by Rob Steiner
“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.