* Weaver’s Road *
Salov stood in the threshold of the Warrior Guild gym looking both confused and awed at what he saw, but it was his young companion, Lizzy, who spoke first.
“What’s going on here?”
As on any normal day, there were dozens of people roaming around the large open space, but they were not exercising, practicing martial arts, or training with their weapons. Instead, some balanced trays of food, others were hefting bags of supplies, and still others were passing rolled up messages back and forth, all with a since of urgency. Children were everywhere, some were eating, several sat in a corner entranced as two men entertained them with a choreographed fighting exhibition, and others were reading books or playing with toys.
At the center of it all, surrounded by several people, was a haggard looking Ashley Summerson, clearly in the middle of a very engrossing conversation.
“So that’s about two thirds of the kids then?” Derrick was saying as Salov and Lizzy walked up. “That’s not bad.”
“But more responses will come right?” Ashley added with almost a pleading tone.
“I think so,” Tarak said with a slight shrug. “I’m still waiting to hear back from a few people, but we’re looking at about a dozen that won’t have a place to go today. If I had a few more days—”
“I know; well, keep me posted,” Ashley said. “Thanks so much, Tarak.”
“Ashley?” Salov finally spoke as Tarak and Derrick stepped away leaving only Ashley, Panson and two other women he didn’t recognize.
“Oh, hey Salov,” Ashley said, finally noticing him.
Seeing his confused expression, Panson offered an explanation. “The little missy here’s been a right help, trying to find homes for all these youngins. I closed the guild for the day, but when the regulars came by to train, this one just put ‘em to work. She’s got a knack for bossin’ people around.” He chuckled.
“Hey!” Ashley grimaced, though she knew Panson was teasing. “We need to find a place for all the kids to stay because they can’t stay here at the guild longer than today,” she explained further, as Salov still looked confused. “Tarak’s been helping by contacting people in the desert towns, but it still looks like we’re going to fall short. We can’t find homes for about a dozen kids. I was thinking maybe we could put up notices around town asking the people of Weaver’s Road if they’re willing to take in one of the kids temporarily. What do you think Salov?”
“I’m still a bit confused,” Salov admitted. “Weaver’s Road has an orphanage run by Sunnin.” He turned to the two women he didn’t know. He could tell they were from the Sunnin Social System since they wore the distinctive yellow robes.
“Wait, there’s an orphanage here?” Ashley said as she also turned to the Sunnin representatives. “Oh, sorry; Salov this is Jasmine and Patrice,” she added quickly.
The two blondes gave respectful bows before Jasmine replied. “I’m afraid that orphanage was shut down a year ago.”
Salov didn’t seem to hear the introductions. “What do you mean the orphanage was shut down? Who let that happen?” He seemed almost outraged.
It was Panson who answered. “I told you about the fire in the northeast district, remember? That’s where the orphanage was too. It’s one of the buildings that got destroyed. Been almost a year now and the merchant council still ain’t done nothin’ to clear out the rubble and launch a rebuild. I tell ya, they ain’t for nothin’ that don’t earn ‘em money.”
“This is ridiculous,” Salov said.
Panson shrugged. “Well maybe now that you’re here you can give ‘em a nudge. You’re on the council now, right?”
“True, but even if I did, we still need to do something about these kids today,” Salov said pensively.
“It’s a right mess, but we still have some time. I’m sure the little missy here will come up with something. I’m beginning to think she should be runnin’ Sunnin.” Panson chuckled again.
“All right, that’s enough out of you.” Ashley put her hands on her hips in an attempt to look authoritative. “Go help Jasmine bring in the rest of the supplies that just got delivered.”
Panson gave a mock salute and followed Jasmine out of the gym.
“Lizzy, could you do me a favor?” Ashley asked in a much kinder tone to the young girl who’d been quiet the entire time. “Could you go with Patrice and help with serving food to the younger kids? I’d really appreciate it.”
Lizzy looked up at Salov as if not wanting to leave his side.
“Go on. I want to stay for a while and see what I can do to help,” Salov said.
“Okay,” Lizzy seemed a bit displeased but followed Patrice obediently.
