara said something in the Tuathan language.  Abraeu’s eyes widened, and he said, “I can understand you perfectly.”

Eblin laughed and said something else in Tuathan.  Abraeu looked at Dylan and the others and gave a wry smile.  “That is true.”

I’ve come this far…, Dylan thought, then stepped toward the bowl.  Before he could touch it, General Myndehr put a hand on his shoulder.  “Excellency, at least let me do it first.”

He turned, saw the firm set to her eyes, then nodded.  It was one of the first lessons drilled into him when he became an officer—let your people do their jobs.  General Myndehr’s job was to protect Dylan, and Dylan had not made her job easy during this journey.

She stepped forward, swallowed once, then put her fingertips on the bowl.  When Eblin said something to her in Tuathan, Myndehr yanked her hands away from the bowl, then said, “Yes.”

She turned around stiffly, walked back to Dylan.  He asked, “Well?”

She looked down at him with wide eyes.  “I can understand them now.”  She shook her head.   “This is all a dream…or nightmare…”

Dylan said to Lee, “I’m not going to order you to touch the bowl.  There will be no shame if you choose not to.”

Without a word, Lee walked over to the bowl and placed his fingers on the rim.  A moment later, he nodded at the speaking Tuathans with an uncomfortable grin.

The last to go, Dylan placed his fingers on the bowl’s rim as Melahara was saying something in Tuathan to Abraeu.

Gal da rianki hra’mora working when the Blessed Rings appeared in our sky.  Ever since then, many of the artifacts we considered simple bowls have come alight with the Aspects of Ahura.”

Dylan stared at Melahara.  One moment she was speaking Tuathan…and the next she was speaking Recindian without an accent he could detect.  Dylan pulled his fingers away from the bowl, and he continued to hear her speaking to Abraeu in flawless Recindian.  Once Dylan had touched the bowl, Melahara, Ollis, Fatimah, and Eblin took their fingers off of it.

Eblin put a gentle hand on Dylan’s arm.  “How do you feel?”

Dylan did not know what to say.  Her words seemed crisper and contained less of an accent than they had before.  He asked, “Are you speaking Mystic right now?”

Eblin smiled.  “We do not refer to ourselves or our language as ‘Mystic,’ but yes, I am speaking my native Tuathan, although with a Beldamark dialect.”

Dylan asked Eblin, “Can I understand anyone who speaks Mys—er, Tuathan?”

Eblin shook her head.  “You can only understand the words of the people who were touching the Crucible when you touched it.  We are working on ways to enhance the effect so that you can understand languages rather than people, but there is so much about the Aspects of Ahura that we’ve forgotten.”  She shrugged and said, “It has only been a month since the Barrier fell.”

Abraeu, listening to Eblin, said, “I keep hearing that word.  What was the Barrier?”

Ollis said in a gruff voice, “That can wait.”

He strode past Melahara and walked to a small table in the corner of the balcony above the library.  The table sat beneath a stained glass window that had a stylized map of the entire Recindian continent.  Gray light from outside illuminated the map, which did not show borders, but did show mountain ranges, lakes, forests, and other natural features.

“Right now there’s something the Speaker needs to see,” Ollis said.  “Follow me, Dylan Edoss.”

Ollis said this without turning to see whether Dylan followed.  The Tuathan stopped in front of the small table and put his hands on it while looking at the stained glass window above it.

Dylan was never a stickler for diplomatic protocols, but neither was he used to being ordered around like a drafted private fresh out of the mines.  Melahara must have noticed the frown on Dylan’s face, for she gave him an apologetic smile and said in a low voice, “Ollis is not the most…delicate speaker, but he is a good man and he wants to help you.  You need to see what he has to show you.”

Dylan walked to where Ollis had placed his hands flat on the table.  The man’s eyes were closed and he mumbled something under his breath that Dylan could not make out.

“Bloody Mercy,” Lee breathed from behind Dylan.  Dylan turned, cast a questioning look at Lee, and saw that Lee’s eyes were focused on the stained glass window above the table.  Dylan looked up at the window and saw it moving.  The glass silently rearranged itself from the map of the Recindian continent, focusing slowly on the lands of the Compact, then onto the state of Gahall, and then the city of Calaman.

“Since you’ve been gone,” Ollis said with his eyes still closed, “there have been developments in your government.  I just need to find…ah, there.”

The glass continued to rearrange, until it found a particular street in Calaman next to the Parliamentary Towers, then focused on a café, then a sidewalk table where a man was reading a newspaper, and then the newspaper itself.

