* Weaver’s Road *
Ashley, clad in a new, sky-blue sundress, carefully balanced a tray of food as she opened the door where the young girl was still sleeping late into the morning.
After setting the tray on a table, she went to the large windows and flung open the curtains, letting in the light of the sun. “Rise and shine,” she called happily.
The small girl groaned in displeasure before finally sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Her wavy chestnut hair was a tangled mess, and she was still dressed in the light tan shorts and matching shirt she had on the previous night.
“Where am I? What happened?” Even as she said this, her emerald-green eyes scanned the unfamiliar room warily.
Ashley sat on the edge of the bed. “Everything’s okay,” she said gently. “You’re in a house in Weaver’s Road. My name’s Ashley. What’s yours?”
“Nina,” she said quickly before repeating, “What happened?”
“You got knocked out by those guys in the alley,” Ashley explained. “Wayne and I brought you to our friend Salov. He’s a tailor and this is his house.”
The young girl balled her fists in anger. “I can’t believe I let those guys beat me. I was so close. Did you catch them?”
Ashley shook her head. “No, Wayne fought them off, but they got away.”
Nina immediately climbed out of the large, four-poster bed. “I’ve got to go after them.”
Ashley rounded the bed, a little surprised at the girl’s sudden vigor. “Wait, you can’t leave.”
“Why not?” Nina stepped into her sandals. “Are you going to hold me hostage?” She scoffed as if she thought the idea was ridiculous.
Ashley knelt to face the younger girl. “No, we just want to help you. Why do you want to go after those slavers?”
“They kidnapped my friend,” she said quickly. “I need to get her back before it’s too late.”
Ashley nodded in understanding. “But you can’t go off by yourself; you could get hurt again. Salov called the police; they can help.”
Nina’s face fell. “The rangers never do anything about the slave traders. They don’t care.”
“Well, Salov knows the constable here. He’s already looking for those slave traders, and with your help, he can catch them. He can help you get your friend back. You can trust Salov; he’s a good man. I know he’ll help you in every way that he can.” Ashley gave her a reassuring smile. “You should at least eat. You’ve got to be hungry.” She gestured to the table.
The young girl still seemed uncertain but finally went to the table to examine the food. She picked up a muffin and took a large bite.
Ashley walked over to the table as well. “So, Nina, where are you from?” she asked, more to make conversation than anything else.
“Portico,” the girl said through a mouthful of muffin.
“Okay, can you tell me how you ended up being chased by those guys?”
“They kidnapped Rachel last night. I saw them take her from her house, so I snuck onto one of their wagons before they left town,” Nina said quickly. “Then right when they got close to the city, they found me. I ran and a couple of them chased after me and caught me.”
Ashley nodded at this. “Okay, well you just sit here and eat, and I’ll get Wayne and Salov. We’ll help you get your friend back; I promise.”
Nina grunted and slid into a chair.
Seeing that she had the small girl convinced, Ashley headed out of the room to get the others.
Salov opened the front door to find a slender man with light-tan skin and a short scruffy beard wearing a crisp, white button-up shirt and a straw hat.
“Mitchell, you’re here earlier than I expected.” Salov said as he stepped aside to let the man in.
Constable Mitchell swept off his hat as he walked inside, revealing his curly brown hair. “I know I told you I’d be here midday, but I’m eager to question the girl and hopefully get a lead on these slave traders. Has she said anything?”
Salov closed the door and walked the constable through the foyer and down a wide hall. “I actually just sent Ashley up to wake her and give her some food. Oh, here she is now.”
Ashley came up to the two men just as Wayne, who heard the sound of people talking, came out from the nearby library. He too was in new clothes provided by the tailor: a pair of tan pants, and a stylish, blue tunic shirt.
“She’s fine,” Ashley answered the question before any of the men could ask. “I think she’s really scared. She says her friend was kidnapped by those slave traders. She ran away from her home to find them. She said something about the rangers not doing anything.”
Mitchell frowned. “Well, that means she lives in the desert. I suspected as much. If she followed those slave traders though, it could mean that she has an idea where their base is. We think they’ve been trafficking slaves somewhere in town and this could be the break we’ve been looking for.”
