* Oversun *
“Well, aren’t ya’ll a sorry lot,” the guard at the front of MJs said with a sneer. “Two slavers and one measly little-un?”
“Our crew is already inside,” Tarak said, his hand on Lizzy’s head as if he were trying to hold her still. “We got, uh, held up with some rangers, but we managed to give those doffers the slip and nab this-un on the way here. Can’t come empty handed now, can we?”
“Well then, not so bad are ya,” the guard said, looking mildly impressed. “I guess you could be useful, but what’s the password.”
“Fillmore,” Wayne said confidently, remembering what he’d overheard.
The guard opened the door. “We got a holdin’ cell for the slaves down in the basement. You can drop this one off down there. Entrance is in the kitchen across the way, but keep it down, meetin’s started, Kingston is already speakin’.”
They entered the dank, dark tavern where several dozen people sat at round wooden tables. All heads were facing the bar where a lone man with long, wild blonde hair was pacing back and forth on the countertop as he spoke. He looked very much like the others in the room, wearing standard desert garb: thin khaki-colored pants and a matching short sleeved shirt. His skin was tanned and leathery and he had the same emerald-green eyes that seemingly every inhabitant of the desert had. His voice was rough but authoritative as he spoke.
“…but working together,” he was saying as he gestured at the group in front of him, “we can be more strategic about how and where we go. We can bring our merchandise to the northern mountains and other continents where we can fetch a much higher price and avoid the constables in the edge-towns.”
There was a hearty cheer of agreement which gave cover for Tarak to whisper to Wayne. “I guess he must be Kingston.” He looked around and pointed to a door with a small round window to the right of the bar. “The kitchen has to be back there. Take Lizzy, find the basement and see if you can free the slaves. I’ll work on figuring out a distraction.”
Wayne didn’t like this makeshift plan at all but didn’t have time to argue. “Assuming I can free the slaves and assuming you figure something out, how will we coordinate all this?”
“Just give me a wave through the window of that door. I’ll keep a look out. Go!” Tarak hissed as Kingston continued his speech. He slipped away to a table as if intent on listening
Wayne slowly edged around the side wall of the cramped tavern with a firm grip on Lizzy’s arm, trying hard to be inconspicuous. No one paid him any mind as he made his way to the door and slipped quietly through to the mercifully empty kitchen.
“So now what?” Lizzy looked around the dark room. Pots, pans, plates, bowls, and all manner of dirty cookware were stacked haphazardly on counters and in-sinks, as if the previous owners had left in a hurry.
Wayne rubbed his head. It was still pounding, making it hard for him to think. “I don’t know, honestly. Just stay close. I’m going to try something.”
The door to the basement was at the back of the kitchen. Wayne had begun to recognize some of the new abilities he’d gained since coming to Mendala, even if he didn’t fully understand them. His senses had increased tenfold, and he could detect things beyond his normal physical senses. This had to be what Salov and Tarak kept referring to as the mentant realm. He could see things, mentally, far beyond where he was, and he attempted this on the door.
In his mind’s eye he could see the stairs beyond, leading down into darkness, but when he tried to push further into the basement room, he felt painful resistance as if something was pushing against him. It caused his head to hurt more.
He sighed. He’d hoped that he would be able to tell what they were facing, but it seemed they would be going in blind.
Gripping his staff tightly, he took Lizzy by the hand. “Okay, follow my lead.”
Lizzy nodded and Wayne pushed the door open, heading down the stairs. The basement was dimly lit, and as he entered, he saw five men seated at a table, playing some sort of card game. One of them looked up.
“Got another one for the cage? She marked?” he asked.
Wayne faltered. “Marked?”
“Ain’t gonna be our fault you don’t get yers back if you don’t mark ‘em,” another man said. He headed for the back corner where a set of bars divided the room. Huddled in small groups beyond the bars he could see dozens of children, far more than he’d expected.
“Well?” the first man said, jarring Wayne back to his current predicament.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, she’s marked,” Wayne said hastily as the man near the bars produced a key to the door.
“Where? I don’t see nothing?” One of the men at the table said, leering at the young girl.
“Like I’d tell you lot,” Wayne said with a convincing smirk. “It’s somewhere only my crew knows, so don’t get any ideas about keeping this one.” He guided Lizzy toward the cage, mind racing as he did. How would he take out all five of these men? He could hardly think straight with his growing headache.
