They waited on the front balcony as Louis took them towards the campfire. And the man.
Mehrak didn’t want to meet the man. No good could come of it. But Sammy was so excited about meeting someone new that he hadn’t been able to say no. He wasn’t very good at saying no. Not to Gisouie and now not to Sammy, either. If he’d been better at it, maybe Gisouie wouldn’t have left him. His stomach squirmed. The guy would want a lift, and that would be just his luck. It was the last thing he wanted, so it was bound to happen. Sammy complemented the atmosphere in Eggie. She breathed life into the place. Everything was new and exciting to her and he was able to see Perseopia anew through her eyes. He loved seeing the delight on her face as she spotted some new animal. Or the enthusiasm she had as she ran, climbed mushrooms and explored. It was the same feeling he’d had when he first met Gisouie and it was the happiest he’d been in a long time. He felt guilty thinking that way, but it was true. The last thing he wanted was to ruin their dynamic by picking up a stranger, but maybe they should. He liked Sammy, maybe a little too much. Perhaps if they picked up someone else it would stop him getting too close to her. He was still a married man, after all, and couldn’t abandon the hope that one day he’d be reunited with his wife.
Mehrak slumped on the front balcony railing. Louis’s ears danced, twirled and flicked a message up to him.
“Louis doesn’t like the smell of him,” Mehrak said. “He says he smells of smog.”
“Like a waster?”
“Well …” This was his opportunity to put her off. Maybe they wouldn’t have to pick the guy up. His heart lifted.
Louis signed back. During the sequence of words, he folded his left ear down and pointed out his right ear horizontal to the floor. Mehrak watched Sammy’s expression and noticed the glimmer of recognition. He never should’ve taught her gastro-semaphore. A smile spread across her face.
“Louis said, ‘No’,” she said.
“Louis said, ‘No, I don’t think he’s a waster’, not, ‘No, he definitely isn’t a waster’. The man’s got a fire going, which is something most wasters have lost the ability to do. He’s probably a member of the Black Fist.”
“The Black Fist from the Assault? They’re still around?”
“Are they bad?”
“I don’t know. They’re weird. Ramus VorMask, their current leader, is a shady character. Not a lot is known about him but I’ve heard rumours he has dealings with the crabmen.”
“Why would the Black Fist smell of smog?”
“Because they’re often seen near Aratta.”
“Even though the smog will kill them?”
Mehrak shrugged. “I don’t know. Some people say the Fist have an immunity. They certainly still have close ties to Aratta and what happened during the Assault. All I know is that when you come across them, they always smell of smog.”
Sammy went quiet.
Mehrak hoped she was reconsidering the decision to meet the man. But she didn’t ask Louis to stop, and soon a faint orange glow appeared ahead in the distance.
“Are you sure you still want to do this?” Mehrak prompted.
Sammy chewed on her lip. She said nothing but gave a nod.
Louis stopped and Sammy ran for the stairs. She heard the campfire snap as she rounded the back of Golden Egg Cottage and saw the amber glow through the creepers.
“Wait for me,” Mehrak called from somewhere still inside Eggie.
He was trying to put her off seeing the guy. It had almost worked when he told her the man smelt of smog, but she still wanted to see him. What was the worst that could happen? She could handle herself. And if that didn’t work, she had a dinosaur-chicken at her back.
She pushed through a cluster of bushes and into a tennis-court-sized space.
Sat in the middle, holding a skewered rat over a fire, was a scruffy young guy with dark, tangled hair that fell to his shoulders. He turned sharply as Sammy entered the clearing.
She stopped. His piercing, bloodshot eyes scanned her up and down as he stood up. He was dressed in tatty brown clothes and a black cloak pockmarked with burn holes, yet he stood tall with shoulders back and head held high. And, although Sammy was trying not to notice, he was actually quite buff, too. At his feet lay a long white staff with a shiny black sphere, the size of a fist, wedged into a crack at the end.
He stepped forward.
“Hello,” he said, and held up a hand. He was young, early twenties maybe. A similar age to Mehrak, but he had an authority about him, the sort exuded by a head teacher, and he made Sammy feel young and silly. He eyeballed her, his teeth clenched, the same way her father did when he was trying to work out whether to punish her or not. Sammy had been looking forward to meeting someone else, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“Hello,” she replied.
The man bowed without taking his eyes off her.
“Hami Hootan,” he said. He seemed on edge, poised for something.
