ENGAGING THE ENEMY
Hami ignited his staff. The Marzban and Harz and his men slowed and lined their karkadann and horses up on either side of him, facing the forest. The horses whinnied and the karkadann stomped restlessly as they waited. Even the beasts knew what was coming.
A wave of slate-grey bodies spilled from the forest onto the dark plain and accelerated towards Hami and the Marzban. Thousands of stick-like angular bodies jumbled together like a river of brambles.
Hami raised his staff, then slammed the base hard on the ground. A ring of light expanded from the orb and out across the desert like a ripple on a pond. The crabmen faltered, stumbling when it hit.
Then they accelerated back to full speed.
Behnam floated up from the deep. He was leaving the cloying fluid that pressed in on all sides, the pressure loosening as he floated higher. His movements became freer as he neared the surface and he emerged. Still in the dark, but alive. His shirt hung damp on his chest. Blood. He could taste it in his mouth and it was crusted around his lips. His head rested against a suspended arm and that’s where it would have to stay, because he could no longer move it.
He’d been knocked unconscious instead of killed, which meant he was still useful. It also meant that he needed to be silenced for a while, so he couldn’t contact his brothers. Wasn’t he supposed to be warning them?
“Hello?” he called out.
“Ramaask?” he tried again, quieter this time. It came out as a pathetic whimper. And still nothing. Behnam knew he couldn’t contact his brothers. Ramaask was luring him into a trap, waiting for the connection to the network to be made so he could exploit it. Behnam wouldn’t allow it, so all that was left to do was wait. There would be no escape for him now. This was the end. Everything seemed to hurt less than it did before. The pain flowing out of him. Perhaps this was what happened in the moments before you died. He felt strangely at peace. He was dying, but that was okay. Finally his ordeal would be over.
As he sat on the cold floor of his cell, a thought formed in his head, flashing in and out of the fog that clouded his brain. Appearing then disappearing. There, but not there. He couldn’t catch it. He thought back to what Ramaask had said. Cross the river of light on the way to the path … How had Ramaask known the enrolment whisper? And more importantly, did a seal of the Ahriman really exist? There was a seal at the Fire Temple, but was it that seal? How did Ramaask know of it? It was obvious that Behnam had been experiencing Ramaask’s nightmares. But had he received them deliberately or had they been transmitted unconsciously?
Behnam’s brain was slow and tired. The answer should’ve come to him by now. His thoughts returned to Hami. Was he really taking the visitor to the Fifth Azaran?
Then the cold dread of realisation saturated his flesh. Ramaask had been telling the truth about the seal. Hami knew that taking the girl to the Fifth Azaran Fire Temple would lure Ramaask out. Like Grand Master Bruche had done, Hami was drawing Ramaask out to try and kill him.
It was because of Behnam. Hami was doing it to rescue him.
Behnam had known about Hami and his sister all along. They’d kept the relationship secret, but they couldn’t hide the way they looked at each other. The furtive smiles, the stolen glances. Their love for each other was obvious even to the most casual observer.
Jamileh’s death had been Behnam’s fault. He had inadvertently led the crabmen to her. Not Hami. Hami had tried to fight them but there were too many and his sister had been killed in the melee. To this day, Hami still believed it to be his own fault, and Behnam had let him think that. His sister’s death had broken both their hearts, and there’d never been a good time to talk about it, but he should have said something.
Hami had shouldered the guilt ever since. Now he was trying to make amends, trying to save Behnam’s life out of misguided obligation. Only Hami wasn’t guilty of anything and he was going to get himself killed.
Ramaask had gone. Behnam knew that now. That’s why he’d been silenced, so he couldn’t warn Hami that Ramaask was on his way. Only now it wasn’t just Hami’s and the girl’s lives on the line. If Ramaask was to be believed, then the Seal of the Ahriman was at risk of being broken, too. Ramaask had been right about the visitor, but the seal? Whether the seal existed or not, Behnam couldn’t take that risk. Unleashing the Ahriman into Perseopia was not an option.
Hami had to be stopped.
Hami and the Marzban faced the crabmen, unflinching. The karkadann were exhausted from chasing down Golden Egg Cottage and gulped down long, shuddering lungfuls of air before expelling excessive clouds of steam. The Marzban pulled at their reins, trying to keep the animals still and stop them wasting more energy.
“Eva, Kelzar,” Hami called. “I want you two to stay back. Keep between us and the temple in case any crabmen get past. You can’t allow them to catch Golden Egg Cottage –”
Then Hami felt Behnam back on the network. He was alive! And trying to make contact. Hami opened up the connection. Behnam began talking fast, spitting out information. Then, just as quickly, he’d gone.
Hami’s stomach clenched and he vomited. The seal couldn’t exist. It wasn’t possible. That meant if Sammy … No, she wouldn’t know where to find it. Still, there was a possibility …
And the wave of crabmen hit.
Sammy watched from Golden Egg Cottage’s back balcony. She was convinced she’d heard her name being called from the battlefield, but it couldn’t have been. There was no way she’d be able to hear anyone over the chattering, bellowing and roaring.
The crabmen had overrun Hami and the Marzban, but it was too dark and they were too far away to see much of anything.
