PEARLS OF PORTAL PATHS
Sammy shivered and glanced over her shoulder.
Lamp post trees, and no one hiding in them. The same view as in front. Hami had made her paranoid. They’d only just left the palace and she was rattled. Something didn’t seem right, though. Just like it hadn’t the previous night before the crabmen attacked. Mehrak had explained that the only way up to the Keep were the lifts at base camp, and because the crabmen hadn’t made it there, that meant they were safe.
Sammy wasn’t convinced.
Mehrak handed his friend Bertie’s address to Leiss, and the big Marzban led the way. He took them through the metal lamp posts, looping round the back of the palace and heading in the opposite direction to the lift site. Apparently Bertie lived on the north-east side, past the industrial district.
Borzin followed silently, probably disappointed to be babysitting again.
“Can we go to the market on the way home?” Sammy asked.
“No,” Leiss said. “The marketplace is off limits. We’ve been ordered to accompany you to Bertie’s house, then straight back to the palace. No detours.”
“You’re magi property now,” Mehrak said to Sammy. And then he whispered, “Maybe we should ditch these guys.”
“Great idea,” Sammy whispered back. “Except you’ve already handed them Bertie’s address so they know where we’re going.”
Mehrak had no response to that.
The industrial quadrant was a sprawling mass of stone block warehouses, which, according to Leiss, were mostly textile factories. They weaved their way through the dusty streets, passing blacksmiths and carpenters that had set up shop in amongst the big buildings, beating their glowing iron weapons or planing strips of mushroom.
On the way out of the industrial district, they took a dark alleyway between two tall warehouses. It was a filthy path, strewn with broken blocks, stained rags and food waste.
“It’s sketchy here,” Sammy said. She shuffled closer to Mehrak.
“You can see why we left this place out of the Honton Keep tourist guide,” Borzin said.
“This is the quickest route to your friend’s neighbourhood,” Leiss said. “Maybe you’d have preferred to lead the way, Borzin?”
Borzin rolled his eyes and smiled at Sammy. “He’s just grumpy because his mum’s giving him a hard time.”
“She’s always given me a hard time. And thank you for sharing my personal problems with our guests.”
“Tell her to move out. She’s never done you any favours, and it’s your house.”
“She’s not well. I can’t just kick her out. It’s not the right thing to do.”
“The right thing?” Borzin shook his head. “You don’t owe her anything. She singlehandedly destroyed your marriage.”
“Give it a rest,” Leiss replied and walked on in silence.
The passage led to a cramped and dirty residential area. The streets were arranged in a tight grid and the houses were crammed together side by side and back to back. They found the right street and Mehrak counted the house numbers until they reached a squashed terrace house surrounded by other squashed terraces. He rapped on the door and had barely finished when the door was yanked inward and replaced with a tall, skinny woman in a blue sari.
“Yes?” she asked.
Mehrak took a step back. “Dori?”
The woman’s brow furrowed. She had long, grey hair plaited down her back and tied up by a delicate gold chain, and was one of those slim, attractive older women who infuriated Sammy’s mother by retaining their figure well after they should’ve started sagging and growing bingo wings.
“It’s Mehrak,” Mehrak said. “Mehrak Omid. Bertie’s an old friend of my father’s.”
Dori’s face brightened. “Mehrak? Really? Bertie’s told me so much about you. I didn’t mean to be rude. I thought you were the kids who kick our door and run off. One of the many downsides of Bertie not holding down a proper job and forcing me to live in this ghastly area.”
Mehrak gave an embarrassed smile. “Is he in?”
Dori led them inside. “Bertie’s always in,” she said. “In his workshop tinkering, or in his study with his books.” She took them along a cramped hallway and into a small sitting room. “Make yourselves comfortable and I’ll go fetch him.”
The sitting room was dark and pokey. The carpet and furniture were threadbare, and the walls were covered in a mixture of charcoal portraits and illustrations of mechanical devices. Books, cups and general clutter sat in piles on any available surface, encouraging shadows and dark recesses. Only the fire in the hearth gave the room any kind of light and brought it back into the realms of being a home rather than a cave.
Leiss and Borzin wedged themselves onto a small sofa in a manner that didn’t look at all comfortable. Sammy remained standing and worked her way through the charcoal-drawn portraits on the walls. She stopped at a sketch of a young man standing with a boy. The boy was unquestionably a young Mehrak.
