Categories > Books > Twilight

ALIENATED- A Bella Swan Alien Kidnap Adventure

by kezzysparks 1 review

Bella Swan has long left the world of Forks and her teen era boyfriend Ed Cullen behind her. She is now a celebrated entertainer in NYC. One night, aliens stealthily raid a posh club in Manhattan,...

Category: Twilight - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Romance - Warnings: [?] - Published: 2017-01-15 - Updated: 2017-06-11 - 70185 words - Complete

Guide to some non-English words in this chapter:
Aha: an alien lord or esquire.
Qmalo: The country on the alien planet to which Bella is taken.
Qmalian: Natives of Qmalo.
Please note use of the word Purchase: Qmalians sometimes use it as a noun describing the victim they have bought at the market.
Misty bands of grey light swirled into Bella’s brain like smoke entering a broken window. Everything seemed fuzzy. She groped for certainty. ‘My name is Bella. Sure, I am a woman. I got breasts. I have a face with a nose and a mouth.’ She tried to feel herself as she said those words, but her hands were bound.
Phantom sounds droned in her head. A meaningless blend of tones ranging from low to high. Her left ear whined. She felt like she was being transported on a wave, like she could suddenly be thrust into a void. Time and distance had lost meaning, everything merged into one confused hopeless fog.
Her eyes opened without her bidding, and the gray shadows that’d been whirling in her head shifted to the corners. A new world fixed itself before her, hazy at the edges, but not so blurred as to prevent her making sense of it.
“She is awake,” a strange, hollow voice sounded. “Now, Aha, you can take a good look at your purchase in her conscious state.”
“No need to worry,” another of those scary voices replied. “She is the correct blood type and that’s all I need. She will relieve the pressure on my organ waiting list.”
‘Organ waiting list?’ Bella shuddered as those words tore into her confused brain.
Before she could let out a scream, a flurry of movement broke. Heavy steps and light ones. A hand passed over her face and landed on her shoulder. Its touch felt cold, as if it were that of a monster who’d just crawled out of a pile of snow.
“It’s time I got going,” that gravelly voice spoke again.
A few more beams of light pulsed into her eyes, and then everything went dark. Time and distance again became one thing that was just plunging and plunging.
‘How the hell did I get here?’ she asked herself. ‘And for that matter, where in hell is this place I’m calling ‘here’?’
She raked her brain for memories. Scenes from what she could hazily recall as the last four hours of her regular celebrity existence played back in snowy vignettes: the limo ride from the glitzy hotel to the entertainment venue. The throngs that greeted her and her entourage as they emerged from the gleaming sliding doors of stretched Lincolns. The walk over the red carpet, into the seductively lit venue. Little had she known…
“Help me lift her. I have to be on my way.” That ghostly voice reverberated once more.
‘Organ waiting list,’ the words still rang in her head as that sensation of rough hands holding her returned. Now it felt like she was being raised but that didn’t last long. She soon heard a thud, and felt her body crush onto a surface. A pain plowed into her as a result of the jolt, but a minor compensation of it was that her vision returned in full. She no longer glimpsed mere shadows and hazy balls of light, but full figures of objects and ornaments. Presently, an image of a nasty-looking mustached man filled her vision. The man’s head was closely shaved and he had scary grey-yellow eyes. He wore robs which made him look religious. His skin was a sickly pale orange, and that gave him a ghost-like look.
“Who are you, and where am I?” Bella held up her bound hands to the man. “Where are you taking me to?”
“Call me Aha Ishobad.” A crooked smile came over the man’s pudgy lips. “Welcome to Qmalo. Enjoy the ride. It’s your last.”
“What’s Qmalo, and who are you?” Bella tried to bark but the words came out weak.
“I’m your new owner,” the man growled, erasing his crooked smile, and that sent needles of fear into Bella’s stomach.
“My owner?” Bella bristled. “What do you mean?”
“I just bought you. Weren’t you awake when I sealed the deal?”
“That’s ridiculous and inhuman. Let me go.”
“No, I won’t,” the strange man retorted. “And you are right, I am not human. I’m proudly Qmalian, and I now own you.”
“Rubbish. I demand you untie me; I want to go back home.”
“Earthling, why would I want to let you go. I have a long list of patients waiting for organs.”
“Organs! Now get serious,” Bella jerked in her bondage. “Just where the hell do I fit in that business.”
“You will see.” The man looked at her as though she were stupid. “I have a list of very noble and respectable citizens who could use your body’s parts.”
Courage had been building in Bella, but now it drained away as she saw how resolute the man was. He turned his face away from her, fetched a set of keys from the pocket of his robes and started an engine.
‘Damn, I’m imprisoned inside a vehicle.’
“Stop, don’t take me away.” Bella flexed her arms against the cord tying her wrists. “Get me out of here.” The cord was too tight, though, and it bit into her skin.
She kicked her legs against the rope strapping her ankles. That one wasn’t too tight, but it still didn’t come off.
“Don’t even bother trying. You have no way of escaping.”
Hopeless, Bella slumped back onto the uncomfortable surface.
The vehicle started moving and then gained speed as its engine got louder. The floor she lay on creaked and heaved. Soon the man pulled a lever and the vehicle leaped into the air. The roughness of the movement made Bella’s stomach sick.
As they nosed farther up, it became clear there would be no quick return. She lay back in resignation. As she became still, more images from her last hours in New York City streamed back into her consciousness. She saw herself getting into the club on Manhattan’s glitzy 10th Avenue, all dressed for a night-long gig in a glinting outfit with chains and sequins and studs. On her head she had her signature kitten ears, and on her feet some long, pointy heels. Then the music clicked in and she wowed the crowd. Just like she loved doing. Just like she got paid a million a gig to do. Then probably just one sparkling hour down the line, the music suddenly went dead. The lights blinked and the whole club went dark. For a moment, she and the audience thought it was a joke meant to scare everyone, but soon learned it wasn’t when strange noises began to emanate from the ceiling and from backstage. The doors flew open. Fans began to scream with fear…

Chapter 2
Jove: The God of the Qmalians.
Laboring on one of the balconies of this castle-like home, a young man of about twenty-two or twenty-three weighed the prospects of his Qmalian master bringing back from the market a person who was his relative. Rex did not know how to feel. While it might be nice to glimpse someone human like him, he didn’t wish anyone kidnapped and then sold. The secret abducting of people from earth (earthlings, Qmalians liked to call them) was something that troubled Rex a lot. He hated it. Being someone who had been stolen from earth at an early age, he always prayed that the evil practice would end. Deep down he wanted to do something about it, but then he lacked the power. He was just a servant, and couldn’t do anything to his bosses.
His master had left home early this afternoon to go to the market where a plane full of captured humans had been off-loaded. The person whom his master would buy would be biologically special, for his master was looking for a not so common, if not rare, blood type.
Rex thought about all those who’d been captured and shipped. Most would suffer a lot. Many would be made slaves and end up working in terrible conditions in mines, factories, farms and households. Some would become guinea pigs and be forced to participate in drug and medical experiments. The worst would be those unlucky ones who would be killed so their organs could be harvested. A bloody business his master sometimes engaged in.
‘Dear Jove,’ Rex felt especially sorry for the person his master was going to bring. He or she would be slaughtered in no time. That was something no one deserved in this world. Although he couldn’t explain the source of the thought, he kept wondering if the unlucky person would not be a sister, niece, brother or nephew of his. That would be a very cruel thing. Rex’s eyes almost felt teary.
It was at sad times like these that Rex often thought about his family which he’d been robbed of. Were his mother and father still alive far down there on earth? How many other children did they have beside him? Did his siblings suffer the same fate as he? Maybe one could be alive on this horrid planet, slaving for some Qmalian lord. Or they could have been killed for organs.
Rex did not want to think about it anymore. He dipped his mop into a bucket and started scrubbing.

As they flew, Bella again struggled to free herself. The rope tying her hands was impossible to loosen, so she gave up on it. The one tying her ankles, however, was a bit slack and she worked on that. While her Qmalian buyer was busy with the controls, Bella worked her ankles and feet, wiggling, angling and squeezing until she got her feet out. Her shoes came off in the process. The Qmalian only looked back and frowned but did not take any action. Using her legs and feet as leverage, she pushed at a seat in front of her and then managed to sit up. Now she could see better. This was a real plane after all, though somewhat of a rickety design. The only two seats available were at the front, with nothing at the back. Where she sat on seemed like a cargo hold of sorts.
The plane’s windows were low and Bella could see outside. They were flying over a not so densely populated area, probably the outlying areas of a large city. Bella could see individual houses and estates. Animals she couldn’t properly make out grazed in the fields. If it were not that she was captured, she might have thought this was a beautiful alien world.
The small tumbling thing later descended, then landed. It coasted along a gritty runway then halted before a dark station-like building. The strange man, whom Bella remembered had called himself something like Ah Isoband, turned off the key and the engine groaned to a stop.
The place was noisy with air traffic, but a cacophony of voices did filter in from the outside. Bella could pick out mostly male croaking, but she also heard the frenzied shout of a female. The language spoken was a broken kind of English, or it could have been something else, but strangely she could understand most of it.
“Tramp, I see you have already untied your feet, so slide toward the door,” Ah Isoband half-rose and reached for the rope tying her hands. He tugged at it. “By the way, this is Egodad, our capital.”
“I don’t care about your Egodad,” Bella gave the man a bitter stare. “Free me now. Untie this.”
“No, tramp. Out like that.” Ah Isoband opened his door and jumped out. His shoes thudded on the pavement. In a moment the door she’d been previously thrown through was opened.
“Now you come out. And don’t test my patience.”
Although she didn’t know where she’d been taken to, and wanted to be flown back, Bella already had had enough of this crappy plane. She couldn’t wait to get off. Furthermore, outside, someone with a merciful heart might come to her aid.
Getting up was a struggle because her hands remained bound. Ah Isoband grabbed her by the arms and dragged her. That was unnecessary; she’d wanted to come out by herself. “Don’t treat me like this,” she said as her bare feet tasted the hot, uneven asphalt. She glanced back at her heels. “Get me my shoes, you bastard.”
“Tramp like you, you think you deserve to be wearing shoes. To hell with them; let’s go.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are,” Isoband wrapped his hands around her neck by way of a threat. He then pushed her violently. “You don’t do that in this country.”
“Monster, stop this before I cause a scene,” she tried to hold her ground.
“There is no scene you can cause. Now I will beat you up.” Ah Isoband started to pull at the cord, which caused Bella enormous pain at the wrists. She had no option but to follow.
As she was being hustled away, Bella took a better look back at the thing they’d come in. The plane, if you could call it that, looked very unusual from the outside. It had a small fuselage, and very short wings but its three wheels were huge. Its tailpiece was clipped as though one of the plane’s engineers, after assembling the tail and fin, had later decided to just saw off the part.
As they walked, she also kept surveying the small airport. Not that she liked what she saw, but the act gave her a hopeful feeling, as though this were a place she soon would come back to and then fly home. Several planes similar to that of this Ah Isoband bandit, were parked nearby. A particularly bigger version of it was wheeling towards the runway.
The building closest to them was hangar-like, with multiple floor-to-roof openings on its front side. Several others structure of a more compact design, and all painted blue, took space beyond the wide pavement. One had a small tower with several antennae on top.
“Hey, don’t look around,” The Qmalian tugged at the rope.
Bella had had enough of this. Enduring pain, she steadied herself and halted. Surprised, Ah Isoband turned back to face her. He stared at her with exasperation.
“I demand to know where you are taking me to?” she faced up to him, her voice packed with anger.
“Just walk,” Ah Isoband started pulling at her again, this time by her T shirt. His fingers gave her that icy tingle once more.
“I don’t want to come with you.”
“You will have to, now don’t let me flog you,” he retrieved a whip from his robe’s pocket.
Bella ignored the whip and looked around. Where could she run to? Who could she turn to for assistance? It hurt her to see nothing could help her.
“Now, tramp, I really am at the end of my patience.” The Qmalian raise his whip.
Resigned, Bella started walking.
They reached the end of the tarmac and then turned into a sidewalk. She still looked for somewhere to escape to. Small unkempt bushes with numerous wild flowers bordered the walkway on each side, but those offered no refuge. Before she could find anything, they’d reached a parking lot. Bella searched around for lot attendants, hoping to scream for assistance, but she saw no one. Before she knew it, The Qmalian had commandeered her to an orange pick up with a covered lockable back.
Ah Isoband fished out the same bunch of keys he’d used in the plane.
He unlocked the truck’s back door. “Get in.”
“No, I’m not.”
The brute took hold of her by waist. Bella tried to push him back, but couldn’t. The Qmalian held her tighter, then started to lift her up. Bella braced her legs, but the Qmalian was so strong, she found her feet coming off the ground. Soon, she’d been thrown in again. The floor of the truck’s back was bare metal and the hardness sent shots of pain into her body.
“Stop, I want to come out,” she screamed.
The Qmalian slammed the doors.
She flailed her legs and tried to kick at anything she could, but nothing yielded. A bolt in the lock clicked into place.
She shook her head. Was this the end, perhaps not. She flailed and kicked some more, but like she knew, nothing happened. Soon the only other loud sound she could hear, apart from her panicked screams, was the droning of an engine.
Was this the final leg of her journey to her death? Or had she already died and was headed to hell?

Chapter 3
Rex chose the highest balcony that faced the driveway to be his last one to clean. His master could be arriving any time with his purchase. He wrung his mop and wiped the polished concrete. In a while he’d finished and decided on a short rest. He leaned on the railing, facing the front.
“Rex, what are you still doing out there? I have more for you to do,” a Qmalian woman, the chief maid, called him.
“I’ll be in shortly, madam Narnia.”
“All earthlings are very lazy, and you are just like them.”
Rex knew better than to answer back. Although Narnia was a worker here like him, she was far more senior and had the distinct advantage of being Qmalian. Today was already a bad day for earthlings, and he didn’t want to complicate matters further by arguing with anyone.
He looked down below. The view was so familiar to him. The front portion of the estate’s fence was broken by a gleaming steel gate held between two sturdy marble pillars. A driveway ran through the gate down to the road. Beside the gate a small but cozy guardhouse stood.
Beyond the road, a red terra cotta roof of a neighbor shimmered, only slightly shaded by the scattered tall trees in the yard. The day was quiet and only the slightest traffic flowed. It wouldn’t be hard to spot his master’s orange truck from a distance. Just then, as he was thinking whether it would be a man or woman his master would bring, he saw from afar a blob of moving color and he recognized it. Before long his master’s truck was indicating to turn off the road.
The massive gate slid open, creaking under automatic control. Aha Ishobad drove in. Rex’s heart beat; a murder was going to happen. Or maybe not. Perhaps by some lucky turn, his master had not found someone with the blood type he was looking for and was therefore returning empty-handed. It warmed his heart to imagine that.
The truck stopped in the driveway and the engine was turned off. His master got out. Aha Ishobad was alone; normally he would be with his assistant who would help in case a purchased earthling tried to become violent. The fact he was alone caused Rex’s heart to warm up further. Perhaps the Aha indeed had not found a suitable victim. Which would mean someone had been saved of instant murder.
His master, for a short while, stood facing the road. Rex wondered what he was thinking. Aha Ishobad then turned and started walking toward the back of the truck. Panic ignited in Rex. ‘Master must indeed have brought someone.’ He sucked in a pained breath. There sure could be a purchased human inside that mobile metal cage. The balcony Rex stood on was high enough to allow him a partial view of what lay behind the truck. Aha Ishobad now stood behind the back door. His arms moved and then the doors popped open. The sound was actually loud enough to startle Rex. Ishobad’s hands seemed to grab at something and he pulled. Out came—Oh Jove—someone. A kidnapped human!
Not long after, the action had moved to a point where the truck’s body no longer partially obstructed his view. The Aha emerged, hustling a thin but tall woman who walked barefoot. The woman seemed confused and in pain.
“A lady, dear Jove,” Rex mumbled to himself. “Sir, please don’t.”
Rex shuddered again as he thought of his family. That tall woman could be his sister or niece. Could even be his mother, for he couldn’t see the woman’s face clearly and so couldn’t tell her age from this distance. What could he do? Would he let this cruel act go ahead even if it turned out he wasn’t related to the woman? No, he would try something. He’d go down, pretend to welcome his master back, and then see if he could intervene somehow.
Almost in panic, he dashed across the balcony floor, and burst into the door. Weaving past arranged tables and chairs and couches, he shot into a hallway. Soon, he was flying down a staircase, crossed another floor at ground level, and then was out through a side door.
“Master, you are back.” Rex struggled to control his hyperventilating as he thought of a way to put his plans into effect.
“Can’t you see I am,” Aha Ishobad’s tone was dismissive. He stopped walking, though.
Rex removed his gaze from his master then directed it to the seized woman. Her hands were tied with a rope. Her face and eyes looked puffy. Welts and bruises showed on the uppers of her arms, and more on her wrists. Despite the horror she was going to face, the earthling looked unbroken, though.
Rex felt a pang. This was too cruel. Whether she was his relative or not, he would try and help.
“Sir, will you let me take care of her for you?” Rex asked. “I know the procedures,” he lied.
“Since when did a dull earthling like you learn the processes?” the Aha again barked a dismissal.
“From books I read, my Aha.” Rex bowed.
“I hate it when servants get ahead of me,” growled the lordly Qmalian. “Alright, lead her to the prepping room,” Ishobad let go his hold on the rope.
Rex thought what to do. This was a risky thing, and the chances of actually succeeding very tiny.
After his master had disappeared into the house interior, Rex took hold of the rope. “Follow me,” he said to the lady, in the gentlest tone he could master. “And thanks for remaining calm.”
“What?” the woman snapped. “You think you can just do whatever you want with me?”
“Take it easy,” Rex’s voice assumed a greater firmness. “Don’t make things worse than they already are.”
The woman didn’t respond, only started walking behind him. They came out of a passage then crossed the huge backyard garden heading towards the series of buildings at the back. The prepping room was in a laboratory tucked in between some small, medium-quality servant-houses. They reached the lab’s door. Rex wondered if what lay inside wouldn’t horrify the woman to a point of insanity. “I’m not an enemy,” he tried to calm the captive in advance. “I actually mean to do a little something for you.” He hoped his words would be received as genuine. “I’m also from earth like you, and I feel sorry for us.”
“Sorry for us, what do you mean?” the woman turned her face up at him, her pretty features marred by confusion and hate. “Don’t lie to me. I know what you are going to do.”

3.2 Bella POV
“Relax, sister. I could never lie to you.” Bella heard the strange young men who’d taken control of her say. The young man looked much like a normal human.
Bella regarded him with anger and awe. If he truly wasn’t alien, what was he doing in this world?
“Let’s get inside. Please stay calm,” the young man said in firm tone.
Bella wanted to fight him but then in an instant she thought against it. Her hands were tied anyway, how could she pack a punch. She stepped in. A weird smell of chemicals and drugs engulfed her. Crosses and religious cloths were hung on the walls. It felt like she’d been walked into something that was an eclectic combination of a hospital ward, prayer room and drug den.
A bed with red sheets and blankets was centered in the open space. Beyond it, to one side, was a cabinet with old books. A table and then a sink filled with glasses of indescribable shapes completed the strange litany of objects inside.
What she saw scared her much, but she paid greater attention to the young man.
“Sit on the bed.”
“I’m not going to sit on that crap.” Bella remained standing even though her feet burned. She eyed the man to see what he would do. The man looked as confused as she.
“Don’t let me abandon you,” said the young man. “If I call the lab assistant, you are gone my friend.”
Bella wouldn’t obey the man just yet, but she gave his words a thought. Maybe he was goodhearted and really meant to be helpful. She didn’t trust him fully yet, but she’d talk to him and ask the questions burning inside her. “Excuse me, are you really human?”
Before the young man answered, she analyzed him further. The guy had all the regular human features to him, a straight rather than bulbous nose, and toned skin which looked white rather than orange. His hair was blond, not the rough rusty color of those Qmalians she had already seen. The most interesting, though, had to be his eyes, which were deep green, unlike the shades of orange typical of the inhabitants of this place.
“I already told you I’m from earth.” The man’s voice had that distinct Qmalian accent, but lacked the cold harsh hollowness.
“You are?” an unknown confusion and anger began to take hold of Bella again. “And you live with them, these murderers and killers.”
“Yes, I live with them,” the young man was agitated. “But I don’t do like they do.”
“Liar; you kidnap and kill people. Like they all do here.”
“I’ve never killed anyone.”
“Let me leave then; if you are not a murderer, untie me and let me out.”
“Calm down please. Won’t you?” a note of... sadness passed over the man’s handsome face. “If I let you out, that will make things worse.”
“So, what are you going to do?” Bella held her bound hands up to the man. The man smiled at her. His lack of cruelty surprised her and that made her more confused. Could she trust him? Or was he trying to just calm her and then strike without a moment’s notice.
“Alright, I will untie you but don’t dare run away.”
Huh, that was something.
While the young man worked the knots, Bella gazed further at what was inside. It was all so scary. The combination of red blankets and strong smells made it feel like she was in a morgue, only hot rather than freezing. The walls were painted orange, with numerous decorations and symbols depicting snakes, and lizards, and bats, added in black. Then of course there was all that creepy religious paraphernalia, including strange-colored cloths, and crosses and books with weird covers. What had to be worst, however, was a red-painted metal door that had some bizarre whirring sounds emanating from behind it.
“This must be a killing room.” The fear rose again in her. “Take me away.”

3.3 Rex POV
Despite the possible coming horrors, the excitement of having met a fellow earthling built up in Rex. And even though the woman was proving difficult to calm down, he felt a deep growing connection with her. He liked her. He desired her tall curvaceous frame. Were there so many beautiful women like her on earth?
Before he could allow his feelings to run riot, though, he would try to know more about the woman.
“What is your name, sister? I don’t want to keep calling you earthling. It sounds too rude.”
“Why do you want to know my name if you are going to kill me?”
“Relax, sis, no one is killing anyone yet. Let’s get to know each other. Tell me your name.”
“My name is Bella, if that will help make your bloody work easier.”
‘Bella,’ Rex relished the name. It sounded like one reserved for princesses.
“And you, murderer, who are you?” Bella furrowed her brow at him, glaring.
“My name is Rex,” he glared back at her.
“And you aren’t an alien, a brute, a killer?”
“I’m none of those things.” Rex wondered why Bella would remain so suspicious of him despite that he had already explained his background to him. “Look at me. Do you see anything orange or alien on me?”
“Rex, indeed. What a fiendish name.” A bitter smirk appeared on Bella’s lips. “It really does sound like a murderer’s.”
“Not me, Bella. Not me.”
Were all the women of the earth this sassy? Was it a trend? The more Bella was rude to him, however, the more Rex liked her, the more she mystified him.
Now that she at least was answering his questions, Rex thought this was the best time to discover if there was any blood relationship between them. The idea had entered him even before she arrived, but now that he had seen her, the curiosity ran even higher. The outcome of the inquiry wouldn’t influence his decision to rescue her, though. He was going to try his best for her whether she was his relation or not.
“Could we by some chance come from the same family, Bella?” he probed. “Could you have a younger brother or cousin who disappeared long ago as a tiny tot?”
“I don’t have any relatives who are in the business of kidnapping and killing people.”
“I mean in your extended family did you ever lose a boy in mysterious circumstances, let’s say what, twenty years ago?”
“I have already answered your question.” Bella glared at him again with another smirk.
Oh how lovely those lips were in spite of the venom they sometimes spewed. The skin of them was so pink and so delicate Rex could see tiny blood vessels running underneath. He was going to like her in spite of her sassiness. In fact he was going to love her. He did not see anything wrong with that. Although she had refused to enter into any discussions regarding possible blood links, Rex did not think she was his sister or close niece, so loving her would be in order.
“You know what?” he said to her. “I’m going to like you no matter what you think or do.”
Rex had never said those words to any woman, had never imagined he ever would, and it made him ecstatic to say them.

Chapter 4
4.1 Bella PoV
‘I am going to like you no matter what you say or do.’ The words carried soothing tones but Bella wasn’t about to be fooled. “To hell with you,” she snapped.
She tried to give him a hateful gaze. He didn’t seem bothered. She scowled. He smiled. It bothered her the strange young man—Rex, he’d said his name was—had a real warm side to him. And he had a charm that was as magical as it was disarming. Bella, though, wasn’t going to waste any time developing feelings for him. She had no respect for people who lived in the same household with murderers.
“Now, Bella,” a strange look of concern registered on Rex’s face. “Let’s cool our tempers and start on something very important.”
“Like what now?” Bella didn’t want to be calmed. “Why don’t you just get on with the job that your killer of a master tasked you with?”
“My master didn’t task me with anything; this is all my initiative,” Rex’s voice had some exasperation to it. “I want to make things a little easier for you. Trust me.” A light gleamed in his green eyes.
“Why don’t you just go ahead and murder me like you have to.” Bella was getting sick of it all.
“I will need you to take off your shirt.”
“What!” she cried. “Do you now want to rape me? Is that how you treat your victims here—abuse them before you kill them?”
“No one is raping anyone,” a note of pleading colored Rex’s voice. “I would like to check your body for certain marks that could greatly help your cause.”
“I don’t have any stupid drawings on my body,” she paid him another scornful stare.
“Will you then do what I asked?” his imploring look at her was equally strong.
How crazy this young man was; no amount of hate could deter him. She might have to do what he asked. Before obliging him however, she gave him a warning eye that said she was no pushover. “You people are a barbaric lot,” she said as she reached for the hem of her T.

Qmalians were very religious, and they believed in signs and symbols. At the religious school for slaves and servants Rex had attended, he’d been taught how to recognize those drawn images, and respect them. One or two of them could cause a captured earthling to be spared extreme cruel treatment. Rex hoped he might glimpse something of that sort on Bella. The odds were so little, though, because if Bella had had something inscribed on her, Aha Ishobad would have seen already and taken appropriate actions.
Bella began to remove her T shirt. Rex did not know how to feel as he observed her. On the one part there was this sense of anticipation that he might glimpse the symbol he was looking for, one that would improve his chances of rescuing her. Yet on the other, there was this anticipation to see bare female skin for the first time ever. He liked Bella despite her sassiness; and seeing her undress made his blood pump harder in his veins.
“Face away from me,” he said as Bella tossed her glinting T onto the bed.
The beauty of her skin was complete torture to his eyes. For a man who’d never seen even just the image of a naked woman, whether on TV or in print, this spectacle was a pure revelation. For a moment, completely lost in wonder, he forgot about the mark he was looking for and just stood there transfixed.
“Hey, when will you finish?” Bella gave him a backward glance.
“I’m only just starting.” Rex craned his neck toward her back and began checking. Of course, there was nothing his eyes could light on. His heart sank. The life would soon be snuffed out of this beautiful body unless a miracle happened.
“No luck with the back,” Rex felt the pain in his own voice. “Now give me your front.”
Bella turned around. Her bra covered her breasts. There couldn’t be anything drawn underneath that intimidate piece of clothing, no use asking Bella to remove it. He gave Bella’s exposed front a cursory search. Only bare skin greeted him. How sad? Bella, with all her beauty, was going to be killed in less than a couple of hours.

Bella sensed Rex’s eyes lift off her. The young man staggered back and sighed. She felt his dejection and knew his hopes had been dashed. Her breath hitched in her throat. She hated herself for having unwittingly allowed her hopes to be raised by this stranger she had no business trusting.
“Are you done?” she heard herself ask involuntarily.
“Yes,” Rex voice cracked.
“Any luck?” How crazy it was she continued to hope.
“Sadly, no.”
“Damn it,” Bella sighed. Why did she ever allow this? Why did she for just one stupid instant let herself imagine this helpless young boy might actually come up with something? Now he just stood there, helpless. “Give me my shirt, don’t stare,” she snapped again.
“I’m so sorry.” Rex bent to picked up the T from the bed.
Oh how she hated him. How much she disliked his useless calmness.
“Now let me go,” she yanked the T shirt from his hands.
“No, don’t.” Rex held her arm.
Bella wanted to wrestle him and run away but the touch of his hand somehow weakened her.
“Let go my arm.” she said, regardless.
She felt exhausted and knew she couldn’t fight him. Even if she hadn’t been tired, realistically she still couldn’t stand against him. Rex was slender but strong, with tawny muscles that suggested considerable fighting power. If he wanted, Rex could detain her in here for as long as was convenient to him.
“I said let go my arm.” She still was going to give of her best, however.
Rex released his hold.
“I’m dressing up to go.” She smoothed her T. Surprisingly she didn’t put it back on in a hurry. The thoughts on her mind overwhelmed her. Where would she run to? This was so sickening.
“Bye, I’m out of here.” She started for the door even though she wasn’t fully clothed yet.
“Hold it for a minute; I’m thinking of something.”

A very hazardous if not totally suicidal idea had begun to flash in Rex’s head. He could fraudulently inscribe a symbol of his own on Bella. With a chance, that could work, although his life would be in peril if it was discovered.
“What fucking other thing are you thinking of?” Bella halted.
“Please just relax.”
Rex tried to remember the most important of the symbols. It’d been a long while since he’d been to school, and he had a hard time recalling as he had not paid a lot of attention to the subject. He might have to find a book on it. For now, though, he’d let Bella know of the idea. “Could I please ruin your beautiful skin by drawing something on it?” he heard himself ask with some measured hope.
“Excuse me, what did you just say?” Bella paid him an angry stare.
“All I need from you is a yes or no and we take it from there.”
Bella changed her gaze from angry to deprecating, but didn’t say anything.
“Okay good. Don’t go anywhere.” Rex patted her on the shoulder.
Only the fastest action was needed. Aha Ishobad could come down to see if he’d completed the necessary preparations. Or his assistant could pop in to finish the job.
“I’ll be back.” Rex dashed out, closing the door behind him.
The sun had turned down the western horizon and it shone into his eyes. This criminal idea was truly hazardous. This indeed could be his last time to see the sun in freedom, if things did not go well.
As he sped along the beaten pathway, Rex for a moment found himself wondering if it was worth it. Could he risk ruining his life for someone who essentially was a stranger? Wouldn’t that be foolish heroism? Why not continue with his wretched life and let the unlucky meet their fate? No, he decided he wouldn’t do that. Bella needed him, and he’d answer to that need. This was the moment not just to rescue a fellow human, but to bring salvation to his own tortured self. He thought again of his mother back on earth. How much had she suffered when she discovered him missing? What of his father? What about all the other families who’d lost a member, or members, to this cruel Qmalian practice? Yes, it was time he did something to hurt his master’s business.
Rex’s dwelling was a shack built a ways down the path from the lab. It was the furthest of any livable outbuilding from Ishobad’s main house. His path cut through neatly-cut grass. Several manicured shrubs were scattered in the yard. It was Rex’s job to tend to all these gardens. The grasses and flowers almost knew him by name—knew him as Ishobad’s loyal servant, but now things were going to change.
His door had no lock on it. He just entered.
Already beginning to miss Bella, he started searching for his pens. He liked that girl, truly adored her. Her manner of speaking was particularly enchanting. Did all humans on earth speak with that rich lilt? Was that how his mother or sisters talked? Did they have the same kind of bold attitude? Bella had connected him with something he’d long lost. And she was pretty. It’d be a pity to lose her.
Wasn’t it fortunate that years ago he had decided to save a couple of his drawing pens. Coming out of slave school he’d never imagined he might ever need to use them. A servant only worked with his hands doing manual labor; drawing and writing was for the bosses. Now a single useful chance to use a pen had presented itself. The only thing to worry about now was if the pens he had were color-fast, and as good as the genuine ones. He also wasn’t sure if he had the right color for the symbol he might need to draw. A mistake on colors would sell his counterfeit away too quick.
His battered stand-alone closet had three drawers in a vertical stack. The first two did not yield anything. Now he was onto the bottom one. There wasn’t much inside that, just a few pieces of paper and… He shifted the papers to one side. Great, there was a pen in there; not the couple he’d imagined, but at least just one. He grabbed it. It was a purple. His heart skipped a bit; what color had he been hoping for, blue, green? He scratched his head. What was purple good for by the way?

Chapter 5
Now that Rex had left the room the air grew gloomier and even more hostile. Bella realized she wanted Rex near her even if she didn’t trust him all-round yet. He was the only soul here that had at least shown some compassion towards her. And come to think of it, he was the only thing that looked human she’d encountered ever since this tragedy began. He didn’t look bad, either; and he’d said he was working on a plan that could help save her. That was good, although she wasn’t going to fool herself into believing he had the capacity to totally liberate her.
Rex was taking long in coming back. Bella wondered where he could have gone to. The gloomy air in here freaked her. And the litany of murderous, cult-like symbols didn’t help. She calmed herself by closing her eyes and trying to forget it all. That helped her mind a little. Her body still felt exhausted, though, and parts of it ached from the long journey and rough treatment. Against her own spirited reluctance, she allowed herself to lay down on the hard bed. The act brought her further relief, but before a nap could steal her, she was jolted by the sound of heavy footsteps outside. Her pulse raced. That didn’t sound like the way Rex walked.
The door opened and a vicious-looking Qmalian man peered in. The man’s ugly eyes landed on her, and he scowled. Without saying anything the man then turned away and closed the door. Bella listened with fear. Where was Rex? Had he abandoned her? Was he ever coming back, or was she now on her own again?
The Qmalian man opened the door once more and Bella saw him better this time. The skin of his face was orange like that of every alien here, but his had deeper shades of red around the cheeks and cheekbones. His arms were strong and sinewy, and in his right hand a large sharp butcher knife dangled, tied to his middle finger by a string that went through an eye in the handle. The knife’s blade gleamed menacingly silver. The man looked ugly and dangerous.
“Where is Rex?” The man swung his knife and Bella went chill.
Her voice stuck in her throat.
“I don’t expect you to be able to say,” the man fiercely answered himself. “I will be back, soon.” He banged the door closed and Bella, with some relief, heard his footsteps recede.
A few cold minutes went by and then the door was creaked open again. Bella’s heart jumped once more, but it settled when she realized it was Rex walking in.
“Are you alright? I feared for you,” said Rex, sounding quite panicky.
“You took so long.” Bella sat back up
“It’s okay, I’m now back,” Rex tried to smile, then his face became grim. “Did that man—Slasher, say or do anything to you?”
“No, not too much; but he scared me to death.”
“He’s a terrible one, for sure. He is the assistant of the Aha’s that I tried to warn you of.”
“He’s totally evil.”
“Yes, I agree but let’s forget him.” Rex attempted to force a smile, then his face became serious again. “Did he examine you, though? Did he check your back?”
“No, he didn’t touch me.”
“That’s alright if he didn’t. It means we still have some chance with our plan.”
Bella didn’t know the exact details, only knew Rex was going to draw something. She hoped Rex would clarify without her asking.
“Okay, now let’s buy you time,” she heard Rex say as he fished from his pocket a strange-looking marker-like thing. He dangled it in the air. “I hope it works. Now, please lay back down.”
Bella shuddered. Was Rex a cult member? What was he going to draw on her with that mean-looking pen?

Rex held the marker in the air as a cloud of doubt descended on him. What if someone popped in while he was busy faking things? Slasher had just been in here, enquiring; wouldn’t he be back to find out what was going on? That thought terrified him. An unusual sweat moistened his brow.
Bella lay still on the bed with her back turned up. Rex observed her breathe. It would be a tragedy to call this plan off and abandon her after having raised her hopes. Yet carrying on with it was like courting death. The moment his marker touched that skin, his fate and hers would forever be tied. No backtracking would be possible after that. Would he chicken out now and try to preserve himself? No, he decided. Bella was human. And so was he. He’d promised he’d be there for her, and that was how things would always be. He loved her, too. And that was a thing worth dying for.
“Hope what I produce will be convincing…” remarked Rex, speaking more to himself.
“Just try,” he heard Bella reply.
Rex brought the pen down to the back of Bella’s shoulder. Momentarily, his mind blanked and his fingers trembled. He’d since figured with the color purple he could draw a rosette symbol on her, one very much worshiped by Qmalians. Trouble now was he couldn’t recall the rosette’s exact look. Was it six- or eight-petalled? And was there a circle around it? Jove, why were things going this way?
“Still waiting,” a hint of impatience laced Bella’s voice.
“Give me a sec.” Rex scratched his forehead hard. ‘Oh yes,’ he now exclaimed as the exact image he was trying to remember flowed into his head. A six-petalled rosette shape, enclosed in a thin outlying circle. That would make Bella almost a holy thing, an elemental. She would become untouchable by Aha Ishobad.
Bella remained still on the bed. The right strap of her bra partly ran over the exact patch of skin Rex wanted to emblazon the symbol on. He would ask her to loosen the bra, but any possibility of seeing a naked breast or two was not the intention. Saving a life was. Not that he’d pass the opportunity to see a nipplle or two, though, if it came. At twenty-two or twenty-three he was now a full-grown man, but up to now he had never seen up close and personal a human breast.
“Please undo your bra,” he said in a voice free of hidden agendas.
“You untie the clasp,” Bella muttered.
Rex worked the fastener and the straps came loose. He pulled the right one completely off. His pen now came down like lightning. It bit into the skin and oozed rivers of purple ink. ‘Rosette, don’t disappoint me,’ he sang as he stroked.
Owing to lack of experience, it took longer to finish than he had anticipated. Each minute that speedily passed made the risks of getting caught higher and higher. Eventually, though, it was time to brush-in the finishing touches.
“Wait for the thing to dry before you put on your shirt,” he said even as he started to worry whether the little diadem he had added on top of the circle would be acceptable.
“Will do like you say,” answered Bella with a voice that sounded grateful.
“Good, now I’m onto the next part.”

It was now time to inform his master that the purchase had a symbol on her. Probably the riskiest part of the plan, Rex thought before he took a step out of the prepping room. A shiver entered him but he fought it. He padded to the outside.
The utmost tact was needed if this fraud was to ever have a chance of succeeding. He shouldn’t rush things, only to regret later. And the first thing he’d do would be to get rid of the pen. This was so important. Should this thing ever blow up, like it most likely would, that pen would be the first thing to sell him away if it be discovered on him. Without it, he’d have some room to argue the rosette was genuine. Absolutely no one should see him dispose of the marker.
Rex scanned the backcourt then dashed across the grass aiming for the back. He turned left then reached the fence. ‘Your job is done, buddy,’ he threw the drawing tool over into the ravine.
He lingered behind there for a while, weighing things, but more importantly giving the ink on Bella a chance to dry. Should the Aha order someone to do a quick verification or decide to come down himself, it was critical that there be no fresh smell of ink anywhere near Bella. And even if the symbol might look new, the absence of any telltale smells would help conceal the fraud. He prayed to the Jove to speed up the drying.
After a while he began taking steps towards his master’s main house. The moment had arrived. He’d deliver his first big lie to the Aha. Out of the shrubbery, he gave the backcourt a quick scan, then strode toward the mansion. It didn’t take him long to reach one of the rear doors. Before he reached for the handle, a pesky doubt began to creep into him. What if the master upon purchasing Bella had checked her? Aha Ishobad was not a very observant man, but then suppose he had bothered to just look and had found no mark. What a surprise it would be to have Rex come and say he’d discovered something like that on her.
Bravely, Rex opened the door. His heart pumped as he took the first step up the staircase. His master sat on his favorite third-floor balcony that faced the south. Aha Ishobad was still draped in his favorite orange robes. His pointy Qmalian ears jutted away from the sides of his bald head. He was not a man to play games with. Rex struggled to find a way to begin.
“The earthling has the purple rosette on her, Aha,” he hazarded. “And a royal diadem, too.”
“What, earthling servant, are you telling me?” his master turned a perturbed face at him.
“She’s food for the Gods.” Rex scrounged for the appropriate term.
“Is that so?” Ishobad’s put a thoughtful hand to his mouth.
“Yes, sir. You know I have never lied to you, and wouldn’t start now.” Rex felt hot. He remembered the feel of the pen, and his fingers twitched. He stole a glance at them to see if he hadn’t spoilt them with ink.
“What a thing, don’t tell me,” something like confusion or disbelief registered on Aha Ishobad’s face. “Now what am I going to do regarding the organs.”
“I don’t know, sir. Your decision,” Rex bowed. A good amount of hope flowed into him; It hadn’t occurred for the Aha to check Bella. This was a good chance.
Ishobad caressed his beard incredulously. “I still find it hard to believe.”
“You have to, Aha. I saw the symbol with my own eyes.”
“Really? Why did it take you so long to report?”
“It took me a while to subdue the purchase. She is particularly feisty, that one. Really elemental.” Rex felt himself sweating again.
“I still don’t think you saw right. The people who sold me her would have said.”
Rex bowed again. “No, sir, my eyes can’t be lying to me.”
“Okay, servant, go now. I’ll confirm it myself.” A note of anger had risen in Aha’s voice
This part had gone well, Rex thought. The next, though, would be very difficult. If Aha Ishobad came to verify things, would he be fooled. Rex hoped so, but it was a long shot.
Now he had to go; He bowed once more.
“Stay there; where is Slasher?”
“Must be working in his quarters,” Rex stopped.
“I may want to use him, instead.”
“Up to you, Aha; but for now what do I do with the purchase—the elemental.”
“Take her to your shack and detain her there. Make sure she doesn’t try to run away, but also feed her as needed. I will decide on the next step.”
“Alright, sir. I will do as you say.”

