Khalid Uddin

The Ghosts of Ashur
Book Two of The Drowned Realm Series
Chapter One - Schatza

            Light snowflakes skipped and danced in the fickle wind. Regular travelers in The City of the Fallen prepared themselves well with cloaks, hoods, and coats. Despite it being a mild winter day, the ocean’s proximity offered a robust breeze that turned a tolerable chill into an uncomfortably cold morning. It also, however, provided the ideal cover for anyone looking to go unnoticed.
           Farrah adjusted her hood once more and slightly turned her head to each side. The City of the Fallen was notorious for being friendly and welcoming to Descendants. Unfortunately for her, Farrah could not say the same for herself. Most people in the city would have no idea of her identity, but if any Descendants had managed to flee the House of Darian and find shelter here, there was a small chance they might recognize her.
            Jahmash was currently leaving her mind at peace, but the directive was clear: find any Descendants who might be lingering in the city and kill them. Farrah would be allowed one week in the city and then would have to ride north through the Never and board a ship back to Jahmash. He wanted her to return for a voyage to the nations beyond Ashur. Farrah had somehow managed to convince Jahmash to give her a small reprieve. After the weeks-long journey to and the destruction of the House of Darian, Farrah had hoped for some rest and some time on land. To her surprise, Jahmash had softened and compromised by allowing her to come here, where almost no one would bother her, and hunt down any remaining Descendants. Farrah was shocked when Jahmash allowed her a week to stay.
            She had gone to Jahmash without much prodding from Maqdhuum. The man had found her at a time when her anger and desire for revenge had been at its apex. However, Farrah now wondered how well she could carry out Jahmash’s order. Ever since killing the Descendant on the boat, she’d had doubts about whether her anger was properly directed. The stupid girl they’d held captive didn’t really help with her confusion, either. Adria. Bitch. In truth, the only reason Farrah disliked the girl was because she’d made a point that Farrah had difficulty arguing. Chances were that some Descendants were nothing like Prince Garrison. Gunnar and Adria had done nothing to her. Farrah steeled her resolve. No. If they were in the same fortress as Prince Garrison, then they are sympathizers to him and his cause. No Descendant in their right mind would take him in unless they forgave his crimes.
            Whenever she doubted her decisions, Farrah reminded herself of what Garrison had done to Melina, her little sister, and their friends in Rayan. She coughed to stifle a sob and scurried into an alleyway. She pressed her forehead against the cold brick side of a building and let her tears fall, her body convulsing for several moments at the memory of Melina’s beheading. Farrah was equally as furious with herself as with Garrison. A part of her wished she had died there with her sister, instead of leaving her broken and lifeless body surrounded by cowards and enemies. I’ll kill every last Descendant. And then I can die. And before I see her, I’ll kill the damn Orijin, too. Curse him for these manifestations.
            As Farrah was finishing the thought, a sympathizing voice inquired from her right, “Schatza, no need to cry out here in ze freezing cold! Vhy not come inside and fix your troubles viz some hot soup? Or a nice big mug of our honey ale?” Farrah looked up at the man, a portly, middle-aged Galicean in short sleeves and an apron. Upon seeing her face, the man gasped and looked at his feet, but spoke again. “I am so sorry, sveet girl. I am truly so sorry. I didn’t realize you’re a Descendant. Obviously ve have all heard of ze attack. Zhere are only a few of you zhat I have seen since ze attack last veek. Sad, sad news. But please come inside, schatza. Ze fact zhat you are a Descendant makes it even more important. Zhere are ozhers inside. Maybe zhey did not know you survived.”
            Farrah perked up and wiped her tear-streaked face with a sleeve. “There are other Descendants inside?”
            The man set down his sack of trash against the wall. “Yes. Zhere are two inside. Badalao is a regular at Zhe Colored Road. Sindha I have only met a few days ago. Zhey have been here since escaping zhe attack. I cannot believe it is all true.”
            “What is true?”
            “Jahmash. Zhat he is back. I don’t zhink many people believed it vould happen in zhis lifetime. It is getting cold. Ve should go inside. I vill have zhe kitchen fix you some breakfast and I vill tell Lao zhat you are here. Vhat is your name, schatza?”
            Farrah hesitated. “No. Please do not tell them that I am here. I have not yet been to the House of Darian. I was on my way there when…my companions and I heard the news. I do not want to bother them yet. Let the two of them have their peace for now. I cannot begin to understand what they are feeling right now. Perhaps I will come inside, though. Is there a crowd inside?”
            “Oh yes, nearly full to zhe brim. I vill likely be in trouble for being gone so long, come to zhink of it. You should come in soon as vell. I will not tell zhem you are out here, but you should go in and find a table. Some food and varmth vould do you vell, dear.”
            Farrah nodded. “I will be in shortly after you. Thank you. May I have the pleasure of your name, sir?”
