by Rob Steiner
The rain began when Taran was a hundred paces from Shalliford Hall. Taran broke into a jog, cursing himself for not bringing an umbrella, though he never could have held the umbrella while carrying the musty old books, scrolls, and maps overflowing his arms. The materials were some of the most important manuscripts he had collected during his years of Mystic research. He had no idea whether any of them would answer the questions of the Speaker’s agents, but he at least wanted references on hand in the unlikely event they asked something he did not know.
Taran glanced at the cloudy, rain-swollen sky. The bands of light that the morning newspapers were calling “rings of comet debris around the world” were still visible, though somewhat obscured by the gray clouds. The ring with the swirling colors, combined with the moving clouds below it, gave Taran a somewhat dizzy feeling, as if he were moving the opposite direction in which he was walking. The black ring was a dark gash in the sky running parallel to the rainbow ring, diffuse around the edges but blacker than onyx toward the center. It made Taran as uneasy as he felt during Mara’s grim, weekly checkups by Dr. Hyt.
His right foot plunged into a cold puddle, bringing his attention back to the road. Plenty of time to stare at the rings later. Right now he had to get his suddenly valuable artifacts to the Dean’s office before they were a sodden heap of wood pulp and pig skin. The ivy-covered Shalliford Hall, housing the university’s College of Recindian Cultures, was less than fifty paces away. Taran ran the rest of the way just as the skies opened with a deluge of rain and peals of thunder.
Taran approached the door just as a young male student was leaving. The young man held the door for Taran, and Taran thanked him gratefully. Shalliford Hall was one of the oldest buildings on campus, and the smell of its musty interior tended to amplify during rain storms. Taran set his load of books on a dark wood bench near the door, shook the rain out of his coat and hair, and wiped his spectacles with a semi-dry handkerchief. He gathered up his books and made his way quickly up the marble spiral stairs in front of the door.
On the second floor, he passed several rooms where professors were expounding on “virtue for virtue’s sake,” the core tenet of Jonah Luten’s history changing book, The Path. All tenured professors were Pathist, as were most government officials, merchant lords, guild masters, and anyone who wanted to move up in Compact society. About the only people who were not reliably Pathist were the Ahura cults in the Compact’s northeastern mining towns. But then their coal and iron ore were so important to the Compact’s economy that no one could afford to ostracize them. Taran wondered what they thought when they looked at the sky this morning.
But freedom to deviate from Pathist dogma was not a luxury someone in Taran’s position could enjoy without consequences. Before the Blood had struck Mara, Taran was a rising star in the College of Recindian Cultures, an expert in nations, creeds, and histories for people across the continent. He had just achieved his tenure, and was free to study and research any topic he wanted.
But after the Blood found Mara, when modern medicine could do nothing for his little girl, Taran single-mindedly pursued the legends of the Mystics. He had always had a passing interest in them all his life, and he was familiar with much of their mythology. But he knew their legendary healing powers were the only hope his daughter had of averting the Mercy that Pathism recommended for people with the Blood, the only “cure” for a disease that ensured its victims died screaming.
But a good Pathist’s pursuit of reason and logic did not mesh with belief in a legendary race of beings that could supernaturally heal with a touch. Taran’s research budget was cut in half, then quartered, and then halved again. He was banished to an office in the basement below the Steam Engineering department, doomed to listen to the clangs and whistles and bellows of students above him working on the latest steam and coal-driven technology. Taran knew the only reason the university did not fire him outright was because his father, General Tobias Abraeu, was one of the Compact’s greatest heroes in the First Mazumdahri War. Taran did not like having a position because of his father, but neither did he relish searching for another job with a sick child at home and a wife who could no longer find employment as a Pathist Teacher because of his beliefs.
Which reminded him that he forgot to wake Adhera and tell her where he was going. His first class was not until noon, so he was responsible for washing the blood-tinged night sweats off Mara in the morning. He sighed, then decided to wiretype his house after the meeting. He did not look forward to returning home later to Adhera’s accusing eyes.
The heavy oak door to Arie’s waiting room at the end of the long hall was cracked open, so Taran backed his way in while still balancing the load in his arms. There was no one in the small waiting room except for Arie’s assistant tapping the keys of a wiretype at her desk.
