The hollow sound
of dripping water roused Aldous as his eyelids opened to solid darkness. There
was a noise filling him, a sound he knew well, soft like rustling sheets of
paper, back and forth, in and out. The words came to him. Breathing, breath,
He made to raise himself up but stopped on impulse, not knowing what pains waited, not knowing why he expected these pains, or how he had come to be in this cold and heavy blackness. As he stared at the shining black ceiling above him through eyes clouded with confusion he remembered everything with a sudden jolt of clarity.
I've been shot… Redwood is ruined… Dylan is dead.
He tried to shout out – a wordless cry he heard in his mind – but his throat was parched, his tongue rough and swollen, harsh with the tang of blood. He ground his teeth and steeled himself for the pain from the buckshot wounds as he tried to lever himself up, grimacing in expectation, but felt nothing save the strain of his muscles. The sharp stabbing pains did not come, nor was there any sensation out of the ordinary, nothing that sat well alongside his memory. As he tried to shake off his confusion he looked down and saw the dark stain on his shirt, confirming what he remembered. Why then did he feel nothing? Why when he moved his hand across the wound was the skin smooth and unblemished?
He remembered the jolt of pain as the buckshot had ricocheted into his eye and reached up to find the rough material of an eye-patch but could not bring himself to remove it for fear of what he might find, or what further damage his shaking fingers might wreak. He looked around as best he could, half expecting to see members of an ambulance crew, but there was no one, no sound save his own shallow breathing, nothing in the silent gloom to indicate that anyone had made it through the rubble. But that, he knew, was impossible. If he was wearing an eye-patch it followed there would be someone there when he regained consciousness, some smiling face or other telling him everything was going to be fine. Even as he thought this he began to doubt that it was possible – it would take the emergency services days to even begin to move through what was left of the house, maybe weeks before the old stone stairwell was found, if he was lucky. Even if the passage he had uncovered had remained free, would anyone ever think to come this way, to write Aldous off as anything but dead? He was sure he had heard the house collapsing in those final moments, rock and earth compacting in the tunnels and caverns above, saw the cloud of dust race across the room like a squadron of ghosts If the pressure had made it this far that meant the tunnels would be blocked, some of them at least, the path he had followed trapped beneath rock and earth and rubble. It could take months to find a way through that, years even. Impossible, he knew, as he weighed it all up that anyone would find them in time, never mind the fact that he should be wearing an eye-patch, but he couldn’t deny the truth of it as the edge of the material scratched across his cheek, the small knot on the band at the back of his head pressing into him.
Someone was here.
The sound of light footsteps pulled him from his conflicting thoughts and he turned to see a blur of white by the opening in the cube, an impossible sight that almost sent him back to darkness.
“Dylan? Is that...” he mumbled. “No it can’t… I saw… you were… you were. I saw it, Dylan. I saw it.” The point Aldous was trying to convey was clear in his head – I watched you die, Dylan. You’re dead – but he could not argue with the cold hard fact of the boy, cheeks coloured, smiling as he reached out a hand towards him.
“I’m fine, Aldous,” the boy said softly in the darkness. “We’re both fine.”
Aldous wondered why the boy sounded so calm, so level, how he could’ve shrugged off all that had happened before. Wonder about it was all he could do for his mind seemed to be closing down, shutting off the world outside as though in fear that it might overload, the truth of the boy stood in front of him almost too much to bear. Aldous welcomed the warm and fuzzy sensation, the encroaching darkness. Perhaps he would wake up and this would all have been a dream, he would find himself drunk in the stairwell at Redwood, collapsed beside a pile of bricks with the bottle rolling on the ground beside him. And if that didn’t work he would go to sleep again and again until everything was as before.
His last thought before sleep claimed him was that the air in the chamber was fresh and that he couldn’t smell any smoke from the fire that had surely gutted the house.
Memories of times long-gone flitted away from Aldous’ thoughts as his eyes opened and slowly focussed on the pale form standing on the earth outside the cube.
It hadn’t been a dream. The boy was alive!
Aldous fought the rising tide of motion in his gut and gazed around the chamber through the opening in the cube, plunged back into disbelief, wondering why the space felt odd, why the shape of the room was different than what he remembered, subtle changes in the curve of the floor or the distance of a wall. He was sure there had been more stalactites and stalagmites, more roots grasping towards the cube, but the pieces were not coming together in his mind and he supposed that, in the shock of what had gone before, his memory was playing tricks. After all, from what he could remember, he had died, and if he remembered dying so clearly yet still lived, how could he hope to work through the lesser problems when his memory was so obviously at fault?
Yet he could not discount his worries as he crawled on his knees from the opening. The cavern was smaller, thinner, more elongated and the stone of the walls looked different from the pale limestone he remembered, darker in shade, more volcanic. Even the air had a different taste, a purer taste, untainted by the cloud of dust that had marched across the cavern, by the noxious smoke from the burning building far above.
Aldous stood up gingerly, unsure of the strength of his legs, moving his hand once again to his stomach in expectation and the motion once again proving needless.
“I was shot and I can’t feel anything,” he said to the boy. Something clicked into place as he spoke. Dylan was shot. You saw it. Where are his wounds? “How long was I out for? What happened to those men? I saw you…where is… why…” The questions spilled out in a muddled torrent, each more urgent than the last.
“Please, not yet,” Dylan said as he took Aldous’ by the arm and led him through the gloom to the stairwell at the far end of the chamber. “Catch your breath, then I’ll take you from here and show you everything.”
Aldous was spellbound as he followed Dylan away from the cube and across the dusty floor of the chamber towards the spot where he had watched the boy die, struggling with his freshly-broken boundaries between reality and falsehood. Working through the pieces in his mind, he tried to fit recent events into a pattern, for he was sure there must’ve been a moment when everything had been as it seemed. He could remember being drunk as he worked at the bricked-up passages in the clinging cold of the ancient stairwell, could remember the boy from his dreams at the door of Redwood and the men running on his heel, the jolt of fear as the strangers broke into the house, as the Luger dropped from his grip, the burning pain as the buckshot burst first into his stomach and then his eye. He could remember all these things and knew they were as real as anything he had ever lived. How then could he also remember other things – clinging blackness, breath wheezing, blood and life seeping out of him – and still be alive? How could Dylan be walking in front of him after the shotgun blast had all but ripped him in two? It seemed there had been a point, somewhere below ground, where the truth had been lost and Aldous was no longer sure what to think.
Dreaming, of course. I must be dreaming.
With every second it became clearer to Aldous that this was all in his head, that his body was lying unconscious somewhere below Redwood, or comatose in a hospital bed, nothing after the gunshot that had ricocheted into his eye having any truth outside his mind. But he could not deny that there was something so vital about the place in which he found himself: the dust that crumbled from the ceiling, the roughness of the stone beneath him, the sense of weight in his limbs, even the air, tinged with a dozen different scents that couldn’t be imagined. A voice inside screamed that – of course – the chamber was real, the child was real, all of this was undeniably real, yet screamed at the same time that he had seen Dylan killed, had felt his own life slip away: both sides equally real yet impossible together. Perhaps it was best to think that if he closed his eyes for a while he would awake somewhere else. Nothing else made sense other than madness, chemicals in his brain revolting against him, turning his thoughts to mush.
“What’s going on?” Aldous spat as he found his tongue, suddenly angry with the boy. His words sounded wild in the darkness, maddened almost. He took a deep breath to steady himself as the river of conflicting thoughts swam by, realising he couldn’t see any sign of the trail of blood he had surely left on his way to the cube. The dried blood was all over him – confirming what he remembered – so why would it not be on the ground which he’d crawled across?
The boy dragged him onward.
“I don’t understand what’s happening, Dylan,” he said as he pulled his arm free. “You came to my house as if you know me, as if you’d chosen me. You led those men to me as if you are playing some cruel game, destroy the only thing on this earth I have left, the thing I’ve waited my whole life for, then I … Oh, I don’t know...all this and you want me to…”
“I’m sorry,” Dylan interrupted. “I’m sorry you’re angry but that’s not my fault. I’ll explain as best I can as soon as we’ve left here.”
The boy was holding something back; Aldous could read it in the lines of his face. “Left here?” he echoed. “I can’t imagine us doing that, well, at least until someone makes it through the rubble, which might be a long time coming.” The truth that they may yet die here reared its head. Die again, came the thought, discarded instantly, too heavy to dwell upon. “This can’t be happening,” Aldous said. “I can’t be alive. You can’t be alive.” He ran his hands roughly through his matted hair, soaked pink with his own blood, a manic glint in his uncovered eye. “You had an eye-patch with you for Christ’s sake. It’s as if... as if...”
“When you saw me for the first time your eyes flared,” Dylan said.
Aldous’ tirade was stilled for a moment as he remembered. “I saw you in... in a dream.”
“And you’ve never laid eyes on me before that, or spoke of me with anyone?”
“And you didn’t know I was coming?”
Aldous shook his head. The questions weren’t right, didn’t help.
“Then you’ll have to wait.” Dylan turned away to walk off towards the stairwell, and added, almost as an afterthought, “Trust me.”
Aldous was sure now that something else was going on. The dream in Tiwanaku of the boy at Redwood had been much more than it appeared, for Dylan seemed to know he had walked in the dream, had known those two words would stick with the old man. Aldous gathered himself and walked after Dylan, trying not to think of anything.
As they made their way up the stairwell – free of rubble and much wider than Aldous remembered – a vast hollow sound began to assail them, growing clearer with each turn. Aldous could take the helplessness no more and pushed past Dylan, eager to find out what waited above, hoping Redwood had not been totally razed, hoping there would be something left with which he could rebuild.
He faltered and fell to his knees as he reached the top of the stairwell. Where the tunnels should be was a jagged cavern melting off into inky blackness, as though a great emptiness had opened in the earth and swallowed Redwood. But, he realised instantly, he could see no sky. He crawled forward on the narrow shelf of rock and glanced down into the pitchy void, thinking that surely these caverns couldn’t go any deeper. The darkness was complete but it felt as though he was standing on the edge of everything, that the cavern did really go on forever. He shuddered. His memories of the final sprint were of winding, narrow tunnels with walls that seemed to burst out towards him. Where were they? Had the whole series of tunnels collapsed at some point? Or had Dylan led him through some other stairwell, a path to some other cavern below the forest?
Vertigo tugged at his senses as he took in the vastness of the sight and he crawled back to the safety of the stairwell, breathing heavily as he tried to stop the shaking in his hands. He crouched down and inched forward until he could peer out again across the empty pitch-black space, to verify it was true more than anything. He could smell running water, he realised, hear it rippling below. The sound brought a flush of saliva to his mouth as he turned to see Dylan emerging from the stairwell. Again, his questions were muddled, his voice broken.
“What in the name of… Where have… Where is this?”
“Somewhere else,” Dylan said as he sat down on the bare stone floor, crossing his legs. “I don’t know where. Not yet.”
“Not yet?” Aldous spat.
“Sit down,” the boy said. “We don’t have much time and I can only tell you so much.”
As Aldous came to the floor, Dylan took a deep breath and began. “I don’t know much about me, about who I am or where I’m from, so I’ll tell you what I know about you, about your past, as I don’t know how much you know already.” The blank look Aldous offered was proof that he knew of nothing in his past that could have led to this. He was beginning to wish he had never found the key, had never made the choice to smash open those bricked-up passages. But that saved me, he remembered. Gave me somewhere to run.
“You are very important, Aldous,” the boy continued. “Your past, the past of your family, means so much. If not for your hatred of your father this might have been so different.”
“Did you know my fa..” He still found the word hard to say. “Did you know him?”
“Yes… and no. Not as I should have, not as I was meant to.”
Aldous shook his head, at a loss. “What does that even mean? Is this all something to do with him? Some kind of… some…”
Aldous knew he was grasping at straws and gave the question up.
Dylan sighed. “I met your father for the first time on the night he died. He fell down the stairwell, stumbled and fell before I could do anything. I came to find him but instead I’ve been led to you. Maybe it could’ve been different, maybe he could’ve told you what you’d inherit once he was gone. But he didn’t. That was the choice he made.”
Aldous didn’t know what to say. He had words aplenty but no way to get them out. Every singled word the boy spoke sounded utterly insane.
“He wasn’t the man you thought he was, you know. Everything he did, everything you hate him for was driven by...” Dylan waved his hand to the left and right. “All this.”
Darkness, Aldous thought. Just darkness.
“Perhaps, if you were in his shoes you would understand why he made certain choices. Perhaps you would have done just as he had.”
He knows about the boy. “You mean… how do you…”
“Your father did kill that boy – I’m sure you knew this already – but not for any reason you could understand. You shouldn’t hate him for it. He didn’t do it for himself.”
Aldous had no response to offer (the words were so strange, so fantastic), so Dylan continued. “It was blood he needed, my blood. That’s how you open the Gateway. That was how we came here – you and I, dying together. I can only guess he didn’t know what he was meant to do. Or maybe he just couldn’t muster the strength to take his own life and so breach the opening by joining their lives, and deaths, together. If he’d known this the boy would have lived; they would have found themselves here.”
“And the others,” Aldous said softly. “Did he kill the others?”
Dylan shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. But that isn’t important now. Your story started long before any of this. In the last days of October 1307 a ship sailed from La Rochelle into the Atlantic Ocean, a ship manned by fleeing Templars, never to be seen again. In the weeks before, a single man had set out from half a world away to find this ship, fleeing from the men who had killed everyone he loved, driven by something he couldn’t understand, by the secrets that came from a gift bestowed upon him. That man was Cassius Finaeus.”
The figure in the painting rushed into Aldous’ mind, the proud eyes, the slight smile – the one shining light in his family’s lineage. This all started with him?
“Your ancestor, Aldous. Your blood. He carried out his part in finding Redwood. The others who came after played theirs, whether for right or wrong. All those years searching below ground, carving out passages, chipping away… It was only their human weaknesses, their wishes of power and greatness that meant each man kept the secret to himself. Perhaps if your father and you had not drifted apart you could have prepared for this.”
“Prepared for… prepared for what?”
“I don’t know. The key will show us.”
The key will show us? “But those men took the key from you,” Aldous said. They were the only words he could find. “I saw them.”
“No, they took a key,” Dylan said with a satisfied grin. He reached into a pocket and removed a bundle of cloth wrapped in string.
Aldous could see it now as Dylan held the package aloft, the key separated from his skin by the cloth. He wondered why it was held like that, as though something unwanted would happen were he to touch it proper. Aldous had touched it. It was just a key, nothing more.
Dylan’s next words were so ludicrous that Aldous nearly laughed aloud.
“Your world isn’t the only one. There are others occupying the same space, beyond sight but closer than you can imagine.” Dylan reached out to stroke the air. “I have felt this place so many times before – my world, the world from which I came. It waits for me… for us outside this pocket of rock. But you’ll see soon, when my people come. Then you’ll have no choice but to believe.”
The statement hung in the air as Aldous looked for one word he could voice against this madness, for madness is exactly what it was.
A new noise echoed from the void below, demanding their attention. It sounded like a voice, a muted yell. Someone was down there. The men, a part of Aldous cried, but he discounted that thought immediately. They were in the stairwell when it crumbled. Then: This isn’t even the same place, Aldous, remember? You’re in another world. You and the boy died in some magical Gateway and came back to life in another world. A wide smile split his face. Jesus Christ, I must be losing my mind.
“Someone will be coming through the Gateway,” Dylan said, “and we don’t want to be here when they come. All this’ll be for nothing if we don’t leave now.”
“Sure,” Aldous said with a blank look, though he had never felt less sure of anything. He had a thousand questions and for all he knew the devil himself was coming through the Gateway – that thought seemed just as plausible as any other.
“How do you feel?”
“How do I feel?” Aldous said with a short laugh. What a bloody question. “Like I don’t exist. Like I’m going to fall to pieces any minute. Like I’m the butt of some sick joke you and the rest of the damn world dreamed up. I feel like turning on my heel and grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and making you… bloody making you take me back…” He shrugged and ran a hand through his matted hair, blinking away the threat of tears. “But I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t know how.”
Dylan couldn’t blame Aldous for his reactions and wished there was something he could say to make it better. He knew he’d be angry if he’d been the one kept in the dark, used like this – it was all that could be expected. He spoke slowly and clearly, never breaking the old man’s gaze.
“I promise you, Aldous, that I’ll do my best to make this clear as soon as we’ve reached safety, whatever I can, but first – right now – we have to find a way out of here.”
Aldous slumped to the floor as Dylan turned and ran back into the stairwell. The whole thing was impossible to think about. He felt beyond himself, thoughts drifting from one unanswerable to another. Moments later, though it could have been hours for all Aldous knew, Dylan returned carrying a battered leather satchel and a small wooden chest. Aldous recognised the latter. It was an ancient-looking thing, medieval, short bars of oak held by thick steel clasps, the frontispiece sealed with an iron crest bearing the Finaeus family coat of arms – a stunted olive tree on a field of dark red. Aldous realised then that Dylan’s words were true – this solid object from the world he knew confirmed it. His father was some part of this madness, all the Finaeus men, going right back to Cassius were a part of it, and that meant Aldous was part of it. He turned away and bit hard on his lip, almost drawing blood, picturing his father cast under a new light, warped and broken by a burden Aldous was only now being introduced to.
A sound drifted up from below – movement, heavy grinding. A hint of wind rose up the walls and licked across him as the sound diminished. And there was light too, he saw, the merest smudge breaking up the darkness from somewhere below.
Dylan moved to the edge and whistled into the abyss, a single sharp note. He held up his hand and cocked his head. Seconds later the whistle was returned.
Aldous felt his heart jump. Someone’s down there. Waiting. “Who is it?” he muttered.
“A friend,” Dylan said, then added rather ominously: “I hope.”
Aldous rubbed his fingers around the rim of his eye-sockets, trying not to scream.
“The men who killed us didn’t work alone.” Killed us, Aldous thought starkly. Killed us. “They were working for another, and I worry they’ll learn how to work the Gateway, if they haven’t already. Maybe they knew – whoever leads them knew – before they came here. If that’s the case, they could be here in minutes, and they probably won’t be alone.” Aldous pictured an army, a huge crowd out to kill him and the boy. He tried not to imagine what would need to happen, the blood that would need to be shed for them to get here in the manner Dylan had described.
“We have to go down,” Dylan said as he pointed to the shadow beyond the jagged cliff edge that Aldous thought could be ten feet or ten miles deep.
“And how might we do that?” Aldous asked as he peered over the edge, thinking it was foolhardy to go anywhere until he had regained a modicum of control, which might be a very long time in coming.
Dylan looked around the ground at his feet, picked up a small stone and dropped it over the edge. Not much more than two seconds later there was a muted splash. “We can climb or we can jump. But we have no rope and it’s dark. It’s up to you.”
“We stay here,” Aldous said with more certainty than he felt.
“If we stay here, we die.”
Suddenly Aldous was past caring. He didn’t even think to ask how Dylan knew the water would be deep enough, didn’t know if it even mattered. Maybe that’s what I need to do to stop this. “Well, if I have a choice, I suppose we jump.”
Aldous was imagining the moment when he would hit the water and wake from this lucid, fevered dream, burst back into life in a hospital bed, Wolfgang and Rita waiting for him. Yet at the same time he knew that, if he were to hit the water and still, when he surfaced, find himself here, he would have no reason to disbelieve.
“We have to slow them down,” Dylan said as he took the chest from Aldous. He opened the lid, reached inside and pulled a few sticks of dynamite free, holding them up and inspecting them as though they were some valuable antique.
“Dynamite! Is that real?”
Dylan nodded and reached into his pocket. “As real as these matches,” he said as he rattled the tiny box. “Now, if this works we’ll have no more than ten seconds to jump or we’re dead…” he smiled, “really dead this time.”
Aldous nodded blindly as Dylan sealed the satchel inside the chest and threw it over the cliff edge. He was thinking on those words. Really dead this time. Suddenly the hopes that he would wake were dwindling. What does the boy know? He’s only a figment of my imagination anyway. He heard the splash below and began to chuckle, the sound coming unbidden.
Seconds later the boy had wedged one stick of dynamite into a crack in the ceiling, lit the wicks of both, and threw the other down the stairwell. He turned and ran to the lip, reaching out for Aldous. They jumped off the edge in unison, dropping hand in hand through blackness as thick as tar as the sound of Aldous’ maddened laughter skittered around the cavern walls.
Aldous knew as soon as he hit the water – as soon as the cold flooded through him – that this was no dream, that he had been stupid even to think it. The splash of falling rocks peppered the water from above as he held himself tense, waiting for some massive rock to drive him to the bottom. When a few seconds passed and it did not come, he pushed upwards.
Aldous broke the surface and saw the chest bobbing nearby, the only thing he could make out in the darkness. He reached out and clung to it, hoping it would hold the water at bay, for he fancied there were answers inside. Dylan’s head appeared a few feet away just as Aldous was beginning to worry. He took a deep breath as he paddled over to the boy, grimacing at the loud splashing as he remembered there was someone down here. Dylan moved a finger to his mouth then pointed to his front, to a pasty circle of light a hundred feet or so away. It had been hidden from view on the platform from which they had jumped but was visible now – a circle of grey against the black.
Dylan moved off and Aldous began to follow, swimming until the ground levelled out beneath him. In no time at all the boy had all but vanished from sight – the sudden light to their front making the blackness here seem even thicker, drawing up thoughts of a million eyes peering from the darkness. The eye-patch didn’t help matters, and now it was sodden, pressing against his ruined eye with a dull ache that Aldous couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining.
Dylan stopped suddenly and grabbed Aldous’ arm. “There,” he hissed.
As Aldous looked up a dark shape detached from the wall to their front and stepped into the light, a tall form cloaked in darkness. Aldous froze and gripped the boy tight as the figure disappeared for a moment beyond the other side of the circle, the sound of some switch being flicked followed by a deep gurgle as the pool behind them began to empty.
“My friend,” the stranger called as he stood with arms outstretched. His voice sounded like the very fibre of the mountain, crumbling and ancient. The light from outside painted a silver halo around him as he filled the doorway. “Talos? Is that really you?”
Dylan felt his knees quiver. That name – Talos – felt like a bolt of heat in his heart, full of meaning he couldn’t understand. The figure took a step forward and the brightness dimmed. “Come, now. Come out from the water. It is I, Lemistat. I have come for you, Talos, as I said I would, as I promised.”
The same sensation struck Dylan as he heard the names – Talos, Lemistat. A pang of loss almost, an indefinable pull. The names felt heavy, sending his thoughts spinning. Some part of him knew those names intimately, but the memories linked to them he simply could not recall. With Aldous holding his arm as though it was all there was left, Dylan took a few steps forward as the water began to recede.
“Come closer, into the light,” Lemistat said as he shuffled forward, stooping over as he moved. “Come closer so I can be sure my aged mind is not playing tricks.”
Dylan noticed the blade against the stranger’s cowl and, as though the man in the light had read his thoughts, he loosed his belt and the sword clattered to the floor. Dylan took another step forward but held back from going too close, ready to turn and run if needs be, to fight if he must. “You… you’re expecting me?” he asked.
The shadowed man nodded and stepped forward. “I have been expecting you since the day you left.” A strange sound escaped him as he took the boy in. Aldous thought it was a sob. “Forgive me,” Lemistat said as he gathered himself. “I must control myself.”
“You talk as if you know me but I can’t remember you,” Dylan said, his voice barely a whisper. “I don’t even know why I’m here, or where here is.”
Lemistat nodded as though he had expected this. “We were companions once, a long time ago, before the world changed.” He pointed to Aldous and bowed his head almost imperceptibly. “You have brought the one promised to us. And here; here is home. Here is where you belong.”
Dylan’s words were answered but he didn’t feel any better for it He had expected to meet with someone, another who had fulfilled a purpose such as he had, but still he was wary of the shadowed man, something inside flaring – whether danger or resurging memory he could not tell.
Lemistat took another step forward. “I could speak to you of our days before the world turned but I feel they would be just stories to you, times beyond your memory. I could tell you of the terror when the Darkness came to our land. I could speak of the dark night when we came into this world, moments apart – you, your brother and I, joined in that brief interlude, chosen by the stars. But that was then and all of it is gone. I could speak of all I have done since you left; of shunning the city that took me in when the Turning came, of finding this place as the words of the old ones foretold, freeing it from the mountain with my own hands as evil blighted the land. I could speak of much more but those parts of my story would be as unknown to you as yours would be to me.”
Every word hit Dylan like a hammer blow as fractured memories came flooding back, locked away for so long in a place beyond his reach. He could see Lemistat now, the boy he once knew and had forgotten. They were in a dark room, a band of sunlight streaming through a narrow window. There was three wooden beds by the far wall, toys spread about the floor, carved statues with enigmatic faces, steel throwing hoops, wooden swords and brightly-painted shields. There was another person in the space, a person he could sense but not see, for the memory was little more than a fragment. My brother. There were blanks too, and plenty of them, but he knew – or at least hoped – more would come, in time.
But that this ancient stooped man hidden in the shadows was the child he knew seemed impossible. “How… how long have I been gone?” he asked.
“Too long. So long.”
Dylan’s eyes were finally beginning to pierce through the shadow and make out Lemistat’s features. Expectation bubbled inside him. When he focussed on the slowly revealing visage, piecing the parts together like a jigsaw, he was struck by what he found. There was something of this old and hoary man and the child in his thoughts that were one and the same.
“More years have passed than I known,” Lemistat continued as a host of bubbles surged through the diminishing waters in the cavern, “A hundred and fifty winters I would guess. It was so easy to lose count as the years sped on. Black years all of them, empty years filled with silence, years spent alone freeing the Gateway, holding this ground and waiting. But my punishment is that I can never know what will come, for I can never leave this prison that has poisoned me with too many thoughts yet kept me alive at the same time.” He paused and took another faltering step. “I fear for our kin, Talos. For a long time I knew that blood still flowed in the land, that some had survived. Once, I could feel them in the air, in the rock, feel their thoughts reaching out to me. Not now; now there is nothing, nothing but the blight.”
Dylan’s mouth gaped as he tried to make sense of it. If the words were true, if no one was here to guide him then Dylan was lost, and he couldn’t believe that.
“Someone is following us.”
“I know. I can feel them.”
They were within a few feet of Lemistat now, close enough to see the whites of his eyes beneath the hooded cowl, close enough to see the multitude of lines that etched his ancient face, close enough for the old man to lay his rheumy eyes on Dylan properly for the first time, to drink in the sight he had waited lifetimes for.
He removed his hood and a paper-thin smile cut across his face as he reached out to touch the boy, running a calloused fingertip across a strand of hair. “It is you. It really is,” Lemistat wept as he sunk to his knees, the creak of his bones echoing like crackling tinder. He reached out and took Dylan’s hand in his own with the touch of old leather, handing the boy something that Aldous couldn’t see. “This is all I have of you. I only wish we had more time.” His shoulders stooped then, as though some long-held weight had been lifted, and the last remains of the water gurgled loudly through the opening at the base of the pool.
There were questions Dylan wanted to ask but his tongue would not move, captivated as he was by the sickly thing the old man had placed in his hand.
Lemistat turned away and pulled a small glowing object from his cloak and placed it into a niche in the cavern wall where it pulsed and flared. The burgeoning glow began to spread upwards, painting the bare walls with a burning orange radiance, revealing the splendour of the cavern around them as the molten glow seeped into the thousand-fold grooves and channels spread across the walls like a great luminous spider web.
“They will come,” Lemistat intoned. “If our kin yet live, they will come.”
The sight of the molten glow was magical, and Aldous might have stared in wonder had he cared to turn his gaze towards it, but he could not look anywhere but at the old man's face. It was changing before his eyes, drying up like aged parchment, pulling back across the bones of the skull as the man let out a long, drawn-out sigh. Aldous stared in shock, watched as the years progressed impossibly before him, as the pearl-white motes of skin and bone lost their bonds with one another and drifted like falling stars to the floor. Within seconds, all that remained was a pile of dust and the filthy cowl where the man had stood moments before.
Dylan saw none of this. He was staring at the object in his hand.
Aldous, dumbstruck by all that had happened, moved over to the boy. “What is it?”
“Something is wrong. Very wrong,” Dylan said as he gathered himself and shrugged away the threat of tears, putting the object in his pocket.
