THE STORY UNFOLDS
Silhouettes of men on horseback appeared against the light of the Fire Temple. They projected up from the black plain, casting long shadows towards Eggie, like slender fingers reaching out to them. Sammy stayed on the balcony. There was nowhere to run now. No escape for her.
Louis slowed as he drew close. Then stopped.
They were a grisly bunch of men. Dressed in thick leathers, they had lank hair and straggly beards, some had tattoos on their faces, some had piercings. They looked like a biker gang that had swapped their choppers for horses.
In the centre was the head honcho. At least Sammy assumed he was. He stood in a tarnished, battle-damaged chariot. A broad man with a thick neck and huge hands, he had a bald head and a long white beard stained with patches of yellow. A gold bullring dangled from his nostrils and hairy eyebrows teetered on the edge of a sloped brow that obscured his eyes. He looked like a post-apocalyptic Santa Claus. The sort of guy who might have fought Mel Gibson in the Thunderdome.
Filthy Santa’s chariot was hooked up to six horses. But not horses. They looked equine, but their necks and legs were shorter and their skin shimmered silver like a fish’s. In their mouths were crocodile teeth and their tails were long and whip-like.
Four chain-leashed manticores prowled forward, pulling their handlers along with them. Filthy Santa let out a whistle and the handlers let go, allowing the feline beasts to encircle Golden Egg Cottage.
“You set up the manticore attack,” Mehrak said to Hami. “You tricked us into taking you with us.”
“That manticore wasn’t one of ours.”
“They’re not really the Black Fist, are they?” Sammy asked. “You’re taking me to be trained as a magus. Aren’t you?”
“No,” Hami said. “I’m not.” And he left the balcony.
“It’s not over yet,” Leiss whispered. “The Marzban will have seen Hami’s flare. They’ll come.”
Hami rounded the side of Golden Egg Cottage, heading towards Filthy Santa. He coughed, causing a manticore to startle and growl at him. He coughed again and then vomited terrible black bile onto the floor. One manticore came close, sniffed at it, then recoiled and whimpered. Hami continued past it without a second glance and went straight up to the chariot. Filthy Santa climbed down and bowed, then gave a high-pitched whistle followed by three pips, and the manticores began growling continuously.
Hami and the man turned their backs on the cottage.
“VorMask is using the manticores to drown out what they’re saying,” Mehrak said. “So Louis can’t hear them.”
“You think that really is the Ramus VorMask?” Leiss said.
“I reckon so.”
Ramus VorMask. The boss man of the Order, and the person in charge of the crabmen. Sammy couldn’t take her eyes off him. He looked a bad sort. Scum, her dad would’ve called him, hungry for a fist sandwich. Ramus turned towards her then and scowled. Instinctively she stepped back.
Mehrak had been right about Hami the whole time. They should’ve left him where they’d found him. Sammy had messed everything up. Inviting him to travel with them wasn’t even her first bad decision. Unlocking the Emerald Dial and blocking the real chosen child from coming back to Perseopia was the original sin, and still her most catastrophic lapse in judgement. Now she was about to get captured and she’d never get home. As a result,
Esther would never return to Perseopia, and the realm wouldn’t get saved.
Esther had only needed her to open the portal. She’d had one job to do and somehow she’d brought about the ruination of the realm. And she’d barely been there a week.
Sammy fled from the balcony into the tower and fell onto the bed, burying her face in the pillow.
“Sammy?” Mehrak came in and sat by her. “We’ll get through this. If they take you, they’re taking me too. I won’t leave you.”
Sammy raised her head. “You’re better off without me.”
Mehrak didn’t reply. Instead, he looked towards the back balcony. The sound was distant at first, but getting louder.
Stampeding feet. Sammy leapt up and ran for the back balcony.
The Marzban! They’d seen Hami’s flare and had come to the rescue. Mehrak and Leiss joined her. Mehrak put a hand on her shoulder.
“I told you they’d come,” Leiss said. “We’re saved!”
“Saved?” Hami said, appearing on the balcony behind them, and startling everyone.
The Marzban pulled their karkadann up short. The manticores growled, but stayed their ground. Mehrak stepped between Sammy and Hami.
“You’re too late,” he said. “The Marzban won’t let you give Sammy away.”
Narok pulled Indomit forward. “Principal Hootan?” he called up.
Mehrak took Sammy’s hand and squeezed it. It told her she was safe. That everything was going to be okay. Except Hami’s face was calm. He’d expected this.