The young woman looked up from the machine, then turned back to it when she saw Taran.
“They’re waiting for you inside, Doctor,” she said absently, tilting her head toward Arie’s closed door. She did not bother to help him with the doorknob, so Taran shifted the books to one arm, used his fingers to turn the knob, and shouldered his way into the room.
Taran stifled a groan when the first person he saw was Metia Turcio’s frowning face. She stood to the right of Arie’s desk, her back against the wall, her arms folded beneath her expansive bosom.
It was a common joke around the College that she had been the department’s Zampolit for so long that she had approved the Pathist orthodoxy of each brick used to build the Hall a hundred years ago. It was a joke no one dared say to her face, however, since she had the power to make a professor’s life miserable. It was Metia who had Taran banished to his current office because his supernaturalist beliefs could not be allowed to “infect the other professors.” Taran heard that Metia wanted him fired outright, but was stopped by administrators who were friends with Taran’s father. On principle, Taran hated that fact, but what choice did he have?
Arie Seazell stood up from his desk and extended his arms to Taran. “Let me help you with those,” he said, taking the books and scrolls beginning to slip from Taran’s grip.
Arie had been a junior professor when Taran’s mother, Jajeh, became the department’s librarian. While Jajeh worked, eight-year-old Taran would roam the library, sometimes sitting in a corner for hours reading about Recindian history, philosophical theories, or scientific treatises on everything from astronomy to zoology. Taran had become somewhat of a protégé to almost every professor in the department, especially Arie who told Taran that if he kept receiving good marks in his schooling, he might get a job at the university one day.
Taran could not imagine a better job than to read books and research all day, so he decided that that would be his future. Tobias Abraeu had not been thrilled about his only son’s career choice, hoping instead that Taran would carry on the family tradition of a career in the Compact military. But when he saw the excitement in Taran’s eyes when he opened a new book or learned a new fact, Tobias accepted that his son’s destiny would take a different road. That and Taran believed his mother’s influence had helped ease Tobias’s disappointment.
Arie placed the books and scrolls on an already impressive pile of books and scrolls on the desk. He nodded to the man who stood up from the chair in front of Arie’s desk.
“Taran, this is Kumar Ladak from the Ministry of Science.”
Taran shook hands with Ladak. The man was dressed well in a pressed, spotless black suit common to government officials. He wore an uncomfortable smile. Taran had seen that smile many times. No doubt Ladak was cringing at the thought of speaking to someone who—as Metia no doubt already explained—had supernaturalist beliefs.
Arie motioned Taran to a third chair to the left of Ladak. A second chair on Taran’s right was empty, which he assumed was because Metia refused to sit next to him.
“Doctor Abraeu,” Ladak began, his full, gray mustache twitching, “you have no doubt seen the…phenomenon in the sky this morning. The Recindian people are uneasy and want answers. The Speaker has ordered the Science Ministry to interview the brightest minds in Calaman’s three universities for any ideas regarding the phenomenon’s origins. My associates are now interviewing astronomers, chemists, physicists, Teachers, and even philosophers of…unconventional beliefs. My task is to—”
“Interview the Mystic cultist,” Taran said, grinning. When Ladak began to protest, Taran said, “It’s all right, sir, I’m used to it.”
He glanced at Metia who continued frowning at him.
Arie smiled. “Mr. Ladak, Doctor Abraeu is the Compact’s leading expert on Mystic legends. He has gathered the finest collection of ancient Mystic artifacts and documents on the entire Recindian continent. If the phenomenon has anything to do with the Mystics, Dr. Abreau will know it.”
Taran smiled at his friend, always grateful for Arie’s support, especially in front of government officials and Zampolits.
Ladak looked at Taran, almost afraid to ask the question. “Do you, er, have any theories about the phenomenon from a…Mystic perspective?”
“Yes I do,” Taran said. “According to the documents I’ve collected and the artifacts I’ve studied, the return of the rings in the sky heralds the return of the Mystics.”
Metia’s voice exploded. “Which means donkeys will start flying and fish will start talking, is that it?”
