ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 31

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 31

Taran felt as if he had just shut his eyes when Fatimah gently nudged him awake.  “Taran,” she said.  “It is time to leave.”

Taran groaned, then sat up on the small bed.  The bed in the empty priest apartment was more of a cot, which explained Taran’s sore back after only four hours of sleeping on it.  At least he had not dreamed.

“You told me to wake you in four hours,” Fatimah said.

“I know,” Taran said, rubbing his sleep-crusted eyes.  “I’ve just always been a grumpy riser.  You wouldn’t happen to have coffee in this place?”

Fatimah shook her head.  “We have tea.  Though very little is left.”

Taran stood.  “Nevermind.  I’ll be fine.”

As they walked through the arches on their way to the Heiron’s first level, Taran and Fatimah had to weave their way through a line of young Acolytes carrying baskets full of books, parchments, and artifacts from the library.  Anything that could be carried on the backs of the priests was leaving the Heiron.

But not all of the Tuathan treasure was to come with the refugees.  Some artifacts, like the Window or the Crucible, were simply too heavy to carry in the Tuathan dash to the sea coast.  It was one of the reasons Ollis Gray and a token group of priests and Heshmen had chosen to stay behind.  Fatimah had explained to Taran before his nap that Gray also wanted to find the isolated pockets of Tuathans still living throughout the Beldamark who could not flee, or who simply wanted to stay.  Taran respected Gray’s courage in choosing to stay in a land overrun with harrowers and Tainted, but knew his fear of the world outside the Beldamark was part of the decision.  Taran could hardly blame the man—he suspected most Pathist leaders would choose to stay in the Compact if it were overrun by Mazumdahri than to live in relative peace among the Tuathans, where magic was a part of daily life.

If all of the pressure riding on Taran’s shoulders was not unbearable before, it became so now as he entered the large circular room on the Heiron’s first level.  He saw the bedraggled and hollow faces of all the Tuathans gathered there.  As he walked among them, many old women grabbed his hand and mumbled, “Ahura bless you,” while old men gave him quiet, hopeful stares.  Even the children were subdued and grim while standing or sitting next to their parents or grandparents.  Everyone he saw wore as many of their buckskin and woolen clothes as they could fit on their bodies, and stored their remaining possessions in leather packs at their feet.  Most packs overflowed with more clothes, food, and treasured trinkets.  Some families even had skinny dogs beside them, some sitting up and staring at their masters expectantly, while others simply lay on their stomachs with their heads on their paws.

And the smell of all those unwashed bodies in such a close space was as overwhelming to Taran as their stares.  Taran grew up in a modern, Compact city where bathing was a daily ritual for most people.  Even the odors coming from his own body were enough to make him grimace.

All of these people expected Taran to see them safely through the Beldamark and beyond.  Taran wanted to shout at them that their faith in him was misplaced, that he was no more talented at Wielding than he was with a saber or revolver.  But he would not.  If Taran’s presence gave them hope, better they had some hope to cling to.  Even if it was a false hope.

The Tuathans had organized themselves into groups of twenty or so.  A scarlet-sashed priest shouted out instructions to each group, telling them the route they were to take to the sea and what to do while marching there.  Even the priests tended to give him sideways glances as they spoke to their groups, and some stopped speaking altogether to watch him pass or to bow their heads.  He tried returning their respectful bows, but was soon feeling dizzy from all the bowing.  He simply gave them quick nods.

“Dr. Abraeu,” said a voice nearby.

Taran would have missed Edoss if the Speaker—or former Speaker—had not been accompanied by four stone-faced Shadarlak in their green tri-corner hats.  The top of Edoss’s head barely made it to the shoulders of his bodyguards.

“Are you ready for this, Doctor?” Edoss asked.

“What if I said no?”

The Speaker smiled.  “I know the feeling.  Just concentrate on one task at a time.  Before you know it, you’ll be done.”

“You’re the second person who’s told me that today,” Taran said, glancing at Fatimah beside him.

“Then there must be wisdom in it,” Edoss said.  He extended his hand, and Taran shook it.

“I don’t know if you are what they say you are,” Edoss said, “but I know you have courage in you.  I can see it.  Whatever happens today, do not quit.”

Taran nodded, felt at least that much was true.  Whatever he did today, he would not quit.  If he could not get through this, he would never see Mara or Ahdera again.  It was that simple.  If he was going to die, he was going to die trying to get home.

Taran held his head a little higher.  “Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Lee Cursh said, approaching them from where he had been talking with Melahara.  “The Holy Seat is waiting for us.”

Taran glanced at Melahara, who stood near the Heiron entrance where hundreds more Tuathans talked quietly to each other.  Edoss gave Taran a reassuring pat on the arm, then followed Cursh toward Melahara, where a dozen Shadarlak surrounded them.

Taran and Fatimah approached the great doors once again, and had to wait while Ollis, Eblin, and the other Circle members made their way through the Tuathans toward Melahara and Edoss.  Taran saw them trying to give the people reassuring smiles and words, while he knew they struggled to stay calm themselves.

And then he suddenly wondered how he knew that each Circle member was a roiling sea of fear and anxiety.  The situation obviously called for such emotions, but they were not apparent on the faces of the Tuathan leaders.  Did Wielding Ahura increase his empathy toward others?  It was just one more symptom of Wielding that Taran would not have to endure two days from now.  Whatever the outcome.

When the Master Circle had reached Melahara, Taran saw Gray say a few words to Melahara and Eblin.  Taran had watched Gray argue with the two women many times, but now he saw worry on all three faces.  Gray quickly embraced each woman, and then retreated into the crowd.  Melahara looked at Taran, and then gave him a slow nod.

Taran turned to the four Shadarlak at the door and ordered them to open it.  Ten Shadarlak took up positions in front of Taran and the Tuathans, their revolvers drawn and aimed at the doors.  The Shadarlak at the door turned the cranks that unbarred the doors, and then swung the doors open.  Through the lowered portcullis, the sky was dark, though the sun had an hour to go before it set.  Roiling black clouds formed ominously above the town and the hills to the east, the direction in which they were about to travel.  The Tuathans behind Taran began to murmur.

“They know we are coming,” Fatimah breathed next to Taran.

“It’s just a storm,” Taran said.  He scanned the horizon around the town.  “I see no Angra trails.”

“Even if it is the harrowers,” Melahara said, “it matters not.  We leave today.”

Taran called out to the gate keepers above the portcullis, and they began cranking their gears.  The portcullis creaked up into the ceiling.  When the cranking stopped, all was silent.  Not a sound came from the town, nor a whisper of wind.  Even the murmurs from the hundreds of people behind Taran were gone.

Captain Laesh, standing in front of Taran, barked an order.  The other nine Shadarlak—including the men who had opened the door—jogged outside the gate and took up positions in a semicircle in front of the door.  One by one, they all held up a closed fist, giving Taran the all-clear sign.

Taran clenched his teeth and walked out the door, beneath the portcullis, and into the center of the Shadarlak semicircle.  Fatimah walked close behind him, followed by the six other priests who would maintain the shield from him once his strength gave out.  The air outside was fresh, and the smell of rain hung over him.  It gave Taran a sense of well-being, which he welcomed at the moment.  He would need all the calm and peace he could muster for Wielding the shield.

He raised his right hand into the air and repeated the incantation the priests accompanying General Myndehr had used yesterday, while concentrating on the times he loved the most, and the times he felt the most loved.

“‘The Shield of Spirit, protect us.  May no obstacle stand before us…’”

It was getting easier now to empty his mind and concentrate on the incantations and his memories.  All of his doubts and anxieties washed away as if he had turned off a ringing wiretype.  When the peace washed over him, he felt Ahura touch him, and then he searched the swirling colors for the Aspects of Spirit and Air that would Wield the shield around him and the hundreds of Tuatha that would follow.  He found all the Spirit and Air he could gather, molded them together, infused them with all the desperation of their situation—

His eyes shot open, and he saw the bubble of blue light expand silently from his outstretched hand.  It engulfed the semicircle of Shadarlak in front of him, and continued onward, taking in the entire lower half of the Heiron and almost the entire field surrounding the great tower.

Taran had never felt this much joy.  Peace surged through him.  When someone from behind nudged him, he almost ignored it.  He did not want to let anything distract him from Ahura’s love coursing through his body and soul.  He felt the nudge again, this time accompanied by a woman’s voice.

“Move forward, Taran.”

This time a small bit of anger crept into him, and he felt the shield weaken.  He turned to the source of the voice, and saw Fatimah watching him.  He suddenly remembered why he was Wielding this shield, and what he was supposed to do.

The shield of Spirit and Air now encompassed the entire green field around the Heiron, enough to safely contain all of the Tuathans huddled inside.  He wanted nothing more than to cling to the Aspects forever.  But thoughts of Mara entered his mind, bringing him back to the whole reason why he was here.  He refocused his thoughts now on maintaining the shield.  Maintenance took far less Wielding of the Aspects, so Taran felt most of the peace and joy flooding through him dissipate.  It was so hard to let go, but he consoled himself with the fact that he still held on to much more of the Aspects than any Tuathan could.

Taran walked forward, and the Shadarlak in front of him moved out of his way.  All of them continued to scan the town and the surrounding hills for signs of Tainted.  But they also glanced his way once or twice, their expressions just as wary of him as they were when they searched for harrowers.  Where the Tuathans saw a savior, the Shadarlak saw the refutation of all that they had been brought up to believe.  Taran could not blame them for their fear.

As he walked down the Heiron’s steps, the Shadarlak took up marching positions around him, surrounding him in a square as their mates were doing around Dylan Edoss.

Taran saw with satisfaction that the shield moved ahead of him with each step.  He did not have to look behind him to know that the Tuathans were filing out of the Heiron, for he could hear their hearts beating.  Wielding the Aspects not only filled him with addictive joy, but also enhanced all five of his normal senses.

“How do you feel?” Fatimah asked from beside him.

He smiled.  “Like I’m alive for the first time in my life.  Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” she said wistfully.  “But be sure you pay attention to your fatigue.  If you fall over from exhaustion before one of us can take over the shield—”

“I know what will happen.  I won’t let the shield fall.”

He knew what to look for: blurred vision, head pains, and an uncontrollable desire to sleep.  Essentially all the signs of normal exhaustion.  But while normal exhaustion would be cured after a good night’s sleep, true Wielding fatigue might mean he never woke up.

Taran wondered how he could let go of the Aspects after experiencing this joy, a thought he had each time he Wielded.  Would he have the strength to know when he had had enough?  Would he have to fall unconscious to give up the power coursing through him?  In the short amount of time he had known how to Wield, he had not had the opportunity to test his limits.  How long could he last Wielding this much of the Aspects?

