THE HUNTER AND THE HUNTED
The thin figure floated wraith-like along the darkened street ahead, as if no physical presence existed beneath its cloak. Yet something was there, some skeletal form beneath the fabric. Hami had never seen its like before. The creature had most likely been brought to Perseopia by Ramaask from the same dark place he came from. Brother, Ramaask had called it, yet the creature was nothing like him physically. Perhaps a brother in the same way the magi were to each other.
Hami ran through the shadows along the side of the street. He’d have more chance keeping up with the thin figure if he could get to his greenbuck, Fozmot, but the animal was tied up in a barn near where he’d entered the city. The detour would mean losing this wraith and if that happened he’d never find it again. He’d have to remain on foot and hope he didn’t tire.
The smog was already in his chest, weakening him, making his limbs heavy. He’d spent too long in Aratta already and now he was accelerating the effects of the poison by raising his heart rate. But it couldn’t be helped. He had to find out where this creature was going and who it was after. Ramaask had said it was a girl. Would she be like the last one that arrived in Perseopia? Like the one Grand Master Onora Bruche discovered before he was killed? If Hami escaped the city without suffering smog poisoning, perhaps he’d find out.
He wondered how Behnam was getting on. This was the first time he’d left his partner in danger since Jamileh’s death and he didn’t like it.
Hami always made sure he carried out the riskier tasks, but on this occasion he’d conceded to his master. Behnam had overruled him and he’d been right to, Hami was the faster of the two. He’d be more capable of keeping up with this wraith. And it was just one time. Behnam would be okay and when they met up again they’d talk like he’d wanted to. Hami would apologise. He’d open up about Jamileh’s death and beg for forgiveness. For being responsible for it and for all those times he hadn’t had the courage to speak up about it.
Behnam held a special place in Hami’s heart. He’d been the one that came for Hami when he’d first registered on the magi network. The one who’d rescued him from his life of loneliness.
Hami had spent most of his early years living in a squat on the outskirts of Aratta. At eight, he became the provider for the small community he grew up in. He hunted, rats mostly, while his mother and friends ventured into the city to inhale smog and get high. He was a natural hunter and would always return with enough food for everyone. In hindsight, he’d been exhibiting magi abilities well before he’d registered on the network.
It had been a deprived existence, but doing a job that none of the others could gave him a certain satisfaction. It made him feel important to be relied upon. To be needed by people.
One night his mother and friends didn’t come back. And then it was just him. He didn’t go into the city to look for her. She’d never shown any affection towards him and he’d seen first-hand how the smog had changed her. He was more upset that he had no one to hunt for than caring what had happened to any of them. His mother had implied that one of the men in the group had been his father, but if she knew which one, it was never made clear.
He moved on alone, walking north and finding a deserted village to live in.
He was hunting big game when Behnam found him and took him away to the magi garrison. There he was fed, clothed and taught to use his powers. It had been difficult adjusting to his new
life. A rebellious streak and anti-social behaviour got him into trouble often, and the brotherhood told Behnam to halt his training. But Behnam had seen his potential. He took him on as a student when no one else would. He taught him to read, to write, and spent countless evenings tutoring him in the magi arts. And he’d done it all without asking for anything in return. Behnam was only fifteen years older but he was what Hami imagined a real father would be like.
Then Hami had seduced Behnam’s sister and led the crabmen to her home.
He drew a sleeve over his eyes to wipe away the tears that blurred his vision but he only succeeded in making them sore by rubbing in smog from his saturated clothes.
This area of the city was like the one he’d grown up in all those years ago. Pre-Behnam. Pre-everything that had been good in his life. Now he was back and similarly his life had little purpose. Only tracking and hunting.
Hami followed the wraith up a long arcade. Giant forest mushrooms had grown up in the middle of a square at the end. A small orchard of them illuminating an island of dirt, hemmed in by cobbled streets. It seemed strange to see them here in the old capital, but the warm yellow glow provided welcome respite from the churning smog that stained everything else purple.
