Sammy trailed Mehrak and the two Marzban along the street, her head reeling. Apparently there was a way back to the Mother World and she might be a chosen child. Although, that was unlikely, as Esther had told her categorically that she wasn’t, and she didn’t even come from Perseopia anyway. She might have guessed she wasn’t important enough to be the ‘actual’ chosen child, whatever one of those was. It sounded awesome, though. No wonder Esther had been able to defeat those two policemen. Sammy wondered if she could be a substitute chosen child. She had some powers. She’d unlocked the Emerald Dial for starters.
Nothing happened when she thrust her arm out at stuff, though. No laser beams, or freeze rays, and she wasn’t able to explode anything with the power of her mind. But still, she could kind of see herself as a superhero. Superheroes didn’t have to be popular and a lot of them were loners: Batman, Wolverine, Rorschach, Bruce Banner.
Consumed with thoughts of forming a Justice League of Perseopia, Sammy didn’t realise they were back in the industrial district until she stepped into the shadows of the dark alley they’d passed through that morning. The stench of rotting vegetables hit her as dread leached into her skin. She squirmed. What was up with her? She hadn’t felt as uncomfortable on the way to Bertie’s.
“Did we have to come back this way?” she asked.
Mehrak looked up. “I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “I was following Leiss.”
“It’s the quickest way back to the palace,” Leiss said. “And you have two of the Keep’s finest Marzban with you. I know it’s unpleasant –”
“And hot,” Borzin said. “It’s roasting down here.”
“Probably the heat from a blacksmith’s furnace,” Leiss said as he kept walking.
Borzin wiped his forehead. “It’s getting hotter. Look back up the road. There’s a heat haze coming off the street.”
Sammy wrung her hands. “Something’s wrong.”
A scream echoed down the alley from behind, from the direction of Bertie’s house.
“That sounded like a woman,” Borzin said. He turned and took a couple of paces back along the street. “I’m going to take a look.”
“No you aren’t,” Leiss said, grabbing him by the arm. “We’ve been ordered to stay with Sammy.”
Borzin shrugged him off. “I’m not going to stand by and do nothing. What happened to ‘doing the right thing’?”
Leiss levelled his gaze at Borzin and spoke evenly but through clenched teeth. “We follow orders whether we agree with them or not.”
“Have it on your conscience, not mine,” Borzin said. Leiss made a grab for him, but he side-stepped and ran off up the street.
“Get back here!”
Borzin kept going, his blue robe streaming out behind him.
“I don’t like this,” Sammy said.
“It’s okay,” Mehrak said. “Borzin knows what he’s doing.”
“No,” Sammy said. “Something’s really wrong. I can feel it. It’s that creature from the forest. The one that burns everything. It’s followed me here.”
“The waster?” Mehrak said. “It can’t be.”
At the end of the street, Borzin paused to look both ways. In the heat haze he appeared little more than a shimmering mirage of himself. There was another scream and he sprang into action, disappearing around the side of the building.
Leiss paced back and forth. He looked about to run after Borzin, but didn’t. “What is going on!” he shouted at no one in particular.
Mehrak pointed back up the street. “Look.”
A distant figure, dressed in blue and purple, reappeared, stumbling back into view and stopping in the middle of the street.
“Borzin!” Leiss shouted.
Borzin stood motionless a moment, then collapsed.
Leiss was the first to move. For a big man, he set off at an incredible pace. Impulsively, Sammy and Mehrak ran after him.
The heat made it difficult to breathe, but Mehrak took her hand and pulled her on. Leiss reached Borzin first and dropped to his knees. He let out such a heart-breaking cry that Sammy stopped in her tracks; Mehrak too. Leiss wailed again and slumped forward over his friend.
Sammy and Mehrak approached slowly.
Clouds of steam unfurled from Borzin’s body, carrying with it an overpowering odour of cooking meat, sweet and fatty like sausages on a barbeque. Sammy stepped around Leiss’s hunched frame and immediately wished she hadn’t. Borzin’s turban and most of his hair had gone; only a few matted tufts remained. His scalp was badly burned, crusted with bloodied welts, and the end of his nose was missing, along with his eyelids. His clothes were charred and the parts of his body that were visible through the burn holes were bleeding. Borzin’s eyes bulged from his blackened skin, staring and vacant. Sammy couldn’t look away.
Borzin turned his unblinking gaze towards her. “Help me,” he mumbled. His lips were scabbed and partially stuck together. They split as he tried to talk and blood dribbled down the side of his cheek. “Please help me.” He began crying.
Leiss stared at Borzin insensibly. “It’ll be okay,” he mumbled through his own tears. “You’ll be okay.”
Borzin began shaking. “Sammy?” he said. “Sammy?” He was becoming frantic.
“She’s right here,” Leiss said.
“I can’t see,” Borzin sobbed. “I can’t see anything.” Then his body went limp.
Borzin jerked forward, grabbing hold of Leiss’s collar. “Help them!” he screamed. His voice was different; harsher and rasping. “Help Sammy!”
