Seyyal told of how the world had been, and of the Division War that led to Firestorm and the destruction of everything their ancestors had built. She was also keen to impress upon them the dangers of the place they had arrived in.
‘There was a prophecy, the one the Councillors were talking about. Before the war it was believed that another Traveller would come to deliver what our world lacked, the thing that would enable us to truly master our fates. But in the paranoia and fear that followed Firestorm a rumour grew that this Time Traveller would come to finish what the Division War had started, and destroy mankind altogether. Whatever the truth, good or bad, the new rulers in Dis are very keen to find this person. We need to ensure that doesn’t happen. What’s going on in Dis is bad, and the Traveller can only make the Keeper stronger.
‘We’ll help you get home, but in the meantime we think it’d be better if you return to our village, never mind what the Council says. We can keep you safe while we try to find your friend.’
‘And how do you propose to do that?’ Fulgar said.
‘One thing at a time,’ Seyyal said. ‘The Cerberites have seen these two, and whatever the Council say, we can’t rely on the fact that they’re taking their orders from here. Sure, they might take Toby straight up to Minos, but my guess is they’ll at least try to get all three of them together first. Which gives us a little time.’
‘Do you have any idea when they’ll take him up to Minos?’ David asked.
‘Sooner than Seyyal thinks,’ Fulgar said. ‘I doubt they’ll delay more than a day looking for you. Minos’ll want to pass judgement as soon as possible. Then, whatever he says goes. If he thinks Toby is the Traveller, he’ll be sent into Dis. If not, well, he won’t just be allowed to go home, let’s put it that way.’ Fulgar blew a soft stream of bubbles through his pipe.
‘So we’ve to get to him before he goes into the mountains. Simple.’ Sarah said, turning to Fulgar.
‘Not so simple, no. I have a suggestion, if your friends will allow it,’ Fulgar walked slowly back into the light.
‘Go on,’ said Namir.
‘The way I see it, you two can’t hope to find their friend and guard them at the same time. As you say, we can’t be sure who’s giving the orders to the Cerberites any more. They’ll be extremely vigilant, and they won’t hesitate to kill you to get at these two. But you do know the town, and you know how to track people, so you’re well qualified for the search and rescue operation. I, however, know how the Cerberites work. If you need a guard, I’m well qualified.’ It was impossible to tell whether his lopsided smile was kindly or sinister.
‘There’s some sense in that,’ agreed Seyyal.
‘Good. Then let’s move.’
‘Just a minute,’ Seyyal said. She examined Fulgar thoughtfully. ‘Maybe you’d like to tell us how it is you know so much about the Cerberites?’
‘That’s my business.’
‘A clever answer, Mr Fulgar. But what is our business is how you are here, with the Revolutionary Council, at the exact time these two arrived? How you are here at all? As Councilman H said, everyone thought you were dead.’
‘Just good fortune, I guess.’ He winked at Sarah (with only one eye, he could do little else).
‘We know who you are,’ Namir said quietly.
‘I’ve never lied about it,’ Fulgar replied. ‘I told you at the first opportunity. Is there something troubling you?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact, there is,’ Seyyal said. ‘Are you working for the Keeper now?’
Fulgar laughed, but there was no humour in the sound. The giant strode around the table and clapped Seyyal on the back. The instant he touched her his laughter stopped and his hand gripped her hair. He twisted it around his fist, wrenching her head backwards. He thrust his face close to hers.
‘Look at me. Look. If you know who I am, and I have little doubt that you do, then you know who did this to me. Who murdered my family as I was forced to watch from my prison cell. Who threw me to the dogs. And you dare to ask me if I work for the Keeper?’
Seyyal shook free of Fulgar’s grip and sneered at him.
‘Then how are you here? How is it that you are in exactly the right place at the right time? Someone’s helping you.’
Fulgar looked David in the eye and seemed about to say something. He rolled his tongue around the craggy landscape of his teeth and turned his attention back to Seyyal.
‘I help myself. You’re skilled survivors, but don’t think you’re unique. We all have our ways of making it here.’
‘Did you find the final chapter?’ Seyyal said.
‘The thing the Keeper’s been so keen to acquire. You say you’re not be working for him, and yet here you are. Are these three already irrelevant?’
Fulgar laughed again, this time with rather more humour. ‘Do you mean, has the Prophesy already been fulfilled? Is that what you’re asking?’
‘Then where are they?’ He swept his arms around the room. ‘Why are we not over-run by the hoards? If the Prophesy had been fulfilled then the Barons would already be here.’