“That’s you,” she said.
“You recognise that handsome fellow?” Mehrak asked.
“No, but you’re the boy next to him, aren’t you?”
The door at the opposite end of the room opened and a middle-aged man with a shiny, red face entered the room. On his head he had a black turban, on his chin a scruffy white beard and the rest of him was covered in greasy overalls.
“Mehrak, my boy!” he said, holding out his arms.
“Uncle Bertie!” Mehrak replied.
They shook hands, slapped backs, then Mehrak introduced Sammy. Leiss and Borzin were briefly referenced with a ‘don’t worry about them’.
Bertie stood hands on hips, grinning broadly, and then frowned. “Where’s Gisouie?”
The smile vanished from Mehrak’s face.
“No.” Bertie shook his head slowly.
Mehrak nodded. “Crabmen. Over sixty days ago.”
“Are you okay?” Bertie put a hand on Mehrak’s shoulder and guided him to a second small sofa.
“Bearing up.” Mehrak sat down. “I’m going after her, though. I came …”
“… to ask me about your Auntie Kimia?”
“Has there been any further news?”
Bertie sighed. “I can tell you what happened, but I think you know most of it already and I’m not sure it will help. There’s been no news since I last wrote.” He took a seat in a high-backed chair. Sammy sat next to Mehrak.
“Your letter was over a year ago. There’s been nothing since?”
Bertie cast his eyes down. “We’ve heard nothing of Kimia since the night she was taken. The last letter from Dungalore was Mrs Gendra’s, saying there’d been a magus investigating her disappearance.”
Mehrak nodded but said nothing.
“My sister’s wasn’t a typical kidnapping, though,” Bertie said. “Her papers and equipment disappeared with her and there was no sign of crabmen in the area. Previous letters she’d sent indicated
that she was close to a breakthrough in her research. I think that’s why she was taken.”
“What was she researching?
Bertie shrugged. “I don’t know. She never said. She was paranoid her letters would get intercepted so she didn’t go into specifics. Mrs Gendra forwarded everything that was left; some odd bits of paperwork and some meteorological charts. I read everything but I don’t understand any of it. Science isn’t my thing, as you know. Kimia referred to ‘weak points’ in her research, but I’ve no idea what she was talking about.”
“And it definitely wasn’t crabmen?” Mehrak asked.
“Who knows anything for definite? The only other thing Mrs Gendra’s letter told me was that strange men in furs had taken rooms at the inn the night Kimia disappeared. In the morning some had gone. The others claimed they didn’t know anything.”
Mehrak leant back on the sofa. “I heard that some kidnap victims get taken to a base in the mountains. That would explain the men in furs. Crabmen wouldn’t survive the temperatures in the mountains so the Order would have sent men to do their dirty work.”
“A base in the mountains?” Bertie asked. “I’ve not heard of it. Who told you that?”
“A magus,” Mehrak said. “One we had the misfortune of meeting on our way here.” Mehrak explained how they met Hami, about the crabmen activities and what Hami had told them about people being kidnapped to become slaves.
Dori reappeared through a side door, holding a tray and tea set aloft in one hand. “It’s very sombre in here,” she said. “This is the most miserable reunion I’ve ever seen.”
Mehrak smiled weakly. “There was another reason I came here,” he said.
“Okay,” Bertie replied.
“To bring Sammy. I found her near the centre of the Fungi Forest.”
“Near the centre?” Bertie turned to Sammy. “How did you manage to get all the way in there, my dear?”
Sammy glanced at Mehrak.
“Tell him,” Mehrak said. “It’s alright.”
“I thought it was supposed to be a secret,” she said. She glanced nervously towards Leiss and Borzin.
“What’s supposed to be secret?” Leiss asked.
“Nothing,” Mehrak said. “She thinks I’m going to tell Bertie something I shouldn’t be, but I’m not.” He turned his head away from Leiss and Borzin and raised his eyebrows at Sammy.
She got the message, but didn’t want to betray Hami’s trust. He’d saved them from the manticore, and from Esther when she’d attacked. And soon he’d be the one taking her to the capital.
“So how did you get that far into the forest?” Bertie asked. “Did you escape a kidnapping or something?”
“Nothing like that,” Mehrak said. “She’d been playing with a golden device with an emerald set on the front. The emerald exploded and she got transported into the forest.”
Bertie frowned. “Where from?”
