Some time ago Erdik had taken a few steps forward and dropped to his knees, staring open-mouthed at the apparitions on the water, shapes whose terrible purpose he could only imagine. Dylan had moved forward and stood at his back, placing a hand on his shoulder and saying not a word, knowing there was nothing he could say that would help. After a while – how long, Dylan couldn’t tell, but the sky was growing darker and the ships were much closer, grown from mere specks to vast wooden behemoths – the warrior had bowed his head and began to shake.
His voice came soft at first, and though Dylan could see his lips move, the ash-filled winds carried the sound from his ears. He knelt closer.
“No,” the warrior was saying softly, over and over again. “No. No. No. No.”
Erdik stood up suddenly and turned his back on the waters, eyes wide and red, brimming with tears. He brushed them away and placed his hands on Dylan’s shoulders, giving him a firm shake, demanding his attention.
When his words came they were slow and steady.
“There is something I must do and something you must do for me.”
Erdik watched Dylan recede into the distance as he hammered at the lock on the store-room door, the boy’s figure dwindling into the ashen darkness as the ships grew ever larger at the city’s back, bringing with them who-knows-what. There were things he knew he must do before he would have the chance to find out and to descend into the bowels of the Reach would no doubt take him straight to the enemy. The lock was holding strong despite the ferocity of his blows and after a few dozen failed attempts he screamed and turned to look out across the city, struggling to maintain a grip on his sanity.
A crowd of the black figures, torches in hand, were more than half-way up the winding path that led from the landing to the tiered gardens astride the Reach on the eastern side, their torches like a swarm of fireflies. More had set off towards Erdik’s side and, for all he knew, more still had found some way into the burrowing corridors from the garrisons and were right now ascending level by level. A group of forty or so were crossing the platform and its host of bodies towards the palace; others were winding through the streets of the city in search of those who had been quick and wily enough to hide themselves away, whilst the bulk of them remained in the great clearing, continuing to corral the sleeping, dawdling populace towards the Pit.
The citizens of Potamia were formed into long lines now and as he watched he noticed grey-robed men with flowing hoods moving up and down the lines, leading grubby, shaven-headed boys – undoubtedly the boys who had spent their lives with Magnir – who bore between them heavy metal chests. The grey-robed figures stopped at every person in the lines, glancing them up and down. Judging them, he realised. Some here dismissed with a nod of the head – the weak, the old, the sick – and were promptly dispatched by the following guards, bringing not so much as a sigh or a whimper from the others who waited their turn. Those who did not find their lives taken at the end of a sword – the bulk of them – knelt down in front of the metal chests when their turn came and, once the grey-robed figures placed their hands inside the chests, moving them to the heads of the chosen, holding them for a moment like new-born babes, they stood and moved falteringly onwards. Whatever was happening, Erdik did not have the faculty to understand it.
The marching men would make it to the top of the Reach within the hour, perhaps sooner – one of them might find a way or all of them, he did not know, but they would make it, whether through brute force or blind luck. Maybe he would be lucky and there would still be loyal men somewhere within the Reach, waiting their chance to make a stand, men loyal to the truth rather than to the king. He hoped. One way or another, they would find his father’s place before any of this and he knew he had to get off the Reach and into the city before that happened.
He turned his attention back to the door of the store-room, to the marble statues standing either side, rain-smoothed replicas of Magnir, the king who had betrayed his people. He moved across and pushed one of the statues over, darting back as it toppled. The marble cracked and shattered as it tumbled from its pedestal, sending jagged pieces skittering off across the surface of the Reach. Magnir’s head came to a spinning halt in front of him and he almost smiled as he leaned down to heft it in his arms.
The lock gave way on the second attempt and, before going inside, Erik ran to the outer edge of the Reach and threw the marble head over, watching as it dropped to the watery darkness where it belonged. He glanced to the north and found that he could no longer see Dylan; perhaps the boy had made it to safety, with Siva and Barakea in tow, heading for Æanna’s shrine where Erdik had promised to meet them two days hence.
Another great rumble echoed across the sky as he moved inside. It was dark and the shelves and boxes were cluttered but he found what he was looking for and rummaged through the heavy chest for the strongest specimen then set off out the doorway with the rope in hand, hoping it would be long enough, hoping it would hold him.
Dylan ran faster that he had ever ran before through the sickly mire of ash and rain, blocking out everything but the tower to his front the place where the princess waited. And he nearly succeeded in pointing all his focus on the task Erdik had set. He knew that to save Siva was the most important thing now that Aldous was gone, for she was a part of this as much as he and, with her, there may still be a chance to learn what must be done here, to learn of himself.
He thought of the girl as he ran – her blood-spattered dress, the fear and hope in her eyes – but that dwindled and in his concentration he succeeded in blocking out all but one memory, one instance of all he had lived, pushing to the forefront. It was not the grip of terror he had felt as he watched Aldous, open-mouthed, falling to his death. Nor was it the ships birthing on the horizon, growing in size and terror as they neared, come to destroy this place and all Dylan’s hopes of finding out who he was. Nor was it the moment when had had first looked upon the burning masses of the Panopticon, nor any other of the lesser things that had befallen him. It was the dried leech, thrumming in the cube in his pocket, beckoning him to remove it and learn its secrets.
He would, he promised himself, as soon as he was safe.
He remembered how the key had danced in his hand when he had first touched it outside the library in Redwood House. It was less potent then, or perhaps he had not quite been in tune with it. But touching the object, holding it in his palm had thrilled him, made him think that everything he had gone through had been worth it. The cube was the same as this yet somehow different. It called to him in different ways, ways that were somehow illicit and were therefore more prominent in his desires. Yes, there were secrets there, of that he was sure. There were things he could learn, truths, perhaps about himself. It was a feeling he knew but did not understand, like the flash of awareness just before something terrible happens or the rush of butterflies when the subconscious mind senses danger that the conscious side does not. It was a sensation that left him feeling dirty, tainted. He had watched as the cube had reduced the boy to nothing, felt the warm buzz in his palm as the leech shrivelled to a husk. It was not something he could explain – and it had terrified him at the time – but, he decided that now, looking back, it was something he would gladly welcome again – that feeling, that illicit power.
The ground was a blur beneath his feet and he wondered how he could possibly still be running at such a pace when he had felt so tired and beaten down after Aldous had died. It was mere minutes ago when he had felt at his lowest point ever but now Erdik had pulled him together, given him something to focus on. Adrenaline coursed through him. He had discovered his own purpose, calling from the burgundy cube in his pocket, echoing from the image of his young self that Atoma had shown him. He would go to it when the time was right. Too much now might ruin everything.
The tower was close now. He ran on.
Erdik pulled the rope tight then wrapped thin iron bands around either side of the knot, hammering them into place. He tugged on the rope, tilting backward to test its strength and, deciding it would suffice, took a quick glance around before dropping it over the edge. As it pulled taut and he reached down to lift it out from the Reach, taking its weight and swinging it from left to right. He could feel the marble arm of the statue swinging at the end of the rope and knew that – as he had feared – it was not long enough to reach the ground. Still, there was no other way.
The sky was growing with a solid darkness now as the ash began to fill its higher reaches and angry, poisoned clouds displaced the wispy white tendrils of morning. The ash had spread far and wide across the sky and was falling ever thicker, and with the dwindling of the light it seemed that the rain was filling everything, like some heavy, poisoned mist, that it would bind together and form a solid black mass, smothering everything.
By now the far side of the city was invisible, nothing but a jumble of shadows, and he had no idea how far the men on the tiered gardens had made it. If the invaders had attempted the same on this side they could be finding some means of egress and stumbling upon him within minutes. He could still see the Pit and the figures milling about it and, though he was not sure, he fancied he could see light from the space beneath the ground, the space where Aldous lay.
Taking the rope firmly in his hands he stepped backwards and over the edge, taking huge jumps outwards and downwards as the rope burned against his calloused, scarred palms, falling at a speed that made his stomach lurch. He pulled himself to a stop once the point where he had jumped from became lost in the mire and hung tight against the Reach, glancing around in the heavy silence. The mist of ash seemed even thicker down here and he could barely see more than twenty feet around him but he gritted his teeth and continued, even as the ragged scabs on his palms that marked his bond to Aldous ripped open and began to bleed, covering the rope in warm lubricant.
He moved faster and faster still until vague shapes began to form from the shadows beneath him – the tops of trees, he realised, the nearest of which he recognised. It was a huge Blackwood in his father’s gardens, almost as old as the city itself, planted from a seedling carried from Asha a dozen lifetimes ago. His father’s tree stood beside it and he reminded himself that he was acting now just as his father would. He realised he could hear noises, too, and stopped again to listen, grimacing against the fire in his hands. The sound of mailed footsteps on cobbled streets somewhere below, vague voices swallowed in the ash. He lowered himself slowly as the shadowy forms of the trees grew more solid and soon the pale marble arm began to form out of the darkness, tapping lightly against the wall with the movement of the rope as if to echo the footsteps on the cobbles below.
He slowed his descent and inched himself to the rope’s edge, his feet resting precariously on the marble arm, leaning outwards for a better view of the ground below. He tried to reach his sword to cut the end of the rope so that the noise of the marble arm would not give him away but there was not enough room to remove the blade from his sheath and he had left his treasured dagger – a gift from his father – with Barakea, telling him to do whatever was needed to save Siva, making them lock the door behind him, promising he would return. He only hoped they would listen to Dylan when he found them, that the boy could persuade them to leave the city. If not, all would be lost.
The house was visible now, a hazy shadow to his right. There was no light inside and he could only hope that Barak would still be there or that he had hidden himself away somewhere at the very least. Whatever had happened, the house was too far away to help him and the ground below – fifty feet or so he guessed – was no more than a suggestion. Such a fall would kill him. He knew his only hope was to reach the tree.
He pulled the rope taut and pushed his body out until he was standing on the Reach so that it seemed like some massive highway to his front. The marble arm click-clacked against the stone as he inched forward and even before he heard the voices, even when he knew there was nothing he could do but continue, he had the sudden sensation of eyes on him, that somehow, through the blackness, someone had spied him.
He pushed hard across the Reach, the nearest branches almost within reach, the marble arm rattling beneath him, drawing attention. His fingers were outstretched as one of his hands let go of the rope and grasped for the branch but his legs went from under him as he leaned too far and he almost fell. Below him he heard the voices rise to a new peak, angry voices and the sound of the gate of his father’s house rattling in its frame. They have uncovered me, he thought as he strained to pull himself up, wondering if he had the strength. Something battered against the gate below and he heard more footsteps, more shouts.
The gate began to give way below him and he heard a loud crack that reminded him of a time in the days of his youth when a fork of lightning had split the sky and seared a vast scar in the Blackwood to his right. He remembered asking his father why it had happened. ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ his father had said, and if not for that moment of ruin the hanging branches would be even further away.
He gathered himself and prepared to reach out for the nearest branch again, fingers slick with blood, and just as he was about to give a final push forward, just as he was about to let go of the rope and dive for the sturdy branch, a strange muffled sound filtered across the heavens.
He closed his eyes and gave thanks to Dylan as the bell began to ring out from the top of the city, knowing that the only way he was likely to succeed was if he could clear the streets, find a way to make it to the Pit. If these invaders had not rung the bell, as Erdik hoped, they would wonder who had and why. The banging on the gate stopped for a second as he threw his arms around the branch and locked his blood-soaked fingers together, his muscles burning as his arms took the weight of his body. But the gate stayed silent only for a moment. He pulled himself tight to the tree, letting go of the rope as he felt it go slack from above, as the marble arm fell to the gardens below and the bulk of the rope came rushing past him with a loud swoosh.
They have cut the rope, he thought. So close.
It was at this moment, feeling cornered and ready to face his final fight, that he chanced to glance up. A star was falling from the sky, a bright green orb with a yellow halo arcing across the dome of the heavens, fighting against the blackness, now slowing and dropping to the earth like some fallen angel. It was like nothing he had ever seen before – it was a sign, a sure portent. A saviour.
Below him, the battering of the gate stopped and he took a deep breath as the footsteps on the cobbles started up again, heading away from his father’s house.
The green orb of the flare had already fallen to the ground and was now invisible amongst the wavering glow from the buildings that burned in the heart of the city, the fires having spread far and wide.
Dylan had found Siva and her Protector exactly where Erdik had said they would be, inside the topmost room of the tower. The door at the top was locked and wouldn’t give when he shouldered it. He had called out for Siva and battered at the door with his fists, kicking it when he received no answer. Turning away to pace the corridor for a moment, he noticed a clotted smear of blood on the third step down. I should get away from all this bloodshed, he thought. Be alone. With the cube.
As the unbidden thought attached he heard a bolt being moved and the door swung open. Siva’s eyes were wet with tears and she reached out and hugged him tightly as though they were old friends. He saw chafe marks and raw welts on her wrists and ankles and noticed that her face was pale as milk – she was not the same girl he had met in the forest, the girl whose skin had effused life despite the gore that covered her. She had been broken since then, crushed like everyone else in the city. He stepped into the room and saw Barakea leaning groggily against a bookshelf. If Siva was pale, Barakea looked positively lifeless. His face and the top of his head was swollen and bruised, streaked with dried blood. There was a dagger held tight in a shaking hand, its point wavering – Dylan recognised it as Erdik’s.
“I’m Dylan – a friend,” he said as he saw the look in Barakea’s eye. “Erdik sent me.”
The big man nodded and lowered his blade. “Forgive me, Dylan. My caution is for the safety of the princess,” he said as he forced a smile. “One friend has already turned against me today and now… the king… we did not dare leave here, but… is it true? Has he turned against the Prophet?”
Dylan nodded and left it at that. The details could wait until later.
Both stared at Dylan silently for a long moment. Then the questions had come spilling out – questions aplenty about the men who had come over Sandlock and what was happening in the city below, about Erdik, about Magnir, mostly about Aldous. Dylan pleaded ignorance for most of them – to let them know that Aldous was gone would only break them; to inform them that Erdik was preparing to give his life for a lost cause would merely deepen their sense of futility. Escape from this place was the one thing on his mind; escape and the chance to learn the secrets of the grey leech in the burgundy cube.
“All that can wait. We have to leave here now, leave the city.”
“But… Erdik…” Siva mumbled. “He said he would return. He said…”
“There is no time for that now. Erdik will find us. He is… he is with Ald… with the Prophet. The Prophet needs him.” Aldous is dead. None of this is what you thought it would be.
Siva bowed her head and thought for a while, then said: “But he saved me. We must wait for him. We simply must.”
Barakea moved to the princess’ side. “The boy is right. If the city has fallen, we must go before we are discovered. Erdik is strong. He will take care of himself.”
Siva seemed to accept the advice when it came from her Protector. Dylan nodded thanks to Barakea and moved over to the broken window. He peered down to the landing outside, noticing the bloodied scraps of flesh stuck to the sill. The ground below, black of aspect, was silent and it seemed that the army who had come over Sandlock had left no rearguard and were all busy inside. He hoped, at least. For all he knew there were thousands of them down there, blanketed in soot, outside the scope of his vision. We can’t stay here, he told himself. There is no hope of escape if the invaders do come. He knew that to try to find a way into the Reach, a way back into the city, would be a bad move. He did not doubt that the invaders would be looking for him, searching for the source of the bright green light that had danced across the sky, casting images and thoughts of who-knows-what in their minds.
At least Erdik would be safe now, he thought. Safer. At least now the warrior would have a chance. A chance at what? Aldous is dead.
He turned from the window and spoke to the others. “The men who came over Sandlock are here to destroy us – to destroy me, to destroy you, to destroy everyone. Thousands of your people already are dead or dying.” He thought of the vast crowds corralled by the Pit, waiting wordlessly. “The rest of them… I don’t even know, but they are already lost. We must leave now.”
“But… but where?” Barakea said, his voice cracked and tired. The thought of going outside the Reach scared him more than he cared to admit.
“Out there,” Dylan said. “To the Wastes.”
Barakea looked from Dylan to Siva and back. If Siva agrees, I will do whatever she asks.
Dylan turned to the princess, staring into her eyes. “Well?”
“We will go,” the girl said after a pause, nodding softly. “We will go.”
As Erdik let go of the lowest branch and dropped the final few feet to the gardens, the sounds of movement in the streets outside were reaching a new peak. He ducked low and ran towards the house leaving ragged footprints in the blackened grass.
The doors were all sealed tight and there was no sign of movement from inside, yet a part of him knew that Barak would be waiting. There was, after all, nowhere else to go. He skirted the building, peering in grubby windows to gloomy rooms, tapping on doorways and calling out in a voice as loud as he dared, but found nothing to indicate the house was occupied. He turned on his heel and made off across the gardens, heading for the broken gate that hung limply from its strained hinges.
“Erdik!” came a whisper from out of the darkness. “Up here!”
He turned and moved his gaze across the dark shape of the house, seeing a grubby face peering over the balustrade at the top of the house, bells glinting in the darkness. He beckoned Barak down and moved to the front door, waiting on the black and blue mosaic of the Hjördis coat of arms which covered the front step.
The door opened moments later and Barak stepped outside, taking the warrior in his arms. “I waited for you,” he said. “I knew you would come.”
Erdik stepped inside, seeing a few of the servants hiding in the shadows, their eyes wide and fearful. “We have little time,” he said as he closed the door. “I have somewhere to go and I may not be coming back. Will you help me?”
“Anything,” Barak replied as he took the warrior in his arms.
Dylan, Siva and Barakea where stood behind the Tower of the Eye, hiding in the shadows of a great buttress. Already the invaders had made it atop the Reach. Siva had noticed them first, rushing over from the eastern side where she had talked with Elgord that morning, when everything – when anything – had seemed possible.
The trio had intended – for now at least – to make their way into the Reach, for Barakea said he knew of a host of places they could hide until the coast was clear, but the time for that had come and gone. Now there were but two options: stand and fight or jump from the Reach.
They had briefly discussed going to the western side and jumping into the waters. They would be seen as soon as they came out from the cover of the tower. They would be chased too, but running was an option that Dylan supposed would be safest. Siva and Barakea were unwilling to even entertain it – the idea of jumping into the waters which had risen to wipe them out. There was no more time for discussion now though. Already, on the other side of the tower, the heavy door was being battered and rammed in its mooring. The candles and sconces he had set alight inside the tower would draw the attention of the invaders, even if only for a few minutes.
They stepped out to the edge of the Reach, the winds of ash and sand battering hard across them. Together they peered down to the charred remains of the Panopticon. Would the blackened mess support them? Would it give way beneath them or pierce and tear their bodies to pieces? Whatever was to come, Dylan knew they had no other option. If they stood their ground they would be taken captive, killed or worse. At least if they jumped their destinies would be in their own hands.
Behind them, Dylan heard the door give way, heard heavy footsteps running up the stairs.
“It’s now,” Dylan said as he reached out to his companions to take their hands in his own. An angry, wordless shout issued from the top of the tower high above them. “Now or never.”
Barakea let out a whimper. “I have always loved you, Siva,” he said. “I will do anything for you and I know that someday soon we will take back the world our forefathers knew.”
“Thank you,” Siva said, her bottom lip quivering. “From the bottom of my heart.”
Together, they took one last look and closed their eyes before stepping over the edge, screaming aloud as the blackened mass of the Panopticon rose to meet them.
Cordelia and her growing band moved on through the rains of ash that filtered through the canopy. There were almost thirty of them now and she knew there were more to come, others who had heard her call. She was eager to find out where the Black Army had come from now she had made it from the plain and had entertained the idea of heading south and following them, but she believed she already knew where they were heading and that was somewhere she did not want to be. She was even more eager to find out why the sky had flashed orange, why clouds of ash billowed upwards and outwards from some unseen place, far beyond the great banks of cloud that filled the eastern sky. She did not doubt that the two of them were linked and that, behind it all, behind everything, lurked the Voice.
Harrower and Bane walked by her side with the sorry form of Archdeacon waking with his head bowed a few steps behind. Every single one of her beasts was coated in blood and gore, remnants of a family of deer they had stumbled upon and which had provided sustenance for the journey ahead. Watching them gather together for the kill had been a sight to behold and, even though the deer were frightened animals, unwilling to put up a fight by their very nature, Cordelia did not doubt that her new servants could deal with so much more. They had descended upon their prey like a pack of demons, turning them to bloodied scraps in seconds. Cordelia was impressed and she fancied if she had made the choice to follow the Black Army, with the element of surprise was on her side, her servants would have torn through them like a bloody juggernaut.
Archdeacon, after overcoming his fear of leaving the plain, had led them from the pillars, heading to the tall cliffs at the eastern side, fat, red tears staining his cheeks. More of the familiars joined them with every mile they travelled. Some appeared in rag-tag groups as they ascended the cliffs, waiting silently amongst trees or piles of boulders for their new master. Others appeared alone, standing in their path like statues or hanging by their feet from the branches of trees like giant bats. Bane had growled and flexed his claws at the sight of every newcomer but, once the first dozen or so had joined them and fallen into place, his grumbles grew further and farther between, Cordelia telling him every time that he was her precious, he was her favourite.
“You have done well,” she said to Archdeacon after a while spent in silence. “I am glad I found you, even if you are not.”
They were walking through a heavy forest now, the ancient trees grouped tightly together by clinging vines, every surface covered in thick moss and lichens.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Archdeacon replied. “I have never left the plain.”
“Of course,” Cordelia said with a smile. “You are even more powerless here.”
She had not yet decided what to do or where to go. The orange glow and the rumble in the sky to the east had piqued her interest and a part of her knew that the Voice was somehow behind it all, as he was the leader behind the Black Army, as he was – once – the leader of Archdeacon and the Panopticon and all his familiars, the leader of her. But she had taken – quite easily – the bulk of these as her own. She supposed the Black Army could be hers if she so wished but a part of her thought that they were of little concern, that wherever they had come from, she would find much more there that was worth the taking. After all, there must be some reason why the Voice had lied to her for so long, something he wished her to be kept away from.
They came upon a wide river flowing through the forest as the day moved into evening – a fast moving swathe of water and ash that thundered past them, threatening to burst its banks. They followed the curve of the river back towards its source and before too long they came across some signs of the army she had watched through the eyes of the familiar. A wide clearing full of muddied footprints. The figures – whoever they were – had left no sign of their purpose, nothing she could use to learn something about them. She knelt down to the ground and placed her hands on one of the deeper prints but found nothing but cold, wet earth, no hint that anything living had been here. Whoever these men were, Cordelia did not doubt that they were formed from the same stuff as the Panopticon, and if the Panopticon – which she had taken so easily – and the Black Army were but a sample of this, she knew she must go there. She supposed there would be countless thousands, millions even, when she reached the source.
They moved on as the sky darkened. After a while, as though some hidden switch had been flipped, the trees began to come to life around them, a dull yellow glow effusing from within the very leaves and branches. The greater part of her host was no doubt used to this but Archdeacon and even Bane seemed spooked by the sight, their eyes constantly darting to and fro as the textures and hues of the forest changed around them – Archdeacon tapping his fingers on his tough carapace and gulping loudly, Bane growling low in his throat, his hackles raised.
It was quite by chance that Cordelia stumbled upon something that made her stop in her tracks, made her doubt her haste to reach the orange glow and the Voice.
There was a handprint amongst the glowing spores on a tree near the river’s edge, standing out amongst the other marks and scrapes the passing army had made. Something about it grabbed her attention, even from this distance. She broke into a run and went to it, placing her hand in its centre. As soon as she touched the print a flash of vision came to her – a vague sense of size and strength without substance, muddled thoughts that seemed to circle without any true focus, a feeling of almost infant fear of the strange world around her. In a moment the feeling was gone and she found herself staring at her hand pressed tight against the tree. Her fingers did not even stretch to the edge of the palm and when she moved her hand up to the print of one of the gnarled fingers, she found that it was a thick as her wrist. She turned around and saw that, as good servants should, her host had followed, filling the forest around her.
“What is it?” Archdeacon said.
Cordelia looked to his feet and saw the footprint he was standing in, barely discernible atop the thick moss. She knelt down and pushed Archdeacon roughly out of the way. It was hard to judge its length exactly but it seemed as though the print was as long as her legs, perhaps even longer.
“I don’t know,” she said as she followed the line of massive footprints that were only now being revealed to her by the growing light. “But I am going to find out.”
If Erdik had not made the decision to go to his father’s house, he supposed Barak and the servants would have stayed in their hiding places until the invaders found them and, even if they were lucky enough to remain hidden, they would have been left with nothing when the invaders went back from where they had come but the barren and broken shell of the city, every sight a reminder of what had happened.
Despite their wishes to stay, whatever the consequences, Erdik had persuaded them – Barak in particular – to flee as soon as the chance presented itself, to meet with him in Æanna’s shrine as he had instructed the others, or to flee to the Forgotten City to find refuge if they could not make it across the sands. He did not doubt that the men who had been battering at the gate when he had descended the Reach would come back but whether it would be sooner or later he did not know. He could only hope that Dylan’s actions would cause them to keep their focus elsewhere.
So he had shown Barak the path he must follow in one of his father’s ancient books, then gathered a few provisions – a spare dagger to substitute the one he had given Barakea, a short-bow and a quiver of arrows from his old quarters – for the path that lay ahead. He had left Barak in the library, making him promise that he would hide himself away (somewhere in the gardens, for the house would most certainly be searched) then leave the city once the coast was clear. There would be Drudwyn waiting on the far side of Sandlock and he taught Barak how to send out the call when he made it that far. Without the horses to guide them, he feared his friend would wilt under the fear of the world he found out there.
The house had dwindled behind him as he moved through the streets darting from pool of shadow to pool of shadow between burning buildings, planning every step. He came around a corner in a narrow street and saw the gloom open up like a throat in front of him, a bright light from the depths of the Pit slicing through the heavy blackness. He watched for a moment and saw the invaders parting and closing their ranks over and over again, allowing a few of those at the front of the crowd to pass each time. He realised that his hopes for some truthful men to be organising some kind of defence within the Reach were hopeless, for he could see hundreds of them – Kingsguard and Highguard alike – holding their silent places in the lines, arms slack and useless, unwilling to do anything but wait for the Pit. Other warriors – the true traitors – stood side by side with the invaders and Erdik knew by the red hues of their garb that they were the Nightwatch, the pride of Potamia now turned against their city and their people.