Aha Ishobad stood up from his chaise thinking what his servant had informed him of. How had he failed to do a check? How could he have forgotten to perform such an important thing?
In truth, though, his mistake had been to over-rely on the word of the dealers. It was their duty to inform buyers of any material fact regarding the condition of the abductees they were selling. Ishobad knew, however, that that didn’t absolve him of his responsibility to do a diligent inspection. His need to satisfy his clients’ organ needs had caused him to concentrate on blood type only. Yet he should have been a bit more prudent. Next time, he’d certainly avoid taking things for granted.
Before condemning himself totally, Aha Ishobad searched for further extenuating circumstances. Elementals were so rare, and he couldn’t have ordinarily expected himself to come across one. (The Qmalian process of deciding which human was elemental and who wasn’t was actually complex. At the time of capture, the kidnappers sensed a certain underlying human spiritual force in the person they were abducting. The physical build of the victim did not matter, only that special innate energy. Once the kidnappers detected it, they would then inscribe a special symbol on the abductee. Back in Qmalo, the victim’s fate would rest on that inscription.)
‘It doesn’t happen very often, so, I’m excused.’
The important thing now was to prove that he’d indeed made that mistake of overlooking things. Rex could be wrong. He might be taking a common tattoo for an elemental symbol. Ishobad should go and see for himself. And he should avoid sending someone else—in case the symbol was genuine and then his mistake of omitting to check would be known to too many people. That would be embarrassing. Rex should remain the only other person knowing.
He stood from his recliner, and padded towards the doors. As he was entering, a new thinking began to percolate his mind. Wouldn’t he look like a fool in front of Rex should it turn out the purchase actually had the symbol on her. His reputation in the face of his lowly servant would be tarnished forever. Better to call off the verification than face humiliation. Furthermore, Rex had been to slave school for many years and was well-schooled in Qmalian ways. Could he easily mistake a common tattoo for a royal symbol? No, he couldn’t. And even though earthlings were generally a daft creation, Ishobad didn’t think Rex would be that dumb. A rosette was just so distinctive, no one should mistake it. Aha Ishobad stopped walking toward the staircase and padded back to his balcony. He was going to work things out differently.

Chapter 6
Like before, Rex was gone awhile. Bella longed him to return. She hated the fact she’d already become dependent on him, but knew she had no other option. The room still smelt of dearthly chemicals; the killing symbols still hung. Rex was the only person who wasn’t being hostile.
As she thought when he might be back, the room’s door swung open. Bella thought it could be Rex, but the suddenness of the action made her tense. She glanced towards the doorway.
In jumped that same vile man wielding the same humongous knife. “You should have been tied the ceremonial sash and sedated by now,” Slasher menaced. “Rex doesn’t know what he is doing, and is going to pay for this.”
Tendrils of fear sped underneath Bella’s skin. “I have the mark. Your… coworker, Rex, found...”
“What mark? You lie.” The man made wiggling movements with his hand, his knife dangling. “And Rex is not my coworker. He is a lowly servant, and just another stupid helpless earthling like you.”
“Sure, I have the purple rosette symbol,” Bella offered. “I’m elemental. Check it, if you think I lie.”
Things were going too fast and in the wrong direction. What else could she say to calm this evil man? It flashed in her head that inviting him to check could be a big mistake. The inscription might be too fresh to seem authentic. Worse, the man might actually smell the recently-applied ink.
Slasher shuffled forward. “Where is the inscription, you pathetic horrible liar?”
Bella grabbed the neckline of her T with her finger—which had begun to sweat. She pulled it down her shoulder. The mark was on the back, so she had to turn and face away from the man in order that he be able see. Fear seeped into her as she imagined Slasher might just let his knife fly on her while she wasn’t looking.
A rough hand grabbed the neck of her T and then dragged it down further. She nearly suffocated under the action. A course palm landed on the spot Rex had inscribed the symbol. Then a finger scratched… ‘Is this the end.’
A sudden force pushed her away. Bella slumped onto the bed.
“This is fishy,” Slasher snarled. “I’ll get to the bottom of it,” he stomped out.

Rex knocked and then slipped in.
“First part is now complete,” he tried to sound glad. “The Aha now knows of the symbol.”
“What did he say?” Bella faced him with some concern.
Rex found it hard to lie. “He will come and verify himself, or he will send someone else.”
“And then what will happen after that?”
“It will all depend on whether he believes the symbol is genuine or not. The good thing at least is that he didn’t reject it outright. We are lucky he failed to check when he bought you. At least that’s the idea I got.”
“What if he doesn’t believe the mark is good?”
“Forget about that for now. Let’s go to my cabin.”
“To do what, now?” Bella glared at him again with puzzled eyes.
“You are spared death for the while. Follow me.”
Bella stood up from the bed. It gladdened Rex’s heart to see her to do that. No one purchased by Ishobad ever walked out of this door alive.
It had all been lucky guesswork pretty much. Rex had never been involved in his master’s business, never done any prep work on a victim. In fact he had never been in this room while actual prepping was being done. He never spent any time in here except when he was needed to perform cleaning duties. He thanked the stars for making his master believe he could do something he’d only read a little about in slave school.
Bella took a step toward the door. Rex took her hand for a moment. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He shuddered to think what would have happened had Ishobad handed Bella over to Slasher.
(If things had gone the normal way, Slasher would have tied Bella to the bed, then covered her with a religious cloth while uttering ritual prayers over her. After that, he’d have injected her with a drug that rendered her unconscious. From there he would transfer her to the Room of no Return, where Aha Ishobad, a former army surgeon, would operate on her and harvest whatever he wanted to. The rest of her would be disposed in a fitting way.)
Rex stepped out the door first. He looked around. “Don’t worry, you may come out.”
Bella looked at the setting sun as though she couldn’t believe it was real. How beautiful she looked in those golden rays. The skin of her face glowed with such prettiness, Rex wanted to fall to his knee and worship her. This wasn’t the time to do that, though.
They traced a flagstone pathway that ran around the backyard garden. Bella’s feet seemed to ache. Her ankles were partly swollen and the scratches and bruises on them looked severe. How harsh this system of kidnapping humans was.
Although the Aha had instructed him to take Bella to his shack, Rex still didn’t want Slasher to see him do so. The Aha’s assistant might demand to take control of her, and that could cause things to change. Rex prayed that Slasher remain in his quarters.
“You have a house here?” Bella asked as they trudged.
“Not a house, but just a small dirty cabin.”
The flagstone track ended. They branched onto a narrow dirt path toward his shack. The shack had a door with no lock.
“We’ve arrived.” Rex said. Saying those few words of welcome made Rex feel very glad. He was taking a human into his dwelling for the first time ever. And not just an ordinary human but the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life…

Bella wanted to fly into the cabin and lock the door forever. She didn’t care what she’d find in that small non-descript building. All she wished was to shut out the vile world of evil Qmalians.
“Please get in.” The words sounded golden.
Inside, the lights were on, though the sun hadn’t set. A small living space invited her to walk through. Rex had no couches but had a tiny table with two small unpadded wooden chairs. Bella walked deeper in. She felt so different in here.
“Want me to leave the door a little open?” Rex asked. “Need some air?”
“Do lock it if you can, please.” Bella didn’t care for any fresh breezes from the outside, even though the air was a tad humid.
She appraised Rex’s dwelling further. To the right of the tiny living area was a kitchenette with a sink on a small counter. To the left was a made-up bed. There absolutely were no cult-like symbols anywhere. The walls were bare plaster.
Rex closed the door—which had small latch on the inside. The click of the latch’s bolt made Bella feel safer despite she knew this cabin was no fortress.
“Take a seat. In the chair, or on the bed, your preference.”
Bella’s legs pained her. It’d be good if she could rest them. “I think the bed will do.” She trundled toward it. “Thank you,” she said as she sat on it. The mattress did not have much depth, but was still comfortable to her bum.
“Want any food?” Rex glanced at her. “The Aha said I should feed you. And I would like to make you the heartiest welcome meal ever.”
Bella began to feel hungry when Rex said that. She didn’t know how long she’d gone without eating, but all the time she was with Ishobad she never felt anything. A meal, though, would take too long to prepare and she wanted to know if there was any possibility of escaping from here. Not that she was too afraid of being killed, but she wasn’t just going to let Qmalians do whatever they wanted without her trying to do something for herself. Rex had at least done a good job of temporarily saving her. “Thanks, but not for now,” she said about the food.
“Really, aren’t you hungry?” Rex took the chair not far from the bed. “Since when did you last eat?”
“I’m not feeling bad at all.” She didn’t want to disappoint him, but there were things she considered more important. “For now, can we just talk.”
“What would you like to know?”
“A lot,” she answered. “But first I’d like to check if there is any sure way of leaving this place.”
“Leaving?” a note of regret and helplessness passed over Rex’s face. “That’s a real hard one.”
“Is the damned place sealed?”
“Real tight, I’m afraid. By now I guess they’ve already turned on the electricity to the fence.”
“A very stupid arrangement,” she said, more to herself.
“You don’t have to sweat too much about that; we can always come up with another plan.”
That satisfied her but only up to a point. She still worried about what would happen if she remained in here for long. “So, how do you see things panning out?” she blurted, thinking about the symbol Rex had etched.
Another note of pain or was it fear registered on Rex’s face. “One step at a time, Bella; you are safe with me for now.”
“Didn’t you say your master was coming to take a look at… the rosette?”
“He said he would, but don’t worry I did an expert job.”
“I believe you,” she nodded. “But where exactly does the rosette take me, if I may ask?”
Now something really dark and scary took control of Rex’s face.
“You are going to be handed over to the church, but before that happens, believe me, we will have worked out another trick.”
“I see,” she sighed. “Let’s say the other trick doesn’t work. What does the Qmalian church do with those who have been given to it?”
Rex wrinkled his face as if an invisible hand of torture had slapped him. He rearranged his visage into a silent grimace.
“Rex, what is it? Is there a problem?”
“Oh I forgot something, but… but it’s nothing.”
“What do you mean. You look and sound...”
“Bella, can we please just leave this alone for now. I will make us some dinner.”

‘Damn it. How could I have failed to realize…’ Rex nearly slapped himself. In his haste to save Bella, he had forgotten one very important thing. This Saturday was the Qmalian First Fruits ceremony, and that didn’t make Bella’s fate any better. The rosette made her good sacrificial material. She could end up burning at the altar.
“You still look very scared,” Bella snapped him out of his nightmare. “Tell me, what is it?”
“The Qmalian church practices human sacrifice.”
“Human sacrifice, oh, don’t tell me.”

Chapter 7
‘Jesus Christ.’ The feeling of safety Bella had just begun to enjoy in here drained away like liquid from a pierced can. ‘Qmalians still do that evil thing.’ Oh God, this was terrible. “You mean to tell me Qmalians are still that savage and backward?” she couldn’t even believe she was saying this.
“It’s very stupid.” Rex was angry.
“How barbaric?” Bella shook her head.
“They are worse than that,” Rex nodded regretfully. “But don’t worry, we haven’t run out of tricks.”
Bella raked her mind. Something that had been buried in her bubbled to the surface. Although it couldn’t save her, an explanation was clicking into place. Qmalians were truly barbarians. She should have realized it the moment she woke up and was up for sale, but she hadn’t. And she should have realized it, too, when Ishobad shoved her into a plane and said he would slaughter her, but again she hadn’t. Her initial observation had been that Qmalians were cruel but still relatively civilized. How wrong she’d been. They weren’t even anything close to that. Gosh, how had she missed it? There could be several reasons, but chief among them could be that she’d all along been too dazed to realize the fact. Or it may be that Ishobad, specifically, misled her by making his intentions seem noble, and she thought all Qmalians were like him. He said he wanted to slaughter her to obtain organs for transplanting, and strangely she’d understood that. Organ transplants were commonplace on earth, too, even though killing someone for the sake of a body part was forbidden. Yet if Qmalians abducted humans so as to harvest organs, that could be considered reasonable to an extent. Taking one life to save another: an argument could be made for it. But certainly not human sacrifice. Just killing and burning up a person for the benefit of some imagined God, no, that was uncivilized. In fact it was worse than anything she could imagine.
She sat silent as she reflected on this sorry situation. Odd insights and weird musings began to bubble in her brain. Some things weren’t adding up. One particularly pesky question began to trouble her. If Qmalians were as backward as their practices showed, then how were they able to fly to earth in their planes, or rockets whatever, kidnap unsuspecting people and then escape back into space? How could an uncivilized society raid a more modern, civilized one? On her way from the market she’d been very observant, and had keenly looked down at the city of Egodad and had not seen even a single spectacular thing to suggest Qmalians were more technologically advanced than humans. The cars and trucks she’d seen parked in the airport lots all looked like bad imitations of what America made in the sixties. The plane she flew in with Ishobad looked simple, almost like it was just a big toy. How could things be like that? No, a backward society shouldn’t be capturing humans secretly and spiriting them away. Unless of course they had something special they used. Something not technological, but still very powerful. Something like… MAGIC! Yes, magic it had to be. Powerful spells that made the Qmalians hard to see—so they could do whatever they wanted on earth and escape back unseen! Rex had said he’d been stolen as a child. Many others might also have been. And no one on earth had ever reported seeing aliens come to kidnap anyone. That surely could only mean they were using magic. And if this whole business of abducting people had to be stopped that magic had to be found and destroyed…
“You know what,” she gave Rex an insightful stare. “You and I are victims of some cruel spells.”
“What, Bella, I’m lost. Please explain.”
“Magic has a lot to do with how we were brought here. That can only be the explanation.”
A grin of complete mystification took hold of Rex’s lips.
“Qmalians are not technologically more advanced than humans is what I mean,” she said. And now that she’d spelt it out, she strangely felt more enlightened. “These crudes hardly could stand against the armies and police forces of the earth. They use magic to help them capture people. They cast spells.”
Rex looked impressed, but evidence of something troubling him also showed. “Even if they do use magic, Bella, how does knowing that help us?”
“We must find the magic and destroy…” Bella said, but then she couldn’t finish because she realized how helpless her situation was. The Qmalian First Fruits was only days away, and Ishobad hadn’t even come to check the symbol yet. Like he had told Rex he would…

‘We find the magic and destroy it…’ Rex found the idea so absurd but didn’t want to let Bella down.
“That would be a great and noble goal, Bella.” He lied calmly. Indeed, what suggestion could be weirder than this? How could anyone find and destroy magic? What was magic anyway, to begin with? “We start working on it tomorrow,” he added, still hiding his incredulity.
“We could start right now.” Bella was fired up. “We could run away and try to find the source of the evil. Imagine all the human lives we could save.”
“Great idea, pal. But remember I told you of the impossibility of attempting to escape.”
“Nobody would see us if it got darker. We could climb the fence and go.”
“Remember, I said the fence is electrified at dusk. We might only be able to try our luck in the morning when the power has been turned off.”
“Huh” Bella exhaled. “Doesn’t the guard at the gate go to sleep, and we can sneak by?”
“Bella, your life is very important to me. You look terribly exhausted. Please take a nap while I cook us some food.”
Bella didn’t answer. She lay back on the bed, shed a tear in one eye and was soon snoring.
Rex set about cooking. He was going to make her something extra good, something as special as the ingredients he had could allow. He fetched Qmalian okra, onion and navel tomatoes and then made a soup. In a pan he fried some small bits of eel fish, and then he boiled some rice. Even as it got hotter inside, he kept his door closed so the sweet smells of frying fish and okra soup would not easily drift out. Some Qmalian loitering in the gardens might pick the aromas and start to wonder why he was cooking such a special meal to feed a condemned earthling. ‘Why is he treating her so special?’ they might want to know.
While waiting for everything to cook, Rex gave a thought to what Bella had said. Now some things started to come into his head. He really didn’t know anything about magic, but he recalled Aha Ishobad saying something like: ‘We are a great creation, the finest that God made. We know how to work miracles that bring us greatness.’ And then without being bidden he would mutter that if anyone wanted to know the source of Qmalian powers the first place to visit would be the Shrine of the Departed.
That never made much sense to Rex and he’d never bothered to find out. Mostly he imagined his master was just gushing like the proud man he was. And being only a servant what could he realistically have done about it, even if he learned something at the shrine. Very likely not much. But now since Bella had hinted at magic, Rex thought perhaps he should have just gone and checked things out, even if in the end he couldn’t anything.
He knew the Shrine of The Departed very well, though. It was a sacred complex comprising a few buildings of different sizes situated near the western outskirts of this vast city of Egodad. The shrine had no fence around it, but its backyard flanked an immense forest of bushes, trees and an almost-impenetrable undergrowth which ran down to the banks of the Egodad River. A narrow winding street ran along the front of the shrine, and on the shrine’s sides was each an old cemetery with crudely marked graves. Rex knew the area well because it had a lot of river-side cottages, and Aha Ishobad had one of his own not a very long distance from the shrine. Rex would frequently be taken to that cottage to do some hard work around.
‘The Shrine of the Departed, really,’ Rex mused. Could it hold the clue to this thing that Bella called magic? It was hard to imagine, but now they would have to visit it. The odds of succeeding to get there, though, were tremendous—because, first, they needed to get out of here alive. And that could happen only if the rosette trick continued to hold. Of which it didn’t seem it would, for who knew what the dark night could bring…

Chapter 8
The crow of a rooster from a neighboring estate woke up Slasher. His ears were somehow very sensitive to animal or bird sounds, and the distant bark of a dog or squeal of a raccoon could rouse him.
He rubbed his face, sharpening his mind further. Although he couldn’t say he hadn’t slept well, something had been troubling him. Something that kept him awake for a while: the rosette he’d seen on the purchase. How come Aha Ishobad had not been made aware of it at the airport market? Why was such an important symbol completely ignored, only to be discovered by a lowly servant. No, this whole thing smelt of fraud.
And further to that, Rex’s behavior yesterday had been downright suspicious. Since when did he start to involve himself in the glorious organ business of the master? He was merely a house servant and had never been involved in prep work. Did he even know the incantations involved, the rituals? Why did he suddenly decide to take over? And who instructed him to go look for symbols?
And, regarding the supposed symbol, Slasher recalled what he’d seen of it. It had been placed in the correct position but there still were some things not right about it. For starters, it hadn’t seemed well-aligned—and the diadem should have been much closer to the circle, not well above it. That alone should have alerted him to a possible fraud, but he gave it the benefit of the doubt. Now his mind had been opened and he knew everything: that rosette had never been there when the earthling was bought by the Aha.
‘It is completely fake!’
It was still a little dark inside. He rose and turned on his light. His large butcher knife that he liked to wield was leaned against the west wall. Its blade gleamed in the lamplight and Slasher smelt blood. Human guts, gore and death. This job ought to have been done yesterday and master’s clients would have been very happy people.
“I have to let master know I see a cheat,” he spoke loudly to himself.
Slasher washed his face, brushed his teeth, then took off his pajama bottoms. Since he was going to talk to the Aha about a critical issue, he thought he would dress himself more appropriately. He put on ironed grey cargo pants and then topped them with a light brown shirt. He finished off by draping himself in an orange duster that made him look like a medical person, but then, being a lab assistant, he wasn’t far from being one. Lastly, he slid his feet into his sandals.
He wouldn’t take his butcher knife with him to the main house because it could look like a threat. Leaving without it, though, made him feel small, because that knife caused him to command a lot of respect from his juniors here, of whom Rex was the lowliest.
Outside, the sun was only just beginning to pour its rays onto the face of the planet. Shadows of trees and buildings fell on the ground in awe. The weather today was on the cooler side, very different from the heat wave that Qmalo had been under just days ago.
Quietly he galloped across the court, aiming for the mansion. He didn’t need a key to enter the Aha’s abode; he was almost a family member here. What he couldn’t do, though, was just go past Narnia’s sleeping room and go to wake up the Aha. He had to consult Narnia first, a requirement that always irked him because Narnia was something vastly inferior to him, never mind she was also Qmalian. He knocked on Narnia’s door and out came the grand maid in her sleep garments.
“Can you please wake up the master for me? I have something very important to discuss with him.”
“What is it?”
“I have good reason to believe he and I were tricked by Rex.”
“What trick? Is that stupid boy really capable of anything?”
“The symbol on the earthling purchased yesterday is not genuine.”
“How do you know?”
“Where is Master, I have no time,” Slasher growled.
“I’m sorry he had to leave last night for an important church conference. Preparations for this weekend’s festival… Big Saturday!”
“Alright, I will deal with it myself, goodbye.”
He barreled downstairs and then out. His quarters were only tens of yards away, and not a very long distance separated it from Rex’s cabin. He would get his butcher knife first. Rex was a weakling but if Slasher wielded his favorite weapon things would be easier. Much much easier.

Bella was the first to wake up. She drew in a sharp breath to greet the morning that’d arrived. They hadn’t come last night to get her, and she had God to thank for that. And she had Rex to thank, too. She wondered where she would be had he decided not to intervene. Parts of her would be in freezers by now, what a terrible thing.
Reddish-orange rays of sunlight passed in through the gaps in Rex’s curtains. Must be a few minutes after sunrise. She surveyed Rex’s meager dwelling. The air in the room smelt of sleep. A pane was missing on one of the windows and a little fresh breeze blew through the opening.
‘Cozy little poorly furnished cabin,’ Bella remarked to herself.
Rex, asleep beside her, let out a big breath but his eyes remained closed. Bella had never seen such peaceful sleep in a man. And Rex just looked so handsome in the morning light. His sand brown hair was short and his eyebrows were thick. A one- or two-day stubble showed on his chin. His lips were firm and his jaw square, just the kind of young man she might have wanted to hang out with had things been okay.
She wondered what charm Rex had worked on his Qmalian masters that caused her life to be temporarily spared so easy. Under the harsh control of Aha Ishobad yesterday she’d almost given up on thinking about fighting for her life. All she’d wanted was for the end to come quick and in a respectable way. Now she was still breathing, and she wasn’t far from the arms of a man she might want to spend the rest of her short life with.
A slightly stronger breeze whipped the curtains and a corner lifted allowing more of the morning light to splash in. Time was moving with each minuscule increase in the sun’s strength. Last night she’d gone to bed tired but still worrying that the church people might just come and take her. Now they hadn’t, but she knew with each passing second something was to bound to happen. It certainly wasn’t safe to remain here at any rate.
If she were to escape from this place, though, it wouldn’t solely be about saving herself; that she could insist. She would go on an important mission. Rex had spoken of a big Shrine where—supposedly—some important Qmalians secrets were housed. And that talk, even though its accuracy remained unproven, raised her hopes and gave her the feeling that if she could live long enough she could learn a secret that one day could save the human race from Qmalian pillage. She had to explore that possibility soonest.
She sensed the dangers around. All that possibility could be lost if they wallowed here and let fate take its course. She wouldn’t want to miss a chance to get to the shrine. She thought of escaping alone, but another idea said that might be too much of a risk. It might be wiser to let Rex handle everything. He knew this place and its security apparatus better than she, and she’d better trust him.
Her mind kept roiling. Conflict gripped her. Maybe she must wake up Rex right away, and say let’s go. The situation was just too critical—quick action was justified…
Just as she was fighting with herself like that, she heard a flurry of sandal-like steps. Her heart began to beat. Momentarily somebody banged on the door.
“Rex, I want to come in,” an angry-sounding voice boomed from outside. The door soon shook as if battered by a wind.
Now panic swept through Bella. The door hinges and latch creaked further. “Rex, wake up. Someone is breaking in,” she shook him.
Rex emitted a confused grunt and then abruptly rose, sighing loudly as if he’d been in a nightmare.
“Rex, I command,” the harsh voice shouted even more angrily. “Wake up; open the door.”
“Hold it, Slasher,” Rex stood up half-bravely.
Bella saw the fear in his eyes. That vile man had come back. She wanted to help Rex but did know how.
Rex spun and reached underneath the bed. For a second he felt around, then retrieved something that looked like a baseball bat but wasn’t quite as polished. He tucked the bat-like thing between his mattress and toe board, effectively concealing it.
Just then, the latch gave in and the door flew open. In, jumped Slasher.
“I was going to open, sir. What is all the rush for?” The dread in Rex’s voice was palpable.
“You tricked me and the Aha yesterday. Now I’m wiser; my eyes have been opened,” Slasher barked. “That symbol you spoke of cannot be genuine. This is unforgivable trickery.”
Rex shrugged, hiding his panic. “But you examined it for yourself, sir.”
“I have to see it again,” Slasher advanced. His eyes lit on Bella. “What!” he glared at her as though she were not a human. “She is sleeping in your bed! This is impossible.” His ugly jaw dropped. “To think I would never have seen it.”
Rex remained silent.
“Tell me.” Slasher grabbed Rex’s shoulder. “Ever heard of a servant who sleeps with the purchase he is supposed to be guarding from escaping. This is sacrilegious,” he nearly stuttered. “Ever heard of a shepherd who slept in the same bed with the lamb that was going to be slaughtered.”
“I’m sorry, chief,” Rex’s voice betrayed torture.
Bella shivered.
“This is confirmation enough, stupid boy. You are a trickster and a fraudster, just like all earthlings are, a worm that bites and corrupts the body that hosts it.”
“No, chief. Just look at the rosette again.”
Slasher bent down toward Bella. “Turn over that side, tramp.” His rough hands peeled the sheets off then grabbed the neck of her T, pulling it to below her right shoulder. A horrible smell emanated from Slasher’s mouth, something like rotten fish and perhaps alcohol. Bella almost chocked as the T’s fabric tightened against her throat. The same hands as yesterday pored over her back. Moments passed during which Bella thought she’d be strangled.
“Oh Jove, it’s fake, I knew!” Slasher’s exclaiming filled the room. “The ink is not genuine. This is scandalous.”
Bella thought if she continued to lay on the bed that would be the end of her. If she could turn in a sweeping motion and slap Slasher right in the eyes, she might be able to disable him right there.
She need not have bothered though, because just as she was figuring out the best angle of attack, she heard a mighty blow. In an instant, the rough hand that held her became slack. A pained cry exploded out of Slashers mouth. He crushed to the floor.
“It’s all done,” Rex said, letting out a long breath. He swung the bat a second time and slammed it down on Slasher’s prostrate body. “Now we can go. Let’s start packing, quick.”

Chapter 9
“That was a fantastic job,” Bella rushed off the bed. “How did you do it.”
Rex marveled at her quick movement. “You are welcome.”
“Thanks, Rex. I knew he would come back for me. I just had that feeling.”
“Now you don’t have to worry,” Rex admired his weapon for a second. “Time to hit the road.”
Bella’s eyes fell on Slasher. “Mustn’t we search him, at least?”
“For what?” Rex wondered what it was she thought she could get from him.
Something like a great expectation crossed Bella’s face. “He could have something on him that could give us clues as to that magic thing I spoke of to you last night.”
“Oh that,” Rex remembered. He didn’t know, though, if Slasher would have anything helpful on him. All he knew was Slasher kept a small journal in his pockets. “He keeps a notebook. You want it?”
“I’ll take it,” Bella leaned down on Slasher. She rummaged through the fallen man’s pockets and emerged with a much-worn 3”x 4” faux-leather bound booklet. “You never know what we could glean.” She looked like she would start reading.
Rex didn’t think this actually was the time to start perusing. “Give it to me. We’ll scan it later.”
Bella handed it over. Rex put the micro journal into the back pocket of his cargos. “Now we must leave.”
Bella nodded, and then looked at herself. “Don’t you think I need to change clothes. These ones will sell me out fast.”
“Smart thinking.” Rex hadn’t imagined that. He opened his stand-alone wardrobe and fetched a khaki shirt and long pants, and a wide-brimmed bush hat to go with.
Bella hurriedly took off her shorts and T and put on what Rex had given her.
“Add this,” Rex gave her a knit grey jersey. “Nights out can be cold; we don’t know where we will end up.”
Bella donned the jersey, but did not button it up.
“Good, now for some food for the road.” Rex knew he was stretching his hopes too much. They might not even get far before they got caught, and carrying all those tins and packs of supplies might prove to have been unnecessary. Still, he gave Bella his duffel bag to hold while he threw in the little tins, packs and sachets he had. Into the same duffel bag he dumped a few of his own clothes.
“Let’s not forget yours.” Rex helped Bella gather into a backpack the sequined T and shorts she’d come in from earth. Bella slung the backpack onto her shoulders.
“Okay we are almost done. Now let’s get the cash.” Rex lifted his mattress and retrieved wads of notes—which was all the money he’d saved ever since being promoted to a paid position. Again, their freedom might not even last to a point where they might be able to buy anything. Still, he just couldn’t leave his life savings behind. He stuffed the notes into an old wallet.
“I don’t have shoes,” said Bella, gaping at her bare feet.
She certainly needed to put something on, Rex observed. The journey to the Shrine of the Departed might not be an easy one. They might have to run away from police and hide in forests and Rex couldn’t expect Bella’s soft bare soles to weather the harsh terrains of Qmalo. “Alright, jump into these.” He didn’t have any female shoes, he just fetched his own spare ones. “Hope they fit.”
Before Bella put on the visibly-oversize boots, Rex stuffed some old socks into them.
Bella slipped her feet into them. “They feel…good enough.”
Now was time to work the final details. Rex calculated that if they left Slasher unconscious in this room and simply closed the door, it could be hours before Slasher was discovered. By then, if lucky, they might be far. He didn’t want to stretch his optimism too much, though and accepted that fate would eventually work against them.
“Are we done?” Bella tightened the backpack straps on her shoulders.
“Yes, but let me first make a quick check.”
He grabbed his duffel bag, got out, and gave the surroundings a brief look. Sunlight glinted from the east and was reflected off the windows of the main house. The vast backcourt appeared empty; no one was working on the loans.
“It’s okay,” he beckoned Bella even as he realized the backcourt’s emptiness was no guarantee of easy escape. A pair of interested Qmalian eyes could very well be watching behind those shiny windows and one little suspicion…

“Okay, here I come.” Bella jumped over Slasher and landed near the door. She stepped out.
She breathed in the air, filling her lungs, in case she and Rex needed to run for it. Smells of good food hung in the air. Someone had already started to cook, but Bella hardly had the time to make sense what it was.
“Now let’s hit it,” said Rex.
“Oh, sure let’s.”
They started walking. Trying to escape in daylight made Bella uneasy. Had they done this last night, she’d have felt better. The backpack she carried and the duffel bag that Rex held were major giveaways and it would take only one hostile person to see them, and then hell would break loose.
They took a beaten path that skirted several tall shrubs. The direction of their travel was away from the Aha’s main house.
After they’d passed the taller shrubs and the little path had ended, some confidence began to wash into Bella. A permanent escape could still not be guaranteed, but she thought it was now possible to leave this damned place. She might live a while longer, and hopefully be able to meet up with some earthlings enslaved here and share her story. She turned back and glance at Ishobad’s main house. A vivid picture of the hell-hole might be worth keeping. The Aha’s massive abbey was built into an intricate shape, divided into eastern, western and southern wings. The eastern and western wings were three stories high but the southern was only two. Numerous balconies jutted out of the walls.
“Can’t get enough of the prison?” Rex whispered to her.
“You don’t know how much I wish to be out of here,” she whispered back.
“Let’s turn this way, then.”
They cut across more swathes of trimmed scrabble. Ahead now was the boundary fence, fronted by a line of tended bushes. Bella felt just like leaping across.
“Hope they have turned off the electricity,” Rex remarked.
Bella’s heart beat; Rex had told her last night of this. High voltage electricity could be very dangerous. She hoped whoever was responsible for turning off the power at sunrise had already done so.
Rex turned behind a bush and approached the fence. “Okay we will make our way through here.” He put his duffel bag down, knelt and listened.
Bella knew a little bit about electric fences; they produced a faint humming sound when powered.
“Hear anything?” she asked.
“Very good.” Bella was relieved.
All along she’d thought they might have to scale the tall thing, but it seemed Rex had other ideas. He retrieved from his pants pocket a rusty side-cutters and a pair of pliers then tapped the fence. ‘He wants to cut it, I should have known,’ Bella mused to herself.
Like she’d intuited, Rex began to cut a hole into the tightly knit wires. It took him a good deal longer than Bella imagined because the strands were tough. By the time he had carved out a reasonable size gap, Rex’s brow was wet.
“Now you can squeeze through,” Rex motioned at her as he wiped away some of the perspiration.
Bella took off the backpack then crawled in. Before Rex followed her, he pushed both bags in. Bella picked them up. Rex then went under himself. In a moment he’d joined her on the other side.
“Whew at last,” he gave her a hug.
The air outside the fence tasted different, risky but a little freer. Now was the time to really start working on things rather than just concentrate only on escaping from death. Bella took a moment to look at the bulge of Rex’s pocket which contained Slasher’s little journal. They now could start learning about the Qmalian system. She could hardly wait to leaf through that thing.
The stakes were far too high, though, and the odds totally against them. For starters, the belief itself that Qmalians used magic to steal humans was still just that—a mere conjecture. Nothing was confirmed yet and everything was still up in the air. And even if the Qmalians used magic anyway, how could you fight against it. What if magic was something you could not see, and then how could you hope to destroy it?
She thought about it more. The difficulties regarding magic that she’d foreseen weren’t even the only ones. Danger surrounded them from all angles, and they had no ability to fight it. Bella sighed. Here were only two humans, of very little power and knowledge—hoping to win against a huge and powerful system in its home country? What a mountain to climb. Only fools would delude themselves into believing they would succeed.
A plane buzzed in the sky. Some Qmalian blocks on their private business, Bella knew, but just the sight of it again alerted her to the real perils present. Ishobad could already be looking for them. The dense forests surrounding them teemed with a myriad of hostile creatures, and who knew what could befall them.

Chapter 10
Rex, from behind the fence, gave Ishobad’s estate one last look. From now on it would be success or death. Ishobad wouldn’t be his master anymore, but would be looking for him like an enemy to be destroyed.
“Now which way to go?” Bella glanced about.
“The safest way out of the woods to the road,” Rex answered off the cuff.
That sounded easy but it wasn’t. Rex sensed the air. There was absolutely nothing unusual about the Qmalian forest aromas that greeted him, just the rotting leaves and humus and blooms. “Okay let’s go,” he clutched his duffel bag.
As a young boy Rex had once walked or played alone in these back woods. Numerous coyote and wolf trails ran underneath the boughs. The ground fell to a stream that ran behind the neighborhood’s back fences. Some of his saddest times when he thought of his family were spent in these bushes.
“Where is this road you speak of?” Bella snapped him out of his thoughts.
“It’s to the south of here. We make our way to it and catch a ride.”
They continued their walk, their boots making noises in the undergrowth. It was a long while before the forest thinned and an outline of snaking pavement became visible.
“We should be able to get something here,” Rex said with a sigh as they reached the road. “I hope we don’t have to wait for long.”
The road looked quite peaceful and little morning traffic flowed by. Rex peered at the distance wishing the kind of ride he wanted would come soon. This wasn’t a major road, and no transit bus would ever pass by here, but Rex hoped a farmer might just drive by and they would wave him down and then ask for help.
“What’s going to be our first stop?” Bella asked. “I don’t have a clue about this place.”
Some practical considerations Rex hadn’t given a thought to had since surfaced in his mind. He blamed himself for not having shared them with Bella as soon as they’d come to light. “We will start with a place called Mshikashika.”
“Oh right,” Bella cooed. “Is Mshikashika that shrine we mean to go to?”
“Actually not.” Rex knew Bella was so anxious to get to the holy place, and he again blamed himself for not explaining some of the technicalities involved soon enough. For them to travel freely they needed to have some kind of road permit called efe issued to them by Ishobad. Rex actually knew where Ishobad kept several of those, but it wouldn’t have been possible to get them without obtaining a key from Ishobad himself. And they wouldn’t have dared ask. Certainly not with what they’d done. And certainly not with the intention of escaping.
Now they were on the run, and had to find a way of getting the efes, even if fake. It was a rare thing in Qmalo to see earthlings going about without permits if they were not in the company of a Qmalian master. Police or neighborhood security could stop you and ask difficult questions. Right now for the two of them to be standing here without any was a big risk.
“I forgot to tell you we need travel validation.” Rex attempted to clarify.
“Why do we need that?” Bella gave him a look of surprise.
“Because it’s the law,” was all he could say for now.
“I see,” said Bella, trying hard to hide her puzzlement. “Mshikashika is an office, then.”
“Again not,” now Rex knew he had to explain everything. “Legally, we should have been given the permits by Ishobad but you know how impossible that was. Mshikashika is now our only hope. It’s a vast market and just about the only place I know it’s possible to obtain things fraudulently.”
“Really,” Bella was still puzzled. “But wouldn’t it be too risky to go to a market at this time? Won’t there be too many people there?”
“We have no other option unfortunately,” Rex answered, “We just have to get our efes there.”
How hard it was for Bella to understand how things worked in Qmalo.
“Suppose I don’t want to get this efe, what then happens to me?” she asked.
“Then you risk getting questioned and detained, lady.” Bella’s stubbornness irked Rex. “We are fleeing, remember. You don’t want anything that suggests to people you are running away from your master.”
Rex didn’t think Bella particularly needed to be reminded of how perilous their situation was. She knew what they’d done to Slasher. She knew the consequences of the rosette on her shoulder. Big Saturday and its sheer cruelty was only days away, for Jove’s sake. “You still want to get to the shrine, don’t you?” he asked as a way of aiding her memory.
“Yes, I do?”
“Then we follow the law.”
When Bella had pointed out, though, that the marketplace would be crowded and not be safe, Rex thought she had a good point. The risks certainly were high, yet there was no way out. Going about without efes would be far hazardous over time than a single risky journey to a crowded market.
Rex concentrated his eyes on the road. Several cars passed by, but he thought it wise not to wave them down. If just standing on this road without permits was a risk, then asking for a ride from any kind of stranger could even be worse. Only a farmer in desperate need of labor might understand. Rex prayed such a farmer might soon drive by.
As he was praying like that, a truck did eventually appear in the distance. Its make was Inxo, a type very popular with Qmalian vegetable growers. He waved it down. For several moments that made Rex anxious, the driver appeared like he would just pass without stopping, but Rex eventually heard the groan of shifting gears. A labored squeal showed the driver had applied his brakes but the laden truck wouldn’t stop as quickly as wanted, and only got to halt when it’d driven past them by many yards.
“We need your help, sir. Please be kind.” Rex was first to rush to the driver door and ask. “Are you by any chance passing through Mshikashika?”
“Earthlings, where are you from?”
“Please, sir. Just help us.”
“Jump into the back, but you are going to have to help me unload.”