He grabbed Aldous by the arm, leading him towards the doorway and the thick mists that waited outside, past the pile of dust that the breeze was sculpting across the floor.
“We must leave. This place isn’t safe.”
Aldous shook the water from his hair and beard and looked through the doorway from the cavern to the greyness outside as Dylan spoke.
“I was born somewhere in this place,” the boy said. “Somewhere out there is my home but I feel… I don’t know, disconnected, like I don’t really know what to do here. It’s as if… as if… it’s hard to explain. I think I feel like you do; a stranger.” He slumped down against the wall at the doorway and closed his eyes, drumming the fingers of one hand against his forehead as if he could coax the memories from within.
Aldous noticed the boy’s other fist was still tightly-clenched. “What did he give you?”
Dylan uncurled his fingers and threw the item to the floor by the doorway. It was a scrap of flesh, perhaps the size of a penny, brown and puckered, trailing a few dozen brittle black hairs.
“I don’t understand.”
Dylan reached up and pulled his hair away from the right side of his head. There was a pale scar there, a perfect patch of smooth skin, perhaps the size of a penny. “Me neither.”
The boy turned suddenly and moved off into the cavern, leaving Aldous to wonder whether the sounds he heard as Dylan walked away were tears. It dawned on him that perhaps the boy was as scared as he.
As the sound of Dylan's footsteps receded, Aldous began to cautiously explore his surroundings. As he walked forwards on the bare rock, wind tugged at his body and blew strands of hair across his face, sticking in pointed shards to his wet skin. He was at a much higher altitude than he had imagined when they had first emerged from the cave. The air was cool and thin and he was sure he had seen clouds through breaches in the thick wall of fog that pressed tight against him. A jolt of panic passing through him, he moved back to the wall and waited, biting his bottom lip to stop his teeth from chattering, allowing the machinations of his tired mind to work through the madness of its own accord.
Presently he heard the sound of Dylan’s running footsteps and was about to speak when he saw the grave look on Dylan’s face.
“They’re here,” the boy said. “I can feel them. We must leave now.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Aldous nodded. “That’s exactly what I want, to leave this place and go back to how it was before.”
“It can’t be like it was before, Aldous. I can’t take you back.”
Aldous felt as though a spear had been thrust through him. How could Dylan know how to bring him to this place but not how to take him back?
“I’ve known for most of my life what would happen last night,” the boy said as he saw Aldous’ shock, “that in finding you I would be going to my death. But as for what happens now that we’re here, I’ve no idea.”
“I…” Aldous started, but Dylan cut him off.
“I know that I’m the reason you’re alive and you’re the reason that I’m alive. Think about it. If either of us had died anywhere but at the Gateway then everything would be over. Those men would have found us regardless, someone would have found us, and then everything would be over. And you can be sure they’ll find you again if they must. Now they know who you are and next time, for I’m sure there’ll be a next time, we might not have a Gateway to save us.”
He pulled the key from his pocket and removed the wrappings. “It’s this. They want this, need this. This is all that matters.”
So that was the truth of it – to go back they would have to die, again. Aldous reached out to grab the key as the boy spoke. He was going to tell Dylan to give it to the men if that was all they really wanted, beg to boy to give them the blasted key and make all this madness stop, but the moment his hand touched the key everything changed.
Suddenly he was somewhere else, lying flat on his back in heavy darkness, rough stone beneath him. Dylan and the fog were gone. The key was gone, the ghost of it still warm in his hand, a hand he could not even see.
There was flickering light like the flame of lone candle piercing through the darkness from somewhere far away, dancing like a firefly. The light grew larger as he watched, flickering closer, dancing like a phantom until it was upon him. He became aware of the space around him as the light grew; became aware of the blank eyes through which he looked, eyes that were not his own, eyes that felt cold and useless, ignoring his need to take in what lay around him.
A figure stepped into his line of sight, detaching from the heavy shadows to his left. Aldous screamed but the sound was only in his own head.
The man was dressed in tattered furs that hung from his emaciated frame, his torso painted in great interlocking swirls of blue and red, every inch of skin coated in a filthy sheen of sweat and smoke as though he had spent half a lifetime in this dark and secret place. The man was smiling as he looked into and through the cold pools of Aldous’ eyes, seeing not a hint of the terror Aldous so clearly felt in this odd paralysis.
The figure knelt down and held his hands out of Aldous’ line of sight, moving them as though he were some master craftsman, shaping and forming. Aldous thought he could feel what was happening, could feel the ghost of movement inside him but did not want to entertain the thought of what it might mean. He tried to close his eyes but could not.
Other figures moved out the shadows now as the man kneeling over him brought his hands back to where Aldous could see them. The hands were covered in blood – Aldous’ blood; the blood from the body he inhabited that was not his own. The flickering glow of the fire painted the faces of the men in stark contrasts of black and orange, skewed and terrifying to Aldous’ eyes, each of them burning with purpose yet somehow vacant, as though all Aldous could see were the shells. He moved his eyes from face to face, straining to lift his head, to move his body, but it was to no avail.
He felt a hand beneath his head, a strong grip lifting him slowly up, heard words he could not understand, clouded as though from a great distance. The strength suddenly came to lift his hands and he glanced down upon them – small, grubby hands, the skin soft and free of the marks of the years; the hands of a child. A wave of apprehension rose within Aldous as he took in the body below. It was the naked body of a young boy, coated in filth and blood, a great stitched incision running from gut to gullet, crude medical implements glinting red in the firelight.
In moments he was on his feet and the crowd of figures stepped back, something like fear in their eyes as they bowed to the floor. Only one remained – the man who had fixed him, who had made everything better. The wild-eyed man moved forward. He was carrying an object in his smoke- and blood-stained hands which he raised in front of Aldous’ face – a polished piece of glass no more than a few inches across.
Aldous was removed from his own body yet he somehow knew that his heart leapt in the moment he saw the reflection. The face staring back was one he knew, changed by the years between then and now, but one he knew all the same. The eyes were different though. The eyes he knew were bright and blue but there was a heavy darkness lurking in the twisted reflection of these other eyes, a darkness which Aldous knew he could not forget.
Staring out from the mirror, the twisted face of Dylan smiled.
Aldous’ eyes snapped open to find Dylan still talking, the words coming to his ears as a muddled jumble. He glanced down himself, to his hands, to his filthy suit, and sighed to realise that he was himself again. It was clear that Dylan knew nothing of what Aldous had just experienced, clearer still that his long minutes in that dark and filthy place had happened in no more than a moment. His heart was racing and he felt icy beads of sweat drip down his back. Aldous knew he should be scared, knew the strange vision and the boy before him made no sense, absolutely no sense, but his thoughts were dragged away to the scene behind Dylan, revealed as the fog melted away with the emergence of the sun, and he was glad for a reason to turn away, to forget everything that had just happened.
They were stood on a narrow shelf of rock high on the side of a mountain, the range curling away to unseen distance on either side. A vast forest sloped away into a deep bowl a thousand feet and more below him, mile upon mile of tightly packed trees. Far in the distance the browns and blacks of the canopy muted and faded, melting into an orange-grey haze that seeped through the high pass of a distant mountain range, a vast sun that seemed to fill the sky with strands of quicksilver blazing beyond. Here and there a bird drifted on updrafts, a cloud crept out from behind the mountain, snaking turns of a river glinted in the rising sun. Aldous had no idea how long he stared at the panorama but after a time he realised there were tears in his eyes.
Dylan moved in beside him and saw the tears on Aldous’ cheeks.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” Dylan said softly.
Aldous had forgotten for a moment but there was no hiding the truth of it now.
Dylan grabbed Aldous’ arm, his eyes fervent – so similar yet so different to the foul eyes Aldous remembered from those dark moments before. “What was it? What did you see?”
“I need you here with me, Dylan,” Aldous said after a moment, as if that would satisfy the boy. “I trust you.”
“But what did you see?”
Aldous was gripped with confusion. With his own eyes he had watched Dylan die in the inky caverns below Redwood. He could smell the tang of cordite fresh in his memory, could see the white flash lighting up the chamber, could hear the gurgle of Dylan’s final breaths. And yet, the child was alive, standing before him. It followed that the child had come to Aldous’ world in much the same way, giving up his life or having it taken from him. And now, in some living dream, he had seen the empty vessel of Dylan’s body, cold and lifeless, felt it come to life, felt the evil deep in those knowing eyes. He ached to throw open Dylan’s shirt to see if the thick scar of evidence ran up his torso but wondered if he was mad for even entertaining the thought.
It was a dream, Aldous. Don’t allow yourself to become a part of this.
“I… I’m not sure,” he said, eager to hide his thoughts. “It’s too much to...”
At once, a deep reverberating rumble from the core of the mountain surged through the rock around them, halting Aldous mid-sentence. Aldous thought for a second that the mountain was collapsing, that it had stood here forever and had chosen this moment to fall in upon itself. Dylan turned his focus from questioning Aldous and pointed across to the far edge of the platform, to a narrow, arched staircase carved from the mountain, barely wide enough for one man to pass.
“Get off the mountain as fast as you can. There’s more dynamite in your father’s bag, use it to destroy the staircase. Make it so that no one can follow.”
Aldous was aghast. “This whole place is going to come down and you want me to help destroy it. Have you lost your mind? We might as well hire a marching band and wave a bloody banner. I mean, what are you going to do up here? And what am I supposed to do when…no, if I make it to safety? You can’t expect me to leave you here whilst I dally off, and you can’t leave me alone in this… in this place.” Aldous held his head in his hands. “I don’t know if I can do this, Dylan.”
“I can’t risk losing you,” the boy said. “You need to get out of here now. I’ll find a way.” He stepped to the edge of the platform and scanned the trees below, pointing to a pillar of grey standing amongst them. “The tower in the trees – go there and wait for me. I swear you’ll be safe.”
Aldous opened his mouth to vent his disapproval, wondering how Dylan could make such a claim when he had said himself that he didn’t even know this place, but Dylan shouted before he had the chance: “Please, Aldous. Trust me.”
Aldous knew there was no point in arguing. That could wait for later, when they had left the threat of whoever was following behind. For now he had no choice but to hope that Dylan knew what he was doing. In truth he knew it might do him some good to be away from the boy, time to work through his thoughts, to fathom what was real and what was imaginary, see if he could figure out where he was and why he was here.
Seconds later he had emptied the contents of the chest into the satchel (the scent of gun oil that kissed the air as the objects fell – sticks of dynamite; hunting knives; a flare gun; grenades) and was speeding off into the narrow stairwell to who-knows-where, achingly alone and wondering constantly if this was all part of some torturous dream.
Behind him, Dylan took a deep breath and stepped into the darkness of the mountain.
Hours had passed since Aldous had begun his descent and still there was no sign that Dylan or anyone else had made it from the mountain, no further noises echoing down the narrow passage since that first deep rumble. It had taken him the guts of two hours, and most of his rapidly dwindling energy to traverse the gargantuan serpentine stairwell, thousands of narrow steps hewn from the rock, winding through tunnels that twisted deep into the belly of the mountain, most so close that he had to turn sideways and hold his breath to permit passage, taking him back to his time in the tunnels beneath Redwood, with nothing but his blood and the fear burning inside to help him through the ever-narrowing gaps.
Aldous had felt a pang of guilt as he lit the first stick of dynamite and threw it hastily backwards through one of the narrow gaps, running as fast as his legs would allow, fearful that the whole mountain would crumble as the echo of the explosion and the blast of dusty air raced down the tunnel behind him. Much as he was beginning to accept, he didn’t really believe that Lemistat had created all this with his own hands. One man could not have done this alone, he told himself, no matter how old he claimed to be. Who knew how many men had really laboured to build the passage? Who knew of the lives sacrificed to claim this place or what it meant to them? Aldous didn’t. For all he knew he could be destroying the very crux of a culture and right now a whole angry nation could be heading his way. He didn’t want to dwell upon that. I shouldn’t have left. I should have stayed with Dylan, he thought for the hundredth time that hour.
There were four more sticks of dynamite in the satchel. He had followed Dylan’s wishes and laid waste to the staircase at regular intervals as he descended, rushing down the steps three at a time as he steeled himself for the blast that he feared would throw him from the mountain and bring an end to everything. At the foot of the passage he was met by what appeared to be a solid wall. But he crept forward and saw a space between the wall and the tunnel. It was a pedestal of some sort, a huge base hiding the entrance to the tunnel from prying eyes. He crept around the oval base, no more than twelve inches space at the sides, and came out into the sudden sunlight upon a broad, grassy knoll, the tops of trees visible across the other side of the rise.
But he did not look at them. His attention was on the massive granite stele whose base hid the entrance to the tunnel, stretching up to the heavens. The cruel and twisted faces carved into its front reminded him of the images of long-dead Gods that had filled the pages of his books and been the centre of his life for so long. He walked around to the front and saw a corbelled niche in the bedrock base filled with a host of glittering riches – piles of gold and silver coins, thick rings and earrings, painted figures of porcelain, carvings in stone and ivory. Beneath his feet he noticed a crust of blood, a dark stain with edges like giant petals, dark and crisped with age.
Aldous stepped out of the stain but did not move away, his attention held by a single word carved into the rock above the niche – Magnir. Whatever the word meant he could not stop the sudden urge to delve into the pile. Feeling intensely vulnerable now that he was out in the sunlight, he picked up a short spear that winked at him from the top of the pile. The carved bone of the handle felt solid and reassuring and the keen edges of the blade flickered with a prismatic quality as he cut and diced the empty air, telling himself everything would be fine. He threw the last stick of dynamite behind the huge obelisk as he ran towards the edge of the landing, tumbling down the rutted hill to a dry riverbed below. There was an almighty crack as the stele lurched and fell back upon the mountain, breaking into pieces and thundering down into the narrow valley between the knoll and the trees in a great cloud of dust. When the din had stopped and the dust had settled, the silence was deafening. Aldous couldn’t help but think that someone must have heard the noise; someone would be coming for him.
He gathered himself and ran into the forest with the spear clutched in his sweat-soaked hand, giant trees like something from a madman’s fantasy towering over him, twenty metres or more in diameter, silver-grey boughs stretching into shadowy reaches far above, too murky for the eye to penetrate. The lowest branches he could see were like the solid arms of a giant, a hundred and more feet above him, bearing broad, leathery leaves the size of bed-sheets allowing scant light to reach the forest floor.
He had never suffered with either before but he guessed what he was feeling now was a mix of claustrophobia and vertigo. It felt like a city, he realised, as he glanced up and saw one of the leaves break off and fall to the ground, plummeting as though it weighed at least a few pounds. The trees were skyscrapers towering over him, so close that they seemed to press against him and his fear was further piqued with the thought that something he had no wish to encounter waited around each blind bend. This was no time to feel overwhelmed, he reminded himself. There would be plenty of time for that when and if he had reached safety.
He ignored his rising fear and ran on through the narrow gaps, following the dip in the land for some minutes until the trees began to thin out and the stitch in his side started to bother him. Soon there was more open air than tree and the mossy floor of the forest emerged onto a clearing where one of the huge trees had uprooted and fallen, the sturdy remains of which rested on a small rise, creating a bridge that balanced on the branches of the neighbouring trees and stretched through the canopy. Aldous noticed the bark had been smoothed away in a straight line leading up the centre of the bough, vanishing in the shadows above: a path of sorts, evidence that the bridge was in use, or had been at some time.
They’re above me. Watching.
As he glanced about the canopy, waiting for a gunshot or a spear or something worse to pierce through him, Aldous felt an itch start up on his damaged eye. He realised as he raised a hand to scratch that he had not yet checked it to see how badly it was injured, consumed as he was by trying to understand all that had happened. A lump rose in his throat as he decided to remove his eye-patch to let the air at the wound and he winced in preparation. To his confusion, he found as he pulled the cover away that his sight was relatively undamaged – a slight blurring at the edges but nothing more. He had an overwhelming urge to reach up and feel for the damage, knowing he had felt the hot wastage dribble down his cheek when the sliver of metal had lodged itself there but he didn’t want to risk anything without a reflective surface to verify his supposition. He remembered his stomach wound, too, as he looked down at the bloodstains. That had happened, the blood was proof of it, yet it had given him no pain, and as he looked upon it now, lifting up his shirt, there was not even a blemish – no sign that what he remembered had happened. Whatever the reasons, he had no wish to meddle.
Still, he couldn’t help but think that if both his gunshot wounds had miraculously healed, then this whole elaborate thing was surely a charade, a fiction of a slumbering brain piecing memories together to create a new whole. But he knew that to believe that this was all falsehood might be a dangerous ploy. The questions boiled up again as the two parts of his mind, the believer and the unbeliever, fought against each other – the boy’s talk of mixing blood and pre-ordained paths, of death and rebirth; the visions and dreams that were so much more than anything he had felt before; the fact that all of it was far beyond Aldous’ grasp. And yet, he knew he had no choice but to accept this place and in doing so he would have to accept both counts even though they were mutually incompatible – that this place was real and that he was alive. Even thinking it made him shiver. He drew his thoughts away and turned around to take in his surroundings.
Across the clearing to his right stood a massive stone edifice, cocooned in the arms of the nearest trees. Aldous looked it up and down. He did not like what he saw. The tower looked derelict and dangerous, open to the elements and undoubtedly the first place the two men who had ruined his home and what was left of his life were likely to come across. It was a far cry from the safe respite Aldous had imagined, that had kept his thoughts from madness as he ran from the mountain, but it would have to suffice. The thought fleetingly crossed his mind that Dylan might never make it here, that right now some ill or other had befallen the boy on the mountain and he was up there, helpless and dying, trapped by the piles of debris Aldous had left in his wake.
He ran to the structure as quick as his legs would allow, edging the warped and rotten door open and peeking through the gap to the dark insides. He had no intention of startling some angry stranger. The room was quiet and apparently empty, a bare stone floor with a narrow staircase curving upwards into darkness. He stepped inside for there was nothing else to do, no choice but to sit and wait.
Thoughts burned in him as he paced back and forth across the hallway. Night would come soon enough and he did not care to think what might come with it. What if something had happened to Dylan and he never saw the boy again? Where would he begin? How could he hope to get back? The only thing he knew about this world was the Gateway and if blood was the key as Dylan said, how could he bring himself to kill so selfishly, to find someone and kill them, take his own life into the bargain? He didn’t want to stay here, but to kill so that he could go back… this was an idea that left him sickened.
He sat against the wall just inside the doorway, legs tight to his chest, gripping the spear until his knuckles turned white, waiting for something to happen, hoping that nothing would happen, repeating the promise to himself that he’d had enough of this place and what it was doing to him, that he would, somehow, make Dylan take him back to Redwood, find a way back to his own world without spilling blood.
High above the forest, in the heart of Mount Malikanna, something was stirring. There was movement in the bowels of the Gateway, something sticky and formless coalescing from the pores of the rock, pulling together at great speed, rising up on twisted limbs and sniffing the air with its newly-formed nose like a wild beast on the trail of prey, new bones fusing together beneath the skin, nostrils black and gaping, catching that first tantalising scent of flesh that would be both its burden and its existence.
The young girl that held the still-forming beast by a sodden umbilicus seemed impossibly frail in comparison, yet her steely gaze commanded the subservience of the abomination that writhed and fused as she gazed into its tortured eyes. Tears formed in her own and rolled across her dusty cheeks. This was the moment of birth, a strange birth she knew, but birth all the same. To grow the child in your body, she thought, was weak, easy. To take up the reins and make the child, to sculpt and form from ruin, this took strength and courage. This was Cordelia’s first child and it was just like she had always dreamed – perfect; perfectly terrible. It was only right that her child should see her first, should look into her eyes and know her from that first moment, only right that it should think of her as mother, creator, protector.
Winged creatures stirred restlessly in the dark reaches above as the unholy creature rose up on muscled legs and howled its fury into the dank air, its skin glistening and grey, somehow aware, even in the pitchy darkness of its womb in the mountain, that there had been something before all this. The thought was cast away; it did not matter. For now, the newly-formed taste-buds on the glistening beast desired but one thing – blood.
“Soon, my children, my child,” Cordelia said as she traced her hand gently along its spine, fusing anew under her touch. “Mummy will see that you feast soon.”
A host of armed men moved like silent shadows through the heart of the forest, winding between the huge trees and joining up with their brothers where the vanguard had halted in a small clearing, the horses’ eyes wide against the gloom. The band of three-score men were led by one of the old blood, a man whose ancestry hailed from the wastelands of the north in the time before the Turning, when the people – those lucky few who had survived those days of death and suffering – were driven from their homes to seek out lands where the Flood and the Darkness had not reached, to claim a place where they might rebuild for the future.
Erdik Hjördis was not touched by ink as were so many of those who took their place on the Reach. He was of pure blood – the blood of Freya and Asha, the twin cities of the north who had once ruled the banished lands – and was born under the Sacred Moon, the night that came once every seven years when the moon turned crimson, the sign the sibyls of old had earmarked for the Great Return, and as such he had risen swiftly through the ranks of the Highguard when he came of age, earning the trust of his king and his people in defending the city from the threat of the Unwanted and all the other terrors that waited outside the Reach.
Running a hand through his long ice-white hair he glanced about his assembled men and tried to read their eyes. Their eyes helped him little for they had seen too much already since they had left the city behind and the events of the day and night since had left marks on each man which might never be removed. Each of the men under his command – their faces marked with lines of black and red, one for each year they had served – had earned his place there by undertaking the Long Trial. In the weeks before the summer solstice they would leave the Reach alone, one at each sunset, to make their penance and give their blood oath by the foot of Malikanna, there to leave an offering for their king, the great Magnir, to bring back a prize and so prove their worth. There were many who had fought through the myriad terrors outside the Reach and made it back alive; changed inside but alive. Yet there were many more who had not returned and had met their deaths at the hands of the Unwanted or worse. Erdik had lost two dozen and more men on their Long Trials in the four years since he had been given command of the Highguard. Another three had died on their journey – two swallowed by the sands as some ungodly void opened beneath them, another by some unknown thrashing sickness that had come upon him suddenly and had ended him within minutes. As they burned the body and bade their brother farewell he had promised himself that, whatever was to come, he would not lose any more men this day.
He dropped away from the front of the line and moved back through the vales of shadow between the trees, looking at each of his men as he moved, offering a nod here, a smile there, reminding each to be steadfast, that there was yet much to be done. Some returned his gaze, offered weary smiles. Others, younger men broken from the terrors they had faced, perhaps revisiting the memories of their own solitary voyages into the old lands, seemed distant and unable to focus. Erdik reached out, resting a hand on their shoulders or sweating brows, reminding them that he was with them. Every one cast a glance at the bloody heads that hung from the saddle of his pureblood Drudwyn, hair knotted and matted, mouths grimacing, dead-eyes staring.
Erdik knew the king would expect more. He draped his cloak over the gore-spattered heads as he moved his mount towards her. She must not see. She must forget. The fire in his eyes dimmed as he approached the princess.
“Siva,” he spoke softly as he reached her and gave a warm smile. She had seen so much that was not meant for her young eyes. I must be gentle. “You are beginning to look well again, my princess, now that we are free of the Unwanted. The life is returning to you with every league, but still you must rest. You will need your strength for the night to come.”
The princess sat astride a white filly with bright eyes and a black streak running across its forehead. Delyth was a pureblood Drudwyn whose bloodline stretched back to the old times, to the horse on which, it was said, the first king of Potamia had made his flight from Covenant, through this very place which she now stood, two hundred years ago and more. Its flanks where dappled with salty sweat from the hours spent in the humid depths of the forest bowl and it stepped skittishly from side to side, the fear in its eyes as clear as the fear in Siva’s.
Erdik had asked her what had happened in the ruins of that nameless and forgotten place where they had trailed her, spoken to her alone once they had made it to the caverns beneath Lysius in the hope that he could find out what the sorry men who held her there had done, but Siva could remember little of the day and night since she had been taken save for brief flashes, and Erdik had no wish to push her too far for fear that she might remember something she had no wish to. There had been three of the men in the sand-clogged ruins with her, three ill-equipped men wearing the tattered uniform of the Highguard and not a sign of anyone else having passed this way since the city fell to ruin. The trio had rushed at Erdik and his men as they passed through the ruins jutting from the sand, burst from the shadows behind a collapsed wall with eyes as black as jet, one of them holding Siva roughly by the hair, her eyes wide and vacant. They had been brought to the ground by a dozen blades and arrows before they had taken more than a few steps, the princess coming back to them with an ear-piercing shriek as the blood washed over her. It was only now, looking back, that he wished he had thought to capture them, question them, but the safety of the princess had been their sole concern. He had spoken to each of his men in the aftermath, shown them the bloodied heads in the hope that someone might recognise the strangers, but not a single one had shown even the least hint of recognition, and that fact merely raised more questions for which Erdik could provide no answers.
They were not the true enemy, he thought as he pictured the oily darkness in their eyes, a solid black he had seen only once before, in eyes that did not belong in this world. They were in the thrall of another.
Erdik knew Siva was keeping much to herself and did not want to pressure her, not when she was as like to regress as to recover. The colour was coming back to her but she was far from the Siva he knew – dirt-smeared face and bedraggled hair, torn clothes and a far-away look in her eyes, the white silks of her dress barely seen beneath the filth and gore that covered her. He did not doubt that the slain men who had held her had drugged her in some way, stunted some part of her so that she would not remember. So that she would not feel, he thought. I will take her to the Daktari when we return. He will right the wrongs and make her forget. I can only hope that she is not with child. He knew what her father was duty bound to do if that were the case. Judgement would be passed upon her and she would go to the Pit, as would Erdik, for failing to stop the outrage before it happened.
Siva’s horse whinnied and stepped skittishly backwards. She rubbed its flanks and ran her fingers through the silky mane. “I sense danger here, Erdik, and I am not the only one. Delyth has a nose for it” Her mount nodded as if in agreement. “I cannot help but fear we are being followed. In the flashes of my memory I see more men than the few heads hung against your steed, hidden by that rag.” Erdik moved a hand to the bloody heads, repositioning the rag as though it might make the Princess forget. She was trying to be strong, he knew, as much as he knew that it was all an act. “There is a feeling of being watched in this place,” she continued, “of eyes upon me. I am sure there are others who know of what we are doing, others who would wish it stopped. Those animals wore your uniform, Erdik, and if they were Unwanted…”
She could still smell the stench of those filthy men, those animals, handling her like meat, twisting her thoughts against her so that she could not recall the hows and whys of all that had led to this. They had done something to her, of that she was sure; something unnameable, given her something dark and terrible she didn’t want, and in her memory the faces had blurred into one, horrible and dark, dirty and all-consuming.
“Do not worry of the Unwanted, my princess, none could have followed. My men have seen to that.” There were close to sixty of them bar the few he had lost, half here with the main body and half spread around them throughout the forest. “We are surrounded on all sides by nothing but your father’s men. If there was danger to us, to you, I would know of it.”
Siva did not feel any safer. “I must reach the tower before the moon rises yet we have stopped, again. Perhaps your men do not realise the importance of this. Perhaps you do not realise the importance of this. ”
She is angry, nothing more. Be gentle.
“You know me, Siva. I know only too well of this night’s importance,” he replied as he dismounted and stepped closer, eager to keep this unnecessary slight on the men hidden. “As do my men, my men who gave their all to see you returned. Your safety and homecoming is mine and their most important trust, do not doubt that.” His voice was stern but not angry. Few others could talk to the princess in this way and not expect reprisal. “Even those among us who lost children in the Slaughter, lost sons and daughters; even these men were thinking only of you.”
For a moment Siva felt abashed at her outburst, ashamed at the way she had lashed out at the one who had come all this way to save her, the men who – despite the way she distrusted them – were here for her. Her cheeks flushed red to match the gore smeared across her silks.
“I don’t doubt you, Erdik,” she said in a softer voice once she had gathered herself, “but of your men I know little and less – they are as strange to me as everything outside the Reach. Our enemies are everywhere it seems. How else but with the help of someone within the Reach could I have been taken? How else but with the help of the Highguard?”
Erdik made to answer but she held up a hand to stop him.
