Firestorm: Descent

Chapter Ten: The Isle of Fortunates

John Fulgar was older than he looked, if a face that had been half-destroyed by the Cerberite hounds could be said to speak anything of its owner’s age. By rights John should have been dead by now, by his own hand or that of others. Time had dragged like a heavy weight around his ankle; it had stretched and twisted as he raged against the world and the life he had been dealt. He cared not to remember much of the old times, the times he had lived in fear and mourning for a world lost. The time the Devil had made work for idle hands.

That he might have played a part in the escalation of the war was one thing. That he had a direct hand in the death of his wife and daughter was quite another.

He had been in Dis in the build-up to war, and he had not been alone. Someone had been with him among the labyrinthine catacombs of the city. An outsider, someone from beyond the three Foils of Levantium, from beyond their time. Someone who had abandoned him as the fires took hold and the apocalyptic winter descended on the world. The gates of Hell were opened, but John clung to the words of his companion as his world began to tear apart. Be patient he had said; have faith he had said; in your hands lies a power which can erase all of this, banish the evil….

Only three people knew about his time with that stranger, and two of them were surely dead by the time the fires had burned out. But G4 suspected. Fulgar was imprisoned while this government-within-a-government tried to pick through the holes in his files, join the erratic dots of his history. They knew he had worked on the Robotics Project, they knew he had tried to warn the world of the coming apocalypse, but they could prove no more. John had been careful, especially in regard to just what he was doing on the eve of war, and how he came to be doing it.

He kept his secrets, but at a terrible price. The Keeper sentenced Rose and Julia – still barely old enough for school – to death for treason, although the treason had been all John’s.

His punishment was to survive. That was the way in this new world.

He had watched his wife and daughter die at the hands of the Cerberites. He watched their grizzly execution play out in real time on the grainy black and white monitor positioned high on the wall of his cell. He had tried not to watch, to pretend none of this was happening; he had tried to watch, to rationalise, to understand, to fuel the passion of his revenge. From behind its casing of thick wire this emotionless window on the world played and replayed the footage until it was so seared into his mind that he thought there was room for nothing else.

He was to be banished back into the Outlands, but on the way through the vast main gates of the City he managed to escape, slipping undetected into the walls themselves and hiding out in a remote look-out cell on the northern end of the complex. When he was sure the hunt for him was cooling he moved from that cell and down the cliffs to Exdis.

He retrieved the bodies of Rose and Julia from the swamp where they had been dumped and carried them out into the desert to bury them among the thorn trees that grew, blasted and diseased, beneath the angry winter sky. He howled at that sky, swore vengeance on those who had killed them, swore vengeance on himself for letting it happen.

How had it come to this? He could not know, but he felt that somewhere a turn had been made, a path taken by mistake, and he had found himself lost in a hell he could barely comprehend. They all should have lived; they should have gone back into Dis where he would continue his work. Rose would make home and tend their tiny urban garden, evangelical about producing healthy fresh food for their growing daughter. Julia would go to school, grow, learn, become someone more than the sum of the inputs from her parents. She was the future, and the future wore blue ribbons in her hair and sunshine in her pale green eyes. This little family would play the Keeper’s games and make the best life for themselves that circumstances would allow. He would wait, he would cling to his faith that one day someone would come who could set the world back on its axis again.

But that had not happened. He had made that wrong turn, he had tried to be too clever. He had not played the game right, and now he was alone, tracking his shadow aimlessly through the desert with only his guilt to talk to.

He was a mote of dust among a billion motes of dust; a fleck in a world reduced to ash by Firestorm.

He had no patience left, no faith, only the image of that corral of thorn bushes beyond the eastern horizon, the fear that his wife and child would become food for the scavengers of this damned world. He hunted the meager prey, he made himself a shelter of sorts from the debris he found scattered among the dead and he tried to count his blessings.

It was a short count.

He would wake in the darkest hours of night, the images of his family as they died racing through his mind, the feeling of impotence paralysing him. He knew he could not wait for the Traveller to return. What he had been told had no force now – things had changed since the war. The Government he had worked to support had betrayed him and he had lost everything. The time to act was now.

