Cold grey light filtered in through the open trap door when David awoke the next morning. Sarah lay sleeping next to him, curled up under the blankets.
Fulgar stood in the doorway of his bedroom burning the stubble off his chin with a candle.
‘Good morning, good morning,’ he said cheerfully when he noticed David looking at him. ‘Sleep well, lad?’
‘Yes, fine, I think.’ It was always difficult to know anything for sure when he first woke up, but this morning everything seemed even more hazy than normal. He recognised the room, and knew Fulgar all right, but memories of much more than that were dull and difficult to grasp. Like a dream fading in the morning light, the events of the previous day were indistinct and grey. Anything further back than yesterday was lost altogether. The harder he tried to place himself in some kind of meaningful context, the further that meaning receded.
‘And now we are three,’ Fulgar said. His remaining blue eye was bright even in the gloom of that underground room, his half-grin broad and animated.
Sarah looked at him, then at David, with a bemused expression. It was the look of the player in a shell game when she realises the street hustler has tricked her out of more than loose change.
‘What a night,’ Sarah said wearily. ‘I feel like I’ve been hit on the head.’
‘You’ll be fine once we get moving. Come on, up you get, plenty to do today.’
‘Where are we going?’ David asked, stretching his aching muscles. The night had been warm and safe, but his bed had hardly been comfortable.
‘A walk in the fresh mountain air. I’m taking you up to visit an old acquaintance today.’ He grinned and disappeared into the gloom of his bedroom.
‘I feel really strange,’ Sarah whispered. ‘Do you remember how we got here?’
‘No. I have no idea.’
Sarah stood up and brushed the dust from her jeans. As she shook out her blankets, David noticed a cluster of impressions in the dirt at her feet: patterns, like paw prints. There was no other indication that there was a dog in these dingy rooms, and something in that swirl of fog in his brain tried to attach some deeper significance to these marks. He was about to mention them when Fulgar strode out of his room.
‘Bring a blanket each. It’s cold up in the mountains.’ He was wearing a huge set of animal skins himself, and now looked more like a bear than a human being.
Without further explanation, Fulgar led them back through the wrecked building above and into the morning light.
The sky hung heavy and menacing just as it had the day before, but still no rain had fallen.
The old woman was no longer sitting on the step rocking mournfully back and forth. In the recess behind where she had been there was a fresh red circle on the wall. She had been nailed there, as was the custom in Orbis, but the body had been taken away before the new day broke.
‘There was someone here,’ David said uncertainly. ‘Last night…’
‘There was,’ Fulgar said.
‘That mark on the wall… is she dead?’
‘That’s why she was here.’
‘She came to be killed?’
‘She came because she knew the Cerberites would be efficient. There are many worse ways to die when you’re ready to go.’
They walked through the square past the fountains and on towards the far edge of town. David could see the towering mountains in the distance, jagged white peaks reaching up to the clouds.
‘Aren’t you worried about the Cerberites?’ Sarah asked.
‘Of course not,’ Fulgar said. ‘Nor should you be. As long as you’re with me, those drones won’t harm you. Alone, they’d rip you to pieces, but you’re quite safe with me.’
‘Was it a Cerberite that did that to your face?’ Sarah said.
‘Why would you think that?’
‘I don’t know. Just making conversation.’
‘You’re a lot more feisty than I… would have imagined you’d be. It’s a good sign.’ Fulgar scratched the dented and torn side of his face. ‘No, this wasn’t the Cerberites. One of their hounds did this to me. But it regretted it.’
‘So how come you’re not afraid of them?’ Sarah continued. By now they were on a road where the buildings had thinned out to just a few tattered walls and the odd scattering of rubble. They were slowly beginning to enter the foothills of the mountains. ‘Or are you? Was it just good luck that you got away last time?’
‘I don’t believe in luck.’
‘What then? Hard work? Or are you just talented?’
Fulgar sighed. ‘Feisty’s good; lippy could get you killed. If you promise to shut up, do you want to know the story?’
