Behnam remained on the floor with his arms suspended above his head. It seemed as if he’d been chained up for days, although he had no way of knowing.
Since he’d woken from the most recent of his reoccurring nightmares, he’d lost the use of his arms. At least he assumed that’s when it had happened. He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. His dreams were merging into reality. He was constantly fearful, constantly expecting the demented giggling girl to catch up with him. But the dreams weren’t his. He was certain of that.
He needed to escape, to run, to move his arms and legs, get his circulation going, but that wasn’t going to happen. If he were unchained now, he doubted he’d be able to stand or even crawl. His body was gradually shutting down and there was nothing he could do about it. He’d been abandoned; left to rot without food or water.
It wouldn’t be long before he was dead.
Only days ago he’d parted ways with Hami. Shortly afterwards he’d been attacked. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. He wondered if Hami had made it out of the city okay. If he’d caught the fugitive he’d gone after?
Behnam had dropped off the network before he’d been captured and he hadn’t re-joined since. His brothers probably assumed him dead. He was desperate to make contact, tell them he was alive and beg to be rescued. But he couldn’t do that. His brain had been poisoned. Communication could result in the entire magi network being exposed to an attack. He’d rather die than let that
happen. Which was convenient, because that was exactly what was going to happen. There was nothing left to do but wait.
So he waited, and he listened.
He’d been abandoned, but he wasn’t alone. There were footsteps nearby, which meant he was still being guarded. Why? He was being left to die, why not finish him off?
The guards changed often. They came, went, but never talked. Not a single word. Why did they remain silent and work such short shifts? They’d have been ordered to do so for a reason. And if that was the case then it meant he was still considered a threat. Blind, chained, and virtually paralysed, Behnam Baktash was a threat. Flattering, but not helpful. Or was it? What could he deduce from this? They’d been ordered to remain silent and to work short shifts so that no single guard spent any length of time in his proximity. That meant they assumed Behnam would try to identify them.
He’d already tried to investigate the guards using mental probes. None of his captors were magi or had the abilities to become one. They were all nobodies. That ruled out openly communicating via telepathy. So what use would it be if he identified them?
Pain was spreading from his temples, clouding his brain. What use was identifying a guard? And then he knew. He could force telepathic suggestions. That’s what his captors were afraid of.
Years ago, the Grand Master Lectone Tinoplus had once achieved mind control over a prisoner and used him to lead the Regent’s forces to a terrorist base. The Grand Master’s powers were legendary, but Behnam was powerful too. Would he still have the strength to hold sway over a guard? Sending out suggestions in all directions would have no effect. He’d have to concentrate his energy and train all thought on one person. Not an easy task for a blind man. He couldn’t single out a guard visually and they didn’t talk, but still he listened. There had to be a giveaway.
He listened to the guards’ footsteps as they arrived, when they left and when others replaced them. It seemed like days were
elapsing and still he couldn’t distinguish anyone. He began to despair. None of them stayed long enough to latch on to. They knew he’d try to influence them so they’d made it impossible.
Then he heard something. One of the men shuffled as another replaced him.
Had he imagined it? He couldn’t be sure. Did the man walk differently to the others? Or had he stumbled? Behnam listened, but the man had gone.
Guards came and went, but the one that had shuffled didn’t return. He was beginning to doubt himself. Eleven guards had changed over since the guard that shuffled. Behnam craned his head, desperately trying to listen. Where was that shuffle? Was there even a guard who limped? His heart raced. He was hyperventilating. There was no guard. He’d imagined the whole thing. He was dying and losing his sanity.
Then, a shuffle. Imperceptible, but there. The man was back! Silence as the guard manned his shift. At the changeover, Behnam heard him limp away again and he was gone.
The limping guard returned infrequently. Usually every seven to fifteen shifts, with no pattern to the order. They were making it difficult, but Behnam was able to latch on to him every time he returned, silently bombarding him with suggestions. As time passed, Behnam began to feel him before he heard the lazy foot, could sense the guard’s approach, but were his instructions being absorbed? Was it having any effect? Behnam kept sending the suggestions anyway, but almost as soon as the guard arrived, he would leave again. The process was taking too long. He had to escape and re-join the network, had to communicate with the magi, warn them of the threat.
The guards were moving again. Movement he hadn’t heard before: an uncomfortable shuffling, nervousness. Someone was coming, someone important. And Behnam knew at once who it was. Heavy footsteps, plates of armour clanking and squealing across each other.
The footsteps stopped, a key turned in a lock, and a door creaked open on rusty hinges.
“We’ve located the girl,” rasped the deep voice.
Behnam’s stomach turned over and waves of sickness washed over him. “The girl?”
“The one that severed my arm. The magus who came to this city with you, Hami. He’s taking her to the Cataclysm.”
“You know I have no knowledge of this.”
“How could you? You haven’t re-joined the network yet. That’s why I’m here. To extend to you an offer, so you can save another magus from being thrown to his death in the Cataclysm.”
Behnam coughed. “What do you mean?”
“My men are already ahead of them and there are crabmen closing in on their location. They’re trapped and the girl will be stopped.”
“Stopped from doing what?”
“Fulfilling the purpose she was brought to Perseopia to fulfil.”
Behnam gulped down a mouthful of air. “To chop your other arm off?”
“To break the seal of the Ahriman.”
Cold sweat beaded Behnam’s forehead. “There’s no such seal,” he said.
The voice spoke slowly, rasping out the passage:
“Seek out the path, cross the river of light,
“Descend through the depths and when you alight,
“Take a trip through the gate, where the mountain will fall,
“And that’s when the realm becomes darkest of all.”
The words paralysed Behnam.
“By the expression on your face, I’d say you’ve heard that passage before,” said the voice.
“It’s an old nursery rhyme,” Behnam stammered. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Don’t you find it strange how the passage never fades from the collective memory of the magi and it echoes over the network when a magus connects for the first time?”
How could he know the enrolment whisper?
“It’s been two thousand years and your pathetic brotherhood still haven’t figured out its meaning. Ordinarily, I’d leave it for the magi to solve themselves, but time is of the essence. I can’t allow them to continue fumbling around, putting the pieces together, while my existence is at stake.” Behnam heard the footsteps get closer, could almost taste the rotten breath on his face. “That whisper happens to be one of the few widely known passages of the Rule Book. It was imparted to Zoroaster by an angel, shortly before he died and his life essence passed to the magi.”
Behnam’s head was spinning. He slumped back against the wall.
“Your friend is about to break the prime commandment that all magi are born to uphold. Except none of you knew it, until now. And unless you inform the brotherhood immediately, you’ll be responsible for failing your prophet and bringing about the ruination of the realm. You must join the network now and stop your partner.”
“It’s not true,” Behnam said.
“You’re tired and confused. Tell your brothers what I’ve told you. Let them make the judgement. Spare Hami’s life, before it’s too late.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then you’ve left me no choice.”
Behnam sensed something coming, but too late. A heavy object smashed into his head and he was gone.