The wraith passed through the mushrooms, swirling the glowing spores that hung in the air, and disappeared.
Hami ran towards the square, paused, then skirted left around the outside, keeping out of the light as he worked his way to the far side.
The creature had gone.
Hami slipped further into the shadows of a nearby house and waited. Some of the smaller mushrooms were burnt with shrivelled edges, and their light had been extinguished, yet there was no sign of the creature in amongst them.
He looked away from the mushrooms until his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He was sickening, his breath becoming ragged.
The creature hadn’t carried on up the street, which meant that it hadn’t gone all the way through the mushrooms. The area was still warm so surely it must be close.
Had it known it was being followed? Perhaps it had run into the mushrooms, then taken a left or right down an adjoining street. Perhaps it was still here waiting to see who had followed.
Hami had been careful. He’d kept to the shadows. No one could have seen him. Could they? The longer he waited, the more distance the creature might be putting between them.
Hami couldn’t risk being seen, though. Even if it meant losing the wraith. If he was spotted, Ramaask would be notified and Behnam would be compromised. There might’ve been a time when he’d have taken that risk. But not now. Not with Behnam.
He peered through the darkness at the houses surrounding the square. No doors in the doorways, no frames or shutters in the windows. Nothing wooden remaining. All either stolen by scavengers or decimated by ambrosia beetles.
Then he saw it. A silhouette at one of the windows. If he’d taken the right-hand path around the square, he’d have walked right past the creature and it would have seen him. It’d suspected it had been followed so had waited. Suspected or known? Why would it think anyone had followed? It hadn’t long left the city centre.
Then Hami realised why.
His forehead ran slick with sweat. Bile rose in his stomach. An alarm had been sent. And he could think of only one thing that would trigger an alarm. Behnam had been spotted.
Hami clutched his stomach and vomited. It came out black and acrid, burning his throat as it launched out of his mouth. He bent double, holding his middle. He would have to get out of Aratta soon before the hallucinations began.
He looked back to the window. The wraith had gone. He ran to the house, up the steps and in through the doorway. He had to catch it now and find out what had happened to Behnam.
The house was empty.
Hami ran through to the back, leaping through a window and landing in the alley behind. Nothing up or down the path.
He picked the direction that led out of the city, the direction that closest matched the one they’d been heading in, and ran.
He didn’t know how long he could keep running at a sprint, but as far as he knew the creature hadn’t seen him yet, so if he kept the pace going he might catch it when it stopped. In the meantime, he’d have to pray that Behnam would be okay and that he’d re-join the network soon.
Behnam pressed his back up against the sandbags.
“Come out, magus,” Ramaask called.
He sounded more amused than angry. Did he know where Behnam hid? Behnam didn’t want to risk standing up to find out.
Over to his left was a pile of rubble high enough for someone to be crouching behind. He concentrated on a stone at the back, tipping it over so it rolled down over the other stones and made the required distraction. He peered over the top of the sacks to see if everyone’s attention had been drawn.
The plan had partially worked. Nearly everyone had been distracted. But not Ramaask. He stood by the tower entrance facing the pile where Behnam hid.
Dread seeped into every extremity. There was no point continuing to hide. It was all over. He’d never see Hami again. Never have the chance to apologise and give him peace.
His body rebelled against him. Limbs numb. Palms sweating. Head dizzy.
He got to his feet and turned to face Ramaask.
The air around the demon was dark. His arms were crossed over his armoured chest and even though he hadn’t raised his visor, he was clearly watching Behnam.
The men around him drew their weapons and the crabmen chattered as they spread out to the sides.
Ramaask raised a hand and they stopped.
“Leave him to me,” he said. “Everyone, back to work.”
The men backed away, but kept their weapons raised. The crabmen scattered spiderlike, back to the shadows.
An uncomfortable silence settled between them before Ramaask spoke. “And which magus do I have the pleasure of meeting today?” he asked.
“Behnam Baktash,” Behnam said, his voice cracking.
