They travelled all morning through the humid forest.
Around lunchtime, they came across a river and Hami allowed everyone a short break. The karkadann drank deeply, their sides heaving up and down under their rusty pelts. Louis collapsed to the floor and let his head fall into the stream. The water sloshed around his ears and over his head, and a mixture of air and water blasted from his nostrils as he exhaled.
Mehrak watched him. How would he coax the poor animal back onto the road? He couldn’t convince himself that handing Sammy over to the magi in New Ecbatana was a good idea. How could he convince Louis?
He looked around at the congregated Marzban and karkadann. The troops were all hunched over, silent, and had been since the discovery of Majid’s body. They’d only been travelling half a day and already the beasts were unfit for battle and the men were demotivated. If the crabmen attacked now, they wouldn’t stand a chance. He couldn’t abandon Sammy, though; she needed him. He’d figure something out. He would have to take her with him somehow. He couldn’t leave her with Hami. Hami didn’t have her best interests at heart.
They set off again after lunch.
Louis staggered to his feet and heaved Golden Egg onward without persuasion, which was a relief.
Mehrak tried to lighten the mood inside Eggie by suggesting a few friendly games of Chaturanga. And they had begun innocently enough, until Leiss had promoted himself to the role of invigilator.
Or more like Chaturanga dictator. He dragged the game to a halt every time Mehrak made a mistake. Occasionally those mistakes were to his advantage, but who cared? Especially when Hami won every game. He wasn’t even paying attention. Mehrak didn’t mind losing, well, he did a little, but to be shown up? And by Hami?
Over the space of the afternoon, they’d slogged through seven games and Hami had obliterated him in every single one. All the while staring into space. Mehrak had concentrated, considered every move, taken his time, and when he was confident with his choice, he made the move. Immediately after, Hami would take his go. Click. The piece went down and then he’d stare off into space again. Sometimes he didn’t even look at the board when he made the move.
Mehrak balled his fists under the table. There was something despicable about Hami. He was using the magi network to cheat. Mehrak couldn’t prove it, but he knew. Hami was disturbed and violent. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to label him a cheat as well.
Sammy watched Mehrak argue with Leiss over the finer rules of Chaturanga. She could tell his problem was actually with Hami but she didn’t care enough to step in. Hami was close to winning his eighth game in a row when they heard Narok’s muffled call, from outside, informing everyone that they’d be making camp for the night. Louis came to a halt and Golden Egg Cottage dropped, then listed to the side, making the game pieces spill off the table and onto the floor.
“Draw!” Mehrak called.
“No, it isn’t,” Leiss said.
“The game’s a draw because it ended prematurely.”
“But the game was already won.”
“I’m quite happy with a draw,” Hami said.
“But you’d won,” Leiss said. “There was no way Mehrak could’ve pulled it back.”
“Hami said it was a draw,” Mehrak said. “The two players are in agreement.”
Chaturanga was garbage. Sammy left them to argue and went downstairs to see where they’d stopped. With the staircase leaning to the side, she had to push off the wall with her hands to keep upright as she fumbled her way down and out of the hatch at the bottom.
She exited the cottage and stepped out into the dark.
They were inside a ravine devoid of mushrooms. It was about the width of a dual carriageway, with a shallow stream running through the centre. High walls dotted with blue lights bathed everything in an aquamarine glow.
Sammy crossed the sandy shingle of the ravine floor to investigate the source of the blue lights.
Sprouting from the slate ravine walls were fern-like plants with phosphorescent globules at the end of tentacles.
Sammy poked one of the globules and her finger stuck to it.
The plant pulled at her.
She snatched her hand away and the plant’s tentacles retracted inward. Yuck. Sammy inspected her finger. It was fine, but she didn’t like the way the plant had latched on to her. She watched a moth fly into the light of a plant close by. It got stuck on a globule and was engulfed in a tight ball of tentacles.
There were some seriously twisted creatures in Perseopia. She was beginning to question whether this place had ever been a Garden of Eden. She wiped her finger on her top and trudged back towards the cottage.