“I have waited my whole life for this night, Erdik. I had seen but seven years the first time the Prophet’s Moon came. I was too young then and will be too old when next it comes. It is my purpose, Erdik, the same as it is yours. But… it seems there has been a change, as though some element here wants to see that I fail, and that is something I cannot allow, for the good of all our people. I don’t know who to trust, Erdik, don’t know who among us wants to see this night brought to ruin, but my heart tells me that there is something here that wishes to halt me, to see me ruined.”
She took a deep breath, torn between the safety of the men who had saved her and the danger she sensed from them. Erdik glanced around his men, his chosen brothers, wondering if there was any truth in Siva’s fears, if there was some traitor amongst them. We are all brothers, he thought. Brothers do not betray their kin.
“I have decided I will seek the tower alone,” Siva said as Erdik made to speak. “If it is my destiny, as we believe, you know I will find it.”
“These forests are a place of danger, my princess. I have known a hundred and more men who have come to these lands and never returned.” He gulped as he recalled his first time here all those years ago. He had just reached his sixteenth year and the fell creature which had almost ended him – the first time he had seen those jet black eyes – came to him in the depths of the night even now. “This place nearly claimed my own life once, Siva, when you were but an infant, too young to know of the dangers that wait outside the Reach. A moment was all it took. You know better now of the dangers we face and I do not want that for you; your father, my king, does not want that for you. I made an oath that I would rescue you from the Unwanted and return you to his care. I cannot risk losing you again, Siva. Alone, out there… well.”
Erdik knelt down in front of her when she did not respond, laying his hands on the ground and bowing his head. “Please, my princess I must go with you. If anything amiss were to happen I could not live with myself, not after all we have done to bring you home. If… if you were lost then all would be lost. Your father would send every man here to the Pit.”
Her tone lightened when she spoke next. She leaned in towards him, caressing his strong jaw. “I know you would do anything for me, Erdik. If things were different, I would have no other stand beside me, but there is much outside of all this, much that I must do alone, for I, truly, am the only person I can trust. I don’t expect you to understand, only to listen.” She lifted his face up until he was staring into her eyes. “Follow me if you must, but at a distance, and alone.”
She gathered the reins of her mount and, after giving Erdik a final nod, moved off through the throng of warriors who cleared a path and averted their eyes as she passed, or exchanged worried whispers and glances with their comrades, none wishing to speak their fears aloud.
One man broke off from the group and tried to follow her as she went out of sight behind a tree, the tattooed line of deep red running from his hairline to his jaw down the centre of his face still raw from his recent induction, but was stopped in his tracks by the stern voice of Erdik.
“Cromos, hold your feet.”
The warrior turned and reached for the reins of his mount.
“Cromos!” Erdik growled.
This time Cromos obeyed, turning back to Erdik with eyes that seemed to ask one question.
What have you done?
The distant rumble of horses pulled Aldous from sleep. There was a brief second when his eyes opened and he saw the stone floor, the carved steps, and thought that he was in the stairwell below Redwood, bottle rolling by his feet, dusty sledgehammer resting against the wall. He sat up and looked around quickly and was surprised yet not surprised to see Dylan leaning against the wall by the door, cocking his head to listen to the steady beat from outside.
Maybe next time… maybe next time.
“There are armed men in the forest,” the boy said casually. “They’re close but I don’t think they’ll come this way.”
Aldous was flummoxed. “How do you know what they’re going to do?” he spat, plunged back into the anger that had simmered as he rested. “Are you a psychic now, some kind of mentalist maybe? If you’re wrong we’ll be trapped here and, whoever those people are, they’ll find us.”
He realised he was letting his frenzied emotions get the better of him. This was a far cry from the man who had locked Dylan in the library and promised that everything was going to be fine, who had sprung into action, ready to defend that which he had given up so easily all those years before. Now, it seemed the only thing he had to defend was his sanity.
Dylan shrugged. “I haven’t seen them but I can sense them. It’s… I can’t explain it… things come to me sometimes. I can’t explain how, or why, only that they do and that it feels… I don’t know… not part of me.”
“So, you’re telling me you are psychic?” Aldous said, eyes wide in disbelief.
“I don’t know, Aldous – that’s just a word. I can see things sometimes, maybe just a fragment of something, past or future, I don’t really know. Sometimes I know when things are going to happen, but I can’t tell you what you’ll be doing tomorrow, or whether you should bet on heads or tails. It – whatever it is – doesn’t work like that. It’s just a reaction, like, I don’t know… hiccups or a muscle spasm, something that happens to me.”
Aldous gulped as a thought came to him. “You asked me earlier if I knew you and I told you I had seen you in a dream. Did you know that already? I mean, did you put yourself in my dream.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Aldous. All I can say is that things happen to me. Yes, I was in your dream, but I didn’t make a choice to go there. I was asleep and we shared a dream; I didn’t know we were sharing it and neither did I try to make it happen. I didn’t even do anything in the dream; I was just watching while it happened. That’s the only way I can think to explain it. I’m not psychic, I just… I don’t know… it’s just always been there. How can I tell what’s different about me when the only experience I have to go on is my own? For all I know you might hear voices and see things all the time.”
“Only since I met you, Dylan. Only since I met you.”
The boy’s reasoning at least made a little sense to Aldous, even if he had trouble getting his head around the subject matter, so he turned his attention back to matters at hand, trying as best he could to keep his agitation in check. “So… what happened on the mountain? Did you see…”
Dylan blinked to clear the fugue from his eyes, flashes of the mounted men drifting around and about him. “I waited until I could see who was following us, and, once I knew who they were, I came here, like I told you I would. You were sleeping, so I left you to rest.”
Oh, how very succinct, Aldous thought. Just another day.
“Who’s following us? Who are those men?”
“Whoever they were, they aren’t men anymore.” He remembered the dark presence in the cavern reaching out to him, a maddened evil fouler than anything her had ever felt. “Our worry is with the one who leads them, the one who changed them. The girl.”
The last two words threw Aldous’ train of thought. “The girl?”
Something clicked inside as his mind went back to his father’s funeral, to the two men and the young girl he had glimpsed at the back of the graveyard, watching the proceedings. He realised suddenly with a flash of recollection that they were the same men who had broken into his home, burned it to the ground, who had killed him and killed Dylan. Was the girl with the rose the one who had started this, and if so, why?
It seemed as though Dylan could read his thoughts. “She sent the men to find you, to see that you and I were finished.”
“Who is she? Why would she be doing any of this?”
Dylan shrugged. “She’s been following me for years, for as long as I can remember, but I don’t know who she is. I didn’t get too close. The only thing I do know is that she wants to end us, to destroy us, to make sure this time.”
The boy said it so casually. Aldous didn’t like the sound of us, didn’t like the sound of any of it. “When did I become part of your grand scheme full of… of… part of something to be destroyed, part of us? Part of…”
Dylan interrupted: “Like I said, it has always been you, Aldous, it’s…”
“You led her to me, Dylan. You said she’s been following you for years. If you’d told me all this before, if you’d told me any of this I… I…”
“The way it happened was meant to be, Aldous.”
“Balderdash! Nothing is meant to be; that’s not how things work. You think it’s acceptable to tell me that these people I don’t even know want to kill me and not tell me why? If that were true, they could have killed me at Redwood. I’m sure they were at the funeral. They could have killed me there or at any other time since, snuck up behind me and slit my throat, pushed me in front of a car, anything. They would have made sure. You seem to think there’s nothing strange about waltzing into my home and taking me to another bloody world where all and sundry want nothing but to see me killed.” His face almost creased with a grin at the last remark, so ludicrous did it sound. He fought to retain his composure and felt his bottom lip quiver, thrown from almost-laughing to almost-sobbing in an instant. “I died in that crypt last night, Dylan. I can remember every moment, every ache and spasm and spurt of blood. You can’t know how much that hurt me.”
Dylan spoke softly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have found you first, but I… I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how, didn’t know what I was looking for, who you were. I had the whole world to search and, even if I had found you, it might’ve been your father I needed. What could I have done? Would you have believed a word of it?” Aldous knew he would not. “Maybe if things had been different I could’ve got to you sooner and we could’ve worked through this, made plans, but that wasn’t the way it happened, and you know you wouldn’t have believed it.”
Aldous ground his teeth, holding back the urge to scream and shout, to throttle the boy until he got some sense out of him. “But why? That’s what I don’t get. Why me, and for what purpose?”
“I don’t know, Aldous. I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear, but I really don’t know. Like I told you, I can’t choose what I learn, what comes to me – I just try to make sense of what does.”
“Lemistat said something like… like I was the promised one. What did he mean?”
Dylan shrugged. “All I know for sure is that my purpose was to find you and bring you here. For what reason, I don’t really know.” The boy was silent for a moment, sniffling softly as he thought of Lemistat and his life of before. “You know, I didn’t even know who I was in your world. The people who found me, Isaac and Cleona, named me Dylan. They said it was the first word I said. They kept me safe whilst I learned – whilst I remembered -– what I had to do. And now I’ve done what I was meant to do and I’ve found my true name, the first clue to who I really am.”
A tear streaked down his face as he whispered his new-found name. “Talos.”
Aldous didn’t know what to say. His problems suddenly seemed small compared to the boy’s. At least I know who I am, he thought. Then: Do I? Do I really?
“So…” Aldous said after a long silence. “What should I call you then?”
Dylan smiled. “Like I said, you can call me Dylan. I’ll be Dylan until I find out who Talos is. Now, it’s just a word. I don’t know if it helps to hear it, just reminds me I’m not who I think, I’m not really anyone.” He ran a hand through his hair and let out a sigh. Nothing was as he’d hoped. He’d expected something he might recognise, some friends beyond the crumbling man linked to the boy in his locked-off thoughts, but all he had were a few broken memories and a world he didn’t know. He hoped that by saying his fears aloud it would help both of them understand.
“Lemistat says he was born on the same day as me. I have doubt, but how could I remember him otherwise? How can I have an image of him as he was? I can see him when I close my eyes, a young smiling boy, but I’m not sure if it’s a true memory or something I’ve created to convince myself. Like I saw him because I wanted to.” He paused for a moment as though searching within himself. “But he’s gone and his words only make me realise how little I know. I can see other faces sometimes, and I can hear voices when I sleep, but they’re all strangers and I can’t make the links. Maybe, even if I could, they’d still be strangers.”
There was a lost look in the boy’s eyes that made Aldous think he might start crying and never stop, a look that didn’t belong on the face of a child.
“Now I’m here I can almost see them,” Dylan said. “I can almost put form to them. But, well... almost is nothing.” He sighed deeply.
Aldous was trying his best to follow Dylan’s words but could find no precedent to help him understand. “I’m sorry I shouted at you, Dylan. The whole thing just makes me so angry.”
“You’ve every right to be angry, Aldous, but your anger for me is pointless. There’s no reason not to trust me. If anything it’s you who hasn’t been truthful. You think I’m the psychic one but I know you saw something from the key on Mount Malikanna,” he was startled for a second as the name burst from his subconscious. “Malikanna. It feels good to say it, even if I’m not sure where it came from.” The smile the memory had brought faded as he focussed his attention on the here and now. “You saw something, Aldous, and you’re keeping it from me. It might help us.”
Aldous smiled with all the calmness he could muster. “I do trust you, Dylan,” he said, though there were other thoughts racing through his mind. “And if I had anything to tell you I would. I promise.” He pictured the boy in the smoky cave, smiling in the filthy mirror. He would leave his doubts for later. It was best for now to keep Dylan on his side.
“All I saw was some place I didn’t know, some people I didn’t know.”
Before Dylan had the chance to press the issue the most unlikely sound drew their attention – the voice of a young girl drifting on the air, singing a song that seemed as old as the earth. The two looked at each other for a moment, frozen in shock, intensely aware that the owner of the voice was but a few feet away, separated only by the solid oak of the door. A siren, Aldous thought. Time seemed to slow to a stand-still as they became lost in her lilting tones, the sound of their hearts thudding in their ears. Dylan bowed down to glance through a knothole in the door then turned back to Aldous biting his bottom lip.
“I don’t…. It’s her.” There were strange vibrations in his voice, a lightness in his eyes that Aldous hadn’t yet seen. The boy looked shocked and ecstatic at the same time.
“Who’s her?” Aldous whispered back as he glanced through a crack in the door and caught a glimpse of bare flesh.
“I saw her in a dream. She’s part of this.”
“But who is she?”
Dylan had no time to respond as a shrill cry came from outside, bringing the haunting beauty of the song to an end. He jumped into action as the screaming increased to a manic crescendo. “Upstairs! Now!”
Aldous turned and moved off to scale the staircase, but stopped after no more than a few steps when he realised Dylan wasn’t following. “What are you waiting for?”
Dylan moved over to him. “Stay hidden until I return. The most important thing is that you stay safe.” He handed Aldous the key, his hand lingering in the old man’s for a moment as he folded Aldous’ fingers tight. With that, he was out of the doorway before Aldous had any hope of persuading him otherwise.
With nothing to do but find a place to hide, Aldous ran up the narrow flight of steps, cocking his ear for the screams and running footsteps he feared from without, the shouts of angry men that would sound his death knell. The boy has abandoned me again.
Trapped and alone in a world he knew nothing of, Aldous stumbled through the doorway of the room at the top of the stairs and slammed the door behind him, shutting out the world as though he could make it and all his troubles disappear.
The leaves of countless autumns carpeted the forest floor. Not a sound was to be heard amongst the still branches as the princess made her way to the tower, following paths on instinct alone as the forest began to grow dark. It is my purpose. I will find it. A chill crept over her as her mount drew to a sudden halt, the feeling of eyes on her back. She fingered the pommel of her blade and glanced over her shoulder, peering into the gloom between the trees as Delyth stamped her front hooves. She could see nothing but felt vulnerable nonetheless.
Erdik, she remembered suddenly.
She gripped her reins tight and moved on.
Soon the canopy began to thin out. To her front she could see snatches of grass between the great boughs and knew she was close. In all her years, she had yet to set eyes on the tower, had only seen its image in painting and scroll, imagined in dreams prompted by the teachings of her Protector, Barakea the Eunuch, the only man to share her life beyond her father. Siva, like most who called Potamia home, had never left the city, never looked upon the fabled mountains or the wide open sky that her ancestors had once called home, yet the marrow of her bones ached for those places now as if they were meant to be together. When He comes we shall take back all we had before. The sensations spurred her on as she eased her mount into a gallop, racing along the twisting paths between the trees, revelling in the freedom she felt for the first time in her life.
The horse slowed as he came over a rise, wary of the light from the setting sun as it painted the barks of the surrounding trees in rippling shards. Siva dismounted as her mount whinnied, shifting its legs uncomfortably and shaking its head from side to side. For long moments she soothed the beast with whispered words, stroking the curve of its jaw until it had calmed before closing its eyes and bringing it to sleep as Barakea had taught her. She allowed herself a final caress before she moved off.
As she breached the perimeter of the clearing and her eyes fell upon the tower a lightness filled her, dispelling the fear and doubt of before. I’m here! I’ve made it! Birds flitted between branches high above, zipping to and fro across the arc of her vision, hundreds of them filling the sky with a blithe cacophony, their absence everywhere else noticed only now. They had been drawn to this beating heart just as she had. The fallen leaves and moss underfoot petered out to be replaced by the blasted heath surrounding the tower, a place where no plants grew and few feet had trod since the Turning. As she walked onto the heath, a solemn look fixed in her eyes and the lines of her jaw set with rigid concentration. It took all her strength not to break into a run or scream out for the Prophet, but this was her time to change everything and she would not allow it to be spoiled.
She recognised the carvings above the door as she stood in front of the entrance, runes and words in forgotten tongues scrawled by the ancients in the Book of Ages, some of which she knew, some of which no one knew. They were old and powerful signs, this much she did know, a reminder that this was a sacred place, a place no man might enter.
The ground felt warm as she lowered her body to it. The time felt ripe and this place, so far from home, suddenly felt like home never had: welcoming, comforting, true. She shrugged off her cloak and untied her bloody dress, letting it drop to the floor until it was just her bare skin and the cold air, her hands and feet caked in crusted gore where her body was clean and white, verging on the cusp of womanhood. She sat cross-legged on a small bump in the earth within touching distance of the door, eyes closed, jaw set in concentration. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as she removed a silver pin from the folds of her hair, tracing a circle in the soil around where she sat, creating a barrier to keep the coming darkness out. She spoke the ancient words her Protector had given her and looked through the canopy to the darkening sky, resting the tip of the needle on the filthy skin of her palm where it glinted in the sun’s dying rays, feeling the butterflies grow, feeling them change into something else, something powerful.
She allowed herself one lingering thought for the children, for the old and weak, for all the others who had died before their time. Then she began.
“I am Siva of the house of Magnir, servant of the One True God, Carrier of Light, Bearer of Gifts of the Flesh. I have come to call upon you whilst the moon recalls the blood you offered for our salvation in ages past.” The words came easily, practiced for so long. “Please, choose me so that I might give you my all, that I might spend eternity with you, that I might stand by your side and rebuild, return this world to the glory it once was.”
She glanced to the space above the tower and saw the last remnants of the molten glow drawing back their lustrous shades behind the mountain, cloaking the land in creeping shades of grey, deepening the shadows and drawing night towards her like a bruise. The vertex of the Red Moon breached the horizon as the sun descended, pushing back the night before it could take hold, dark hues of red and ochre covering every surface, turning the forest to a field of obsidian mirrors and the sky to a wash of poisoned blood. Siva had never expected it to be like this, never expected it to be so twisted and terrible – her memories of her first Prophet’s Moon where of sitting in her chambers with her handmaids around her, warmed by the heat of the fire as they watched the sky seep with red above the Reach, cheers erupting from Potamia’s every corner. For a brief second she shuddered at the awful blood-red cloak that revealed the hidden horrors of every plane and surface, but she remembered the words of Barakea and silenced the voice.
You are chosen, Siva. The darkness cannot harm you.
She let herself drift as she thought of her mother and the son that had been denied her as Siva and her sister broke free from her womb, the sister the gods had seen fit to cripple and maim, locked away in the heights of the battlements so that the thousands who followed her father’s every word would not doubt his purity. Siva was the last hope and knew the only way to bring back all that had been lost was to return with the Prophet.
Forgetting the blood that would be spilled if she should fail, Siva closed her eyes and began to make her sacrifice knowing that the doubt within was merely a challenge to overcome. A haunting melody broke free of her. She pierced the tip of the needle into her palm as she sang, her crisp clear voice filling the forest until the words became the very song of the trees, blood welling up in a swelling crimson drop.
The troubled sun in black’ning clouds is lost,
Dead silence reigns, and dark the list’ning dawn;
As when spread banners shade a silent host,
Ere from their sheaths ten thousand swords are drawn.
At first the thunder seems the torrent’s yell,
The flash, fair-glancing, is but born to die;
But soon red cataracts, out-pouring fell,
Between dread peals, meander through the sky…
A sharp crack from behind her interrupted her song, pulling her from the trance-like state she had entered so subtly. That longed-for moment of serenity slipped away like the receding tide. Her first thought as her eyes swam back into focus and she felt suddenly abashed at her nakedness, drawing her arms across her body, was that Erdik had disobeyed her, but as she felt the power of her offering drain away and turned to confront him, to savage him for spoiling the Summoning and damning them all, a scream of terror burst from her lips at the horrible sight that greeted her.
Cromos and Erdik were walking back to the front of the line, ignoring the muttered whispers of the men, tense with the thought of what was to come. Their voices were soft, aware there was tension enough amongst the ranks already.
“This is madness, my brother,” Cromos said with a worried look to his leader. “What if there are Unwanted or worse waiting out there? We have a duty to follow and cannot allow her to do this alone; she is playing with all our lives here, not just her own. It will be no secret from those who wish to see us fail that we are restricted to this night only. I fear… we all fear we will not be granted another chance. Who knows what secrets her captors have already taken from her? They could be at the tower now, following whilst we do nothing.”
Erdik held up his hand to interrupt, wary that he needed to leave soon. “Need I remind you of the oath you took not a dozen days ago, the oath we all took, to offer our lives in obedience to the Royal Blood and to carry out, diligently and without recourse, their every command.” Cromos head dipped towards the ground as he remembered cutting his palms and making his blood oath by the edge of the Pit, the wounds not yet healed. “That oath overrides everything, even what we believe to be common sense. You will learn soon enough that life on the Reach is a life full of hard choices, a life of obedience.” He turned to the line of men and raised his voice. “Set up a camp where we stand and form a perimeter at half a league. Send out men in groups to patrol the forest. If there is danger we shall find it and then at least we shall be prepared – but no one must go near the tower. I will follow the princess, as was her instruction.”
A line of doubtful faces stared back blankly at him.
“Did you not hear my orders?” he barked.
The men set to work at once, each aware of his role instinctively.
Erdik led Cromos away from the group, the younger man following as he had when they were children playing in the gardens of Erdik’s home, before manhood had been thrust upon them.
“I know what you feel, Cromos. I can see it in the faces of the men and I can feel it in my own heart. Yet we have sworn to obey and that we must, even if our better judgement cries out against it. I don’t doubt she is troubled but she knows the strength of her actions for this, truly, is all she lives for. What would the men think if we disobeyed an order from the house of Magnir? But, there are levels of obedience and my oath to her father outweighs all others.” He paused for a second, weighing his words. “He ordered me to bring her back safe or not to return.”
Cromos gasped at the thought that they would be shut out. The very thought was worse than the Pit; at least there he would die in his land, with his kin. He knew the Unwanted would not care for the fighting men as well as they had for the princess, knew the sorry few who had held her were nothing compared to the terrors they would meet if they couldn’t make it back to Potamia before the Red Moon left the sky. To be shunned at the gate, turned away by the Highguard, his own sworn brothers, was a terror he did not want to entertain.
“The night is quickening and the moon will soon rise,” Erdik continued as he looked through the gaps in the canopy. “I must go now or I will lose her. Now; bring ten men – men with light feet, men you can trust – and follow my trail. And see to it that no one else knows of your task. I want nothing to go wrong.”
Cromos offered a confused look. “So… you are disobeying her?”
“I agree with the men, and with you. As long as there is a chance that danger is afoot, I must do my all to protect her. Be strong and follow me. And be ready for anything.”
With that he turned on his heel and moved off into the gloom.
Following the princess’ trail through the forest, Erdik was alone with his thoughts. The events of the last few days raced through his mind. There was so much to ponder: the Slaughter of the Innocents as the city slept three nights past, a hundred and more families waking to find their youngest gone; the kidnap of the princess from her quarters the very next night (he still could not believe it had happened or even begin to understand how), on the eve of the most important day of her life, the most important day in all their lives; his journey into the banished lands on her trail, skirting the jagged ramparts of The Rip like his forefathers had done in their exile, on the trail of an enemy that seemed always to be just over the next rise, just out of sight around the next bend.
His sense of the world had no place for such evil as had come to Potamia in recent days, and in spite of the wave of weakness he felt when he dwelt upon those memories, he had rallied his men, convinced them they should never give up. He knew great men were judged by their actions when the world was against them, and though it was his birth under the Red Moon and the guidance of his father which had set him on this path, he had fought for all he had and knew there was none worthier than he to hold the princess’ life and the future of her people in his hands. Yet still, there was a gnawing thought in the pit of his stomach that everything he thought he knew was wrong, that his life was and always had been part of some grand lie.
All he knew of the king made him think this. He had seen with the own eyes the lies and mistruths the king had spread within the Reach, the way his Judges, those foul inhuman things, would make the people see things which were not there, or spread their lies from the tiniest whisper until all and sundry heard and believed. He did not even know how many of his own memories of what had gone wrong in Potamia were true and how many had been placed in his thoughts for a reason. Is there an enemy from without? he thought. Can there be?
Erdik knew of at least a score of men under his command who had lost kin in the Slaughter, although most of them did not know it yet for it was their duty once they took the oath to leave their old lives behind. Erdik had been present in the king’s chambers when the Judges had read the list of the lost. Six-score names and not a single body to be found and, through it all, through every sorry name, the king was smiling, drumming the tips of his fingers slowly together as though the list was music to his ears. I have seen that look before, Erdik remembered as he thought of the Pit and all those who had gone to her, innocent and guilty alike, watched by their smiling king as they were raised up in front of their people and thrown to their deaths in the darkness below, the food of whatever dark creation lurked in that foetid, dismal place. The thought did not sit well with him – he had seen in that cold detached look, that sickly, idiot grin, that the king was deriving some pleasure from it, as though it had all been part of his design. Erdik knew then that something had changed, knew the king had morphed into something else, something more terrible and dangerous than Erdik had ever feared.
After the list was read and the hall fell silent they had gathered round and questioned him, the Judges bringing that strange feeling to the base of his skull with their silken words, the king watching and smiling softly from the bulky throne, smiling always. Erdik had no answers for them when they asked how the Reach had been breached, why he had failed, why his men had not stopped it. He did not even have answers for himself.
He had heard whispers of the common folk as he passed through the city in the aftermath. Some were saying they had seen those responsible, hooded men skulking in dark streets in the dead of night, eyes aglow; demons which had come from the Pit to take those who had sinned; great winged creatures with leathern skin and molten feathers plummeting down from the night to take the unworthy. He heard a dozen such tales, each more fantastic than the last and wondered where the tales had sprung from, how long it would take to trickles to grow. Others were saying there were secret ways through the Reach, that someone meant to keep the city safe was in league with the Unwanted and had granted them access. Erdik could not vouch for what went on in the city but he knew there was no way through the reach but by the sole gate to the city, manned at all times by five hundred men. Erdik had walked every inch of the Reach a thousand times, knew every room and passage, every secret walkway and shadowed run, and he knew as surely as he knew anything that there was not a single fault to be found. A thousand men in all stood atop the Reach on any given night, with three another thousand waiting close by in the warren of rooms beneath the rock, a further five hundred living in the small town by the gate. Erdik knew there was no way a force strong enough to carry out the Slaughter had found a way through, not without being seen by a single one of them. This could mean but one thing: whoever had carried out the Slaughter and the kidnap of the princess had done so from within the Reach, had found a way onto the Wastes without passing Sandlock. Erdik couldn’t help but see the king and his Judges behind it all.
Why would he smile? he thought. Why?
He veered away from the bad thoughts and focussed instead on what waited at the tower.
Erdik had looked upon the paintings and carvings in the Forgotten City that showed falling stars and dark innumerable beasts when Summoning was complete and the Prophet had returned, the people rising up to take back the world which had been stolen from them, pushing the Darkness back, and he believed there was truth in every one of those words and images that had lived in his thoughts for so long, believed Siva was the perfect virgin the keepers of the Forgotten City had promised, believed this Red Moon was the first step in taking back all that had been lost.
He had read the remaining fragments of the old books, had studied the hair-thin pages of the Book of Ages night after night in the candle-lit rooms of his father’s library, the sole copy that remained in the world, recounting the Prophet’s journeys through lands taken by the Darkness. He knew from the prophecies in those ancient tomes that the fires burning on Malikanna’s peak were a portent, a sign of the return of the one who would save them.
But the book is gone now, he thought as he remembered his father’s funeral pyre burning without a body, a hollow farewell, the Book of Ages glowing orange, drifting on the wind in black flakes as the men of the Highguard looked on.
As he traversed a series of narrow streams he came to a stop, dragged from his thoughts as he saw the clearing on the rise of the next ridge, saw Siva’s horse standing in sleep amongst the growing gloom. He knew it would be unwise to disturb the princess and so moved off between the trees, skirting the perimeter of the clearing and approaching the tower from the far side. He looked to the skies through the canopy for the first sign of the change, watching the bars of pale sunlight as they raced up the boughs. The forest grew suddenly dark as he watched and he pulled his body tight amongst the shadows of a great tree that had been uprooted, the strong branches of its brothers propping it up as it stretched to the canopy above. Erdik sat with baited breath and waited for the princess’ voice to pierce the quiet, the sign that the ritual had begun.
He looked up and saw the first crimson fingers snaking their way through the trees. The sight struck a chord of fear in him as he remembered the legends of this wood that was once called Slumber, of its silent song grasping the unwary, leading them to walk in dark circles for eternity at the forest’s sleeping heart – were Siva to disappear here, her knew there was a chance she might never be found. Clenching his fists, he made his way onto the fallen tree, following the path worn into the bark, thinking that he could survey the scene from above. A thought struck him as his eye followed the line of the path into darkness. There should not be a path here.