Taran shrugged without looking back at Metia. “I suppose it’s possible, if the Mystics willed it so.”
All the legends indeed said the Mystics had extraordinary abilities, magical powers that could bend nature to their wills. But he mostly said it to annoy Metia.
Metia calmed her voice, but she strode to Arie’s desk and leaned her fists on it, staring down at Taran and the official from the Science Ministry. With a cold, level voice, she said, “Mr. Ladak, these rings are nothing more than comet debris orbiting the world or something else just as natural. You should be questioning astronomers and physicists, not wasting your time on this…supernaturalist.”
One of the greatest heresies a Pathist could be accused of was being a “supernaturalist,” someone who shunned science, logic, and reason for beliefs that could not be empirically observed. Like the belief in Mystics or gods or magic. Though no one called him that in polite company, Taran had long ago accepted that it was what he was.
Ladak cleared his throat and ran a hand through his thin white hair. “I appreciate your concern, Zampolit, but the Science Ministry has already questioned those individuals, and so far none have a credible theory as to why these rings have appeared around the entire world. Despite what’s in the newspapers this morning, Ministry astronomers say that no meteors or comets were detected during their observations last night, nor have they received such reports from other observatories around the Compact. In fact, they say that to create the rings we see now would have taken the explosion of a meteor or comet that would have generated more destruction than the flash of light people saw when the rings appeared. Our telescopes can’t even determine the composition of these rings.”
Ladak sighed. “No scientific theory we know of can explain what these rings are and why they appeared. So the Speaker has ordered us to explore…alternative theories, regardless of how foolish”—a quick glance at Taran—“er, I mean unconventional, they may be.”
Metia grunted, then said in a low rumble, “The new Speaker is a fence-sitting Orlenian whose Pathist principles are no greater than his stature.”
Taran dared not smile at Metia’s grumbling. Ladak’s explanation must have annoyed her for her to resort to juvenile comments over Speaker Edoss’s height (Orlenians rarely grew over five feet tall). And anything that annoyed Metia was a good thing for a man whose career had suffered mostly by her hands.
Ladak said, “Be that as it may, we still need to question Dr. Abraeu without interruption, Zampolit. If you cannot stop another unconstructive outburst, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave.”
Metia’s fists clenched. She tried to stare down Ladak as if he were a first-year professor she caught uttering supernaturalist ideas to his students. Ladak returned her glare, unblinking. Metia glanced at Arie, who sat in his chair with his hands folded on his desk. She frowned, then leaned back against the wall, her arms folded. She did not look at Taran.
“Dr. Abraeu,” Ladak said, “you say these rings herald the return of the Mystics. If my mother’s bedtime stories are correct, the Mystics died out thousands of years ago, if they ever existed at all.”
“Oh, they existed,” Taran said. “Some say they died out, but I think they hid themselves. After the Faith Wars, the continent was in ruins. The Mystics had lost their powers during the wars so they could not alleviate the suffering. So the starving, diseased mobs naturally blamed the Mystics for everything, and began hunting them down. Without their powers, the Mystics were easy prey.”
“Why did the Mystics lose their powers?” Ladak asked.
“That’s where the rings come in,” Taran said. He grabbed one of the books he had brought, flipped through a few pages, then put the large, dusty book on the desk for Arie and Ladak to view. On the right page, was an ancient drawing of a group of people in white robes, all with one hand raised toward a multi-colored circle in the sky above them. Tendrils from the circle reached down and touched each upraised hand. On the other side of the picture were a group of people in black robes with one of their hands raised. Tendrils from a black circle above them touched their upraised hands. Each group pointed their other hands toward the opposite group. Multi-colored light shot from the hands of the white-robed people, while black rays shot from the hands of those wearing black. The streams of energy met in the middle of the picture above a large bridge spanning a river, and exploded into a burst of black and white.
Taran said, “According to the theology of our Turician neighbors to the north, there are two gods. Ahura, the Source of All Order, who inhabits the multi-colored ring. That is where the good Mystics get their power. And Angra—the god the Turicians call the Source of All Madness—inhabits the black ring. That is where the Mystics loyal to Angra, or harrowers, get their powers.”