The Marzban were lighting oil lanterns, casting out the blue glow of the plants and returning normal colour to their surroundings.
Louis was on the ground, gasping. The day had taken its toll on the poor creature. Sammy put her hand on his head. He’d put himself through a lot today. Neither he nor Mehrak would’ve made this journey if it wasn’t for her, which made her realise how lucky
she’d been that they’d found her; not just because they’d rescued her from the forest but because they’d become a second family. They were such a big part of her life in Perseopia that she didn’t want to part and carry on to Hami’s hideout without them. Hami was cool and could look after her, but Mehrak and Louis loved her. She couldn’t give that up.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Alright, Louis motioned with his ears.
Sammy stroked his head. Mehrak came over from around the back of Eggie.
“You’ve done good, buddy,” he said to Louis. And he fell on the big animal’s head, hugging it tightly. “Why have we stopped down here?” he said to no one in particular. “If the crabmen find us down here, we’re trapped.”
“We would be,” Hami said as he and Leiss joined them. “But because Golden Egg Cottage is taller than most mushrooms, we’d be too easy for their scouts to spot if we remained at ground level. This valley should conceal us and we’re deep enough that our campfire light shouldn’t be seen above ground.”
Sammy looked up. The shimmering blue walls stretched upward on either side, almost converging at the top, with only a thin strip of yellow mushroom light showing in the middle.
“As long as the crabmen don’t find the entrance to the ravine, they should walk right past us,” Hami said. “Assuming they’re even in the area.”
Mehrak turned away. “Well, you clearly know best,” he said. “I’m going to fetch Louis some water.” He pushed up off his knees and trudged back to Eggie’s back door.
Hami and Leiss went to help the other Marzban set up camp. Sammy sat on a rock by the stream and watched Hami and Danush raise a tent. This was the first time she’d had some space from Hami since they’d left the Keep. He’d stopped paying attention to her, probably thinking she couldn’t go anywhere or do anything.
Mehrak came back outside with a bucket and used it to feed Louis water from the stream. No one else was around.
Sammy jumped down from the rock. “I have something I need to tell you,” she said to Mehrak.
Sammy spun round. Narok was there, standing a little way off, holding his large, dark karkadann by the reins. They came closer, the karkadann crunching shingle under foot. It was the closest Sammy had come to a karkadann and ‘mountain covered in hair’ was a pretty accurate description of the creature. It was humungous. The thing seemed to fill her entire field of view.
The beast shook its head as it drew up, waving its six-foot horn from side to side as if it were cardboard. It had a low brow, which made it look like it was constantly frowning, and two mismatching eyes. One had a maroon iris surrounded by a thin red circle, while the other was cloudy white with a long scar across it. It came so close Sammy could smell its breath, a mixture of old trainers and dog owner’s house.
It snorted and she shrieked.
“Don’t be afraid,” Narok said. He patted the animal’s neck. “Indomit is actually a big softy.”
“Big, I can see,” Sammy said. “Soft, I don’t. I suppose his eyes could be soft.” Indomit snorted again. Sammy jumped again. “I didn’t mean to call him soft.” She held up her hands. She recalled the crazed look the creature had had when it came out of the fog, fresh from killing crabmen the night they’d attacked the Keep.
“Would you like to stroke him?” Narok asked.
Was he having a laugh? She wouldn’t ‘like to’ but she thought it might be rude to decline, so she placed her hand on Indomit’s muzzle and gently patted him. It was like patting a hay bale. You could probably thatch a roof with karkadann hair.
Narok smiled awkwardly and checked over his shoulder. “Would you take a walk with me?” he asked.
Sammy glanced at Mehrak. “Go on,” Mehrak said. “We’ll talk later.”
When they’d walked a little way off, Narok turned to her. “I hear you’re from the Mother World?”
“You know about that?”
He nodded. “I do, but my fellow guards don’t.” He paused. “I know you overheard the conversation I had with Principal Hootan.” He took a long breath, blew it out. “I have done some questionable things in my life, but I hope the good I’ve done for the people of Honton Keep counts for something.” He looked searchingly into Sammy’s eyes. “Please keep what you’ve learned to yourself. Judge me for what I do for you now, not for who I used to be. I’m on your side, and I’ll be doing my utmost to protect you.”