“I completely forgot about Lizzy,” Ashley said as soon as the young girl was out of earshot. “I need to find out where she lived so I can get Tarak to send a letter and see if we can find her extended family or someone else who can take her in.”
Salov shook his head. “I’m afraid it will be more difficult for her. She’s not originally from the desert, so she has no other family there. Not to mention for the last several weeks they’ve been traveling from town to town trying to find her brother. From what she’s told me, she doesn’t remember anything about her extended family.”
“That’s just awful. Her parents were killed by slavers, and she has no idea if her younger brother is still alive,” Ashley lamented. “We need to do something to help her and the other kids without a home to go to. What do you think about the flyers idea?”
“It could work, but you have to get permission to hang flyers around the city. I’m not sure we have the time to go through all the paperwork. I wonder though, if the damage to the orphanage isn’t too bad, perhaps we can still use the building, at least temporarily.”
Ashley brightened at this. “You think so? Yeah, that could work. Even if we have to do a little cleanup and repair, we have all these Warrior Guild people here; we can get them to help. Do you know where the orphanage is?”
Salov nodded. “In general, yes. We can take a translift to the northeast sector, it’ll be quicker. Let’s go take a look.”
“This is way worse than I imagined,” Ashley said dejectedly.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the guild, the two found themselves in front of the burnt husk of what was once a large, three-story cottage. Though most of the buildings in Weaver’s Road had stone exteriors, and the orphanage was no exception, that seemed to be the only part of the structure that remained. The wooden roof had completely collapsed and most of the interior was destroyed.
“I wonder what happened to cause this fire,” Salov said as he stood in the threshold of the orphanage. “It looks like every building on this street is the same. Typically, even if a fire starts in one building, the stone walls keep it from spreading. It’s almost as if someone intentionally made sure that the fire would eat up everything in this section of town.”
“Didn’t Panson say it’s been a year? Why haven’t they rebuilt anything?” Ashley asked.
“I can only guess it’s some hold up at the council level. There could be arguments about whether or not the city should pay a part of the repairs, or something to do with the contract to clean up the debris from the fire or the permits needed to rebuild. Things can get complicated in a town run by merchants.” Salov sighed.
“Ugh,” Ashley’s demeanor fell, and it was clear how exhausted and frustrated she truly was. She plopped down on the stone porch. “I’m running out of ideas.”
Salov looked down at her golden-blonde hair. “I wish there was something more I could do. I have space in the manor, but I’d need permission from my family to house so many for so long, plus there’s all of the resources to feed and provide for them. I’m not sure I could do it alone.”
Ashley nodded. “It’s okay Salov. You’ve already done so much. Everyone’s been helping; it’s just not enough. Maybe if I could find that Stokenshire…” she said wistfully.
Salov gave her a confused look. “Find what?”
“Someone told me that if I was in trouble or needed anything, I should find a person with the name Stokenshire. They said the family might live here.”
“I see,” Salov’s brow furrowed in contemplation.
“But it’s impossible,” Ashley lamented. “It’s not like one more person could make a difference anyway. Maybe we should head back and see if Tarak got any more responses.” She stood but noticed her companion wasn’t paying attention. He seemed deep in thought. “Salov?”
Salov came out of his musings. “I think I have an idea, but I’m not sure if this will work. Would you come with me?”
Ashley gave him a curious look but nodded almost immediately. “I’m willing to try anything, so whatever it is, let’s go.”
Salov nodded resolutely and the two headed back to the intracity translift.
“Well, well, well, this is quite the operation here,” came a booming voice from the threshold of the Warrior Guild’s large gym.
Everyone turned to see Banion, still decked in his ornate red and white robe with matching red fez, standing with another woman in a sunshine-yellow robe. Similar to Patrice and Jasmine, her hair was blonde. It was short and cut in a bob that nicely framed her round face. Unlike the others though, this woman’s robe had a silver belt instead of white, making it clear she held a higher position.
“Sister Heather?” Jasmine rushed up to greet her, looking nervous. “Why are you here?”