“Slave trafficking here in Weaver’s Road?” Salov said, shocked.
Mitchell nodded gravely. “They keep slipping in under our noses. We found out they’ve been paying off guards to let them in through the east gate. We were all set to finally catch them last night, but they never showed up.”
“Well, they must have come some other way; how else could they have gotten in that alley?” Wayne said.
“She said they found her when they were close to the city and she ran,” Ashley recalled.
“That’s consistent with what we’ve found. It looks like someone scaled the walls near where you saw them,” Mitchell said.
“Scaled the walls?” Wayne repeated, his tone skeptical.
Mitchell nodded, “It’s possible with mentus, though I don’t know how a little desert girl could’ve done it. All the more reason to question her.” He turned to Salov. “If they were that close to the city but never came to the gate, it’s possible someone tipped them off and they fled into the desert instead. She could have overheard something; that might be why they chased after her.”
“That makes sense. Well, let’s see if she’s willing to talk.” Salov led the group back in the direction Ashley had come from, up a large staircase and down another wide hall to the room where Nina was sleeping.
Ashley pushed open the door. “Nina, the constable’s already here, and he wants to talk to you.”
She looked around the room, but Nina was nowhere to be found. The tray of food was still on the table, but it looked as if several muffins and pieces of fruit were gone, and the large window next to the table was wide open.
Ashley ran to the window and looked down. It was a steep drop from the second story but there was no sign of the young girl or how she’d managed to get down from the high window unscathed.
“We have to find her,” she said turning to the others. “She’s going to get herself killed.”
“I’ll alert the constables and see if we can’t scour the city.” Mitchell left the room, intent on sounding the alarm as quickly as possible.
“I think we should look too.” Wayne turned to Salov. “I didn’t share this with you last night, but I think these slave traders might be connected to one of our friends. The dagger I took off one of them is the same one that our friend Amber had. I’m certain of it.”
Salov nodded. “I’ll help in any way that I can, but we’ll need a place to start.”
Wayne turned to Ashley. “Did she tell you anything?”
Ashley thought for a moment, recalling the conversation. “All she said was that she was looking for her friend, Rachel, and that she’s from a place called Portico.”
“Portico is a desert town not too far from here,” Salov said.
“Let’s tell the constable,” Ashley suggested.
Salov shook his head. “The constables won’t go that deep into the desert.”
“Then we should go,” Wayne decided. “We could ask around, see if anyone knows her family, find out more information.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Salov agreed, “I’ll see if I can arrange transport for us.” He led the way back downstairs.
East of Weaver’s Road was the Crystal Sands Desert. It was quite large and contained over fifty different towns of various sizes. Sand ferries were the main way of traveling from town to town because it was impossible to quicken due to the vast amount of quartz throughout the entire desert region.
Salov, Wayne, and Ashley squeezed their way onto one of the late morning sand ferries, which was a large coach pulled by two giant snake creatures. The coach held about sixty people on ten long bench seats. It was open on all sides, but four sturdy poles held a fabric roof to help keep out the sun. The creatures that pulled it were known as sand snakes. They were thirty feet long with green eyes and their armor-like scales were a mix of green and gold. With them pulling the coach like a sled, the ferry could quickly transport people across the desert. The coach was already packed but there was just enough room for both Wayne and Ashley on the front row while Salov found a spot near the back.
It was unbelievably hot, and Wayne was thankful that the clothing Salov had given them was lightweight and breathable. The tailor said that their clothing was made primarily from ustus, which Wayne learned was a type of fabric that couldn’t become torn or dirty in any way and had several other amazing properties. Their clothes also had embedded mentus to help keep them cool, and Salov gave them new shoes which were incredibly comfortable.
Ashley was fascinated by the whole experience of riding through the desert, especially the snakes which moved through the sand like water as they pulled the coach along. She talked nonstop with the coach driver, Cid, a stocky man with sand-colored hair and matching mustache. The ever-curious girl asked dozens of questions which Cid was only too happy to answer, apparently seeing her ignorance of how everything worked as merely an opportunity to show off his own knowledge, like some desert tour guide. Wayne was somewhat grateful for Ashley’s unabashed curiosity as he was able to glean a great deal of information through their conversation.
