Mustafa sat at his desk, trying concentrate on the draft policy in front of him. He stared at the parchment and absentmindedly doodled on a spare sheet while his mind drifted. His guards had put out the ceiling lamps when they’d left and the room was dark. Only the candles on his desk and the surrounding pedestals illuminated the room; just as he liked it. There was something comforting about being alone with only flickering candlelight to keep you company. Such a large portion of his day was spent around people that it was nice to be alone. Only Fila, his masseuse, had remained. She stood behind his chair working his shoulders. He was a creature of comfort, without a doubt. She worked a tight knot on his shoulder and he groaned with pleasure. Being a regent wasn’t all bad.
In the dark recesses across the room the door latch clicked, and Hami appeared in the shadows, just out of reach of the candlelight.
“Back already?” Mustafa asked with a smile.
“Back indeed,” Hami said.
Something about him was different; his eyes were joyless and dark. Mustafa wasn’t going to enjoy this conversation.
“Are you well fed and watered?” Mustafa asked hopefully.
“I must say, you don’t seem yourself.”
Hami let out a long breath.
Mustafa mopped his brow. He was sweating already. “Where’s Behnam?”
Hami didn’t answer.
Mustafa turned his head to address the woman behind him. “That will be all, Fila. Thank you.”
The girl bowed and left the room. Mustafa waited until the door had shut before he went on. “You seem impatient so perhaps we should get down to business,” he said, pulling at his collar. “Is there anything I can –”
“I’d like a Marzban escort.”
“I can facilitate that. What’s it for?”
“For Sammy. To take her to the Grand Master in New Ecbatana.”
“You’re not going with her?”
“We’re going together.”
Mustafa squirmed in his chair. “You’re going with her, yet you still want an escort? I would have thought you’d be ample protection.”
Hami said nothing.
“Will two Marzban be enough?”
Hami maintained eye contact as he spoke. “I need thirty.”
“Thirty? What can you possibly need thirty for? Five could dispatch twenty crabmen.” Mustafa paused. “What are you expecting to run into on your way to the capital?”
Hami pursed his lips. “Crabmen,” he said. “Lots of them.” He looked like he was going to say more, but instead turned and walked to the wooden battle scene on the Regent’s wall. He coughed, retched, and swallowed.
The Regent wiped the sweat from his forehead. All the tension that had been massaged out of his shoulders was corkscrewing its way back in. “I’ve known you since you were a boy, Hami. I can tell when something is troubling you. There’s something you aren’t telling me. You’re different. I ask you as a friend to share your burden. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you’d joined the wasters of Aratta.”
“Hami,” Mustafa said. Hami turned back towards him. “Where’s Behnam?”
Hami didn’t answer. His face reddened, then a cough burst from his mouth and he dry-retched. He bent over at the waist while he composed himself. A trickle of black bile appeared at the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away but Mustafa had seen it and recoiled in his chair.
“You have been to the wastes!” he said. “I should’ve known. It’s in your eyes.”
“I haven’t been infected, if that’s what you think.” Hami approached the desk. He gritted his teeth and inhaled deeply.
“That’s what happened to Behnam, isn’t it? You’ve been to Aratta. You made it out. Behnam didn’t. The crabmen got him, didn’t they?”
Hami gripped the edge of the desk and raised his eyes, gulping excessively.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “We went there together, but we were split up. I left before he did, and he never re-joined the network. That was a few days ago now.”
“You think he’s dead?”
Hami shook his head. “I don’t know. He left the network for our protection. I …” Hami trailed off.
“It’s not your fault, you know,” Mustafa said after a while when Hami didn’t continue.
“I never said it was.”
“You didn’t have to. I know what you’re like. You beat yourself up about things.”
“That was different. That was his sister and it was my fault. I could’ve prevented …” Hami hung his head.
“You’re not infallible. I know you think you are, because you’re powerful, but you’re not. Did you ever tell Behnam that you and Jamileh were –?”