Already the piles of bodies between the lines were growing but their numbers were much lesser than those being taken into the Pit, and he realised – prompted by the memory of the shaven-headed boys who had lived their lives with the king – that he could see no children amongst the waiting crowds. Whether this was a good sign or not he did not know but he very much doubted that the children, in all their hundreds, had managed to escape when their elders had not.
He watched the crowds for a while, biding his time, slinking deeper into the shadows. The thought chilled him but he knew if he was ever to find out what had happened to Aldous, what was happening to his people, he must to go to the Pit – the symbol of everything that was wrong with Potamia – as the king had wanted. I will go to it only on my terms, he thought.
It seemed now as though the black invaders were in a hurry, for the crowds were becoming bottle-necked at the rim of the Pit, spreading ever wider so that those on the outer edges of the field were spilling into the streets. Yet still they waited. There was no sign that even a single one of the sluggish masses was willing – or able – to take their chances and make good their escape. Entranced, he thought as he remembered the way Magnir had controlled his people. Diminished.
He tried to judge the distance, guessing how long it would take him to make it to the crowds, wondering if the rain of ash permeating the air would cover his movements. There was no doubt in his mind that he would need some kind of decoy.
He heard animal grunts from the front of the crowd and as he watched he noticed a trio of fantastic creatures take form amongst the gloom, thrice the height of any man, grey and gnarled and bearing huge white tusks. Thick ropes hung around their necks and as they were poked and prodded by the waiting guards, inching slowly away from the Pit, the ropes pulled taut and Erdik heard strenuous groans beneath the thrum of the crowd. A wide platform emerged from the rim of the Pit, lit by flaming spears positioned in each corner. The keepers of the huge, grey beasts hit the legs of their charges with the butts of their swords whilst those at the front tugged hard on their gleaming tusks. As the creatures stopped and their keepers bade them sit, the line of armed men by the rim of the Pit opened and a hundred or so of the stolen citizens began to amble onto the wooden platform, pushing tight against its railed edges.
At once, despite the terror of all he was seeing, Erdik had an idea.
It had been some time since he had used the bow his father had helped him make and a part of him doubted whether the old hempen string would take the tension or whether it would be weak through the long, dusty years spent hanging from its pegs on the wall of his chambers. It had been half a lifetime and more since he had used it and it seemed small in his grip, the arrows shorter by half that those he was used to. Still, the darkness may hide his intentions and, even if he should miss, he may be lucky enough to be granted another shot.
He reached over his shoulder and removed one of the goldenrod arrows, inspecting the tip and the fletchings. The tip was simply carved and had been fire-hardened. The fletchings seemed as straight and true as the day they had first been plucked – short, dark feathers from the Coalbirds of Asapi which his father had once bred, a place of fabled beauty few knew of, lost beneath the waters since the time of the Turning. Steel or stone tips would have been preferable but the bow had never let him down before and he hoped the wooden tips would be enough.
Erdik licked the tip of the arrow – a habit he had kept since he was a boy – and moved it into place on the bow, pulling the string taut as he looked down the arrow’s length, holding his outstretched arm as still as he was able. There was scant wind but he had no idea what kind of effect the rains of ash would have. Still, there was no time to waste.
The beasts were stepping slowly backwards now and the platform suspended by the stout ropes began to inch lower into the Pit. Erdik took a deep breath and, whispering an apology to those whose lives may be ended by his actions, loosed the arrow, following the golden hue of the wood as it arced through the air and found its mark in the haunch of the farthest of the great beasts. In the blink of an eye he unsheathed and loosed his second arrow. This one did not fly so straight and true but it found its mark all the same, embedding deep in the leg of another.
Deep growls filled the air as the two stuck creatures reared up and darted forwards, the guards letting go of their ropes as they whipped through the air with enough force to shear off limbs. The faces of every invader turned to the distraction as a few of those nearest were crushed under the rampaging beast’s heavy feet, and all the while the enslaved populace of Potamia stared glumly forward, unaffected by everything around them.
Erdik dropped the bow and took his chance. He ducked low and sprinted through the darkness towards the Pit, the wooden platform with its host of senseless citizens warping and bucking beneath their feet as he neared. He made it to the edge in seconds, cloaked by the darkness, all attention of the invaders focussed on the screaming beasts, one of which had ran in manic circles as its shackles broke free then toppled onto its side, crushing a score or more of the innocents waiting so calmly for their deaths.
In a moment the edge of the Pit rose up to meet him and he gritted his teeth as he jumped out towards the breaking platform, feeling the rush of salty, stagnant air driving past him from below.
It was cold where he lay; terribly cold, a liquid cold that seeped to his very core. He could not see a thing but did not know whether his sight had failed or whether it was the heavy darkness. In truth he could not even remember where he was.
There was something heavy beneath him, something he had his arms wrapped tightly around, and as his eyes swam suddenly into focus he was greeted by a grimacing mouth he fancied he knew, blood and saliva dripping in stringy tendrils.
The memory came to him of all that had happened before and as he pushed away from the inert body of Magnir, who had impossibly taken the lion’s share of the damage when they had fallen. His gaze found the carnage that the peeling darkness revealed around him and an ungodly stench – unnoticed before – suddenly filled his nostrils.
Aldous knew the smell well; it was the kind of smell which was hard to forget, the kind of smell that lingered like a bad memory – it was the smell of death. The shapes around him were not rocks as he had imagined, not the stone walls of the Pit, shaped and ribbed by the salty water that lapped against him, but bodies; bodies piled high on every side, slick and wet and glistening in the darkness, pushed tight against the jagged walls of the chamber, piled five or six deep all around. There were dozen upon dozen of them dwindling off into the darkness where (he feared) countless more waited. Some were nothing but scraps of sodden clothing and piles of broken bones, the scavengers already having had their fill; others on spots above the waterline were tight and yellow and hairless, desiccated limbs at horrid angles, skulls grimacing; others – the worst of all – were bloated and putrefying, fresher than the others but far from fresh, covered in flies and stinking algae, their fleshless heads jutting from the water.
He turned back to the corpse of the king, struggling to block the rest of them out, their empty sockets staring from the darkness. All this is his doing.
He shook the bad thoughts away and looked up. There was no sign of the entrance to the Pit through which they had fallen. Night. It must be night, he thought. Either that or the fall from the king’s platform was farther that he had dared think. How can I still be alive? It dawned on him that he couldn’t really remember the fall. He remembered falling, the first moment when the sky had flipped on its axis, but after that there was only darkness.
He made to move away then and felt a sharp pain in his chest, and knew immediately that he must have cracked a rib or two. Magnir was dead, as was everyone else down here, so he counted himself lucky to still be alive and breathing – a few cracked ribs was a small price to pay. He moved a shaking hand to his chest to check for any visible wounds and found it hindered by a strand of seaweed – a strand of seaweed that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a scrap of pale flesh complete with trailing strands of dark hair. He threw the clinging scrap away as though it would infect him, ignoring the pain in his chest, and tried to stand, suddenly aware that there would be such scraps everywhere. His feet sank deep into the sludge beneath him and as a pale light flared and dimmed from somewhere far to his right, he was granted a glimpse of his surroundings for the first time, frozen on his mind in cold, black clarity
Images of mass graves came to him, of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing. The bodies were everywhere. Hundreds of them; thousands piled high to the reaches of the jagged cavern, hidden away as though they were nothing. He was trapped in the midst of some horrible mausoleum; the truth of what lay inside the Pit surely more terrible than anything Erdik or anyone else could have imagined. He stumbled backwards, feet pulling free from the sludge with a wet sucking sound as he fell down hard on Magnir’s corpse, which he grabbed and shook firmly, as though the man was alive and ready for the fight. Cold, glassy eyes stared back.
He closed his eyes and counted to ten, not really believing it would help but doing it all the same.
A distant scream drifted to him on the wind and as he crouched low and opened his eyes he saw the streak of light move across the cavern wall to his front. He could think of only one thing he wanted to do less than go towards the light, go toward the screaming voice who was more likely enemy than friend. From what he could remember, every single one of the blood-thirsty citizens above had wanted him destroyed. The one thought worse than going back to that was to stay here in the putrid water with its human silt, bodies towering over him, bobbing like horrid buoys.
He took a deep breath and pulled himself from the water, straining to find his bearings. As the light flashed again, he set off across the piles of bodies, heading for the source – shivering as the bones cracked beneath his weight, as the sodden flesh where he placed his hand gave way like the skin of rotten fruit, grimacing as hand and foot broke through to stinking cavities behind rib cages time and again, sending crabs and other many-legged creatures scurrying across him. After a while he slipped on something glutinous and clinging, and flopped down into the water with a sense of relief more than anything. The shock of the cold and the stab of pain in his chest made him decide that he had no wish to go back to the bodies.
He pushed away from the too-soft ground beneath him and swam out into the deeper water, waiting for the other side of the cavern to materialise from the darkness trying not to think about what was going into his mouth and nostrils, slipping down his throat as he strained to keep his head above the surface.
Soon the bodies dwindled behind him and he began to make out the opening in the cavern through which the light had flashed and which – he now realised – he must have floated, gripping Magnir’s body tight as he drifted in and out of unconscious, or perhaps awake and alert but blocking everything out. He gripped tight against a jagged outcrop near the edge of the opening and pulled himself out of the water, peering gingerly across.
What he saw was undoubtedly the real Pit, the secret below the city. Where he had ended up after his fall was merely a side chamber, a place where waste was stored. He saw first the opening in the ceiling of the vast cavern through which he had fallen. It was a gaping mouth a few hundred feet above spewing out some black substance which drifted down and slicked the water. Ash, he realised. The city is burning. He inched forward as the beam of light flashed past again – mere feet away – and saw the first of the ships, dark outlines bobbing lightly on the rolling waves drifting in through the wide entrance to the ocean.
There were perhaps twenty of the huge vessels lined up side by side in the broad quays carved out of the far wall. Figures moved here and there atop the decks, rushing in and out of doorways to the levels below, moving up and down the great masts. Some on the upper-decks were shining lights into the water, moving the beams back and forth. More still were gathered with flaming torches on the naked shelf of rock near the rear of the chamber, staring up and gesticulating towards the opening in the ceiling. Others stood on thick-strutted walkways that stood fifteen feet or so above the water and linked the wide quays together. They were using long poles with sharpened hooks to fish bodies – fresh bodies, he saw – from the water below the opening. They would use their poles to turn the bodies over as beams of light from the decks dashed across to illuminate their faces. Searching, Aldous thought. Probably for me.
All in all, he guessed there were four or five hundred people down here, perhaps more hidden on the ships. He thought of all those eyes peering through the darkness, looking for him. Suddenly the cavern of bodies seemed preferable to this – more terrifying but less dangerous. Perhaps there was some means of egress on the other side, somewhere past the seemingly endless piles of human detritus. Maybe, he thought, but had no real wish to go back. He would take his chances with the men, see if he could sneak past and find a way to the surface and his companions. He made to move off but when he saw a searchlight moving up the jagged wall to the cavern ceiling, saw a broad wooden platform being lowered down from the opening in the top of the chamber, the rain of ash banking around it like jet snow, he slunk back against the rock to rejoin the darkness.
The platform was filled with people, almost buckling under their weight as it was lowered in a series of jolting movements via heavy ropes that disappeared into the darkness of the opening. Perhaps they’re not just looking for me. The black-garbed men began to gather near the edges of the quayside as they saw the platform descend. From the deck of one of the ships a horn sounded.
There was something peculiar in the crowd being lowered towards the water, Aldous thought, stranger even than the thought that they were being moved like animals, like commodities – they were still and lifeless, slack-limbed and silent, nothing like the screaming hordes he remembered. The lack of action – the lack of anything – made little sense. He remembered how Magnir had played the crowd like an instrument, made them think things, made them see things. But Magnir is dead now. All at once, he was bursting to learn what had happened above ground after he had fallen. No, he told himself. What you need to do is escape. This Pit, this city. This world.
He slipped back into the water and began to creep around the curve of the jagged rock wall, keeping to the heavy darkness beyond the light from the burning torches, glad to be putting distance between himself and the stinking cavern to his back. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could find a way to get on the platform before it went back up, or make it to the walkways and the shadowed doorways beyond, hoping one might lead him to the surface, or out of this horrid city. As he bobbed slowly along he watched one of the men with the long poles fishing for bodies in the water and realised, by the sudden choked scream that danced across the surface, that the figure was not retrieving the fallen but killing those who were yet alive. More death, more killing, and he was willingly going towards it.
The platform had reached its lowest point now. It was sat no more than twenty feet above the water and the black figures covering quayside began to move towards it, stepping onto the platform. Bodies from the outer edges dropped to the water as the platform bucked and swayed with the sudden increase in weight, toppling over like lifeless mannequins. Well-placed arrows flew from the crow’s-nest of the nearest ship, sending little clouds of blood into the air. A few of the stricken were pulled from their stupor by the jolt of cold water and began to thrash their limbs wildly, screaming as though they had awakened from a nightmare. The light from the mirrored lamp on the crow’s-nest moved quickly across the water towards them and, within moments, Aldous heard the soft whistle of more arrows, the dull thuds as they struck home.
He pulled himself tight to a narrow cleft in the cavern wall. Dark as it was, it didn’t feel dark enough. Suddenly, even with all the space between him and the bearer of those arrows, he felt vulnerable, every breath and grunt and tiny movement echoing a thousand-fold in his mind.
The slumbering figures who had survived the descent were taken from the platform and herded quickly across the quays to the stern of the farthest ship, disappearing from sight. They’re taking them. But where and why? When he turned back to the platform again, he found that it had already disappeared into the cloud of blackness from the entrance to the Pit, stopping when it was nothing more than a darker blot of black amongst the fall of ash. He swam on from his hiding place with only his eyes and the top of his head above the water, his hair spread in a wide umbra around him. Even that felt somehow dangerous so he pulled up his hood and tucked his hair back, leaving not a touch of white but for the narrow slits of his eyes.
The platform descended again bearing more people – cattle, he told himself. They are cattle. It returned to the darkness above once they were unloaded, descended again, was unloaded, returned; back and forth, up and down.
Once as he crept slowly along the shallower stretches towards the quays, heading for the relative shelter of a floating body, he saw the beam of the searchlight dancing across the water at his back and, moving with more dexterity than he believed he had in him, ducked beneath the water without so much as a splash. He saw the waves above him – inconsequential before – growing ever larger as he sat in the watery darkness, breath held tight, too scared to make a move for the fear of being uncovered. He held himself there, stock still, waiting for the beam dancing above him to direct its focus elsewhere, tiny bubbles escaping his nostrils.
When the grasping breathlessness became too much he pushed back to the surface, slowing down at the last so as not to give himself away. He broke free and was at once picked up by the waves – the waves that were rushing into the cavern from the wake of the farthest ship, its banks of oars peppering the water as it turned broadside and began to creep slowly out towards the ocean. The choppy waters pushed him back toward the rock wall as he came up, driving the flotilla of bodies towards him. A jolt of pain shot through him as he was thrown hard against the wall but he bit down hard so as not to cry out. The bodies packed around him – soft and rubbery, some still warm – felt somehow safe, for they provided a cover of sorts, a solid mass leading him to the heavy gloom directly beneath the walkways. He would wait there in the shallows, he decided, sit still and invisible until all this – whatever this was – was over.
He ducked under the water and began to swim, the bodies like a tapestry on the liquid ceiling above, all pale flesh and trailing hair, clothes soaked with patches of red. From amongst them he saw a few distinct shapes – the undersides of a few small boats packed tight into the corner by the press of bodies. He came up beside them, pushing bodies away as he broke free, and clung to the side of the nearest boat.
He heard a grave peal of thunder and saw a crack of lightning split the sky outside the opening to the ocean as he pulled himself into the boat, the sound covering his cry of pain as the bones in his chest ground together. He realised in the moments afterwards that the sky above the ocean had looked peculiar in that frozen moment, dappled almost. The ash, he realised. He had thought the ash to be coming from the city, but it was everywhere, far out above the ocean.
From somewhere above there came a great roar; something primal, something big, then a loud crack like a breaking branch and a host of sudden screams. He froze then, expecting something terrible, but he was not alone, for he could sense the same almost psychic tension from the figures standing in the yellow light above. Time seemed to slow down. Aldous saw a flash of white as a broken strand of rope fell from the gloom. Immediately afterwards the bodies started to fall, a rain of silent weights peppering the water to his front. Aldous pulled himself into the boat and lay as still as he could as the arrows started raining down. Screaming bodies emerged from the water and sunk again, flailing and jerking as the arrows pierced them. In moments the water to his front was strained red, thick with pierced bodies that drifted and lolled like macabre jetsam, the crests of waves frothing pink.
This is too much. I have to get out of here.
Aldous glance up to the damaged platform then, wondering how much more of this he would be forced to watch before the chance at escape presented itself. A figure was hanging from the platform’s lowest corner, grasping the broken railing where the rope had snapped. His eyes flared wide as he realised he recognised the figure.
The word escaped him before he knew it had happened. “Erdik!”
From above he felt that same psychic tension that had been so heady before. This time it was focussed entirely on him.
The forest glowed about them as they moved, Cordelia and her growing army, lighting their pointed faces in sickly hues of green and yellow. Night had fallen now; either that or the rain of ash that fell without respite had filled the sky, blocking everything out. She looked up time and again but could find no stars amongst the cloak of black, no hint that the moon had risen, and began to wonder if she would ever see beyond the sky again. The ground they walked was damp and rotting – even this far from the river – sending out little clouds of bubbles every time a foot, or claw, or cloven hoof made contact.
A few hours had passed since first she had found the footprints in the soil and they had lingered with her ever since, sending her thoughts of the Voice and the Black Army and the task that had driven her thus far to the back reaches of her mind. She had went through her familiars one by one by the side of the river in the moments after, placing her hands upon each of them and searching through their memories for any hint at what she might be dealing with, but the creatures – despite their numbers – could provide her with no answers. Even Archdeacon, whose influence had once spread far and wide across these lands could not help her. This only piqued her interest further, made her think that the being who had made the footprint had kept hidden for a reason. She pictured a whole city of these giant beings and smiled as she imagined the terror she could wreak once she turned them to her will.
She had turned her group away from the river and the path they had been following since they left the pillars and spread them out in a long line through the trees, heading in the general direction the prints were pointing. It would do her no harm to take a slight detour. A few miles, she told herself as she walked, eyes to the ground. The Voice will still be there when I am done and maybe, just maybe, I will have the chance to gain a few more servants by then. A few miles was what she told herself but she knew she would willingly walk across half the world if it meant she could have the bearer of that footprint.
Time and again as they walked she found signs that something large had moved through the tightly packed trees – broken twigs and bent branches, flattened ferns – but there were no more prints to be found. Bane dashed to and fro in front of her, running from tree to tree, rock to rock, taking in scents, bristling like an over-excited puppy, and she knew he had picked up the trail of something to make him react in such a way.
After the few miles she had promised herself she was beginning to think that Bane had picked up on the trail of some animal or other, or that the print which had started all this had perhaps been made a long time ago, when Bane appeared from out of the trees to her left making a strange mewling sound. She followed him as he ran on through the glowing trees, peering over his shoulder with every few steps to check she was following. All at once they came over a rise and the trees fell away, leaving only the dappled black sky. There was a sharp drop of a few hundred feet to the choppy waters, glinting black in the darkness, slicked with a skin of ash, and she saw almost immediately the deep footprint in the mud at her feet, filled with filthy water. To her left and right the land curved in a wide arc, tall cliffs petering off past the scope of her vision, and there, far to her right, in the direction the print was pointing, was a flickering light amongst the trees.
“Good boy,” Cordelia said as she scratched behind his ear.
Bane growled, the noise almost – but not quite – forming a word.
“Yes,” Cordelia answered as though she had understood. “We will go.”
The voices of the children drifted to Dylan on the wind. From his perch atop Sandlock the whole scene looked like some horrible circus parade. Lines of the invaders led the children across the scorched landing, those at the front already disappearing around the headland to the east whilst the rear of the line stretched back through the massive door of the city. He wondered as he took in the marching army and the blackened ruin of the Panopticon if Potamia had ever seen as much slaughter and bloodshed as it had these few days past. The fact that he and Aldous had arrived at this time merely solidified their purpose here in his mind, even if Aldous had not survived to see it fulfilled – it was Dylan’s purpose alone now, to find the disease in this world and see that it was removed.
Siva turned from the parade and began to cry, smears of blood turning soft pink and spreading across her face as she wiped the tears away. “What’s happening?” she whimpered. “Why this? Why the children?”
Dylan had no answers for her, nor did Barakea, but the big man took her in his arms and told her they would find a way to get the children back once Erdik and the Prophet found them.
Erdik alone, Dylan thought as he closed his eyes. If we are lucky.
He thought back to what had happened since they had leapt from the Reach, telling himself it was a miracle that the three of them – that any of them – still lived.
The blackened pyre that had once been the Panopticon had rushed to meet them, the sound of their screams taken away by the rushing air. Dylan had no idea what the terminal velocity of a falling human body was but he was pretty sure they had reached it, or come close, when they first touched the amorphous mass. As Dylan’s legs pierced through the upper layer and his arms were driven roughly behind his head, he had expected jagged bones or discarded weapons to pierce his flesh and draw the life from him but this did not happen. The ruin of the Panopticon had welcomed him as though it was composed more of pockets of air than anything solid, a vast honeycomb that slowed his descent in fits and starts as he bumped and rolled through the thin veins of semi-solid matter towards the earth below.
When he struck the earth his knee had jolted and he had screamed in agony but, crawling through the lower layers of that blackened mess, he counted himself lucky to still be breathing when so many others were not, his twisted knee and a few cuts and gouges on his arms being the only wounds he had received. He had found Barakea lying on the scorched grass as he emerged, gazing to the heavens through the rain of ash, grimacing from the pain in his head and the fresh flood of blood that poured from his nose. Siva was sat beside him gazing at her hands which were smeared with thick blood. For a moment Dylan thought that the blood was her own but he followed her gaze to the ground and, touching the blackened grass to her front, felt the clammy trail leading off towards Sandlock.
Before Dylan had the chance to think about what the blood meant, Siva had stood and was following the trail across the burnt earth, pulling her dagger free. He had set off after her as she disappeared into the sheets of ash, putting further distance between them with each step. After a while his leg gave out from underneath him and he fell, the only sign of Siva a tiny blot of gray-white. She had stopped, he saw, and he pulled himself back to his feet and stumbled towards her, choking and retching as the ash filled his mouth. When he reached her he found her crouched to the ground, sobbing wretchedly. To her front lay a body, an old and grey-haired man with a gaping wound in his leg, shards of bone poking through the torn flesh, Siva’s dagger buried to the hilt between his shoulder-blades, dark blood pooling around the blade.
Dylan had not asked who the man was for Siva was in no fit state to speak. He had taken her back to Barakea and together they had calmed her and set off towards Sandlock, eager to escape the open spaces and the city at their back, the open doorway through which each of them imagined the terrible army spilling free, fast on their heels.
And now, as they sat atop the hill, that army had come, fleeing the city they had entered and destroyed, no gold or pilfered booty amongst their ranks, only the children, stooped and crying, their world destroyed.
Dylan pulled the binoculars free and looked across the landing to the departing army and their frightened charges. The men carried no flames to light their way and Dylan found it hard to make out anything but the pale faces of the children. For long minutes he lay still and watched that sorry march with Siva sobbing at his back, and once, just once, he caught a glimpse of something that made his every atom turn to liquid. From beneath the helmeted head of one of those dark destroyers he had seen a tiny speck of writhing white, and he knew then that the he would find the same thing underneath the helmet of every one.
“We must leave,” Barakea said as Dylan let the binoculars fall. “I… she cannot see this.”
Dylan nodded and looked to the sands, blue and vast beneath the shroud of black above. Two days, Erdik had said. They could reach the shrine by nightfall the following day even with their injuries, Dylan new, much sooner if they could find the Drudwyn. That left plenty of time in which to learn something of what had happened to the city and its people.
He turned to his companions. “We must follow the children whilst time is on our side. And if you don’t want to come with me, if you want to go back to your city, I’ll go alone.”
Siva looked up from Barakea’s chest, her face suddenly alert. “I will go. The children need me. They deserve a saviour.”
Barakea wiped the skin of blood from his top lip, glancing once towards the Reach as if he knew he might never see his home again. “Then we will all go.”
After all the years of preparation, Ashfael had finally fallen and the city at its foot, once grand and impregnable to Ballard’s eyes, seemed now small and fragile as he watched the shattered peak spill its fury – great billowing clouds of soot and ash, viscous flows of molten rock and sulphur threatening to melt the very walls around him.
For weeks past his master’s forces had been at work on the shoulders of the peak, moving their cargo of glinting rock from the deep mines to the great pockets and gullies they had gouged from the walls of Ashfael in the weeks before. Ballard had watched the spectacle for many days, brow furrowed as the peak took on a new shape, untold tonnes of that strange substance forming concentric bands around the mountain, as though his master was conducting some great work of art. He had not truly understood then what end his master hoped to see from this endeavour but a revelation of sorts had come to him as the line of slaves moving their cargo across one of the narrow bridges spanning the Poisoned Sweep had encountered some difficulty. The heavy winds had set the bridge to swaying and a few of the bearers of that glinting rock – small as ants from this distance – had fallen to the rushing waters. The resulting explosions when the treasured substance met the waters had made everything clear in Ballard’s mind and he had begun to understand that all of what had happened around him since he had come to this place – the digging of the mines, the damming of the river – had been pointed towards this one conclusion.