He walked back into the mountains. He had planned to get back into Dis, to do whatever he could to avenge those pointless deaths, but fate had intervened. The Cerberites found him and destroyed any chance he had of revenge. This time he would not simply be banished; the Keeper had seen that he had made a grave mistake in underestimating John Fulgar.

The ship came and took him and four other prisoners out to the Isle of Fortunates. It docked at a small jetty and the five captives were released. The other four nearly danced off into the scrub, believing themselves to be free, but Fulgar knew better. He did not waste time whooping and cavorting like a spring lamb out in the meadow sunshine. He made for the dark interior of the island, down among the caves and stands of dead cyprus trees. He was ready to die, but on his own terms. He would not be brought down running from the hunters like vermin.

He heard the hounds on the first night. The small packs of dogs were released by the Cerberites from the hunting lodges on the eastern coast. The machines watched from high lookouts around the island, able to see with robotic infra-red eyes as their dogs sought out their quarry. It was execution as sport; slow and exquisite hunting followed by a brief orgy of violence. Very much what the Cerberites had been built for, turned against their makers.

As he lay in his hole in the ground, he heard the screams of one of his fellow captives. Screams that lasted merely seconds before they were choked off and drowned out by the howls of the dogs. He slept fitfully then, uncomfortable in his rocky hiding place, but too frightened to venture out in the dark to find a better place.

He dreamed a dream of things to come. If he survived that first night, then maybe… was he destined to survive?… singled out by fate for a greater purpose? Had his companion on the eve of war been right?

For the next two days he worked his cave into a more suitable place to rest up and think. He feasted on berries and roots, on the raw white flesh of snakes and the rich, dark meat of mice he cornered in his cave.

On the third night the hounds came again. This time they killed all the remaining captives. Weakened by hunger, the three humans were run to ground and picked off within two hours. But still Fulgar stayed hidden. He passed the lonely hours carving at a stick of cyprus wood with a flint that had caused him so much discomfort on his first night. It was to be a doll, a simple effigy of innocence for his dead daughter, but as he carved it became an effigy of himself, whittled and reduced beyond any human shape until it was merely a weapon.

In that cave made of rock and dead branches a certain faith began to grow. He needed to survive. He needed to be there when the Traveller returned. He lay back in his filthy refuge and his fingers toyed with the ancient scrap of paper in his pocket; a scrap he had carried since the eve of war. This hastily scribbled message had been pulling him into the future ever since, and he felt its pull more keenly now than ever.

It was dusk on that fourth day that he heard them coming. Ridgebacks from Soufoil, bred to hunt lions and re-engineered by the Cerberites to have a taste for human meat, these powerful dogs were cunning and fast.

The hounds came, and he let them. This was the test. Live or die, pass or fail, the course of his life would be set in the coming hours.

He backed into the cave, out of sight of the Cerberite lookouts, and let the dogs come one at a time.

While four hung back, sniffing around the edges of the cave, seeking another entrance by which they could mount a decisive attack, one plunged in. As the dog widened its jaws to tear at him, Fulgar thrust the stick-doll forward, holding it at arm’s length and letting the dog’s eighty pounds of unstoppable momentum do most of the work. He drove the doll deep into the animal’s open jaws, feeling its hot fetid breath on his arm, its teeth scoring shallow furrows in his hand. As the beast tried to back away from the sudden injection of pain he ground the sharpened tip of the stick into its brain. The dog shuddered and twitched; Fulgar levered his weapon free. Blood and saliva gushed over him, and he struggled to kick the slippery body away in readiness for the next attack.

Twice more he slaughtered dogs in this passive fashion until he was drenched in their blood and choked by the stench of their death. So far he thought he had managed to avoid anything but minor flesh wounds. Shallow abrasions to his arms and hands might just turn septic and kill him in the end, but at this point, more than half way through his battles, he was still fully functional.