Dylan’s heart grew cold when he read the headlines:

 

DYLAN EDOSS DEPOSED; PATHIST MINISTER KIRICIA ASSUMES SPEAKERSHIP ON PURITY CLAUSE

 

“That’s impossible!” Lee shouted.  “Adellia would never do such a thing.  Dylan, she’s been one of your best friends since you first ran for Parliament.”  Lee turned to Ollis, and said, “This…window is wrong.”

Ollis opened his eyes and glared at Lee.  “The Window does not lie.  This happened yesterday.  Dylan Edoss is no longer Speaker of the Recindian Compact, therefore we will not negotiate with him.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 16

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 16

Much to General Myndehr’s displeasure, Edoss refused to ride in the carriage through the Beldamark, which pleased Taran since it was his suggestion that Edoss walk.  Taran’s research on the ancient Mystics—or Tuatha, as they preferred to be called—showed their war leaders never accepted a luxury that was denied to their soldiers.  Taran hoped this small act would earn Edoss some respect from the Tuatha.

Ulrike and Alton—who the Tuatha did not invite into the Beldamark—volunteered to guide the carriage driver back to Markwatch.  The Turcian guides were disappointed they could not accompany the Recindians into the legendary Beldamark.  But like all Turicians, they did not believe it wise to dispute the wishes of the “Blessed Ones.”  Especially after the recent plague.

Crossing the Markers into the Beldamark was not the magical experience for which Taran had hoped, but it was satisfying nonetheless.  Stepping past the Markers was just like any other step…only he didn’t find himself suddenly walking back to Markwatch.  The Tuatha guides led them through a dense patch of forest for a few dozen paces until they came to a hard-packed road that wound its way south through the pine trees and hills.  The column made good time—ten miles in three hours—but was soon exhausted from the Beldamark march in addition to the earlier march to the Markers.

Actually Taran and the government bureaucrats were exhausted.  The Tuatha looked as refreshed as if they had just awakened, and the Shadarlak seemed no more tired than a steam trolley at the end of the day.

By the time the column camped for the night, Taran thought his suggestion to leave the carriage behind was not such a good idea after all.  Sitting by one of the camp fires, he removed his boots and socks to find several oozing blisters on each foot.  He poured water from a canteen over them and dabbed them with a relatively clean handkerchief.  The chill in the night air combined with the water to soothe much of the pain.  According to the young Tuatha woman, Fatimah, they had nine more miles of marching until they reached their destination, the Tuatha town of Fedalan.  Taran didn’t think his feet would last nine more paces.

As Taran poured more water over his feet, Fatimah came and sat on her knees next to him.  She lay down her walking staff and put her hands over the fire.

Taran moved his boots and socks away from her.  Tthey could not have been the most pleasant smelling items in camp at the moment.  “Sorry,” he murmured.

Fatimah smiled, and continued warming her hands over the fire.  She glanced at Taran, then started to say something, but stopped.

“Speak your mind, Fatimah,” Taran said.  “I’d be happy to answer any of your questions.  I have a few for you, quite honestly.”

She thrust her hands into her fur cloak.  “Thank you, Taran Abraeu.  I am sorry if I stare.  And I apologize if my questions offend you.”

Taran laughed.  “Not much can offend me.  I’m more used to offending others, to tell you the truth.  I’m somewhat of a pariah among my people for simply wanting to study your people.”

“It is Pathism?” she said.  “Pathists deny the existence of supernaturalism in the world, declaring any who advocate supernaturalism as suffering from lack of critical thinking at best, and delusions at worst.  Correct?”

“That’s part of what Pathists believe—”

“And they claim to be the champions of reason and science, that they have open minds, yet they stamp out any theories that do not conform to their own preconceptions.”

“Well sometimes—”

“Are they not hypocrites then?” Fatimah asked.  “If they claim to have open minds, would they not have to accept all theories as valid until they can be disproved or supported?”

Taran smiled.  “That’s not exactly how science works.  Scientific theories must be falsifiable.  That means it must be possible to prove that they’re wrong.  In other words, there’s no way to prove magic does not exist, therefore there’s no point in scientifically studying it.  So, to a Pathist, studying anything supernatural is a waste of time.”

“But Ahura and Angra are now direct evidence that magic does exist,” Fatimah said, “yet there are still those among your people who deny the possibility that their magic is real.  Even now, your leaders come to us under a cloak of secrecy, to protect themselves from persecution by their own people.”

Taran stared at her.  “How do you know that?”

