David had a dilemma. Should he risk trying to cross Mormo alone to catch them up, or should he search the buildings first, in case Toby had been persuaded to wait for him? The latter risked drawing attention to himself – attention from the Cerberites or any of the other Council spies who might haunt these buildings. The former option might be even worse. If he arrived at the forest and the pod was gone, what then?
At least in town he had hope.
He jogged a complete circuit of the town before arriving back where he had started without seeing any evidence of his companions. He was seriously considering making a dash for it across the plain when a voice hissed across the empty street from a building almost attached to the gate.
‘Dave!’ Toby repeated as David tried to locate the source of the sound. He saw a sliver of a familiar face peeping out from one of the houses. David ran across the road and Toby hauled him into the derelict building. Sarah and Limivo leaned against the wall in the semi-darkness looking exhausted.
‘You made it through, then,’ David said.
‘Yes,’ Sarah said. ‘No trouble at all. Which I think may mean there’s trouble elsewhere. We can’t afford to wait here much longer. How did you get back?’
‘I’ll tell you later. Even I don’t quite understand it yet. Is Seyyal here?’
‘She’s gone out. Should be back any minute.’
‘And Namir?’ David asked.
‘He’s dead,’ Limivo said. ‘The Cerberites found him.’
‘And they killed him?’
‘They wanted to know what Namir and Seyyal were doing, and what they did to him ensured they found out. He told them everything, except that he was meeting us back here. Once they’d finished with him, they executed him.’
At that moment Seyyal returned, squeezing through the door before shoring it up behind her.
‘I’m sorry about Namir,’ David said.
Seyyal looked at him blankly, then nodded.
‘Now we’re all together,’ David said, ‘I say we get out of here.’ He opened the door a few centimetres.
‘I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.’ Seyyal banged the door shut again.
‘The Cerberites could be here any minute.’
‘They will be.’ She smiled at him.
‘Then we need to move!’ Sarah said.
‘I think we’ll wait a minute or two,’ she said. ‘They hate to be sent on false errands.’
‘What?’ David said. ‘You sent them here to find us?’
‘A few of them. A few Namir and I kept as our personal assistants.’
‘Why? I thought you were going to help us get home.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Seyyal laughed.
‘Then what? Why all this effort? You’re going to ransom us, sell us, hide us until your stupid prophesy can come true?’
‘Not at all.’ She placed her hand on David’s shoulder and looked for a moment into his eyes as if trying to satisfy herself of some unresolved question. Then in a flash she was behind him, his neck held in a tight arm-lock. ‘The Cerberites are going to kill you, of course. You should have learned that you can’t trust anyone in this place!’
‘So all that about roaming the Outlands to find survivors was a lie?’ Sarah said.
‘Not at all. It’s how Namir and I kept ourselves busy while we waited for you,’ Seyyal drew a long curved knife from her waistband and, holding it in front of David’s face, examined the way the light glinted off its surface.
‘We sent plenty of humans to the City or the Isle of Fortunates,’ she went on, ‘and were paid handsomely for our efforts. But not you. If you ever made it into the hands of the Keeper, he would be able to release the Barons into the Outlands and the world as we know it would be finished.’
‘And what about Namir?’ David gasped. Seyyal’s grip tightened yet further.
‘Oh, what I told your friends was mostly true,’ she said. ‘The Cerberites did kill him, drowned him in the Dimeninx Fountain, but only because I told them to. He began to like you just too much – said we should let you go, if you can believe that! He disappeared not long after you left with Fulgar. But I knew where he’d gone. He was detained by Minos and I saw to it that he came down the mountain unimpeded so I could… speak to him. He told me everything.’
‘Was Fulgar working with you too?’ Sarah said.
‘Fulgar was in the right place at the right time, and since he was there, we made use of him. He was our best chance of getting all three of you together.’
‘Because he knows the machines. He should; he designed them. He could keep you safe. That way we had two chances of getting your friend back. Namir and I searched Orbis, and with your human propensity for sentimentality we knew you’d do everything you could to find him too. Perfect really, don’t you think?’
Seyyal stroked David’s cheek with the edge of the blade as if shaving him. His friends were powerless to do anything. One move and Seyyal would slice his neck open before anyone got near her.
