Firestorm: Descent

Chapter sixteen: Into the Dead Zone­

A little over twenty-four hours after the Cerberites had regained their prisoner and set off for the walls of Dis, David and Sarah looked out at its monumental blackness from the tunnel exit.

Below them the streets were teeming with people. Men, women and children scurried through the narrow streets between shanty buildings. No one paid any attention to the new arrivals.

‘Welcome to Exdis,’ Fulgar said.

Neither David or Sarah could reply. After the eerily deserted Orbis and the reverential silence of Minos’s court, to be confronted by so many people was suddenly terrifying. So far they had only needed to deal with this world’s inhabitants a few at a time. Now they were about to be led right into the heart of whatever passed for civilisation out here.

Fulgar led them down the shallow slope and into the crowd.

They walked through a series of straight streets off which a myriad of alleys led to ramshackle huddles of shacks, tumble-down buildings and mountains of rubbish. Along some streets the original buildings had been extended and added to, room by room, until they almost met in the middle, often forming a near-complete bridge over the narrow passage below. In other places new routes had been carved, literally, through existing buildings, the old paths now clogged with detritus that was half barricade and half midden heap. As in Orbis, the foundations on which this chaos was built were old pre-war buildings in various states of disrepair and dereliction. While some of these older buildings appeared to still be used, most of the newer shacks and shelters had grown like a festering scab over the remains of the old world.

It was raining, it was cold, and it was filthy. Sewage ran in the gutters and formed bubbling pools wherever something obstructed its free flow. Even the rain was ash-grey and stank of old fires and decay.

And there were the people: a lot of them. Some carried bundles of limp vegetables, piles of ragged clothes, boxes, timber or crates of junk, but most simply rushed from house to house with no clear purpose. They swarmed, not with the aggressive inquisitiveness of ants or wasps when their nest is disturbed, but with a kind of aimless haste. This was movement without purpose.

They paid no attention whatever to the three strangers who carved their way through the midst of this chaos. Fulgar led his captives like reluctant dogs.

Through a gaping hole in the wall of one of the shacks, David had a clear view of two children fighting. They lunged at each other with long iron bars. The boys clashed blades, and more than once landed blows on each other. The smaller of the two children caught his friend on the head and the metal bar rang like a bell. He laughed. His friend staggered against a wall with a grin on his face and blood pouring from his scalp.

Just before the two boys disappeared from view, David saw the older one lash out and catch his little friend square in the stomach with the make-shift sword. The sound of only one childish laugh followed them down the muddy street.

‘So what is this place?’ Sarah said.

‘Exdis?’ Fulgar said. ‘Think of it as the beginning of the end. The outlying settlements that lead to Dis itself. It was carved up into districts after Firestorm, each ruled by a Baron appointed by the Keeper. Stay close: some of the barons don’t care much for Outlanders.’ He yanked their chains to underline the point.

Fulgar stumbled. He had been marching just quickly enough that David and Sarah had to trot behind him to keep up, but he had not been paying attention to where he was going. He regained his balance and rounded on the child now cowering in the gutter behind him.

A girl of about eight, though she was so thin and pathetic she could have been younger, knelt in the flowing mud beside the road. She had something wet and black in her hand, and a ring of smeared red marks around her mouth. She looked up at Fulgar with sad, frightened eyes.

Fulgar grabbed her by the hair and hauled her to her feet.

‘Who do you belong to?’

She didn’t speak. Fulgar jerked her head. ‘I said, who owns you, you disgusting creature!’

‘Satyris, sir,’ came the weak reply. Fulgar threw the girl back into the gutter.

‘Then you eat when Satyris tells you to.’ He slapped the girl’s hand and from her frail grip the body of a rat plopped into the mud. ‘And look where you’re going in future!’

He pulled David and Sarah closer and guided them round the girl, who was already scrabbling through the mud to find the remains of her rat.

‘Humans!’ Fulgar mumbled. David looked back over his shoulder as they were pulled away. A boy, his attention drawn by the commotion, had swooped in and stolen the rat. He stood watching the three alien figures as he chewed on the creature’s open belly.

‘What did you do that for?’ Sarah said.

‘The humans do as they’re told,’ Fulgar said. ‘They eat when they’re told, they sleep when they’re told, and they die when they’re told. Don’t waste your pity on these vermin. There are no innocents here.’

‘So who are these Barons then?’ Sarah said.

‘The Keeper surrounds himself with them to keep him comfortable, cushioned from the outside world.’

‘But they’re human, right?’

‘Far from it. The humans here are merely servants. The Barons themselves come from somewhere else, somewhere in there.’ He indicated the cloudy black edifice of Dis that loomed on the skyline. ‘They came after Firestorm. Slowly at first, until they’d filled Exdis. Then they stopped. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? A hundred years, and they’re still waiting. See that?’ Fulgar pointed to the high spindly turrets that jutted up from the centre of the city like ornate needles. ‘That’s what they’re waiting for. Orders from the Ice Palace.’

