“He’s not in here either!”

Asharos scowled and planted his fists against his hips. He tapped his toes against the smooth metal flooring. “Find him! He can’t have gone far, not in his condition.” His followers saluted, their hands forming the sign of the goddess, and scattered to carry out his instructions.

He sighed and smoothed his pale features, trying to look unconcerned. He scanned the room, passing over each of his maesters until his eyes landed on Aenek. “Did he say anything to you? Anything at all?”

The only way to tell the twins apart these days was their health. Both men sported shaggy reddish–brown hair and blue eyes, but Aenek lacked the deep bruising and eczema brought on by Kenian’s illness. Aenek’s complexion appeared healthy and, in this case, looks weren’t deceptive. Why the illness presented in only one twin was a mystery. The cause of Rescher’s Syndrome was as yet unknown, so 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’s scowl deepened. “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 realising this?” 

“Forgive me, High Priest.” Aenek cringed, taking an involuntary step back. “Shortly before he told me about the change, you’d invited me to participate in the Ritual of Colours, which is why I didn’t go with him.. I was so tired after that I forgot to check my messages.”

One of the women snorted, pushing a strand of her long, dark hair away from her face. “Some brother you are.”

“Leave off, Yakima,” Aenek snapped. “Asharos, I humbly request that you send a search party to look for Kenian. I’m worried he didn’t make it to Aren’march.”

Asharos folded his arms, tilting his head to one side. It was rare for Aenek to address him by name rather than title. They’d known each other long enough to give him the right to do so, a right he rarely exercised. The other maesters gave Aenek a sideways glance at his audacity. Their friendship was no secret, but both men avoided drawing attention to it, especially in front of lower-ranking members. “Your request is reasonable, but you know what the plains are like. There’s a chance we may find nothing.”

Aenek bowed his head. “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,” a woman with short brown hair said, elbowing Yakima in the ribs.

Yakima scowled at her, but said nothing. Asharos waved his hand, dismissing his maesters. He wandered the sterile halls of the compound for a time, scowling at the unwavering artificial light. Even though he preached against the use of technology, he had to admit—if only to himself—that this compound wouldn’t have been possible to build or maintain without it. Generators to power it, air recyclers and water purifiers to keep them breathing and the water fresh. 

He paused in front of the glass door of the hydroponics bay and watched while some of his followers harvested vegetables for the night’s meal. He prided himself on the compound’s near total self-reliance. From time to time, they required things they couldn’t make for themselves and so they—typically the lowest ranking members—had to brave the inherent dangers of Atharia’s cities. 

Asharos inspected the facilities on each level before making his way to the lowest level. Sometimes he hated that his rooms were so far removed from the rest of the compound, but it had its perks. He paused at the bottom of the stairs and turned to look at the black double doors at the other end of the long hallway from his room. The mere sight of the temple doors calmed him. He took a deep, calming breath and went into his room, cringing as his hands touched the cold metal door.

He paused inside the doorway to activate the chime on his console before going to the thick, black carpet in the middle of his room and sitting cross-legged, eyes closed.

The console pinged, dragging him away from his meditation. It took him a moment to reorient himself. The persistent chime annoyed him, but he’d set it that way on purpose. He got up to check the time and frowned.

The scouts have only been gone for a few hours. I doubt they’ve found him.

He stretched, and left his room, walked up the long 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 of the scouts said, bowing at his approach.

“Her blessings to you as well,” Asharos returned. “What did you discover?”

“We regret to inform you that we could not locate Maester Kenian.”

Asharos nodded. “Did you find his speeder?” 

“There was no sign of it.”

“I see.” He snapped his fingers in the general direction of one of the hangar 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?” the scout continued.

“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 brief text message to his maesters, 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. On top of the altar was a silver platter holding a severed hand. The sight didn’t faze him at all. He knew exactly whose hand it was and why it was still there. His 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 and smoothed his dark hair back.

He gazed at each of his maesters to gauge their mood. Dark-haired Yakima looked as though she was trying to hide how bored she was. Mikia, as dark-haired as Yakima, sat with her back stiff, leaning slightly forward, eager to hear whatever he had to say. He knew she wasn’t as devout as she made herself look, but so far she was the most promising of his maesters, so he let it be. The brunette—Ophalia—he knew to be the most fervent of the five—

Four, he corrected himself. I have four maesters. Even when Kenian was here, he barely counted as one of them.

He looked at Aenek, who had one hand over his tunic. Asharos knew he was fiddling with the necklace he wore. He had one half and Kenian had the other. 

He swallowed, composing himself before speaking. 

“Be seated.” As one, the maesters sat down. “The scouts have returned.”

Aenek leaned forward. “Was there any sign of my brother?”

“No.”

“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 offence, 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 like him much. It’s ok. I don’t take it personally.”

Mikia frowned, looking as though she didn’t quite believe him. She held her tongue, twisting a strand of her dark hair around one finger.

“There’s a possibility you’re not considering,” Asharos said. Their eyes focused back on him. “His only logical destination was Aren’march. These speeders don’t have the range to get anywhere else before running out of fuel. Maintenance reports that no fuel canisters are missing, so wherever he went, he only had one tank. 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. “The Agency knows our names and faces. 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 about 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 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.