‘I can’t believe you killed your own brother for this,’ David said. ‘Can’t you see, it’s not us? We don’t know anything about your world. We’re here by accident!’
‘Can’t you see that it doesn’t matter? If I believe you are the Prophesy – and Fulgar clearly does too – then others will. Have you any idea the power to be gained by someone who the people believe has stopped the Prophesy? By whoever killed the emissary of Time itself?’
‘Is that what all this has been about?’
‘Of course. It’s what everything’s about. Power.’ She moved the blade to David’s throat. He swallowed hard and felt the cold metal against his adam’s apple. ‘You saw Exdis. What is that if not an exercise in power? It’s what the Keeper craves. And with you dead, I will be hailed a saviour. The villages will open up again, and when they do, they’ll need a leader to carry them into the future.’
‘And we’ve just spent the last few days making sure as many people as possible knew we were here,’ Sarah said.
‘Exactly. We just intended to take you to the Council and let them spread the word, but when Fulgar arrived… well. Even we couldn’t have imagined he’d parade you through Exdis like trophies! It was perfect. In the end, all I needed to do was ensure you came back down the mountains so I could deal with you myself. Now, I just need to do a little house-keeping.’
‘Wait,’ David said. He needed to buy some time. For what, he had no idea, but he knew he wasn’t ready to die yet. ‘Where are the rest of the Cerberites, the ones you don’t have working for you? How come we all managed to get back here? Don’t they have orders to look for us?’
‘Of course they have,’ Seyyal said. David caught a slight movement from Sarah. She glanced at Limivo who all this time had been standing out of David’s eyeline, behind Seyyal.
‘So where are they?’ Limivo said.
‘Most of them are on the other side of the mountains. We told the council that if you had gone to Exdis – which seemed likely – sooner or later you’d come back up that side of the barrier range to get away. Of course, we knew you’d try to get back through the court, but they didn’t. So we directed all their efforts to finding you in the wrong–’
There was the briefest hissing sound followed by two sharp reports, each as loud as gunfire in the still room. The first was the sound of the plank Limivo had swung through the air making contact with the back of Seyyal’s head. The second, which followed almost instantly, was Seyyal’s head slamming into the door with a dull, hollow thud.
Seyyal’s grip on David’s neck faltered momentarily as she teetered on the edge of collapse. Without thinking, he dropped down and forwards and hit the floor, out of range of his captor. Her hand scrabbled after him in the empty air and she lost her balance, hitting the door with her shoulder. A deep gash above her right eyebrow pumped blood down the side of her face. She righted herself and turned unsteadily towards Limivo.
She drew breath to speak, but the words barely had time to form.
Limivo had already swung the plank back and now, as Seyyal turned to face him, he brought it in a fluid arc back on target. He could have hit her again at any time in the last few seconds, but he wanted her to see the final decisive blow coming. At the last moment he twisted the plank and brought its edge into contact with the side of her head, tracing for an instant a perfect straight line between her nose and ear.
As the momentum pushed the plank past its target it broke into two long jagged pieces. Seyyal’s head rotated, blood already erupting from her nose and mouth like the red trails of a firework. She wavered for a second before crumpling to the floor and rolling onto her back. The knife slipped from her hand.
This final blow had almost sliced the top of her head off, but Limivo was taking no chances. He stood above the woman who had seemed to promise them so much and thrust the sharp end of the plank down into her open mouth. Her half-grin spread as the wood crushed her jaw and drove on through the back of her neck and into the earth floor.
He stood over her for a moment, then withdrew the plank and threw it into the corner of the room. ‘We need to get out of here,’ he said. ‘The Cerberites are getting closer.’
A distant rattling rolled down the street outside. David opened the door and looked towards the centre of Orbis. Black figures were just coming into view at the far end of the road, the light glinting off their reflective visors.
‘Come on!’ David darted out into the street, followed by his three companions.
They ran out through the Aabas Gate and into the flat barren lands of Mormo.
* * *
‘What about Fulgar?’ Sarah said.
‘What about him?’ David replied. ‘After what he did to you, what do you care?’
‘We can’t just leave him in the labyrinth to die! Can’t we send a message to the council that’s he’s trapped in there? We’ll be gone by the time he gets out…’
‘There’s no time. I’m sure he’ll be fine.’