Two dogs remained. They stalked around the cave, back and forth, looking, planning, biding their time. Their instinct to kill did battle with their confusion and caution. The dogs snarled softly and bared their teeth in the moonlight, but their threats were, for now, empty. This was a stand-off Fulgar could not afford. Already running mainly on adrenaline and weak from lack of sleep, he could not stay in fighting condition for long. He needed to get this over and done with, whatever the result.

He crept forward and threw a handful of stones at the dogs. One immediately span on its heels and charged. Fulgar stumbled backwards and raised the stick. He drove it deep into the animal’s chest, but the dog fought back with four sets of razor-sharp claws, its huge weight pinning the weak and exhausted man to the ground.

Fulgar wrenched the stick sideways and up and felt the hound’s ribcage crack and the hot contents of its stomach gush out over his chest and arms and into his face. He heaved the dog off and saw to his horror that the doll had finally broken. He was left with nothing more than a blunt stump. No sort of weapon at all, especially against a fresh, blood-hungry hunting dog.

And the last dog knew it. It stood in the entrance to the cave and snarled. In the moonlight, Fulgar fancied he saw real rage in those eyes. In the endless moment before that final attack, he saw in the dog what he knew was in him too: hatred. Hatred of this world, of its violence, its privations, and most of all of the man now cowering in a mess of his own making. Fulgar almost let it do what it had come here to do.

But even in the seconds it took for the dog to close the gap between them, he knew his purpose was not over in this world. His death would atone for nothing.

The dog caught him a glancing blow with its wide open jaws, tearing off the flesh of his face from cheek to chin. He felt his cheekbone shatter, and as the dog’s jaws locked around his own, most of his lower set of teeth tore out.

He managed to roll sideways, his right arm scrabbling in the darkness for a weapon, anything that could help him survive. The dog sank its teeth into the side of his face again, and Fulgar felt a torrent of blood explode into his mouth and down his throat. He coughed, vomiting thick, lumpy blood into the dog’s nose. That bought him just the moment he needed.

His hand closed around a rock, and with a single movement he brought it round and slammed it into the dog’s head. There was so much pent-up rage, so much history behind that final blow that the dog did not even whimper before it slumped. Its paws twitched twice, as if it were running from this life into the next, then it died where it lay, prostrate on Fulgar’s chest. He had no strength left to heave it off.

His right hand was badly lacerated from the rock he had used on the dog, but with his left he attended as best he could to the mess of his face. He picked out the last of the loosened teeth and felt around for something to staunch the flow of blood. There was nothing. He did not even have the strength to tear his own clothing to act as a bandage.

With the tenderness of lovers in a parting embrace, he pulled the dog’s head to his face and pressed its warm glossy fur against the wound. He fell asleep, or unconscious, or maybe dead. He no longer cared.

He was not dead, but he remembered nothing of the days that followed.

At some point, the Cerberites had spread out across the island in search of their hounds. They cared nothing for the dogs, but they did care that a human might have been able to defeat them. And lying in the cold, congealing mess of fur and guts they found that man. A man they had known from a time before. A man from Dis.

They took him away, tended his wounds, stitching what remained of the left side of his face back on with expert robotic hands. They felt no revulsion, no pity, only respect for a man who had survived the worst their island had to offer.

When Fulgar awoke, they were gone. His mind was hazy (in the years that followed he came to believe that the Cerberites had done something to him, something more than merely stitched his face back together). He gradually came to know where he was, and that he must move, but quite how he had got there was a story he had to piece together one painful paragraph at a time over the next decade.

He was alone in a grotto beneath a disused landing dock. The back of the cave was sealed by a rock-fall; the front gave almost directly onto a small beach on the west side of the island, away from Dis. There were no guards. Had they meant him to escape, or had they assumed he would be in no condition to do so? Either way, they made a fateful mistake. Although in pain so intense he could barely think, John Fulgar crawled out of the grotto and away.