Chapter 11
Gaafas, or singular igaafa: A teenaged Qmalian volunteer security force.
Bella got help from Rex climbing into the truck’s open back, and then Rex followed. Despite that she was scared about getting caught, anticipation ran high in her. “This might be a good chance,” she said to Rex as the truck gathered speed. “I hope we discover something meaningful at the shrine.”
“And be able to do some real damage,” Rex agreed.
Now that they were on the way, Bella found herself thinking again about the exact nature of magic. The thing frightened as well as perplexed her. How did magic exactly work? Was it something you could discover? Did it exist in a single place? Probably not, she imagined. Magic was very likely something you could never see or touch. And most likely you could never pin it to a single location. It began to worry her that fighting with the invisible might be too daunting a task.
Bella thought not to bother herself anymore with those difficult questions. She sat back against a raised panel and let the wind buffet her. Her battle was not with nature so she took off the hat Rex had given her and let the draft sweep her hair. Only very few clouds floated by in the sky and the day was bright, her first morning in space. She observed the diverse Qmalian landscape flit by. Trees, grass and rocks seemed to race back into the distance. Bella allowed herself to feel a little secure for the moment and she wallowed. She was going to learn many things about this strange land, the fact that its inhabitants were cruel not mattering.
Much of what she saw mimicked life on earth in some way, but there were also some intriguing peculiarities. The direction, for example, from which the sun was climbing the skies mystified her. She’d observed this first thing she stepped out of Rex’s shack. And she’d meant to ask but the urgency of their situation had prevented her—what with all the hazards that escaping from Ishobad posed. Now perhaps was the better time to.
She tapped Rex on the shoulder. “Which side is east, here?”
“That one,” Rex pointed to where on earth would be the west side.
How surprising. “The sun never moves that way on earth. Everything here must be flipped back to front.”
“Which way does the sun travel on earth?” Rex sounded equally curious.
“Very much in the opposite direction,” she answered, but now she wasn’t so sure. Maybe this sun was not the same one that people on earth saw. Maybe she had travelled billions of kilometers and the earth was now only a distant memory. Perhaps she should ask that, too. Maybe Rex had a clearer understanding of the position of this planet relative to earth.
“You got any clue as to how far we are from home, bro?”
“I wish I exactly knew,” Rex shrugged. “From what I’ve heard, though, it doesn’t take too long to get there.”
“We must try to learn that as soon as we get the chance,” she said as a wave of anticipation flowed into her. It was a stretch to imagine one day she could make it back to earth, but she found it hard to resist the feeling this was the beginning of a long journey to a better place.
“The most important thing is that we don’t get caught,” Rex cautioned.
The reality of Rex’s statement jolted Bella back into the present more than she might have imagined. She wanted to smack Rex for acutely reminding her of the grimness of their situation. Big Saturday was approaching with every inch movement of the sun. This ride was their first in relative freedom. It could very well be the last…

In a little while, Bella decided she wouldn’t let her temporary sense of well-being be ruined by Rex’s cautions. She fought again to forget the dangers in the wind. She immersed herself in the Qmalian landscape once more and resumed observing. The geography was so interesting and there was so much variation, particularly between neighborhoods and locales. The estates not far from that of Ishobad had been as plush as that of the Aha, but now, further afield, things had changed. They were passing through an area with small farms, and the farmhouses were mostly squat and nondescript. Some fences looked pretty much broken.
After the farms, they entered what looked like an industrial area. The buildings here were mostly old and many looked rundown. Some actually had paint peeling off, or had broken windows. Some factories even had tall brown grass growing on their yards. The suggestion of poverty and dereliction mystified Bella. She wouldn’t have expected this in a country where people had the ability to go to earth and raid.
She looked again. Only far out to the north did some good tall buildings stand in the sun.
“The famous downtown Egodad,” Rex pointed after noticing her look.
Bella wasn’t overly impressed. Most of the city’s tallest buildings did not look like they’d be more than ten stories at the most. None of them gleamed to show they’d been finished using expensive high quality paints. There absolutely was no glint of exquisitely-tinted windows. Egodad for all its power as a capital certainly had nothing to show more than the average city on earth. New York was way way ahead of it.
That, though, was not to say Qmalians didn’t have anything going for them. She looked to the sky and saw many small planes flying in different directions. That probably was the only area Qmalians did better than humans. They knew more about aviation and had more flying machines. The fact that she had been brought here in a short time was also a testament to that prowess.
The truck rolled into a suburb, a poor-looking one. How different the dwellings here were from the executive-style estates of Aha Ishobad and his ilk. Here, the squat houses were cramped together. Not a single one was grand. All were painted varying shades of an uninspiring grey. Very poor, indeed.
Other signs of poverty revealed themselves, too. Roads were damaged and the streets branching out from this main road to the houses were narrow and dirty. Qmalian children playing in the streets made baffling noises. None of them showed any sophistication associated with wealth. Most wore clothes that betrayed their parents’ financial stress. Lawns were brown and in a very poor state. Bella was now more convinced than ever that Qmalians were not more economically advanced than the richer societies of the earth. This led her to conclude even more that it was only because of magic that Qmalian kidnappers were able to secretly land on earth and spirit away victims.
The planes above kept fascinating her, though. The number of them was so high, she could not reconcile it with the evidence of poverty she was seeing on the ground. Something must be very wrong. A backward society shouldn’t be able to put so many planes in the sky. It probably wasn’t technological prowess that enabled Qmalians to have so many flying machines. It must be magic, rather. Yes, magic, it had to be. Before signing off on that, however, she thought she just must confirm with Rex.
“How much do you know of those little flying things, bro?”
“You have such keen eyes,” was all Rex could say.
She forgave him. It wasn’t his area of expertise.
“Now we are rolling into Mshikashika,” Rex announced as giant sheds began to take space ahead and to the sides of the road.
A blend of bad smells assaulted Bella’s nose. She looked for the source as the truck slowed to a crawl. The rotten odors emanated from several humongous garbage bins outside the market sheds. She saw in the bins yellowed cabbages, discolored apples, shriveled red and green peppers, as well as all manner of trashed tomatoes, oranges, potatoes, carrots, and every other vegetable or fruit you could think of. The sulfurous reek of decaying onions was particularly revolting.
The driver stopped by the main gate, paid a fee to a collector, and was waved through. As they rode in, the smell from the bins became less of a concern than the prospect of their capture in here. The place was so well-populated it seemed Aha Ishobad himself might just arise from somewhere and say hey come back and answer for the crime you committed.
Bella regarded the sea of orange faces. From everywhere it seemed hostile eyes stared back at them. She saw slaving humans, too, but this was not the time to go and talk to them and share stories. It was touching, though, to at least glimpse faces from earth, no matter how downtrodden. Now she knew why Rex had risked so much for her the moment he laid his eyes on her. Her case was different though, in that she faced death, unlike those laboring souls who at least had some life to live.
Remembering the rosette on her shoulder and the grimness of Big Saturday, however, brought back the fear into her heart. She wished they wouldn’t have come to this zoo of a place to get their travel permits. Seeing so many Qmalians totally unnerved her.
“I’m starting to feel bad,” she whispered to Rex. “Isn’t this driver going to sell us out to those people?”
“I hope not.”
The Inxo lumbered in the laneways between the market stalls. The route the driver took wound and twisted leftwards and then rightwards and then left again. It was only after a while that the truck came to a halt near a large shed. Bella observed her surroundings. The shed was vast, made up of an expanse of shiny corrugated metal roofing sheets supported by pillars of concrete that jutted out of a cement floor. Adding support to the roof sheets was an understructure of interconnected steel members bolted to the pillars.
Rex was first to jump down from the back of the truck. He helped her come down. Having her boots on the firm ground did not help Bella recover from the jitters of having so many hostiles around. Now she wished she had remained on the truck.
The driver turned off his engine and came out. He walked a short distance and then spoke to two men who appeared to have been waiting for him. As she kept watching him warily, Rex gave her a rather heavy nudge.
“Don’t worry about the driver, but be careful with those.” He discreetly pointed to a group of stern-looking, uniformed young Qmalian men and women.
Bella looked. “Who are they?”
The group were so young in fact you could be forgiven to think they were boys and girls just out of high school.
“They are called gaafas,” Rex appeared so uneasy with them around. “Or if it’s just one of them it’s igaafa.”
Rex’s uneasiness worried Bella. “What do they do?”
“A teenaged volunteer security force,” he answered. “You find them almost everywhere the public gathers in large numbers. They are an important source of information, and help, for the police.”
‘I don’t like the gaafas,’ Bella muttered to herself. “Oh God please take me away…’

Chapter 12
Kwachuu: The currency of Qmalo.
Nsuka: a warbird.
Deep down, in a brain that didn’t seem to be his anymore, Slasher heard a sound of a bird play. A song of the Nsuka, that rare Qmalian warbird. “Wake up, gallant warrior,” he supplied the words he knew. A mild terror seized him. Was he waking up from the dead? Had he been in a big battle somewhere—because the Nsuka only sang to the dead and the dying, urging them to rise and continue with the fight no matter how hopeless the situation. He attempted to move his limbs and felt a great pain, one that he couldn’t tell where it started from or where it ended. That surely had to be due to a blow taken during a fight, a battle that happened somewhere he couldn’t remember.
“Rise warrior, go.”
Slasher struggled to open his eyes but the cave of darkness he was in was too immense. He tried to rise. His whole upper side was under the grip of a paralysis that he couldn’t shake himself out of. Everything seemed so grim. None of his senses seemed to be working, except only those for hearing and feeling. “Wake up, gallant warrior,” The Nsuka still urged him on, though, and in a tone that was almost matronly—as if it were that of a queen singing, commanding her princely offspring to keep on fighting.
He fought his eyelids once again and one peeled off at last. Hazy vignettes presented themselves before him, all gory, like the tortured images of a battlefield. Something glowing flew toward him but in an instant it flamed out. What the heck was going on?
As things got a little clearer and the whirling in his mind slowed, he now glimpsed not a battlefield but a concrete floor—and he lay on it. He must be in some room, because bordering his vision on one end was a plastered wall rising up and up. He didn’t see the top of the wall because there was too much pain in his head so he couldn’t move it. And light, oh yes there was a lot of it and it spilled in from one direction. The beams seemed so pure and so strong. Yes, that had to be an open door, and those wood risers going up from the floor were certainly jambs. Which room was this? Had he been captured and imprisoned? Maybe not. Maybe he was actually in his bedroom for he saw the outline of his knife somewhere there in front of him.
The pain blanketing him was still intense but the sight of his… battle-knife filled him with a new energy. That knife was holy. It was the greatest thing ever made. His heart broke when his eye blinked shut for one moment and he lost his view of it. That ache did not last long, though, for he regained his vision, glimpsed the knife once more, and the brave bloods surged in him. ‘Rise and shine, warrior.’ What a holy call. It ought to be heeded. Slasher should gather himself and reach for that knife. Yes, he would; nothing would stop him. Not the smell of congealed blood in his nose. Not even all the wounds.
He heaved and began to crawl forward. A stab of hot pain seared his upper side as his injured muscles and ligaments shuddered into motion. A weakling would have stopped right there, but Slasher didn’t. He fought on and finally with his good left hand clutched his knife. Oh how good, the emotion of it. How great it was to feel like a crusader holding on to his sabre. How fulfilling it was to listen to the sweet song of the Nsuka while gazing at a cold steel blade with only one functioning eye.
The light from outside increased in brilliance and illuminated all the dark corners of his dazed mind. Clearer focus and good reasoning ability returned to him as a result. He immediately became wary. Things might not be as well-set as he imagined. Danger could be waiting out there. That foe who dealt him this blow could be waiting somewhere behind that light.
Slasher’s mind whirled. Who was this enemy he had in mind, or he had fought with? Who felled him like this? Hazy clues flowed in from all angles but he just couldn’t pin the identity of the assailants. “Dear Jove,” he prayed. “Please tell me. I need to know who, and I need to get ready.”
As he coaxed the heavens like that, an inspiration blew in. The earthlings! Yes, it had to be them! The two scoundrels, Rex and the Aha’s purchase, sure had done this to him. Damn the two. He was going kill them. He’d start looking for them right away.
Resolving to do that filled him with more energy. He’d get out of this damned room and go searching. He flexed his muscles and started crawling toward the door. An intense pain and dizziness took hold of him once more but he struggled on, urged by the Nsuka. Not long after, he managed to get his head out. He rested a bit. The air outside was sweet and promising. It was now time to drag his whole body. He again heaved himself, but as his body half-landed on the door-step, another searing pain-wave engulfed him. Oh Jove, this one was even more intense. He fought against it, but despite that, Slasher found himself being sucked right back into that infinite cave of darkness. One that felt almost like a grave…

“Let’s keep helping the driver and his mate,” advised Rex as their fears due to the gaafa presence increased. “That way we don’t draw too much attention.”
Bella nodded at him.
They had to keep on unloading anyway, because they’d promised that as payment for their ride. First to come down had been the bags of cabbages that’d been heaped to the rearmost section of the truck. Now they were onto the tomatoes. Bella thought her hand muscles would give when she hefted the bags. She was not used to this kind of work. Surprisingly, she matched Rex by lugging the bags and arranging them in neat mounds on a monstrous table.
The middle section of the inxo’s bed held sacks of potatoes and each of those was heavy.
“Climb up and then drag them to the back,” said Rex. “I’ll do the heavy lifting.”
Bella jumped in and started dragging the potato sacks, bringing them to the rear of the bed. Rex picked up the sacks then stacked them on another table. Bella had never labored this hard in her life. She cursed the God who’d allowed her to be brought to slavery like this. Such a life wasn’t worth living. She wondered how Rex had been able to handle it almost daily. She was happy, though, to have him here with her. She shuddered as she imagined where she’d be now had she never met him.
Last to come down were the crates of bunched carrots that they’d been sitting on. Each crate was made of wood, with handles on the side, and the whole thing was then covered with a tight plastic lead. Bella strained to lift the crates and hand them to Rex who was on the ground. The wood handles were rough and left Bella’s hands chapped. She sweated, and saw Rex do the same. Her wrists and ankles now pained her. In less than an hour she had had enough of a taste of how slaving for Qmalian bosses felt like. She again felt sorry for Rex. His life must be very painful. Her thoughts wandered, too, to the living conditions of the other earthlings enslaved here. Life must be a real hell.
As they worked, Bella kept her eyes trained on one male igaafa who seemed to have taken a particular interest in them. The young Qmalian had all the alien looks to him, pale orange skin, a bulbous nose and mean, tight lips. His hair was rough and yellowish and there were some things unusual about his face. A large scar on his forehead made him particularly scary to look at, but the worst had to be that his eyes seemed misaligned, one eye appearing higher up the face than the other. Bella decided she would call him Tilt-eye.
She nodded at Rex to look at him.
“Don’t stare too much,” cautioned Rex.
After having dragged the last crate, Bella came down from the truck. She stood close to Rex but still stealing glances at Tilt-eye.
“He is seriously giving me the creeps,” she whispered.
“I’m wary of him, too.” Rex shushed her. “but its not his face that bothers me. See what’s under his belt.”
Bella glanced at the young alien’s waist. A personal radio was tucked under the belt. A stab of fear sped underneath Bella’s skin as she beheld the communication device. If a report of their escape was made, that thing could help spread the news fast.
“It’s getting scary,” she nudged Rex. “Why don’t we just sneak away, please.”

Working under scrutiny was the worst thing for Bella. She felt like a prisoner at hard labor, under constant watch from the enforcers. Her situation was actually even worse, for she had a death sentence hanging on her. One small mishap and she’d be gone. To her temporary relief, however, most of the gaafa group walked away to another section of Mshikashika a short while later. Only the strange-eyed one with a radio lingered a little.
“I call him Tilt-eye,” Bella nudged Rex while pretended to be arranging the crates of produce.
“I said don’t look.” Rex was getting really nervous about him, too.
Just then, Tilt-eye dropped his gaze and started following his mates.
“Whew,” Rex sighed. “Now let’s sneak away. If we delay we might be given more work.”
“Sure let’s,” Bella scanned the surroundings uneasily.
Rex checked that the driver was not looking, and then they dashed away. This part of Mshikashika was particularly crowded and Rex knew if the driver lost sight of them for one instant, he would never see them again.
“Where do you get the efes from?” Bella sounded over-eager to be done with this place and be gone.
“Quite a walk from here,” Rex answered. “There are shops at the south end.”
They wound in between stalls, crossing from one vast shed to another, until they came to a series of small buildings. This part of the market wasn’t so populated and Rex felt some relief but before he could start breathing freer, Bella again nudged him
“Look again, there’s more over there,” she whispered.
Rex looked and saw another small group of gaafas.
“We don’t have the efes yet.” Bella shivered. “What if they take notice?”
“Let’s try a change of direction.” Rex concealed his fear with a brave tone.
The walkway they’d been taking would have led them right into the gaafas. Rex prayed his intended change of direction was going to help. They turned leftward, but as they did that, two alert gaafas, a male and a female, noticed and started following them, though at a distance.
“Let’s run for it.” Rex wasn’t sure what could happen. They quickened the pace, then behind some buildings broke into a run. They weaved their way between some garbage bins full of metal waste, before breaking into a dirty alley. Before long, they turned a corner and burst into a shop.
“This is the place,” Rex announced, panting
Bella appeared so winded, but warily she turned to look behind.
They got into the shop. All kinds of grinding, welding and milling noises filled the air. Rex picked up smells of burnt iron, heated wax, and evaporating lubricants. Metal particles, dust, rags, pieces of wire and indeed every other kind of shop debris were strewn on the floor.
He paced to a table where a respectable Qmalian man in protective glasses sat behind. Bella followed him.
“We need your help sir,” Rex spoke in a fast Qmalian accent. “Please make for us two good efes.”
“Earthlings where are you from? Who is your boss?” The man seemed hesitant.
Rex brought out his wallet. “I and my pal here are looking for work. We don’t have a boss at the moment.” He fished out some Qmalian Kwachuus and handed them to the man.
The man took off his glasses, greedily nodded as he pocketed the cash, then stood up to give some instructions two workers in the shop.
Outside, through a dirty window, Rex noticed a flash of green, and knew the two gaafas hadn’t just been following but were actually looking for them. Now the gaafas had located the shop. This was getting bad. Rex saw that Bella noticed, too. They needed somewhere to hide fast. The Qmalian shop owner sensed their nervousness. Rex fished for more Kwachuus. “Can you please give us somewhere to hide while we wait?”
“Whast you running away from earthlings? he accepted the Kwachuus again hesitantly. “Ok come on over.”
He ushered them into a small, dusty finishing booth. The air inside had the strong chemical smell of stains, paints and all kind of solvents. An overhead door with two small and extremely-dirty observation windows hung over them. Rex and Bella stood inside as the man pressed a button and the creaky door motored downward. Dimness took over as it closed. The observation windows admitted only very little light.
Rex coaxed his eyes to adjust to the poor illumination. As he looked through the small windows, he again saw flashes of green. Sounds of a heated conversation trickled in. Now Rex could see a little better. The Qmalian shop boss man was gesticulating at the gaafas, pleading with them.
Rex took hold of Bella’s hand. “Let’s retreat into the corner.”
Good thing, the booth wasn’t lit from inside; otherwise the gaafas peeking from outside would have seen them and demanded the overhead door be opened. Rex held on to Bella as he heard sounds of more arguing. Eventually, though, the shouting match died and the flashes of green vanished. Rex breathed another sigh.
The shop owner did not come back to open the door and they had to stand in there for a very long while. Rex worried about Bella; could her legs endure this agony for too long? He felt sorry for her. What fate had conspired to bring her to this evil place?
They waited and waited. It was after perhaps forty minutes and counting, when Rex finally heard the click of a switch. A motor whirred and then the door started creaking upward.
“You can come out.” The shop owner presented them with two shiny metal crescents, each with two drilled holes through which a thin but rough metal chain was strung. “Now you be careful, goodbye.”
“Wear your slave necklace,” Rex joked as they headed for the shop’s door.
Bella smiled but it seemed she had other concerns. “You think those gaafas looking for us will respect this?” she looked at the efe as though it were something that couldn’t protect her.
Rex thought about it. The two gaafas were a concern he was overlooking. Maybe the pair hadn’t gone away. They could just be hiding nearby, waiting to pounce…

Chapter 13
Seated in the Qmalian Privy Council chamber, Aha Ishobad allowed his senses to wander outside—where great things were going to happen. He could almost smell the sooty altar fire. What a mighty God Jove was. From nowhere, and totally unanticipated, an elemental had materialized. Big Saturday this year would be bigger, and even more holier. It had been quite a while when the last human sacrifice was done, but now Jove had provided. How lucky that his lowly servant, Rex, had at least had the scruples to check the purchase for royal symbols. He himself had totally forgotten to, and any quick slaughtering of the purchase would have caused this great opportunity of holding a sacrifice to go begging. And then Big Sat would have been just that, another Big Sat. Truly if everything worked out well, he might give Rex a small raise, but uh-hey, no, all earthlings were weak and stupid.
“Now we wait for the esteemed Aha to tell us what Jove has done for us this year,” the chamber secretary said, saluting Ishobad by bowing.
This was the moment he had been waiting for; this kind of respect and attention was something he always craved. Ishobad stood up and approached the podium.
His eyes swept the chamber. The bald heads of the seated lords gleamed back at him. Their eyes shone with rapt admiration, just like Ishobad liked it.
“We have an elemental to offer to Jove this year.” The Aha cleared his throat and waited for the announcement to take effect. “The elemental is female, too, and you know those are the ones more favored by our almighty.” He gauged the response and smiled. “I could have shown her to you right away but I didn’t I bring her with me last night,” he added, “but what I can assure you is that she is under secure guard at my home, and I’ll rush and fetch her as soon as this meeting is over.”
A thought crossed his mind. He had not verified what Rex had told him and the purchase might turn out to be not elemental. That would be a bad thing. Ishobad, however, did not want to think about it, and again like last night brushed the doubt away. Rex could not have been mistaken, even though all earthlings were generally dumb. “You are going to like the elemental when you see her. Just wait, lords.” He finished his speech, soaked in the resultant cheers, then turned back toward his seat.
Just after perching himself in the comfy four-legger, the esteemed Aha was surprised to see a female igaafa walk along the aisle heading toward him. Marching past seated lords who clearly were unamused that this was happening in the middle of an important meeting, the igaafa seemed greatly disturbed. Before Ishobad could fathom what the young usherette was rushing toward him for, the igaafa had already knelt before his chair ready to whisper.
“An important message for you, sir,” she said, patting her chin uneasily. “You have to call home, or go there at once.”
“What’s happening?” Ishobad leaned his head closer to the igaafa’s face
“There has been an emergency, but I don’t know exactly what.”
Jove, what could it be, Ishobad worried. Could it be a fire, a sudden illness? Ishobad stood up from his seat then started pacing down the same aisle, heading to the chamber’s reception. Just what the hell could be going on? Big Saturday had been approaching perfectly and what was this that threatened to spoil his celebration and enjoyment of it?
“I need a phone quick,” he demanded of the receptionist as soon as he got in.
The phones in here were the older type with a rotary pad. Ishobad worked the dial with fury and only got to breathe when his maid, Narnia, answered.
“Rex has just committed a grievous crime, and worse, he has run away with your purchase.” Narnia was almost at the point of crying.
“He has done what?” Sudden anger constricted Ishobad’s throat. “Please, don’t tell me.”
“He nearly killed Slasher; and he is now nowhere to be found, together with the purchase.”
“What a damned traitor?” Ishobad choked on his anger.
“You have to come back home right away, please, and take charge.”
“Damn right, I am.” Aha Ishobad slammed the phone onto the receiver and rushed out.
His shoes stomped on the hallway lino as he paced back to the chamber. Sweat broke on his forehead even though the hallway was air-conditioned. His fellow esteemed lords looked at him with surprise as he marched for the table where Lord Kayo, the Apex bishop and Lord of The Realm, sat at. He bowed before the bishop and then leaned into his ear. “I have to go back home, Father,” Ishobad agonized. “I have just been told something terrible happened.”
The Aha had no time to explain everything to the archbishop. A great sense of humiliation engulfed him when he realized he eventually couldn’t run away from the duty of informing the bishop that the earthling purchase together with one of his servants had run away, and that it may take a while to find them.
“You are excused, servant of Jove. Go see what’s happening,” Lord Kayo said in his gruff voice.
Ishobad nodded at the great lord, then again via the same aisle started walking out. Rex escaping with a purchase; this was a first. He certainly would pay greatly for this.
The Qmalian Privy Council Chamber was a grand partition nestled inside an even grander building that also partly served as the main residence of the Apex bishop. A palace of sorts, the whole building could be called. Dwarfing the stately residence to the west, however, was the Purple Mosque, one of the most opulent edifices in all of Egodad.
Ishobad came out of the building escorted by an igaafa who carried his briefcase. The Aha looked around just for once. High up, the eternal flame burnt at the top of one of the spires that jutted of the mosque complex. Vertically below the spire, right at ground level, was the altar where the elemental’s dead body would be burnt this coming Saturday. He smelt again that arresting aroma of roasting human flesh. Shame overcame him and more anger rose in his throat as he admitted to himself it might not be possible to catch Rex and the elemental in time for the sacrifice. He would try his best, though. The police also would, as well as the thousands of gaafa helpers in this city.
‘They will certainly be caught. They can’t get far…’
Ishobad hurried for the parking lot. He reviewed things as he strode. Rex must have taken a liking to the purchase and meant to save her, otherwise he wouldn’t have done what he did. ‘Dear Jove, I ought to have known that,’ he cursed himself.
That realization, though, too bad for the Aha, raised certain pesky questions. If Rex had indeed taken a liking to the purchase, didn’t that cast doubts on the elemental mark? Sure, it must, he reluctantly agreed. Ishobad’s mind roiled. The possibilities in fact were numerous. One could be that the rosette had been totally absent and Rex was just trying his luck to save the purchase, hoping no one would bother to make a quick check. The other could be Rex saw some tattoo and thought he could use it to temporarily save the purchase’s life. The latter was the greater possibility, though, because Rex couldn’t have lied about something totally not there, something a quick check could prove. That would be the most stupid act any servant could dare do.
Ishobad’s mind whirled again. There was a third possibility, and this was the one he wanted to believe in the most. The elemental mark was there on the purchase. And because it was genuine, Rex realized it would result in the purchase being sacrificed and so they decided to run away. “Oh Jove, why did I fail to see that Rex did not want the purchase to perish on an altar fire…
Before concluding the issue however, Ishobad was hazily aware of a fourth possibility. Rex might have inscribed a symbol of his own on the purchase—which may be why he took long to report. Now Ishobad didn’t like this at all and he fought to dismiss it. Rex did not have the necessary intelligence to do such a thing and succeed. He wouldn’t even dare try anyway.
As he slid into his truck, Ishobad looked up to the sky and made a short prayer. Jove just help me find them. He immediately felt better after whispering that. Gosh, why had he been so panicky? The runaways would be caught in no time. Rex would pay dearly for his crimes, and the elemental purchase would be delivered to the church. The rosette was good, no one would question anything, and Big Saturday would go as planned. Nothing would ever go wrong.

Bella and Rex turned behind the metal-working shop into a narrow lane. Thank God, they didn’t see the two gaafas hiding anywhere, waiting. It appeared the two suspicious young Qmalians had given up hope of finding them and had retreated to their group. That thought brought a little relief to Bella and now she could concentrate on the other things that troubled her. The efe she wore made her very uncomfortable, and the chain, especially, was rough on her skin. She felt like a slave, having to walk about with a piece of degrading identification visible to the public.
Something glinted on her efe’s metal crescent and caught Bella’s attention. She stopped walking, and flipped the crescent so as to see. There was something engraved on one side that she hadn’t noticed while putting the damn thing on in the shop.
“There are letters stamped on this thing. UES: what do they mean?”
“It’s just a way of describing our situation,” answered Rex. “if we’d been travelling using Ishobad’s efes they would have had his initials stamped on them.”
“Sort of like to show we belong to him?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“That’s so sickening. Walking in public like this.” She wondered how many times Rex had gone about with Ishobad’s efe dangling on him in such a humiliating way. Life was hell for earthlings on this planet.
She scanned the thing again. “What do the big letters mean?”
“You mean the U.E.S. part,” Rex looked uneasy. “Since that shop owner was not our boss, I asked him to make something more general, something that says we have no master and are out looking for work.”
“What does U.E.S. stand for actually, may I know?”
“I know U and E stand for Unemployed Earthling but I’m not quite sure about the S part.
“Servant, you think,” Bella felt so sickened. “Or is it slave?”
Rex didn’t answer. It appeared the words had stabbed at his heart.
“Fine, let’s go,” she said.
“You really feeling too bad about this?” Rex clutched his efe and gave her a pained glance.
Bella didn’t say anything. She appreciated he was doing all this for her.
They started walking again. She let Rex lead.
“I’ll need to get you suitable clothes,” said Rex, in a much mellower tone. “So, you can blend in more perfectly.”
Bella didn’t know what he would exactly get for her, but anything that would make her feel better than this oversize male gear she wore would be alright. She didn’t expect anything classy, though, because this was not New York, and in any case Rex had said he would get her something to blend in with, and so that meant dressing which any earthling servant woman would be expected to wear in this city.
They turned right into another narrow street—this one more populated—and then walked into a clothier’s. Even on earth, it’d been a while since Bella had gone out shopping with a guy. Despite the hazards around, she allowed herself a little time to feel like a woman appreciated. She resisted calling that appreciation love, though. Things hadn’t reached that point. They scoured the aisles looking for something lovably feminine but also suiting the role of lowly servant. Bella could see that Rex would have wanted to buy her things as special as the money in his wallet could allow, but that wouldn’t be appropriate in these circumstances. “We are runaways, I know,” she assured him. “I understand how important it is to blend in.”
She selected one long floral cotton dress, and then Rex added a denim skirt with a blue blouse to match.
“One more thing, sneakers.” Rex reminded.
The big male boots she had on made her very uncomfortable and she thanked Rex for the offer. She tried several pairs of girl sneakers then opted for blue converse with white trim and laces. Although everything looked drab compared to what she could buy on earth even in a regular store, Bella thought these clothes were fancier compared to what the few earthlings she’d seen at Mshikashika wearing.
“Now time to go,” Bella couldn’t avoid looking forward to getting to the shrine. She hoped nothing could trap them along the way.
“There’s just one last thing,” said Rex. “A radio. So we can be up to date with the news.”
With the efes, Bella had allowed herself to feel less threatened, but now Rex’s statement snapped her out of that comfort zone. Any news they were going to hear would be bad for them. It was a while since they had escaped from Ishobad’s, and very likely by now they’d been reported. The news would be broadcast and police would be all over searching for them.”
“How bad,” Bella sighed as the grimness of the realization wound tighter on her.

The frenzied flashing of vehicles’ strobe lights inside and outside his gates only served to infuriate Ishobad further. All along as he drove, it’d seemed like a fallacy, just like someone had been trying to play a cruel joke on him. Now he glimpsed the reality of it. ‘Flashing Lights don’t lie,’ he accepted the fact.
The scene was actually more packed than you could have imagined. An ambulance and a police cruiser had taken space in the driveway. Two other police cars were parked close by to the left side of the road, and then to the right was another ambulance. Only a very narrow driving space was left in between. Ishobad couldn’t even drive into his own gate and was left with no option but to park on the road a distance from his gate.
A police officer patrolling the neighborhood greeted him as he got out of his truck. “Bad day, Aha,” said the young uniformed man who showed he’d only been recently recruited from the gaafa ranks. “I can imagine the pain this is causing.”
Ishobad nodded at him. Anger and hurt prevented him from speaking.
“We are sorry sir,” said another to him as he walked toward his gate. “Your servant did you a cruel blow.”
That caused his rage to rise further.
Ishobad padded into his gateway. The only person he wished to speak to right now was his guard. How had he let the two criminals escape? This was most humiliating.
Luckily for the guard, he wasn’t there inside. Ishobad swore punishment and resumed walking. He passed the police car, and then approached the ambulance, whose lights flashed purple. He went around it. Its backdoors were open. A stretcher was being wheeled towards the doors. More anger flooded him as he beheld the figure of Slasher lying face-up on the stretcher. They had taken off his regular clothes and covered him with a loose hospital gown that left much of his upper torso exposed.
How could this happen? A mere earthling beating up his Qmalian senior, that was unthinkable. Ishobad paced forward so he could talk to Slasher before the stretcher was loaded.
“How are you feeling?”
The injured man looked up at him with yellow-red eyes. “Rex, your servant,” was all Slasher could say for the moment. A little blood spilled out his mouth. His nose was bandaged, as was part of his face and lips.
“Aha, please let him rest,” a male nurse pleaded.
The Aha wanted to abide by what the nurse had asked but couldn’t resist obtaining clues. He gave Slasher a look that was soothing but also questioning all at once.
“Rosette symbol false, Rex put,” Slasher mumbled as more blood from his mouth oozed onto the bandage on his lips.
“What?” Ishobad almost jumped into the air as he got the message. “The rosette was fake!”
“Yes, and I’m also missing book.”
Ishobad didn’t care about any book. ‘Dear Jove, what is this news? Please don’t tell me.’
Still reeling, he glimpsed a plastic bag held by an officer and saw a bat in there. Straight away he knew that was the assault weapon. “What the hell,” he scarcely could believe Rex had had the nerve to fight Slasher. “I’m going to get him,” he swore, not caring who heard or didn’t.

Chapter 14
The Mshikashika bus terminal wasn’t situated far from the stores and Rex and Bella walked over to the shelters. Three gaafas who were present luckily didn’t even pay much attention to them, and Rex and Bella scooted to and boarded a bus that had already arrived and was idling at a shelter. Plenty room was available to sit at the back. Rex loved it when he observed Bella make herself comfortable on the seat. She took off the boots he'd given her and then donned the sneakers. Her efe jangled as she turned to look at the Mshikashika through the bus’s window. If she lived, Rex was pretty sure, she would always remember this place as the first one where she tasted slavery.
With the efe task completed, there now was a lot to look forward to. They were just this one bus ride away from their destination. Rex took a moment to reflect on the words of Ishobad: ‘If anyone wants to know the source of Qmalian powers, the Shrine of the Departed would be a good place to start…’Rex again rapped himself for having not bothered to investigate on his own. Perhaps he could have found something real big. Who knew, maybe he could have already done something to stop the kidnapping of humans and Bella wouldn’t be in this trouble. Maybe he even could have liberated himself, or at least died trying. Today, though, he had a chance to acquit himself.
As the bus started to move, a little bit of worry began to trickle into Rex. What if they never made it to the shrine? Slasher might have been discovered and the news of their escape might now be known. Whole companies of hostile gaafas could be waiting for them at the station they were going to drop off at. The thoughts unnerved him but he wanted to avoid alarming Bella. Eventually, though, he couldn’t resist the idea of at least checking the news.
“Don’t you think we should turn on the radio and listen for updates.”
“You think we should?”
Rex turned on the little radio. The static was high and the bus engine loud, so they had to strain to listen. They couldn’t afford to raise the volume too much because that might annoy the Qmalians in here. Much of the stuff initially read was of no consequence to them but towards the end of the bulletin they heard something that caused them to sit straighter and concentrate.
“Police have started a hunt for two suspects wanted in connection with a case of attempted murder. The two suspects, a young man and woman, both earthlings, are believed to have escaped from their master’s estate early this morning and must be hiding or travelling somewhere. The earthling man is a longtime slave of Qmalo and speaks perfectly like any Qmalian, but the woman was brought here only yesterday and speaks with a very deep, distinct earthly accent…and should not be hard to identify.”
“How did they find Slasher so soon?” Fear began to color Bella’s face.
“I don’t know,” answered Rex. “It’s much earlier than I would have imagined.”
Rex looked around to see if the other passengers near them had heard. It didn’t look like, but he could never be sure.
“How far have we to go?” Real nervousness seemed to be creeping into Bella
“Still quite many miles.”
It might be wise to get off the bus sooner, but then if they were going to walk all those miles to the shrine that would not be practical.
They rode on for a long while, the bus heading west. The distance between stops was long and the milestones kept flitting by. Very few riders got in or out, and for several miles no one came to sit near them. It was only when the bus had changed direction and was headed north that more people started to get in.
“Where are we?” Bella asked, as they glimpsed the shimmering turquoise waters of Egodad River.
“Egodad,” he answered. “We are now travelling parallel to the river’s eastern bank.”
Somewhere up north and to the west of those waters, Rex knew, that’s where the shrine was. He prayed nothing would happen before they got there.
At Jiji stop, a large group of Qmalians got into the bus.
“This thing is now filling up too fast,” Bella was further unnerved. “I don’t feel too safe anymore.”
“Wait till we reach the next station, River Quay,” Rex tried to be funny. “It’s going to get even more packed.”
The bus chugged on and then after ten minutes the driver announced they were reaching River Quay. He swung the bus off the road, navigated a tight traffic circle, then coasted to a stop near a shelter where some Qmalians stood waiting. Behind the shelter was a large elaborately designed building and the label River Quay was emblazoned on its wall. As soon as the bus stopped, the building exploded into a hive. Its large glass doors flew open and people began to pour out, Qmalians of all ages.
Many inside the bus got off, and for a bit it was almost empty, but the line of Qmalians waiting outside had grown and the bus would become packed again. That worried Rex, because some of them could have heard the news. Things could get bad. Rex watched with trepidation as the Qmalians began to show their tickets and get in. The front got filled up, then the middle, and now many were hustling to the back.
“If all seats are gone, do we have to stand for Qmalians?” Bella asked.
“How did you guess,” Rex thought the question smart. “Of course, we may have to.”
What a horrible society, Rex now imagined. He knew Bella’s feet were paining her and didn’t want her asked to stand.
The seats didn’t stop filling, and now only a few remained at the back. Rex trained his eyes to the front hoping the driver would just pull out and go, but before that happened he saw two gaafas, a male and a female, rush from inside the building and head for the bus’s door…

Aha Ishobad had planned to oversee the loading of the stretcher, but rage now blinded him. He attempted to mumble a get-well-soon to Slasher but the words turned into bile somewhere in his throat. The only thing he could do was gallop away from the ambulance towards his doors. His intention now was to visit the crime scene, but he thought to just see Narnia first.
Everything looked the same in the main house but that didn’t give him any comfort. Narnia welcomed him with a sad face.
“Can you relate to me what exactly took place?” His voice was shaky.
“Slasher came early looking for you this morning, Aha,” the Qmalian maid sounded very disturbed. “And then that was it. I told him you were gone… and he left. Next thing I heard he’d been discovered lying seriously injured in Rex’s cabin.”
“Who saw him?”
“The chief gardener, sir—who’d gone there to find out why the lazy earthling had not woken up to perform his duties.”
“And where was Rex at this time?”
“The lazy dunce had already escaped, and, I believe, with your purchase.”
She’d already told him that over the phone. What he wanted to confirm in his rage was the genuineness or falseness of the rosette.
“Did Slasher say anything to you about the symbol on the purchased earthling,” Ishobad fought to calm his rage down. Of course Slasher had mumbled something of that sort to him, but he just couldn’t resist asking again.
“Slasher said he had every reason to believe the mark was fake,” Narnia replied. “That’s what he’d come to tell you.”
“And then what happened?”
“That was all, Aha. He said he would deal with the matter himself.”
“Okay, I will go see. You are excused.”
‘Rex is going to die for this.’ He padded downstairs.