Right now he felt like he could strengthen the shield to contain the entire Beldamark.  But the priests around him could barely maintain the size of the shield as it was, much less a shield hundreds of miles in diameter.  He forced himself to keep it to the size they needed.  And nothing more.

At the bottom of the stairs, Taran stopped and asked Fatimah, “Is everyone inside the shield?”

He did not want to turn around and check for himself, for he did not want to see anything that would break his concentration on the road in front of him.

“Yes,” she said, craning her neck to see above the priests next to them.  “With room to spare.”

Taran nodded, and then started up the road through the abandoned and ruined town.  The road was deserted, unlike two nights ago when it churned with misshapen Tainted and Angra tendrils.  In the sky, black clouds continued to creep toward them, and Taran saw green lightning flash within them.  A peal of thunder soon followed, and Taran knew that rain was going to deluge them at any moment.  The shield would not protect the people from the rain, so it was going to be a miserable hike to the coast.

He did not know if it was the Aspects surging through him that gave him confidence, but he stepped onto Fedalan’s main street with steady legs and a courage he knew was not his own.

Book Review: The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish

Originally posted at New Podler Review of Books.

Harruq and Qurrah Tun are half-elf/half-orc brothers who’ve been mocked and beaten their whole lives for their mixed blood. They eke out a living in squalid conditions through odd jobs and thievery, only wanting to be left alone. But trouble always finds them in the form of silent scowls on the street, drunken fools eager for a fight, or corrupt guardsmen tossing them out of the city for being “elfies.”

One day they meet a mysterious dark mage named Velixar who promises them respect and wealth in exchange for their allegiance. With nothing to lose, the brothers accept the bargain and gain more power then they ever dreamed.

Harruq had always desired strength and martial prowess to fight back against those who would bully him and his brother—Velixar grants him two magical swords, magical armor, and thirty extra pounds of muscle.

Qurrah had always desired arcane knowledge so he could rule, rather than be ruled—Velixar teaches him to wield dark magic, enabling him to haunt the dreams of his enemies and kill with a single word.

Velixar then gives the two brothers the overwhelming desire to use their new power. They do terrible things to appease their master, things that ultimately start a war between the humans and elves.

To further complicate matters, Harruq secretly trains with a beautiful elf-mage named Aurelia, to whom he owes his life. She is the only joy Harruq has in his dark existence, and he desperately clings to the happiness he experiences during their sparring sessions, even as he later performs dark deeds for his master. Harruq keeps his two lives secret from one another, for his brother is deeply loyal to Velixar, and Harruq fears Aurelia’s horrible reaction if she learns what he and Qurrah do for for their dark master.

But Harruq is ultimately forced to choose between his brother and the elf woman he loves. In the author’s words: “To side with one means to turn on another. No matter Harruq’s decision, someone he loves will die.”

The Weight of Blood is very much an anti-hero novel, and anti-hero novels are tricky. The author needs to make the heroes sympathetic while they perform deeds normally reserved for the villains. Dalglish does a good job describing the hard lives of the characters, which gives readers insight into how Velixar can talk Harruq and Qurrah into doing such vile things.

Despite knowing Harruq and Qurrah come from a troubled background, however, it was still hard to care about them because of the things they did. Near the end, when they had a moment of clarity to ponder the evil they inflicted on innocent people, they simply shrugged it off, as if they stole an apple rather than committed mass murder. I had hoped for more of a guilty conscience, which would’ve given me a reason to root for them rather than just pity them.

The author mentioned in the Afterward that Qurrah and Harruq will “stand on their own” in future novels. I hope that’s true. These two characters could be really fascinating, and I’d love to see them in a story where they are the masters of their own destiny and not pawns of someone else.

Despite my reservations with the anti-hero structure, I thought Weight of Blood was beautifully written and well-edited. It hit all the right beats for a fantasy adventure novel, and I highly recommend it to fantasy fans who grew up with Dragonlance and R.A. Salvatore novels.

But just know going in that you won’t find heroic protagonists within its pages.

The Weight of Blood—and the rest of the Half-Orcs Series—is available in print and all ebook formats through ddalglish.com.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 30

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 30

Fear kept Karak from reaching out and breaking Crane’s neck while the witchman led him through dark twisting corridors in whatever dungeon Karak was a prisoner.  Karak feared Crane might not die, and he feared what Crane might do to him if he failed.  But Karak’s fear enraged him even more.  Not only was he angry that he was a prisoner, but that the only thing keeping him from doing something about it was…himself.

“What is this place?” Karak asked in a strained voice.  He wanted to do anything to get his mind off his self-loathing, and if that meant talking to Crane, so be it.

“This is my house,” Crane said, glancing back at him with a gruesome smile.  Karak could not help but stare at all those teeth each time Crane smiled.  Maybe that was why Crane smiled so much.

“More precisely, the catacombs beneath my house.  Do you like it?”

“It’s dark,” Karak said.

Crane laughed.  “Yes, I suppose it is.  Sort of cliché of me, yes?  The evil demon with his own personal underworld.”

“The thought occurred to me.”

Crane clicked his tongue as his black, gnarled cane tapped the stone floor with each step.  “You must realize, Mr. Frost, that appearances are not always what they seem.  You believe that I am evil, but I can assure you I work for the greater good of all.  Only through my patron’s wisdom can the world renew itself into something stronger and fitter to survive, to thrive even.”

Crane turned his head to Karak again and grinned.  “Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.  Where is the fun if I tell you everything now?  If you are like me, it will take a…demonstration to make you a believer.”

Crane continued on, whistling a strange tune that Karak had never heard.

They made several turns in the dank, dark corridors, and Karak began to wonder if Crane was lost, or if he was going in circles to confuse Karak.  Every corridor looked the same.  All were lit by torches that Karak thought would take an army of servants to maintain.  All were made of sharp red bricks laid in such careless, haphazard rows that Karak was amazed the corridors had not caved in.  They would occasionally pass iron-banded wooden doors with small, barred windows in the center.  Karak glanced into each one, but saw only darkness.  In one, he heard what sounded like a giggling child, and it made the hairs on his arms stand.  In another, he heard someone retch, and then a sickening splatter.

“Where are we going?” Karak asked, more to mask the terrible moaning he heard from a passing door than out of curiosity.

“You will see when we get there,” Crane said, then continued whistling.  But two steps later, he stopped in front of an iron-banded door similar to the dozen or so they had passed.  “Ah, here we are.”

Karak peered through the barred window, but just as in all the others, he saw only darkness.  At least there were no horrid sounds or foul smells coming from this one.  Crane produced a blackened key from his pocket, inserted it into the lock, then pushed open the door.

For a moment, Karak wondered if this was where Crane was going to put him, that he would end up like the other sorry souls behind the previous doors, spending the rest of his life retching and giggling in the dark.

But Karak’s dread turned to awe in an instant.  Through the door, Karak saw what could only be described as the sun lit suite of a king.  Crane stopped a few steps from the door, turned, and said, “Do not dally, Mr. Frost.  My patron hates waiting.”

Crane waited for Karak to take his halting steps into the room, then pushed the door closed with a heavy slam.  Karak turned and saw that there was no door behind him.  It was a seamless white plaster wall with a small portrait of a grim-faced woman standing on the deck of a ship with stormy seas behind her.  Her eyes seemed to stare directly at Karak, and he had to look away for fear she might blink at him.  After the supernaturalist events of the last few days, he did not want to take that risk.

Crane led Karak past a large bed that could have comfortably held five.  The bed was made with white silk covers and matching pillows.  On the white plaster walls were paintings of various sizes showing sceneries, battles, and important looking nobles affecting proud poses.  Tables filled with neat, organized piles of books and parchments stood throughout the room, and cushioned chairs were arranged next to large, crystal reading lamps.

Beyond the bed was a balcony with open, double-glass doors.  Sunlight poured through the window, accompanied by fresh salty air mingling with the familiar odors of a large city—horses, cooking food, and sweaty bodies.  Karak went to the balcony and took in a breathtaking view of a large city below a cloudless sky.  Bright blue water lay beyond it.  The palace in which Karak stood sat upon a bluff overlooking a city on the coast of a sea.

“Mr. Frost,” Crane said, sounding annoyed.  He stood at the door to the large bedroom, his hand on the knob.  “We have an appointment to keep…”

Karak went to Crane, who opened the door and beckoned him through.  The hall they entered was long and decorated just as lavishly as the bedroom.  Finely woven carpets ran up and down the hall, and windows along the left side showed a beautiful garden filled with flowers of all colors and sizes.  The entire garden was surrounded by the walls of a three-story palace.  Karak saw six men wearing white shirts and tanned breeches stooped over the garden pulling weeds and planting new flowers.  A tall fountain dominated the center of the garden, where a bronze sculpture of a bearded man stood on a pedestal in the center.  Water spouted from mouths of small, stone children ringing the pedestal.  The man rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword at his side, while his right hand was raised above his head, as if reaching for something.  The man looked vaguely familiar, but Karak could not place him at the moment.

As they walked down the hall, Crane resumed whistling the same tune he had in the dark corridors.  Several servants in gold livery with black trim around the edges lowered their heads as Crane walked by.  The servants kept their heads lowered until Crane had passed, then continued on with their tasks when Crane was a dozen paces away.  Karak watched some of them, but was only rewarded with a glance from one brown-haired girl.  When she saw him looking at her, she turned away and quickly entered a nearby room.

Crane stopped at the entry that led to a spiral stone staircase that wound its way upward.  Two men wearing gleaming chain mail and holding muskets with polished bayonets stood on either side of the arch, staring straight ahead.  Karak noticed each one tense as Crane walked by, but they did not stop him or Karak from ascending the stairs.

“I hope all that time sitting on your ass has not made your legs weak,” Crane said.  “It is a rather long climb.”

And Crane did not exaggerate.  Round and round they climbed, higher and higher.  There were small windows placed periodically along the way up, and Karak could judge their height with a glance at the city far below.  By the time they reached a platform at the top, Karak’s heart was pounding and he felt a fine sheen of sweat on his brow.  He noted with dismay, however, that Crane was not even breathing heavily.

They passed through an open arch and into a circular room that was surrounded on all sides by windows.  In front of Karak were glass, double doors that led to a covered balcony that ringed the entire outer wall of the room.  He recognized the view of the bay in front of him, but to his left lay forested mountains stretching off into the distance, while to his right was a flat plain of green grass dotted with tiny farms and villages to the horizon.

Shelves filled with books and parchments lined the interior of the room below the windows.  Several tables held stacks of maps, parchments, open books, and loose letters, all looking much more disorganized than the bedroom below, as if no servants were allowed to ascend the stairs to clean up.