By now they were well out into the plain. It was perfectly flat, but the forest still looked to be miles away on the shimmering dusty horizon.
The Cerberites were outside the gate now. David could see at least five, maybe six, as he glanced back. They fanned out and moved swiftly across the plain. They were moving more quickly than their quarry but so far, not by much.
The trees on the horizon inched closer. Already exhausted from his journey from the Cordis, David was beginning to slow. His legs felt unsteady, his breath hot and short. The terror of being so close to safety, yet so dangerously exposed on the plain began to take its toll. Thoughts tumbled through his mind, each erupting before the last had fully formed.
Chief amongst his fears was that they had no idea how long it would take to cross Mormo. On the inward journey to Orbis Sarah had reckoned they’d been out here for an hour or more; David thought it was more like ten minutes. He knew now that neither of them were right. Time on Mormo did not obey the laws of nature any more than the geography of it did. This place had been devised by a mind that cared nothing for Newton or Einstein. Time and distance were in the minds of the beholders, not the laws of physics.
He pounded on, no longer looking at their destination, just believing that everything they had been through had not been for nothing. He was not finished with life yet, and deep down he knew that this world had not finished with him either.
Toby shouted something David did not catch. He looked up and saw that his companions were well ahead of him now. But the forest was getting closer. The burning tightness in his chest and the dancing pin-pricks of light before his eyes told him that if he pushed too hard he was going to fall unconscious, right in the path of the Cerberites. But he had no choice.
Something stirred on the horizon to their left. A cloud of dust rose up as the lion began to close in. A moment later, a cloud on the other horizon marked the approach of the leopard.
In front of them the trees were now beginning to separate out into individual shapes. In the forest they might have a chance. They could split up among the trees, confuse their pursuers, maybe even find somewhere to hide. If they could find the pod, then they could be away before the machines knew what was happening. Safety was tantalisingly close, but the Cerberites were gaining fast. So were the two animals.
A dull thud and a piercing scream reverberated across the plain. The lion had brought one of the Cerberites down. David looked back and had just the briefest snapshot image of the animal swiping one of its huge paws across the machine’s blank face before he stumbled in a deep fissure and almost lost his footing. With his hands stretched out in front of him he redoubled his efforts to keep up with the others. Behind him there was a metallic shriek and a blinding flash of light.
One down, five to go.
Now just a few hundred yards form the edge of the forest, they had a problem. David saw his companions beginning to slow, their movements unsure for the first time. The trees all looked the same; there was nothing to indicate which way to head. David thought they had followed a more or less straight line from the gate to the forest, but even a few degrees of error could land them a long way from the safety of the pod. The forest might help them evade the Cerberites for a while, but not for ever. If they got lost in there, they would tire long before the machines did.
There was a movement up ahead, a little to their left. From behind a dyke of earth a figure waved, beckoning to them. David pushed himself harder until he was level with Sarah at the front of their group.
‘It’s Namir!’ he shouted, pointing in the direction of the dyke.
‘Can’t be! He’s dead.’
‘Well there’s no one else who knew we’d be here. Go, that way!’
They did, and they almost made it.
Thirty feet from the slope that led up to the forest Toby screamed. The Cerberite had only caught him a glancing blow, but now it reached out again. Six bony fingers clawed at the loose material between his shoulders, finding just enough purchase to begin to slow him. Toby’s curiously effeminate scream was punctuated by the deep barking roar of the leopard as it too closed in on its quarry. As suddenly as the drone had grabbed Toby, it released its grip. A cloud of dust exploded from the ground as the leopard climbed up the machine’s back, dragging it down.
They rolled through the dust and ash, beast and machine locked in a graceless dance of death. The leopard tore the drone’s left arm off, revealing metal rods and wires beneath the tattered leather. Its jaws tried to clamp around the Cerberite’s neck, but the machine batted it away like a kitten. At once the lion was on the it too. As it had with the first drone, the big cat swiped at the reflective visor, with a roar that seemed to shake the ground. The first blow skidded off, leaving deep scratch marks but its second attempt lodged a claw beneath the edge of the visor and tore it clear. There was a flash of blue flame and the lion leapt clear.