Mehrak bustled into the clearing behind Sammy.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Hami said as he scrutinised Mehrak. “Will you two join me by the fire?”
Mehrak stopped. “That’s kind of you to offer,” he said. “But we must be going. My friend, here, is lost and I need to help her get home. You might want to move along yourself. We … er … only stopped to warn you there’s a patrol of crabmen to the south and they’re heading this way.”
Hami erupted into a coughing fit that ended with him doubled over, retching. He kept going until he vomited up black engine oil, or something that closely approximated it.
Sammy had never seen anything so disgusting.
Hami took several deep breaths and regained his composure. He stood up, face pale. His eyes remained hollow and vacant for a second before snapping back to life.
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“Okay, time to go,” Mehrak said. He reached for Sammy’s hand.
“Are you alright?” Sammy asked. “Do you need a doctor or something?”
“I’m fine,” Hami replied, his chest heaving. “How long have you been lost exactly? Two days? Something like that?” He raised an eyebrow and moved his right hand to hang over the staff at his feet. He held his arm motionless, fingers twitching.
“Come on, Sammy,” Mehrak said. “Let’s leave him to enjoy his food in peace. We’re sorry to have troubled you, Hami. But we need to leave, and if you’d rather not be abducted by crabmen, I suggest you finish your meal quickly and do the same.” Mehrak took Sammy by the hand and tugged her back towards Louis. “You can’t trust everyone you meet in the Fungi Forest,” he whispered to Sammy. “Did you see him throw up that black stuff? He’s been into Aratta and is halfway to becoming a waster.”
Sammy glanced back at Hami.
“You aren’t from here,” Hami said. “Are you?”
Sammy stopped. She pulled her hand free of Mehrak’s and turned to face him.
“I thought so,” he said, a wicked smile lingering on his lips. He took a step towards her. “We don’t get many girls with yellow hair in Perseopia. I didn’t think we’d find you so soon.”
Mehrak moved in front of her and Louis took a plodding footstep forward behind them, making himself known.
“You’re the guy who chased her,” Mehrak said.
“What?” Hami’s eyes widened. “What guy?”
Sammy shook her head. “It wasn’t him.”
“A guy chased you?” Hami took another step closer. “Did he say who he was? What did he look like?”
Mehrak held Sammy behind him at arm’s length. Louis shifted forward again.
Hami held up his hands. “I’m here to help Sammy.”
“Well, you’re too late,” Mehrak said. “She’s already in good hands.”
“Help me?” Sammy said. She shrugged off Mehrak. “How do you know what help I need?”
Louis shifted again, this time turning his head from the clearing towards the forest.
“Let’s go,” Mehrak said to her. “The crabmen are getting close.”
Louis signed a short sentence.
“Or perhaps not,” Hami said. “Your gastrosaur says the crabmen are fleeing in the opposite direction.”
Mehrak rolled his eyes. “Well done, Louis!”
Hami’s face became grave. “Something’s scared them off.” He turned from Sammy and Mehrak to the forest.
“We should go,” Mehrak said to Sammy.
“You’re right,” Hami said, still facing the forest.
“I am?” Mehrak replied. “I mean, yes. Of course I am.”
“The Fungi Forest isn’t safe. You should both get out of here as soon as possible. I presume you’re on your way to Honton Keep?”
“That’s none of your business,” Mehrak replied.
“We are,” Sammy said. “Is that where you’re going?”
Mehrak threw up his arms and huffed audibly.
“I am,” Hami said. “Maybe I could join you. As protection.”
“You? Protect us?” Mehrak stabbed his finger at Hami as he spoke. “Louis and I have travelled thousands of stadia together. All over Perseopia –” Louis’s ears began flapping up and down. Mehrak stopped. “Louis! What?”
“That’s why I offered protection,” Hami said.
The colour in Mehrak’s face washed away quicker than a chalk drawing during a British summer, and he wobbled as if he were about to pass out.
“How far away is it?” Hami asked.
Sammy looked from Hami to Louis to Mehrak. “How far away is what?”
Louis trembled and Golden Egg Cottage creaked in its harness.
Hami calmly repeated the question.
Louis signed something that Sammy didn’t recognise.
“We’re going to have to stand our ground,” Hami said. “It’s too late to run. It’s almost here.”
“Why didn’t you warn us sooner?” Mehrak screamed at Louis.