He moved slowly up the worn pathway, higher into the canopy. He had all but reached the first of the great branches when something stopped him in his tracks. From out of the shadows of the interlocking branches above him came lithe suggestions of movement, formless and wispy at first, swirling like gossamer mist, then creeping into sight, slowly revealing every perfect, glistening inch. He made to grab his sword but faltered at the last, jaw hanging slack.
Erdik! the voice inside screamed. It is her!
As the realisation came she was revealed in full. A lustrous figure stood before him, self-effulgent in robes that hugged the contours of her perfect frame, golden red hair that hung about her hips in long fiery tresses, eyes so crisp that they pierced to his very core. He knew that body well, that golden face. A thousand times he had looked upon its likeness in the days of his youth, before the king had set about purging the old ways, and he could not bring himself to believe that she stood before him now.
‘Impossible,’ he mouthed as the shame of a million wasted moments weighed down upon him. ‘Impossible.’
Yet here she stood, real, glistening like the very image of perfection; the goddess Æanna, mother of his vanished homeland, glowing with a beauty that stood mere inches away yet could not be of this earth. He stood gazing upon her for long seconds, thinking of all the times he had prayed and made offerings to her, and of all the times he had not, of the way he had willingly shunned her and had her place usurped by those he had come to serve. To speak of her in Potamia, even to think of her, was forbidden, yet now he knew that, even in his doubt, she had never deserted him and satisfied himself that he had been right to hold onto those forbidden memories as his forefathers had taught.
The fabric of the forest wavered. It seemed as though the air was boiling around him, turning the forest to a cauldron, distorting the branches and leaves with rippling warmth. He felt faint as his breath caught in his chest. The goddess began to move, eyes locked onto her subject. Erdik felt himself carried away as if by a torrent as she reached out to touch him, eyes wide, smiling.
Far off behind him, near a tower that he had almost forgotten, in a forest that seemed merely a dream, he heard the tiny sound of the princess’ song. The sound was faint and distant, and was dragged from his thoughts instantly, such was his reverence of the perfect Æanna, filling his body with a wave of fire and longing.
She was almost upon him now. He could breathe in the warm spices that drifted from her body. He had imagined her scent a thousand times and revelled in it now, the truth of it outweighing every expectation – the smell of summer and light, of warmth and good and, deeper now, the barest scent to halt him, pull him back from his adoration, something else drawing his attention, bristling below the surface like a barely-heard whisper. Devotion turned to repulsion in an instant as Erdik pulled himself away and stumbled backwards, unsure of the goddess, fearful of the tainted aura that had suddenly burst from her pristine form. This was wrong; this was all wrong. His nostrils flared to seek out the alien scent and in that instant the whole vibrant fantasy cracked like a pane of glass and fell away on the wind. The scarlet light of the Red Moon crept into the canopy and bathed the goddess in its sick majesty, drawing back the veil of her trickery.
Where Æanna had stood was a vile beast, the muscles and sinews of its form rippling and tensing as it turned its face upwards to the crimson god above. The slavering beast growled at the sky and turned to fix his eyes on Erdik, cold black pinpricks burning hatred and fury, eyes as black and soulless as the men whose heads rested against the flanks of his steed. Every inch of flesh and fur was covered in parasites, making the solidity of the form a mere suggestion, heightening the sense of mirage. As the travesty reared up on its hindquarters into a spear of light he saw with a stab of fear that it had the face of a man, stretched horribly across the pointed bones of the skull like an ill-fitting mask. It was a face he knew well. It was his father’s face.
A trick, he told himself as the face leered over him. A trick.
The beast tensed its gnarled shoulders and, with a great intake of air, breathed a rancid stream towards Erdik, baring rows of needle-like teeth that filled the gaping maw all the way back to the shadowed depths of its throat, where some unknown organ puckered and gaped like a second mouth. The smell it carried was of carrion and death; foul and cloying.
I will die here, Erdik thought distantly as the fear swelled, as he was taken back to the days of his Long Trial, a foul creature akin to this dropping from the trees to tear his heart from his chest as this beast thought to do now
Yes, you will, came the voice, his father’s voice – everywhere and nowhere.
He reached over his shoulder and drew his broadsword, gripping the massive handle with both hands, giving himself strength as he felt the perfect marriage of flesh and steel. You are not my father. He stood his ground and stared into those poisoned eyes, letting the aberration know he would not let it pass.
“You are not my father,” he said softly, then louder: “You are not my father!”
Suddenly the creature ducked low and leapt towards him, charging like an angry bull. Erdik fell quickly to his back, levering the heavy broadsword under the crook of his arm. But the creature was equal to him. It bent its body away from the blade with a fluid quickness that the eye could not compute, flipping high over the warrior and landing with a thud on the branch behind him.
He saw the creature from behind now, shoulder blades protruding from the skin in deadly serrated peaks, the flesh of the back littered with thick black quills, bristling and chattering, every movement throwing swarming parasites off in tiny clouds. The creature began to move off down the levelled tree towards the clearing, ignoring Erdik as though he were no more than a troublesome insect. Time seemed to be running slower and Erdik immersed himself in the feeling, drinking everything in. He realised then that he was not the prey.
“Run, Siva!” he bellowed towards the princess.
Siva was rooted to the spot, mouth open in a silent scream, arms wrapped around her to cover her nakedness. The warrior felt a resurgence of adrenaline at the sight of her and lunged at the beast, muscles straining as he swung the broadsword in a great arc towards the interlocking plates of the creature’s neck. The blow deflected from the rough hide as though a child had wielded the blade – once, twice, thrice – and Erdik began to understand that brute force may not be his best ally, that he would need his wits to find a weakness. He rallied his strength and pressed forward, swinging the blade low to the soft flesh of the calves, the tendons of the ankles, knowing there must be a weak spot somewhere.
Time and again the blow deflected and his enemy continued its lumbering advance toward the princess. Erdik fancied that he heard a guttural laugh escape from that tooth-filled mouth as he made for another attack, a laugh that had sounded like a sick parody of his father’s, and a small part of him began to wonder if the face of the beast was true, if this was what his father had become. Then, without so much as a backwards glance, the creature’s scaled arm swung towards Erdik with a whipping movement that no human joint would allow, taloned fingers outstretched. The razor sharp claws connected and drew thin red lines across Erdik’s chest, a warning that his next assault would bring death.
Erdik moved his blade from hand to hand as blood seeped into his tunic, grinding his teeth as he cursed the newly-inducted Cromos and his inability to follow orders. Where are you, my brother? Why have you forsaken me? The fractured din now weaving towards him through the twisted mass of the forest at his back gave him his answer: the many-layered screaming of men, the heavy running of the Drudwyn, the harsh clanging of steel on steel, the splintering of wood and bone; the song of battle. The Unwanted. We have been ambushed.
Borne on by a fresh wave of hatred, Erdik prepared to throw himself at the creature as it dropped from the base of the tree, the multitudinous quills moving like waves on the surface of an ocean. As he drew in a massive breath and lifted the broadsword high above his head, preparing to throw the heavy shaft of steel, he saw with a flare of hope that the princess had fled, to the safety of his brothers he prayed. The beast screamed, turning its face to the sky.
The sound barely registered, for Erdik glanced to the tower and saw a face peering at him from a narrow window, a face he had pictured in times beyond counting, burnt into his memory now from that single stolen glimpse. There was no doubt in his mind that it was the Prophet, the one who had been promised, returned at last against all odds. It was true, then. It was all true. Æanna and her memory was of little consequence now, no more real that the cloak of her image that this demonic beast had worn to trick him. If the demon were to end him now it would not matter, for the ritual had worked and the people would be saved.
Even as the mighty fist of the beast connected with Erdik’s temple, and he was flung backwards up the body of the tree, falling heavily on the thick bark with a sickening crunch; even as he saw the beast turn and run into the darkness of the trees when it raised its head and laid its gaze upon the stare of the Prophet; as he saw his bloodied comrades filter out from the dark forest, ignorant of his plight as he lay crumpled and bleeding in the dust; even through all of this, the warrior was smiling in the arms of an epiphany, sure now that the wheels had been set in motion, that the coming of the Promised One would happen, as it had been written.
Aldous sat in the heavy darkness of the room at the top of the tower, his only companion the rhythmic beating of his heart and the tiny clicks in the bones of his ears as he concentrated on every breath. He had no clue how long he had been alone. He was trapped in blackness with only his thoughts, nothing to still their heady spinning, the thick stone walls cutting off all sound from without, amplifying all from within.
He reached into the breast pocket of his suit for his lighter, hoping it had survived his spell in the water. He struck the flint and the flame took hold on the first attempt, holding it above his head and laying his eyes on his surroundings for the first time.
The room was no more than ten feet across, perfectly circular. The walls were covered in a sheen of dust, and in the centre of the floor, upon a raised pedestal of rough stone, marked in each of its corners with a tall black candle, sat a rich cushion of glittering silk, its deep purple muted by dust and grime. As his eyes were drawn down, he noticed the trailing gouges his footsteps had left in the floor, the only marks in the chamber that pointed to anyone having been here in a very long time. With a start he found that the lighter had become red hot, and he dropped it, plunging the room into darkness. As he leaned forward and felt around his feet, a flash of imagery filled his thoughts, a memory of something his eye had fallen upon in the seconds of wavering light, but which burst to the forefront of his mind now.
He found the lighter and crawled to the centre of the room, holding the flame above his head until he reached the pedestal. After sitting atop the cushion and lighting the four tall candles, the room was revealed as the darkness peeled back, replaced with an odd black light like that he remembered from the caverns below Redwood when he had first found the Gateway. He stared around silently, taking in the sight. Every inch of floor, wall and ceiling was covered in small mosaic tiles, concealed by the years of filth. But he fancied he could glimpse their true purpose beneath. He could see the rich wash of blues and creamy whites of the ceiling tiles forming the patchwork of the sky above in the ungenerous light, the browns and greens and oranges of the trees and the hills beyond, the tiles of the walls and floor combining to create one fluid panorama, a replica, he realised, of the world that spread outside, below and away from the tower.
He stood up, removed his jacket, and wrapped it around his forearm before moving to the dusty tiles on the wall and beginning his clean-up, eager to satisfy his curiosity. The first cleared section showed the mountain where this had all started, its many-coloured outline against the sky familiar to him. He followed the curve of the wall, systematically removing the years of dust that caked the surface of every tile, feeling there might be something here that could help him understand. When he had reached the opposite side of the wall from where he had started, the sweat had soaked through his shirt and he stood erect and scrubbed a large section showing a clearing in the trees and a pass through the mountains to what he supposed was the south.
Every inch of the artwork filled him with awe. The elaborate swirls and lines of the sky, a shade or two darker where it hugged the horizon, lighter in the stratosphere; the miniscule points and gouges that gave depth and brought the image to life; the greens and blacks and purples of the distant peak seeming too crisp the longer he took them in. Layer upon layer of rich brushstrokes built the image up so vividly that when he reached out and rubbed his palm across the tile that showed the mountain peak, he was sure he had felt the most disparate things, flowing into him all at once – rock, snow, earth, water.
He reached up and removed the eye-patch as a cloud of dust rose up and irritated his good eye, moving on instinct. Again there was no pain, just a vague tinge of red that filled his vision.
When he looked to the wall at his front a fabulous and terrible sight assailed him, suddenly revealed. All that waited outside the tower was somehow seeping through the wall and the floor, replacing the tiles and giving him the sensation of floating unaided above the canopy, as though the room at the top of the tower was some vast glycerine bubble with Aldous suspended at its heart. He could feel people moving around in the shadows behind the trees, could hear heartbeat upon heartbeat winding their way towards him from secret places below. The sensations were too much to bear and he pulled the eye-patch back into place, a vague terror bubbling inside. The tiles stared back, full of lines and gouges, splashes of colour.
Nothing more, he told himself. Nothing more.
He heard yells from outside then and ran to the narrow window that looked out across the clearing, an arrow slit no more than three inches wide. Night was falling fast, the long shadow of the tower stretching across the clearing to his front. There was movement behind the trees, he saw, figures running, glimpsed in snatches, the sound of horses’ hooves on the moist earth, heavy thuds and the clang of steel, hellish screams that belonged only in nightmares. A battle was underway, out of sight but close enough to worry him.
A few muscled men with swords in hand skirted around the edge of the clearing as the dusky sky began to flush with red. They paused and looked to the heavens for a moment whilst they waited for a straggler to catch up, then ran into runs between the trees, blades held aloft. Aldous fancied he heard a deep growl – so deep he almost felt it – from somewhere out there and wondered what exactly the men were fighting. As he glanced back across the clearing, the shadows changing from black and grey to red and purple he caught a glimpse of Dylan below. The boy was coming round from the rear of the tower and was leading a young girl – the singing girl – on a white horse. They rushed across the open grass and disappeared from sight between the trees. It was only in the seconds afterwards that Aldous realised the girl’s dress had been drenched in blood.
His gaze was drawn away to fall upon the strangest sight of all. There was a blond-haired warrior by the foot of a fallen tree, the whites of his eyes stark as he walked forward with sword drawn. As soon as Aldous set eyes on him the man turned his way, his gaze boring into Aldous as though it were something solid. It felt as though there could’ve been a hundred miles between them and Aldous would still have felt it. There was movement in the shadows in front of the man and – even though something told Aldous he should look away, that he was learning something he had no wish to learn – he saw the briefest flash of the enemy that put the warrior on his back as it formed from the shadows.
He turned away and slid down the wall as a whimper escaped him, that travesty of creation he had glimpsed for only a fraction of a second prominent in his thoughts, staying there for long minutes after he wished it gone. He had no wish to stand back up to see if it was real.
A trick of the light, he told himself over and over again. A trick of the light.
He expected the cry that would mean the warrior’s death, expected the door from below to burst in and someone – or something – to rush up the stairs and find him, tear him limb from limb. None of that happened. After a while the sounds of muffled shouts and running feet dwindled. As he cradled his head in his hands and gazed through the bars of his fingers at the dusty floor, every sense tensed and alert, Aldous felt as though the oppressive weight hanging around his neck – the weight comprised of all the things he did not know, comprised of thoughts of his treacherous father and the boy in the pool, thoughts of Redwood House and the life he had lost – might never be shifted. He knew also that to sit and dwell on things would bring him nothing but harm, do nothing but weaken him further.
And now I’m alone, he told himself as he pictured Dylan fleeing with the girl on the white horse, running to god-knows-where. Every idea he entertained convinced him that it was pointless to stay hidden, that someone would come through the door eventually.
He put on his dusty jacket and rushed down the steps, gripping the spear in a sweaty palm. It was quiet out there now as he pushed the warped door open a crack and peered out across the forest clearing, every surface flushed with dark, alien colours from the crimson moon sat high above. Whatever had happened before it seemed to have ended but still he could not bring himself to look over towards the fallen tree for fear of what he might find. He pushed the door open wide – gritting his teeth at the resultant groan – and saw Dylan waiting in the shadows by the side of the doorway, as nonchalant as Aldous had ever seen him. He was about to reach out and grab the boy in anger when he noticed the crowd gathering by the edge of the clearing as they appeared from the runs between the trees.
For a moment there was stunned silence as the crowd of warriors took Aldous in, each of them wanting to look to their companions for affirmation yet none wanting to look away from the sight they had waited their whole lives for. The brief spell seemed to break as they remembered themselves and, as one, they bowed low in the dust, lying prostrate and offering their blessings in muttered voices.
Aldous gasped as a shaft of red light pierced the clouds and framed his shaking body, and voices all around him took up the stirring cry that echoed into the night.
‘Hail the Prophet. He has returned.’
‘Hail the Prophet. He has returned.’
‘Hail the Prophet. He has returned.’
High in the hidden womb of the mountain Cordelia sat against the thrumming Gateway and stroked the abomination she had brought into the world as though it were a playful puppy, a creature impossible not to love. With every touch pain filled her but she was willing (for now at least) to ignore the sensation, to keep it at bay until she was strong enough to use it. A solid grasp of the hours that had passed since she had sacrificed the brothers and the Gateway took her in its grasp was beyond her, but she felt herself growing strong as she listened to the soft rasp of her breathing and dwelt on the thought that – despite the ruin of the shell about her – she had changed, evolved. The Gateway had brought about this change, awakened or reawakened something as she passed through, of that she was certain.
She had waited for long years to be led to that place, to find her way through the billion-fold thoughts conspiring against her, and, in the end, she had succeeded as she knew she must, and every life ruined along the way, every mind ravaged, seemed worth it with this flood of sensation and knowing the Gateway had provided. She would have destroyed a whole people, quite willingly and without recourse, for feelings such as these.
Frozen images came to her in the darkness, moments from before that seemed as though they might not have happened were it not for the beast at her feet. Still the truth of it shocked her, even though her own hands had done the deed, her own treasured terrors committed to flesh, subsumed by the Gateway and brought to the fore again as something new. She remembered the first moments after coming through the threshold, remembered the broken and bloodied shells of the brothers gripping together like magnets with a wet slapping sound, shattered limbs contracting like vines into the trunk where they swirled and bubbled before surging outwards and taking on their new form, formed into something new by the power of her wants and needs. She saw two heads, twisted and dripping like tallow, fusing together; skin and bone fading and turning opaque as new nerves and veins glowed dully from within; thick hairs bursting from the flesh and sprouting across the torso; claws of charred bone settling into place at the ends of new limbs.
And behind it all, Cordelia’s vision, Cordelia’s hand.
She thought back to all that happened before as she felt the skin of her face pucker and settle, a tight, wet mask. She remembered the flames as she had stood outside in the woods, waiting for the call once the deed was done and her enemies – the only ones who could stand in her way – were slain. She had never before felt as furious as she had in that moment, cursing the brothers and their stupidity as the house took flame. She remembered running from the trees and smashing a narrow window on the ground floor, pulling herself over the ledge as pointed shards cut her palms, the pain feeling good. The room inside was dark and quiet. It felt as though she had stepped into a different house than the one she had watched from outside, but when she moved across and opened the door an image of hell greeted her. Most of the bottom floor was ablaze, doorways in smouldering walls open to reveal orange cauldrons thrumming beyond, clouds of smoke billowing wildly from every room and corridor, the hiss and scream of burning timbers all but drowned out by the fire’s rampant howl.
Her flesh had contracted and burned as she ascended the crumbling staircase; she could smell the heady scent of it, felt it tightening against her muscles. But she did not allow the pain to register, even as her eyelids shrivelled and her hair burnt close to her scalp, even as the slender fingers blackened and stiffened and turned to glistening pink stumps. There were brief moments in those dark tunnels beneath the ground when she had left the fire behind and the empty blackness had overwhelmed her, the pain finding its way through, sharp stabs of agony that brought her to her knees, but each time she had focussed her thoughts and flushed the pain away, bringing memories of other times to the fore, holding her attention. After that there was only darkness for the longest time, darkness and flashes of red, the Gateway calling out to her from somewhere ahead.
The surge of electricity thrummed within her again – powers begging to be set free, to sculpt and form, using her as though she were a conduit. She had tamed that power soon enough, grabbed it by the reins and made it her own. She reached out to feel the wiry flesh of her masterpiece in the darkness as if to confirm that it was real, to deny the thought that someone had filled her mind with lies as she had done to so many others. The beast growled beneath her, as real as the darkness, as the cold stone.
Cordelia had always been adept at using the thoughts of others, shaping them to suit her will, leading them down strange paths against their every urge. She had lost count of how many people she had used and left broken, how many she had shown things that would stain their thoughts forever, how many she had left babbling and drooling when they failed her. Sometimes just for fun. But all that did not matter now – those strengths of before seemed turgid and puerile, insignificant compared to what she was now capable of.
She felt a dull ache in her extremities and glanced at the stumps of her fingers again in the darkness, soft and glistening, like thin pink maggots. She closed her eyes – the brittle lids resisting her urges – and pictured herself as she was before she had walked through the fire and lost herself in that dark basement and, as she thought of the way things were, so her flesh became once again. The blackened welts and raw burns that covered her retracted and vanished. Her hair sprouted anew and fell around her shoulders. The rictus the fire had made on the ruined left side of her face loosened its hold and retracted, and the smile she remembered and had used so well returned to her pale, angelic face. The whole change took mere minutes and she moved a hand in front of her face, seeing the sodden lumps of shining flesh resume their form as if by the touch of a master sculptor.
She stared at that hand for the longest time, eyes glazing as some inner floodgate opened. Despite the greatness she felt there was a sudden burning anger. She knew now what that tiny part of her had always feared, the tiny part which she had striven to extinguish but which had never gone away. She had been played for a fool by the Whisperer, the one who had set her on her path, and had conspired willingly against herself by believing his lies, his oft-repeated words that there was nothing here for her whilst her prey still lived, that to return before she carried out her task would bring certain death. He had lied too about her prize, about the wonders that waited for her once the task was done. Her task had failed yet here she was with the power she had always coveted, the power to bring form to her thoughts, to sculpt and model until the world was her design. It sickened her to think that she had been kept from this for so long, that she had not questioned even once in her ignorance, merely listened and obeyed, telling herself that when the time was right she would have her just reward.
And it was here all along. Waiting.
She laughed softly in the darkness as she imagined how simple her years in exile would have been had she known these strengths, the laugh turning to a snarl as she remembered that she need never have been sent there in the first place. She felt the beast jerk awake beneath her, felt his muscles tense and stroked the back of his neck as though he were a kitten, trying to forget all that had happened before, the pointless life she had spent, cast out, stagnating. That was a different person who had been so foolish before, so eager to believe, to serve. The new Cordelia would not be so willing to spend even a single moment in devotion to anything but her own desires from this moment onwards, and it was those needs and desires that would bring about the end of the one who had cheated her, bring about the end of the Whisperer.
She felt the breath of the beast on her face, hot and sweet like old meat. His mouth gaped and let out a series of gurgles as though he was trying to speak. The attempt failed and the beast fell silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and howled, the sound deafening and marvellous. She smiled as the sound diminished, feeling strong once again, ready.
“Go,” she said. “Get us out of here.”
Cordelia listened as her creation bounded across the chamber and set to work, tearing at the rocks and slabs that filled the doorway. Their time spent together since his birth had gone well. They had bonded as mother and son should, and now, she knew, he would be ready and willing to do anything for her. She imagined that the rocks and boulders being flung across the chamber where the bodies of those who stood in her way, imagined the havoc her beautiful baby would wreak in her name, the terror he would bring.
She smiled. “I will call you Bane.”
Bane threw his head back and howled his approval at the words of his mistress, digging with renewed vigour. For long minutes the only sounds were Bane’s scrabbling in the narrow stairwell, rocks falling to the floor. Then the texture of the air changed as she felt a cooling wind rushing over her. Cordelia let the scent fill her – air and water, wet stone and fire – and smiled as she beckoned Bane to her side.
The beast came down the cleared stairwell and ambled over to her, rubbing his muzzle against her. Cordelia felt the hot breath and the sharp hairs against her skin and let out a high-pitched laugh, like a baby rubbing his palm across his father’s stubble. Bane lowered his body to the floor at her front, offering his back. He learns quickly, she thought as she mounted her creation and took in a deep lungful of fresh air. Bane craned his neck and let out a deep-bass growl that reverberated around the chamber, his limbs tensed like coiled springs. He was growing into his new role, eager now to continue the chase the brothers had thought complete in another life. Cordelia laughed. That chase is no more, my sweet. There will be new enemies ahead, new prey.
She loosened her grip on the creature’s mind and it hurtled off through the chamber, taking stairs five and six at a time. When they came out upon the platform from which Aldous and Dylan had jumped, Bane leapt out into the darkness without so much as a second thought. Cordelia did not scream. She trusted her creation implicitly.
Bane readied his limbs and shifted his back with the dexterity of a falling cat. Cordelia barely felt the impact as they landed on the moist basin; she did not have time to for in the same moment Bane was hurtling towards the opening, rushing past the slime-coated strand line, past the windblown pile of dust that had once been Lemistat. He burst onto the platform and reared up on his hind legs, turning towards the Red Moon in supplication, bathing in its sickly hue. The muscles of Cordelia’s face went slack as she gazed towards the firmament, bathing herself in the atoms of a world that she hadn’t seen in an age, a world she could barely remember. Thoughts drifted to her as she lowered herself from Bane’s back, memories flowing from the cold rock, visions of an old man crumbling to dust and a child with a blurred face hiding in the shadows. It was the boy, she knew, the boy she had been trailing all these years, the one who could ruin everything. Try as she might she could not pierce through the cloak of darkness and see him, and that scared her, even now.
But it was not these thoughts that held her attention, it was the gentle tug she felt from the peak above, as though a hand was pulling her by her solar plexus. Power, she told herself and knew that she must go to it. Already she could feel herself growing stronger as a million different thoughts and sensations drifted about her, some rooted in the here and now, others from times long-gone and long-forgotten.
Another face came to her amidst the rush of sights and sounds, a young boy half-concealed by shadow. She focussed on the memory and gasped at the sudden connection as she realised it was a face she knew, a face she had perhaps always known. Tanned skin, black hair shorn close to the skull so that the scalp seemed blue, grey eyes bulging. To look upon it chilled her, gave her a feeling in her stomach that she had never known and she realised at once that this boy, this tiny child, was the Whisperer. The image was so vital now in opposition to the forces that had banished it for all these years, as though it was calling her to learn its meaning, learn or remember the story that went with that image.
She looked down to the shadowed forest below and reaffirmed her belief that there was no point now in carrying on with the chase that had led her here, that had been her purpose for such an age, not when such fresh revelations were near. She had been lied to, played for a fool. Their deaths would be meaningless now. They are no longer my concern. My concern now is revenge.
She gazed up to the cloud-wreathed peak of the mountain, its ragged ramparts painted with fingers of ice and snow, tinged red by the light of the moon. What it was she did not know but Cordelia sensed something there, something that called out to her. She forgot all that lay below and focussed her thoughts on what waited over the peak. To find the source of that power and conquer it would be her first test.
She called Bane to her and jumped astride his swarthy back, rubbing her hands through his wiry fur as he shook his head, sending glittering strings of slaver into the night air. With something akin to a smile pasted across his wretched face, the beast turned away from the forest and faced the peak, ready to begin the ascent towards the cloud-wreathed snowline.
Dylan and Aldous were sitting on the floor of the tiled room at the top of the tower. A silence that was heavy but not total filled the room, counter-pointed by the sombre call of a lone bird filtering down from the canopy. It was the first sound they had heard from outside since dawn.
The flickering lights of the four black candles – almost burned down to the quick – bathed the room in a wavering radiance, throwing torturous shadows about the curved wall. Aldous had been staring hard for long minutes trying to recreate the sensation of before but, try as he might, it would not return. He clenched his fists in anger and stamped his feet like a petulant child. It felt as though his own mind was cheating him, providing him with memories that had perhaps never been.
“Why is nothing happening?” he screamed as he hammered at the tiles with both fists. “I could see it. It’s… as if I …as if all this was a mere shell… as if…” He paused and drew in a lungful of air as he remembered. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Half a day ago I thought I was going insane. It took me a while to get to that point, but I thought it and I believed it.” He turned away from the wall to face the child, thinking of the words the men outside had chanted. They called me the Prophet. “Now I’m sure I’m losing it. I mean, how can I begin to explain what happened in here, never mind what’s happening outside?”
Dylan offered no response, his eyes hidden in dark recesses as his head drooped, thoughts a million miles from the here and now.
It had been less than an hour since the strangers in the clearing had gathered themselves and left. As soon as the shouts of the night before began Aldous had turned on his heel and ran back up the stairs, back to the tiled room, unable to bring himself to peek out the narrow window again. He didn’t think he could cope with their collective gaze, didn’t think he could begin to understand what they expected of him. Some time passed – Aldous had no idea how much or how little – then the shouts and yells from below petered out. The silence turned out to be more horrible for Aldous than the shouting. He felt unable to do anything, as though the slightest movement would bring them all running through the rotten door and up the stairs. Time and again he thought they would come but time and again they did not.
They’ll have a long bloody wait, Aldous had thought. I can stay cooped up for as long as it takes.
His stomach had growled then as if to disagree.
