Destroyer of Worlds
The Final Age
I am the Caretaker. I keep a light burning in the darkest night. I serve all who come to me, whether their hearts are filled with hope or tainted by despair.
Here I stand, at the end of the world, where the night is darker than ever, and the lamps have gone out, one by one. What lies ahead is mystery. But the road to the end is clear.
It began one misty morning, close to Albert Bridge in London, where Jack Churchill wandered, lost in the depths of grief for his dead girlfriend, Marianne. Drawn by the sounds of struggle, Jack — an archaeologist known as Church — stepped away from his world and into a stranger and more real one when he encountered one of a race of shape-shifting creatures from the depths of Celtic mythology: the Fomorii, also known as the Nightwalkers. Though the creature fled, Jack met the woman who would become the great love of his life, Ruth Gallagher, and together they uncovered the first signs of an invasion by the Fomorii.
But Church and Ruth were also inducted into a greater and more uplifting mystery, that of the Blue Fire, an energy that ran through the land along leys, its power focused at ancient sacred sites. For more than two thousand years, this force for Life — Existence — had chosen groups of five champions, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, who would fight to protect the land. Bound together by the Pendragon Spirit, Church and Ruth were only the latest members, and they soon met the other three of their team: an Asian mystic, Shavi, the acerbic Laura DuSantiago, and Ryan Veitch, a tough ex-criminal from South London.
The Fomorii were engaged in battle with their ancient race-enemies — the Golden Ones, the Tuatha De Danaan, who had been the gods of the ancient Celts. Many of these golden-skinned gods were contemptuous of humans — Fragile Creatures, as they named them — and manipulated them to their own ends. The Tuatha De Danaan, however, had an odd, symbiotic relationship with their mysterious shape-shifting companions, the Caraprix, which at times appeared to be more powerful than the gods.
With the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in the middle, this war thrust Britain into an Age of Misrule. Science and reason were overthrown, and magic returned to the world.
Church and his comrades found their abilities honed in the crucible of battle. Ruth became an exponent of the Craft, drawing on the long heritage of wise women tapping into the power of the land. Laura became more nature spirit than human under the guidance of the Celtic god Cernunnos, also known as the Green Man. Veitch found his destiny as a powerful warrior, and lost a hand in the process. Shavi grew into a role as seer and wise man. And Church became the great leader the world needed.
In their quest, they were accompanied by their elderly guide, Tom, who had been kidnapped from his home in the Middle Ages and altered by the gods at the terrifying Court of the Final Word to become the great hero of myth, Thomas the Rhymer, who had the power of prophecy.
He was not the only human to be caught up in the gods' manipulations. Callow, a bitter wanderer, joined forces with the Fomorii and almost caused the downfall of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.
As the war raged across Britain, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons overcame numerous hardships. Shavi was killed, but Veitch journeyed to the Grim Lands, the Land of the Dead, to reclaim his spirit and return him to life. This heroic act, however, had unforeseen and devastating consequences.
Callow was eventually killed, but he was not the only one; Tom, too, gave up his life, as did Niamh, one of the Tuatha De Danaan, who had fallen in love with Church. And in the Battle of London where the Fomorii were finally defeated, Ryan Veitch lost his own life. A tragic figure, Veitch had been manipulated by the gods to betray the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.
In the cataclysmic battle against Balor, the great god of the Fomorii, Church was flung back through the ages, separated by more than two thousand years from Ruth, the woman he loved.
Though victorious, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons had paid a high price. The survivors went their separate ways, and Existence set about forming a new band of Five who could be champions in the devastated world that remained.
But these Brothers and Sisters of Dragons would be different. Veitch's journey to the Grim Lands had broken one of the great rules and thereby attracted the attention of a terrible dark force beyond the edge of the universe: the Void, also known as the Devourer of All Things, the dark reflection of Existence, Anti-Life, the true ruler of the universe. Through the Mundane Spell, it kept humanity in thrall and deflected it from magic and wonder, which could eventually lead to the dark god's rule being usurped. Now that the Void had noticed magic had returned, it was coming back to Earth to ensure the Mundane Spell remained unbroken.
And so Existence needed to find five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons who could operate beyond the attention of the Void. From another reality, it plucked Mallory, who had killed himself in his own world after committing an undisclosed terrible crime. In Salisbury, Mallory joined the ranks of the new Knights Templar and learned to become a warrior. There he met the first Sister of Dragons, Sophie Tallent, who had mastered the Craft, and Miller, whom Existence had gifted with the power to heal.
Meanwhile, rural doctor Caitlin Shepherd also became a Sister of Dragons, after a plague claimed the lives of her husband Grant and son Liam. Caitlin escaped the Void's attention because her consciousness was fragmented: known as the Broken Woman, she developed several distinct personalities and was eventually possessed by the Morrigan, one of the Tuatha De Danaan, the goddess of death and violence, sex and life.
In her travels, Caitlin encountered several helpers, amongst them Carlton, a young boy who was killed during their quest; Jack, who, like Tom, had been kidnapped by the Court of the Final Word and had the destructive force of the Wish-Hex embedded inside him; Jack's sociopathic girlfriend Mahalia; and their guide, the dissolute academic Crowther.
The final two Brothers of Dragons were Hunter, a Government Special Forces officer and trained killer, and Hal, a lowly clerk, so insignificant that he escaped the Void's attentions completely.
The Void eventually realised that the only way it could maintain the Mundane Spell was by completely changing reality back into its familiar form, the age-old ways of money and power, where magic and wonder did not exist. All the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons were locked into fake, mundane lives, forgetting their true heritage — except Hal, who gave up his corporeal existence to become part of the Blue Fire. His mission was to seek out Church, the true 'king', and help bring him back from the past to defeat the Void.
In the Iron Age, Church had been adopted by a Celtic tribe in the village of Carn Euny, in what would become Cornwall. He lived a simple life, but the Void recognised him as a threat and set out to destroy him. Through time, it despatched its agents, the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders; the Libertarian, a sardonic, brutal killer with lidless red eyes; and one other: a rejuvenated Ryan Veitch, corrupted by hatred, who blamed Church for his death and the loss of the woman he truly loved — Ruth.
Time became the battlefield. In different ages, Church fought the Void's agents, while in the modern world, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons began to awake from their fake lives.
Paradoxically, Church established the line of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in Carn Euny, long before he was chosen to be such a champion. But the first group were killed by Ryan Veitch, and eventually reanimated by the Void as the Brothers and Sisters of Spiders to help Veitch destroy Church.
The paradoxes continued thick and fast. Church was taken to the mysterious Otherworld, also known as the Far Lands, by Niamh, who would fall in love with him over time, and there he also encountered Tom in his younger days. In Niamh's court, Church befriended Jerzy, the Mocker, a surgically altered Fool who would play a large part in what was to come.
The magical Far Lands were timeless, and Church realised that he could while away his days there while centuries passed in the real world, and eventually return home when his own age rolled around again.
On occasional trips back to the real world, under Niamh's control, Church encountered many other Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. In Roman York in AD 306, he met the Dacian barbarian Decebalus, and the Roman Briton Aula Fabricia Candida, both of whom returned with him to the Far Lands when they discovered that Ryan Veitch was systematically killing off the line of champions. Over the centuries, Church rescued many others and brought them back to the Otherworld, where they formed an Army of Dragons in waiting.
The Great Powers continued to manipulate humans to their ends. The Void controlled many human leaders through the spiders, while gaining power over several gods from other pantheons in Earth's mythologies, amongst them the dual-faced Janus, god of doorways, and Loki, the Norse trickster god.
In Elizabethan times, Janus arranged the capture of many humans to be slaves in the Void's Fortress in the Far Lands. Amongst them were the New World colonists of Roanoke, including the young girl Virginia Dare, the first European to be born in the Americas.
Meanwhile, the Tuatha De Danaan continued their own manipulations. Dian Cecht and the gods of the Court of the Final Word were involved in a desperate attempt to probe the heart of Existence, not only to ensure their survival in the face of the Devourer of All Things, but also to prevent the Golden Ones from being supplanted by Fragile Creatures. In one of their experiments, they inserted a Caraprix inside Jerzy's head, to control him and use him against Church.
In 1851, at Stonehenge, Jerzy mysteriously disappeared from Church's side. He had been kidnapped by the shape-shifting trickster Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, one of the Oldest Things in the Land, to undisclosed ends.
As Veitch, the Libertarian and the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders continued a campaign to stop Church, they also launched a search for a world-shattering magickal artefact, the Extinction Shears, which could cut through all reality. Locating them, the Void's forces used the Shears to sever the Blue Fire from its source and condemn the world to the Mundane Spell. But after this act, the otherworldly Market of Wishful Spirit reclaimed the supremely powerful artefact, and disappeared with it.
At the Woodstock Festival in 1969, the Libertarian offered a world-weary Church a deal — if he allowed himself to be placed in the Sleep Like Death, and locked for ever in a casket in the Far Lands, Ruth, Shavi and Laura would not be killed. Church believed this was the only way to save his friends.
As Church slept in the casket, events he had previously experienced continued apace. The Fomorii invaded, and his past-self fought them through the Age of Misrule. Tom and Niamh died. The Battle of London took place.
Locked inside his head, Church experienced what he thought was a dream or a hallucination: he met me, and the Daughters of the Night, the true owners of the Extinction Shears, and then he was guided to a cave that housed the Axis of Existence, which he perceived as a great reality-altering machine. Using the Axis, Church changed events in the same way that the Void had done, though not as catastrophically: both Tom and Niamh returned to life. But there was a price to pay, as there always is for these things, and Niamh became an agent of the Void.
Returning to the fray, Ruth, Laura and Shavi rescued Church from the casket in the Far Lands and returned to Earth for a final confrontation with Veitch. In the battle, Veitch was killed, his body taken away by the Brothers and Sisters of Spiders.
But now the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons faced their biggest test: to destroy the Void before it could reshape the world in its image for all time. From the depths of the Blue Fire, Hal told them what they would need: the missing Extinction Shears; and the Two Keys, two humans, one with the power to create life, the other with the power to destroy, hidden by Existence somewhere amongst the world's billions.
Church knew that they could not complete this quest alone, and so he set out to locate Mallory, Sophie, Caitlin and Hunter, still living the fake lives the Void had given them. With Tom once again joining them, they split up into two teams. Mallory, Sophie and Caitlin travelled to the Far Lands in search of the Extinction Shears, under the guidance of a returned Jerzy.
With the Libertarian hounding them at every turn, Church and the others raced to Norway in search of the First Key. But there they discovered why they had encountered only the Celtic gods during the Age of Misrule: each pantheon of gods from Earth's mythologies had their own Great Dominion over which they ruled. For centuries, they had slept, but every time the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons trespassed in a new Great Dominion, they woke the old gods.
In Norway, Church and his team were confronted by gods from the cold northern climes, including Tyr and Freyja. To save the lives of his friends, Tom agreed to an undisclosed but clearly tragic deal with Freyja, who gave him the cursed ring Andvarinaut to help them locate their hearts' desire — in this instance, the Two Keys.
Veitch, meanwhile, had returned to life through a ritual in the Grim Lands, and with the help of the Brothers and Sisters of Spiders, he kidnapped Ruth. Feeling even more betrayed and bitter, Veitch had turned his back on the Void and was now determined to bring all of reality crashing down around him.
In Oslo, Veitch found the First Key before Church — Mallory's former friend from Salisbury, Miller, who was using his Existence-given power to heal the sick. And so the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons set off across the world in pursuit of Veitch, Ruth and Miller, awakening the gods of several Great Dominions in the process.
In the Far Lands, Mallory, Sophie and Caitlin had fallen under the manipulation of Niamh, not realising that she had become an agent of the Void. The influence of the Devourer of All Things was spreading across the Otherworld: its Fortress was growing, the Army of Dragons was missing, as were many of the Tuatha De Danaan, and the Enemy's forces were on the march, destroying everything they encountered. Meanwhile, at the Enemy's Fortress, the Burning Man was being created, a giant, flaming matrix that would contain the essence of the Void on its return.
At the last, Niamh's corruption was exposed and the Army of Dragons and missing gods were discovered, but at a terrible price: Niamh used a magickal artefact to wipe Sophie from Existence, a fate truly worse than death, where the Sister of Dragons would never have existed and therefore be forgotten by everyone who knew her. Niamh escaped, and though Mallory liberated her court, he failed to find the Extinction Shears. Unbeknownst to him, they had been hidden with the Market of Wishful Spirit somewhere in the Grim Lands.
Back on Earth, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons closed in on Veitch, Ruth and Miller. Though Veitch was still bent on revenge, Ruth's influence gradually began to strip away his encysted bitterness, allowing his former heroic nature to surface. In the process, the pair grew closer.
In Egypt, many of the old gods had agreed to help the Void, and were destroyed by the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. Only Seth escaped, vowing revenge.
Soon after, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the gods revealed to Church a shattering truth: the Libertarian was Church's future self. He was given a vision of the moment when he would transform into the psychopathic killer, thus betraying Existence and ensuring victory for the Void. Church's only hope was that in the fluid nature of time, the future could be altered and his vision would never come to pass.
In China, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons did claim one great victory: the connection to the source of the Blue Fire was reopened and magic flooded back into the world.
The Second Key was hidden in New York: Jack, Caitlin's former associate, who still carried the vast, destructive force of the Wish-Hex. Here, Veitch finally overcame his hatred and agreed to help his former comrades, though he was still treated with suspicion by all.
Realising it faced defeat, the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders set about remaking the world, in the process closing all the gateways to the Far Lands. With hardly any time to spare, Church and the others escaped Earth on the supernatural Last Train, ready for the final battle with the Void.
And so the pieces move into place for the final battle at the end of the world.
'The snake came crawling and struck at none. But Woden took nine glory twigs and struck the adder so it flew into nine parts.' From the Anglo-Saxon 'Nine Herbs Charm'
It is the beginning of the end.
'Church! Church! Wake up — you're dreaming! Please wake up, Church!'
'Maybe it's just time.'
It is the beginning of the end.
'Where is the meaning in life?'
'What is real?'
'There are signs, certainly, but in the end, who knows?'
'You don't have to leave me, Church.'
It is the beginning of the end.
'So cold. Oh, please, why are you letting this happen?'
'Everybody describes it differently… like a shadow falling over them, or a jolt of electricity. I wish I could be more helpful.'
Chilled to his bones and aching, Church wakes; and then he wakes again, and there is the rhythm of the train, like the pulse of blood.
It is the beginning. Of the end.
Snow falls. A flurry caught in the unforgiving wind blowing relentlessly across the frozen wastes that stretch to the horizon. In that wind, there are whispers, lost souls, telling of the end of the world, of all worlds. Their stories are caught in the ruddy glare reflected in the rolling snow dunes and the crested waves of ice.
High in the silver sky, the Burning Man looks down on this place, and the shimmering city of gold and glass at its heart, as he looks down on all places, waiting to cast the final judgement. The towering outline of fire is still waiting to be filled, but it will not be long now. It is the twilight of the gods, and men, and all living things.
Dreaming, yet awake, you understand this as you move out from the confusion of the World-Tree's branches and drift across the desolate landscape. The whispers have told you what was and what will be, what is real and what is not. You move on quickly. You want to see more. Worry knots your thoughts, that perhaps this time it will not be all right.
See there, at the top of the tallest tower of the City of Marvels, where Hunter looks out at the seething figure and feels its words in his heart. His quarters reveal that he is treated with respect. Sumptuous furnishings fill the chamber, furs piled across the wooden floors and tapestries hanging on the walls, while floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides give a grand perspective on the world. But though a great fire blazes in the hearth, Hunter still feels the chill.
