Firestorm: Descent

Chapter 1

“Through me you go into a city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people.”

Dante Alighieri, The Inferno


Chapter One: The Traveller

The Traveller landed heavily, almost dropping the priceless book. He had a momentary sensation of weightless free-fall, of the ground not being quite where he expected it to be; a step in the darkness where no step exists. He cushioned the fall by bending his knees and catching himself with his right hand sprawled in the putrid earth. He shook the mud from his hand and crouched, surveying what little he could see of his surroundings.

He had an immediate and almost shocking sense of how cold it was: the cold sting of the night air; the cold prickle of the stiff grass; the near-frozen mud. The mud was the worst. He had not expected to be in a marsh.

He gathered the book to his chest and crept forward a little onto a relatively dry mound of grass.

Instinctively he held his breath, listening, scanning the dark horizon. He knew there was nothing here, but something primordial, something so deeply a part of him that he was powerless to quell its whispering voice, told him to beware. There were things in the night, out there on the plains, hidden in the marshes. Things no one expected, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. He was exhausted, he was alone, he was on the most important mission of his life, and he was a very, very long way from any kind of rescue.

How far? The Traveller allowed himself an ironic smile. Make that about six hundred and fifty years.

His head felt dull and thick, his movements clumsy and uncoordinated. Ideally, he would have been able to leave a little breathing space between one mission and the next, but that was a luxury he could not have afforded. Back where he had come from he had just caused a whole lot of trouble. He had done the first of two long-planned and highly illegal freelance jobs, one that would leave its mark on his target for the rest of his natural (if agonised and pathetic) life. The police, his bosses and probably half the government would be looking for him. He’d had only one chance to get out, and he’d taken it… right into this, the second of his off-the-grid projects.

A new life; the old one was gone now, dead. The life he had led for forty years lay somewhere up there, way over time’s grinding horizon. He could never go home, and not just because of what he had done. The machine that had brought him to this new world was only built for a one-way trip.

He shook his head and slapped himself hard across the face. He needed sleep, but he needed to know where exactly he was first.

The pale glow of fires he could see on the valley floor in the distance was the camp. He fumbled in his webbing for the monocular and without taking his gaze off the distant glow, guided it to his eye.

The camp was small and arranged in a tight circle – a dozen tents, two guards standing with their backs to him, a fire with a spit above it and some kind of cage in the shadows behind the largest tent. The cage might mean there were prisoners, which might mean this was an outpost of a combat force. He had hoped that at this time, in this location, the General might be garrisoned in relative peace well away from the upcoming battle. But the General would not be leading from the front like this; he had apparently sent some kind of raiding party out ahead of him.

So, change of plan. He was used to that. His time in the Congo, in Iran, in South Africa, had seen many plans change in the face of new evidence. He always worked alone, and he could adapt.

He slipped the monocular back into his webbing. He would move a little closer tonight, but not enter the camp until daylight, show he was no threat. He could then recruit one of the more able soldiers to take him to the General.

The Traveller set off across the marsh for dry ground, moving stealthily from hummock of grass to stone to rotted-out tree stump, keeping low so his silhouette would not be spotted on the skyline. The last thing he wanted now was for a couple of half-witted guards, most likely just a couple of kids already jumping at their own shadows, to come charging out of the night at him with daggers drawn. He had sacrificed a lot to be here, and he was not going to have a couple of conscripted grunts wreck it before it had even begun.

By touch and instinct he found a suitable spot to lie low until first light. From his position just below the crest of a rise at the edge of the marsh, he had a clear view of the sleeping camp, but could not be seen.

It was September 1395. The General was due to make his move on the capital in four weeks. History recorded that this warrior leader was, by the standards of his day, most unusual. He fought wars only of necessity, always preferring to unite factions rather than create more. This was why the Traveller had chosen him. This man would see that the power of what he, the Traveller, had to offer lay not in its ability to create elites, but in its potential to raise all mankind to a new level.

The upcoming battle for the capital was merely a local turf-war, a precursor for something much bigger. Plans were being drawn up for a major invasion by land and sea from the west. It was destined to fail anyway, but with a year’s notice the whole sorry debacle could be avoided altogether. Rather than war, this invasion could become the foundation for a lasting peace. An invasion that was not really an invasion at all, but a coming together of disparate cultures at the world’s crossroads. And it was here – at this point both in time and space – that the Traveller had selected for his gesture. He would point the way down history’s highway. A new world would grow – brighter, faster and more perfect than the one he had left.