            “Name’s Uli, my dear. And yours?”
            Farrah hesitated. “Melina.”
            “I vill see you inside, Melina. Pretty name for a pretty schatza.”
            “Schatza?”
            “Little treasure. I knew vhen I saw you out here zhat you vher a treasure.” Uli smiled at her and walked away. Farrah rolled her eyes. The man was clearly not flirting with her, but his mannerisms were excessive. Farrah waited long enough that she would hopefully not have to encounter him as soon as she walked in. She shifted her pack at her shoulders and walked slowly. Maqdhuum had taken her around the city, after rescuing her from the sinking galley, and ensured she’d had enough clothing and personal affects. She had wanted to like him even before his generosity, but something about the man seemed off. She shrugged off the notion and walked into the inn. Chances were likely slim that she would cross paths with Maqdhuum again, anyway. The man was always in a rush to be somewhere else.
            The common room of The Colored Road was all hustle and bustle. Barmaids danced through crowds or sat on laps. Men and women crowded around tables and most of the conversations were too loud. Let me just find them and kill them so I may leave. Farrah pulled her hood up and close to her face as she walked through the aisles. Uli said there were two. Male and female. Shouldn’t be difficult to – there.  Two Descendants sat at a large table with a group of others. They sat in plain view, not attempting to hide, except that several men had crowded around the male as he spoke. The others hung on his every word. Farrah found a small unoccupied table in the corner, several feet away.
            She could see the male through bodies and limbs. He is too charismatic to leave his seat. Someone else will bring him a drink. Even buy it. Badalao, Uli said. Old Markosi name, just like that hairstyle, but he wears it well. Likely from one of the old families, which means his funeral will be lavish. It’s a shame I have to kill him; he’s too handsome to die alone in some dingy inn. Farrah barely noticed the female Descendant rise and walk away. Her eyes followed as the Shivaani girl walked to the edge of the room and up a staircase. Farrah glanced back at Badalao. He still told his story with great intensity in his face as the crowd around him sat and stood, frozen in anticipation. Farrah could only guess that the boy told was telling them of the House of Darian’s destruction. She flinched suddenly as Badalao looked directly into her eyes.
            Dammit. It will be fine; stay calm. Badalao glanced over again a few moments later and smiled. Sea of Fates, why does he keep looking? I should have kept my hood up! She looked about the room and signaled to a barmaid, hoping Badalao would get the hint that she was not interested. The wrinkly, squat, woman neared, “By yerself, are ye? Can I get ye a drink, sweetie?”
            “Wine, please. Red, dry if you have.” Farrah put on her most innocent smile before the woman nodded and turned to walk away. Why do Mireyans talk like idiots? That accent is the worst! She hadn’t seen much of Ashur. Her father was a stubborn Markosi and her mother a Galicean, which meant that she and her sister had been raised in Markos until both of her parents fell ill of Crimson Pox when Farrah had barely reached seven years. Her mother had contracted it first and eventually passed it to Farrah’s father, as he refused to leave her bedside. Melina was only two when their father died, less than a month after their mother.
            Farrah twitched out of her reminiscence, realizing that Badalao no longer sat at his table. Shit. Where is he? She knew she wouldn’t find him from her table; the room was too full. She would have to walk around again, but then would also risk him finding her first. Farrah stood, though she wasn’t tall enough to see over most people in the room. She focused on her left first, scanning tables and what she could see between bodies, arms, and legs. Nothing. This is impossible. She strained to see through people, looking over and under bodies.
            “If I did not know better, I’d assume you were looking for me.”
           The voice startled her, and after turning to her right to see Badalao sitting at her table, Farrah felt her face redden. “Excuse me? No, I don’t even know who you are. I was looking for a barmaid. They take forever in this place.”
            “Strange. I would have sworn that you just spoke to one.” He smiled at her while gently tapping his fingers on the table.
            Farrah rolled her eyes, more in embarrassment than annoyance. Badalao was too clever for her to get away with simple lies. “How long have you been watching me? Next, you’ll be trying to read my mind. Maybe then you would know that I wanted to ask her for something else.”
            Badalao chuckled, “Oh no, I don’t read minds without consent. It would be rude otherwise.” He continued smiling then pointed to the black line down his left eye.
            So that’s his manifestation. “Just like that? What am I thinking then?”
            “Well it isn’t that simple. I would need physical contact to initiate the bond. After that, I can come and go just about whenever I’d like. Now what about you? I’ve shared mine…how about yours?”
            Farrah smirked. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to read my mind to find that out.” She liked him more than she cared to. He carried a certain charisma about him that made her want to sit there and talk to him for hours on end. Who am I kidding, I want to flirt with him, not talk. She felt her mind slightly tighten. Do not fear, my master. I know my mission.