“Ahura and Angra,” Ladak said, stroking his mustache. “They were the mythological gods of the two sides during the Faith Wars, yes?”
“Yes,” Taran said. “But after the Wars, all Mystics lost their powers, the good and the bad. I believe it was because the rings disappeared.”
Arie said, “Why did they disappear?”
Taran shook his head. “There are no records or even myths explaining what happened to the rings.”
Ladak stared at the book. “So where did the Mystics go after the rings disappeared?”
Taran searched through his pile of documents until he found a map of the northern Recindian continent. He rolled the map out, showing the entire region from the southern shores of the Gebremeden Sea to the northern tip of the Beldamark.
Taran pointed to the Beldamark. “After the Faith Wars, I believe the Mystics fled here.”
Metia sighed disgustedly behind Taran, and Ladak looked up at Taran with a diplomatic grin.
“Yes, I’ve heard stories about the Beldamark,” Ladak said. “Any ship that tries to land there is turned away by sudden storms, and those who try to walk into the Beldamark from Markwatch in Turicia find themselves turned around walking back toward Markwatch again. All stories.”
“Not exactly,” Taran said. “I’ve been to Markwatch. I’ve tried walking into the Beldamark and found myself walking the other way. Just like in the ‘stories.’ I would have walked all the way back to the town, too, if my guides had not stopped me and woke me up.”
Metia snorted, but Ladak asked, “So does the appearance of these rings mean that good and bad Mystics are going to start pouring out of the Beldamark?”
Taran shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Metia said, “You don’t know. What have you been doing for the past six years, Dr. Abraeu? Are you saying all these books and artifacts you’ve collected are worthless?”
“Of course not, Zampolit. But these books only tell me the ancient legends of the Mystics up until their disappearance after the Faith Wars. History has lost any information about what happened to them after the Wars.”
Arie asked, “What about the Ahura cults in the Perla Mountains? Wouldn’t they know something about the Mystics?”
“Not much more than what I’ve already told you,” Taran said. “The Ahura cults have never written anything down, preferring instead to pass on their legends and rituals orally. And they’re so scattered and disorganized among the Perlas that villages within five miles of each other may have completely different legends and rituals.”
“The Turicians have no more information to give you?” Ladak asked.
“The Turicians are very guarded and private about their faith,” Taran said. “But I’ve learned the main tenets, which are a belief in Ahura, that the Mystics are Ahura’s angels, and that it is Turicia’s sacred duty to keep the Beldamark safe from intruders. Everything else in their sacred texts is just moral dogma and rules for everyday living.”
Metia laughed. “So you’re telling us that from all your research, you’ve found no definitive proof that the Mystics even existed, much less are alive now?”
Arie and Ladak looked at him, expectant. There was a flash of lightning outside Arie’s window, and thunder rumbled across the city seconds later.
Taran said, “I have pictures in books that—”
“Yes,” Metia said, “‘pictures in a book,’ which are likely the works of fantasy by a bored farmer. I’m telling you, Mr. Ladak, this discussion is a waste of your time and bordering on heretical. You should be searching for the scientific and logical causes of these rings. Just because they’re a mystery to us now, doesn’t mean they’re supernatural.”
Taran turned to Metia, pointed at the picture in the book, and asked, “How do you explain the rings in this picture? Rather large coincidence, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” she said. “But a coincidence nonetheless.”
Ladak looked at Taran’s stack of scrolls and books. “Is there anything else in here that discusses the rings?”
“Well…I have no other pictures like this one,” Taran said.
Arie asked, “Do you have any other books or artifacts in your office that might help?”
Taran knew Arie was trying to help him, and he was grateful. But he also knew that nothing he had would offer the definitive proof for which Ladak was searching. If Taran had found that proof, he would have been vindicated long ago. Now, it seemed not even the appearance of the rings was enough.
Taran shook his head. “What I have here are the most informative texts. The rest of the books and scrolls I’ve collected tell the same histories or contain apocryphal legends that I’ve proven wrong by more reliable sources. Other than that, I have an old book with blank pages, and statues that depict Mystics with their hands raised like in the picture here.” With a hopeful grin, Taran said, “I’m afraid if you want more current information, you’ll have to go to the Beldamark.”