In addition to learning from the coach driver, Wayne had already done his own research. He’d woken early that day and visited the library in Salov’s manor. There, he found books that explained the basics of the adimus, and he’d learned a fair amount in his ad-hoc studies. Though he didn’t understand the finer details, he knew that everyone had a pool of adimus energy, a type of internal power that allowed them to use adimus-based abilities.
Some of these abilities, like translation and telepathy, used so little energy that it barely mattered since adimus energy restored automatically over time. There was also the adimus immune system which healed injuries quickly depending on a person’s adimus energy. Then there were the two major adimus abilities of mentus and mandamus, which depleted adimus energy in proportion to how powerful the skill or effect was.
Mentus was the most common and versatile of the two. It encompassed an endless number of skills from telekinesis to quickening, but apparently what you could use depended on the adimus rank you were born with. If you weren’t born with the rank of quickener, then you could never use quickener-based mentus. There were several ranks a person could be born with, many with specialized mentus, but over half the population was born as the most basic adimus rank: mentant. Though mentants could only use standard mentus, they were the only rank that could train to become mind mages, one of the most skilled and powerful ranks.
The same limitations held with mandamus. Only someone born with the rank of mandant could use it. The ability was so rare that only about one percent of the population was born with the rank. In addition, only mandants could be promoted to the rank of guardian, which was some sort of elite, all-powerful class of people who served the Fantasma.
Though he still had a lot to learn, Wayne now understood that he was a mandant. He’d demonstrated the previous night that he had the ability to use mandamus, and apparently it was the most powerful adimus based skill. He still didn’t fully understand why this was. To him, he’d only copied what he’d seen Fantasma use, but he had no idea what the limits of his newfound ability were or how it could help him in the future.
All he knew was that mentus relied on a person’s adimus energy, converting it into mentus energy used to perform skills, but mandamus primarily used external energy from a person’s surroundings, which was why it required speaking to activate.
Unfortunately, none of this mattered now. As he listened to Cid talk, Wayne discovered that the desert they were entering was more than what it seemed. The quartz that was abundant throughout the Crystal Sands was a special type of quartz known as desert crystal, and it had the unique ability to slowly drain adimus energy. As a result, desert inhabitants couldn’t use mentus, mandamus, or other adimus-based skills, and visitors to the desert would slowly be drained of adimus energy as well. This meant that within hours, he’d lose access to the few abilities he was just beginning to learn.
“But don’t worry, sweetheart,” the driver told Ashley, “If you’re just spending a day or two in the desert your adimus should be fine. It just may take several hours to fully recover. Only people who spend weeks or months here are in danger of any long-term issues.”
“I don’t know how to do any of that stuff anyway,’ Ashley said with an unconcerned shrug.
“Really?” He seemed confused by this statement.
“So, why do people live in the desert if they can’t use mentus or mandamus?” Wayne intervened, trying to change the subject.
“Well, it’s so beautiful here,” Ashley said as she stared out at the rolling desert landscape, occasionally dotted with tall unfamiliar plants.
Though Wayne didn’t share Ashley’s sentiment, he was glad her statement seemed to distract the driver from his earlier confusion.
“Aye, it is, but that’s not the main reason. Some have adimus abnormalities, so it’s safe for them to live here; others seek to get rich from mining and refining the quartz; and others…well, when you’ve lived some place for generations, it’s your home, you know?”
With that, Cid delved into all of the medicinal benefits of desert crystal and why it was so lucrative to the people in the Crystal Sands who mined it.
The speed of the sand snakes made the trip from Weaver’s Road to Portico take only two hours, and soon they were being dropped off at the edge of the small town.
As Wayne disembarked with Ashley, he saw a stone pillar with a wooden sign. After staring at the strange markings on the sign for several seconds, Wayne’s brain finally seemed to translate what it said: “Sand Dune Transportation.” It listed several numbers which Wayne assumed were the times that the ferry stopped. Beneath this was a large, clear, quartz crystal with a light-purple tint.
He wondered if the crystal served some purpose, but before he could think of a way to ask the question, Ashley spared him the trouble. “What’s this do?” she called to the driver.