“Together?” Hami screwed up his face. “Hardly. How could I tell him we were together the night she died? Tell him that it was my negligence that cost her life?”
“Is that why you’re taking my men? For a rescue mission? Because I can’t let you take them to Aratta; it would be suicide. I know you feel guilty for losing Behnam’s sister, but you can’t throw my men’s lives away to save his.”
“I’m not a fool, Mustafa. Your men are for exactly what I’ve said they’re for: to escort Sammy.”
“But why? Why so many?”
Hami stared into his eyes. “The Order are mobilising the crabman armies. They’re building up to something.”
“Mobilising crabmen? The Order are little more than smog addicts. They certainly aren’t organised enough to mobilise crabmen.”
“You need to differentiate between members of the Order and your typical waster. They aren’t the same thing. The Order are intelligent, organised. They lured Behnam and I into Aratta, split us up, and then – I’m guessing – had the crabmen capture him.”
“For what purpose?”
“Because of a discrepancy. Just over two days ago we felt a ripple in the fabric of the realm.”
“You think the Order kidnapped Behnam to find out what caused it? Are you sure it wasn’t the crabmen? A few Order members wouldn’t pose much of a threat to a magus.”
“Behnam was kidnapped before the ripple occurred. The Order knew it was coming and lured us into a trap. They knew about it and we didn’t. That means they know, or at least knew, more than we do now.”
“Do we know what caused it?”
“Someone arriving in Perseopia. An outsider.”
“An outsider arriving? What kind of …” Mustafa went silent as the realisation dawned on him.
Hami nodded slowly.
“The girl? Sammy? Yellow hair, blue eyes … That’s why you need the escort.”
“She caused the ripple?”
“She’s from the Mother World.”
The Regent slumped back against his chair. “If I’d been told that by anyone else, I wouldn’t believe it.” he said. “How did you find her?”
“I didn’t. Mehrak did. Sammy was wandering the Fungi Forest alone and he picked her up. My path crossed with theirs yesterday when they gave me a lift here. It was pure chance.”
“What was Mehrak doing out in the forest? What kind of fool travels the Fungi Forest with the crabman infestation being what it is?”
“He’s an amateur treasure hunter from a small town thousands of stadia to the west, near the boundary. He’s been travelling in a gastrosaur caravan, so I presume he thought he’d be okay. Judging by the journal he keeps by his bedside, I’d say he and his wife were on an expedition for the Rule Book when she was kidnapped by crabmen.”
“Chasing the Rule Book?” Mustafa snorted and shook his head. “A dreamer like my mother. So his gastrosaur didn’t turn out to be much help alerting him to crabmen after all. Poor fellow.”
“Mehrak presumably came upon Sammy while searching for his wife.”
“How can you be so sure Sammy really is from the Mother World?”
“The ripple in the protective barrier around Perseopia was the same type as the one felt by our forefathers the last time someone else arrived here. And it coincides exactly with when Sammy told me she arrived in Perseopia: two days ago.”
“Sammy could just be a gifted child that experienced the sensation and is pretending to come from somewhere she doesn’t.
Or she could have been put up to it by a member of the Order. They say their leader Ramus VorMask is a powerful sorcerer.”
“Do you think I would be so easily fooled? I can feel she’s different. And few people who are sensitive enough to experience these ripples would know what the sensation meant. Only the magi have a history long enough to remember it happening before.”
“Assuming she is a Mother Worlder, what does the Order want with her?”
“I don’t know. She’s different; she has the potential to be powerful, maybe. But I don’t think that’s it. I think they’re scared of her, like she’s here for a reason. Although I can’t think what that reason would be.”
Hami’s gaze became vacant, focusing on a distant object behind the Regent. He started gulping again and his face ran slick with sweat. Then he vomited loudly on the floor. He was sick several more times, and remained with his head bent over as he retched.