Thunder from the storm rattled Arie’s window as Ladak took out a pen and a small journal. As he wrote, he said, “So to summarize, Dr. Abraeu, you believe that these rings are named Ahura and Angra—er, which is which again?”
“Ahura is the colored ring and Angra is the black ring.”
“Yes, good. So, you believe that the appearance of these rings heralds the return of the Mystics. Correct?”
“Very good. Now then, what will happen if these Mystics return?”
Taran shrugged. “I suppose it’s possible they may start fighting each other again.”
“And what can we expect if that happens?”
Taran took another book from the pile on Arie’s desk, flipped through it, and opened it to a larger picture. “Here’s one from a book I wrote.”
Metia snorted. “How did you ever get a publisher to print one of your books?”
“I published it myself,” Taran said, then pointed to the sequoia photograph of a small mural painted on part of a wall. It showed horrific scenes of destruction: cities in flames, the ground splitting open, stars falling from the sky, and bodies too numerous to count laying amidst the destruction.
“I actually have this mural in my office, if you’d like to see it in color, Mr. Ladak.”
Inspecting the photograph with a frown, Ladak said, “That’s quite all right, Doctor. I believe I get the point.”
Taran said, “One thing you must understand is that the Mystics were a race that wielded a power that defies all laws of science as we know them.” Taran heard Metia sigh at his heresy, but he continued. “If these people return and start fighting again, our civilization will be caught in the middle. We will have to choose sides just as people did a thousand years ago.”
Ladak grinned. “Well I imagine we’d ally with the good faction, the one that worships this Ahura ring.”
“Many will, but many others could be lured over to the side of Angra. Many from within our own culture. During the Faith Wars, there were a lot of people openly working for the harrowers on the promise of power, riches, and immortality. Who’s to say that a sizable part of our own population won’t be seduced the same way? Or maybe even entire nations?”
Ladak finished writing just as another flash of lightning and peal of thunder rattled Arie’s window. The violence of it drew Taran’s gaze away from Ladak and to the wind-bent trees outside.
“Well, Dr. Seazell, Dr. Abraeu, Zampolit, I’d like to thank you for…”
Taran ignored Ladak’s offered hand and went to the window behind Arie’s desk. He pulled back the cream colored, lace drapes. A large cloud so black it seemed to be a hole in the sky clawed its way across the horizon from the south. It was the only black cloud in a grayish sky. Black lightning forked to the ground every few seconds, accompanied by explosions of thunder that now shook the walls of Arie’s office. The cloud was low, obscuring the three, seven-story Parliamentary Towers almost two miles away. Arie, Ladak, and even Metia crowded around the window next to Taran.
Metia said, “Just because that’s an odd storm doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.”
“You’re right,” Taran said. “But whatever it is, it’s coming this way fast.”
A black funnel cloud formed slowly in the sky at first, then struck the ground next to the Parliamentary Towers as fast as one of the lightning bolts. The cloud immediately cut two of the Towers in half, sending each half crashing to the ground in great explosions of debris and dust, the impact rattling Arie’s windows two miles away.
Metia gasped. “All those people…”
Taran could only stare at the destruction, his horror stamping out his ability to speak or think.
Around the monstrous cloud—now almost a half mile in diameter—more buildings, trees, and even a few steam trolleys were thrown into the air like leaves on a windy autumn day. The tornado’s roar was already deafening.
Arie yelled, “The basement. Now.”
He strode to the door of his office and into the waiting area. He told his assistant—who was staring out her own window—to get to the basement. Taran, Ladak, and Metia followed Arie into the hall, which was quickly filling with students heading to the stairs. Thunder shook the building, growing louder with each explosion and flash of lightning. Some of the male students laughed it off, showing their courage in front of the young women, but most students did not seem to be in a laughing mood. They followed their professors with fearful eyes and startled glances at the creaking roof, as each gust of wind seemed to tear off a chunk of the building outside.
