In the time it took for Hami to tell the story, Mehrak had grown dark patches beneath his eyes, making him look weary and defeated.
“So there really is a Lurker at the Gate?” he asked. “The men that returned from the city telling tales of monsters and demons were telling the truth?”
“In a way,” Hami said. “Ramaask is what they saw.”
“And the magi never went back?”
“The city was uninhabitable. There was purple smog everywhere, so there was no point in taking the city back. Anyone who tried was tormented by nightmares and killed themselves. Eventually everyone left.”
“But the magi knew what’d happened. They let Ramaask take over the capital and they did nothing?”
“Look at me,” Hami said. “I spent less than two days in Aratta. And now I might not live to the end of the year.”
“Magi have been back to the city, Mehrak. We’ve been back many times over the years. But you can’t fight in the smog. It kills you faster; you get tired, you breathe in more. We’re limited to short in-and-out missions to find out what Ramaask is doing.”
“Well, the first thing he did was clad himself in armour and cover his rear arms in a cloak so he could pass as human, albeit an exceptionally large one. Then he gave himself the name Ramus VorMask and began gathering followers, offering them immunity
to the smog. Mercenaries, bounty hunters, even a few of the ex-Sultan’s guards; the sort of people that would do anything for power. And from what we’ve seen, Ramaask has virtually unlimited power.”
“What is he?” Leiss asked.
Hami shook his head. “Our best guess is that he’s a visitor from another world, much like Sammy, but from somewhere much worse. Some of my brothers believe Achaemen Mantis was a demon worshipper and used the Sultan’s life force to open a portal gate to let Ramaask in.”
“Hence the nickname the Lurker at the Gate,” Mehrak said.
“Yeah,” Hami said. “But unfortunately for Mantis – and us – he underestimated the effect that murdering a divine appointment by Ahura would have.”
“What about the Association?” Leiss asked. “They must’ve wanted to take the capital back.”
“Their armies were weakened from the first assault on Aratta. It took five years to get a second army assembled to attempt the capital again.”
“The Second,” Mehrak said. “Also known as the Battle of No Return. The day Perseopia met Ramus VorMask.”
Hami nodded. “As you know, the battle was a disaster. Twenty thousand men entered the city. Six survived. And that was only at Ramaask’s mercy because he wanted them to spread his message throughout Perseopia: leave Aratta and never return.”
“That was a hundred and something years ago,” Mehrak said. “What’s he been doing since then?”
Hami shrugged. “He isn’t interested in taking over Perseopia. He keeps to Aratta to oversee the construction of his twisted black column. But now there’s Sammy,” he paused before going on. “He seems very interested in her. We think he only stays in Aratta to guard the gate into Perseopia, the one he entered through. Otherwise he’d have come after her himself.”
“Guarding it from whom?” Leiss asked.
“Again, we don’t know. He gets his men or crabmen to carry out anything he needs doing outside Aratta. In the hundred and forty-six years he’s been here, he’s only ever left the city two or three times and only then when he has no other choice.”
“Which is why you’re using Sammy as bait,” Mehrak said.
“It’s not like that. She’ll be safe inside the Fire Temple.”
“It’s exactly like that. But why here? How do you know coming to this temple will draw him out?”
Hami stared at the floor. “There was another girl,” he said. “Thirty years before Sammy. She had yellow hair too. She was taken to the Fifth Azaran – and don’t ask me why – but Ramaask didn’t want her there. He didn’t want it enough that he left Aratta to come after her.”
“Did he get her?” Sammy asked. Time seemed to slow down as the wait for Hami’s answer stretched out before her.
Hami’s eyes met hers. “I can’t say for sure,” he said. “But she was never seen again.”
Sammy flopped back onto the bed, her heart beating hard, but her nerves were pulling her up again, she couldn’t keep still. She was in panic mode. She sat up, leapt from the bed and ran for the balcony, but Hami grabbed her by the arm.
“You’ll be safe inside the Fire Temple.”
“How do you know? How do you know he won’t get me too? No one can kill him! We should turn around. I’m going to tell Louis. Maybe that will stop him. He’ll go back to his city.”
“It’s too late now. He’s coming. And we’re the only ones that can stop him now. Narok, the Marzban, Harz, his men, and me. We’re all fighters, and we’re ready.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Mehrak said. “How can Ramaask know Sammy’s here?”