Leiss pulled at Borzin’s wrists, trying to escape the stranglehold. “What are you doing? Get off me!”
“You don’t understand,” Borzin said. “The magi can’t protect her. She isn’t safe.”
Leiss’s face was becoming red.
“Don’t leave her with the magi. Promise me! Find the way to the Mother World. And my boy, my boy. Take them …” His words trailed off, like a robot deactivated mid-sentence, and he slumped. Borzin’s fingers loosened from Leiss’s collar and his head dropped to the floor with a wet crack.
“We’ve got to get help,” Mehrak said. He pulled on Leiss’s arm, but Leiss remained motionless, staring at Borzin.
“Leiss!” Mehrak yanked him hard. “He’s still breathing. We can help him if you act now.”
Tears were streaming down Leiss’s cheeks and he rocked gently back and forth.
“Leiss!” Mehrak shouted. “You’re the strongest and fastest here. You have to go for help.”
Leiss turned to Mehrak, staring blankly past him.
Borzin’s swollen, unseeing eyes stared at Sammy. Both pupils locked on hers. He convulsed and choked up a mouthful of blood.
Mehrak noticed Sammy watching, then. “Cover your eyes,” he said.
But it was too late. Borzin’s mouth began to move. He was mouthing something, hypnotising Sammy with silent words. She
had to get away, but his eyes held power over her. She took a step backwards and, impossibly, his eyes followed.
“Sammy,” Mehrak said, quietly this time. “Look away.”
Borzin moaned. His pain pierced Sammy’s heart, corkscrewing in. “Please …” he whimpered.
“Sammy!” Mehrak screamed. “It’s not safe!”
But she didn’t stop. All she knew was that she had to get away. The image of Borzin’s ruined body etched into her mind’s eye.
Up and down identical stone streets she ran, on and on with no idea where she was going.
Then she tripped and the floor came up to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs. Her knees hurt, but she didn’t get up. She leaned forward, eyes closed, pressing her forehead against the cold stone beneath.
She concentrated on that sensation.
After a time, she raised herself to her knees. The tea and biscuits she’d eaten at Bertie’s house launched itself up and out of her throat, onto the floor. She wiped her sleeve across her face, spat the last acidic lumps from her mouth and took several long, juddering breaths.
She was at the end of a dark cul-de-sac of grey stone houses with only a single dim lamp post above. All the houses were dark.
And she had no idea how she’d got there or how far she’d run.
She took another deep breath and rubbed at the stitch in her side. It was hot, almost as hot as it had been in the dark alley.
And it was getting hotter. Sammy staggered to her feet, breathing fast.
She checked back up the street as a gust of warm air hit her in the face. She rubbed her eyes and squinted but couldn’t see through the heat to the end of the road. No, she could see something. Someone coming around the corner; a tall, thin figure casting a long shadow.
Fighting sickness, Sammy wheeled around, looking for an escape route. All the houses had walled gardens.
No way out. Or was there? She could climb over a wall into one of those gardens, get through to a street behind. Maybe she could knock on a door. Someone might be in.
“Hello,” said a young voice.
Sammy spun in the speaker’s direction.
There was a boy leaning against a wall with his hands in his pockets. He was younger than she was and dressed in scruffy brown clothes that looked to be little more than rags. He had icy-blue eyes, partially hidden under a frown, and blond, scruffy hair. He smiled at Sammy, a mischievous, almost naughty, smile.
Where had he come from? He hadn’t been there a moment ago.
The heat vanished and Sammy shot a look up the street. The figure had gone. When she turned back to the boy, she noticed he’d moved several paces closer. His eyes never left hers, and he took another step forward.
“Your hair is like mine,” he said.
“I suppose …” Sammy replied.
The boy didn’t say anything more, but kept his icy-blue eyes fixed on hers. Sammy tried to look away to assess her next move, to work out what to do next. But every time she looked back she met his cold stare.
The boy took another step closer. His mouth stretched into a wicked grin, with teeth clenched. He extended an arm towards her.
She jumped. It was Mehrak. She turned to see him running up the road towards her.
“Am I glad to see you!” he said. He came to a stop in front of her and doubled over, out of breath. “Who was that boy you were talking to?”
Sammy checked over her shoulder, but the boy had gone.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “He didn’t say.”
“You shouldn’t have run away like that. I’ve had to leave Leiss and Borzin to come and find you. Come on, we need to go back.”
“I’m not going back,” Sammy said. The sickness was returning, her heart rate increasing. “I can’t …”
“We’re not going back to the alley,” Mehrak said. He put his arm around her. “We’re going to the infirmary. A passer-by heard us and went to get help. Then I came to find you. Borzin should be on his way to the infirmary as we speak. I told Leiss I’d meet him there once I found you.”
Sammy covered her face with her hands.
“You don’t have to see Borzin. We can wait outside.”
Sammy felt so weary she could collapse.
“Come on,” Mehrak whispered. He took her by the arm and they left the cul-de-sac in silence.
Later, when the palace loomed into view above the other buildings, Mehrak turned to her.
“That boy had yellow hair,” he said. “Just like yours.”