“Ah,” said a voice behind Karak.  He turned to see a man rise from a mahogany desk set in an alcove in the walls.  He had  a dark red beard that was neatly trimmed and hardly more than stubble.  The same colored hair was tied back in a ponytail.  He wore a white shirt with a gold coat, black breeches, and gleaming black boots.  He walked from behind his desk and strode toward Karak and Crane with a friendly smile.

Crane fell to his knees and touched his forehead to the ground before the man.  “My lord,” Crane said in an awed whisper.  Karak was surprised to hear the same fear in Crane that Karak had seen in the eyes of the servants below.

“Rise, my friend,” the man said with good-natured impatience.  Crane rose to his feet, but kept his head lowered and his gaze on the floor.

“You are going to make our new friend here think I am some tyrant who demands constant prostrations from his servants,” the man said.  He had a thick accent that brought Karak the sudden, crashing realization of where he was and the identity of the man he faced.  It was the same man whose sculpture sat atop the fountain in the garden below.

The King of Mazumdahr winked at Karak and said, “Well, maybe from some of them.”

He extended his hand to Karak, and Karak took the King’s icy, but firm grip into his own.

“I am Savix,” he said.  “And I am so pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Frost.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 29

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 29

Taran watched dawn break to begin the second day of the harrower siege on the Heiron.  He sat on a stone bench on a balcony at the tower’s highest level, watching the cloudy sky turn purple, then gray, and then eventually a brighter shade of gray.  Taran could not remember the last time he had seen the sun.  He was beginning to wonder if the sun ever shown in the Beldamark.

Thankfully, the stone railings blocked his view of the ruined town below and its destruction by the harrowers.

He yawned, a reminder that he had not slept in almost two days.  At least not a normal night’s sleep.  He did not count the hour he spent unconscious after he Wielded the first time.  The Tuatha priests, especially Eblin and the doctor, ordered him to sleep several hours ago after spending almost the whole day drilling him relentlessly on the basics of Wielding.  But sleep was impossible for him.  Especially when all he did was stare at the ceiling in the empty priest apartment they gave him and think about what they wanted him to do over the next few days.  His life had become the worst kind of dream—his deepest desire twisted into a nightmare.  For six years he dreamed of finding the Mystics, and then bringing them back home to make Mara well again.  To save her from the Blood and the Mercy.

Instead, the Mystics were telling him he was some kind of prophesied savior destined to help them defeat their enemies.  The thought of him leading people in battle scared him witless, never mind using the Wielding ways of the Tuatha.

The Wielding ways….

Taran wrapped the fur lined cloak around him tighter.  How could it be that he could Wield like the Tuatha?  In fact, Wield in ways that no other Tuatha could?  Did that mean his parents were really his parents?  If not, where did he come from?

It was all so overwhelming that he wanted to run off into the forests—the Tainted be damned—when he dwelled on it too long.

Instead, he tried to turn his mind back to today’s tasks.

Taran was so lost in thought that he did not hear Fatimah approach until she stood next to him.  She put her hands on the stone balcony and stared at where the sun would be if the clouds were not so thick.

“The sunrise is usually quite beautiful from up here,” she said.  “Winters get a bit gloomy in the Beldamark.  I shall enjoy the warmer climate of the Compact.”

“If we survive that long,” Taran muttered.

“We will.  For you are the—”

“Don’t say it.  For the last twenty-four hours I’ve had you and your people look at me with these worshipful expressions.  I’m just a man.  I’m no ‘chosen one.’”

“You are wrong,” she said.  “All the signs are there, all the prophecies have been fulfilled in you.  You are the Zervakan.  And you had better accept it if you want to see your daughter again.”

Taran pointed a finger at Fatimah.  “Don’t you use my daughter like that.  If you say something like that again, I’ll let you all rot.  Do you understand me?”

Fatimah flinched away from Taran’s anger, and he instantly regretted his words.  He needed her guidance more than ever right now, especially in the hours and days to come.

Fatimah wrapped her cloak tighter around her body, held her chin up, and said, “I apologize for my words regarding your daughter.  It was wrong of me.  But I do not apologize for what I said before them.  For most people down there, you are the only thing giving them a small dose of hope.”

Taran sighed.

“Do not think too long on the meaning of it all,” Fatimah said, her face softening.  “Only think about what you must do.  Concentrate only on the task before you, not the many yet to come.”

Taran grinned.  “You sound like a Pathist Teacher.”

She grimaced, and then put a hand on his arm.  “You are more powerful than any Tuatha alive.  You do not even suffer from the fatigue anymore after you Wield, and you have only been Wielding for a day.  I have been Wielding for a month and I still want to sleep for hours afterwards.”

After he had awakened from his first Wielding attempt, Eblin had shown him how to Wield several Aspects that would come in handy for their escape plans.  Each made him weary afterwards, but he did not fall unconscious.  In fact he felt the same euphoria like the first time.  He enjoyed Wielding, enjoyed it to the point where it was all he wanted to do.

And that scared him.  He was a father, a husband, a son…and all of those roles meant nothing to him when he was Wielding.  He felt like he could abandon his family if he had to choose between them and giving up Wielding.  Taran shuddered, and buried that thought.  Again.

“Come,” Fatimah said.  “Melahara and Eblin wanted to speak with you before it begins.”

An involuntary surge of elation swept through him when he realized it was almost time to Wield again, but he stamped it down.  This is only to save lives.  Once I return home, I will never Wield again.

They left the balcony, walked through an empty hallway without doors, and entered the circular room at the center of every floor in the Heiron.  There were no decorations or furniture on this level, other than the stone benches on the balcony.  Fatimah had told him this level was meant for meditation and reflection.  Decorations and comfortable furniture would only distract the priests who came up here.

They passed through the arches that led to the Heiron’s lower levels, walking in circles through each floor’s arch until they arrived at the large, circular room on the Heiron’s first floor.  When they exited the final arch, Taran saw that dozens of female priests were gathered in the room, along with bearded Heshmen holding spears and bows with quivers strapped to their fur-cloaked backs.  All of them looked at Taran with mixtures of awe and fear.  The conversation seemed to stop when he and Fatimah entered the room and walked among them to where Melahara, Ollis, Eblin, several Tuathan priests, and Edoss were standing near the large barred doors.  Taran felt their eyes following him, and he wanted to shout that he was not their savior…but he could not deny that a part of him enjoyed the attention.  After six years of being looked on with pity and ridicule, he was finally something he had never been in his life.  A hero.

Melahara, Ollis, Eblin, and the Tuathans near the door watched him approach with the same mixture of emotions as the people in the main hall.  Edoss, Cursh, and Myndehr looked at Taran with more doubt than anything else.  They seemed to ease his anxiety.  It comforted him to know that there were some people who still saw him as a man.

Eblin bowed her head to him.  “We decided to add two more priests to your circle, just as a precaution.  This is Pomar Aliin”—a thin, red-haired woman a few years older than Fatimah—“and Rosen Lator”—also a thin woman, but with gray in her hair and laugh lines around her eyes—“who were two of my brightest students, once.”

Both women smiled at Eblin, then turned to Taran and bowed their heads.  Taran was growing impatient with all the bowing, but he said nothing.  He returned their bows with as much reverence as he could muster.  At the moment, it was not much.

Both priests joined the six other priests with which he had practiced earlier.  All six stared at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to say something inspiring.  Along with his reverence, inspiring words were escaping him at the moment.

General Myndehr, her uniform as crisp and clean as the day Taran saw her step on the train in Calaman, said to Taran, “My lookouts have reported these Tainted things have retreated from the entire city.  There’s been no movement among the city for over three hours.”

Taran stared at the barred doors a few paces in front of him.

Myndehr glanced from Taran to Edoss.  “The Tainted have left open the main road leading out of the city.  They want you to leave.  You will be ambushed.”

“If everyone does what they’re supposed to, we should be fine,” Taran said, slowly wiping his sweaty palms on the sides of his coat.

“Regardless,” Melahara said, “we must leave today.  Our stores of food and water are dwindling fast.  If we do not leave now, we will not have enough to see us out of the Beldamark.”

Myndehr glared at Melahara.  “I never said you shouldn’t leave.  I’m just saying you’d better keep your minds open to the enemy’s plans.”

“Thank you, General,” Edoss said.  “We will proceed with caution.”

Myndehr frowned, then nodded to Edoss and walked over to confer with her men, who were checking their revolvers and fastening their saber scabbards.

When Taran turned his attention to the large, barred doors again, Melahara, Fatimah, and the other priests came and stood beside him.

“Are you ready?” Melahara asked.

Taran inhaled, and then nodded.  He found General Myndehr’s eyes.  She stood near the front of the doors among her Shadarlak.

“Open it,” he said.

Myndehr ordered the Shadarlak at the doors to open them.  Two Shadarlak were stationed on each side of the door, and each team began to turn the cranks that withdrew into the wall the large, iron bars that hung in massive slots across the doors.  The bars retreated into the walls with the sound of metal grinding on stone.  Once the doors were free, two more Shadarlak pushed the doors open.  Through the lowered portcullis, Taran caught today’s first glimpse of the ground surrounding the Heiron.

The meager dawn light able to fight its way through the clouds illuminated a trampled and torn field that was once well-trimmed and green.  The Shadarlak rushed toward the portcullis, revolvers and sabers drawn, and poked their heads through the bars and around the corners.  All four turned back to Myndehr and declared the way clear.

Myndehr turned to the arrow slits in the walls next to her to shout at the men in the hidden hallway.  “Raise the portcullis.”

The old gate rose with the cranking and creaking of the gears.  The portcullis rose steadily into the ceiling, and the way to the fields beyond was at last open.  Myndehr turned to Taran, gave him a quick appraising look, and then grinned.

“See you in Markwatch, Doctor.”

Three Shadarlak led four saddled horses through the dozens of Tuathans crowding the gate.  Three were ridden by scarlet-sashed Tuathan priests.  Myndehr mounted the fourth horse.  One of the priests guided her horse forward to the edge of the Heiron’s stone steps.  She then raised her right hand above her head, closed her eyes, and began the incantation in ancient Tuathan that Taran had practiced so much over the last twenty-four hours.

“‘The Shield of Spirit, protect us.  May no obstacle stand before us.’”

She said this several times, whispering at first, until she spoke the words with forceful conviction.  A tendril of light spiraled down from the swirling colors of Ahura and touched the priest’s outstretched right hand.  A bubble of bluish light expanded to encompass the priest, Myndehr, and the other three Tuathans.  Once the shield was in place, all four rode out of the Heiron’s entrance and down the steps toward the main road that led through the center of Fedalan.  Myndehr rode with her back straight, but her head swiveled about looking for threats from all quarters.