Like the city, Hunter's appearance belies the true nature beneath — rakish, piratical, a flair for flamboyance concealing an iron will.
'Intriguing. You still believe there is hope. Is this what it means to be a Brother of Dragons, then? Faith over reason?' Math, the great sorcerer of the Tuatha De Danaan, stands beside the stone fireplace, oblivious to the heat. Sometimes Hunter wonders if there is a person inside the black robes and the brass mask that rotates every minute or so to reveal one of its four faces: boar, salmon, falcon, bear.
'Reason is overrated.' Hunter pours himself a goblet of fruity wine and downs it in one. 'What's the point in sitting on your arse and ruminating on the logic of what is, by any rational person's yardstick, complete bug-eyed, screaming craziness? Life's for living. When some git's swinging an axe at your head, or a woman is pressing her lips against yours, you feel it and you react. You start reasoning about either one, you're a dead man.' He pours himself another goblet of wine, drinks it quickly.
'Your drinking is a mask, like mine,' Math notes wryly.
'We're just two peas in a pod.'
The long wait ends as the door opens silently to admit the goddess Freyja, wearing a black dress to mark the gravity of the occasion. Her delicate features are emphasised by the thick animal fur she wears across her shoulders. For once, her potent sexuality is tightly controlled; another sign of respect for the visitor.
'The Council of Asgard is convened,' she says. 'Brother of Dragons, and cousin-' she nods to Math '-you will accompany me.'
Past hissing torches, she leads them down the majestic staircase to the great meeting hall of oak and glass. At one end of the room, an enormous window looks across the expanse of snow to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, shimmering like the aurora borealis. Its far end hangs in tatters; Earth cannot be reached.
The hall rings with the voices of gods bellowing at each other, or flirting, or fighting. Hunter's senses take a moment to adjust to the combined presence of the powerful beings, faces slowly arising from a swirl of impressions: features he vaguely recalls from childhood stories or dreams; fiery red beards and wild-man hair, glittering lupine eyes that have seen seas of blood flow over the rocks and ice of the northlands, women with hair glowing like the sun and a beauty primal and terrifying and sexual. Muscles like iron and hideous, jagged scars. They carry weapons — nicked axes, great swords — or pluck on ancient stringed instruments. Everything about them speaks of blood and battle and sex and honour.
Hunter feels quite at home.
'Let the council begin.' The crowd falls instantly silent at Freyja's command, and all eyes turn towards Hunter.
Freyja gestures towards the great empty throne at the far end of the hall. 'These are dark days. The All-Father's whereabouts are unknown. He has followed his ravens, Hugin and Mugin, to an uncertain future. And so this decision falls to us, now. Before the All-Father departed, he placed his trust in the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, and so we must give fair hearing to their plea.'
A murmur races around the room. Support or dissent? Hunter cannot tell.
'There's a war coming,' he begins. 'The war to end all wars. You know it. This is the final battle foretold in all your old stories.'
'Ragnarok,' one intones gravely. Red-haired, he is taller and stronger than all the others, and from the enormous hammer that stands by his side, Hunter knows he is the thunder god, Thor. 'It blows towards us like a storm at sea. Inevitable, inescapable. The end of us all.'
'The Norns will be gathering around their well beneath the roots of Yggdrasil,' sighs an elderly man with a long, white beard. Unconsciously, his fingers play over the strings of the harp in his lap. 'Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, who hold us all in their hands.'
'Hush, Bragi. This is not a time for your eloquent misery.' Tyr stands, his scarred, hairy body now recovered from the terrible injuries Hunter had seen inflicted on it in Norway. 'That sly trickster Loki has not been seen for a season,' Tyr continues. 'If we find him, and carve his body with my axe, Ragnarok will not unfold. Simple.'
'It's too late for that,' Hunter insists. 'Loki is already with the Enemy, and he's not alone. A lot of others, from across the Great Dominions, are under the Enemy's control. They're all following the lead of Janus, two faces, neither of them pleasant.'
'If it is too late, what is the point of this council?' Bragi asks.
With a roar, Thor crashes his hammer Mjolnir on the stone flags and sends lightning flashing across the hall. 'The Aesir have never turned from battle, even when all hope appeared lost. We fight, and if the Norns so decide, we die!'
Thundering his support for Thor, Tyr drives the gods to their feet with a deafening martial clamour.
With a sigh, Hunter waits for the bravado and bloodlust to subside.
Freyr, the Shining Lord and brother of Freyja, says, 'Why do we need to listen to you, Brother of Dragons? What can you possibly offer the Aesir?'
'Allies. The Enemy force is greater than you can imagine. However powerful you think you are, you won't be able to hold them back. Alone. But with an army of gods, from all the Great Dominions… now, that would make a difference.' Hunter gestures to Math, observing silently with his hands folded in front of him. 'The Tuatha De Danaan have already agreed to stand with us. I have a message from Lugh guaranteeing the support of the Golden Ones.'
'An army of gods?' Tyr's laughter roars to the rafters. Thor, though, remains grave as he considers Hunter's words.
'You're facing the true, organising force of the universe. The god above gods,' Hunter continues. 'The Void represents the opposite of Life. And it's slowly focusing its attention on us through that Burning Man you can see from your windows. Once that receptacle is filled, it will act.'
'But until then there is an opportunity?' Thor asks.
'Not for any of us alone. Even together there might not be a chance-'
'Hold!' Pressed against the great window, the goddess Frigg looks out across the wintry wastes. 'Something approaches.'
The horizon is a blur in the blizzard that rages constantly around Asgard, but gradually shapes coalesce in the snow, moving towards the city. A handful at first, then a score, then hundreds. Brutish figures range speedily ahead of the main force: Redcaps wearing their clothes of human skin and organs, followed closely by the shimmering, insubstantial Gehennis tearing at their wild hair, and the shrieking, vampiric Baobhan Sith. Behind them, a great army pulls slowly out of the storm, dead yet alive, axes and swords and lances merged with their limbs, armour rusted and bloodstained. Purple mist drifts around the Lament-Brood, and even at that distance their keening song of despair is clear.
'They attack us here, in our home?' Thor intones incredulously.
'We fight!' Tyr bellows. 'Now.'
'I don't want to pour cold water on your war party,' Hunter says, 'but this is where I advise you to run.'
Across the Far Lands, ashes drift in the wind. In your dreams, you taste the bitterness on your tongue. Listen. There is a sound like a heartbeat throbbing behind the breeze, under the rustling of the leaves, deep in the land itself. It is the sound of war drums, it is the sound of a heart. It infects your dreams so that you cannot sleep peacefully, for you know what it is, and from where it comes.
Against one of the foothills of the great mountain range sprawls an enormous walled city. You stare in awe at its jumble of buildings, its winding streets, its towers and turrets, gambrels and chimneys, ramparts and spires. Once you would have been troubled by its claustrophobia, the darkness beneath the upper storeys of the buildings overhanging the cobbled streets. But no more. Now the streets are flooded with light, and a new mood of hope fights to establish itself; the Court of the Soaring Spirit has a new lord. You see his long dark hair and the note of irony in his dark eyes, but most of all you see the unfathomable sadness in his heart. Despite that, Mallory, Brother of Dragons, possessor of Llyrwyn, one of the Three Great Swords of Existence, projects only optimism, a necessary quality, for his city now lies on the brink of destruction.
The Palace of Glorious Light lives up to its name. Golden illumination shining from every window, it is a beacon that can be seen far and wide across the Far Lands, and it rings with beautiful music, earthly songs that Mallory has taught the strange band of musicians drawn to him from across the city. He hoped it would ease his emptiness. It has not. But all the other residents will never forget its joy.
Yet still it faces destruction.
At the heart of the palace is a formal garden, tranquil amongst its honey-scented alyssum, spicy lilies and sweet, strong jasmine, its sparkling fountain, its elegant statues and winding walkways. Amidst the fluttering butterflies and the lazy drone of bees, Caitlin Shepherd, Sister of Dragons, practises a relentless series of martial routines with her axe.
From the upper cloisters, Mallory watches her brown hair flying, her fragile features tense and determined. 'No peace,' he mutters. 'Ever.'
As if to underline his words, Decebalus, the Dacian barbarian, marches up. 'Another attack is imminent,' he growls. 'I have ordered the sounding of the alert.'
Mallory curses. 'We need to get everyone indoors. Man the defences-'
'Already done.' Decebalus nods towards Caitlin in the garden below as they march to the stairs. 'You are concerned about her?'
'It's just difficult to get used to the new Caitlin. There was always something gentle about her. A healer, not a fighter.'
'Gentle she remains, deep inside. But she is so much more now. So many people in one small body.'
'Five personalities. It's not the human ones I'm concerned about — Caitlin herself, Amy, Briony, even that old crone Brigid with her doom-mongering and predictions.'
'It is the Morrigan.' Decebalus nods. 'A human possessed by a god. What good can come of it?'
'Not just any god. The Morrigan is terrifying. Blood and death-'
'And sex and life,' Decebalus interrupts with a wink.
'No. I love her dearly, but not like that. She's a friend.'
As they hurry along the cloisters where beams of sunlight and deep shadow form a complex interplay, they pass Brothers and Sisters of Dragons hurrying towards the rooftop defences, an Army of Existence brought to the Far Lands from their own long-gone times. To a person, they look to Mallory with hope and respect as he passes.
'The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons are ready for the fight ahead,' Decebalus observes.
'They shouldn't be. They don't stand a chance.'
'Do not let them hear you say that,' Decebalus cautions sternly.
'I'm not stupid. But I'm really not comfortable sending them all to their deaths.'
'This is their sole reason for existing. More than two thousand years of history… the shaping of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons… it has all been leading to this point. Live or die, this is what they were made to do. It is their destiny.'
'I don't believe in destiny.'
'You are a strange and troubling little man. You do not believe in anything. I am a poor, uneducated barbarian, yet even I have learned to understand the thing you call "reason".'
Decebalus curses under his breath, but his mood is too vibrant to be constrained. 'You should see them when they train,' he says, a twinkle in his eye. 'The very air of the room becomes alive… the iron smell of the Blue Fire, so powerful.' He smacks his lips. 'It makes my skin tingle and my heart sing. Existence chose well, all of them. And it is not just the Pendragon Spirit! Their hearts are strong. They will face any odds. They will risk their lives for what Existence requires of them. You should be proud to be a part of it, Mallory.'
'Yeah, they're heroes. So who's killing them, Decebalus?'
High overhead, the alert sounds, a lone, tolling bell that ignites in Mallory the chill of dread every time he hears it.
'Two dead,' he continues. 'Holes punched in the centre of their foreheads. Church didn't save them from slaughter in their own time only for them to be murdered here.'
'You know there is an enemy in our midst. The force we oppose attacks from without and within. It will not allow us the space to take a stand. Time is running out-'
'I know!' Mallory snaps. 'You don't have to remind me every damned minute of the day.' The bell tolls again, and again, turning his stomach. 'I'm sorry. It's the waiting. For Hunter to build his coalition of gods who refuse to acknowledge each other's existence. For Church and the others to find the Two Keys. For the location of the Extinction Shears. For us to do anything before we get wiped out.' Frustration drives an edge into his voice.
'You are a man of action, I understand that. This period is difficult. But soon there will be action enough for all of us.'
Stepping onto the palace roof, Mallory sees that the defences are already in place, here and on the other highest points around the city. He knows Decebalus has trained them well since the first attack that had killed so many. Ranks of golden-skinned archers from the elite forces of the Tuatha De Danaan face the roiling black clouds on the distant horizon. Behind them, the Army of Dragons prepare to use the bizarre but devastating weapons created in the vast armoury of Goibhniu, Creidhne and Luchtaine.
The tolling bells continue to sound. Clang, clang, clang. In the city below, the streets clear rapidly in a mood of fear and desperation. Doors and shutters are bolted.
Mallory watches the black clouds move slowly across the great plain. 'I don't know how much more of this we can take,' he says. 'We can't just sit here under siege until every building is reduced to rubble.'
'Huh. The Enemy's full army has not arrived yet,' Decebalus grunts.
'Thanks for the reassurance.'
As the storm clouds near, they part to reveal the creatures at their core. Three Riot-Beasts, each with twin leonine heads, eyes rolling with idiocy as they silently roar, their big-cat bodies covered with scales, feathers and fur. They are engines of destruction, throwing out crackling bolts of energy more devastating than any missile. Each time he sees them, Mallory is unnerved by the way they float without wings or any other visible means of staying aloft.
The day becomes like night as the storm clouds fill the sky, and a low bass rumble vibrates through everything. As the Riot-Beasts reach the city walls, plasma balls sizzle erratically, exploding rooftops and sending out waves of superheated air. Towers crash to the ground in a rain of masonry as the creatures blunder across the city.
'Now!' Decebalus roars, and a hail of arrows arc majestically. Some hit their target, but the Riot-Beasts show no pain, if they can even feel it.
Mallory nods, and Decebalus orders the firing of the greater weapons from the vaults of the Tuatha De Danaan. The air becomes glassy or boils in a wave of fire, and bolts of energy shriek like banshees. Sometimes the Riot-Beasts are knocked off course. Mostly, they continue on their paths of destruction, occasionally bursting into flame until the wind or gusting rain extinguishes the blaze.
'We haven't got anything that can hurt them,' Mallory says redundantly. His anger boils within him, but he maintains a cool demeanour for the sake of his troops.
'Whatever, we send out a message,' Decebalus replies. 'We will resist unto death.'
'Very poetic, with an unnerving knack for premonition.'
The battle continues for fifteen full minutes. Across the city, buildings collapse and roofs are torn off. Many die. Finally the Riot-Beasts drift away as if they are leaves caught on the wind. The storm clouds follow, the thunder's rumbling decreasing, until the sun eventually breaks through.
'As soon as you have the figures, let me know how many died this time,' Mallory orders.
'Why do you punish yourself?'
'Because until I find a proper defence, I'm responsible for every one.'
They wait until their exhausted troops file off the rooftop before making their way down. There have been too many attacks, and little chance to rest.
Now the attack has passed, you prepare to move on. You are unsettled; the threat here is palpable. But you know there is still more to see. The Far Lands is a place of subtlety and intrigue, and many things shift behind the surface of all that you see.
In the ringing corridors of the palace, a woman staggers, blood streaming from a gash on her temple. Her name is Marie, a scullery girl in a large London house during the Regency period of George IV; ignored by those who believed themselves to be her betters, she gained renown as a brave Sister of Dragons. Here, though, she is disoriented, terrified; the world has shifted beneath her feet.
As Mallory and Decebalus come down from the roof, engaged in deep debate about tactics, she comes to a halt, wide-eyed. Seeing her wound, Mallory and Decebalus rush to her aid, but she only shrieks and presses against the stone wall as if hoping it might swallow her.
An accusing finger points at Mallory. 'Stay back!' she says, and then to Decebalus, 'He tried to kill me!'
'When?' the barbarian asks.
'Not five minutes ago, during the attack.'
'Impossible. Mallory was at my side then, up on the roof.'
Marie wavers, her eyes flashing from side to side. 'He tried to kill me, I tell you!'
Decebalus motions for Mallory to step back as he attends to the young woman. 'This is not the truth, Marie. Either you are mistaken, or it is some kind of magic.'