Before he went over to Rex’s cabin, Ishobad decided he’d pass through Slasher’s quarters. He trotted across the backcourt. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed inside the cottage. Slasher had spoken of a missing book, but because Ishobad had never been here too often, he couldn’t tell if anything else was missing. He wouldn’t put it past the criminals, though, to come in and steal.
From Slasher’s quarters, he passed by the lab. He opened the door to the prepping room. Everything seemed alright… except that the ropes he’d used to tie the purchase were strewn on the floor. That surprised him, because it could only mean one thing: Rex had untied the purchase and allowed her to walk freely from in here. “I never instructed that,” the rage built again in him. “I only said take her to your cabin and detain her there.” This didn’t look good. Rex had allied with the purchase right from the moment he saw her. No wonder yesterday he’d come running saying he wanted to be involved in the business. It had all been to free a fellow earthling. What a trickster.
The Aha got out of the lab and readied himself for what he would see once he stepped into Rex’s cabin. The evidence of attempted murder in there must be too ghastly to view. He was sure police hadn’t cleaned anything away.
He hurried down the path, and reached the cabin. Heavy smudges of blood greeted him on the doorway. That was superior Qmalian blood spilled by a useless earthling. Aha shook again with anger.
Inside the cabin more pools of blood and saliva stared back at him. It was too gory, he didn’t want to look at it anymore. He looked for other signs. All the evidence available showed the two fugitives had left in a hurry. Rex’s wardrobe door was open, same as his cupboard’s. Some old clothes had been drooped onto the floor. That was of course typical of fleeing criminals, but what he observed next made him angrier. In the sink there were plates and pots that revealed Rex had almost had a party in here with the purchase. An oily pan smelt of the best fish and vegies. Crumbs of rice lined a cooker. “He had the audacity to treat her to the best; how come I never smelt that.”
It all should have never happened. When Ishobad instructed Rex to detain the purchase, he’d wanted her tied to a secure post and securely guarded, not treated to this lavish welcome.
Lastly Ishobad checked Rex’s bed. It wasn’t made, and although there was no hard evidence, Ishobad could not prevent his mind concluding the two had spent the night there together. That was sacrilegious. Indescribably unholy. Fornication was a serious sin. Not on his property, no, that couldn’t happen.
Ishobad would soon be burning down that bed, and the blankets, and yes, everything that belonged To Rex. This cabin, even…

Chapter 15
The two gaafas came to sit right on the same backseat that she and Rex sat on. The young male, like Tilt-eye at Mshikashika, carried a communications radio. That scared the hell out of Bella.
“Shouldn’t we be thinking of getting out?” she said to Rex, as the driver pumped fuel into his engine and was swinging out of the station.
“You are probably right, but then we still have far to go.” Rex’s attention fixed itself on the male igaafa.
Bella also gave the young uniformed man a glance. ‘Will he recognize us and report,’ she shuddered.
The igaafa glanced back, then looked aside to speak to his female partner. The female, whose head was round, with short rusty hair and yellow eyes, appeared to take greater interest in Rex. She gave him a long questioning gaze, which she concluded with a curious check of his efe.
The bus speeded north, leaving considerable smoke in its wake.
“You were right, we better get off at the next stop,” Rex now appeared to feel the heat. “It’s getting crazy in here.”
They stood up from their seats and got onto the aisle. Numerous pairs of eyes gaped at them as they were the only ones walking up to the front.
“Bridge Stop,” said Rex to the driver when they got to the front.
“Why are you two without your master? Where are you going?”
Rex didn’t answer him, only nodded at his efe. Bella wanted to slap the driver but knew she ought not. The bus reached the stop and halted. Bella got out. Rex followed.
Time had elapsed since they heard that report and it was getting less safe with each minute that ticked. At an intersection not far from the stop, they turned left onto Bridge Road. Bella could see that the actual bridge the road was named after was not too far down. It was now midday, though, and the sun’s position made it hard for her to tell which direction the left turn they took was leading to, whether it be east or west. With the way things moved on this planet, everything seeming flipped back to front, you never could be sure of anything.
They walked and reached the bridge. Quite unlike the American society she was used to, Bella was surprised to see that many Qmalians liked to walk in the sun. Small groups of mostly women and young children ambled ahead of and behind them. Some women were pushing strollers with small Qmalian babies inside.
“Not wise to walk too close to them,” Rex said after he saw that she was gaping at the Qmalian families. “Remember the news we heard.”
“I realize, sorry,” Bella nodded. She better be careful how she acted.
Her attention instead now turned to the sky. She searched for hints planet earth might be up there. It’d be hard to see in daylight but who knew. She gazed. Nothing but only vast expanses of shimmering blue-green Qmalian sky stared back at her. She’d look again when it was nighttime.
Under the bridge, the waters of the Egodad River roiled. Strange how the water looked from up here, a kind of turquoise gray that stretched up, snaking until it was swallowed by the forests that marked the river’s banks. Rex had said the shrine was built on a street parallel and adjacent to this river. Were they getting any closer, Bella wondered. She’d see how long it took.
Things continued to look different. Bella strained her eyes to see what lay on the other side of the bridge. Just as she was doing that, checking out the strangely-shaped tall trees, a disturbing sound erupted from above. She stopped and gazed—Rex as well. Qmalian skies were always dotted with small flying aircraft, but what now came into view was something big and white, and it flew low at an unusually slow speed.
“A Qmalian spotter plane,” said Rex. “Not a good thing.”
Bella didn’t know anything about spotters. “What do they do?” her heart began a slow pound.
“They can search for a whole host of things,” Rex was worried.
“Are they already looking for us?” the concern in her voice matched his.
“Don’t know, but let’s lessen the risk. Let’s blend in.”
Walking too close to any group of Qmalians was already a hazard, but this new threat in the sky presented a bigger problem. You didn’t want to isolate yourselves and then fall into the objective of a pair of menacing binoculars in the sky.
They walked faster and caught up with a young woman who was walking with her children. One of the children was pushing a stroller with not a baby, but a few groceries inside.”
“We could help to push that,” offered Rex, as they blended with the young family. Bella avoided speaking to the woman so as to conceal her exotic NY accent. She only paid greater attention to what this spotter plane hovering above was trying to do. The thing certainly wasn’t friendly.

“I have news to deliver, Father.” Aha Ishobad said into his phone as he spoke to Lord Kayo after returning to his study. He had seen everything and now there was no believing this was a dream he would wake up from. The painful moment had arrived: Lord Kayo certainly ought to be told the purchase had escaped, but even more importantly that the rosette on her had been a fraud.
“Don’t tell me someone died or was seriously injured. How are things?” Lord Kayo was aBellable.
“Not good at all,” Ishobad said as the pain from having allowed himself to be tricked by a mere human gnawed at him. “One of my esteemed assistants was almost killed by that earthling boy of mine.” Just a delay of the inevitable, this was. Lord Kayo’s greatest interest would only be in the elemental and what happened to her.
“Terrible thing to happen,” the Apex bishop showed some patience. “How is your assistant, otherwise?”
“He’s in a bad shape but will live.” Ishobad dreaded what would come next.
“And so, what else can you tell me?”
The bomb had now dropped. Shame overcame Ishobad. How could he have done what he did last night, inform the church hierarchy he had chanced on an elemental when he hadn’t verified the fact. And today he’d given the same information to the assembly. Taking the word of a lying, scheming, shameless earthling for fact! That had to be the worst. Ishobad now remembered how overjoyed Kayo had been at the news. “Behold an elemental has been found. The heavens have opened, and will sure pour again their mercies on our great country. Glory be to Qmalo.”
A heavy breathing from the other end told Ishobad the archbishop wanted a response. He couldn’t continue to waste the time.
“My stupid earthling servant boy ran away with the purchase,” Aha Ishobad almost collapsed.
“What are you telling me?” Lord Kayo’s voice changed from mildly unemotional to… anger.”
“Rex assaulted Slasher and then escaped with… the elemental.”
“She what? Gone?” Lord Kayo cried. “By Jove, Ishobad, how could you let that happen?”
“I don’t know, Father, I’m trying to find out?”
“Why wasn’t the elemental kept under proper guard like you know should be done? If you knew you didn’t have enough security why didn’t you seek my help right away, the moment you knew you’d been blessed with an elemental?”
“I’m sure we will catch the runaways in no time.” Ishobad still found it hard to reveal the truth about the symbol. Kayo would kill him.
“Do you realize you already informed the whole assembly that there would be a sacrifice?” the anger in the Apex Bishop’s voice deepened. “Now what are we going to do? Tell me.”
“I apologize, sir; and I swear I will deliver the elemental to you before Saturday.”
“Better succeed,” the apex bishop growled and put his phone down.

Past the bridge, Rex decided they leave the road altogether and plunge deep into the forests along the banks. A bunch of Qmalian hikers had caught up with them and Rex did not trust that those joggers might still not have heard the crime news.
“Let’s check out the trees,” he said to Bella, but in a way meant to make the Qmalian family they’d been walking with understand they were saying goodbye. The plane had drifted north along the east bank, and so they might not be spotted disappearing into the bushes. You never could be too sure, though.
Rex had never been much on the Egodad River and this highly forested part was as unfamiliar to him as it would be to Bella. His only advantage was that he knew the course the river took; and he knew how to get to the shrine. From here, they had to go northward for a distance equal to two transit stops, roughly four miles. The shrine would only be close when they reached a bridge called Kwaxx, of which Kwaxx Avenue was another of the major roads that crossed the Egodad. The Qmalian Shrine of the Departed was built on a small street that branched off Kwaxx.
Walking under trees while avoiding a suspicious plane was not as easy as Rex might have imagined. There were far too many galleys and mud patches to navigate. The brambles were dense and difficult to penetrate. Once in a while they would chance upon a bear or wolf trail and walk on it more easily, but the track would eventually turn in a direction Rex did not want, and they would have to abandon it and chart their own path in the undergrowth. Tree limbs would sometimes hang too low and their faces would be scratched by the twigs. When the plane flew in their direction, they would have to stop and hide, and then resume after it had gone a distance. It took two hours of painful forest marching to get to Kwaxx. After crossing underneath the bridge, they walked in a northwesterly direction and then came close to a huge clearing.
“Back to the decent world,” Bella exclaimed as her eyes tiredly poked past the thickets to the open ground.
“I’m glad we are here,” Rex sighed.
“What are those buildings?” an unknown anticipation seemed to be rising in her.
“You are looking at the shrine.”
A similar excitement was also building up in Rex. What could be held within those walls? For umpteen times Rex had walked past this place and never thought of investigating what lay inside the ancient edifices. He totally ignored what Ishobad had often ranted about. Now Bella had spoken of magic and something had woken up inside him.
He hardly could wait, but they couldn’t run into the open with the plane not being far.
Wishing the spotter away, Rex continued wondering what they could find here. Maybe a lot, or maybe not much, but whatever it would be, Rex was pretty sure it would be significant.
“I’m itching to dash across,” Bella echoed his feelings.
A careful check of the shrine’s backcourt and then it’s buildings showed that very likely it was, as on most days, unoccupied. The rule was for everyone to keep away, except for the occasional maintenance worker or cleaner. Qmalians were generally law abiding and very respectful of their traditions and so there was no need to keep the shrine guarded. Today, though, could be a maintenance day and there could be a soul or two, Rex couldn’t be certain.
“No gaafas ever come here?” Bella sounded equally wary.
“Not usually; let’s just keep an eye out for the plane.”
“I want to do some real damage.” Bella’s face was expectant.
For a while the plane kept hovering on one place above Kwaxx. Then it began to drift sideways and then southward. Bella kept watching it, her eyes so keen and her face frowning. Soon the plane had gone a distance.
“Now our chance.”
They navigated their way out of the bushes and brambles and reached the clearing. They ran across.
Just before they reached the first of the three buildings in the complex, Rex looked back. The plane was back to flying northward.
“Oh Jove,” Rex cursed. “It’s coming back for us.”

Chapter 16
Thanks be to the Jove, Slasher wasn’t as terribly hurt as those who initially saw him might have thought. The blows he took did not break any bones but only resulted in concussions that caused him to lose consciousness for a while. The bleeding in the mouth and nose were due to the sudden face-first fall onto the concrete floor of Rex’s shack. His lower lip split as a result, and the sudden impact also caused one of his crooked teeth to bite into a cheek leading to further bleeding. Part of his nose also tore up, but his teeth though shaken were intact.
Now he’d been properly treated and bandaged up, and Aha Ishobad thought it was time to leave him resting in hospital. Ishobad had a lot on his mind. He had to make sure Rex and the purchase were caught soonest. Slasher had retold him the same thing as he’d done before: that the rosette was a fraud. That presented a very difficult dilemma for the Aha. If Rex and the earthling purchase were caught by police or gaafas, that would be seriously problematic in that the symbol would be recognized as false by the church authorities and Ishobad would look very stupid to everyone. He might be demoted or even totally chucked out of the government, a thing that should never be allowed to happen. It actually might be better for Rex and the escaped purchase to remain free until after Big Saturday, so that when they finally got caught no one would pay attention to the symbol anymore. That could help preserve his reputation. It would be far more preferable, though, if he were the one to catch them. Then he’d just kill them both and dispose of their bodies, and his foolishness would never come to light. He might even be able to harvest a few organs and still satisfy his noble clients.
“I have to catch them myself,” he resolved as he left Slasher’s ward.
Easier said than done, though, the Aha knew. The police with all its structures and gaafa helpers were having a hard time catching the runaways. And even if it could be admitted the fugitives’ escape had only been reported hours ago and police had not had the time to conduct a proper hunt, still not even one person had reported a sighting. It could be very difficult to catch the criminals quick. And if the police were having a difficult time, then what of him? With only his two eyes and two hands; what chances did he have? Almost nil, he thought—but hey probably not. Qmalians had an important asset, a last thing to resort to should a crime be too hard to solve or runaway criminals prove too elusive.
He thought about this last-resort approach. ‘It maybe too early to do it, but I got no choice.’ His reputation had to remain intact.
Aha Ishobad had himself never worked as a police officer or crime investigator, but he was friends with the police chief of Egodad, who told him of some of the last-resort methods the police employed when faced with a difficult crime. Ishobad knew of some of the experts the police asked for help from. A great one among them was a shawoman who went by the name Moketzi.
“Yes, Moketzi will assist me and I will repay her greatly,” he said to himself as he looked for the hospital’s pay-telephone booths. He needed to make a quick call. If things kept going like this, he might have to buy one of those newly minted phones that you could go anywhere with, the ones which did not need to be hooked up to wires. He hated modern technology, but this was critical. If he was to succeed, he would need to be in constant contact with people who mattered.
In a small booth he got into, directories were stowed in hard orange vinyl covers. It didn’t take long to find Moketzi’s number and Ishobad dialed. The croaky female voice on the other side suggested it was the shawoman herself who’d answered, not one of the coterie of young male helpers she employed at her compound.
“My name is Ishobad; I have a serious problem. Two of my slaves escaped after committing a grievous crime; I’m sure you heard the news and I need help,” his anger was again causing him to speak so loud.
“Sorry, is that the esteemed Aha?”
“Yes, it’s me. Can I come right away to obtain a solution?”
“When did this crime happen? Wasn’t it today?”
“Yes, early this morning.”
“Uh that’s a problem,” Moketzi croaked. “I need the criminals to have gone hiding for at least one full day. That’s the minimum time limit for the footprints they leave to become detectable. Come tomorrow, I might have something for you.”
‘Damn it,’ Aha Ishobad said to himself.
“Thank you, I will sure do that,” he voiced into the receiver and then hung up. He wiped some sweat off his brow as he exited the booth, heading for his orange truck which was waiting for him outside.

The building that Rex and Bella reached first was the smallest of the three. Its walls were completely bare stone and its backdoor was made of old wood. Outside it, there was a garden faucet with a worn black hose coiled nearby. It looked a bit scary to enter the stone cottage but Rex knew they had no choice.
Rex opened the door and peered in. He drew out his pair of side cutters from his pocket and held it in one hand. He had to arm himself just in case, because even if this place was usually unoccupied, that didn’t automatically mean there absolutely was nobody inside at this moment. There could be a groundskeeper or cleaner resting somewhere. Perhaps there might even be some cop secretly keeping guard duties. He didn’t know everything about this place; he had only frequently passed it by the road.
“Give me something to hold, too.” Bella came up bedside him and glanced at his side cutters.
“You also want.” Rex put his duffel bag down and from a side pocket withdrew a screwdriver. “Okay, take this.” What a strong and brave woman. He picked up his bag after handing the tool.
Bella ventured into the inside with her screwdriver pointed. “If anyone is in here come out now,” she called.
Silence greeted Bella’s command. Rex scanned the room they were in. Unlike what he’d thought while still outside, the interior was well done. Someone had put up a plaster lining around all walls and you never could tell you were inside an old stone cottage. The plaster was smooth and painted gray. In one corner of the room was a small metal sink, then a shelf with various cleaning and polishing chemicals. There were two other doors, apart from the one they’d entered using. One clearly was the front door, which would lead to the street, and another was on the northern side wall. In the center of the room were two old plain couches and a small wood table.
Rex and Bella treaded farther with in with their weapons held. Rex rested his duffel bag on a couch and better prepared himself for a surprise attack. The front door was made of a much better quality wood and was newer. A temptation to open it hit Rex for a moment, but he realized he should never do this. Letting passersby know one of the shrine’s buildings had been opened would only be courting trouble. The other door on the north partition was battered. It interested Rex to find out if anyone could be behind there.
Bella was closer to it, however, and she opened it before him. With her screwdriver aimed, she burst in. “Anybody in here?”
Rex followed behind her. The room was devoid of persons. A desk with a reading lamp took space on the center. A massive bookshelf to the side was brimful of old books and pamphlets.
“Doesn’t seem like there is anybody here,” Bella said after peeking behind the shelves.
“That’s good, so maybe we can rest a bit.” Rex turned and started to walk back toward the room with couches.
“I’m tired, too,” Bella said. “But I will lay down perusing that notebook of Slasher’s. Do you still have it?”
“Girl, you never quit; do you?” Rex said as he felt the bulge of the little journal in his pocket. After the bus and truck rides and then the exhausting four-mile walk in virtually impenetrable thickets, he now was too burnt out to do anything. He’d let Bella do what she wanted alone.
They reached the room they’d entered into first, the one with the couches. Bella threw the backpack she carried onto one of the seats.
Rex yanked out the notebook and tossed it at her. Bella’s eyes lit on it as if the battered little thing contained everything she might want to know in this world. She plunked herself down onto the two-seater and then started perusing, but before she’d gone far exhaustion caught up with her and she started to yawn and nod. Soon she was gone, and it was left to Rex to gaze at her ethereal beauty and wonder how safe they were in here. Where to later hide for the night was even a bigger question, with no visible answers…

Chap 17
Bella did not know how long she’d snoozed—alright, maybe slept was the proper word. Darkness was falling outside and everything in here was assuming darker tones of grey. They had nowhere to go and would have to sleep in here, but what a night it was going to be with no lights, or a fire, or candles. Every sign of occupation would be a betrayer, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the police came marching in should someone notice the slightest glow of artificial illumination.
Rex lay on the three-seater couch with his face looking up to the cottage’s roof. He had the back of his head held in his hands, suggesting a lot could be going on in his mind, but Bella had no clue what. She still felt tired from the difficult lengthy walk, but the nap she took had assisted in taking off the bite somewhat. She now looked forward to exploring the two other buildings here and discovering what they held. How lucky that no one had seen them. They now had the holy Qmalian place to themselves, and could do whatever they wanted.
The failing light told Bella it was time to act. It otherwise might get too dark to see or be able to do anything.
“Isn’t it time for some action, buddy?” she prompted Rex.
“Yes, let’s,” Rex sat up. “Magic here we come,” he sang as if he already knew what was in Bella’s head.
“Good.” Bella stood up. She brushed her clothing and shuffled toward the backdoor. Before she opened it however, that pesky doubt began to bother her again. What exactly was magic? How did you start looking for something you didn’t exactly know, something you couldn’t properly define? Where did you even begin?
“Did Ishobad really specify what to look at?” she heard herself ask involuntarily.
“No, he only said this was the best place to start.”
“Very vague, but anyway let’s begin.” She reached for the door handle.
“Mind the outside, though,” Rex cautioned. “Take a good look first.”
Rex had a point; there was need to take some care. Bella’s heart started to beat as she cautiously stepped out; there just might be someone out there.
She scanned the yard in front of her and then to the sides. She saw nothing. That brought her some relief, but she knew the street at the front could be a whole different ball game altogether. She tip-toed to the end of the wall and peeped at the narrow winding pavement. No one was passing by. That was good, but she should also use her ears too, just in case. She turned her head in all directions. The only sounds she heard were the birds in the bushes, the vehicles on Kwaxx, the more distant ones on the other side of the river, and of course the now-familiar croon of the several planes in the Qmalian sky.
“It’s clear, let’s go,” she beckoned Rex, who now stood just outside the door.
The dashed across the soft grass. The building ahead, which was the biggest in the complex, looked positively haunted. It was big, painted black, with a monstrous gray roof.
They got to it fast. Bella imagined its door might be locked, but hey no, it was only latched tight. Why were things being so easy, Bella wondered. She began to doubt Ishobad’s hints. If this place was a store of useful powers, why would no one ever bother to secure it by installing locks on all doors at least. There probably was nothing significant here.
The latch installed was very tight, though, and even using her two hands she couldn’t move the bolt.
“Spit on it to give it some lubrication,” Rex grinned at her.
What a weird piece of advice. Bella spat on the latch, regardless, but even with that, the bolt would not move. It was only after Rex stepped forward to help that the bolt started to creak. With a loud pop, it eventually came out.
Bella creaked the heavy door and was first to peer in. Gosh, what could be in there—some big slimy demon?
“Starting to hesitate?” Rex challenged her.
Bella ignored him and swung the door ajar. It was a little too dark inside; and it now felt like ghosts and other strange beings might come alive and jump her. Nothing of that sort of course happened when she entered. Her eyes were greeted instead by a litany of crouching beasts with glowing eyes.
“Strange animals,” Rex exclaimed behind her. “What are they doing in there?”
“Careful now with the loud voice,” she shushed him. “It’s just a bunch of taxidermies.”
A veritable atmosphere of occult and mysticism hung above the strange preserved creatures. Pungent smells of vinegar and old hides pervaded the whole building. Bella ventured farther in. The taxidermists had done a good job and the stuffed animals looked life-like. Darkness had fallen to the point of obliterating shadows but Bella recognized many of the beasts she saw.
“Take care, that leopard could spring at you.” Rex was enchanted.
“That is actually a cheetah,” she countered.
“Alright, let’s see what else you know better than me,’’ Rex shrugged gamely.
They started walking down an aisle with an array of creatures Bella was sure no similar kinds existed on earth. She saw and admired dwarf apes and other higher mammals, some which resembled gorillas or chimpanzees, though being not quite exactly like the earthly varieties. Whereas Bella might have expected to see some other different things, the whole building showed to be a maze of only such taxidermies. Gosh, why were Qmalians so enchanted with dead animals; was it a religious thing? Bella thought a few displays could have sufficed but hell no, there were so many of them in rows, the aisles so long and so interconnected it was hard to know where you started and where you hadn’t gone.
Bella, anxious to see magic, didn’t take long to start losing interest. Dead animals alone, even if captivating, were not what she came here for. She wanted to feel the presence of a mysterious power, or at least get some hints of it. She now hoped to get through the displays quick and get out of here if she couldn’t find what she wanted.
Not too long after, her original prayer was however answered in quite a different way when after turning left and right several times, they came to a creature that positively mystified them. They stopped to stare. The creature was in the form of a snake, but unlike the other creepy-crawlies they had seen, this one was preserved in a vertical position, its stiffened body rising into the air in a long, perfect S shape. Only its head was glued to the stand, but nothing else supported the long suspended body. Another strange thing was that it took more display space than the other snakes they had seen.
“Why is this done so differently?” Bella heard herself exclaim despite the previous warning she’d given to Rex about loud voices.
“An Akan,” said Rex. “A very rare reptile.”
The poor lighting had worsened to a point where Bella had to strain to view details. The Akan had dirty-yellow eyes, pretty much like all Qmalians, and its skin color was orangish mostly, but with some gray-black smudges that looked like freckles. Many multi-colored beads were strung around it in spaced bands: black, blue, red and yellow.
“Don’t be fooled by the shades shown here,” Rex explained. “The damn Akan can change its colors on the fly, much like a chameleon.”
“Astounding! A snake that can change colors!” Bella intoned. “Why so many beads around it, though? No other display has that.”
“The Akan is a snake very special to Qmalians is all I know.”
Bella observed further with fascination. The beads were strung in an intricate pattern, but their presence, however, wasn’t the only strange thing about the display. On the pedestal on which the Akan’s head was glued was a unique inscription that Bella presently could not properly read. Bella’s heart beat with excitement. What was this writing?
“Give me your flashlight just for a sec, I really want to see.”
“Careful not to let anyone notice the beam.” Rex pulled the light out of his pocket and handed it to her.
Bella turned the thing on and angled herself to prevent the light spilling out to the windows.
She squinted at the inscription and made out five individual words. The language used was strange. ‘Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.’
“What does that mean?” Bella gave Rex a mystified glance. “You should be better at this than I.”
“Must be some ancient Qmalian dialect,” Rex mused. “I don’t really know.”
“Could very well be some kind of code, then.” Bella intuited. “We should copy this.”
Rex fished for a pen in his pockets. “Oh Jove, we left Slasher’s notebook in the cottage.”
“Write on your hands, sir.”
They couldn’t keep the flashlight on for long. Bella turned it off as soon as Rex finished. “Good enough for one evening, I think. This is a good start.”
“Okay, let’s head back.” Rex slid the pen back into his pocket.
They tracked their way through the maze. Now excited, Bella couldn’t avoid glancing again at some of the taxidermies, particularly those she’d previously ignored. As she was doing that, hidden in alcove surprisingly not very far from the door, another thing startled her. The display looked like that of a giant lizard, but strangely it had one eye much larger than the other. And, as if that alone weren’t enough, its head was nodding intermittently.
“Whew, is it alive?” Bella’s jaw dropped.
“Let’s see.”
They stood and looked. Sure, the thing’s head was nodding at intervals.
“This to me does look like magic at work,” Bella couldn’t believe she was seeing this. “Ever seen anything like it?”
“Very strange.”
Bella gaped at the display again, hoping to glimpse tinier details but it was now hard to see properly. “Maybe just open the door a little.”
Rex did. Not much light spilled in, but what she got was enough to make her see a little better. The skin of the huge crawler wasn’t scaly like that of a normal reptile; rather it was smooth and it glistened as though it were moist.
“A salamander, now I recognize it! A legendary creature.”
“Is that so?” Rex was astounded. “But why is its head bobbing?”
Bella set her mind thinking. She blanked out for an instant and then when she came back to, an inspiration hit. “Must be the big abnormal eye!”
“Very astonishing.” Rex closed the door and walked closer. “I would like to prove it’s because of the eye, though. I will pluck it out and if the head stops nodding, I will know your theory is correct.”
“Trust my instincts, man.”
Rex brought out the screwdriver and side cutters he kept in his pockets. As carefully as he could, he gouged the big eye out. The eye was hard like glass and did not deform or squash-up due to the treatment it got from Rex's tools.
He handed the glassy thing to Bella.
The salamander’s head went dead.
“What a crazy thing,” Rex shook his head.
“I’m going to keep it,” Bella couldn’t hold her excitement. “This eye has got power and might help us.”
“Your optimism is admirable,” Rex grinned in the twilight. “But have you considered this enchanted eye might work against us. It might even be rigged to call the police when plucked out.”
“Now, you scare me, Rex.”

Chapter 18
The alarm clock rang and Ishobad sprang up, trembling as if waking from a nightmare. It took him a good three seconds to realize he was in his bed and then he silenced the beeps. Morning had arrived and a very real daytime nightmare was beginning.
Nothing was normal. Even the alarm he’d just killed was something he rarely used, but last night he’d set it for a very specific purpose. He wanted to catch the earliest news. It was important to know if the police had caught the runaways yet. He’d like it more if they hadn’t.
He turned on his bedside radio. A jingle played before the bulletin aired. The news reader was female, with a sweet sort of voice, but that’s not what Ishobad was interested in. Much of what came through at the beginning was to him just plain drivel. He trained his ears waiting for the crime news that he knew would come toward the end.
‘Almost a full day is gone and the earthling fugitives who escaped from their lord’s estate after grievously assaulting a Qmalian remain uncaught.’
“Good Jove, all is fine,” Ishobad welcomed the fact. He was still in with a chance to capture the runaways himself, and he’d better start preparing.
He turned the radio off and headed for the shower. Today he’d skip breakfast. Moketzi had said to come early and he would do just that.

Moketzi’s compound was located well north of Egodad. Ishobad had never been to see her and it took him a while to locate the exact road. Each minute that went by ticked him the wrong way. He wanted to beat the police in apprehending Rex and the purchase.
After close to one and a half hours since he’d started this journey, Ishobad came to a rusty sign. It was the one he wanted. He drove down the country road, and after only five minutes he glimpsed the squat buildings that comprised Moketzi’s compound. Hope warmed up his heart.
Moketzi’s gate was unguarded and he drove in and parked. A male courtier of the shawoman accompanied him to the main house. Moketzi’s consultation room was a lesson in Qmalian traditional tapestry and carvings. There were cloths and rugs and drapes of every kind, all of them done the ancient Qmalian way, and all giving off a smell of foot or hand sweat, and dust and smoke. For sitting on, a few old wooden chairs draped with doilies took some of the space in the room.
“What brings you here?” the old woman with strange scars and markings on her face asked.
“The criminals I’m tracking remain uncaught.”
“That’s too bad. Let me see what I can do for you.”
Moketzi padded to an ancient-looking shelf and brought back a 6-inch, round looking glass recessed into a circular wooden frame. The frame had an adorned handle, perhaps fashioned from animal bone.
“Look into there. What do you see?” Moketzi handed him the glass.
“Nothing,” said Ishobad, realizing this wasn’t actually a mirror but just a framed plain glass.
“Good,” said Moketzi. “Now let’s start; drink this.” She handed him a clay chalice full of a brown brew. “Drink it; it’s a forensics liquor. It will help you see things you’d never have been able to.”
Being a professionally trained doctor with an army background, Ishobad knew all about liquids which when you drunk them made you see images of things not there. Hallucinants, they were called in Qmalian, and had he not been in a terrible dilemma he might have ended the consultation at this point, for he wasn’t into taking anything that tricked the mind. Today he however had no choice; he gobbled down the foul smelling and bad-tasting liquor.
His eyes now getting dazed, he watched Moketzi light a waxen lamp, then she held the glass above the flame, smoking it. She handed him the now-slightly-sooty thing.
“Say out the names of the vile persons you would like to catch.”
Ishobad only knew Rex’s name but not that of the purchased earthling. Rex’s accomplice, he would call her. “Rex and his accomplice,” he called into the sooty glass.
Just as he said that, Ishobad felt an incredible amount of heat seep into his chest and his brain was getting fuzzier. Was this what people described as getting drunk. An urge to puke built up in him but he suppressed it and looked into the glass as instructed. This piece of magic was truly incredible. A series of stars underneath the soot and soon he was gazing into something like a foggy screen. His stomach retched but he continued gazing. An image took shape, shaky at first, but it soon stabilized and then resolved into two bodies wearing male clothing. Ishobad analyzed the scenery, and saw hazy images of buildings that looked eerily like those at his home. The two persons, whose faces were still unclear at this point, walked briskly, knelt down and crawled under something like a vertical mesh of wire, then stood up and walked faster. The video blurred and shook, and then when it stabilized once more, the two persons, who now clearly looked human—one male, the other female but in male clothes—sat in a moving truck which was packed with bags and boxes of produce. Before long they were at a huge place with sheds and lots of people, and fruits and vegetables on stands. He watched the two persons further on their journey, recognizing some spots along the way and eventually the video stopped when the two had jumped into a forest west of the Egodad. The amazing thing was that the duo now wore things that dangled on their necks.
“Incredible,” said Ishobad handing back the glass. “Fine, now I know where to find them.”

Chapter 19

Rex woke up and saw light start to fill the room. This morning was special, his first ever to awaken without a master to think of. Nobody was going to knock on the door and ask why he hadn’t done this or that, why he wasn’t up yet. The whole day would belong to him and that was something worth celebrating in spite of the dangers that lay hidden around them.
He cast his eyes on the figure of Bella who slept quietly on the other couch. Something nipped at his heart. One master was gone, but slowly another was taking over: his feelings for this slender woman he had helped save were ones he could not deny. Bella was just beautiful, perhaps way too be beautiful for him. He wanted to touch… Oh no, this was so wrong. Things shouldn’t be this way.
Rex racked his mind. Why was he feeling so different today? It wasn’t his first time to see Bella. Yesterday they were together all day. Before that, they’d actually slept side by side all night in that little shack of his. He never felt for her the way he did now. Rex kept combing his mind. Perhaps there had to be a reason for all this. He must have wanted her all along, but then there’d been all these threats to her life that made it impossible to process any other feeling. Yes, the need to save her had been greater, but the undercurrent of love must have been there.
Now in this old stone-cottage the barbaric world of Ishobad and the Qmalian Church was completely shut out, well, at least for the time being. Rex just felt so attracted. Bella had to be at least three yards away, yet he could hear her heart beat.
“Morning princess,” Rex said when he saw her blink. “You look so pretty.”
Jove, was it him who just said that? What was going on? With no experience whatsoever in this thing, how had he become this bold.
“Bella, there is something I will need to tell you,” he said, after she’d thanked him for his complement.
“Like what?” she smiled and half-sat up. She was now dressed in the floral dress he’d bought for her at Mshikashika, one she’d changed into last night and slept in. She just looked so good.
“Like that I think you are gorgeous,” he answered. “In this world there can’t be anyone else like you.”
Rex held his mouth. How the hell was he managing, and was it even a good idea? There were dangers outside; shouldn’t he be concentrating on that?
Bella paid him an amused grin.
Would he stop, no. Rex felt all the brakes come loose. “I know we came here to find magic but I would like to tell you I’ve found in you something worth more than any super power in this universe.”
Now that was being really crazy. He had no knowledge of what he was starting, and sure ought to quit right away.
“Really, Rex, do you mean it.” Bella’s lips fell into an unsure, though appreciative smile.
“Yes, I do. You mean to me more than any other woman.”
“That is very nice of you. I wouldn’t be here without your help.”
“I’d die if you were to leave me, Bella, that’s what I mean. I’d really really really die.”

Ishobad drove out of the shawoman’s compound with the foul-tasting forensic liquor still sour in his mouth. He’d take quick action by starting his search even in this semi-drugged state. As soon as he could, he was going to take to the air—and in his own plane even if it wasn’t properly equipped for ground surveillance. He wouldn’t dare mess things though; he’d hire one of the young unemployed Qmalian pilots who hung around the airport, to do the flying while he did the surveillance. Taking to the air alone in this state would be too risky. Already driving his truck like he was doing now was a hazard; but about that, though, he’d had no choice. Calling someone to come pick him up would have taken too much time. This thing was so urgent.
His military-grade binoculars were on his passenger seat, ready. Ishobad cast an eye on its lenses that he’d taken the care to clean last night. Being an ex-army person he knew how to use binoculars well. Moketzi’s forensic video had been quite snowy but he had glimpsed the major routes Rex and the purchase had escaped by.
‘The west side of town, somewhere by the river is where…’
He drove to the airport in a blur and was soon parking his truck in the lot. His first port of call would be the aviator’s lounge where the jobless pilots sat waiting for temporary assignments.
A desperate-looking young man with short brassy hair jumped at him the moment he staggered into the lounge. “You need help with anything, Aha?”
“Show me your papers and then come with me.”
The young man picked up a thin folder from a table and handed it to Ishobad. “Right on the first page, Aha.”
Ishobad flipped open the folder’s cover and then glanced at the filed pages. “Let’s go.”
By his confidence, the young Qmalian seemed capable. Ishobad led him toward the hangar his plane was parked in. Walking, he struggled to avoid staggering like a drunk. That was too embarrassing, but they had to get to the plane. Ishobad gave his keys to the young pilot and he took the passenger seat, his first time to be on that side in many years.
“Those are very nice exotic girl shoes you got at the back there, Aha.”
Ishobad did not know what to answer to that. He scarcely needed to be reminded. Two days ago the purchase had been a captive in that hold.
“We heard you announced a big sacrifice, this coming Big Sat. How great, Aha.”
“Just concentrate on your task,” Ishobad belched.
Take-off was rocky and Ishobad’s guts retched again. It took some time to adjust to the bumps but before long, they reached the west part of the city. Ishobad kept his eyes focused on the ground. “Fly as low as you can, and slow.” He inserted the little magical gizmo that would enable the plane to do things a regular plane couldn’t, like fly dead slow or hover like a bird, but even more importantly to enable landing in a tight space, so long as the space was flat. He needed this feature especially today.
The city and the river weren’t new to him. What was new was the feeling of humiliation inside of him. If this operation failed, and Rex and the purchase were caught by the police first, the truth about the fake rosette would come out. His reputation would then be so tarnished, he’d have to resign from his lofty position, give up his plane, and possibly never take to the air again.
“Bank slightly to the right side of the river.” Ishobad tried to recall the moving images he’d seen in Moketzi’s magic glass. Rex and the prized purchase went off the magic radar somewhere on the west bank of that river and so should be hiding somewhere there.
Through his binoculars, Ishobad peered at the forests below. Birds sat on tree tops or flew above the crowns. The waters of the Egodad were as pure as nature wanted them to be. The actual ground was hard to observe because of the dense foliage. The two fugitives could be hidden below that huge green canopy. The first street parallel to the Egodad on the west side ran past the shrine. Ishobad could see the shrine rooftops clearly even though today was promising to be foggy. What a holy Qmalian place that was, and full of power, too.
“Bank more to the right and then hover,” he instructed with a lot of hope. And faith.
Nothing moved in the street to as far down as Kwaax. The only activity was in a motel’s parking lot a little further north. ‘Could Rex and the purchase be hiding there?’ Ishobad wondered and kept peering into his binos.
“I’ll find them.” he said to himself. “I’ll surely find them.”

