Sammy watched the lights of the Keep fade into the fog and blew out the stress she’d accumulated over their stay in the city. It was cold outside, but fresh. She pulled Gisouie’s fleece tightly about her.
The other guys had gone downstairs but she had wanted to stay up top. She’d been in the Keep less than two days, and that was enough. Honton Keep was an amazing place architecturally, but it seemed as though it had never lost the overbearing sense of confinement from its prison days. The oppressive stone ceiling, dark narrow alleys, stuffy atmosphere and the fortified library in solitary confinement. And then there had been the monster that killed Borzin, the one that had followed her there from the Fungi Forest.
Sammy took a deep breath. That was behind her now. They were going somewhere safe. The relief she experienced at being back on the road was intoxicating. And if the monster did follow her, it would have to deal with her impenetrable barrier of thirty battle-ready karkadann.
After a time, Leiss came back onto the balcony, joining her at the railing. He watched his comrades riding alongside them, then pointed down, past Louis, to the ground below.
“This is the furthest they ever got,” he said.
Deep grooves were scored into the earth, and littered about were charcoal-coloured shards that looked like pieces of broken crockery. Sammy wondered what he was talking about.
“Pieces of shell,” Leiss said, as if in answer to her unasked question.
He was talking about crabmen. The pieces of shell didn’t look like part of any animal Sammy was familiar with. They could have been looking at the aftermath of a Greek wedding, as far as she could tell.
They passed a lone sword lying on the ground; a portent of what lay ahead. There would be worse sights than pieces of shell; men and women had lost their lives here, too.
Louis shivered and slowed. Something up ahead was upsetting him. The karkadann around him slowed. They grunted and shook their heads. Golden Egg Cottage trembled, bringing Mehrak to the balcony.
“We’re getting close to the bodies now,” Leiss said.
“Nippers. Crabmen. You should go downstairs.”
“Yeah, let’s go downstairs,” Mehrak said.
Sammy didn’t budge. She wasn’t going anywhere.
A lumpy mound appeared ahead in the fog, like the tangle of roots from a fallen tree.
The karkadann slowed further, bringing Louis to a crawl. Narok’s karkadann approached slowly, then pitched the mound out of the way with its horn. A thick tussock of branch-length spider limbs flopped over, wobbled, then came to rest.
Louis side-stepped, giving it a wide berth.
In that moment, Sammy became aware of being in the presence of a creature entirely alien to her. She experienced a light-headedness, the ground pitching closer, then further away, tipping and spiralling. She clutched the railing. Another level of reality had added itself to what she’d previously assumed was reality. She’d levelled up on a video game. Level two with the addition of an advanced enemy type. The game had changed and her mind was struggling to cope with it.
The crabman’s body was plated with sections of slate-grey shell, connected by pale pink joints. From the waist to the top of its head it resembled a human in shape and size, but without human features. The head had two stumpy, thumb-shaped eye stalks at the front, and at the bottom a compound mouth, like a locust’s, but with larger mandibles. On its back it had a spiny shell, and at the base of the torso, where on a man you’d have expected two legs, were eight hairy spider legs.
The arms, however, were the most unusual parts. They didn’t match, giving the body a weird asymmetry. The left side of the body was heavily built, with a thick arm and a claw like a construction crane’s hook. The right side and arm were skinny, almost emaciated, the forearm of which was abnormally long, roughly the length of Hami’s staff. It had a sharp, jagged ridge running along the bottom and a small, spiked claw at the tip.
Leiss watched Sammy, a wry smile on his lips. “The big claw can crush human heads like you could squish a berry,” he said. “And the right. The long one …” He sucked in air through his teeth. “… that’s used like a sword. I’ve seen them sever men in half.”
Mehrak gulped. “I’ve never seen a crabman this close before.”
“Consider that a blessing. You think it looks bad dead? Wait until you see one alive. They may be called crabmen because their chest and head are similar to a human’s, but that’s where the similarity ends. When you’ve seen one move, you don’t ever forget it. They’re nothing like people. All jerky and unnatural. That’s why some of the guys call them the jerks. Their heads twitch as they look at you. And when you lock eyes, with those soulless dead eyes …” Leiss shivered. “The first time that happens, your heart stops dead in your chest, and it feels like an eternity before it starts up again. I’ve seen men killed in the time it takes to get over the shock of seeing one for the first time.”