'Magic, then!' She stares at Mallory accusingly. 'His face, Decebalus. He came at me as the fire rained down, in the dark of the upper floors. Instinct made me turn at the last. Good fortune was all I had, but it was enough. I did not see his weapon, but I felt it as it tore through my flesh. I did see his face.' She points again. 'And I ran… here-'
'Think, Marie,' Decebalus says sharply. 'You ran into us — Mallory was not pursuing you. He was ahead.'
The woman wavers, tries to make sense. 'Then who…?'
'The one who's already killed two Brothers and Sisters of Dragons,' Mallory says. 'The Enemy's sent an assassin to pick us off one by one.'
'If it uses your face, then it attempts to undermine our spirit,' Decebalus says gravely. 'If it can use any face, then who can we trust?'
Troubled, Mallory and Decebalus deliver Marie to a healer and then seek out comfort and the sun in the herb garden, which lies beyond a maze of lavender in a walled area at the rear of the palace. The air is heavy with rich perfumes. Decebalus and Mallory find Aula tending her herbs, as she does at that time every day. At first Mallory does not recognise her. Her blond hair shimmering in the sun, the Roman Briton's face is strikingly peaceful as she immerses herself in the garden's atmosphere, a far cry from the fierce looks that usually accompany her caustic tones. Her mask returns when she sees them both.
'So little to do you must trouble me here?' she says tartly. 'No wonder we face disaster.'
'Your day would be bereft without a visit from the one who gives your life meaning,' Decebalus replies with a broad grin.
Aula snorts unconvincingly then turns to Mallory. 'She plays in the maze,' she says.
Past clouds of honeybees, Mallory weaves through the heavily scented bushes and eventually sees the top of a young girl's head in the centre of the maze. Virginia Dare never smiles. Occasionally, a heartbreaking, haunted look will appear in the depths of her eyes. In that moment it is possible to comprehend the many atrocities she has witnessed since the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders kidnapped her and her fellow settlers from Roanoke in the New World almost five hundred years ago. She has spent her formative years in the heart of horrors, the Void's Fortress on the edge of the Far Lands, until her escape. Though only eight years old, her eyes say she is a hundred.
'Is it time?' She cradles a doll made for her by one of the kitchen staff who had hoped it would bring back some aspect of childhood.
'Not yet. But soon. I need to ask you if you are prepared to do it.'
'You have asked me twice already.'
'Now I'm asking you a third time.'
'Yes,' she says without hesitation. 'I will travel with you to the Enemy Fortress, and show you the secret way I discovered under the walls.'
'You know what it will mean?'
'You want to protect me, Mallory,' she replies in too-old tones, 'but it is too late for that. I am ruined.'
Mallory cannot look in her face; it makes him too desperately sad.
'She'll be fine.'
Frequently, these days, he never hears Caitlin come up on him. She stands at the entrance to the maze's central rest zone, still slick with sweat, holding her axe loosely. Mallory searches her eyes to see who is in control this time. He doesn't know why he tries, for even when he sees the bright innocence of Amy, there is always the dark of the Morrigan just behind.
'It's me, Mallory. Caitlin. The one, the only, the original.' She smiles, kisses him on the cheek.
Virginia hugs Caitlin tightly, the first time she has looked like a little girl. 'Have you come to play with me?'
'I said I would, didn't I?'
With a whisper of desperate thanks, Virginia buries her face in Caitlin's midriff. 'No hide and seek,' she says. 'I don't like that.'
When Virginia has raced away to fetch a board game from her room, Mallory observes, 'She likes you.'
'We have an understanding.'
'I still don't want to take her to that place.'
'She's tougher than you think, Mallory. When it comes down to it, we all are.'
He watches the bees, and the clouds scudding across the blue sky. 'Do you think it's enough?' he enquires. 'Wanting to do the right thing?'
'No, it's not enough,' she replies. 'But we do it anyway.'
And so you move again through the twisting, ever-multiplying branches of the World-Tree, and now you watch the walls of Asgard crumble. From out of the swirling blizzard, blazing rocks crash with a steady beat of destruction. The Enemy's siege machines never rest. The monstrous troops wash out of the snow in a black tide that Hunter wills to ebb but which never does. They swirl around the foot of the walls, throwing up ladders as quickly as the Aesir can despatch those who scurry like insects to the ramparts. But their greatest weapon is insubstantial: a potent atmosphere of despair radiating from every fibre of their being, infecting any who allow their defences to slip; a moment's doubt is all that's needed. Hunter sees shoulders sag, heads bow, weapons fall to their sides.
'It is only a matter of time before we are overrun,' Baldur mutters in a daze of abject disbelief.
'This is a taste of what's to come,' Hunter intones above the din of battle cries, clashing weapons, the screams of the dying and the constant howl of the icy gale. 'Nobody survives on their own.'
Amidst peals of deafening thunder, a storm cloud races along the ramparts towards them, lightning bolts flying in all directions. Only when it nears does Hunter recognise Thor, his face consumed by volcanic fury. Swinging Mjolnir with the devastating force of a hurricane, he shatters the face of a Redcap attempting to climb over the wall. The god grips the siege ladder and thrusts it back out into the blizzard. Howls rise up from those falling below.
'Asgard shall not fall!' he bellows to the wind.
At intermittent points along the walls, the lie is being given to his words. Hordes of decaying Lament-Brood haul themselves over the ramparts, losing an arm here, even a head there, but continuing relentlessly. Aesir warriors run to confront them at the points where they have broken through the defences, but the Lament-Brood attack the moment their feet touch the walkway.
An Aesir warrior is impaled on a rusty sword embedded in the handless wrist of one of the Lament-Brood. The sword is roughly twisted and the warrior explodes in a cloud of golden moths gleaming against the white snow, a single moment of beauty at the instant of his death.
All along the walls, the Aesir stop what they are doing and watch, aghast, disbelieving, fixated on each individual moth as it struggles to pick a path through the gusting snowflakes.
A single teardrop rolls slowly over Thor's cheek.
And then along the ramparts bursts of golden moths rise up here and there, the interval between each explosion growing shorter, like bursts of smoke and light in a magician's stage show.
'No!' Thor thunders, and renews his furious hammer-attack.
The Aesir return to action, blades and axes flashing, but Hunter can see something has gone out of them. Their attacks are less sure; they glance at each other, seeking reassurance, finding none.
Forseti, one of the younger gods who had been responsible for justice in the city, is surrounded by six Redcaps. Before Hunter can react, the god is hacked to pieces.
As the moths soar, Baldur cries out, 'My son!' Consumed by grief, he races towards the Redcaps.
'We must leave.' At Hunter's shoulder, Math's four-fold mask turns implacably. 'There is no hope left here.'
From his backpack, Hunter removes a silver-scaled gauntlet with brass talons. 'It would be impolite to leave at the height of the party.'
'What is that?' Math asks suspiciously. 'A weapon?'
'The Court of the Final Word called it the Balor Claw.' Gritting his teeth, Hunter slips on the gauntlet. 'And now it's mine.'
He arrives at the fray as the Redcaps surround Baldur, as they had done his son. One sweep of the Balor Claw takes the first Redcap apart. Another falls as he turns, the Claw breaking the bonds of his body at the molecular level. After his slaughter in the Court of the Final Word, Hunter has grown used to the sight of bodies unfurling, but the other Redcaps are, for the first time in their existence, rooted. In a frenzy of despair, Baldur despatches three with his sword and Hunter kills the last. Catching his breath, the god represses his grief and looks Hunter deep in the eyes. In that one moment, he accepts everything Hunter has attempted to communicate to the council.
'The age of gods and men is passing,' Baldur admits. 'It is time to make the final stand.'
The Aesir fight furiously, but the Enemy keep coming, devoid of fear, wave after wave with no purpose save destruction. Their atmosphere of despair is corrosive. The clouds of golden moths are now indistinguishable from the snow.
'Fall back!' Baldur yells. 'To the Groerland Square!' Piercing the crackling lightning, he grips Thor's arm. 'This is no place to make a stand. We must leave with the Brother of Dragons.'
'But the Golden City will fall!'
'Stone and wood, brother. It can be rebuilt. The true glory of the Aesir is a light that must never be extinguished.'
Thor weighs the words for only a second and then roars, 'Fall back! Do as the Bleeding God says!' He grins at Baldur. 'Lead the way, brother. I will protect your back.'
Baldur snatches the horn from his side and blows one blast, loud and clear, rising up above the howling gale and the thunder of battle. Along the walls, the gods retreat, down the steps to the avenues of Asgard radiating out from the Groerland Square.
'You've made the right choice,' Hunter says as he and Math follow Baldur into the streaming mass of warriors.
'Asgard is surrounded. You can free us from this place?'
'As long as your man with the hammer can keep the Enemy off our tails for a little longer.'
'He does not stand alone.' Baldur indicates a balcony on a tall tower where Freyja stands, arms raised to the sky. 'She uses her seior in the city's defence.' The direction of the wind changes suddenly, hurling many of the Enemy to their deaths from the walls.
The Aesir will make good allies, Hunter thinks, but will even they be enough?
In the Groerland Square, a large public space centred on a statue of the World-Tree, Yggdrasil, the axis mundi around which all reality turns, the gods silently look towards Hunter, the unfamiliar expression of confusion etched in their faces. The only sound is the heartbeat of the Enemy's missiles against the walls.
'Are you sure you can take them all?' Hunter asks.
'We shall go by Winter-side,' Math replies. 'There will be no Enemy there yet.'
At the foot of the Yggdrasil statue, the sorcerer utters an incantation in a language Hunter does not recognise. Amidst a sound like rending metal, a section of air as big as a barn door shimmers and appears to become a two-dimensional sketch of what had previously been there. Math pulls it open to reveal a cavernous darkness.
'We go into the World-Tree, to follow the branches to other worlds,' Math explains.
'It's just a statue,' Hunter replies.
'The depiction of the reality is the reality. Have you not learned anything?' As Math beckons, Baldur hesitantly leads the Aesir into the dark.
Hunter waits until Thor and Freyja come running from the battle-lines. Tears stream down the thunder god's face.
'The Eternal City is falling,' he says. 'How can this be?'
'You'll get your chance to make amends,' Hunter replies. 'This isn't the end.'
Along the western wall, a sheet of flames rises up. They watch it for a moment and then step into the dark. The door that is not a door closes behind them, and the snow fills their footprints, and for the first time there is silence within the walls of the Eternal City.
In your dreams, you see these things. Across the worlds, there is a sense of winter approaching, of the dying of the light. The steady rhythm in the ground and behind the sky now sounds less like a heartbeat and more like the ticking of a clock, growing imperceptibly slower.
You see all this. You know. You are now a part of it.
You travel across the infinite Far Lands to a point that is neither here nor there, that anomalous place on the distant edge, where the Otherworld breaks up and opens onto another infinity.
Words mean nothing here. Ideas have more substance than things. But you see as you move that numbers underpin everything. Repeating patterns that form the basis of a greater pattern. At a distance, the mathematical complexity creates the illusion of chaos. It is all random, you would have said in another time, under other circumstances.
Move closer and you see the truth. The structure. The plan. You understand the mechanics of Chaos Theory, without needing to know the name, that within seemingly chaotic systems there is a hidden order, masked by a complexity so great our brains cannot comprehend it.
Five, you say. That is one of the numbers. It is familiar by now. Comforting. You know it well.
But there is another important number, too. Hidden till now, waiting to be called into the Light.
Odin, the great god of the Nordic lands, hanged himself on the cosmic ash tree Yggdrasil for nine nights in order to learn the wisdom of the dead. That great tree of life, around which all reality revolves, sheltered nine worlds beneath its branches.
Nine books of wisdom tell a story that is more than a story, in which you now play a part. Nine symbolises completeness in the Baha'i faith. To the Celts, the ninth wave is the boundary between our world and the Otherworld. King Arthur was brought in on the ninth wave. The Chinese consider nine to be lucky because, in their language, it sounds the same as the word for 'long-lasting'. The Japanese consider nine to be unlucky because it sounds like the Japanese word for 'distress' or 'pain'. The cat is believed to have nine lives.
The Forbidden City in Beijing is filled with the number nine. It is linked with the Chinese dragon, a symbol of power and magic. There are nine forms of the dragon. It has nine attributes, and nine children.
There are secrets here, you realise, if only you could divine them.
But you are distracted by a terrible sight. The Fortress of the Void sprawls across a blasted, desolate terrain of rocks and dust. It is bigger than any city you have ever seen, as big as a country, and from a distance it resembles a gigantic squatting insect. Indeed, part of the city appears to be organic. Amongst the walls of fused volcanic glass and the detritus of failed civilisations are areas that appear to be constructed from spoiled meat. It continues to grow by the day, new wings, new towers spreading in all directions, consuming the land.
The Fortress swarms with the worst that the universe has to offer, not just the Lament-Brood, the Redcaps, the Gehennis and Baobhan Sith, but things worse still, things you cannot bear to examine for fear you would be driven insane.
And above it all towers the Burning Man, so close you can feel the heat from its blazing outline. Here is the place where it was born. Within the Burning Man you can see writhing figures being consumed. These are gods, or ones who consider themselves gods, providing the fuel that gives the Burning Man shape, and allowing it to shine like an infernal beacon across all worlds. You cannot hear their screams, but you can see their mouths fixed in a continual 'O'.
On a balcony overlooking the suffering stands a man living a new life of perpetual cruelty, a mirror-image man who still sees echoes of his former existence; but he can discard them, for he is better, at peace now, unlike before. He emphasises his flamboyance, wearing all black like a silent-movie villain, or all white, however the mood takes him. His eyes are blood-red, with no lids, so he can never shut out the horror he sees, the horror he causes. He is wedded to the idea of peace and stability through control, not the torments that come from the uncertainty of free will. He believes hope is a debilitating virus, and love, and that contentment only comes from not looking to the distant horizon. It is a simple philosophy, but many things spin from it.
'They may be the most efficient warriors in all the worlds, but they could do with a few tips on interior design,' the Libertarian says. He takes a deep draught of sour air and turns back to the austere chamber where fires rage continually in the braziers, a futile attempt to bring warmth to bodies that can feel none.
Niamh, former queen of the Court of the Soaring Spirit, now truly queen of the Waste Lands, wears a black headdress with six horns, like the arms of Shiva, and ebony armour etched with silver. She is filled with spiders. She considers a geometric design that resembles a mandala, or a Mandelbrot set, revolving slowly in mid-air. It glows gently with a rich, white light. Though you only see three dimensions, she sees more. It is a map of the worlds, and the trail they make through time. Her brow knits, for what she sees changes continually. Nothing is fixed; everything is fluid. She finds that puzzling.
The Libertarian takes her hand and pulls her away from the map and into his arms. 'Don't you find that all this power and destruction make the sap rise?' he says, pressing his groin into hers.
She smiles, not without affection. 'I find the patterns of Existence a mystery. My heart yearned for you from the earliest times, in your past life, and we danced back and forth across the ages, until it appeared we would never share the same space. Yet here we are.'
'All good things come to those who wait.'
'Together now, and always, and in all time before this moment.'
A headache stabs briefly at the Libertarian, a nagging thought, hardening by the moment, of troubled times ahead, sights, disturbingly, that he cannot see, an area of insecurity, of disconnection.
A tolling bell echoes dully through the Fortress.
'It's time,' he says.
Niamh nods, takes his hand. They make their way along corridors of pulsing meat, down echoing stone steps, until they come to a hall so large that the far walls are not visible.