“He felt her arrive. We all did. Except he knew she was coming before we did. He knew she was coming and he’s been preparing for her.”
Mehrak’s face paled. “Preparing how?”
“The crabmen. They didn’t exist thirty years ago. He began breeding them after the first girl arrived. The original species only inhabited the bottomless lake to the west. They couldn’t survive out of water and looked nothing like they do now. Something scared Ramaask into doing it. Somehow, he knew Sammy was coming and he mutated an already formidable species to produce the most powerful army ever to walk the face of Perseopia. There’s an event coming that he believes will bring his reign to an end. Perhaps even lead to his death.” Hami looked Sammy in the eye. “And for some reason, he believes Sammy to be the one to do it.”
Before Sammy had the chance to completely freak out, four loud horn blasts sounded outside.
Hami frowned. “They can’t be …” He pushed past Leiss and onto the back balcony. He returned a moment later, ashen. He’d lost his tough exterior, the hardened warrior had become a terrified schoolboy.
“Sammy? I need a word,” he said. “In private.”
Hami led her onto the back balcony. The forest was now a distant ribbon of yellow, horizontally splitting the darkness of the sky above with the plain below. The rumbling of the crabmen was louder, accompanied by a snapping noise, like chopsticks being broken.
“Louis!” Hami called. “You need to maintain your speed. You can’t slow until you’re inside the Fire Temple. If you do, everyone dies.” Hami turned to Sammy. “Harz has informed the priests inside the temple. They know you’re coming and the doors will open when you get close.”
He took both her hands in his. “I have to leave. I’m sorry I had to do it this way, but you’ll be okay. Trust me.” He let go and turned towards the railing.
“Wait!” Sammy said. She had too many questions. Hami couldn’t leave now. She needed to know more. But what exactly?
“And why did you try to stop me seeing her sister?”
Hami looked out at the Marzban, then back to Sammy. “I don’t have time for this.”
“She was a magus. And she travelled to my world. Why?” Sammy grabbed his arm. “After everything you’ve put us through, you owe me an explanation.”
Hami looked away. “I don’t know. Esther left the magi a long time ago.”
“You’re lying! There’s more you aren’t telling me.”
Hami stepped away from the railing. “Before Esther left, she interrogated the magi network for classified information. Information that only the top tier magi are allowed access to. Ancient lore, sensitive stuff. The way out into the Greater Mother World. She was warned to leave it alone, but she didn’t. In the end, she was shut out of the network and dismissed from duty. We thought that would be the end of the matter, but we found out she’d taken a position at Honton Keep palace as a librarian. Obviously, we attempted to stop her, but by then she’d fled and gone into hiding. No one has seen her since. We know she was close to former Grand Master Bruche before he was killed. So it may have been on his orders that she travelled to the Mother World to find you. I think they were trying to accomplish the same thing I’m doing now. To draw Ramaask into the open to destroy him. Their first attempt failed – as I told you – so rather than wait for the next child with yellow hair to arrive in Perseopia, I presume she went looking for one.”
“And she found me.” Which meant Esther had always planned to bring her to Perseopia. She was always going to be the bait. Not only was she not the chosen one, she wasn’t even the sidekick. She was the maggot dangling on the end of the hook. No wonder she only had a super-reading ability and no decent powers. But then if Esther, the chosen child, hadn’t made it back with her, this mission was doomed to fail. Hami couldn’t stop Ramaask; he wasn’t the chosen one.
Hami turned away from her. “I’m truly sorry for what I’ve put you through. Everything. But I must do this, for my friend. For Jamileh.”
“There is a way back to the Mother World, then? You lied to me.”
Hami’s shoulders slumped. “If I survive this, I promise I’ll help you get home.”
He looked out over the desert. The Marzban and ex-Order members had formed a line, following them at a distance, churning up clouds of sand.
“The priests know you’re coming. You’ll be safe once you’re inside.” Then he turned and leapt off the balcony in a swan dive.
Sammy dashed to the railing in time to see him fall into a forward flip and land on the desert floor in a crouched position. He stood and, without turning back, shouted, “We’ll buy you some time.”
Louis didn’t stop and Hami was left to fade into the blackness of the desert around him.