‘Or none of us would be,’ Namir said.
Fulgar and Seyyal continued to stare at each other for several silent seconds before Fulgar drew back and the lop-sided grin returned to his face.
‘So, what do you say?’ he said. ‘Leave them with me while you find the other one?’
Seyyal leaned over to her brother and whispered something. He nodded. David thought he saw fear in the younger man’s eyes.
‘How do we know we can trust you?’ Seyyal said to Fulgar.
‘How do they know they can trust you is surely a better question. You brought them before the Council! They could do nothing but pass them on up the chain of command or kill them as soon as they could. You didn’t bother to find out anything about them that might prejudice their case here, nor did you tell them anything about yourselves until just now. And anyway, what choice do you have? You can’t hope to out-manoeuvre the Cerberites with these two in tow, and rescue their friend at the same time. Nor can you leave them here. You’ll just have to trust me, simple as that. My word is good.’
‘Could we have a moment alone with them, Fulgar?’
‘Certainly. But make it quick. The longer we stay still, the better a target we become.’
With that, he left the room through the door leading to the entrance hall. The four of them formed a close huddle, sure that Fulgar would be listening at the door.
‘It has to be your choice, but he’s right,’ Namir said. ‘We would have a much better chance going out there on our own’.
‘If that’s what you think. He seems OK,’ David said.
‘He is. We’ve heard about him and his reputation’s good. We never expected him to turn up right now, and it’s a mystery how he did it, but however he knew you were here, he’s got history. Most of it works to our advantage. He’s got a lot to lose if he starts causing trouble, so he’s probably the best option we’ve got. Just be careful. Whatever happens, we’ll be back at the Aabas gate – where you came in past the pillars – in twenty-four hours. If we can’t get Toby by then, we won’t be able to. We’ll have to think of something else. If Fulgar gives you any trouble, try to get back to the gate and hide out in one of the houses there. He won’t think of going that far out of town to look for you.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ Sarah asked.
‘No one goes that far out. The Mormo Plain’s a dangerous place, and he knows you know that. He’ll waste a lot of time looking for you in the main town. It shouldn’t be hard for the two of you to outwit him on his own. He has a history of getting outwitted by the wrong people. But don’t underestimate him either – it’s vital that you don’t let him take you out of the town.’
‘OK. Please just find Toby.’
‘We will. We’re all in trouble if we don’t. Now go, and remember, under no circumstances must you leave Orbis.’
David and Sarah left the council chamber as their rescuers whispered together at the table. Fulgar was standing by the main entrance when they closed the chamber door behind them.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Sarah said.
‘No, but it is an idea. We’ve got no chance on our own, and if Seyyal reckons Fulgar’s OK, then we’ve just got to trust her. After all, if she wanted us dead, we would be.’
‘Good,’ Fulgar said as they approached. ‘Come on then, better get you two to a safe house for the night.’ He grinned that uncertain half-grin again.
Fulgar withdrew the long bar that held the doors to the council offices closed, and swung one of the huge wooden doors inwards. The three of them stepped out into a broad street. Tall pillars flanked the entrance, stretching up to support higher stories which had long since collapsed. Like the pitiful inhabitants of the building, these columns existed only as a reminder of their former importance, and their current uselessness. From a pole above the main doors hung a long tattered white banner, fluttering lazily in the breeze. It was as blank and forlorn as those on the pillars at the Aabas gate.
‘Aren’t you worried about the Cerberites? I’ve not seen anyone coming out with a message for them to leave us alone,’ Sarah asked Fulgar as they strode down the wide street as if they were out for a Sunday afternoon walk in the park.
‘No, I’m not. I know more about how those drones work than they care to believe. We’ve had our run-ins, but we pretty much avoid each other now.’
‘But what about us? I think Sarah meant – aren’t you worried they’ll come after us?’
‘You’re safe with me, lad. If they see you, you’re in trouble, but stay out of sight, or stay with me, and you should make it.’
‘What do you mean, you know about them?’ Sarah asked. Fulgar laughed a deep booming laugh that echoed off the silent wrecks of buildings.
‘I beat them. I survived. Down here…’
He ushered them along a narrower side street and into a broad town square, flanked on all four sides by the carcasses of once-grand buildings. Now just empty, roofless shells, they still retained enough of their former dignity to give the square an atmosphere of importance.
‘You two thirsty?’
‘If it’s drinkable.’
‘This stuff’s pure.’ He pointed at an elaborate double-sided fountain in the middle of the square.
