* Oversun *
“So, is this Oversun?” Wayne asked as he climbed off of the horse he’d been riding all afternoon.
“We made good time,” Tarak said by way of confirmation. “You ride well for an outsider. I was worried we’d need to take more breaks.” He slid off his horse and unfastened the staves, handing one to Wayne.
Wayne and Tarak had only stopped briefly at a small oasis to eat and allow their horses a respite and some water. Their steeds were bred for desert use, but it was still a strenuous journey, especially for Wayne who had only rode a horse a few times previously. He expected to be sore all over and dizzy from the heat, but he’d held up well riding across the desert. It was as if his body was far more resilient than even he knew.
Looking around the dilapidated buildings that lined the outskirts of Oversun, Wayne felt a sense of unease. “I see what you mean by ‘dead town.’”
The town was larger than Portico, but still not as big as Weaver’s Road. Unlike the last desert town Wayne had visited that day, the roads were at least clearly defined. They were made of rough-looking rocks packed together similar to cobblestone roads. The buildings were all made of the same sand-colored stone that he’d seen before, but they looked far more weathered, as if lack of use was having a negative effect. There was no noise except for the slight rustling of shifting sand caused by a hot breeze.
“Mining towns always go like this,” Tarak explained bitterly as he tossed a canteen of water to Wayne. “When the quartz dries up, the towns die within a few years. Oversun was huge too. Been around almost a thousand years. Didn’t matter though; people just moved on.”
Wayne took a long swig of water as Tarak tied their horses to a nearby post.
“We should walk from here,” Tarak added. “We don’t know what we’re facing. If the slavers are here, they could’ve setup traps. Can you see anything in the mentant realm?”
Wayne shook his head. “No, it’s like you said, too much quartz interference.”
He was lying of course. He had no idea how to use the mentant realm, but he wasn’t going to tell his companion that. He’d learned just enoughto feign understanding and knowledge of how it worked.
The Crystal Sands Desert covered nearly a fourth of the southern continent of Candovia and was the only place in the world where a special type of quartz, known as desert crystal, could be mined. The quartz, which naturally drained a person’s adimus, was so abundant in the desert that no one who lived there for any extended period had adimus based abilities, even in areas where desert crystal mines had been completely stripped. It was as if the properties of the quartz leeched into the sand itself.
As a result, even outsiders had trouble accessing the mentant realm in the desert. Quartz was everywhere, if not desert crystal, then just plain boulder quartz which, over the span of many years, would turn into desert crystal.
Tarak shrugged unperturbed. “I thought maybe you might have an advantage, being a mandant, but no worries. We’ll just do this the desert way.” He chuckled dryly as he signaled for Wayne to follow him.
Wayne knew from the books he’d skimmed earlier at Salov’s manor that mandant referred to his ability to command the wind, and presumably other elements, the way that he’d seen Fantasma do. This was called mandamus and only a small number of people were born as mandants. It seemed that everyone regarded them as special, but Wayne had only mimicked the words he’d heard Fantasma say. He didn’t feel special at all and had no idea how to use mandamus or what else it could do. He was beginning to regret letting slip that he was a mandant to Tarak and hoped his companion wasn’t counting on him to be some sort of secret weapon against the slavers.
“So do you know where this MJ place is?” Wayne asked in a hushed whisper as he followed only a step behind his companion down the eerily quiet streets of the abandoned down.
“Yeah, my dad used to go there all the time. It’s on the outskirts of town, but it’s on the west side, near the caves. I had us come in from the south so we wouldn’t be seen, at least I hope.”
“You mentioned your dad before; where is he?”
“Dead,” Tarak said bluntly, “Died in an explosion three years ago, just before the mine shut down.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” Tarak sighed. “They were trying to go deeper into the mine to find more crystal. After the accident though, the mining company decided to cut their losses and shut down operations. They just wanted to cover up the accident and move on.”
Wayne could hear the bitterness in Tarak’s voice. “Wow, that’s…” He was at a loss for words.
“It’s fine,” Tarak said, almost automatically. “Dad at least had an accidental death policy that actually paid out. Mom was able to take the money and open a shop. It could have been a lot worse, it’s just—”
Wayne flung out a hand to stop him. “Did you hear that?”
Tarak froze. “What?” he hissed.
Wayne felt like an alarm bell was going off in his head. It was as if a sixth sense was warning him that danger was on its way, but he couldn’t define it clearly. Acting purely on instinct, he tugged Tarak into a narrow side alley.
It was only a few minutes later that several men passed by, pulling a chain gang of a half dozen scrawny and haggard looking children behind them. Wayne barely breathed as he and Tarek pressed further into the wall, letting the shadows conceal them.