After brushing his teeth at the little sink in the housekeeping area of the room, Rex came to sit back on the couch. Something bad was in the air and they might remain caged in here for the whole day. Staying inside wasn’t any guarantee of safety, though, but being at least under a roof would make it impossible for spotter planes to see them.
Bella had freshened herself in the worker’s shower in the other room, and still sat on the three-seater couch she slept on. She looked incredibly sweet and Rex adored her, but after reviewing his earlier declarations he was now of two conflicting minds. One said he should follow his desires and explore physical love with Bella, but another, from his strict Qmalian upbringing, said that would not be appropriate. Not until after some official ceremony. From a more humane point, however—and that was more important—there was this nagging feeling that by declaring his love for her, he could just be taking advantage of someone in a desperate situation. He didn’t want that kind of finger pointed at him. It would have been easier if she’d rejected his propositions, but then she hadn’t.
Rex’s conflicts did not end. He gave Bella one glance, and saw she had done something to her lips, perhaps bitten them so they looked so red. And luscious. Who on this planet could be expected to resist that? And there was a lot more under that dress to explore. Wasn’t he letting a beautiful one-time chance to get lost? The blood pumped wilder in his veins. Sure, those lips deserved a homage in the form of a kiss. Thinking of it even got him more excited. What exactly did a kiss feel like? How did it begin, how did it end?
Bella left her couch and came to his. She chose to sit closer to him. “So, you think you and me we should become an item?”
Rex loved her being so near, but because of his mental struggles he didn’t know what to reply. “If it pleases you, sure,” he heard himself say.
“I don’t doubt you will be good to me.”
When she sat, Bella let her dress ride high above her knees. The skin of her thighs looked so soft. Rex felt again those tickly sensations in his crotch. This was so hard to resist. Although, given his captive background, he’d been well-instructed to manage his sexual feelings, it now almost seemed impossible in practice. You couldn’t do it, no way. Not when there was someone with a body and face like Bella’s near you.
A feeling to start touching her gripped him, and his arm almost whipped across, but he heard that religious voice at the last moment. It wasn’t the right thing to do. Enjoying a woman you were not married to was against the rules. It was an affront to the Jove, he ought to realize. Sure, he had run away from Ishobad, but that didn’t mean he should hate religion. He’d only done it to save Bella’s life, not to rebel against the scriptures. Jove did not like people who fornicated, and wasn’t touching and fondling someone a part of that.
The heat in his crotch did not relent, though. If anything, it actually intensified because of Bella’s proximity. Oh Jove, why were things going this way?
Against his will, his eyes roved down again to her legs. It mesmerized him to see their shape. He fought to remove the gaze—and thought of how Jove punished sinners—but before he’d turned away the last eyeball, he knew he’d stared at something that was soon to help force his virgin existence to end.
“You are free to touch,” Bella said.
Jove, did she really want it? Didn’t she know the kind of struggle he was going through?
“I have no experience,” he groped for a response.
“You don’t need any experience, now Rex be strong.” She gave him an irresistible smile.
It was this bad, and now Jove or no Jove, he’d just go for it. He leaned closer. Bella wrapped her hand behind his head. The movement caused her breasts to jounce underneath her dress. Now the memories Rex had earlier been holding back came flowing. At Ishabod’s home, he’d asked her to take off her T-shirt. And he’d helped loose her bra. But even though he hadn’t gotten to the point of seeing her breasts, he’d at least glimpsed where they began. That counted for something, and he’d always remember. He’d seen the beautiful skin of her back, too, and that was great. Now this other voice said to refuse all that. No, that could not be.
That puritan part of his mind hadn’t been completely silenced, though, and even as the waves of attraction hit him harder, he could still hear it telling him no.
“How about we begin with just a tiny kiss,” he said to Bella, while silently offering that to his nagging mind as a compromise. Maybe Jove wouldn’t be so much against only a very light touch. He’d see how things went.
He angled his face and gave Bella’s lips a last once-over. They were so full and so plump. They burned his eyes and his blood raced mightily. He did not know what drove him, but his hand just flew and held Bella’s face in the gentlest way. He pulled her towards him and before he could blink his lips were on hers. He had promised Jove not to do too much, but he found himself unable to stop as a sweet sucking feeling just took him in deeper and deeper…

Chapter 20
Thirty minutes after making out, Bella slouched on her end of the couch. Rex lay brooding in his own end. The surprise kiss had been so sweet and Bella now wished that could be done more often. She remembered the act like it was her first in life. Finding love would have been the last thing to wish for as she stared at death’s face while held captive in Ishobad’s plane, but now it seemed something as improbable as a space-based romance could be within reach. What a thing. A few days ago while plying her trade in New York she never could have dreamed of this. There was no doubt Rex wanted to be good to her and she also wanted to be good to him.
Everything looked okay, but the thing bothering her now was that Rex appeared to have suddenly lost his enthusiasm. He was just so quiet. Bella wondered why. Had she done something wrong, or had Rex been flustered by the kissing act, he being a virgin. First time experiences could be so overwhelming, she knew. She’d find out later if this was the case. For now, she’d let things remain.
After a long while, she decided it was time to know. Rex was now even more withdrawn, and seemed like he didn’t want to be in the same room with her any longer. That bothered Bella. Rex, though, always looked cuter if there were things troubling him.
“You aren’t so sure any more about those things you said and did to me earlier,” Bella said as a way of beginning.
Rex looked at her. Bella saw the hunger in his eyes, but there was also something like great fear lurking behind them.
“No, I meant everything I said.”
That was reassuring, but she still was positive it wasn’t all.
She pulled herself closer to him. “Honey, you don’t seem as excited as before. Did I do something bad to you?”
“Believe me, you aren’t the problem. There is… other things.”
At least he was hinting at something and that was good for a start. Bella tried to think what those other things could be. Maybe it was the perils around them he was now concentrating on. If it was that, she’d tell him to forget and be happy and only start worrying when disaster struck.
“Concerned about the situation outside? Please don’t.” She put an assuring hand on his thigh.
Rex gazed at her again with those troubled eyes. “It’s not quite what you are thinking, but anyway let’s forget it.”
There was no doubt he needed her. Bella could almost feel the hormones raging under his skin, yet he remained restrained. “I need to know?” she gave him a stare.
“Know what?”
“What’s troubling you?”
“Yes, there is.”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Alright,” Bella thought to approach the issue differently. “I will put something forward. The kiss didn’t go well with you,”
“Oh that; do you really want me to say it out?”
“Yes, if that will help to make things better.”
“To be honest to Jove,” Rex struggled with an unknown pain. “It went well in one way, but in another it didn’t.”
Bella was puzzled, but at the same time thought it was a lead. “I thought everything was cool. In which way didn’t things go well?”
“To be brief, you and I aren’t married.”
“Ugh, what’s the problem with that, if we agree?”
“I just came to the realization,” Rex’s voice had grown a little stronger. “The Jove doesn’t like what we did, if you want me to be specific.”
So, that was the thing troubling him. He had decided to become religious and all holy after the sweet advances he’d been making earlier. And after that great first lip-lock. Bella thought about it. This was not fair, and she wasn’t going to have any of it. She would never allow Jove or any other deity to stand between her and what she loved.
“Look at me, Rex. To hell with Jove.”
Rex sat straight and stared her in the eye. “Jees, why are you being so disrespectful.”
“I don’t want to hear anything about your Jove.” The anger in Bella’s voice surprised even herself. “Jove is a god of the evil Qmalians. He is a god of Ishobad and all those other killers.”
“No, you must be wrong.”
“No, I’m not. Tell me, aren’t we here because of him? When is Big Saturday and who is supposed to be sacrificed on that day? Explain to me, Rex, what civilized God accepts human blood?”
“It’s the Qmalians who do the injustices, not him.”
“It doesn’t matter. A god of evil people is also evil. You and I are earthlings; we have no relationship with Jove.”
After a moment, Rex sighed and then slumped back. “Okay, give me time.” He scratched his head.
“Nope, I ain’t giving you any time,” Bella gesticulated. “You are seriously going to upset me if you keep worshipping that Jove of yours. What is he; a god who was going to suck in the smells of my roasting flesh. Did you want me sacrificed?”
“No way. But please, Bella.”
“I don’t want to hear any word about that demon again. Never swear by him when I’m near.”
“Alright, I hear you.” Rex bowed his head.
“Good,” she huffed. “Now show me some love.”

Chapter 21
A little regretful of the shouting match she’d just had with Rex, Bella slid again to her side of the couch. Rex seemed taken aback by the incident, but was beginning to show signs he’d come around to accept they now were inseparable. She only needed to give him more time to perk up, and then soon he’d be unleashing his whole virgin self on her. Or perhaps it’d be the other way around, she plundering him. Christ, how sweet that was going to be.
She had no power to control fate, though, and before any of her juicy imaginings happened, she heard a droning noise that made her tense. Something bad had been hovering in the air at some distance, but now it had drawn close. The plane circling above had an engine hum that sounded eerily like Ishobad’s. A fear entered Bella. She wasn’t giving up yet on those thoughts of enjoying her newly-found space-based romance, but now she needed to be more cautious. She must attend to this creeping air-borne menace at once. She stood up and stepped to the back-window.
Rex seemed to sense her urgency and came to stand beside her.
“That plane looks very much like Ishobad’s; am I right?” Bella thought she’d seen and heard right but didn’t want to make rash conclusions.
“Do you really want me to scare you?” Rex grinned rather nervously.
“Say so, if you think it’s him.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he nodded warily. “There is one little ray of hope, though; Ishobad can’t land in this backyard.”
“Why do you say that?” Bella didn’t think Rex’s assurance was logical and something to feel safe about. “Look at the way he’s maneuvering the plane,” she reasoned. “It’s hovering, I’m sure he could land anywhere he liked, so long the surface was clear of obstructions.”
“I’m talking of the prohibition to enter shrine grounds without permission,” Rex countered. “Ishobad just can’t raid this place on his own.”
Bella thought about it and sighed. “Landing or no landing, I feel the net closing in. We have to start doing something.”
The plane slid away from the river bank and edged closer to the shrine.
Bella had all the reasons to remain afraid, but this air maneuver caused her to marvel. How was that possible? She’d already wondered how a technologically backward society like Qmalo managed to have hundreds of small planes in the sky, but now this flying contraption was performing routines that a normal aircraft on earth couldn’t. There must be something supernatural about it. She’d had that feeling ever since they rode in that farmer’s truck on their way to Mshikashika. ‘A backward society that practices human sacrifice cannot put hundreds of planes in the sky; or even come close to designing something that moves so flawlessly like that little rickety jet.” In addition, the grinding and whining sound of the engine was completely at odds with the smoothness of the plane’s flight path.
“There is something unusual about that plane, and perhaps all the others,” she uttered with a mix of wonderment and trepidation. “This planet is full of magic.”
Rex’s eyes widened; Bella didn’t know if that was out of incredulity or mere astonishment. “What do normal planes do?” he asked.
“We are watching magic in action. Normal planes fly at speed. They don’t hover like birds.”
“But that thing will need gas at some point. It can’t be magic that flies it. Listen to the sound; isn’t that an engine?”
“Even with that, Rex, I still got my point.” She forgot her fear for an instant. “I will prove it to you.”
“What are you going to do now? Isn’t starting to pack the better thing..?”
Bella brushed him aside. She darted to her backpack and grabbed the para eye they’d plucked out of the salamander last night. She dashed back to the window. “Magics usually fight,” she said with excitement. “Let’s see what we will get here,” she winked at the disbelieving Rex.
“What are you up to?”
“Just wait.” She pointed the glassy thing at the hovering plane and held her breath. The plane jerked and then dropped in height by something like a yard. Had it been just a little lower, it might have licked the treetops. “Did you see that?”
“Oh God, I did.” Rex’s jaw dropped. “You and your magic eye.”

Chapter 22
Rex observed the plane regain height, and shortly after, it began to drift farther north. Its continued flight was an anticlimax; it hadn’t spectacularly burst into flames or crushed into the trees like he’d begun to root for. That meant they still hadn’t found a solution to their problems and must continue searching. The para eye sure had some potential but on its own might not be good enough to take them to where they wanted. Even more practically, they didn’t know much about it to start considering it an ally. It just might let them down at the worst possible moment.
Knowing they had nothing much to rely on worried Rex. The planes still zinged in the sky and once in a while a car drove by. Today might be a maintenance day and a couple of workers could turn up. That really could make things complicated. And worse, an actual raid by police or gaafas could happen.
Rex weighed the odds of all those terrible things occuring, and how best to avoid them. Their situation unfortunately wasn’t as simple as he might have liked. Leaving right away was an option, but it required to take into account the hazards outside the shrine. You couldn’t just walk onto a public street with the daylight being like it was. That would be like just giving yourself up to fate.
Going to hide in or escaping via the forest lining the river was also another possibility. That seemed workable, but marching in bushes again would take too much of a toll on Bella. She had already endured too much during yesterday’s journey and Rex didn’t want her punished further. She actually might collapse in the ravines, and that would be unacceptable.
Rex cracked his brains again. While there were points to be made for a hasty departure, there also were good ones to be made for staying in a while longer. They came here to discover magic and they hadn’t finished exploring this shrine. There still was that Akan taxidermy of last night that mystified him much, and clues as to why it was so special might still be hidden here. Added to that, a whole building still stood they hadn’t even entered into. What then would be the point in rushing to go? Coming here had always been a hazard and if it remained so, it’s what they risked.
“Did you dream anything about the Akan?” Rex prompted Bella, as soon as thoughts of the mystery took a more prominent place in his mind.
“You should have better clues than me,” Bella answered. “You have lived here for long.”
She was right, but Rex himself had no real knowledge either. He had heard a lot about Akans in general but nothing special enough to warrant a specific study. The elusive reptile might be of some symbolic relevance to Qmalians, but the words he copied last night from that pedestal were more mystical and loaded: ‘Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.’ They certainly begged a special attention. And now that they didn’t have much else to do, starting to research about the words together with the Akan taxidermy they were on would be a useful activity. How lucky it was they’d bothered to steal Slasher’s journal; now they had somewhere to start. Being very traditional, the assistant of Ishobad’s could have written something about the mysteries in his journal. He might know all the details.
Rex returned to his seat on the couch and brought out the little journal.
“Good idea,” said Bella, looking at the notebook. “Now like me you would like to do a little reading.” She came to sit closer to him.
“I was so enchanted by the Akan,” Rex said.
“How about the coded wording. Still no clue?”
“That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
“Okay, let’s read on.”
Together they flipped the pages. Unfortunately no references to the mystical words turned up.
“We might have to find someone to ask,” Bella sighed with resignation, “or do a research in a library.”
“Whom, though, could we turn to? A library would be too risky a place.”
“Let me think,” Bella was surprisingly fast. “Do you know of someone who is an enemy of Ishobad’s, but is well-read and knows a lot?”
“Uh, I can’t think of anyone, off hand.” Rex puzzled at what Bella was aiming at. “But there could be somebody.”
“Open the notebook again. Help could be in there.”
Rex grinned with further puzzlement. He cast Bella an eye that begged for clarification.
Bella’s face exuded a deep inspiration. “As a trusted lieutenant of Ishobad,” she hinted. “Slasher could know a lot about his master’s dealings. He should know an enemy or two of Ishobad’s, and I figure for someone to become a rival of the Aha that Qmalian must be as learned or even more learned than Ishobad himself.”
“What a clever woman! So you imply any rival of Ishobad's could be of help to us.”
“Precisely. And if Slasher was aware of any enemy he most likely would have alluded to the fact in this little tattered journal.”
“I see, let’s take a look, then.” Rex opened the notebook again. He agreed with the fact that Ishobad would have rivals but for now he couldn’t isolate a single one. How daft that he couldn’t. For someone who lived with the Aha almost all his life, that was unforgivable.
While Rex still regretted, they leafed through. A lot was written inside, but disappointingly, most of it seemed unrelated to what they were looking for.
They continued to peruse, however, and then finally with some luck they came upon a curious page that was marked with an asterisk. Rex’s heart stopped for a bit.
‘On this day,’ Slasher wrote, ‘Master has opened my balls to the east, and I now sigh. Sheikh Ramzi is not he who he says he is.’
“What” Bella shrieked. “Why would someone like Slasher need to have his balls opened? What does he mean by that? Who is Sheikh Ramzi anyway?”
“Sheikh Ramzi?” Rex thought. “There are literally hundreds of people in this country with that name.”
Bella snorted. “None of them ring a bell to you?”
“None at the moment.”
Bella scratched her head. As she did that, Rex saw something like a glimmer in her eyes. She pointed to the page again, and read aloud. “Master has opened my balls… Hey, balls, what’s that? Now, I think I get it!”
“Please share.” Rex gaped at her.
“Slasher meant his eyes when he wrote balls.”
Rex ran the cryptic statement in his head. ‘Master has opened my balls…eyeballs, eyes.’ “Yes, it makes sense,” he exclaimed. “Very clever of you to deduce that. But what of ‘to the east?’ What could that indicate?”
“Let’s see.” Again Bella looked thoughtful.
“Could Ishobad have stood with Slasher and pointed in an easterly direction,” Rex puzzled. “It’s confusing.”
“You may be right, but in my opinion it’s not quite so.”
“What is it, then?”
“Crack your brains, Rex. What is the east famous for?”
“The east isn’t famous at all; it’s only where the sun rises from.”
“Good! And what does the sun give us?”
The idea hit Rex. “Get out of here! I now know…”
“You see,” Bella interjected. “Qmalians may think they are smarter than humans, but we can figure out their coding. Slasher meant Master has opened my eyes to the light.”
“Very smart of you,” Rex almost cheered. “But what does he mean by ‘I now sigh.’
“Don’t ask such a dumb thing.” Bella gave him come-on look.
Rex tapped his forehead. “Sigh, sigh… Oh, it’s SEE! I now see.”
“Now you get it! Master has opened my eyes to the light and I now see!”
“That was stupid of me.” Rex felt bad as things he ought to have quickly remembered started to trickle into his mind. Slasher had used unusual code words, but the moment he mentioned Sheikh Ramzi, Rex should have had a quick clue. “I now know the Ramzi he is talking of.” Rex slapped his forehead with disappointment. “Ishobad has a real beef with that man. Ramzi slept with the Aha’s fiancée, despite that he was a married man.”
“A love triangle, how interesting.” Bella’s eyes lit up. “What happened? Educate me.”
“You see, Ishobad’s first wife died, leaving two small children. Then he fell in love with this young woman named Fionn, and shortly after, they became betrothed. Things went well for some time, and then the demons worked their way and Fionn was seduced by this married Sheikh gentleman and then they fornicated—which made Ishobad a very angry man. Ramzi and the Aha had always been enemies, but their feud became irreparable after that.”
“Really sweet of this Ramzi guy to do that to Ishobad; and I think he might want to help us. Can we go to him for assistance?”
“I guess we could,” Rex said. “But you know what, we are way to the opposite side of town. Sheikh Ramzi lives well east of here.”

It began to rain lightly on and off that afternoon, but it remained too risky to leave. They had to hold on for a better time. There still was another building to explore, anyway, and they couldn’t just leave this place without checking it out. It might contain something that could help them or even a clue to the mystic words they’d failed to decipher. Going to check right away, again like leaving the shrine, would not be a good idea so long as the light outside was still good enough to allow passers-by to notice activity within the shrine. They would have to hang in until dusk approached.
With not a lot else to do, waiting was a pain. By the time the light began to fade, Rex was becoming anxious. They’d been here for far too long, and they should depart once they finished seeing inside the other building.
“What do you think we will discover next?” Rex was eager.
Bella shook her head. “I’m not sure but let’s go see.”
Anticipation began to surge in Rex. “My turn today to first spy what’s out,” he said, and then got out to check.
The grass was wet and very soft. The street lights weren’t lit yet, but any time from now they could be. Up in the sky, misshapen clouds darkly glared back at him. It might continue to drizzle on and off tonight. That would be very good for sneaking away. Rex peered past the cottage wall to the road. No one was walking by. The coolness and rain might have forced Qmalians living in cottages around here to stay indoors. He and Bella probably might not need to dash across the yard like yesterday.
“We can go. It’s clear,” Rex came back to the door.
Bella joined him and they scuttled across. They passed by the building of yesterday—which was the biggest in the complex—and one they now knew contained rows and rows of displayed taxidermies. The building left to check was not far from the biggest. They reached it. The structure wasn’t rectangular like the others but round like a hut. It was big, though, much bigger than a regular hut, and very tall, almost two story, and was capped with a steeply slanting thatch roof. The walls were of mortared stone, of which the stone was the older rough kind, not the more modern smooth type. Its doorway was arched, but the old wooden door was rectangular so that it left a semi-circular gap at the top.
They unlatched the door and entered. A bad smell greeted them. Lots of squeaking and squealing sounds came from the roof, which had no ceiling. They looked up. Numerous bats’ nests dotted the roof, no wonder the floors of this giant hut were littered with smelly droppings. Apart from the nasty little flying creatures, it didn’t appear like anything interesting could be in this building. A few yards, though, from the door was another circular half-wall. The half wall, which was a little less than five feet tall, was not concentric with the big hut, but was displaced to the south. To the north-east was a tall, walled partition with another arched doorway.
“I didn’t know the big hut was sectioned,” Rex said as he gaped at the interior.
“What’s that little circular wall protecting?” Bella asked.
“Let’s see, but tread carefully; there could be booby-traps.
They walked to the half-wall. At first it looked like nothing was contained within it, but upon peeking over the top, they found that the wall surrounded a huge hole in the ground with smelly water inside.
“This big hut was built around a waterhole,” Bella exclaimed.
“That could be a bottomless pond, who knows.” Rex mused.
“Maybe that’s where all the Qmalian powers are hidden?”
“I smell only tons of shit, but your guess could be correct.”
“We have no way of finding out, though; what a pity.”
“I wish we were magicians ourselves and then we could easily find out.”
“Let’s spit into the hole. Maybe that will kill any evil forces hiding in there.
“Sure, let’s try. That might help, who knows.”
Together they spat, but although nothing happened Rex was sure something had been dented. They had no time, however, to wait and see the effects of their spitting if any. They had to enter the other partition before it got too dark.
The bats screamed at them as they left the half-wall. To Rex that was a good sign. “We weren’t attacked on coming in,” he chimed. “Now the bat battalion is upon us. I’m sure it means we have upset something.”
“Or that there might be something juicier where we are now headed,” Bella speculated.

They reached the partition doorway, and entered, again treading carefully. Inside was a small chamber, and hung on the wall opposite the doorway was a reed mat. The mat was swaying a little suggesting it was admitting a ripple of air from behind.
“What’s at the back?” Bella pointed.
Getting excited, they dashed for the hanging mat. Its bottom end almost touched the floor and they had to bend to roll it up. After raising it a yard, they peered and saw a curving stairwell staring back at them.
“What could be up there?”
They forgot all about possible booby traps, and raced up.
On reaching a landing, another open entryway admitted them to a narrow but tall alcove. Whether by design or by fault, the alcove’s top was not covered by the thatch roof and so its floor was wet. Bella wasn’t too bothered by the dampness and only focused on the objects that lay inside. Mounted on a wood platform was a telescope-like contraption—one whose optical tube ended in an opening in the wall. Unlike regular telescopes whose tubes are metallic, this one was made of fired clay.
Bella was first to peer into the thing’s eye-piece. She saw nothing but darkness. Now thinking it must be some sort of pay-per view device, she looked underneath the platform and to its sides hoping to find something resembling a control panel with a slot where a coin could go. Nothing like that turned up, just a lot of wood members holding the platform together.
The opening above the alcove was now admitting very little light and it was hard to see everything. “Rex please, your flashlight just for a sec.”
Rex brought it out and turned it on. He swung the beam around. This side of the massive hut was not visible from the street so nobody would see the beam. As Rex was aiming his beam, Bella noticed, lying on the platform top, a small carved wooden stick that had a feather dangling from one end. Bella grabbed the stick. “Is it a kind of key?”
“I don’t know,” Rex waved.
Rex focused his light on the telescope tube, and Bella noticed there was a small hole on the topside of it.
An inspiration suddenly hit. Bella slotted the small stick into the hole to see what could happen. She again looked into the eye-piece, and voila a big luminous ball became visible.
“Rex, you should see this.”
At first, she couldn’t discern what the partly-squashed ball was, and then when she did, she went wild with excitement. “Wow,” she said. “I can see the earth. Please, come see the motherland.”
She gave Rex a chance to peer.
“You mean that ball is where we come from?” Rex widened his eyes.
“Yes, that’s where you were born.”
“How I wish I could go back.” Rex also couldn’t hold his excitement.
Bella asked for another turn. She peered once more and now did a better job of focusing on the earth’s landscapes. The position currently was that the Atlantic Ocean was at the center. She saw the continent of America to the west and then Africa and Europe to the East. She felt homesick but her mind kept functioning. “My only conclusion from this is that this planet and earth are not terribly far apart.
“So, did you ever see this planet when you were still on earth?”
“No I didn’t, but I now have a clue why. This planet is bathed in a coat of invisibility, that’s why humans don’t see it. When we looked through the telescope without the little stick-key, we couldn’t see the earth because of the invisibility coat. So, what the stick-key helped to do was create a small hole in the invisibility barrier and make the earth visible”
“I see,” said Rex. “We should keep the stick, then. It helps to render the invisible visible.”
“You just said what was on my mind, now let’s go.”

Chapter 23
This time, the blood that Slasher smelt as he woke up was not his own but rather that of Rex and the purchase. He would find them and kill them. The cloud of pain around him was still heavy but that didn’t mean he couldn’t rise and go on the mission. Death was the only thing the fugitives deserved. To add to his determination, the Nsuka was still singing in his head. “Go, warrior, go.” Which Qmalian worth his blood could ignore that? To the war song, Slasher added a slogan he’d learned long ago: Qmalo strong, earth weak! That was so true—and he would prove it.
They’d brought him back from hospital, and it was nice to see his bedroom walls. It was inspiring, and reassuring, too, to see another Qmalian stand next to his bed. Yes, that was Narnia, Aha Ishobad’s chief housemaid—Slasher recognized her even though his mind was still dazed.
“You want to join me as I go for battle?” he mumbled half-wittingly.
“That would be great, but you aren’t well yet,” Narnia’s voice sounded sweet for the first time.
“I have to find those earthlings, those two murderous schemers.”
“Don’t worry, they will be caught and punished soon.”
That didn’t sound good at all. Couldn’t Narnia tell Slasher wanted his own revenge? ‘Come on Narnia, won’t you please say: ‘Warrior, rise and go,’ like Nsuka does.’
Narnia smiled at him. Despite she hadn’t echoed what he wanted her to, Slasher still felt empowered. All Qmalians were good, all earthlings horrible.
Narnia left his bed and returned from the kitchen with a glass of water. “You can take your meds,” she indicated at a vial of Qmalian Oxycodone that stood on his bed stand.
How compassionate she was—but only those things that prepared him for battle would do. If those pills couldn’t make him strong enough for total war, then he would not have them.
“Are they good enough for fighters?”
“The very best any wounded warrior could ask for.”
That was lovely. Narnia had said warrior, and wounded, and the very best. What inspiration had suddenly hit her. She looked almost like an angel now. Perhaps that Nsuka sound he was hearing was emanating from deep within her.
“Alright, I will rise as you command.”
Fighting back the waves of pain, Slasher half-sat up. Narnia opened the vial and dropped a caplet into his palm. Slasher held the glass of water with his good left hand. He threw the caplet into his mouth and washed it down with a gulp.
“Good, see you soon, stay healthy.” Narnia walked out and closed the door.
No good staying healthy if you can’t execute your revenge, Slasher wanted to say but he was now left alone. He stayed still for several minutes and then he began to feel a pleasant dullness take over. The waves of pain were lifting. That felt good. Without anyone’s help he lowered his legs from the bed and his feet tasted the parquetted floor. Some good soul had rested his butcher knife on the wall near the door. He staggered to it, picked it up and kissed it. There was nothing sweeter on this planet than to be reunited with a weapon so formidable.
“Rex and purchase, here I come. It’s now my turn to shine…” he said rather loudly then began to look for something most suitable to wear, perhaps something with an army feel. This was now total war…

Chapter 24
24.1 Fionn’s point of View
Grinhya: this is very well explained in the text below.
Not far from the shrine, only up the street, a Qmalian woman named Fionn watched darkness engulf Egodad. The woman was no ordinary one; she was a grinhya, a female kidnapper of humans; and she was very efficient at her work, and very much respected by her peers. Aside from her grinhya skills she also had other attributes that made her outstanding. Like she once secretly apprenticed with a sorcerer and gained some knowledge of the dark art. She’d also been a feared igaafa as a youth, but what she thought set her apart from everyone else was her ability to smell love when it started to grow. Right now, she could sense it as she stood on a balcony at this river-side motel. The darkened skies and intermittent drizzle would not dampen the aroma. Yes, it was there, coming from down street. A lucky couple was falling head over heels with each other.
Despite her exquisite abilities however, Fionn had some troubling problems of her own. Like right now she was lovelorn. And she felt needy, a fact she was made more aware of by the love hormones she was picking up. Not that Qmalian men never approached her with romantic intentions. She possessed, in the rugged Qmalian way, a perky beauty few men could refuse to take notice of. Not so long ago she was seeing Sheikh Ramzi, one of Qmalo’s better-known dissidents. And before that, she’d been engaged to Ishobad, the Aha himself. Poor Ishobad, she betrayed him when she shouldn’t have. She couldn’t go back to Ramzi, of course, because Ramzi was married. Now she wanted Ishobad back. Why did she even do what she did to him?
Her sense of betrayal was now made more acute by the shocking news she’d heard: how Ishobad’s servant, Rex, had run away with an earthling woman that the Aha had purchased. Why did things have to go like that for a noble man like Ishobad? Today as she’d spent the time thinking about him, she’d seen a plane that sounded like his hovering in the air. Did he think about her? Was it his way of stalking her from the air?
Fionn had something interesting to tell him, of course. According to news reports the purchase who escaped was elemental. That could not be true, Fionn could swear—for she’d been there with her fellow kidnappers in that damned earthling city named New York. Of all the humans captured that night, none had been detected as elemental. Someone must have lied to Ishobad, cheated him. And very possibly it was Rex, that depraved earthling bastard.
The well-known grinhya today had nothing much to do. With no man to take care of, she was just here as a single. She could do as she pleased; it was her off days anyway. Later on, if the mood continued to suit her, she might go out for a very long walk. That might do her a lot of good, and the thought of it made her feel better. There also was that love smell that she was curious about, and she’d just for fun find out where it was emanating from. Love intrigued her much. She was tempted to sniff again. The scent had actually intensified, but the strange thing now was that it didn’t smell typically Qmalian. It curiously tasted human.
That was so unusual. No humans here, whether as slaves or servants, were allowed to fall in love. Romance was a high thing reserved only for Qmalians. She'd investigate this travesty, and then later go for her walk. This was just too suspicious to let go.

Chapter 25
It was well past dusk and time to go. Unaware of the new source of danger that was creeping toward them, Bella and Rex packed their bags. They didn’t want to get to Sheikh Ramzi’s when it was too late. A guard there might turn them away saying their employer had retired to bed. They would be asking for a place to sleep there, too, and if they were refused and it was late, it’d be impossible to make any other plan. They would then be totally screwed, what with today’s weather.
“You got everything packed, your paranormal eye and stick key?”
“I could never forget those,” Bella said. “What would have been the point of coming here?”
Because they were going to use the street, they would exit by way of the front door this time. What would be the point anyway of sneaking out through the back, when they still were going to walk in public.
Bella was cautious, however. She opened the blinds and gave the street a quick appraisal. “All clear, except for a bit of fog,” she said, donning her efe.
“Good,” said Rex, putting on his as well. It saddened him to see the demeaning metal crescent dangle on Bella’s neck but this was not the time to argue with things. Hopefully in future when Qmalian power was destroyed, no one would ever be forced to wear such a lowly badge again. It pleased him to imagine they’d already taken the first step toward achieving such an epic feat.
Rex picked up his duffel bag. Bella creaked the front door open. She stepped out. Rex followed and closed the door behind him.
Things seemed okay for now. The street’s darkened pavement snaked in front of the shrine, maybe about twenty yards away. There wasn’t even a hint of anything moving. Only a slight wind broke the neighborhood’s quietness. Up in the sky not a star shone; the blanket of clouds had not lifted. Despite the tranquility, a sense of fear still however crept into Rex. You never could be sure what the dark could hold. Danger could be lying in wait anywhere and succeeding to reach Ramzi’s estate could not be guaranteed.
Going back into the cottage to put up another night in hiding was no option, though. They’d already gotten what they wanted here and another world out there waited to be discovered. ‘Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.’ Those words seemed to hold a lot of meaning. If they got to Ramzi’s, and he was willing to assist, they could end up with a lot of knowledge.
“Hope all goes well,” he spoke to the night air.
“Take heart. Together we are strong.”
“I love you, Bella.” He kissed her on the doorstep.
“I love you, too.”
Because of the intermittent drizzle, the front porch concrete was still wet. Rex’s boots fought with the moisture as they hit the walkway. Bella’s sneakers squeaked as she stepped alongside him. Tonight she’d changed into the blouse and skirt he’d bought her at Mshikashika. She also wore the cowboy hat he'd given her so she would not be easy to identify.
They were going to foot it down to Kwaax, cross the bridge and then walk all the way to Egodad Station. From there they would catch a bus to the east side of town. And hopefully if nothing bad happened they would reach Ramzi's estate and ask for help.
“How long will it be to the station?” a tang of concern laced Bella’s voice.
“Slightly less than an hour.”
“That should be good, then.”
“It should be,” Rex nodded, even as a fear of the unknown still gripped him.

The imitation army-gear he wore made Slasher imagine he was a real soldier going to combat. He felt heroic. The Qmalian army was a glory thing he could have joined but the fates had worked differently for him. Now clad in the same bush-green and out on a mission to destroy a lesser creation, this was his way of earning a medal for bravery for himself. Nothing would stand between him and his goal. The pain that’d been troubling him had lessened, too, and that made his chances brighter.
His mode of transport tonight was going to be his trike—which he kept parked in one of Ishobad’s sheds. On a rain-washed night like this, something that didn’t expose him to the open air would have been better but he didn’t have any—and so the trike should do. He picked up his butcher knife and slid it into its sheath, which was tied to his belt. No one could separate him from his knife again. Its sheath swung about as he strode out of his house.
Before he marched to the shed, Slasher thought to pay Rex’s shack a visit. He wanted to pack more anger inside of him. That little dirty cabin was where this conflict began. And that, too, was where he first heard the Nsuka. It would be necessary to glimpse that battlefield again, and he’d rededicate himself to the Qmalian cause.
Rex’s door was not closed. Slasher did not even need to go in anyway because the blood he left on Rex’s stoep hadn’t been completely washed away. Seeing the wet stains caused his anger to peak. Just like he wanted. That was Qmalian royal blood shed by a mere earthling. This was unheard of. No earthling who drew Qmalian blood like that would ever live long, and Rex wasn’t going to.
Fighting his remaining pains, Slasher padded with determination to the parking sheds. The weather today, apart from the drizzles, was also breezy and cool, but like Slasher had decided he would still go. Turning back because of the weather was out of the question—only sissies would do that. Strong fighters like him would brave the wind and succeed.
His key was in the ignition. He gave the starter a kick and the engine droned. A brief glance into the mirror revealed to him his bandaged face. That was all good because he was at war—although the bandages might make the guard at the gate ask where he was going in that condition—a question that really would be hard to answer but Slasher would find a way to explain. He wouldn’t give away his mission of course, because only he needed to know. Rex and the purchase had committed a grievous crime against a Qmalian and Slasher would avenge himself without the aid of law enforcement.
The scattered lights in Ishobad’s yard caused the grass and bushes to glow with a certain magical iridescence. Did battlefields glow like this? Okay, Rex and the purchase would be no match for him so it wasn’t going to be exactly a battle, but just rather an execution. Still, the thought of shedding blood excited him. Tonight, wherever he met Rex and his accomplice, the grass, or bushes, or pavement, or whatever they stood on would be colored red. A wet glistening red.
His knife dangled on his waist, as he rode toward the exit. ‘Qmalo strong, Earth weak.’
“Are you well enough to ride out, chief?” the guard at the gate asked in a predictable fashion.
“Qmalo strong,” Slasher replied cryptically, and then rode out.
The last bit he’d gotten from Aha Ishobad was that Rex and the purchase had disappeared somewhere northwest of Egodad. Slasher had no reason to doubt the esteemed lord’s intimations, although he had no clue where the Aha got that info from. What he was sure of, though, was that fugitives, to increase their chances of remaining uncaught, generally avoided staying in one location for too long. So, Rex and his accomplice might want to look for another place to hide. And with no car, they would have to use public transport. And a safe time to travel would be at night when there weren’t so many people around. Slasher would check out the bus and train stations of the west and perchance he might succeed. He pressed on his gas pedal and his trike speeded up. The wind singing against his helmet was like glorious like war music. And Nsuka tagged along. Go, warrior, go; arise and shine.

Chapter 26
The night was bewitching. Bella cast her eyes beyond the dense dark forest lining the Egodad River. Not far from the margins of the tree-line across the water, the tall streetlights of Egodad West shimmered. Smothered by the light haze, the lights appeared to dance, or swim—she wasn’t sure which—but her concern was not with the dependability of her vision but whether they would succeed at this mission to unravel the possible age-old Qmalian mystery locked inside the words—Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.
Already expectant, she listened for sounds that might help point to something. Echoes of river water splashing and roiling filtered through the forest of trees along the banks. Nearby, a gentle but moist wind whispered in the bushes and scrabble. Absolutely nothing to give her a clue as to what those ancient words meant, but when they got to Ramzi’s he might give them something meaningful.
She sensed the air again. Danger very likely waited; you never could be so sure of yourself in a foreign land. More than a day had passed since news of their escape had been broadcast, and the hunt might be intensifying. Ishobad, too, according to the last they’d heard, had put up a handsome amount of cash as a reward for information leading to their capture. Couple that with the fact Big Sat was nearing and a sacrificial human would be needed, the net around them might be closing. The quest to get to Ramzi’s might just be a hopeless dream.
The sidewalk kept swallowing their footsteps as they headed toward Kwaxx. Just before they reached the end of the narrow street, Bella heard a crack.
She stopped to listen. The sound had been like that of a twig snapping. What could cause that; she looked back. The darkish haze did not allow her to see far but she thought she noticed a furtive movement.
“Rex,” she said, fear rising in her. “I don’t think we are alone.”
“My thinking is that our ears are playing a trick on us.” Rex tried to be brave.
“Look behind us.” Bella swiveled to take another look.
Rex glanced back, too.
It certainly wasn’t twigs cracking. It was… footsteps.
“Shall we try and run,” she turned to pace faster.
“Probably not very wise.” Rex held her hand. “You don’t want a chase.”
Bella stopped to look back again into the haze. Now the shadowy movement took a form of its own, a woman-like figure. Clack, clack, her shoes went in measured steps. As she got nearer, Bella saw her form more clearly. She wore a long coat and loose darkish slacks. In her hands she held a handbag…

Fionn picked up the speed when she realized the two humans had noticed her. The scent of love now almost chocked her. Two earthlings, this was unimaginable. What indeed was this planet getting to?
“Stop there, I need to see your efes.”
The two earthlings halted. Oh Jove, it was Rex and the escaped purchase of Ishobad’s! Fionn couldn’t believe it. ‘My Jove, tell me if I’m seeing mere ghosts.’ She whistled to herself. ‘How can I be so lucky?’
“Rex, is that you?” Fionn tried to infuse her voice with as much warmth as she could feign. “What on this planet could you be doing here?”
Both Rex and the earthling woman indeed wore efes. Was that the supposed elemental spoken of on radio? How easily some people could be fooled.
“Fionn, what do you want from us?” Rex’s voice carried the tang of a threat.
“KKKK, dear me,” Fionn laughed it off. “Rex, now be reasonable. You know the trouble you are in and you are scaring away the best person to help you.”
“We can do without anyone’s help,” the fake elemental woman in Rex’s company bristled.
Fionn listened to her voice. It was familiar, what with the distinct American accent. “What’s her name? Are you in love with her?” Fionn ignored the woman and directed her questions at Rex.
“Hey, what really is your business?” Rex was unmoved.
“You haven’t told me your friend’s name,” Fionn continued. “She looks nice in an earthly way, doesn’t she?”
“Her name is Bella, if that is what will make you leave us alone.”
“No, servant, you know I’m not going anywhere yet. You and I could strike a deal.”
“What deal?”
“I could shelter you two in my motel room. I will make sure no one sees you.” Fionn thought of Ishobad and how happy he would be to get hold of these two. And if it was she bringing them handcuffed to the Aha’s estate, the romantic rewards would be unimaginable.
“No, I don’t think we can accept that,” said Bella.
“Sassy, isn’t she?” Fionn smiled, now actually remembering she was the one who cornered Bella and captured her. Bella had been the person in charge of proceedings in that mega club, and it had been good for a change to grab someone who controlled microphones, consoles and all the electronic gadgets that go with loud entertainment. And then little had she known this skinny but expensively-dressed captive would fall into the hands of Ishobad.
“You want to sell us out to Ishobad.” Rex now trembled with unease.
“Of course not,” Fionn emitted another calculated cackle. “If I meant to do that, I would have rushed back to my motel room to call the police the moment I saw you, but see I didn’t.” She remembered she had left in the motel one of the newest communication gadgets in town, her mobile phone.
“In that case, please then just go where you are going.” Rex’s voice rose high.
“Do you really know this woman?” Bella grimaced at Rex.
“Of course he knows me very well,” Fionn interjected. “I was going to be his master’s wife, but I later decided it didn’t suit me, so I moved on. Which is why you two must trust me. I am no friend of Ishobad’s anymore.”
Fionn could capture them right here this moment; she had her gun with the single bullet in it. The only thing lacking was transport. She glanced up the road to see if something could be driving this way, but alas nothing. She’d have to keep walking with them till something came up.
“So, tell us where you were going before you saw us?” Concern peppered Rex’s voice.
“Just taking a walk,” Fionn forced a brief giggle. “You know me well, I like to exercise.”
She listened again for any sound of a coming car.
Bella glared at her quizzically.
“Let’s just walk together. I have a clue where you are heading, and I actually might help you,” her voice rang in the dark like a witch’s.