He had intense brown eyes. They were eyes that had probably seen a great many terrible things; things that Sammy had no desire to see or to know about. But they seemed sincere.
Sammy nodded. “I’ll keep your secret.”
Narok smiled faintly and they walked on. “The magi are great men. I have no doubt Principal Hootan will succeed in his mission. I only wish he’d waited for the other magi instead of taking my guards. I’m sure they’d be better protection than we are.”
Sammy felt a niggling slither of unease uncoiling in her stomach.
“We’ll be okay, though,” he went on. “I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. I only hope the Grand Master will see it that way.”
Why wouldn’t the Grand Master see it that way? Surely Hami was following the Grand Master’s orders.
Narok looked up. Hami was coming.
“I’d better help my men finish setting up,” he said. He smiled at Sammy, turned and led Indomit away.
“What did he want?” Hami asked her. His eyes were red and his gums were stained black. He spat on the floor.
“Nothing. He was just saying hello.” She couldn’t look at him. She tried to rationalise what Narok had told her while keeping her head down. She was convinced Hami would be able to read her expression if she made eye contact.
“Can you come with me, please?” he asked and marched off ahead, through the newly erected campsite.
Sammy trailed behind, half-walking, half-running. All the tents were up now, the campfires prepared and Marzban were feeding their karkadann. Hami stopped at a freshly dug fire pit and dismissed the Marzban who’d been filling it with dried mushroom strips. He turned to Sammy. There was a sparkle in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before.
“Would you like to learn how to light a campfire like a magus?” he said.
Sammy’s hands and toes tingled. “That would be awesome!” she said. Maybe Hami was alright after all.
Hami stood at the edge of the fire pit and held his staff above it. “Stand back,” he said, then stopped. He lowered his staff and looked at Sammy as if he were trying to weigh up a decision. A sly smile crept across his face.
“Remember how I said a magus can’t teach his powers?”
“Because you aren’t allowed?” Sammy looked around to see if anyone was watching.
“It’s nothing to do with permission. You’re either capable or you aren’t.”
“Does that mean I’m capable?”
“I think you might be.”
Electricity surged up her legs and arms. “Am I a magus then?”
“It takes many years to become a magus. But there’s something different about you. I can sense you have … gifts.”
Why hadn’t Hami mentioned this sooner? She could’ve been shooting stuff with her own staff by now. But that didn’t matter
anymore, he was mentioning it now. She couldn’t stand still. This was so totally amazing! Forget super-reading. Maybe she’d get her own staff. Principal Sammy Ellis had a nice ring to it.
Hami smirked as he watched her. “Here,” he said. He passed Sammy his staff. “Why don’t you have a go?”
She took the staff. “What do I do?”
“I’ll talk you through it.”
Sammy stepped up to the ring of stones that had been placed around the fire pit.
“Right,” Hami said. “Hold the staff out so the orb at the end hangs over the dried pieces of mushroom.”
Sammy held out the staff, but the weight of the black sphere pulled it down into the fireplace.
“It’s heavy,” she said. “I can’t keep it level.”
Mehrak sidled up alongside them. “What are you doing?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.
“I’m teaching Sammy to light a fire,” Hami said. There was an undertone of hostility in his voice.
Mehrak scoffed. “With a lightning staff?”
Mehrak frowned. “But she’s not a magus.”
“Mehrak.” Hami raised a finger to his lips. “Could you leave us to it, please?”
Trying, unsuccessfully, to appear indifferent, Mehrak shrugged and wandered off in Louis’s general direction. Sammy watched him pretend to collect water from the stream in his bucket. He kept looking over at them as he repeatedly filled and emptied the same bucket.
“Where were we?” Hami said. He turned back to Sammy.
“I can’t lift your staff.”
“That’s okay. Keep hold of it, but leave the orb resting in the fireplace,” he said. “Now, relax.”
Sammy relaxed but held on to the staff.
