Behnam didn’t have to wait long for his young partner to catch up.
Hami emerged from the shadows, his skin purple under the magenta smog that hung over the city. He strode purposefully up the centre of the street, passing through the ephemeral wisps of the smog that floated at ground level, his head up, and dark hair and black cloak flowing behind him. He had the beginnings of a smile, but one damaged by pain and loss.
The men he’d been questioning would be dead.
In hindsight, Behnam should’ve interrogated the men himself. He stepped out of the doorway, into Hami’s path. “Should you be walking up the centre of the street so brazenly?” he asked.
“Who’s going to see me?”
Behnam had hoped he’d been wrong about the men. He tried to suppress the disappointment, but it must’ve shown.
“They’d have given us away,” Hami said, his smile gone.
“Not if you’d tied them.”
“It’s safer this way.”
“You’d be a master by now if you could suppress that vicious streak of yours.”
“If I’d developed a vicious streak sooner, your sister might still be alive.”
Behnam withdrew inside. The memory of that night hit him with almost physical force. It came from nowhere. The blood, the crying. The surprised look on his sister’s face as she breathed her last. The pain he experienced now was as raw as the night it
happened. As it would be for Hami. They’d both suffered the loss of Jamileh, but Hami had perhaps taken it harder.
Behnam decided then that he was going to tell Hami the full story. The boy had a right to know the events that led up to Jamileh’s death. “You couldn’t have prevented it, you know. It wasn’t your fault –”
“It’s not a good time.”
“There’s never a good time, but we need to talk about it.”
“After the mission,” Hami said. He softened. “Please.”
Reluctantly, Behnam held his tongue. He should’ve kept going, relieved Hami of his burden, but instead he allowed himself to be silenced again.
Hami was right. A lengthy debate and probable argument in the old capital would be irresponsible. They needed to keep their wits about them. There were other patrols of Order members roving throughout the city and Hami couldn’t kill them all. They’d already left a substantial trail of bodies through the district that had once housed the rich and powerful.
Behnam had never known this place. Few living had. The entire city had been vacated generations ago when the smog came, and only members of the Order and a few wasters remained.
He led the way off the street and into an oval courtyard surrounded by grand marble arches and pillars. At the far end stood a large circular building with a shallow dome. It was a beautiful piece of architecture with a grand doorway, carved lintels and window frames. Behnam felt almost ashamed that he didn’t know the name of it. He closed his eyes and accessed the magi network, scanned for Aratta maps, articles and building plans.
“What are we waiting for?” Hami asked.
Behnam opened his eyes. “This building used to be the royal opera house. We’re standing in the courtyard where the sultan and his family held social events.” Silence. “There’s a staircase inside the doorway that will take us to the roof.”
Hami gazed up through the open courtyard at the magenta clouds churning above them. They were lower here than he was used to, fine wisps floating just above the rooftops. Hami had been born in the outskirts of Aratta, but this would be the closest he’d ever been to the centre. He’d changed a lot since then. Since the wounded street urchin he’d been when Behnam found him.
“Those men didn’t deserve to live,” Hami said after a time. “It’s better for the realm that I’ve killed them.”
Behnam said nothing. There was no talking to Hami when he was dwelling on Jamileh. Behnam had never appreciated how badly the boy had fallen for her until she’d been killed. It had changed him. Something inside him had broken. Behnam wanted more than ever to speak to Hami then, explain how he knew it wasn’t his fault, but he suppressed the urge. On the way home he’d explain the truth. But not now, not while their lives were in the balance.
They crouched behind a fallen pillar. The smog was already making Behnam woozy. Half a day more and the hallucinations would begin. They’d need to be out long before that if they wished to survive.
“Did you learn anything before you killed them?” Behnam asked.
“They gave away the location of a base up in the Atrabiliar mountains.”
“On the northern slopes of Dev’s Peak.”
“That’s thousands of stadia from here. Why there?”
“They didn’t know. We’ll need to question someone higher up for that information.”
Behnam wondered how Hami had extracted what little information he had. Then realised that perhaps he didn’t want to know. He led the way across the courtyard at a crouched run and in through the opera house doorway.
“The staircase is just in here,” he said. “We should have a decent view from the top.”
They climbed the stairs in the dark. At the top, they emerged onto a curved balcony that circled the building.
Ahead loomed the sultan’s palace. Little more than a silhouette in the smog, but at six storeys high it dominated the skyline. Thick purple smoke still billowed from a ragged fissure in the vast dome and clouds hung thick about it.
“I’ve never seen it this close before,” Hami said.
“An impressive building,” Behnam said. “But thankfully, not somewhere we need to go tonight.”
They walked further around the balcony and stopped.
A black tower, gnarled and crooked, had grown from the earth in the centre of the piazza ahead of them, twisting its way skyward and reaching up into the smog above. At its base, a line of men and women funnelled into the entrance carrying stone blocks. Spikey grey crabmen stood either side of the slaves, twitching in the strange manner of their kind, chattering and poking people with their sword arms.
