Eva and Kelzar mopped up the rest of the crabmen escaping the battle, allowing Louis to get a decent lead ahead of them. As long as he managed to maintain his pace, the crabmen wouldn’t catch them now.
Sammy went to check on Leiss. He opened his eyes as she came over, but it was a few moments before he could stand without help.
“Just a mild concussion,” he said. “I’ll live.”
When he was back on his feet, he helped Sammy get Mehrak into the bedroom.
“My ribs,” Mehrak groaned as Leiss lay him on the bed.
Leiss pulled Mehrak’s shirt open and checked him over. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You might’ve bruised a couple of ribs.”
“They feel like they’re broken.”
Leiss snorted. “Civilians,” he said, and staggered back out through the curtains, returning a while later with his sword.
“What happened to those crabmen?” he asked.
“Eva got one. I got the other,” Sammy said.
“Is that dead one still on my balcony?” Mehrak asked.
“I dumped it over the railing,” Leiss said, while staring at Sammy.
“My mouth’s really dry,” Mehrak said. “Could you fetch me some water?”
“Forget the water,” Leiss said, still staring at Sammy. “How, exactly, did you get my sword hilt-deep into the crabman’s carapace? I struggled to pull it out.”
“Because I’m a total badass,” Sammy said. She polished her fingernails on her chest and inspected them with an expression that was meant to convey ‘No big deal’.
“No. Seriously. I want to know.”
“Maybe I’m the chosen one after all.” Sammy gave Leiss the wink and the gun, then left the bedroom through the curtain to the front balcony.
The view wiped the smug grin from her face.
The Fire Temple loomed ahead, perched on a mountain in the middle of the Cataclysm, which zigzagged its way to the horizon on either side like a brilliant white-hot snake. The temple was a monster. Bigger and grander than St. Paul’s, with a dome that rose from the top of the white marble walls like a magnificent golden rosebud, and four smaller domes adorning minarets on each corner.
Ahead, a stone bridge reached out from the desert, arching over the Cataclysm to the mountaintop where the temple stood.
Sammy shielded her eyes as they left the dim twilight of the plain into the light of the Cataclysm, and Louis’s footfalls changed tone from hollow thuds to solid beats as he began crossing the bridge.
Beams of light projected from the Cataclysm into the sky on either side of them and played across the temple’s surface, rippling like liquid sunlight.
“Sammy!” Mehrak called from the bedroom. “You got lucky with that crabman. Don’t test your luck with a pterodactyl.”
Sammy ignored him and walked to the railing. She hadn’t just got lucky with the crabman. She’d kicked his arse. Bring on the crabmen! Bring on lava pterodactyls! That’s why Hami would eventually take her to New Ecbatana. She was a magus. Esther hadn’t made it back here but Sammy would step into her shoes. She struck a pose with clenched fists and spread legs, the kind Jackie Chan would adopt before he beat up a gang of triads.
She peered over the railing into the deep chasm below and tightened her grip on the railing. She was momentarily unsteady, her fingers and toes tingling. It was a long way to the bottom.
Where were the pterodactyls? Shouldn’t she be able to see some? Or maybe slaves shovelling rocks? She leant further out, looking past Louis, past the stone bridge, and into the depths of the Cataclysm.
The light dazzled her, and when she closed her eyes, it left multi-coloured patterns on the inside of her eyelids. She opened her eyes again, trying to acclimatise to the light, and noticed a silhouette circling below. She rubbed her eyes. With them closed, she could see a slender bird shape etched into the multi-coloured patterns.
“Sammy! Will you get back in here?” Mehrak called out.
A flash of red burst up from the light. Sammy stumbled back from the railing and was floored by the down beat of a colossal pair of wings. The creature continued up past Eggie and into the sky. Dark crimson, the size of a small business jet with long, slender wings, a pelican-like beak and a pointed crest on the back of its head.
“A pterodactyl!” Sammy screamed.
It circled above, then aimed itself at her, stooping into a dive bomb.
“Get inside!” Leiss pushed past her and lashed out with his sword.
The pterodactyl pulled up and banked to the side.
Sammy ran into the tower. She crouched by the curtain and peered through the gap. Maybe she’d leave this one to Leiss. She’d taken out the crabman. She’d proven she was tough. Leiss could take it from here.