Taran and several more priests raised their hands, and said the same incantation, ready to call on Ahura if Myndehr and the priests should suddenly come under attack.  Taran knew that scouts in the upper levels of the Heiron watched their General with eyescopes, along with the surrounding buildings, waiting to blow the whistles hanging from their necks if they should spy any attacks.

Once Myndehr and the priests had descended the Heiron’s steps and were on the road, they spurred their horses into a quick jog.  Taran watched them ride up the road until they took a turn to the left and disappeared over the hill a mile outside of the town.

“Ahura go with you,” Fatimah whispered from Taran’s side as she, too, watched the riders disappear over the hill.  She and the other priests lowered their hands and retreated toward the interior of the Heiron.  Taran stayed a few moments, continuing to watch the tendril of Ahura get farther and farther away.

There had been no movement anywhere in the town, nor had Taran noticed any black tendrils from Angra.  A part of him wondered if that meant the harrowers had abandoned the siege, had decided to take mercy on the beleaguered Tuathans, but that seemed unlikely.  The harrowers had not gone through the trouble of creating hundreds of Tainted simply to give up after a two-day siege.  All the harrowers knew how to do was destroy.  There was no mercy in their twisted hearts.

The four Shadarlak who had opened the door, quickly shut it once Myndehr was out of sight.  They replaced the bars, as Taran heard the portcullis creak shut.

Four more hours, Taran thought.  Then it’s our turn.

Myndehr estimated it would take her—at the most—four hours to reach Markwatch by pushing their horses to the point of collapse.  And what would have been a ninety-mile journey would be cut to forty miles by traveling through the Guardian arches.  Another few hours to gain Lord Demeg’s approval of the plan, and another six to implement it.  They all knew that five hundred men, women, and children walking the ten miles to the sea coast would be a plump target for the harrowers.  But not as plump of a target as five hundred men, women, and children walking the forty miles to Markwatch.

So in four hours, the Tuathans would leave the safety of the Heiron and march the ten miles to the coast.  If all went according to plan, the Turician ships would be waiting there to pick them up.  With any luck—and the will of Ahura, as the Tuathans would say—the Tuathan people would be relatively safe in Turicia in three days.

Until the next Fomorian attack, Taran thought grimly.

Taran suddenly felt very tired, the previous thirty-six hours without sleep catching up to him.  With Myndehr gone and the potential for a battle averted for the moment, Taran retreated to the interior of the Heiron, ignoring all the stares and whispers as he passed through the Tuathan crowds.  He hoped he would stay awake long enough to reach the empty priest apartment.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 28

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 28

Karak wondered again why he was still alive.

After getting knocked out in Silek’s hallway—the welt on the back of his head throbbed with unholy glee—he had awoken in a lavishly decorated bedroom that could have been in the Speaker’s Palace.  Ornate lamps shined on ornately carved tables next to ornately carved chairs.  Exquisite paintings and tapestries hung on the walls.  He had awoken on a four-post bed with lace curtains, crisply ironed blankets, and silk pillow cases.

The one window in the room, however, was bricked over.  The one door had three bolt locks, all locked from the outside.  If this was a prison cell, it was the classiest cell Karak had ever seen, and he had occupied his share over the years.

Despite the pain in his head and the dizziness whenever he sat up, Karak made himself walk the room to search for clues as to where he was.  He never heard of such a room when he was in Silek’s Swornmen, so it must not have been in one of Silek’s homes.  Maybe the room belonged to Crane.  This brought an involuntary shudder, which angered Karak.  He would not let that man—or whatever he was—scare him again.  Never.

Karak didn’t know how much time had passed since he was taken, nor how much had passed since he awakened in this room.  It felt like hours, but Karak knew that men deprived of a view of the outside lost track of time.  He tried not to think about time, and instead focused on what he would do when someone eventually walked through that locked door.  They wouldn’t have put him in a prison made for a king if they did not plan on at least feeding him, or letting him visit the water closet.  Someone would come, and Karak would be ready.

But more hours passed—what felt like hours—and nobody came.  Karak knew what they were doing.  They were letting him think.  It was a tactic he used himself to sweat a man he was about to interrogate.  Give most men plenty of time to think about all the horrible things his captors could do to him, and he would break at the slightest pressure.  It worked most of the time.

But either his captors were ignorant of Karak’s knowledge, or they had something else in mind.  First, when you are about to interrogate someone, you do not put your prisoner in a comfortable room—you keep him in the darkest, foulest dungeon cell you can find.  Second, you have to know your prisoner—if he is the kind of man who does not break through delay, then you might as well start questioning him right away.

Karak paced the room.  He counted how many steps it took to get from one end to the other.  Fifteen paces long by ten paces wide.  Quite a large room for a prison cell.  The walls were papered white with light green stripes.  Karak picked at a corner of the paper to find plaster beneath.  He used one of the unlit lamps to chip away at the plaster to find red brick beneath.  At the one “window” in the room, he put his ear to the brick, but could not hear anything beyond.  The brick was cool to the touch, so it might have meant the room was underground.  Or it could mean the day outside was cold.

Karak had counted the bricks in the window for the fifth time—there were sixty-eight—when the bolts clicked on the door.  He got up from the bed and stood in the center of the room, ready to face standing whoever came through that door.

But he was disappointed when a young blond girl, barely in her teen years, carried in a tray with a covered plate, a pitcher, and a glass.  Karak caught a glimpse of the narrow, red-bricked, torch-lit hallway beyond the door before one of Silek’s Swornmen—a bald, dark-skinned man from the deserts south of the Kingdoms—shut the door behind the girl.  She kept her eyes low and did not look at Karak.  She set the tray on one of the lamp-lit tables next to the “window.”  There were no utensils on the tray.

She turned and hurried to the door.

“What is your name, miss?” Karak asked.

She ignored him.  The girl tapped on the door, and the dark Swornman outside opened it, let her out, and shut it again without looking at Karak.

Karak frowned, and then turned to the tray of food.  He paused, despite his rumbling stomach, but decided that a poisoned meal was unlikely.  If they had wanted to kill him, they had had ample opportunity.  He lifted the plate cover.

And then dropped it.

The plate was piled high with bloody human eyeballs, all with blue irises.  Each one swiveled around to meet Karak’s horrified stare.  He backed away, but the gruesome gaze of the eyes on the plate followed him.  Karak shut his eyes tightly for a moment, then reopened them.

The eyeballs were still there, watching him.  They made sickeningly wet noises as they followed his movements.

He leaned his back against the corner of the room farthest from the tray and forced himself to stared back at it.



The clicking of the bolts in the door awakened Karak, and he sat up straight.  He stood in the center of the room when the final bolt released and the door opened.

Three Swornmen strode in and stopped in front of Karak, staring at him as if he were a bug they wanted to smash under foot.  Karak ignored them, and trained his gaze on Silek, who entered the room with his usual swagger, like a High King from the Kingdoms.  Behind Silek walked Crane, his black-wood cane clicking on the stone floor.  He now wore a red suit with a black shirt, red gloves, and a red tri-corner hat.  Karak thought Crane’s suits grew more garish each time he saw the witchman.

Crane sniffed the air above the covered plate.  “No appetite, Mr. Frost?”

Karak kept his face even, but Crane gave him a knowing smile, showing a mouth full of straight teeth that seemed too numerous for a normal man.

“I’m sorry for all this, lad,” Silek said, his arms folded across his broad chest.  “You gave me no choice, what with you sneaking into my home.  You’re lucky I didn’t have you killed outright.”

“Why didn’t you kill me outright?”

Silek opened his mouth, but then a confused look crossed his face, as if he did not know why Karak was still alive.  Apprentice or no apprentice, when someone tries to kill an Overlord, it was instant death.  No pause for explanations or final words.  Silek cast a furtive glance at Crane.  Crane continued to stare at Karak with that same repugnant grin.

“Huh,” Karak said.  He nodded toward Crane, but kept his gaze locked with Silek’s.  “I don’t know what kind of deal you made with this…man, but nothing good will come of it for you.  Are you listening to me, old man?”

The Swornmen in front of Karak shifted their stances menacingly.  Silek turned his gaze back to Karak and snarled, “You know what your problem is, Karak?  You’re a bloody arrogant snit who’s risen too far, too fast.  You always have been, and it’s made you a lot of enemies.  I was in my thirties by the time I had my first lordship.”

Karak shrugged.  “Not my fault I’m smarter than you.”

Silek sneered.  “Kill him.”  The Swornmen in front of Karak drew their pistols.

“No,” Crane said in an even tone, but one that seemed to reverberate in the room.  The Swornmen stopped drawing, though they looked confused as to why.  All three returned their pistols to their holsters, and then crossed their arms, their eyes staring vacantly past Karak and at the bricked window.

Silek rounded on Crane.  “How dare you—?”

“Shut up,” Crane said.  Then one of his red gloved hands shot out across the room, as it had in the silo, and tore out Silek’s throat.  Silek stared wide-eyed at Crane, gurgling his last breath, blood from the wound spurting onto the Swornmen, who continued staring at the window.  Silek fell to the ground face first.  Crane’s hand came back to him holding chunks of gore, which he let drop to the stone floor with a sickening slap.

Crane shook his head.  “I can see why you wanted to kill the man.  And he accuses you of arrogance?”

Karak felt frozen in place, unable to move, only able to stare at Silek’s dead eyes as blood poured from his throat.  Silek’s Swornmen did not move.

Crane pulled the chair out from the table, then sat down and crossed his legs as if having afternoon tea.  He leaned his cane against the table, pulled his bloody glove off, and dropped it on the tray.  He poured the contents from the pitcher into the cup next to it, lifted it to his lips and sipped.

“Now then,” Crane said, one hand on his crossed knees and the other holding the cup.  “It has come to my attention that—  Wait, forgive me.  Gentlemen?”

The three Swornmen turned at once to face Crane.

“Please dispose of Mr. Silek’s body, kill all the people in this house, and then kindly put a bullet in your heads.  Thank you, gentlemen.”

Crane’s voice had that same reverberation as when he told the Swornmen not to kill Karak earlier.  Like vile whispers that surrounded his words before and after he spoke them.  It made Karak clench his teeth.

Without a word, two of the Swornmen bent down over Silek—one grabbing his ankles and the other lifting him from the shoulders—and carried the dead Overlord out of the room, blood still dripping from his throat.  The dark-skinned Swornman drew his pistol and followed the other two through the open door, turning to the right.  Karak could hear their shuffling footsteps get more distant until a door slammed at the end of the hall, and then silence.

For a brief moment, Karak wondered if he could make it through that door and into the dark corridor before Crane’s arms caught him.  Crane watched him with a bemusement, as if daring him to try.

When Karak did not move, Crane continued, “Where was I…?  Oh, yes.  It has come to my attention—or rather my employer’s attention—that you possess something we need.  We are willing to pay handsomely for it.”