Although the heads of the stone statues at the centre of the fountain had been smashed off, it looked remarkably intact considering the devastation around it. The wide circular pool beneath the fountains was divided along its centre by a wall, bearing the inscription ‘Dimeninx Fountains’. From this wall, gargoyles trickled water into each half of the pool. At each end stood a single tree – the first plant survivors they had seen since leaving the forest. To the right was a White Poplar, similar to the deformed trees in the wood they had arrived in, but taller and straighter. By the left half of the pool was a nut tree, its foot surrounded by walnuts and a few brown leaves flapping in the light breeze.
‘Drink. I promise you, you won’t find better water anywhere.’ David looked doubtfully at Sarah, but she had already decided that Fulgar could be trusted, and was making her way to the pool beneath the poplar. She washed the dust from her face and drank enthusiastically. David moved towards the other half of the pool.
‘Not that side. The water this side’s better. They come from different sources.’
‘Don’t ask me. It’s just the way it is! Now, do you want a drink or not?’
‘Yes, sure,’ David said.
‘Then get on with it.’
He cupped his hands into the water and drank deeply as Fulgar wandered a little way off towards the edge of the square. It had been hours since either of them had had anything to eat or drink, and this water was so refreshing that it was surely worth a little risk. Better than dying of thirst. Sarah had drunk a great deal, and was now at the other side of the pool gathering nuts and stuffing them into the shallow pockets of her jeans.
When Fulgar returned to the fountains he nodded and smiled at David.
‘See, it didn’t kill you, did it?’
‘I guess not.’
‘Hey,’ he shouted at Sarah, ‘put those back! Don’t ever pick stuff off the ground.’
‘Sorry,’ Sarah said, beginning to empty her pockets of the nuts. ‘I thought they were just nuts.’
‘Well don’t think. Listen, learn, but don’t think. The more you think the more dangerous this place is for you. Got it?’
Fulgar produced a flat water flask made from the skin of some animal and began to fill it from the pool beneath the walnut tree.
‘I thought you said the water from that side’s not so good,’ David said.
Fulgar rounded on him, striding over to where David stood. His face was contorted, his one remaining nostril flared.
‘Look lad, don’t question me. Without me, you’re as good as dead here. And dead, you’re no use to anyone, least of all yourself. So stop treating me like the enemy. You’re wasting my time and sorely trying my patience.’
‘Sorry. You’re the boss.’
Fulgar grunted and went back to filling the flask.
David washed his face in the pool then stood looking around the open town square. It wasn’t too hard to imagine the bustle of crowds around pavement cafes, little shops selling local wines, pastries or postcards of the snow-topped mountains, children sailing toy boats in the pools. What had become of it all? What was this Firestorm that Seyyal had told them about? He could almost feel the horror of those trapped in the town as the fires raged, the fear and desperation of those who survived – a new selfishness that drove them to loot and destroy everything they once held so dear. And even then, the impotent wait as famine and disease crept invisibly towards them, turning the survivors into hunted fugitives in their own land.
The war had not been nuclear, but it had been total.
A faint but unmistakable sound of a mechanical rattling sound drifted through the square from a street on the far side of the fountains.
‘Quickly, this way!’ Fulgar waved them towards a narrow alley near the corner.
They plunged into a maze of streets, surrounded by old residential buildings. Small pieces of furniture littered the floors of some houses, but most things of any use had been taken long ago. An old woman wrapped in filthy rags sat on the steps of one house, rocking gently back and forth. She looked up at the three of them with blind eyes as they ran past, but made no sound.
‘Hey, wait,’ David called. ‘She needs help. She’s blind!’
‘Leave her,’ Fulgar said. The old woman’s face turned up towards the sound of David’s voice and she sniffed the air.
‘Can’t we give her some food? Something? Help her back indoors?’
‘I said leave her! They come out to die. If she was half-way worth saving she’d still be in the tunnels. There’s nothing you can do for her now.’
‘But nothing.’ There was a rattling wail in the distance. ‘Learn one thing about this place if you’re determined to learn nothing else,’ Fulgar said. ‘You help you.’ He jabbed David in the chest with his finger. ‘Not her, not Sarah, not Toby, not even me. You got that?’
‘That’s a pretty crappy way to live, isn’t it?’
‘That’s not for you to judge. You need to survive. Got that? Survive! Now come on. We’re nearly there.’
Sarah took his arm and gently pulled him away from the old woman. She looked tired, numbed by all they had seen.
They jogged on along the street. David glanced over his shoulder, but the old woman was not looking their way now. She had gone back to rocking gently back and forth, waiting. Just waiting.