Fatimah shrugged.  “The Tuatha may have retreated from the world, but we do not ignore it.  We have ways to study your people, ways that we have used since the Barrier went up.”

“How do you study us from behind…the Barrier?” Taran asked.

Fatimah was about to speak, but then closed her mouth.  “Forgive me Taran Abraeu, I have said too much.  Those are things that your leaders should discuss with my leaders.”

She then put her hands over the fire again, but she stared at Taran’s feet curiously.  In that same fluid accent, she asked, “May I try to ease your pain?”

Taran looked at her, then his feet, then sat up quickly.  “You can heal?” he asked.  “Using Ahura?”

“A little,” she said.  “Since the Barrier has fallen, we have to relearn so much.  I know how to bind small cuts.”

I found them Mara, he thought.  Hold on just a little longer…

Taran nodded.  “Please, go ahead.”

He moved his feet so that they were closer to her, all worries of how they smelled gone.

Fatimah removed her hands from above the fire, then raised her left hand to the sky and hovered her right hand over the blisters.  She closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and muttered something in ancient Tuathan that Taran could not understand.  Taran stared open-mouthed as a small colorful tendril from Ahura weaved its way down from the ring and seemed to caress Fatimah’s hand.  Fatimah exhaled, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

At first Taran thought it was the cold in the air that made his feet tingle like they had fallen asleep.  But then he saw the blood stop welling from the blisters and then the blisters scab over.  Fatimah lowered her hands, breathing heavily as if she had just run the entire ten miles from the Markers.  Then she lay on her back, staring up at the sky, at Ahura’s swirling colors.

“Are you all right?” Taran asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “This fatigue is a natural part of Wielding the Aspects of Ahura.  It only fades with years of Wielding and dedicated study of the Aspects.  All Tuatha who Wield feel it now.”

The two other Tuathans, Dornal and Ida, rushed over and knelt down next her, talking in ancient Mystic too fast for Taran to follow what they were saying.  The only thing he could tell was that they were angry, and he did not need to know the Mystic language for that.

Fatima replied with something along the lines of, “We will never grow stronger unless we practice.”

Edoss and Cursh came over and stood by the fire, watching the Tuathans argue.

“What happened?” Edoss asked Taran.

“She healed my feet,” Taran said.  “Look.  Those were bleeding blisters just moments ago.  She healed them.”  Taran laughed, happiness overcoming his wonder at last.  “They can heal.  I was right.  I was right…”

“Only injuries,” Fatimah said, rising onto her elbows.  Her eyes looked weary, and she struggled to focus on Taran.  “We can only heal light injuries, or the Taint of Angra.”

Taran felt twinges of cold disappointment creep into his heart.  “What about diseases?”

“It depends on the affliction,” Fatimah said.  “If it is an affliction caused by life, than we can no more Wield to destroy it than we could Wield to destroy a human being.”

“A virus is not life,” Taran said, bitterly.  “It only destroys what it encounters.  It is no better than harrowers.”

Fatimah looked shocked, and Dornal and Ida demanded to know what Taran had said.  Fatimah told them, and they looked on Taran with dismay and a little bit of pity.  This only angered Taran.

“This ‘virus’ you speak of,” Fatimah said, “is part of Ahura’s creation.”

Taran shook his head.  “No, there has to be a way.  I did not come all this way, or spend all these years destroying my reputation, my life, looking for you people just for you tell me…that.”

“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss said quietly.  “Compose yourself.”

Taran put his socks and boots back on, stood without saying a word, and went to the small tent he shared with Ladak.  Thankfully, Ladak was not in the tent, so Taran was able to lie on his blankets and stare at the tent ceiling without having to talk to the man.  Not even the cold, rocky ground beneath his blankets could cool his anger.

There had to be a way.  The Mystics could do anything with their powers.  They were practically gods…or so the legends said.  These Mystics outside—these Tuathans—were simply relearning their powers, so they must not have figured a way to heal diseases yet.  Yes, that had to be it.

Exhaustion from the march soon overtook Taran’s frustrations and anger, and he awoke at dawn to the sounds of the Shadarlak breaking camp.  Ladak snored next to him, despite a Shadarlak sergeant poking his head inside and asking them to break down their tent.  It took Taran several shoves to get Ladak to wake up.

After Taran and Ladak had packed their tent and stored it on the supply wagon, they enjoyed a bland breakfast of boiled oats and hot tea.

“Ah, breakfast on the march,” Ladak said, spooning the lumpy oats into his bowl from a pot sitting on a grill over a fire.  “Almost forgot how tasty it is.”

