They walked single-file down a narrow corridor somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, one soldier in front, two in back, and Eddie and Bryce in the middle. Nobody spoke.
Did they know Eddie was immune to their emotional muting spell? Did they know he understood their language? They hadn't taken Kai or Phyllis into custody. Why had they singled out Eddie and Bryce? Eddie tried not to show his terror, putting on a facade of indifference.
The corridors under the stadium were a maze of right angles and doorways. They passed an open door, and Eddie glanced in. A huge, man-like beast with leathery wings and a blue-black face stood chained against a wall, his eyes burning, his teeth clenched with rage. Eddie made eye contact for just a moment, and the beast bellowed with frustration. Eddie reeled back into the opposite wall. Bryce didn't even flinch.
Minutes later, they reached their destination, a pair of metallic doors. The lead soldier led them inside.
Three people sat at a long table within. The man at the center wore a business suit and overcoat, his face amiable. He stood as they entered. "Welcome," he said. "You are..." he glanced at a glass tablet on the table and muttered to himself. "Bryce Gerrard and Edwin Foster."
Eddie said nothing. He matched Bryce's posture—a subdued waste-case.
The man in the center leaned towards the man at his left, an older, decorated soldier. "Could you ease up on the shroud in here, Major?" he said in Hadish.
The major nodded and spoke into a button on his wrist. "Shroud off in the mayor's interview room." He nodded at a red beret soldier.
The change in Bryce's demeanor was immediate. He blinked, his eyes darting around until they fixed on the man standing at the table. "Why are we here? Are we prisoners? This place is like a concentration camp."
"Mr. Gerrard, I apologize for the accommodations. These are trying times, and I'm afraid we've had to take... (mutter)... desperate measures to compensate."
"Well why lock us up? If you don't want us in your city—"
"Mr. Gerrard, sit down," ordered the old soldier. He didn't raise his voice, but his icy tone carried a lifetime of command.
Bryce and Eddie found two folding chairs facing the table. They sat.
"We're getting off on the wrong foot here," said the man in the center, now sitting. "I'll explain to you as much as I can." He pointed to himself. "I am Mayor Yolo. On my left is Major Trage who oversees this refugee center. And this on my right is Galatina, a private consultant."
Eddie regarded the woman. Her name sounded familiar. It took only a moment to recognize her. He'd seen her on a billboard. Greatest Prophetess in the World, it had claimed. Eddie's heart stopped. She sat with her hands folded on the table, her eyes on her knuckles, a scowl on her face. What happens when she looks at me?
Bryce must have recognized her too because he groaned the second he heard her name.
The mayor looked puzzled. "What is it?"
"I want to leave," Bryce said. "That's all."
"We'll see what we can do. I have a few questions first."
"Our number isn't up," Eddie said, holding up the stamp on his hand. "What's so special about us?"
"What's special is that you drove into our city with what you claimed was a dragon rider," the mayor said. "We've had other such claims... (mutter)... people insisting they had caught an invader. We expect when we offer a reward, we'll have a few... (mutter)... kooks. Frankly, we doubted your claims."
"Until the dragon came looking for his rider," Bryce said.
The mayor frowned. "Yes. It was clear from the man's behavior that he expected the dragon to appear."
"Yeah," Bryce said. "He's the real deal. Out of Cavaheim up north."
"Cavaheim?" the mayor repeated.
"That's right. Up in the Titan Spires. That's where they've taken all the people they abducted. They're going to sacrifice all of their prisoners in some kind of lava spring."
The mayor looked astonished. "He told you this? Human sacrifice?"
"Yep. Told us all kinds of things."
The mayor turned to Galatina. "Does any of this ring true for you?" he asked in Hadish.
The prophetess continued to stare at her knuckles. Eddie cringed, fearing the moment she would look up at him and lose control.
"I must hear more," she said.
The mayor nodded. "These riders have abducted many of our citizens," he said in English. "Why would they sacrifice these people?"
"He claims his king is someone called the Gahn Shikvaht," Eddie said.