At some point Aldous had fallen asleep and when he came to he found Dylan sprawled out beside him, snoring softly. A shaft of grey pre-dawn light pierced through the narrow slit of the window. He listened to the silence again and eventually picked up the courage to stand and peer out the window. The crowd were still there, still as statues, peering up towards him, and Aldous had the horrible thought that they would stay there until he went to them, no matter how long it took. But as the shadows pulled back and the first hues of dawn bled into the sky, the warriors gathered together and moved off into the forest, leaving nothing save splotches of their spilled blood amongst the blasted soil, a few muddy footprints.
Still, Aldous imagined them somewhere out there on the other side of the great trees, waiting for him to make his move. Soon Dylan awoke bearing that expectant, carefree look that Aldous was growing to loathe. He had started whispering questions at the boy and now this, Dylan falling entranced before him, as though he had slipped into a waking dream.
“Are you listening?” he said.
Dylan said nothing in reply.
Aldous reached out to give the boy a shake. “What use are you if you keep doing this?” Aldous shook harder, Dylan’s head rocking back and forth, but the boy remained silent, ignoring his touch.
Aldous raised a hand as he considered for the briefest moment slapping the boy but knew that, whatever Dylan had done, he did not deserve that. Tears threatened to come as he stared at his hand, at the stricken boy sat on the floor and he stood and went towards the doorway, fighting the urge to scream and cry as he stepped onto the narrow landing. Whether the boy was awake and alert or out like a light, Aldous didn’t know, but he wasn’t going to let him see that this was getting the better of him.
“This nonsense… it’s too bloody much.” He muttered as he wiped away a tear, straining against the urge to fall to his knees and let it all out. He ran a hand through his hair, cleared his throat and shouted back through the open doorway, trying – and failing – to sound like he was on top of things. “Do you hear me in there? Too bloody much.”
The thought had briefly crossed his mind during the depths of the night that he should find a way through the rafters to the outside, jump from the tower, fall to the ground with a smile on his face, and bring this whole charade crashing down about his ears, stand strong against this… this falsehood, refuse to accept it, and as he went again to those dangerous thoughts he heard a pained groan from inside the room.
He gathered himself and stepped back inside to see that Dylan had rolled onto his back and lay spread-eagled on the floor, his head lolling. Aldous reached down and turned him over into the recovery position, recognising that something was amiss. The boy was limp, his skin deathly pale and there were no visible signs that he was breathing. Suddenly any idea that the boy was toying with him was cast aside. As he leaned forward and made the give Dylan the Kiss of Life, the boy’s eyes burst wide for a few moments and he took in a massive gasping breath. It seemed to Aldous from what he had read in those eyes – though he did not really believe in such things – as though another soul, another presence, was in that body with him and was straining to push out. Even as Aldous stared and wondered distantly for the thousandth time if there was more that the boy was keeping to himself, Dylan’s body jerked stiff in a massive muscular spasm and a pain-filled groan bounced around the room as his eyes closed, fluttering beneath the lids.
Whatever the problem was – a seizure of some sort, perhaps – Aldous could see no obvious physical injuries so he wrapped his arms around the child’s rigid body, picked him up and carried him to the landing, wondering now if perhaps Dylan had experienced something in that room in his moments alone as Aldous had the night before. Whatever the reasons, Aldous wanted nothing to do with them. For now, there was only one thing that needed to be done: sort Dylan out, get some sense out of him and find a way out of here.
Dylan spluttered beneath him.
“Shhh,” Aldous said as he rubbed a hand through the child’s hair. “Don’t worry. Just relax and breathe. Everything’ll be fine.”
“I… there was…” Dylan stuttered. His eyes darted from fear to confusion and back. “I… I saw…I… there was something… waiting to… something… something watching…” He paused to gasp for a few seconds. “It’s something following me, Aldous, something following us.”
Aldous pictured the bristling creature he had glimpsed descending on the warrior the night before and wondered if it was this that the boy sensed, or if it was perhaps something worse, some other terror he was yet to encounter. Whatever the vision had contained, Aldous knew he didn’t want to know any of it, knew that to wrap himself up in dreams and prophecies was a bad idea. He reached into his pocket for his hip flask and cradled Dylan’s head in his hand as he moved the flask to the boy’s lips. “Relax and drink this.”
Dylan coughed and spluttered as the liquid burned his throat. Aldous held the boy’s head back and made sure he swallowed it.
“One more for good luck.”
Dylan grimaced. “I’m fine now,” he croaked. “And that stuff tastes horrible.”
Aldous smiled, took a few swigs from the flask and sat down, waiting for Dylan to catch his breath. When his question came it was blasé, at odds with the terror Dylan so clearly felt.
“So, what happened in there?”
Dylan shook his head, wishing he didn’t have to remember. “I said it felt like something was following us, like it’s been watching us since we came here but… but I think maybe... maybe it was me. I don’t know.”
Here we go again, Aldous thought. “Well, that’s as clear as mud. But at least it’s good to see you back to your confusing, riddle-speaking self,” he quipped. Dylan’s face was set in stone so Aldous offered the flask. “Have another drink. Then you and me can get to talking. You had the better of me back on the mountain, filling my head with all sorts whilst I was confused enough to believe it, but I’m back on top now and as soon as you’re ready we’re going to straighten some things out.” He moved over to open to door. “So, get back inside that room and…”
Dylan unleashed a wordless scream and half-ran, half-crawled across the floor, collapsing in a shivering heap by the top of the stairs. “I’m not going back in that room. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you see it? Something is in there.”
Aldous sighed. He didn’t know what else to do. “To tell you the truth, Dylan, I don’t care what you saw in that room, what I think I saw in that room. It doesn’t mean a thing unless it can get me out of here. I don’t care what fancy you throw upon me next. All I care about is getting some sense out of you and finding a way home. Whether you start giving me answers out here or in there doesn’t really matter, just so long as I get them.”
Dylan seemed to shrink into himself, hugging the stone banister for support. He suddenly looked every inch the little boy lost and Aldous felt somewhat like an ogre, browbeating the child into submission for something that was, if the boy was to be believed, beyond his control.
When he spoke next his tone was soft. “I’m sorry, Dylan. I’m sorry for raising my voice. I’m sorry for the way I am. I’m sorry I don’t live up to expectations. I’m sorry for everything but this is all so hard for me. I just want you to tell me something I can grasp, something that will help me. I can’t help you unless you help me, don’t you see?”
“I CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT I DON’T KNOW!” Dylan screamed.
Dust motes filled the suddenly vast space between them as Dylan fell to the floor, tears flowing. It seemed that the brief outburst had been more than he could take and Aldous bowed his head in silence and waited, brooding yet ashamed at the same time. Presently, when his fit of sobbing had subsided, Dylan stood and spoke: “I can’t help you, unless you help me. Don’t you see?”
Aldous spoke through gritted teeth. “I don’t see. How can I? You won’t explain any of this. All I hear is that you don’t know and if you don’t know, what hope have I got? It was you that brought me here, remember? I have hundreds of questions and you do nothing but lead me in circles with your guesswork and your useless bloody memories of times and places that mean nothing. I don’t have time for all this… this…” He punched the air and imagined his father’s smug face, imagined that his father was – somehow – behind all this. “If you don’t help me on this one, Dylan; if you don’t do what I ask, I swear, I will leave you and find my answers without you, whatever it takes.”
When Dylan spoke his voice sounded distant, tiny, fragile. “Please, don’t say that. Please.” He stumbled across the hallway and collapsed into the old man’s body, wrapping his arms around him, sobbing into his chest. “Please, Aldous, I need you. Everyone needs you and, even if you don’t believe it yet, you are all that really matters, the reason I am here.”
The words, or perhaps the way they were delivered, made Aldous halt. He wrapped his arms around the slender body and hugged Dylan back, welcoming the silence and the flood of new emotion. It was all he could do to keep from crying. Suddenly he was a child again, small and helpless, weeping into the warm breast of Miss Cuthbert on the night the body of the boy had been lifted from the pool, lost in a heady tide of confusion and anger at the way his world was crumbling. Her voice had soothed him, like the cooing of a dove, like the rolling and trembling of an ocean. ‘There, there,’ she had said as she stroked errant strands of hair from his face and wiped the tracks of tears from his grubby cheeks. ‘There, there. Everything’s going to be fine, you’ll see. Everything will be just fine.’
He remembered those simple words and repeated them to Dylan now, realising that the burden of power between them had shifted. This new Dylan was a far cry from the wondrous child with piercing eyes who had burst into Aldous’ life and had led him from death to another world, the child who had touched his very centre with no more than a few words. This boy was a shadow of that memory.
Between sniffles, Dylan spoke. “I can see why you don’t trust me and I don’t blame you, but you have to see that we can only get through this if we trust each other. I know you want answers from me and I wish I could give them to you, but I can’t. I just can’t.”
Aldous nodded and gave a weak smile as Dylan cried into his chest. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.” They were the only words he had.
They had left the tower and were spread out on the grass of the clearing, both of them happy to try to forget their respective terrors in the tiled room. The colour had returned to Dylan’s cheeks and he no longer seemed on the verge of breaking.
“Feeling better?” Aldous asked as he watched a tiny speckled bug crawl along a blade of grass – a detail, a detail that could not be imagined.
Dylan smiled. “Much better.”
“Good. So, what now?”
“I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. We should eat something before we set off,” Dylan said as he stood up and pulled the spear from where it was embedded in the soil.
Aldous was hungry but it was not this that occupied his thoughts. “And where might we be setting off to?”
Dylan shrugged. “I don’t know yet.” He wedged the spear behind his belt and pointed to the fallen tree, its base soft and rotted. “Gather some wood for a fire and don’t stray too far from the clearing. I won’t be too long.” With that he turned and darted around the side of a massive tree-trunk and away, shouting over his shoulder as he left. “Wish me luck.”
You’ll bloody need it, Aldous thought. Then: Leaving me again.
He walked across to the steps and sat down, stretching his legs with a groan. When he closed his eyes he could half-imagine that he was back amongst the moss-covered trees of Redwood Forest, barely a worry in the world – renovating the house, a few bad dreams now and then, a bit of back pain; that was it really. It all seemed fickle in comparison. He took out his pipe and filled the barrel from his tobacco pouch, tut-tutting as he realised it was still damp. He gazed into the leather pouch with the tattered cord, tooth marks at the edges that he remembered making, and thought vaguely that this was the exact same pouch that he used in his own world with the same tattered cord, tooth marks and all. Big details, like the forest and mountains, they could be imagined, figments of a dream dredged up from some other part of him. Small details, like the tiny wisps of tobacco or the masonry dust peppered on his suit, the crust of blood on his shirt that had turned a soft pink at the edges, the tiny bug on the blade of grass, they were too insignificant to be the product of a dream.
Stop it, he told himself. All this is doing you no good.
He cupped the pipe in his palm and sucked on the stem as he watched the flame duck and dive, realising that he would be forced to give up as soon as the supply had run dry. At least one good thing might come of all this, he thought with a wry smile.
A movement in shadows at the extremity of his vision caught his attention as he worked the embers. He glanced up and saw a pale face nestled amongst the hanging ferns at the edge of the clearing. He realised at once that it was not Dylan. Aldous puffed out a cloud of smoke and extinguished the flame, calm despite the stranger’s presence, a different reaction from the one he would have had a day previously and he supposed that he was past caring now, that he would face whatever was to come regardless. The watcher seemed to snap to his senses at that moment and Aldous realised it was the flame that had held him spellbound. Aware that he had been rumbled, the figure stood up from his hiding place and walked out to the centre of the clearing, head bowed.
Aldous dimly realised that he recognised the man walking towards him – tall and proud-faced, stern brow beneath a fall of white-blonde hair, wide and hopeful eyes. It was the warrior who had fallen beneath the horrible beast which Aldous had glimpsed for a brief moment from the tower and who had, somehow, survived. Maybe I did imagine it, he thought. He made to stand up and say something when the warrior’s name appeared fully-formed on the tip of his tongue.
“Erdik Hjördis,” he said. Where did that come from? he thought, then decided he must have heard it during the night. That was the most rational option and the only one worth entertaining.
Erdik kept his gaze rooted firmly to the earth as he walked slowly forward. Aldous noticed that the warrior’s hands – as big as shovels – were shaking.
“I have waited my whole life for this,” came the warrior’s voice, “but I have failed you. I have spoiled the Summoning and tainted your return and for this, for all my failures, I am truly sorry.” He peeked up for a moment and Aldous saw utter loss painted across his face, the same look the boy had worn when Aldous had said he would leave him. “Of all those who have waited for you, I know I am the least worthy. But I am here to do whatever is commanded, to follow your word until life has left me.”
Aldous sucked on the stem of his pipe and watched the man, the man willing to offer his life yet unwilling to meet his gaze. There was a trio of thin wounds running across the warrior’s chest and a few scratches and bruises on his hands and arms but apart from that, the warrior seemed in good condition despite the fact that Aldous had presumed him dead. It struck him suddenly that he may have use for this stranger who was willingly offering himself, that he might find in him an ally, a source of protection and a source of answers.
“I saw you, Erdik,” he said. “I saw you fighting that… that creature.”
Erdik kept his head low. “I am sorry. Very sorry. I have failed you.”
This one apologises for everything. “Please, Erdik, sit with me a while,” Aldous said as he blew out a stream of smoke. He patted the worn step beside him and smiled, but the warrior seemed anchored to the spot, unwilling to move. Aldous waved a hand and beckoned the man to him, intensely aware that this huge warrior was – somehow – in abject fear of him, as though he was not seeing Aldous but was instead looking upon the many-quilled beast that had come so close to ending him. “Come now. Don’t be afraid.”
Half-walking, half-stumbling, Erdik made it to the step, averting his eyes all the while as though expecting hellfire and brimstone to fill the sky should he meet Aldous’ gaze. The step was by no means large but Erdik made sure there was the maximum amount of space between them.
“You’re allowed to look, you know,” Aldous said as he sidled across the step, forcing a smile in spite of the warrior’s unease. Not too close. “You won’t turn to stone.” The warrior’s eyes flashed wide. “Forget I said that,” Aldous added.
With a concentrated act of willpower, Erdik raised his head for the briefest of moments before closing his eyes tight and turning away, a mask of what could only be shame pasted across his face.
“So…” Aldous began but was cut-off quickly.
“Please,” the warrior begged, “I’m not worthy. Your words are not for my ears.”
Not worthy? “Nonsense,” Aldous said as he reached out and patted Erdik on the shoulder. The warrior jumped like a startled cat, staring at the point of contact with eyes agog, as if he expected a gaping wound to appear where Aldous had touched.
Aldous was beginning to worry about what exactly his role was in this place and he watched the warrior closely as he beckoned for him to sit down again. “Tell me, Erdik,” he said once the warrior had achieved a relative state of calm. “Who do you think I am?” Erdik let out a choked whimper as Aldous paused. “And why do you fear me?”
The warrior tried to speak but his mouth simply gaped, as though there were words aplenty but he had no way to get them out. Either that or he was deathly scared of what would happen should the words come. He stood up and began to pace back and forth, wringing his hands until his fingers seemed they would form knots. Aldous stood and grabbed him by his broad shoulders, slowly but firmly, swinging him around and pushing him down onto the step, eager to bring a stop to the curious behaviour before it got out of hand. Again the warrior looked to his shoulders as if he expected to find damage, as if Aldous’ grip would melt away skin and dissolve bone, burn through to empty air.
“Please stop,” Erdik said softly as he looked up, close to tears, closer to tears than Aldous imagined the warrior had ever been. “I am not worthy… we must leave here… Please…”
Aldous took a deep breath. This is like talking to a scared child. He knew this was his chance – perhaps his only chance – to figure out at least some of what was going on. He would have to tread carefully. “Erdik, you’re here for a reason. That reason is to help me understand. I need your help, Erdik. I need you and only you. Now, I’m going to ask you some questions, and I want you to tell me what you know.”
“Is this… Is this my test, the test of my faith?”
Aldous nodded blithely. “Yes. Yes, it is. Now…”
The warrior interrupted again. “Please, I am not worthy of this. There are others…”
God Almighty, Aldous thought. “You are worthy, Erdik. I can see no one else here,” he said as he gestured to the empty forest. The others – whoever they are – can wait. “It’s you I need and only you, Erdik.”
“Now, whatever is said here will be between you and I,” Aldous said. He was eager to make some headway before the boy returned, eager to try and fill in the gaps – of which there were many – the boy had left. “First, I need to know where I am.”
For a long moment there was silence as the warrior weighed his words. “You are at the tower… your tower. But then, you know this… you… you must know this.”
“No,” Aldous said. “I can see where I am. That’s not what I mean. I want you to tell me about this place, this world. Where am I?”
“I don’t understand,” Erdik said, shaking his head. “I don’t understand.”
It occurred to Aldous that the warrior most probably had no idea of the world Aldous had come from. Finally convinced yourself then? “Let me start again. There’s no right or wrong answers, Erdik, I only want to know what you know, good or bad, without all this… this worry. Now, please tell me, where am I?”
“A test of faith.” Erdik nodded, convincing himself he had no choice but to speak. “Now we are at your tower, called the Tower of the Visitation by some, the Prophet’s Tower by others, hidden between the foot of the Great Mountain and the Dead Forest known as Slumber where none but the Unwanted have walked in centuries.”
“And beyond that?” Aldous prompted, wondering if the Unwanted where the ones Erdik and his companions had been fighting behind the trees.
“Beyond Malikanna there were once many kingdoms. My people once reigned in the twin cities of Freya and Asha in the far north, but that was an age ago and the people that remain have forgotten. There is nothing there now but the Darkness. Beyond the bowl of the forest and the grasslands to the south, past the distant Mount Lysius lie the plains of the Wastes, and beyond that, beyond the hills of Sandlock, a hundred and more leagues from here, lies the Last City, the great citadel of Potamia. That is where we have waited for you, as it was promised.”
“Okay. Now, nice and simple. Who am I and why have you come for me?”
“I have no right to tell you this.”
Aldous sighed, realising the words that were needed. “I command you.”
It seemed as though Erdik was shrugging off his unease of before – or that he was growing to realise he could not shy away – for his next words came thick and fast. “You are known by many names, none of which I can say aloud. You are the first and the last and I cannot speak your true name, even here, in your presence. It is forbidden.”
“Erdik.” His tone was stern. “I have a right to learn my own name, don’t I?”
Erdik grimaced as the words escaped him. “You are… the Finaeus.”
Aldous watched as the warrior drooped, crumbling as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Aldous too felt as if a weight had been lifted from him, as if he had taken the first step in the path towards the knowledge of why he was here. “Indeed,” he said. “Indeed I am.”
The boy was telling the truth then. Somehow I am a part of this.
He smiled and gave the warrior a wink, wondering if that insignificant gesture held the same meaning in this world as in his own. A thought came to him, a thought that had been pestering him for a while. “And, let me guess, I’m here to save you, to save you all?” Erdik nodded. Of course. Why else? “I have one more question, Erdik” Aldous added as he remembered the lone word carved in the stele by the foot of the mountain, “then you are free to do as you wish. Who or what is Magnir?”
“He is my king and your son in the flesh, sent to watch over us until your return. He is the one who gave his life to prepare the land for your arrival, who kept hope alive when the rest of the earth faltered around us.” The words were spoken as if by rote, like a child reciting catechisms.
Your son in the flesh… “Well,” Aldous mumbled as he stroked his beard, unsure of what to say to that particular revelation. “Ah, thank you, Erdik. You are dismissed.”
Erdik’s eyes flashed wide. “Please, don’t dismiss me. I have done all you ask. I will do all I can, anything you desire. Say you will forgive me, please.”
Aldous didn’t like the way he was being placed on a pedestal by the warrior, and knew he had neither right nor reason to forgive whatever sins or weaknesses tortured the warrior. Still he knew he had to placate the warrior, if only to calm him down. “Of course I’ll forgive you.” Even if it means nothing to me. “You have helped me and I’ll do the same for you.”
Erdik changed to a different man in that instant. He seemed to grow taller, to stand stronger, and Aldous realised that absolution was what had been holding the warrior back; he had done something of which he was ashamed and Aldous was the only one who could make it better.
The warrior stood tall and reached behind his back, removing the heavy broadsword from its sheath. There was a moment, the briefest moment, when Aldous though the warrior might swing the blade and cleave his head from his shoulders, that all his fawning and blubbering of before had been some long-winded trick, but Erdik ducked down and plunged the weapon into the earth, grasping the cold metal until his knuckles turned moon-white. The dull blade threw back distorted reflections to each of the men.
“I live only to serve you,” the warrior said. He reached out and grasped the shining metal of the blade in both fists, running his palms quickly down the keen edge before Aldous had the chance to intervene. Blood welled up and spattered to the soil below where it pooled and turned the earth a muddy black. “This is my blood offering. It ties me to your will alone. I will not sleep, I will not falter, I will not rest until your will is satisfied. I will not fail you.”
Aldous stared open mouthed for long seconds and was only drawn from the sickening scene by the sound of Dylan’s footfalls as he emerged from the trees.
Dark clouds filled the barely-glimpsed sky, turning the forest to premature night, cloaks of shadow hanging everywhere. Something that looked like a pig with thick brown feathers had provided their first meal in this new world. Ordinarily, Aldous would have turned his nose up at the strange looking creature for he had never been much of a gourmand but he was ravenous and wolfed every last shred down as if it was the last meal he was ever going to get.
The trio had eaten in relative silence, Aldous and Dylan huddled close around the smouldering branches, Erdik sitting further away, resting cross-legged by the edge of the fire-glow, drifting in and out of the flickering shadows. As soon as Erdik had stripped the meat from the leg he was eating, he wiped his hands on his furs and moved off to pace the edge of the clearing, bowing to Aldous as he left, his footfalls circling in the shadows just out of sight.
Dylan barely looked away from the flames. The boy was acting as strange as the warrior since his return, as though he had had some realisation whilst alone in the forest. It was clear by his silence that his thoughts were elsewhere.
“So, what do you make of Erdik?” Aldous asked once the warrior had moved off.
Dylan shrugged, saying nothing.
“I mean,” Aldous continued. “I’m sure he can swing a sword when he needs to but, well, do we know we can trust him?”
“I don’t know anything about him,” Dylan replied between mouthfuls, shaking his head slowly. “I don’t know if we can trust anyone. Things here aren’t as I’d imagined them.”
Aldous took a deep breath. “Don’t you find it odd that he hasn’t asked who you are, why you are here? I mean, he told me he was waiting for me, and not just here in the forest. Waiting his whole life, he said. When you came back he didn’t bat an eyelid and he’d been on a knife-edge since he first came to me. He’s accepted you and as if you were meant to be here. He’s either a terrible bodyguard or… or like you said, people have been expecting you.”
“He is from the people of the banished cities, the ones who brought about the Turning.” Dylan spoke the words with a sneer on his lip as if they were poison, but the look passed quickly. “It’s inside me now. I think… I think it came from Erdik. Perhaps it was there all along. His people were the ones who let the Darkness in.”
“Erdik mentioned the Darkness but I don’t follow.”
“It’s like… I don’t know, a pestilence I suppose. An evil that covers the land. That’s why he acts like he does, like he wants to make amends for whatever his people did but he doesn’t think he’s worthy. Perhaps you’re right – although he’s not what I expected, maybe he does know I was meant to return. Or perhaps he’s just accepted me because I’m with you.”
Aldous watched the child’s eyes when he spoke. “You told me your people would come to meet us when we made it to safety. And you said Erdik isn’t one of your people, so…”
Dylan said nothing, working with his tongue at a piece of meat stuck between his teeth.
“Well?” Aldous prompted. “Isn’t that why Lemistat lit those fires, to give your people a signal? Isn’t that why we came this way?”
“I don’t know who or where my people are.” Dylan sighed. “Lemistat said they were all gone and why should I doubt him? It’s clear enough that something strange is happening here… I mean, I can remember him as a boy but he was old, so old.” Both paused for a moment, remembering how Lemistat had fallen to dust in front of them, as though it was only his purpose that had kept him clinging to life for so long. “You know,” Dylan continued, “when I saw the warriors in the forest I thought they were enemies, someone out to get me, but how would they be enemies if they don’t know me? One thing I do believe is that Erdik is a friend. I can see it when he looks at you. The blood on his palms was shed for you. Blood is a powerful tie. That’s the best reason I can think of to trust him.”
Aldous nodded, seeing sense in the boy’s words.
“Even though I was a child when I realised I was different, a part of me always knew what I had to do, to keep myself safe until I found you and the Gateway, but I focussed too much on my life there and forgot the rest, forgot all I’d left behind. I kept away from people, always hiding, out of sight from anyone who may be following, flitting from place to place. But I made it in the end. And now... now I feel lost, like I don’t belong. I’m a stranger here as much as you are. I’m not even sure that my people will remember me if what Lemistat said was true. Maybe I’ve been lost to them in time, or maybe they’ve been lost to me. I don’t know… I can’t…”
Aldous stoked the fire for a long moment whilst Dylan stalled.
“I can’t explain it,” Dylan said softly after a long pause. “I wish I could. It feels like… like I’ve been broken since we came here, as if there’s some part of me that’s missing. The worst thing is that I can’t tell what that part is only that it’s missing. Imagine… imagine when you, when you notice your heartbeat only because it’s faltering, and you realised it was there all along.” Aldous nodded, intensely aware of that feeling having lived it hours before. “That’s how I feel,” Dylan continued. “That’s why I don’t know why my people haven’t come. Because I can’t know. Everything is different. Nothing is what I expected.”
Dylan seemed more at ease now that he was baring his soul, more forthcoming than Aldous had experienced so far in their acquaintance. Aldous decided to go straight for the jugular whilst the answers were free-flowing and hope that the boy would not falter.
“Dylan, I know you’re struggling but I need to know what happened when I went through the Gateway, for my own peace of mind.” He paused to wait for a response but nothing was forthcoming. “When I came to I was wearing an eye-patch but the wound in my stomach – a wound I know was real – was gone. I mean, I saw you die but there’s no blood on you. Where are your wounds? What happened to you, and to me? I need you to tell me everything.”
“I don’t know what happened. I was scared. I just patched you up and took care of you whilst you slept because… well, that’s what I was meant to do, what you would’ve done.” Aldous nodded. “It was the Gateway,” Dylan continued. “It’s a power I can’t even begin to explain. Even thinking about it makes me feel lost. I was never even really sure that I would find it.”
Aldous wasn’t really listening. He was thinking instead on his next words, choosing them carefully. “Dylan, if I ask you to do something, something important, will you do it for me, no questions?” Dylan gave him a questioning look. “I just want to satisfy my curiosity, then we can go to this Potamia and do whatever we have to.”
Dylan shrugged. “Sure.”
Aldous gulped, knowing that what he was about to say would sound wrong, all wrong. “I want you to take off your top.”
Dylan raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
It was Aldous’ turn to hold back now. “I’m looking for a mark, something I saw in my dreams. I need to know that you are who you say you are and not someone who’s out to trick me.”
Dylan threw his bone into the fire and stood as it crackled and spit, eyes fixed on Aldous all the while. He pulled his top over his head and stood with his arms outstretched, turning around slowly. His body was smooth and unmarked but for a small birthmark on his shoulder, and there was no sign to Aldous that the pale, young body before him had anything to do with the ruined corpse he had witnessed in his vision on the side of the mountain.
Aldous had hoped for something to make sense of.
Now he felt more lost than ever.
By the time the dark clouds of morning had left the sky the trio had made their way through the humid bowel of the forest and were rising up with the land as the trees began to thin out, the tower and the clearing disappeared into the gloom a dozen miles behind them.
The horses Erdik had provided where like nothing Aldous had ever seen, smooth and fast and never tiring, moving with fluid ease as though they knew every twist and turn of the forest floor, every exposed root and fallen branch. He had issued no commands, given no signals, nor had he felt the need to. He had simply held on tight as his beast followed Dylan’s, Erdik’s bringing up the rear, ducking low behind the thick mane, closing his eyes as his face was plastered with trailing vines and strands of cobweb, cold air rushing through him.
He had tried to work through all he had learned as they cut a swath through the forest’s heart, past the foetid pool at the core of the basin that filled the air with heavy smog, the trees blurring into one gun-metal grey mass, but time and again his thoughts were dragged back to the two riding with him – strangers, leading him to god-knows-where with god-knows-what intention.
