* Weaver’s Road *
Amber jerked awake. She was panting and her heart was racing. It took her several seconds to realize where she was; the dream had been so real. Her hands were shaking as she stared down at them.
Blood, they’re covered in blood, she thought to herself.
Her hands were not covered in blood. That was in the dream. She had relived killing the slave trader to save Wayne. When it happened, she didn’t even have time to think about it, but during the night, the scene replayed over and over in her dreams.
She killed a man. He was a horrible man who tortured her for weeks, but she still took his life. She did it easily, without any hesitation, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
How…how could I just kill someone like that without even thinking?
She replayed the scene over and over in her mind. Did she really have no other choice? Did she have to stab him in the chest? Could she have stopped him some other way? What if she had acted too late, and Wayne died instead?
Amber took a few steadying breaths and tried to get her bearings. She was in Salov’s manor. This wasn’t her room; it was Wayne’s, but he was already gone. Looking out the window she could tell it was late morning. The young girl climbed out of bed, her bare feet hitting the cold wooden floor, and made her way back to her own room.
As soon as she shut the door, she stripped out of the long-sleeved magenta pajamas and headed to the adjoining bathroom. It was laid out very much like what she would find on Earth. The floor was a white marble-like stone, and everything else in the room seemed to be made of the same material. There was a pedestal sink directly across from the door, and the toilet and shower were behind half walls on either side.
Amber showered for the first time in what felt like ages. Even as she let the warm water cascade over her, she held her head in her hands and cried. All of the pent-up emotions flowed out of her as forcefully as the water hitting her from above until she slumped to the shower floor and howled in pain and misery.
It was almost an hour before Amber was able to pull herself together and finally put on some new clothing she found in the room, provided by Salov. Unfortunately, the only options the tailor left for her were all dresses. Disgruntled, she finally picked a plain white sleeveless dress before heading out of her room, still barefoot and wet-haired.
The house seemed conspicuously quiet, and Amber momentarily wondered if everyone had left, but somehow, she could tell there was still at least one person downstairs. She made her way down to the first floor and headed to the manor’s library. There, she saw Wayne sitting in one of the many comfortable armchairs, absorbed in a book.
“Wayne,” she called, her voice raspy from lack of use.
Wayne looked up and smiled brightly. “You’re awake. Did you sleep well?”
Amber shrugged. “I guess. Uh, where is everyone?”
“Tarak, Nina, and Rachel went home, Salov took Lizzy to his shop, and Derrick and Ash went to the Warrior Guild to check on the kids.” Wayne gestured for her to sit. “How are you feeling?”
Amber took the seat opposite him. “I’m surprised you’re not with Ashley.”
Wayne smirked. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m fine,” Amber muttered as she hugged her knees to her chest so that all but her bare feet were hidden under the long white dress. It was clear how uncomfortable she felt in the outfit. “So, what are you up to?”
“I’ve been reading. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about mentus and mandamus,” Wayne explained. “It’s really interesting. I’ve been testing out using the mentant realm; it’s way easier than I thought.”
Wayne set aside the book. “So, what’s up?”
Amber shrugged. “Nothing, I just woke up.”
Wayne leaned forward. “Amber, I can tell when you’re trying to avoid talking about something.”
Amber huffed and turned away.
Wayne smiled at this. “Okay, we don’t have to talk. Why don’t we go find somewhere to eat? It’s nearly lunchtime anyway, and you missed breakfast, so I’m sure you’re hungry, right?”
“I guess,” Amber said in the same noncommittal tone, but her growling stomach betrayed her.
Wayne chuckled. “Okay, lunch it is. Anything else you want to do?”
Amber hugged her knees even tighter. “Get out of this stupid dress,” she muttered.
Wayne stood resolutely. “Well then let’s go buy you something you’ll like better.”
Amber actually perked up at this. “Really?”
Wayne shrugged. “Why not? I have some money now, or centars I guess. We’ll grab something to eat, and then I’ll take you shopping. There are a ton of clothing stores in this city; I’m sure we can find something you like.”