The unwieldy machines that straddled the rim of the peak – alien and terrible in their construction – had been taken from the forges and storage grounds and put in their places three days past. He had watched from afar as the great cogs and broad wooden struts – so large that it had taken four-score men to move a single one of them – were moved inch by inch up the side of the peak, had felt a strange sense of understanding settle as the broad pipes and drills began to burrow slowly into the mountain, little spurts of magma spilling free as they were inserted into the weakest points, a precursor of what was to come.
The dams on the western side of the peak had been felled and the surge of water from the Poisoned Sweep had raced into the largest of the mines, threatening to bring everything falling down into a newly-created abyss. Within half a day the waters had filled the space and created a new river, the heady rush flowing off through the clusters of tiny buildings where the slaves had once lived. But, though the bristling waters flowed without respite, the land beneath his feet had held strong and – he hoped – would until his master (who he had not dared face since that night with the doe-eyed girl) was ready, until the truth of all that lay about him was revealed in full.
To his front the banks of Ashfael had been alive with movement on that first day. The first of the armies had returned as the great machines were being erected, bringing the fruits of Scarlat and Fay, the nearest of the captive cities, untold thousands of those meek people – creatures, he reminded himself, people no more – who were now under his master’s control. They had been put to work on the carved stairways on the mountain as the armies set off again to the west, endless lines passing buckets from hand to hand, moving the waters from the flatlands to the huge vats spaced around the shoulders of the peak. Some had felt the anger of that strange glinting metal as they dropped their cargo, the ground hissing and boiling as it threw them from the side of the peak like unwanted playthings. Many more were taken by the swirling waters and carried off into the darkness, screaming with the realisation of all that had befallen them, their faces wide and full of fear as they rushed past the battlements atop the bristling flow, past Ballard who watched each of them, studying the faces to see if they were people he knew, people he had once known – a friend, a relative perhaps. But watching those sorry few felt somehow illicit and after a time he no longer turned to watch, blotting out their gurgled screams.
More of the armies had returned on the second morning as he went to his place on the wall, bearing captives from End and Ironwood and other places he did not know, and he had sensed as they appeared in their untold thousands, covering the land like swarms of insects, that soon – when the citizens of Potamia and Sky Peak arrived – the time would be ripe.
There had been more than a dozen of the great vats encircling the mountain that he could see, and many more that he could not, hidden by the heavy mists that rolled down from the smoking peak. The first lines of captives had finished their work by the end of the second day and were taken along the bank of the great trench to the city, to wait the inevitable conclusion, many too weak to cover the distance between the peak and the city walls, dying as they stumbled onwards, left in the dust where they fell. A hundred times and more Ballard had looked to his back as the mountain groaned and growled, to the lines of silent slaves that filled the expansive courtyard, wondering how many more bodies the city would take. Much less than were out there on the mountain, he knew, and for the first time in an age he had felt a sense of loss, both for what he had done to this world and for what would become of him when the promised time came.
But all these dark and unwanted thoughts were relegated to a backseat when the mountain was finally ready. The ground had shook beneath him as he watched the glowing peak belch a great cloud of poisoned gas, huge rocks that sounded like the beat of some terrible drum falling from the sky, striking the walls around him and felling dozens of those standing to his rear. The vats had begun to swoop and sway as the mountain rumbled and soon enough they had let go of their moorings, great swathes of water spilling out, setting the peak to ruin as they washed over the bands of the silver rock. The resulting explosions were like nothing he could ever have imagined and the power they spoke of left him quaking in his boots, wondering how anyone could hope to stand in the way of his master, not when he could shape the world around him with such ease.
Now fractured storms of lighting danced within the thick purple-tinged clouds which burst from the collapsing peak, forks of silver-white spewing from the noxious plume that was growing ever larger. To his front, hidden by the dense cloud, came a heavy sound, a great retort like the crack of a whip, followed by a heavy rumble as another section of the peak crumbled, revealing a golden-orange glow in its wake.
He heard the voice of his master drift across the poisoned sky at his back, as clear and solid as though he was inches from his ear. “Beautiful. So beautiful.”
The boy watched all this from the balcony of his tower on this his greatest of days, thinking of the long path he had followed to reach this moment with a sense of deepening pride, knowing that he would soon have access to all the power and knowledge he had ever desired.
He had lived lives in the strangest of places before he took up the boy’s shell, in forms that beings of this world could barely imagine, and his memory held the full scope of every moment, stretching back to the beginning of everything. The first passing between worlds had been a happy accident and it was from this time that he had his first true memory, crisp and vivid in his ancient mind though his simple anatomy then could not and should not have had the faculties to note such things. His form had been no more than a speck then, a miniscule spore amongst an immeasurable cloud of billions more, one infinitesimal part of a sprawling mass filling the ochre skies of the dying land which, he had often supposed – supposed because he had no memory of a time before this – was his true home. The hand of chance had granted him passage through that tiny space in the dusky air and with the passage began his first step on a journey that would span a hundred worlds and a million lifetimes.
A world of ash and fire had greeted him in that first time, glowing far beneath him, an infant world not yet peopled like those he would come to know, those he would take as his own. He had spent immeasurable years drifting in the phosphorous haze, growing, evolving, moving towards that next golden moment when he would sense the change that had started all this. That place had changed as time wore on but death (or an end, for he did not know such a thing as death) did not come. The glowing fires had receded as the land took shape, the scorched earth and molten pools turning solid and black as he drifted on the scorched winds, traversing the endless skies, taking everything in.
Though he thought of these things now with a sense of distance, with the knowledge of measurable, quantifiable time, he had learned his first true sense of the passage of things as that world, once barren and empty, had blossomed into life beneath him. He had learned of day and night, light and dark, the endless, repetitive circling of the constant lights above, the same pinpricks of silver peppering the blackness above with each passage. With that mindless knowledge came the feeling (ever growing and with him even now) of the distances he would cover on his journey, the distances he had already covered, the times (once eternal and singular in the same instant) stretching before him.
Through many Weaknesses he had passed since that first time, through many worlds, each as different as the others – worlds of rock and water, worlds of boiling gas, worlds of endless fog or deep, shifting sands, and yet more worlds which his thoughts could not put words to, could merely conjure indescribable images that swam now behind his eyes as though they were a fantasy thrown up by the boy’s stolen mind. Some of the time spent in those worlds seemed like mere glimmers compared to the ceaseless struggles he had faced in others but each and every one had taught him more, and with each and every one he had grown greater and moved closer to his final goal, that sacred place that sang its call through all the Weaknesses, the place he would reach and claim as his own, become the god he had always known himself to be.
Some worlds had kept their secrets hidden better than others and time and again he had been forced by circumstance to take a new form, to meld his being with that of another, those who possessed faculties and skills fitting for his needs – descending into deep, primordial waters, or burrowing in cavities beneath rock and earth, all the time searching for the tiny spaces that called out to him and which would grant him passage, his search never ceasing. He had learned that all beings, despite their differences, had the same failings which he could exploit, the same paths that would allow him to become one with them and control them without their knowledge, to use their bodies and minds for his own ends.
Before coming to this place he had reigned in a world of deep oceans where creatures the size of which he had never known circled the depths, great worms writhing and contorting on the ocean floor, gouging troughs in the thick darkness. He had arrived in the form he held now, the tiny parasitic grub he had found and conquered in some desolate backworld, its umber skies a mass of twisting webs, falling from the Weakness through the mist-wreathed sky to bathe in those deepest of waters, fresh longing coursing through him as he began the next stage of his journey.
It was in that ocean that he had found the great worms, luminous and sensual in the solid darkness, the din of their couplings drowning out the call of the tiny spaces he knew so well from the times before. He had burrowed his way to the core of one of the beasts with their vast and simple minds, filling the empty corridors with all he had learned, waiting for the body to respond, to bend to his will. Without sun or moon to guide him he had no idea how long his struggle had taken, but when the time was right he had begun his cleansing of the waters, relishing in his devastation as the strength of his stolen form bloomed.
For centuries he had traversed those depths, finding and killing every one of his new kind where they writhed and bayed in the silt bed, dimming the din that filled the world around him. A few times his host had lost those titanic battles and he had loosed his bonds and transferred to the victor. Then the cycle would begin anew, growing in size with each victory, becoming stronger, until there was little left in that cyclical ocean but he and the decaying evidence of his destruction. Soon the waters were all but silent and the first call of the Weaknesses came to him – one beneath the waters and one in the poisoned sky above.
As years passed he had stayed in the vicinity of the breach beneath the waters, circling listlessly, growing, planning his next move with that stolen mind which was not yet fully ready to consider such things. And all the time he had felt a longing need which had been with him forever – the need to know and own everything, to build and destroy, to become the master of all that lived and all that would ever live. He had explored that body and its strange anatomy in his limbo and had found within a way that he might become many, a damp cleft deep inside the beast whose juices leeched life from him and shaped him anew, creating others in his own image. Deep in the belly of the beast he had waited, his forces growing, each of them apart from him yet a part of him. When the time was right he had sent his minions to the surface, there to conquer what they found and bring him news of the Weakness.
His destruction of the land above had been swift and furious, and he knew that when the time came to pass he would bring this knowledge with him, the knowledge to make himself many, the power to reach his goals. Ages passed and his host made the leap that so many species make, the lumbering movements from the primordial waters to the virgin earth, driven not by the forces of evolution but by his will alone. Vast and terrible the beast was now, filled with the spores of his kin, and soon enough the time came, the time when the Weaknesses above the water and below were ready to be breached, ready to permit the first of his armies access to the voids beyond.
He had removed himself from his ancient host to ungodly screams and wails, a billion and more of his children filling the skies, racing towards the breach amongst the great white sands. The breaches had been passed in the same instant, the greatest and most terrifying of his entrances, great swathes of water and sand falling from the skies to drown and smother the new earth, and behind it all came the great cloud of his kin to fill that unknown sky, rushing to the earth below to assume control of the species that waited there.
This was where he had become one with the boy, a strange choice, he knew, given the many other beings there for his choosing, the many others his kin had taken at his command, but he had never doubted his choices and the heights he had reached since that time, the progress he had made with the fibres and nerves and cells of that alien body, told him he had been right. There was something fitting about being so small and fragile a being yet possessing such terrible power. And these beings – these soft and temporal creatures – full of knowledge and potential, had felt more fitting for his purpose than any other ever had, shaped by their great history to make use of the world around them, who had the capability to reach the deepest waters or the highest reaches of the sky, to build and to destroy, to subjugate and master all those around them.
As they have always done so shall I continue.
The boy heard a deep crack and glanced across to the crumbling mountain as a great fork of lighting broke free of that burning cloud and knew – with a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach – that all he had striven towards was about to be granted. All he required now was the Secret and he knew it would come, one way or another. Whether it came from the girl who had went to that other world in his stead or from the prey she had trailed for all these years he was not sure, but he knew it would come. All he would have to do was wait, as it had always been. There was time; there was always time.
He looked across the empty bed of the Poisoned Sweep, black and foetid now, filled with stagnant pools and stinking silt, to the tall dark walls of the Shattered Cities where the crux of his plan was being put into place, his wandering armies returned with their host of children – the children who would make his passage to, and conquering of, that next world all the easier.
Even with the distance between him and the Shattered Cities and with the din of all that was happening around him, he fancied he could hear a sound drifting on the smoky winds, an odd note that was almost a song to his ears – the voice of the young girl who he had chosen and granted his brood, begging to be set free from the terror he had bestowed upon her.
Aldous ducked beneath the water as soon as the word escaped his lips, imagining a hundred and more eyes peering through the darkness, staring between the cracks in the warped wood, searching for him.
No arrows came his way as he moved down and away, no splashes peppering the waters above. He supposed he had been fortuitous and that the men were now focussed on the broken platform and its spilled cargo but still he imagined his body being pierced with every yard he passed. He saw the tumult in the waters above him to his front, the host of bodies flailing in the surf, screams muffled by the depths and the arrows that took their lives.
He did not dare to breach the surface, fearing that the moment he did would be his last and, even as his head felt as though it was swelling and the white anoxic tinge began to pepper his vision, he could not bring himself to move. Just as it seemed his heart was fit to burst he saw a body separate from the human flotilla, saw the figure turn around, head moving from side to side, searching.
He could not help it now and pushed to the surface, coughing and spluttering as he filled his burning lungs. Despite his fears, it seemed that the men above were focussed on the bodies out on the water and the killing arrows did not come. After a moment he saw a dark shape move beneath him and his heart almost cried out – the warrior had kept his vow, had come to save Aldous when all seemed at a loss.
Aldous ducked beneath the waters again and went towards the warrior, Erdik’s eyes wide and disbelieving as he took in his saviour and the secret of the Pit that lay around him, unsure whether to scream in joy or terror. The warrior’s mouth gaped as Aldous paddled forward and took him in his arms, hugging him a though he was an old friend he had not seen in decades. Erdik stared back as though he was seeing a ghost.
Behind them the waters were quieting but still there were voices and footsteps on the wooden beams above. Aldous knew there was no time. He flipped the rowboat over and, grabbing Erdik by the arm, ducked underneath the water, coming up inside the narrow space of the boat.
The noise of above came to his ears in muted tones, the shouts dimmed by the strange acoustics of the overturned boat, their heavy breathing drowning out everything else. Moving together, wordlessly, they began to paddle out into the open waters, away from the slaughter at their rear, waiting for the steel tips of arrows or jagged, heavy rocks to pierce the rotting wood and bring an end to all of this.
The light between the trees – soft and yellow – was flickering and moving, disappearing from sight only to come back into view moments later.
Cordelia and her band skirted the edge of the cliffs, moving in silence. She could almost taste the need emanating from them, the urge to carry out destruction at her word. It was, after all, the reason for their existence, but they held their needs in check, waiting for her word. She chanced to glance across the massive bay, around the headland towards the city at the south which had been her aim before all this. Through the rain of ash an orange glow was seeping into the choked sky and she smiled at the terror the people of that city must have felt these two days past, first at the hands of the Panopticon, and now at the hands of that vast marching army.
Bane began to growl as the land rose up and the light in the trees grew larger – still now as though waiting for them, stark and bright between the walls of a narrow defile to their front. Cordelia and her servants spilled into that narrow alley, stumbling over loose rocks, claws and talons drawing sparks where they met, the growls and grumbles growing in strength and frequency.
Beside her Bane let out a high-pitched yelp and fell to the ground, his snout meeting the dirt and gouging a trough as his momentum overtook him. At once Cordelia saw the arrow piercing his shoulder and stopped to look up. It was dark and she could see nothing but soon enough there was an almighty groan to her rear and she turned to see a heavy wooden gate falling into place between the rock walls behind them.
Bane stood to his feet and let out a hellish roar as torches were lit atop the walls of the defile – one, two, five, a dozen. Soon the narrow chasm was as bright as though the midday sun sat high above and Cordelia saw the silhouettes of the men, each of them bearing bows and spears, heavy cudgels, jagged rocks.
A voice cried out telling them to halt as a flood of acrid smelling liquid spilled over the tops of the cliff walls, spilling down the ground and spattering against her skin. She knew that smell well; knew that one tiny spark and the whole defile would be ablaze, no hope of escape. To her front the light which had led them this way moved, a tiny sphere of dried parchment splitting open as it hit the ground to her front, the glowing insects once trapped inside now free, spiralling up into the night. A trap, a trap of the simplest kind.
“Step forward,” came the voice. “And you alone. These demons do not belong here.”
Cordelia ground her teeth, thought of how she could turn this situation to her advantage, and knew at once that any attempt to control the bearer of that voice would be hopeless – they (whoever they were) had led her here so easily and she did not doubt that they had been watching her for some time, that they knew of the powers she used to turn people to her will and would set the defile aflame if she did anything but obey. Still, that knowledge would not help them. She would bide her time until the chance presented itself, wait for the moment as she always had.
Bane growled as she walked forwards and she turned to rub a hand through the wiry hair on top of his head, seeing again the fat, red tears slinking down the ebony cheeks of Archdeacon, the wide, staring eyes of the host of travesties in the wavering brightness behind her. There was no choice, she knew, but to do as they asked.
She stepped forward and Bane began to mewl like a frightened kitten. She knew she could not leave him; their bond was too strong. Taking a firm hold of the arrow buried deep in his shoulder she pulled it out inch by painful inch as he yelped like an injured dog and climbed onto his back, whispering softly that she was proud of him, that they would have their vengeance.
Digging her heels into his flanks she made him walk forward, tiny exhalations escaping him each time his injured limb met the earth.
“Alone,” came the voice, nearer now, hidden by the darkness to her front.
“I cannot leave him,” she said, her voice soft and fragile, the voice of the frightened child that she had used so well in a thousand other times. “Please.”
There were a few moments of faltering quiet, the only sounds the crackling of the torches above, the weeping of Archdeacon to her rear, whispers being exchanged between her unseen captors to her front. One of the beasts at the back turned and jumped for the heavy gate but his futile attempt did not last long as a host of arrows whistled through the night and sent him sprawling to the floor without so much as a whimper, the heavy thuds of his death blows causing Cordelia to shudder.
“Very well,” came the voice as he stepped into the light, beckoning her to come forward. He was a grey-haired man, broad of shoulder and strong of face. “But be warned, one false move and it will be the end of you both.”
Cordelia nodded but stopped short of giving thanks, urging Bane to move before the man changed his mind. They clambered over a large boulder and heard another of the heavy gates sliding into place in her wake, trapping her band where she had stood mere moments before.
“No,” came Archdeacon’s voice as the realisation struck him, as the ungodly beasts trapped inside the narrow defile began to hiss and scream and wail, turning on each other with growls and screams and gnashing teeth, Archdeacon’s lone plea standing out amongst them all. “No!”
“Silence!” came a voice from one of the torch-bearers above, holding his guttering flame at arm’s length. “Not another sound or you will burn!”
Cordelia heard the sound of arrows rushing through the air to silence those who had not heeded the warning and sent out a message to Archdeacon and the others to obey.
I will come back, she told them. I promise.
She thought again of the promise she had made to Archdeacon amongst the pillars as she and Bane moved forward and her familiars at her back fell into an uneasy silence, tears tracing lines down her cheeks. She had promised the tall man everything but had left him with nothing.
Perhaps he had been right. Perhaps she should never have come to this place.
The last thing she heard as she was led away was the chorus of hellish screams as the bearer of the torch dropped it into the narrow chasm, stepping back as a great cloud of fire spilled up and out, the heat of it warm on her back.
The long, dark hours of night had come and gone but still no light had seeped into the world when morning came and each of them had entertained the chilling thought that they might never look upon the sun again, that this world would remain in perpetual darkness until its end, an end which now seemed so terribly near.
Barakea’s state had worsened with every mile they passed and, despite their wishes to keep on the trail of army, the three of them had been forced to make camp for the night amongst the rolling hills, gathering their strength for the morning to come. Siva had tried to tend Barakea’s wounds as best she could and had silently cursed herself for not searching through the shelves and cupboards in Salamat’s tower. As it was, she tore a few strips from her dress and made a makeshift bandage for the soft-looking dent in her Protector’s skull and cleaned his other cuts and gashes as best she could, cleaning up Dylan’s wounds next and her own at the last.
The happenings of the past days had drained them all and fitful sleep had claimed them eventually. When they awoke they found everything around them – the hills, the languid waters, even their own bodies – coated with the heavy skin of soot and ash that choked the sky, falling thinner now yet still hiding most of the world from sight. Two of the Drudwyn had appeared during the night and were stood on the peak of the nearest hill as though guarding them. Dylan had climbed the hill to search for any sign of the army but, despite their numbers, any hint of their passage had been hidden by the ash and he had returned to his companions with the Drudwyn in tow, bearing the news that, if they were to continue their quest, they would be working on instinct alone. All in all, Dylan knew the odds of catching up with the army were stacked against them.
There was no hope of finding any food or clean water without turning around and making their way back to the city and each of them were in agreement that going back was not an option, fearing the invaders had left a rearguard behind. They had taken off their clothes and washed quickly in the filthy river, cleaning Barakea’s wounds which had turned black during the night and were now giving off a foul odour. Time and again Dylan’s eyes were drawn to the old, grey cicatrice of Barakea’s gelding as they lay in the shallows, to Siva’s naked body, fresh in the first flush of womanhood, but there were more pressing matters to occupy his thoughts and he felt no abashment at a time when, in other circumstances, he would have flushed red and turned away. He realised as he watched the others that Barakea’s love for Siva was perhaps a torture for him, that he spent every moment with her but would never have the chance to know her in that way. It was a deeper love than Dylan could ever have imagined and he suddenly felt like an outsider.
When they were done they had dressed quickly and led the horses to the choked river, but the beasts had snorted and pulled away from the waters, the heady stench of fire and wastage overbearing their need to sate their thirst. They passed over the hills, following the coast northwards to search for any signs of the army, Barakea and Siva on the horses, Dylan walking by their side. It was sometime late in the afternoon when they encountered the first of the bodies by the side of the river, the tiny corpse of a toddler half-submerged in the mud, his skin pale and rubbery. Siva had jumped down from her horse and ran to the body, tears coming as she pulled him free and held him to her chest as though he were her own, as though that single body symbolised all the loss and wastage of her people.
Dylan and Barakea had moved the body from the water and dug a shallow grave with their bare hands in the soft sands by the river’s edge, leading Siva away as soon as they were done, moving from the river towards the coastal cliffs and the great, black gulf beyond. They had encountered plenty more bodies as the day wore on, each of them left in the ash where they had fallen and, despite Siva’s tears and her wishes to inter each of them in the earth, Dylan knew Barakea was not strong enough to bury them all and had convinced her after the first few that their purpose would be better served trailing the army, that with every delay the rest of the children were being taken farther away, perhaps never to be saved. Reluctantly, Siva had agreed and from that moment on she had kept her head held high with every fallen body they passed, her gaze fixed on some distant point on the horizon.
As night fell they came upon a great gorge that split the land to their front and realised they could go no further. There they had rested for a time, Barakea heading off to search for food whilst Siva and Dylan settled around a meagre fire. It had been a full day since they had left the city and Siva questioned for the first time where they were to meet with Erdik and the Prophet. Dylan had said nothing to give the truth of what had gone before but Siva had sensed the reluctance in his eyes and had watched him silently for a long moment whilst he thought on what to say.
Despite his promise to Siva and Barakea, he knew that to head back into the Wastes might be a death sentence, knew that they might very well wait there forever and still Erdik would not come. “Ald… the Prophet is gone,” he had said softly. “He went to the Pit with… with your father. Erdik followed. He hoped to save him but I think his mission was hopeless.” Siva said nothing for a moment but sat with her jaw held firm and her fists clenched.
“You are sure?” she asked softly after a while, her voice wavering – grieving perhaps for her father as well as Aldous.
Dylan nodded. “I am sure.”
Soon enough her tears came again, and when Barakea returned from out of the darkness, panting and wheezing, bearing a few shrivelled roots and shrubs, she had fallen to the ground, wracked with fits of sobbing.
“What is wrong, my sweet?” Barakea asked as he moved to the princess, wiping her tears away with a grubby hand.
“Erdik and the Prophet are gone,” Dylan said bluntly.
“Gone? Gone where?”
“To the Pit.” He thought it best not to mention Sirpa’s involvement. Siva had known enough suffering already.
“And you knew this?”
“I’m sorry,” Dylan replied. “We had to get away from that place. I wish…” He ducked in close to Barakea. “I wish I could have told you sooner but the truth of it would have broken her. She has already suffered so much. Her father is gone, the Prophet is gone. Her sister too, perhaps.”
Barakea knew as he looked upon the sorry form of the princess that Dylan was right.
They had settled down by the fire and eaten their sparse meal in silence, each lost in thought. Siva had fallen asleep in Barakea’s arms as the fire guttered out and the night thickened and soon enough the big man joined her, the soft whine of his snoring seeming normal, at odds with all that had happened. For Dylan sleep did not come, nor did any respite from the dark thoughts which had filled him since he and Aldous had come to this place. He lay on the cold earth as Barakea drifted in and out of sleep, his eyes opened wide as he tried to think of anything but the burgundy cube and the secrets it held. It was not wise to probe those secrets here, he knew. To do so might break him.
After a few hours anchored to wakefulness he had set off in search of water whilst Siva and Barakea slept, noticing that his lips were dry and cracked, his tongue swollen and harsh as sandpaper, making every breath a struggle. He wiped at his nose and saw a trail of viscous mucous across the back of his hand, tainted by the ash. He knew that, in normal circumstances, they could last three days at most without clean water, perhaps four, but these were not normal circumstances. The clouds of ash that permeated the air were killing them as surely as the lack of water. Three days was being hopeful, he realised. Two was more likely, perhaps less with the stress of their travels and the injuries they bore, some of which would surely become infected. It would not surprise him in the least, he realised, if Barakea did not wake at all, despite the strength he was trying to convey. The stench of the eunuch’s wounds was growing stronger; it was clear that infection had gripped him. A day, he thought. Maybe two. The horses would perhaps falter even sooner than this and, when that happened, their chances of survival would be reduced dramatically. Then they would be unlikely even to make it as far as Æanna’s shrine, whose waters may well be as tainted as the streams and rivers. Even if he was able to find the place, which he very much doubted, he knew the journey would finish them off.
He had searched along the edge of the gorge for half a mile or more, peering on the underside of overhanging rocks and broad leaves of the shrubs that filled the narrow cracks and crevices, but the few drops he had been able to find, even under the cover of the trees, were tainted by the rain of ash and would more likely bring him closer to sickness than save him from it. He had thought to tear some plants free and take them back to the camp but he had no idea of this place, no clue which plants might be poisonous and which might be their saviours. The tantalising sound of running water came to him from below a few times as he moved, mountain springs perhaps, flowing from between rocks, but his gaze could not breach the darkness of the gorge and he had no way of telling how far down they were and had no wish to risk his life when he felt so weak, so he had turned away before the sounds and their supposed proximity began to torture him.