Karak managed to make his voice work.  “What could I have that you would want?  I have nothing thanks to you.”

Crane clicked his tongue.  “Are you still bitter about that incident at the silo?  All right, I apologize for killing your men.  Is that what you want to hear?  If I had known who you were, I would not have acted so rashly.  Besides, you should be honored that I went through all this trouble to find you again.  Do you know how hard it was to turn Silek against you?  The man may be arrogant, but he does have a strong will.”

A thin smile played at the corner of Crane’s mouth.  “Although you did provoke me somewhat when you shot me in the face.  I suppose you could say I, um, lost my head after that.”

Crane’s mouth became unnaturally large as he issued a high-pitched, screeching laugh that could have shattered mirrors and windows.  Karak winced from the ghastly sound.

When Crane noticed that Karak was not laughing with him, he said, “Oh, come now, that was funny.  Laugh!”

Karak simply stared at Crane.  Humor was the last thing on his mind at the moment.

Crane’s smile disappeared.  “I said laugh.”

The strange reverberation filled the air again, and Karak was horrified to find himself laughing uncontrollably.  He could not stop.  Tears streamed down his face and he felt as if his lungs would explode from the laughter, but it kept coming.

After what felt like minutes of excruciating laughter, “That’s enough,” reverberated through the room, and Karak fell to his knees gasping for air.

Crane stooped down in front of Karak.  He touched a cold, clammy hand to Karak’s chin and gently lifted it so that Karak was staring into Crane’s milky eyes.

“That was your first lesson, Mr. Frost.”  His voice was quiet, almost soothing.  “You cannot fight me.  Do you understand?”

Karak jerked his chin away from Crane’s cold hand.  He used one of the bed posts to drag himself to his feet.  He stood there swaying, but kept his balance.

Crane chuckled, and clapped his hands at Karak’s effort.  “That’s why I like you so much, Mr. Frost.  You’re a survivor.”

Crane sat down in the chair again.  “Now then, about that thing you have that I need.  You see, you might be someone very important to the plans of my employer.  Have you ever heard of the ‘Zervakan?’”

Karak shook his head.

Crane’s nose wrinkled.  “Vile creature.  Makes me look as kind and innocent as the serving girl who’s about to die.”

Two shots rang out from down the hall, both within seconds of each other.  Karak dug his fingernails into the wood of the bed post.

Crane continued, “This Zervakan has the potential to destroy the world.  Now my employer may use harsh methods at times, but he has always strived for peace with his adversaries.”

“What does this have to do with me?” Karak asked.

“You, my friend, might be my employer’s champion.  The man destined to destroy the Zervakan.”

This time Karak chuckled of his own will.  “And why would I fight for your employer?”

Crane looked at Karak as if he had just said the sun was green.  “Because that is what you were born to do.  But of course, you may not be my employer’s champion.  And that is the thing with which I need your help to determine.  Please, sit.”

Karak thought about ignoring Crane for a moment, but he had no wish for Crane to use that voice again to compel him to sit down.  If Karak had to sit, it would be under his own power.  He pulled the chair out from the table and sat down facing Crane.

Crane smiled, his large mouth again showing too many teeth.  “My first question: what did you see when you took the cover off your food plate this morning?”

Karak glanced at the covered plate to his right, next to the flickering lamp.  His stomach rumbled from hunger, but felt nauseous at the same time when he thought of the staring eyes on the plate.

“There were…there were eyes,” Karak said.  “All looking at me.”

Crane stared at Karak intently, those milky eyes never wavering.  “Interesting.  Would you like to see what is on the plate now?  I would imagine you are rather hungry, yes?”

Karak grimaced, but said nothing.

Crane reached over to the plate and pulled the cover off.  Karak flinched, but when he glanced at the plate, he saw a lamb chop cooked rare like he always ate it, accompanied by several spears of buttered asparagus, and a large chunk of black bread.  Karak smelled the seasoning on the lamb, and the butter on the asparagus.  His stomach growled again.

Crane smiled.  “Looks a bit more appetizing now, does it not?”

Karak’s first thought was that Crane had somehow switched the plates.  But with all he had seen Crane do, he knew that turning a plate full of bloody eyes into a lamb dinner was probably not out of Crane’s power.  The only thing Karak wondered was which one was the illusion—the plate of eyes or the lamb dinner.

Crane began to applaud softly.  “Congratulations, Mr. Frost.  You have passed the first test.  You can see.”

“See what?”  What was this monster talking about?

Gun shots rang out from somewhere above them.  It seemed to be a pitched battle.

Crane ignored the shots.  “The greatest power in the universe,” Crane said in a quiet tone of respect.  “You should be honored.  Only a select few can see it.  And only a chosen few from the select can tap into it.  Which leads us to the second test.”

The shots suddenly stopped.  A few moments later, three more shots went off at virtually the same moment, and then all was silent.

Crane listened a moment longer.  When there were no more sounds, he seemed satisfied.  “It’s time for us to go.  Care to meet my employer, Mr. Frost?”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 27

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 27

Taran did not even want to open his eyes, for that would take energy he did not have.  It was a struggle to breathe.  His heart groaned with the effort of pumping blood through his body.  Taran wondered if he was dead.

But the voices around him were familiar.  Fatimah, Melahara, even Dylan Edoss.  If he was dead, then so were they.  Memories suddenly came back in a torrent—Mara, the journey to the Beldamark, finding the Tuatha, the harrower attack.

His attempt to Wield.

Taran focused his entire will to simply open his eyes.  They fluttered open, but the faces above him were blurred.  After a moment, he focused and saw Melahara talking quietly with Fatimah—who still had wet hair—on the right side of his bed.  He moved his gaze around the room.  He was in a Tuathan hospital, for there were shelves full of bottles with strangely colored liquids, powders, and even preserved organs.  A Tuathan priest with gray-tinged, rusty hair stood at a table crushing something in a small clay bowl.  Behind her, Dylan Edoss and Ollis Gray were arguing about something, for Edoss glared up at the tall Gray who was pointing down at Edoss.  General Myndehr stood to the side, watching Gray with her hand resting on the pommel of her saber.

“Taran,” Fatimah said.

With Fatimah’s exclamation, Edoss and Gray stopped arguing and stared at him with worry and confusion.  Myndehr’s gaze wandered from Taran to Gray, her hand still near her saber.  Melahara could not have been more expressionless.

Taran tried to speak, but his voice came out cracked and weak.  He managed to whisper, “What…happened?”

Fatimah grinned.  “You Wielded enough Fire to burn down the library.”  She grabbed her soaked woolen cloak.  “And then enough Water to put it out.”

Taran shifted his eyes to Melahara and Gray.  Fatimah shook her head and said, “I could hardly keep it secret after what happened.”

Melahara leaned forward, regarding him suspiciously.  “How long have you known how to Wield the Aspects of Ahura, Taran Abraeu?”

“Never,” Taran croaked.  “I’ve never Wielded before.”

“I find that hard to believe.  Ahura touched you with a tendril that was almost as bright as Ahura itself.  Nobody in the Beldamark is that strong yet.  Nobody.”

Taran tried to prop himself on one elbow.  He felt his strength coming back quickly now, and the effort to rise was less than the effort to open his eyes.

He said with a stronger voice, “I’m not lying.  I have never Wielded before tonight.”

Ollis Gray said under his breath, “Zervakan.”

Taran looked at the Worldly Seat, who stared at Taran with a mixture of fear and hope.  It made Taran pause, for in the brief time he had known Ollis, the man had never shown hope.

Taran glanced at Fatimah.  The Zervakan was the being she had told him about just before the harrower attack on Fedalan began.  He did not say anything, though, not wanting to make things hard on her for telling him something she was not supposed to.

Edoss said to Taran, “Isn’t that what the madman in Doare was yelling at us?”

Gray gave Melahara a frightened look, but Melahara continued to stare down at Taran with the same blank face.  She swallowed once, then said, “It is a prophecy.  When the Barrier went up, the Holy Seat at the time foretold a being who would come if the Barrier should fall.  That being would aid us in our fight against the resurgent Fomorians.  That being was to be called the Zervakan, which, translated loosely into Recindian, means the ‘bringer of balance.’”

“That sounds like a good thing,” Edoss said, looking from Melahara to Gray.

“It is not,” Eblin said as she hobbled into the room with the support of her walking staff.  “The prophecy says the Zervakan will indeed help us defeat the Fomorians.  But in so doing, he—or she—will cause much suffering once the fight is done.”

Gray said in a whispered voice, “‘On that day when night returns, the Zervakan will heal, and all will have hope.  On that day when light prevails, the Zervakan will raze.  And all will despair.’”

Taran swung his feet over the side of the small bed and stood on shaky legs.  He steadied himself against the cool stone wall at the head of the bed, then faced the people in the room.  All of the Tuatha stared at him as if he were a ghost.

Fatimah said, “You should not have this much strength so soon, especially after how much you Wielded….”

The hospital priest rushed over to Taran with the mixture she had been making and said in Tuathan, “Drink this, young man.”

Taran took the small porcelain cup and sniffed the milky liquid.  It smelled like cinnamon.

“What is this?” he asked.

She smiled.  “It is something I have been working on to alleviate the Wielding fatigue.  Although you do not seem to need it as much as others I have tended.”

Taran sipped the mixture, decided it did not taste too bad, then drank the rest in two gulps.  He handed the cup back to the smiling priest, who watched him for the mixture’s effect.  Taran did feel a bit more energetic than he had a moment ago.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Good,” Taran said, which did not adequately describe the well-being he felt at the moment.  With all the people in the room staring at him, he should have felt like a cornered lab mouse.  But not even their strange prophecies and fearful expressions could dampen his suddenly high spirits.

“Who were your parents?” Melahara asked Taran.  “Where did they come from?”

“My mother Jajeh is Levakan and my father Tobias is Gahallian,” Taran said.  “My father’s family can be traced back over twenty generations, same with my mother’s.  Like I told Fatimah, neither of them are Tuathan.”

Eblin chuckled.  “Twenty generations is only four hundred years or so.  Not all Tuathan retreated to the Beldamark when the Barrier went up a thousand years ago….”

“No,” Melahara said.  “With the power he Wielded, he has to be the offspring of two pureblood Tuathans.  Both of his parents must be Tuathan.”

“I can assure you they are not,” Taran said.

Edoss said, “The Abraeu family has been a part of Gahallian and Compact history for hundreds of years.  And Jajeh’s family is descended from Levakan nobility.”

Melahara stared intently at Taran.  “If Tobias and Jajeh Abraeu are not Tuathan, then they are not your real parents.  There are ancient records of Tuathans who left the fold to marry Mundanes.  But their offspring were unable to Wield and were sterile.”