Chapter 27
Aha Ishobad couldn’t remember ever having been afraid. Sure, there were times he’d been gravely concerned about things—like the time his wife fell sick and died—but to be terrified for himself, no. Up till now he didn’t know how fear felt; it was only something he saw in the eyes of the victims he slayed for organs. Now he began to feel terror’s tentacles wrapping around him, and his brow moistened. Getting called to an emergency meeting at night—that was serious.
Lord Kayo, the stern archbishop, sat opposite him, enthroned in a regal chair that was placed behind a huge polished Qmalian Teak desk. His golden fleece wig, part of his ornate regalia, was draped on his head. His deputies, the four of them, sat beside him, two on each side, and Ishobad was the only one on this side of the desk, the cold side.
“Anything meaningful to report from you,” Lord Kayo almost snarled. “The police haven’t given us anything we can work on.”
“Same old, I’m afraid,” replied Ishobad, suppressing a burp whose tang reminded him of the forensic liquors he’d taken this morning. “But all indications are that the fugitives may have gone to hide west of the Egodad.”
Lord Kayo gazed concernedly at his watch. “Big Saturday is only what, two days?”
“We shouldn’t be long in catching the two. The elemental will be made available before then.” Ishobad’s heart pumped.
“My worry is the lax way in which such a prized human was guarded. How could she have been allowed to escape?”
“My error, lord,” Ishobad suppressed another alkaline burp. “My misplaced trust in my lying, scheming slave caused all that.”
“But how could you have trusted an earthling to guard another earthling? That’s like asking a monkey to imprison another monkey.”
“My most heartfelt apology, sir. I swear the elemental will be delivered within a day,” Ishobad felt a stab because he knew he was lying. The escaped purchase was actually no elemental; Rex had tricked him. But now to let the hierarchy know that. It would be the most shameful thing…
“Am I excused?” he heard himself ask.
“Not quite, Aha, not quite. You know this is an emergency. We promised Jove a sacrifice and we have to honor that.”
“I hear you lord.” Ishobad quaked. “I will do something about it, you have my word.”
“You had better mean it or else…”

Egodad West, the signs glowed in yellow. Slasher parked his trike then took off his helmet. A gentle but moist breeze greeted his face. His plan was simple—to just wait here and keep his eyes open. You never knew with fugitives; they could dare try anything. And even if he couldn’t strike anything tonight, the satisfaction he’d get—because he’d at least tried—would be great. What was the point in staying home and sleeping like a sissy?
Leaving his machine behind, Slasher padded toward the station building. The rough ride on his trike had again ignited those steel hammers in his head—and a dull ache sang in his shoulder—but the sound of Nsuka was great. The feel of his sheathed knife against his hip gave him an even greater pride. Winning against the two wretched earthlings was the only thing he wanted.
The station was perhaps a little busier than he had imagined. Commuters hustled and darted about, their rain streaked faces glistening in the night light. Many had an umbrella in one hand while the other clutched a handbag or dragged a carry-on case. Slasher heard the squeal of castors on the hard pavement. Diesel-powered buses idled near curbs, and Slasher could hear the ramble of pistons. A tail pipe or two emitted plumes of smoke that rose into the lit, humid night.
A train came, whistled, and then the station became a cacophony of steel wheels grinding and creaking. All that didn’t matter to Slasher. He kept his eyes on the commuters coming and going, hoping perchance his knife contained in the sheath on his waist could see some action tonight.

‘Fionn,’ Bella thought she remembered the name. So this indeed was the Qmalian damsel who’d cheated on Ishobad. Was she to be taken as a friend, and was the promise to help she’d made something to be depended on? No, Bella didn’t think so.
She listened to Fionn speak to Rex. It was obvious the two knew each other well but there was something about Fionn that she didn’t like. Scared her, if the more accurate words would be used.
They turned into Kwaxx, which was more brightly lit. Bella looked at the alien woman and shivered a little. Slightly tall, with thin chiseled features, she could, on earth, pass for a slightly ageing model but her looks weren’t what worried Bella. There was just this something that said it wasn’t her first time to see the woman. Where had they previously met? At the airport, when Bella was being hustled along by Ishobad, no? Maybe she was making a mistake, but the lilt of that voice was something she had heard. Maybe in a dream or somewhere.
“If you are tired, honey, you can give me your backpack,” Fionn offered, as they were approaching the Kwaxx bridge.
“I’m good, thanks,” Bella answered.
“You guys don’t have to wear efes if you are with me. I’m here to protect you.”
Bella gave her a silent once-over. What was she trying to get by playing nice like this?
“We are doing just fine,” Rex answered Fionn.
A little traffic flowed on the bridge, and now and then Fionn would glance at the cars as though she were trying to spot a police cruiser. That scared Bella.
When they reached bridge’s middle, a yellowish truck passed by, driving slowly. Fionn raised her hand and as though she would hail it down. Bella’s heart jumped. The truck did not stop, thank God.
“That wasn’t Ishobad who drove by, in case you thought it was him,” Fionn said mystically.
“What did you do that for?” Rex frowned.
“It’s far to walk, don’t you guys need transport?”
“No, we don’t.” Bella thought they now should get rid of Fionn. Couldn’t she and Rex throw her off the bridge?
Bella had the paranormal eye in her backpack. Maybe she should bring it out and try to use it. Perhaps by some magic it could just cause Fionn to choke to death. She unslung one of the backpack’s strap off, but Fionn saw this, fast.
“Sweetie, what do we have in that bag?”
“Nothing,” Bella slung it back, quick.
“Don’t tell me you guys got a gun.” Fionn stopped and clutched her handbag.
“Where would we get one?” Rex nudged Bella to be careful. “Let’s just go.”

Chapter 28
The heat was now building up. They’d reached the station and what was left was to just walk into the wide gateway. If they still had the courage, that was. The station was busier than Rex would have expected, and seeing so many Qmalians standing or walking inside made him nervous. And then they had this Fionn who just wouldn’t go her way. ‘I’m just out for a walk…’ she’d said, but now she’d stuck with them for over half an hour. And she seemed like she would walk with them right in.
“Fionn, we have been together long enough, it’s time for you to go,” Rex gathered the courage.
“Why you saying that, guys; I’m enjoying your company.”
“We don’t need you anymore.” Bella came to his aid.
“You are chasing away the only person who can help...”
“You’ve already done your part, now please just go.”
“Okay, it was nice meeting you,” Fionn said, and started padding away. “Don’t let anyone catch you in there, though; be careful.” She now dashed across the road and vanished into the night traffic.
“I don’t believe that just happened,” Bella sighed. “That bitch was giving me the creeps.”
“Thank God, she is gone.” Rex agreed.
Hardly, though, had their troubles ended. There was a police precinct not very far from this station and who could guess where Fionn was going. A person like her, who just appeared from nowhere and then tried to be nice, could not be trusted. Wouldn’t she want the reward money that Ishobad had put up?
Before they walked in, Rex surveyed the station’s inside. There was still a lot of movement of people boarding and deboarding. A single uniformed guard stood at the doors to the train platforms, but there could be one or two more somewhere. That didn’t give a nice feeling.
“Ready to mix with the Qmalians?” he nodded at Bella, even as he fought to contain his uneasiness.
“I have the para eye in my bag,” Bella shivered a little.
“Touch it; it might bring us some luck.”
“Or render us invisible to the Qmalians,” Bella forced an uneasy smile.
Rex grinned, realizing how Bella had stretched the wishful thinking too far. They’d had the eye all along, yet Fionn had been able to see them. And talk to them, even pretend to be a friend. “You are such an optimist.” Rex cast her a patronizing gaze.
“I’m better that way, so let’s just go.”

Fionn crossed the wide pedestrian walkway and ran toward a taxi-cab terminal. She would bundle Rex and Bella into a cab before they disappeared, and then drive straight to Ishobad’s residence. Capturing and transporting them had been her plan all along, but unfortunately no cab had driven by as they walked. Indeed all the way, she’d desperately scanned all passing vehicles for that illuminated taxi-sign but had seen none. What a stretch of poor luck, but now she was sure the plan would succeed.
By regulation, cabs could not drive in and park right on station pavement. They had their own pickup and drop-off area nearby. Several cabs were parked in the terminal. She approached the first one she got to. The driver was snoozing inside.
“I need your help, buddy,” she tapped at the half-open window. “I need transport for myself and two special people who are in the station.”
“Can’t the two come over? You know I’m not allowed to drive in there,” the driver indicated.
Fionn opened her handbag. Her gun was inside but she didn’t mean to hold up this man. She instead brought out a neat wad of Qmalian kwachuus and waved it at the driver. “More than any fine you ever could be asked to pay,” she offered with a pleading smile.
The driver sighed then took the cash. He unlocked his doors.
Fionn jumped in beside him. She was set, but it would help her more if she looked a tiny bit different. She took off her long coat, and slung it on her lap. Then she withdrew her yellow grinhya cap from her handbag and put it on. Bella and Rex would not be able to quickly recognize her when she was back; and then she could pounce more easily.
“Which part exactly are those two special friends of yours standing?” the driver swung his cab onto the driven part of the road.
“Please just drive on.”
They had to follow behind a bus that was rolling ahead, its tail lights covered in dust. Fionn willed the clumsy thing to go fast or get out of the way but the bus crawled. She didn’t want too much time to pass by. Someone could recognize the fugitives and call the cops or station guards and Fionn’s plans would be imperiled. Even worse, the two runaways could succeed to board a bus or train and ride to another hiding location. It would be terrible if she missed them. Those two were her only brightest chance to get back with Ishobad.
The station was a little busier than normal, and that slowed their progress further. Oh Jove, why were things going like this?
The cab however did make it inside. Fionn looked out and listened for any humans being captured but didn’t see or hear anything. The only noise she heard was that of traffic, both inside and also farther upstreet. Absolutely no sign of commotion. That was good. Bella and Rex hadn’t been caught. She still could steal them away herself.
“Where are the friends of yours?” the driver glanced at her with increased impatience.
“Just give me a minute. Isn’t it I paid you?”
She scanned the left and right sides of the terminus. Several people stood on both ends. Others were walking toward the doors to the train platforms ahead. She didn’t see the fugitives; where were they? Could it be Bella and Rex had entered, purchased tickets, and gone. How smooth and daring, the criminals.
With some hesitation, the driver ventured much deeper into the complex. Soon he had to come to a stop because the platform building was now right in front of him. Fionn could see hazily through the glass windows to the few people lounging inside.
“I might have to head back,” said the driver, looking frustrated. “This is the farthest I can go. Where are your people?”
“Stay here and wait.” Fionn jumped out.
She briefly held her nose. The air was polluted with too many scents—diesel exhausts, cooked fish, roasted chicken, and fried potatoes—it was hard to use her powerful ability to good effect. Also, as if those common scents were not enough, there were the many love aromas of the young Qmalian couples here—which made it even more difficult to isolate that specific one of Bella and Rex. She’d have to do a thorough physical check.
She ran toward the bus shelters to the right, but didn’t see anything. She then tried the left—again no luck. Maybe Bella and Rex had gone in to the train platforms. She ran to the platform building doors and scanned. No, the pair wasn’t to be seen. The taxi driver was now idling nervously and could depart. A guard was advancing towards the taxi. That could screw up things real bad. Why was the stupid guard enforcing the no-taxis law late at night when the station wasn’t too busy? Fionn wanted to rush and jump him, but no that wouldn’t work. She took in the air sharply through her nose again. The love scent was there, but there were too many others mixed together. The fugitives were still around somewhere.
Fionn thought to calm down and observe things more slowly. She needed to conceal herself behind something, too, so the fugitives would not be the first to see her. Luckily, close to where she stood, there was a concrete pillar that helped support the platform building’s roof. She darted behind it. It was a nice spot. “I’ll find them,” she muttered to the concrete.

Seated on a bench not too far from the train tracks, Slasher shook himself out of a nap. A half-shot of Oxy he’d taken had dulled him and a snooze stole him. That was a real bad thing. Warriors never slept on the job, they always stood guard.
A loop of that Nsuka song still bubbled in the back of his head. Now it could be sounding louder than normal, but Slasher wasn’t sure of that. Maybe the drowsiness caused by sleep could have amplified the sound, or it might be that anticipation was running too high in him. What the true fact was, though, didn’t matter. Action was the only thing he was waiting for.
Just to be sure, Slasher flexed his shoulder and neck muscles. Oh yes, he was still fit for battle. And even though there was still that dull ache in his head, that wouldn’t weaken him. If anything, it would actually make him more determined.
Where was the enemy, though? Were they still in their hiding location, or had they decided to move? Slasher was very positive they would not be putting up at the same place and very likely would try catch a train here and go somewhere else. It was getting late, though, but perhaps another twenty or thirty-minute wait would do no harm.
With Nsuka bubbling even more loudly, Slasher opened his tired eyes wide and swept the inside. The number of people waiting for the train had increased, but he couldn’t see anything like Rex and his accomplice. Outside, there was still quite some movement. Two or three buses idled near the shelters. Commuters darted across the pavement to get tickets. It was still very possible to see action.
Oh Jove why wasn’t it coming fast, though. Slasher was getting really tired. He yawned lazily, and then thought maybe he could rejuvenate himself by walking around. Before he could stand, however, a flurry of frenzied movements happening outside caught his attention. A guard started waving at a taxi that had driven right into the station. A woman scurried by and then strangely hid behind a column. The woman wore a yellow cap and was glancing about. Soon she turned her head and peeked inside. Slasher recognized her. Fionn!
Oh Jove, what was that harlot doing here? And why was she acting like that?
Slasher observed her further. Fionn didn’t stop turning her head around freakishly. She then began to wave desperately at the taxi. This was crazy. Slasher could have gone to ask her what the matter was but had no time for it. He had his battles to fight and wouldn’t waste his time talking to harlots. Maybe it was time he should be leaving anyway.
He stood up and flexed himself. He’d leave the building by the side door. But perhaps before giving up completely and heading back to his trike, he should give the bus shelters a quick once over…

“Rotten bastard,” Fionn swore at the station guard who was forcing the taxi-guy to drive away. “Can’t you just let him wait? It’s an emergency.”
She stayed behind the column observing the scene, and wishing the taxi-guy wouldn’t budge. She still remained alert to other things, and knew she shouldn’t let the taxi argument occupy her too much—because fugitives could use a chaos like it to sneak away. Every corner had to remain covered.
The station guard did not stop harassing the taxi driver.
“Idiot,” Fionn cursed.
The taxi began to move away. Desperate, Fionn thought what to do. She had her coat in there and didn’t want to lose it. She could run and jump into the cab but where would the benefit be if she left Bella and Rex behind. Forget the coat, she decided, and of course the money, too. Rex and Bella were gold. She’d keep watching out.
The taxi was now reaching the exit, and Fionn saw its purple tail lights. Perhaps this had turned into a failure and she should give up. Just as she was deciding, a tall young human wearing a jacket with the hoodie pulled up walked out of the ticket booth. Rex, it was! Jove, when did he slip that hoodie on?
Rex held two small pieces of paper in his hands. ‘He has managed to get tickets, I have to be quick.’
The taxi had gone, but another problem had surfaced. She couldn’t see Bella. What was this new trick being played?
She could rush and pounce on Rex, but briefly Fionn kept her position. Rex strode across the pavement and then mixed with some Qmalians who’d exited from a bus. She then saw him emerge and then dash toward someone who was standing alone in the shadow of a lamp post. That was Bella. She had taken off the cowboy hat she’d been wearing and held it in her hand. “Uh,” Fionn sighed. “I got you.”
Bella and Rex walked together for a short while, and then appeared to separate again. What was their plan? She observed keenly. Oh no, actually they didn’t separate; one just walked faster than the other but both were going in the same direction. They came to a halt near the same bus shelter. Surprisingly they didn’t stand close to one another. They let quite a number of people in between them. ‘Nice little trick.’
XV10 East, a sign on the shelter reflected.
Fionn’s heart beat with expectation. The fugitives wanted to escape to the east side of town. This was the time to act. Could she go to the shelter and hold them up? Of course she could, but without a quick transport would the plan work? She possibly couldn’t order them out of the station without the guards and other Qmalians getting involved. She needed the cab back. She looked up the road. The driver wasn’t returning to get her. What a debacle.
As she furiously debated things, an idea hit her. Why not ride with the two in the bus and then act when a suitable moment came. That sounded good. She ran to the ticket shack.
“Give me one, fast,” she handed the cashier a ten kwachuu note.
“Sorry lady, you know we don’t make change,” the agent looked mockingly at her high-value note.
“Bastard, can’t you see I’m late.” She nearly spat at him. “Keep the change.”
The XV10East bus had arrived and people were starting to board.
The cashier took his time reaching for his ticket book. Fionn swore under her breath. Who did this bastard think he was, endangering her opportunity like this. After delaying for what seemed like a year, the agent finally tore a ticket from his book. Fionn yanked it away.
She wished to rush, but realized it’d be wise not to be seen too early, so she restrained herself and ambled at a moderate pace.
‘Vile earthlings,’ Fionn felt for the outline of the pistol in her bag.

Chapter 29

Rex saw Bella put her foot on the bus’s stairwell and pull herself in. He was following in line, six people behind, and so in less than a minute it would be him doing the same. The strategy of separating from each other had worked. If they’d stood together—or decided to board at the same time—chances would have been high someone would recognize them. Now no one had, and finally they were leaving Egodad West.
The line was moving fast. Rex peered through the bus’s window and saw Bella walk toward the back. It warmed his heart to see her hold herself so confidently despite the dangers surrounding. There just was something so beautiful about the human race and Rex felt proud to be a part of it.
Not so long after, Rex jumped onto the stairwell himself. He checked the bus’s front. The driver was a bearded, belly Qmalian who looked bored. Certainly not the type that would scrutinize every passenger. That was good. Rex eased himself up, and showed his ticket, while jangling his efe for effect. The driver nodded at him with a burp.
Careful not to bump into anyone with his duffel bag, Rex walked along the aisle tracing Bella’s footsteps. Qmalians generally liked to sit in the front but some had opted for the back. The bus’s ceiling bars felt cool to his touch, even if there seemed to be something oily or filmy on them. The air in the bus was a sticky warm, too, but Rex didn’t mind. He and Bella were onto something big. Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.
Bella was perched on a window seat right near the very back, and she had put the cowboy hat back on. A small amount of light splashed in through the wet glass and rendered her face pretty in many ways. Rex couldn’t remember having seen anything else more beautiful. She’d tied her hair into a bun and now it was again concealed inside the hat, but the fact he couldn’t see those blonde curls did not detract from her prettiness. And now that she sat beside some rustic Qmalian with a typical pudgy face, Bella’s small pointed nose contrasted itself beautifully from the bulbous fare that was more numerous in this bus.
Rex winked at her then took the backseat, right behind her. From here, he could nudge her easily enough should he need to say something. The Qmalian seated beside her did not seem too attentive and might not pay attention to their conversation. Already he had not even raised his eyes to see if they had any efes. Despite that, though, they still needed to be careful.
Pretending he wasn’t travelling with Bella, Rex lay back. He looked through the back window. There wasn’t much to see; the glass was too dusty and filmy and it rattled in concert with the noisy, idling engine. That didn’t matter a lot; it made him happy to know he was leaving the world of Egodad West behind: the river, the shrine, Fionn. Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi, a whole new world waited to be discovered.

By the time Fionn got to the bus, the driver was already swinging the heavy thing away from the shelter. Fionn knew a thing or two about boarding moving vehicles. Egodad transit-bus doorways had no doors to close, so that made things easy. She only needed to remember to jump in while going in the same direction as the bus so as to avoid getting knocked down.
As the bus swung by her, she angled, took a short run side by side with the doorway then dived for the holding bars. In a moment she had jumped onto the stairwell.
“Lady, what are you trying to do? Get down.” The driver, a big belly man, gestured at her.
Fionn ignored him, only showed her ticket. Couldn’t he tell she was on an important mission.
In anger, the driver stopped the bus. “I said get down,” he bellowed. “You are late and what you did is dangerous.”
Fionn once more ignored him. How stupid could a man be? This guy was ignorantly going to transport wanted criminals to some destination, yet he was ordering a law-abiding Qmalian to get off. Fionn spotted an empty seat very near the front. She took it—not so much to spite the driver as to find a good place far from Bella and Rex so they wouldn’t notice her quick. The two might already have, though, but Fionn didn’t think so. She, herself, couldn’t see the fugitives at the moment, but she knew they were there somewhere in the back. She even could pick their love hormones, but of course mixed with that of others. Let them wallow; she was going to act soon.
The driver was still upset; he stared at her and scowled. She scowled back at him. Angrily, the driver turned his face away, engaged his gears, then sped toward the exit. Fionn wasn’t going to worry about him. She had her ultimate prize hidden back there. All she needed was a few minutes to plan.

Bella kept looking at other things and avoided turning back to glance at Rex too frequently. Her efe was making too much of a swishing sound each time she turned her neck. That might attract unneeded attention. Which wasn’t good. She let her eyes fall to her lap, and imagined she was on a trip back to New York. The feeling of it was so sweet. She enjoyed the comfort of her vinyl-covered seat, but the good feelings did not last long because commotion began to occur at the bus’s front.
Fionn had suddenly jumped in.
Bella turned back to Rex. “Did you see that?”
“Yes.” Rex’s face revealed alarm.
“I don’t think she is up to any good.” Bella snorted hard.
“I agree; but what do we do now?”
“Let’s think.” Bella knew trouble had followed them.
“I don’t like this at all,” Rex echoed her thoughts.
Everybody else in the bus focused their attention on the argument between Fionn and the driver. Bella hoped the big ugly Qmalian would stand up and really force Fionn off. She even hoped the other passengers would assist should the driver asked for help. Fionn, though, would not budge and the driver had to get going. She certainly wasn’t up to any joke and meant business.
The bus sped onto a brightly lit access road, then turned right into Kwaxx east.
“Seriously, Rex, how do we handle her?”
“Let’s see where she will get off. She might be gone soon,” Rex tried to sound at ease.
“That time didn’t she say she was just out for a walk—now what’s she doing in here?”
“I don’t know, but what do we do about it?”
“We have to find a way of getting rid of her.”
“l know what we can do,” Rex offered. “When we get to Sheikh Ramzi’s, let’s separate. You get off at his stop and then I get off at the next. That should confuse her.”
“I might not like being alone. Your plan is risky.”
“It’s the only way to shake her off. I’ll come back to get you.”
“I wish I could kill her.”
“I wish so, too, Bella, I really wish.” 
Chapter 30
Already beginning to feel like he was betraying his cause, Slasher pulled his foot off the gas and let his machine swing into Ledi Road. Seeing the blacktop that would take him home did not help in staving off the nagging feelings. If anything it actually made them worse. Home was just home; there’d be no action there. Sure, there was his bed he could sleep on, and his bathroom he could take a shower in, and even his kitchen with a sink and pots and plates he could perhaps make a cup of late-night tea in, but what was all that, compared to giving up on a chance for a heroic slaughter. ‘Qmalo strong, Earth weak.’
No, he shouldn’t go home; he should attempt one more time. Feeling hopeful again, Slasher braked his machine, and then turned it around.
Trouble now was where else to try. At the station, Nsuka had been sounding loudly but it had now faded to a whisper. He intuited that if he could sense a direction from which a stronger Nsuka vibe came, that might be where action could possibly happen. Slasher swiveled his head from left to right and then left again. He picked up some tones but they were difficult to pin direction-wise. Oh Jove why were things going like this; why would Nsuka disappoint him at a crucial time like this.
As he was fretting, Slasher remembered something very important. Rex and the purchase had stolen his journal. And if they read it, and were smart enough to decode some of his cryptic entries, it would give them clues. They’d know where to get help. Sheikh Ramzi! That bastard.
Slasher thought about the possibility. Chances were high the fugitives might now actually be hiding at Ramzi’s—if they’d had the scruples to go and ask. Slasher must go there and find them! Or at least try and verify they weren’t there.
The idea immediately impressed him. Why hadn’t he thought of it before. He couldn’t be wrong in thinking this. Ramzi was a rebel, and of all Qmalians, the only one who could dare secretly harbor the fugitives. And Ramzi, too, was a great opponent of the kidnapping and enslavement of earthlings and wouldn’t think twice about offering any help he could. Furthermore, he was so much an enemy of Ishobad’s, he’d do anything to cause the Aha real pain. Slasher, though, would deal with him tonight if he dared assist the fugitives.
To pump himself up Slasher licked the tender spot in his cheek where his crooked tooth had dug into when he crushed down from Rex’s blow. Like he knew, it hurt because it wasn’t healed yet. And like he wanted, the pain caused his anger to rise.
“Death to you, Rex and accomplice,” Slasher cried in the night. “Qmalo strong, Earth weak.”
He pressed on the gas pedal and the trike took off. He swung back in the direction away from home. It’d long stopped drizzling and the ride this time would be speedier. Slasher blasted across. In less than thirty minutes, he was already coasting toward the gates of Ramzi’s.
Feeling heroic, he parked his machine out front then walked over to the gate. A chain he could rattle dangled near the lock.
“Need any help, sir,” a guard of Ramzi’s came out of his cabin and approached him.
“Yes. I need to know if the wanted criminals are here? Are you hiding them?”
“I don’t know of any criminals. Which ones?” The guard gave him a stern look.
“The ones who escaped from Aha Ishobad. It’s been all over the papers and the radio, don’t say you don’t know.”
“Hey, we didn’t see anyone.”
“I know you people are hiding them. It’s a punishable crime.”
“Look, I’m done with you. I told you there’s no criminals here.”
“I’m coming in to search.” Slasher angrily pulled at the lock. “You know how powerful my boss, the Aha, is”
“I don’t care about any Aha. Please go away, before I call extra help.”
“You shall pay for this,” Slasher spat and started padding way. “It’s not a joke.”

Chapter 31
The bus wound up along some avenue, dropping passengers and picking up some, but Fionn didn’t get off. Bella’s worry deepened as it later increasingly looked like Fionn would get off only when they did.
The driver fed his engine more diesel, and put more miles to his clock. The tall buildings they’d started off seeing gave way to squat denser fare, but eventually the density thinned and now you got to see longer patches of bush and parkland between dwellings. After almost an hour’s ride, the road gradually turned downwards and began to wind toward a valley.
“We are almost there,” Rex whispered ominously into her ear. “Ramzi’s stop is called Bush…something.”
Before Rex had scarcely finished saying that, the driver turned on his mike. “Bushgrove Stop is next. Bushgrove.”
“This is it, you may go,” Rex whispered again.
Bella didn’t want to be separated from him but it was for their good. She stood up while the bus was still moving. Before she left, she turned back and gave Rex a wink. If things didn’t go well, it probably might be the last time she saw him. How sad that would be. She loved this young man very much and didn’t want to lose him. She prayed for the best, though.
The Qmalian who’d been sitting beside her was now asleep. Bella sidled past the native, her efe jangling. Some aliens had left their bags on the bus’s aisle and Bella had to navigate those.
Soon, she’d reached the front. Fionn was perched on a bench-seat right near the door, a yellow cap she’d pulled out of nowhere snug on her head. She pretended to be asleep, but Bella could tell she was very watchful…
This was going to be tricky.

From her seat Fionn stealthily watched Bella slide down the aisle. Fionn avoided blinking and feigned to be snoozing, but being a professionally trained abductor she could observe every movement of Bella’s through tiny slits she left open between her eyelids.
Bella was alone. This was puzzling. Why wasn’t Rex coming along with her?
Bella was a good gamer and acted like she hadn’t seen and recognized Fionn. Fionn wasn’t about to be fooled by that, though. She could see through the whole trickery, and would take needed action right away.
The driver applied his brakes. Bella went down the stairwell.
Fionn stood up quick. Bella stepped out.
“I’m going out with her,” Fionn motioned to the driver who was about to step on the gas.
The driver scowled at her. She jumped out.
Bella had left the pavement and climbed onto the curb.
“Bella, look at me?” Fionn said, stepping up the curb herself. “This is going to be a lot of fun if you cooperate.”
Bella glanced at her.
“Or if you prefer simpler language: you are under my control.”
“What! don’t say that, nobody owns me.” Bella shrilled.
“Of course I do, just you wait.” Fionn yanked her pistol out of her handbag. It might not be necessary but she better be cautious.
“Put that away. Where is this coming from?” said Bella backing away a bit.
“You don’t give instructions; I do,” Fionn menaced. “Now tell me where did Rex go? I want to arrest you both.”
“He went away on the bus; you saw that.”
“I asked where is he going?”
“To his destination, I’ve reached mine.”
“Leaving you alone? Now don’t treat me like I’m stupid.”
“I told you all you wanted to know.”
“Okay, what do you fools plan to do? Tell me, isn’t Rex coming back to get you?”
“That, I don’t know.”
“Now, I’m going to crack your ribs,” Fionn cocked her pistol and sharpened her aim. “Either cooperate or die…”

Chapter 32
A biting panic swept through Rex as he saw Fionn get off the bus. Their plan had collapsed right at the very first moment. For some reason, he’d never imagined Fionn might want to follow Bella. All logical thought had suggested it was him she was after.
The driver fed gas into his cylinders. Even thinking about this disaster was a waste of time. Rex jumped up from his seat. “Stop, I need to get out.”
He heaved his duffel bag and hurried into the aisle. “You have to let me out.”
The driver swung the heavy bus onto the driven part of the road.
“Pull over.” Rex shouted.
Unfazed, the driver only turned to give him a perfunctory glance.
“Pull over, I said.” Rex was now almost reaching the front.
The driver remained unmoved, only briefly looked back—contorting his face in a scowl. He made mocking motions to want to apply his brakes but put his boot further to the accelerator. “Are you dumb, earthling,” he shouted while looking ahead. “Can’t you see that there is no stop here?”
“You just left it.” Rex reached the front and halted beside the driver. “I must get off.”
The driver kept staring ahead and put more force onto his gas pedal.
Rex dropped his duffel bag and balled his hands into fists. “I want to reunite with my friend who just got off. Now, let me go.”
“No, I will not,” boomed the big Qmalian—who had huge yellow eyes and a giant nose. “Where were you looking when your stupid slave-friend was getting out?” he checked Rex’s efe.
“It was a mistake; Okay now stop.” In anger Rex leaned towards the driver and grabbed his collar. If this was going to cause an accident, let it do. “I’m going to fight you.” He started pulling at the giant.
The burly Qmalian gripped his steering wheel with one hand then used the other to pry Rex’s hands off his collar. Amazing that he could keep the bus steady in the lane when what Rex wanted was for it to veer off the road and crush. Rex grabbed the driver’s hand and pinched the fingers. The Qmalian yelped in pain but still wouldn’t yield.
“Now I will finish you off.” Rex went for the man’s neck but before he could reach the jugular, four strong hands gripped him from behind.
“What are you trying to do, stupid earthling? Are you trying to get us all killed?” one voice yelled.
The tough hands pulled him away, and Rex found himself having to fight two strong Qmalian men. “You dare assault a native in our face,” yelled another.
“Throw him out,” the driver pointed to the pavement racing by outside.
The two dragged Rex closer to the open doorway and Rex had to cling to the stairwell bars to avoid being jettisoned. The men pushed hard but Rex fought not to yield. His head perilously faced the outside and he could see the hard asphalt.
After a short while, the driver applied his brakes hard and that jolted Rex forward with force. He hit the front panels of the bus and then tumbled down the stairwell. As the bus came to a forceful stop, the momentum threw him out. He rolled on the pavement and the last thing he heard before a dark dizziness took over was his duffel bag being hurled at him.

Feeling humiliated, Slasher ambled away from Ramzi’s gates. He climbed onto his machine and fired it up. The open road did nothing to cool his anger and he just barreled down it. There was no traffic and he took to riding right in the center of the pavement. Yes, he could do that. These were Qmalian roads and he was entitled.
Ahead, opposite him, a truck climbing the slope flashed its lights at him. He swerved to the left to avoid being hit. “Stupid, crazy driver,” he spat into his visor.
The night was cooling down again, and it might start drizzling once more. Nsuka surprisingly hadn’t given up on him, though, and was pleasantly goading him further on.
As his trike tumbled down, his single light beam flashed on something that glowed yellow. He braked and focused his eyes at it. Actually, there were two people standing on the side of the road, arguing. He braked harder and scanned the two with interest. Who were those souls? Slasher was sure he had seen a woman with a cap like that at Egodad west. The ring of her voice was familiar, too. Fionn, it had to be. Slasher angled his beam to illuminate better. Yes, it was her… but who she stood arguing with was far more interesting. A tall earthling woman in a jacket and skirts, with a funny, wide-brimmed hat. Unable to believe his luck, Slasher turned off his ignition. There was no way he could mistake that earthling woman’s face, especially her straight nose. The earthling purchase of the Aha’s! That fugitive he wanted! Nsuka rose to a frenzy in his head. He rushed off his machine.
“What are you doing here, Fionn?” Slasher almost stammered. “And why are you harboring a wanted criminal?”
“She is with me. She is my guest.”
“Your guest?” anger began to surge in Slasher’s chest. “She is a criminal. Hand her over to me.”
“No, I won’t, because she is mine,” Fionn strangely was unperturbed. “It’s I who caught her, and I do what I want with her.”
“She is going to die,” Slasher boomed, drawing his knife out. “Where is your partner?” he glared at the purchase. “I want to murder you both.”
“You are doing no such thing,” Fionn blinked a defiant eye. “I caught this runaway and I decide what happens.”
“Shut up, harlot. You want to go and conceal her at your lover, Ramzi’s, home. Nothing like that is going to happen.”
“Hey, hey watch your language; who is a harlot?” Fionn jerked an arm; something in her hand dangled.
Slasher clenched his free hand into a fist. Even though his head had begun to pound and he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, he still could knock Fionn down with a single punch. But hey, why not just go straight for the purchase. ‘Qmalo strong, Earth weak.’ This was going to be sweet and slow.
“Now here I come,” he advanced.
Just as he raised his knife, he saw a flash. Something loud and flaming came out of the thing in Fionn’s hand. In less than a moment, an intense heat had torn into his chest. Despite the apparent smallness of the thing that hit him, Slasher felt his strength drain out. A new wave of searing pain he’d never felt in his life radiated out of his chest and met with the one in his neck and the two coalesced into one huge jolt. Something in him gave, and he jerked and tilted. In an instant, the world was just a terrifying blur and Slasher couldn’t tell whether the ground had begun to rise to meet him, or if in fact he was falling. Before he completely blanked out, a thud greeted his body but numbness and disorientation had taken over, it almost felt like plunging into a swimming pool… where some unknown dark tempest was taking him away.

Fionn took her finger off the trigger but let the pistol remain in her hand. A trail of smoke still issued from the gun’s barrel.
The body of Slasher was writhing on the ground. Strange how things had turned.
Fionn felt some regret for her actions, but was still angry with Slasher for turning out from nowhere and trying to ruin her moment. She could do something for him, though. She’d check his injuries, although she should be careful lest be pretending dying.
With gun still cocked, she knelt to look. Slasher’s eyes had bulged out and were turning pale. The fervent convulsing of his body was slackening.
“He’s gone; don’t bother,” Bella spoke to her back.
“Shut up, you are next,” Fionn shouted.
Slasher’s writhing ended and with a haunting last breath, his body became still. In a freak encounter, the Qmalian had departed from this world. Fionn wondered why things were going so awry tonight. First it was the stupid station guard who chased away her transport. And then Slasher emerges from nowhere and in rage demands to kill her catch. If only he’d been reasonable, perhaps this…
Fionn now had more problems than when she started. There was the body of Slasher to deal with. Rex had gone in the bus and she did not know what trick he was planning on. Maybe he’d also appear from the dark and launch an attack of his own. She was alone here with Bella and had no means of transporting her to Ishobad. How bad she had left her mobile behind—the nearest place with a public telephone was probably three miles away, and she might have to march there with Bella as captive, before making a surprise call to Ishobad. That probably could work, but would also mean leaving Rex behind. It would have been nice to take them both.
“This is the end of your freedom,” she waved her pistol at Bella. “Get ready for a long march.”
Before they left, though, Fionn would make sure Slasher’s body was properly covered. When she made the call, police would come to get him but she didn’t want them to find the scene too grisly. She knelt down to unzip his jacket so she could cover his face and head with it.
“Sleep well, soldier,” she whispered as she worked the zipper. “I’m as sorry for your death as anyone could ever be.”