The smaller range reared up in front of them as the trees thinned out, thrusting up from the southern horizon and hugging the hills where the land rose to meet it, the sudden sense of open space tying a knot of fear in Aldous’ stomach as the horses changed their pace until they were running side-by-side. Aldous chanced to glance over his shoulder and saw the purple cap of Malikanna shifting in the wavering cloud-filled distance, and as his hair was whipped across his face he felt his jaw go slack. There was something waiting in the sky behind the mountain, a vast blackness stretching from the snow-capped peak to the stratosphere, as if the shoulders of the mountain were holding back some patch of constant night. But it was too thick to be night, too black, like jet ink in clear water, its throbbing solidity obscuring everything beyond it. He turned away and shuddered, remembering Erdik’s words of the terror that had befallen the cities beyond the mountain when the Darkness came, and found himself unable to turn back, unwilling to look again to that black sky for fear that it would still be there, festering like a cancer at his back, threatening to sweep down and blot out everything.
On and on the horses thundered once the enclosed runs of the trees had dwindled behind, through grassy plains whose tall fronds shimmered and danced like waves on an inland sea, across the ancient bed of a long-dead river filled with boulders the size of houses, the banks peppered with crumbling ruins of places long-forgotten and reclaimed by the earth, and up again with the curve of the land, into the jagged foothills of the southern range as the sun began its descent, throwing shadows to meet them as they climbed, every patch drawing Aldous’ thoughts back to that fell mass thrumming amongst the clouds above Malikanna.
It was early evening when Erdik drew his mount to a stop by a trickling brook that emerged from the rock wall by the side of the track, a dozen separate pathways leading through the walls of crumbling rock. The trio dismounted and drank in silence as the sweat cooled on their backs. Aldous’ body tingled and his hands shook with coursing adrenaline, and he realised that it felt odd not to have the steady thrum of the horse beneath him, the pounding of its hooves on the earth transmitted through his body. When he chanced to look back towards Malikanna he found the mass he had look upon that morning mercifully obscured, a part of him wondering if he had ever looked upon it in the first place, knowing such a thing could not be.
A few minutes were all Erdik allowed for rest before they set off again, the three of them nibbling on a few scraps of dried meat the warrior had provided. The horses kept to the floor of the narrow crack as they moved between the high walls, slowing their pace to a trot. Soon enough the towering walls of rock led them into a narrow gorge, a gaping crack through the bedrock of the mountain, growing ever narrower the farther they went. Then, when it seemed the jagged gorge would grow too narrow for them to continue, a shadowed opening yawned before them, dark as a sinkhole, and they moved into the underbelly of the mountain, high and dark and filled with distorted echoes of cold gusts and dripping water, the silver-white breath of the horses and the dark silhouettes of the riders the only sights visible.
The sensation of weightlessness seeped into Aldous in an instant, pulling at his every nerve as the echoes of the wind and the horses hooves danced around him. One moment he would feel as though he was sinking in quicksand, the next as though he was floating on updrafts, the horse beneath him no more than a suggestion. Erdik spoke after a while but the words were lost to Aldous, coming to him many-layered from a dozen different directions. His mind floundered in the emptiness and he couldn’t help but picture the secret caverns below Redwood and the chase which had meant his death, but as he grew accustomed to the gentle rocking of his steed beneath him and the close embrace of the darkness he felt a serene calm reach out and wrap around him, all dark thoughts drifting away in his wake. He began to think that he could stay in this calm and sightless place forever as his lungs filled with the heavy, soporific air that smelt of musk and age, unfazed by the sound of unseen creatures that skittered away from them in the darkness, vague echoes of movement swirling around him. Time was no more than a suggestion and it came as a shock to Aldous when a driving wind from the front thrust across him, whipping the horse’s mane across his face and drawing him from his state of slumber.
His eyes swam into focus and he found himself emerging into the throat of a wide gorge that might once have been the path of some long-melted glacier. His second night in this world had fallen and the moon – now a pale white that held no ill omen – was high in the sky, yet it seemed now, looking back, as if mere minutes had passed in the shadows beneath Lysius. His stomach lurched as he thought of the one place where he could get back home – high on a distant mountain, sealed like a tomb, disappearing farther into the background with each step. Then he remembered with a shudder the heavy darkness above the peak and wondered if it was right this minute making its way towards them under the cloak of night, driving through the stale-aired caverns at their rear like a wall of treacle.
Erdik dismounted in one fluid motion and walked ahead, unsheathing his sword. The action made Aldous nervous, as though it was a prelude to bloodshed but he told himself Erdik was merely being cautious, making sure. He watched as Erdik disappeared around a bend in the track and turned to Dylan.
“How’re you feeling?” Dylan asked with a smile as he jumped off the horse like he’d done it a thousand times before, stamping his feet on the bare rock to stave off the pins and needles.
“Lost,” Aldous replied as he glanced around the rocky gorge, wondering what lay ahead. “Very lost. What about you? Have you remembered anything else?”
The boy shrugged then shook his head. “Sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologise.”
The spell in the saddle had dimmed Aldous’ anger but he was finding it harder to let go of his worry at what lay ahead, everything he had seen so far – the crumbling Lemistat, the foul beast in the forest, the darkness filling the sky and the scarlet moon, a sign if ever Aldous had seen one – making him think that danger lay somewhere ahead. “I just wish I could know what I’m supposed to do here.” He jumped down from his mount, groaning as his legs turned to jelly beneath him and he fell to his knees. Dylan stepped in to help but Aldous waved him away. “I get the impression that, whatever it is, I’m probably not the right man for the job.” He stood up and rubbed the dirt from his knees, looking for a moment at the lines in his palms. “I’m an old man, Dylan, nothing more than what you see in front of you, and all I want is to know what awaits me when we make it to this Potamia, or at least to have some kind of idea. I can’t get the thought out of my head that we’re being taken into a lion pit.”
“Aldous, I don’t kno…” Dylan said, but was cut off.
“Please, I need to get this off my chest. I know you don’t know what’s ahead but… Erdik’s worse than you when it comes to getting to the root of things. I can’t get a straight answer out of either of you. He cowers before me every time I talk to him, as if I’m about to smite him down, but still he’s here, striding off into the darkness to make sure I’m safe. And why? He thinks I’m a god, a bloody god, some long-dead saviour come back to cleanse the land… to banish whatever evil, whatever darkness plagues it… to free them from… from… I don’t know, Dylan. I don’t know what to think any more; the whole thing is driving me crazy. All I know for sure is that I’m flesh, blood and bone, nothing more than that, and, well… whatever he expects of me, whatever you expect of me, it can’t be.”
He sat down on the bare rock, tired and exasperated, watching muscles twitch in the flanks of his horse, pale jets of steam rushing from its nostrils as it stared back. He wished he could go back to the spaces beneath Lysius; it had felt safe there, comforting.
“Erdik thinks I’m someone I know I’m not. Maybe you think I am this god, too, this Finaeus, and maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong and I am this person, this saviour – I know it would be easier that way – but I need you to promise me that, if I do my part, if we go to this place and fail or succeed in whatever is happening, whatever we came for here, you’ll help me find a way home. I’ll do whatever I can, but I need that assurance. I need it more than anything.” He held out his hand as an offering, a token of friendship. “Will you do that for me?”
Dylan grasped the old man’s hand. “How could I say no to a god?”
“A god,” Aldous echoed as he watched the boy’s face, searching for but not finding any hint of a smile, intensely aware of the meaning in that tiny, insignificant word.
The fire crackled and spat as the damp wood settled. Aldous had tried to sleep but the thoughts careening around inside his skull would not allow it. His father’s satchel lay open by his side, the contents spread across the grass in a line. The scale of the contents was maniacal. A derringer pistol, an odd folly of a thing, small enough to hide in his hand; a scratched and dusty flare gun pilfered from the coastguard judging by the insignia; a pair of army-issue field-glasses that Aldous remembered from his youth; two battered and ancient-looking smoke grenades that he supposed had come from the days when Redwood Forest was used to train allied soldiers. There were hunting knives, a long, sharp needle, a small rusted hatchet and what looked like a homemade garrotte comprised of a length of piano wire and two slim wooden handles. He wondered, not for the first time, if his father had been to this place before, if the six years in which he had vanished after Aldous’ twelfth birthday had been spent in this world, but he found it hard to imagine the man he knew being this Finaeus the warrior and his people believed Aldous to be. Still, if this retuning saviour, this Finaeus, was someone else, whether his father or Cassius or some other distant relative, Aldous fancied they had found a way to go back, hoped that way didn’t involve anything like the terror that had brought him here in the first place.
His thoughts on the matter were dragged away as he glanced to the satchel and saw something catch the firelight in the bottom of the bag. It was his father’s necklace and it was the first time Aldous had set eyes on it since that day, the day his life had changed, though he had looked upon it in his dreams many times. Yet the symbol held little power now, merely drew him back as a thousand other insignificant things did and, after his initial shock, he began to feel that the necklace – or at least its proximity – might help him understand all this, provide some solid link between this world and his own.
Beneath the necklace was an object that offered some hope of bringing the items together, that told him all this was a part of something preordained, that the chest had been meant for Aldous. It was the missing section from the portrait of Cassius Finaeus in Redwood House. He stared at the dark swirls of paint on the canvas and saw an object he knew. It was the burgundy cube which he had found alongside the key. He had forgotten all about it but retrieved it from his pocket now, turning the object over in his hand to verify it was the same as that in the painting. That the painting of his oldest known ancestor showed the cube of stone he could not doubt but its meaning was beyond him. He turned the scrap of canvas over. The words on the rear, written in the same hand as the letter that had started all this, brought a chill to him and he almost heard his father’s voice reading them aloud.
Trust the boy and no one else.
It seemed as though his father had known Aldous would be unable and unwilling to believe all this. Everything came to the fore then. Could he really have stumbled upon this world by chance or was it, as Dylan had said, his destiny, now and always, his father’s death all part of the same grand scheme?
It was all too much to take in. And now this, words from another world, words from the man who had ruined his life, who had killed Aldous’ mother by his actions and his absence, perhaps the same man who had come to this world as the Finaeus, some saviour who the people had worshipped and waited on for an age. Perhaps or perhaps not. It felt impossible to think that the two were one and the same. He thought of the murdered boy as his gaze moved to Dylan who lay by the fire, lips straining to form words as he walked in a dream. He was a mere child, Aldous realised, whatever role he had to play here. This was an odyssey for him, too. Whatever the boy’s purpose in events, he was straining to maintain control and Aldous silently thanked him for his bravery, telling himself as he watched the boy’s sleeping form that he would be unable to do what his father had so clearly tried – to kill a child in order to pass through.
He stared at the flames as he huddled near the fire, lost in thought, wondering if his fears of what was to come held any credence – if his father, or Cassius, or any Finaeus man, had been here before and lived to tell the tale, then why not Aldous? The arsenal his father had provided did little to calm his nerves however and couldn’t help but give it some credence, as though its very presence hinted at that his father knew there would be danger.
He lay back and strained to vacate his mind as he gazed to the heavens. The firmament gripped his attention for long moments and, much as it chilled him to think it, he could see that Dylan had spoken the truth when he said that this world and Aldous’ own filled the same space. There were stars and constellations up there that Aldous knew, that he had watched from another world – Cassiopeia and the Great Bear, Pisces and Andromeda, Cygnus and Cepheus – and many others, nameless but recognised, imprinted on his memory from a youth spent staring into their depths. He wondered for a moment where the boundaries of this world ended, wondered if he were to find a way to pierce through the stratosphere, would he be gazing back down upon this world, his own or another altogether.
A dull ache settled in his head as the thoughts circled. He knew too little what to expect from anything in this place, and it brought a shudder to him to realise it. In his first minutes in this world Aldous’ senses had been overloaded, struggling to comprehend what his eyes saw and his ears heard but his thoughts could not dare to believe. Now that he had had the chance to gather his thoughts it was all becoming clear. If there were two worlds then there might well be three or four, hundreds, millions. Worlds upon worlds, each with its own history, each with its own possible part to play in the life of its sister planets. This thought begged one question: Of all the people, in all the worlds, why me? The problem only vexed him further – Dylan had said that it was his ancestry that had undertaken this burden, but did that mean that Aldous had to do what was expected of him, if his involvement here was nothing but an accident of history? It all meant nothing, he realised, all his confusion, all his questions and ponderings. He could sit here forever working through it and each answer would only bring a dozen new questions.
He smiled and thought of Wolfgang, a world away yet breathing air made of the same atoms, perhaps looking up at the same stars, and he could feel tears coming as he thought of his old friend who he might never see again. He was saved from a madness of sorts when Erdik arrived out of the darkness and pulled him to his senses.
Purging himself of thought, content now that the warrior was watching over him, Aldous settled down and tried to sleep as the stars danced high above, hoping everything would be clearer when he awoke.
The rolling current of freezing air washed over the jagged peak of Malikanna and whipped her hair into lashing tendrils, sliding like the touch of a lover across her silken skin. Cordelia smiled in spite of the cold, watching the staunch line of figures through the veils of snow, black and ruthless in their simplicity, procrustean and indivisible. The muscled back of Bane was tensed beneath her as he crouched low into a drift of snow, tongue aching for the taste of meat. His hunger was overpowering and the need to sate it great, yet he was learning to pre-empt her will and held himself in check, waiting for her command.
They had scaled the stark wall of Malikanna’s southern face to reach the summit and had found there, not clear passage to whatever waited beyond as Cordelia had hoped, but a dense wall of bodies packed tight across the ridge, a vast slumbering army. The wall stood a dozen men thick, each held fast to the earth, drifts of ice and snow rising to their knees. Dark and implacable, at one with the night, and Cordelia could do nothing to reach out to them. The group in front of her were lit from below like statues, glowing by the light of a flameless fire that suffused the glassy rock and melted the snow and ice at their feet – a signal, she knew, from the hidden channels she had seen smouldering in the cavern, a signal for someone who had not come. Yet still, with freedom from the hold of that icy grip, the figures did not move, nor did they fall.
It was clear enough that they were not men, although they looked like men and perhaps had once been, but their level of consciousness was beyond her. They were automatons reduced to a singular purpose – this much she did know – to stop anything from passing and she did not fancy, for the moment, testing to see what might happen if she stood against them.
Bane crawled through the snowdrifts and jagged outcrops, pulling his body into the thrumming shadows, snaking across the ridge to look for a weak spot in the wall of bodies, a low growl reverberating in the depths of his throat. He found nothing save the figures stretching away to distant blackness on both sides, as far as the eye could see. When the peak of the mountain rose higher on a needle-like point that even Bane could not scale, the figures were there. When the land dropped into a chasm or valley, the figures were there, filling every space.
Cordelia’s eyelashes grew heavy with flakes of snow as she watched and waited, straining to find something she could use to turn the silent army to her bidding, but all she could find was faint images of the carnage that had ensued when others had tried to pass – flashes of red, choked screams, bodies resting beneath the blanket of snow and ice. She stepped closer and focussed hard upon the fibre of thought that led the figures, a vague susurration of whispers on the limit of her hearing, holding out her palms, willing her trembling skin to find a way to assume control.
The wall of men flinched as one as she searched for the strand that bound them, aware of her presence now that she faced them brazenly and caressed the link that bound them with the barely-heard voice, controlled, she supposed, by its whispered words. Heads shuddered on frozen necks and turned slowly towards her with the sound of creaking leather. Skin that had receded across bones in ages past effused with warmth as dead muscles and choked veins throbbed with a hideous parody of life. Every mouth across the line opened and the words they spoke joined together in one pure voice echoing across the snow-filled sky.
“We are the Panopticon.”
Thousands of glowing eyes blinked into life with the words, piercing into her from the darkness, like the lights of a distant highway glimpsed through heavy night.
“None shall pass,” rang the vast voice.
She could feel a presence as the words filled her, a subtle taint carried in the forms of its syllables, a lone poisoned whisper lurking underneath. That it was the puppeteer of the Panopticon she had no doubt. She called out to him across the sky with a wordless scream, happy to reveal her presence to whoever waited behind the peak, wondering if the Whisperer waited there too, if this voice and he were perhaps one and the same. Her plea was answered in an instant with an invisible touch that lurched through the night and stroked at the walls of her insides, filling her with buzzing warmth, a gentle thrum in her abdomen.
She smiled as she felt his weakness, the barest control he had over the army before her, and knew that the fear and doubt she had entertained were of no importance.
With no more than a thought Cordelia felt the subtle tearing of the link that joined the army to their master. It was so simple. With a flash of fire in her eyes she took control and smiled as the Panopticon welcomed her, pliant now to her will alone. She could feel them, every one, stretching along the mountain to the distant coasts, a million and more strong. Bane growled deep in his throat as the figures began to creak and groan, moving for the first time in an age.
Cordelia knew these beings would serve her well, but to reach the Whisperer with such a force may prove impossible; to travel alone she might find the chance to catch her enemy unaware. Perhaps, she decided, she would do more than kill the two she had chased from another world. She would show the Whisperer the power she could wield.
“Kill everything,” she shouted to the ranks as she pointed to the south. “Kill them all.”
As one, the Panopticon began to move.
The dust clouds of the Wastes billowed about the riders as they moved through its heart. The scenery was undulating and unremarkable, a sandy vastness stretching away in all directions with neither tree nor shrub nor tuft of grass to break the monotony, yet the drab façade hid a host of dangers. Erdik led them on a jagged wandering path between the dunes and Aldous came to realise that the Wastes might well have killed he and the boy, that if it were still the two of them, moving on foot, there was a good chance they might have wandered in this place for days, weeks even, maybe fallen into one of the dozens of ruined buildings of the fallen cities that rested below the sands and supported the massive bulks of the rolling dunes, buildings the size of palaces whose broad roofs Erdik warned would often collapse with the weight of sand above them, pulling whatever waited above down into clinging blackness.
On the previous night sleep had not come easy to Aldous but he was thankful to get any with the way his thoughts had been turning. He had felt detached as he lay there waiting to drift off – objects seemed farther or nearer than they were, his limbs felt bloated and somehow detached – and knew he would have bad dreams when sleep finally came for him, dreams that made his breath stick in his chest, dreams in which his father’s jagged shadow would chase him around Redwood’s dusty corridors. He had sat up and rubbed at his temples as he watched the dying embers, clinging to wakefulness. The warrior had appeared from the darkness, checking up on him. It appeared that sleep was not something Erdik needed much of. Aldous had smiled as the warrior sat down but said nothing. After a time Erdik had started to speak, telling legends of his people and the lands in which they walked.
The warrior’s voice was lilting, full of melody, and Aldous had closed his eyes as he listened. The warrior had talked of the Wastes that lay to the south, legends and memories from his youth, passed on by those whose ancestors had once live in the cities beneath them. The sands had fallen from the sky in a single night, the legends said, a host of cities lost forever as the great mountainous wave spread across the land from Lysius all the way to Sandlock. Even now, centuries later, the Wastes still sat heavy with the feeling of death, the warrior said, and many of his brothers had been lost there, taken by the sands or the Unwanted. Erdik’s tone had softened as the story turned to his own history and he spoke of his Long Trial, the moment which had defined him, the solitary journey which every man who served on the Reach must undertake to prove their worth and win passage into the ranks of the Highguard. He had tamed these lands, without a steed, without a sword, with nothing but his wits.
Aldous could not recall falling asleep, but his eyes had opened some time later to find Erdik sat close in front of him by the cooling ash, still as a statue, pointing to the heavens. Aldous had straightened himself up and cocked an ear to listen, wary of the look in the warrior’s eyes.
“What?” he had whispered, “I don’t hear anything,” but even as he spoke, he had felt the force that had caused him to wake; a slow but steady pulse from the dark spaces beneath Lysius, purring through the ground and vibrating from the darkened maw of the cave, shaking the leaves of the trees and the blades of grass around them. It had felt as though the mountain was waking, dark and dismal caverns beneath the rock bursting into life.
“The Panopticon,” Erdik had whispered, voice wavering.
There had been no time for explanations as the warrior ushered his sleepy charges onto their mounts, spurring them quickly towards the arid planes of the Wastes, still and lifeless in the pre-dawn haze, thinking they would be safer on the sands than following the path towards the river to the east, which would add a day to their journey and would leave them trapped by the raging waters should anyone or anything pick up on their trail.
Aldous created terrible explanations for the origins of that deep rumble as they moved, each bringing only danger to his door. Swirling dust clouds rose about them as they left the foothills as if in reaction to their presence, fragile dunes – each larger than the last – collapsing upon themselves with the sound of a thousand chattering teeth as they moved across and through them, as though the sands were alive and were calling out to them. Aldous had gazed back once, straining to find the glow of their campfire through the murk – their pursuers (if that was what they were) would know they were on the right track once they happened upon the smouldering fire – but had given up and sunk low onto the back of his mount, fixing his attention on what lay ahead, ignoring as best he could everything behind.
Light bled into the sky from the east and after a few hours of constant running and Erdik drew the horses to a halt by the head of a dark little valley littered with stunted trees. He had never before been this way but knew this place from stories passed on by his father, marked on a map of the Wastes which his father had compiled in his frequent ranging. There was a shrine to the Goddess Æanna somewhere in the rock below the sands, forgotten to all but the few whose ancestors had once lived in the twin cities. Throughout the lands there had been hundreds of such shrines but all had been destroyed or forgotten, swallowed by the sands or covered by the rising the waters. Now there was only one, and they had stumbled upon it as though it was meant to be.
Aldous shook the sand from his beard and looked towards Dylan. He gave the boy a quick smile and dropped down from his mount to sit on the sands, stretching and groaning to work out the kinks as he pondered whether or not to ask what the Panopticon was. For now, he decided he didn’t want to know. The desert heat seeped through his clothes and into his aching muscles and he almost let out a whimper as he slid down to lie flat on his back, so welcome was the feeling. As he turned to his side his eyes fell on a white stone embedded in the sand, perfectly round and free of blemishes, and as he reached out to touch it – his hand moving as if by impulse – he heard Erdik take a sharp intake of breath and everything around them went into flux.
For the briefest second it seemed the Aldous as though the world had stopped, then a bellowing rumble that shook the very ground rose up like an orchestra tuning their instruments, thrumming in his ribcage with an intensity even greater than the unknown force that was the Panopticon. The sands grew heavy with shadow as the world darkened, the sky to the south flushing with grey, a fierce wind heavy with heat rising up and lashing across them. Aldous had to blink as he lifted his head and saw the marching wall of sand rushing from the south, billowing like an ocean wave, trailing tendrils of debris hundreds of feet into the darkening sky, as though a great tsunami ripple was cursing through the desert with terrifying speed. He felt himself weaken as he stared at the undulating destroyer, frozen stiff, waiting for death to reach out and claim him.
Erdik took control, grabbing hold of his companions and running with them to the bottom of the gulley and towards the tumbling wall of the storm as it charged to meet them, knowing now that his only hope was to reach Æanna.
Thrice they slipped and tumbled on the shifting sands but rolled or were pulled back to their feet by the warrior. The growling cacophony grew in ferocity as the walls of the storm crashed into the narrow alley in the bedrock, churning sky and earth together as the great desert surge filled every space. Aldous opened his stinging eye for a second and saw where Erdik was leading them. There was an opening in the earth beneath the twisted roots of a long-dead tree, gaping blackness, promising safety. Erdik shouted some instruction as he threw them into the opening but his voice was lost in the rising howl and the last thing Aldous remembered was everything going black and the heaviest silence he had ever heard as the sand took him.
Inside the tiny cave Aldous came to with a terrible ache in the centre of his head and the taste of blood on his lips, wondering why he could only move one side of his body. His good eye was blinded, weeping and full of grit, and his bottom lip had split. He vaguely remembered being struck in the face as the blackness took him but after that there was nothing. Erdik was nearby and shouting something, but Aldous’ ears were filled with the din of the storm and he could make no sense of the words.
Aldous pulled a hand free from the clinging sand and reached into his pocket, grabbing his lighter and raising it up before striking so as not to blind himself, straining to open his weeping eye. Every speck seemed intent on causing agony. The wavering glow revealed the shadowed walls of the cave to him through a watery prism, a low-ceilinged space with a number of darkened tunnels winding off into blackness. Looking down his body he found himself buried almost to the chest in the sand that had burst through the cave mouth and blocked the exit. Erdik had pulled himself from the sand and was hunched against the facing rock wall, staring at the lighter in abject awe. Dylan was nowhere to be seen and Aldous feared the boy had been buried.
“Dylan,” he tried to shout but his voice little more than a croak and every syllable hurt. “Dylan… I can’t... Where...”
He removed his thumb from the flint and pulled himself free from the sand as he heard the unlikely sound of Dylan’s laughter drifting from one of the narrow tunnels carved into the cave wall, crawling to the warrior across the earthen floor, lighting the flame once again when he was by Erdik’s side.
“Ignore it, Erdik,” he said as he saw the warrior’s spellbound gaze. “What happened out there? I mean, that came from nowhere.”
The warrior dragged his eyes from the flame for a moment. “The Wastes are with the Darkness,” he said, as though that would explain everything.
“I… what…” Aldous gaped, before giving up. Remembering his hip flask, he reached in and took a swig, needing the effect of the alcohol as well as the moisture.
Erdik turned away and peered deeper into the cave. He seemed torn, unable to voice his thoughts properly. “If I had not brought us this way the sands would have claimed us, but still… I should never have… I only wanted to see. I thought, perhaps… I thought this would give me a chance to make things right.”
Aldous had no idea what the warrior was talking about, focused as he was on the din of the storm outside and the sting in his eye. “What is this place?”
The warrior bowed his head, a sure sign that he was holding back. Aldous was glad at least that Erdik seemed unable to hide his feelings when it mattered: it made finding the truth easier. “This is a shrine to the goddess of my homeland, my lord, suppressed by the Judges of Potamia, by….” Erdik’s voice trembled, aware that he was walking a fine line. “…suppressed by the Royal House. I had no choice but to come here. My choice was death or sacrilege; no real choice at all. The sands would have claimed me and the boy, and you would have been left alone. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Aldous made to speak but had to pause for a moment to take in what he’d heard. The sands would have claimed me and the boy, and you would have been left alone. There was only one implication to be drawn from that. He thinks I would have survived that. Aldous nearly laughed aloud as he remembered Wolfgang calling him ‘the Invincible Mr. Finaeus’, but the laugh choked in his throat and the smile never reached his face. It would have been humorous, farcical even, were it not happening to him. He tried to calm his nerves as he remembered that it wasn’t so long ago that he and Dylan had died below Redwood and, based on that, he had no right to discount anything. The only thing he was sure of was that there was nothing he could be sure of.
He tried to remain rational and looked to Erdik’s reaction when he had held the lighter aloft. One thing could easily be confused for another when all the facts were not present. Aldous knew the flame was nothing more than the product of a spark from a flint introduced to a stream of flammable gas, but to Erdik this was an act of magic, something beyond his comprehension and therefore evidence of a power greater than himself. This worried Aldous. If Erdik and his people believed he was a god, how long would it be before they expected miracles of him? How long before they saw through the façade to what really stood in front of them? They would find nothing but an old man lost, or worse, an impostor. It didn’t interest him to dwell on what might happen if he was found to be the latter.
“We need to find Dylan.”
Aldous shouted again into one of the open tunnels.
His cry was returned a few seconds later. “Down here! Come and see!”
As Aldous moved off, he felt Erdik’s hand on his shoulder pulling him back. It must be serious if he can bring himself to touch me.
“Please, don’t go. It is… is not for you to see.”
“Nonsense,” Aldous said as he shrugged away the warrior’s hand. He could hear the growing sound of running water as he crept down the narrow, slanting tunnel and the tinkling crystal sound of Dylan’s laugh as the boy splashed about just out of sight. He realised it was the first time he had heard the boy laugh. The sound was discordant with the Dylan he knew. Aldous had a pre-emptive smile on his face as he emerged from the tunnel, breath held in expectation.
“Water!” Dylan shrieked from the darkness. “Fresh water!”