At this, Galatina's eyes shot up and met his. They held this contact for several seconds, her eyes intense, her face a bitter scowl. Eddie tensed, preparing for the freak out.
But none came.
"The Gahn Shikvaht ," the mayor repeated. "Is that an... English word our translators can't identify?"
"He also goes by the name Godsbane, Usurper and..." Bryce struggled for anything else.
Eddie was too nervous to speak. He watched Galatina, who no longer stared at him. Her eyes flitted from her hands to Bryce. Occasionally she'd dart a glance at Eddie. Her scowl deepened every time she did.
"None of this is familiar," said the mayor.
"Well, if the stories are right," Bryce said, "then he's the one that screwed up our world. He performed a spell that included a human sacrifice. He does his thing and Boom! The whole world gets mishmashed into the chaos it is today."
The mayor now sat up, mildly alarmed. "I seem to have heard a story like this." He turned to Galatina and asked her in Hadish, "Didn't you predict something like this. Some monster was going to destroy the world? What was he called?"
"The Rat Messiah," Galatina said through her teeth, not looking up.
"Yes, that was it. And when was that supposed to happen?"
She glared at him now. "Exactly on the day that it did happen. The day our entire country disappeared."
"Hmm." He turned back to the two prisoners and continued in English. "And when are these sacrifices supposed to take place?"
"Only four nights from now," Bryce said. "Something we would have warned you about if you'd listened to us when we first came here."
Major Trage leaned forward. "The dragon riders had weapons. They knocked people unconscious with them. Yet the man you brought us had no such weapon."
"That's because we took it from him," Bryce said.
"And where is this weapon?"
Eddie knew the answer. Kardhoom's magic ring was in the glove box in the car. Had they searched the car, and did they know what they were looking for? His phone was in there, still charging. Would they take it if they found it?
"We threw the weapon out," Eddie said, cutting off Bryce's reply. "He escaped from us once and took it back. We didn't want him to get it again."
The major frowned and leaned back.
Bryce gave Eddie a questioning look but didn't correct him.
"Are you going to stop them from performing the human sacrifices?" Bryce asked the mayor.
"Why would this dragon rider assist a man who wants to destroy the world?" Galatina asked, speaking English for the first time.
"They believe the Godsbane will turn their land into a paradise," Eddie answered.
"I didn't ask you," she snapped, her eyes fixed on Bryce.
"What is it?" the mayor asked.
"That boy is trouble," she said, pointing at Eddie. "He is..." She didn't finish.
The mayor nodded at Bryce. "Can you elaborate?"
Bryce shrugged. "It's like he said. This scary dude promised his people he'd turn their city into heaven. He cast his spell, and the world changed, but their city didn't become the paradise they'd expected. Not all of his people are too happy now, but the dragon riders are gathering people with spark so he can perform another sacrifice. He will destroy the whole world—the whole universe maybe and preserve his people. They get heaven, the rest of us die—or stop existing, or whatever."
The mayor turned to Galatina again. "What do you think?"
She studied Eddie and Bryce shrewdly. For a moment, she said nothing. The mayor was about to ask again when she answered in Hadish. "It is all a lie. They are nothing but a pair of fortune seekers trying to manipulate you."
Eddie half jumped from his seat. He restrained himself. He couldn't show them he understood. But... why was she lying?
"But what about the dragon?" the mayor asked. "It was there. Their so-called rider seemed to summon it."
"I do not deny that the man is a dragon rider or that he summoned his dragon. The abductions are part of a larger ruse to take over the city. These boys are in league with the dragon rider. Everything they said is false."
"Then what should I do with these boys?"
Galatina flashed a scowl at Eddie. "Tell them you believe them."
"Tell them you need to consult with your people. Tell them they will be rewarded but they must have patience. Then wait for their next move."
"Should we spy on them?"
She shook her head. "That won't be necessary. They'll come to you when they're ready to escalate their game."
The mayor frowned and tapped a finger on his lips. He turned to Bryce and Eddie and said in English, "We believe your story..."