“Well, at least we know they’re here,” Tarak said when he was sure they were out of earshot.
“How many do you think we’re facing?” Wayne asked, feeling real nerves now.
“Slavers typically travel in small crews, maybe five to ten, but lately they’ve been more organized. There’s been rumors that someone’s bringing some of the smaller crews together into some type of slaver network, so who knows what we’re facing.”
“Then we need to find out,” Wayne decided. “We’re not going to be any use to your sister if we just get caught or killed trying to bum-rush in.”
Tarak nodded. “Let’s follow them, see if they show us exactly how to get in.”
He made to go out onto the main road, but Wayne stayed him. “Wait, we don’t want to be spotted. Let’s keep to the side roads instead, I think I can sense them even if I don’t see them,” he revealed, stunned by this new ability.
Tarak smiled. “So, you can access the mentant realm in a small area then?”
Wayne shrugged. “I guess so.” He pulled Tarak in the opposite direction. “Let’s go.”
“And who’re you lot?” The guard at the front door of Miner Joe’s looked skeptically at the group of men who had just arrived, dragging their batch of scared slaves behind them.
“I’m James and this here’s my crew,” the man at the front of the group said.
The guard looked unimpressed. “Right then; what’s the password.”
“Fillmore,” James said without hesitance.
“All right, meetings about to start. You can take yer slaves to the basement for holdin’.”
James fingered the sword at his waist. “I’m not sure how I feel about just handin’ over my property like this,” he tugged emphatically at the chain he was holding, which caused a small boy to stumble.
“If you don’t like the terms then you can turn around and leave; no one made ya come,” the guard said dispassionately. “Keep going at it on your own. I’m sure that’ll work for ya when the rest are joinin’ forces.”
James grumbled but gave a curt nod, “Fine then,” before heading inside with his group.
Wayne relayed the conversation he’d heard from his position at a window on the second floor of an abandoned building not too far down the street from Miner Joe’s. Although they were far off, he could still hear them clearly, something Tarak didn’t find the least bit odd, even though Wayne was internally wondering how he was able to do this.
“I told you,” Tarak said, “the slavers are banding together. It’s getting really bad. We’ve got to do something.”
“There could be dozens of them in there by now,” Wayne said. “They’re having some sort of meeting. There’s no way we can barge in there just the two of us.”
Tarak started pacing. “There has to be something we can do. I’ve got to get my sister out of there.”
Wayne was still staring out the window, “Tarak, what if your sister isn’t in there?”
“What do you mean?” Tarak rushed to the window as Wayne pointed discreetly down the street.
Two men were coming toward them, dragging a small, hooded girl bound with rope. She was wearing standard tan-colored desert attire and had long chestnut hair that flowed freely from underneath the hood.
“I recognize those men,” Wayne said. “They’re the same ones I stopped in Weaver’s Road last night.”
“Then that has to be Nina with them.” Tarak picked up his staff. “Quick, we need to get to them before they get into MJ’s.” He was out the door before Wayne could even suggest a plan.
Realizing his partner was not going to wait for any sort of strategy, Wayne grabbed his own staff and raced after him. He had never been keen to jump into a fight unless he had to, and for him, that was only when it was to protect someone else. He understood Tarak’s motivations. It was clear he’d do anything to protect his sister in the same way Wayne would protect Ashley.
They had reached the side alley just as the two men were approaching it, their guard clearly down. Tarak looked ready to charge the moment he exited the door, but Wayne was able to hold him back.
“We don’t want to make a huge ruckus, or that guard in front of MJ’s may hear and call for reinforcements,” he warned. “Let me do it, I have an idea.”
Tarak was reluctant but gave a wary nod. Wayne stepped forward, not quite sure if his plan would work. As the two men came to the alley’s opening, he jumped out, grabbing their hostage by the hand and yanking her almost completely out of their grip.
Before either man could even register what was happening, he called, “Mittius Mandamus Wind.” The air thinned before a torrent of wind sent both men hurling into the stone wall of the building opposite the alley.
“I can’t believe that worked a second time,” Wayne said, astonished at his own action.
Tarak had already dropped to his knees. “Nina!” he said as he threw the hood off of the small girl.
“I think she’s waking up.”
“Is she okay?”
“They hit her pretty hard.”
Nina gave a groan as she felt a pair of small, soft hands shaking her arm. “Wha…where am I?” Even as she said this, the dark room came swimming into view. She was surrounded by a dozen young children staring down at her, all with concerned looks on their faces. She was lying on her side, barefoot, disheveled, her tan shirt ripped and a gash quickly healing on the back of her leg just below the bottom of her shorts.