Fulgar stopped and checked along the street. Satisfied that they were not being followed, he walked another few yards and lifted a sheet of cloth that had been hung across a doorway.
‘In here,’ he said.
He ushered the youngsters through the hole and into a small room. Unusually, this house still had remnants of an upper floor, though there were large gaps in the ceiling, and the walls bowed dangerously where there was not enough of the lower storey left to support the weight above. David and Sarah followed Fulgar through to a dingy room at the back of the house, where he hurriedly began to clear pieces of wood and brick from the floor in the corner. In less than a minute a trap door appeared, which Fulgar opened. He motioned them down then followed them into the basement. After closing and barring the hatch he lit an oil lamp on the wall.
‘Home,’ he said. ‘Not much, but a positive palace by the standards of the rest of town.’
The flickering light of the lamp cast enough light to see that Fulgar’s ‘home’ consisted of just two rooms. The one they stood in, presumably some kind of living room, had a three-legged table propped up against one wall, and several large stuffed animal skins forming cushions on the floor. Through a narrow door smashed in another wall they could just make out a low platform with more skins on it, providing what must have been quite a comfortable and safe bed.
‘We’ll stay here for tonight. It’s safe enough. Make yourselves at home.’ He went into the bedroom and left them alone.
‘You OK?’ David said. He had been aware for some time that Sarah was becoming increasingly lethargic. She had not uttered a word of protest when Fulgar had insisted they leave the old blind woman out in the street. Now she lolled against the wall, staring vacantly at the door.
‘I feel really weird,’ she said. ‘Sort of faint.’
‘Must be all that running and no food,’ Fulgar said from the bedroom door. ‘Sit. You’re quite safe here. I’ll go out and get you something to eat. I won’t be long.’
He placed the water flask on the table and clambered back up through the trap door, closing it quietly behind him.
‘He seems nice,’ Sarah said. Her eyes were already beginning to close.
‘Nice? You think we can trust him?’
‘He’s kept us away from the Cerberites, he’s given us water, a place to spend the night. Don’t be so suspicious.’ She leaned back against the wall and rubbed her forehead.
David sat against the wall next to her. With his eyes closed, he had a strange sensation of floating. His eyes were heavy; thoughts swam in and out of focus through his mind. Time crept by silently in the flickering yellow light of that safe-house basement.
Fulgar arrived back nearly an hour later bearing bags of food. He offered no explanation as to where he had got it. Neither David nor Sarah felt particularly hungry, and could only manage a little of the bland fare he had brought. After a handful of cold cooked potatoes and some gritty spinach they made up meagre beds of animal skins. David was dully aware that his was a leopard skin, but he was too exhausted to care.
‘I’ve got to go out for a while,’ Fulgar said. ‘I’ll try not to disturb you when I come back. You two sleep now.’
He gave them several tattered blankets, which smelled of damp and smoke, and left, extinguishing the lamp as he went.
They lay in the heavy darkness, Sarah near the table, David close, but not too close. He was just nodding off when Sarah spoke.
‘How long do you think it will be before anyone misses us? At home, I mean.’
David thought for a minute, trying to dredge up some of what he had read about time travel. There were many theories, though no one knew for sure what the implications were. He did not have the strength to soften the blunt truth of what he could remember.
‘They won’t miss us? But we’ve been gone for almost a day. The university will have been open again, even if it is Saturday.’
‘Time travel doesn’t work like that. Imagine we spent a week, or a month, here. If we got back to the pod and programmed it to go home, arriving an instant after we’d left, no time would have passed. Time only passes here because we can experience it. Time anywhere else stands still, at least as far as we’re concerned.’
‘So no one’s noticed we’re not there any more?’
‘We are. We’re in the lab, in the Pod. But the instant we activated it, the instant we weren’t there any more, time there stopped.’
‘But that means…’
‘Don’t think about what it means.’
‘David, we could die here! Never go home, and no one would ever know!’
‘I don’t know. Theoretically, maybe. Does it matter?’
There was a long silence. ‘It matters to me,’ Sarah said eventually.
A few minutes later David could hear her crying softly beside him. He shuffled his bed towards her a little, and reached out. He found her hand beneath the pile of stinking material and held it until they both fell asleep.
Neither heard Fulgar return. Had they been awake they might have caught some of his hushed conversation above them in the shattered house. They might even have caught the faintest sound of the rattling, mechanical voice with which he conversed before climbing back into the secret dungeon.
They slept on in peaceful ignorance as he looked down at them by the light of his candle, a self-satisfied smile creasing his battle-ravaged face.