Mustafa said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Hami said when he could compose himself enough to talk. “I thought I could control it.”
“It’s fine. That was my favourite carpet, but don’t worry about it.” Mustafa smiled, but Hami didn’t look up.
“What do you know of the Lurker at the Gate?” Hami said.
Beads of sweat prickled the Regent’s forehead. “The monster of the fog?” he whispered, his heart galloping. “The vision you get after prolonged exposure to the smog? You’ve seen it? You’ve become infected with the nightmare.”
The Regent slid his chair back slowly. He was scared. Scared and repulsed. The acidic stench of Hami’s vomit became overpowering. He had to get out of the room, get as far from Hami as possible. Calling security would be pointless; Hami could kill everyone in the building in the blink of an eye.
Hami watched him intently. He would be able to tell what Mustafa was thinking.
Hami smiled, thick globules of black filth stuck in his teeth. “And did you ever hear the story of the priest that claimed to have seen the Lurker?”
Mustafa gulped. “The one who said he saw the monster outside the Fifth Azaran Fire Temple?” He breathed through clenched teeth. “That was thirty years ago and he was just a boy.”
“He was just a boy, but what does that matter?”
“A boy well known for telling tall tales. Everything he said was dismissed by the magi. The only reason people even remember him is because he claimed that Grand Master Onora Bruche was killed by the Lurker. If Master Bruche hadn’t disappeared at the same time, then no one would have taken him seriously.”
Hami watched the Regent, his face grim.
“Hami, you’re scaring me,” Mustafa said. “You’re not yourself and –”
Hami held up a finger to silence the Regent. “Have I claimed to have seen the Lurker at the Gate?”
“You haven’t. But you’ve been to Aratta and you’re sick with the infection.”
“I have been to Aratta, and I am sick, but I’m also in full command of my faculties. I only mentioned the Lurker and the young priest because there’s more to the story than you may be aware of. An interesting accompaniment that’s been forgotten in the retelling over the years.”
Mustafa ran a sleeve across his forehead. His ulcer had flared up and was biting into his stomach lining.
“The young priest claimed that he’d witnessed Onora and the Lurker fighting on the bridge over the Cataclysm. He also said Onora was thrown to his death into the Cataclysm below. But what you may not know was that the boy said he saw a girl with the magus. A girl with yellow hair.”
“I never heard that part.”
“It wasn’t important to the story. Not until now. The magi recognised the sensation of Sammy arriving as being the same as
the last time someone arrived in Perseopia. The same sensation that occurred a matter of days before the events the boy told of.”
“So now the story the boy told is true? Another girl arrived in Perseopia before Sammy? And Onora was killed by the monster?”
“The boy witnessed the fight from inside the fire temple. And the bridge across the Cataclysm is a long stretch of rock. He’ll have barely been able to make out the Grand Master, a girl with yellow hair, and a mysterious figure in black. When the Grand Master was thrown to his death by the figure in black, the boy probably convinced himself it was the Lurker. It could’ve been Ramus VorMask or another member of the Order. It could’ve been someone else entirely. But seeing a girl with yellow hair after the sensation of someone arriving in Perseopia is significant.”
“I still can’t believe a master magus was defeated by a member of the Order.”
“The Order has recruited many powerful men over the years. Sorcerers like Achaemen Mantis. Men that claimed to be Necromancers. And let’s not forget General Azim Azertash – the General. He killed several magi in his time.”
“But a Grand Master?” Mustafa wiped his forehead again. “Does that mean the Order got that girl? The first one, I mean?”
“I don’t know. The boy said he fled when he saw Onora thrown into the fire.”
“But that was thirty years ago. If a member of the Order defeated Master Bruche and captured the girl, wouldn’t they have used her for something by now?”
“Unless the girl died too,” Hami said. “Or escaped. Alternatively, she might not have been the one they were after.”
“But what does it all mean?”