“Well, at first I thought it was odd that Carmen told me you two needed more time, but then when Banion here contacted me, I decided to come see this for myself.”
“Well, we were just…” Jasmine seemed at a loss for words under Heather’s stern gaze.
“I completely understand that you want to help these children, but we have much higher priorities we’re dealing with. I’m shocked that you would do something like this without even consulting me,” Heather said, disappointment clear in her voice.
Panson strolled up with a contrite looking Patrice in tow. “Stirring up trouble again?” He directed his sharp comment to Banion. “Can’t ya leave well enough alone. The little missy’s been doin’ her best to find these kids homes. Day’s not even over yet!”
Banion chuckled despite Panson’s glare. “Now, now, I’ve actually come to help. That young lady inspired me to see if I could do something to remedy this situation. I contacted Sister Heather to get her blessing on my idea and things are all set.”
Panson raised an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. “What do ya mean?”
“Even though the orphanage here is destroyed, I have a contact in Baysville who runs a private orphanage, and he’s willing to take in these children. I can have them transported within the hour.”
“Baysville? But that’s all the way in Marshroot,” Panson said.
“Well, I’ve got a quickener on call to handle the transport,” Banion said flippantly.
“How many children are there?” Heather asked the two sisters.
“The good news is that we have been able to locate the extended family or close family friends of several of the children with Ashley and Tarak’s help,” Patrice said brightly. “There are only fourteen left who we haven’t found homes for, but we’re still waiting to hear back from a few towns, so that number could go down.”
“Well, we’ll get the kids to Baysville first, and then if homes are found for them, we can reassess,” Heather said briskly. “We can’t just send these children off to random people who may not even be related to them. Patrice, I’m surprised at you, there are protocols in place for these things.”
“Maybe we should wait for Ashley to return,” Patrice said quickly. “She just stepped out for a few minutes. I’m sure that—”
“Weaver’s Road put these children in Sunnin’s care,” Heather said dismissively. “Now that we have a place that we can send them, thanks to Isaac here, that’s the best course of action.”
“Sister Heather, please, before we just stop all of this,” Patrice tried again.
“Get these kids ready to be moved, then we’re heading back to the mountain,” Heather said with a note of finality before turning and leaving with Banion.
“So, what is this place?” Ashley said in awe as she stared up at the impressive five story building at the heart of the market district.
“This is the central hub of Weaver’s Road, Council Hall. It’s where all of the people who run the city work.”
Salov pushed open the double doors and they stepped inside a large lobby bustling with people. A man in an all-black outfit sat behind a polished wooden desk, and he greeted Salov as they approached. “May I help you?”
Salov pulled a card from his pocket and handed it to the man by way of introduction. “I wish to speak with the chairman. Tell him it’s a matter of urgency and great secrecy.”
Ashley saw Salov do this at the Warrior Guild the previous day. She still had no idea what it meant as the purple card, which was about the size of a credit card, seemed to have nothing on it but a few small symbols.
The man examined the card and gave Salov a curious look. “Yes, of course sir; please come with me.” He stood and guided them down a hall that was behind the desk.
Ashley, thoroughly confused, followed silently behind Salov as the receptionist took them to a smaller waiting area with six chairs.
“I will bring the chairman immediately,” he said before leaving.
Ashley debated asking Salov what was on the purple card but remembered what Wayne had told her previously about not asking too many questions, so she contented herself with looking out the window as she waited.
It took only a few minutes for the door to open again. “Salov?”
The person that entered was an older man with brown skin just as dark as Salov’s. He had a shaved head, bushy black mustache, and lanky physique. The grey suit gave him the look of an aged businessman close to retirement.
“Harsale? You’re the chairman?” Salov said, half confused, half relieved.
“Indeed; I heard you were coming to town, though I didn’t think I’d see you this soon,” Harsale said.
The two shook hands. “I’ve only been here a few days, just getting my supplies in order,” Salov told him. “Forgive my bluntness, but with what I’ve been hearing about the council, I would’ve never expected you to be chairman. I’d have thought you would have a better handle on things.”