“You were in the army?” Taran asked as he poked at his own tasteless oats.

“I was drafted at the end of the First Mazumdahri War,” he said, sitting down on a log next to Taran and sipping his tea from a tin cup.  “I went through four weeks of training, spent four days on a ship bound for Levakan, and marched twenty miles to the front.  The day we arrived, the cease fire was declared.”  Ladak laughed.  “As you can imagine I was quite relieved, but bloody Mercy, couldn’t the Mazums have given up a month earlier?”

As Ladak talked, Taran saw Fatimah speaking with Dornal and Ida, each one occasionally glancing in his direction.  They abruptly stopped when Fatimah turned away from them and marched toward Taran.  She did not look pleased.  When she stood in front of Taran and Ladak, she simply looked at Taran.

After an uncomfortable silence, Ladak stood, asked, “Would you like some oats, Miss Fatimah?”

She shook her head.  “My companions want me to apologize to you, Taran Abraeu, for speaking the truth to you last night regarding our…limits on healing.  My comments were not intended to offend you.  These are topics that you should discuss with my Masters in Fedalan, and I had no right to talk to you about them.”

Before Taran could reply, she turned and stalked back to the other Tuathans, who gave her cool glares.

“What was that about?” Ladak asked.  Taran told him about what Fatimah had said about a Mystic’s ability to heal viral diseases.

Ladak seemed confused for a moment, then realization came to him, and a look of sympathy flashed across his face.

“I’m sorry, Taran,” he said.  “Perhaps they don’t know their own abilities yet.  Perhaps they’ve simply forgotten how and need to relearn it.”

Taran looked back at the Tuathans, who stood at the edge of the clearing near the road.  Dornal and Ida, the older Tuathans, spoke softly to each other, while Fatimah studied the Shadarlak and the Recindians near them.  She watched them as if she were committing to memory observations of a strange new animal species.  Taran supposed the Tuathans were just as curious about the Recindians as the Recindians were of them.  And it was apparent from the apology that Dornal and Ida had forced Fatimah to make that the Tuathans needed the Recindians just as much as the Recindians needed them.  Taran suddenly had a bad feeling that the Tuathans were not as powerful as the legends had made them out to be.  At least not these Tuathans.

When the march continued, the air was once again misty with morning fog but cleared as the day wore on, though the sky remained gray and drizzly.  The pine trees along the road seemed to lean in towards the marchers, as if curious about Recindians that had not walked through the Beldamark for centuries.  With the drizzle, the hard packed road turned to mud, and there were a few occasions where the supply wagon’s wheels bogged down in a rut of muck.  A nine mile march ended up taking the column most of the day.

A few hours before dusk, the column arrived at a four-story, white marble obelisk with archways attached to the right and left sides.  Taran marveled at the construction of the obelisk, for it seemed to have been carved from a single piece of stone.  There were no seams that he could see, and the carvings along the base showed no signs of weathering.  It was as if the obelisk had been built yesterday.

Taran had been so enamored with studying the obelisk that he had not noticed the Tuathans approach Edoss, who stood a few paces ahead of him.

Fatimah said, “Your next steps will seem…strange.  But you have nothing to fear from the Guardians.”

“Guardians?” Edoss asked.

Fatimah pointed at the obelisks.  “We call them the Guardians.  They are what keep the uninvited out of the Beldamark.  The arches attached to them provide us with a quick means of travel throughout our lands.”

Taran looked at the arches again.  They had seemed like normal arches to him upon first glance.  The road led right up to them and split into two paths that went through the arches and then merged again beyond the obelisk.

But there was something different about the terrain on the other side of the arches.  A large pine towered above the obelisk behind it…but Taran could not see its base through the arches.  He walked around the arch on the left.  Yes, the terrain he saw through the arch did not match what was really on the other side.

“These are a doorway into another land,” Taran said, looking at Fatimah for confirmation.

She nodded.  “The arch on the right goes to another Guardian to the north.  We will take the arch on the left, which will take us to the next Guardian south of us.  It will take seventy miles off of our journey to Fedalan.”

General Myndehr whispered something into Edoss’s ear, but the Speaker shook his head and said in a normal voice, “Time is short, and I don’t want to spend another week on the road if we can help it.”

Myndehr frowned, and Edoss grinned.  “I thought you didn’t believe in Mystic supernaturalism?”

Without a word, Myndehr turned and went to her men to brief them about the arches.

