It was dark above the mushrooms. Shifting purple cloud patterns above made muddy brown waves on their curved surfaces. Their hoods suppressing the glow underneath, only allowing sharp spears of light to escape the gaps, spiking upwards towards the sky.
Sammy leant over the railing. Louis’s head was obscured by a mushroom but she could hear him noisily chewing on something below. Louis shifted then and the floor dipped. She stumbled and grabbed hold of the railing.
“You’ll get used to it,” Mehrak said, smiling.
Sammy let go of the railing, doing her best to downplay her moment of clumsiness. “Do you live here by yourself?” she asked, changing the subject.
Mehrak pulled at the hairline of his turban awkwardly and his eyes took on a vacant glassiness. “Currently. Yes,” he said.
She’d struck a nerve. She wished she hadn’t said anything. “It’s a great house,” she said, “… I mean cottage.”
Mehrak stared away, across the mushroom forest.
“Does everyone here have a gastrosaur cottage?”
“No.” Mehrak exhaled. “My wife and I were given it as a wedding present.” He turned away. Wife? Mehrak didn’t look old enough to be married. He could only have been around five years older than she was.
“I’ll go downstairs and make your soup.” He headed towards the tower.
“Why are you here?” Sammy asked. “In the forest I mean?”
Mehrak stopped. “I’m on an expedition,” he said. He had his back to her and didn’t turn round. “An expedition for… for a mythical artefact, a book. It’s silly, really. It probably doesn’t exist but…” He didn’t continue.
“But you must think it exists because you’re out here looking for it.”
Mehrak turned back towards her. “I never believed in it until my grandfather…” He stopped again. “No. It’s stupid.”
“Go on. Please?”
Mehrak smiled wistfully. “My grandfather was a historian. He spent most of his life travelling and we hardly ever saw him. He’d be gone for a year at a time, sometimes longer. Each time he came home he’d tell me of all the amazing adventures he’d had, all the places he’d seen.” Mehrak cast his eyes down. “But when he returned from his last trip, he had a wound across his chest. He’d tried to patch it up himself, but in the days it had taken him to get back to Dungalore it’d gone gangrenous. There was nothing anyone could do. I remember the day he died; I was only eight at the time. The doctor came to find me to pass on his final words, along with his diary. I was the only person he had a message for. There was nothing for my grandmother or my mother. He passed away with nothing to say to anyone, but me. Only four words, ‘The book is real.’”