Tucking the heavy book into his coat, the Traveller wriggled down into the grass. The plain was silent in a way that nowhere in his own world ever was. The stars rolled by above him. The moon, as yet untouched by human feet, was just beginning to dip behind the forest in the east. Sleep crept over him, and he welcomed its balm, satisfied that the first part of his mission had passed with nothing worse than wet boots and that weird sensation of free-fall.

The soft smell of wood smoke drifted in the cold night air.

* * *

The grey light of dawn was just creeping over the valley when the butt of a long carved stick was thrust into the Traveller’s gut.

‘Get up!’ a rough voice shouted. Sitting up, he saw two soldiers, dressed in heavy one-piece robes and carrying long knives. The stick jabbed at him again.

‘Get up! You come, now!’

His bones were stiff from lying on the damp ground, and the soldiers marched him with some haste across the open ground to the sprawling huddle of tents to the west. He turned to look back at his lay-up point and saw to his horror and embarrassment that he had made a serious error in his choice. As he had moved through the marsh he had created a trail, a virtual arrow that pointed directly to where he had slept. That was the reason he never did back-to-back missions: when the first one was a perfect success, one was liable to get blasé about the second.

He stumbled in the mud several times, each time his carelessness being rewarded by jabs with the stick and the flash of polished blades.

The going became easier as they moved onto firmer ground beyond the marsh. Cold silvery rays of light illuminated the mountains in the distance, but the camp still lay in deep shadow.

The soldiers ushered him past the fire and into a large tent. They adopted guard positions on either side of the entrance. The tent was dimly lit and sparse. A table stood in near the back, with three low stools scattered around the earth floor. A stocky man sat in the gloomiest corner of the tent, behind the table.

‘Why are you watching our camp, my friend?’ No introduction, just a blunt question. Again, to the Traveller’s surprise, he was addressed in English. The guards probably knew only enough parroted words to get him to move, but this man was educated. The army were clearly more prepared for the following year’s invasion than he had thought.

‘I need to talk to the General. I have something that will be of great interest to him.’

‘Show me. Then I decide if you can see General.’ The Inquisitor did not move, his face still hidden in the gloom.

‘What I have to say is for the General’s ears only.’

A bright flash of polished steel glinted in the gloom.

‘You talk to me. Show me what you have in your coat. Slowly.’

He understood. For now, he had little choice but to reveal the book. The Traveller stepped forward and placed it on the table just out of reach of his inquisitor.

The man placed his long curved knife on the table and leaned forward. He looked up at the Traveller, then to the guards.

‘Search him,’ he said.

The two guards tore the Traveller’s coat from his back, then tried to do the same with the webbing. It would not move, so one of them drew his knife and began to slash at the tough straps. He caught the Traveller’s shoulder with the blade, which sliced easily through his t-shirt and into the soft flesh beneath.

‘Hey, careful!’ the Traveller said.

The guard sneered at him and placed the tip of the blade against his neck. The Traveller could see in the dark, soulless eyes of this youngster no understanding, no compassion, nothing, just the eternal struggle between being the lowest of the lowly foot-soldiers and his passionate desire to prove himself a man. He had not answered any of their questions yet, but he doubted that would stop the boy from slitting his throat where he stood if the mood took him.

‘OK, I’m taking it off,’ the Traveller said. ‘Just back off.’

He motioned the guards away, then slowly removed the webbing. He lifted his t-shirt to show he had nothing beneath it but a tattoo – a mermaid breaking the surface of a sea laced with chains – etched across his sternum. He turned the already empty pockets of his trousers inside out.

The guard turned the coat pockets inside out too, but found only a photograph. He placed it on the table and began to examine the monocular with rapt fascination.

The Inquisitor picked up the photograph and looked at it in the thin light.

‘Your daughter?’

The Traveller just looked him in the eyes and made no reply. The man turned the picture over and over in his hands, considering whether this was worth pursuing as leverage. He decided it was not, though it was impossible that he could know just how little advantage could be gained by pressing his visitor on the subject. The girl in the picture was far beyond the grasp of this man – or any other – now.

