by Rob Steiner
Keahra fled through the dark forest, ignoring the brambles that tugged at her cloak and flesh. She did not know where she was going, nor did she care. As long as it was farther and farther from the Guardian obelisk. She even feared stopping to listen for her pursuers. She was a prisoner to Fear, contrary to everything she had learned as a Tuathan Acolyte. But her order had never prepared her for this.
It took a blind fall into a small creek to stop her panicked flight. The cold water shocked her mind and body into forgetting its panic, and she reasserted her control. She paused and listened for the two murderers.
The sounds of cracking branches and rustling leaves drifted to her in the still night. They were coming.
She looked around, saw a small alcove where the roots of a nearby oak tree had made a natural cave in the embankment. She eased her cut and bruised body through the frigid, muddy water toward the root cave, maneuvering herself all the way into the dark shelter. She calmed her breathing, and then waited in the cold, chest-deep water.
Her pursuers grew closer until Keahra heard their voices and footfalls at the top of the bank.
“Wait,” a man said in a deep, angry voice. Keahra assumed it was the same man she had watched stab poor Jyla in the heart back at the Guardian. “Listen.”
A pause, then in a loud whisper, “I don’t hear anything.” It was a woman’s voice, sounding as cruel as the man’s. The woman had held Jyla down while the man took her life.
The woman said, “We have to find her. They can’t know, not yet.”
“It’s all right,” the man said. “We’ll find her once Angra comes. We need to get back to the obelisk. It’s almost time.”
Angra? Keahra had heard stories about harrowers infiltrating the Beldamark ever since she was a child, but she always thought they were tales to keep Tuathan children in line. Be good, or the harrowers will come for you, her father would say. They can’t have children like normal people, so they take bad children to raise as their own. Even as a child, Keahra knew the tales were nothing but tales.
Only minutes ago, Keahra had walked to the Guardian outside the town of Grayven to relieve Jyla’s vigil. When she rounded a corner along the two-wheel track through the woods, she saw a large red-haired woman holding a crying Jyla’s arms behind her back. Keahra arrived just in time to see the man plunge a dagger into Jyla’s chest. Jyla’s eyes grew wide for a moment, then settled into an unseeing stare. The red-haired woman let Jyla fall to the ground. That was when she looked up and saw Keahra. Without thinking, Keahra fled through the woods.
So if these vile people were harrowers, what were they doing at the Guardian? The obelisk Guardians were among the last places left in the Beldamark that held the magical Aspects of Ahura. Whatever they wanted to do, it was not for Ahura’s glory.
With the heavy weight of priestly responsibility, Keahra knew she had to go back and see what the harrowers were doing at the obelisk. If she could return to Fedalan and report to the Master Circle everything she saw, they would have more information with which to formulate a plan of action. Whether or not these people were harrowers, they were murderers, and Keahra would not let them get away with the murder of a fellow priest and friend.
Keahra waited until she no longer heard the murderers before she crawled out of the muddy pool beneath the tree roots. Wet, cold, and dirty, she made her way quietly through the thick, brambly woods to the Guardian, pausing now and then to listen for movement. She took a roundabout way back, not wanting to risk returning along the same path she had used to flee. Animals scurried away from her in the dark, each one causing her heart to skip a beat and forcing her to stop and listen for the sounds of pursuit.
As she neared the Guardian, she took even more care not to make a sound. Every crushed pine cone or rustle of her cloak made her wince. When she reached the clearing of manicured grass encircling the obelisk, she looked on in shock at the Guardian’s golden tip. A gray light waxed and waned from the tip…something only legends said it was capable of doing. Not since the Barrier had gone up had the obelisk been activated like that. Not for a thousand years.
Keahra sensed the forest around her hush, as if every animal and tree had stopped to see what came next. Keahra had the same feeling of expectation, that any moment would bring—
The gray light pulses quickened, speeding up to the point where it seemed to solidify. It made no sound, nor did the forest.
A blast of energy exploded from the Guardian, sending a wave of cold air at Keahra that made her stagger backward. A gray beam of light shot into the night sky toward the stars. The beam arced slightly to the northeast, its head growing fainter, but still remaining bright. Keahra was astounded to see other beams arcing into the sky from what she assumed to be distant Guardians from around the Beldamark. Keahra counted twenty-five beams, from all twenty-five Guardians. The beams sped toward each other, heading toward a single point in the dark heavens.
After several seconds, the beams from all the Guardians met. A flash of light brighter than the midday sun exploded soundlessly, and Keahra had to turn her eyes lest she be blinded. She spent several seconds blinking away the starbursts filling her sight before she looked at the sky again.
Two parallel bands of light stretched across the sky from the northern horizon to the southern horizon. One filled with swirling colors, like a rainbow reflecting off a shimmering pond; the other blacker than any darkness Keahra had ever seen, making the night sky behind it bright as the moon in comparison. The rainbow-like band gave Keahra feelings of warmth, joy, and peace when she stared into its swirling colors. The black band, however, seemed to claw at Keahra’s soul.
She wanted to turn away from the black band, but her eye caught two black tendrils snaking down from the band, like trails of ink dropped in a glass of water. Her heart leaped into her throat for a moment, for the tendrils seemed to speed straight for her like two bolts of dark lightning. But at the last moment, they veered toward the Guardian, piercing the now unlit golden tip as if it were no more solid than a wall of mist. Keahra stared at the black tendrils as they undulated about the tip of the obelisk like angry snakes.
The wood door at the base of the obelisk shattered. Keahra turned away just as her back was pelted with the door’s needle-like splinters. She dove to the ground, ignoring the wood shards in her shoulders and back, and then peered through the undergrowth at the entrance.
One of the murderers, the woman, flew out the door and landed hard on the grassy clearing, tumbling over and over before stopping. She leaped to her feet, one of the black tendrils touching her left hand raised above her head. The man ran out the door, paused for a moment, his crazed eyes finding the woman, a snarl twisting his bearded face. His left hand was also raised above his head, and a black tendril touched it. He screamed in a language that was alien yet familiar to Keahra, then charged toward the woman.
The woman stood her ground, waited for the man to come within ten paces before pointing her right hand at the man. A wave of black energy shot forth and enveloped the man. Terrible nausea seized Kearha, but her discomfort was nothing compared to what enveloped the man. He screamed a terrible, animal-like howl when the black energy hit him. She saw the man as if through heat waves shimmering off beach sand during high summer. The man’s features melted, merged, then folded in on themselves. His screams changed, grew deeper and then shrill, impossible from a human throat.
The woman kept the black energy flowing over the man as he fell to his knees—or what became his knees in his new tortured form. He no longer made any sound, but the woman laughed maniacally, shouting in the same strange language the man had used. She did not stop until the man dissolved into the ground, leaving a blackened, wet patch of earth where his body had been.
Keahra wanted to vomit. She held back the urge, but in doing so, she involuntarily grunted.
The woman’s head whipped around, and she stared straight at Keahra with glistening, obsidian eyes.
Keahra’s body froze beneath that unnatural gaze. As the black energy engulfed her, she retained enough of her wits to realize she would be Ahura’s first martyr in over a thousand years.
© 2012 Rob Steiner