THE ORDER OF THE BLACK FIST
Mehrak had his head in his hands. “This whole time you knew my wife wouldn’t be at the Cataclysm?”
Hami had his head in the sink. He spat the last of the black puke from his mouth. “I had to make sure Sammy would end up at the Cataclysm.”
“You lied about the slaves, the pterodactyls, everything?”
“That’s all true. I …” Hami coughed. “… I only left out a few key pieces of information so you’d think your wife would be there.”
Mehrak looked up from the table. “Like what?”
“Like, it’s predominantly men who are taken to the Cataclysm. Big men. Ones that can shift rock all day. So unless your wife’s uncommonly muscular …”
“Where then? Where is she?” Mehrak placed his hands on the table. “Actually, don’t bother, I can’t trust anything you tell me.” He stared at the back of Hami’s head, a burning, hate-filled stare.
Golden Egg Cottage swayed back and forth. Louis was still going, but he was tired, and getting clumsy and stumbling. Sammy watched Mehrak. He looked beaten and worn out. She placed a hand on the back of his. He placed his other hand on top of hers.
Leiss stood by himself at the stove, his hands clasped in front of him, eyes cast down like a scolded schoolboy.
“If she’s still alive, it’s likely she’ll be at the mountain base. It will have been men that took her. That’s why Louis smelt no crabmen the day she disappeared.”
“If she’s still alive?” Mehrak shook his head slowly. Dark bags blossomed under his eyes and he seemed to visibly age. “I brought you into my home, gave you food and shelter. And this whole time you’ve misled me while my wife’s life has been at risk?” There were tears in his eyes. “How could you do that to me? I couldn’t do that to my worst enemy.”
Hami pinched his lips together as if Mehrak’s words had caused him physical pain. “I’ve felt sick with it every moment of every day,” he said. He dragged his hands down his face. “There’s no easy way to say this, but Perseopia is more important than your wife. I know it’s not what you want to hear. And I apologise for saying it.” He turned to face Mehrak. “But the realm has to take precedence over her. I let you assume she’d be at the Cataclysm so that if we ever became parted, you’d make your own way there.”
Mehrak narrowed his eyes. “Except none of this is about Perseopia, is it?”
Sammy watched Hami closely, but he gave nothing away. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“You’ve got a different agenda. That’s why you didn’t wait for the other magi to arrive. And it’s why you ditched the Marzban.”
Hami didn’t answer. In the silence that followed, a faint rumbling vibrated through the walls.
Leiss was the first upstairs and onto the back balcony, Sammy close behind him. The rumbling was louder outside, but there was nothing to see.
“Crabmen,” Leiss said.
“I can’t see them,” Sammy replied.
“They’re still a way off. You won’t see them under the mushroom canopies until they catch and kill us.” Leiss turned on Hami as he arrived. “You’d better have a plan.”
“I’ve thought of nothing else for days,” Hami said. “But it’s not something you need to worry about. You guys will be safely inside the Fifth Azaran Fire Temple by the time they catch up. It’s built
like a fortress. And we’re not far away now.” He pointed past the tower, in the direction they were travelling.
Sammy ran through the bedroom and onto the front balcony. In the distance, a brilliant golden beacon lit up the horizon.
“The Fifth Azaran,” Mehrak said as he joined her.
“It looks like a sunrise.”
“That’s the light from the Cataclysm reflected off the dome. You can see it thousands of stadia away in the Atrabiliar Mountains. Here comes the edge of the forest.”
Golden Egg Cottage left the yellow glow of the mushroom forest and pitched into the dim half-light of a vast, barren plain filling the void between the forest and the golden temple. Louis’s feet made hollow thuds on the hard-packed sand.
Then he stopped, throwing everyone against the railing.
“What’s going on?” Mehrak groaned, hauling himself up.
“Keep going,” Hami commanded. His staff lit up and he fired a beam that hit the desert near Louis’s feet. Louis flinched.
Louis crept forward.
Sammy turned to Hami, but he stared straight ahead, jaw clenched.
Louis was shaking. He spelt something out with his ears.
“Something hands?” Sammy whispered. She turned to Mehrak. “What is he saying about hands?”
Mehrak was trembling. “Not hands. Fist. As in the Order of the Black Fist.” He turned to Hami. “What are you doing?”
Hami’s eyes remained locked on the horizon. “You have no idea how important this is.”
“The brotherhood …”
“… have no idea where we are. I disconnected from the magi network yesterday.”
Mehrak shook his head slowly, fear in his eyes. “But Sammy –”
“They’ve got my friend,” Hami said. “My negligence cost his sister’s life. I’m not losing him, too.”
“You can’t let them take her,” Mehrak said. “Please!”
Sammy looked at Mehrak. What was he talking about? Then she realised. She was being traded.