by Rob Steiner
“Ladak?” Taran said when Edoss told him about the Fomorian outside the wagon. “That’s impossible. I… How could he be a Fomorian?”
Edoss said, “I don’t know.”
Taran was stunned that the man he thought he had torn to pieces now stood outside the shield. Had the Ladak Taran killed been an illusion, too?
Though his hands were still bound, he balled them into fists and slammed them down on the floor of the wagon. “He saw my daughter,” Taran said. “He saw her in the picture I showed him. That’s how he created the illusion of her.”
So kill him again if he makes you so angry, the dark voice said. Taran’s hands shook, for he wanted to do just that.
“He wants the Tuathans to hand you over to him,” Edoss said.
“So either I’m executed by the Tuathans, or given to the Fomorians to become one of their harrowers.”
“Taran,” Edoss said, “I can’t begin to understand what you are or what you can do. But you are a Compact citizen, and it is my duty to keep you safe. I will not let the Tuathans kill you, Doctor Abreau, nor let them give you to the Fomorians.”
Taran locked stares with the Speaker. Edoss couldn’t do much if the Tuathans, much less the Fomorians, decided they wanted to keep Taran. Still, he appreciated the Speaker’s willingness to fight for him.
“Thank you, Excellency. You’re a good man.” With a rueful grin, Taran said, “I’m sorry I didn’t vote for you.”
Edoss returned his grin. “Well I damn well better have it in the next election.”
Edoss’s grin melted when they heard several people screaming from the other end of the column. When gunfire erupted, Edoss jumped out of the wagon, as did Taran.
Outside was chaos. Tuathans ran toward them from the front of the column, while priests and Heshmen ran in the opposite direction. The Shadarlak surrounding the wagon immediately formed a protective circle around Edoss and Taran, causing Edoss to peer between their shoulders to see what was happening.
When Cursh entered the Shadarlak circle, Edoss shouted, “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know, but I think the shield just fell.”
Taran looked up and noticed for the first time that the bluish translucence of the shield no longer surrounded them.
Unholy shrieks burst from the forest behind the column. Dozens of Tainted monstrosities—multi-limbed, glistening, barbed tentacles—chased panicked Tuathans toward the beach. Six or seven Shadarlak ran behind the last of the Tuathans, covering their flight with revolver fire in a running retreat. A dozen Heshmen also covered the Tuathans, tossing spears and shooting arrows at the beasts.
But bullets and spears did not stop the Tainted. One of the monsters wrapped its tentacles around a Shadarlak and pulled him into the air, where several more clawed legs ripped the screaming man in half and tossed both sections to the side.
Captain Laesh burst through the circle of Shadarlak and pulled Edoss toward the beach without an apology over his rough handling. Taran followed, leaping into a sprint toward the beach. As they ran, Captain Laesh took a knife from his belt and cut Taran’s bindings. Taran was grateful, but with the Tuathan barrier surrounding him, he could Wield neither Ahura nor Angra to fight the Tainted. After only two days of Wielding, he already felt helpless knowing he could not touch either ring.
As if on cue, the dark voice in his mind laughed quietly.
The road turned and twisted between abandoned, crumbling thatch huts and log buildings before ending at two stone piers on the beach. All along the beach, people ran into the waves to escape the braying, screeching Tainted loping after them. Taran wondered if the panicked Tuathans expected to swim to Turricia.
Taran watched in awed horror as the Heshmen and the Shadarlak formed up ranks, side by side, creating a line so the Tainted could not reach the fleeing Tuathans charging into the waves. Edoss formed his men into firing lines, while Laesh commanded a second group of Shadarlak. Heshmen captains cried out orders to their men. The men had just formed their ranks when the Tainted horde slammed into them. Arrows, spears, sabers, and bullets filled the air. Though no Tainted seem to die, many fell to the ground, thrashing about without limbs severed by the humans. But many more—too many more—leaped over their flailing brethren and engaged the small army in a melee of spurting tubes, sabers, and spears.