‘I’d rather know where we’re going,’ Sarah said.
‘I told you. We’re going to meet an old acquaintance. Now, are you walking or talking?’
‘I’m bored,’ Sarah said.
‘Fine. Listen up, and listen good, you might learn something.’
It took nearly an hour for Fulgar to tell his story, starting with the burial of his family and ending with his escape from the Isle of Fortunates. He did not elaborate on why his family had died and he was deliberately vague about any kind of timescale. He knew his charges were not exactly in their right minds now, but he also knew that David at least was not stupid. He could do without inviting any awkward questions right now. He had a job to do and being selective with the truth was all part of making it as easy to do as possible.
‘But why did they just let you go? If you were sentenced to death, why didn’t they just kill you when they found you on the island?’ Sarah asked.
‘They hated me for beating them in their favourite sport, but they have their orders, and one of them is that no one gets taken to the island twice. Which means no one gets hunted twice, so technically there wasn’t much they could do. I guess they didn’t think it would ever arise when they agreed to it!’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Sarah said. ‘You know something, don’t you? About how the Cerberites work? We wouldn’t be walking through here now if you didn’t.’
‘Enough talking,’ he said, ‘let’s get up this mountain.’
By now the path was little more than a narrow track, weaving between boulders and over drifts of scree washed down by the annual snowmelt. The baked dusty earth of the foothills had gradually given way to softer and softer mud. The snow was thawing above them, trickling slowly down to the parched town below.
The three walked on, single file, for another half hour or so. The air was becoming thinner and the temperature was dropping by the minute. Periodically, Sarah would question Fulgar, always digging at him, trying to rile him. David did not speak; he just watched. So did Fulgar, and he was beginning to like what he saw more and more.
On the edge of a wide glacial bowl, Fulgar brought them to a stop. Here on the lip of this natural amphitheatre he could safely rest his captives. If they chose to run (which he seriously doubted, given their present mental states), there was only the path they had come in by, and the path they would go out by. Neither was well suited to a quick escape.
‘We’ll rest for a while. You must be getting hungry by now.’ He produced a handful of cold cooked potatoes from his pocket and offered them to his two charges. Each took a couple, and having picked as much of the fluff and dust off them as they could, ate gratefully. David pulled the blanket up over his head to form a hood against the cold wind flowing off the snowfields above them. As he ate, he looked down on Orbis far below.
A single column of smoke rose from the centre of the town. From this height, it was impossible to make out individual buildings, or to see just how desolate and wrecked the town was. It just looked like a sleepy market town on a Sunday afternoon. Beyond, the Mormo plain extended for miles in all directions. Where the plain met the far horizon, he could just make out the dark ragged silhouette of a vast forest.
The forest. David struggled to place that memory. Had he been in that dark place? A smoky image tried to push through, to become focussed and meaningful. He could recall trees, of running away from something, something that had followed them… or had they really been following it? He tried to push beyond that memory to anything that had happened before, but his mind was just a blank wall.
‘Do you know what that forest is?’ he asked Sarah as she ate her lunch. She looked at him quizzically.
‘No.’ She squinted hard at the flat outline of trees on the horizon. ‘No idea.’
Out of the corner of his eye, David caught Fulgar watching them. A curious sensation crept up his spine. He had no idea where they were going, and no memory of where they had come from. It was an isolating sensation. Everything was grey and vague, like the first few minutes after he had woken from the general anaesthetic the doctors had administered when his appendix had been removed, though of course the specifics of that memory were lost to him now. He had seen Mum’s face swimming out of the fog, but for a frightening few seconds he had not been able to place her in the world he was seeing around her face. He heard her words; he had dropped into the middle of a conversation, the subject of which was now lost and he could find no mental foot-hold to claw his way into it. It was a feeling that had been etched deeply into his mind, and he felt its echo again now.
That had been just a few seconds of disorientation; this was not. This had been going on for hours. He could function, but he could not think. There were memories there, just beyond reach. They were trying to warn him of something.