‘Ice Palace?’ Sarah said sarcastically. ‘So what’s in there, then? The Snow Queen?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Fulgar said.

‘You don’t know, do you?’

‘I know enough.’

‘You been in there?’

‘Never mind where I’ve been.’

‘Like I thought. You’re just like all of them, aren’t you? Just doing what you’re told, awaiting orders.’

‘I’ll tell you what,’ Fulgar said, ‘when we get to the city walls, why don’t you knock on the door and ask for the Grand Tour? Come back and tell us what it’s like!’

He tugged on the chains to make them move more quickly.

Fulgar took a winding route down alleys and side-streets, sometimes backtracking at roadblocks or making hasty short-cuts through occupied houses. When they had first arrived in Exdis, his path had been aimed directly at Dis, but now something had changed.

‘Where are we going?’ David said.

‘Dis,’ Fulgar hissed. He hauled them around a corner and onto a wider street. He paused for a moment then began to march back towards the mountains.

‘Cerberites?’ David said.


‘The machines. We’re not going towards Dis. Have we been seen?’

‘No. Change of plan.’

They continued until they came to a large two storey building. Its lower floor was little more than a concrete and iron skeleton, the walls between the main girders having been smashed out and left as ragged open holes. Rusting reinforcement bars sagged down from the concrete, or jutted out from the supporting legs like badly broken bones. Dozens of people filled the building.

‘Wait here,’ Fulgar said. He unhitched the chains from his belt and secured them to a ring mounted on one of the support legs of the building. ‘Don’t try to escape and don’t talk to anyone. Without me, you wouldn’t survive five minutes.’

‘Don’t bet on it,’ Sarah said. ‘There’s two of us, and we’ve done OK so far. Your little water trick didn’t get you very far, did it?’

‘I mean it. You think you’re badly off with me? Go ahead, toddle off on your own. This place’ll eat you alive.’

‘We’ll see,’ Sarah said.

Fulgar looked at David. ‘Look after her, will you? I need you both alive,’ he said. ‘I’ll not be long.’

Fulgar went in through an opening in the wall and disappeared into the crowd. Sarah and David huddled against the wall trying to keep out of the worst of the icy rain, but without much success. It lashed down in great grey sheets now, cascading off the building above them to ripple the filthy streams in the gutters at their feet.

‘I reckon we could make a run for it,’ Sarah said. ‘This could be the best chance we get.’ She rattled the chain against the ring Fulgar had attached it to. There was no lock, not even a tie. The chain had simply been wrapped loosely around the ring and left dangling.

‘Where to?’ David said. ‘If we plan to go on to Dis, we might as well go with Fulgar — at least he’s going to offer us some protection. And we can’t get back through the mountains.’

‘So he says. Maybe we could. Or maybe we could go around them. Come on, look: he’s not exactly tied us up.’ Again she rattled the chain.

‘You think that’s just chance?’ David said. ‘If he’s not made much effort to keep us prisoner it’s either because he thinks we’d be too scared to escape, or because he wants us to. My bet is it’s the latter.’

‘Oh, right, so based on your in-depth psycho-analysis of this freak we’re not even going to try?’

‘No. Our best hope is to do exactly the opposite of what he wants us to do. It got us out of the court, didn’t it?’

‘God, David, I hope you’re right. I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.’

David shook a droplet of water from the end of his nose. He shivered and looked up at the grey and white tops of the mountains. Whatever Fulgar’s agenda, their guide (or guard) had brought them through the courts unscathed and they were still together. And then there was that note. That note in his handwriting. However Fulgar had got hold of it, there was a connection between them. So far at least it looked like a reasonably benign one. Weird, but benign. He was just going to have to let this one play out — stay alert, but let it run its course.

‘You need to trust me, and maybe him too,’ he said. ‘This is going to work out.’

‘I still say this might be the only chance we get,’ Sarah mumbled, more to herself than to David.

‘You’re forgetting one thing… surprisingly. We still don’t know where Toby is. He could be on the other side of this building and we’d never know. Our best chance of finding him is with Fulgar. If we’re still waiting here when he comes out, he’s going to have to do something with us, and it doesn’t look like he’s thinking of killing us. At least not yet. Whoever, or whatever he thinks we are, he wants all three of us together.’

‘So we’re just going to wait here for whatever he decides to do to us next?’

‘Abaddon said ‘stick together’. Maybe we’ll get a chance to escape once we get to the city walls. With luck by then there’ll be three of us.’