Mehrak took a deep breath and rubbed his hands together. He was clearly savouring the big reveal. Sammy wished he’d get on with it before Leiss smashed his face in.
“Get on with it,” Bertie said.
“Yeah, come on,” Borzin echoed. He’d shuffled closer and was poised on the edge of his sofa.
“The Mother World,” Mehrak said, enunciating each word with relish.
Borzin gaped. Dori frowned and looked at Bertie. Bertie remained silent.
“That’s ridiculous,” Leiss said at last.
“Whatever you say,” Mehrak said, sitting back and smiling smugly.
Borzin looked confused. “Principal Hootan told us Sammy came from a small village west of the Fungi Forest.”
“It must be true then,” Mehrak said.
Borzin opened his mouth. Then shut it.
Leiss stood up. “We’re going,” he said. “You shouldn’t be talking about this.”
“You aren’t taking them seriously, are you?” Borzin asked.
Leiss moved purposefully towards Mehrak.
“Wait,” Mehrak said, holding up his hands. “Please. Hami hasn’t told us to keep this secret. It’s nothing to do with the magi. It’s about Sammy. We aren’t interfering with any of their plans by telling Bertie this. I promise. Please.”
Leiss stopped but remained standing.
“I can keep a secret,” Bertie said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Who’s he going to tell?” Dori said. “He’s a social outcast.”
“Yes, thank you, Dori!” Bertie said. “This isn’t the time. Why don’t you pop over to Mildree’s house so you can moan about me to her?”
“I do that every day. There are only so many ways to tell someone how useless your husband is. And do you think I’m going to miss this? This is the most interesting thing that’s happened in our house since, well, since forever.”
Bertie sighed and the room fell silent.
Sammy became aware that all eyes were on her. None more blatantly than Borzin’s, whose face had gone slack as he stared at her. Leiss remained standing over her, wide-eyed, regarding her as if she was an extra-terrestrial, which she supposed she kind of was. She’d probably stare if she was in their shoes. She didn’t like it, though. She’d spent her whole life wishing people noticed her, and now that everyone had, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Bertie said.
Mehrak nodded gravely, eyeing Leiss tentatively as he did so. “Yeah. The magus is convinced of it. He believes it enough to have us under constant watch. Hence these guys. And he’s even keeping us at the palace.”
“Keeping you at the palace?” Bertie got up from his chair and paced to the wall. He turned back to Mehrak. “Do you know what the magi want from her?”
“I don’t know,” Mehrak said as he glanced at Leiss. “But even if I did know, I wouldn’t betray the magus’s trust,” he added quickly. “All I know is that he’s taking Sammy to the Grand Master in New Ecbatana.”
Leiss sat down with a grunt. “If at any point I think you’re discussing something you shouldn’t be, I’m going to physically remove you from this crappy little house.”
“Don’t rub it in,” Dori said. “Some of us have to live here.”
Mehrak shuffled uncomfortably and itched his hairline under his turban. “What I want to know,” he said to Bertie, “is separate to whatever Hami wants.” He looked to Leiss. Leiss frowned but said nothing. “Is there a way back to the Mother World from Perseopia? I figured that if anyone knew anything about it, you would.”
“Did you ask the magus?” Bertie asked.
Mehrak looked at Leiss again. Leiss watched him closely. “He has his own agenda.”
“You must respect the magi,” Leiss said. “If they have plans for Sammy, then you honour them.”
“I am,” Mehrak said. “I mean we are. We’re respecting the magi’s orders. Aren’t we, Sammy?”
“We’re going to do what Hami says. We just want to know if there’s a way for Sammy to go home. She needs to know that, at some point in the future, she’ll see her mother again. You understand that, don’t you?”
“I understand,” Borzin said gently.
Leiss stared at him.
“If you had children, Leiss, you’d understand.”
Leiss rolled his eyes. “Fine. Carry on.”
Bertie rubbed his hands together. “I had one thought while you were talking,” he said. “Do you think Sammy’s a chosen child?”
“The chosen children,” Mehrak said. “I hadn’t considered it. One of two from the Mother World returning to Perseopia? One to bring darkness, the other light?”
“That’s them,” Bertie said. “That’s the most common Mother World myth. And as Sammy is a child and from the Mother World …”
“I prefer young adult,” Sammy said.