Taran turned to his left and saw Fatimah running toward him, tears streaming down her face. “I cannot find Eblin. You have to help me find Eblin!”
Taran grabbed a hold of Fatimah’s shoulders, glancing at the howling Tainted just a few paces away. “Where did you see her last?”
“She was— I was right beside her when…when the shield fell. After that…” She looked at Taran, shame contorting her face. “I left her. I ran, and I left her.”
“Fatimah, I’ll help you find her,” Taran said, “but you have to help me. Can you remove this barrier around me?”
Fatimah shook her head. “I do not know how. It was something Melahara discovered.” She scanned the panicked mass of Tuathans along the beach, and screamed, “Eblin! Eblin!”
“Fatimah,” Taran shouted. “You have to try, or I can’t help you.”
She stared at him, as if searching his soul for something. Taran knew what it was.
“Fatimah, I am not a harrower.” The dark voice laughed. You’re becoming a good liar.
Fatimah looked at him for a desperate moment, then raised her hand to Ahura, closed her eyes, and said an incantation. A multi-colored tendril of Ahura weaved down from the ring and caressed Fatimah’s hand. Fatimah put a hand on Taran’s heart. Her brow furrowed. She tilted her head from side to side, as if looking for something she could not find. Moments later she opened her eyes, frustration filling them.
“I cannot find it—”
“Try again, Fatimah,” Taran said. He pointed to the slaughter going on only a dozen paces away. “They won’t last much longer.”
She closed her eyes again, and the tendril of Ahura returned to her hand. After several moments, a horrible shriek filled the air, and Taran looked up to see one of the Tainted break through the ranks of the Heshmen and Shadarlak. Its four gray limbs pumped hard straight for him and Fatimah. The sun glistened sickeningly off its mottled skin and five moist, barbed legs.
Taran wondered briefly what this poor creature had once been. He wondered, too, what would happen to him if he fell into Fomorian hands and they turned him into some version of that thing. Better to die from it than to become it.
And then the barrier was gone. Fear, anger, and frustration at the Tainted attack overwhelmed Taran, and he reached for Angra rather than Ahura. A black tendril from the ring forked down to his outstretched hand, and he directed all his hatred and loathing at the creature about to attack him and Fatimah. Flames burst from the beast’s various mouths, consuming the monster’s entire body in a flash, as if it were dry grass. Nothing was left but cloud of ash dispersing on the sea breeze.
But his anger was not appeased. He pointed at the entire line of Tainted that were slaughtering the Heshmen and Shadarlak. One by one, up and down the line, they exploded into flames. The Tainted were immolated so fast that Shadarlak in mid-swing with their sabers sliced through air, and Heshmen stabbed with their spears at flaming ash.
When all the monsters were destroyed, and none flowing from the huts and alleys nearby, the Tuathans and the Recindians glanced at one another in disbelief. They did not stand around long, for Edoss and the Heshman captains ordered their men to form up ranks again to protect the mass of panicked Tuathans gathering in the water and on the stone piers.
Taran held on to Angra, searching for something else to destroy. Now kill them all, the dark voice said, before they kill you!
“No!” Taran screamed. Then with a great force of will, he released Angra. The crush of Mundane senses returned.
Taran looked at Fatimah, who stared at him with wide eyes. She took a couple of steps backward.
“We need to find Eblin now,” Taran said. “Please don’t look at me like that Fatimah. I can control it. I can…”
Fatimah gave him a pitiful look and shook her head. “It will destroy you.”
Before Taran could respond, he felt a crushing force, like a large invisible hand, grab him around the torso and fling him into the air above the beach. He flew several dozen paces over the abandoned village toward the edge of the forest nearby. He fell onto the muddy road from which he had just fled, the impact knocking the breath from his lungs and stunning him. Gasping for breath, he looked up.
Kumar Ladak squatted in front of him, his gray eyes bright beneath his tri-corner hat.
“Hello, Taran. We need to talk.”