You will not want to enter. Even in your dreams it affects you, the stink, the feeling of subsonic vibrations in the pit of your stomach, but most potently a dread so terrible it would drive you insane if you lingered. You want to shut it out, pretend you never experienced it, but it will haunt you for the rest of your days. Amidst a seething mass of shrieking foul creatures floats the great god Janus, his two faces switching back and forth, black on white, white on black. He holds aloft the golden key to open the doors and then the ironwood stick to drive away those who have no right to cross the threshold. The monstrous beings shriek louder, the noise rising and falling, and you realise that hideous sound is singing, a form of celebration. In their ecstasy, they fight and tear at each other like animals in a pit. In a circle around Janus's feet lopes the god Loki, part-man, part-wolf, his head rolling as he mouths incantations, lost to the ritual, lost to the dread and the frenzy, round and round in circles.
Niamh smiles, closes her eyes and breathes deeply of the foul atmosphere. 'You can smell it. An ending,' she says. 'And a beginning. The serpent eats its own tail.'
Janus raises the key once more and a door opens behind him. Listen. That beat, steady, growing louder. It is the sound that lies behind everything you see and feel.
'He is coming,' Niamh says.
The Void, the Devourer of All Things, the essence of Anti-Life approaches the door, preparing to coalesce in this place, this time, and fill the receptacle that has been made for it: the Burning Man.
For once the Libertarian has nothing to say. A tear stings his eye. It could have been joy had he not relinquished that emotion long ago.
Niamh claps her hands. 'It is over,' she sighs.
Quickly. You must leave before it is too late for you.
The pounding grows louder, and the beasts fall silent, and still, and look towards the door, and wait.
God Only Knows
The Last Train thundered out of the world. Behind it, swarming spiders tore apart the land and rebuilt it with a boiling intellect and a cold eye. Hope and wonder and magic could not survive under that scrutiny. The unequivocal image of the Void was all that would remain.
Through the carriage window, Church attempted to see some pattern in the dark pressing in on all sides, but the dream was still heavy on him, distracting, haunting. Lying on some kind of bed or trolley or bench, faces loomed over him uttering familiar yet unrecognisable voices. On awakening, he had been convinced of some life-changing meaning just beyond his grasp, but it was slipping further away with each moment. It felt very much like a death dream.
His reflection in the window revealed the burden of responsibility carved into his brooding features. There was too much darkness about him, from the black hair, to the eyes lost in shadow, to the hollowness of his cheeks. Was this the chrysalis state before he would emerge as the Libertarian, bloody eyes staring from the gloom?
Veitch came up silently behind him. His features carried the hardness of a life lived on the street, his eyes registering every hurt, every betrayal, every disappointment, all too close to the surface. Church still didn't know how much he could trust him.
'You know what we need? Some music,' Veitch said.
'Sinatra,' Church replied.
'Nah. Something… something sunny. A bit of heart, bit of hope. I've got this Beach Boys song stuck in my head. Can't remember what it's called.' He quietly hummed a few off-key bars.
Lounging back in a seat, Veitch's silver hand caught the lamplight, the glow illuminating another hint of uncertainty in Veitch's eyes. 'Laura's never going to accept me,' he commented.
'Surprised? She never liked you much before. Now she knows you've killed about ten times as many people as the worst serial killer in history, all of them Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.'
Veitch gave nothing away.
'Any regrets?' Church pressed.
'I did what I did.'
'You had the spiders whispering in your ears-'
'Don't blame them. I knew what I was doing.'
'The Void deals in despair, Ryan. Once you get infected with that you can believe black is white and up is down. Nothing looks right.'
'You're the one always banging on about accepting responsibility. What I did felt right then. Now…' Veitch gave a shrug that was supposed to represent easiness. 'All that matters is I did it. I'm never going to put it right, no chance. I've got to accept what I did and live with it.' Veitch rolled up his shirt to reveal the mass of colourful tattoos that covered his torso. He indicated a Promethean figure strapped to a rock being attacked by ravens. 'See that? That's me. Being punished for ever for what I've done. No relief. Just pain. You fuck up like I did, you deserve to pay the price.'
Church felt a pang of pity. 'You're here now when we need you most.' 'So you trust me?'
'You're an idiot, then. Even I don't trust me.'
Their eyes locked, and Church was acutely aware of the weight that lay between them. Veitch loved Ruth as much as he did, and neither of them was wholly sure where Ruth stood. What would happen when the time came for choices to be made? Could he trust Veitch to walk away? Could he trust himself?
His transformation into the Libertarian would be sparked in some way by his relationship with Ruth. Before, he couldn't comprehend how that could possibly happen. Now he could see with startling acuity the road begin to appear before him. The question was clear: how far would he be prepared to go for the woman he loved?
Something similar unfolded in Veitch's face.
'None of us are heroes, mate,' Veitch said quietly. 'In the end we just do the best we can.'
'And sometimes we fail.'
'But that's the thing about five. If one screws up, there's always someone else to make sure the job gets done.'
Veitch pondered this for a moment. 'We've all got a part to play. Thinking about this too hard does my head in, but it's like even bad stuff is important. Like you couldn't have had some of the good if the bad things hadn't happened to cause it. So it's all linked. Pull back a bit and you start seeing things for what they are. They're just part of some…' He struggled to complete the concept.
'It's like we're so far inside it we don't see how it all fits together, but if you could float above it somehow… you know… Listen to me — I sound like bleedin' Shavi.' He laughed. 'Looking forward to spending some time with that fucker. I missed him. He keeps me calm.'
'We go well together.'
'Yeah. We do.'
Outside the carriage, the impenetrable black was like deepest space, punctuated every now and then by a burst of fire in the far reaches, a beacon crying for help, quickly extinguished. Briefly, a vast mountain of stone came into view, topped by a sharp spire with gargoyles and carvings and windows but no sign of life: the Watchtower between the Worlds.
'You think Miller and Jack are enough to stop the Void?' Veitch was lost to the gloomy view.
'Not without the Extinction Shears. Maybe not even then.'
'It's not going to end well for us, is it?'
'No happy endings.'
'I never expected that for me, but you lot… you deserve better. You've fought hard.'
'Maybe dying won't be so bad. I just feel so tired. All this running, and fighting.'
They were interrupted by the silent arrival of Ahken, the host of the Last Train, his heavy-lidded eyes staring from a skull-like face. His black robes were pristine, but he smelled of the grave, and when he clasped his hands before him in a show of obsequiousness, it hid something darker. 'Brothers of Dragons,' he said. 'Is there anything that would make your final journey more pleasurable?'
His words chilled Church.
'Yeah. Some dancing girls,' Veitch replied.
Ahken smiled slyly. 'You feel at home on the Last Train.'
Veitch stroked the leather seat. 'It's weird. It feels a bit Egyptian, some Chinese, Arabic, Victorian.'
'Oh, the Last Train is very old,' Ahken said. 'It was here in the earliest time, before the Golden Ones, before even the Drakusa.'
'Before the Oldest Things in the Land?' Church asked.
Ahken did not reply.
'What are you going on about?' Veitch asked.
'There's a hierarchy. The gods manipulate us. The Oldest Things in the Land manipulate the gods and us. Puck, the Caretaker…' With an involuntary shudder, Church recalled the two figures he had seen, or imagined, hovering over the cauldron that was not a cauldron while he suffered the Sleep Like Death in the casket of gold and ivory. 'There's always something higher. Apparently.'
Defiance hardened Veitch's features. 'Humans are on the way up, and we're not taking any bollocks from anyone any more.'
Church nodded in agreement. 'This whole period is ushering in the next step of our evolution, if we can follow the right path. Not Fragile Creatures any longer. A lot of the ones above us don't like that.' He eyed Ahken, who smiled, giving nothing away.
'So does that mean we get one of those little silver rats like all the gods?' Veitch said.
'You know something about them?' Church asked him.
'I know the Last Train, and that is all,' Ahken lied.
'The Tuatha De Danaan can't live without them,' Veitch said. 'But what use are they? They change shape, yeah, but I mean, so what, right? It's not like they serve up your dinner. They're like pets.'
'Except I can never tell which is the pet — the Caraprix or the god,' Church said.
Laura kept one eye on her reflection in the window of the adjoining carriage as she teased her white-blond hair. 'The end of the world is no excuse for looking less than perfect,' she hummed.
Further down the carriage, a piper played a heart-wrenching lament to the four lost cities of the homeland of the Tuatha De Danaan. The king of the Seelie Court maintained a cold dignity, but the queen's head was raised, eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks.
'Do you miss Hunter?' Shavi sat cross-legged on the opposite seat.
Laura noted the tinge of rawness around his left eye where the stolen alien orb had been inserted, but it only emphasised the beauty of his bone structure, the gleam of his black hair, his flawless skin. 'Like I miss crabs.'
His smile revealed he recognised the truth behind her words.
'All right, so he's not a complete loser. And trust me, I've shagged enough of those in my life to tell one at fifty paces.'
Shavi continued to smile.
'Will you stop that?' She sighed. 'He's not had the experience we've had. I mean, we've all died and come back, for a start.'
'He is a strong and capable man. There is little in the Far Lands that would give him pause.'
'I'm going to be really pissed off if he goes and dies on me. At least before I've managed to suck the life out of him.'
'You deserve a little happiness.'
'Yeah. Tell that to her.' Laura nodded towards Ruth, who stood apart from the strange members of the Seelie Court, lost to the music and her thoughts. She leaned on the Spear of Lugh as if it was a crutch.
'Ruth does not think badly of you.'
'She doesn't like it that I'm not a frosty, miserable moaner. And she envies my beauty, wit and charm.'
'You know, you do not have to be afraid to be honest about your feelings.'
'I've never been honest in my life. Why start now?' She fixed him with a telling gaze, but for once Shavi did not notice the subtle signs.
'When are you going to tell us your real name?' he asked.
Shavi nodded; another faint smile.
'So how's the new eye? Causing you a great deal of pain?'
'It appears to have settled in remarkably well. For an eye stolen from an otherworldly construct to replace the one it stole from me.'
'Shame.' She saw the briefest shadow cross Shavi's face. 'What's up?'
'The eye doesn't always show him things he wants to see.' Ruth stood in the aisle. Laura felt a charge in the air, as if Ruth were some kind of generator. It was both comforting and unsettling at the same time.
'So what are you seeing, Shavster? Or should I cross your palm with silver?'
Laura grew serious. 'I'm going to throw back at you all that shit you tell me about friends. You shouldn't keep all this stuff inside you. It'll eat away at you and drive you mad. Trust me, I know.'
'She's right, Shavi,' Ruth prompted.
'I do not see specifics, just fleeting images, impressions.' He shrugged.
'He sees death,' Ruth said.
'How do you know that?' Laura asked.
'It's circling all around us. Can't you feel it?' Ruth hugged herself. 'A coldness, that brief feeling of a shadow passing over you?'
Laura shook her head. 'What do I know? Thanks to Cernunnos I'm more plant than human. A beautiful little nature sprite.'
'Maybe it's my Craft,' Ruth accepted. 'Come on, Shavi — share your burden.'
Reluctantly, he replied, 'Yes, death is all around. As it comes closer, symbols of its presence will arise, as they always have done, but we are usually oblivious to their presence.'
'You're creeping me out now.' Laura said. 'What are you talking about?'
'In life, death is an anomaly. It is like a weight dropped onto a taut rubber sheet, bending the patterns all around, throwing up indicators of its presence. In the midst of them, we discount them as coincidences, randomness. Only after death has passed do we see those things for what they are.'
'Patterns,' Ruth said. 'Symbols. That's where the true magic lies.'
'Who dies, Shavi?' Laura said sharply.
'The Pendragon Spirit responds to the gravity that lies ahead.'
'So if I can cut through all your verbal wankery,' Laura said, 'you're saying Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. Us. One? More?'
'The details are not clear.'
Laura couldn't tell if he was lying.
The musician came to an abrupt end of his piece, and with silent awe the Seelie Court moved to one side of the carriage. The Last Train emerged from the gulf into a crepuscular zone and then rapidly burst into a blaze of colour and detail. They had arrived at the distant edge of the Far Lands.
But the members of the travelling court were not entranced by their return to the land the Golden Ones now called home. Their apprehensive attention was fixed on the Fortress that sprawled to the lip of T'ir n'a n'Og, as big as several cities and growing with every moment as armies of labourers relentlessly scurried with ant-like organisation to erect annexes, walls, towers, courtyards, keeps. From one angle, it didn't resemble a fortress at all, but an enormous insect squatting on the land. All around was blasted, dry and dusty, and devoid of life. And over it all loomed the Burning Man.
Everyone remained silent until the Fortress had passed from view, and then they returned to their seats, muttering darkly to those beside them.
The Last Train moved rapidly across the blasted zone, past the long columns of monstrous beings marching out from the Enemy's Fortress. Their great war machines shook the ground as they rumbled towards the centres of habitation. Soon the train passed onto rolling downs, where the breeze-blown grass looked like waves on a green sea, and then to misty valleys and tree-covered slopes.
In the carriage beyond the one occupied by the Seelie Court, Tom perched on a seat, studiously constructing a roll-up from the small tin he carried in his haversack. With his silver hair tied back in a ponytail, he still carried with him the spirit of Woodstock. 'Scared?' he said.
'No, of course not.' Crowther watched the passing scenery intently. He was a big-boned man, wrapped in a voluminous overcoat topped with a wide-brimmed hat that made him appear even larger. 'I have been here many times. In my dreams-'
'Speak for yourself. Our world is a place of low horizons. Here, anything is possible.'
'Yes, death from nowhere, torture, the dismantling and rebuilding of the body in infinite, agonising variations. It's one long, fun-filled holiday of the mind.'
'If you don't have the intellectual capacity to see the possibilities,' Crowther sniffed, 'there's little point in discussing it further.'
Tom eyed him coldly. 'Intellect is a poor substitute for experience.'
'As people without intellect always say.'
'Oh look, the old folk are arguing again. This journey is like one never-ending visit to a rest home. You'll be fighting over the Rich Tea biscuits next.' At sixteen, Mahalia had the cut-glass tones of an expensive private education, but her eyes suggested easy violence and a much greater age.
'Oh yes, the teenage delinquent,' Tom said. 'Move along. No mobile phones to steal here.'
'For God's sake, don't engage her.' Crowther sighed. 'You'll only find ground glass in your food.'
Mahalia snorted. 'I can be much more inventive than that.' Her hardness fractured briefly as she glanced back along the carriage to where her boyfriend, Jack, sat in gloomy conversation with Miller. At seventeen, with his shock of blond hair and healthy farm-boy appearance, Jack was a stark contrast to the older Miller's sickly pallor, only emphasised by the lank brown hair falling around his ghostly face. 'You need to do something about those two. They've got some kind of death wish,' Mahalia added.
Realising they were the subject of the conversation, Jack and Miller approached.
'Tell them!' Mahalia pleaded with Tom and Crowther. 'Just because they've been given these special abilities doesn't mean they have to go out fighting.'
'Don't, Mahalia.' Jack had a world-weariness that belied his age. 'Everyone can see how this is going to turn out.'
'No, they can't!' Refusing any sign of weakness, she quickly brushed away a tear.
Jack took her hand. 'My memory's back now. I know what happened. Snatched from my mum when I was a baby and taken to the Court of the Final Word where they worked on me.'
'They made me into a weapon,' Jack continued. 'The ultimate weapon. The Wish-Hex that they buried inside me is like…' He fumbled for words to describe a concept he could barely comprehend.
'Like a nuclear bomb that can devastate the very fabric of reality,' Crowther interrupted.