“General!” Hami called. “Operation Crab Bait is already in progress. Now is the time to brief your men.”
Mehrak’s face fell. “They’re in on it?”
Sammy stared at Narok. She caught his eye, but he turned away. He couldn’t look at her. And she’d trusted him. She’d kept his secret!
“What are you going to do to us?” Mehrak asked.
“Exactly what I told you,” Hami said. “You’re going to the Fire Temple while we hold off the crabmen until their boss gets here.”
Mehrak opened his mouth, closed it again, then said, “VorMask is over there on the chariot, isn’t he?”
“You thought Harz, over there, was VorMask?” Hami snorted then started coughing, and for a moment couldn’t stop. He dry-retched a couple of times and that took the smile from his face. “That’s Harz Skermesh. He’s ex-Order, like the rest of his men. They’ve been working with the magi for years. I pulled them in on this mission because they know the crabmen’s weaknesses and they’re excellent fighters. The plan I explained to you still stands. I stretched the truth about your wife, but I didn’t lie about the rest of it. I’m not turning Sammy in. You guys are going to hide out in the Fifth Azaran while we wait and see who turns up.”
“But …” Mehrak began, then stopped.
“Why would Ramus VorMask come all the way out here?” Leiss asked.
Hami looked him in the eye. “I’ll explain everything, just give me a moment,” he said and turned to Narok. “General, I need you to follow behind Louis, forming a barrier between us and the forest while maintaining a distance of half a stadion.”
Narok dipped his head.
“Harz!” Hami called.
Filthy Santa brought his chariot round the side of the cottage.
“Fall in beside Narok and his guards. I need all of you to form a defensive line against the crabmen. We can’t let them catch Sammy. You must stop them at all costs. And Louis?” Eggie shifted as Louis perked up. “You need to keep going towards the Fire Temple. We haven’t got long left. Your lives depend on you getting there as fast as possible.”
Louis edged forward past the ex-Order men, then sped up and left them to drop behind with the Marzban.
Hami led everyone into the tower. Once in the bedroom, he walked to the stairway railing and perched on the edge. He nodded for Sammy and Mehrak to sit on the bed. Leiss stood by the curtain.
Sammy was getting a bad feeling about this. It was the same feeling she’d had outside the headmaster’s office at St Josephine’s when her mum was inside trying to explain the bounced school fee cheques. It was one of those times you knew you were about to learn something you didn’t want to.
Hami was solemn. “We don’t have much time before the crabmen get here, so I’ll make this brief. Mehrak? I assume Sammy knows why the skies clouded over? About the Assault on Aratta?”
Mehrak nodded. “Yeah. I told her about it.”
“You mentioned Ramus VorMask earlier. Yes?”
“Know anything about him?”
“About as much as anyone else. That he’s powerful. That he found a way to survive the smog. He took over the Order of the Black Fist and then Aratta. That he made the city their base of operations and then bred a mutant strain of crabmen that are being used to take over Perseopia. That’s about it.”
Hami waited patiently for Mehrak to finish, then said: “First of all, the Order of the Black Fist no longer exists. They split into the Order and separately the Black Fist well over a hundred years ago. The Order are enemies of the realm. The Black Fist are harmless and generally keep to themselves. Everyone makes that mistake. The second thing: What you told me of VorMask would make him over a hundred and fifty years old.”
“You asked me to tell you what I know. I don’t know how he lived so long. Ramus VorMask might be the name given to whoever’s running the Order. He always wears black armour and a helmet, so no one knows what he looks like. We could be on the
seventh or eighth VorMask by now. Or, seeing as he can survive the smog, maybe he doesn’t age like everyone else. General Azim Azertash was said to have won everlasting life when he defeated Zurvan, the Lord of Time, in a duel. Some people think VorMask is the General.”
“He’s not the General,” Hami said.
Mehrak shrugged. “So who is he?”
Hami took a deep breath. “Something much worse. There’s more to the Assault on Aratta than people know. When the palace exploded and the smog poured out, everyone ran. Those that stayed and witnessed the aftermath were all killed. The only account we have of what happened that day comes from a magus called Toler Ramone. He was able to upload the details to the magi network just before he died.” Hami began pacing. “We informed the royalty, the government and the people of Perseopia. Told them what had happened.” He stopped and looked up. “But we didn’t tell them everything. We cut it short. Kept the ending secret for fear of causing widespread panic. Something horrific was unleashed on Perseopia that day. Something that still lives on in the old capital.”