Since Fulgar had left them, the streets had been gradually emptying of their inhabitants. By now just a few stragglers remained. David tried to see into the dark interior of the building. Servants hurriedly cleared tables, carrying filthy plates out to a kitchen in the back. Each one disappeared into the kitchen but did not return.

‘David,’ Sarah whispered behind him. ‘Just how much do you trust Fulgar?’


‘Because I think I know why he left us here.’

‘Meaning what…?’

David turned back to the near-deserted road and saw the answer for himself. Moving towards them from the direction of the mountains was a lone Cerberite.

They huddled back even further into the pillar and watched as the machine approached. It was not just wandering past; it was heading right for them.

‘I say we run now,’ Sarah said.

‘We’d never make it. Sarah, unhitch your chain.’

‘What about you?’

‘Do it. Now.’

Sarah fumbled behind her and slid her length of chain almost out of the ring Fulgar had wrapped it around. The machine was twenty yards away, no more than a few seconds from reaching them.

‘Go,’ David whispered. ‘Find Fulgar.’

‘I’m not leaving you!’

‘Just find him. Go!’

Sarah pulled the chain free and began to slip around the pillar. In a flash the drone was on her, slamming its fist into the concrete barely an inch from her face and trapping her. She let out an involuntary scream. David moved to grab her and pull her away, but the Cerberite thrust its free hand out and took hold of David’s shoulder. Its touch was ice-cold.

David tried to look back into the building but he could not move the machine’s arm enough to see anything.

The Cerberite examined Sarah then turned its attention to David. The polished visor leaned in towards him.

‘Let her go,’ he said calmly. The Cerberite turned its attention back to Sarah. As it moved, David got a clear look at the obviously human skull on which this machine had been built. The visor was bolted into place, concealing whatever circuitry operated these hunters.

For a moment the drone’s grip loosened a little, and David managed to twist round far enough to see some way into the building behind them. Fulgar was coming out of the gloom. David was about to call out to him when he realised that his first impression was slightly off: Fulgar was not coming towards them, he was standing, watching from the back of the restaurant.

For a long second their eyes met, then Fulgar strode forwards. In seconds he was outside.

‘They’re with me.’ He placed his hand on David’s shoulder. The drone turned its visor towards him. ‘They’re with me,’ he repeated.

The Cerberite dropped both its arms to its side simultaneously.

‘Go,’ Fulgar said. ‘I’ll take them now.’

The machine stepped back, turned and continued its journey towards Dis. Sarah slumped against the pillar and let out a long, unsteady breath.

‘Are you OK?’ David said. She nodded. She was pale, but not shaking half as much as he was.

‘How did you do that?’ David said as Fulgar took hold of their chains. ‘Get it to back off like that?’

‘You did well,’ Fulgar replied.

‘What do you mean, we did well?’

‘Just what I said. Now, come on. There’s someone who wants to meet you.’

Fulgar led them into the building. Water dripped through the roof here and there, and the holes in the wall did little to keep out the wind, but at least in here they were sheltered from the worst of the weather. Their captor took them to a staircase at the back of the restaurant and led them up.

‘He’ll be here in a moment.’

‘Who?’ Sarah said.

‘No more questions, OK? No more. Just trust me.’

Trust me; the same thing David had said to her to as their last chance of escape dwindled away. He was about to find out whether she had been right to do so. He just hoped that the next face he would see coming up the stairs would be Toby’s, and that was something he never thought he’d wish for.

He eyed the stairs. Toby would probably come with at least one of the Cerberites as a guard, but if David could manage to get the three of them into a position between their captors and the stairs, he thought they would have a chance. The streets outside were a maze, one which they might just be able to disappear into and find somewhere to hide. They could regroup and head back into the mountains.

Heavy feet thumped up the wooden staircase.

‘Satyris!’ Fulgar said. He greeted the visitor from the top of the stairs. ‘Good to see you again. Your servant said you were looking for another to join your little party, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what I have to offer.’

The implication of his words were quite lost as both of the youngsters stared aghast at what came into view. It was certainly not Toby Mann.

Two steps from the top of the staircase, Satyris was already looking down on Fulgar. He nodded slowly as Fulgar held out a hand in greeting. Satyris declined, instead turning his head slowly towards Sarah.

The giant, naked except for a broad white loincloth, sniffed the air. His wide nostrils flared, his dark, almost black eyes narrowed to slits. A grin spread across his bronzed face as he stared at her.

He stood at the top of the stairs with his vast right hand resting on the newel post. Around his wrist was a heavy gold bracelet; chains extended from the bracelet and back down the stairs. The muscles of his arms twitched and flexed and his attention turned back to Fulgar.

‘The male’s a runt,’ Satyris said.

‘Indeed, but he’s staying with me,’ Fulgar said.