Sarah seemed OK. At least, she seemed to trust their mountain guide, and she was sensible. Wasn’t she?
He stole a sideways glance at her. Munching on a boiled potato as if nothing was wrong. Who exactly was she?
She’s healthy, that’s for sure. A lot healthier than I feel right now.
She had been with him for as long as he could remember (which, unfortunately, was not very long). She had woken a little after him. Almost beside him. He could recall holding her hand in the darkness, but when she had got up to leave this morning, there had been paw prints between them. The unmistakable prints of a dog (wolf) where no dog seemed to exist.
A flight of butterflies took off in the pit of his stomach. His arms tingled and his mouth felt dry. With nowhere to put this sensation, no hook to hang its strange occurrence on, he had no idea what it meant. Was it the excitement of his four-year-old self on Christmas morning, or the terror of him at eight as the doctors had administered the pre-med anaesthetic as he lay waiting for his gut to be cut open? Good or bad? Life or death?
Sarah went on nibbling bits of grey potato.
And now she’s here, chatting with this battle-scarred hulk like they’re old friends. She’s a little pale maybe, but fit, well-fed. Not like… The old woman. Down in the town, the old woman with blind, empty eyes? She’d stopped us, asked us for help, but Sarah had pulled me away. Pulled me after Fulgar, made sure we all stayed together. Why would she do that?
Her jaw worked on the potato and she stared out towards the forest.
She knows what that is. She knows.…
He caught a fleeting glimpse of a memory. Something to do with Sarah, something bad. She had embarrassed him, hurt him, done something, he couldn’t remember what.
And now she’s just sitting there, eating, like nothing’s wrong. But something is wrong.
She turned, aware that David was staring at her. She smiled a quizzical, elusive smile and went back to watching the curl of smoke rise and die in the town below them.
I’ll have to watch her, she’s treacherous, but God, she’s beautiful.
I’ll kill her. Then Fulgar. They’re together. They’ve taken my memory. That’s all it is.
He picked a piece of fluff from his potato and put it to his lips.
Poisoned me. They poisoned me. Together. Sarah took her food first. She knew which were the good ones. Left me the poisoned ones. They started last night (we ate these foul grey potatoes then, too), and now they’re making sure.
David flung the remains of his potato into the empty air and watched as it tumbled and smashed on the wet rocks below.
‘Finished your lunch then,’ Fulgar said. ‘Well, let’s get moving.’
Fulgar went first, then Sarah, then David behind, where he could see her. Where he could watch her every move, and strike first if he needed to.
The ground became softer underfoot and the walking slower. It was also getting really cold now, the featureless grey of the rocks softening under patches of pure white snow.
‘About another half-hour, and you’ll see all this effort was worth it,’ Fulgar said as they struggled to keep up with him on the slippery path.
It was well past noon as they came within sight of the summit. Fulgar pressed on confidently along a path now buried in snow. There was nothing in the featureless white landscape to indicate where they were going. On both sides the craggy mountains stretched from horizon to horizon. David pulled his blanket tighter around him until only his eyes peeped out from the worn and dirty fabric.
Suddenly they crested a low saddle between two sharp peaks and they could see to a more distant horizon for the first time in many hours. Fulgar stopped to let the full effect sink in to his two companions.
‘Behold, the city of Dis,’ he announced.
Far below them was a broad flat plain, dotted with dozens of villages, some so close together they merged into little towns. Columns of smoke rose lazily into the dull sky, and here and there twinkling orange lights could be seen. Far in the distance, the sun glinted off water: a huge lake maybe, or the sea. Cloud swirled over the land, but out at sea the sky was a clear, pale blue.
Between the plain villages and the coast stood a brooding black city, completely enclosed by high walls. The city was entirely dark: no smoke, no lights, not even the reflection of the sun off the buildings. Yet Dis had energy. It seemed to throb silently in the stillness, like some vast machine. Despite the deathly silence around them, there was no peace. That fortress city radiated violence from every shadowy corner.
It was like looking into the gates of Hell.