Flames spread rapidly from the machine’s exposed skull and out along its torso. The armour burned intensely for a couple of seconds, then its body erupted into a ball of purple and black flame so intense that the heat haze distorted the distant outline of Orbis like ripples on a lake.
The four fugitives reached the foot of the slope that led into the forest. Sarah scrambled up easily but Toby could get no purchase on the loose earth. His feet slipped from under him as he lunged for an exposed tree route. David, already near the top some ten feet along the bank began to shuffle crab-like towards him. Another of the machines moved swiftly to the head of the column and Toby was once more within range. It was about to strike when it saw the approaching leopard, and swerved away. The animal skidded on the loose surface and leapt onto the slowing Cerberite. It gave David the split second he needed to get a grip on Toby’s arm and haul him the rest of the way up into the forest.
The leopard scrambled up the machine’s back and reached over its shoulder. Again the visor was torn clear and the leopard sprang clear as flames engulfed the machine.
The remaining three drones pressed on, scaling the crumbling slope with ease. They slowed at the top and fanned out along the edge of the treeline, seemingly reluctant to commit to entering the woods. Below them the lion and leopard stood watching, but made no attempt to follow. Sarah was the first to reach the cover of the trees, but immediately came to a halt.
The figure behind the dyke was now standing in full view.
‘It’s Fulgar!’ Sarah shouted. ‘We’re trapped!’
The Cerberite at the centre of the group lunged forwards and caught hold of David with the tips of its fingers. Sarah jumped at it, screaming, but Limivo was quicker. He pulled her back as the machine lunged again for a better grip.
With Sarah safely behind him Limivo launched a flying kick at the drone’s arm.
‘In here! Quickly!’ Fulgar shouted.
The first kick had not dislodged the machine’s grip on David’s arm, so Limivo tried another route. He jumped onto the Cerberite’s back as the cats had done. The other two drones stopped moving.
Limivo reached over the top of the Cerberite’s head and dug his fingers under the bottom of its visor. He yanked up, hard. A blast of blue light flashed as the bottom dozen or so screws came loose, and it was enough for the machine to loosen its grip on David. Sarah grabbed him and dragged him into the trees towards Fulgar.
‘No!’ David shouted. ‘We’ve got to help him.’ He shook free and took a step towards Limivo.
‘Come! Now!’ Fulgar shouted. By now he had begun to gather Sarah into his arms, knowing that where she went, the two boys would follow.
David paused for a moment; he might still be able to save Limivo. The Cerberite had been partially disabled by that first exposure of the sensitive machinery behind the visor, but it was still moving. It swung its arms around in long, lazy arcs, trying to catch hold of the boy on its back. But there really was nothing David could do. Even if this machine failed, there were still two fully functional ones which were now beginning to move slowly towards the fight.
‘I’m sorry!’ David cried. ‘We tried!’
‘It’s OK,’ Limivo said with a grin. ‘Never thought we’d make it this far.’
He dug his fingers deeper beneath the visor and ripped it upwards. It was a triumphant gesture.
For an instant David caught a glimpse of the machine’s face, criss-crossed with black circuitry and wires, before the visor dropped back and flames began to take hold. Smoke billowed from the seams in its leather armour, but it was still not finished.
As dark flames began to engulf the machine’s body, Limivo let go. He dropped to the ground and crawled a few feet away into the trees, his tunic charred and smoking. In a movement so sudden and swift that it left eddies in the swirling smoke, the Cerberite stooped and took hold of him. Badly burned, Limivo could put up no more than token resistance. He beat at the drone’s arms and kicked futilely at its burning legs.
The Cerberite hauled him to his feet then lifted him clear of the ground. For several seconds they stood, face to face, the blue flames that poured from the drone illuminating Limivo’s sweat-streaked face. He was smiling even as his skin began to smoulder and bubble. Then, as David retreated further into the trees, the dying machine wailed its blood-curdling cry one last time.
The Cerberite dug its fingers into the Limivo’s shoulders and tore him down the middle, removing his ribs from his spine like velcro.
David turned and ran. The last thing he heard before Fulgar took hold of him and threw him behind the earth dyke where he had been hiding was two wet, crumpling plops as Limivo’s body was cast aside like spoiled meat. The sound would haunt him for the rest of his life.