There were human slavers too, interspersed among the crabmen. Most were dressed in furs and many were scribbling notes on parchment.
“Should we fall in with the slaves?” Hami asked. “Follow them into the tower?”
“We’d have to lose our lightning staffs if we wanted to blend in,” Behnam said. “It would be risky.”
“I can’t see how else we’ll get in.”
“We don’t necessarily need to get in. Let’s take a closer look. See what we can find out first. We’ll have to leave soon, as it is. Before we contract smog sickness.”
They left the opera house and made their way towards the tower. It was an easy landmark to locate, given its height, but one that wouldn’t be easy to get close to. The area around the piazza had been cleared of buildings. Those closest to the tower had been reduced to their floorplans with only a few low sections of wall remaining among the heaps of rubble.
“Do you think anyone at the top can see us?” Hami asked as he looked up at the tower.
“I doubt it,” Behnam said. “It’s dark down here in the shadows. And even if someone does spot us, we’ll be long gone by the time they can get a message to ground level.”
They crawled through the foundations of one of the derelict houses that skirted the piazza. The building had been mostly destroyed, aside from the exterior wall, which at its highest point was around waist-high. Hami and Behnam arranged themselves either side of the gap that had once been the front door and sat down with their backs against the wall to catch their breath. The house they occupied was in a row parallel to the line of slaves entering the tower. They would have to crawl through adjacent houses to get closer to the entrance.
Behnam was about to get up when the atmosphere changed. An increase in air pressure accompanied by an almost metallic tang he could feel in his teeth. A wave of panic washed over him. He turned to Hami. The young magus’s eyes were wide, his chest pumping. He’d make himself sick if he didn’t calm his breathing and stop inhaling smog. This was bad. And could only mean one thing. Ramaask.
Some of the slaves were experiencing the atmospheric change, too. A few had stopped walking and were clutching their heads. Others were shaking or crying.
Behnam nodded to Hami and they both dropped off the magi network. They wouldn’t be able to communicate for a while. Inconvenient, but nothing compared to the risk of Ramaask sensing them.
Moving slowly, Behnam turned to peer through the doorway.
Ramaask emerged from the darkness across the square. The Nightmare, some called him. Others knew him simply as the Lurker at the Gate. Impressive titles for an impressive creature. A giant dressed in thick, black plate and trailing a cloak that floated impossibly on a non-existent breeze. His face was obscured by a
visor and on his helmet, three serrated ridges ran from front to back. One at the top like a fin and one on each side.
The air around him distorted and rippled as he strode across the piazza.
Following him was an equally tall figure, but this one was thin. It was cloaked all in black, its hooded head hanging limp at its chest. It kept pace with Ramaask, gliding across the square without any outward appearance of motion, as if it were floating.
The temperature was going up as the two monsters approached. The slaves parted and backed away. All of them, bar an older man that collapsed to the ground. He tried to raise himself but didn’t make it up. He spasmed as the thin figure drew close, then went limp as steam began to rise from his body.
Hami pointed to his ear. Behnam concentrated his mind, amplifying sound around them.
The two monsters were talking. Behnam hadn’t realised, due to Ramaask’s face being obscured by his visor, and the thin figure’s by his hood. Hami had known, though. In many ways, Hami’s powers were exceeding his own. How fast the apprentice was becoming the master.
“Instinct,” Ramaask’s deep but strained voice rasped. “I can feel a change in the air. She’s coming. And I want to know: why now?”
“Does it matter?” the thin figure asked in a metallic monotone. “You already know what she’ll do.”
“I want to know everything else. We have the opportunity to interrogate her, and if need be …”
They fell silent as a man emerged from the shadows of the column. A trail of smoke and glowing embers followed him across the piazza, billowing out from under his black cloak as if his body were smouldering beneath his clothes. The skin on his head was charred black, cracked with glowing orange fissures, and his eyes burned yellow.
“I must return to the mountains,” the burned man said when he reached them. He stood to attention before Ramaask, dwarfed by the giant creature. “I’m needed there.”
“No,” Ramaask replied. “You did well setting up the installation, but the General can manage the final preparations by himself.”
Hami looked to Behnam and mouthed, “The General?”
“I no longer trust him,” the burned man said.
“He’s been loyal to me for over a century,” Ramaask replied.
“He means to use the portal for himself.”
What portal were they talking about? And how was it that the magi were just learning of it now?
“You should destroy it,” the thin figure said. “You know what will happen if it remains.”
“Enough,” Ramaask said. “We can still change the outcome. And you,” he said to the burned man. “You are to remain here and oversee my tower.”
“But master, you don’t understand …”
Ramaask moved closer so that he was looking down on the man. “It is you who do not understand. I don’t ask twice. I thought you’d have learned that by now.”