Harsale chuckled at this. “I will as soon as I really get things moving. I was voted in a week ago to replace Banion. It must have been just before you arrived. Between you and me, I believe he will soon be ousted out of the council entirely. Several senior members are completely fed up with his incompetence.”
“I see; well, I wish you good luck then. I’m sure mom will be happy to know you’re taking care of things here.” Salov said. “Straight to the point though; I need to access the core. My clearance hasn’t been updated yet.”
“The core, but why?”
“I can’t tell you that, but I need to access the core immediately,” Salov reiterated.
Harsale gave him a searching look, then glanced to Ashley. “Who’s she?”
“I’m sorry, my friend. All I can tell you, all I’m obligated to tell you, is that I need to access the core.” The look in Salov’s eyes made it clear he wouldn’t budge.
Harsale’s expression hardened but only for a moment. It was quickly replaced by a solemn look of understanding. “I see; please come with me.”
Harsale guided Salov and an increasingly perplexed Ashley out of the small waiting room and down the hall. They made their way down a few more corridors lined with doors before reaching one that was marked “Secure Access Only”.
Harsale pressed his thumb against a smooth, purple, circular quartz rock embedded in the wall next to the door. After a moment, there was a faint click of a lock. Ashley was astonished by this and wondered if the small, smooth rock had been a fingerprint reader or some other type of electronic security device. It seemed completely out of place considering she hadn’t seen anything else that reminded her of Earth technology on this world.
Harsale opened the door and guided them down the dark narrow stairway beyond. There were no lights at first, but after a few seconds, torches along either side of the stairs started to light themselves with blue flames as they headed down.
The stairwell seemed to go on forever as it spiraled downward. Ashley lost count after over two hundred stairs and wondered how far beneath the city they were going. Finally, they reached another door. Once again, Harsale pressed his finger against a small quartz rock and there was a faint click before the door opened slightly of its own accord.
“I assume you want to be left alone?” Harsale said.
Salov nodded. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be in my office then. If you need anything else, just send for me again. I hope at some point you can tell me what’s going on.” Harsale shook Salov’s hand and headed back up the narrow stairwell.
Salov watched his retreating figure for a few moments before sighing and pushing open the door fully.
Ashley gave an involuntary gasp as she stepped inside. What she saw boggled the imagination. They were standing in a large, dome-shaped room that seemed to be about the size of a football stadium. Taking up most of the space of the massive chamber was a giant oval stone. It was smooth, polished, and white with a faint purple glow that seemed to pulsate as if it was alive. She could feel waves of energy rippling from the stone.
“What is that thing?” she blurted, completely overwhelmed.
“This is the city core of Weaver’s Road,” Salov explained. “It has protected and served the city since its founding. I think this might be the answer to our problems, but I’m not completely sure. There’s only one way to find out.” He pointed to a black podium only a few feet away from them. Mounted on top was a flat, white quartz tablet. “I need you to access the core interface.”
“Me? Why? What will it do?”
“I don’t know,” Salov admitted. “If I’m wrong, it’ll do absolutely nothing. If I’m right…well, I have no idea what will happen. We’ll only know after you touch it.”
“I don’t understand,” Ashley said.
“Ashley, I know it seems like an odd request, but please, I need you to trust me,” Salov said.
“Okay,” Ashley said as she hesitantly stepped forward. She was a bit scared, though she didn’t know why. With some trepidation, she placed her hand on the smooth tablet.
A gentle warmth wrapped around her entire body and suddenly her vision went completely white. For one scary moment she thought she’d somehow been transported to the Waiting Room again, but unlike the Waiting Room, it was like she was in a white void. Everything had disappeared but she could still feel the stone against her hand.
“Uh, hello?” Ashley said looking around. She almost pulled her hand away from the invisible tablet but then she heard a melodic voice.
“Access granted, Daughter of the Sun. What command would you like to initiate?”
“Uh, I don’t know what’s going on?” Ashley said to the disembodied voice that seemed to ring both in her head and around the empty void she was standing in. “How do you know who I am?”
“The Daughter of the Sun has unrestricted access to the Weaver’s Road city core. What command would you like to initiate?”