Satyris’s wild, hungry eyes were directed back at Sarah. ‘Males are easy to come by. But females are rare in such good condition.’

He finally turned the corner at the top of the stairs and strode slowly towards her. He yanked on the chains that had been hanging loosely into the stairwell and hauled into view what was attached to the other ends.

Around the top of the stairs two emaciated girls appeared. Each wore a gold hoop, similar to that of their master, but narrower. These hoops were fixed around their necks so tightly that what little flesh they had bulged and strained beneath them. Both hung their shaven heads almost to their chests, but not so far that the blank, abject expressions on their faces were any less obvious. Satyris gave their chains a final tug and the girls fell in line behind him. One coughed, and reached up to wipe her mouth with the stump of an arm.

Both girls had had their hands cut off at the wrist.

‘What is this?’ David said. ‘Fulgar?’

‘This is between me and Satyris,’ Fulgar replied quietly. ‘No more questions.’

Sarah took a step backwards but Fulgar, now standing behind her, blocked her way. He placed both hands on her shoulders.

‘She’s feisty, but good stock, and breakable. She’ll do you well soon enough.’

‘Indeed,’ Satyris said. ‘Most unusual. Where did you find one so healthy?’

‘I have my sources,’ Fulgar said. ‘So how much is she worth to you, my friend?’

‘Hey, just a minute,’ Sarah said. ‘I’m not for sale. You can’t trade me like some piece of meat!’ She struggled against Fulgar, but he dug his fingers into her shoulders even harder.

‘On the contrary,’ he said. ‘I can do whatever I want. As long as one of you gets to Dis, Minos won’t care either way. I can take this weedy specimen. He’s not much use for anything else.’

‘We’re staying together. Where Sarah goes, I go!’ David yanked hard on his chain.

‘Shut up. This is nothing to do with you. Now, Satyris,’ he said, ‘you can see she’s lively. Surely that’s worth something?’

‘She could be trouble. She talks too much for a human. I don’t want her.’ He turned as if to leave.

‘But Sir, look at the quality. Think how you could improve your line of servants with this one. If she talks too much — and I grant you she does have a lot to say — remove her tongue. Now, how about five hundred?’

‘Five hundred? I’ll give you two.’

‘You couldn’t get an ordinary Outlander for that,’ Fulgar snorted. ‘Think of the returns. Better servants for you, and if you work her well you could sell any excess. Consider this one as an investment. Five is my price.’

Satyris examined Sarah again, stooping to bring his head level with hers, and staring into her half closed eyes. He grinned and exhaled a stream of cold fetid breath into her face.

‘She’s a good breeder?’ Satyris said quietly.

Fulgar glanced at David. David opened his mouth to say something, but Fulgar shook his head very slightly. It was a minute gesture, but it was enough to make him pause. This whole thing was a set-up, a ruse. Fulgar needed something from this beast of a man, but he was not actually going to trade Sarah to get it. He held his tongue.

‘My guess is she could be,’ Fulgar said. ‘She’s certainly healthy enough.’

‘Mark me, Fulgar. You know what happens to the ones who will not produce, and what happens to those who supply me defective stock. I need no more ornaments.’ He pulled on the chains attached to his wrists and both girls took a step forward. They did not look up at their master.

‘Fully guaranteed, if that’s what you want,’ Fulgar said. ‘I can take her back if needs must. But I think you’ll find she has many good years in her — if you work her hard enough.’

‘OK,’ Satyris said. ‘Four is my final offer.’

‘Four. Done.’ Fulgar passed the chain over with almost indecent haste.

‘Hey!’ David said, but Fulgar clapped a hand around the back of his neck and squeezed. The game was not over.

‘One of my servants will get the money to you,’ Satyris said. ‘I will take her now and feed her up. Looks as if you’ve been somewhat neglectful of her needs.’

Fulgar pushed Sarah forwards. ‘Go with him. Satyris has the best food here. Eat, be strong. Be grateful it’s not worse.’

Without another word, Satyris began to pull Sarah back towards the stairs. She screamed and fought violently, the manacle around her wrist cutting into her skin. He wrapped her chain around his thick wrist and pulled her down the stairs, the two other girls following mutely behind.

David had taken a gamble. This was no game, or if it was, he had just been played.

‘I’ll come for you Sarah!’ he shouted.

‘Don’t be naive, lad,’ Fulgar whispered. ‘You’re coming with me.’ He looked at David critically. ‘Satyris’s right, I have been neglecting you. Time I got you fed ready for the hunt. No sport in hunting such a weed if he can’t even run away.’

Fulgar dragged David back down into the restaurant. By the time they were out of the building there was no sign of Sarah amongst the shanty houses huddled in the lashing rain. Even her screams were carried away on the wind.

Or maybe she just wasn’t screaming any more.

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