“You are right, as always, my lord.” The man bowed low. He shuffled backwards before turning and walking swiftly away across the piazza.
Ramaask watched him go. “We need to find the girl.”
Who was this girl they were referring to? Behnam had learned more on this mission than he’d ever hoped to, yet he could tell there was more. He had a responsibility now to stay and find out what that was.
“I’ve sensed roughly where she’ll appear,” the thin figure said. “I will retrieve her while you head to the snow base.”
“I’m not leaving the city until the portal is ready. You know I won’t leave Aratta exposed unless necessary.”
“The portal is your gateway to the Mother World. You no longer need to guard the gate in the palace.”
Portal to the Mother World? The shock in Hami’s eyes mirrored Behnam’s reaction. Ramaask couldn’t have built a portal to the Mother World. It wasn’t possible.
“You would like that, wouldn’t you, brother?” Ramaask said. “But I’m not leaving Aratta until I have the girl in my possession.”
“You’re making a mistake. Your best hope of survival is to head to the snow base now.”
“Do you think me so fragile?” Ramaask spoke quietly but with a threatening undertone. “I have armies of crabmen at my disposal, men excavating in the cataclysm. I have the portal and my tower of silence nearing completion. I can’t be stopped. I will escape this realm.”
“I meant no offence,” the thin figure said. “Some things are said to be fate and cannot be averted. The visitor arriving to bring your downfall. Our master to follow.”
“Our master?” Ramaask said. “Your loyalty is to me now. I brought you here, rescued you from the darkness.”
“Rescued me to exist in this half form. Neither extinct nor truly existing.”
“Would you rather go back?”
“No!” the thin figure backed away. “I am grateful, truly, brother.”
Ramaask walked towards him, closing the gap. “Your existence in this half form, on multiple planes, is to our advantage. You see things that others can’t. If I give you your body now, you’ll lose the abilities that make you useful to me. Abilities that will allow you to find the girl before the magi do. Assuming you wish to help me.”
“As always.” The thin figure bowed. “And perhaps with this gesture, I will prove my loyalty and you will restore me to my rightful form.”
“I will stop the girl myself if I have to.”
“That won’t be necessary. I will bring her to you.”
“Only when that is done will I go to the mountains to oversee the final preparations for the portal.”
“As you wish,” said the thin figure. “I believe the girl will be arriving soon. There is already a density of energy building in the Fungi Forest. I will seek her there.”
“Go then. Seek her out, and bring her to me.”
The thin figure bowed again and floated away.
Behnam nodded to Hami and pointed after the thin figure.
Hami’s expression turned stricken. He mouthed ‘you’ and pointed back at Behnam.
Behnam fixed him with a stare until the young magus got up and crept away. Hami would be devastated about leaving Behnam alone in such close proximity to Ramaask, but it made sense to send the boy after the thin figure. He was younger, fitter and would stand a better chance of keeping up. And as an added benefit, it would get him out of the smog. Behnam would remain a while longer to see if there was anything else worth learning, then he’d catch up with Hami in the forest.
Ramaask walked to the tower and entered the doorway. Behnam gave him a moment longer, then crept through the foundations, working his way through the demolished houses and towards the foot of the tower.
After a painstakingly slow crawl through the rubble, Behnam reached the remains of the house opposite the tower entrance. There were no walls, but a pile of sandbags were stacked in the area that the front room had once occupied. It would give him some concealment, but it wasn’t ideal. The building one row back was better. It was still intact and the balcony on the second floor would give him a vantage point to look down on the tower entrance. He crept into the shadows behind the sandbags, paused, and was about to move on when the atmosphere changed.
Ramaask had exited the tower behind him. Behnam shrank further down behind the sandbags. He should’ve kept his distance, but he hadn’t, and now he’d trapped himself.
What now? Hami wouldn’t have travelled far yet. Both of them together might have a chance at holding the demon back long enough to escape. Alone, Behnam was a dead man. But if he connected to the network, Ramaask would sense the transmission and might even kill him before Hami returned. There was no other option but to keep telepathic silence.
Behnam’s heart pounded with an intensity he was sure Ramaask could hear. He was sweating, breathing hard and inhaling poisonous smog. It was making him light-headed, yet there was nothing he could do but wait and hope Ramaask moved on. His body trembled and an all-consuming desire to run took over.
“Lord VorMask,” a shaky voice said. “We’ve been making excellent progress. We’ve gained two more storeys since …”
“Wait,” Ramaask said.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” said the man. “I …”
“Silence!” Then Ramaask quietened. “I smell something.”
Behnam closed his eyes and held his breath. He heard Ramaask inhale deeply. Then nothing. Time seemed to stretch out for an eternity as Behnam waited behind the sandbags, heart palpitating and lungs bursting.
Finally, Ramaask spoke. “I smell … magus.”