Edoss said to Fatimah, “Please lead us through, Fatimah of Kulon Fields.”

Fatimah bowed, then strode to the arch on the left along with Dornal and Ida.  They walked through as if they were walking into another room, and continued walking as if they had simply stepped over a rock.

Edoss, Cursh, and their aids—some staring warily at the arches—walked through, followed by Taran and the Shadarlak.  As Taran passed beneath the tall stone arch, he was a bit disappointed to find that it truly was like walking into another room.  The surrounding hills were much steeper, and the trees were not as numerous, but the road looked exactly the same.  The rest of the column came through, most of the Shadarlak keeping their eyes forward and not even glancing at the arch as they marched under it.

Taran jogged up to the three Tuathans and asked, “How do they work?  I thought your powers left you after the Barrier went up.”

Dornal and Ida looked at him, then looked to Fatimah.  She translated Taran’s question, and they nodded.

“After the Barrier,” Fatimah said, “the Tuatha lost the ability to Wield, but the few items imbued with the Aspects still retained them.  The Guardians are among those objects.  They keep out the uninvited, and they help us to travel throughout our lands.”

“You keep mentioning ‘the Aspects.’  What are they?”

Fatimah frowned, glanced quickly at Dornal and Ida, then said, “I am sorry, Taran Abraeu.  I cannot discuss that with you.”

“What are you allowed to talk about?” Taran asked.  He wanted to shake Dornal and Ida.  He was one of the first people to meet the Mystics in a thousand years, and yet they would not talk to him.

Fatimah gave him a pleading look.  “I wish I could answer your questions, Taran Abraeu, but my only task is to guide you to Fedalan, where the Worldly Seat and the Holy Seat will answer your questions.  I have many questions for you, as well, but my oaths forbid me to speak of them until after my Masters have spoken to you.  Please understand.”

Taran nodded, disappointed, but understanding of her situation.  He supposed Edoss would not want him divulging all the secrets of the Compact to the three Tuathans whom they had just met.

Taran slowed down a bit and waited for Edoss to approach.  The Speaker said, “I trust you are not annoying our new friends.”

He used a casual tone, but Taran had come to know that the Speaker never spoke casually.

“I was asking about the obelisks, Excellency.”

“I know how difficult this is for you, Doctor, but your first priority is to be a translator, not an academic.  You can conduct your research at the appropriate time, but not at the expense of this mission.  That means no more questions for our guides about healing diseases.  Do you understand?”

Taran seethed at the Speaker for treating him like a misbehaving first-year student.  Edoss had asked—no, ordered—Taran to come on this mission, and he suddenly wanted Taran to stop being curious about the Mystics?  What did he expect Taran to do, simply march along to his orders like one of his mindless Shadarlak?  Taran was a scientist—though most of his colleagues denied him that title—and scientists ask questions.  Was he supposed to turn off his curiosity in the face of the biggest discovery of this age?

Taran knew he was pouting, and was ashamed of it, but bloody Mercy, he had waited long enough to find the answers to his questions about the Mystics.  And so had Mara.

Taran spent most of the march making mental notes of all the questions he would ask once he was allowed.  The type of country they marched through was familiar to Taran—more tall pines covering steep hills beneath a gray sky—so there was not much else for him to do.

He then began studying the rings, when he wasn’t avoiding mud puddles on the road.  Both rings gave him different, intense feelings whenever he stared at them.  Ahura made him feel loved and at peace, like he did when he was a child, lying in bed as his parents told him a story.  Angra made him uneasy and his blood quicken…the same way he felt when Edoss had berated him, or all the other times he had been insulted and laughed at because of his research choices.

Or when Adhera talked about the Mercy for Mara.

A large black tendril suddenly slithered down from Angra and touched the ground beyond the hills to the northwest.  Almost a dozen tendrils from Ahura came down in the same location, their colors swirling as they descended.  The tendrils from both rings whipped around and brightened, as if the wind were tossing them about.  One by one, the tendrils from Ahura retreated back to the ring, and after a few minutes, only the black tendril remained.

Taran looked at the Mystics, who were also watching the tendrils.  Shock and sadness covered their faces as they spoke in low voices to each other.  After a few moments, they made conscious efforts to suppress their sadness, and their expressions turned stony and determined.  Their pace quickened, and the rest of the column was forced to march faster to keep them within sight.

Taran was tempted to ask what had happened, but by the Tuathan demeanors, he knew he did not have to.  Only a few miles to the north, there had been a battle between the Tuatha and a powerful harrower.

And the Tuatha had lost.