Taran was following the students when he suddenly had an idea. He raced back to Arie’s office, ignoring Metia’s protests. He went to the window in the office again and pulled back the lace curtains.
The funnel cloud was closer, almost on top of the university. Green and black lightning flashed within the cloud, forking to the ground. Taran saw one of the forks cause a townhouse just outside the university grounds to explode into flames. An acrid stench filled the air, like when he walked past the chemistry labs in Yedric Hall.
Taran looked past the cloud and up at the rings. The swirling colors of Ahura were completely obscured by the cloud, but Angra’s blackness showed right through. Just as he expected, thin, black tendrils snaked down from Angra into the cloud, like Angra was feeding the storm’s fury. Another larger black tendril touched the ground to the east of the cloud, near Calaman’s Orlenian Quarter a few miles from the university.
“Abreau, what in Luten’s name are you doing?” Metia shouted from the open door over the exploding thunder outside. “Get away from the window!”
“Look at this, Metia,” Taran said, pointing to the black tendrils of Angra reaching from the cloud and into the city. “Is this just a coincidence?”
Metia raced over to Taran, and without looking at the window, punched him in the jaw. Taran felt the world black out for a moment and he fell back onto the small table next to the window. The large woman pulled his arm around her shoulder and half carried, half dragged him out of the office. He was too dazed to resist.
The halls were already clear, except for a few stragglers racing for the spiral staircase. Through the haze of pain, surprise, and anger, Taran heard the roof above them crack and groan under the storm’s onslaught. They reached the stairwell just as the windows in the second floor classrooms exploded.
In the stairwell were several dozen students who had not yet made it down to the basement. Through the screams and shouts of the panicked students, Taran heard Arie shout from below, “Taran, what happened?”
Taran looked down through the dim, dusty haze, and saw Arie making his way up toward him and Metia. “I thought you were right behind me.”
He grabbed Taran’s other arm and tried to wrap it around his neck, but Taran pushed them both away. “I can walk on my own,” he said.
The students crowding the staircase continued downward, past the exploding windows on each floor, and down into the storage basement. Almost a hundred other students and faculty were already in the basement, huddling near the dank, moldy walls.
Ladak pushed through the students when he saw Arie, Taran, and Metia. He pointed behind them, “There’s more space back there.”
All four moved toward the back of the basement, and stood before two life-sized marble statues of old Calamanian kings from three hundred years ago. Taran glanced up at the small window just above his head. The bushes outside were being shredded by the strong winds and rain. Loud cracks and rips echoed from above them as the storm tore through Shalliford Hall. Taran no longer heard any of the boastful male students laughing, as the realization sunk in that the building may collapse on top of them. Everyone stared up at the groaning floorboards, willing them to hold strong. For what seemed like an eternity, the storm raged outside.
And then it stopped as if someone switched it off.
Taran looked up at the window, saw that the bushes were no longer moving and that rain no longer fell. As Taran watched, the sun began to light up the grounds.
Ladak stood on a box and gazed out the window through which Taran was looking. “It’s over?”
“That was rather sudden,” Taran said. He then waded through the students toward the stairs.
He made his way to the first floor, stepped past broken glass, stray papers, debris from the walls and ceiling. He looked up at several holes and gashes in the ceiling allowing sunlight and torrents of water to flood through.
Taran stepped outside and looked up. Ahura and Angra shown in the clear blue sky, but there was no storm cloud in any direction Taran looked, not even the rain clouds from earlier. One moment the black cloud had filled the sky above the city, and then it had disappeared. Taran looked to Angra, but saw no black tendrils reaching down to the city like when the storm raged.
He looked down the hill into the valley in which most of Calaman sat. Two of the three Parliamentary Towers had toppled, and a mile-wide swath of destruction marked the storm’s path through the city. The path wound its way through the valley from the north and ended at the docks on Lake Maximohr. Beyond the docks, the sky was blue, and the green waters sparkled in the sunlight.
Behind him, Arie, Ladak, and Metia stared at the sky with as much shock on their faces as he assumed was on his.
Ladak said, “I think the Speaker will want to hear more about your Mystic theories, Doctor.”
© 2012 Rob Steiner