'So it's there,' Mahalia said. 'So what? That doesn't mean it has to be used. You can have a normal life-'
Jack silenced her with an affectionate squeeze of her hand. 'You know I've got a part to play.'
'All right!' she snapped. 'So you release the Wish-Hex. There has to be a way you can do that without destroying yourself.'
Jack's sad smile stung more than any words could have.
'We all want a little happiness, but sometimes we have to give that up so everybody else can have a chance to be happy,' Miller said. Tom saw in him an echo of Shavi's inner peace.
'Shut up, you simpleton.' Mahalia sighed.
Refusing to be deterred, Miller took a seat across the aisle. 'I've got something inside me too, but mine heals. You don't know what it's like to have these gifts, Mahalia-'
'Gifts!' she snorted.
'They are! Jack's too, though it's hard to see it at the moment. They speak to us in a way I can't explain and they tell us we've got a job to do. If there's a chance we might be able to stop the Void-'
'Might, might, might!'
'We've got to try! To have an ability and not use it… and everybody suffers because of it — how could you live with that?'
'I could,' she said.
'We're the Keys,' Jack said. 'Miller… me… there's no chance of winning without us.'
'There's no chance with you!' Mahalia stormed down the carriage so no one could see her tears. Jack and Miller followed, trying to comfort her. Crowther watched Tom's face and saw an echo of Mahalia's desire for peace and happiness after a long period of responsibility.
'They say you have the Second Sight,' Crowther said.
'One of my many wonderful attributes.'
'And the tongue that never lies?'
'Oh, yes. But that doesn't mean I have to answer.'
'Can you see how all this plays out?' Crowther asked hesitantly. 'Victory or defeat? Who lives, who dies?'
Tom smiled tightly, rose and made his way to the opposite end of the carriage where he sat with his back to the others and closed his eyes. The gentle rocking of the train should have calmed him, but nothing did any more. Instinctively, his fingers went to the gold ring in the shape of a dragon eating its tail that the goddess Freyja had given to him in Norway. Known as Andvarinaut, it was cursed to bring misery to anyone who owned it. He had bartered away his future to help Church, Laura and the rest, and soon enough he would be forced to pay the price.
Jerked alert by the voice, Tom saw a boy of about nine or ten sitting opposite him. He was black, his hair shorn to a bristle, and a little overweight, but he had the most expressive eyes Tom had ever seen.
'Who are you?' Tom growled.
'My name's Carlton.'
Tom glanced back at Crowther and the others.
'They can't see me,' Carlton said. Tom searched the boy for any suspicious signs. 'You don't look like one of those damnable fairy folk.'
'Then you're with the Enemy.'
'I'm a friend. I've come to help you.'
Carlton's face was open and honest, but Tom wasn't going to be fooled. He smoked, and waited.
'Time is running out. The Devourer of All Things is almost here. His army sweeps across the Far Lands. His assassins are abroad, attempting to kill or disrupt key elements of your opposition.'
'You know, little children do not talk like that,' Tom noted acidly.
'But there is one important thing you must know: in the battle to come, there will be people you can trust, and people you can't.'
'And you're going to tell me which is which, I suppose.'
'Even those closest to you are not above suspicion.'
'I want to help-'
'You'll forgive me if I don't trust you.' Tom returned to Crowther and the others, and when he glanced back, the boy was gone. When he described his encounter, Mahalia's face filled with sadness, and then anger.
'You're lying.' Her voice broke. 'That can't have been Carlton. Carlton's dead!'
In the great debating hall in the Palace of Glorious Light, Mallory and Decebalus were distracted from their strategy meeting by cries coming from the direction of the city gates. A crowd of excited Tuatha De Danaan flooded into the courtyard outside the palace where Lugh and an anxious cadre of the city guard waited uneasily for a caravan speeding up the winding streets. The golden-skinned outriders wore heavy armour, their faces grim, but several of the horses had empty saddles. Behind them, the royal carriage clattered so wildly over the cobbles that it was in danger of careering into the surrounding buildings.
'The first of them,' Lugh said when Mallory arrived at his side. The god stood tall and handsome and was filled with the burning power of the sun, but since he had discovered the true extent of his sister Niamh's betrayal, it was as if a dark cloud had gathered within him. 'The twenty great courts of the Golden Ones are answering our call.'
'All of them?'
Lugh still barely believed he had gained the support of his unruly people. 'We have received responses from all, save three,' he replied. 'The Seelie Court, who wander the worlds eternally; their dark brethren, the Unseelie Court, but they will never follow our path; and the Court of the Final Word.' As Lugh watched the gathering riders, the weight of his leadership lay heavy on him. 'I am concerned. We sent a messenger to the Court of the Final Word, but he reported it sealed and silent and cold. I fear the worst.'
Reining-in their mounts, the outriders leaped down as the royal carriage skidded to a halt. With a resounding crack, the rear axle shattered, the carriage sagging, the horses rearing up. Guards ran to help the occupants. The remainder of the caravan trailed through the palace gates and down the steep hill to where they had entered the court from the Great Plain, aristocracy and soldiers, merchants, musicians and magicians.
'Who are they?' Mallory asked.
'The Court of the Yearning Heart. Beware them, Brother of Dragons. Though they are my people, they are sly, untrustworthy and dangerous.'
From the carriage climbed the queen, exuding a supernaturally charged eroticism so powerful that a tense silence fell over all those present, of either sex. She wore a transparent gown that only served to draw attention to her breasts and pubis.
Accompanied by two young women-in-waiting, she approached Lugh. No love was lost in the curt bow they exchanged, but she found time to cast a curious, sexually predatory gaze towards Mallory.
'I trust your journey was safe,' Lugh enquired.
'It was not. We left as my court was overrun, and from there to here we were harried continually. Many of my subjects were slaughtered in the process,' she noted without a hint of sadness. 'Imagine — Golden Ones eradicated! How can this abomination come to pass?'
'There are worse things ahead, I fear.'
'Is that a Brother of Dragons I spy?'
'Leave him alone,' Lugh said sharply. 'He is an ally.'
The queen snorted contemptuously.
'More than an ally,' Lugh continued. 'He may well be our saviour, and he has more to concern him than being idle sport for you. The season has turned, sister, and Fragile Creatures have joined our kind at the high table. You must adapt to this new arrangement.'
The queen batted a dismissive hand. 'See also what has been wrought upon our kind.'
She marched to a covered wagon surrounded by heavily armed guards who kept the curious at bay. Haughtily, the queen snatched back the cover to reveal six of her guards writhing in indescribable pain. Their bodies had been transformed by some disease, sprouting scales, horns, patches of exposed bone and weeping sores.
'What could do this to our kind?' the queen asked.
Behind them stood a young man of about twenty, tall and thin, dressed in a green, crushed velvet suit with a hat, a cane and sunglasses. The whiff of the sixties lay heavily on him.
'What can you tell us, Doctor Jay?' Mallory asked.
'We had a run-in with her in Haight-Ashbury in sixty-seven.' The Doctor tapped the brim of his hat with his cane to emphasise his words. 'The demon-queen of Bali, they call her. She leads an army of evil witches and spreads plague wherever she goes. The Enemy sends her out to spread chaos.' He peered into the back of the wagon. 'There's nothing you can do for them. It's just a matter of time.'
Refusing to believe, the queen raged impotently. Mallory, Decebalus and Doctor Jay left Lugh trying to calm her and returned to the Doctor's chaotic apartment in the palace. It was packed to the brim with magickal items, crystals, boxes and parchments, potions, candles and skulls, all moved from Math's tower before the sorcerer had departed with Hunter. The curtains were drawn and it was too hot and claustrophobic.
Jerzy moved studiously around the room, reading from several volumes as he mixed a concoction, his bone-white skin and rictus grin glowing spectrally in the half-light. When they entered, he gambolled over and danced around them like a child. Mallory had a sense of a second Jerzy behind the fool he had been made into by Niamh and the Court of the Final Word: secret, real, serious and hidden, with his own agenda.
'Are you ready to try again, good friend?' Jerzy said to Doctor Jay.
'We'll give it a rest for a while, Mister Mocker. I need to refuel my mojo, if you know what I mean.' The Doctor flopped wearily into a large chair and put his head back. He kept his sunglasses on despite the gloom.
'Still no success?' Mallory prompted.
'Man, if you only knew what I'd achieved here,' the Doctor replied.
'Wonders and miracles! It's this place… the Blue Fire… all stirred up together. I'm supercharged!' He sat cross-legged. 'But yeah, you're right — not the wonders and miracles we need.'
Decebalus growled an epithet. 'You cannot contact the king? Church?' 'I can't contact Earth, man. It's like it's closed off, all the shutters pulled down. The Void's made sure no one's getting in or out of our home, at least not yet. And no information's getting through, either.'
'We don't even know if Church or the others are still alive,' Mallory said.
'Good friend, Jack Giant-Killer will not be defeated. He will be with us soon,' Jerzy said.
'Is that a platitude, or a snippet of information from your mysterious friends and allies?' Mallory asked suspiciously. 'Those higher powers you're secretly working for?'
Jerzy looked hurt.
'Sorry. I'm an idiot. Ignore me.' Mallory rested one hand on his sword, Llyrwyn. In times of stress, it calmed him, whispering mysteriously through the Pendragon Spirit they shared. 'You think there's hope for Church?' he asked the Doctor. 'Because if he doesn't turn up with the Two Keys, there's no hope for us, even if by some miracle we do locate the Extinction Shears.'
Doctor Jay shrugged. 'I've been reading, researching, talking to people out in the city. All the races out there have their own myths about these times. The End of the World myth, you know? They're all in code, like all stories, but with the information we've got now, you can read them in the right way. It's all the same story, just told with different emphasis. The battle between two great kingdoms. The light and the dark in the Tuatha De Danaan version. The fight between a spider and a snake that destroyed the universe, for Jerzy's people.'
'The Christians talk of the Apocalypse… and the Antichrist,' Decebalus mused.
The Doctor nodded. 'It's all over our world too. Prophecies… hints… Who is the Antichrist, or is that just another symbol?'
'The Libertarian?' Mallory suggested.
'Revelation talks of the people of God opposing the Evil, and two prophets called the two witnesses. Is that the Two Keys?'
'I thought Revelation was supposed to refer to some Roman Emperor or something back when the Bible was written?' Mallory mused.
Animated, the Doctor fetched more books from the shelves. 'The patterns, man. They're everywhere. The true template behind reality. See the patterns and you get what it's all about. A trip, the biggest trip of all. Numbers are the key, see.' He giggled. 'The key. Numbers are the key in music. Music is the key to the universe.'
Mallory sighed. 'You're having a rush, Doctor.'
'Sorry, man, sorry. But it's the numbers! Science and magic… maybe it's the same thing. The pattern is everywhere. The Aztecs had the Legend of the Five Suns. Five was an important number to them. Each sun was an age, and when a sun died, there was chaos and the gods destroyed the world and started again. We're on the fifth sun now. The last one. This is the sun of movement, Tonatiu, the Rising Eagle, and when it's over the world gets torn apart.'
'If that's a prediction, it doesn't sound like they've got a lot of faith in us,' Mallory said.
Doctor Jay hesitated. 'Maybe we don't fail. Maybe we cause it.'
'Your brain is addled,' Decebalus spat.
'The Indian myths are like the Aztec one, in a way. The universe goes through cycles of birth and death and rebirth. The Hindus believe that Vishnu, the Preserver of Order, comes during times of chaos to save humankind. He appears in a different form each time… an avatar… and he will appear in ten forms before the universe ends.'
'You're saying that number is significant?' Mallory asked. 'Like the number of the last two groups of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. Except… except there are only nine…' He rubbed his forehead where the familiar painful emptiness had risen again.
'Don't know, man. But Vishnu has appeared in nine of his forms already. For the tenth, he will come as a man riding on a horse, to destroy the Earth.'
They considered this for a moment. Sensing a darkening mood, Doctor Jay moved on. 'The Norse had their myths of Ragnarok, the end of gods and humans, when the world is destroyed after a final battle. There's more, from all over the world, but I think you get the picture.'
Decebalus snorted. 'Patterns can be broken. And stories are like the gods. They tell you one thing but mean another. The truth is slippery.'
A sudden crash made them all jump. Jerzy had pitched forwards, sending phials and bottles flying. Spasming on the floor, his eyes rolled back so that only the whites were visible. Mallory, Decebalus and the Doctor struggled to stop him hurting himself.
'A seizure?' Mallory said as Jerzy finally grew still.
'The Court of the Final Word changed him so much, it's impossible to tell what's going on inside him,' Doctor Jay said.
Jerzy remained unresponsive. But as Mallory carried him to the bed in the adjoining quarters, a low-pitched hum emanated from the Mocker, growing more intense by the second until it set all their teeth on edge.
'What the hell's that?' Mallory reeled away from the bed.
Doctor Jay clamped his hands over his ears. 'Strange days are upon us, man. It sounds like some weird radio signal.'
All attempts to revive Jerzy failed. A silvery substance, like mercury, emerged from his tear ducts and slid across the surface of his eyes until they were like mirrors, reflecting the troubled faces of Mallory, Decebalus and Doctor Jay.
'Get all the court's medics together,' Mallory said. 'I want to know what's happening to him, why it's happening now and what it means.'
With a screech of metal and a billowing cloud of hissing steam, the Last Train juddered to a halt at the gates of the Court of the Soaring Spirit.
'You ready to face all those bastards again?' Leaning on the window, Veitch watched the massive obsidian gates creak slowly open as puzzled guards emerged, weapons drawn, to investigate the arrival.
'We're on the same side now,' Church replied. 'This war is going to make a lot of difficult allies.'
'Tell me about it.' Veitch flashed a knowing glance at Church. 'Common aims, right?'
'Whatever's happened, you're one of us, Ryan. You always were and you always will be.'
Veitch grunted noncommittally, but the brief glance he exchanged with Laura as she made her way along the carriage ahead of Ruth and Shavi spoke clearly of the problems ahead.
'Congratulations, dude,' she said. 'You finished a whole train journey without killing one of us.'
'Leave him alone,' Ruth snapped.
'Oh, yeah, you would say that. Is there a man around here you haven't tapped?'
Her cheeks flushing, Ruth's eyes flashed angrily. Shavi stepped in with a gentle hand on her arm. 'It's just Laura,' he said softly.
Amidst an odour of loam and a sound like dry insect casings rattling, Ahken arrived, his obsequiousness undiminished.
'Your journey on the Last Train is over,' he said, 'and it is time to make payment.' As he spoke, Tom, Crowther and the others made their way into the carriage.
'What's the price?' Church asked.
'More than you can bear!' Tom raced up, thrusting himself between Church and Ahken.
'Most peoples of the Far Lands and the Fixed Lands only ride the Last Train once, and their destination is always the same,' Ahken continued with an unsettling edge to his voice. 'Out of deference, I have allowed the Seelie Court free passage on their flight back to their homeland. They will join me again shortly. But you, Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, have journeyed on the Last Train three times, and three times is the limit.'
Outside the window, on the dusty approach to the city, the members of the Seelie Court waited curiously for the other passengers to join them. Instinctively, Church felt that the train had already started moving imperceptibly, gradually building speed.
'You must let them alight,' Tom insisted. 'You allowed them passage from the Fixed Lands-'
'The Last Train was summoned by blood,' Ahken said.
'You cannot take them to the Final Destination! The survival of everything depends on them!'