Feeling drained he had started to make his way back to the camp as the pale grey light of dawn crept into the sky, toying with the idea that perhaps the time had come to go into the Wastes to search for the shrine and its cool waters, to wait for Erdik in the vague hope that he had survived the sacking of the city. But he knew that, even if he was able to locate the place, even if the water in the pool inside was fit for drinking, they had no water skins to fill and when they filled their bellies and set off again to pick up the trail of the army they would be in exactly the same position as they were now. If they went to the shrine they would be forced to stay there and any hope of trailing the army, or of learning the truth of the key and the cube, the truth of the dried leech and the stolen children, would be forgotten. Death or no death, these were things Dylan needed to know, needed more surely than he had ever needed anything.
As he came over a rise he saw dark shapes approaching the camp, and knew at once that someone had picked up their trail. There were perhaps two dozen of them, spread out in a long line. He cursed himself for leaving the satchel by the fire and, glancing around the ground at his feet, picked up a heavy rock, knowing as he did so that he would have little chance to put up a fight against such numbers.
He turned the rock over in his palm as the line of figures crept closer, wondering of the best course of action to take, when he heard voices from out of the darkness to his front, too far to hold any clarity. Barakea stood up and ran to the figures – the fastest he had moved since they left the city – taking one of them in his arms as Dylan emerged from his hiding place, moving quickly down to the camp to where Siva was stirring. More figures appeared from out of the darkness as Siva sat up. It was clear now that these men were not enemies. They were refugees from Potamia, men of the Highguard who had been lucky enough to escape the devastation. Barakea led one of the figures towards Siva, a stout, broad-shouldered man, the tiny bells in his braids tinkling as he moved. Both of them had tears in their eyes, eyes that were so very similar.
The burning outline of the city was nothing but a vague suggestion through the murky at their backs, the sea and sky having blended into one. Soon all they could see where the pale searchlights of the ships as they came out from the hidden docks of the Pit one by one, moving off around the headland to the east and out of sight like great lumbering behemoths.
Erdik had not said a single word since they had made it from the Pit, merely lay in the bottom of the boat, muttering softly to himself, two words, over and over again –‘The Empress, The Empress, The Empress’. Aldous, ever thankful that Erdik had come to save him, knowing the terror he had faced in his journey into the Pit, the terror he was facing even now as he drifted on the forbidden waters with the thought that somewhere beneath him was some terrible creature eager to taste his blood, left him with his worries for a while.
Two small oars were strapped to the inside of the boat so Aldous had paddled as best he could, stopping only when the pain in his chest from his damaged ribs became too much, only when he was certain they were far removed from the scope of the ships. After a while tiredness had overwhelmed him and he set down the oars and joined Erdik on the bottom of the boat. He soon fell into a deep sleep as they drifted, wondering distantly, wondering again, why there was so much ash in the sky this far from the city.
When he awoke the boat was shaking gently and he was sure that something had struck it, something strong enough to wake him. When he glanced over the side he could see nothing, the sea thick and clogged and impenetrable to his gaze. Thoughts of the rain of ash filled his thoughts again as he looked out across the cold metallic waters for any sign of movement, hugging himself to keep the chill at bay. He saw that the sky had taken on a reddish hue towards the horizon in the east and the pale disc of the sun seemed as though it had been painted a dull green, winking between the clouds like a great lizard eye. A vague memory came to him as he looked upon it, something that he felt might help explain all this, but he was, as yet, unable to pull the pieces together. He fell again into fitful sleep as the heavy silence wrapped its arms around him, struggling to bring the memory to the surface.
After a time he heard Erdik’s voice and sat up to see that the warrior had finally summoned the courage raise his head above the side of the boat. He was now facing Potamia, a few miles to their rear, much closer than Aldous had thought. Aldous shook the cloak of ash from his beard and cleared his throat, bringing up a glob of dark black phlegm.
“Thank you, Erdik,” he said as he moved a hand towards the warrior’s shoulder, hesitating only at the last. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“It was my duty,” the warrior replied, never taking his eyes from the city.
Aldous smiled. “What happened in there?”
Erdik shook his head. It was clear his thoughts were awry. “I was with Siva when it happened. Strange men came from out of the north, warriors all in black. Someone – men of the Highguard – granted them access. There was chaos everywhere, a great rumble that shook the Reach as the sky darkened. After that…” he thought back to the sights he had seen from the Reach, the transfixed and broken citizens standing silent in the streets. “After that the city… the city fell, fell without a fight. Truly, I cannot understand it.”
Somewhere to the right of the boat something broke the surface – a small fish, Aldous guessed, or a bird perhaps – but Erdik’s eyes blazed wide as he scanned across the filthy waters, pulling himself close to Aldous who realised immediately what was spooking the warrior.
“The Empress is not real, Erdik,” he said after a while. “It was a creation, something your king dreamed up to keep you away from the waters, something to ensure you wouldn’t discover the truth of what lay in the Pit.” His thoughts went back to the piles of bodies with a shudder.
Despite Aldous’ assertion the warrior could not help but flit his gaze here and there, expecting something awful to break through the surface.
“Someone from my world – someone who knew how to control others – once said that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, people will believe it. All Magnir had to do, once the lie was told, was keep repeating it.” Erdik turned from the city as Aldous spoke. “The same man also said that all great liars are great magicians. You told me in the forest that there was nothing but the Darkness beyond the mountain, that the rest of the world was lost. Do you know this for sure or is this something you have been told, another of your king’s mistruths? Think about it, Erdik – the men who overran Potamia, they must have a place they call home, the ships must have come from somewhere.”
Erdik gave no reply but Aldous could see that he was slowly beginning to understand that the world he knew was not all there was. They sat in silence for a while and peered through the gloom to the vague outline of the palace, its many windows lit up by the fires that burned inside. They had drifted back towards land whilst they slept, close enough for the crackling of the flames to carry along the water towards them. Aldous thought of Dylan and wondered if he was still somewhere within the Reach or if he had found a way to escape the city. He realised there was a good chance he might never see the boy again and the thought brought a tear to his eye.
Both he and Erdik saw the movement from the shadows below the city at the same time. Beneath the burning palace, from the mouth of the cavern, came one of the ships, banking slowly as the darkness peeled away behind it. The lizard eye of the sun ducked behind heavy clouds and the world went back to the ashen gloom. At once the ship disappeared into the murk.
“What are they?” Erdik asked. “Who are they?”
“Invaders,” Aldous replied. “They came to take your people.”
Aldous shrugged. “Perhaps we will never know. Perhaps you know already but don’t want to admit it to yourself.”
They peered towards the distant glow of the palace, searching for movement in the gloom below when a bright flare of light drew their attention, something taking to flame on the deck of the ship. Screams and shouts came to them, the sounds of struggle muffled by the distance, before the burning object fell or was thrown overboard. Soon enough a vague shape drifted towards them on the grey-white surf. The scorched figure was face down but they could see by its garb that it was one of the invaders. Both felt the first spark of hope flaring inside them.
Erdik stood up and began to whistle, the long, drawn out note that he had used to call the Drudwyn – it was a sound a friend would recognise. Both heard the whistle returned at the same moment and began to work the oars, heading straight for the now-still ship. Within a few minutes they were close enough to make out figures gathered by the stout railings on the main deck, dozens of Potamia’s captive citizens who had, by some stroke of providence, overthrown their captors and taken control of the ship. Aldous peered along the lines as they drew nearer, holding on to the vague hope that Dylan would be there, waiting for him.
Grubby, smoke-smeared faces peered back from the black deck. Of Dylan there was no sign but there was one face staring out at him from amongst the crowd that Aldous was drawn to. It was the monk who had foretold the destruction of the Panopticon with his hurried painting and, though he had no eyes, Aldous could almost feel the strength of his fleshy gaze, begging him to come and learn more.
They followed the path of the river west towards the shadow of Lysius and her sister peaks, stopping only when they came across the ruins of an ancient village set into a hillside which would provide them some shelter from the cold and clinging night. Dylan climbed the broken walls to look out upon the broad expanse of the Wastes to the west and the path along the Iron Coast to the east, hoping to spy more refugees or any further hint of the invaders. The ash obscured everything beyond a stone’s throw, so he climbed down again, joining the others in the crumbling halls below to rest for a few hours.
Barak had brought the three maids who had been in the house with him and the women had set to work cleaning his father’s wounds as they rested, passing water and strips of smoked meat around the others. Their eyes darted off into the ashen darkness at the slightest sound as they worked on cleaning and stitching Barakea’s deeper wounds and Dylan saw the same jumpy tension in each of the men during that long spell of silence, as though they were seeing in the rain of ash all the promises of death and ruin that had been ingrained in their thoughts since birth, as though they believed any action they might take from now on would be utterly hopeless.
As they sat around the meagre fire and warmed their hands and feet, Barak had told Dylan and Siva his tale. He told them about Erdik descending the Reach and coming to the house as the invaders swept through the city, how Barak had watched him from the upper windows as he moved off down the shadowed streets towards the Pit, one man to stand against many thousands. He had lost track of the warrior but knew from the hellish sounds of the great, grey beasts and the tumult amongst the invaders that Erdik had put some plan into motion, however futile.
Barak had waited for as long as he dared, looking across to the landing by the Pit with its sorry, silenced crowd, watching the streets outside for any sign that Erdik would return. Of Erdik or the invaders there had been no further sign. It seemed that the searches of the city had stopped but that evidence only made him think that Erdik had failed and that the invaders had achieved whatever foul purpose they had set here, found what they had been sent to find. After a few hours with little but silence interspersed with infrequent, distant screams and the ringing of bells, the lines of Potamians by the landing reduced to its final hundreds, he had given up on waiting and knew it was time to flee. Gathering as many provisions as he could manage, he had set off through the backstreets of the city with half a dozen of the maids in tow, a part of him already resigning himself to the fact that Erdik was gone as they reached the peak of a broad paved hill and looked back to see the Pit dark and silent, the landing empty but for those who had fallen.
The city had been unnervingly still as they descended the hill and moved through the smoky backstreets, the only sounds the crackling of the fires and the cries of the carrion birds that circled above, swooping down every now and again to fill their stomachs on the bodies which lay in the street like sleeping drunkards. They were glad to leave the narrow streets behind when they reached a path into the hills and the buildings fell away behind them.
They had come across a few warriors grouped amongst the trees as they made their way through the hills beneath the central aqueduct, the first living souls they had encountered. The men were five and had been stationed at the garrisons when the gates were opened, they said. Barak had listened to their tales of the great force which had spilled into the city, one of them relating how he had heard the gate grinding open and had rushed from the stables to see the fearful black swarm spilling through the gap, silent and unstoppable, brushing aside in seconds the few hundred men who had gathered on the landing. Barak had told them his own tales of the slaughter by the Pit, how all but a few of Potamia’s inhabitants had been taken to the Pit. The men had nodded or closed their eyes in stunned silence. When Barak related Erdik’s plan to gather what remained of the Highguard he did not need to persuade the men to come with him, and he wondered if it was the strength of their vow that drove them or the fact that everything they knew had been destroyed and they were merely looking for something to cling to.
Their band of twelve had moved out from the woodland and passed like silent shadows through the tiered gardens whose flowers and vines and branching saplings would all be dead and withered soon. They had found three more men as they made it to the great lake whose waters fed the city, a hundred times as many dead in the water or dying in the mud-clogged land around and about. None wished to look upon the fallen for too long and they had turned away and climbed the broad path to the burning garrisons with dread settling in their hearts, the growing knowledge that the all but a small fraction of the people that had lived and breathed within the Reach were dead or gone, given to the Pit .
They had walked through the wastage on the landing to the great arch of the gate and stopped in the shadows beneath to look upon the world outside, all but the warriors for the first time – the ruined mess of the Panopticon piled high as ten men against the outside of the Reach, the muddied path of the invaders cutting a swathe through it and heading off across the scorched landing around the headland to the east, bodies whole and otherwise scattered everywhere, all-but-buried in the filthy mud – and Barak had known that the others were thinking the same as he, that the world beyond the Reach was not a world meant for them.
He had sent them off to the garrisons to gather whatever weapons they could and had walked to the stables, finding three horses alive amongst the dozens slaughtered. As he led the startled beasts across to the gate, he had walked to the spot where it was said the Prophet had stood, to look back upon the burning alleys of his home for a few final moments, before gathering the others and passing in a huddled mass through the gateway, leaving Potamia to the flames.
Their group numbered twenty-one by the time they had come across Siva and the others and a scouting party had been sent out to search for any sign of the invaders who had taken the children – fathers, uncles and grandfathers, every one. The men had returned as Barak ended his tale, bearing news that they had picked up on the trail of the army and had come across a broad bridge spanning the gorge approaching the eastern flanks of Lysius, a patchwork of muddied footprints peppering the land at either side. As soon as they had fed and watered the horses, the group had set off again, following the trail of the children, every one of them knowing it was all they had left.
The last vague light of day was all but gone from the poisoned sky as they made it to the bridge. At the very last Siva spoke with Barakea and together they made the choice to send a party back into the Wastes to search for the hidden shrine, with orders to wait until dusk on the following day before returning to the bridge and picking up on their trail. The six men had given their luck to the others and said their farewells as though they knew they might not see them again.
One of the maids screamed aloud as she saw a body caught in some branches at the river’s edge once they had crossed the bridge. It was another child, a young boy Dylan guessed to be three or four. One of the warriors – a tall, pale man with pinched features by the name of Tiata – ran forward and removed the child from the grasp of the branches, holding him tight against his chest and cradling his head like a newborn as he fell to his knees in the filthy water. Even had they not known beforehand, it was clear to all present that the boy was his own.
They buried the body in a shallow grave amongst a crowd of trees and moved on, heavy silence settling over them as they left the river behind.
As the land rose up towards the gentle southern slopes of the mountains their party began to spread out, and soon enough Tiata and a few of the Highguard setting the quicker pace had been swallowed into the gloom to their front. They caught up with Tiata and the others after a few miles. The warriors were kneeling on the ground, inspecting marks in the soil. Far to their right one of the other men was stood atop a small rise, scanning the land that led away to the cliffs of the Iron Coast, curving north-eastwards to the lands were the Darkness reigned.
“You have found something?” Siva asked Tiata she pulled her mount up.
“Two trails, my princess,” Tiata replied as he gestured towards the warrior on the hill. “Chima has picked up on the trail of the army. They passed this way no more than half a day ago, heading off around the headland towards the Darkness.” His words trailed off. It was clear that he didn’t want to think about following that path. He pointed to an isolated hillock in the north of the barren land in front of them, a broad hump entirely covered with thorny shrubs sat astride the first true rampart of the mountains. “There are a few sets of prints heading off towards the rise. One of them was made by a child.”
“Can it… could it be?” Siva said.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. There could be others in these lands.”
It was clear the warrior was thinking of the Unwanted. “We must follow them to be sure,” Siva said. “It may be that we can learn something of these men who took the city. Even if we could save but one child the risk would be worth it.”
“If you command it, we will go.”
Siva looked to Barakea and Dylan, both of whom nodded softly.
“The choice is yours, my lady,” Barakea said. “With your father gone they are your people now.”
“Then I command it.”
Tiata turned to Elgord and the others as Chima came in from the hill to the east. “Rest here whilst we scout ahead. Make sure the princess is comfortable.”
“I will go,” Dylan said as he pushed to the front.
“You are the boy who came with the Prophet,” Tiata said.
“Then you are welcome.”
Dylan, Tiata, Elgord and Chima dismounted and set off towards the steep incline whilst Barak and the others tended to the tired horses and sorted through the weapons in the packs they had gathered during their hasty escape. Dylan looked through the satchel as they walked and selected a few knives in case they encountered some trouble. He tucked the knives into his belt and ran to catch up with the others who had already made it to the bottom of the steep incline and were following the jagged path to the summit, their clothes and skin catching on the sharp barbs with every step. Dylan took a deep breath and began to follow. Even with his knives – a sparse comfort – Dylan felt like a boy amongst men, completely out of his depth. He hoped they would find a child, a lone child hiding somewhere, that and nothing more.
As they neared the top they saw the first hints of light coming from the other side of the hill, a soft glow between the tightly packed narrow trees. Picking up their pace they made it to the top and dropped to their knees. A wooded quarry, like a great scoop from the top of the hillside, was revealed to their front, the narrow path they had followed dropping in zig-zags and winding down the steep walls. A fire-pit was smouldering in the centre of the clearing beyond the tightly-pack trees, bare-chested men raking the embers to dim the flames as others pressed dirt tight to the fire’s edge. Dylan could see swords on their belts and supposed there were more than just the few he could see, perhaps many more, hidden in caves and alcoves around the quarry wall, crouched behind boulders or moving silently beyond the fire glow. The only thing he could be sure of was that they were not the invaders.
“Unwanted,” one of the men whispered as he was drawn to a sudden movement at the edge of the shifting halo of light cast by fire pit, a vague shadow he had thought to be a boulder until it moved. There were ropes tied around the beast’s body, pulled tight around its muscled, fur-covered legs, stakes pushed deep into the ground. Whatever the creature was it was no mortal beast. “I knew it. They are behind this. They are with the Darkness.”
“What… what is that?” Dylan said and realised at once – something familiar in the taint that came to him – that this was the abomination he had sensed on Malikanna, the horrid beast led by the girl, the one who had devoted her life to finding and destroying he and Aldous.
“It is no man,” Chima said. “That is certain. It…”
Elgord wondered why his companion had stopped speaking. When he glanced round and saw the blade held to Chima’s throat, saw the armed men who had moved in silently behind them, the reason became evident.
Dylan felt the tip of the spear poking into the flesh of his back at the same time as the others. He did not even consider reaching for his knives.
“Stand up. Slowly,” came the voice. “Follow the path.”
Barak turned to his father as he looked towards the shadowed rise, not a hint of movement anywhere on its surface, all but the vaguest shape of the hill obscured by falling ash. “They’ve been gone for too long. I don’t like this.”
“Nor do I,” Barakea replied, scanning the darkness for any sign of movement. The horses grew restless as though they could sense something he could not. His tone grew softer, not wanting Siva to overhear. “Perhaps there has been trouble. The Unwanted must be out here somewhere.”
The response came not from his son but from an unknown voice that drifted out of the darkness. “The Unwanted are here.”
Every one of those who had remained behind turned to the bearer of the voice at once. Each of them saw the figures as they melted out of the night, two score of them appearing silently from the gloom, weapons at the ready.
One of the maids screamed, the sound like a cawing bird.
“Come with us,” came the voice as the men fanned out behind them and pressed them towards the hillside. “Follow the path.”
Aldous and Erdik had made it aboard the ship – a three-masted thing with the mainsail burnt away to flapping tatters – climbing stout ropes dropped over the starboard side by Erdik’s warrior companions. The monk was nowhere to be seen but Aldous’ attention was held by other thoughts as he stared dumbfounded at the carnage on the blackened decks.
All around them the black figures which had made it inside the Reach and claimed the city lay dead or dying, the very sight of them bringing some unwanted taste to the back of his throat. It was the oddest thing he had ever seen, even given all that had happened in the previous days – the bodies of the black figures (for it did not seem right to call them men) were decaying in front of him, drying out like peaches left in the sun. Aldous moved closer and studied the face of one of those who had recently fallen, a huge spear running through its chest and pinning it to the deck, dying with arms locked as it tried to pull the spear free. Everything was a deep and solid black – the sparse robes that were little more than a loincloth, the withering skin, the wiry hair, the tacky blood pooled around the body, even the teeth and gums. The eyes were the most terrible of all, dark and soulless things, dead eyes gazing up to the ashen sky as though receiving some awful signal.
Aldous turned away and shuddered realising that what he had just looked upon was not a man but some foul simulacrum, a thing that should not be. There were thousands of them if the tales he had heard rung true, enough to overpower both the Highguard and the vast crowd gathered around the Pit with ease. There were plenty of the bodies scattered here and there and as he walked around the deck he realised that they were all the same, that each face had the same bland and simple features, as though they had been processed from some terrible assembly line. It brought a dark feeling to his stomach to think that someone or something had not only made these travesties, but had the power and the resources to do so. The magic, he thought with a sad little inside smile. Anything I don’t understand is magic.
There were perhaps a hundred Potamians spaced here and there across the blackened decks – a crowd of wide-eyed, crying women gathered to the aft away from the carnage on the main deck, huddling close like frightened birds; common men wandering blindly here and there amongst the bodies or resting against the pitched walls, their eyes wide and blank. There were thirty or so warriors who had gathered around Erdik and Aldous as they came aboard, many of whom had received injuries and were in no fit state to fulfil their duties. All were silent, heads bowed, as beaten and broken as Aldous had ever seen any men.
He glanced about the assembled crowd and saw the impossible face of Tai-lin staring back at him. No. Could it be? “Tai-lin! you were…”
“Tai-lin is… was my twin, lord. I am Maren.”
Aldous nodded and let out a long sigh. “Your brother was a brave man, Maren. I owe him my life. I only wish I could have done something...” He left the rest unsaid and Maren bowed softly as Aldous turned away.
Erdik had gathered with a few of his men and Aldous walked through the parting crowd to meet him, glancing again at the fallen bodies littering the decks and gangways, most of which were Potamians, simple folk who had never had the need to fight, slain like animals.
“This is Demetris,” Erdik said as Aldous neared, gesturing towards a dark-skinned man, tall and lean with cadaverous features. “He is a man under my command on the Reach. Tell the Prophet what you have just told me.”
Demetris nodded. “We were approaching the gardens on the western side on the way to begin our shift at the gate when the city was breached. We went at once to the Reach to arm ourselves and made our way towards the inner city where we were overrun and captured.” He bowed his head as if in shame. “They came so quickly, my lord, and they were so many…”
“Go on,” Aldous prompted.
“The invaders gathered us in long lines and led us through the streets to the Pit. Any who put up a fight or tried to intervene or did anything but obey were slain where they stood. We watched as our friends and wives, our brothers and neighbours were taken, all of them silent, all of them doing nothing. It was as though their lives had already been taken, that they were empty.” Demetris shook his head as though he could not believe the truth of it. “Grey-robed men moved up the lines, men… beings like the Judges, faces too dark to look upon. The boys at their heels carried between them great oaken chests full of… full of…” he shook his head and spat on the ground. “Perhaps it would be better if you see for yourself.”
Demetris moved off to the port side where a great pile of bodies lay, perhaps thirty Potamians, bloodied and broken, surrounded by a swathe of warriors bearing lit torches, swords at the ready as thought the bodies might spring back to life with evil intentions at any moment. Most were clearly dead but a few were hanging on to life. A small, rotund man with deep brown eyes and a beatific smile lay on his back amongst the bodies, blood seeping from deep wounds on his torso that would soon be his end, vicious breaks in both his legs that showed the bright white of bone beneath.
Demetris flipped the dying man over with an outstretched boot, wincing at the sound of the bones grinding together. “There, my lord,” he pointed with his blade. “Beneath the hairline.”
Aldous stepped closer and saw the glistening form on the back of the neck. It was a pale leech, almost identical to the one which he had seen on the dog on the landing. “What is it?”
Demetris shook his head. “I don’t know, but each of the people here – save a few who managed to move down the lines – were… were, I cannot say it, were given to these things.” He beckoned to one of the men guarding the bodies. “Come here, brother. Show the Prophet.”
A limping man with a great gash on his forehead stepped over to them and turned slowly around, shaking as though suffering with fever. There was a puckering wound on the back of the neck where one of the leeches had attached, a perfect circle dripping dark blood. He pointed to a clotted smear on the deck where the creature had been crushed underfoot. Immediately afterwards Aldous gaze was drawn to dozens more smears and smudges cross the decks.
“I cannot describe what happened to me when that... when that…” The limping man shuddered as though the clot on the deck might suddenly come back to life. “If not for my brothers I would be dead. Who knows how much longer my mind might have lasted against that invasion? Who knows what I might have done?” He gestured towards the pile of bodies, to the brown-eyed man whose life was ebbing away, the leech drinking greedily, laying its jagged roots. “They turned upon us as we fought for them. Our own people, broken, taken by those… those things! There was nothing to do but slay them.”
The brown-eyed man breathed his last and Aldous saw Demetris move to the body and crush the leech beneath his heel, grinding his foot until there was nothing left but mulch.
Aldous felt a shiver race up his spine and patted the back of his neck but thankfully found nothing. “Search through the bodies,” he said to the warriors around him. “Destroy any of these things you come across. Make sure there are none left anywhere.” The last thing he wanted was for one of their small band to be taken, for one amongst them to turn upon the others. “When you are done throw the bodies into the water.”
As the warriors set to work Aldous and Erdik moved off towards the bow where a small crowd had gathered, angry voices rising into the night as they jostled for position. They climbed the few steps and saw a withered man in a pale-grey robe tied to the foremast. Blood from his toothless mouth dripped to his sodden beard as one of the common men holding a heavy cudgel tried to press through the line of warriors keeping the crowd back. By the look of the captive’s shattered arm it appeared that the cudgel-bearer had managed a few blows before the warriors had put a stop to it.
The yells and shouts faded away as Erdik and Aldous approached.
“This is one of the leaders,” Erdik said as the crowd stepped back and the line of warriors parted. “There are others trapped in the rooms below. The men say they took the children.”
“What children?” Aldous said.
“The children from the city. All of them. “
It was said so plainly yet Aldous couldn’t help but gasp. There could well have been five thousand of them, maybe more, a whole generation gone. It seemed all but impossible to comprehend. He stepped towards the captive as the men backed further away, ducking to his knees and meeting the stranger’s gaze. The bloodied man stared at him with clouded eyes for a moment then cackled loudly, blood and spittle hanging from his mouth.
“Who are you?” Aldous asked softly.
The bloodied man gave a manic laugh, rocking his head from side to side and gnashing his teeth. One of the warriors pressed his foot on the captive’s shattered arm, pressing the bone ever so softly. “Answer the Prophet,” he hissed.
Again the man let out a maddened cackle as his eyes rolled back in his head. It was clear to Aldous that he would find no answers from him and he was not surprised to find that the screams did not come when the warrior ground his foot on the shattered bone, only the peals of laughter.