Bella observed Fionn kneel and start to prep Slasher’s body. This was now her opportunity to act. Fionn still held the gun but had her back to Bella. And she was in a kneeling position—what a chance.
Two things flashed in Bella’s mind. One: run for cover in the bushes; or two: deliver a blow to Fionn and hope for the best. She opted for the latter. Running away would only cause Fionn to turn and shoot and Bella didn’t want to die a coward’s death.
She calculated the odds. A kick would only be possible if she could get closer to Fionn without alarming her. “You need any assistance?” Bella walked closer, pretending to want to help.
“Get away, what do you know.” Fionn distractedly turned to face her.
Bella saw the opening. She aimed a boot at Fionn’s chest. Fionn must have read the move early; she jerked backwards and caught Bella’s sneaker as it licked her breast. She twisted Bella’s foot and Bella tumbled onto her.
The sudden action had caused Fionn to lose hold of her pistol and Bella thanked her stars for that. It was now important to make sure Fionn did not repossess it.
They tussled. Bella was first to gain some balance and she sat on Fionn’s belly, pinning her down. She grabbed Fionn’s arms intending to wrench. An unusual desire to shed blood got hold of her and she felt adrenalin seep into her blood. The backpack she carried acted as an impediment, though, and she couldn’t make any serious headway. She grabbed one strap of it, intending to pull her arm out, but that was Fionn’s chance. She lunged and grabbed Bella by the shoulders then flipped her. Bella’s back tasted the ground but the backpack to an extent cushioned her from the hardness.
“Give up earthling or I’m going to kill you,” Fionn squeezed Bella’s arms.
“Damn it, you aren’t killing anyone,” Bella retorted.
Bella smelt Fionn’s scent. It was a strange weedy aroma and she thought this wasn’t her first time smelling it. Deep in her drug-induced daze that fateful night in New York, she thought she smelt something like that.
“Stupid useless earthling, now you are dying.”
“No, witch, you aren’t going to win this.” Bella held on.
Unable to overpower Bella, Fionn partly released her hold and started to crawl for Slasher’s knife. Bella realized the danger soon enough. She launched herself upward with fury and partially freed herself. She started kneeing Fionn’s ribs, but Fionn showed some resilience, spun around and caught one of Bella’s arms. Both fighters were able to partially rise and began to wrestle while in kneeling positions. Tiredness was creeping into both. Anyone who went down first this time might be pinned to death.
“If I could capture you in New York, I can still do it,” Fionn’s voice was hoarse and bitter.
“No, bitch this time you can’t. Just wait and see.” Bella tried to shake herself free but Fionn’s grip was tight.
Fionn attempted to gain ground by rising taller than Bella, but Bella responded with a grabbing of the waist and then the two doubled over again in the muddy grass. They wrestled each other, taking turns to pin one another on the ground, until they stood up again, trading punches. Bella found a way to connect with Fionn’s jaw and that sent her again crumbling. Something else helped to further trip Fionn and she tumbled into the roadside ditch. Bella could have gone down there to continue the fight and finish what she started, but she suddenly was consumed by thoughts of Rex. Was he safe wherever he was? She wasn’t going to wait for him here. She would go find him. She only had a second to pick up Fionn’s pistol. Fionn could have Slasher’s knife if she wanted. Bella started running down the road.

Chapter 33
A puff of diesel exhaust hit Rex as the bus sped away. He opened his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. He was lying right on the edge of the pavement, not far from a tall lamp post whose single bulb cast weak yellow-brown rays onto the mud-patches and grass and asphalt below. The road was dug through a ridge, and behind the lamp post were mounds of earth and dynamited granite boulders. This rural part of the sprawling city was one he wasn’t too much used to. He probably had been taken past Ramzi’s gates, but that didn’t matter much at this point because he would have to run back to Bushgrove stop to find Bella. He had to reunite with his loving woman.
Rex gathered himself, brushed his knees. He was in pain and shock, but not seriously injured. The fact the driver had braked hard so as to dislodge and hurl him out had saved Rex from grievous injury. Had the jettisoning happened with the bus at full speed, his life might have ended here.
To test his strength, Rex limped over to pick up his duffel bag. Perhaps it’d have been wise to leave it behind but then there were his and Bella’s things in there. If he found her alive he’d have to look after her and there were tins and packs of food inside. Going to Ramzi’s was an experiment which only had so many chances of succeeding. Should Ramzi decline them assistance, they would be on their own again. And then without supplies, particularly food, things would be so tough they would be forced to give up the fight and surrender.
Rex hefted the bag. For his bruised hands, it was a bit too much, but he’d try to manage.
Walking back wasn’t as easy as he’d imagined. His legs had taken knocks and his knees felt weak. The road was neither straight nor flat; and presently he had to labor up an incline.
By the time the pavement began to inch downwards, Rex had become so winded he had to stop walking for a bit. His shoulders pained him where the straps of his heavy duffel bag dug into his flesh. He started again; the downward gradient helped him and he tumbled down. Before long, he could see Ramzi’s gates and the driveway that led to them. What a symbol of freedom those wrought iron structures represented. He wished Bella was with him and they would have just walked in.
Missing Bella now almost drove him crazy. What could have happened to her? Fionn was a grinhya and her intentions had been murky at best. Why suddenly had she become so interested in Bella? Had she now captured and arrested her? But then why would she do something that she could have easily done earlier on in their journey? It was so confusing and scary. Rex hoped for the best, though. He loved Bella very much. How pretty she was, how adorable. The best thing he had ever seen, a gift from mother earth. Letting her go alone had been a great mistake. He’d never do it again. Not ever…

Bella paced up the road, every now and then glancing back to check if Fionn had not risen to follow. An attack from behind would be grave. One or two cars passed her, and then a suspicious thing with flashing beacons appeared in the distance. Bella darted away from the road and took cover behind a tree. She stayed there for quite a while. The sky was a black unfathomable sea. Phantoms of Fionn and Ishobad and Slasher appeared to her in the dark, images that glowed surreally with a menacing evil orange. Where was Rex? Where was the man she loved and trusted? Had he been taken?
The flashing vehicle passed; it wasn’t a police car, but something that looked like a poorly designed military vehicle. She hid a little while longer then later emerged and walked back to the road. Just as she reached the pavement she saw a somebody moving toward her, advancing fast, but with a limp. Her first instinct was to aim and fire Fionn’s pistol. A quick opposing idea then told her not to. She stood, ready to act, though. The person neared. She heard a groan and panting. It was Rex.
“Tell me is that you?” Rex exclaimed.
“Yes, it’s me,” she hugged him.
“Oh mi, I’m so happy you are alive.”
“I am, too,” Bella dropped the pistol. “And I’m newly armed, courtesy of Fionn,” she nodded at the little fallen thing.
“And speaking of the prick, what happened? How did you get rid of her?”
“I could have killed her, Rex, but I didn’t. She is not worth it; I had to look for you.”
“Thanks, I’m glad you thought of me, so let’s go.”
“You are limping, what happened?”
“Never mind. Your being with me here is the greatest thing.”
What she supposed to be the Ramzi estate was well lit ahead and to the right. It couldn’t take them more than ten minutes to get to it. Bella, though, couldn’t wait to further share with Rex everything that had happened. “There is one less person to worry about on this planet,” she beamed.
“Slasher. He is dead. He’d been looking for us all this while, can you imagine?”
“Slasher dead! Aren’t you just kidding. Who told you?”
“I saw him die, Rex. I saw him fall.”
“That’s incredible,” Rex took her hand. “I mean it’s great news, but how did you actually see...?”
“Fionn shot him. Single bullet to the chest.”
“You mean he was right there on the stop, waiting?”
“Not exactly waiting. But he’d been after us and he just rode down.”
“I’d love to see that dead body. This news is so sweet.”
Bella laughed. “That would be a risk.”
“Okay, let’s move.” Rex picked up Fionn’s pistol and threw it into the thickets. “Won’t be a clever idea to arrive armed at Ramzi’s.”
The lights in the estate shone. Would this famed enemy of Ishobad’s be willing to help them? What a load of risky guesswork.

Chapter 34
Ramzi’s estate differed so much from Ishobad’s. His did not have the grand mansion typical of the Aha’s; and there were far fewer outbuildings. The lighting wasn’t poor however, and even though the drizzle had started again Bella could see the squat main house whose roof shone a grayish black.
Ramzi’s gate commanded some respect, with two brick columns that had a wrought iron arch connecting them. Beside one of the columns was a small stucco guardhouse. Fear and anticipation beginning to build, Bella stood with Rex behind the sturdy black gate.
She rattled a chain. “You think we will be admitted?”
“I hope so,” Rex wiped beads of moisture off his face.
The guardhouse door opened and out came a young Qmalian man holding a flashlight. He aimed his beam at them, but without being rude about it.
“It’s you two.” His voice sounded aBellable.
“Yes, it’s us,” said Bella, starting to feign a Qmalian accent.
The young man produced a key and inserted it into a padlock. “I shan’t let you stand in the drizzle. Come into the shack.”
Bella and Rex walked into the gate. This was too good to be true. Was it not a trap? Bella’s heart beat a little. The guard relocked his gate. There just was something about the sounds of gates slamming together, and chains and locks being rattled, that seriously unsettled Bella. What if Ramzi was hostile?
Inside the shack were three wood stools. “Take seats guys. You appear to have been in the cold for long.”
“Thanks for welcoming us,” said Rex. “You have such a good heart.”
The guard fixed them another of his smiles. “Some crass native dude came looking for you. He looked injured and was very stern-faced.”
“You mean the aide of Ishobad’s?” any mention of a Qmalian-looking-for-them scared Bella.
Rex stepped lightly on Bella’s foot and she read the warning. It would be unwise to inform the guard Slasher had been shot to death. They weren’t sure how he would take it.
“He hasn’t harmed us yet,” Bella said and smiled.
“We need to speak with your employer,” Rex started, in an obsequious Qmalian way. “I hope it’s not too late to wake him up—if he’s already gone to bed, that is.”
“Let me try for you. It’s he who instructed me to let you in.”
Bella and Rex waited as the guard put on his rain jacket and then departed the shack. Bella’s nervousness would not subside. She couldn’t be sure if there weren’t any police hidden in the little outbuildings yonder. Maybe she and Rex should just hightail it out of here. Of course, they could do that, but then where would they go with all this drizzle going on?
The guard took long to come back, and that only unsettled Bella further.
“How do you feel?” Rex asked her.
“Worried but still hopeful,” Bella answered.
Rex’s face registered concern. “What’s worrying you, sweetie?”
“Ramzi is an ex-lover of Fionn’s. Think he will like it when we tell him I beat her up.”
“We probably should avoid revealing that. It’s the safer thing to do.”
Some footsteps sounded from outside and then the guard scurried in. He peeled off his jacket. “I got news both good and bad,” he announced. “Which would you like to receive first.”
Bella and Rex looked at one another, hesitating.
“Let’s have the bad first.” Bella broke the impasse.
“Sheikh Ramzi won’t be seeing you now,” said the guard. “However he is willing to grant you shelter for the night.”
“We will take that,” Rex smiled at Bella.
Bella sucked in a breath of relief although she wasn’t sure how things would go in the morning. She felt for the para eye and thanked it for the dose of temporary good luck. Tonight had gone well but tomorrow could be a whole lot different. The police were going to discover Slasher had been shot, and Fionn would report she’d been assaulted by one of the wanted criminals. Could Sheikh Ramzi protect them from all that? It just might all be wishful thinking.

Oblivious to Bella’s concerns and all the other bad things going on, Rex looked forward to something big. Romance. He wanted it. He was dying for it. It was the newest and freshest thing in all his troubled existence. Tonight he’d try to ask Bella to give him all she could. And he’d give all of himself, too, if asked. The hard knocks he’d taken after being hurled out of the bus had given him pain—and the exhaustion from all that running while looking for Bella was taking a toll—yet he walked fast behind the guard. He couldn’t wait to get to the quarter allocated to them.
All the little buildings inside Ramzi’s compound looked romantic, full of promise and seduction. The shrill of insects in the grass added to the air of anticipation.
“This is it,” the guard unlocked a door to a sparsely furnished cabin. “You can sleep in here for tonight.”
Bella got in first. Then he followed. The guard closed the door and left.
“I’ll nurse you first,” Rex said as they sat down on a couch. “Did Fionn hurt you too bad?”
“Not so much,” she answered in a sweet voice.
Now that he was in here, Rex began to wonder if romance would be a great thing to be involved in, after what they’d gone through. The idea of it might be the last thing on Bella’s mind. The more, though, Rex told himself to check his needs, the greater the love hormones raged in him. Presently, each time he glanced in Bella’s direction, a hot needy ache surged through him, searing him far more than the pain he felt when he was jettisoned off the bus.
“I’ll take the shower,” Bella stood and walked toward the bathroom.
Rex had to strain himself not to follow her. Couldn’t she just have the idea to invite him? He’d jump at it the moment she said.
Bella didn’t. She closed the door and soon the water ran. It was left to Rex to imagine what a fully nude woman looked like. Did she have goose bumps on her butt, or was it stretch marks? What color was her pubic hair; was it blonde like that on her head?
As his hormones raged all the more, Rex became angry. He would not have been in this virginal situation had Qmalians not kidnapped him. Long ago, he should have already known what it felt like to sleep with a woman. And—had things gone right—he perhaps ought to have been married by now, with kids, a job, and a house or apartment.
The water stopped running. A sense of pleasurable uneasiness enveloped Rex. What was Bella going to come out like? Would she be clothed or would she not be? Previously, on all those occasions Bella had gone to bath, she’d come back almost fully dressed, but today could be different—if what had occurred between them this morning was something to go by.
The bathroom door creaked. Rex’s heart thumped. Maybe he should look aside and not be caught gawking so intently. His hormones rebelled and he stared at the door.
Out came a rejuvenated Bella, with oh only the towel wrapped around her. Thank God, the towel was one of those big ones that could cover the bust down to almost the thigh area. A little cleavage showed at the top, though, and below a good amount of upper thigh gaped. As his brain tore the towel, Rex felt himself getting hard again. No, no, this was getting crazy. Maybe he should save himself by rushing to the shower.
He stood up. His erection almost tore through his pants. “I’ll need to get a bath, too,” he fought to rescue himself.
The little relief he got from walking into the shower didn’t last long. The bathroom smelt of scented Qmalian soap, but somehow Rex’s mind attributed it all of it to Bella. She had left this aroma all for him. She was sweet; she was mother earth. Only minutes ago she’d taken her clothes off in here. He’d take his off, too, and the two of them would be united in a love so deep, nothing in this world would ever break them apart.

No matter how much he tried to conceal it, she saw the yearning in his eyes. Virginal and unbridled. Innocent yet strong. Question was whether to answer to it at this moment or to wait for a better time.
She walked into the cabin’s bedroom. The room was small but it had a bed that was midway between twin and double. She liked the room at once. Nothing like the executive suites that you found in America’s hotels but this was Qmalo. A small dresser stood opposite the bed but there was no closet. She didn’t mind it. After all they were only here at Ramzi’s as refugees and it was stupid to dream of deluxe suites in the earth’s top hotels.
She padded to the bed and parted the sheets. Expectation began to take hold of her. This was a miracle. In Ishobad’s plane she would never have thought a day like this would ever come, never thought she might meet a guy like Rex. The gods surely had favored her to a point.
She unwrapped herself but remained in her undies. It was nice to feel a little slutty. And she didn’t feel tired at all, although she knew she should be. She heard sounds of walking in the living room. It probably wouldn’t be nice for Rex to find her in the nude. That would be like spoiling his journey to discovery. She jumped into the sheets, lay in there, and waited for him to open the door. Rex didn’t open then. Instead he knocked.
“Okay to come in,” she called. Her voice almost caught in her throat due to a surge of need.
The door opened and Rex peered in. She smiled at him in between the sheets. Was that her boyfriend in space? Yes, he was. He walked in. Rex was in shorts but with no shirt on. Bella admired his rippling abs and brawny arms.
“I just came to say goodnight. I know it’s been a long and trying day for us.”
“I’m not feeling too tired.”
“You are strong,” he said. “But I shan’t bother you. I’ll take to the couch in the living room.”
“I’d have nightmares if you didn’t sleep in here.”
She saw Rex get wide-eyed. The needy ache in him was unmistakable.
He came and stood near the bed.
“Shall you just stand there all night?” she hardly could wait to kiss him.
Rex grunted then eased himself beside her. His skin was hot and he breathed fast. Bella curled an arm around him and delivered the first of the series of kisses she’d planned. Tonight was going to be oh so sweet.
She’d do it. She’d take away his virginity. She closed her eyes, put her tongue into his mouth and felt the seconds tick toward the inevitable: when the thing that was rocking between his legs would find its way into her…

Chapter 35
Guide to unusual words in this Chap
Monhya: A male Qmalian kidnaper.
Morning blessed them with some sunshine. Rex could see the rays impinge on the curtains of the small bedroom window. A day of new challenges had arrived, but he took a moment to appreciate what he had for now. Bella lay nude beside him. Yes, he’d done it. Now he knew what it felt like to love a woman. It was oh so heavenly.
Although no specific time to see the great Sheikh had been set, Rex thought to take an early shower. Bella followed him in there and then they did it again. The parts of her that fascinated him the most were her breasts and butt. He could never get tired of touching those. As he came inside her for the second time, Rex had a glimpse of what a trouble-free blissful existence could be like. He wished he could fly away with Bella to a place where they would be happy forever.
It was just as well that they took early showers because no sooner had they finished than when a messenger came to say Ramzi was willing to give them a brief audience.
“Touch your para eye for some luck,” said Rex to Bella when the messenger stepped outside to wait for them.
“You don’t think we should never mention anything about it to Ramzi.”
“You may be right, but why shouldn’t we?”
“I’m worried he may not like it, if he learns we vandalized one of the shrine’s displays.”
“Alright, I see. Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi, that’s what we should concentrate on,” said Rex.
He checked his pockets for Slasher’s journal to make sure he wouldn’t leave it behind. Going outside meant reverting to wearing efes. Rex wasn’t sure it was a requirement here, but they had to play it safe.
“You don’t have to put on any such things,” advised the messenger. “That’s something Sheikh Ramzi is very much opposed to.”
Rex and Bella removed their efes and threw them back into the cabin. The walk to Ramzi’s main house only took two minutes. Rex had never felt so free in his life, or so secure. Some smoke was issuing from a chimney and the smell of it was so homely. Bella walked beside him. Her radiant skin shone in the sun and Rex couldn’t help thinking of her as his future bride. Together they could go far, if fate worked for them.
The messenger ushered them into a guest room that had nice brown leather couches, a dark mahogany table and a book shelf with lots of what seemed like Qmalian fantasy novels. Sheikh Ramzi came in sooner and welcomed them.
“I’m sorry for how my countrymen treat you fellows,” he said. “We shouldn’t be going to earth to steal people and then ill-treat them.”
Rex had previously seen press photos of Ramzi, but he actually looked more handsome now than in those pictures. He had a full head of rebellious wiry hair and his nose was less bulbous than that of the average Qmalian. His orangish skin was freckled, though.
“I’ve been made aware of your opposition to the kidnapping and enslavement of earthlings,” Bella remarked. “It’s something we need help putting an end to, if you please can assist.”
“Qmalians stick to old ways and are difficult to change,” Ramzi shrugged. “The laws and traditions here are so rigid.”
“We don’t mean that you force the government and people to change laws. We are aiming for a different approach. What we want to know is the source of the powers that enable kidnappers to do what they do.” Bella continued.
“We suspect it’s all to do with magical powers,” Rex decided to be more direct. “Without magic, Bella tells me, kidnappers would not be able to abduct humans and spirit them away.”
“My intuition is that the biggest asset kidnappers have is some kind of invisibility,” Bella added. “Without being invisible, kidnappers would be seen and easily dealt with by the authorities on earth.”
“We come to you, sir, for information regarding those powers,” Rex implored.
Before Ramzi could say anything, Bella had something to add. “Another manifestation of magic is in powers to fly. Honestly, sir, I don’t think your society has the proper technology to be able to go to earth. The planes used by kidnappers to raid humans must be powered by some magic as well.”
“Those are the mysterious powers we need to deal with if the human race is to be freed from abduction and enslavement, even death,” Rex couldn’t wait to interject.
“I even have death waiting for me as I speak. Rex, too, probably,” Bella added forlornly.
Ramzi scratched his forehead. “I have heard all that you said and I sympathize with you, humans.”
“Now do you know where we can find those magic powers and destroy them?”
Ramzi patted his brow once more. It seemed as if he might know something but wasn’t comfortable revealing. “I’m a lawyer and a scholar, fellows, and am no expert of magic,” he shrugged again. “But I will give you the little I’ve heard.”
“Yes, sir, tell us.” Bella perked up.
“My grandfather told me Qmalians are a mystery creation, and our power in the universe derives from three major mysterious systems. And I must say you guys, according to folklore at least, have pretty much everything figured out.”
“Interesting!” Rex’s heart began to beat.
“The first and most important mystery is the cloak of invisibility—better known as STEALTH. I’m told this magic was first used by an ancient Qmalian army. When it’s activated, one or a select group of Qmalians become invisible to humans and other creatures. Imagine what an advantage this power could give to an army battalion, or a hunter’s group.”
“So, Bella, your suspicions have always been good, then.” Rex winked at her.
Ramzi continued. “Legend has it that our whole planet is bathed in this magic and so remains invisible to inhabitants of the earth and those of other worlds. It’s that cloak of invisibility or Stealth that is now being abused by abductors who fly to earth to kidnap humans like you.”
Anger began to rise in Rex. Why would God, or was it the devil, so favor Qmalians and grant them the ability to harness such a mighty power.
“Carry on,” prompted Bella. “What’s magic number two?”
“The second one is the Teleporter, and again, Bella, your suspicions might be correct. I’m told this magic, when activated in a plane, allows it to defy gravity and travel at phenomenal speeds, whilst also keeping the air within it fresh at all times.”
“So, that’s what enables grinhyas and monhyas to travel to earth and reach it so quickly,” Rex’s lips parted into an astonished grin.
“I suppose it is,” Ramzi nodded. “I’m not really involved in that business so it’s hard to say exactly.”
“We get it,” said Bella. “Now please go on to the third.”
“The third one is much more insidious and it works at the individual level. It’s called the Weakener force.”
“Let me guess what that does,” said Bella. “I think it weakens or actually knocks out anyone who is targeted to be abducted.”
“You are very right. How did you guess?”
“Because I was a victim of it. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t; I’d be home with my family—Rex, too.”
“I’m very sorry about what happened to you.”
“Thank you for what you have told us so far,” said Rex. “The big question, though, is how do you counter all those magic systems? How do you destroy them?”
“Honestly I do not know how. I have no interest in magic and traditions myself, as you see I am a lawyer and academic.”
“Maybe you could enlighten us on where the evil powers are stored. Did your grandfather tell you anything about the source?”
“Where the power comes from is something that’s only known by the religious rulers of this land, the Qmalian Privy Council, of which the man you are running away from, Ishobad, is an important member.”
“That makes our job far more complicated then,” Rex imagined.
“Maybe it does,” Ramzi concurred. “But would it make it any easier if I were to inform you the secret source is said to exist under the ground. The Privy Council communicates with it periodically or so, I’m told.”
“Is that why they still do human sacrifices,” asked Bella with anger. “To feed that force?”
“Very likely so, but I personally am very much opposed to human sacrifice, kidnapping and enslavement, too.”
“We are grateful, Sheikh, for those kind words,” said Bella. Her face glowed with genuine appreciation.
“So that’s it, guys, from my side,” Ramzi summed up. “Get to the source of STEALTH and you will have found everything you want..”
“Just one more thing sir,” Rex pleaded, with some urgency to his voice. “We have these words we think form some kind of code.” He brought out Slasher’s notebook and opened it to the page he’d written on. “Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.”
“What’s that? Where did you get it from?”
“From the Qmalian shrine of the Departed, on a certain display,” Bella answered.
“Let me think,” Ramzi caressed his chin. “That’s a very old Qmalian dialect. Lucky I studied ancient languages in my law classes. Those words translate to ‘Qmalo strong, All others weak.’ It’s not a code just a statement.”
“Specifically, we saw them written on a small stand that hosted a taxidermy of an Akan snake. Does that signify something?”
“Look, those are old things that I’m not too interested in. The Akan is a very respected snake in Qmalian folklore, it’s seen as a source of immense power and fortune.”
“Good,” said Bella. “Maybe if we keep researching on this Akan we could find something.”
“You have done a wonderful job of hosting us.” Rex bowed his head at Ramzi.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you further. Much of the work you will have to do yourself.”
With that Ramzi left the room. Rex suddenly felt exposed. The magic forces Ramzi had spoken of seemed very real, something to be afraid of for sure.

Chapter 36
Aha Ishobad peeked at the litany of antiques in the shawoman’s consultation room and hoped the magics would help him better. Today he was just beyond angry. He was anxious and confused. Fate was working so much against him. Slasher was shot to death. The fugitives were still missing. Big Saturday was tomorrow.
Feeling sorry for how things had gotten to this, Ishobad stared at the chalice of forensic liquor that Moketzi had placed before him. For a man in his position consulting psychics and magicians was unheard of. He should be praying in a mosque somewhere rather than seeking the guidance of conjurers. He especially shouldn’t be drinking hallucinants that caused brains to go into a deep fuzz. He shouldn’t even be in this state of worry. And all it because of that purchase who goaded a previously-loyal servant into rebellion. Today he’d gobble the liquor down quick. He needed to get her…
With its reeking contents, the chalice still sat where Moketzi had placed it. Aha Ishobad picked it up and opened his lips to take the first gulp. Like previously, his tongue and stomach rebelled but he just drank and drank. By the time he put the goblet down he was getting dizzy. The shawoman put her hand on his shoulders to steady him. “Aha, you are such a strong man of Jove,” she whispered.
Moketzi smoked the framed glass and brought it to his eyes. It was this part that always befuddled Ishobad. How did moving images get behind the darkened thing? Without bothering himself too much, though, Ishobad concentrated on what came through. Dizzily, he gazed as three fuzzy shadows appeared, walking first on a road and then a bridge. The images clarified a little after that; he saw the trio separate, and then one of the shadows, now alone, brightened to become a vaguely familiar woman who wore a yellowy cap. Ishobad was instantly drawn to, and then reviled by the woman; he wondered why. He again watched; this time he saw buildings and people and idling, bus-like vehicles. A lot of movement occurred and the scenery changed wildly. The video then blurred for a bit, but when some clarity returned, two females now stood on the side of a road. One was the vaguely-familiar-one with the yellow grinhya cap on, and the other was human and tall, with all the poise and bearing of his missing purchase. Ishobad wanted to scream at the runaway to come back, but the video wasn’t ended. He gazed. Soon a disturbance—like a violent struggle between the purchase and the yellow-capped grinhya—occurred. A bandaged man then appeared from nowhere, but didn’t take long to fall to the ground after a flash of light and smoke.
“Hold it,” he said to the glass. That man lying on the ground was certainly Slasher. Dear Jove, his assistant had tracked the fugitives and that’s how he got killed. Ishobad scarcely could continue watching because the anger rose so high in him. Before he dizzily handed back the glass, he saw an illuminated estate which very clearly looked like that of his archenemy Ramzi. Two suspects walked into a gate…
“Bastards,” he exclaimed while burping. “Now I know where you are. I’m going straight to court to obtain an emergency search warrant. That rat’s nest you are hiding in will be thoroughly combed, or even completely bombed.”

Bella looked through the window and saw one of Ramzi’s men gallop down towards the cabin.
“Rex, look, that man must be coming for us.”
“What could it be for?”
The man knocked but hardly waited for an answer. “You have to act,” he breathed hard. “Things aren’t good anymore.”
“What’s happening?”
“Sheikh Ramzi received an urgent message. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to tell you about it.”
“No, tell us.”
“Someone at the court phoned to say Ishobad is about to get a search warrant issued, and will be descending on this estate in full force.”
Bella wasn’t well-versed with Qmalian procedures but thought Ishobad should not be given a warrant because he was not the police. Unless of course he was too powerful to say no to.
“Let’s get the hell out of this place, then.” Rex showed caution.
“Maybe let’s first go and say bye to Ramzi.”
“Good idea.”
They left their bags inside and then got out. The skies had begun to cloud up—looked again like the heavens favored bad weather. The birds that had been streaking the air had retired and an unusual quietness had taken over.
Sheikh Ramzi was already seated in his guest room. His demeanor suggested anguish and concern, although he tried to conceal it under a brave placid face.
“Things don’t look too good,” he said, after making them as comfortable as he could.
“We heard,” Bella nodded.
“I would have wanted to shelter you for a while longer but the forces are working against me.”
“We totally understand,” said Rex. “We will leave. We don’t want to create trouble.”
“It’s actually better that we depart soonest,” said Bella. “There’s no way we could stand against a dozen armed police.”
“I wish I could have done better for you,” Ramzi sounded genuinely apologetic.
“Don’t worry. What you have already done is enough,” Bella smiled.
“Okay we will go back and pack.” Rex stood up.
Sheikh Ramzi remained thoughtful. “Just wait,” he said. “You can’t just leave like that. Let’s arrange some quick disguises. I’ll send for my make-up artist. Her name is Haunn.”
“Good, we will be waiting for her in the cottage,” Bella thanked him.
They stepped out. Things surely had taken a bad turn.

Chapter 37

When they got back to the cabin, Bella found that the air of safety that’d previously pervaded the rooms was gone—and had been replaced by that pesky feeling of the net closing in. Ramzi, no matter how good he might be, had no authority to shelter them forever. Ishobad was just too powerful, and could pounce any time.
“From here, what’s next?” Rex echoed some of her worries.
“Let’s think.”
Concerns regarding their security aside, they needed to get to that ultimate source of Qmalian powers, just like they’d set forth to do from the beginning. About that, though, the prospects were daunting. The three magic systems Ramzi had spoken of were all something Bella had already suspected, but the one thing he hadn’t clearly spoken of was the most important—the unifier. How exactly were the three magic forces tied together? What existed at the center and where could it be found?
“We carry on with our original task,” she spoke as if to herself.
“Where do we begin?” Rex showed he was profoundly affected by the same questions.
Bella thought. “If we can get to a library, won’t we gain more clues. Ramzi is a great man but his knowledge is limited. We need to know where to find the ultimate source.”
“Ramzi says he believes it’s below ground somewhere. Why would we then need a library; Doesn’t that hint offer us a start?”
“Oh yes it sure does,” Bella said. “But are we going to dig into every hole, cave, or mine, here in Qmalo. How long would that take us?”
“Forever, and we do not have time,” Rex conceded.
“Now you see why I spoke of doing our research.”
“I do, yes.” A concern, though, registered on Rex’s face. “But isn’t being out in the public a risk we can’t afford?”
“What would we rather risk? Giving up on a chance to learn about something that could help save us?”
“I see your point, Bella; I see.”

Chap 38
Fionn stirred in her motel bed. Humiliation had kept her in her blankets for the better part of the day. Last night started, well but ended a disaster. She still felt some pain from the blows she’d taken from Bella, and of course the big fall. How could things have gone that way?
Today she needed a better plan. Police hadn’t gotten hold of the fugitives yet so she was still in with a chance. And she had a better idea of where they could be found. That was a plus; and it also was the precise reason she avoided reporting last night’s occurrences to the police. Had she done so, the cops would get a better clue as to where the criminals were, and she didn’t want to give them a start. With time, though, they could glean something so she had to work fast.
No approach was guaranteed to succeed but Fionn thought employing extra help would bring quicker results. She knew a guy who could help her with some investigative work. Captain Weba was a crewmate of hers, a pilot of raider planes, but he was also a very good amateur sleuth. She’d talk to him.
The mobile phone was still a very privileged thing in this country but Weba, being a pilot, had one. What was his number by the way, Fionn asked herself? She slapped her own mobile on her pillow as she tried to recall. The digits then, as if by magic, flashed in her head.
She dialed. The phone rang on the other side. Weba answered.
“I have a request to make, please.”
“I’m not home; what do you need?”
“A little PI work; but very special, though.”
“Fionn don’t tell me you want to do some digging behind someone’s back. It’s so unlike you.”
“I’m serious, Weba. I need to get hold of those two famous fugitives.”
“Oh, those earthlings! The police are after them; why do you want to get involved—if I may ask?”
Fionn found it hard to tell Weba what happened last night. The humiliation from narrating her defeat at the hands of Bella would be too great. “Call it a personal agenda if you like. But I really need to get those bastards.”
“Granted, but where do I start? I haven’t really been following the case too closely and hardly have any clues.”
Now this was another difficult part. Although Fionn couldn’t be sure, she suspected Bella and Rex had taken refuge at Sheikh Ramzi’s, her former lover’s home. They’d been so near it when Bella got off that bus. And after winning the fight, Bella had scurried off in that direction. Rex, too, had continued in the bus in the same direction. And Ramzi was exactly the kind of person who might deign to offer some assistance to earthlings in trouble.
“I’m going to give you some privileged info but don’t share it with anyone else.”
“Good, any little clue can help.”
“The earthlings were last seen on the XV10E transit line, close to the estate of some very famous man.”
She hated Ramzi for what he’d done to her, but at the same time she couldn’t go to him herself and confront him. Ramzi was very foxy and she might end up being the one in trouble. “Would you please be very tactical how you go about this thing,” she said to Weba.
“I will; but what do I do when I get hold of the fugitives.”
“You call me.”
“I’ll try my best.”
“Don’t just try, Weba. Bring me those bastards and I’ll reward you greatly.”
“Anything, Fionn. You know how good I am.”

Haun arrived a couple of hours before sundown. A raid by Ishobad could happen any time and the tension was already high. She and Rex could have gone as soon as they heard of the threat, but without good disguises they would be identified and arrested as soon as they got out of the gates.
Haun carried a black bag with her, and Bella marveled at what it could contain.
“I apologize I couldn’t make it earlier.” Haun was a thin, older Qmalian woman with grey orange hair dyed blue in some areas.
She set to work; Bella was first to receive a make-over. Haun cut her hair very short, then dyed it a sparkling green. False green lashes and heavy purple-toned face powder completed the makeup. For accessories, Haun attached to her nose a brushed nickel ring, then gave her a white fishnet hat whose drooping brim partly covered the eyes. The look was so garish Bella wanted to laugh at herself but she knew it was all for the good.
Rex was next. Haun shaved his hair completely off, then gave him a false grey mustache and goatee. She brushed on a silver enamel coating to two of his front teeth. “Wear a hoodie once you are out,” she advised. “It will shadow your face and make you hard to identify.”
They packed their bags as a guard waited for them outside. It was time to be mindful to have their efes with them. Haunn remained to dust and clean off all evidence of their fingerprints on doors, sinks, furniture and faucets. The guard led them to Ramzi’s garage where a car was waiting for them. The car was a small crossover with tinted rear side windows. A driver had already started the engine and Bella jumped in first. Another very hazardous episode was beginning. “Here take this,” she whispered to Rex, handing him the para eye. “Your turn to carry the charm.”
“The stars be with us,” Rex whispered back.
They strapped on their seat belts.
“Where would you prefer that I drop you off?” the youthful driver asked. “By the way, I’m Sheikh Ramzi’s younger brother Toggy.”
Bella and Rex looked at one another and then the western horizon. Although the sky was covered with clouds, you could tell the sun was still some way from setting. It probably was too risky to enter a public building with this much light even while heavily disguised. Things could be better if they delayed a bit.
“Leave us at the farthest point on the XV10E transit line. We will see what we will do after that,” said Rex.
Toggy headed for the gate. The road outside seemed like a death trap. The feeling of insecurity in Bella increased. She clutched Rex’s hand.
Ramzi’s younger brother swung the car into the eastbound lane. The gradient was upward for a short drive then the road levelled. Bella looked behind and saw the buildings that comprised Ramzi’s compound slide back. She’d written Qmalo and all of its people off, but Ramzi had been a revelation. Here was an oasis of civilization and understanding, one she could never have expected to see anywhere on this planet. It pained Bella to see all that go in the rear-view mirror. Her first experience of beautiful sex on this cruel planet had been in some dainty little cottage in that cozy complex. A cute little episode in her short life here had ended, and the dark clouds in the sky spoke of something else. Death, destruction…

The X-over’s tinted rear side windows allowed some view to the outside. Rex observed the sections of roadway he’d run along after being jettisoned off that bus last night. The dynamited boulders on the sides were uglier than he’d seen them. The gaping hillsides bled wet red soil, and the few trees left untouched sang a sad hollow tune in the slight wind. The car soon passed by the spot he’d been thrown out. “There it is,” he pointed, “the place where my life would have ended.”
“I’m so glad you are alive,” Bella squeezed his shoulder.
Rex couldn’t thank the heavens enough for sending Bella into his life. A few days ago he was a lonely lonely virgin. Now all that was history.
After about thirty minutes of driving, Toggy turned off the road and parked near a convenience store and gas station. “We have arrived at the farthest stop on the transit line. The busses turn around on that circle,” he pointed to a wide piece of circular pavement on the other side of the road.
“Thanks for your help and please convey our gratitude to your brother.” Bella and Rex donned their efes then slid out.
“Good luck,” said Toggy before he drove off.
Signs of dusk were beginning to show, and behind the clouds the horizon was fringed with yellow and orange bands. Another night of risky adventures was looming, and Rex could not be sure fortune would favor them this time like last night.
“I’ll get tickets,” Rex said, looking at the convenience store—which had a tickets-for-sale sign.
“You don’t want to pay inside the bus.” Bella spoke like she was afraid the store clerk might recognize him and create trouble.
“It’s actually safer that way,” Rex reasoned. “Bus drivers often scrutinize the faces of those paying inside, but if you wave a ticket at them they just let you go.”
“Oh, I see,” Bella nodded.
Rex was suddenly consumed by a desire to get something good for Bella. “You want a coffee?”
“That would be nice.”
“Good. Now you stand here while I go to buy.” Rex weighed the odds of the clerk identifying him. The risk was there, but had to be taken, though.
Rex hazarded to open the door. The clerk inside was an old man with the typical mean Qmalian looks. He paid Rex a withering gaze, but did not say anything.
“I will need two tickets and two cups of coffee,” Rex said to him. He felt for the para eye in his pocket and continued to pray for luck.”
“Earthling, I’m surprised you have money for beverages.” The man gave him another suspicious look.
“Can I have two cups,” Rex said.
As though unwilling, the old man gave him two tickets, then ambled to his coffee machine. He filled two plastic mugs.
Rex accepted the two and then rejoined Bella. Together they walked toward the bus shelter. The shack was no more than just chest-high asbestos panels fastened to poles that supported a rusting corrugated metal roof. Rex could see several Qmalians waiting inside. A little distance from the shack, a bus was idling, parked near the turnaround circle.
They avoided going into the shelter. The Qmalians inside noticed them but none seemed to develop any particular interest.
“Caress the para eye, still,” Bella whispered nervously.
“Your faith mirrors mine,” Rex stealthily fondled the glassy thing.
No more than five minutes later, the bus driver began to rev his engine and then he turned around and drove toward the shelter.
Rex considered the prospects of coming out tonight with anything useful. Ramzi had revealed some things, but much remained unknown. Could they get everything in one big score? It didn’t seem likely. The library at this stage was still pretty much a guess, and information on the forces they wanted to learn about could be totally lacking. And even if it was available, it still might take a very long time make any real headway. And then the pressure would be on them to avoid being recognized. What an enormous task they faced.