Cid seemed to find Ashley’s naivety amusing now. “Nothing fancy, sweetheart, just a way to summon a ferry on demand when you need one. No mentus required, just tap it with your quartz rod and it’ll send a signal to our headquarters. They can send a smaller ferry, so you don’t have to wait for the big ones like mine to make the rounds. Usually takes 30 minutes. Little more expensive, but worth it.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Wayne said thinking quickly. “I left my, um, quartz rod at home.” He made a show of patting down his pants pockets.
Cid chuckled in a fatherly sort of way. “No worries, my lad.” he pulled open a drawer that was full of small purple rods about the size of a crayon and tossed him one. “Always pays to have extras about, now doesn’t it.”
Wayne thanked the driver, pocketing the rod just as Salov joined them.
“You two ready?” the tailor asked his companions as the sand ferry pulled off again.
Ashley nodded. “Yup, let’s go.”
Salov started down the dusty road that led into the small town, but Wayne pulled Ashley aside before she could follow. “Ash, you’ve got to be careful how you ask questions,” he reminded her, gesturing to the retreating sand ferry. “People are going to know something’s up when we don’t understand simple things that everyone else takes for granted.”
“You worry too much,” Ashley said dismissively. “That driver was really nice, and he didn’t care how many questions I asked.”
Wayne rolled his eyes. “That’s just because he liked you.”
“Well then we’re all good, ‘cause everybody likes me.” Ashley made a show of prancing down the small sandy road as if to accentuate her point.
Wayne shook his head but couldn’t help a grin as he followed after his friend.
* Portico *
Portico was significantly smaller than Weaver’s Road. It was more of a village than a town and had only a few main streets. The buildings looked run down, the people appeared poverty stricken, and the town didn’t seem to have much to offer beyond the oppressive heat. Despite this, the townsfolk were friendly, especially when confronted with Ashley’s relentlessly cheerful personality. As a result, it was easy to get the information they needed. The first person they asked knew exactly who Nina was and directed them to where her house was.
The trio ventured to the back of the small town as directed. All of the Portico homes seemed to be constructed of some kind of rough looking sandstone. They all looked the same except for small features like colored doors, shutters, or roofs.
“I think this is it,” Ashley said rushing forward. “They said it was the one with the blue shutters.”
Ashley knocked on the door of the house that had the distinctive shutters and by the time Wayne and Salov caught up to her, a woman wearing a flowery apron had opened the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Salov spoke first. “Hi, we’re wondering if this is the home of a young girl named Nina.”
“Yes, that’s my daughter,” the woman said, now looking concerned. “Why, what did she do?” She looked around as if expecting to see Nina. “Where is she?”
“Ma’am, we found Nina last night in Weaver’s Road. She was being attacked by some slave traders when we rescued her,” Wayne explained.
“What!” The woman looked as if she might faint. “Tarak!” she called into the house before turning back to the trio at her threshold. “Where is she? Is she safe?”
“Unfortunately, we’re not sure. She ran away this morning and we haven’t been able to find her,” Salov revealed. “We’ve been trying to track her down.”
“What?” A young man appeared in the doorway. His skin was tanner than his mother’s, but they shared the same green eyes and chestnut hair.
“I thought you said Nina was staying at the Loamite’s house,” the woman said in an accusing tone to her son.
He nodded. “Yeah, she spent the night with Rachel.”
“Not according to this lot.” she gestured to Salov, Wayne, and Ashley. “Nina’s got herself tangled up with slavers.”
“Oh no!” The young man pushed his way past Wayne and ran down the street.
The woman opened the door wider now. “Please, come in,” she said hurriedly, and they followed her inside.
The house was just as quaint on the interior as it was on the outside. The front room was furnished with only a couple of worn green couches. The woman sat on one and her guests took seats side-by-side on the other.
“I’m really sorry about this ma’am,” Salov said as he sat.
“Jess,” she corrected distractedly, “and please don’t be sorry. I just need to know what happened.”
“I’m Wayne, this is Salov and Ashley,” Wayne introduced quickly before jumping into the story of everything that happened since the previous night.