Taran had enough.  “This is pointless.  My parents are Tobias and Jajeh Abraeu.  They are not Tuathan.  I have phototypes of them with me in all stages of my life.  Our family and friends have told me stories of what it was like for my mother when she was pregnant with me.”  He said to Melahara, “I am not Tuathan.”

She smiled sadly and said, “The fact you can Wield Ahura says you are.”

“Or he is the Zervakan,” Gray said.  “The prophecies never say the Zervakan has to be Tuathan or Fomorian.”

Melahara waved her hand dismissively.  “The prophecies say a lot of things, many contradicting the other.”

As Gray and Melahara argued, Taran was so overwhelmed by all these theories about his parents and himself that he did not know what to say.  Instead, he started laughing.  The others stared at him, but did not join in his laughter.

This was all so ridiculous.  He had come to the Beldamark to find Mystics who could heal his daughter.  Instead he finds a people in desperate poverty, who cannot heal diseases, and who think he was this Zervakan “chosen one,” all while they could not even agree on what the Zervakan really was.  What was there not to laugh about in this situation?

After the laughter had drained from Taran, Eblin said to Melahara, “Whether or not Taran Abraeu is the Zervakan is irrelevant.  What matters is that he not only can Wield more of the Aspects than any Tuathan, but that he appears not to suffer from the fatigue after Wielding.  At least not in the same proportions as other Tuatha.”

She turned her gaze on Taran, and he felt unease spread down his spine.  Eblin said, “What matters is that Dr. Abraeu may be strong enough to help us break this siege.”

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 26

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 26

Karak quietly slid his dagger into the Swornman’s back, held his hand over the man’s mouth until his struggling grew weaker, and then stopped.  Karak gently lowered the still twitching body to the cobblestone streets of the alley where he was guarding the entrance to Silek’s house.

Karak bent down, grabbed the dead man’s feet, and pulled him into a corner of the alley that was nice and dark, then he wiped the blood from his knife on the man’s coat.  Karak did something he normally did not do with his victims—he studied the man’s face.  No, he did not know the man.  Not that it would have made a difference if he had, but Karak did not like to kill people he knew personally.

Unless they had betrayed him.

Karak glanced up and saw a homeless boy sleeping beneath a stack of empty, discarded crates he had built around himself to keep out the rain and wind.  The boy was wrapped in several blankets and staring wide-eyed at Karak.  Karak bent down, removed the Swornman’s coin purse.  He felt the weight, knew there must have been at least twenty han in it.  Karak tossed the purse at the boy.  The boy let his blankets drop as he caught the purse.  He opened the strings and he gasped as he inspected its contents.  Karak grinned, then put a finger to his mouth.  The boy nodded.  He got up and ran out of the alley without taking his blankets.  With all that gold, the boy could buy himself a new blanket a day for a year.

Silek’s townhouse in the center of Calaman’s Low City was one of his “quiet” homes—anything that took place there had to remain quiet.  Karak knew of four such homes scattered throughout the city, but this was Silek’s favorite.  It was in a place where most constables would not venture in groups smaller than ten, and it was closer to Silek’s favorite brothels.  And it was farthest from Silek’s wife in their estate north of Calaman.  Judging from the four Swornmen he had just killed, it was likely Silek was here.  Silek never posted his Swornmen in a location where he wasn’t.  The Overlord had grown too arrogant over the years, a fate that might have overtaken Karak if the events of four nights ago had not changed his life forever.

Karak saw lamps burning in three of the four rooms on the third floor.  The fourth window was dark.  Karak grabbed hold of the drainage pipe that ran down from the flat roof three stories up and began to climb.

He was pleased to find that the stealth of his youth had not deserted him in his mid-thirties.  He had done this many times while making his way up the Klahdera ranks, slitting the throats of Silek’s competitors as they slept.  All orders had come from Silek, and he had never questioned his orders, only obeyed.

His foot slipped on one of the wet struts that held the drain pipe in place, but Karak quickly regained his balance.  He mentally berated himself for losing his concentration while on a job, and he refocused his thoughts on the climb.

The piping took him between two of the three lighted windows, and he paused a moment to listen for any voices within the rooms.  The windows were closed, and thin lacy drapes covered them, but he could see well enough inside.  The one on the left was a guest bedroom decorated with ornate lamps, white paneled walls with several landscape paintings, and a four post bed with a privacy curtain.  One lit lamp in the room showed that it was empty.  The other room was similarly decorated and also empty.

Karak continued his climb until he reached the roof and peeked over the edge, searching for more guards.  Two men leaned against the closed door to what looked like an outhouse in the center of the roof.  Karak knew the door opened into a stairwell that led to the attic below the roof.  Both men smoked pipes and talked in low voices.  Neither was looking his way.

Karak quietly and quickly pulled himself onto the roof, then moved behind two large brick chimneys.  Two roof guards meant that they had keys if the door was locked.  A locked and barred door had concerned Karak more than guards, who he could kill more quietly than trying to break through the door.

He peeked around the corner of the chimneys and saw that both men were still looking the other way, talking in low voices, and even laughing once or twice.  Karak shook his head.  He knew how overconfident Swornmen of the Overlords were.  No one had dared to take on an Overlord in over a generation, not even the constables, so long as the Overlords kept their activities to the Low City.  They’d become so complacent that they only posted six guards who wouldn’t notice a train wreck on the street below.

Karak scampered from chimney to chimney on the roof until he was within several paces of the Swornmen.  Karak picked up one of the small stones that covered the entire roof and threw it toward the far side.  It made a loud clang when it hit one of the metal gratings that covered the top of the chimneys.  The Swornmen immediately turned in that direction, both drawing their revolvers.

“I’ll check it out,” said one of the men in a Kingdomer accent.  “Stay and watch the door.”

“Right,” said the second man nervously.

The Kingdomer who spoke first walked warily toward the other end of the roof.  After a few moments, when Karak was sure the first Kingdomer was on the other side, he hurled another stone into the corner on the left.  This caused the remaining Swornman look that way, turning his back to Karak.  Karak pulled his knife, rushed forward, and gave the man two quick thrusts into both lungs.  Unable to scream, the man thrashed about and gurgled until Karak plunged the knife into his heart.  The man twitched a moment longer, and then went silent.  Karak lay the man down against the door, then crept back to his hiding place behind the chimney three paces away.

When the first Kindgomer came back after several minutes, he stopped when he saw the young Swornman leaning against the door.  He kicked the younger man and said, “I leave for five minutes and you take a nap?”

When the younger man did not stir, the Kingdomer bent down to check him.  Karak sprang forward and killed the Kingdomer in the same way he had killed the first.  Karak felt no regret that he had killed one of his ethnic cousins.  Back in the Kingdoms, the men—and most women—killed each other for far less.

Karak searched the two men and found rings of keys on both of them.  After Karak trying several keys, the third key on the ring he held opened the door’s bolt lock with an audible click.  Karak eased the door open and crept down the dark stairwell.  Light from the city illuminated the stairs enough for Karak to see that it was only ten steps to another door below.  A dim light shown around the edges of the door.  When he reached the door, he put his ear to it, slowed his breathing, and listened.  There was silence on the other side.  He turned the handle.  The door was unlocked, so he opened it a crack.

The door opened into a large linen closet.  Shelves filled the room on all sides with towels, sheets, buckets, and scrub brushes.  Several brooms leaned against the wall in the far left corner.  In the center of the room was a table where a startled maid, in the middle of folding a small face cloth, stared at Karak.  From the looks of her, she was a Kingdomer—her hair was pure yellow and her skin was of the palest white.

Karak hated to kill innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The Swornmen on the roof and in the alley below chose this life knowing its risks and rewards; this maid was just trying to earn a living.  Some Klahdera assassins he knew chided him on this weakness, but Karak chose to look at it in a practical way.  The constables essentially let the Klahdera fight it out with any other crime syndicate they wanted, so long as the body count of innocents never rose to attention-grabbing numbers.  The fewer the civilian casualties, the less chance the constables would get involved in Klahdera business.

Of course, Karak was no longer in the Klahdera.  But that did not mean he would give himself the all-clear to start killing innocents.  You have to have a code, something you stood for, or else you weren’t a man.

Karak put a finger to his lips.  He stepped into the room and shut the door silently, all the while watching to see if the maid would make a move toward the door.  If she tried to warn anyone, or even took in a long breath to scream, she would no longer be a civilian.  She did neither.

He stared at her a moment.  “You are a Kingdomer, yes?” he asked in his native language.  It had been so long since he had used it, and it felt good coming off his tongue.

The girl’s eyes widened even more, and she said, “Yes, I am of the Hlaan kingdom.”

Karak grinned.  “I too am Hlaanish.”

The girl still stared at him warily.  “What are you going to do to me?”

“What is your name?” Karak asked.


“Jelia.  I will not hurt you…unless you force me to,” Karak said.  “My business is elsewhere in this house, but I cannot leave you behind to raise an alarm.  I must tie you up and put a gag in your mouth for five minutes, and then I will return and release you.  Now, to compensate you for your troubles….”

Karak pulled one of the coin purses he had taken off the Swornmen he’d killed tonight and handed it to her.  She took it tentatively and opened it.  She stared at the contents for a moment, licking her lips.  It was probably more han than she saw in a year.

“When I return,” Karak said, “I will give you another just like it.  Do we have a deal?”

When Karak finished tying Jelia to one of the shelves, he asked, “Is that too tight?”

She looked up at him and shook her head.

“Good,” he said.

He was about to put the gag over her mouth, but then asked, “Where is Silek sleeping tonight?”

Jelia’s eyes hardened, and he was ready to gag her quickly if she screamed, but she said, “Sleeping with his new whore in the master bedroom.  Third door on the right.  The man is Hlaan, but he has no honor.”

Karak expected Silek’s servants to show him some loyalty, but Jelia’s reaction meant Silek still slept with his maids and probably promised them the stars to keep them from whispering to his wife.

Karak said, “Thank you, Jelia.  Now I must put the gag on.”  He tied a small hand towel around Jelia’s mouth.  When asked if she could still breathe, she nodded.

He went to the door to the linen closet, then looked back at her.  “I will return in five minutes.  My word from one Hlaan to another.”

Jelia blinked, then nodded.

The linen closet door was at the end of a long hallway about twenty paces long.  Two lit lamps, ten paces apart, sat on small tables on the left side of the hall.  At the far end was a window, and then the hallway turned right.  Karak quietly closed the closet door and walked as near to the wall as he could, where the boards tended to creak less.  The rooms behind the two doors he passed were dark and quiet.  When he reached the third door on the right, he paused.  There was no light coming from the other side.  He put an ear to the door and heard Silek’s heavy breathing.  He put his hand on the knob.