“Oookaay,” Mehrak said. “Now are we going downstairs?”
Sammy shook her head. She was hypnotised by the thing. It was so evil-looking, she couldn’t look away.
Louis shuffled around the dead crabman and sped up again. Sammy watched it disappear behind them. When she turned back to face forward, there were dead crabmen everywhere; an armada of them drifting out of the mist. Some alone, some piled up. All were strewn across the wasteland in various stages of mutilation, the ground around them splashed with their blue bodily fluids, more like ink spills than blood.
Louis picked a course through the battlefield-turned-graveyard, trying to keep his distance from the body piles, which became a more difficult task the further they went.
It had been a massacre. Previously, when Hami had told her about the attack, she’d been unable to visualise it. She had nothing to compare it to, no concept of scale. Now she was able to witness the extent of the battle for herself, could comprehend the severity of the situation. And it was terrifying. Had all these crabmen really been sent for her? Fought to the death because of her? They didn’t even know she wasn’t the real chosen child. Or maybe they did. Maybe they knew she was the child who had to be killed.
And the spiralling dizziness was back again. Sammy slumped over the railing, arms dangling over the edge. She watched the corpses drifting by and zoned out, watching but not seeing.
Then she saw something.
“Look!” She pointed at a large heap of crabmen to the left, just outside the ring of karkadann. Protruding from the top of the pile was a human arm.
Louis and the karkadann slowed and stopped.
The man’s arm was held aloft, like the Lady of the Lake’s, but without Excalibur. Rigor mortis had frozen the hand mid-grasp, clawing for the sky while tendrils of fog dragged through the fingers.
What state was the rest of him in? That’s what Sammy wanted to know. She couldn’t deal with seeing another messed-up body like Borzin’s.
Narok gave the order for two men, Sasan and Niro, to investigate. They dismounted and approached the pile. The other Marzban leant forward in their saddles.
Hami came out onto the balcony. “Go inside,” he said to Sammy. He took her arm.
“No.” She shrugged him off and gripped the railing. Morbid curiosity had her in its clutches. She couldn’t look, but at the same time she couldn’t look away. This would be a small act of courage for her. A mini personal victory.
Sasan unsheathed his sword and used it to poke at the pile of lifeless crabmen.
A leg twitched.
Marzban sword hilts were snatched at, gasps were inhaled and a long moment passed in frozen trepidation.
No other appendages moved so Sasan tentatively continued his inspection of the bodies. When he’d finished, Niro helped him pull crabmen down from the pile to expose the guard the arm belonged to. He wasn’t too messed up, thank goodness. Just a gash on his neck that – judging from his blood-soaked clothes – was probably the fatal injury.
“It’s Majid,” said one of the saddled men.
Whispers raced around the circle of Marzban and they all dipped their heads. Narok ordered two further Marzban to dismount and help Sasan and Niro lift Majid’s body from the pile. They raised him to the back of Sasan’s karkadann, secured him, then Sasan climbed on and galloped back towards the Keep.
“And then there were twenty-nine,” Mehrak said under his breath.
“He’ll be back,” Hami said. “He’ll catch up to us once he’s returned the body.”
Crabman corpses continued to show up with regularity until the pale glow of the Fungi Forest appeared and the large, green canopies floated out of the fog like a swarm of jellyfish.
The battle had extended into the forest and the mushrooms on the edge were in varying states of damage. Trunks were scored and chunks were missing from the caps. Several of the mushrooms had even been cleaved in half, with the heads lying upturned on the ground like radar dishes.
The karkadann led the way into the forest, grunting, snorting and flipping detached mushroom hoods out of their way, crushing the smaller bushes underfoot. The creepers were less than mild inconveniences and came apart like flimsy spider webs.
General Grotta’s dark karkadann remained directly ahead of Louis, keeping the path clear and forcing a trail through anything that got in its way.
Mehrak made his way back towards the bedroom. He paused at the curtain and turned to Leiss.
“I don’t suppose you play Chaturanga, do you?”