‘You!’ David said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Just a minute,’ Fulgar replied. ‘We’re not finished yet.’
The last two drones were advancing from opposite ends of the dyke. Fulgar scrambled to its top and tore a branch from one of the trees that overhung it. He winced as the stiff thorns of the tree cut into his hands.
Both machines were equally close, and Fulgar could only go one way.
He ran to the right end of their shelter. He thrust the branch at the armour plate that covered the Cerberite’s chest. The machine didn’t even pause. In a flash it took hold of Fulgar’s improvised weapon and, with a deft flick of its wrist, snapped the last eight inches or so off. Which was exactly what Fulgar had been hoping for.
The drone tried to drop the wood but the thorns were now embedded between the bones and wires of its hand. This moment of re-evaluation was enough to give Fulgar time to swing his weapon over his head and bring it down with incredible force onto the top of the skull.
Behind him, the last of the hunters was still stalking the three youngsters at the other end of the dyke. Just as Fulgar delivered his blow, it caught hold of Sarah and lifted her from the shelter. She screamed. Toby hit out at it, but it brushed him aside. He fell back over a tangle of roots and landed at the bottom of the dyke, clutching at his twisted ankle. David clambered over him and calmly and deliberately he took the Cerberite’s arm in his left hand.
‘Stop,’ he said. ‘It’s me you want, not her.’
The machine looked at him. It gave a low, rattling reply.
‘Leave her,’ David said.
The Cerberite let go. For a moment Sarah stood still, too stunned to move. David nodded to her, indicating that she should go back to Toby. His eyes never left the blank, reflective visor, and whatever passed for eyes behind it never left him either.
At the other end of the dyke, Fulgar raised the branch again and once more brought it down on the machine’s head. This time the visor cracked. Smoke began to trickle out of the split. He began to raise his weapon once more, but the machine was too quick. It caught hold of the branch with its free hand and tore it from the man’s grip. It stared at its attacker for a moment then drew the weapon back. Fulgar took a step backwards but his path was blocked by the very tree he had torn the branch from.
‘Get down!’ Toby screamed from behind him.
Instinctively, Fulgar ducked. An instant later a large rock whistled over his head.
Toby’s shot was dead on target.
As the Cerberite was about to bring the branch down on Fulgar, the rock struck the already cracked visor square in the centre. It shattered and what had been just a trickle of smoke exploded into a ball of purple flame. The machine brought the branch down, but, unable to see its target, caught Fulgar only a glancing blow. The big man crumpled to the ground, stunned but not seriously hurt. As he shook his head, trying to clear his vision, the machine was consumed by flames.
Behind him, the final machine had taken hold of David’s arm. Sarah still stood beside him but was powerless to do anything.
‘Sarah, go,’ David said quietly. ‘This is how it’s got to be.’
‘No!’ She reached out, taking David’s hand as if to pull him away from the machine. The Cerberite gripped David’s arm harder and stepped backwards; David did not resist. He took his eyes from the machine’s non-face and looked at Sarah. Her face was pale and drawn. A little white scar was just visible above her right eyebrow.
‘I love you.’ David mouthed the words. He wasn’t sure whether she had seen him, or understood him, but he knew she had felt some of his meaning. For a moment her hand tightened around his. Then he was wrenched away and their contact was broken.
David saw nothing and heard nothing. All he was aware of was the machine suddenly being thrust sideways by some vast, unstoppable force. Reflexively he turned his head away and he was moving too.
The Cerberite fell into the leaf litter still holding David’s arm. For a moment all he could feel was pain. Then he managed to get his arm free and roll clear. He had no idea what had happened, but was not going to wait around to find out. He got to his feet and, taking Sarah by the hand, ran for the shelter of the dyke.
Fulgar crawled in from the far end, still looking stunned, his eyes wide and unfocussed.
‘You OK?’ he gasped.
‘What the hell happened?’ David said.
‘I think they’re gone, for now,’ Fulgar said.
David looked out at where he had been standing just seconds earlier. The Cerberite had vanished. There was a pungent smell of electrical burning, but no sign of the machine. Through the trees he thought he caught a glimpse of a white form merging back into the forest. A mournful howl, almost too faint to hear, echoed in the still air, then Fulgar was turning him, examining him with his one wide, frantic eye.