“Put him below with the others,” he said to no one in particular, walking away to stand by the gunwale. His first thought for the moment was getting back to dry land, back into the city to try to find Dylan. If his search proved fruitless there was only one thing he could think to do – go to the Gateway and find a way to get back, chose someone to come with him, to die with him. It was a heavy thought but he was beginning to understand that he had no choice other than to consider it.
Aldous turned to find one of the Highguard facing him, the black and red lines on his face coated with a film of grime. “I am Affan, my lord. I was on the Reach until the last. I watched the invaders leave the city, watched and did nothing. They took our children. We must save them.”
Aldous let out a deep breath, trying to work through all he had heard. Why would they take the children? He could think of only two things – slavery or sacrifice, and with the stock this world invested in gods and demons and all things unreal, Aldous guessed it would be the latter.
“We will return,” he said. “Soon.”
Affan bowed as Aldous turned away.
The sallow monk was stood beside Erdik as Aldous turned, there as though by some unwritten instruction. He seemed to know Aldous was ready and raised a hand, beckoning him to follow. Moving without assistance, the monk walked quickly across the main deck towards a cabin on the quarterdeck, dodging crumpled bodies and other obstacles with ease, ascending steps as though he had walked this way a thousand times. Aldous told Erdik to make a sweep of the ship and ensure there were no more enemies hidden away before they dealt with the sick and injured. With that he walked off and followed the monk, rushing to catch up.
When Aldous came to the main cabin the monk was already seated at the broad desk inside, pitched black like every other surface on this hellish craft. He was painting on the pitted surface of the desk, his fingers a heady blur. Aldous moved across the room and stood behind him, watching with a sense of dread as the image unfolded. It was a flood of black and orange – a volcano, he realised quickly, rivers of magma pouring from holes here and there, a roiling black cloud dappled with forks of lightning billowing into the sky. To the front of the peak there stood a host of figures. Children, he realised, countless thousands of them, more than could possibly have lived within the Reach. At their head, small and insignificant, were a few figures stood on a rocky knoll that rose into the night amongst the orange glow. Small and insignificant though they were Aldous was sure he recognised Dylan in that tiny painted image. A shaft of worry coursed through him as he began to wonder if Dylan had perhaps been using him the whole time with some ulterior motive, if the boy and not he was the one who was meant to be here. The painting certainly made it appear that this – whatever this was – was under Dylan’s control.
The red tinge on the horizon and the greenish hue that covered the sun suddenly came to his mind and he recalled why that sight had stuck in his memory when he witnessed it from the waters. He had read first-hand reports of happenings in the days after Krakatoa had erupted in the 1880s. People all around the world had reported seeing an emerald green moon set in a crimson sky. It all made sense now – the rain of ash, the strange colours on the horizon, the painting of the monk. He was meant to go there, to save the children.
He patted the monk on the shoulder and made to walk off but found the monk’s bony hand on his arm, leaving a trail of colours on his silks.
He turned back as the monk wiped the painting to a wash of mottled black and began to paint again. This time Aldous watched but had no idea what he was being shown. The painting was darker than that of the volcano, vague suggestions of black on black. Tiny grey blurs at the bottom suggested the spume of the ocean but it was the shape in the centre that left him confused. It looked like a great black head rising from the waters, some giant underwater obelisk.
“What is it?” Aldous asked even though he knew he would receive no answer. “I… I.. don’t understand.”
The monk stood quickly and walked from the room. Aldous followed to the railings on the quarterdeck to find the monk looking out across the endless ocean to the south. The monk raised his hand to point across the horizon, turning to Aldous to give that semblance of a smile with his sickly stitched mouth.
“Across the ocean,” Aldous said. “I should go there?”
The monk nodded – the closest thing to communication he had – and turned to walk away, leaving Aldous standing alone and lost once again.
Barakea and the others were led by a single man through the cutting barbs of the steep incline towards the light that glowed atop the rise, the rest of their unspeaking captors bringing up the rear. Siva had taken to crying again and Barak put his arm around her shoulder as they moved, stroking her hair softly but saying nothing. He felt fear but he was not afraid.
When they reached the top they froze as they came upon the same sight which had halted Elgord and the others. They glimpsed the wide expanse of the clearing through the band of spindly trees, the glowing embers of the fire pit and the figures moving in the darkness, silhouettes against the orange glow.
“Unwanted,” one of the warriors named Samba whispered softly to no one and everyone as his comrade had done before.
They moved across rise to the butts of spears in their backs and descended on a narrow winding path, through a grove of trees and out into the clearing, silence thick amongst them. Siva gave a tiny scream as her eyes fell upon the abomination staked to the ground by the side of the fire pit. A host of faces from between the wattle and daub huts turned towards the newcomers at the sound, eyes peering from the darkness.
“Don’t be afraid, princess,” came a voice from somewhere in the gloom behind the fire. A figure was moving there. “The beast will do you no harm.”
Something in the back of Barakea’s mind told him he knew that voice but from where he could not tell. Dylan appeared from between two of the huts and ran to Siva, taking her in his arms, a wide smile pasted across his face.
Barakea watched as Siva was led by the boy to the one whose voice he dimly recognised. The stranger spoke to her for a few seconds then took her gently in his arms and lifted her aloft, like a father with a daughter he had not seen in an age. When he set the princess down he stepped out from the shadows and walked across the clearing towards the others. Barakea squinted against the wavering light of the flames as the armed men who had led them moved off to resume their posts atop the hill. He felt butterflies rise in his stomach as the man neared and, as the face was revealed, Barakea almost fell to his knees, his jaw hanging slack.
“You look like you have seen a ghost, old friend,” came the voice, a voice that seemed to rise from the depths of history, a voice that was as fresh in his mind as though its bearer had never been away. “Perhaps you have; perhaps you have.”
He turned to the others, his face revealed by the glow of the fire. “I am Soren Hjördis,” he said. “Welcome to Chasm Deep.”
Few of the men but those who had spent their lives on the Reach had ever seen the ocean before and, as the crowds settled down on the pitched decks to await Aldous’ instructions, talk of the Empress and the dangers that lurked beneath them were spreading through the crowd which had moved subtly to the centre of the main deck as they talked.
Aldous knew he had no time to teach these folk how to sail a massive ship such as this, so he had instructed Erdik and a few of the others to search along the gangways and the gunwales for any sign of rowboats with which they could transport the frightful populace back to Potamia. If that failed the only other option was to go below decks where the captives were and operate the great oars, which would no doubt lead to more bloodshed, something he did not want.
The men had returned with news that there were three such vessels suspended from wooden davits amidships. Maren came forward to inform Aldous that he had some experience of sailing the aqueducts used to transport goods across the Reach, so Aldous put the young man in charge of organising their return. Maren had walked off with his head held high, beaming with pride to think that the Prophet had chosen him.
“When will we leave?” Erdik asked as Aldous was moving around the ship to search for any ropes which they could use to tie the rowboats to ensure they wouldn’t drift away once they were lowered to the water. It was clear that Erdik wanted and perhaps needed to go back to Potamia to see what could be salvaged and who could be saved.
“They will leave very soon,” Aldous replied. “As for you and I, Erdik, there is something else in store for us.”
The line of refugees standing by the fire were inspected by the guards whilst Soren watched from a distance, each of them paying close attention to the back of their necks, just below the hairline. Once the inspection was complete, Soren rejoined the party and led them across the clearing towards the mouth of a great cave sat beneath the roots of an ancient tree which burst from the rock and hung across the opening like grasping fingers.
They passed the shackled beast in silence, watched by guards who moved here and there between the firelight and the dark beyond, by women and children who stared out from the wattle and daub huts with great cooking pots and racks of fish smoking above piles of glowing embers. The creature opened an eye and growled low in its throat as they passed but it was clear that, whatever Soren and his men had done to it, the beast had little fight left in it, clearer still that the dozen or so men gathered around it would cut it to pieces at the slightest hint of trouble.
A lump rose in Barakea’s throat as Soren moved to his side and enquired quietly about Erdik. To tell Soren that his only son had gone willingly to the depths of the Pit was something he did not wish to entertain. “He is still in the city, fighting for our people. I have sent a party out to meet him. I… he will come.”
Soren nodded and gave a soft smile as though he knew there was more to the story than Barakea was telling. “I expected no less of him. He was always meant for great things.”
The group were led underneath the roots of the tree and into the yawning mouth of the cave. They were struck at once by a wave of balmy heat rushing up from below. With Soren at the head they followed a short descending tunnel and found themselves on a rough-hewn platform overlooking a wide cavern stretching off into the inky distance, the warm mists filling the space hiding as much as they revealed. There were numerous openings in the vertical rock walls spilling out pools of light from spaces beyond the main chamber, and torches and charcoal braziers suspended from the high ceiling, some of them no more than specks. The mists cleared for a moment as a gust of wind raced down the tunnel at their backs and Barakea saw their source – a milky lake far to his front, tendrils dancing across the surface. There were figures moving about between the broad pillars supporting the ceiling – men, women and children, each of them turning to stare at the grubby newcomers for a moment before moving off to resume their business.
Soren gave the Potamians a moment to take the place in then led them towards the narrow stairwell leading to the floor of the cavern. The guards standing either side of the stairwell – men who had once served the Reach, Barakea realised by the tattooed lines of their faces – moved from their posts and greeted the newcomers as they passed, a few of them finding friends and relatives they had thought they would never see again and which they hugged and wept with now as though they were all that remained.
As they made it to the floor of the main chamber a great metal doorway slid over the opening of the cave through which they had passed, the harsh clang echoing off into the damp distance. The mists were not as heavy on the cavern floor as they had appeared from the platform and the group stopped to look out upon the groups of people, the buildings and pathways quarried from the rock. From somewhere out of sight came a series of pained screams, sounds that seemed out of place.
“You are not the first to come this way,” Soren said as if in reply to the screams. “Our numbers have doubled in the past few days alone, most of those being sick and injured. My men have reported much trouble in the captive cities.”
“The captive cities?” Barakea said as they were led off through a colonnade covered with flowering vines to their left, past a host of filthy men and women lying on narrow stone beds, their wounds being tended by an army of young women. The maids from the Hjördis household went instinctively to give their help.
“Potamia. Scarlat. Fay. Ironwood. Covenant. End. These are the captive cities we know of. There may be others.”
Barakea knew some of these names but they were of the world before the Turning and it was many years since he had heard them spoken. “But… but these places are no more. They fell when the Darkness came.”
Soren placed an arm around Barakea’s shoulder as they moved through the infirmary. “That is one of the many lies your king and those who control him have spread,” he said as he gestured towards the people lying injured on the beds. “These men are from Scarlat and Fay, kingdoms beyond Harrow Wash to the east of the Iron Coast, lands obscured by the great fog of the Wash that never seems to lift. We found them hiding out in the forests to the north, forced from their homes. When we calmed them down they told us tales you yourself will know – tales of a great army of black devils descending upon their city, killing the weak and old, taking the children. These people believed Potamia was no more as surely as you believed their lands were no more.” Barakea’s mouth gaped as Soren spoke; the others followed in stunned silence. “But now that you are here we may have a chance to undo all of this, a chance to rescue the children before it is too late.”
He turned to the warriors. “I do not doubt that you are tired, friends. We have plenty of food and fresh water and there will be beds prepared for you.” A few of the warriors made to speak, eager to talk of the children, but Soren held a hand to silence them. “We shall meet again when the morning comes. For now you must rest. The children will need every one of you alert and ready if we are to stand even the slightest hope of bringing them back.”
“I am sure I speak for all of us when I say we are ready now,” Elgord said, disregarding what felt like a dismissal. “The children need us now.”
“Resting is pointless. We will lose the children if we delay any longer,” Tiata added. There were tears in his eyes. “I have lost one son this day. I cannot lose another.”
“I understand your worries, truly I do, but you will serve your children better when you have gathered your strengths. To rush after them now would be futile. I do not mean to scare you but I have no doubt that each of you would be dead or worse long before you see the children. Take it from me, the enemy is greater than anything you have ever faced. The force that came upon your city is but a tiny fraction of what waits. Their numbers make the Panopticon seem small.”
The tired warriors, each of whom had been on the Reach when the Panopticon came, gave a few more half-hearted attempts to change Soren’s mind but soon realised that the old man spoke the truth. They followed the guards off into the clouds of steam, to find a place to rest and prepare themselves for a morning that would seem so long in coming.
“Forgive me if I seemed curt with the men,” Soren said to Barakea when the bulk of them were gone, “but we cannot be sure who is with us and who is against us, even here. I have lost so many of my own men to the evil that fills these lands.”
The eunuch noticed Dylan and Siva sat at a broad table covered in sheets of paper as they passed through a doorway. Siva stood up as they approached and ran to Barakea, a wide smile pasted across her face. “Some of the children are here,” she said breathlessly.
Barakea looked to Soren, his gaze expectant. “My men found a few of them wandering the Wastes, close to death. We are taking good care of them.” Soren’s face grew sombre. “But they were the lucky few. As for the rest… well, we will come to that in time.”
Barakea and his son took their seats around the broad table as Soren moved into his place at the large oak chair at the head, a heavy staff propped against the table by his side. Siva and Dylan took their seats either side of Soren. Barak had been silent since seeing the shackled beast by the fire outside but finally found his tongue. “What… what is this place?”
“Barak, is it? You have your father’s face. You were a child when I saw you last. Well, Barak, this is Chasm Deep – the home of what your king, and I for many years, referred to as the Unwanted.” Barak gasped. “But that is merely a name and you should think of it no more. The people here deserted nothing but the lies spread within their lands. They want nothing more than to learn the truth of what has happened. Here is the sole place in the world where we can pursue that truth, the one place outside of the reach of the Destroyer.”
Barak heard the words but they meant little to him. “Who is the Destroyer?”
“Forgive me, friends. I forget that you have been kept apart from all this for so long.” He reached out and cleared the papers from the desk, casting them to the floor. A sprawling map was revealed underneath, carved into the surface – a work in progress judging by the many blank sections. Soren picked up his staff and pointed to the bottom corner of the table where Barakea was sat. “This tiny blot here is Potamia. And here,” he moved the staff towards himself, “here is Sandlock and the Wastes, and here Chasm Deep, with Malikanna and Slumber to the west and the Iron Coast to the east. Covenant,” he added as he turned to Siva, moving the staff across a broad blank section to the top of the table, “is here in the far north. This is the land of your forefathers, once kin of my own.”
The group stared blankly at the map, the geography unknown to them but the names etched into the surface resonating from somewhere deep in history – Freya, Asha, Ironwood, Highrock, Earthfall, The Shattered Cities.
“This… this is the old world,” Barakea said after a time.
“Old, yes, but it exists still, much of it in ruin but there all the same.”
Soren moved the staff across to the far side of the desk, following the curving path of a river from Malikanna through hill and forest towards a great mountain in the east inscribed with a single word – Ashfael. “Here,” he said, “is where the Destroyer reigns, he who is the root cause behind the Turning, who has shaped the world to his will in the times since. The enemy is not the army who took your children, it is not Magnir or the Judges, or the Panopticon, or any other you have been made to fear. All these are led by the hand of the Destroyer and his kind. All he wishes is to use us to do his bidding, to own and control us as we do the beasts of the field.”
Siva spoke up then. “Why?”
“Put simply, he found a world that he could turn to his whim and he took it for his own. He uses us because he can, because we allow him, because he believes we are lesser.”
“So all this is his doing?” Siva replied. “Everything that is wrong with this world is because of him, from the Turning onwards?”
Soren nodded. “You are a bright child, my princess, one who can help rebuild this world, make it what it was before. That is why I wanted you here with me. That is why I sent for you.”
Siva’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“You were taken from Potamia seven nights past. It was done at my behest, to free you from the dangers within the Reach. I only wish it had turned out differently. If so, much of what you have gone through could’ve been avoided.”
Siva’s face flushed red as she remembered the vague flashes of the evil men who had taken her, most of the memories of the few days of her kidnap still buried deep beyond her reach.
“When I spoke of the evil that rests in these lands I speak from first-hand experience. The men I sent to find you were true men, my princess. They were men I could trust with my own life, but they were taken by the Destroyer somewhere on the journey, turned into something else. My riders told me of what had happened when the Highguard came for you. I can only offer my deepest regrets for what happened but I believed I was doing the right thing.”
Siva took a deep breath, trying hard to take it all in. “Erdik saved me.”
“I know,” Soren said as he rested a hand on her back.
“You… he… why did you not send for him, let him know you were alive?”
Soren sighed. “That is my one regret, that I had to engineer my death and leave Erdik behind. But there was no other way. It was imperative that Erdik believed I was gone, for I knew they would be watching him, probing his thoughts to find out the truth. I have four trusted men within the city – simple men of no great stations in life – but they were all I needed, and they have helped me well across the years, watching Erdik from afar. It was the most I dared do.”
Siva nodded, seeing the sense in his words.
“The enemy has played his hand now,” Soren continued to the group. “He has called the people his puppet rulers have gathered to him and is now preparing for something of great importance, when he and his captives will leave this place behind.” He looked from face to face as he allowed the words time to settle; the thought that the children would be beyond their reach settling heavy in their hearts. “But there is a chance – a slight chance – that we can stop this, for we are in possession of the one object he so desires, the one thing that he will not leave this world without.” He turned to Dylan and nodded.
Dylan removed the key from around his neck and set it on the table.
“A key?” Barak said. “What does this have to… what does it open?”
“It does not open anything, but it may lead us to an opening.” Blank faces stared back. “This key is the one way for us to find the children, to stop the plan the Destroyer has set in place, for it will point us towards the same goal that he seeks.”
Still, the faces were blank. Soren clicked his fingers and a guard rushed in from an adjoining room, collected the key and exited as quickly as he had come, disappearing through the infirmary.
“We will return to that later, when it is ready.”
Dylan felt his heart skip a beat as the guard departed but Soren placed a hand on his shoulder to tell the boy to trust him.
“The key will lead us to the Destroyer,” Soren continued as he removed the burgundy cube from his pocket. “And this, we can use to destroy him.”
He opened the lid and removed the dried leech from inside, holding it tightly between thumb and forefinger so that everyone could see. Within no more than a few seconds the leech began to fill out, the dry skin becoming moist once again as it bucked and writhed beneath his touch. Everyone but Dylan gasped and began to move away. “This insignificant creature,” continued Soren as he held the leech down on the desk, “is how the Destroyer took this world. This pitiful thing is the Destroyer, or a part of him, at least.”
“The Destroyer is not a man?” Barak said, his eyes on the leech. “But I thought…”
“He is a boy to our eyes, an innocent child. But it is one of these foul creatures that controls him, that is the true Destroyer. If only we can get close enough...”
He set the open cube down on the table a few inches behind the leech, tilting it slowly as the creature squirmed. “Watch.”
When he let go of the leech it was sucked inside the centre of the cube and had resumed its form of the dried husk within seconds. He replaced the lid and set the cube on the centre of the table as Dylan remembered what had happened to Atoma when the leech had come free.
“We could attack the Destroyer with every good man in this world, “Soren continued, “and still we might fail. He has countless thousands in his thrall, countless thousands to be placed in our way, men whose lives mean nothing to him. Think of all the people you have lost from your city, those lost on their Long Trial, those who went to the Pit, or who vanished in the night under the cloak of some lie spread by your king.” Siva blanched at the mention of her father. Soren turned to her and spoke softly. “The man you knew was not your father. He was tricked and used as were the rest of us. You should not think ill of him for what he has done for he was not the cause of his actions.” He turned back to the others. “I do not doubt that most of those you thought lost are with the Destroyer. The same plan has been put to use in all the captive cities – thousands who were once with us are now against us, bent to the Destroyer’s will.” The gravity of the task ahead was beginning to dawn on the Potamians. “But with this,” Soren added, gesturing to the cube, “with this relic that has come to us from the depths of history, a single one of us might succeed. If we end the Destroyer, if we attack this sickness at the root, these parasites of his will be no more and the tide will turn in our favour. The key will take us to him and the cube will see his end.”
Soren removed the lid, tipped the leech onto the floor and crushed it beneath the heel of his staff, grinding his heel until only dust remained. “I think you have seen enough for one night. It is not only the men who look tired. Everything will seem clearer once you have rested.”
Barakea led the princess and his son towards a waiting guard by the doorway as Dylan went to retrieve his satchel from across the room.
The eunuch smiled to Soren as he exited. “It is good to see you again, old friend, even if your words do nothing but confuse me.”
Soren smiled and nodded towards Barakea then gestured for Dylan to come with him as the others stepped away. “I want to know more about you, Dylan,” he said when he was sure they were alone. “Perhaps you would also like to know more, about the time before you went away.”
Dylan shook his head as Soren’s gaze bored into him. How does he know these things? I have told no one but Aldous. Despite his doubt he sensed that Soren might be able to help him. “Flashes come to me sometimes but I can make no sense of them.” He remembered Lemistat’s words, the sparse memories they had prompted. “I had a mother and father, a family, a home. Once.”
Soren nodded and gave an understanding smile. When Dylan spoke again there were tears welling in his eyes. “I know I had these things but they will not come back to me. Can you tell me, Soren? Can you help me understand?”
“I hope so,” Soren said as he placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But you will need to be strong. You may learn things that you would rather not know.”
“I want… I need to know everything.”
“Good,” Soren replied. “Each of you were inspected by my men when they found you. You know what they were looking for even if the others do not.” Dylan’s cheeks flushed with a hint of pink. “Perhaps you know already what I am going to tell you,” Soren said. “You have seen the Destroyer with your own eyes. You understand what he is even if the others do not.”
Dylan had never felt more confused or more vulnerable. He took a deep breath and told Soren what had happened in the topmost room of Magnir’s palace, how Atoma had faltered when he turned and saw Dylan’s face, confusing him for another, how they had fought, how the boy had withered away to nothing when the leech had come free.
Soren was quiet for a long time afterwards, his eyes closed in thought. “This Atoma was one of the Destroyer’s many servants. It was the leech that controlled him, that gave him power to turn others to his will, to walk in their dreams and fill their heads with lies and false promises. I don’t doubt that Magnir was a servant of this Atoma, or that there were more such people within the city, unknown to even their closest kin.” Dylan thought of the Nightwatch and the way they had opened the gates to the invaders and wondered if they had been infected in the same way. “This is why the Destroyer is so dangerous, for his servants seem no different than you or I. They do not even know that they have been taken.”
This last statement scared Dylan. Try as he might, he could not bring himself to raise his hand and check the back of his neck, wondering if all the flashes of intuition and pilfered thoughts had come to him only because he had been taken, tainted. “Am I one of them?” he asked softly, his voice barely a whisper.
“Thankfully you are not,” Soren said, “but you have a scar below your hairline, a pale blemish that makes me think you once were.”
“I… I…” Dylan mumbled, his hands shaking. What am I?
“This is no bad thing, Dylan,” Soren said as he turned around and lifted his hair from the back of his own neck. A soft pink scar was revealed. “You are not alone here. I know of only you and I and one other who have survived this invasion. You may be the best chance we have to make everything right. I think you are the one we have been waiting for.”
“Me?” Dylan said, his voice almost a squeak. “But I am no one. It was Ald… it was the Prophet who was meant to save this place.”
Soren placed an arm around his shoulder as Dylan began to cry softly, Aldous’ absence hitting him hard again. From through a doorway at the back of the room came the most unlikely sound – a child laughing. “I have someone I would like you to meet,” Soren said. “Perhaps he can show you what I cannot.”
The shadow of the ship had long since disappeared into the growing mists behind them. Aldous, Erdik, Demetris and the aged monk had gathered some supplies – a long coil of rope with a grappling hook at one end, a dusty oil-lamp, some heavy blankets, some salted fish and a few skins of water – and had set off into the dark southern waters with little idea as to where they were heading to or what they were heading towards.
Erdik and Demetris, despite never having been on the open ocean, would not allow Aldous to row, so he had spent the next few hours staring into the rolling fields of ash-dappled mist whilst the warriors worked the oars, searching for any sign of the huge shape emerging from the gloom, the monk sat by his side, looking out across the muted waters with those fleshy eyes as though he could see all the way to the ends of the earth and beyond.
During the night Aldous had turned to see the great ship ablaze, a vague orange blot drifting through the mist miles to their rear. He knew then that the others were by now back in the city and could only hope they would find safety there, hope he had not sent them back into the arms of a waiting enemy. He had pulled a blanket over himself and drifted off after a time, welcoming the calm of dreamless sleep.
When he awoke some time later the sky was pale in the east, the filtered light from the ashen sky – not quite as thickly clogged as it had been nearer the shore – making a little headway with melting the cloak of mist. The aged monk was sat exactly where Aldous had last seen him, still as a statue. Erdik was rowing hard still, the muscles on his back straining. He was soaked in sweat and puffing with exertion, but Demetris had fallen asleep in the bottom of the boat. Aldous had no idea how long Erdik had been going at it but could see that it was too long. He had eventually persuaded the warrior to rest for a time whilst he took control of the oars, moving them as though he was on a leisurely sail down some summer river. But his thoughts of such places did not help.
The pale disc of the sun faded as the mists grew thicker and the dome of the sky filled with a bank of solid grey cloud, seeming to begin within touching distance above their heads. Soon enough it seemed as though all that existed was the tiny capsule of the boat, the grey world hissing beyond their sight, the water tensed like a predator preparing to strike as the boat rose and fell, rose and fell. Suddenly coming this way in such a small vessel seemed like a bad idea.
Great ocean swells began to rise up as the day wore on. With the winds rising and the ocean beginning to burble and roar, Aldous had abandoned the oars and sunk low in the tiny boat to join the others, hoping their combined weight would prevent them from being overturned when the ocean unleashed its fury. It did this soon enough and they were tossed and turned and thrown from wave to wave until they felt absolutely lost, no point of reference in the world of grey. Heavy rains came through the mists as the day wore on, sheet upon sheet, thundering down for a few hours that felt like days then stopping as quickly as they had come, the sky opening up as the dome of clouds were pierced here and there by the reappearing sun, still a sickly shade of green. Aldous sat up and observed the sun’s movement for a time as it arced across the sky beyond the patchwork of cloud and calculated that they were, by some stroke of luck, still being borne in a southerly direction.