He tossed the photograph across the table and turned his attention back to the book. He drew it towards him and flicked idly through the pages. His filthy fingers paused here and there, stroking the thin paper.

‘What is this?’

‘I will explain everything to the General. You can see I am unarmed.’

‘Why are you here?’ The Inquisitor said, then answered his own question before the Traveller had time to draw breath. ‘You are spy, my friend.’

‘No. I come only to help you.’

‘Help? Then why are you watching the camp? You could have come to us last night. We know you have been watching us since midnight. For what? To go off into the dawn to report back to your people? Well? What have you to say?’

‘Only what I have already said.’

‘Very well. Tell me, my friend, what do you know of our camp?’

‘Only that you have plans to invade the capital in another month, and that the General is somewhere close by.’

‘So you are spy. And this book… you write what you see in here, yes?’

‘No. I am not a spy. The book was written a long time ago, and if I can just meet the General, you will see that it could be of very great use to your campaign.’

‘So you say, but you have still not told me what it is! Explain it to me.’

‘I can only deal directly with the General. That is my only stipulation.’

‘Stipulation?’ The Inquisitor stood so quickly his stool skittered backwards across the earth floor and billowed the tent’s flimsy walls. ‘You think you are in position to make demands?’

‘Please, everything will become clear, but only he will fully understand the importance of what is in those pages.’

The Inquisitor marched towards the Traveller, stopping when their faces were barely an inch apart.

‘You think I am too stupid for your book? Yes?’ A sharp, hard slap knocked the Traveller sideways. ‘We know you are spy. This story of yours is lies, so now you will tell us better one.’ He clicked his fingers and the two soldiers rushed the Traveller from behind.

A stinking hood was placed over the his head. A vicious kick to the back of his knees made his legs crumple beneath him. That momentary weightlessness again, that lurch in the pit of his stomach and again he hit the floor, hard. The guards hauled him to the table where they flipped him onto his back and began to lash ropes around his legs and chest.

For a moment there was silence. He could see in his mind’s eye the Inquisitor giving gestured instructions to his men. He tensed, expecting a jab to the ribs, a punch in the face, something, anything but this silence.

The jab never came. Instead, they removed his shoes with almost comic gentleness.

‘Why are you here?’ whispered the Inquisitor from barely an inch away from his ear. He could smell the man’s breath even through the hood. He thought he could smell fear too.

‘The book. I am here to help you.’

‘Do it.’

The lash of the bamboo stick across the soles of his bare feet was infinitely worse than anything he has been braced for. The pain of just this first blow was incredible, ricocheting up through every bone in his body. Instinctively he tried to draw his legs up, but the ropes cut into his shins.

The Inquisitor repeated the question. Without waiting for an answer the guard dealt another lash to his feet. Another blow struck him across the soft flesh of his belly almost hard enough to burst his liver. He tensed, winded, and struggled against the binding rope around his chest. He could not move, and he could not see. All he knew was that the pain was out there, swarming around him like silent wasps. Where it would strike next was impossible to know.

The Inquisitor grabbed his hair through the hood and screamed his question into the Traveller’s face. He had abandoned English, and spat and taunted in his own language, not caring whether his prisoner understood or not. He no longer really wanted an answer. For now he was happy just to play.

Between each round of questions, blows shot out of the dark to land in unexpected places on his body – a frenzied, insane thrashing he was powerless to resist. He tried to tell them repeatedly that he came only to help their cause but these men were too stupid, or too high on their own violence, to listen.

He felt the Inquisitor step away from him. Something was dragged across the table. There was a dull rattling and the sound of water sloshing into a beaker. The Traveller drew a deep breath, expecting the water to be poured into his face, but instead he heard his captor slurp and swallow the water in greedy gulps. After a moment’s pause further lashes cut into the soles of his already lacerated feet.

The Traveller had been taught to withstand torture, but  no one ever really knows what it is like until they are caught in its white-hot tempest. The searing pain in his feet caused him to bite so hard in resistance that he felt a tooth crack. His tongue went to the new pain in his mouth to work the fragment away before he could choke on it. He spat it into the hood and felt the warm coppery taste of blood fill his mouth.

The Inquisitor ripped off the hood. He leaned in close.