As Ahken's smile broadened, Church had the uneasy feeling that something was squirming just beneath his skin. 'Your kind has little respect for the eternal patterns of Existence and the great inviolable rules. That one-' Ahken pointed to Veitch '-transgressed the ultimate law when he travelled to the Grim Lands to bring back this one.' Ahken indicated Shavi. 'That has not been forgotten. Indeed, the current crisis that grips all the lands is a direct result of that action. You are architects of this suffering.'
Church and Veitch stepped forwards, hands on their swords. Tom held them back. 'Don't,' he said quietly. 'You can't hurt it. What you see is not what is.'
'You were our only chance to escape Earth when the spiders came,' Church said. 'We had no choice but to call you.'
'Every action has repercussions, seen and unforeseen. You must take responsibility for them.'
'Wait,' Tom said. 'They are too important for their lives to be forfeit-'
'No one is too important.' There was a crack like thunder to Ahken's voice.
'Take me in lieu,' Tom pressed.
'I have you anyway, True Thomas. You knew the price asked the last time you travelled with me. But you have traded away your future, and now you are worthless to me.'
Recognising that Ahken would not back down, Church part-drew Caledfwlch and the Blue Fire fizzed and crackled around him. The gravity surrounding Ahken grew by the moment, and Church was now in no doubt as to whom he represented. They could not defeat such a force.
'Quick, now! Be swift, like mercury, like the wind!' The voice rose up around them before Church caught a glimpse of a figure slipping low and lithe along the carriage, more mischievous grin and sizzling eyes than substance.
At the same time, Ahken was altering into something that filled Church with dread. Clasped hands became hooked claws and the smell of the grave intensified, but Church only had an instant to glimpse it, for there was a flash of blinding light and then utter darkness.
The carriage door opened with a sound like escaping steam, and Church instinctively propelled those nearest to him out into the bright daylight. As he sprawled in the dust, he saw the others urged unceremoniously out around him, before a flash of brown sealskin bolted out to pause close by his ear. He looked deeply into yellow eyes and saw world upon world before their colour changed.
'Grasped from the jaws of dark disaster. You, merry wanderer, are the Puck's prime spark. Enjoy your good fortune, happy fool and lover, for falling so neatly in my purview.'
'Thank you,' Church said, still shaken by what he had sensed in the carriage.
'No, thank you, Brother of Dragons. It serves me that you serve me, but the Puck cannot always be on hand to pluck you from the fire. The end can only be achieved by your own devices, and perhaps not even then. That is the way of the weft and the weave, and we are all at its mercy, even the Oldest Things in the Land.'
In the space between thoughts, the Puck was gone. He had saved and guided them several times, but Church feared he was shepherding them towards an uncertain future that would benefit only the Puck.
With a belch of steam, the Last Train raced away. Amidst the billowing cloud and the rising dust, Church had the impression that it wasn't a train at all, but a long black insect scurrying across the land, the roar of its wheels an angry cry that promised retribution another day.
'I saw the Puck, too,' Shavi said, helping Church to his feet. 'He plays a long game, but at this moment I am glad he has chosen to act as our protector.'
'Until the time arises when he needs to sacrifice us to achieve his ends,' Church said. 'We're always pawns and I'm sick of it.'
The now-excited guards hastily ushered the Seelie Court through the gates, while others rushed to collect Church and the others. To one side, Etain and the other Brothers and Sisters of Spiders stood, stiff and isolated by death and their former allegiance. Church hadn't even realised they were on the train.
He tore his attention from Ruth wiping the dust from Veitch's cheek and turned to Tom. 'What did Ahken mean, that you've traded away your future?'
'Stop asking fool questions!' Tom adjusted his glasses in a manner that Church had come to recognise as defensive.
'You can't keep secrets from me any more, Tom.'
'I can do what I damn well like. I should be dead by rights, and you've made my life a misery by bringing me back. I've got no purpose here now. So don't you start telling me I need to speak my mind to you. It's you that owes me to keep your nose out of my business. It's the least you can do for the pain you've caused.'
Church winced, and Tom instantly appeared to regret his words. 'There's a more pressing matter,' he said. 'On the train, I encountered a boy who, I'm told, is dead. He said his name was Carlton, and he told me something you ought to consider.'
Church saw that Tom's hand was trembling. He tucked it quickly in his jacket pocket.
'He said, in the battle ahead there are people we can trust and people we can't.'
'You believe him?'
'Who knows what to believe in this madhouse? But if I were you, I'd keep a close eye on those around you. And the ones at your back.'
The streets of the Court of the Soaring Spirit were filled with a cheering throng that left the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons baffled and embarrassed by the obvious adulation they were receiving. Many of the disparate races of T'ir n'a n'Og were represented, from the Tuatha De Danaan, whose calls had an uneasy edge of desperation, to animals that walked and talked like men, squat, dour mountain folk, bat-winged, sable-skinned people from the Forest of the Night, short, tall, fat, thin, bizarrely attired.
Veitch was surprised by his reaction. He had forgotten the peculiar, rich, uplifting qualities of the Far Lands, the potent scents — spices, fruit and perfumed candles — colours more vibrant than his home and the rich textures of the stone, metalwork and carvings demanding that he touch them. It felt as if he was in a dream; it felt like coming home.
'What are you smiling at?' Ruth asked him between nods to the well-wishers lining the way.
'Do I need a reason?'
At the Palace of Glorious Light, drenched in the mid-morning sunlight, they were guided to chambers that had once been occupied by Niamh, the court's former queen, where Mallory, Hunter and Caitlin now waited.
'I didn't believe it when the guards told me,' Mallory exclaimed. He shook Church's hand forcefully, and then the two groups hugged and greeted each other like long-lost friends.
Laura and Hunter adopted a blase attitude, but were soon sequestered together deep in conversation, their eyes gleaming, oblivious to the high emotions that whirled around them.
After the reunion, Mallory said, 'We couldn't find the Extinction Shears. We failed. I failed.'
'That's because you were looking in the wrong place,' Church said reassuringly. 'The Market of Wishful Spirit is in the Grim Lands.'
'Why on earth would it be in the Land of the Dead?' Caitlin asked.
'It doesn't matter. We'll start working on a plan to get to them immediately, ' Mallory said.
'Not going to be that easy, mate,' Veitch interjected. 'We come in and out of this place like it's a tourist destination, but there are strict rules about getting to the Grim Lands. I've been there twice. The first time I brought the Void back and caused all this mess. And the second time I had to die to get there.'
Leaving the others to share stories, Mallory led Church along the sun-drenched corridors to Doctor Jay's laboratory. As they neared, the constant low-pitched hum set their teeth on edge.
When Church saw Jerzy, unconscious, silver-coated eyes wide and staring, his heart went out to his friend. 'What's wrong with him?'
'I've got Math… everybody… working on it. No one has any idea.'
'It's got to be linked to the Void's return in some way.'
'Yeah, but… Jerzy? What could he have to do with anything?'
'The Puck took an interest in him. Even kidnapped him for a while. That could be it-' He cursed under his breath. 'I'm useless. All these important details, and I never see them at the time. Why didn't I question why the Puck got involved with Jerzy?'
'What would you have been able to do?' Mallory led Church out of the chamber and closed the door to muffle the unsettling noise. 'All these connections… half the time they could be random. No one sees their importance till after the fact.'
'I hope he's going to be all right.' Church cast one last glance back at the door separating him from his friend; it had been too long since they'd spent time together.
'Yeah, he's one of the good ones,' Mallory replied, 'so this is going to sound harsh, but we've got too much else to worry about right now. Doctor Jay is doing what he can for Jerzy, and if there's any significance to this change we'll find out quickly.'
'We saw the Enemy's army all over the Far Lands,' Church said.
Mallory nodded. 'They'll be here soon. We've already been softened up by the Riot-Beasts. The Enemy's going to throw everything at us. There's an assassin loose in the city, trying to pick us off one by one. We've got strategies in place to tackle it — no Brother or Sister of Dragons travels alone, trebling patrols — but sooner or later someone will make a mistake.'
'Tonight we rest, and plan,' Church replied. 'Tomorrow we start fighting back.'
Too many suspicious glances from the others eventually drove Veitch out into the deserted corridors, where his incipient guilt over the last few violent months gradually subsided. For a while, he wandered, deep in thought about Ruth and his belief that if he had any chance of redemption, it was through her, until a faint echo told him he was not alone.
He waited, watchfully, and when no one materialised, he slipped around a corner, ready to draw his sword. Hesitant footsteps heralded the cautious approach of a woman of around twenty-five, her delicate face framed by blond ringlets in an old-fashioned style that Veitch had seen many times during his stays in Victorian London.
'Oh,' she said, startled that he was waiting for her.
'Why are you following me?' Veitch growled.
'You are Ryan Veitch?' she replied in a cockney accent. 'That's what the guards say. All the fellers and the girls are talking about it downstairs.'
'What's it to you?'
She smiled. 'Let me tell you, ducky.'
Rough hands grabbed Veitch's arms and threw him against the wall. Three men had come up behind him with the stealth of Brothers of Dragons, strong arms, strong faces, sharp eyes, but he could see the hatred in their eyes. He struggled to throw them off, but in a second the woman had a knife against his throat.
'Name's Cathy, lovey, and as God is my witness, I'm going to carve your flesh for what you did to me.'
'I've never met you before.'
'Which is why I'm still here. I'm one of the lucky ones. But back in my old time, you murdered three of my Brothers and Sisters. We never got the chance to be Five. And I'm not alone there.'
'You've got a lot of blood on your hands, Ryan Veitch,' a voice said at his ear. 'Good, decent people, just trying to do their bit for Existence. I saw my fair share of twisted slaughter at Dunkirk, but nothing like what you did. You betrayed the Pendragon Spirit. You betrayed everything Existence stands for. You killed people who would have been our friends and lovers. And now you're going to pay.'
Veitch opened his mouth to account for himself, but Cathy pricked the knife deeper into his flesh. 'No lies,' she hissed. 'Just a quick cut and you won't be hurting any more of us.'
Before she could thrust, there was a shift in the quality of the light and shadows appeared, source unknown. A background drone swelled, like the hum of a generator, a charge to the very air itself.
Ruth rounded the corner, eyes crackling with an unearthly power, hair snaking around her head as if it was alive. From her outstretched hands whirled a storm of blue light. Veitch had seen her like that once before, during the Battle of London when her Craft had consumed her and she had become a lethal weapon that could destroy friend and foe alike.
Cathy's knife slipped from trembling fingers as a gale flung her and her three helpers across the flags. The knife whisked up and embedded itself to the hilt in the thin join between two wall-stones.
'You're protecting him?' Cathy raged.
Ruth's appearance slowly normalised. 'He's working with us now. No one forgets all the people he's killed, but we need him.'
'We don't need him!' Cathy shouted. 'He'll always be a danger. At the end, he'll turn, you'll see.'
Veitch winced when Ruth cast an unguarded glance his way.
'See? He knows it himself!' The three men helped Cathy to her feet, their expressions no less murderous. 'We owe it to all the others to kill him before he destroys everything. Never forget, never forgive!' Tears of anger streaming down Cathy's face, she ran back along the corridor, with the others close behind.
'Thanks,' Veitch said. 'I should have expected that.'
'Probably best if you don't go wandering off on your own from now on.'
Veitch tried to put out of his mind how much he had thrown away, the camaraderie, the sense of being on the side of right, respect, love, all for some immature desire for revenge that had become more undefined with each passing day. He felt pathetic. He hated himself.
Seeing some of this in his face, Ruth's expression softened with pity, and that made him feel even worse. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'It's going to be tough, but people will come around.'
'You know what? I don't care. I've got a job to do — that's the important thing. The sooner I can start using this blade to cut things down, the better.'
A window framed the distant shape of the Burning Man, hazy in the mid-morning sky, and for the briefest instant, Veitch thought it was looking deep into his very heart.
Fiddles and pipes and voices created an exuberant music that rippled out from the Palace of Glorious Light across the rooftops of the night-shrouded city and raised the spirits of everyone who heard it. The celebration centred on the great hall of feasting, though the thronging revellers spilled out into corridors and antechambers. Musicians from the Court of the Yearning Heart and the Seelie Court took it in turns to play. The former chose long, rich, dense reels that exuded eroticism and could ignite passion with a simple run of notes, while the latter selected uplifting melodies that exhorted the listener to love life and focus on higher purpose. Dancers whirled continually, collapsing in corners when exhausted for new couples to take their place.
The sprawling kitchens at the heart of the palace had been working all day to prepare the feast, in clouds of steam and ferocious heat from the ovens that left every worker stripped to their underclothes. Pies and roasts and delicately spiced dishes, stews and soups, fruits and cakes and sweetmeats were piled high on the tables around the edge of the hall. Goblets were never empty; a small army of servants moved steadfastly around with flagons of wine and ale.
The atmosphere was one of wild abandon, from the dancers to the staggering drunks to the couples who made love in the shadows, not caring who saw them. The festivities had been called to celebrate the reunion of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons as they prepared for the next and final stage of the campaign, but it was also a statement: that even in the sight of the Burning Man, life was a powerful driving force.
Shavi, mildly drunk and happy, watched the proceedings with one foot on a beer-washed table and a goblet clutched tightly to his chest. 'This is the reason why we do what we do,' he said.
Sipping his ale, Mallory watched Laura grab Hunter by the hand and drag him behind a pillar. 'Free booze?'
Shavi laughed. 'We lived in a world where strange and wonderful things happened on a daily basis, yet we barely raised our eyes from our work to see them. We were truly blessed to exist in the Fixed Lands. Everything that is writ bold here in the Far Lands was there, moving quietly on the edge of our vision, just waiting to be discovered.'
'I never saw that much of it.'
'Then you never looked. Every magical thing is invisible until you find the right eyes to see it, whether it be love, or joy, or friendship, or a small flying pixie.'
'Do you ever get depressed?'
'If you saw the world as I did, you would not. Yes, there is hardship. Yes, there is pain and suffering, and if you focus on each instance in detail then the only thing you will find is pointless misery. But the mysteries of cause and effect are far beyond our abilities to understand them. Because we love science so much we believe there is a process where a simple action has a straightforward reaction. But the system in which we operate is massively complex, and what may have started at the beginning of time caused a billion, billion connecting reactions that are only now bearing fruit. Pick any point along that chain and you would not see what came before or what the final result would be, only that instant, good or bad in and of itself.'
'Oh, yeah, the Butterfly Effect. Flap, flap, big storm a world away.'
'Indeed. We fool ourselves into believing we understand cause and effect, but we see nothing, we know nothing. That is why you cannot plan to influence the world, for good or bad, in the same way that the butterfly cannot plan to create the storm. No one can predict the repercussions in a complex system. In the end, all you can do is trust your heart and hope.'
'Then why are you so upbeat? It could all be trending towards misery.'
'Because if you examine your own life, you will see that the universe is kindly and that it does its best to help you.'
'Laura's right. You really are an old hippy.' Mallory sipped his ale, thoughtfully. 'So nobody knows anything, and we just trust our instincts?'
'I wish I'd had somebody like you on our team to keep the morale up.'
'Hal would have fulfilled that role if he had not become part of the Blue Fire.'
'Be kind of good to get him back.' Mallory stirred uneasily. 'I still don't understand why there's only four of us. Every other team gets five, but us…' He shrugged. 'I keep expecting somebody new to walk through the door. I can't shake the feeling that something's missing.'
'Perhaps it was simply meant to be that your team has only four members.'
'Why? I don't get it.'
'That is my point. We cannot see the patterns. We can only trust that things will work out for the best.'
'I really wish I could see the world like you do, Shavi. I just feel… sad.'