Leiss stood on the balcony, turning slowly, tracing the pterodactyl’s path with the tip of his sword. Every few revolutions, the flying lizard would cut across the stone bridge, snapping at Louis. Sammy stayed in the bedroom, watching through a crack in the curtain.
“What’s going on now?” Mehrak croaked from the bed. He lay on his back, eyes closed and right arm draped across his forehead.
“Leiss is protecting Louis from the pterodactyl.”
Mehrak sat up with a start. “It’s attacking Louis?”
“I thought you had broken ribs?”
Mehrak squirmed. “They feel a little better now,” he said.
“Go back to sleep. Leiss is protecting us. And we’re nearly at the temple.”
The temple took up the entire width of the mountaintop, but sat back from the bridge on the far side of the summit. Its rectangular base was three storeys high, built from sparkling white marble blocks, and had hundreds of narrow windows inlaid in blue and red decorative stone. Two huge, brass-plated doors, the size of aircraft hangar doors, sealed the entrance. They opened inwards a crack and two figures in long brown robes stepped out.
“The doors have opened!” Sammy called out.
The pterodactyl saw the movement too and turned sharply, propelling itself towards the temple with swept wings. The people backpedalled inside and the doors began to close.
The creature changed direction in an instant, banking, looping under the bridge and out the other side, soaring up into the sky again.
“Hey!” Leiss shouted. “Open the doors!” He stood at the edge of the balcony, waving his sword in the air. The doors stopped closing and two scared faces appeared in the gap.
“Open the doors!” he shouted again.
Crouching, Sammy edged out onto the balcony, shielding her head with her hands while checking for the pterodactyl. She turned 360 degrees, keeping her eyes on the sky. The churning purple cloud layer made it hard to see anything moving above, but eventually she spotted the pterodactyl weaving its way in and out of the smog tendrils.
“Get back in here!” shouted Mehrak.
“It’s coming back!” Sammy yelled as it broke away and dipped into a steep dive.
Leiss grabbed her hand and pulled her to the ground as the pterodactyl skimmed past on a rollercoaster dip, its feet clipping the balcony railing, denting the banister and fluttering the tower curtains. Then it was climbing again.
Louis left the bridge, accelerating into a sprint finish as he crossed the mountaintop, the cottage creaking under the strain. The temple doors were fast approaching, and although they hadn’t fully closed, they hadn’t fully opened either.
Louis didn’t slow. He crashed through the doors, throwing them open to smash against marble pillars on either side. Louis ploughed on into a colossal atrium under the dome. He staggered, then slumped to the ground, dropping Leiss and Sammy to the balcony floor.
Leiss was back on his feet in a flash. “Quick. Close the doors!” he yelled down to the brown robed men and women that had congregated around Louis.
“Now!” he shouted. “There’s a pterodactyl circling outside!”
Four of them ran for the doors.
They’d almost closed them when they were slammed open again, sending the priests flying. The pterodactyl came tumbling through the entrance, sliding across the polished granite floor, past Louis, and collapsing in a heap. It flailed on battered wings, screeching and snapping at the priests. Then it shook its head, launched itself from the floor and, in three big pulls of its wings, was on its way up into the dome.
The priests scattered in all directions, but not fast enough. The pterodactyl swooped down and snatched up a man in its feet, carrying him away into the air. It circled the dome twice, and made an attempt for the door.
Louis lurched back onto his feet and backed up to the entrance, blocking its escape and forcing it to wheel around at the last moment. It screamed and flew back into the dome.
“Get those doors closed!” Leiss shouted. “Or you’ll lose your friend to the Cataclysm!”
The priests scrambled for the doors, sliding two heavy bolts into place.
With the only escape route blocked, the pterodactyl came down, landing heavily on the polished granite in front of Louis, and knocking out the man in its feet.
Leiss ran into the tower as the pterodactyl hobbled forwards, dragging the unconscious priest along behind it, flapping its wings and screaming at Louis.
Then Leiss was back with something in his arms. He pointed it at the pterodactyl. There was a flash of steel, a thud, and the pterodactyl flew backwards. It landed awkwardly, sliding along the floor and coming to rest on its back, the tail end of a harpoon protruding from its chest.
The priests’ shocked faces darted from the pterodactyl to the balcony where Leiss stood at the railing, grinning broadly, as a single wisp of smoke unfurled from the barrel of the harpoon gun he held under his arm.