He held out a hand; Amber took it hesitantly and allowed him to pull her out of the chair. There was a mass of emotions swirling inside of her, but she forcibly pushed them down. In the end, she was just glad Wayne was there and not making her talk. She honestly didn’t even know what she wanted to say.
Amber gave him a confused look. “What?”
“You want to put on some shoes first?” Wayne clarified.
“Oh.” She looked down at her bare feet, which were slightly tanner than the rest of her. “No, not really. I’d rather be like this.”
Wayne was about to protest but then decided against it. The streets of Weaver’s Road were made of a smooth stone, so there was little risk of hurting her feet. Besides, she’d been barefoot when he found her in the desert. He figured she would find shoes when they went shopping.
“Well don’t blame me if you stub your toe,” he said finally.
Amber rolled her eyes with a playful smirk. “Yeah, yeah, stop being such a dad. Let’s go.”
Like many other large towns and cities, Weaver’s Road had an intracity translift network that allowed people to move around quickly between different areas. Using that, Wayne and Amber made their way to the market district of the city and found a small outdoor café to eat lunch at. They both ordered sandwiches and thick fried chips made from something that tasted like a sweet potato.
“You tore into that sandwich,” Wayne observed as he casually ate one of the chips. He still had half a sandwich left, but Amber had already cleaned her plate.
“Yeah well, it’s not like we got a lot of good food as slaves,” Amber grumbled before looking around nervously.
“What’s up? You’ve been glancing around a lot.”
“I keep hearing something…familiar,” she said vaguely as she glanced behind her at the busy street. “It’s too noisy but…”
“You sure you’re okay? If you don’t feel like being out, we can head back to the manor. I just need to pay.” Wayne reached into the satchel that he’d borrowed from Salov and pulled out a small, white, round object.
“I’m fine,” Amber said distractedly before turning back to him. “What the heck is that thing?”
Intrigued, she picked up the unfamiliar object which was made of a smooth stone that looked similar to marble. It was deceptively light.
“That’s an orcrus,” Wayne said proudly. “Apparently it’s one of the newer models from Acumen.” Amber gave him a confused look and Wayne chuckled. “That’s just what Salov said; I have no idea what it means.”
“So how does it work?” She asked staring at the small keypad and screen on one side of the orb. It reminded her of a simple calculator.
“Basically, you just use the keypad to tell it how much money you want, and then a hole at the top opens. When you turn it upside down, the right amount comes out.”
Amber tried pressing the numbers on the keypad, but nothing appeared on the screen. “I don’t get it.”
“It won’t work for you. According to Salov, it will only work for the person it’s registered to. It’s some mentus-based security feature with this new model. I guess other orcruses don’t work that way. Anyway, I registered it this morning when he gave it to me.”
“It doesn’t even feel like there’s anything in here.” Amber tossed the small orb from one hand to the other before lobbing it at Wayne.
Wayne caught the orb easily. “Well, there’s almost ten thousand centars in there. Salov said it can hold up to a million. I guess it’s weight just never changes. Basically…it’s bigger on the inside.” He gave a snort of laughter.
“Dork,” Amber rolled her eyes, completely understanding what he was trying to reference. After a few more seconds she turned again as if hearing something.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Wayne asked, now concerned.
“I’m fine, it’s just a lot of noise. I feel like I can hear everything. It’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m fine. I want to go shopping so I can buy something new.”
Wayne was still concerned, but he knew trying to convince her to go back wouldn’t work. When the waitress returned, he paid for their meal and soon they were on their way through the crowded market district of Weaver’s Road.
The duo walked down the busy street trying to find a store that suited Amber’s taste. Their conversation mostly consisted of the playful sibling banter that they normally fell into. Amber was internally grateful that Wayne wasn’t pressuring her to talk more about her time on Mendala, but there was still something on her mind, and she finally voiced it.