'We all have our pain, Mallory, because in the vast, indecipherable pattern we are all insignificant, while at the same time we are each and every one hugely significant, for our actions, small and large, make up that very pattern. We are threads in the warp and the weft.'
In the centre of the room, Caitlin danced alone, lost to herself, the Morrigan's love of sex and life evident in each seductive movement.
Loading his plate with roast meat, Veitch ignored the pointed stares of the other Brothers and Sisters of Dragons from across the ages. They milled around the hall as they tried to avoid being dragged into Decebalus's ribald revelry as he stalked back and forth, swilling ale by the flagon while indulging in outrageous flirting to make Aula jealous.
For much of the evening, Church and Ruth had been involved in intense conversation, but they broke off to join Veitch as he made his way over to Shavi and Mallory.
'You know how to throw a good party,' Church said.
'One of the perks when you get your own Great Court,' Mallory replied.
'I still can't believe the Tuatha De Danaan let you take over.' Ruth laughed.
'They owed me big time.'
Church surveyed the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons with pride. 'They seem like a great crew, from what I can tell. Brave, fierce — we'll do well with them on our side.'
'Would you expect the Pendragon Spirit to choose any other?' Shavi said.
'You think they're formidable, you wait till you see the gods,' Mallory said with a sly smile. 'Norse, Greek, Chinese, the whole terrifying, insane collection.'
'Where are they?' Ruth asked.
'We've got them in their own separate camps outside the city walls. If you think the Tuatha De Danaan are fractious when they get together, you really don't want to see this lot mixing with time on their hands. They'd be at each other's throats in a second.'
'Imagine them side by side on the battlefield,' Church said. 'Whatever troops the Void can throw at us are going to be up against it.'
'As long as our lot don't kill each other first.'
The revelry was disrupted by the crash of the main door slamming open. In staggered Ronnie Kelly, a Brother of Dragons in a field uniform from the Great War, his expression devastated. He flailed for a moment before raising his hands in a silent plea. They were covered in blood.
'Murder,' he eventually stuttered. 'There's been a murder!'
The band came to a sudden halt. Church, Veitch and Mallory raced towards Ronnie before the others realised what he was saying. In one of the branching corridors off the main approach to the hall, a woman in a pink satin Georgian dress was sprawled, eyes wide open. A neat hole had been punched in the centre of her forehead.
'Marie,' Mallory mouthed. All he could think of was her accusation the previous day that he had attacked her. Haunted, he dropped to his knees to check her pulse, though it was clear she was dead.
Angry voices rose up from a small crowd of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons further down the corridor. A man in a Georgian morning suit pointed an accusing finger at Veitch. 'He did it. He killed our Marie.'
'No.' Church stepped quickly between Veitch and the group. 'He's been with us all the time. Don't jump to conclusions.'
'Why not?' The man brushed away a stray tear. 'That is what he does.'
Fearing they would attack Veitch, Shavi held up his hand and drew all attention to him. On the periphery of his vision, his alien eye glimpsed hidden shapes, and amidst the dislocation, he heard the distant whispers of the Invisible World. 'The murderer is still here in the palace. And more… We are under great threat!'
'Fan out across the palace,' Church said. 'Stick to the core groups that Decebalus has defined for you. Nobody goes alone.'
Reluctantly, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons moved off along the echoing corridors.
'This wasn't me,' Veitch said, eyeing the body.
'We know,' Church replied. 'I was stupid to think the Enemy would give us time to regroup. Come on.'
Shavi followed Church, Veitch, Ruth and Laura along the corridor. Mallory, Hunter and Caitlin headed for the stairs to the next level. As the groups separated, Shavi heard a rasping, unfamiliar voice issuing from Caitlin that chilled him to the bone. It said, 'Death is circling. Blood will come!'
Navigating the deserted, barely lit upper reaches of the palace was not easy. Hunter led the way with a torch snatched as they climbed the stairs in the east tower. To his left, Mallory's sword provided its own blue light to guide them, while at the rear, the Morrigan had risen in Caitlin, who now moved like a jungle cat. The possession brought physical change too, her eyes becoming a deeper black, her muscles tauter. Gripping her axe effortlessly, she appeared to hear things beyond even her comrades' sharpened perceptions.
Climbing the last flight of stairs, they entered an echoing loft space beneath the ancient oak rafters that supported the palace's pitched roof. Sleeping birds rested on every beam and in every nook and cranny above their heads, the floor white with their excrement.
Caitlin rested an unnaturally cold hand on Hunter's shoulder, her head half-cocked as she listened. 'There's someone up ahead.'
'You need to get yourself a sword,' Mallory said.
'Don't you worry about me,' Hunter replied. 'Now, who loves the stink of bird droppings enough to hide out up here?'
The loft area branched right and then broke off in three directions over the palace's wings. As they reached the junction, an ear-splitting, high-pitched shriek ripped out of the dark. The birds erupted from their roosts, driving Mallory, Hunter and Caitlin apart as they surged around the enclosed space.
One glimpse of Caitlin wielding her axe in a cloud of feathers and blood reached Mallory before he was driven away by talons and beaks, bodies battering him like stones. Disoriented by the beat of wings, he staggered back until he felt the wall against his shoulder.
Amidst the chaos he glimpsed a figure ahead, seemingly unmoved by the storm: a woman's hair, a cheek, an eye. In the gradual accumulation of information, a deep cold ran through him, driving out all rational thought. He propelled himself through the birds towards her.
His worst fears were confirmed: a woman in her late twenties stood before him, blond hair tied back, face weary from too much struggle too soon. A woman from his old life, before he was a Brother of Dragons, forced to endure an atrocity of Mallory's making that ironically set him on the path to becoming who he was.
The emotions her face dredged up blinded him to the knowledge that she couldn't possibly be there. He grasped her hand, desperate to tell her all the things he should have said but never had the chance, but all that came out was a weak, 'I'm sorry.'
The woman's eyes glittered hatefully. Through the haze of his crushing guilt, Mallory finally noticed something off-kilter about her. Pain jabbed into the back of his hand, drawing his attention to fingers that were no long the slender, pale ones he had grabbed but made of twisted blackthorn. A drop of his blood gleamed on the end of one sharp protrusion.
The woman's face unpacked, altered, until what remained was a head that appeared to be constructed of crumpled paper with black, blinking eyes hovering above a malicious grin. The body was now constructed wholly from the same twisted strands of blackthorn.
Mallory threw himself back. 'I saw you. In Ogma's library.'
The creature lifted its hand high, tilted back its head and dripped Mallory's blood into its open mouth. 'Now we are joined for all time,' it said in a voice like rustling paper, 'and that will not be for long.' It advanced on Mallory, one finger outstretched as if accusing him.
Scrambling to his feet, Mallory hacked off the blackthorn creature's arm. With a crackle, the forearm regrew from the stump, the index finger extending into an even more brutal point.
'You cannot stop me,' the creature said. 'Nothing ever stops me.'
Mallory lopped off the arm again, but it grew back just as quickly.
From out of the whirling birds, Hunter exploded into the creature. An instant later Caitlin was at his side, axe at the ready.
'Should have brought some defoliant.' Hunter watched the creature pick itself up and turn those chilling black eyes upon him.
'Take it easy,' Mallory said. 'Your weapons can't hurt it.'
For a second the creature weighed an attack, and then another high-pitched shriek increased the birds' wild activity. Battering her way through the wall of feather, beak and talon, Caitlin searched for their adversary, but there was no longer any sign of it.
They retreated to the only entrance to the loft space and waited until the birds had calmed and returned to their roosts. A careful investigation throughout the branching wings of the loft found only a ragged hole into the night and a potential escape route across the roofs of the city.
As they looked out over the lights of the Court of the Soaring Spirit, Hunter said, 'You hear that?'
At first they thought it was the thunder of an approaching storm until faint metallic notes rose up amongst the pounding. 'The Enemy,' Caitlin said. 'They've reached the Great Plain. It won't be long before they're at the city walls.'
Mallory's attention was caught by the distant outline of the Burning Man simmering in the night sky. 'The fire's rising within it, see?' he noted. 'It's nearly done. Soon the Void will here, and when that happens the clock stops. It's the end of the world for all of us.'
Ten Degrees Of Hell
From the window, it appeared as if a black cloak had been laid across the rooftops surrounding the Palace of Glorious Light. As the night receded with the first silvery light of dawn, that cloak gleamed with an oily sheen that eventually revealed itself to be thousands of ravens perched in eerie silence. The beady eyes of the Morvren all turned towards the palace.
'What is it with birds?' Hunter said. 'Since that thorny bastard attacked last night, I've spent all my time picking feathers out of every crevice. And now this.'
'Blame Church. They're his.' Laura carved her name in the stone with a small knife.
'I think he might debate the ownership issue with you. A supernatural omen of death following you around to pick the bones of the fallen isn't quite the same as a budgie.'
'Looks like there's more of them,' Laura said, casting a bored glance out of the window.
'They know something we don't.'
'You're lucky you've got me to protect you, then.'
'Sorry? Did you say "torment"?'
A gong resonated along the silent corridors, summoning them to a gloomy chamber where the walls and windows were hidden behind purple and scarlet drapes. Magickal artefacts were piled high on the tables and floor, suggestive of some hidden ritual pattern — skulls, crystals, athames, statuettes, jewels, candles and more. Parchments and books were stacked head-high in one corner. With a long, delicate brush, Math carefully inscribed protective runes on a section of wall that would soon be hidden again behind the drapes. His four-faced mask turned slowly and deliberately.
Even though Church and Shavi talked intensely in one corner, there was an unshakable feeling that something had just departed the space.
'Nobody thought to lay on a muffin basket?' Hunter said. 'You can't have a breakfast meeting without muffins.'
'Funny man.' Laura shied away from Math and went to annoy Tom, who had just lurched in, grumpy and tired.
Soon the two teams and Tom were gathered, with Math observing silently from one corner. All of them were aware of the bond they shared, despite their personal differences. The air was electric with the Pendragon Spirit.
'What lies ahead is more than we've ever faced before, and there's a strong possibility that none of us will be getting out of this alive,' Church said. 'It's important we're under no illusion about that.'
'It's the job,' Hunter said. 'No point grumbling about it.'
'That's easy for you to say. You've got a death wish,' Laura said tartly.
'We know where we stand,' Mallory said. 'The question is, where do we go? And just as importantly, what do we do about that thing we found in the loft last night?'
'If, as you describe, it can change appearance at will, it could remain amongst us, picking us off one by one,' Shavi mused.
'Who's to say it's not here now?' Ruth said. They all shifted uneasily.
'Math, what did you find out?' Church asked.
'The creature is known as the Hortha.' Math's voice echoed hollowly from behind his mask. 'It is mentioned many times in our histories, as an agent of destruction and death and chaos.'
'An agent of the Void,' Caitlin added.
'The Hortha is a hunter, a tracker. Once it has identified its prey, it cannot be deterred or stopped. It will continue until it has killed.'
'Okay, you got a load of gods lined up out there ready to fight for the cause,' Veitch began, 'but from where I'm standing, the biggest threat to the Void is the Army of Dragons. If I was the Enemy, I'd send that thing out to pick the whole lot of us off one by one. Cut out the heart.'
'We're not going to be sitting back, letting the Hortha get on with it,' Church said. 'Ryan?'
'So, what, he gets to call the shots now?' Laura said.
'We're all here because we've got individual strengths that benefit the group as a whole. Veitch — and Hunter — they're the strategists.'
'What am I? The cheerleader?' Laura said sullenly. 'Give me a C-U-N-'
'Let's focus, shall we?' Church insisted.
'We're taking the fight straight to the Void,' Veitch said, 'starting right now. Decebalus is going to lead the Army of Dragons, the gods and the Tuatha De Danaan against the Enemy forces.'
'Our troops can be organised before the Enemy reaches the city?' Ruth asked.
'I reckon. Decebalus is a big bastard. He's not going to let people drag their feet. In the meantime, we're going to split into two teams. One lot is going to get the Extinction Shears. Once they've done that, they're going to rendezvous with the other group, who are going straight into the Fortress of the Void.'
'When you say it like that, it sounds simple.' Hunter looked around the room. 'Does anybody else fancy some wine?'
'Hunter's right,' Laura said. 'You've already made it clear: the rules say nobody gets into the Land of the Dead. And that Fortress must be swarming with the Enemy, never mind the Burning Man hanging right over the top of the place. What are you going to do — walk up to the front door and ask nicely?'
'Actually, we'll be using the back door,' Church said. 'A group of colonists in Roanoke back in Elizabethan times were kidnapped and taken to the Fortress. One of them was Virginia Dare.'
'That little girl?' Laura said.
'She escaped from the Fortress,' Church continued. 'She knows a secret way back in-'
'You can't take her back there,' Ruth protested. 'Laura and I both spoke to her last night. She's completely traumatised by what happened to her in that place. It would be cruel to make her go back.'
'It's not like I haven't wrestled with this, Ruth-'
'We don't have a choice,' he said firmly. 'There's too much at stake.'
'She's just a little girl.'
'She's stronger than you think,' Caitlin said. 'If this has to be done, we'll protect her as much as we can.'
'So it's a suicide mission,' Hunter said. 'Into the Fortress, blow up the Burning Man. Last post and medals all round. Delivered to the ones we leave behind, of course.'
'And what part do Miller and Jack play in this?' Shavi asked.
A touch of weariness was evident in Church as he shook his head. 'Math's been trying to work that out. All we know is that the Two Keys are needed along with the Extinction Shears to stop the Void.'
'So we're winging it,' Veitch said, with what the others thought was an alarming note of relish. 'We trust our instincts once we get in there. That's what we do, right?'
'I usually prefer what we in the security business call a "plan",' Hunter said. 'But I'm willing to try your way for the novelty.'
'Death wish,' Laura muttered.
'I'm going to take Virginia, Miller and Jack to the Fortress alone-' Church began.
Mallory, Hunter and Veitch all cut him off but Ruth's voice was louder. 'You don't get to play hero on your own,' she said.
Church saw the truth in their faces. 'You don't trust me,' he said. 'You know I'm fated to turn into the Libertarian and you think I'm going to sell you all out.'
'It's not that,' Mallory said unconvincingly. 'We just don't want to take any risks. The more of us we can get in there, the better chance we'll have.'
The sting of betrayal was evident in Church's face for a brief moment before he continued, 'Then we all choose the two teams. I'm going to the Fortress, so the other team needs a leader. Mallory?'
Mallory nodded. 'I've seen Stoke. After that the Grim Lands is the only place left to visit.'
'Ryan?' Ruth suggested. 'You told me the dead worship you as some kind of hero. Sounds like you could use that to our advantage. They should know where the Market is in their own home.'
'No,' Mallory said firmly. 'I don't need to be looking over my shoulder all the time in a place like that.'
'Fair enough,' Veitch replied. 'Your loss, mate.'
'I'll go.' Caitlin flashed a brief smile at Mallory. 'We make a good team. We trust each other. And two of us should be enough. Travel light, travel fast.' Mallory began to protest, but Caitlin silenced him. 'Don't try to protect me. I've got a goddess of death inside me, you goon.'
'Okay, that's a plan,' Hunter said. 'And it only leaves one question outstanding. How do they get to the Grim Lands?'
After a long moment of silence, Veitch said, 'The same way everybody else does. They die.'
The great council chamber in the Court of the Soaring Spirit was almost as large as the Colosseum, with marble pillars supporting a domed glass roof that brought shafts of morning sunlight onto the chamber floor. Bas-reliefs of events from the long history of the Tuatha De Danaan lined the walls, and high overhead Gothic carvings of strange beings echoed the works of the master medieval stonemasons. The building's enormous scale generated a reverential atmosphere, and even though it was almost full, barely a whisper ran around the tiered seating.