From where she stood, the battle looked like a mass of ants swarming over a discarded chip. The only evidence that Hami was still holding his own were the fleeting bursts of light from his staff.
The flashes of light came and went, and each time they dimmed, Sammy prayed that they would re-ignite again.
Crabmen everywhere. Hami struck, blasted and parried. A black wall of crabmen came crashing in, then a blast from his staff illuminated their cruel alien faces with mandibles open, and they were gone in the explosion. The darkness returned and they rolled in again on another wave of spiky limbs. Long razor arms stabbed and scythed. Thick club arms came down like mason block hammers. Hami’s team were being overwhelmed.
Thousands of crabmen had been killed outside the Keep. There couldn’t be this many left, it wasn’t possible. Mentally Hami felt the fight slipping, but he kept going. For Sammy. For these men and women he’d led to their deaths. But most of all, for Behnam. He couldn’t lose him too, he had to fix everything.
Narok charged past, hacking the crabmen down with his sword, Indomit crushing them underfoot. Manticores roared as they tore into the crabmen, pulling their limbs off and savaging them with their tusks. Harz carved a trail through them on his chariot, his six silverskins braying and lashing out. And throughout, the Marzban kept the line behind. Their karkadann goring and pounding down the crabmen as they crashed into them.
But the crabmen were too many. They were piling up on top of each other, forcing their way through, escaping through the cracks and making a run for Golden Egg Cottage.
Mehrak and Leiss joined Sammy on the balcony. They watched the thin line of crabmen leaking through the gaps in the Marzban ranks and streaming across the plain. They were coming for Sammy, spanning the distance between the Marzban and Golden Egg Cottage. And they were fast. Louis wasn’t going to make the temple in time.
Kelzar and Eva were on their way, galloping from the battle, chasing the rogue crabmen down, striking at them with their lances. But they hadn’t caught them all. Three were further ahead than the others. Eva and Kelzar hadn’t noticed them. And they were closing in on Louis.
“Get inside, guys,” Leiss said. “I’ve got these.” He unsheathed his sword and approached the edge of the balcony.
The three front-running crabmen reached Louis’s tail, leapt onto his hips, crawled up onto Golden Egg Cottage and up over its surface like spiders.
“Move!” Mehrak shouted, dragging Sammy towards the tower. But they didn’t make it. Louis freaked, stumbled, and everyone hit the deck. One of the crabmen lost his footing, fell, and a moment later there was a crunch and the roar of a karkadann.
Sammy got to her feet in time to see Eva leave the pulverised crabman in her wake.
She’d come after them! But not soon enough. Two seven-foot crabmen stood on the railing, chattering and twitching their heads.
A heavy claw batted Mehrak across the balcony towards the bedroom curtain.
Leiss dragged Sammy behind him and threw himself at the crabmen, swinging his sword side to side to keep them back. “Get inside!” he shouted.
The crabmen descended on him.
Leiss held his own, his blade clanging against the hard ridges of their sword arms. He was returning their blows, but they were too strong and forced him back.
Sammy ran to where Mehrak lay wheezing.
“Get downstairs,” he croaked.
Sammy grabbed his hand and tried to pull him into the tower. “I’m not leaving you,” she said.
“Just go!” Mehrak pulled his hand away.
Leiss’s sword hit the floor with a clatter, sliding over to where Sammy stood by Mehrak. She looked up just in time to see a heavy left claw catch Leiss on the side of his head. It didn’t land properly, only a glancing blow, but it collapsed him like an accordion. The crabman stood over him. One stalk eye twitched toward Sammy, the other towards Leiss on the floor. Her blood ran cold in her veins.
The second crabman came at Sammy with the motion of a malfunctioning robot spider. She went for the sword and dragged it up. It was heavy, too heavy for her to swing.
The first crabman raised its big claw to deal a death blow to Leiss as a lance burst through its neck, spraying blue blood like a Super Soaker. It gave a gargled screech as it coughed up blood, then toppled backwards over the railing, disappearing from view.
“Crab kebab!” Eva whooped from below.
One seven-foot monster left. But it was too far from the balcony edge for Eva to get a shot at, and the crabman knew it. It had all the time in the world. Its shadow swept over Sammy as its sword arm jerked up above its head. Its eyes locked on hers, cold and soulless, but savouring the imminent kill.
Sammy couldn’t move. The sword hung limply in her grip, trembling and useless. Any second now the razor-sharp sword arm would come slicing down, cleaving her in two.
The arm twitched. And she closed her eyes.
She could see the arm swinging down in her mind’s eye. Millions of jiggling little balls, like Hami’s staff, but rushing towards her throat. She could see the balls – atoms – getting slower. Slower, and then stopping.
Sammy opened her eyes. The crabman was motionless. The sword arm, centimetres from her throat, had stopped in mid-swing. It hung there, shaking.
Suddenly aware of the sword in her hands, Sammy tightened her grip. In a flash, the weapon became weightless and came up off the floor. Then she willed it forward and it launched from her hands, plunging hilt-deep into the crabman’s chest and carrying the creature backwards, where it crashed into the railing and collapsed to the floor.
Sammy stared at the crabman, then at her hands, and then Mehrak.
His eyes were wide and his mouth opened and closed soundlessly. When he finally regained the ability to speak, he said simply, “You killed a crabman.”