“Wayne, you said earlier you’ve been reading up on the mentant realm and stuff, right?”
“What does it feel like?”
Wayne eyed her curiously. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, I keep having these weird sensations,” Amber elaborated. “It’s like everything feels different. I know that mentus doesn’t work in the desert, so I figured now that I’m out, maybe I’m sensing the mentant realm.”
“It’s possible; give me an example.”
Amber thought for a moment. “It just feels like theirs a lot of extra noise…sensations…something. Like in the restaurant, I could hear conversations across the street clearly, and I could have sworn I heard someone familiar, I just don’t know where. Even now, it’s almost like I can tell exactly how many people are on the street around us just by feeling the vibrations through the ground. Does that make sense?”
Wayne was concerned by this sudden revelation, but he kept his voice light. “Well, that’s not how the mentant realm works as far as I know. Maybe you got some mutant powers from being in that desert too long.”
Amber punched him. “I’m being serious, you goofball.”
Wayne shrugged. “Well, I’ve gained some weird abilities too. I found out that I’m a mandant, which means I can use mandamus. Apparently, it’s really rare and comes with a lot of extra skills. Maybe that’s what’s happening to you, or something similar. I’ll keep reading and see what I come up with.”
“Only you would go to another world and do homework,” Amber teased.
“Yeah, yeah, anyway, do you see anything you like?” he asked gesturing to one of the stores in the long row of storefronts. “What about this place?”
The store looked like it catered to desert clothing and there were models in the display window wearing shorts, cargo pants, and light shirts.
Amber stopped to look at the display and then suddenly froze in fear, staring at one of the models. Though the figure displaying the clothes had no head, it was not hard to imagine a tall man wearing the sand-colored cargo pants, black shirt, and dark green vest.
What’s wrong with me? Amber thought as she tried to process the terror she was feeling. Her body seemed to be screaming at her to run.
A hand fell on her shoulder, causing her to nearly jump out of her skin. “Amber, you okay?”
It was Wayne. She relaxed. She wasn’t alone. She was safe. She unconsciously grasped his hand.
Wayne stepped in front of Amber, kneeling down a little to lock eyes with her. “You okay?” he repeated.
Amber seemed to realize something in that moment. “That’s his…”
Wayne looked behind to the clothes she’d been staring at. Something about the outfit did seem familiar. Then it came to him.
“That’s the outfit he was wearing; that guy who almost killed me.” Wayne whispered as he turned back to her.
Amber nodded, eyes wide.
“Did you know that guy?”
She nodded again and after a few seconds found her voice. “He was one of the slavers who looked after us: Dale. He was…horrible.”
“Do you want to go? We don’t have to shop here.”
“I just need a second.” Amber took a moment to compose herself. She focused on Wayne’s brown eyes and took some steadying breaths.
Wayne scanned the area and saw there was a small bench under a tree not too far away. He guided Amber over to it and they both sat. Despite the crowded marketplace, the two were off to themselves.
After a minute, Amber spoke again. “Dale took a special interest in me. He liked to torment me because I refused to give in. He said he wanted to completely break me before they sold me off.”
“Did he ever…force himself on you?”
“He did…some stuff,” Amber said softly, clearly not wanting to go into detail, “but the others wouldn’t let him go too far. They were planning to sell the girls off to rich buyers as concubines, and they said virgins sold for more.”
Wayne nodded but said nothing. He’d heard similar stories from Tarak.
After taking a few seconds to compose herself, Amber continued her tale. “They were supposed to take us to a slave auction two days ago, but something happened, and they brought us back. I thought it would be a few more days before they tried to sell us again, but then yesterday they decided that instead of selling us off individually, they’d sell all the girls to a brothel and all the boys as mining labor. That’s when Dale told me that since we were headed to a brothel, it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t a virgin. If you hadn’t come when you did, I know that last night he would’ve…”
Wayne’s eyes went wide at this revelation. He balled his fists, angry at himself for not getting to her quicker, even though that would have been impossible.