“Master Behnam Baktash?” Ramaask took several steps towards him. “Didn’t I expressly forbid anyone from returning to this city? I know that was 146 years ago, but the magi are reputed to possess a reasonably long collective memory. I would’ve assumed you’d remembered.”
“It must have slipped our minds,” Behnam said. “I’ll be on my way.”
Ramaask laughed a terrible, choking, death rattle of a laugh. “Now that you’re here, you’re welcome to stay.”
Ramaask wasn’t going to keep talking forever. Behnam needed to do something quick. He recalled the intact building behind him with the balcony on the second floor. It had an open arch leading inside. That was his way out.
Behnam whipped his staff round and fired at the sandbags in front of him. The explosion sent the bags in all directions and launched him up and backwards into a backward somersault.
Behnam landed on the second-floor balcony.
Ramaask ripped through the bags that came at him. He paused, tipped his head back and laughed. “Let the chase begin!”
That was Behnam’s cue to leave.
He flew into the house, through the empty rooms and onto a balcony at the front of the property. There was a square below and a dense neighbourhood of houses on the other side. If he could make it across to them, he might have a chance of escape.
He dodged to the side, leaping onto the balcony of an adjacent house as Ramaask came crashing through the wall behind him, destroying the building in his wake and dropping into the square below. He turned towards Behnam as the whole structure folded in on itself, expelling clouds of dust and debris.
Ramaask launched himself at Behnam again.
Behnam dropped to the floor of the balcony and rolled to the side as Ramaask ploughed through the wall above his head.
The building collapsed around Behnam. He managed a last-ditch effort to guide himself clear of the falling masonry, yet still landed badly.
Back on his feet, he ran, half-sprinting, half-limping across the square towards the road opposite. If he could get to his greenbuck, he might be able to outrun Ramaask to the Fungi Forest and lose him.
A huge chunk of masonry sailed past, narrowly missing him and kicking up stone chips as it bounced across the cobbled square.
Behnam reached the road and ducked down the first alley to the right as a second block demolished the corner of the building he’d passed. He heard Ramaask land in the square behind him with a thump.
Behnam turned down a second passage as thunderous feet echoed in the alley he’d just left.
He fired a lightning bolt from his staff at a town house as he passed, allowing the wall to collapse into the passage behind him. He ducked into a property on the right, through the open doorway and into an ancient living area. He went up a staircase, then leapt through an open window on the second floor into the window of the house opposite.
He kept going, running downstairs, out of the back door, sprinting along another street and down another alley. Finally, he jumped a wall and entered a house through the back door.
Behnam stopped and ducked to the side, flattening his back up against the wall between the doorway and window.
Silence. The only sound the beating of his heart. Adrenaline was making the desire to keep running unbearable, but he couldn’t let this panic force him into making a wrong move. Any error could be fatal.
Behnam took in his surroundings while he caught his breath. The room had been a simple kitchen with ceramic wash basin and tiled floor. Wooden cupboards, surfaces and tables that may have once furnished the place had long since decayed. It was dark but for the dim purple light of the smog outside. The hallway lay ahead, a black void leading into the heart of the house.
Behnam edged to the window. The walled back garden was bare, the plot hemmed in by houses on either side.
He needed to get his bearings, figure out where the greenbucks were. But perhaps he should lie low until Ramaask moved on. Find a cellar and bed down.
Behnam peered outside one last time, then crept towards the hall.
The kitchen darkened behind him.
Behnam spun around, lighting up his staff as two shovel-sized hands clamped his head on either side and lifted him from the floor. Ramaask had his visor up and he brought their heads together. His black, skeletal face shimmered purple in the staff light and his sharp black teeth parted. It was the last thing Behnam saw as Ramaask’s thumbs closed over his eyes.
He fired his staff into Ramaask’s chest, unleashing everything he had. But the hands held firm and the thumbs pressed in, forcing their way into his skull.
Behnam screamed as his eyes burst and his world went black.