“And as Sammy is a young adult and from the Mother World,” Bertie said, “the chosen child lore is probably a good place to start.” Bertie got up from his chair. “I’ll be right back.”
He left the room and returned shortly with two books. He sat on the large sofa next to Mehrak and dragged the coffee table over. Mehrak slid the teacups and tray to one side while Bertie placed the volumes on the surface and opened the top book.
Dori sighed loudly. “Well, this party has taken a dive,” she said. “Sorry guys, but when Bertie cracks open his books, that’s my cue to leave.” And she collected the tray of empty cups and plates and left.
“Ignore her,” Bertie said. “She’s just attention-seeking.” He flicked through the first half of the book. When he found the right page, he scanned down and pointed out a paragraph to Mehrak.
Sammy glanced at the book but the text was written in the same strange looping handwriting that was on the dial of the Midnight Emerald bracelet, so she sat back and waited for a verdict.
“This is the lore surrounding the chosen children,” Bertie said.
Mehrak’s mouth moved as he read the text. “Yes.” His eyes sparkled in excitement. “This bit here. A portal pearl was created by Ahura Mazda at the genesis of the Vara as a gateway into Perseopia for the chosen children to return to their homeland. It says the stone was placed into a device that would lock its powers so that only the chosen might activate it.”
Sammy sat up. “But Esther said that only the gifted could unlock the Emerald Dial.”
“That’s you. Gifted, chosen – same thing. You unlocked it.”
“But I’m not the chosen one,” Sammy said. “Esther is. She told me. And, anyway, I’m not from Perseopia so I can’t be a chosen child returning here.”
“Esther’s not a child,” Mehrak said.
“Maybe she was, but it took her a really long time to find the emerald.”
“There’s more,” Bertie said. “It’s a bit smudged, but you can make out something about the portal pearl only existing in the Mother World.”
“You said the bracelet didn’t come with you,” Mehrak said to Sammy.
“Then I’m stuck here for good,” Sammy replied. “Hami was telling the truth.” Unsurprisingly, that didn’t make her feel any better.
“He might not have been telling the whole truth,” Bertie said. “This next section references something about a route from Perseopia back to the Mother World using another portal pearl.”
“Are you sure you’re supposed to be talking about this?” Leiss asked.
“Let him go on,” Borzin said, his eyes unblinking. “This is getting good.”
Leiss kneaded his eyes with a thumb and forefinger.
Bertie went on, “It says, ‘To return, a matching gem must be found.’”
“A matching gem?” Mehrak said. He tapped his chin. “How do we find a matching gem?”
A smile spread across Bertie’s face. “And now we move on to book two.”
He lifted the second book out from under the first. It was a navy-bound encyclopaedic volume. “When you first asked about a
way out of the realm, I thought of these,” he said. He opened the book two thirds of the way through, leafed several pages back and forth until he found the page he wanted, then he pointed a passage out to Mehrak.
“Arda Viraf’s gems?” Mehrak said.
“Arda Viraf,” Bertie repeated. “A devout Zoroastrian who was said to have travelled to the Next World.”
“Is that similar to the Mother World?” Sammy asked.
“No,” Bertie said. “The Next World is where you go when you die. You journey three days through the demon lands until you reach the Chinvat Bridge, which spans a deep chasm teeming with monsters. On the far side lies heaven and light, and in the pits of the chasm, eternal damnation and torture. At the foot of the bridge, the demon god of judgement, Rashnu, decides your fate. He will either make the bridge wide for devout Zoroastrians or narrow for infidels.”
“Yeah, I’d rather not go there,” Sammy said.
“I’m sure it will be a long time before you do,” Mehrak said.
Bertie continued, “Arda was taken to the Next World by the great Ahura Mazda and shown what happens to the human soul after death. As the story goes, Arda Viraf returned from the Next World in possession of an incredible treasure of gemstones that became known as Arda Viraf’s gems. And – I knew I’d read this somewhere – they were often referred to as the pearls of portal paths.”
“The pearls of portal paths,” Mehrak said, his eyes alight with excitement. “You said Ahura Mazda created a portal pearl in the Mother World to bring the chosen children to Perseopia!”
Bertie nodded slowly. “Now read this bit.”
Mehrak leant over to read the paragraph under Bertie’s thumb. “It is thought that Arda Viraf’s gems are so powerful that, with careful selection, the holder can use specific pearls to be taken anywhere. They are even rumoured to hold a path to the Mother World.”