The man grunted and returned to staring at his cards. “Has the meeting started then?”
This gave Wayne an idea. “Yeah, and Kingston wants everyone up there to hear his plan,” he said casually as the cage was opened. He gave Lizzy’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before pushing her toward the door. She hesitated only a second before walking in silently.
“We got orders to stay here and watch over the goods,” the man at the cage said as he locked the door and tucked the key away.
Wayne smirked again. “Yeah, because it takes five of you to guard some sniveling little kids.”
“Oi, what are you going on about?” one of the men at the table stood. He looked ready to draw his sword at the perceived insult.
Wayne realized he’d made a mistake and tried to change tack. “Nothin’, I’m just sayin’—”
“Sit down, Wallace,” another man said disdainfully. “Everyone knows the only reason why you’re down here is because this is all you’re good for. We might as well be babysitting you along with these brats.”
Wallace turned red and this time he did draw the long dirty blade. “And the only reason you’re here is because you’re such a sneakthief that the boss wanted us to keep an eye on you! Make sure you didn’t get any ideas.”
“Ideas?” His opponent stood now. “Like you’d even know what an idea was,” he scoffed.
“Will you two shut up!” The man closest to Wayne said. “Neither of you are worth a quartz rock between ya. Like I need any help guarding this lot.” He gestured to the cell. “You’re all useless except for losing at cards so I can take yer money,” he chuckled.
”Shut up yerself, Mac!”
“Who d’you think yer talkin’ to?”
Now they were all starting to argue and threaten each. This gave Wayne a new idea, though it was potentially more dangerous.
“Look,” Wayne said with false hesitance. “All I know is I was supposed to tell the one in charge to send the others up. Um, he said it was Mac. You’re Mac right?” he gestured to the key holder.
“Mac, in charge? That’s a laugh!”
“Oh is it now? I’ll give you something to laugh about.” Mac drew his sword.
Now all of them were squaring off around the table, but it was just bluster. No one looked like they really wanted to attack. Wayne knew he’d need to push them just a bit further, but it was risky.
“Mittius Mandamus Wind,” he muttered, but it worked all the same.
Mac was pushed forward by a gust of wind, and it looked like he was attacking one of his comrades with his drawn sword. The man parried the attack, and soon they were all fighting with one another in earnest.
In the loud confusion that ensued, Wayne pressed himself against the bars of the cage to keep away from the fighting. He felt something tug at his shirt; it was Lizzy.
“Get the kids ready to run,” he hissed at her. “This’ll be tight.”
Lizzy nodded and hurried off to rouse the captive children.
Nina was the first one she reached. “What’s going on?” she asked excitedly.
“We need to get everyone up; my friends are getting us outta here,” Lizzy said hastily.
There was a scream and Wayne saw one of the men go down, clutching a wound in his chest that was spewing blood.
“You quartz-brained traitorous sand snake! You killed Abbot!” The largest of the men bellowed as he swung what looked like a cleaver down at Mac, who didn’t dodge quick enough.
Wayne rushed forward, seeing his opportunity as Mac staggered backward. “You okay?” he asked as he braced the larger man to keep him from falling.
“Idiots,” Mac grunted. His arm was bleeding. “Kingston will have all our heads for this.”
“Well, you’re in charge,” Wayne said with false bravado. “You just need to remind them why.”
“I’ll remind ‘em all right,” Mac growled before storming forward, completely unaware that Wayne had relieved him of the key to the makeshift cell.
He hurriedly passed it through the bars to a waiting Lizzy who took it eagerly. “Unlock the door but wait for my signal.”
Only three men were left standing now, Wallace having disposed of another. Mac kicked over the table, which knocked the largest man to the ground and put his sword to Wallace’s throat. “You lot need to calm down before I kill you right here and now and just tell Kingston that you tried to take the slaves for yourselves,” he threatened.
Wallace chuckled. “Who’s he gonna believe, us, or a dead man.” Before Mac knew what happened, Wallace had plunged a previously concealed knife into the chest of his unsuspecting opponent. Mac dropped to his knees and was dead before his head hit the floor.
The fight seemed to be over now, and it was then that they noticed Wayne still there, his back against the cage.
“Oi, what are you doin’ over there?” Wallace asked suspiciously.