And then paused.

This was too easy.  Silek was a Klahdera Overlord, not some captain in the ranks (like Karak used to be).  Why was he only guarded by six Swornmen who did not seem to know the sharp end of a knife from the hilt?  Why was the door to the roof guarded by two incompetent men, and not double barred from the inside?  And why had a Hlaan maid just let him enter her master’s house when she knew Karak was going to kill Silek?  Hlaan were loyal to a fault, almost voluntary slaves to their masters.

Karak had honed his instincts over the years to the point where he knew to trust them when things did not feel right.

He let his wits take control of his thirst for vengeance, and let go of the knob.  Karak backed away from the door, then turned and crept toward the closet.  The uneasiness he felt only increased the farther he got from Silek’s door, and he tried to calm his pounding heart.  Every instinct in him wanted to bolt for that door, the noise he’d make be damned.  The trained assassin in him, however, controlled those urges.  Barely.

With sweat beginning to trickle down his back, Karak opened the closet door to find the Hlaan maid crouched behind the folding table with a revolver aimed at his head.

“I will not hurt you,” she said, smiling, “unless you force me to.”

Behind him, the doors on either side of the hall burst open and a dozen of Silek’s Swornmen filled the hall, all with revolvers pointed at him.  Silek’s door opened, and the Overlord walked out, fully dressed in one of his finest blue suits.  He stared at Karak with a mixture of fury and sadness that seemed to match Karak’s feelings at the moment.  Karak opened his mouth to explain to Silek the meaning of loyalty when he froze at seeing who exited the bedroom after Silek.

Crane in his garish white suit with white top hat strode out, clicking his black cane on the wood floor.  He looked paler than the last time Karak saw him in the silo.  Thin blue veins crept around the corners of his eyes and grinning mouth.

“Mr. Karak,” Crane said, “is this any way to repay your patron?”

Karak turned his revolver toward Crane, but a sharp blow to the back of his head stopped him from firing.  Darkness took him.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 25

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!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 25

Taran was searching the stacks of books in the library for texts on healing when he saw the Master Circle exit the arch down the hall from the library.  From the looks on their faces, something terrible had happened.  Fatimah gave him a worried glance, then shook her head slightly.  The Circle entered the room as if they had just heard about the death of a loved one.

Edoss and Cursh turned from watching the mass of Angra monsters below to face the Circle.  Melahara said, “The Jars are no longer an option.”

“Why?” Edoss asked.

He stepped down from the chair on which he had been standing.  Taran admired the way the small Orlenian managed to make even that action seem regal.

“That does not matter,” Ollis said.  “We must proceed with a different plan.  We have decided to use Fatimah’s shield to get our people to the nearest Guardian, where we will use it to go to Markwatch.  The Turicians will accept us.”

Edoss frowned.  “The Compact will also accept you.”  He shifted his gaze to Melahara, who returned it with a sad one.

“In time, perhaps,” she said.  “But for now, the Circle wishes to flee to a place that is known to us, where there is no doubt that the people will accept us.”

Edoss gritted his teeth.  “If you didn’t think the Compact would take you in then why did you even contact us in the first place?”

“I know you want to help us, Dylan Edoss,” Melahara said gently.  “But your authority in the Compact right now is in doubt at best.  We must go where we know we will be welcome.”

Edoss sighed, stared at her a moment, and then nodded.  “If that is what you wish.  At least let my people help you get there.  What can we do?”

Melahara smiled, glanced at Ollis who gave her a resigned nod.

“We hoped you would say that,” she said.

As the Master Circle and Edoss went over their plan on getting almost five hundred Tuatha from the Heiron to Markwatch, Taran caught Fatimah’s eye, then nodded his head toward one of the windows away from the rest of the leaders.  She glanced at Eblin, who was engrossed in the planning conversations, then walked to where Taran was standing.

“The Delving Jars are gone, aren’t they?” he asked.

She stared at him a moment, then asked, “What makes you think they are gone?”

Taran smiled.  “Answering my question with a question tells me I’m right.”

Fatimah glanced back at Eblin, then looked at him again.  She whispered, “They may never have been here to begin with.”

“I had a dream,” Taran said abruptly.  “Two months ago, the night the rings appeared in the sky.  I dreamed of three containers: one black, one white, and one red.  All of them had unrecognizable markings.  And I think they were in Calaman, for I saw the containers sitting on a stone road next to the Hallowed Bridge which crosses the Veda River.  The lid of the black container suddenly flew off…and that’s when I awoke.” For reasons he could not explain, he chose to leave out the part of the beautiful, but deadly spirit that lunged at him.  “I dreamed of the Delving Jars, didn’t I?”

Fatimah’s silence confirmed Taran’s suspicions.

“It was only a few days after the dream that I came across references to them in my old books.  How could I dream of them before even heard of them?”

Fatimah stared at him wide-eyed, then flinched when Eblin called, “Fatimah?”

Eblin limped toward them, resting heavily on her staff with each step.  She frowned, making Taran feel like he had been caught passing notes in class.

“Fatimah, please fetch Master Davin of the Heshman Guard and bring him to the library.  He is on the first level near the south entrance.”

Fatimah bowed her head, then left Taran without looking at him.  Eblin watched her leave, then turned to Taran.

“My Apprentice is as curious about Recindians as I am sure you are about us,” she said.  “But there were will be time enough for the exchange of knowledge after we have escaped our present predicament.”

“I think what I told Fatimah was a bit more important than simply ‘exchanging knowledge,’” Taran said.  “You people have more secrets than the Klahdera.”

He was about to explain the Klahdera to Eblin, but she said, “Other than the obvious difference that the Klahdera is a crime organization and the Tuatha are a nation, that is not a bad analogy.  We are both ‘underground’ organizations whose membership must remain secret if we are to survive.  You would guard your secrets, too, if you had to survive in a world that was hostile to your people, Dr. Abraeu.”

Her smile faded and she took on the air of a stern commander about to berate a soldier who’d fallen asleep during watch.  “What did you tell Fatimah?  And I want the truth, for she will tell me later what you discussed anyway.”

“It’s not a secret,” Taran said defensively.  He hated the way Eblin made him feel like he was first-year student.  And he hated that he acted like a first-year around her.  “I simply told her about a dream I had the night the rings appeared.”

When he told her the dream, her expression did not change, but she asked, “How did it make you feel when you woke up?”

“Afraid.  Paranoid.  As if I could never trust anyone again.  And yet…”


“It felt familiar.  I don’t know if it was the containers or the feeling of paranoia, but the dream had a familiar quality.  But I’d never had that dream before in my life, at least not that I can remember.”

Eblin’s stare shifted past Taran’s shoulder and out the window.  “Turn around and tell me what you see.”

Taran turned and saw four black tendrils from Angra spiraling down into the town just beyond the writhing mass of tentacles and Tainted beasts.  He could not see where the tendrils touched the ground, for they were hidden by the small log buildings and thatch-covered roofs.

When Taran told Eblin what he saw, he was surprised to see her lips grow thin—it was the strongest reaction he had ever seen from her.

Fatimah returned to the library with a tall, red-bearded man wearing a black woolen coat that looked to be a uniform rather than used for warmth.  Stitched on the left breast was a scarlet spiral that looked like the sea shells Taran used to collect from the shores of Lake Maximohr as a child.

Fatimah led the tall man to Eblin, who said to him, “Master Davin, the Circle wishes your input on their plans to break the Fomorian siege.  Please come with me.”

Davin nodded, then held his arm out for Eblin.  She took it, and they both walked over to where the Circle and Edoss were talking over a map rolled out onto a nearby table.

Eblin had been a bit more pale as she walked away, and Fatimah seemed to notice this.  She clenched her jaw several times, lost in thought while watching Eblin lean over the map before the Circle.  Taran glanced outside and saw two of the black tendrils of Angra retreat back up to the ring, while the other two seemed to move at a walking speed toward each other.

“They are moving about the town,” Fatimah said, following Taran’s gaze, “probing for weaknesses.”

Then she studied Taran’s face if he were a dissected toad in a biology lab.

“You mean the Fomorians,” he said.

She nodded slowly, then said, “You see them.”  It was more of a statement rather than a question.

“I don’t actually see the Fomorians, but you can tell where they are when they call on Angra.  Those black tendrils should make them easy to find, shouldn’t they?”

She gave a shaky exhale.  “You have seen them all this time.”

“Of course,” he said.  Then he narrowed his eyes at her.  “Just like everybody else.  Right?”

“No, not like everybody else.  At least no one who is a Mundane.  Only the Tuatha and the Fomorians can see the power of Ahura and Angra descend.”

Taran stared at her.  Then he blinked, and before he could stop himself, he laughed.  His laughter must have been loud, for he glanced at the Circle and the Recindians, who all giving him strange looks.  He didn’t care.  Fatimah’s inference that he was either a Tuathan or a Fomorian was absurd.  He was born and raised in Calaman; he was a Recindian.

And yet it frightened him beyond all reason.  For a part of him had always known he was different.  He had always had strange, detailed dreams of ancient people, objects, and events.  Despite his thoroughly Pathist education, he had always felt—known—that the world was an infinitely more complex place than what his five senses could describe.  And the ease and quickness with which he had put his faith in the Mystics when Mara had fallen ill not only surprised his family and friends, but himself as well.

But he had come to the Beldamark to find the Mystics, not to find out he was one.

Through his outburst, Fatimah watched him with a mixture of fear and pity.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Taran suddenly growled in a low voice.  “I’m not what you think I am.”

He then turned and retreated into the library before he lost control of his words.

He wandered through the rows of shelves containing old books, browning parchment rolls, and the smell of paper that had been ancient before the Compact was even founded.  He soon reached the end of the library, and climbed the stairs to the platform that contained the Crucible, the Window, the Book of Ahura, and dozens of other artifacts that Taran could spend a lifetime studying.  Three middle-aged female priests stood around the Book studying the open pages, talking quietly about an incantation.  Taran was able to follow most of their conversation, and knew they were looking for defensive Wields they could easily teach all Tuatha.  From their grim voices they were not having much luck.

Taran wondered if the book in his Calaman office really was a copy of this Book of Ahura.  Could it have filled with words when the Barrier had fallen?  It was enough to distract him from—

“There is a way to be sure,” Fatimah said from behind him, and he flinched.  “Ask your Recindian companions if they can see the tendrils right now.”

Taran glanced at Edoss, Cursh, and General Myndehr talking with the Master Circle, their backs to the windows where he clearly saw the black tendrils from Angra snaking into the town.  He thought back to the attack in Doare and how he had described the tendrils then, but no one had corroborated his sighting.  He just assumed nobody had noticed them.  But he did not question everyone on the train.  Perhaps some of the Shadarlak had seen it, but never reported it because no one asked them.