            By the time Farrah had finished her thought, Badalao had leaned across the table and pulled her lips to his. Countless thoughts and feelings eclectically barraged her so strongly that she didn’t even think to seize her manifestation. Badalao gently held her face just under her ear so that his fingers simultaneously passed through her hair. For the first time in as long as she could remember, the tension drained from Farrah’s shoulders. Badalao paused for just a moment and then resumed kissing her gently. In that short moment, Farrah felt the grip on her mind dissolve and it was shortly replaced with a cozy warmth, as if Jahmash no longer cared to control her. Badalao suddenly pulled back and stared at her.
            Farrah looked back at him wide-eyed and bewildered. She asked him sharply and suspiciously. “Why did you do that? Who do you think you are?”
            “I…did not even know that…”
            “You don’t just grab a strange girl and kiss her! That is exactly how people get hurt! You know nothing about me!” Shut up you kolos, you’ll give too much away! She took a deep breath but continued before he could get in a word. “And what did you do to my head? Did you bond your mind with mine? Did I tell you that you could do that? You have no idea who I am; what if I killed you for doing that? I could have stabbed you before you had a chance to even read one thought of mine!” Farrah felt relieved that the room was as crowded and noisy as it was.
            Badalao put a hand up, signaling her to stop. “It was simply a kiss. You seemed to be enjoying it for those few moments, which felt like millennia. Why are you so offended now? So I bonded you – that does not automatically mean that I will intrude upon your mind whenever I want. You just said that I would have to read your mind to discover your manifestation. To me that is an invitation to bond you. And besides, not for a single second did I try to read your thoughts!”
            “So then why do it in the first place?” She shut up as the barmaid returned with her wine, then resumed as the woman walked away. “Is that what you do? Go around touching people so you can go into their minds whenever you like? If you ever invade my head, I swear by the Orijin that I will kill you!”
            Badalao shrugged his shoulders, “I just thought there was something here. Between us. You kissed me back and I thought that if our minds were connected, I could show you that you don’t need to…spy on me from the corner of a crowded room. And besides, you obviously let someone else have the pleasure. When I attempted to connect with you, I felt a strong presence in your head, like a sheath around your mind. But then I applied pressure to it, unsure if you were resisting. I assumed that if you were still kissing me, then you were likely not fighting me in your head. Whomever was in your head before me is gone now. Completely. So I apologize for that.”
            Farrah perked up. “You got rid of him?” Badalao nodded. Her mind filled with panic at the notion that Jahmash was no longer connected to her. Will he hunt me down and kill me now? No, stop thinking. Stop. Thinking. He has to know it wasn’t your fault. He would know. Relief slowly smothered out the panic. Impulsively, Farrah smiled and leaned over the table, then kissed Badalao passionately. She knocked over her glass of wine in the process, but made no move to get it or to clean the mess. She’d never actually initiated kissing a boy without using her manifestation. The feeling was almost as freeing as knowing that Jahmash was not preying on her every thought.
            Badalao pulled back. “Who was it? Former lover? Overprotective brother? Father?”
            Farrah’s face reddened as she stared at him. She clenched her teeth and fist, somewhat angry that they were no longer kissing so that she could just kill him for mentioning her father. Calm down; he obviously doesn’t know about father or anything about you. “Long story. Maybe I’ll tell you another time, if we’re still talking in the distant future.”
            “You’re a Descendant. I’m a Descendant. Way I see it, we should stay together.” Badalao paused and smirked. “For protection, of course. Sindha and I are lucky that we both ended up here after the destruction of the House. Who knows whether any of the other survivors are stranded alone in some city that hates us.”
            “How did you end up here? It has been less than a week, and you’ve apparently been here for a few days.”
            Badalao’s eye cocked. “How did you know that? I’m supposed to be the mind reader.” He studied Farrah for a moment, but she merely shrugged. “One of our Mavens, Savaiyon, can create doorways in the air that will take you anywhere. You could travel from here to Markos in a single step. Once everything started to look bleak for us, he was running around like a madman, creating doorways and helping the last few of us to escape.”
            “How fortunate for all of you,” she said coolly. She placed her hand over his, which was resting on the table. “How many are left? And what do we do now if there’s no House of Darian to go to?”
            “There’s no way to be sure. I have not bonded every Descendant so I cannot keep track of everyone. I know the whereabouts of about ten, but they are all scattered throughout Ashur. Most in less fortunate situations than myself and Sindha. And you. I think first we will all have to regroup in a common location. However, I do not have a bond with Maven Savaiyon. If he is even still alive, there is no telling where he could be. So, without Savaiyon, it will take a long time before we can all be reunited. Those whom I have bonded know to go to the Tower of the Blind. It is our best chance of survival at this point.”
            “Interesting. When are you leaving for the Tower? Just you and Sindha are going?”