Before Wayne could formulate an answer, the other remaining guard stood, knocking the table aside. “That little pinker’s got the key!” He pointed at Lizzy.
“He’s trying to steal our goods!” Wallace stalked forward.
Wayne gripped his staff, steeling himself for a fight. “Mittius Mandamus Wind!”
The air thinned and Wallace was sent flying backward and slammed into the wall. Relief washed over Wayne’s face as he realized he had only one opponent left.
The remaining guard was the tallest and strongest looking of them all. He stalked forward, a wide leer on his face. “A mandant, eh?”
Wayne pulled out the small dagger he’d obtained the previous day. “That’s right, so I’d stay back unless you want to end up like your friends,” he said warningly, even though his voice shook a little. His head was pounding so bad now it was causing him to be disoriented.
The guard noticed him falter. “Looks like the desert’s getting the best of you!” he rushed forward even as Wayne’s legs buckled underneath him.
”Mittius Mandamus...” but Wayne couldn’t get the words out, it felt like his head was going to explode. He dropped both staff and dagger as he clutched his head, screaming in pain.
The guard showed no mercy as he raised the cleaver high, intent on chopping Wayne’s head off.
“No!” There was a scurry of feet from the now open cell door. Before the guard could see her coming, Amber had run to Wayne’s side, scooped up the discarded dagger, and without thinking, plunged it as hard as she could into the chest of her former captor. The stunned guard stumbled backward, eyes wide with shock, and fell on his back, dead.
Amber was still holding the dagger, blood trickling down her clenched fist, panting heavily, not really aware of what she’d done or what was going on around her.
Lizzy ran to Wayne’s side, he was still clutching his head but the pain had subsided a bit and he was no longer screaming. “Are you okay?”
“I…I don’t know,” he wheezed. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
Nina joined Lizzy at Wayne’s side. “This isn’t a normal reaction to desert crystal.” Her voice was calm and measured. She got down on her knees, facing Wayne, her bright green eyes searching his anguished face as if looking for something. “I understand,” she said softly as she placed a hand on his forehead. “May the peace of the heavens flow through me to you.” Her voice had the same ethereal tone she’d used before.
Wayne stopped wheezing as the pain in his head disappeared. He was finally able to open his eyes fully. “Nina?”
“Candovon sends his thanks for coming for me,” she said with a small smile before she seemed to come to herself. “Not that I needed your help,” she added in her normal voice.
Wayne gave her a curious look but was distracted when he saw the girl standing just behind her. “Amber!” He jumped up, headache completely forgotten.
Amber was still frozen in her last act. It wasn’t until Wayne said her name that she moved, turning to face him, a glazed, disoriented look on her face.
“Are you okay?” Wayne slowly extracted the dagger from her clenched grip. Though her hand was coated in blood, the blade was surprisingly clean.
“Wayne?” She still seemed confused. “How did you find me?”
Wayne chuckled. “The same way I always find you when you’re in trouble: pure dumb luck.”
Amber collapsed into his arms, sobbing uncontrollably. “You came for me. I’d given up hope, but you came. I’m sorry.”
Wayne wrapped his arms around her, stroking her head. “Sorry? Why?”
She looked up at him, tears still flowing from the amber eyes that were her namesake. “I thought you weren’t coming. I thought I was alone. I gave up. I just let it happen. I should’ve fought. I shouldn’t have let them—”
Lizzy tugged on Wayne’s sleeve. “How are we going to get out of here? There are over forty kids.”
Wayne looked down at her and then around the dark basement now littered with the bodies of dead or unconscious guards. Reality was sinking in. He barely got past the five in the basement, how would they get past the dozens in the tavern?
“There’s a back entrance,” Amber revealed as she stepped out of Wayne’s arms. “I saw it when they brought us in here. It’s in the kitchen and boarded up. We’ll have to move a bunch of stuff to get to it.”
Wayne nodded. “It’s worth a shot.” He looked down at her, finally registering her haggard condition. “Are you okay? You look like hell.”
Amber nodded determinedly, taking the dagger back from Wayne. “I’ll be fine. The quicker we get out of here the better. What about you?” she asked remembering his recent collapse.
“I’m fine now,” he turned to Nina. “What exactly did you do?”
“It’s hard to explain,” she shook her head distractedly, “but you won’t be able to use mentus or mandamus for a while after you leave the desert, sorry.”