Nina slowly pushed herself up into a sitting position, her body aching, reminding her of what had happened. Three slavers had beaten her into submission as she tried to sneak into Oversun. She’d put up a good fight, but the young girl was no match for the grown men intent on subduing her.
A girl in a dirty, tattered blue dress was kneeling at Nina’s side. Her curly brown hair was a tangled mess and her green eyes seemed devoid of light. Though she’d only been there a day, Rachel Loamite already looked like she was in the depths of despair. Perhaps because she knew that once slavers got someone, they would never see their home again.
“Nina, how did you end up here?” she asked sadly.
Nina gave her head an experimental shake and looked around, taking stock of her surroundings. The large room she was in was divided by a set of sturdy quartz bars that she, and dozens of other young children were trapped behind. The rest of the room was barely visible, but Nina could see several men sitting at a table on the far side under the light of a few dingy oil lamps attached to the rough stone walls.
“I saw the slavers take you, so I snuck onto one of their wagons before they left town. I was waiting for a chance to free you and the others, but they caught me, so I ran to Weaver’s Road,” Nina explained as she stood. “I heard they were taking you to Oversun, so this morning, I snuck on a ferry headed to Gemald and got off on the way. I thought I could slip into town unnoticed, but I got caught again. Where are we?” She tugged at the stone bars of their cage.
Rachel was in shock at all her friend had accomplished on her own, despite getting caught. “We’re in a basement under a place called Minor Joe’s. I saw the sign when they brought us,” she whispered. “Some other slavers brought you a couple of hours ago, you’ve been out since. Why did you come here? You could’ve been killed.”
“I couldn’t just let those slavers take you; I had to try.”
“But now you’re caught too,” she pointed out.
Nina smiled. “That’s even better.”
Her eyes shone with excitement as she turned to her friend. “Candovon will come now, I know it.”
Rachel frowned. “Nina…” She gave a long sigh. “I don’t think Candovon can help us, not with this.”
“He will come. When he sees I’m in real danger, he’ll come; I know it.” Nina insisted.
“Who’s Candovon?” A boy behind them asked.
Nina turned to face the others in the cage. “He’s my protector. If I’m in real danger, he’ll appear. He’ll save me; he’ll save all of us.”
Behind her, Rachel had a sad, almost apologetic look on her face.
“Kid, your imaginary friend won’t save us,” said a soft but carrying voice from the back of the room where a solitary figure sat in the darkest corner alone.
Nina’s excited expression turned to frustrated anger. “Candovon’s not imaginary,” she shouted.
“Keep it down over there,” one of their captors called from the opposite end of the room, “or we’ll gag you, ya little runt.”
The girl in the corner of the cage stood, her long, sleek black hair cascading down her back as she did. “Look kid,” she said as she stepped into the dim light, “I get it. I used to believe someone was going to rescue me too. I just knew it. But now…”
As she came closer, Nina could see many bruises and scars on the older girl’s olive skin. She looked like she’d been starved, and she was wearing a ripped black sleeveless dress that was a size too small. Her amber eyes reflected despair as if all hope had been drained from her long ago. Despite this, she managed a small smile as she knelt down to Nina’s level and took her hand.
“No one’s coming for us,” she said in a firm voice.
Nina stared into the girl’s eyes. “Amber Young, he will come for you,” she said in a haunting voice quite different from her usual tone.
“How did you know my name?” Amber dropped Nina’s hand, looking stunned.
“Do not lose hope, do not despair, for you were lost but have been found. He is coming for you, and all will be restored.” Nina’s eyes seemed vacant, and her voice was still ethereal.
Amber moved away looking scared and confused but before she could say anything, a loud clanging sound caused everyone to jump.
One of the guards had walked over and was banging his sword against the cage. “Oi, I said quite in here!” He leered at Amber. “Well look who it is, the little spitfire herself.”
Amber took an automatic step back from the cage bars.
The guard chuckled. “What’s the matter spitfire, don’t want to play today?”
Amber’s eyes lowered as she shuffled back even more, clutching her sides, unable to speak.
“Don’t worry sweetheart,” he licked his lips, “we’ll get a chance to play more soon. I’m gonna get you nice and broken-in before we sell ya off.”
“Hey, leave her alone,” Nina shouted, aiming a kick through the bars, catching the man in the shin.
“Ouch,” the guard grabbed Nina by the hair with his free hand. “You’re another little spitfire, ain’tcha. You’ll be next. We’ll beat that little spark outta ya, just like your friend back there,” he said gesturing to Amber who had melted into the back corner again. She was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees now.
