Firestorm: Descent

Chapter Fourteen: The Bottomless Pit

‘It’s time,’ Abaddon told them. He led them from the waiting room and back to the court. The jury stood silently behind their benches. Minos entered and stood on the black rock as Sarah and David looked up at him from the floor. Fulgar lurked in the shadows behind them, his anger so powerful they could feel it breaking over them in waves.

‘Jury, have you reached your verdict?’ Minos spoke softly. David glanced up and could see that this time, perched on the Judge’s head was a simple gold crown. He looked and sounded every bit a king, but of what? This, they had been told, was only a staging post on the way to the city. This was a court which ruled only over the mountains. If it took such a regal man to guard the outermost entrance to Dis, how much more imposing was the true ruler of this strange land? David hoped he would never have to find out.

A woman from the jury stepped forward.

‘In the name of Minos, the Fair Judge, the Royal Protector of Dis, we have reached our verdict. In the case of the woman, we find that she is of the Outlander Group. In the case of the man, we find that he is of the Outlander Group. That is our verdict.’

‘Very well. As I had thought. It is my duty to now pass sentence. In both cases, that sentence must be the same. You will be taken from this court to the walls of Dis. There you will await deportation to the Isle of Fortunates, where you will be in the hands of the Cerberites, as is our way. I must warn you against appealing this sentence by attempting to escape. No one may pass back through the mountains without permission, and in the case of condemned prisoners, that permission is granted only very rarely. In your case it would not be.

‘Which brings me to Fulgar. I have already passed judgement on you once, many years ago. You escaped from the island, and as is custom, you can not be sentenced to return. However, I do not wish to see you before my court again. Your last task will be to deliver these two to Dis. You may reside there if you wish or return to the Isle of Fortunates. But I hereby revoke your rights to pass back through the mountains to the Outlands.

‘That is my wish. Jury, please remain here to await preparation for sacrifice. Your deliberations have been balanced and honest, and I thank you for your year spent in the service of my court. You will die nobly. Abaddon, please escort the prisoners to the Labyrinth for expulsion.’

Minos turned slowly and walked back through the curtains behind the black rock.

Abaddon approached, but Fulgar got to them first.

‘You see what you’ve done?’ he shouted. ‘Do you know what’s going to happen to you now?’

‘Yes,’ replied Sarah coolly. ‘You tricked us, and now you are going to get what you deserve!’

Before Fulgar could reply, Abaddon handed him a set of chains and manacles, along with his protective fur overcoat. Sarah and David were handed their ragged blankets.

‘This way please,’ Abaddon said. A doorway to the right of the black rock led to a small square room. In the middle of the floor was the top of a spiral staircase. David peered over the edge as the door closed behind them, but he could not see where the stairs led: they just descended out of view into an inky abyss below.

‘Follow these steps to the bottom. In the chamber below, take the door marked ‘515’. This will take you into Exdis. Do not attempt to take any other route.’

‘Or I suppose we’ll be eaten by the Minotaur?’ Sarah said sarcastically.

‘Minotaur?’ Abaddon looked curious. ‘I know nothing about that. The Labyrinth is just a vast maze carved out in the Old Days. It contains seven thousand rooms, each approached by seven corridors. Take one step the wrong way and you’ll be lost. Minotaur indeed! You Outlanders have some strange ideas.’

Fulgar swung the chains over his shoulder, obviously not concerned that his prisoners would attempt an escape yet. He scowled at Sarah and set off down the spiral stairs. For him this was not the first time he had made this journey, and he was quite sure it would not be the last, whatever Minos said.

‘Good luck,’ Abaddon whispered as Fulgar disappeared into the gloom. ‘Remember, stay together. No one should die alone.’

David and Sarah began their descent without a word. There was no light in the stairwell, and soon they were swallowed up by the thickening darkness.

‘Keep in step. And keep your mouths shut,’ was all Fulgar said.

David kept his mind focussed, quelling the panic he felt just below the surface by trying to count the steps. Every now and then there was a shallower step amongst the uniform stone treads. At first they were quite frequent; later there were more ordinary steps between each of these shallower ones.

He counted from one such irregular step. Thirteen ordinary ones, then a shallow one. Then twenty one, followed by one of the marker steps. He counted thirty-four, then fifty-five. In the rhythmic silence of their descent, he kept counting. Eighty-nine, one hundred and forty four. He looked back up to where they had entered. The dim light of the room above was now just a vague circle, high above them. Still they kept in step, one foot then another, down, down, down. David had lost count now.

It was impossible to tell how long they were in that black shaft. The dizzying effect of the spiral staircase combined with David’s fragile grip on his sanity to make his head swim, creating an effect of gradually falling, swirling downwards into an eternal night. The Coriolis effect again. Even his companions on this nightmare trek were just sounds in the darkness. He could neither see them nor relate to them in any human way.

Eventually, legs aching, David noticed a pool of light way below them. This soft yellowy disk gradually grew larger and brighter as they approached the bottom of the stone steps. He wished he had managed to keep count of how far apart the shallow steps were: by now it felt like there must have been nearly a thousand since his descent had been interrupted with one of these odd lurching steps.

Being several paces in front of them, Fulgar was already in the small circular room when David and Sarah finally reached flat ground. He glowered at them. David avoided his glare, but Sarah met it head on.