‘Who are you?’ he asked in English. ‘Why do you come here?’

The Traveller remained silent. Any answer he gave would merely enrage his tormentors, give them further reason to beat him. And anyway, no answers would make any sense: these people simply did not have the same view of the world as he had.

‘You have no answer? Good. We are going somewhere, I think. You have rest now.’

The world went dark again. The Inquisitor clicked his fingers and the Traveller was untied and hauled to his feet. Unable to stand on his torn and swollen feet, he allowed himself to be dragged out of the tent. He could see only the ground beneath him but was not surprised when he heard the chain on the door of the cage being released.

He was thrown to the ground and the door was closed and chained behind him. He waited for a moment, sure that the guards were waiting too; waiting for him to make the wrong move so that they could charge in and beat him again without the Inquisitor there to moderate their games.

Nothing happened, so he removed the hood. His guards were nowhere to be seen.

The sun was still barely above the horizon, but already the day was heating up. Sitting there in the dust he considered his options. The book was in the tent, and without it, his entire purpose in life had gone. Live or die, it made no difference. He needed to win the confidence of these men – or at least the one who seemed to hold the power over him right now. He needed to survive long enough to get to the General.

The irony of his situation was not lost on him. Had he really been a captured spy (and in his former life, he had once come mighty close to just such a situation), he would have been plotting his escape right now. He would probably have succeeded. Problem was, escape was the last thing he wanted. His situation was not ideal, but he was in the only place he wanted to be. Nowhere else on earth was any use to him at all.

Almost an hour later, the Inquisitor stepped out of the tent with a small box in his hands. He approached the cage, stopped and smiled.

‘Are you hungry, my friend?’

The Traveller nodded. He could not eat, but any sign of compliance now might begin to chip away at his captor’s distrust and hostility.

‘We can offer not much, but you are welcome.’

He slipped the box through the bars of the cage and bowed his head slightly. He retreated to the tent and once more the Traveller was alone.

He doubted that whatever food he had been given would be fit to eat, but he must be seen to be complying. The box was covered in some kind of thin parchment which had been stuck along the rim to create an airtight seal. He guessed that the contents would probably be dates or dried meat, something that the insects would demolish given half a chance.

He tore the parchment off.

He had underestimated his captor’s ingenuity. The instant the cover was removed thousands of tiny red ants began to swarm over the edge of the box and onto the Traveller’s hands. He flung the box away and frantically began to brush the ants off, but not quickly enough. These fire ants were annoyed and hungry and they wasted no time in attacking their tormentor. Tiny pin-pricks of agony exploded over his hands and began to spread up his arms. More rushed him from where the box had landed. He leapt around the cage swatting at them, the mangled state of his feet momentarily forgotten.

Over to his left he heard laughter.

After five minutes of this comic dance he collapsed, exhausted, by the door of the cage. He had killed many of the ants, but not nearly enough. He could stand on his broken feet no longer and however many of the tiny creatures he killed, more were there to join the battle. His entire body was covered with thousands of tiny, exquisitely painful bites, and still they tormented him. Bite added to bite, multiplied, then overwhelmed him in exponential agony.

He passed out and for an hour the pain was gone.

He was dimly aware of his guards opening the cage door. Before he could look up a jug of stagnant water was thrown in his face. He sat up, spluttering the foul mess from his nose and mouth, shaking it away as it ran into his eyes. Without a word they hooded him and hauled him back into the tent. Once more they bound him to the table.

‘Enjoy your meal?’ the Inquisitor said.

‘Very much,’ he replied. The fire of the ant bites had diminished now, leaving him feeling as if he had been rolled in stinging nettles – unpleasant, but tolerable.

One of the guards hauled himself up onto the table and knelt on the Traveller’s chest. He shifted his weight this way and that until he was comfortable.

The Traveller struggled to hold onto the air in his lungs, knowing if he let it go, catching another one would be impossible under this dead weight. Heavy footsteps scuffed the earth floor. There was a swish of cane through the air and once more a crack as the impact struck the soles of his bare feet. This time he heard, or felt, a small bone break. His eyes screwed up, the air rushed from his lungs and the darkness flooded his mind as he tumbled back down the red-black tunnel into unconsciousness.