Aldous’ throat pulsed in expectation. He moved along the wall until the space around him opened up, revealing a narrow cavern the size of a railway carriage tapering to a point in the rock high above, a stream of water emerging from a crack in the wall by his side and falling into a paved pool to his front, sunk low into the floor. He stumbled across the dusty floor, warped and cracked by the roots of long-dead trees, pools of wax scattered here and there, and plunged his head into the falling stream, drinking deep and washing away the filth of the sandstorm. Dylan was floating on his back in the pool, spinning slowly round. The falling water washed over Aldous and splashed around the boy, his eyes on the heavy shadows behind Aldous. Aldous had been so entranced by the falling water and the burning need to clean his weeping eye that he had ignored his surroundings, but as he stepped back from the pool he saw a pitched torch in a sconce in the wall by his side, and as he struck the lighter and held the flame to the pitch his gaze was drawn to the sight that held Dylan’s gaze.
The carving reminded Aldous of images of the young Buddha that he had photographed in his travels in India, but the perfect feminine face that perched atop the body was a different vision altogether; purer, cleaner, more alive than anything he had ever photographed before, anything he had ever seen. He had encountered more than his fair share of ancient relics but he had no idea that stone could be manipulated with such grace. The face was carved of white marble, smooth and unblemished, and the sculptor had taken care to preserve the symmetry of the features, each part of the face a masterpiece in its own right, and the two pools of her eyes seemed to drink him in as he looked upon them.
“She is the Goddess Æanna,” Erdik whispered softly, bowing his head. “I did not mean for you to see her.”
“Why would I not want to see her?” Aldous said. “She’s beautiful, Erdik. A true masterpiece.” The familiar burn of discovery flickered inside him in spite of everything, reminding him that this world, perhaps in other circumstances, was everything that he lived for. He wished he had his camera and was, mentally, without meaning to, planning how he would describe it to Wolfgang. If I ever get the chance.
“Who is she?”
Erdik looked shocked by the question. “She is spoken of by you in the Book of Ages, as one who helped you when the old tribes had turned against you.” He averted his gaze for a moment. “I thought you would remember her.”
There’s a book, about me! Aldous thought. My own bible! He felt something tighten inside him at the gravity of it all, the utter (it made him laugh that he was visiting this one thought so often) impossibility of it all. “Where is this book, this Book of…?”
“The Book of Ages’ words no longer rest on paper or strips of parchment, nor etched on tablets of stone. The last copy burned on my father’s pyre, but the words live on here,” he tapped his temple with a forefinger, “and here,” He moved the finger to his heart, “keeping those who know the words strong until your return. Your words, my lord, waiting for the end to be written.”
The truth of matters struck Aldous again. Whether he believed it or not, he had no choice but to accept that he was a god to these people, to Erdik, to Dylan, to the unknown hordes that waited in Potamia. They surely expected much more than he, a simple man, could deliver.
“I wish I could remember her, Erdik, I really do. But whoever she is and whatever this place means, you should be proud of your ancestors and what they have done.”
Erdik loosed a beaming smile, amazed that the Finaeus had blessed his people with such words when all through his life Erdik had been made to feel ashamed of his ancestry, tainted by the actions of his forefathers who had opened up the world to the Darkness and the Turning.
Aldous allowed the warrior a moment before he continued: “You have to think of me as a man, Erdik; a man like you, a man who hurts and bleeds, who gets lost and needs others, for that’s all I am. If you hide things from me or get caught up in worries of sins and retribution, or look for glory in every word I say, or… or throw your energy into trying to find greatness in me, then you’ll be let down and whatever I’m here to do here will certainly fail. I need you to realise that you and I are not so different. We’re the same, Erdik - flesh and blood. That’s what matters.”
“Yes, my lord. It is only that… I cannot help but feel unworthy.”
“You’re here and you’re helping me. That makes you more than worthy in my eyes. You’ve saved my life once already. We have a saying where I come from – even the mightiest river doesn’t reject the smallest stream. Think on that for a while.”
Erdik nodded, trying to take it in. “Yes, my lord.”
“And please, don’t call me that. Aldous will do just fine.”
“Yes, my lord… Aldous.”
Give me strength. Aldous smiled.
Erdik moved off to think on Aldous’ words, bowing before Æanna to offer a quick prayer of thanks. Aldous doubted the warrior understood the gravity of things and knew there would most likely be plenty more bouts of religious fear and penance from Erdik, more confusion at every word Aldous spoke. The winds continued to howl outside and he decided that, if he was to be stuck here, he might as well try to learn something about what was expected of him.
“Erdik,” he said as he moved to the pool. “Last night you sent me to sleep with your story.”
The warrior nodded.
“I think me and the boy would like to hear more of your words. Something from in here,” he tapped his temple, “from the Book of Ages, something to try to rekindle all I have lost.”
The trickling of water and the chattering of the marching sands were the only sounds as Erdik moved away from the pool and prepared to tell his tale. He moved to the sconce on the wall and removed the torch. Moving back to the water he placed the flame under the falling stream saying only, “You will see more.”
Then he began.
When the howl of the winds had fallen away to a sigh and the whispers of the settling desert had won through again, long hours had passed in Erdik’s story and Aldous felt he could begin to understand something of the fear and sorrow that rested in his companion’s eyes. Legends filled with evocative characters and places filled his thoughts as Erdik painted the history of this world and the reasons why it had come to be. Aldous heard the story of Erdik’s home, the twin cities of Freya and Asha whose ruins rested in the Darkness far above the northern horizon, of the great destruction that had ruined them in a single day, banishing a whole people to death but for a sparse few. The priests and secret rulers of the cities had stumbled upon some dark power, Erdik said, some evil which had used them even as they thought they were using it. Once the evil had found a way to use them, there had been no way to turn back, and the eventual end was what Aldous had seen around him – a world forgotten, a world taken by some dark force that Aldous was sure even he could sense in the very air and earth around them.
Aldous listened in the darkness and swore he could see these people and places and knew why Erdik had said he would see more. For the first time in a long while he felt at peace, learning something of the world in which he had found himself.
Every word added another brushstroke. The warrior spoke of the exodus of the survivors of the ruined cities through places with evocative names – Harrow Wash, The Rip, Cephla, Landfall – all of which Erdik said were gone now, taken with the Turning. He spoke of the battles his ancestors had fought as they journeyed south, gathering survivors from every ruined place they came upon, searching out the fabled walls of the Giant City of Potamia so that they might live.
At one point when Erdik paused to drink, Aldous thought to ask of this Potamia and how it came to be, but the warrior seemed to sense the question and moved on to speak of the first days when the Giants had raised the city from stone, knowing that one day it would be the centre of everything, the last place. He spoke of the kings who had held it strong and kept the people inside safe. Potamia, the warrior said, is all that is left. Were it to fall, the world would be empty. For the first time since they had met Erdik seemed at ease, fulfilling the role he was born for, restoring whatever he could to the saviour whose ignorance he was slowly coming to accept.
These tales and a hundred others, woven together, interspersed. Aldous drifted off sometime during the night but when he came back the warrior was still speaking and it seemed that every word was taking root. It was all so familiar to him, the forms and plots so similar to the shared legends of every tribe on his earth, and he felt affinity with Erdik for the first time. They were, as he had said to the warrior, flesh and blood, the same troubles and worries, the same histories intertwined now and at some distant point, the same longing to understand and recapture all that had gone before. He had let the tales sink in whilst Dylan had worked at clearing away the opening, thinking that perhaps these three strangers brought together were not so different, each driven by their own history in some way they could not ignore.
Once Dylan had made a breach and the bank of sand collapsed, Aldous pulled himself away and moved through the tunnel, the gap barely wide enough to permit him egress. He was amazed to peer out to a patch of blue sky and find the horses waiting, standing placidly in the neck of what remained of the gulley, heads tilted in confusion at the sight of men born from sand. He couldn’t help but wonder how they had survived such a torrent. What worried him even more than this was how the horses had survived the Panopticon. Erdik had spoken in the midst of his tale of an army of beings neither alive nor dead, an innumerable force made to crush anything and everything that faced them. It was said that the Panopticon were made from those who had fallen to the darkness in the first days of the Turning and that they would, in time, return to their once-homes and bring about the Turning’s last stage – The End of All Things.
Erdik and all the people of this world had lived their lives with this constant threat, promised from the time of the Giants who had freed Potamia from the rock and wrote the first prophecies of the way things would come to be. The thought of vengeance waiting to unfold, not knowing what the trigger would be, and the actions that must be undertaken to lessen its vigour, to halt the march once the threat became real, Aldous knew, had killed off more than its fair share of burgeoning civilisations. Here the threat was very much real, rooted in the present. He could not bring himself to imagine what living here must be like.
Whatever the truth, Aldous knew he had no wish to lay eyes on the makers of the terrible noise that had chased them across the Wastes and he could only hope now that the sand had claimed their pursuers as it almost had them, pray and hope that the silence on the sands was the sign of the Panopticon’s demise. There was a brief moment of intense fear as he poked his head above the rim of the shrunken gulley but found nothing save a new landscape, fresh hills and valleys of powder-soft sand stretching in all directions, skeletons of ruined buildings and ancient trees jutting from the angled dues here and there, freed from the sand for the first time in an age. If the Panopticon had made it this far, the desert would not show it.
Hours later, with the bulk of the Wastes dwindling behind them, each kept their eyes trained on the wavering horizon, their ears pricked for the slightest hint of danger, whether from the sands themselves or from some unseen foe. The sands were deeper here than the plains they had travelled before the storm and the dunes rose taller but still the horses’ drive could not be tamed and, in spite of the way the storm had sculpted the landscape, throwing Aldous’ mental compass off-centre, the horses navigated their way up and across the peaks of the dunes as though they knew the strengths and weaknesses of every one. They ran on through the needle-points of ancient forests and ruins of stone that the sands had digested and spat out again, sure-footed, their focus fixed on a point beyond sight.
A wide swath of green hills formed out of the haze to the south as the day wore on towards dusk, discordant with the land, too sheer even from this distance, like vast green barriers erected against the desert. The bank grew in size with each passing mile and their constant presence made Aldous eager to know what waited on the other side. Dusk came and the sun descended but the colour did not leave the sky with it. All around the sky and the desert darkened, but not in the south. Erdik held out an arm and drew the horses to a halt for the first time in hours. The sky shimmered orange in the distance, a stark line against the darkening sky, dancing like a vast blazing sheet of burnished bronze behind the hood of the sheer hills the warrior had called Sandlock, multitudinous sparks rising like spirals of glitter.
Aldous imagined this world’s version of the Aurora Borealis, but his picturesque dream was shattered when the warrior turned to him and spoke:
“It has started. Potamia is on fire.”
Cordelia could see the distant lights from where she stood on the highest rampart of Malikanna, overlooking Lysius to the south, where she had rested since sending the Panopticon away, a sudden aching tiredness overwhelming her, the effect of all her body had gone through in recent days. It seemed as though the sky was made of silk, the orange glow wavering like a vast banner. This could mean only one thing. The Panopticon had delivered the first stage of her victory, a warning that would ring loud across the world to the Whisperer and his minions, wherever they were. If only she could figure out how to bring her stolen army back to her when they had carried out their duty, but – though her strength had come back to her as she rested – they were too far away to feel her influence. She pictured the two lost ones at the south with its pale orange banner lighting up the horizon and looked at the heavy cloak of night to her rear, finding all the fear and terror she desired lurking amongst it.
Bane worked his gore-coated head deeper into the gaping stomach of the body lying crumpled on the ground, satisfied for the moment. Cordelia wondered if she could allow Bane to stray so far and still assert her will over him. Not yet, she decided. There will be time for that.
She turned her attention to Bane’s meal. What exactly the sorry creation was that he had slain, Cordelia had no idea, but she was sure of one thing as she watched the rippling cloak of blackness – the same powers which had brought the Panopticon into existence had shaped the creature of blood and shadow that had peeled from the night to face them. She could feel its familiarity with the figures of the Panopticon and supposed also that there would be others.
One moment Bane had dug his talons deep into the ice and pulled them atop the jagged peak where the Panopticon had stood, the next the night grew alive with form to their front, snatches of black detaching from the heavy shadow that filled the space like a living entity. There was nothing beyond the lip of the mountain on the other side, not even sky. Everything changed to sudden blackness twenty feet in front of her, a solid wall of night. It was as if a vast emptiness had been draped across the world from the foundations of the heavens. For a long time she had stared spellbound at the theatre of shadow, a small voice from somewhere inside whispering a warning that her eyes were deceiving her, that this rippling void was nothing but a trick designed to lower her defences.
It was as she thought this that the figure had appeared. There was a muffled whimper and a slash as Bane lunged forward and tore through the creature’s throat in a frenzy, then a brief second of terror when her beautiful Bane had disappeared into the shadow and she thought she had lost him to the nothingness, that he had fallen like a speck of dust into an infinite abyss.
Trust your instinct.
Bane had returned with the limp body clamped in his jaws, a black simulacrum of blood dripping from the deep wound into his open throat, before working the body open and burying his head in the gaping maw like a hungry vulture, the black and grey mess within the chest cavity like no living thing Cordelia had ever seen. She learned something of the darkness as Bane drank away the creature’s life; that it was not one thing but many, many powers woven together, strands of something she could not yet understand. A creature of thought she had suspected, some creation designed from her own fears to bring her to her knees as she had done to countless others, but this creature of flesh and fear, this once-living yet never-living thing was beyond her comprehension. That it could live this parody of life at all seemed amazing to her, and all she could think of was how she could take this power, take this power and make it her own.
Other pools of shadow were rippling now, ready and willing to reveal their secrets. They ceased their thrum for a while as if pondering the fate that would befall them should they press on. And as she probed the cloak of black, telling herself that she was not afraid, a tunnel began to form in front of her, a vast throat opening in the heart of the darkness, bidding her forward.
Cordelia looked to Bane and smiled.
“Come, my sweet. Now we shall breach the night.”
Aldous’ words came slow and broken, his attention elsewhere. “So… what you’re saying is we can’t go to the one place we must… the one place where we’ll be safe.”
Aldous was held in thrall in much the same way Cordelia was atop the peak of Malikanna, but his thoughts on the burning walls and the Panopticon followed a different path.
Rivers of burning oil pouring from countless vast cauldrons ran down the unequalled wall that stood as tall as a skyscraper, stark and immovable as though it had been there forever and would be there forevermore. He could see tiny figures moving atop the impassable construction, specks of black half a mile high dashing to and fro, holding torches and pitchers of fire like myriad fireflies. The rivers of molten flame washed across the broad landing at the foot of the wall, setting the figures of the Panopticon alight where they waited in their sullen ranks, heads turned upward as though they could shatter the wall with no more than their collective stare. It was the first time Aldous had laid eyes on the bringers of that terrible march and he wished their paths had never crossed, their terrifying image to be branded upon his mind for years to come.
Countless thousands of the black abominations stood amongst the lake of fire, burning like pillars of molten lead, a vast swarm of flaming ants stood to attention. Why do they do nothing? he thought. Why do they allow the fire to consume them? The sight spoke of an evil too great to imagine, a power Aldous had no wish to encounter. And the fire was spreading out towards Sandlock, each new wave of burning oil poured down the walls reaching farther down the broad sweep of the landing, setting alight the thousands more where they waited behind in their show of defiance. Their stance, their very presence in the face of the fires spoke of their purpose.
You will not defeat us. We are many. We are legion.
The tension in the air was palpable. Aldous watched and waited from atop the broad hill, waiting for some show of intention from the hellish horde until he could not stand to look upon them any longer.
“We can go no further,” Erdik said after a time. “Not whilst the Panopticon stand. We must trust in our brothers atop the Reach. There is no way to the city save by the sea beyond…” he faltered for a moment as he thought on how his father had been taken from the Reach, falling to his death in the poisoned ocean, his body lost. “No-man can ever touch those waters.”
Aldous dimly remembered a section of Erdik’s tale in Æanna’s shrine about a great beast that had come with the rising waters of the Turning and who stalked the deep around Potamia. Whether the stories were true or false, Aldous did not know, but the Panopticon were real enough and he had no wish to go anywhere near the fire below or the waters beyond to find out. He pulled himself from the sight, hugging his body hard against the cool breeze. “I’m sick and tired of all this running. Can’t we just find a way to go where we need to so I can do what I must and…” He was about to say ‘go home’ but held it in check for the warrior’s sake, for Dylan’s.
“We will go back to the Wastes,” Erdik said, “to the west. There is a place you must see. Somewhere that will bring your memories back.”
Some chance, Aldous thought.
“We will go now,” the warrior continued. “The Reach will hold.”
Their horses were waiting on the sands at the bottom of Sandlock. Erdik mounted and led them away from the inferno on a meandering path towards a sand dune that rose from the desert in the west like a golden hill, pale and massive in the moonlight, dwarfing its companions that huddled about its foot. As they approached the uncanny rise, Aldous noticed a group of figures on the peak, specks of black against the sky, and slowed his horse, expecting trouble. Erdik looked back across the desert behind them once before he turned and spurred his horse up the fragile slope, Dylan and Aldous following suit in turn.
Aldous realised that the figures had turned from the orange glow that painted the sky to the south and were looking towards him from the dune’s peak. Oh well, here goes nothing. As his horse (which he had decided to call Embarr, a name he recalled from one of Rita’s old Irish legends) followed the trail up the dune Aldous began to make out the faces at the top. The men were Potamian warriors, men dressed in leather armour like those who had fought in the forest whilst Aldous cowered in the tower, men under Erdik’s command and, Aldous presumed, men who would react to him in much the same way as the warrior, who would quail when he spoke as if they feared his wrath yet offer their lives in the same instant. He didn’t care for more of that. Each of the faces gaped in awe as he neared and Aldous felt he should say or do something but the frozen men held him stricken, afraid to speak. Erdik broke the silence with an introduction that Aldous knew would shatter any attempt to prove the warrior wrong.
“The Promised One. The Finaeus. The Aldous.”
As the gradient of the dune became too much for his horse to cope with, Aldous jumped down from his mount and climbed towards the men, each looking to his neighbour as if to decide who had earned the right to speak. A tanned man with a flat face and a salt-and-pepper beard that Aldous dimly recalled from his moments in the tiled room stepped forward and sank to his knees.
“Great Returning One,” he said. “I am Tai-lin, servant of the last city of Potamia, Guardian of the City of the Painted Walls, son of the warriors of the Red Moon, from the blood of Old Freya. I have completed my Long Trial and I offer my life to serve you.”
Each of the men followed suit – men from Freya and Asha, from Covenant and Ironwood, Scarlat and Fay; names he had heard in Æanna’s shrine – until Aldous was the only one left standing. The words came to him only vaguely for his attention was fixed on something else. The towering wave of sand that made up the dune had fallen away and Aldous found himself standing on the lip of an unexpected precipice, looking down upon a squat stone structure a hundred feet or so below. Throngs of robed men were moving back and forth from the edges of the building to the tall perimeter wall surrounding the site, hurrying up and down narrow rows of carved steps with baskets of sand in tow, clearing away the edifice at the centre. The towering wall that surrounded the site and provided the platform on which he stood seemed discordant with the flat structure it contained, too vast in size, and Aldous realised as he took in the different tones and hues in the rock, like strata revealed in a crumbling cliff, that this wall was a work in progress, a constant battle against the rising, shifting sands.
“What… what is this?”
“This,” Dylan said, “is where you begin to understand.”
“But… I don’t understand.”
“You will.” The boy pointed to the building emerging from the sands below. “Follow me.”
Aldous felt his heart jump as Dylan stepped off the edge of the precipice but was stopped from shouting out by the tinkling of laughter from below. He peered over the edge and saw the boy rolling down a slope of sand ten feet beneath him. Wanting nothing more than to be convinced of this reality and his place in it, and to throttle Dylan for scaring him like that, Aldous followed suit, landing awkwardly on the mound of sand with a thump that knocked the wind from him. He could hear the warriors land behind him as he rolled over a few times and was more than a little embarrassed to see that everyone else had remained firmly on their feet. The looks of disbelief or confusion that he had expected from the men were not forthcoming. It seemed their fervour didn’t stretch to believing Aldous completely infallible.
Stumbling with every step he followed Dylan down the side of the mound to the bedrock, only stopping when the stabbing pain in his side became too much. The buckshot, he thought, it’s still in there. But then, he was no longer sure if he’d ever been shot in the first place. If not for the blood on his shirt he might have been able to convince himself.
“Slow down,” he said, “I’m too old for all this.” He chided himself instantly as he remembered telling Wolfgang there was no such thing as ‘too old’. It seemed like the conversation had happened a lifetime ago. It did, he thought. Another world. Another life.
The robed men moved around the walled city in silence, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the newcomers. Strangely, though they numbered many, Aldous was not afraid of them, for they held a solemn air and the way they moved reminded him of something beautiful, of some ancient and forgotten dance that spoke to a hidden, voiceless part of him.
“Who are they?” he asked softly.
“They are the Wardens of the Forgotten City,” Erdik said. “They are sightless, some from birth, others, the greater number, by their own hand or the hand of a brother so that they might give their lives in service. For those born without sight it is the mark of their ordained path as the warrior’s is birth at the time of the Red Moon or victory in the Tournament of the Sword. They live their lives within the walls, transcribing their visions onto the rock, clearing the sand when it breaches, strengthening the walls where they weaken.”
One of the robed men emerged from a door in the wall of the broad rock-hewn building and walked across their path, close enough for Aldous to study him for a second. The man was tall and lithe, with the thin scrawny limbs of an ascetic and skin covered in swirling circles of ink radiating outwards from the centre of his torso. The longer he watched the more Aldous was taken aback by how gaunt the figure looked, as though the man – like Lemistat – was alive by will alone. As the monk came within touching distance, Aldous saw that, not only was he blind, but the sockets were empty, flesh-covered bowls, and worse than this, his lips had been sewn tight with thick twine, coarse crosses giving his mouth the impression of a rag doll. As he glanced around he saw that all the men were sightless, a small number naturally blind judging by their opalescent pupils, the greater number blind by their own hand, great scars or lines of stitches where their eyes should be, more stitches holding their lips together in eternal silence.
“Why do they do this?” Aldous asked, already guessing the answer.
“Faith keeps them here; faith in your return. Some have been here thirty years or more, others much less, yet all are bound by the same strand, their faith in you. We visit at every full moon to learn the secrets they have divined, giving thanks that they were spared the Pit.”
“Spared the Pit? What do you mean?”
“The Pit is for the unworthy and the unclean, for those who are warped and broken. Many others like them have gone to the Pit, many who were not blessed with the sight. Either way, dead or alive, the king does not want them under his rule.”
Aldous sighed and moved off to the doorway the robed man had emerged from and which the warriors were directing him towards, stamping his feet in sudden anger. He had plenty of questions about this king and his ways but as soon as he stepped inside the brightly lit corridor, the words became trapped in his throat.
He found himself at the head of a narrow tunnel, the walls of which were painted from floor to ceiling with bold images, frames of action creating a vast storyboard than ran from the section to the right of where he stood and moved off, down and around dissecting corridors. There were no torches, no lights to create the soft sunlit effect in the air. It’s the paint, he realised. The paint is glowing. He had witnessed this effect before, in strains of bioluminescent algae that grew in volcanic chambers beneath the earth, and supposed this was something similar, but never believed it could be used for such a startling purpose. The captured moments created a wash that filled his head with colour and context, each image, like the tiles in the room at the top of the tower, somehow more real and vivid than the lines and brushstrokes merited. He had come across similar works to this a number of times in his travels. It was not uncommon for a people to document for posterity their rise to greatness and this was such a creation – a narrative he could follow, perhaps a place wherein he might find the answers he so needed of his supposed past in this world. He gazed about trying to take in the scale of the vast tableaux and was going to set off in search, but was held from venturing further by the image he glimpsed on his left, which he guessed to be the most recent, the section that the walls of the dissecting tributaries moved towards. It provided no answer that he wished to take in and he almost turned away in the hope that he could deny he had ever laid eyes upon it.
“What do you see?” came Dylan’s voice.
There on the wall beside him, a hard and implacable fact, was an image he knew well, an image he had lived not one day ago. The moment, more than any, that had driven home the truth of his role in this place. A staunch tower in a clearing surrounded by thick trees, a white-bearded man with a glowing eye and a shirt slick with blood, rows of men bowing to the ground, and the Red Moon, painting its sickness over all. How could he not see it – he was the subject and he was in some way shocked that the tone of the image, the blurred effects and shards of black, captured exactly what he had felt. But could it be a trick, one of the warriors who came this way before us? He reached out to touch the paint and, finding it bone dry, heavy with dust, knew he was grasping at straws. This world doesn’t work in the same way as the one you left behind.
“They paint everything,” Dylan said. “Whatever comes to their thoughts; the past, the future. Do you understand now?”
Aldous wasn’t sure what to say. He pictured the eyeless figures stroking the walls in the dark and shuddered.
“They couldn’t have known what happened at the tower, could they?” Dylan continued. “Trapped behind these walls. Blind. Do you see now?”
“I… I…” A thought came to him. He said I had been here before. So did Erdik. I have to see. Aldous turned on his heel and took off down the corridor, scanning the walls as he went. He recognised a number of instances from Erdik’s story in Æanna’s shrine, figures and places that called out to him. One image depicted two walled cities wreathed in smoke, red conflagrations at their hearts – Freya and Asha, he remembered. The twin cities, the place where the Turning began. Here was an image of a river falling from the sky, there a perfect patch of crystal-blue sea between a mountain pass, the outlines of buildings resting underneath the surface, something vast and dark lurking. Aldous recalled the name of the beast that lurked below the waters – the Empress. Erdik had spoken the name as though it were a poison.
Soon he came to a flight of narrow steps leading down to a floor beneath, and when he had followed the path around that he found another, and another below this – thousands of painted images filling his head, stretching back to a distant past. A golden star falling from the heavens as the people of the earth gathered below; a shadow-faced boy suspended from glinting hooks; a huge tear in the sky with a world of molten silver waiting on the other side; a great, dark hole in the ground, thousands of eyes glinting from the shadows. He followed the winding corridors until he had lost count of how many floors he had descended, the images crumbling and flaking in their age, searching for something to give all of this meaning. Each new floor was mustier and darker, of vastly greater ages than the upper floors, and Aldous felt like he was reaching the beginning of everything, the point where he would find his answer or find nothing at all.
He gasped and collapsed to the floor as he came upon it.
The image on the curved wall to his left confirmed everything Dylan had said. It was impossible, Aldous knew, but this picture - five floors below ground and hundreds of years old – shouted out that he had been here before, and the one word written across the top of the scene – Finaeus – pulled him in. The paint was faded and cracked, bubbled here and there as the ancient layers fell apart. The edges of the image were cloaked in blackness and a dark and cragged peak stretched into the sky in the background. This was not Malikanna but some other peak, sharp and serrated, blots of orange glowing in jagged cracks. Where the mountain met the earth, atop a great chunk of fallen rock, a vibrant orange tear separated the blackness, a glistening rent, sparkling golden at the edges. And there, standing tall in the foreground, was Aldous.
The lines of his face were too accurate, too chillingly familiar. Even on such a small scale he recognised his own features, his own stance, instantly. But the thin gold pendant that hung around his neck and the weapon he carried in his right hand (a rifle; it could only be a rifle), the black suit and the blood-stained shirt, tipped him over the edge. It can’t be, he thought as he looked to the spear. How can this be the past when I have laid my hands on my father’s necklace for the first time in my life? How can this blood-stained suit be on this wall when the blood itself was only shed a few days ago? And the gun… a technology this world could not possess.
Thoughts swirled as he ran back up flights of stairs and through twisting corridors, trying with all his might to deny everything he had seen. He was suddenly aware of how deep below ground he was, how cut-off and alone. Images of the countless centuries rushed past him as he ran but he looked only at the floor, unwilling to involve himself in these fantasies any longer. Claustrophobia gripped him as the colours swam by and he felt like his panic was reaching boiling point. Turning a corner he saw his companions and burst through the opening into daylight, collapsing headlong into Erdik’s arms as he thought he couldn’t possibly have been wandering those corridors for so long. The rest of the group took a step back but Dylan ran towards him, his look expectant.