“I need to show you something,” Amber said suddenly.
She rolled up the hem of the dress to her mid-thigh to reveal a raised area of skin in the shape of a star. It looked pink and slightly inflamed.
“They branded you?” Wayne gasped. He remembered the slavers asking if Lizzy was marked. This is what they meant.
“Dale was the one who did it.” Amber said softly. “Even though he’s gone, he made it so I can never forget him.”
Wayne wrapped an arm around her. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe they did that to you.” As she pulled away, he had a sudden idea. “Maybe there’s something I can do.” He put a hand on her knee. “Mittius Resepco Amber.”
Her leg glowed faintly. The pinkish skin started to fade until its color looked normal again and it was only slightly raised. The brand was still visible, but it was less noticeable and no longer looked infected.”
Amber stared in awe. “What did you do?”
“I tried that healing thing Fantasma did in the cave when he revived Tabatha. I read a little bit about it, but I’m not sure how it works completely.” Wayne frowned. “I guess I didn’t do it right; the brand’s still there. Maybe it can’t undo permanent changes like that.”
“At least it doesn’t hurt anymore, and it’s not as obvious.” Amber let the dress fall back down. “Thanks,” she added with a small smile.
Wayne put a hand on her shoulder. “I can’t undo everything they did to you, but I promise you, I’ll do whatever I can to help you get through this.”
Amber wrapped her arms around him, her eyes wet with tears again. There was a lot she wanted to say to Wayne, but she couldn’t find the words. Instead, she tried to put all of her unexpressed emotions into the hug.
When she finally pulled away, Wayne smiled at her. “Do you want to head back to the manor and rest?” he asked.
Amber shook her head. “No, we’re here, and I want to get out of this dress. I’m not going to let a window display keep me from shopping.”
They left the bench and headed for the store they saw earlier. Amber seemed more confident but before she followed Wayne inside, she looked back at the busy street as if she’d heard something. After a moment she shook her head and went into the shop.
An hour later, Wayne and Amber emerged from the store, laughing and talking animatedly. Both of them had new outfits. Wayne was in a pair of sand-colored cargo pants, a short sleeved black shirt and thin blue jacket. He also had a new backpack that held everything they purchased from the store, which sold more than just clothing but also other useful supplies for travel, especially in the nearby desert.
Amber was no longer in the long white dress; instead, she was wearing a pair of black shorts that were almost completely hidden by a light-blue, hooded, short-sleeved shirt. Her new clothes fit perfectly due to the embedded mentus that allowed her to adjust the size after putting them on. However, she was still barefoot.
“So, should we go to another store and see if they have shoes that you like?” Wayne asked.
Amber shook her head. “It’s not about style or anything; it just doesn’t feel right when I put something on my feet. You know how everything sounds muffled when you put earplugs in. It’s that same kind of thing with shoes; everything feels muffled.”
“This is new.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what it is,” she admitted. “But this feels right. I can sense my surroundings a lot better like this.”
Wayne looked a little concerned but decided not to press the issue. “Well anyway, where to now?”
Amber shrugged. “Let’s just walk around and see what other kinds of stores there are. Maybe we’ll find something.”
“I wonder if there’s a bookstore or somewhere I could find some books on basic mentus,” Wayne said as they started down the street. “Salov’s library has some great stuff but it’s not like I can take them with me when we leave.”
“So, you want more homework?” Amber teased.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can to keep us safe.” Wayne tousled her sleek black hair playfully.
Amber slapped it away in annoyance. “I’m not a dog. I swear the next time you do…" her voice trailed off as she looked around.
“What?” Wayne asked.
“I heard it again. I swear I keep hearing…something. It’s like there’s someone, somewhere in this market that I know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I,” Amber admitted. “I think it’s one of them.”
“One of who?”
“Those slavers,” Amber growled. “It’s like I can sense them.” It felt like her skin was crawling.