Erdik had moved in beside him after a while and spoke, his first words since before the rains had come. “We will reach the ends of the earth soon. Is that where we are going?”
Aldous had smiled. “I hope not, Erdik. I would like to think we will find our destination long before then.”
As the first hint of night began to take hold of the sky they came across a cluster of tiny islands that appeared from the low-lying mist to their front, small black specks on which grew groves of tightly packed trees with great white seabirds roosting in the high branches. Erdik and Demetris had stopped to stare for a while as they drifted closer in which Aldous imagined he could hear their bellies rumble, but it seemed that their thoughts of danger lurking amongst the trees dimmed their appetite, for they exchanged surreptitious glances and their hands moved almost imperceptibly to the hilts of their swords as though the very trees themselves might bound across the waters towards them. Aldous looked to the skies; they were growing angry again. He had no wish to be cast adrift on the ocean in the dead of night so he bade the warriors turn towards the islands so that they might rest for a while, perhaps even find a tree near the water’s edge which they could climb and see further across the horizon.
They pulled the boat ashore on the narrow spit of beach on the largest of the islands. The seabirds, who had been squawking loudly at their approach, fell quiet as night drew in. Erdik and Demetris set about making camp and building a fire with the waste of a fallen tree. The fire seemed too large, as though they expected something terrible to come with the night and were looking for ways to keep it at bay.
Aldous smoked – and relished – the last of his pipe tobacco, sodden as it was, whilst the others worked then set off to explore the few acres of the island, moving through the trees painted white with the guano of the roosting horde, their beady eyes watching from above. It was clear on first glance that no one had set foot in this place in a long time, perhaps since before the Turning. Small creatures scurried through the spattered undergrowth, lemur-like animals standing on their hind legs and staring with deep brown eyes that were both inquisitive and trusting, some of them coming within a few feet of him, the whiskers on their elongated snouts bristling. Aldous realised there was a good chance that he was the first person ever to see these creatures, and that he might well be the last person ever to do so.
As he moved on through the narrow spit he noticed the sound of splashing water and a vague hiss of wind. He thought at first that the storm he had seen brewing in the sky and which had pestered them on the open ocean had started up again but soon realised that the sounds were coming, not from above, but from some fixed source beyond the trees – a cave or a tunnel perhaps, some landmark which had been obscured on their approach. His brow furrowed in confusion for he could not recall seeing any high ground when they had approached the island, no great height from which the water could fall.
What he found as he stepped out onto a narrow strip of sand made him halt in his tracks. The cluster of islands were spaced out like a string of pearls to his left and right, an archipelago forming a rough circle and meeting again five hundred yards or so to his front. The wide space behind the islands formed a lagoon, still and silent but for the small dark birds that twittered across the skin of the waters and the brightly coloured shoals of fish that flitted near the shore. Directly to his front the waters were a pale blue, turning to emerald green further out, then a deep and sudden navy-black beneath the narrow fall of water that came from above, a solid pillar glinting like quicksilver.
Aldous looked up. He had been right. There was no high ground.
The water was falling directly from the sky.
Even as he looked upon it he was sure that some trick was being played on his eyes, that the rising darkness was hiding something from him, but the longer he looked – moving to his left then his right for a better view – the more he became sure there was no trick. The fall of water really was coming from the sky, falling from a point perhaps fifty feet above his head with no obvious source, falling one moment, vanishing the next. He took a deep breath and removed his eye-patch, gasping softly at the golden glow revealed at the water’s source, a liquid disc of light suspended in the darkening sky.
Aldous replaced the eye-patch and took a few steps back. He was not able to fully shake off the strange spell until he was amongst the trees and their welcome shadows. He moved back towards the camp and found Erdik and Demetris sharpening their weapons, the aged monk sat cross-legged by the side of the now-blazing fire, staring into the depths of the flames as though he could read some arcane secrets there. The warriors watched Aldous as he moved down to the boat and grabbed the heavy coil of rope, disappearing back into the trees without so much as a word.
He ran as fast as his legs would carry him to the lagoon, knowing he had to find out the truth of the strange fall before darkness settled. He stopped by the edge of the water, staring again in case he had missed something from before. There was no change, nothing which made any sense, only the impossible irregular fall of the water and the vague hiss of wind. He crept out until the water of the lagoon reached his waist, the dark blue of the sudden depths no more than a few feet in front of him, a vast sinkhole threatening to pull him down. As shoals of fish dance around him he uncoiled the rope and swung it around his head like a lasso, the weight of the rusted metal hook building up the momentum. When he let go his aim was true and the weighted rope flew straight towards the fall of water a few feet below the source, breaking through the stream and continuing through to the empty air behind.
Any thoughts of some strange magic, some bending of light to hide the rock which bore the falling stream, were torn away in that instant. He pulled the rope back in and repeated the action again and again, aiming for different heights and distances each time, each of them with the same result – the weighted rope falling to the lagoon through empty air.
Changing tact, he began to aim for the source. The pain in his side from his cracked ribs flared up again as his attempts wore on and he found himself falling shorter each time, growing weaker with each failure. As his anger was beginning to get the better of him he heard a sharp noise and turned to see Erdik coming through the trees.
“We thought…” Erdik began but stopped as his eyes were drawn to the sky.
Aldous had half-expected the falling water to be nothing but a trick of his own broken mind but it was clear that Erdik could see it too. He offered no time for explanation as he called the warrior to him and passed him the rope, ordering him to aim for the source. He stood back and rested in the shallows whilst Erdik tied one end of the rope around his waist, preparing for another long wait. Erdik let go of the rope and it connected on the first attempt, the hook catching onto the source of the flow with a sound like a blacksmith’s anvil being struck. Aldous jumped up and cheered, rushing to Erdik and throwing his arms around him, the eyes-agog reaction from the warrior he had witnessed so many times before replaced with a soft smile. He stood and stared up the taut length of the fibre. Both of them were speechless as Aldous tested the rope and found that it was stuck fast, caught on some impossible surface.
High above the sky gurgled and the rains began to fall.
Without a word Aldous took the rope from Erdik and swam out to the deeper waters, the narrow fall (colder than the waters in which he swam) splashing over his head as it rained down for a few seconds at a time. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his side, he took the rope in his hands and began to climb, expecting whatever precarious hold the hook had to give way at any moment. He reached the halfway point without any problems and turned to look at Erdik, letting go of the sodden rope with one hand and giving the warrior a thumbs up. He carried on and soon enough he was above the tops of the tallest trees, the source of the water no more than a few feet from his outstretched hands.
As he reached the top and grabbed hold of the rusted hook he felt the wind rush across his wet hands, cold and biting. Though every scrap of sense in his body told him it was impossible, he knew his hands were somewhere else, passing through this gap in the sky to some other place. He took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the invisible rim through which the water poured, pulling himself up until he could see into the space beyond.
Looking back afterwards, he was surprised that he had not let go and fallen to the waters, so unnatural was what he saw. He felt the winds drive across him and closed his eyes to slits as he pushed his head through, salt water from the narrow stream filling his mouth and nose.
What he found there was an ocean, an impossibly large wash of deep blue spread out all around him beneath a sky that was pale and clearer than the one he had left behind, inches away beyond the breach, a bright sun high in the sky. He pulled his head back through and glanced to the dark rain-filled skies as if for confirmation. The trees with their birds were still there, Erdik in the pale waters was still there. The ocean he had sailed sat beyond the narrow archipelago, as real and solid as the impossible sight that lay hidden in the sky to his front, all that power and pressure threatening to burst through at any moment, crush him beneath its phenomenal weight. He shuddered as he imagined what would happen if the thin veil were to give way under his touch, how the tiny islands and the boat and every single one of them would be ground down to nothing with the unimaginable torrent that would burst through and fill this world to the very shoulders of the mountains.
He turned away from the choppy waters of that other world and saw the thin trail of smoke from the dying fire on the other side of the island, and far beyond that the merest suggestion of grey on the northern horizon which may have been Potamia. It was only when he turned to face the south, when the lactic burn in the muscles of his arms was becoming almost too much to bear, that he saw the blot on the horizon, an object thrusting out of the waters, a broad figure like the Moai of Easter Island. It was undoubtedly the vague shape the monk had shown him, the purpose for their foray into the unknown ocean.
He let go and fell to the cold water below, every fibre expectant.
Dylan had slept in a comfortable bed for the first night in a long while. He had seen and heard much to keep his thoughts racing but the tiredness had come upon him swiftly and suddenly when he came to the room and he wondered if perhaps Soren had given him something with his water to dim his senses.
He had dreams of the young boy Soren had shown him, none of them as fantastic as the truth of what had happened. The boy, named Kai, would perhaps have struck fear into most, as he had when Dylan had first seen him, for he was huge in stature, coming from the Giants who had once ruled Potamia. Kai was, as Soren had told him, the last of their kind, left in Soren’s care when his mother and father were taken by the Destroyer. The child had his own scar on the back of his neck, huge and pale and big as a grapefruit.
There had been visions aplenty when Kai laid his hands upon him, clear and lucid as anything Dylan had ever known, the fragments of thoughts and images that had come to him across his life seeming frugal in comparison. He had witnessed much in those few moments that might always have been beyond him, and the power emanating from the young boy had not scared him or hurt him in the same way other sights had, merely left him feeling at peace. He was shown flashes of the captive cities, sweeping vistas from a great height. There were fires burning within the walls, screams and yells rising into the night. Figures moved everywhere, running to and fro, great lines of them spaced evenly apart with the black invaders moving between them. Time and again he flitted to some other place and saw the same atrocities, countless cities and their dawdling populace moved like cattle, but the touch of the boy had made the terrors seem lesser, giving him the strength to believe that they could find a way to make everything better.
A few other memories – memories which he was sure were his own – had rushed to the surface near the end, a blur of images rushing across him like a rain-swollen river. He saw a tall man with kind eyes and a dark beard standing by the wooden bed of a child and knew at once – something in the eyes, in the curve of the jaw – that this blurred stranger was his father, the true father he had perhaps always known but had been unable to recall. Another face had come as he tried to take his father in, a woman, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, lithe and bright-eyed with a cascade of pitch-black hair that hung around her shoulders, full red lips smiling down on him, her forefinger grasped tightly in his tiny hand. He had felt tears race down his cheeks as Soren and the boy watched the memories with him.
This would have been enough for Dylan but there was more to come, other flashes which helped him piece together the fragments of his other life, the final moments before he had been sent away, before Isaac and Cleona had found him. He was strapped to the back of a long-haired man, dressed in glittering whites, and through the gulf of years a name came to him, a name spoken in the stranger’s voice. Chaqui. The man was running from something, a vague suggestion of threat to his rear. He saw a great mountain rise up before him, felt himself carried up a narrow crevice towards the peak as day turned to night, time flickering by at an impossible pace as clouds of smoke raced up the rock wall to their rear. He felt himself turned and saw a young boy to his right, a face that was so startlingly similar to his own, and knew at once that this was his brother. More tears had come to him at this moment but he had been pulled suddenly from the vision as he felt his body turn around to take in a young girl, her skin grubby with smoke, dragged away into the darkness before he could fully look upon her.
Kai had removed his hands from Dylan and begun to cry then, reminding them that he was, after all, no more than a baby. “That’s enough for now,” Soren had said as he led Dylan from the room and the crying boy. “You should rest.”
Dylan did not want to leave. He wanted to know more but had no way to get the words out, overwhelmed as he was by all he had seen.
All that had happened hours ago and still Dylan’s heart raced, eager to learn more. He rose from his bed to explore Chasm Deep, wanting nothing more but to see Kai again and learn of the family and the life he had left behind, to understand why everything had turned out this way. He found a guard stationed outside his door as soon as he exited. The man stood to attention and told Dylan to wait whilst he moved to a doorway across the corridor, knocking softly. A few moments later Soren emerged, leaning on his staff.
“How do you feel, Dylan?” he asked with a smile.
“Better,” Dylan said. “Much better.”
“It is early. The others will be abed for a while. Perhaps you would like to walk with me.”
They walked through the main chamber, past the steaming lake in the centre and the doorway to the now-silent infirmary, the buildings spaced here and there where the citizens of Chasm Deep slept and a hundred others darkened tunnels winding through the bedrock beyond. There was barely a soul to be seen save the few guards on the raised platform by the sealed entrance and a few women washing piles of clothing by the edge of the lake, or picking fruits from the thick vines that grew over every surface. They left the main chamber by an arched doorway on the opposite side of the cavern and descended through a series of stairwells to the lower levels, the narrow corridors they walked – cold and empty, their walls covered in lichen – not benefiting from the heat of the lake. Soon enough Dylan’s breath began to cloud in front of him and Soren pulled him near, tucking Dylan underneath his cloak.
“Do you remember much of last night?”
Dylan smiled as he pictured Kai’s warm eyes. “It was… he is amazing. I saw the captive cities, all the people being taken away. Then I saw myself, my mother and father, my family. People I had totally forgotten.”
“And the girl?”
Dylan recalled her now, the way he had been dragged away from her as Kai begun to cry at the very last, and wondered for the first time why Soren had taken him this way, down the cold corridor with the heavy barred doors. “I saw her for a moment but... but…” Soren nodded. “Who is she?” Dylan continued. “What does she have to do with this?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Soren said in a voice that was almost a whisper as they came around a corner and found a guard stood outside the farthest door, all but hidden in the darkness. “I believe the truth is inside you, somewhere.”
Dylan peered through the narrow bars of the heavy doors as they moved. Each of them was empty, small rooms with the far walls open to the sky, narrow caves looking out across a wash of filthy water. Cells, Dylan realised. Prison cells.
Soren nodded to the guard who stepped aside as they approached.
Suddenly Dylan felt incredibly nervous. He peeked through the bars and saw a small figure leaning against the wall, staring out into the open sky. She was very small, no more than five years old, her blonde hair sitting limp against her skull, her tattered clothes streaked with dirt. The girl turned towards him as he watched, her face turning to a mask of anger as she rushed towards the door, shards of hair pasted across her face. Dylan knew that face as he felt the hatred emanate from her, recognised it now. The girl from the vision and the girl who had trailed him through that other world were one and the same.
He pulled away as she charged into the other side of the door like a raging bull, shrieking and screaming a wordless fury as the door rattled on its hinges.
Dylan looked to Soren, a thousand questions racing through his thoughts. He spoke only one. “Who… who is she?”
“She, my young friend, is your sister.”
Erdik and Aldous returned from the trees and made straight for the boat, the sleeping Demetris waking up and staring at them groggily, the aged monk smiling that toothless smile as though he knew more than the rest of them combined, more than they would ever know.
All thoughts of resting were forgotten as Aldous began to move the boat from the shore, shouting for the others to join him, a wild glint in his eyes with the thought that some great revelation was nearby. Within moments they were drifting from the islands, the pillar of smoke and the glow from the dwindling fire disappearing into the background until that too vanished in the haze. Erdik had been quiet since Aldous’ fall into the lagoon. It seemed he knew exactly what the uncanny fall of water was and wanted nothing more than to be away from it, even if it meant going once again to the open ocean and his thoughts of the Empress.
The blot straddling the horizon was nowhere to be seen through the sheets of rain but Aldous knew he could see no more than a few miles from the prow of the boat, that what he had seen from the top of the rope could very well be forty or fifty miles away. It will come soon enough, he told himself as he turned and gestured for the warriors to row faster, knowing they could never row fast enough to satisfy him.
After a few hours of almost unbearable tension the monk stood up, the first movement he had made since returning to the boat. Within a few seconds the first glimpse of the great shape began to peek over the horizon, vast and rounded like some black moon. Aldous felt butterflies rise in his stomach as the shape was revealed, a great black void against the night. The shape was undoubtedly in the form of a human but worn away by untold years of wind and water, the legs and most of the gargantuan torso hidden beneath the waters, only the head and shoulders breaking free.
Erdik and Demetris began to slow as they neared the hulk of stone, staring up at the wind-worn face as though it might turn towards them, raise a seaweed-clad arm from the waters to swat them like noisome flies. Aldous had no such qualms. He was eager to find a way onto or into the wall of rock, moving his eyes up and down the surface to search for any signs of entrance or exit. Even as the boat drifted near and the shape towered above them, Aldous could see nothing of note, not even a crack or blemish to be used as a foot- or hand-hold. He took control of the oars and began to move the boat slowly around the great bulk, the only sound the hissing of rain on the ocean’s skin and the gentle splashes as he worked. After two full circuits with no clue as to what he was supposed to do he drew the boat to a halt and spoke to Erdik.
“You fared me well back at the lagoon,” he said as he handed the warrior the loop of rope. “Don’t let me down this time.”
It soon became apparent that there was not enough room for Erdik to make a swing aboard the boat, so Aldous wasted no time in getting the monk, Demetris and himself overboard into the cold waters, away from where the heavy hook was likely to fall. Unlike before, Erdik was not so lucky as to catch something in his first swing, nor with his second, nor his third. Soon enough the sweat had soaked through the warrior’s back and his face had flushed a deep red, every throw taking more and more out of him, the hook falling shorter each time.
As the chill of the water was becoming too much for Aldous to bear, Erdik took a deep breath and gave a last effort, hurling the hook with all his might. Aldous closed his eyes and waited for the splash but none came and when he looked to Erdik he saw the warrior pull the rope tight, placing all his weight on it for a second to test its strength.
“I knew you’d do it,” Aldous said as he climbed back into the boat and smiled at the warrior.
He took hold of the rope, staring up its length, wondering what waited at the top. He placed his feet on the smooth stone and let the rope take his weight as he took his first few faltering steps. His side began to ache after a while but he ignored the pain, eager to get to the top without resting, sensing that the crux of everything was hiding just out of sight. From through the sheets of rain came the arch of the Colossus’ shoulder. Aldous made straight for it; the massive jut of the chin would provide too much for him just yet.
He sat on the shoulder like some drab parrot, catching his breath as he looked across the endless waters back towards Potamia and the mountains and the Gateway. The rope beside him began to shake as he looked back on all that had happened and within no more than a few seconds the aged monk came rushing past him, running up the body of the Colossus with the rope in hand like a young man on a flat, smooth road. He disappeared across the jut of the chin with ease and, moments later, the rope stopped shaking.
Aldous stared for a while, laughing in the back of his throat. I should have made him row.
Erdik followed soon after. His ascent was swifter than Aldous’ but by no means as swift as the monk. Demetris grabbed the rope and began to follow but Aldous shouted for him to stay with the boat. To find nothing here would be bad; to find nothing and to lose the boat would be terrible. He had no wish to swim back to the spray of islands, even less to see that ungodly flow of water again, to be trapped there with the thought that it could all come through the sky at any moment.
Aldous gathered himself and took to the rope once the pain in his side had subsided. Erdik pulled from above as Aldous climbed and, sooner than he had imagined, he reached the top.
The three of them were stood on the flat cranium of the Colossus’ head, a broad oval over twenty feet in diameter. Directly in the centre of this stood what looked like a large mill stone perhaps five feet across – a strange hat on this strange head. The others had waited for him to ascend but they all went towards it now. There was a gap in the centre of the stone, a borehole no more than an inch wide. Aldous leaned over the stone and peered inside, blinking as he saw diffuse light rising up from the space below.
He turned to Erdik. “Can you move it?”
Erdik raised his eyebrows. “I can try.”
The warrior spent some time struggling with the stone but it would not budge and it soon became clear that it was constructed like a cork, that there was some part of it going into the surface of the head. The stopper section could be two inches or two feet. Aldous guessed they could not hope to move it without Demetris’ help, but, with the rope that could have tied the boat to the Colossus being their sole means of ascent, he did not want to risk it. Damn it, he told himself as he watched Erdik try again – and fail – to move the stone. If we lose the boat we lose the boat. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
He walked to the edge and shouted for Demetris to come up then looked back towards the north for any sign of the islands, for the uncanny fall of water from the sky, doubting he could really swim that far.
When they were all together, each of them – even the frail monk – took stance at a compass point of the stone and, as one, began to strain and heave. Their muscles corded as the heavy rock crept slowly upwards and came grudgingly free, popping like a plug on the final pull. As though they had flipped a switch the rains stopped. The four of them looked down into the twisting stairwell revealed below, lit by a garish green glow, the walls alive, reminding Aldous at once of the paintings in the Forgotten City. The monk was the first to react and dropped into the tunnel, moving swiftly down the stairs and out of sight, leaving Aldous wondering, not for the first time, how the wizened old man perceived the world about him with such apparent ease.
Aldous followed quickly. Everything glowed as he ascended, following the wet footprints on the dusty rock. The ambient noise in the stairwell reminded him of the sound one hears when placing a conch to their ear – a constant background wash. He thought he heard a soft whimper from somewhere ahead as he crept on – a cry almost like a startled animal, a cry that the monk with his stitched lips could not possibly make.
As he followed the turn of the stairwell, a huge blast came and a flash of blinding light lit up the space to his front. The blast, louder than it had any right to be, ringing in his ears, was a sound he knew well, a sound that had no place in this world. It was a gunshot.
Heart racing he peered around the corner to see the monk fallen on the stairs. The old man was dead, a great wet hole in his chest, paints dripping from his sleeves and mixing with the blood that ran a sickly pus yellow beneath the odd light. Had they set off some kind of primitive trap, started some kind of reaction as they pulled the stopper free above? Aldous heard the footsteps from below, the mutterings of a voice whose echoes skittered around him like insects. There’s someone down here. He did not think of his safety, indeed he did not think of anything. He ran as fast as he could, emerging from the bottom of the stairwell into a wide, dark room somewhere in the Colossus’ torso. His attention was drawn to the object on his right, throwing off its own dark light, so different from the bright greens of the stairwell.
Aldous felt a lump rise in his throat.
It was a Gateway.
His attention turned to the man cowering in the heavy shadows by the far wall, the long barrel of the rifle catching the meagre light.
“Stay back!” the man screamed as his finger hovered over the trigger. “Stay back!”
Aldous raised his hands high above his head. There was an accent in the voice that he recognised but was in no mind to try to place, held as he was by the weapon which had slain his companion moments before and would, in all probability, be the end of him. The man was dressed all in black, what looked like a wet-suit hugging his frame, only the pale oval of the face standing out in the shadows, smeared with blood from a nose that might well have been broken. The gun in his hand – a hand whose knuckles were torn and bloody – was clearly from the world Aldous had left behind, a grade of technology that this world, despite its wonders, could not imagine and might never reach. He chanced a glance to his side and took in the carapace of the shape in the centre of the Gateway, the black plastic of the insides glinting through its tiny window, the tightly-packed bags and holdalls stacked against the wall, and knew at once, with a flash of inspiration, that this man was the Chinese scientist who had disappeared beneath the waters of Titicaca, that the unnatural shape which had excited Wolfgang so much was not a building or a tunnel but a Gateway and, perhaps most importantly, a way home. Is this why the monk brought me here? Have I done what I came here to do by killing Magnir and setting the people free?
The man took a step forward, jabbing the rifle as though it were a spear. “Stay back!”
“Please, don’t shoot,” Aldous begged. “I mean you no harm.”
The man backed off, tiny sobs coming from him as he blended with the darkness.
It had been the best part of a week since Wolfgang had told Aldous about the anomaly on the soundings at Titicaca, perhaps even more. If this man was the one who had failed to return from his dive – and by his clothing and the odds and ends gathered about Aldous could not doubt it – he may well have been trapped down here for seven days and nights at the least, trapped and falling towards madness. Aldous knew he would have to tread carefully.
“I… I didn’t mean to kill him… I…” the figure said as he slumped down against the wall, never lowering the rifle.
“I know,” Aldous said. He knew that he himself might very well have shot the monk as he came running round the corner in the darkness, all fleshy eyes and stitched mouth like something from a nightmare. What do I say? How do I calm him?
Suddenly the man jumped up as he heard footsteps from above. Aldous shouted for Erdik to wait outside, eager to ensure there would be no more bloodshed. “They are friends,” he said as he turned back to the stranger and held his hands out, expecting death to come at any moment. “They are friends. I’m a friend. I’m here to help.”
The man watched Aldous from across the room as the sound of Erdik’s footsteps receded. Once he was sure they were alone he lowered the gun and stepped forward, his eyes bright amongst a face that was sallow and sunken. “You’re here to help me?”
“Yes,” Aldous said, eager to keep the man calm. “Anything you need.”
The man smiled. “I need you to show me where I must go.”
Dylan was sat on the bare rock by the edge of the steaming pool in the middle of the main cavern, hidden by the clouds as he watched tiny fish flit to and fro in the milky water, picking dead skin from between his toes. He had ran from that cold, distant room with the screaming girl who Soren had called his sister, her angry face prominent in his thoughts, harrying him like a phantom. As he ran flashes of it came back, memories from his life before, strapped to the back of the white-cloaked man, the girl running alongside, looking now exactly as she had then, the same face, not a day older. How did I not recognise her before? How could I not see?
It chilled him to think that it was one of his own blood who had been chasing him all these years, his enemy without reason. Yet he had been a child in the older memories Kai had revealed, a toddler. The girl had been older than him then but had somehow remained unchanged in the time between. He realised then that it was all to do with the leech and the Destroyer, that the same process that had allowed him to hear and see things he was not meant to had gone further in the girl, kept her frozen in the same moment, perhaps given her powers greater than Dylan or even Kai had ever possessed. That was something he didn’t want to think about.
Soren came upon him suddenly from out of the billowing clouds as Dylan worked through his thoughts. “There you are, Dylan. Why did you run?”
Dylan shrugged. “I was scared… scared of her.”
“Do not worry. She can’t harm you whilst Kai is near.” A pause. “You remember her then?” It was clear that he knew the answer already.