            “We will wait another day or two. Just in case we find any other Descendants. We’ve been here for days and only met you today. There could still be others hoping to reach the House who have no idea what happened.”
            “Am I going with you?” She smiled out of the corner of her mouth.
            Badalao raised his eyebrows, “I don’t know. Are you?”
            He really isn’t in my head. So honorable. I would have been intruding on his thoughts within a moment of creating that bond. “We shall see. I have not decided yet. I have heard that the Way of Sunsets can be unkind to Descendants. There is talk in the city that King Edmund is sending more soldiers to watch the road. How do you plan to avoid them?”
            “We will have to avoid all roads. Perhaps ride along the Serpent and then use Mireya’s southern forest as cover to reach the Eye of Orijin. It will not be easy, no matter which course we choose. But Sindha is exceptional with her manifestation and my combat skills are formidable. If you come, we welcome any help that you might provide, manifestation or otherwise.” Badalao stared at her intensely for a moment.
            “What? What is it?”
            “You never told me your name. We’ve kissed twice, and despite your anger and distrust, you have asked me for a great deal of information and have not had the courtesy of telling me your name or asking for mine. Unless you already know it. Regardless, I am Badalao Majime. You?”
            Farrah’s eyes widened. “Majime. The hair was telling enough that you were from an old family. But Majime is about as high as it gets in Markos. I was only seven or eight years when I left Markos, but even I know how well-connected you and your family are. I mean, how does a Majime even get into a situation to develop a manifestation? Surely your life could never have been in danger.” Farrah caught herself. It was rude to ask a Descendant how he or she acquired their manifestation. Offending Badalao wouldn’t help her mission. “I apologize. That was rude.” Badalao casually dismissed it. “But, you’re sure it has to be a difficult journey to the Tower of the Blind? Oh.” She took a deep breath. “I am Farrah. I do not really use my father’s surname any longer. Just call me Farrah. Please.”
            “Fine. Farrah it is. The name is beautiful enough by itself anyway.” Badalao turned his hand over so that their palms were touching. “So will you come with us?”
            Farrah looked down and then back at Badalao. “I am unsure. I made it this far from hiding. Even still, I am all that is left of my family. The thought of leaving this city for the dangers of the world and risking my life all over again…it…it would make my sister’s death in vain. Perhaps I should stay in the City of the Fallen and find work. It would at least be a peaceful life.”
            “There will be no peace in our lifetime. Jahmash has awoken and we must kill him. The only way to do that is for us Descendants to gather and determine a strategy to defeat him. We are better than most of the people in Ashur. We were chosen by the Orijin for something more.” He shook his head. “Dammit, we are trying to save these very people from extinction and they still hate us. But that is our path. You are not some old crone whose days are numbered. You are young, beautiful, and have a lifetime ahead of you. If we must, we will reach the Tower of the Blind as ghosts, so that no one will even know when we are sneaking right past them. And if they have an issue with it, then we kill them before they kill us. Our lives are too important now to be wasted trying to live like common folk.”
            I need to change the dynamic of this conversation soon. He’s getting too convincing and I don’t have any real reason to argue. She sighed, “Are you and Sindha sharing a room?”
            “No, no. It is not like that between us. Why?”
            “I don’t feel comfortable having this conversation down here, and I have not requested a room yet. Might we go up to yours and continue talking?” Badalao eyed her suspiciously. “You can tie me down if you don’t trust me. I just want to be able to talk about all this and process it without having to worry about eavesdroppers.” Calm down, you idiot. You cannot sound too eager.
            Badalao glanced back at the table where he’d been sitting before, then back at Farrah and smiled. “Fine. Let’s go up.” He signaled to the same barmaid who’d brought her wine and shouted for her to bring some up. Farrah looked around the room as they stood and walked to the stairs. Badalao must have understood her concern, but did nothing to comfort her. “Don’t worry, if anyone is looking at us, they’ll simply assume we’re going upstairs to sleep together.”
            “Oh, is that all?”
            “Most do not need much of a reason to assume two people are being intimate. Look at you – you needed clarification about whether I was sleeping with Sindha, simply because you saw us together.”
            Farrah rolled her eyes, “Whatever. You seem too comfortable with this. Why do I get the feeling that you’ve walked quite a few girls up to your room in this place?”
            “Hey, it was you who said that we should go upstairs and that I could tie you down. Just because I’m willing to go along with it doesn’t make me a bad person. It’s not like you’re the first girl who’s asked me to tie her down.”
            “Yeah, now you’re scaring me. Perhaps I should go.” Farrah wasn’t serious, but she was curious how he would take that.
            “Oh please, you know you like me. Give me a few more minutes and you might even love you.” He turned his head to her and grinned.
            Give me a few more minutes and I am going to kill you. “We’ll just have to see then, won’t we?”