Wayne put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Amber, I think you’re just a bit on edge. What you went through was enough to traumatize anyone—"
“I’m not being paranoid,” Amber snapped. “I just—ugh! It’s so hard to explain. If only I could sort through all these weird sensations.”
“We really need to figure out what’s going on with you,” Wayne said. “Maybe we should cut things short. We got you some clothes. We can head for the manor.”
“No, just give me a minute.” Amber closed her eyes and took a few deep calming breaths.
“Amber, you don’t have to push yourself.”
“Yeah, I know,” Amber said, much calmer now. “I just don’t want to be cooped up in that house all day. I can’t do that; it’ll drive me crazy. I’d rather be doing something.”
“Well just let me know if you start to feel overwhelmed,” Wayne said.
“I’m fine, don’t worry so much.”
“Aren’t big brothers supposed to worry about their little sisters?” Wayne said with a wide grin as he rubbed her hair again.
She slapped it away reflexively. “You’re so annoying.”
“Oh, that reminds me; I should give this back to you.”
Wayne pulled the backpack from his back and started rummaging inside. This new bag held the satchel he’d borrowed from Salov along with all of the clothing and supplies they purchased so far and still had plenty of room to spare. As the clerk explained, the ustus lined bag had embedded mentus that allowed it to hold far more on the inside than its dimensions would suggest, similar to the orcrus. It seemed this was a common feature, though relatively expensive in comparison to the clothing they bought.
After searching a bit, he finally pulled out a small brown belt and sheath made out of something similar to leather. In it was Amber’s dagger. He handed it to her. “I got this for you. I figured you’d want a way to carry it.”
Amber took it hesitantly. As she stared down at the sheathed blade, she had a flashback of her hands covered in blood, and she shuddered, causing her to drop it.
“What’s wrong?” Wayne asked, picking up the sheath and giving her a concerned look.
She glanced back and forth between her hands and the weapon. “I…I don’t think I should have that.”
“Why not? This is yours, right? It was your father’s. I remember you said it had his name on it when you found it in the basement.”
“It is, but…I killed him.”
Wayne frowned as he realized what she was thinking. “You saved my life.”
“I know, but still…I didn’t have to kill him. I wasn’t even thinking when I did it. It just happened.” She was starting to tear up again. “I didn’t mean to do it, but maybe I did, maybe I wanted to kill him. What’s wrong with me?”
“I can’t imagine how it feels to know you took a life, but it was the heat of the moment,” Wayne said softly. “You weren’t trying to do it. You acted on instinct to protect me. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Still, are you sure I should be walking around with that. I’m hearing weird things and my senses are on overload.”
“We don’t know what we’re going to be facing when we leave Weaver’s Road. This is a strange world, and we’ve already learned how dangerous it is. As much as I hate to say it, it’s probably best to have a weapon. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but better safe than sorry.”
Amber nodded slowly as she took the belt and sheath. “So, are all of us going to have weapons?”
Wayne thought about this. “Well, I have that staff Tarek gave me, but honestly, I can’t really use it. So far, mandamus has been more useful. I used it to fight before, and people seem afraid of mandants. Derrick also seems to be good without a weapon. He wasn’t joking about that training he did. As for Ash, don’t get me wrong, but I trust you far more with a weapon.”
Amber smiled proudly at this. “All right, I’ll do my best.”
He playfully tousled her hair again. “I know you will.”
Amber slapped his hand away. “Ugh, why do you always do that. I’m not a dog!”
“Oh look, there’s a bookstore,” Wayne started off quickly down the street.
Amber was about to follow when she suddenly felt a shiver run down her spine. It was almost as if her senses were screaming that something was wrong. She took a steadying breath.
You’re just a little on edge, she told herself as she followed after Wayne, but just as she did, she felt it again.
She didn’t know how she knew, but she was certain of it: there was an enemy somewhere nearby.
Amber wrapped the belt around her waist before continuing forward. Though a small part of her hoped she was imagining things, she decided to keep a wary eye on her surroundings, determined not to let anyone hurt her or Wayne.