“It’s only eight stadia away,” Hami said. “It’s covered ten since your gastrosaur first detected it. We were never going to outrun it.”
“Get back in Eggie!” Mehrak shouted. “I’ll get the harpoon.” He grabbed Sammy’s hand and pulled at it, but she barely moved. Everything was moving too fast. Nothing felt real.
“You haven’t got time to get a harpoon,” Hami said. “Just stay back and let me handle this.” He turned to face the forest. His foot slid beneath the staff on the floor and he flipped it up into his hand.
“Here it comes!” Mehrak screamed as the staccato of thundering feet became audible. Mushrooms and beast exploded
from the forest as a beam of lightning burst from the end of Hami’s staff.
The blast hit the beast, stopping it mid-leap. It dropped, landing heavily on one side, then scrambled to its feet and started to prowl, golden eyes focused on Hami.
It was a tiger the size of a shire horse with long, crimson fur. It had black stripes down the side of its body and sabre teeth growing upwards from its bottom jaw. The orb at the end of Hami’s staff, no longer black, shone a brilliant white, bathing the clearing in stark, white light.
A tremendous roar erupted from the tiger’s mouth, vibrating Sammy’s internal organs before subsiding with a throaty rumble, and continuing to throb like a Harley Davidson engine.
The tiger pounced again, but with the grace of a matador, Hami sidestepped and swung the ball of his staff hard into the tiger’s temple. Plumes of light burst from the point of impact as the beast roared in agony. It launched a barrage of claw swipes, each of which Hami deftly batted away. Explosions of light accompanied each strike of the staff, fizzing and sparking like fireworks.
Mehrak stopped trying to drag Sammy and watched the fight, eyes wide and mouth agape.
The tiger was slowing, labouring against Hami’s assault. It failed to block a devastating blow and, for a moment, lost its balance. It roared and stumbled backwards, punch-drunk, shaking its head. Hami twirled the staff above his head, then levelled it at the beast. The orb grew bright and, in desperation, the tiger launched itself in a last-ditch attack.
It met with a roaring column of lightning.
When the light disappeared, the body of the tiger hit the floor at Hami’s feet, and his staff orb returned to black.
Hami turned from the tiger towards Sammy and Mehrak. “I think it’s safe to assume that this fellow caused the crabmen to turn and flee.”
Sammy’s entire body was trembling. “That was so awesome!” she said, and tentatively approached the tiger. “Can I get one of those magic staffs?” she asked. Then to Mehrak, “How come you don’t have one?”
“Because I’m not a magus.”
“What’s one of them?”
“A member of an ancient brotherhood of warriors.”
“I wouldn’t say warrior.” Hami rubbed at his temples. “Protector is a better description.”
“Semantics,” Mehrak said. “It’s the same thing.”
“But are you a magus?” Sammy asked. She edged closer to the tiger for a better look.
“I am, yes.”
Mehrak crossed his arms. “Shouldn’t we get going? You know, before that tusked manticore springs back to life and eats us?”
“An important consideration,” Hami said. “We should get out of here. He won’t be regaining consciousness any time soon, but you should definitely put some distance between you and it.”
“A tusked manticore?” Sammy said. “That’s so cool. If I had one of those staffs could I shoot tusked manticores?”
A sly grin spread on Hami’s face. “If we had more time together I could show you the other things it can do.” And with a wave of the staff, he extinguished the camp fire.
“How did you do that? Do it again!”
“A simple trick. I’d be able to show you more … if I were offered a lift.” He maintained eye contact with Mehrak, and shrugged innocently. “Or you could head off by yourselves and see how far you get.” His smile waned. He staggered and then vomited again. He bent double and put his hands on his knees to support himself while he recovered, and spat out the last of the black gunk.
“We can’t leave him,” Sammy said to Mehrak. “Not after he saved us.”
Mehrak let out a long sigh. “We can take you as far as Honton Keep,” he said.
Hami grinned, his gums and saliva black. “We should leave for the Keep immediately, then. The manticore scared off that last patrol of crabmen but there have been a lot in the forest recently. And I don’t have the strength to fight another.”
“Another what?” Mehrak said. “Manticore? I’m surprised we saw this one. We’re thousands of stadia from the Atrabiliar Mountains. The chances of us coming across another must be somewhere in the millions. They don’t roam this far south.”
“It was unusual, wasn’t it?” Hami said. He smiled. “But don’t worry. I’m here to protect you now.”