A LATE ARRIVAL
His head was filled with a thousand crabmen chattering. Spiky shelled bodies crashing in, blocking the light from the forest and Cataclysm. Razor-sharp forearms slicing down and heavy, club-like claws trying to crush him. Hami batted each one away with his staff and blasted holes in their ranks with lightning bolts.
How many more could there be?
He couldn’t keep going much longer. He hadn’t slept in days. His body was weary, close to collapse, and he was getting slow. He’d already had a few sloppy near misses and was fighting on borrowed time.
Then the crabmen stopped attacking, and ran.
An overwhelming lethargy gripped Hami and dragged him to the floor. He dropped to one knee and put a hand to the ground to steady himself. Had they really given up so soon? He couldn’t quite believe it.
The crabmen stopped running and fanned out, forming a vast circle around the battlefield. They were over a stadion away, and in the half-light of the plain, appeared to be a solid wall right the way around Hami and his troops.
There were eleven Marzban left. Narok, Eva and Kelzar were the only faces he recognised. He wasn’t familiar with the others. Harz was still on his chariot, and he’d lost all but six men and two manticores.
They’d done well, relatively speaking. The surrounding area resembled a scrap yard of crabmen body parts. The infestation had lost many times the number Hami’s fighters had. Still, he could see
four dead Marzban and seven of Harz’s men from where he stood. The others were out there in the dark somewhere.
Narok approached on Indomit. The side of his turban was soaked in blood, but whatever injury he’d sustained didn’t seem to be distressing him overly. He nodded at Hami, then motioned at the crabmen and shrugged.
The chattering stopped. Hami hadn’t realised how loud it had been until it went quiet.
Three riderless karkadann milled around in the open, poking at dead crabmen, snorting. It was the only thing Hami could hear over his own breathing. He wanted to lie down where he knelt, to drift into a dreamless sleep; oblivion. It was almost all he could think about. He dragged a sleeve across his forehead. He couldn’t have lasted much longer. None of them could. He closed his eyes and waited for his heart rate to return to normal. He knew the crabmen would stay where they were. They were waiting.
As if possessing a single consciousness, the crabmen in front of the forest parted down the middle, forming a wide opening. The Marzban looked to each other nervously.
“Are they letting us go?” Narok asked.
Hami shook his head. “No.” He pointed to the sky over the forest.
Far off, skimming the mushroom canopies, a winged beast was coming. All eyes tracked it as it sailed closer with barely a movement of its wings. It dropped over the edge of the forest and swept along the crabman-bordered runway. It was a lava pterodactyl, the biggest Hami had ever seen, deep blood-clot-red, with a rider holding on to the beast’s crest. The rider was cloaked in shadow, too dark and too far off to see properly in the dim light, but Hami knew who it was.
The rider forced the pterodactyl’s head down into the ground, breaking the animal’s neck with a snap, and pitching himself into the air. A shiny black projectile clutching twin battle axes.
Hami flipped backwards as Ramaask slammed into the ground where he’d been standing a moment before. He completed his backward somersault, landing on his feet.
Ramaask rose up from the crater he’d made, dressed head to foot in thick, black, metal armour, while a physics-defying, dark red cloak floated behind him on a non-existent breeze. His helmet had three serrated ridges running from front to back, one in the centre like a dorsal fin and another on each side.
Ramaask raised the helmet’s visor up over his head. His face underneath was shiny-black and shimmering purple, the skin of which was pulled tight over his skull with no muscle or sinew underneath and no eyeballs in the sockets.
He stepped out of the crater. He towered head and shoulders above Hami, broad as a karkadann. His slender second set of arms slipped out from under his cloak. The right hung over his head like a stooped wing, the left had been reduced to a stump, with a splintered black bone protruding from the end.
The air around Ramaask rippled and contorted as he approached, as if he was walking through liquid. A pressure build-up was causing Hami’s head to pound and he staggered backwards, a thick fog enveloping his brain. Ramaask walked towards him, his hollow eye sockets gazing lifelessly on.
The Marzban edged forward, Narok at the front, leading with Indomit.
“Stay back!” Hami called.
None of Harz’s men had moved. They’d been paralysed where they stood, fear etched onto their faces.
“Good work leading us to them, Harz.” Ramaask’s voice was slow and calm, yet rasping like someone on the verge of death. He sucked in a rattling breath. “I had a feeling your treachery would benefit me somehow.”
Harz stared at Ramaask, trembling, his skin devoid of colour. The other ex-Order men were the same. Seven soon-to-be corpses,
all pallid and waxen. Hami imagined what must be going through their heads. All of them had seen what Ramaask was capable of. All had witnessed a thousand terrible deaths at his hands. A thousand possible ways they would be going to their own graves. Their eyes were pleading. For what? There would be no chance of redemption. A swift death, perhaps?
“Why are you doing this?” Ramaask asked.
Hami looked up at the nightmarish creature before him, then realised Ramaask was talking to him, not Harz, and Hami suddenly felt very foolish and had no answer to give.
Ramaask looked past Hami to the Fire Temple. “The girl is already inside?” There was an inflection of surprise in his voice.
“What girl?” Hami said.
Ramaask fixed his blank expression back on Hami. “Why are you magi so opposed to helping me? I may act in my own interests, but occasionally those interests benefit others.”
“How can murdering a young woman benefit anyone? Your crabmen were never sent to capture her. You’d planned to have her killed from the beginning.”
“I hadn’t. But then you brought her here and, by doing so, sealed her fate. You’ll never know the deed I do for Perseopia today. But that is only because you’ll be dead before it happens.” Then Ramaask raised an axe in the air and roared, “Kill them all!”
The crabmen rushed forward again, crashing over the Marzban.
Hami braced himself for the impact, but none came. The crabmen hit an invisible barrier and got no further. They clamoured around the wide, elliptical space that Hami found himself inside, screaming and beating on the barrier that sealed him from the outside world. They couldn’t get to him, but they didn’t need to. Ramaask was inside the enclosure too, watching him from the far end. He walked slowly towards Hami.
“I’ve not fought a top-tier magus for quite some time,” he said. “I do hope you’ll give me some sport before you die. At least then I won’t have come all this way for nothing.”
Hami let his staff drop to stomach height and released a roaring beam of lightning into Ramaask’s chest. Ramaask stood his ground but was slowly pushed backwards, his heels scraping through the sand as he strained against the beam. He let it continue a moment longer, then dug his claws in and thrust his chest out, firing the beam back at Hami.
It launched him backwards, and he came down hard, close to the edge of the invisible barrier, losing his staff as he hit the plain. Ramaask bared his long, thin teeth as he approached, the invisible bubble following him, pushing the crabmen further away from Hami.
“I’d hoped a magus with your reputation would put up more of a fight,” Ramaask said, and swung down a battle axe. With animal reflexes, Hami rolled to the side as the axe carved a trench into the desert. Hami snatched up his staff and gained his feet in time to catch the second axe with the staff. He collapsed to one knee.
Ramaask then began his assault in earnest.
Hami had never known anyone out-match him in a fight before, and Ramaask was doing it with ease. The power he could command was incredible. Hami was summoning all his strength and concentration just to defend himself. But even that wasn’t enough, and he was forced backwards.
“You’re struggling.” Ramaask said.
Hami couldn’t answer. It was taking all his attention to keep himself alive as the axes came down, each one a hair’s breadth from ending his life.
“You think you can hold me off long enough to save the girl.” Ramaask sounded smug. “Except I know something you don’t; I already have someone waiting for her on the inside. She’ll be dead before you are.”