“Let me go, let go!” Nina shrieked.
The guard threw her backwards, cackling. “I’m gonna have fun with you!”
Nina scowled. “He won’t let you hurt me, you’ll see! You’ll all be sorry when he gets here!”
The guard continued to laugh as he left the cage.
Rachel came up to her friend’s side, looking truly terrified. “Don’t anger these guys. I’ve heard horrible stories of what they do to anyone that tries to defy them.”
Nina smirked. “Don’t worry, Rachel. We’re going to be rescued. I’ve seen it.”
Rachel gave an exasperated sigh. “Nina, I know you think Candovon is real—”
“He is real!” Nina snapped, “but that’s not what I mean. Candovon knows I’m not in danger. Someone else is on their way. I just saw it or at least a glimpse of it.”
Rachel looked confused. “What? Who?”
Nina seemed barely able to contain herself. “It’s not my protector who’s coming,” she pointed to Amber, “it’s hers.”
“What’s your name?” Tarak asked the small girl who he now knew was not his younger sister.
Though she had similar chestnut hair, her skin was much fairer than Nina’s and she had vivid blue eyes in stark contrast to the green eyes that seemed prevalent in the desert. Tarak and Wayne brought her back into the building they were using as a base, and Tarak gave her some water to drink after undoing the ropes that bound her.
“Lizzy,” she said in a soft voice as she handed back the canteen. “Well, Elizabeth, but everyone calls me Lizzy, even my parents.” She lowered her head at this.
“How did you end up with those slavers, Lizzy?” Tarak asked kindly, giving her a warm smile as he lifted her head.
“We were in a coach, those men ambushed us and killed the driver…and my parents,” she added sadly, a tear trickling down her cheek.
Wayne appeared at Tarak’s side. “Looks like those two snuck out of Weaver’s Road last night.” He pointed a thumb behind him to the two slavers who he’d tied up using the same rope they’d used to bind Lizzy. He was clutching his head with his other hand.
“You okay?” Tarak added concerned.
“I have a headache,” Wayne complained. “Came out of nowhere; maybe it’s the heat.”
“I didn’t think mandants got sick.” Tarak said. “Maybe the desert crystal is messing with your adimus immunity?”
“Probably,” Wayne shrugged. “Anyway, they pretended to be lost in the desert, attacked the first coach that came along, and kept the girl as a slave. They were headed here to catch up with their crew.”
Lizzy nodded. “They kept saying that a bunch of slavers are gonna be here today. Some sort of meeting.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Tarak said. “We could go in there and pretend to be slavers. They won’t know the difference.”
Wayne gave a hesitant nod and quickly regretted it. His head was still hurting. “It could work. Chances are they won’t know that we’re not legit, and that would get us in without having to fight. Once we get inside, we just need to get to where they’re keeping the slaves. Still, it’s risky. We don’t have an exit strategy, and we don’t know how many kids they have.”
“We’ll have to wing it. We can come up with a plan once we get inside.” Tarak said decisively, grabbing his staff. “Let’s go.”
“I swear you remind me of a friend of mine,” Wayne chuckled, grabbing his own staff. “Lizzy, those guys are tied up pretty tight, so they won’t be able to hurt you.”
Lizzy shook her head. “I want to come with you.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Tarak said. “We don’t know how many of those slavers are in there. You could get hurt.”
“You need me,” she said with a whine in her voice. “They’re not gonna believe you’re real slavers if you show up empty handed.”
Wayne smirked. “She’s actually got a point.”
Tarak frowned at him. “We’re not taking some ten-year-old girl in there with us.”
“I’m twelve!” Lizzy squeaked.
Tarak knelt to address her again. “Why do you want to go in there so bad? You were already caught once. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“My brother, Jack,” she said quietly. “He was stolen by some slavers two months ago. My folks have been looking for him ever since. Dad sold his shop to get the money, rented a coach, and they’ve been following leads trying to find him. Now they’re gone.” She was trying hard not to cry. “Jack’s all I have left, and he could be in there. I’ve got to try to help save him.”
Tarak sighed. “Well, it looks like we’re all here for the same reason.”
“I don’t like the idea either,” Wayne said as he put a hand on Tarak’s shoulder, “but, it may be our best chance to get in there. We only have one shot at this.”
“Fine, let’s do this, but don’t do anything crazy,” Tarak told the young girl. “Stay quiet and stick with us.”
Wayne chuckled dryly as the trio headed for the door. “I have a feeling this whole thing is going to be crazy.”