“He’s not in here either!”
Asharos scowled and planted his fists against his hips. He tapped his toes against the smooth flooring. “Find him! He can’t have gone far, not in his condition.” His followers scattered, trying to carry out his instructions.
He sighed and looked at Aenek, smoothing his features in an attempt to look unconcerned. “Did he say anything to you? Anything at all?”
The only way to tell him apart from his twin brother these days was their health. Aenek’s skin wasn’t jaundiced and lacked the deep bruising and eczema brought on by Kenian’s illness. Aenek appeared to be in good health and, in this case, looks weren’t deceptive. It was a mystery as to why the illness presented in only one twin, but since the cause of Rescher’s Syndrome was as yet unknown, both the twins and their doctors remained in the dark.
“He told me the date of one of his appointments changed at the last minute and he had to leave,” Aenek said. “It happens sometimes with the specialists he sees. He should have been back by now.”
Asharos frowned. “What are the chances he stayed overnight in Aren’march?”
Aenek shook his head. “If he had, he would have sent word to keep me from worrying.” He paused. “Now that I think about it, he should have sent word that he arrived safely at his appointment.”
“You’re just now realizing this?”
“Forgive me, High Priest.” Aenek cringed. “Shortly after his departure, you invited me to participate in the Ritual of Colours. I was so tired after that I forgot to check my messages.”
Yakima snorted, toying with a strand of her long, dark hair. “Some brother you are.”
“Leave off, Yakima,” Aenek snapped. “High Priest, I humbly ask that you send out a search to look for Kenian. I’m worried that he didn’t make it to Aren’march.”
Asharos folded his arms, tilting his head to one side. “Your request is reasonable, but the plains are merciless. There’s a chance we may find nothing.”
“That’s a chance I’m willing to accept.”
“I’ll see to the arrangements. I suggest you retire to your room and pray to our merciful goddess that he still lives.”
“We all will,” Ophalia said, elbowing Yakima in the ribs.
* * *
Several hours later, Asharos’s console pinged, notifying him that the men he’d sent out in search of Kenian had returned. He walked up the short flight of stairs to the hangar level, nodding absently as the people working in the hangar bowed. He waited for the roof to finish retracting before speaking with the scouts.
“Goddess bless you, High Priest,” one scout said, bowing at his approach.
“Her blessings to you as well,” Asharos returned. “What did you discover?”
“We regret to inform you we could not locate Maester Kenian.”
Asharos nodded. “Did you find his bike?”
“There was no sign of it.”
“I see.” He snapped his fingers in the general direction of one of the garage workers. The nearest one approached and bowed. “See to the requisitioning of a replacement.”
The man bowed again and left.
“Sir, would you like us to pass the news on to Maester Aenek?”
“No, I’ll see to it myself. You’re dismissed.”
The scouts bowed again as he walked away. He stopped at a comm panel on the wall, sending a short text message to the members of his inner circle, instructing them to meet him in the temple. He signed off and made his way to the bottom level of the complex. His followers bowed as he passed, but he paid them no mind. He had far more pressing concerns.
The black doors leading into the temple were open when he arrived. He nodded, expecting this, and entered. Unlike the rest of the compound—which had white plastered walls—the temple walls were covered in multicoloured tiles that formed intricate patterns. At the far end was an altar made from rough cut black stone. A severed hand on a plate sat in the center of the altar. The sight didn’t faze him at all. He knew exactly whose hand it was and why it was still there. His four maesters waited for him inside, seated on the wooden benches typically used by his other followers. They rose as he entered, bowing their heads as he strode past them. He nodded as he sat down in the throne-like chair at the far end, behind the black stone altar. He arranged his robes around him. “Be seated.” As one, the other three sat cross-legged on the floor. “The scouts have returned.”
Aenek leaned forward. “Was there any sign of my brother?”
“Well, there you have it,” Yakima said with a snort. “He’s become food for some lucky scavenger.”
“That’s my brother you’re talking about,” Aenek snapped.
“He’s a sweet boy, but I never quite liked him. No offense, Aenek,” Mikia said.
Aenek clenched his fists, biting back a retort. He took a deep breath before speaking again. “None taken. He didn’t exactly try to fit in around here. He was always a little odd, even before his diagnosis. I know none of you likes him much. It’s ok. I don’t take it personally.”
“There’s a possibility that you’re not considering,” Asharos said. Their eyes focused back on him. “His only logical destination could have been Aren’march. These bikes don’t have the range to get anywhere else before running out of fuel. Maintenance reports that there are no fuel canisters missing, so wherever he went, he only had the fuel in the bike to use. While the possibility exists that he perished out on the plain, it’s equally possible that he arrived safely at his destination.”
Ophalia frowned. “If that’s the case, why hasn’t he contacted Aenek?”
Asharos laced his fingers together. “I’ve been wondering about that myself since learning about this situation. I am of two minds. It’s possible that he arrived safely at his appointment, but succumbed to his illness shortly after.”
