FATE OF THE ABDUCTEES
Eggie lurched forward and Hami slumped down at the kitchen table. Mehrak shovelled more coal into the stove, filled a pot with water from the sink and carried it to the hot plate. Sammy took the bench opposite Hami.
“What else can you do with that staff?” she asked.
“Light fires, put them out – like you saw. Some basic healing. I can use it as a torch or as a weapon. A few other things, but those are the most useful.”
“Magi can also get inside people’s minds and steal their thoughts,” Mehrak said as he sliced a mushroom into chunks and plopped the pieces into the pot.
“Who told you that?” Hami asked.
Mehrak turned from the stove and fixed Hami with a frown. “My grandfather told me about the mindreading. He had dealings with your sort.”
Sammy cringed. “Have you read my mind?” She felt violated, like when a burglar had broken into their house and emptied their drawers. Hami would find out what she was really like. That she wasn’t as tough as she made out. How she wasn’t popular at school and how she’d cried the other night.
“No,” Hami said. “I haven’t read your mind. Magi don’t do that.”
Sammy relaxed a little, but not entirely.
The magus watched her, as if he were looking through her eyes like windows into her head. She stared down at the table. Perhaps
if she didn’t make eye contact he couldn’t see what she was thinking.
“The magi share a brainwave network,” Hami went on, “but that’s between ourselves. We use it to communicate telepathically and to share each other’s knowledge if we choose.” Hami tapped a finger on the table to prompt Sammy to look at him. Their eyes locked. “I can’t read your mind,” he said.
“I heard the magi brainwashed a man once,” Mehrak said. “And turned him into a slave.”
Hami slammed his fist down on the table. “Why do you peasants always bring that up?”
Sammy jumped and Mehrak shrank away behind the stove. “It’s just … someone told me about the Naziarabad …” he stuttered.
“The Naziarabad terrorist,” Hami said, his eyes burning. “A terrorist! The Mephralytes were plotting to destroy the Naziarabad monument, the most holy structure in our realm. The magi accessed one terrorist mind to expose the location of their base. That’s all we did. Only the Grand Master was powerful enough to do it and it took days of planting suggestions to get the terrorist to reveal the location. We wouldn’t have done it if thousands of lives weren’t at risk.” Hami closed his eyes and put his hands over his face.
If Sammy’s dad had delivered that rant, this would be the point where he’d slump back on the sofa, stare into his beer bottle and tell her that he’d try to spend more time with her after the football season.
“The magi haven’t done it since,” Hami said, looking up, calmer now. “And even that time we did it, we didn’t read his mind, we got him to lead us to the base. Reading minds is not the way we operate. It’s unethical. And most of us aren’t as powerful as you think. Abilities beyond telepathy and fast reflexes are uncommon.” Hami coughed and clutched at his chest. “The majority of the magi network is supported by the strength of a few top tier magi,
currently Grand Master Aegis and four others. They’re the powerful ones.”
“What are you?” Sammy asked.
“Excuse me?” Hami replied.
“Are you a weak or a powerful magus?”
“I have enough power for my duties.” He coughed again. “That’s all I need.”
“But enough to defeat a fully grown manticore,” Mehrak said, flinching when Hami’s bloodshot eyes snapped to his.
“Are there female magis?” asked Sammy.
“No,” Hami said. Then he seemed to reconsider. “What I mean is, currently we don’t have any. But there have been a few over the years. We don’t get many, but when we do, they’re always enormously powerful and always top-tier magi.”
“Could I become one?” Sammy asked.
“It’s not something you can learn. You’re either born with it or you aren’t.”
“So I can’t get a staff to blast stuff?”
“There’s more to being a magus than blasting stuff.”
Mehrak stirred the pot on the stove slowly. “Are the magi still trying to stop the crabmen?”
“What kind of question is that?” Hami asked. He moved his red-rimmed eyes to Mehrak again.
Mehrak pinched his lips together. “The infestation seems a lot more … prolific than it was a few years ago.” He didn’t look up and concentrated on stirring the pan on the stove.
Hami regarded Mehrak, opened his mouth to talk, closed it again, and sighed. “You look like you’ve lost someone close.”
“You could say that,” Mehrak replied.
“Then what I tell you won’t come as much consolation. We’re still fighting, but we’re losing. The crabmen outnumber us hundreds to one. And their numbers are increasing. There aren’t enough of us. We’re investigating –”
“Investigating?” The word seemed to catch in Mehrak’s throat. There was a look of incredulity on his face but he continued to stir. He dipped a spoon into the liquid and raised it to his mouth.
Hami gritted his teeth but let the comment slide. “The crabmen are a formidable species. Merely investigating has cost many lives. There are too many to fight and there’s no way to stop all the kidnappings. Ten to twenty people are taken a day.”
Mehrak choked on the soup. “Ten to twenty? A day?”
“Several thousand a year, yes. And that number’s rising.”
Mehrak shuffled uneasily. “Why are they doing it?”
“You’d have to ask the person controlling them.”
“Most likely. Either him or someone else in the Order. We have a theory that the crabmen are controlled by a hive mind, like ants or bees. The person controlling them is acting as a pseudo-queen to get them to kidnap people for slavery.”
“Why does the controller need slaves when they’ve got a crabman army?”
“Crabmen aren’t intelligent. They communicate using a simple language known only to themselves. And they don’t have hands, so they can’t build. Killing and kidnapping is what they’ve been bred for and that’s all they’re useful for.”
“What do they need humans to build?”
