Behnam was unwell. Worse than unwell. Unwell was a gross understatement. He’d been drifting in and out of consciousness for, what? Days? How long had he been in this place now? And he’d not been able to move his arms or legs since. If he didn’t get some proper circulation going soon, his limbs would begin dying.
A thick fog enveloped his brain and he found himself drifting off. He shook his head to stay awake.
Pain exploded in his temples, but it had the desired effect. He needed to stay conscious, to think. Escape was paramount. The longer he remained captive, the harder it would be to keep blocking access to his mind.
“Well?” spoke the voice in the darkness.
Behnam startled, lashing out with his one good leg, but it didn’t connect with anything. He was a bag of nerves, but he mustn’t crack.
Silence. The thrashing had exacerbated his head. He winced and slumped back against the wall, already defeated. Feet shuffled in the darkness. There were other people here. How many? And what was their purpose?
“What do you want from me?” Behnam asked at last.
“I want to know if you felt it.” It was the same rasping corpse-like voice as before.
“Felt what?” He coughed. “All I feel is pain.”
“You felt it,” said the voice. “You and the brotherhood all felt it.”
“The fluctuation. The ripple that swept through the fabric of our realm.”
“I don’t understand.” Behnam leant his head back against the wall and took a shallow breath.
“It’s the girl. She’s come back. I felt it. And I know you and the brotherhood felt it too.”
Behnam’s head was swimming again. Jumbled visions were populating his mind’s eye, coming and going in rapid succession.
“Enough!” he shouted. He forced all thought from his head. It was a struggle but somehow he managed it.
“Still fighting me?” There was a pause. “You’re strong, Master Baktash, yet what little strength you have left is waning. Your time is running out. But no matter, my men will find her.”
“The one who almost killed me, who cut off my arm. I thought I’d destroyed her before. This time I’ll do it properly, before she can fulfil her destiny. And you will help me, Master Baktash. You’ll help, or those you hold dear will perish.”
Sammy lolled from side to side, yawned, stretched and rolled over. She lay still a moment, then squirmed. Her pyjama top was damp and had stuck to her back.
She opened her eyes. Paused.
She leapt up, heart pounding and unable to breathe. The scene before her made no sense. It didn’t compute.
But there it was. She pressed her hand to her chest and held her breath.
This was way wrong. She was outside and she was in a forest … a forest of glowing mushrooms. She closed her eyes and let that sink in. She opened them again. Same view.
Broad, olive-green canopies capped the top of thick, smooth trunks, while soft yellow light bloomed from the gills underneath
as if the mushrooms were enormous table lamps with shallow shades. Sparkling spores filled the air like fairy dust, folding themselves around Sammy as she moved, and spiralling in her breath as she exhaled.
The largest mushrooms were tree-sized, two, maybe three storeys high, but they ranged in height down through sun canopy-sized, to café table, footstool and even regular mushroom size.
A whole forest of glowing mushrooms, as far as the eye could see, and in all directions.
Sammy turned slowly on the spot, taking in her surroundings.
There was other vegetation in amongst the mushrooms. Bushes covered in limp, yellow leaves sprouted from the ground, and draped over everything, like filthy bunting, were brown, stringy creepers.
Even with the light coming from the mushrooms, the place was relatively dark, which meant it was probably still night. Thankfully it was warm. Handy, for someone still dressed in their pyjamas. That was about as positive as Sammy could get about the situation. She awkwardly tried to reach an arm around to her back to brush the soil off her pyjama top.
She should be terrified, but she wasn’t. The environment was too surreal, too fantastical. She watched a small white bird with a narrow beak zip past. It caught an insect circling in the mushroom light, and a moment later had gone. There were other creatures, too. Sammy followed the sound of rustling to a withered yellow bush and watched as a group of small pink mammals scattered into their burrows. They looked kind-of like hedgehogs, but instead of spines on their backs they had plates like a mini Stegosaurus.
Sammy crossed the clearing to a stool-sized mushroom. It seemed strong enough to take her weight and wasn’t slimy so she sat down and brushed the dirt off her feet.
What now? What resources did she have at her disposal? Awesome ninja skills that she’d learned from watching thousands of Kung Fu movies. But not much else. Her skin prickled. She
rubbed her hands up and down her arms and stood up again so she could pace. Pacing felt better than sitting.
A scream split the air and Sammy’s intestines launched up into her throat.
A girl. Not far away. Sammy wiped her palms on her clothes. Time to find out what she was made of. She took a step forward and a guttural barking and crunching stopped her from taking a second step. It sounded like a fight, but what sort?
Another squeak. Was it really a girl? Sammy went to move, but her legs refused.
More movement. Scuffling. Then a thud, followed by a yelp.
Sammy waited. The noises had sounded like a girl’s at first, but now that she thought about it, it had been kind of muffled. She could still walk over. Check it out. Nothing was stopping her. Except there was that wild animal that had made the noise. Not investigating wasn’t cowardly. The animal could be a bear. Her dad was tough, but he wouldn’t fight a bear. A bear attacking a giant mushroom-eating mouse? That’s probably what’d made the squeak.
Sammy considered her options and decided she was going to start walking in the opposite direction to the growling. Away from the bear. Definitely the right decision. Hopefully, if anyone came looking for her, then they’d come to the same sensible conclusion and walk in the same direction.
She set off at a brisk pace. No point in hanging around.