“This is ridiculous,” he said.  “I am not a Tuathan, or a Fomorian.  My parents were both Recindians, like their parents.  My ancestry is well documented.”

“I do not have the answers, Taran,” she said.  “But I do know that only Tuathans and Fomorians can see the tendrils you describe.  Have any of your Recindian companions claimed to see such a thing?  Would you like to ask them right now?”

Taran did not want to question them.  What if they could not see the tendrils?  The events of this journey had done much to vindicate his Mystic research, and they no longer thought he was a crackpot eccentric who was blinded by grief over his daughter’s illness.  But would they believe him if he suddenly claimed to be a Tuathan or even a Fomorian?  Taran did not want to go back to the ostracization he had worked so hard to overcome.

To change the subject, Taran nodded to the three priests studying the Book of Ahura.  “What are they looking for?”

“They are searching for weapons we can use against Angra.”

“I though Ahura did not allow the Tuatha to destroy anything.”

“We cannot destroy life that was created by Ahura, but we can destroy the Tainted,” she said.  Then glancing outside at the black tendrils.  “Or Angra harrowers, if we encounter them in battle.”

Taran shook his head.  “It’s been two months since the Barrier has fallen and you haven’t found defenses against Angra?  What have you been doing for eight weeks?”

Fatimah gave him an icy glare, and he regretted snapping at her.  “It is not as easy as simply reading the instructions and then performing the act.  Wielders must recite incantations, put their minds at peace—”

“Those two priests who copied your shield down there caught on quick,” Taran said.

“And they paid for it.  They were still unconscious when I went down to fetch Master Davin.  Without the practice, powerful Wields can make Wielders very sick.  Maybe even kill them.”

Taran turned to her and said, “So show me how to Wield.”

Fatimah looked shocked, then glanced furtively at the Master Circle.  “I cannot do that.  It is forbidden for students to Wield without a Master present.”

Taran smiled.  “If you’re so sure I’m a Mystic, then why not a real test?  Even if I can see the tendrils and none of my companions can, that doesn’t prove I can Wield, does it?”

Fatimah stared at Taran.  “Even if you can Wield, you cannot heal your daughter.”

The challenging smile melted from Taran’s face, but he didn’t reply.

Fatimah glanced at the priests looking over the Book of Ahura, then at the Circle below.  She motioned Taran over to a table littered with parchments and books on the other side of the platform, near the Crucible and away from the priests.  She told him to sit down, then she sat on the other side of the table and faced him.  She pushed away some of the books and parchments in front of them, then pulled an unlit candle between them.  It was burned halfway, and hardened wax had dribbled down its length to form a small pool in the brass holder at the bottom.

She put her hands on the table, palms down, and told him to do the same.  “You are going to light this candle by Wielding the Aspect of Fire.  First you will say the incantation that I will repeat to you.  While you say the incantation, you will think of a time in your life when you felt the most loved, and a time when you loved the most.”

Taran nodded that he understood, so Fatimah said, “Clear your mind and repeat after me: ‘Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame.  Quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.’”

Taran said, “Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame.  Quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.”

“Again,” Fatimah said.

Taran repeated the words, and then again when Fatimah told him to continue.  As he said the words, Fatimah said, “Continue with the incantation, but empty your mind of all thoughts.”

He tried to force all thoughts from his mind while still focusing on the incantation.  He soon felt his body relaxing for the first time in days, but he did not allow himself to dwell on the thought.

“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame—”

“Now think of the time you felt most loved,” Fatimah said over Taran’s chant.

“—quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call,” Taran continued.

An image leaped into his mind of a time when he was a child, no more than five years old.  He had had a terrible dream, and he had gone into his parent’s bedroom, crying and frightened.  His parents let him climb into bed with them, then they wrapped him in their blankets and told him pleasant stories of talking rabbits, squirrels, and birds playing and singing together.  His mother would start a story, and then his father would finish it, and then they would switch for the next story.  It became a game to both of them to see who could come up with the funniest beginnings and endings.  They even let Taran begin and end a couple of stories on his own.  All three of them had laughed most of the night away.  He had never felt so loved.

“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame—”

“Once you have that memory, think of a time when you loved the most.”

“—quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.”

Without question, the time he loved the most was the day Mara was born.  Holding her in his arms for the first time, her small face sleeping contentedly after the trauma of birth, he loved her so much that his soul ached.  It still did whenever he looked at, or even thought about, Mara.

“Quiet is the soul that Wields Ahura’s Flame, quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call.  Quiet is the…”

Over and over he repeated the incantation, and over and over he relived those memories of love and happiness.  His heart felt light, and he imagined that anything was possible.  The peace that settled over his body made him feel as if he were floating above it, and he caught a fleeting image of the top of his head as his body sat at the table in front of Fatimah.

“…quiet is the Flame that heeds Ahura’s call…”

“Now reach for Ahura, find the Flame, and direct it toward the candle’s wick,” Fatimah said.

Without thinking of what she meant, the part of Taran that floated above his body reached a hand for Ahura in the sky.  His spirit could see the ring.  The colors had stopped swirling and became the primordial elements of existence.  He felt the kiss of warm Air on his face, dipped his hands in cool Water, dug his toes into the soft soil of Earth, and watched the blinding white light of Spirit envelop him in love and peace.  He soon found the orange and yellow streaks of Fire permeating Ahura’s ring, and then grabbed on to them and held them with both hands.

A surge of energy that he had never known rushed through him.  His entire body felt aglow with a fire that was neither painful nor hot, but as comforting as a warm bath on a winter’s day.  The part of Taran that had reached for Ahura’s ring rushed back to his body in an instant whirlwind.

And then Taran’s eyes flew open.  Without remembering he had done so, he found that his right arm was raised in the air and his left was pointing at the candle wick.  He focused his gaze at the wick, and it burst into a blue-white flame that seemed to shine as bright as the Fire he had seen in the ring.

Then the flame on the wick began to expand.  It ate away at the top of the candle, melting all of the wax until the entire candle was a boiling puddle in the holder.  But the flame did not stop.  It continued to eat at the candle holder, and then it leaped to the table.

To Taran’s horror, the flame jumped onto the left sleeve of Fatimah’s woolen dress.  She screamed and began to pat the blue-white flames with her other hand covered by the right sleeve, but the flames did not go out.  The fire only continued to climb up her arm.

Without thinking, Taran left his body again and returned to Ahura, grabbed the Water he had felt there (not taking a moment to wonder how he could “hold” water in his hands) and brought it back to his body.  An explosive torrent of water appeared in the air above Fatimah, the table, and Taran, soaking them all.  The fire was extinguished, but the deluge flooded across the floor and flowed down the stairs in a waterfall.  Fatimah stared at him through the drenched red hair that covered her eyes.

Taran suddenly felt an exhaustion that he had never known in his life.  He did not remember falling to the floor.

ZERVAKAN – Free Fantasy Novel – Chapter 24

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.

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Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!




by Rob Steiner


Chapter 24

Fatimah had spent seven years in the Heiron as an acolyte and a priest, but she had never been this far down into the Heiron’s vaults.  Nor had she known there were this many levels below ground.

Fatimah had followed Eblin and the other four members of the Master Circle through nine arches, all opening into dark, musty rooms.  For each arch, one of the Master Circle had to place a hand on the right column to activate the Aspects and open the portal to the next level, for these levels were forbidden to all but the Tuathan leaders.  When they came to a tenth arch, Melahara gave Ollis Gray a sad look, and Ollis returned it with a slightly nervous one of his own.  The Holy Seat placed her right hand on the right column of the arch, while the Worldly Seat placed his left hand on the left column.  They both closed their eyes and uttered an incantation under their breaths that Fatimah could not hear.  A loud crack came from the arch, as if it had split in two, and then a dark corridor appeared beyond it.  Cold air rushed from out of the corridor, stinking of mold and centuries.  There was no other arch in the room.  They had reached the bottom level of the Heiron.

Melahara gave Ollis a challenging glare.  “This was your idea, Worldly Seat, so you lead the way.”

Ollis held his head high and strode through the arch and into the dark corridor.  As soon as Ollis entered, two torches sitting in sconces on either side of the corridor burst into blue-white flames that gave off no heat.  Fatimah flinched at the sudden light, but Ollis continued on as if nothing had happened.  The further he walked down the corridor, the more torches on either side of the hall burst into flame.

Melahara followed Ollis.

Fatimah glanced at Eblin, who followed Melahara as if they were walking into another part of the library.  Fatimah stayed behind her Master, trying to match Eblin’s same unconcerned air, but wishing for the first time that Apprentices did not have to accompany their Masters on every part of their trade.  Fatimah did not look behind her, but she heard Nyram and Ocrim following closely.

The corridor ran straight ahead almost fifty paces until it came to an abrupt end at a wall with three alcoves set side by side, their interiors bathed in shadow.  They were two paces high and set in the center of the wall.  Three small torches within each alcove burst into the same blue-white flame as the torches in the hall.

The alcoves were empty.

Ollis studied the alcoves open-mouthed, while Melahara inhaled sharply.  The others stared at the alcoves in shocked silence.

Ollis turned to Melahara.  “It was you and your priests that were supposed to guard the Delving Jars.  What have you done with them?”

Melahara opened and closed her mouth a few times, then said in a tight voice, “No priest has been in this chamber for a thousand years.  And lest you forget, it takes both of us to open the arch.”

“Then where are they?” Nyram asked as she inspected the alcoves where the jars once stood.  She ran her fingers along the pedestal of the alcove in the center of the wall and looked at the dust trail they made.  “These have been empty a long time.”

The others crowded around the left and right alcoves, and noticed dust covering the pedestals of both in equal abundance.

Ocrim Tylea said, “Whatever happened to them, happened a long time ago.”  He looked at Ollis and said, “So I think we can cease the accusations.”

Ignoring Ocrim, Ollis said, “It is impossible to reach this chamber without going through the arch, and the arch can only be opened by the Worldly Seat and the Holy Seat together.  So how were the Jars stolen?”

“Perhaps it is possible,” Eblin said, leaning on her staff, “the Jars were never here to begin with.”

Melahara shook her head.  “But I have records from Kalisha Mazid, the first Holy Seat.  She describes this room and how she was one of the priests who stole the Jars from the Fomorians.”

“Alon Grete’s journals said the same thing,” Ollis said, staring at the empty alcoves, speaking of the first Worldly Seat.  “Why would they both lie?  That does not make sense.”

Eblin chuckled.  “I did not say it made sense.  Only that it was possible.  All this dust says the hall has not been disturbed for hundreds of years.  If the Jars were not here to begin with, then they were certainly taken out of here a long time ago.  In any case, we need another plan.”