“I believe Onora Bruche was close to something and got killed for it. Unfortunately, he’d already left the magi network at that point so we don’t know what he knew, or what he thought he knew.”
“What’s the point of having a magi network if magi disconnect from it when they learn something important?”
“There’s not a lot we can do about that now, but I’m sure he had his reasons. What’s important is that the Order knows there’s a second visitor and has kidnapped Behnam. I’m guessing it’s to find out how much the brotherhood knows. I think the Order believes this girl poses the same threat that the first did – whatever that was – and they’re looking to either capture or kill her. That means we need to keep hold of her until we can figure out what’s going on.”
The Regent pulled at his collar. He was drenched in sweat. He’d have to bathe before retiring tonight. “So we know nothing about the girl, except that she might be powerful?”
“And there was a difference in the ripple when she arrived.”
“I thought you said that the ripple was the same.”
“It was the same type of disturbance, but it was bigger. The ripple that occurred around the time the first girl was sighted was the same size as the ripple that occurred when Mantis killed the Sultan. When Sammy entered Perseopia, the disturbance was three times larger than either of those two occurrences.”
“Three times?” Mustafa said. “No wonder the Order is taking an interest in the girl. Perhaps the first girl wasn’t powerful enough for what they wanted.”
“It’s possible that Sammy possesses three times the power of the first visitor. Which could be why the Order is so interested in her. That’s the belief of many of my brothers.”
“But not yours?”
“I don’t believe anyone, no matter how powerful, could create a larger ripple.”
“But you believe she has power?”
“She does. I can feel it whenever I’m in her presence. There’s a very real power there that’s lain dormant until now. I think entering Perseopia has awoken something in her. At the moment, she’s unaware of it and it could take years to develop, maybe even longer
to harness. But even so, we can’t allow her to be taken by the Order. Not until we know more about her. That’s why she must have a full, thirty-strong entourage of Marzban to take her to New Ecbatana. Once she’s there, she’ll be safe until we know the extent of her abilities or alternatively what kind of threat she poses. As long as she remains in Honton Keep, she’s a liability. The safest option is to get her to Grand Master Aegis.”
“Why don’t you wait for magi back-up instead of taking my Marzban? Not that you aren’t welcome to them, but the magi would give far better protection.”
“The crabmen are assembling as we speak. Honton Keep is closer to Aratta and the crab hive than it is to the magi garrison or New Ecbatana. Time is of the essence. I need your men assembled and briefed tomorrow to be ready to leave the following day.”
“There are no magi in the area? Your brothers are spread across the entire realm. There must be someone close.”
“The Fungi Forest is teeming with crabmen. It’s far too dangerous for anyone to be in there. There was a magus close by, about two days from here. A lower order brother called Victa Wild. He was dispatched into the forest to investigate a potential magus recruit that had connected to the network for the first time. But we lost contact with him when a unit of crabmen attacked. Even magi are putting their lives at risk by entering the forest, hence why we’ve vacated the area.”
“The magi aren’t able to help at all?”
“Twenty of our finest men, riding the swiftest greenbucks, set off from the garrison yesterday. But they’re still at least four days’ ride from the Keep.”
Mustafa sat quietly for a moment, deep in thought. “What if Sammy and that first girl were chosen children?”
Hami frowned but said nothing.
“Just indulge me a moment,” Mustafa said.
Hami shrugged. “Go on.”
“If the first girl was a chosen child that would make Sammy the last one. The legend says there were two. One that brings light. And one that will open the gates of hell.”
Hami coughed. “That’s what the myth says.”
“Which one is Sammy?”
Hami stared at the Regent with raw eyes. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“If the first girl was the good child does that mean that Perseopia’s only hope for the light returning has been snuffed out already? And if Sammy is the dark one, what are you going to do with her?”
“The chosen children are a myth, Mustafa. There are no chosen children. Besides, Sammy’s eventual fate is of little importance. The magi will assess the level of threat she poses to the realm, then we will deal with her accordingly.”