“That wasn’t really helpful,” Ashley muttered to herself.
The voice reminded her of one of the many virtual assistants that were popular on Earth. She wondered if Mendala had the same type of technology or something similar.
She decided to try it out. “Okay, how about this: I need a place for the orphans to stay. Can you help me with that?”
“The town registry lists ‘Sunnin Social System Orphanage’ located in building 168 of the northeast quadrant of the city. Its description says, in part, ‘domicile for housing orphans.’ Does this answer your query?”
As the voice spoke, a splendid looking cottage appeared to the left of her in the white void. It was a three-story white building with green shutters adorning all the windows. Ashley assumed this was what the orphanage looked like before burning down.
“Okay, yeah, I know that; is there anywhere else though?” Ashley asked.
“There are no other buildings with the word ‘orphan’ listed in the title, owner, or description.”
“Ugh, this is dumb. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this thing,” Ashley grumbled. She silently wished Ben was there to help her. He was the first person she thought of when it came to technology. After a few seconds of frantic thinking, she tried again. “Look, the orphanage burnt down. Is there anything I can do about that?”
“Scanning city…Report: fifteen percent of the city has suffered from extensive fire damage. Would you like to use restoration to revert these buildings to their previous state?”
“Report: fifteen percent of the city has suffered from extensive fire damage. Would you like to use restoration to revert these buildings to their previous state?” the voice repeated verbatim.
The image of the orphanage disappeared and this time she saw a bird’s eye view of the city beneath her, with a small section blotted out in black.
Something clicked inside Ashley’s head. She’d heard the word ‘restoration’ before. Ester had said she had the power of restoration and that she could use it to return anything to its proper state. Was that what the voice was talking about?”
“So, are you saying I can just return the city to normal?” she asked.
“The core’s restoration function can be used by the Daughter of the Sun to restore up to twenty percent of the current size of the city.”
“How is that even possible. I thought I needed that Sun Stone to do that?”
“Supernal energy was embedded into the core by the Daughter of the Sun. This embedded supernal energy can be used by the Daughter of the Sun to restore up to twenty percent of the current size of the city.”
“Wait, if something that powerful was in here, why didn’t they use it already?” Ashley asked more to herself than the robotic-sounding voice.
“Restoration can only be triggered by the Daughter of the Sun due to the supernal nature of this function.”
“Oh, that’s right; Ester said the same thing, didn’t she?” Ashley remembered. “Okay, so how do I do this then?”
“Do you wish to use restoration on the reported fifteen percent of the city that has suffered extensive fire damage? Warning: use of restoration will drain seventy-five percent of stored mentus and supernal energies. Please acknowledge if you wish to trigger the core’s restoration function.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess?”
Ashley immediately felt something pulse against her hand and then it was as if a surge of energy left her body, causing her knees to buckle from her weakened state.
“Restoration activated. Report: Two minutes until restoration is complete. Please stand by.”
Ashley waited patiently, and in that time, her body slowly returned to normal.
“Restoration complete,” the voice said almost triumphantly. “Would you like to execute further commands? Warning: the city core is in restricted access mode for seventy-two hours while mentus energy is being replenished. Only security and query functions are available at this time.”
“Uh, so it’s done?” Ashley asked uncertainly.
“The restoration command completed successfully. Would you like to execute further commands? Warning, the city core is in restricted—”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Ashley said exasperatedly. “I’m good. How do I get out of here?”
Immediately her surroundings went from the stark white void to standing in the massive chamber again. Ashley pulled her hand from the smooth stone tablet, slightly jarred by the sudden transition.
She turned around to Salov. “Uh, you’re not going to believe this, but I think I fixed the—Salov?”
To her surprise, Salov was right behind her. He’d taken a knee and his head was lowered. “Please forgive me,” he said, his voice trembling slightly. “I had to be completely certain that it was you.”
“I don’t understand?”
Salov looked up and she saw a fierce determination in his brown eyes. “My name is Salov Stokenshire. It is an honor to meet you, Daughter of the Sun. I am at your service.”