Golden Egg Cottage lurched, jolting Sammy awake.
She sat up in bed. Louis’s feet were pounding below, accompanied by the rubbery squeak of mushrooms skimming Eggie’s surface. They were back in the Fungi Forest, and moving fast. Her bed was shaking underneath her, the chandelier in the peak of the room swung back and forth, and one of the wardrobes had begun juddering its way across the room.
Sammy leapt from the bed and ran out onto the front balcony. Louis had his head down and giant mushrooms raced by on either side. It was like being on the bridge of the USS Enterprise navigating an asteroid field, except they’d lost their karkadann shield array.
Where were Narok and the Marzban? Sammy stumbled back into the bedroom and down the spiralling tower steps. She stopped where they met the stairs curving up from the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” she shouted, so as to be heard over the creaking cottage and rattling crockery.
Mehrak and Leiss peered up from the kitchen table, each gripping a cup of sloshing mushroom tea in their hands.
“We’re heading to the Cataclysm to rescue Gisouie,” Mehrak said. He dabbed at a small puddle of splashed tea with a dishcloth. “And then we’ll go into hiding until we work out how to return you to the Mother World.”
“I don’t know. Back at the campsite? Out in the forest looking for us? Who knows?”
“You’re kidding me?”
Mehrak shook his head.
Sammy slid down the wall, into a sitting position at the top of the stairs. “Oh my God! What have you done? What’s he going to say?”
“If we ever see him again, you can ask him. But I doubt you’ll have to worry about that now.”
“Someone will have seen us leave. It’s not like Louis can tiptoe away. And … and Hami’s a flippin’ magus. He’ll just know!”
“Louis can sneak when he needs to,” Mehrak said. “After your display with the staff at the campfire, Hami walked off. We waited for him to come back, but he didn’t, so I told Narok we’d go a little way down the ravine to find him. We followed his trail all the way out of the other end. And when we didn’t find him I realised that this was our opportunity to escape.”
Sammy didn’t know what to say. “What about you, Leiss? You’re breaking orders.”
Leiss looked her in the eye. “General Grotta was a member of the Order.”
Sammy’s mouth dropped open.
“Louis overheard them talking at base camp before we left,” he added. “I’m no longer following orders from that man. And I’ve got nothing to return to Honton Keep for anyway. I left money with a neighbour to buy groceries for my mother, so she’ll be fine. I’m going to honour Borzin’s dying wish and return you to the Mother World. He died doing the right thing while I stood by and did nothing. Not again.”
“What about what I want? I’ve got powers. I’m going to become a magus and fight for Perseopia.”
“Come off it,” Mehrak said. “Hami isn’t going to make you a magus, he’s just using you. He’s using all of us. He doesn’t care
what happens to you. You’re just an infantry piece in his game of Chaturanga.”
“Shut the hell up about Chaturanga! And he does care about me. He’ll track us down. Do you really think you can outrun the magi and the Marzban?”
Mehrak kneaded his eye sockets with a finger and thumb. “When we left the ravine last night, we doubled back towards the Keep. Then we found a stream, followed it down river several stadia, before turning back on ourselves again. Now we’re heading north towards the Cataclysm. We left the ravine late last night, we’ve been travelling all night and it’s almost morning.” Mehrak yawned. “So yes, I think we lost them.”
“It’s for the best. You’ll thank me in the long run.”
“I’ll never thank you! Maybe I wanted to stay with Hami. Did you ever think about that? No one knows I exist in the Mother World. I’m important here!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re more important there. Your mother needs you. Hami doesn’t. He doesn’t even care about you.”
“You’re just jealous!” Sammy shouted. “You’re jealous because Hami is important and powerful. And he does like me. He wants what’s best for me. He’ll train me to become a warrior and we’re going to fight for Perseopia together.”
“Jealous? Of him? You’ve only been in Perseopia a few days. This isn’t even your realm to fight for. And there’s more to life than fighting. Something you should maybe tell your father.”
“Take that back!”
“Open your eyes and see who’s really there for you.”
“Who’s really there for me? You? You only picked me up as a stand-in because you lost your wife. You’re lonely and pathetic. And a coward for running away!”
Mehrak’s face went red. “After everything I’ve done for you. You crave attention from bullies and ignore those who actually
care. And you call me pathetic? I’m risking my life for you! Do you know what Hami would do to me if he catches up with us?”
Sammy had heard enough. She ran upstairs, through the bedroom and onto the back balcony. She slumped against the railing and hid her face in the crook of her arm. She felt sick to the pit of her stomach. She knew Mehrak cared, but she hated him for what he’d said about Hami and her dad. He was wrong. Hami was going to train her to fight for Perseopia. Fighting was brave and honourable. She was going to be someone. An actual hero.
“So you tried to escape?”
Sammy spun round.
Hami stood between her and the bedroom. He stepped forward.
The cottage jerked to a stop as Louis heard him. Eggie’s harness creaked as Louis moved about, trying to crane his head round to get at Hami, but they were too high and too far back. Sammy could hear Louis’s mouth snapping, but there was nothing he could do without rocking both her and Hami off the balcony.
“How?” Sammy asked.
“Mehrak’s too predictable.”
“I didn’t ask him to,” Sammy stuttered. “I promise. Please don’t hurt me.”
Hami stopped. “Hurt you? Why would I hurt you?”
Leiss barrelled through the curtain. “Get away from her!” he shouted and lunged.
Hami casually flicked his wrist. Leiss slammed into an invisible barrier and bounced backwards onto the floor.
“Really, Leiss?” Hami said.
Mehrak came onto the balcony next, stepping over Leiss. “How did you …?”
“I knew you’d make a run for the Cataclysm,” Hami said. “So I stowed away.”
“Louis would’ve smelt you.”
“I left my bag of clothes on board so there’d always be a smell of me here. Then I climbed the side of the ravine, and as you left I jumped aboard. I knew Louis wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and my bag of clothes, so all I had to do was hide under the bed and wait.”
Sammy shivered. He’d been under the bed while she slept.
“And, now that we’re almost at the Cataclysm, I can alert my men to our location.” The ball at the end of Hami’s staff lit up.
“No!” Mehrak shouted. But it was too late. He got drowned out by a burst of lightning screaming upward from Hami’s staff. The beam hit the smog and burst into a doughnut-shaped shockwave, cracking a peal of thunder that trembled Sammy’s internal organs.
“What have you done?” Mehrak screamed. “The crabmen will see that!”
“Hopefully,” Hami said. “And hopefully it will send a message to the Order letting them know our location. Better get moving, Louis.”