Jess seemed overwhelmed with emotion by the time Wayne finished his tale. “I don’t believe this. How in the world did she—”
“Mom, the Loamites are dead.” Jess’s son, Tarak, appeared in the threshold of the front door. He was panting. “It looks like it happened yesterday. Their house was ransacked. I didn’t see Rachel anywhere either.”
“Wait, did you say Rachel?” Ashley interrupted. “Nina said something about saving her.”
“Now it makes sense,” Tarak said as he crossed the room to stand next to his mother. “I bet you anything Nina tried to go after those slavers herself and got in over her head.”
“That girl, she thinks she’s invincible.” Jess put her face in her hands.
Tarak put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll get her back.”
“Do you know where the slavers could be?” Salov asked.
“Only rumors and guesses.” Tarak started to pace behind his mother’s chair. “For one thing, there are dozens of gangs, and they all work independently. I’ve heard some talk about a large group gathering in Oversun though.”
“That’s a dead town,” Salov said, shaking his head. “It’s easily a half day away. Plus, it could take forever to search without a way to narrow things down.”
“But that’s what would make it a perfect hiding spot,” Tarak countered. “If only we had something more to go on. Did Nina or those slavers say anything that could help us find them?” he asked with a hint of desperation.
Ashley shook her head. “Nina barely said anything other than her name, Rachel, and Portico.”
Wayne thought hard. “One of the slavers said something about taking her to MJ’s, but I have no idea what that could mean.”
“MJ’s, that’s it!” Tarak snapped his fingers excitedly. When it was clear the others didn’t understand, he elaborated. “There was a pub in Oversun called Miner Joe’s. It was pretty popular before the town went under.” He looked down at his mother. “Dad used to talk about it when he was working there. He always talked about going to MJ’s after work.”
Jess nodded in understanding. “It’s possible, but Tarak, you’re not thinking of trying to go after those slavers all by yourself? That’s crazy!”
“I have to do something. There aren’t any rangers nearby. No one’s doing anything about these slavers. We have to get Nina and Rachel back.”
“I’ll go with you,” Wayne said suddenly.
Tarak shook his head. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
Wayne stood. “You don’t understand. We think one of our friends might be being held by those slavers too. If there’s a chance that she’s there, then I need to go after her.”
“Wayne, I know you were able to handle those two slavers, but you don’t know how many there might be in Oversun,” Salov said sagely. “The best course of action is to head back to Weaver’s Road and get reinforcements.”
Tarak went to the back of the small room and opened a closet. “Weaver’s Road is hours away even by ferry.” He pulled out two long fighting staves. “Slavers move around a lot so they don’t get caught. We know they were headed to MJ’s, so we need to go now if we’re going to have a chance of finding Nina. There’s no telling when they might leave.” He held one of the staves out to Wayne. “I’m going; are you coming?”
Wayne hesitated only a moment, then took the staff. “Tarak’s right,” he turned to Salov, “but so are you. If it’s a huge gang of slavers, we’ll need backup, so we’ll go on ahead. You head back to Weaver’s Road as quickly as possible and get help. Ash, you should go with him.”
“What?” Ashley looked aghast. “If you’re going, then I’m going too.”
“Last time we ran into those guys, they went after you,” Wayne reminded her. Ashley was about to object but he forestalled her. “I just want to know you’re safe.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out the quartz rod he received from Cid. “Here, you’ll need this to call for a sand ferry.” He gave Ashley the rod before hugging her.
Ashley’s face was a mixture of sadness and anger. She hated being treated like a child by Wayne and hated that he was leaving her. But, not for the first time, a tiny voice in the back of her head, one that held all of her insecurities, told her that she needed to do what he thought was best, which made her hate herself for being so afraid.
Tarak hugged his mom good-bye and then headed for the door. “Let’s go. I know where we can get some horses.”
Wayne followed, his stomach giving a little lurch as he left Ashley’s side. It was the first time he’d been apart from her since they arrived on Mendala, and though he knew he could trust Salov, he didn’t like the idea of leaving his best friend’s side on this strange world.
As he reached the door, he chanced a look back, seeing her worried expression. He gave her a reassuring smile before disappearing through the threshold.