It took him three days to make his way around the island. Three days of moving from cover to cover, always scouting the positions of the Cerberites’ lookouts before venturing into the open. Three days of eating what he could find on the margins of the forests, or shellfish and worms from the tidal pools. Still wracked by pain and dead on his feet, Fulgar crawled his way under the docks on the Dis side of the island and waited for the ship that would take him back to the mainland.

The ship arrived two days later. As the next group of prisoners – unusually two women amongst them – were unloaded, Fulgar slipped aboard. He crawled down into the ship’s hold and submerged himself in the filth in the bilges. The Cerberites sensed ‘otherness’ more than the saw or heard it, and down here in bowels of the ship, Fulgar was just like all the rest of the scum and ordure that crawled on the face of this hellish world. He was safe. For now.

The ship set sail, but not for Dis. It put into port ten miles along the coast. It was picking up supplies for the capital, and as the hold was loaded with its cargo of food, its sole human passenger disembarked.

He stole away under cover of darkness into the Outlands. He hid out in abandoned buildings, avoiding human contact while he formulated his plan. The swelling in his face gradually diminished, and he found that he was completely blind in his left eye. When the socket became infected, he felt no loss when he simply gouged the dead eye out and cut the optic nerve. His healing moved much more quickly after that.

For three years Fulgar wandered the Outlands. As he gradually began to piece together the fragments of memory from the time before, one story started to grow in his mind. He had dreamed of the past while alone on the Isle of Fortunates, hovering between life and death. He dreamed of a prophesy that told of a man who would come from far away, another world, to avenge Firestorm. Mixed with the dream was the certainty of memory… and then there was the note. That scrap of paper he had carried through this whole nightmare, the note that told him exactly where and when he must wait.

So he waited. For another six years he waited. He moved along the coast and penetrated the outer walls of the city. He lived among the passageways and secret tunnels, venturing now and then into the outer reaches of the capital, always under cover of darkness, always keeping clear of the fiendish inhabitants of this pent-up hell. He tried to refine his memory, to bring into focus what had led him to this point.

On a raid into the city to steal food he chanced upon a discarded Government file, an item so laden with personal meaning and significance that he felt it unlock a part of his mind hitherto all but dead. The file itself contained nothing of use, but he made good use of it none the less. As memories came back he wrote them in that file, gradually sifting through the fog and jumble of his past to compile a dossier of everything he had ever known about the Prophesy. It turned out to be quite a lot.

As he lived those solitary years within the city walls, he watched and learned, honed his plans, remade himself. He also built the story of his revenge until it was more real to him than his memories.

His waiting was not in vain. A messenger did come, exactly when he said he would.

This messenger was not the Prophesy, but he was a portent of it.

It was this messenger who had led him out of Dis one last time and planted him in Orbis. Someone was coming; someone who could help him with the violent final act of his life. He was not told what to do or how to do it. Do whatever you feel is right, the visitor had said. Anything else would change time. What will be will be.

So he hid. He found himself a place that would act as a safe-house if the need arose. He had intended to scout the area around the borders of Orbis before attempting a crossing of Mormo towards the forest, but the Cerberites had beaten him to it. He knew this was a possibility – one he had been warned about and urged to prevent – but it had simply not been possible. He watched the machines bring the first human through the gate and into the town. He knew the wait was nearly over.

The tell-tale dust trails of the lion and the leopard had broken the grey horizon barely half an hour later.

He stood on the precarious ledge, spears at hand, and watched as the two humans slipped and stumbled down the slope towards him.

* * *

As he watched them sleep their dreamless sleep in his basement hide-out, he smiled. They had been delivered to him, just as he had been told. He had expected some resistance from Seyyal, some fight (and he would have fought to gain control of them, of that he was in no doubt), but they had been handed to him without the slightest compunction. Seyyal and her half-witted brother could so easily have scuppered his plans, but in the end they had been easier to manipulate than he could ever have wished.

Now he had them and he would, as the messenger had advised, do with them exactly as he pleased. With care and ingenuity, they would unlock the gates of Dis and vengeance would be his.

He had been patient for a long time now. He just needed to remember, however tempting the alternatives were, that this was just the beginning.

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