Wayne retrieved his staff. “It’s fine; let’s go.” He gestured to the other kids, still standing just inside the cage. “Keep together and stay quiet.”
“I don’t know how you noticed this door with all of that junk in front of it but I’m glad you did,” Wayne whispered to Amber as they carefully and quietly moved a battered bookcase to the side.
With the help of some of the older kids, they were able to clear the path to their freedom. One hard push against the rusted, battered metal door and it was open. The last rays of the setting sun poured into the dark kitchen. Wayne stuck his head out of the door and made sure no one was around before turning back to Amber, Nina, and Lizzy.
“Okay you three, lead the rest of the kids out of here. Head south, and you’ll find some horses tied to a post on the outskirts of town. I’ll meet you there.” Even as he said this, Wayne realized they had no way to transport all of the newly freed slaves, but he pushed that problem to the back of his mind.
Amber looked nervous. “Why aren’t you coming with us? You’re not thinking about taking on all those slavers?”
Wayne gave a dry laugh at this. “No way; I just need to get Tarak.”
“Tarak? My brother’s here?” Nina squeaked.
“Yes, he’s the one that figured out where you were being held,” Wayne revealed. “And he’s out there right now, waiting on my signal. He was going to distract the slavers so you can escape, but now we can get out this way.”
“Then we’ll wait for you,” Amber insisted.
“No,” Wayne hissed, “get going now. We’ll catch up; trust me.”
Amber looked like she might object but finally nodded obediently. “Fine, but hurry, okay?”
“Come on guys,” Lizzy whispered to the other kids who were nervously waiting.
Wayne watched them all file out before heading to the door that led back to the tavern. One quick look through the door’s round window told him the meeting was still going on. He saw Tarak sitting in the back, looking anxious. Wayne took a steadying breath and then slipped silently through the door.
“…And that, my friends, is just the beginning,” Kingston was saying now. “The slave trade is only growing and if we join forces now, we’ll be able to stamp out any other crews who try to take what’s rightfully ours. This is our desert. We can’t have outsiders think they can just run us over.”
The crowd was watching him so intently that they hardly noticed Wayne moving quietly around the outer wall to reach his companion.
“Where have you been?” Tarak hissed the moment Wayne joined him at a table he shared with three others who were focused on Kingston’s speech. “It’s been over thirty minutes.” One woman turned to him, giving him a scathing look. Tarak waited for her to turn back around before speaking again, even softer. “What happened to the plan. You were supposed to signal me; did I miss it? Where’s the girl? Did you find Nina?”
Wayne put a staying hand on his shoulder. “Had to improvise a lot; just come with me. We’re getting out of here.”
Tarak seemed to understand the urgency and stood with Wayne, trying to edge unnoticed toward the door.
“And what say you two?” Kingston called out suddenly. “Leaving so soon? My plan not intriguing you?”
Every head swiveled to look at the duo. Tarak looked around, flummoxed for a moment before saying. “Well, no, not really. I just don’t see how you plan to make slave trading sustainable at the mass level you’re talking about. It’s just like the crystal isn’t it. This town is the ultimate example. Everyone thought the mines would never run out of crystal. Oxwell got greedy, didn’t they? Kept building up more and more, and then what happened? The same thing that always happens. It may have taken longer, but the mines always run dry sooner or later, and the bigger the operation, the more people get crushed when it all comes crashing down…except for the guys on the top. Oxwell didn’t shut down, did it? They just moved on, leaving this dead town in their wake, while the corporate sand snakes just kept all the money for themselves.”
Tarak was pleased to see many of the men nodding their heads in agreement, truly thinking about his argument.
Wayne, however, thought this was not the best time to be making a grandiose point. He pulled Tarak to the door. “In any case, we’ll just stick to what we do best. This just isn’t for us. So, we’re just gonna—”
“That’s him!” came a familiar voice.
Wayne turned. The two slavers he’d incapacitated were standing at the threshold with the guard at the front entrance.
“He’s the one who attacked us in Weaver’s Road and again just now,” the man said pointing a shaking finger at Wayne. “He’s not one of us, he’s a mandant constable.”
“Well, that’s just ridiculous,” Tarak said, still with an air of confidence even as several men stood up, drawing swords, daggers, and knives. “We just—”
“The slaves escaped!” Wallace was at the kitchen door, clutching a lump on the back of his head. “It was him!” He pointed to Wayne.