“I’ve seen her before but I… I didn’t know… I had no idea she was my sister. Is she… is she one of them?”
“Yes,” Soren said plainly. “But I think she can help us.”
“Kai tells me the Destroyer has been expecting her for a long time, since the day she was sent after you. She was sent away for a reason, to kill you and bring back the key, what the Destroyer calls the Secret. I think she can distract the Destroyer whilst we make our move. “
“I can’t help but think… the Destroyer… you said he was a boy, a child. Is he…”
“The Destroyer is a leech, Dylan, a parasite – you must remember that. The body he uses is but a veil, there to weaken us, to make us doubt our purpose.”
“Who is he?” Dylan said, anger creeping into his voice. “Who is the child?”
Soren sighed, his face full of sorrow. “I wish I did not have to tell you but you deserve to know. The boy was your brother, Dylan. His name is… his name was Talon. That is why you are so important. We hope… I hope that a part of him will remember you, that your presence, the presence of your sister, will lower his defences long enough for us to do what must be done.”
Dylan was quiet for the longest time. He was thinking of his name, how Isaac and Cleona had told him it was the first word he had said. He knew then that they had misheard. He had been calling for his brother, his twin – Talon. “So you want to use my sister as bait to give us a chance to kill my brother? You want to sacrifice my family?”
“Sister. Brother. These are merely words, words unrelated to the truth of what faces us. You told me what happened to Atoma when the leech came free. The same thing will happen to the Destroyer, to your sis… to the girl. She has been a pawn of the Destroyer for too long. Nothing we can say or do will ever save her. I’m sure the Destroyer knows she is here. He expects her to come. If she does not, I have no doubt he will send his forces this way. He will give you no quarter, Dylan, of that I am sure.”
The doorway to the cavern groaned open behind them as Dylan tried desperately to correlate what he was hearing. He looked to the platform as a gap appeared in the cloud of steam and saw a few guards leading in the men who had went off to the Wastes in search for Erdik. The tall warrior was not amongst them and by the faces of the men – glum and broken – Dylan could tell their search had been fruitless.
Dylan began to realise that Soren was right. It was the Destroyer who had made this world as it was. It was the Destroyer who had started the Turning, whose destruction of this place had caused Dylan to be sent away from his home. It was the Destroyer who was behind Atoma’s actions, Magnir’s actions, the actions of all those who had ruined this world. It was the Destroyer who had taken his brother and sister, who had caused Aldous’ death, Erdik’s death, the death of countless others whose names he did not even know.
“Time is against us, Dylan,” Soren said after a while.
Dylan was at a total loss. He doubted that, even were he to follow Soren’s wish, he could be of any help. “But… but what can I do? You have the key. You have the cube. You don’t need me. I can’t fight. I can’t hold a sword. I don’t even know this place. You’ll do better with your men – take them, take all of them and fight to bring the children back.”
“My men must stay here where they are needed until we return. The women and children need them. There will only be four of us to make the journey – you, I, Kai… and the girl.”
“Four of us? Against that army and god-knows what else, with a baby and a girl who might well be here to kill us, to kill me! And you think we’ll return from that! I can’t do it, Soren. I just can’t. Even knowing she’s here makes me want to run and never look back.”
“But where would you be running to, Dylan? There is nowhere to run to, nowhere safe. That’s how it will always be until the Destroyer has been defeated, whether in this world or in another.”
“Another world?” Dylan said. “Is he… is the Destroyer trying to get to my world, to the Prophet’s world?”
Soren nodded. “I believe so. That is what he does, finds places and destroys them.”
It was not the thought of the countless millions in the world he knew being taken that turned Dylan’s thoughts; it was only two – Isaac and Cleona, the ones who had kept him safe, given up their lives to make his own better.
“You may not know it, you may not believe it, but this is the reason why you have come back – to see the Destroyer’s end. It is you Dylan, only you.”
“But he is my brother!” Dylan hissed. “I can’t… I just can’t”
“He is not your brother, Dylan, no more than Atoma was the boy you saw. Your brother died a long time ago, as did your father, your mother, your sister. Everyone you ever knew left this world lifetimes ago, Dylan, and all of us will go the same way if we do not make a stand now.”
Chasm Deep was slowly coming to life beyond the cloud of steam as Dylan thought on Soren’s words. He heard Siva’s voice from somewhere across the chamber and remembered why they had come this way in the first place. “You told Tiata last night that we would find a way to rescue the children.” Soren nodded. “How can four of us hope to do that alone? We would need all the men here and more.”
“You may be right, Dylan. But at least we must try. Four of us will stand a chance to reach his domain unnoticed. Even if your presence stalls the Destroyer for a brief moment it may be enough for Kai and I to do what must be done.”
“And what is that?”
Soren smiled. “I will give myself to him, offer him the object he so desires. The key, the Secret. When his defences are lowered I will kill him and the leech will transfer to me.” He removed a small vial from within the folds of his cloak, a tick green liquid within. “This will incapacitate me, make my mind weak. After that, well… Kai knows what must be done.”
Soren stood up as a figure appeared from out of the steam, bowing his head as he approached. The guard came close and handed Soren a package before turning on his heel and heading off towards the infirmary. “It seems we are ready. So, Dylan, what will it be?”
Dylan eyed the package. “What is that?”
Soren unwrapped it, revealing a pointed metal spoke perhaps six inches in length. Dylan recognised the metal of the key, mottled and tarnished from the heat of the forges. Soren balanced the spoke on the tip of his finger, spinning it slowly on its central axis. The spoke vibrated softly before settling in position like the point of a compass and Dylan realised that that was exactly what it was. “This will point us to the place the Destroyer so desires, the spaces that lead from one world to another. Where the space is, that is where we will find the Destroyer. Where the Destroyer is, that is where we will find the children.”
Dylan thought of Aldous then, the warm, smiling eyes he would never see again. All Aldous had ever wanted was to go home and they had held the one thing that could have granted his wish all along. He thought of his mother and father, the siblings that had been taken from him and who were now his enemies, of Isaac and Cleona who had saved him, who were perhaps grieving for him in a world the Destroyer coveted, that he would take as his own if he was given the chance, destroy and subjugate as he had this world. Dylan knew, despite the emotions that raged inside him, that he could not let that be, that he was – as Soren had said – the only one who could stop it.
“I will come with you. I will do whatever it takes.”
“Good,” Soren said as he gave the boy a hug. “Your mother and father would be proud.”
The man in the chamber in the torso of the Colossus was named Kung Le and had been sent to this world to kill someone. Apart from these two titbits, Aldous was unable to glean any coherent information from the man, who was flitting between shaking fits and bouts of sobbing, as though whatever had befallen him since he disappeared below the waters of Titicaca had finally become too much to bear.
After some gentle persuasion Aldous had eventually led Kung up the glowing stairwell to the head of the Colossus, lifting the smaller man when he no longer had the strength to move, carrying him like a child as they passed the body of the sallow monk, Kung’s head buried in his chest as if to deny the truth of what he had done. As they moved past the crumpled body and the seeping patch of crimson Aldous wondered if the monk had known what would happen and had willingly taken the bullet that, had Aldous acted quicker when the stopper had been pulled free, would have found him.
Under the green light Kung had looked close to death, flesh hanging from his bones like sodden paper, eyes wide and bloodshot as he glanced up to the opening. Aldous followed his gaze and saw the two hand grenades stuck to the ceiling either side of the opening, thin strands of wire tied around the pins and disappearing off into the darkness of the stairwell. He was going to blow this place to kingdom come, he realised with a start, the realisation bringing more questions as to what exactly Kung expected in this place. He reached up and pulled the grenades carefully free, tossing them through the opening and into the ocean and Kung looked on helplessly, hopelessly.
The newcomer’s appearance seemed no better once they made it to the open air and, upon seeing Erdik and Demetris, Aldous thought for a moment that Kung was going to jump from his arms and run back to the darkness. But Aldous had gripped Kung tight and sent the others off into the stairwell to retrieve the odds and ends Kung had brought whilst he passed the other man one of the skeins of water and led him to the mill stone. He described the rifle to Erdik and made him promise that, under no circumstances, was he to go near it or anything else he had never seen before. Another death on my conscience is all I need.
Kung eventually ceased his shaking as he walked out to the edge of the head and stared across the waters, dropping to his knees as though he was looking upon the gates of heaven. Aldous was desperate to question the man further but knew that now was not the time and, remembering how he had been when he first came out from the heart of Malikanna, he decided to give Kung a while to take everything in. He could sit here for a year and still he would not be ready.
After convincing himself that Kung would be safe for the moment, Aldous turned and dropped into the mouth of the stairwell, rushing past Erdik and Demetris who were sat by the body of the fallen monk, staring silently, perhaps wondering what could cause such a wound. He went over to the rifle and picked it up whilst Erdik and Demetris came to their senses and moved over to Kung’s supplies, staring at the submersible as though it was some alien creature about to come to life and strike them down.
Guns had once been an interest of Aldous’ and he knew that what he was holding was quite a specimen. It was a Barrett M107 long-range sniper rifle and it was heavy, perhaps as heavy as fifteen kilograms – it was military grade, not the sort of weapon an amateur could get hold of. There was a night-vision scope attached to the rail and a bipod attachment to allow for greater stability. It was almost five feet long from the muzzle to the rear grip and was, all in all, the deadliest object Aldous had ever held. He pulled back the bolt and saw one of the fifty calibre rounds chambered inside. It was as long and thick as his middle finger and would, Aldous knew, punch a grapefruit-sized hole through anything within a mile or more. It was clear that Kung wanted someone dead and he had no wish to get too close.
Erdik was lifting one of the heavy holdalls from the centre of the Gateway. Aldous walked over and peered inside out of interest. The vague scent of bitumen came to him as he pulled the zipper back and saw the small off-white blocks wrapped in plastic, countless dozens of them glinting in the diffuse light. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered as he took the bag from Erdik, hoisted it over his shoulder and made for the stairwell. “Get back upstairs and don’t touch anything else.”
When he came back to the surface he found Kung waiting, staring up to the stars through a gap in the cloud cover, a beatific smile pasted across his face.
“This place is… it is beyond my wildest dreams,” Kung said when he realised Aldous was near. “Absolutely unbelievable. The stars above… they are the same…”
“I know,” Aldous interrupted. Beyond your wildest dreams yet you bring death and destruction with you, he thought, but said instead: “You don’t know the half of it.” He set the gun down on the rock between them, balancing it on the narrow legs, then placed the holdall gently beside it, opening the zipper fully. “Would you like to tell me about this?” he asked.
Kung gave him a strange look, as though it had suddenly dawned on him that Aldous was not the man he thought. “You act like you don’t know. If that is so, why are you here, why have you come for me?”
“If I have learned one thing these past few days it is that there is plenty that I don’t know. I only wish I could keep it that way for it seems that every single time I learn something new it ends only with fresh trouble.”
Kung stared back blankly.
“Perhaps I should explain to you how I have come to be here,” Aldous continued. “I did not know you were here. I did not even know that this place would be my destination when I left. The only reason I came this way is because…” he was about to mention the monk but thought better of it. “Because of a painting, and before that because of a key, because of a boy from my dreams. That is all there is to it. I know nothing about you or why you are here. I know your name and the fact that you work for the CNMA but, apart from that, you are a stranger – a stranger with enough C4 to bring down a skyscraper.”
“I thought you were here to help me,” Kung said as he took a step back, his gaze flitting to the rifle, realising perhaps for the first time that Aldous was from his world. “I thought you would understand.”
“I am here to help you but, like I said, there’s plenty that I don’t understand.” He thought back to the horrible beast he had witnessed from the tower, the Panopticon who had fallen under his gaze, the white leeches that seemed to be behind everything and countless other instances that did nothing but confuse him. He picked up the bag of C4 and walked to the edge of the Colossus’ head, readying to drop it to the waters. “Are you going to tell me what all this is about or am I going to have to…?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Kung interrupted. “I… we are here to kill the boy.”
Aldous gasped. “What boy?”
“The boy with the blue eyes. The boy from my dreams. The boy from your dreams.”
Dylan, Aldous thought with a shudder. Dylan was the enemy all along.
The doorway to Chasm Deep had been left open since the sun rose and the omnipresent mists that had filled the chamber since the Potamians’ arrival had dissipated, revealing the awesome depths of the cavern in all their splendour, the pillars and columns disappearing into the distance farther than their sight could penetrate.
Dylan and Soren had gone to the banquet hall to breakfast with the other Potamians whilst the citizens of Chasm Deep resumed their daily labours. It seemed to Dylan as though all that was happening outside the cavern was perhaps no more than a nightmare, but he only had to recall Aldous falling to the Pit, the invading army leading the children away, the fall of ash from the sky, to remind himself that this world was in dire straits and would be beyond all help if they did not do something soon.
A group of Soren’s men had returned from the north whilst they ate with news that the army which had passed them two days ago on their way to Covenant had made it to the Shadow Pass and would be passing the ruin of the twin cities by nightfall. If Soren’s plan to reach the Destroyer’s domain was to go ahead, Dylan knew they would be leaving soon. There was a sense of unease as the group ate, worried glances cast between the refreshed warriors as they waited for news of what was to come. Barakea and Barak told the men of the Destroyer and the truth behind their world but not a single one of them was able to take in what was being said. They thought only of the children – the enemy was irrelevant.
Once the meal was finished Soren sent the serving maids away and gathered the Potamians close. The warriors did not take kindly to Soren’s plan to send a small party on the enemy’s trail rather than to hit them with all their might, even when he advised them that a great force would be a hindrance, that they would be captured or struck down long before they had the chance to do anything. Voices rose and angry shouts were given when he revealed that the bulk of the warriors would be needed here. Tiata and Chima offered the strongest objections to the plan and at one point Dylan had feared that blood would be spilt, feeling as they did that they were being held to ransom with the lives of their children.
Chima turned his back on Soren and urged the others to join him. His tongue was pointed as he reminded Soren that he was no longer in charge of the Reach and had relinquished his right to give orders when he fled the city and left her people living under an enemy without their knowledge. “You could have done something,” Chima said. “Now it is our turn. We will do whatever must be done, with or without your consent.”
Soren waited for relative calm before giving his response, his voice soft. “Everything you say is true, Chima. There are things I wish I had done differently but they have no bearing on what lies ahead. You are my guest here, not my captive and I have no right to give you orders. If you wish to leave I will not stop you. I will provide you with all the provisions you need – weapons, horses, food, water. I will even show you the way. But know this – without me to guide you and keep the Destroyer at bay, you will most certainly fail. My every wish would be with you but I know, in my heart of hearts, that you will find nothing but your death. If that is your choice, the lives of your children are lost already.”
“But… but to stay here… to do nothing. I cannot entertain that,” Chima said, his bottom jaw shaking. “My son was taken from me, my only son. You cannot know what that means to me. I would give anything… anything to bring him back.”
“I know only too well what it means to lose a son. I left my son willingly for there was no other choice and now, well… now I do not know whether he still lives or has been taken by the Destroyer.” The room fell silent as all present thought of Erdik. “If it is a choice between being taken by the Destroyer or death, I hope my son is dead.” Siva gasped as she heard the words. “As I said, I understand your needs and I will not stop you but I will let you go with a heavy heart.” Soren stepped close and placed a hand on Chima’s shoulder. “You are a good man, Chima. You are all good men. I have no wish to see you cast your lives away in anger. What chance would your child stand were we to follow your wish, to gather our forces and pursue the enemy in lands we do not know? None, that is the answer. The Destroyer’s forces are one thousand times the size of ours, perhaps more, and though they look like us there is nothing human about them. For us to go to him willingly is what he wants, what he expects. If we follow your wish this world will be lost.”
“But we must try,” Tiata said after a while. “We simply must.”
Soren paced back and forth for a moment whilst the warriors waited his response. “I cannot stop you from coming but I have no wish to have your deaths on my conscience. I go to this knowing I may not return. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.”
“I will go,” Elgord said immediately as he looked to the princess.
“And I,” Chima added as he clasped his hands together and bowed. “It is the only way.”
“We are warriors,” Tiata said. “Fighting for our people is all we know.”
“Very well then. I ask only that some of you stay here to hold Chasm Deep should the enemy come.” He turned to his guards stood either side of the doorway. “Call the Drudwyn. We leave within the hour.”
The sound of the submersible’s motor, strapped to the back of the boat with the rope and the grappling hook, seemed out of place to Aldous, a complete anachronism. He only hoped the sound would not bring any undue attention when they eventually reached the strip of grey on the northern horizon. A journey that may have taken them a day or perhaps two with only the oars might be covered in a few hours with the submersible to give them impetus. Even such a short time seemed too long to wait for Aldous, too long to find out the truth of why he was here.
Dylan, the thought came as Kung’s words came. After everything you are here to kill Dylan.
He had tried to question Kung as best he could before the newcomer climbed in the submersible but it seemed that, no matter what he asked, he would never find an answer that sat right. Kung had said that Dylan was the most dangerous person who had ever lived, that – were they not to stop him – he would be the end of this world, the end of Aldous’ and Kung’s world, the end of all the worlds. Not a single word of it made any sense and he could not reconcile the image Kung portrayed with the boy Aldous knew – confused and frightened, as far from dangerous as could be. Even to dwell on what might happen when or if they found Dylan made his head ache and he considered throwing the rifle into the deep waters to be certain he could have no hand in Dylan’s demise. But every time he considered it a part of him cried out that he should listen to Kung, that the newcomer was no more a stranger than Dylan had been a few days ago, that his allegiance to the boy was shaped by nothing but the tragedies they had both lived through. What if Kung’s words were true? After all, Kung had willingly given up his life to come this way. Kung must have passed through the Gateway in the same way that Dylan and Aldous had. He must, Aldous figured, have had reason to do so, something that drove him. Thoughts whirled through his head. Could you really kill an innocent boy like your father did? Could you do it even if you thought you were saving lives by your actions? Aldous hoped he would never get the chance to answer that question. Let Kung make the choice, he told himself.
The journey from the Colossus since Kung’s maddened revelations had passed in relative silence, Aldous staring out across the waters, his thoughts heavy, Erdik and Demetris sat with their backs facing him, staring unashamedly at the vehicle that was unlike anything they had ever seen. The boat felt empty without the silent monk. Aldous had turned round a few times to see Kung watching him through the polished plastic of the submersible’s window. He wondered what exactly was going through the newcomer’s mind. It was clear that Kung was angry with him for throwing the C4 into the water and Aldous hoped that the enforced solitude of the submersible would give Kung a chance to gather his thoughts and come round to Aldous’ way of thinking. There had been enough explosive there to bring down the Reach, to kill everyone and everything he had seen since he had come to this world. All this for one boy, he thought disbelievingly.
He had noticed Kung glancing towards the warriors’ necks as they readied the boat and realised that he somehow knew about the leeches, that he perhaps knew more of what was happening here than Aldous did. How to bring all the pieces together was beyond him but the look in Kung’s eyes when he had spoken of the danger from the boy made him think that he should hedge his bets despite his doubts that Dylan was anything but a little boy lost.
Dawn came pallid and grey as they headed northward. They saw the great pillars of smoke long before they saw the land as the cloak of night pulled back, a vast grotty cloud that filled the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Aldous realised at once that whatever had happened in Potamia had been repeated in every kingdom and every land across this world that he had thought broken and empty, for there were raging conflagrations spread out in a string from east to west as far as the eye could see. Potamia was a prison, he realised as he went back to his thoughts when the great door of the city had closed behind him. A factory for slaves. Whatever lies it was built on were there to keep the populace from learning of the world outside. But why?
He had signalled for Kung to dim the submersible’s engines then used the oars to steer the speeding boat until they were drifting parallel with the jagged headland a few miles out. He was, even with the lethal weapon and their distance from the shore, fearful of coming too close to a single one of the burning cities lest there should be some enemy watching, dark eyes scouring the waters. He took hold of the rifle as Kung cut the engines and the boat pulled to a stop, peering through the scope towards one burning citadel after another, each of them – despite their tall walls and fortified ramparts – broken and ruined. If those black men have done all this we have no hope.
The invaders of Potamia had numbered in their thousands according to those who had witnessed the invasion. Aldous supposed that each of the fallen places they had passed in the past few hours – four already with a fifth burning in the distance – had come under attack by forces as great as or greater than those which had taken Potamia. He supposed there might very well be some army of a hundred thousand or more hiding somewhere out of sight amongst the rolling hills and dark forests, untold more if the slaves taken from each of the places had been turned to the enemy by the sickly leeches. Another Panopticon… But I vanquished them, he told himself as he wondered what the monk would show him if he was still alive.
As the day wore on and they drifted past one ruin after another they grew tired and hungry. The few strips of fish they had shared for breakfast had barely settled their stomachs. Aldous noticed a broad island sitting a few miles to their east, a bare hump of dark rock, its pitted surface no more than a few metres above the water. He told the warriors to head towards it, thinking to question Kung further before they made the trip to the mainland, learn as much as he could.
The sky grew dark as they followed the headland towards the island and the unseen source of the ash. Soon the rains came, a light spatter that turned quickly into a full blown storm, as though some watching deity was toying with them. In no time at all the ocean turned to a raging beast.
The sound of the submersible’s engine was drowned out as the falling sheets hid the strip of land to their side and the dark island to their front, the three of them gathered together in the centre of the boat as it pitched and swayed, Kung peering through the steamed-up windows of the submersible, what might have been a smile pasted across his face. Aldous gripped the rifle tight as the rain and wind battered the tiny vessel, spinning it on a sixpence. He realised even as he screamed that they should do something, that he had lost his sense of direction as the waves rose about them, that the tiny wooden boat might well be hurtling them towards the shore or the narrow island where they would be crushed and pierced by the jagged rocks.
As they reached the crest of a mammoth wave Aldous felt himself become suddenly weightless. One of the oars came free from Erdik’s grip, smashing Aldous hard across the temple, an odd sound that reminded him of a lion’s roar filling everything.
The next moments passed in slow-motion, stars dancing across his vision as his head filled with white noise and the distorted shouts of the others. As he flitted across the line between consciousness and unknowing he chanced to see the rope which held the submersible in place slipping free, unravelling as the tiny bubble was pushed and pulled by the raging waters. Even as he tried to reach out he knew it was pointless.
He saw Demetris torn away by the ocean’s watery fist as the wave collapsed across the boat, saw the submersible break free, pulled back to the crest of the wave which bore them as though it weighed nothing, Kung’s wide-eyed and hopeless face staring through the steamed up window as it grew ever smaller. He heard Erdik crying out for his companion as Demetris was pulled below the angry waters, felt the warrior fall hard against him, scream for him to do something.
As the boat reached the bottom of the trough Aldous saw Erdik’s face drain of colour. He followed the warrior’s gaze and turned towards the sky which had turned pitch black in an instant, as though a great sheet had been draped over the boat. What he saw there he could not understand. The ocean was opening like a throat, something vast and formless pushing through from beneath the wave, a solid mass so much larger than anything he had ever seen.
The island. The island is alive.
Even though he doubted it could be, he knew that what he saw amongst that roiling mass of a black as the submersible disappeared and the boat was cast aside was an eye, a glittering black orb as large as a man fixed upon him. The Empress, he thought with startling clarity as the waters disappeared from beneath him and he felt himself thrust through the empty air as though fired from a cannon, the rifle slipping from his grasp, Erdik’s screams echoing in his head as he fell towards the rocky, unseen earth below.
As Aldous went to the darkness, the Empress roared.
Ballard stood atop the city wall, peering through the clouds of steam which had been all had seen for the past few days, as though the scorched walls of the city were all that was left. The stolen people had been put to work on the steaming river of orange that poured from the peak, endless lines moving back and forth from the Poisoned Sweep, buckets of water or soil in hand in an attempt – a fruitless attempt, he had thought for those first few days – to still the raging fires, to beat a path towards the broken peak where his master’s purpose now lay. But they were many and would not falter, and after a few days he had begun to see the fruits of their labour.
I should never have doubted, he thought as the mists cleared for a moment and he saw the molten river, orange and deadly no more than a few days ago, now growing hard and blackened, hissing its fury as it settled.
He had gone to the Shattered Cities on the previous day, crossing the molten flow on the backs of smouldering bodies who threw themselves beneath his feet, hissing and screaming as the fires took them in their embrace, their solid weight turning to mush beneath his feet as he passed. For a moment he felt like the boy must – a god. His skin was blackened and his hair scorched as he led a hundred slaves across the empty basin of the Poisoned Sweep towards the walls of the Shattered Cities. The sight he found there chilled him, despite all he had seen.
Amongst those fallen pillars and crumbled walls he saw the girl who had taken his master’s seed on that night in the tower. He could not reconcile the image of her face with the bloated monstrosity that filled the clearing before him, her waxen skin thin and translucent, her tiny head fixed upon the sickly body that pulsed and throbbed like some horrible fungus, flickering white movement he knew so well in the spaces beneath. It was her eyes that caused him to make the link, as wide and clear and full of love as they had been on that night in the tower, as though her mind had no idea of the carnage taking place below her swollen neck.
As if on cue her bloated stomach had split from gut to gullet and thousands of his master’s foul children came spilling free as her eyes closed forever, spilling across the scorched earth like floods of virgin snow. The slaves had moved in silently and commenced the filling of the huge sacks, silent as ever as though their eyes did not see the horror before them. Ballard had turned away after a time and vomited, walking slowly back towards his master’s domain moments later, fresh waves of doubt at the course of his actions racing through his mind.
If seeing the bloated girl spill her unholy brood had chilled him, the screams and yells of the frightened children when he had returned with the slaves and their unholy burdens had turned his very fibre to ice. After those few hours of tortured wails, the children trying and failing to find a way out of the hell that awaited, there had been only silence, a silence that was much more terrible than the frightened din of before.
As he looked towards the settling peak the gates opened and the children, moving by some silent cue, began to file out from the city in their ones and twos, disappearing into the clouds of billowing steam. Ballard took a deep breath as he made to move from atop the wall.
This is it then. The time has come.