‘Don’t blame us for this,’ she said. ‘You tricked us, but you won’t do it again. We’re going to find Toby, even without your help.’

Fulgar raised his hand as if to strike her.

‘No!’ David shouted, grabbing Fulgar’s arm. ‘Minos told you to take us to Dis. Let’s just get this over with.’

Fulgar lowered his arm.

‘You’re right. You’re both worth more alive than dead. Much more.’

With a swift movement he caught David’s right hand and snapped a manacle around his wrist. Sarah was quickly manacled too, the two of them now shackled to Fulgar’s leather belt by long heavy chains.

The room in which they stood contained seven doors; six of polished wood and one of iron. All were blank and handle-less except for one of the wooden ones. This door bore the inscription ‘515’, and it was through this one that David and Sarah were led, as Abaddon had instructed.

With a sneering backward glance from Fulgar, they set off along a straight stone tunnel towards a tiny pin-prick of light in the distance.

‘So you got your memories back, did you?’ he said.

‘Of course,’ Sarah said. ‘I suspected you from the beginning, so I kept some of the nuts from the other side of the fountain. They worked. Oh, and we sabotaged the water bottle so you wouldn’t be able to revive us yourself. Not a very good plan, was it?’

Fulgar stopped and sneered at her.

‘And where did the plan get you? You’re still with me, aren’t you? You think you’re so smart, so much better than anyone else, but believe me, soon you might wish you hadn’t got your minds back. What lies out there’ll make you think ignorance really is bliss.’

‘We’ll see,’ said Sarah under her breath, but still just loud enough for Fulgar to hear her.

‘Yes, we will see. You weren’t smart enough to see through Namir and Seyyal, were you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Those two are not your friends. They’re bounty hunters. Just because they kept you away from the Cerberites, don’t think they didn’t have their own plans for you.’ Fulgar resumed their walk along the tunnel, hauling his captives along behind him.

‘I don’t believe you.’ Sarah said.

‘Fine. Don’t then. It matters nothing now. But think on this: what plan was there to meet you once they’d found Toby?’

‘Actually–’ Sarah began, but David shook his head.

‘Exactly. None,’ Fulgar went on. ‘And what do you think would happen if they did chance to meet you again? You’d all go back to the time capsule for a fond farewell, and everything would be nice and happy again? My guess is that if they bothered to find you at all, all three of you’d end up captives in the Outlands while they found the best buyer for you. And if they found Toby first they might not have bothered looking for you at all.’

‘Only because they know what you’re like,’ Sarah said, ‘and that if they did try to find us, all that’d be left would be two corpses. Looks like they’d have been right, doesn’t it?’

‘Suit yourself. It makes no difference to me what you believe. I’ve got these, remember?’ He pulled on the chains and turned to grin malevolently at them.

Their damp footsteps echoed on down the stone passageway. About half way to a gate that was now growing in the distance, they passed a door on the right.

‘What’s that?’ Sarah said.

‘The Labyrinth,’ Fulgar replied without elaboration.

‘So why’s it there?’ Sarah whispered to David.

‘How do you mean?’ David said.

‘Well, it’s obviously not protecting the court or the exit – this passage runs straight from one to the other. So what’s so valuable they need to hide it in all those rooms?’

‘The Keeper?’ David said.

‘The Keeper’s in Dis,’ Fulgar said.

‘So what then? Gold? Weapons? Or, I know, it’s that Great Secret thing, isn’t it? The one Seyyal told us about. The one so secret no one even knows what it is.’

Fulgar rounded on her. ‘Stop it! You know nothing about it. Nor does Seyyal. That’s all dead history now, got it?’

‘Not to you, apparently. Hit a nerve, did I?’

‘Leave it! You talk like this once you’re outside, you’re going to wind up worse than dead. The island dogs’ll be paradise compared to where you’ll end up.’

‘That’s what it is, isn’t it? That’s why the labyrinth’s here. It’s protecting the Great Secret.’

‘No. The Labyrinth exists for its own sake, nothing more. Kind of a trap for curious Outlanders who can’t mind their own business. Seven thousand rooms, each with seven doors, and only one possible route through it. And that route runs straight to the Cordis Cana at the centre, from which only one person has ever emerged alive since it was built.’ He pulled on the chains and walked on.

‘Bull,’ Sarah said.

‘I’d love to let you look, but you’d miss all the fun of Exdis. Now come on, and shut up!’

Five minutes later they reached the gate. Fulgar turned a handle in the middle of this barred door, and swung it open.

‘It’s kept locked, before you even think about trying to get back up that way. Can’t be opened from the outside without a key. And you don’t have one.’ He slammed the gate shut behind them. ‘You’re mine now. Dis ain’t pretty, but why should I care? Maybe I can reverse the verdict when we get to the city walls or maybe you will get sent to the island. Maybe you’ll die crossing through Exdis. It’s nothing to me. Now move!’

Another quarter of a mile of tunnel lay before them. Fulgar dragged them on towards the thin harsh light at the end. Morning had broken across the villages, the pale strains of the unseen sun illuminating their future through a sky of heavy cloud.

By the time they reached the mouth of the tunnel, an icy wind was already blowing rain into their faces. They emerged at the top of a shallow slope overlooking the badlands of Exdis.

Nothing in the desolate horrors of Orbis could have prepared them for what they saw before them in that valley of the damned.

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