‘You sure you’re OK?’ Fulgar said.
‘You’re damn lucky they weren’t sent to kill you.’
‘Weren’t they?’ he said.
‘You’re alive, aren’t you? No, this lot were just ordered to stop you leaving. Someone else was going to do the actual killing.’
Fulgar laughed. ‘Like I said, you’re still alive, aren’t you? You did well, David.’ He slumped to the ground and took a deep breath. When he opened his eye again it was clear and focussed.
‘How did you get out of the labyrinth?’ David said.
‘Limivo told me. It’s not hard. The labyrinth was designed to be almost impossible to get into, not out of. All I had to do was take the lowest numbered door each time, and eventually I got back to the start. Then I ran like hell to get ahead of you. Thanks to you this leg’ll play merry bloody murder for weeks.’
‘So why did you save us now?’ David said. ‘I thought you wanted us dead!’
‘I never wanted you dead. I just didn’t want you here. All this has been about getting you all back to the capsule and away. There are things you can do here, but not yet. You’re not ready. If you hadn’t been so determined to escape all the time, it would have been much easier on all of us.’ He smiled a crooked, half smile.
‘So why didn’t you just tell us?’ Sarah said.
‘I was told not to.’
‘By who? Who knew we were coming here?’
Fulgar caught David’s eye. That strange look again, the one that spoke so much, but of what David had not previously known. Back in Exdis he had thought it just part of Fulgar’s trickery, but he knew better now.
‘It was me, wasn’t it?’ David said. ‘I told you not to tell us anything.’
‘Why?’ Sarah said, rounding on David. ‘Why would you put us through all this?’
‘Before you left, you said it might change time,’ Fulgar said. ‘If you knew what was here. If we did anything other than what we were meant to do, it could have started a cascade.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Sarah said. ‘You’ve been here before?’
‘No, not yet,’ David said. ‘I mean, not in my past, but in Fulgar’s. It’s how Eutrycia knew to find us in the prison; it’s how Tithonus knew me and helped me find a way out of the mountains.’ It was how Fulgar had acquired that strange note: ‘Meet me in the walls beside the gate….’ David shuddered at the thought.
‘This is crazy! There’s no way you can possibly want to come back here!’
‘Not want, no. Maybe need to.’
‘You’re learning,’ Fulgar said. ‘But remember, if you do come back – in my past – I won’t know you. For me none of this will have happened, but you’ve got to persuade me. And forget about changing time. A cascade’s maybe all that’ll stop this.’
‘All this? You can stop this?’ Sarah said.
‘So you put us through all of that down in Exdis just because David told you to? Or, no, he didn’t even do that, did he? He just didn’t tell you not to! I don’t know which of you’s the bigger fool!’ she said.
‘Would you have believed me if I had told you the truth? Namir and Seyyal had their own plans for you, and I had to make sure you came with me, not them. But I also had to get your idiot friend back, so that meant taking you through the mountains to catch up with him. I drugged you so you couldn’t tell Minos the truth.’
‘But what about the water in the flask?’
‘That was just water. The real memory draft – if that’s even how the Dimeninx Fountain really works – was in a bottle in my pocket. Giving you plain water in the court was meant to discredit my ‘case’ even further, so there was no way Minos would believe you were Travellers.’
‘And Satyris and Creophas? They could have killed us… or worse.’
‘That wasn’t going to happen. Not in the time you’d be with them. I did it because I needed to split you up while I went after Toby. As you said yourself, Sarah, there were two of you and only one of me. And I had to keep up the act of being your captor. There are spies everywhere in Exdis, so I could never risk giving you the slightest sign that I was going to get you out of here. I thought if I kept you scared, you were less likely to be trouble. I didn’t reckon on you finding help, or being so inventive. But now, it really is time to go,’ he said, pointing in the direction of the familiar concrete box protruding from the forest floor.
He guided them back to the pod and lowered Sarah then Toby in through the roof hatch.
‘What about the note?’ David said once he and Fulgar were alone.
For a moment Fulgar looked puzzled, then realisation dawned.
‘Ah, so you had seen it. I wondered what all that was about, digging in my pockets on the way to Creophas’s.’