“I’m going to teach you some of the fundamental rules of the universe.”
“Rules?” Mehrak piped up. He dropped his bucket and scurried back over, his eyes wide. “As in Rule Book rules?”
Hami spoke through clenched teeth. “All physical and universal rules are in the Rule Book, but these are the most simple of fundamental laws. I’m sure you already know them.”
“Can I watch anyway?”
“As long as you don’t talk.”
Mehrak made a motion of locking his mouth shut with a key.
“Right,” Hami said, facing Sammy. “Everything in the universe is composed of matter.”
“Matter. I’ve heard of matter.”
“Good. Imagine everything is made of millions and billions of tiny spheres, or balls. You, me, Mehrak, my staff, the rocks. Tiny little balls called atoms that are so small you can’t see them, the building blocks of the universe.”
Sammy stared at the staff in her hand. The orb still rested in the fireplace. “I know about atoms. We learnt about them in school.”
“Then you know that if you have enough of these atoms joined together, they can form objects large enough to see. And that there are hundreds of different types of atoms. The rocks here are made of heavier and more dense atoms than the pieces of mushroom and this makes the rocks heavier than mushrooms. We’re made of loads of different types of atoms, arranged in hundreds of thousands of different combinations.”
Sammy nodded. She’d covered most of what Hami was talking about in science class, but it wasn’t easy to visualise everything as balls.
“Got it?” Hami asked.
“How many balls am I made of?”
“Millions and billions. Too many to count.”
Sammy stared at the staff and wondered when something was going to happen.
“Close your eyes and picture the staff in your hand. Picture nothing else, only blackness.”
Sammy closed her eyes and imagined the staff in her hand.
“Think of the staff in great detail. Imagine you’re a tiny insect flying down towards the shaft. Smaller than an insect; a speck of dust. You’re approaching the staff but there’s a long distance to cover. You keep going, getting closer. The shaft now fills your entire view, you can see nothing else but shaft, yet there’s still a long way to cover. You’re still travelling closer and now you’re beginning to see something. You can see that the staff is made up of atoms; balls. You can see a wall of balls before you, millions of them. All of them joined together, making up the staff. They’re all jiggling slightly. Wriggling together, joined as one long pole. Have you got it?”
Sammy nodded again. It was gradually coming to her. She could see an ocean of white balls, like she was hovering over the biggest children’s ball pit ever.
“Now, imagine the little balls lifting, getting lighter, as if they’re losing weight. They’re staying the same size, but they’re getting lighter. They’re floating. The staff is getting lighter.” Hami stopped.
“What next?” Sammy asked when Hami didn’t go on. “I can picture it! I can see it perfectly.” She opened her eyes. The staff was suspended horizontally in her right hand. “Wow, that’s brilliant,” she said. “It feels light as a feather.”
Hami’s eyes were wide.
She wondered if she could light the staff, too. Following her instincts, she pictured herself flying along the length of the staff, reaching the orb at the end: a huge, planet-sized sphere. In her mind’s eye, she saw all the dark atoms floating around inside. She imagined them moving faster, racing around, bumping into each other, crashing, creating friction, sparks and heat.
“It’s working!” she yelled.
The orb was glowing, getting brighter. Ferocious white light burst from the staff, banishing the darkness from the ravine. All the Marzban turned to look at her, slack-jawed, the colour bleached from their faces and clothes – everything super white.
Hami lunged at the staff and snatched it from Sammy’s hand.
The ravine sunk back into the dim orange glow of the campfires.
No one moved.
Hami cradled the staff in trembling hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The lesson’s over.”
“Why?” Sammy asked. “I’ll try harder. I promise.”
“You tried hard enough. I wasn’t expecting … You barely put any effort in.” Hami turned to walk away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to –”
Hami stopped. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Sammy. It’s my fault. I wanted to test you, but it was wrong of me. I should’ve waited until my brothers were here. To control …” He hung his head. “Forgive me,” he said at last, and walked away.
Sammy watched him go, his shoulders slumped. He kept walking straight through the campsite and out into the darkness on the other side.