They had been travelling for a day and a half since they left Chasm Deep without a single moment of rest, running through forest and hill until the world became a grey-brown blur, the blackened sky lording over all. Dylan’s every thought was on what had happened in the moments before they left Chasm Deep, trying to piece it together in his mind.
Soren and his men had gathered every person within the city and sent them to the deeper sections to the rear of the main cavern which Dylan had not yet had the chance to explore. The hubbub had been tremendous as the few thousand men, women and children were led away in lines by the guards and the men of Potamia who had been chosen to stay behind. Soon enough Chasm Deep was still and all-but-silent, nothing but the few dozen guards here and there amongst the steam and shadows, birds and bats flitting about the higher reaches. He had watched from his hiding place behind a pillar as the girl – his sister – walked groggily from the corridor where the cells lay, Kai and Soren a few feet behind her, the young boy dwarfing the old man, his eyes fixed on the girl’s back. She had turned to glance around the cavern briefly, peering through the swirling mists with fog-clouded eyes, before emitting a muted wail and rushing towards the stairwell, the sound of her footfalls on the bare stone disappearing in moments. What exactly the girl had seen as she fled the city Dylan could not say but there had been a look in her eyes of utter terror, as though whatever images Kai had placed there would ensure she would never entertain coming back.
He knew what he had seen though, nestling in the palm of her hand. It was the key in its new form. He had come all this way with it and now it was gone. Soren had lied to him.
He said nothing.
Dylan, Soren and their band of a eight men – seven Potamians who had lost kin in the sacking of their city and, Connitt, Soren’s most trusted guard – followed on her trail soon after, Soren and Kai at the head of the line, the Drudwyn running at such a pace that Dylan feared they would collapse and die when Soren eventually called for them to stop. All the while Dylan watched the old man’s back, anger bubbling.
They had left the great glowing forest to the east of Chasm Deep behind a few hours previously and were now moving around a broad lake with waters the colour of blood, every eye fixed on the thousands of footprints that covered the muddy shore, most of them small and bare. He felt a lump rise in his throat as he saw the padded animal prints of the beast that had led the girl, deep indentations almost ten feet apart.
He glanced across the broad lake as they ran on, his gaze drawn to the odd shapes that jutted from the swirling mists – broad white pillars stark of aspect, hundreds of them stretching into the sky like grasping fingers. For a brief second he fancied he saw something spindly moving across the tops of the pillars but when he looked again there was nothing. He did not know why but something about those scarce glimpses of that somehow alien place made his stomach curdle so he turned his head away, focussing on the land to his front, doing his best to keep his mind clear, to think of nothing. Nothing but the key and the cube, both of them gone.
Every so often they would come across another body, floating in the crimson waters, lying face down in the mud, but there was no time to stop, no time to grieve.
As the day wore on, the speed of the Drudwyn never failing, Soren raised a hand and pointed to the eastern horizon, to the black speck moving through a row of stunted hills, the sky dark and filled with swirling chaos beyond. Dylan thought he heard tinkling laughter drifting on the choked winds, the crystal sound of innocence – his sister, his enemy, the bearer of the key.
They ran on.
Aldous awoke in a pool of water amongst blackened timbers and clinging strands of seaweed, an ache in his head worse than any hangover he had ever known. He sat up a little too quickly and felt a lance of pain in his side, a sheen of red moving across his eye as he gazed blankly towards the trees to his front. He moved a hand up and felt a trickle of blood from a fresh wound on his scalp as the copper tang met his lips.
Wiping the blood away he glanced over his shoulder towards the choppy waters that had unleashed their anger on the tiny boat, white-capped waves tumbling across the barren shore. Of the boat there was no sign, nor could he see any of his companions as he moved his gaze up and down the shore. The island, too, was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t really see what I thought I saw, did I? he asked himself as he gazed out across the ocean and remembered the huge dark shape that had burst free from the waters, the eye that had seemed to stare straight through him. He had been so sure when he had told Erdik that the Empress was nothing but a myth to keep the people in line but he had been wrong. She was real, of that there could be no doubt.
He suppressed a sob as he collapsed back to the salt-soaked shingle and lay still, the blood on his forehead and face growing dark and hard. For a time the poisoned sky drifted by in muted snapshots, images rising in his thoughts to break up the blackness, some he had lived, others imaginary, fears of what was to come. Never before had he felt so completely and utterly alone, so without hope.
The waters crept closer to his back as he wallowed in his misery, hissing on the stones behind his head as each wave retreated. After a time he willed himself to move and lifted his head, peering up and down the ash-clogged shoreline, glancing to the dark woods beyond, to the great pillar of smoke in the north blotting from sight the mountain which the sallow monk had shown him. My destination, he remembered as he pulled himself groggily to his feet. The reason I’m here.
He turned back towards the shore and dropped to his haunches as an arrow of pain lanced through his skull and a fresh trickle of blood dripped across the bridge of his nose from the gash on his hairline, spattering on the rocks beneath him.
He came to realise that he must have been out cold for some time. The sky was calmer, the waves smaller, the heavy rains all but gone.
As he stumbled along the rocky shoreline he came across the rifle and dropped to his knees to retrieve it, holding it in his arms as though it were a loved one. The box magazine was gone, torn free when the weapon had fallen from his grip. He pulled the bolt back and inspected the chamber. There was one round inside – one lonely round. One lonely round which he was growing ever more certain was meant for Dylan.
He collapsed to the earth then and began to weep, overwhelmed, tears spilling down his cheeks as washing the blood away, everything that had happened since he had met the boy rushing through his thoughts in a giddy tide. I could end this now, he thought as he looked to the weapon. I could make everything better in a moment and this nightmare would be over.
As he studied the rifle, seriously contemplating these darkest of thoughts, a sound from behind drew his attention, a soft click-clacking on the pebbles of the beach.
He spun round and lifted the rifle to his shoulder in one fluid movement. Embarr stared back at him, her wide eyes full of questions, tiny puffs of steam spurting from her flared nostrils. Aldous lowered the weapon and smiled as the horse pawed the rocks, waving her mane out behind her as she shook her head from side to side. The smile turned to laughter, the laughter to happy tears, displacing the dark thoughts of before.
“Hello beautiful,” Aldous said as he stepped towards her, rubbing her flanks, feeling her warmth. “I never been so glad to see anyone.”
As he wrapped his arms around the horse’s neck and listened for the comforting beat of her heart, feeling the need to be close, he heard a groan from farther along the shoreline and was amazed to look up and see the seaweed-clad head of Erdik peeping up from the shallow rock pool where he had come to rest.
Aldous dropped the rifle to the rocks and ran towards him, calling out the warrior’s name, any fear that he was alerting some watcher or other to his presence forgotten. Erdik’s right arm was skewed at a horrible angle and Aldous could see that the shallow waters about him were tinted pink with blood. A sharp shard of bone poked through the sleeves of his tunic, stark against the black material.
“Demetris,” Erdik winced as Aldous crouched beside him, his face pale as moonlight, eyes clouded. “Is…is he…”
Aldous glanced up and down the shore once again, seeing not a sign of life, then turned back to the warrior. “I think he’s gone, Erdik. I’m sorry.”
Erdik, despite his pain, gave a small smile. “At least we are still together. “
Aldous placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yes, my friend. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
The warrior’s eyes moved to the choppy waters as he sat up, flitting back and forth across the grey horizon. “Did you see?” he said after a long silence.
Aldous nodded. “Best not to think about it.” He pointed to the angry wound on the warrior’s arm which Erdik seemed barely to have noticed. “Right now we need to get that arm of yours cleaned up or you’ll be of no use to anyone.”
Erdik showed no surprise to see that Embarr had joined them on the rocky shore. All Aldous could figure was that the creature had heard their call when he and Erdik had moved towards the great ship which the Potamians had overthrown – a day ago, two? – and had been waiting for them to make land.
“You are linked. She is yours,” the warrior said as if reading Aldous’ thoughts.
Aldous took another look at Erdik’s injury, not liking what he saw. “I’m going to have to reset this bone of yours. I won’t lie to you, Erdik. It will hurt and it will more than likely hurt a lot.”
Erdik turned away and gritted his teeth as Aldous struggled to straighten the warrior’s arm out and pop the sharp shard of bone back into place, his fingers fumbling all the while. To his credit Erdik made only the barest whimper as Aldous popped the bone back into the angry wound before tearing some strips from his salt-soaked robe and wrapping them tightly about the warrior’s arm, moving fast so as to limit the amount of pain the warrior would feel.
“It’s not much but it’ll have to do,” Aldous said once he was finished, turning to wash his hands in the shallow pool. “At least until we can get someone to have a proper look at it.” He was no medical expert but figured there was a good chance that the warrior might end up losing his arm if infection set in.
Erdik made to stand but found that he did not have the strength in his legs. “I am useless and broken,” he said with a glum face. “I can no longer protect you.”
Aldous placed a hand on his shoulder. “Erdik, you’ve saved my life every single day since I met you. You are, without doubt, the best man for the job.”
Erdik found the will to smile.
“You should rest now. It’s my turn to take care of you for a while.”
As if to remind him of what lay ahead he heard a great rumble issue into the sky from behind the tightly packed trees, its source no more, he guessed, than a few dozen miles away, the dark volcano the monk had shown him. Embarr moved into place beside him, nuzzling against his shoulder, her eyes wide and fearless.
Aldous looked back into those knowing eyes for a long moment then turned to Erdik, ideas forming. “Can you stand?”
The warrior nodded, fighting against the pain as he made it to his feet.
“She must be here for a reason,” Aldous said as he patted the horse’s flanks. “Let’s do our best to get you on her back then we’ll get out of here. I don’t think I can stand waiting for a moment longer, even if – as I suspect – I’m going towards something that may be the end of me.”
Erdik winced as he stood erect. “I am sure that wherever we are going, you will prevail.”
“I hope so, Erdik. I really do. I seem to do just fine when you’re around.”
Aldous helped the pallid warrior onto the horse, falling in beside her as she moved from the barren shore, all his pains and worries muted with the thought of what waited on the path ahead.
Just when it seemed the riders had reached the ends of the earth, the lands they had travelled growing more dark and terrible with each mile, the crumbling peak of Ashfael was revealed before them, unveiled as though some vast cloak in the heavens had been brushed aside, some invisible barrier breached.
A great riverbed cut across the land to their front, filled with water until very recently, now empty and clogged with thick black mud and broken bodies, hundreds of bodies piled everywhere they looked, carrion birds swirling and swooping from the filthy sky above, enjoying a feast the likes of which they had never known.
A feast, Dylan thought. This whole world is nothing but one great feast for the birds.
The shattered volcano dominated their view in the land beyond the river, a whole mountain collapsed upon itself, vast orange heart throwing out vivid colours into the dark sky, clouds of steam and smoke rising from the earth to be carried away by the whipping winds. One by one the men got down from their horses and one by one the horses turned on their tails and disappeared into the gloom from where they had come. They would be of little use to them now, not here.
On the plain below the largest gathering of people each of them had ever seen was spread out to every compass point in the miles-wide space of ruined earth beyond the empty river. The crowd could have filled Potamia three times over and more. Every face – silent and deathly still – was turned towards the glowing mountain, to a narrow rampart of rock in the shadow of the base across which a lone figure walked, the merest speck from this distance. It was, they all knew, the one behind this – the Destroyer.
The crowd to the east of the peak began to part as the figure moved slowly up the spit of rock and Dylan noticed for the first time the walls of a city in the volcano’s shadow, a wide smudge surrounded by a moat of blackening magma. He took out the binoculars and glanced towards the figure on the spit of rock, a shapeless blot which, though he could make out no detail, made him pull his gaze away for fear that the figure might turn towards him, stare across all that space right into the depths of his soul. My brother. He looked across towards the umber walls of the city and saw the great door begin to move slowly open, saw the line of figures walking from the space behind the doorway onto the narrow clearing, as small as ants.
He pulled away and looked towards Soren, all thoughts that the old man had lied to him relegated to a back seat. “Children,” he whispered so the men could not overhear. “The city is filled with children.”
The men did not need to overhear to know what they were looking at. None could find words as they looked out across the mass of humanity between them and their goal, people who had once been just like them, friends and relatives perhaps, but were now no more than vessels for the Destroyer, standing like an impenetrable wall between them and the children who had been taken from them. The outskirts of the crowd, sat no more than a few hundred yards away across the riverbed, began to creep backwards up the hill towards them, the effect of all the many thousands to their front moving to clear passage for the children. Still not a single one of the figures turned to look where they were slowly being pushed, merely stared with that iron gaze towards the figure on the mountain, as though they could rebuild the peak with the force of their collective gaze.
As the line drew close Dylan began to make out the leeches sat limp on the backs of their necks, standing out like beacons in the darkness. Closer still and he could make out the colour of hair, particular marks on clothing, the stench of blood and sweat and smoke. He only moved the binoculars from his eyes when the first of them fell from sight into the clotted riverbed. The group watched in stunned silence, hidden behind shrubs and boulders or lay flat in the dirt, as body after body fell silently to the riverbed. The first few dozen simply vanished, swallowed instantly by the glutinous mud. As the dozens turned to hundreds, the hundreds to thousands, Dylan turned away and caught a glimpse of something moving fast beyond the edge of the crowd, rushing from the forest of stunted trees past the bend in the empty riverbed far to their left.
It was the girl, his sister, moving on foot. Dylan glanced around, suddenly wary that the foul beast she commanded would be nearby, searching for him.
When he turned back towards the girl he could not find her. One moment she was there, the next she was gone, vanished into the crowd.
Dylan knew exactly where she was going.
And he had seen something else as he glanced round to search for the creature, the outline of an object in the old man’s pocket, the shape calling out to him. Whilst Soren and the others stared blankly at the sight on the plan below, Dylan reached deftly into Soren’s pocket, felt the weight of the cube warm in his hand, and turned to run down the hill towards the outskirts of the crowd, jumping into the riverbed and disappearing from sight.
Both Aldous and Erdik sat astride Embarr as she led them on a narrow trail through mossy woods carpeted with jagged rocks, her broad back barely seeming to strain under the weight, her footing strong and sure. Aldous had thought to get down and walk for a time, slow the horse to a trot give Erdik space to rest and himself time to think, but knew that his body, throbbing with a dozen different aches and pains, was not fit for running at such speeds as the horse so clearly wished to keep, as though it knew the importance of what they were heading towards.
Branches reached out to touch Aldous and leaves raced past his face as the horse led them through paths between the trees that he could not even see, up and over rocky rises, through sodden gullies, following a path only the Drudwyn knew. Every once in a while as the horse slowed to turn he fancied he could hear voices carried on the wind, shouts and screams filtering through the trees, seeming to come from all around them, but he had neither the heart nor strength to investigate and kept his focus on what lay ahead.
The trees thinned out and fell away after a time as the land rose up, there one moment as he pressed his face tight to Erdik’s back to keep his eyes from the ash-clogged winds, vanished the next, the choked and poisoned sky beyond the dark hills to his front opening up, a reminder of all that waited. A few miles, he told himself as the took in the hills with the broad pillar of grey stretching into the night before them, the wide plain to the east of the forest dotted with groups of figures running across it, fleeing from the destruction of all they knew. A few miles and no more.
He glanced to his back as they climbed the hills and saw the city hidden amongst the trees below, the place from where he had heard the screams, from where the people had been running. Plumes of smoke funnelled through the holes in its broken walls to fill the ashen sky. Fires raged in dozens of buildings glimpsed through the wide-open gates. Even from here, he could feel the emptiness of the place, a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he imagined the death and suffering that waited inside. He looked to his front again, to the soot-black sky, the glow of fire from the burning mountain a suggestion on the horizon, masked by ash and smoke, hearing and feeling the great rumbles that told him something was awakening in the deep of the earth.
As the city and the screams and the running figures dwindled to their rear and fell away from his thoughts, Aldous began to wonder – and not for the first time - what he was doing in this place, what he could do in the face of whatever force had caused all this. Everywhere he had seen since he had come to this world had been destroyed. The vast majority of the people he had met where most likely dead. Aldous knew that he was nothing but lucky to be alive. To give up on that life, to rush to its end at the hands of some terror that he had been pointed towards, was proving a very hard thought to entertain.
He felt the weight of the rifle in his hands, the barrel slick with sweat. He thought of Kung, of the monk, of Tai-lin and Cromos and Demetris and the other warriors whose names he did not even know. He thought of Dylan. Whether the boy was the evil Kung claimed him to be or not, Aldous could not help but miss his presence. The boy was his friend; he had helped him. He had also lied, hidden things from Aldous. But does that make him evil? Does that make him capable of or complicit in all this? Aldous was torn between doubt and belief.
As Embarr came atop the blackened hill Aldous saw the playing field of his destiny spread out in front of them, the squat volcano with its collapsed southern wall lighting up the sky. The crowd began a few miles away, past the walls of some broken and ruined city that spread across the plain towards a deep riverbed. The gathering was huge even from this distance, countless thousands of them, every face pointed towards the mountain.
He felt again the weight of the rifle in his hands, glanced from it to the crowd and back again. There were two conflicting thoughts in his mind. Either Dylan was a friend, dead in the streets of Potamia or waiting for him somewhere within the Reach, or he was an enemy who had led him to this world to meet his death. Despite how he had grown to trust the boy in their time together, the greater part of him now believed that Dylan was down there somewhere, pulling the strings on all this. Kung had told him so; the monk had told him so, hadn’t he?
He pictured Dylan’s face, smiling. The smile of a friend or the smile of an enemy?
He would decide what to do at the very last.
Embarr reared up on her hind legs then began to descend the hill, more eager to reach what lay ahead than Aldous was.
The boy stood upon the jagged rampart, the heat of the broken peak scorching the skin of his back, the call of the Weakness pulling him, begging him, to come forward and plunge into its heart. He looked towards the children as they walked from the gateway of the city below, a long line of them snaking their way through the widening gap in the crowd of his servants. They were upon him in what seemed like moments. All he had waited for was so close.
The smile left his face.
The girl had not come; the Secret had not come. His armies were out there, searching for her, but she was far removed from his touch and knew now that he could wait no longer. He had no choice but to leave everything he had worked for here behind, to go to this next world and begin anew. The creature the people of this world called the Empress, who had once been his own flesh and blood, had failed to kill the one who sought to end him, the one they called the Prophet. He knew the grey-haired man was coming this way, hidden by the night, so very near yet beyond his grasp. Still the boy felt no fear at what was to come.
Once the children were by his side he would be ready.
He took a deep breath and glanced again towards the crowds, barely a movement to be seen. They were pointless now with the children – his new servants – so close; every one of them a part of him yet apart from him. They had served him well but would have no purpose in the place beyond the breach, the place which had been his aim for so long. All it took was a thought and they began to fall like dominoes, the sound like the very earth folding up and collapsing in upon itself, like the exhalation of some unholy beast drumming thorough the soles of his feet.
Within seconds the earth was covered with the still and lifeless bodies for as far as he could see, a beautiful carpet stretching out into the distance beyond the line of children.
The wastage meant nothing to him.
He turned and walked the few steps towards the pulling call of the Weakness as the children began to move in single file up the jagged rampart behind him. It glittered like quicksilver, throbbed as he moved his hand towards it, pulsed as he moved the tips of his fingers into and through the breach. It was cold one moment, warm the next, begging the rest of him to come. He peeled its edges back like folds of virgin skin, felt the rush of cold air thrust against him from the other side as the breach was completed, another world mere feet away across the white light that marked the spaces between. He saw spindly, leafless trees trailing icicles and peppered with snow, a starry and all-but-cloudless sky with another world spread out below beyond the frozen hills, a blanket of white. He could smell it; taste it. He wanted it more than anything.
As he pulled his hand back a scream came from behind him, a lone, angry word. “You!”
He turned and saw the girl who he had sent away all those years ago, pushing her way from the fallen bodies of the crowd through the lines of children, not a single one of which even glanced her way or seemed to notice her at all, but kept shuffling slowly towards the mountain.
The boy saw her but was dragged towards something else at once. She registered for no-more than a moment, the anger in her face and fire in her voice going unnoticed. His every nerve was focussed on the object grasped in her hand, crying out to him. Though its shape was different he could feel its power. It was the Secret. It had found its way to him as he always knew it would.
He felt his bottom jaw drop as he glanced across the lines of children below and saw the boy pushing his way through them, rushing towards the narrow rampart in the wake of the girl. It was all so perfect. The three of them had been drawn together again after all this time – his brother and sister, the brother and sister of the boy he possessed, would see his final passing, the victory he had striven towards for longer than their species had lived.
The girl looked him in the eye as he urged the line of children to move towards the breach, smiled, and reached out her hand, the Secret tempting him with its proximity, begging him to come closer.
Aldous jumped down from the back of Embarr and fell to his knees as a dozen different pains flared. He crept towards the top of the small rise on hand and foot, his heart thudding like a freight train behind his rib cage. A strange sound washed across him as he moved forward, a great crescendo like the pitter-patter of a million tiny feet. When he reached the top of the rise and looked out across the plain towards the volcano on the other side he saw the thousands of bodies falling to the earth, a sight that took him back to his destruction of the Panopticon. When the last of the bodies had fallen and the broad sweep to his front was all but still, the realisation struck him that he had failed. He could do nothing now to save these people. They were gone.
Through the tears that spilled from the corner of his eyes he noticed the children, a long line of them stretching out from the walls of the city all but hidden in the gloom to his left, beyond the spread of bodies that covered the land like a bruise.
He felt a sigh escape him. There was still hope; he could still do something.
He heard Erdik stumble towards him and fall to the ground with a sharp cry of pain. The warrior said nothing as he lay beside Aldous and looked out upon the epic wastage before him. There were no words to do the sight any justice.
The front of the line of children had made it from the city to the foot of the burning mountain. Aldous set the rifle down on the ground, balancing it on its narrow legs. He moved his eye to the scope and swivelled towards the front of the line of children. He saw a jagged shelf of stone jutting from the earth, saw the few tiny figures spread across it. He moved his gaze from one to the other. The girl from his father’s funeral was there. Dylan was there. Another child he had not seen before was there.
As Aldous watched, the three of them came together, meeting in a tangle of limbs, rolling end over end down the bare pitted rock. Children playing, he thought, but knew that it was something more, something much more. He saw the hole in the sky against the orange glow of the mountain, saw the pale light seeping through from the other side, and knew that what he was seeing was his world, the world he had left behind, the world that Kung had warned him would fall should he fail to kill the child.
But which child? he asked himself. Which child?
He tried to gauge the distance to the fighting figures of the children who had come to rest now at the bottom of the jut of rock. A mile, perhaps more. Even if he was lucky; even if he could compensate for the coriolis effect and the distance between himself and his target; even if he could gauge the strength of the wind; even if he could take the kick of the rifle without screaming aloud – even with all these things and more, he was still unsure if he could bring himself to do what must be done, if he could bring himself to choose. Bring himself to kill a child. I’ll miss, he told himself. I’ll miss, even as he knew that to miss on purpose would make of all of the live lost worth nothing.
Dylan pulled himself away from the other two, holding his hand aloft, eyes flaring white. Aldous saw the key in his palm, saw Dylan turn and run for the gap in the sky with the two others chasing after him, the only thought in his mind leaving this world behind, leaving Aldous behind.
Suddenly, Aldous had never felt more alert, more vital, never before felt that his actions were so important. The boy and the girl had reached Dylan and were diving through the air as he reached out for the breach in the sky.
This is it, Aldous told himself. Now or never.
Even as he squeezed the trigger, as the rifle lurched in his grip and kicked hard against him, Aldous wondered if he had made the right choice.
It was a few hours later, hours filled with tears and regrets, filled with aches and pains as he and Erdik made their way from the narrow hillock through the devastation to their front.
Aldous and Erdik had made it to the jut of rock at the base of the burning mountain. All around them lay a carpet of bodies as far as the eye could see, countless thousands dead or dying, survivors of a terror that Aldous hoped they would not remember.
Erdik moved to the children, those who had been lucky enough to be left behind when the gap in the sky had closed. He looked to their necks but saw only clotted wounds, small round holes where the parasites had once been. Every one of them looked sick. He doubted that they would last much longer without someone to help them.
Erdik began to cry as he slid down to the ground, the wound in his arm throbbing as if to remind him that he would succumb to it if he did not get help soon. His own wounds did not worry him; he thought only of the children, of Aldous.
If only my father was here. He would know what to do.
The sky above was clearing now, the bright pinpricks of stars beginning to peek through. Tiredness began to overwhelm him as he gazed towards the stars, a soul-sapping fatigue greater than anything he had ever known. He knew that if he were to close his eyes they might never open again and he fought against the urge to welcome the blackness.
Thoughts spiralling, Erdik thought he heard a voice calling his name, a voice he recognised, a voice that was not Aldous’.
Erdik lifted himself up from the ground and gazed towards the carpet of bodies on the plain below. From down there amongst the gloom he saw movement, figures moving towards him, calling out his name. He squinted against the night, barely believing the voice he was hearing, the familiar face assuming greater solidity the nearer it came.
No, he told himself. No.
Then, a whisper: “Father.”
A scream: “Father!”
Aldous heard voices from below but paid them no heed. His focus was on the blood-spattered ground at his feet, dark clots turning black. The bullet had met its mark, had found someone, but there was no body anywhere to be seen, no sign of any of the three children, just the clotted smear on the rock.
To his front there came the barest twinkle, a glittering speck as the hole in the sky pulled its edges together, closing with an audible pop.
Aldous looked to the ground, felt his gaze drawn towards a tiny object discarded amongst the blood. Leaning on the rifle like a walking stick he moved towards it, his face a mask of confusion. He recognised the object. It was the burgundy cube he had pulled from the stele at the bottom of Malikanna. He bent down to pick it up and the top fell off.
Aldous peered inside. The cube was empty.
Feeling more confused than ever, Aldous turned away and walked slowly down the jut of rock to the figures below, to the unknown men gathered around Erdik, to the filthy children, all of them looking towards him, eyes hopeful.