Chapter 39
It was requests like Fionn’s that made life more interesting. Back from an exciting raiding trip to earth a few days ago, Captain Weba had been having a bit of a dull day but now this assignment had come up. How great! Investigative work was something he enjoyed very much, in fact so much to the point he sometimes wondered why spend his time flying planes. Maybe he should ditch that and become a full-time PI. Traversing the skies sure had its rewards, but there was nothing as gratifying as seeing the look of satisfaction on a client’s face when a difficult investigation had finally been completed.
Previously Weba had solved a lot of cases, but this from Fionn was very different in that it was his first involving earthlings. Tracking runaway slaves would make for a fun task, but this case was even more thrilling in that the earthlings involved were quite high profile. The two had nearly committed murder. One was a servant of a high-ranking member of the ruling Privy Council and another was an abductee marked for death. How more interesting could a case ever be?
Weba wondered what the female runaway looked like. Descriptions on Radio and TV had been vague at the very most—and he’d not paid much attention—but she was said to be tall, thin, with blue eyes. “I’d like to see that runaway!”
Being part of the raiding team, Weba had been there in that earthling city called New York when all the captured victims were loaded up. There’d been quite a number of women, but this one purchased by Aha Ishobad must be special. Already she had caused a lot of trouble ever since she came, and could cause more. Weba, of course, would put an end to that. He’d find her and her accomplice and hand them to Fionn like she had requested. What happened after that, Fionn would be responsible.
Weba fished out from his jacket pocket a pack of cigars (stolen from an earthling captive), then lit one. Smokes made by humans were very tasty and flavorful, and he’d enjoy this one while waiting for the bus. After boarding he’d get off at Ramzi’s and begin his investigation from there. He wore clothes suitable for concealing himself, a leaf-green jacket and camouflage pants. It was slowly getting dark, too, and that would help.
He pulled from his stolen cigar and inhaled the earthy scents. A bus with its headlights already lit was snaking toward the stop. He butted out his cigar. Three Qmalian women stood with him outside the shelter. The bus stopped with the open doorway right opposite him. He could have let the women go in first, like men in some earthly societies did, but no, he stepped in first. Here, men were more important and he should enjoy the privilege.
Feeling good with himself, Weba slid along the aisle and scanned for a free seat. There were plenty to choose from but before he could settle on one, his eyes lit on a pair of earthlings. It actually was the glimmer of their efes that caught his attention first. The male wore a jacket with the hoodie pulled up to cover the head as though it were cold, but no, it was warm inside this bus. The woman had on quite a garish makeup, with a white fishnet hat that had its flopping brim covering her brow, almost down to the eyes. The woman whispered something to the man. Her teeth were so white, typical of the more upper-class damsels of the earth. ‘Oh Jove what have we got here;’ Weba instantly remembered the captive. She had been one of the last ones to be loaded up. The green lashes and purple face powder could not fool him. That woman had crystal blue eyes underneath that green mess. She had to be Aha Ishobad’s missing purchase!
Across the aisle, a bench-seat opposite the one on which the carefully disguised fugitives sat was free. Weba chose to sit on it. From here he could better watch the two, and see where they’d get off. ‘Be very tactical about this,’ Fionn had emphasized.
Weba lay back and took sneak peeks. He wore dark glasses, nobody would see his eyes taking snaps.
To his surprise, though, barely a few minutes later, the earthlings must have sensed something. They stood up and started walking toward the back. Had they noticed any one of his furtive glances? Maybe so, but honestly Weba did not believe he could have been that careless.
There was no door at the back, however, so the two could not escape. The bus was a tandem one, with accordion-like folds at its swivel joint. The fugitives chose a seat obscure from him but each time the bus took a turn and the joint ‘swiveled’ he caught glimpses of them. Now he was smarter and he kept his head low to avoid being suspected. When the two got off, he’d act.
For now he would make a call to Fionn. He fished for his mobile, turned it on, then dialed.
“I have found the idiots, can you believe it?”
“Already?” Fionn couldn’t hide her excitement. “Wasn’t it only a couple hours ago when I called?”
“I’m specially gifted am I not?” Weba wanted to beat his own chest.
“Yes you are, but where are you?” Fionn’s pleasure was infectious. “How do you plan we handle them?”
“I’m in a bus, XV10E transit line: that same road you said the fuckers were last seen.”
“Good. Where is the bus headed—downtown, I suppose.”
“Yes, downtown, but I can’t tell where the two will get off.”
“Okay, I’m on my way to downtown. You can call me back any time; I have my phone.”
“Thanks, Weba, and hang tight. We don’t want to mess this thing.”
“No, we won’t; you have my word.”

“Are we getting any closer?” Bella asked as the conjoined bus lumbered into the more densely built-up downtown area.
“Next stop.” Rex pointed ahead. “We should be getting off.”
They stood up and eased into the aisle. Bella looked ahead and felt afraid. The big man in dark glasses and greenish clothing had not gotten off and still sat on the same row that they previously had been sitting on. Bella didn’t want to attract his attention and so she avoided talking to Rex about him. His behavior had been downright suspicious. She hoped he wouldn’t follow them. As they passed his row he paid them a curious sideways glance. That unnerved Bella further.
They reached the stairwell. Bella looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was following but didn’t see any. She breathed a sigh as she stepped into the evening air.
“That man in dark glasses scared me so much.”
“I saw him, too,” answered Rex. “Very sneaky.”
“He sure gave me the creeps.”
“Thanks be to God, he’s left behind.”
The air was cool. It didn’t look like it would rain like yesterday but the clouds in the sky were solid, not a star could be seen. The evening lights had come on in many places.
“You know exactly where the library is?”
“Right there.”
Bella glimpsed an edifice that stood alone without any other buildings nearby. Its architecture was typically Qmalian, with small lit minarets at the top. A neatly cut lawn, sprinkled with flower beds, surrounded the building. A little of the fear that’d been troubling Bella subsided, and anticipation of what they would discover crept in.
“I have been here a few times,” Rex sounded hopeful, too. “and I know the building layout pretty good.”
“You don’t think there might be any gaafas in there?”
“Very likely not. It’s too late in the day for them to be still lurking.” Rex extracted the para eye and handed it to Bella. “Your turn to wish for luck.”
Bella plonked the eye into her skirt pocket.
The bus took off, and then stopped again a distance away. It was now too dark to see if anyone suspicious would come out, so they just paced toward the library edifice. The OPEN sign was still up. That brought relief of one kind to Bella.
Starting, however, to worry who might recognized them, they walked in. A Qmalian woman with her hair tied in a grey scarf sat behind the reception desk.
“You speak to her, your accent is familiar,” Bella nudged Rex.
Rex approached the woman. She was old and pale faced, with severe frown lines around the mouth. She checked his efe and then transferred the same scrutiny to Bella.
“People like you never come here often,” she snarled a little.
“We would like to do a bit of reading,” said Rex.
“I’m surprised you are literate,” she grinned. “By the way, kindergarten books are downstairs,” she added with a smirk.
Bella ignored her as she saw something far more interesting up on the wall behind her. A gilded frame hung, and in it was a painting of a snake drawn in an upright S shape. Below the curious reptile, the painter wrote a word that was even more obscure: ‘TEALTH’
Curious, Bella dragged Rex by the arm so she could speak about this out of earshot of the receptionist. Not far from the entrance were two benches which were unoccupied. “Mind if we just sit there for a minute.”
Rex didn’t seem to have noticed the mysterious painting.
“Isn’t that the Akan again,” she excitedly pointed it to him.
“Oh God, yes, it is. How could I have failed to see.”
“It’s truly like the one we saw taxidermized in the shrine.” Bella remembered the words Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi.
“Yes, and this Akan is drawn in a vertical ‘S’ too, with the head on the bottom. That’s something.”
The puzzling thing, though was that this one did not have those old Qmalian words that Ramzi translated them. Rather it had ‘TEALTH underneath.
“I don’t see Qamala Vuyiza…” Rex also puzzled. “The letters somehow… say ‘TEALTH.’
Looking for clues, Bella raked her mind. As a hint came to her, she nearly jumped. “I got something! The snake is drawn in the form of an ‘S’, so if we imagine that as a starting letter then add ‘TEALTH’ what do we get?”
“STEALTH, of course,” Rex nearly exclaimed. “How very clever of you.”
“Remember what Ramzi said! STEALTH is one of the magics we are looking for. And I think this brings us close, so let’s talk with the librarian?”
They stood up and paced to the desk.
“We need your help,” Rex said. “We are trying to learn about something called ‘STEALTH’.”
“Oh Jove, you sound quite educated, it’s awful.”
“Ma’am can you help us?”
“Okay, okay, do you mean ‘stealth’ as in the word itself or as a name for something?”
“STEALTH as a name for something... mysterious,” Bella forgot she had a non-Qmalian accent and risked giving herself away.
“Sorry, I have no clue,” the woman looked exasperated.
“Look behind you, madam” Rex implored. “Do you know that painting well? Does it signify something?”
The woman strained herself to look back and up. “I may work here, but I’m not the one to worry about those things. Do you have any other questions?”
“We think that snake might have a link with a certain magic…” Bella eyed the woman.
“Magic,” the woman exclaimed. “Now you annoy me. Thank Jove, it’s almost closing time.” She gazed at the clock. “I’m done with you.”
“Do you have any books on the subject?” Rex implored her again in that obsequious customary Qmalian way of his.
“Downstairs, lots of kindergarten stuff.”
“This is not helping,” Bella dragged Rex by the arm. “Let’s find it ourselves.”

Captain Weba waited outside the library.
His eyes followed the fugitives’ movements. He had nearly lost them after they got off the bus while he remained inside. That had been necessary, though, so as to hide his tracks. After a short ride, he’d demanded to be dropped off, then he then sneaked back in the twilight and traced them to this vast library.
The sun had long set, and where he stood was shaded and dark. They could never see him here; the laws of Physics would not allow it. If they glanced in his direction they would only see shadows.
Weba surveyed the inside. There were not a lot of other people. The runaways stood clearly illuminated near the help desk.
It probably was time to call Fionn and give an update.
“We’ve gotten off the bus. Everything looks pretty set.”
“Great, that’s why I like you Weba. At what stop are you?”
“You won’t believe this—the main library.”
“Who else is close by? Can you hold them up?”
“There is still a few dudes puttering inside. You want me to go in and raid?”
“I thought you said you were at a stop. Do you mean they are right inside?”
“Yes, I can see them through the glass.”
“You think you can go in for the kill without attracting too much attention.”
“I could try.”
“Yee, this is too interesting. I’m on my way,” she said, almost hanging up.
“By the way what’s the girl’s name?” Weba stopped her. “The boy’s, I know.”
“Her name is Bella.”
“Good, now come…”

Chapter 40
Peeved by the receptionist, Bella and Rex hurried away from the desk.
“You know what I’m beginning to see,” said Rex, as they headed for the shelves. “STEALTH must be the biggest of the magic system and once we learn everything about it we are almost there.”
“And by what I can tell, it is inextricably linked with the Akan.”
“Yes, but now where do we begin.”
They started consulting the library signs, mindful it was almost closing time. The ground floor was divided into two wings. One arrow pointed toward Fiction and the other Non-Fiction.
“Non-Fiction, it has to be,” reasoned Bella.
Toward the section, they raced.
“Shall we look for STEALTH as a standalone subject, or are we to first find books on the Akan?” Rex asked as they paced in the aisles.
“Let’s see,” Bella answered. “Maybe let’s just go straight for the STEALTH thing and save time.
All the individual book sections were prominently labelled, but they couldn’t find any separate section marked STEALTH.
“It’s frustrating, why isn’t it there,” Bella shrugged mid-step.
“Remember according to the legend we heard from Sheikh Ramzi, STEALTH is a secret magic force known to only a few, so there might not be any books on it.”
“Alright then, let’s work on the Akan.”
They had to pace through another few aisles before they came to the one labelled Reptilia. Rex’s heart beat. Maybe they could find something here. There were lots of books on snakes. Randomly, Bella picked up a hardback that had several such slitherers on its spine.
“Now where to open?” Bella glared.
“Go straight to the Index.”
Bella turned to the back. Rex inched closer so he also could read. Despite that they were researching the Akan, it tempted him to first look for the word Stealth—which had numerous pages listed under it. Page 50 was number one on the list.
They flipped back to 50. The page was the start of a chapter and half of it showed a fearsome snake whose mouth was open and two venomous fangs dripped something toxic.
“Oh my, I hate snakes,” Bella cooed.
“Let’s skim direct to the sentence where Stealth is written.” Rex worried about the lack of time.
They skimmed through, looking. Rex narrowed his eyes as he glimpsed the word. ‘The Qmalian Swamp Mamba has great hiding abilities.’ the writing went. ‘Its Stealth Ratio is roughly eight and is exceeded only by that of the Akan. It can lie still and wait for prey for hours and hours.”
“Disappointing,” Bella let out a breath. “That’s not what we are looking for. What is even this thing called Stealth Ratio?”
“It’s a factor by which Qmalians measure how well a creature is able to hide itself; perhaps it might have a bearing to what we are looking for?”
“I don’t think so really, but let’s read on.”
“We sure might find something: but God, time is running out.” Rex glanced at the clock.
They ran through three more of the listed pages. All the ‘Stealths’ mentioned had to do with the various snakes’ ability to hide in leaves or behind branches and to move noiselessly in search of prey. It angered Bella that this factor called Stealth Ratio was of such importance to Qmalian researchers, it caused the word Stealth to appear too often and in confusing ways.
“I’m getting tired of this kind of Stealth,” Bella shrugged.
Meanwhile the clock ticked. Now it was half-past seven. Thirty minutes from now, the doors would close.
“Let’s try the Akan, then,” Rex felt a little demoralized.
Bella’s fingers trembled with impatience as she thumped through the pages. Trouble, for her, was that the Qmalian alphabet started with the letter Z not with A. It took her a while to get where she wanted.
“There it is; we got it,” she said as she glimpsed the Akan.
This snake surely was of great significance to Qmalians. It’s picture occupied more than half of the Chapter’s first page. A quick leafing-through revealed that there were several other pictures of it, unlike the other snakes they’d seen that only had one.
“I knew Akans were of importance, but not to this level.” Rex’s hopes began to run higher.
“Damn the serpents. I hope we discover what we’re looking for.” Bella was more practical.
The Akan shown here was generally dark green, with grey-brown spots on top and a sleek chevron-like pattern of the same shades on its sides. In certain bushes during some seasons, it would be extremely hard to spot.
“Why is the color of this one different, though?” Bella asked. “The one in the shrine was orange mostly.”
“Don’t be confused by that. Akans are said to change colors faster than a chameleon. Perhaps that’s where the link to the STEALTH we want is.”
“Alright, let’s read,” Bella enthused. Her blue eyes were now almost hawk-like.
They scanned the paragraphs on the first page, but those didn’t turn up the kind of STEALTH they were looking for. “I’m tired learning about hiding abilities,” Bella let out another impatient breath.
“The second page could yield something.” Rex hoped.
Bella quickly turned the page over. The new one had a main text and sidebar. They ran through the main text.
“Where’s STEALTH,” frustration was now really creeping into Bella. “I don’t see nothing.”
“Just hold it. We still have the sidebar.”
The sidebar was written in a smaller type that made skimming difficult. Rex squinted at the text. They had to labor through almost the whole thing. The clock ticked even further. Much of what was written yielded no useful information, but towards the end they got something.
“Akan snakes have abilities to conceal themselves so well as to practically become invisible. Because of this, generations of Qmalians have ignorantly tried to trap and kill them so as to harvest the magic power supposedly arising from the snake’s superior stealth capabilities. This trend is tragic, and is the reason why the awesome reptiles are now so rare, and consequently protected. The actual STEALTH we Qmalians boast of is not something distilled from the skin or flesh of ordinary Akans, but rather is a magical-military force emanating from two unique, undying Akans whose whereabouts and the knowledge to summon the magic from them is a secret only know to a few, if not only one person across the whole land.”
“Phew,” Bella exhaled. “This is really something.”
“Sure, it’s all starting to come together.” Rex beamed. “That taxidermy we saw in the shrine had the words Qamala Vuyiza, Ogaidan Inxhu Antwi: which Ramzi said translated to ‘Qmalo Strong, All Others Weak.’ I’m sure that taxidermy is a sneak way of hinting at where Qmalians obtain their power from. That Akan was not just a dead creature but a real representation of those two secret ones mentioned here?”
“Excellent, so what’s the next hint?”
“Remember, Sheikh Ramzi said, according to legend, the unifying force lives underground.”
“Good memory, but where does that take us?” Bella shook her head. “Shall we have to dig the whole of Qmalo to find those two Akans? Or shall we find and kidnap that one special person with all the knowledge?”
“I think we can still work around things. The side bar confirms the idea that STEALTH is a magical military force. How about we research STEALTH as something the Qmalian military uses or once used.”
“Yes let’s,” Bella nodded. “And, further, Sheikh Ramzi’s legend ties in with what’s in this text. The magic force that he said resides somewhere under the ground is actually these two mysterious Akans spoken of here. My intuition is that since STEALTH is a military thing, the Qmalian army or its predecessors must have had access to this holy underground where the Akans reside; so if we search under military, we sure could find something.”
“Fantastic deduction. Now where is the military section?”

40.2 Rex’s point of view
Hoping to save time, they trotted back to the desk to ask.
“Where, please, is the military section?” Rex hoped this time the librarian might help.
The woman checked her clock. “You got no more time, hopeless earthlings. It’s only fifteen minutes to closing.”
“Just tell us where the section is,” Bella was getting antsy.
The old woman glanced at the staircase but did not say a thing.
Rex decoded her body language. “Alright, its upstairs.”
Up, they dashed. The lights in the second floor were a little dimmer than the downstairs but that didn’t deter them. Better though, the display space here was not as big and was not divided into wings. The rows of bookshelves were still far too numerous, however. Although Rex had a slight advantage over Bella in that he knew the ordering of the letters on the Qmalian alphabet, and he quickly led them to where the M sections started, they had a hard time finding the Military section. There just were too many sections starting with M. It took long to get to where they wanted, and the fact Qmalians spelt military as Militario didn’t help.
The military section itself was huge and covered vast swathes of shelving. Without some criteria to help them select which book to pick, it would take a long time to go through them all.
“My hunch is to find something that deals with the more ancient combat arts,” Bella said.
“I was also thinking along the same lines, since the STEALTH magic must be a very old thing.”
Her eyes like a hawk’s, Bella swept a swathe of bookshelf then lit on a tome that had the image of a Qmalian man in ancient warrior dress emblazoned on the spine. The man looked fierce, his bare arms ribbed with veins. In one hand he clutched a short feathered spear, and the other a round shield. The title of the book said Ancient Qmalian Martial Arts.
Bella yanked the tome from the shelf.
“Possibly a very good choice,” said Rex, looking warily at the clock.
The book had a rather lengthy index section but it didn’t take them long to find S. The word Stealth had several pages listed under it. The reference here was a little more helpful in that each listed page number had a few words summarizing what the page contained. Together they read through.
“Look at this one,” Rex’s face lit up. “It says Cloak of Invisibility. Remember what Sheikh Ramzi said?”
“Sure, that could be it.” Bella thumbed back to the page listed.
Instead of the paragraph after paragraph of text they expected, their eyes were instead greeted by an almost full-page illustration. A caption below the illustration read ‘Mamazola: The link to STEALTH.’ Below the caption was one small paragraph of regular text, but they ignored it for the time being, too captivating by the illustration. The drawing wasn’t one continuous thing, but rather it consisted of two separate images. The top half showed a temple-like building, with four minarets surrounding a vast central dome. Both the minarets and dome were painted purple. The mosque’s main walls were orange and yellow. Rex recognized it at once: The Purple Mosque.
“What would a mosque have to do with magic?” Bella puzzled after Rex told her what he’d gleaned.
“Maybe a lot,” answered Rex. “Let’s look closely.”
The bottom half of the illustration showed an ancient Qmalian battalion kneeling before, and worshipping a snake-like deity.
“Looks like the Akan again,” Rex exclaimed.
“Why would warriors worship a snake?”
“If it’s a source of power,” Rex intuited.
The paragraph below the illustration said, “The Mamazola is a preserved ancient carving that shows the gateway to STEALTH. It’s the only one of its kind in existence and by law cannot be duplicated because STEALTH is a very sacred ancient martial power whose source and nature cannot be ordinarily revealed to the public. The illustration above is only a minor representation that has been cleared for publication. Please respect Qmalian traditions and religion by not reproducing this illustration without authorization from the Privy Council.
“So, if we find the Mamazola, we’ve found the gateway to STEALTH.”
“This are sure getting very interesting.”
The lights blinked off at that moment.

Chapter 41
Eight minutes to closing time, the killer instinct began to rise in Captain Weba. He could not stand here anymore and be troubled by gnats and mosquitoes while the wretched runaways enjoyed the comforts of the library interior. Whose country was this, for Jove’s sake?
Being a plane pilot, his vision was the epitome of magnificence. He spied the inside. The lights had begun to flash off and on at intervals. The single librarian he’d seen had moved away from the desk. Not a single other Qmalian reader walked or sat at ground floor. On the off chance, there might be a couple remaining upstairs, but he didn’t think so. The earthlings and that old Qmalian woman must be the only souls left in the venerated building. Which would only make his work easier.
Time for action. This wasn’t a mere investigation anymore but a direct capture job. Weba slid out of his hiding place and headed for the doors. For a moment he panicked as he imagined the doors might have been locked from inside. Then he remembered this was the one only regular exit, and the fugitives would have to come out of here. Even if he couldn’t go inside, he’d still apprehend them right at this very spot. Unless of course the criminals tried the few other emergency exits, but that would result in several alarms going, which wouldn’t help them at all.
He tried a handle. The door swung open. Weba walked in. “Sorry, we are closed,” an old female voice called from behind some shelves.
“I know what I’m doing; I will be out soon.”
Now some smartness was needed. The library ground floor was too vast and if he searched among the aisles, the earthlings might walk out the main doors without him noticing. He’d keep those doors under surveillance. He paced about, scanning the nearby aisles while keeping one eye on the exit. No, he didn’t see anything. He listened; his hearing was as superior as his vision. Only the footsteps of the puttering librarian reached him.
“The fugitives aren’t on this floor. They must have gone up,” he whispered to himself.
He trained his ear at the ceiling. The lights went off again at that instant. A tapping sound radiated from through the ceiling. Weba’s heart raced. It must be the fugitives!

The knowledge they’d gained from this short research excited Bella. Not only had they proven Ramzi’s tale had the truth to it, they’d gone as far as learning the existence of a secret carving called the Mamazola. Qmalians were a society only as strong as their magical powers allowed them to be; so if the source of their powers could be found and destroyed, they would become weak and beatable. She and Rex could now leave, but there was still one crucial thing she wanted to learn. The mystery of the para eye in her skirt pocket…
“It’s time we got going,” Rex prompted. “It won’t do us any good to start fighting with the librarian. There might be security hidden somewhere, too.”
“Just one more minute. Remember we have the para eye whose exact powers we don’t know yet. That thing could be an asset, provided we know how it works.”
“You got a point,” answered Rex as the lights flashed again. “Now where shall we start—Salamanders?”
“Yes, that thing was lizard-like. Maybe we could…”
A distinct sound of footsteps shot from the direction of the staircase.
“Now I really think we might not have the time for that,” Rex quaked. “Just listen”
She cocked her ears. The footsteps got louder, and eerily they didn’t sound like those a tired old woman would make.
The lights went off again.
“Someone must be coming up.”
Just as the lights came back on, Bella’s eyes lit on a figure of a humongous man hurrying towards them. The man wore greenish clothing and had dark glasses. That man again from the bus. Whaat!
“We meet again earthlings,” the man forced a grin that was part way between mere mocking and downright threatening. “What are we up to this time?”
“Leave us alone, we are not here to break the law,” Bella managed.
“My name is Captain Weba. You idiots are criminals and you are under arrest.”
“No, you are wrong,” Rex looked up to size him.
Bella took one glance at the hulking Qmalian and knew they would have no chance against him. Rex was tall and strong but not too muscular. In fact he was a bit on the slim side and would not be able to outwrestle this powerfully-built native enemy. In a tussle, Bella could add her own pound-worth of fighting ability, but this big native would be too much for them. Worse, there might be other Qmalians still inside and guess to whose aid they would come.
Bella groped for an inspiration. Maybe this was the time to just try the paranormal eye. She could have attempted the same thing on Fionn last night, but the fight got hot too quickly and there’d been no chance. At the shrine, when she pointed the eye at that plane, they’d observed a small bump in the plane’s altitude. It was all guesswork but why not just try to squeeze it. She winked at Rex, then put her hand into her skirt pocket.
“Hey you, stop those tricks,” the Qmalian barked. “You make me mad. Now follow me outside.”

Fionn couldn’t wait to get got off the bus. Her hands itched for action. The road ahead was open. ‘Why can’t you just speed up a little more,’ she urged the driver in her head.
Ten minutes later, her stop was less than a hundred yards away. She stood to go. Just as the bus squealed to a halt, she hit the stairwell and was out in a second. The library building stood roughly a football field away. What a wealth of Qmalian arts, crafts, literature, and knowledge that majestic edifice held within its walls, but Fionn wasn’t interested in any of it. Two of Qmalo’s most wanted fugitives were trapped somewhere in there. And she was going to get them.
The bus drove off and she crossed the road. Her feet felt firm in her boots.
The debacle of last night pained her. How could she have lost to Bella? A Qmalian should never lose to an earthling. How did that happen? Maybe Bella possessed something, a force of some sort that caused things to go so wrongly for Fionn.
It wasn’t to happen again. This time Fionn had brought along her powerful magic wand, one she called the ‘little coyote.’ She wasn’t a newbie in the field of magic. About ten years ago, when she finished her igaafa duties, she apprenticed with a Qmalian mage. She proved a fast learner, and within no time had mustered many of the secret techniques. On graduation she received a baby-coyote’s tail as a personal magic device. It was the power of this wand, when she demonstrated it, that got her into the elite academy of monhyas and grinhyas who stealthily raided earth. Her ‘little coyote’ had so much power over earthlings. Every time, while in an invisible state, she touched the body of a human with it, the human became powerless and subject to capture. Unless of course the individual was elemental and needed much extra force to subdue. Only days ago, in New York, she’d used ‘little coyote’ on Bella and had taken her without much resistance. Today ‘Little coyote’ would do the same thing…
Just in case Weba was playing a crude joke, Fionn sensed the air. At much less than a hundred yards, she should be able to pick the earthlings’ love scents. She flared her nostrils wide. She got it. A mix of hormones, desire, and all the other human love secretions. She flexed herself for the impending action. Today she’d dressed herself in running shoes unlike last night when she was in pumps and in skirts, a fact she thought allowed Bella to outwrestle her. Completing her outfit today were her T-shirt, yellow cap and blue track pants. Ready for a night of hustling and running and wrestling, she was, but she didn’t think things would go that far. Little Coyote would do its job fast.
Weba had done great. She would always thank him. Fionn quickened her pace, the distance between her and the library melting in strides.

Chapter 42
‘This is going to end outside—in a back alley,’ Weba decided to himself. ‘the street will not do.’
Out front someone might just recognize the two outlaws and then his deal with Fionn not to involve the police as yet would crumble.
‘I’m sure Fionn will be able to find me behind there,’ he thought silently. ‘She is an intelligent Qmalian, and will guess where to look.’
“Ye criminals, let’s get round to the back,” he voiced loudly. “An important person is coming to get you.”
As they turned around the north wall and headed for the dark alley, nether thoughts began to enter Weba’s head. He had seen Bella days ago on earth, and here he was seeing her again; she was attractive in her human way. ‘I think I’m going to have a quick one with her,’ he smiled to himself. Sex between earthlings and Qmalians was of course forbidden, but who would ever know this happened? Fionn, possibly; but she never would report him because of this favor he had granted her. And who knew, she actually might like to snap a picture or two, images she of course wouldn’t share with anyone.
They reached the alley. “This is our destination, felons,” Weba announced. “The madam is on her way, and we wait here.”
He gaped especially at Bella. She stood not far from Rex in the dim light, her hair dyed a garish sandy-ginger now looking dark. She was attractive, even in disguise.
“Ye guys, we are going to play a little game while we wait for the lady commander,” Weba grinned at them.
The runaways stared at one other and remained silent.
“Rex, you are going to lie down on the pavement and I put my boot to your neck. Bella, you are going to kneel between my legs and do as I say.” Even if he was going to be caught, oral sex would not attract any meaningful punishment because it didn’t have any potential to result in the birth of something half-earthling and half-Qmalian, which was the very thing Qmalian authorities were seriously against. Weba felt himself grow hard underneath his pants.
“No, I can’t do that,” Bella’s voice resonated in the twilight. “I’m not your wife.”
“We can’t oblige you in that manner,” echoed Rex. “Do whatever else you can,” he curled his fingers menacingly.
How dare these fugitives oppose him like this. “I will teach you a lesson, you stupid earthling,” Weba jumped and grabbed hold of Rex, then punched him in the face. It felt sweet to have his hand dish out punishment to some worthless earthling. Rex reeled and then fell.
“You dare oppose me?” Weba huffed.
Seeing that, Bella lunged at Weba. Her nails dug into him. Weba grabbed her by the neck and slapped her hard on the forehead. “Come on, do as you are told. Kneel down.”
Form the corner of one eye, Weba saw Rex rise. The earthling was coming fast. Weba jerked and pushed Bella away violently. He had to deal with the male. He swung a muscular arm toward Rex’s face but Rex ducked and Weba’s hand hit thin air. Rex bent over and grabbed him by the waist. Weba felt the force of Rex’s arms as he began to back pedal from the push being exerted. Bella rose and came rushing toward him, her arms flailing. She landed a few punches on his chest and chin but Weba still paid greater attention to Rex. He shoved him with rage and Rex’s grip fell loose. Another big push and Rex went tumbling. As soon as Rex hit the ground, wincing, Weba grabbed Bella’s hands and started to twist. He heard a cry of pain but he didn’t release, only twisted her further, bringing her face closer to his.
“I will fuck you earthling,” he said as anticipation rose sweet in his chest. In Bella eyes was a look of intense pain and anger but Weba didn’t care. He brought his lips crushing onto her and then released her briefly.
“Now if you want to live, do as I say. Kneel down below my crotch.”

Rex lay almost paralyzed on the pavement but as soon as he saw Weba kiss Bella, an enormous rage and fighting power surged in him. He gathered himself and rose. Even though he was still in a cloud of pain, he dived at the big Qmalian. “Leave her alone,” he shouted as he grabbed the big hands holding Bella. The Qmalian was strong, but Rex was able to prize his hands away from Bella. The sudden force of being released caused Bella to reel backwards and then she stumbled and fell. Weba turned on Rex. His hands clutched Rex by the shoulders and then he shook him. Unfinished, the Qmalian swung his head aiming to butt it with Rex’s, but Rex ducked and instead connected with Weba’s chin. The Qmalian grunted and staggered but did not fall. He dived for Rex’s waist, and lifted him. Rex tried to resist getting airborne but was unsuccessful; he was sent flying. Pain exploded in his body as he landed once again on the pavement. This probably was the end, but Rex learned it wasn’t as the big Qmalian dived down for him. Rex tried jerk away him but he couldn’t do it fast enough; all the enormous weight of the Qmalian crushed on him. He almost passed out from the pain. Just as he hovered on the edge of unconsciousness, he thought he might have a tool in his pants pocket, a pair of cutters or something. He dug his hand in as the Qmalian began to punch him. Sadly there was nothing, and darkness was closing in.

Bella was gathering herself, ready to rejoin the fight, when she chanced upon something in the periphery of her vision, a small sky light. The clouds had parted and a small star lay exposed. What a miracle, when the clouds had been so thick. In that instant, almost like a god-send, words began to flow into her. ‘Power come down. Power come down.’ An inspiration suddenly hit; she brought out the para eye and aimed it at the little star. “Power come down!” she repeated. Immediately, all her strength returned and she rushed towards where Rex lay pinned. She need not have bothered herself, though, because she saw the big native start to squirm as though a few fires had ignited under his clothes. He released his grip on Rex. Rex threw him off. The big Qmalian clumsily rose, staggering and uttering strange noises. Even as she rushed to tear at him, Bella saw the Weba run his hands all over his body as though he were trying to get rid of hot flaming lizards crawling under his shirt and pants. Momentarily he clutched his crotch and groaned with pain.
“Finish him off,” cried Rex as he stood. “Bella, you are a miracle.”
Bella rushed the Qmalian and began punching and kicking him. Weba was strong; even though he was in pain and almost helpless, he would not fall. Rex came in with help. He kicked and punched with force. The Qmalian held on for a while until eventually a boot in the groin sent him tumbling.
“Whew,” Bella exhaled as she observed the now-injured Qmalian writhing on the ground. “That was close, Rex.”
“Let’s continue to beat the brute,” Rex would not want to stop.

Chapter 43
Fionn reached the library’s main doors and looked around. She didn’t see anyone. She tried the door handles. The library was now locked and most of its lights off. Where was Weba and the quarry? Had he just been playing a joke? No, that couldn’t be. She could pick the love scents quite strongly from here.
‘They must be nearby, somewhere.’
She brought out her mobile and dialed Weba’s number. It rang unanswered. Fionn started to panic. What the heck was going on?
She listened. There was some kind of faint noise coming from behind the building. She listened again; she could make out shouts, or where they—whimpers. She put her phone into her pocket and rushed.
“Oh Jove, what is going on? Stop it!”
Weba lay helpless on the ground, with Bella and Rex punching him. Fionn went into a moment of fear. How had the human weaklings overcome a big native like that? Were they beginning to turn into super heroes. They wouldn’t win against her, though. She yanked out ‘little coyote’ from her handbag. “Stop the hell. Now you are done,” Fionn felt the power in her voice.
Bella and Rex seemed surprised by her sudden arrival. They stopped punching and kicking.
“Now, witch, you will be next,” there was sarcasm in Bella’s voice. “You are going to join your friend there on the asphalt?”
“Shut up, you must be crazy.” Fionn menaced.
Bella raced towards her. She balled her hands into fists, and sent one flying. The punch landed on Fionn’s chest with a thud but she didn’t feel much pain. Oh how she was going to enjoy this. If not for the presence of Rex, Fionn might have wanted another fight with Bella with no involvement of magic. It didn’t seem like that would be the case, though, because Rex joined in to help. He closed ranks with Bella, flexing his arms, ready to lunge.
“You are going to lose; give up.” Fionn cackled. She could smell little coyote.
With fury, Bella once again rushed her. Fionn did not duck, only waved the little tail while uttering the incantation. Instantly, a eucalyptus-like smell arose as the magic took effect. Bella froze in her rush. Rex staggered weakly to hold her.
“Now see what has happened. Didn’t I tell you,” Fionn smirked.
Little coyote was really showing its power. Rex squirmed. Bella trembled. The two then began to stagger around like drunks.
“Stand there. Don’t go anywhere,” Fionn barked.
Weba needed help. She walked to him and performed a little therapeutic dance. The big Qmalian stopped writhing and then managed to sit up.
“Don’t worry, you will be fine,” she took his hand and helped him stand.
She patted him. He wasn’t hurt. “Just rest for a while. Nothing is going to happen to you. When you are good, catch a cab home, I’ll pay.”
“The crazy bastards,” Weba pointed at Rex and Bella.
“Don’t worry about them; you have already done your part. Leave the rest to me.”

“Now you two walk,” Fionn commanded. “We go to the street.”
Like goats, she headed them out of the alley. Rex looked at the library that had yielded some valuable secrets to them. Now it glowed darkly like something from an ancient time. Was the dream to find the STEALTH ending here. It’d be sad if it were.
They turned a corner and soon reached the front.
“We wait by the road,” Fionn ordered again.
Rex continued to smell the little something that Fionn had waved. It was so overpowering. Even though he thought of lunging at her, he felt weak, almost close to paralysis. Walking was a pain. His hands felt numb. So, this was what being under magic felt. What a horrible sickly feeling.
A cab drove by; Fionn hailed it. The driver stopped.
“Let’s go,” Fionn shouted.
Rex wanted to pretend like he couldn’t walk anymore but found that his body did not completely obey him anymore. His legs continued walking, as though the muscles were under the control of something else, like he’d almost become a robot.
They trundled down the curb. Fionn opened the cab door.
“In first,” she snarled at Bella.
Bella tried to say something but words caught in her throat. She tensed in some attempt to resist, but Fionn shoved her in.
“Now you,” Fionn grabbed Rex. “Go in.”
Rex tried to brace his legs but couldn’t. A cold hand threw him in. Fionn turned around and went to the other side.
“Ma’am you could come and sit with me in the front. You want to sit with slaves?”
“Oh it’s you.” Fionn ignored the offer but looked at the driver. “I lost you last night, gosh, how Jove works.”
“Last night was crazy,” answered the cabman. “You know I got chased away from inside the station. I still got that money, though.”
Their voices sounded as though they were coming from under some muddy water.
“Hell, keep the cash,” Fionn glowed with some pride. “These are the two famous persons I wanted you to chauffer last night.”
“Oh these trampy earthlings,” the driver paid him and Bella an over-the-shoulder glance. “Jove, aren’t those the two fugitives the police are looking for?”
“They could be, but that’s not your problem right now. Just drive straight ahead.” Fionn had assumed a surreal look that mirrored the strangeness of her voice. “I’ll give further instructions as we go.”
Bella seemed so dazed as she sat in the middle. Rex dizzily wondered what was going through her mind. Only less than an hour ago, things had been so right. And then that stupid Captain Weba…
“Turn right at the next light,” Fionn said to the driver.
Rex seemed to remember the streets and intersections hazily. Some of the buildings looked like ones he had seen a century ago. What a strange fearful thing, magic was.
Later, the cab driver drove down the road that looked more familiar to Rex, Mosque Avenue. The Purple Mosque was just an intersection or two down, he dizzily recalled. That was supposed to be their destination after leaving the library. Even though it now felt like he was completely drugged, Rex remembered the Mamazola and STEALTH. It had taken a lot to get to know that.
As they drove past the mosque, and the huge purple roof was slipping into the rear-view mirror, Rex saw the missed opportunity that this was. A big promise to save earthlings from further pillage lay somewhere in there. Now it was all sliding past, and their fortunes had suddenly sunken.
The driver turned into another road, and all Rex could do was stare gravely ahead.

Chapter 44
A truckload of specially-hired gaafas waited for Ishobad at the shawoman’s gate. A raid at Ramzi’s estate had not yielded anything. Ishobad tried all that was within the law for him to do but Ramzi refused to crack. He wouldn’t admit he’d ever seen the fugitives. All along, Ishobad knew Ramzi was lying, but a thorough search with his team of gaafas failed to reveal even the slightest evidence.
Now was probably late to do a consultation with the psychic but time was running out. He had to catch Bella and Rex. Tomorrow was Big Saturday and he had to deliver.
Aha Ishobad sat staring at the chalice of forensic liquor. It would have been better if he’d gotten something that predicted where the runaways would go next rather be shown only the trail of their movements. That predictive magic wasn’t available, though, and this forensic liquid was the best the shawoman could give.
The liquor’s stench reached his nose, but the desire for conquest was overwhelming. Fighting his revulsions, the Aha picked up the chalice and drank with his eyes closed. His face contorted. He fought to drain the whole thing without a rest. The liquid always gave him a sickly kind of drunkenness but today it wouldn’t matter if he’d later look silly in front of his hired teenage force.
The liquor hit his tummy and soon would flood his brain. Before he felt the dull tingling sensations, and before the charmed glass was brought to him, his phone vibrated in his pocket. He hated things that were too modern, and would not have bought this thing had he not realized its convenience. Especially in times like this. He requisitioned this phone only yesterday, and now it seemed so much of a useful thing. Already he’d tied his home line to it so if an emergency call came he could be reached anywhere.
He brought the gadget out and checked the identity of the dialer. A long-lost fiancé; he looked on with interest. What did she want? He had no time for harlots who whored themselves with non-believers like Ramzi.
Before he dismissed the call, something told him to answer it. Maybe it was the numbly dizziness taking over.
“It’s me, Ishobad,” Fionn said. “I’m in a cab and I need to share something with you.”
“What do you want,” Ishobad was curt.
“Look, I don’t need anything from you, but I have got what you want.”
“You got something I need. Really?”
“I’m bringing Bella and Rex to your home. Leave the gates open. By the way, Bella is the name of your purchase.”
“The fugitives? Now Fionn don’t be like this.”
“Yes, Aha, I’m not joking.”
“Fionn you know a prank like this could land you in serious trouble.”
“I’m not pranking anyone, dear. Just wait for me at the gate.”
“Fionn I will love you for that. I wasn’t home but I’m rushing there now
“Okay, Ishobad dear, I’m coming there.”
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