Hard slaps around his face brought him round again some minutes later. He was sitting. His chest felt tight. Although the pain had not yet had time to blossom, he was sure they had broken at least one of his ribs, probably more.

‘Let us continue,’ the Inquisitor said. ‘Tell me why you are here.’

‘I have told you. I have come to… meet the General.’

‘From where?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Because you are spy!’

‘Because nothing in your world would make it possible for you to believe me. You must understand that I mean… it is very important… that I speak directly to him.’

‘Tell us why, and we will let you see him.’ The voice was now calm, defying the Traveller to trust him.

‘I have a message. The book contains secrets. Good secrets.’

‘It contains lies about our camp.’

‘No. Look at it. Choose a page, I will tell you about it.’

‘You will tell us more lies.’

‘I will tell you the truth!’

‘No. Your truth is hard to get at. It is time we tried something to loosen it. You can not be reasoned with.’

A coarse rope was wrapped around his head just above his eyes. A stick was placed in the loop of rope behind him and he felt the Inquisitor begin to turn it. As he wound the tourniquet tight he spoke calmly.

‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Who sent you.’

‘No one sent me! I came alone!’

The tourniquet was now digging into his flesh, the compression making his eyes bulge and his ears ring. Any second the bones of his skull would cave under the pressure and he would bleed out, his brain reduced to oozing mush as he gasped his last breaths here in this stinking tent in the middle of nowhere. This was definitely not part of the plan, but he could still do what he had come to do – or something close enough that it might not matter.

‘Then tell me only where you come from; prove you are not spy.’

The Traveller was nearly beaten. He only had the truth left.

‘I come from your future,’ he screamed. The twisting of the rope stopped. ‘Your far-distant future, after a time when the world is at war, when mankind is in its darkest hour.’

‘So what has this to do with us?’ For the first time, the Inquisitor sounded genuinely interested.

‘With this book you can build a better future. You can avoid the war.’

‘Avoid war?’

‘Yes. There would be no factions, no battle of ideology. Only peace.’

‘You lie! You are making fools of us!’ A fist contacted his cheek, dislodging the remaining part of his cracked tooth and making the Traveller’s world swirl once more. The rope was torn from his head, taking the hood and a good portion of the back of his scalp with it.

‘You will die here. It makes no difference to us. We have the book, and we can find its secrets. You think we are stupid, but you are stupid.’

‘Please, just take it to the General.’

‘Take him outside!’ The Inquisitor shouted. The guards dragged him to his feet. He managed to stumble backwards into the table and grab the photograph from where the Inquisitor had tossed it.

Outside, further blows forced him into a kneeling position. There in the dust of this foreign, far-away world, he hoped he had done enough. He prayed that the information he had come so far to deliver would now find its way into the right hands.

The Traveller breathed the fresh air deeply despite the tightness in his chest. He heard the Inquisitor emerge from the tent and the metallic swish of a sword being drawn from its scabbard.

‘Wait,’ he said.

‘It is too late for prayers,’ the Inquisitor said.

‘I don’t pray,’ the Traveller replied. ‘I know you mean to kill me, and that’s fine. I’ve done what I came to do. But you too must do one thing.’ He coughed hard, and spat a perfect red globe of blood into the dust. ‘Keep the book exactly as it is. If you do not take it to the General, you must share it freely, share it all. Your life depends on it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just what I say. The book is not about personal glory.’

The Traveller thought for just a moment that he had got through, that he had intrigued the Inquisitor enough to buy him a little more time. Time maybe to wrest back control of the book and get it to somewhere where its true meaning would be appreciated. Where its power would be safe.

He felt the cold blade on the back of his neck, being lined up for the fatal blow. He had that free-falling feeling again, but this time he knew why. He had not been frightened of anything for a very long time, but he felt fear now. That watery, loose feeling, the cogs of his mind just spinning, spinning as he stared into the abyss.

Death came suddenly. There was no tunnel of light, no angelic chorus lifting him free of his earthly pain. One minute he was looking at the dusty patch of blood in front of him, the next there was nothing.

His head wavered indecisively for a moment on his neck then slowly, slowly, fell forward. It rolled over once in the dust and came to rest. His dead hand relaxed and the photograph spilled out into the dust. It turned lazily over in the breeze.

The Traveller’s glassy, wet eyes looked up at the sun as it set on a world born again.

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