“The Tower of Silence in Aratta city, for one. Other slaves are used for other things. There are three main sites they get taken to. The tower in Aratta, a snow base in the Atrabiliar Mountains, and then there’s the Cataclysm. The Cataclysm gets most of the slaves.”
“But, hypothetically,” Mehrak said, “if someone were kidnapped in the middle of the Fungi Forest, then they’d most likely get taken to the Tower of Silence in Aratta? To the closest site?”
Mehrak glanced at Sammy. Hami watched them.
“No,” he said. “They’re more likely to go to the Cataclysm. Three-quarters of kidnap victims get taken there. That would be the first place I’d look if I’d lost someone close.”
Mehrak nodded to himself.
“We’re in the process of investigating all three locations,” Hami went on. “To find out what the slaves are being used for. I was sent to the tower.”
“That’s why you’re sick,” Mehrak said. “Because you’ve been into the old capital?”
“That’s right. I was sent to investigate the tower, but my mission was a failure and I had to leave early. Others have fared better at the Cataclysm. It’s the location we know most about and the subject of discussions to be held with the Regent at Honton Keep.”
“What is a cataclysm?” Sammy asked.
“The Cataclysm is a huge crack through the centre of Perseopia,” Hami said. “It’s ten stadia deep with molten magma at the bottom. The slaves that get taken there are put to work excavating rock on narrow ledges inside.”
“Why?” Mehrak asked.
Hami gave a tired shrug. “We think they’re looking for something, but we don’t know what.”
“What about the lava pterodactyls?”
Sammy sat up. “There are lava pterodactyls? As in, flying dinosaur pterodactyls?”
“Exactly that,” Hami said. “They live inside the Cataclysm. The crabmen hand the slaves over to the pterodactyls at the top, then they get flown down to a ledge and put to work.”
Mehrak paled. “And that happens to most slaves? Why do they keep working if they know they’re going to die?”
“Fear,” Hami said. “If they stop, they’re either thrown to a fiery death below or ripped to bits and eaten by the pterodactyls.”
The kitchen fell silent, save for the sound of Mehrak pouring tea. He didn’t stop when the liquid reached the top of the cup and
it overflowed onto the table. Only when the tea ran onto the floor did he seem to realise what he was doing and put down the teapot. He stared down at the liquid pooling around his feet.
Sammy grabbed a cloth from the sink and mopped up the spill for him. Mehrak stared at the floor a while longer then turned to Hami. “You said you were on your way to the Keep but also looking for Sammy.”
“I was pursuing someone when I left Aratta. He fled into the Fungi Forest and I followed. I lost him not long after. Then the brotherhood felt Sammy enter the realm. We recognised the sensation from the last time someone arrived in Perseopia.”
Mehrak stared at Sammy. “People have entered Perseopia before?”
“A long time ago.”
“How did you know where she’d be?”
“I didn’t,” Hami said. “When I lost the fugitive I was chasing, the magi decided I should continue on to Honton Keep to inform the Regent of events at the Cataclysm. I never expected I’d run into Sammy. Or even that she’d be found so soon.”
“How did you know it was me?” Sammy asked.
“You’ve got yellow hair, for a start. That’s fairly uncommon in Perseopia. And I can feel an aura around you that’s stronger than anyone else’s in this realm. Something that isn’t from here. An ancient resonance, but familiar.” He narrowed his eyes and tapped his chin with a finger. “There was only one place that was ever familiar to Perseopia, because it was once linked to us.”
Mehrak’s mouth fell open and he slowly shook his head.
Sammy’s stomach dropped away. Hami watched her intently, a wry smile playing on his lips. “My guess is that it’s the resonance of the Mother World.”
Sammy looked to Mehrak.
“You really are from the Mother World,” he said.
“Now you believe me?”
“I thought so.” Hami smiled weakly as he held his stomach. “Perseopia hasn’t been in contact with the Mother World for twelve hundred years. That’s why the resonance is weaker in us than it is in you.” He wretched hard, making Sammy flinch, but nothing came out. He coughed several more times, then stopped himself. He took a deep breath. “How did you get here?”
Sammy told him about Esther, the market, the bracelet with the Midnight Emerald Dial, altering the clock hands, then waking up in the Fungi Forest.
“The Midnight Emerald Dial?” Hami said. “The magi are not aware of such a device. I’ve been communicating with Grand Master Aegis since I met you both and neither of us thought you’d come here using a gem. The magi council assumed that you’d cut your way into Perseopia with a shard from Yima’s poniard.”
For a time they sat silently as they cupped their drinks in their hands.
“I suppose Sammy needs to find a way back to the Mother World,” Mehrak said at last.
Hami’s mouth drew into a line. “Did you bring the Emerald Dial with you?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Sammy said. “It wasn’t with me when I woke up.”
“It probably didn’t make the transition, then. Portal gemstones never do.” Hami stared at her gravely. He opened his mouth and then closed it. His shoulders slumped and his eyes dropped to the floor. When he looked up again and made eye contact, Sammy already knew what he was going to say.
“I think you should get used to living in Perseopia.”
Sammy zoned out, experiencing a numbing dizziness. She got up, then flopped back down on the bench. Every object in the kitchen seemed distorted as if she was viewing the room through a fish tank. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but couldn’t make any noise come out. Mehrak was talking, saying something. Soft, meaningless reassurances.
A singular sense, a smell, filtered into Sammy’s consciousness. Food burning. Mehrak had left the food on the stove too long. Mama always put baked potatoes in the oven and then forgot about them. Sammy had to be the responsible one who cleared away the resulting charred lumps. It was the burning smell that brought her crashing back to reality with the question: Who will be there for Mama?
Sammy put her face in her hands and burst into tears.