“I… you were right, Dylan,” Aldous blubbered, “you were right. I don’t know how but… I’ve been here before… I must have.” Even as he said it he realised how ridiculous the idea was, and with ever further piece of evidence that indicated what the others believed, it felt like some part of his self was slipping away, as though the memories of his life were somehow false. His legs grew weak beneath him as the tide of confusion welled and he slipped from Erdik’s grip, falling to the earth. Never before, not even in the dark days of his youth, had he felt so utterly hopeless.
The figures stood over him looked taller than they had any right to be. It seemed like they were closing in for the kill and he curled into a ball, hoping he could make everything disappear if he willed it, if he refused to acknowledge. In the grand scheme of things, he knew that no mere painting should be inured with such power to shatter his disbelief, knew that he had witnessed other greater things since finding the Gateway in the spaces below Redwood, but he found that the images had driven him to the point where he could deny this place and his role here no longer, and that was something he was not quite ready to deal with. The warriors stood inert and hopeless-looking, unsure how to react now their saviour had been reduced to a gibbering wreck, his every weakness on display.
Dylan was speaking but the words were not getting through, lost in the din of Aldous’ thoughts. It felt as if he was standing at the edge of some vertiginous drop, pulling against some heavy gravity that threatened to send him plummeting. He turned his head away and saw that the keepers of the Forgotten City had gathered together in a silent huddle by the walls of the main building, staring upon his pitiful form with those sightless eyes and thin toothless smiles stitched upon their faces. He could hear Dylan now as those eyeless gazes burnt through him, somehow soft and understanding: “They’re waiting for you.”
Aldous turned to see the Sightless moving towards him, heads shaking from side to side as brief susurrations escaped their ruined lips. The ranks broke away and a pencil-thin monk, bony arms marked with lines of scars, appeared from their midst and stood in front of Aldous. The aged monk reached inside the folds of robes and suddenly his fingers were covered in a wash of moist colours – reds and oranges, blues and greens and purples – every colour of the rainbow, arms lifting up to the sky as though he might paint the heavens. The group bowed their heads and fell away behind him as the scarred monk turned and moved inside the squat building, lowering themselves to the sand in his wake.
“Go on,” Dylan prompted.
Aldous followed the lone monk through the bowing crowd and through the doorway, watching as he moved to the adjoining section of the tower scene and began to run his fingers along the surface of the wall. They moved with incredible speed, dipping in and out of the cloak to change a tone or shade amongst the hazy wash, tracing outlines on the wall then bringing to life the spaces between them, layer upon layer upon layer, until a crisp vision began to separate from the chaos. Aldous slowly understood what was being revealed as he watched and was glad that he was the only one permitted to view it. This would change everything.
There was a wide line of flaming figures across the centre of the painting – the Panopticon, standing against the walls of Potamia. Aldous recognised himself coming to life in the foreground as the monk’s fingers moved, towering above the burning figures as they fell before him. Even the smallest details cried out to him as they were revealed; the pattern of smears on the sleeves of his jacket, the spear held firmly in his grasp, the red glint of his damaged eye freed to the night. There were words daubed across the bottom –‘Look upon them and they will fall.’
Once he had completed the piece, the monk turned to Aldous, clasping his many-coloured hands together. Aldous almost smiled as he gazed back into those skin-covered orbs. This vision and its written promise might just provide him with a way to prove that he was merely what he believed himself to be, what he constantly strained to reaffirm: a man, flesh and blood and bone.
For a brief second her breath had frozen in her throat as the blackness passed through her, but the sight of the hidden land on the other side had stilled the rising chill. The place behind the veil was like nothing she could have expected yet a part of her seemed to find some affinity with it, the sight so alien and uncanny, pointing to the guiding hand of some great power that made her doubt her own strength the longer she looked upon it.
It was the absence of anything natural that was so unnerving. The land had been flattened and sculpted for leagues in all direction, whole mountains shorn away, forests and hills broken down, crushed and reshaped. And all across the flattened snow-covered plain were towering pillars of white reaching to the sky, long symmetrical rows stretching to every compass point. As she stared across the pillars, she could see a hint of movement in the distance. There was a bristling speck moving along the myriad tops of the monstrous construction, jumping haphazardly from pillar to pillar far out in the vastness of the central plain.
As she watched she saw a few broad-winged birds swoop down from the snowy grey sky – wings pulled close, ready to attack – only to slow down at the last and glide to the figure. She held her breath as the birds circled, each in turn ducking in and reaching out their talons to take something from the outstretched hands of the black speck. Something about the interchange made her shiver and she turned away as she saw the speck bristle in the distance, some siren of warning blaring inside her. Bane stood alert at her side, his hackles raised, wary that something was wrong but no longer bearing the faculties to comprehend.
Cordelia took a few steps forward. The jagged rock at her feet fell away and the tops of the nearest pillars were almost within reach – ten feet away, no more – but the mountain they had taken so long to ascend dropped off suddenly and fell away to the flat plain fifty feet and more below. A part of her was screaming that she should jump but despite the seeming closeness of the nearest pillar, something held her back, and all it took was a moment to realise that the idea to jump was not her own. It was clear that this place – whatever it was – would be dangerous, that she would regret rushing headlong into it. She gazed across the lip to her left and right and, seeing no noticeable drop in height, realised that once they had made the descent to the plain (for it seemed inevitable that they must) there would be no way to return. Not even Bane could clear that sheer wall, she knew, straight and smooth as it was. But she did not want to wait, did not want to ponder – to do so was only to delay the inevitable.
Bane purred softly and let out a little yelp.
“I know, baby. You’re hungry,” she said as she climbed atop him. “I know.”
The speck of black rose tall in that instant as the birds circling above him disappeared into the grubby clouds, their dull cries echoing across the sky. A moment later and he had fallen into the pillars and out of sight.
They moved across to where the gradient was not so steep and Cordelia steeled herself for the drop. Bane grabbed the lip and went over, digging his talons into the crumbling rock wall and sliding to the plain below with Cordelia hugging his body tight as she hung in empty space. Landing on the snow-packed ground with a heavy thump, Bane immediately dashed off towards the heart of the plain before Cordelia had the chance to feel the effects of the landing. She laughed like a girl in a summer field as cold wind rushed through her hair and the heat of her creation throbbed beneath her, ignoring the worries of before. They were so great together; nothing could stop them.
After a time – no more than a few moments it seemed, but the sky had grown so dark, so quickly – Cordelia heard the sound of a distant laugh and pulled Bane to a stop, turning him around to listen. She realised with a sudden spark that they had become lost; their footprints on the path they had followed were covered and she could not recall how far they had turned. There was no way to tell one path from another between the pillars – identical lines of white under skies of grey, any hints of the mountain or anything else beyond the plain obscured by the churning sky. She spurred Bane on to what she supposed was north and urged him to keep in a straight line but it took her no time at all to realise that the end was coming no nearer, as though they were standing still and the plain was moving around them, keeping them fixed eternally on the same point. Soon, she feared, the nights and days would start rushing by. The sound of the laugh came to her again, harsh like shredding tin, filling the alleys between the pillars. She could feel Bane tiring beneath her so made him stop and dismounted, cursing herself for having rushed into so obvious a trap.
As her breath calmed and she glanced around she noticed for the first time the shapes in the rock, the same curious depressions covering each and every pillar, dappled like lunar craters. It appeared as though tiny balls had been carved from the rock face, perfect spheres breaking up the monotony of the white. She moved to the nearest pillar, running her hands across its smooth surface and meeting a presence there, a flush of motion as the words rose up to fill her, transmitted in vibrations thorough the flesh of her palms.
“You should not have come here,” the voice said; a voice of shredding tin, fast as falling stars, deep as the boiling heart of the earth. “You should not have come. You have nothing here. You are nothing here. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
The final word resonated in her skull in a terrible burrowing whisper, weakening her with each repetition. She pulled her hands away in disgust and glanced around before the words could ail her further, feeling their presence in her thoughts like a grasping hand that would not let go. It felt as though there were eyes upon her, many eyes. She glanced around but there was no one near save Bane, still as a statue at her rear, his usual thrumming intensity dimmed for the moment, and she wondered if he too had heard the voice, felt its touch like winter air.
As she gathered herself and prepared to place her palms on the stone once again she saw Bane peak his shoulders, heard a bass growl reverberating deep in his throat. His gaze was rooted to a distant spot on a long path between the pillars, head craned as he stepped slowly backwards – he was scared and it was the first time Cordelia had felt that from him.
Moving to his side, she was almost taken in by the mesmerizing sight herself. Flowing like water between the pillars, glittering in the burgeoning moonlight, was the whispering figure, stuttering forward like an old recording, flickering in and out of existence. Cordelia took a deep breath and stepped forward, striding up the channel towards the figure, blocking out the rising hiss emanating from the pillars.
In seconds he was upon her, much quicker than she could have imagined, as though her mind were switching on and off again, the distance between them halved with each flicker. He had seemed to be a hundred yards and more away, yet when she had glanced to her feet and lifted her eyes up again, he was there, a shimmering phantom, clothed in jagged shards that glittered like black ice, reflecting the white of the pillars in fractured bars. One moment the air was an empty space, the next he filled it, looming over her like some vast pointed shadow. He was too tall, too lithe, towering above her on wiry limbs that bent and swayed. His features were drawn out and flattened so that the eyes seemed almost to become one, the nose and lips as sharp as razor blades. His many teeth were sharper still, thin and pointed, made to bite and tear and rend. When he lowered his head to hers and opened his mouth to speak, it yawned like a cavern, too large, seeming to belong to some other creature.
His voice, the voice of the pillars, rolled in her head like marching thunder.
“I know you, child. I know who you are. I know why you have come.” A pause, a jagged smile: “This cannot end well for you.”
Cordelia recognised the look in those pinprick eyes, for she had used it before – it was a sneering look, a look reserved for inferior beings, beings worthy only of being used.
“I have watched you,” the figure continued as he reached out with his too-long arms swaying like serpents – two, three, four joints she counted. “I have felt you. I know what you wish. You will not succeed here. Here you are nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing…”
Suddenly he turned away and gripped the nearest pillars, pulling himself atop the construction with the agility of a monkey, a hiss like the sound of an angry cat issuing from his jagged mouth. In the instant that he leapt there were two of him splitting apart and moving for different pillars, then three, four, five, perfect replicas staring down upon her. When he spoke again – the voice coming from all of the figures though it came to her ears as one – the thunder was gone, but the underlying vehemence remained.
“Send it away. Now.”
As the low hiss vibrated in the back of his throat, Cordelia heard Bane growl behind her, all but obscured by the falling snow, a grey suggestion. She had forgotten about him for a time but with a thought she sent him away, realising that – for some reason – the stranger was scared of her creation, more scared of Bane than he was of Cordelia. Within moments Bane had vanished amongst the pillars, the imprints of his taloned paws filling with fresh snow, leaving Cordelia wondering why this stranger felt he could toy with her so easily yet quailed at Bane’s presence.
“A wise choice,” the stranger said as his replicas fell away on the wind.
Cordelia played with the curl on her forehead as she glanced up towards him, her cheeks flushing with soft red as their eyes met. She knew that to succeed here she must act the underdog, the innocent. And as he toyed with her – as he seemed so eager to do – she would find a way to the core of him, the way to reveal his deepest fears and use them against him. Like all the others, that would be the way to bring him under her control.
He smiled as he watched her, teeth like points of silver. “I can see what you are trying, child. I can feel your every thought, your every action. Stop this now before you undo yourself.” He craned his neck and sniffed the air as if to confirm that Bane had left, then fixed his pin-prick eyes on Cordelia, a flash of pain and fury that Cordelia felt in her chest seeming to jump between them, a taste of what might come.
“So, Nothing,” the jagged stranger continued as he dropped back to the snowy ground, “the name you have taken is Cordelia, for you do not know your real name. You come this way to seek revenge, to find the truth of yourself. I know that much and more besides. But how have you come this far when no man has passed in such an age? And you, a mere child, who stole the Panopticon when I was unaware, who stepped through the Black!”
He leered down upon her like some vast spider, readying to pounce. Cordelia said nothing, moved not a single muscle.
“I know also that something in you has changed and is still changing. I know you can feel this change but do not know why it has come, or how.” An odd smile split his face for a moment. “I know that you hope to destroy me as these changes bloom. And I know that you know, in your heart of hearts, that I am greater than you and that this cannot be.”
“You know so much,” Cordelia said, eyes glittering. “What else do you want to know?”
“You have nothing of worth to tell, child. If you know it, I know it. If it is in you, it is mine. I do not need your help to find the words. You gave them to me willingly when you came here.”
Cordelia smiled inside though her face remained impassive. He thinks he gives away nothing but every word he says teaches me a little more. “Who are you?”
“I have many names in many tongues. Moloch, Tiamat, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Belial, Azazel. These are but a few.” He laughed softly as he let the words sink in.
Lies, Cordelia thought. She had heard these names before. He hopes to weaken me, to convince me he is something he is not. This creature was making her angry and she began to doubt if he had any real power at all. “If you know me as you say, Man of Many Names, then you know why I am here and you know I will stop at nothing. You know I will destroy you if it comes to it, if you do not stand aside and let me pass.” She stepped closer, lip curled in anger. “If you know me as you say, then you know I mean every word.”
He bounced back and laughed, springing like a spider on a web, a huge belly roar discordant with his spindly frame. “There is fire in you. You make me smile, Nothing, but you know as well as I that your life has been a waste, that the one you followed has no power here. He is a lost infant, as are you. Can’t you see, child?” His head throbbed and pulsed with each word, furling and unfurling like a flower.
Cordelia made to speak but the figure held out a spindly hand to stop her. The sky seemed to darken a shade as he cracked his knuckles. “I don’t wish to play your games, child, not now. I will have no more from you, no more.” It seemed as though the pillars were closing around her, leering over her like the dark stranger, unleashing lines of influence to draw her secrets out. “But I like you, Nothing. I will let you leave – back the way you came.”
She stumbled backwards and fell to the cold snow as the threat of the pillars receded and the nameless figure pointed back towards the shorn mountain, the path obvious now when it had seemed so like all the others before. Cordelia stood up from where she had fallen and leaned against the nearest pillar for support. The stranger had her throat in his hands in the blink of an eye, turned from placid to deadly before she could even think to draw a breath.
His fingers were cold and skeletal, long enough to wrap around her throat twice over, turning her skin to ice where they made contact. His eyes – no longer mere pin-pricks – had blossomed, filled with barely-subdued malice. She knew then that he could end her in a moment if he so wished, could but had not; something was holding him back, just as something had caused him to spring upon her so suddenly.
“Never, ever touch,” he hissed. “Never.”
So that was it then… She stared back at him as she held her palms inches from the dappled stone, fear portrayed without but absent within, reading his thoughts. “You are wrong,” he hissed as the cogs of her mind whirred without recourse. But Cordelia knew by his reaction that she was right – she knew now that his one fear was having the pillars turned against him, and he knew she had the power to do it. She smiled as she spread her palms across the stone as the figure ducked in close, his breath hot on her face, dark visions rising up behind her eyes.
“Try and it will be your end, I promise.”
She pushed his hands away as she stood, her face flushed crimson from the choking. He would not kill her, by the tension in his grip and the waver in his voice she was certain. Whether this was his own choice or the order of another did not matter. Enough, she thought. I have seen enough. Her voice was full of anger as she pointed a finger towards him and felt him quail. “I know who you are, Archdeacon. Perhaps you should go before I do something I regret, Nothing. Nothing. Nothing…”
Archdeacon’s tiny eyes flared as though he had suddenly seen the truth of her for the first time, realised there were others greater than he who could not be fooled as easily as all those who had dared to face him before. Cordelia dived into his thoughts, searching out his deepest parts as his defences wilted, as the barriers he had constructed around the lie that was his power fell apart like sodden paper, revealing the intricate joining of his self and the pillars, the work of an age that Cordelia would tear asunder in minutes.
Night had settled in the Forgotten City as Aldous recovered from his encounter by the painted walls. He had spent the final hours of the day staring into the flames whilst the others busied themselves around him, sharpening their weapons or climbing to the top of the wall to look out towards Potamia, and even when the monks had brought a huge cauldron of steaming broth to share amongst them, Aldous had done little but sip from the proffered bowl, dwelling on the image the monk had shown him.
One by one the warriors had succumbed to sleep as the sky darkened. Dylan began to snore softly as the flames dwindled. But for Erdik, Aldous was the last one awake. As the minutes passed a breath of wind blew across the fire and Aldous felt his eyes growing heavy as the flames danced around him. He drifted in and out of sleep as Erdik stoked the fire and dreamed for a while of burning with the Panopticon, of standing tall amongst them. When next his eyes opened, everything was still and the fire had faded to a hissing pile of embers. The monks were gone to be amongst their painted visions and the warriors were sleeping every one.
Ideas which he had weighed up and disregarded in his long spell of silence came rushing back to him now, bidding him to act or regret it forever. And so, Aldous walked. Up and out of the Forgotten City, up the narrow steps, over the wall and off across the moonlit sands towards Sandlock, whose bulk hid the sickening spectacle he knew he must meet, that was a vital part of all that had happened thus far. The monk had told him so with the secret painting and, for Aldous to know what was true and what was false, he knew he would have to go to that instance.
All that was visible as he made his way across the sands was the wavering banner of orange filling the sky, the first sign of what waited across the peak. No one else had looked upon the vision the monk had painted for him, he had made sure of that. His multicoloured palms were testament to his destruction. Whatever happened tonight would be his secret alone.
The hills were tall verdant walls as sheer as cliffs. Erdik’s legend had spoken of the construction of this great barrier by the race of Giants who had built Potamia, of their seers foretelling the rise of the sea and the sand, of the destruction of their kind by men who came in exile from the north. And so the Giants had made the towering walls that Aldous could see now from the peak of Sandlock, sweeping away into darkness as far to the east and west as the eye could see, vast slabs of stone painted orange-white by the fiery ranks of the still-burning army, dwarfing even the man-made hills, tall and thick enough to keep out anything and everything. The fiery hordes were tightly packed against it, crowded on top of one another so that they created a living hill that rose up against the great mass of pitted rock. They were peppered by a rain of arrows and rocks from high above but as Aldous watched he realised he could not see a single figure fall. The sight stilled him for a moment. It was not only the rows of burning men that made him falter – terrifying him in their lack of activity, Miltonic in their soundless fury – but the towering wall of Potamia itself. All that stood between him and the truth was his predestined meeting with the Panopticon.
He was stilled for a second, but no more. He knew he must not let his fears and doubts intrude, not allow them to sway his decision. His father's necklace glittered in the glow of the firelight as he descended the southern side of Sandlock, his heart beating heavy in his chest. Two days ago he would have felt disgust at touching the symbol of all that was wrong with his life; now, with the weight of past events behind it and its potent presence in two worlds, his father’s necklace felt like a talisman, an integral part of the puzzle he was here to solve.
He reached the bottom and gritted his teeth as he pulled the spear from his belt, focussing on the pressure in his jaw, the solidity of the earth beneath him. His walk turned to a run as the ground levelled and he found that he did not need to distract himself from his doubts. He had mastered them, was not afraid, was so convinced of his choices that he was unwilling to allow anything to stop him. He ran until he could feel the heat of the fire, could hear its many-layered voice, ran on through the burning pain in his lungs and the stitch in his side, until he felt he had arrived in the place he had been shown, that was the crux of the painted vision.
The figures nearest him – the outer edge of that great mass of inhumanity – seemed not to notice his presence. Unsure of what to do, Aldous opened his mouth wide and screamed his fury at the smouldering backs of the Panopticon. One by one, the heads turned towards him, black eyes glittering like pieces of glass in the orange wash. He could feel every single gaze lock onto him as the fall of arrows and rocks from above dwindled away. Shunning the blazing walls, the Panopticon jerked and shuddered until every one stood facing him, a host of pitch-soaked devils.
Look upon them, they will fall.
He screamed and bellowed his unbelief at the blazing hordes as they began to move towards him, a wordless scream that stoked the fires of his anger, kept him from turning on his heel and running back across Sandlock. He knew he would be lost without it. He prepared himself as best he could in his fury for the likelihood that he was about to meet his death for the second time in as many days, but knew there was no other way.
Then, something happened; a coincidence. A coincidence of shuddering implications, throwing everything Aldous had believed to this moment on its head. In the same instant Aldous raised his shaking hand and jerked his eye-patch free, praying the painted vision was wrong, Cordelia, far behind on the frozen peak of Mount Malikanna, found a way through to the truth of Archdeacon and felt a crackle of electricity as her captive’s bonds with the pillars were weakened.
And so, as the painting of the monk had promised, the Panopticon fell.
Archdeacon cried fat red tears as all he knew collapsed around him. It felt as though he was seeing the world truly for the first time and it was not what he had always believed it to be. It seemed to Cordelia as she watched that he had shrunk, curled in upon himself, grown lesser.
“Please,” Archdeacon whimpered, his voice that of a helpless child. “You will ruin everything. Please stop this, please.”
His eyes bulged as he pleaded, but all Cordelia could do was smile the insolent smile of the victor and look upon him with disdain as he had done to her.
“Did you not say you know everything, if I know it, you know it already? All that knowledge, all that power and you couldn’t even vanquish a child.” She fluttered her eyelashes and gave that devastating parody of innocence look, craned neck, pouting lips. “You could’ve destroyed me at any time but that wouldn’t have been fun, would it? I know that as you do. I too enjoy playing games, but you felt the need to make a show of it, and for what? For who?
“Maybe you’ve just forgotten how to interact, to be nice to people. Stuck alone in this place, wasting away like the pathetic beast you are.” She smiled. There was something akin to a whimper from Archdeacon as he felt her flick through his thoughts again, not searching for anything in particular, merely showing her ownership of him. “Be nice. That’s all. I’m being nice. The fact that you still live and breathe proves this.” She could see defeat in his eyes, a look of utter loss as she placed the image of Bane tearing his jagged frame to bloodied pieces in his thoughts, another reminder.
“Now, Archdeacon,” – it felt powerful to use his name, to know him –”If you don’t want to help me, sit there and be good for Bane whilst I look around. See if I can’t figure out what this place is really for.”
“No,” Archdeacon whimpered. “Don’t. Please. I will tell you anything.”
Cordelia smiled. “If it is in you, I know it already. You gave your words to me when you allowed me to come to this place.” She turned to Bane and spoke aloud though she did not need to – it was all to show Archdeacon that he was nothing. “If he tries to escape, if he tries to do anything but sit nicely, pull off one of his arms. And don’t be quick about it either – I want him to feel it and understand what he’s done.”
Bane growled and licked his lips.
Cordelia was wary that Archdeacon may try to talk his way to freedom, to use his tongue to overpower her simple Bane, and she did not yet know how Bane would react under that kind of probing. Surely he would relearn of the path that had led Cain and Abel to the form of Bane, and Archdeacon would promise that he could make it as it was before. But this did not worry Cordelia too much for she fancied the process of change was too far gone, that her creation was bound to her and her alone. Still, she knew there would be a time when she took that risk and now would be good practice for what was to come.
Then, taking a breath to prepare, Cordelia placed her hands on the surface of the pillar and flowed like water into the stone. The sensations were free now, not muted by Archdeacon’s presence. Everything Archdeacon had ever known, every thought he had ever pilfered and kept as his own was revealed at once, an impossible torrent of sounds and feelings and images, life upon life of stolen memories, filling her mind until she felt she might burst. Archdeacon was straining and shaking as he watched, clearly in pain. Bane bared his slavering teeth in a parody of a smile, savouring the scent of the stranger’s fear as Cordelia delved deeper.
And by the whispered words of the pillars, Cordelia began to understand.
She saw through the eyes of the rock the tales of the sorry few who had found their way to the pillars in times past, in the days before the Panopticon were risen up on Malikanna’s peak – flashes of red and white, piercing screams, wretched sobs as Archdeacon (who had reigned in this place for as long as the pillars had stood) pulled them apart at the seams. The flood of sights and sounds became too much for her to take in and she turned back against the tide, fearing she would become lost in this place of memories and regret, her body withering as she was carried away to float amongst the images of blood and death and madness. A stray image called out as she drifted back to the surface, one that felt and tasted fresh in comparison to the mouldy lower layers she had so vainly rushed towards. It was the old man she had followed to this world, the old man who she had thought dead and gone. She stilled her movement and went back to the sight, watching from a strange perspective as the man dismounted his horse and lay on the sand. There were others with him, distorted by waves of heat, but her focus was only on the old man. He turned and gazed at her for a brief second in which she saw the patterns of his iris, the rough material of an eye patch, the tiny wrinkles etched into his skin like filigreed rivers on a dappled landscape. As she watched the old man smiled. The next thing she knew, the whole world was screaming around her, filling with shadow as she was thrust away.
A curious sensation came over her as she regressed toward the surface but she resisted the urge to go back to the shell of her body and began to probe deeper. She came upon a memory of Archdeacon meeting with the birds and began to understand their part in all this. She saw how they would sweep down from the clouds and take balls of rock from his outstretched hands, flitting off again to drop them in the places he had ordained, there to leech onto the thoughts of whoever found them and so give the pillars, and Archdeacon, their fuel. She knew the vision of the old man was linked to one of these balls, knew all the power Archdeacon claimed to have was waiting here for her, in the midst of the stolen memories, and supposed the tall stranger had been using this place to follow her since the very moment she came to this world.
The few memories of Archdeacon’s jumped out like anachronisms, startling in their clarity. Each one told her a little more of her captive. Each spoke of his loneliness, trapped amongst the pillars with all these lives yet never truly knowing himself, never even thinking to question, a pawn of something greater just as Cordelia had been for most of her existence. She felt also as she probed that her invasion was revealing the truth of this to Archdeacon for the first time. His talk of being the centre of everything was a charade, one that he himself had grown to believe. All she could see, no matter how many memories she chanced upon, was his loneliness, the lies he had constructed around his sorry self. He had grown warped and broken by his enforced solitude and she began to feel that, perhaps, she and he were not so different. They had walked similar paths. Both had been wronged, both had had their lives taken from them.
She pulled herself from the depths and came back to the warm prison of her flesh. Archdeacon was slumped low whilst Bane’s talons drew lines of blood from the fragile-looking throat. Cordelia shook her head. He is in pain and it is all my doing. I feel for him. It was strange to feel like this. Remorse, regret, empathy – these were feelings she had rarely entertained. She wiped away a sheen of sweat from her brow and gathered herself before stepping towards them, her body feeling strangely cumbersome, ruffling Bane’s wiry hair as if he were a puppy being too rough with his plaything.
“Let him go now, my sweet. Not this one.”
Bane growled low in his throat, the animal part surfacing.
“Let him go. Now,” she said sternly as she slapped him hard on the nose. “He won’t try anything. Will you?” Archdeacon shook his head and made a noise that sounded like a sniffle. It was clear from the snarl that Archdeacon’s submission was not Bane’s worry. He was thinking only of sating his hunger. “And I haven’t forgotten you, my precious. We shall find some bones for you to feast upon soon, I promise. There will be others and plenty of them.”
Bane loosed his grip and Archdeacon slumped to the floor, pulling his long legs close to his chest like a frightened child. Cordelia looked over him and smiled, feeling those alien feelings once again, but the smile vacated her face as she realised Archdeacon was hiding something. She felt him try to stifle his instincts as an image rose up in his thoughts but she reached out for it, seizing it easily from him as he slumped once again. Cordelia gasped. She could see a huge, broad-shouldered beast hiding in the shadows amongst some forest canopy, every inch of flesh covered in fur and quills, dancing with clouds of fizzing ticks and fleas. As she watched, the name came to her.
She whispered the name and the beast turned towards her in that stolen image, giving something that might have been a smile as it peeled out of the shadows. Her voice was soft as she pulled herself back and looked upon the shattered form of Archdeacon. She could see in his eyes that he held no power over this creature, that in giving himself up to her, so too had he relinquished his hold on the beast called Harrower. She knew then that the beast was coming this way, obeying her call as it had always done Archdeacon’s, another to serve her.
“I think we can help him,” she said to Bane as she reached out a hand and stroked Archdeacon’s face. “We can all help each other. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Archdeacon’s eyes seemed to fill with light then, as if he finally believed he had found someone who understood him, someone who could bring an end to the gripping nothingness that had held him in its thrall and which he had denied for such an age.
“Yes.” His eyes were liquid. “Help me.”