Aenek swallowed a lump in his throat. “The doctor doesn’t have accurate contact information for me, given who we are. Kenian uses a false name to keep us from being caught.”
“That’s the only smart thing he’s done,” Yakima commented.
“It’s usually not a problem as I go with him to his appointments,” Aenek continued, shooting a glare at Yakima. “Including this one, he’s only gone alone a handful of times.”
“It isn’t safe for the two of you to go together,” Ophalia pointed out. “There can’t be that many twins in your situation.”
“There aren’t. In every case of twins and Rescher’s Syndrome, both are sick. I don’t go into the clinic with him to avoid certain uncomfortable questions.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course not. Why would you? No one here cares about him except me.” Aenek balled his hands into fists. “Now he’s missing or dead and…”
“You said you had another thought, High Priest?” Mikia asked when Aenek didn’t continue.
“I dislike thinking this, but after hearing it, you may wish your brother were dead,” Asharos said, watching Aenek. “Our names and faces are known to the Agency. It’s possible that they apprehended him on his way to his appointment.”
“No…” Aenek stared at Asharos
“It’s not something I wish to consider, but as I said, the possibility exists. In that case, I fear for his continued health and safety.”
“He’s sick! They wouldn’t hurt him. Would they?”
“I don’t think they’d cause him harm, but they’ve been after us for so long now that I fear they’ve become…desperate. If they have him, they’ll do what they can to extract any useful information from him. What happens to him after that.. well, who knows?”
Yakima turned her cold, dark eyes to Aenek. “Better that he’d died out on the plain.”
He shook his head. “For the first time, I agree with you.”
“We can’t take any chances,” Asharos continued. “I want the compound running on minimal power for the next senday. No one goes in or out.”
“We have people out on missions right now,” Mikia reminded him.
Asharos shrugged. “They’ll have to seek shelter elsewhere or take their chances in the desert.”
“They’ll die out there.”
“If the goddess wills them to live, they’ll find a way,” he reminded her.
She bowed her head. “Yes, High Priest.”
“What of the mission?” Ophalia asked.
“Continue preparing, but until we can confirm Kenian’s fate, no one is to leave the sanctuary without my permission.”
Yakima balled her hands into fists, gritting her teeth. “All the work we’ve put into it could be for nothing.”
“It can’t be helped,” Mikia said, shrugging. “I, for one, would rather miss this opportunity than take the risk and potentially wind up in a holding cell.” The others mumbled their agreement.
“Stay calm, remember your studies and prayers. The goddess will keep us safe.” He stood and raised his arms above his head. The others stood and mimicked the gesture.
“Abeatsu harinn tenyulann. Ya’tu jakrann hecterebaysu. Antaoru qurana tulann gentar Keverynn. Miisu bebadye yatsufurya. Da’enn koll vo’vure Atraxia,” they said, speaking as a group. One by one, they left the temple.
* * *
Two days passed without incident. This only aggravated Asharos. He stalked the corridors of the enclave with a scowl etched into his pale face. Most of his followers had the good sense to not speak to him, particularly after he stabbed one of them through the heart for offering him some tea. After, Asharos wiped his knife on the young acolyte’s robes and went about his way, leaving the body to bleed out in the hall. No one dared move to clean up the mess until after Asharos was out of sight.
Early in the afternoon on the third day after Kenian’s absence was noticed, an older acolyte approached Asharos while he was in the temple praying with the rest of his maesters. He waited for Asharos to acknowledge him before speaking.
“I bring an urgent report from the watchtowers.”
“What is it?”
“We have a problem, sir. There’s a tagrith-class vessel entering the airspace over the plains. It’s hard to get a fix on their trajectory, but it looks like they’re heading this way.”
“What?” Asharos shouted. “How?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“What do you want to bet Kenian is behind this?” Yakima snarled, whirling to face Aenek.
“That’s not possible. He’d never betray us!” Aenek insisted.
“We can’t take that risk. Power down the enclave and seal off the exits. If he has betrayed us, then that’s an Agency ship. They’ll be relying on visual cues and sensors. The less information we give them, the better.”
Ophalia’s eyes widened in alarm. “We have to get out of here!”
Asharos cupped Ophalia’s face in his hands. “If we run, we increase the risk of being caught. Besides, it’s just one ship. What, exactly, are they hoping to accomplish?”
She nodded, and he let go. “Forgive my panic, High Priest.”
“Atraxia forgives all who are properly contrite. If the worst should happen and we need to abandon this sanctuary, then we will. Go. Gather my flock and bring them to me.”
The messenger bowed and left.
“What are you planning?” Ophalia asked, wincing as Yakima slapped her on the back of her head.
“You dare question the High Priest?” Yakima snarled.
Asharos raised one hand. “We are going to protect our sanctuary, one way or another.”