‘I found it when we were waiting in the court. Do you need me to write that for you now?’
‘No. If you come back, and the time’s right, you’ll write it. If not, then things might go very differently.’
‘What about you? What now?’
‘Well, first I’m going to Labek, lay low for a while, get this damn leg sorted out. After that, who knows? The future’s not set. Maybe there’ll be no future.’
‘Do we stop this? Ever?’
‘I don’t know. We got… we’ll get close. We’ll start things. It’s just a matter of time.’
‘If I’m coming back here, if we’ve got to meet again, where do we do it? I mean, where should I direct the pod next time?’
‘You’ll know. When the time’s right, you’ll know everything you need to know. Now get out of here, there’s more of them coming.’
Fulgar lowered David in through the roof hatch to join Toby and Sarah in the capsule. He leaned down and spoke softly to them.
‘Good luck. See you soon.’
He slammed the hatch closed, then there was silence except for the faint rattling cries of more Cerberites moving into the forest above.
‘Let’s do it,’ Sarah said. ‘Home.’
David leaned over to the control panel and hit the button marked, ‘Emergency Return’, knowing it would deliver them back to where they came from, just an instant after they had left.
* * *
‘Do you think it worked?’ Toby said after the display had counted down to zero.
‘It had a better chance this time without you fiddling with the panel after we’d set off.’
Toby gave David a filthy look, but said nothing.
‘How are we going to explain the mess we are in?’ Sarah looked down at her mud-encrusted jeans. David thought for a moment.
‘We can slip out through the fire escape. Remember, it’s still not eight o’clock here. We could even make the gig if we hurry.’
‘I think I’ll pass,’ Sarah said. ‘But I think you should try to find Ronson. If he knew what his machine was capable of he’d destroy it.’
David looked at her.
‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘You really are going back?’
‘I don’t want to. Right now, I definitely don’t intend to, but let’s just keep the options open, OK?’
‘Stuff this,’ Toby said and reached for the door handle. After a moment’s pause, he swung it round to the ‘open’ position, and pushed.
The sound of laughter drifted down the corridor as Toby stepped out into Professor Ronson’s lab. Sarah paused, as if she were going to say something to David. It was the most natural thing in the world. He was not even aware of the movement. He hugged her, hard, close, feeling the strength in her, the simple human warmth of her. Then the moment was gone. She smiled.
‘Thanks, David,’ she whispered. ‘And promise me you won’t go back without telling me, OK?’
He nodded and Sarah followed Toby to the lab door.
They were home, out of that nightmare world, and no one knew they had even been away. No one could have any idea what had passed in that Planck moment they had been and returned; of what hell awaited their world on the other side of chance; of what a world was like without love or hope.
Sarah disappeared as David went to switch off the light on Michael’s desk. His hand paused. The only sound was the gentle tick-tick of Tigger’s tail wagging against the sides of his basket. Almost without thinking David took one the notebooks from the pile on the desk and tore a quarter page from the back. He would just try it, see if his mind had just been playing tricks on him back there in the waiting room of Minos’s mountain court. If he’d just been imagining things, or…
He grabbed Michael’s favourite Mont Blanc pen and wrote: Meet me in the walls beside the gate, midnight, November 6, 1910. I won’t wait.
He dropped the pen and looked at the note, all clean and white, the ink still wet and shiny in the hard light of the lamp.
It was not like the note he had seen in Fulgar’s pocket. The slightly curved tear (caused not by the note being torn out in haste, but rather too casually to be neat), the half-flamboyant-half-childish loops and whirls of the letters, the smudge where he had dragged his left hand through the wet ink.
It was not similar at all.
It was identical.
In a way no forger could ever have achieved, the note he now held in his filthy, battle-worn hand was a perfect replica of the one he had found in Fulgar’s pocket.
It was the note he had found.
Casually, accidentally, he had just written the note that John Fulgar had carried through hell for more than a hundred years.
A note David himself was going to have to deliver.
Firestorm Book 2: Realm of Violence is published April 14, 2017. Copies can be bought prior to publication at the special price of just 99c/99p – *only until 14 April*! Be among the first people in the world to read the long-awaited second book of the Firestorm cycle!