Tarak, realizing the charade was truly over, pulled Wayne to a tabletop near the back wall. “That’s right, we’re constables, and my friend here’s a mandant, and a pretty decent one at that. He can take you all on single handed, so if you value your lives, you won’t come any closer.”
Wayne felt it would be poor timing to tell Tarak he could no longer use what little abilities he had. Instead, he focused on looking menacing and was surprised to see that most of their opponents faltered, giving him wary looks.
“Even if you are a mandant, you’re deep in the desert,” Kingston sneered, “which means you’ve been here most of the day, and your adimus energy can only last but so long. The two of you can’t take us all down.”
“Who says there’s only two of us,” Wayne called. “Right now, there’s an army of men surrounding this building.”
There was a murmur among the crowd at this pronouncement.
“That’s right,” Tarak added. “Our job was just to get the slaves to safety, and now that we’ve done that, our men will swarm in here and take you all down. You didn’t really think we’d miss an opportunity to take out a whole host of you slaver scum all at once, did you?”
“If you want to avoid capture, I recommend trying to escape out the back door in the kitchen while there’s still time.” Wayne said, trying to look strong and confident.
No one moved, though many looked even more hesitant. Wayne was wondering how long they could keep up this bluff when Kingston seemed to make up his mind. “Or we could take two of their own as hostages to make sure we all get out alive. Get ‘em!” he called, and this spurred the throng forward.
Wayne wasted no time in using the stout wooden staff to knock back the first man to reach for him, but he knew they were far outnumbered and bound to be overwhelmed in seconds. Just then, the front door burst open and the already crowded tavern was flooded with dozens of men, most of them armed and all of them yelling.
In an instant it was pandemonium as the slavers realized they were being attacked by the promised army. Some of them tried to flee but most grabbed weapons to fend off the warrior guild forces. Seeing that they were no longer wildly outnumbered, Tarak and Wayne jumped into the fray. Though Wayne was nowhere near as experienced a fighter as the guild members, he was able to hold his own. Just like the fight the previous night, he found that his reflexes and senses were enhanced, and he was able to outmaneuver his much-slower opponents with ease. With Tarak’s help, they were able to incapacitate the few slavers who went for them.
Because they had the element of surprise, the guild members soon overwhelmed the slavers. After twenty frenzied minutes of fighting, the battle was mostly over. A few slavers managed to escape in the confusion, but the rest were either captured or killed.
As the surviving slavers were being tied up, Salov made his way to Tarak and Wayne. “Are you two alright?”
Wayne nodded as he shook the tailor’s hand. “You got here just in time. How did you know we were in here though?”
“Young Nina and her companions,” Salov explained. “We found them minutes ago and they told us what was going on. Of course, we couldn’t let you have all the fun,” he chortled.
“Of course,” Wayne wiped his brow. “Where’s Ashley?”
“She and a few others are guiding the children back to a rendezvous point we’ve established,” Salov explained. “There’s a translift network not too far from town. We can use it to get to Breakworth, and from there, we have ferries waiting to take us back to Weaver’s Road.”
“I can’t believe it.” Tarak looked around in amazement. “How did you get all these people to come?”
Panson strolled up to them, a satisfied look on his face. “Well, when Salov said some young’ins were in trouble, of course we came. Plus, it’s an excuse to beat up some slaver scum. Too bad they couldn’t put up a decent fight; oh well.”
Salov laughed. “Just be proud of a job well done.” He turned to Tarak. “Your sister is eager to see you; I’ll take you to her. Wayne, I believe you have a friend here as well.” He gestured to a corner where a muscular, dark-skinned man was tying up two slavers.
Wayne gave Salov a curious look before walking over to the fighter who was grumbling under his breath. “Let’s see how you like being tied up like an animal.”
Wayne recognized the voice before he even saw his face. “Derrick, is that you?”
Derrick looked up and beamed. “Wayne, thank goodness you didn’t get yourself killed.”
Wayne was stunned. “I don’t understand; you look so different.”
Derrick laughed. “Ashley already told me about how you guys got here so I understand the confusion.” He double-checked his knot-work before stepping away from the slavers and clapping an arm around his friend. “Come on, I’ll get you caught up on what’s happened.”
The newly reunited friends headed out of the tavern with Derrick talking animatedly.