Caitlin stood on the floor of the chamber next to the Speaker's Wish-Post, turning over what Veitch had said. The chatter of her three personas had stilled for long periods since the Morrigan had joined with her, but she could always feel the goddess's brooding presence at the back of her head. The Morrigan was a being of contrasts: cold of will and hot of passion, death-dealing and life-affirming, but always dangerous; very, very dangerous.
Mallory entered the chamber with Lugh, Rhiannon and two other gods Caitlin didn't recognise. With each passing day, she found Mallory more impressive as he rose to the challenge of dealing with the responsibilities that had been thrust upon him. Yet she was troubled by the deep sadness that now suffused him. There appeared to be no cause for it, but it had gained such a powerful grip on him that it was almost as if he had decided that the best of his life now lay behind him, and only duty and sacrifice were ahead.
He was concerned about her too; it was visible in his face whenever they were together, and after their decision to travel to the Grim Lands it had become even more intense.
Mallory believed the Morrigan was a corruption that would eventually eat away the essence of the Caitlin he knew. How could she explain to him that she finally felt whole? With the Morrigan inside her, doubts faded like the morning mist. Her slowly creeping, black despair was now walled off. Her mind was clear and fresh, her thoughts sharp, and she fizzed with an energy and unshakable vision. It was almost like a drug. It was almost as if it was meant to be.
Mallory took her to one side. 'Church and the others are getting a briefing from Decebalus on the gods and the readiness of the Army of Dragons, but he'll be along if you need him.'
'You're sure?' he pressed.
'As a Sister of Dragons, they'd listen to me, but you know they've got a deep-seated prejudice against Fragile Creatures. With the Morrigan inside me, though, I'm one of them — they have to listen. Doubly so, because they're scared of the Morrigan, and a Sister of Dragons and the Morrigan combined is just too much for them to contemplate.'
'If you can't win them over with rational argument, give them your spooky stare and terrify them into submission. Nice strategy.' He squeezed her hand. 'Good luck.'
As Mallory left, Hunter sauntered up, seemingly oblivious to the weight of the historic occasion. 'Still no sign of the last two courts,' he noted.
'So we're missing the Unseelie Court and the Court of the Final Word.'
'Yeah, I wouldn't hold my breath for that last one.'
'We had a bit of a falling out.'
'That's never stopped them before,' Caitlin said, puzzled.
'They had a lot of big plans. But in the end they came to nothing.' Hunter smiled tightly.
Caitlin shrugged. 'Apparently the Unseelie Court hates everybody, and they've got a real grudge against the human race from hundreds of years ago.'
'So this is it — eighteen of the twenty Great Courts.' He looked around at the silent ranks glowing in the sun with a diffuse golden light. 'All the arrogant bastards hanging on the words of one Fragile Creature.' He surprised her with a kiss on the cheek. 'Knock 'em dead. Literally, if possible.'
Hunter joined Mallory, Lugh and Rhiannon on the edge of the floor and Caitlin immediately went to the Speaker's position.
'These are the End-Times,' she said in a strong, clear voice. 'You know it in your hearts. You can feel the ashes on the wind. And if you still doubt, you can look up into the sky and see the Burning Man looking back, ready to judge you. I know for a race like the Golden Ones it's easy to dismiss these signs. You have existed — and exerted your power — far beyond the time of Fragile Creatures, and all other beings in the Far Lands and the Fixed Lands. You have always believed this rule would continue for all time. Unshakable. Yet I know you understand the rules of Existence, and that you know the most important one, for the wiser ones amongst you have stated it many times — there is always something higher. What you now face is higher. And you have been expecting this time because it holds such a powerful place in your own stories and mythology: the time when the Devourer of All Things will return to end the days of gods and men, to wipe the board clean, and to set out its dark vision for a new age.'
As she looked around the audience, Caitlin experienced a startling moment of clarity. Once again she was the small-town doctor whose only aim in life was to heal the people who came to her. And here she was addressing a congregation of gods. She was so out of her depth it was laughable. Yet, astonishingly, they were heeding her every word.
The power of the Tuatha De Danaan was so great she could feel the throb of it in the air. Some of the lower ranks had the plasticky features of shop dummies, as though they had been freshly minted. But the oldest were barely human in shape at all; some she perceived only as balls of brilliant light, and amongst those, she knew, was the one the others spoke of in reverent tones as the Dagda.
'This is an historic meeting,' she continued. 'The first time the Great Courts have joined for a council since you left the four cities of your homeland. You're all suspicious of each other, I know that. But above all you recognise that this is about the survival of your race.'
Caitlin placed one hand on the Wish-Post. In the air above it, an image coalesced until everyone in the room felt as if they were standing amidst the scene they witnessed. There was the Enemy Fortress sprawling on a scale that took the breath away, the smell of rotting meat and burning, clouds of greasy smoke obscuring the sky, the constant beat of heavy machinery. Overhead, the Burning Man glowed through the billowing smoke. The image closed in on the shape until everyone could see the figures writhing within the conflagration.
'You always thought yourselves the most powerful things in Existence, but in the end that's all you are — fuel,' Caitlin continued. 'The Burning Man has been created to provide a space in which the Void can manifest some aspect of itself. Its power is normally diffuse across the entire universe, a faint background energy that keeps the whole mess running. It needs to focus that power in one place, at one time, to change the structure of things. It already has immeasurable power — enough to transform the Fixed Lands with the help of its agents, the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders. So why does it need to come here? Why is it intent on drawing itself into an overwhelming force? Because it knows its success is not guaranteed. It knows that somewhere in this land are the keys to a force that could stop it in its tracks, perhaps even destroy it.'
The image above the Wish-Post changed to a view over the great megalithic structure at Callanish on the north-west coast of the Scottish Isle of Lewis. In the hazy pre-dawn, the standing stones shone like silver against the rolling green landscape shaped by the blasting Atlantic gales. As the golden rays from the rising sun touched one of the stones, lines of Blue Fire ran out in all directions, crossing, interlinking, until an intricate network blazed across the landscape. A communal intake of breath whispered around the chamber.
'The Blue Fire is the mark of Existence in our reality,' Caitlin said. 'It is the lifeblood, flowing through everything. Can you feel its power?'
The Wish-Post ensured the observers lived the image it revealed. An exhilarating feeling of rejuvenation, of hope and awe, connected everyone in the room.
'Existence is the equal and opposite of the Devourer of All Things. Life to the Void's Anti-Life. Hope to its despair. And small shards of Existence are embedded in all Fragile Creatures. We call it the Pendragon Spirit. The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons can access that power, but soon all Fragile Creatures will be able to bring it to life inside them. You call us Fragile Creatures, but we are not. We are gods, all of us.'
Caitlin expected some resistance, but as she looked around the intense, beautiful faces, she saw the first signs of mute acceptance.
'The Pendragon Spirit was planted in Fragile Creatures at the very beginning, and it is there for a reason,' she continued. 'It's the secret weapon, ready to be unleashed when we need it most. And that time is now. The final battle with the Void, to decide our survival or destruction, to decide the shape of all reality to come. The biggest stakes of all.'
Amidst the thunder of the blood in her head, she could hear the Morrigan urging her on.
'This is not the time for the Golden Ones to remain aloof, or to indulge in petty squabbles amongst yourselves. This is the time to reach your potential — to rise above your limitations, put aside your arrogance and recover humility. To reach out to those who can help you, and thereby help yourselves. Individually, we can achieve nothing. Together we can change reality.'
Caitlin searched the faces for some sign that she was winning them over, but they all remained implacable.
'I hereby call upon the Great Courts of the Golden Ones to stand together as one, united for the first time since you left your homeland. I ask you to join with the other gods, your cousins from across the Great Dominions, to create the greatest force the Far Lands have ever seen. And I call on you to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, as allies in this great war.
'Stand now with the Kingdom of the Serpent, which symbolises the full force of Existence and the power of the Blue Fire. Together we can defeat the Kingdom of the Spider. Together we can win.'
A long moment of silence followed her words, until Lugh said loudly, 'The Court of Soul's Ease stands with the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, as equals and allies.'
One by one, the kings and queens of the Great Courts rose to announce their support in steady, if at times bemused, voices. Her heart pounding, Caitlin glanced towards Mallory who nodded in return. She felt warmed by the look of pride she saw in his eyes.
'This is an historic moment,' she announced, when the final Golden Ones had returned to their seats. 'We stand together, now and for ever-more. A formidable partnership. Go back to your courts and celebrate what has been achieved this day. In the meantime, battle plans are being drawn up and we will shortly call your leaders together to discuss tactics.'
As the Tuatha De Danaan began to drift away, Mallory came over. Caitlin could tell he wanted to hug her, but he restrained himself and clapped one tentative hand on her arm instead. 'Now for the hard part,' he said.
'Let's celebrate our little achievements, shall we?'
Before he could respond, a low-pitched hum rose up, growing louder until they were forced to cover their ears.
'That's the same sound that came when Jerzy fell sick,' Mallory shouted.
All around, the Tuatha De Danaan were reeling. Some fell back into their seats while others clutched at the walls for support, rubbing their temples as if afflicted with acute headaches. There was a dimming of the faint golden glow that exuded from their skin so that they looked unaccountably sickly.
'What's wrong with them?' Caitlin said.
The sound appeared to emanate from every part of the vast chamber. As Caitlin prepared to scramble out of the room, she caught sight of Hunter pointing towards the upper tiers. Following his finger, she saw rapid movement across the highest row of Tuatha De Danaan, spreading to each row in turn.
'The Caraprix!' Mallory exclaimed.
The shape-shifting creatures that held a symbiotic relationship with the gods were separating from their hosts, where they had been disguised as clasps and amulets, buckles, jewellery and daggers. Silvery flashes caught the sunlight as they fluidly transformed into mercury eggs that slithered across golden bodies, down walls, onto the floor and away.
Beside Mallory, Rhiannon cried gently, one arm across her stomach as if gripped by a physical pain of loss, the cauterised wound of her missing hand reaching out with invisible fingers for the disappearing Caraprix.
'They are deserting us,' she whispered, 'our friends, our souls. They have been with us from the very beginning and now they are going.'
'Is this the first sign that the end is near?' Lugh cried. 'We are abandoned, here, when we need them most.'
The Tuatha De Danaan collapsed into their seats at the devastating emotional loss of separation, but they also appeared to be physically weakened.
'Our luck is gone!' Lugh continued. 'Our power!'
Mallory grabbed Caitlin's arm and with Hunter they escaped from the chamber and the teeth-jarring drone.
'Several questions spring to mind,' Hunter said as they moved along the corridor. 'Why now? Where are the Caraprix going? What power do they have? Are they a threat to us?'
'My instinct is to plan for the worst,' Mallory replied. 'We know they've been used to control people before.'
'But we've never seen a sign that they've got any real kind of consciousness, ' Caitlin said. 'They've always been pretty benign, changing shape and doing what they're told by the Golden Ones.'
'The Tuatha De Danaan aren't telling them to scurry away,' Hunter observed. 'So who is?'
'I think I might be able to answer that.' Mallory sprinted ahead.
It appeared he was right, for soon they intersected with a stream of Caraprix heading in one direction. Covering their ears, they joined the silvery flow until they arrived at Doctor Jay's chambers where the Caraprix massed around the door, seeking out every gap around the jamb to ooze inside.
'Jerzy has a Caraprix inside his head,' Mallory said. 'The Court of the Final Word put it there so they could control him.'
'And these others are trying to get to it?' Caitlin asked.
'The droning came from Jerzy first,' Mallory replied. 'I think the Caraprix in his head was calling to the others.'
'Why?' Caitlin said.
'Maybe they just want a big old shape-changing party.' Hunter threw open the door. They had one brief glimpse of Jerzy standing in the centre of the chamber with the Caraprix forming a growing silver pool around him, and then the door slammed shut of its own accord. However much they tried, they could not get it open again.
Beyond the walls, the Great Plain stretched to the purple mountains on the horizon where the dark smudge of the Enemy gathered. Faint tremors already ran through the ground. The approaching threat was starkly contrasted with the peace of their surroundings, where only the gentle breeze stirred the long grass, accompanied by the sound of crickets.
'All right,' Ruth said. 'You got me. Where are they?'
Veitch continued to scan the grasslands before announcing, 'Got to be some kind of magic. Hidden in plain sight kind of thing.'
'Glamour,' Church replied. 'The Enemy won't see them till we want them to be seen. They won't be able to judge the scale of our forces, or make preparations for our secret weapons.'
He led them forwards a few paces until they felt the sensation of passing through a heavy curtain. With a pop, they emerged into the same scenery now filled with more than a hundred Brothers and Sisters of Dragons standing in ranks. Decebalus's barking voice emerged from their midst.
'Blimey,' Veitch said. 'He's got some lungs on him. Mallory made a good choice for sergeant major.'
'We are all going to die!' Decebalus bellowed as he marched through the Army of Dragons. 'Enjoy your last moments, and take five of the enemy with you when you pass!'
Behind the Brothers and Sisters, a flag bearing a blue dragon on a white background fluttered above their small, hastily assembled camp.
'You may think you are few in number, but you are worth more than ten, more than twenty, more than a hundred of the Enemy!' Decebalus roared. 'The Pendragon Spirit glows within our hearts, joining us together as one. One mind, one body. We care for each other, we protect each other and we strike as one weapon!'
Filled with pride, Church watched the brave, determined faces as Decebalus split the army up into groups of five to prepare for the tasks he had assigned them.
'Do you think they're up to it?' Ruth asked. 'We learned on the job, and they've not been through a fraction of the things we've experienced.'
'Look at them — they're great,' Church replied.
Decebalus summoned the three of them over to a group of five strapping themselves into silver and blue armour. 'Greet our brave,' Decebalus said. 'They have volunteered to scout the Enemy lines. A dangerous task.'
Church felt uncomfortable when the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons looked at him with clear awe. 'Who are you?' he asked.
'Sound off!' Decebalus shouted when the group simply gaped.
'Leon Corbett,' the first said, with a strong Midlands accent. He towered over the others and had long, wavy hair and a tribal tattoo around his upper right arm.
'Kelly Broadbent,' ventured the woman next to him. She had auburn hair and something of Ruth about her, Church thought.
'Adam Garrett.' This one had spiky brown hair and dark-brown eyes. Hunter or Veitch, Church thought. He was still astonished how Existence played out the same archetypes through each team.
The fourth introduced herself with the lyrical name of Aurelia Verdin. She was in her early twenties. 'I'm the horse expert,' she said confidently. 'The others won't be able to keep up.'
'And I'm Richard Flynn.' Church saw he was definitely the Shavi of the group, a gentle Glaswegian barely out of his teens, with green-grey eyes and a touch of the mystical about him.
'I'm proud of you all,' Church said, shaking each of their hands in turn. 'It's a dangerous mission, but the information you bring back will help us win.'
Once the group had mounted their horses and were looking towards the horizon, Ruth said, 'Decebalus introduced them to us because he thinks there's a good chance they're not coming back.'
'They looked like a strong team. If any can get back, it's them.'
'How many of these people are going to die, Church?' Ruth pressed. 'You saved them all from being killed in their own times…' She flashed a glance at Veitch, who didn't meet her gaze. 'Only for them to die now.'
Veitch studied the groups as they put on their armour and inspected their weapons, a jarring combination of strength and innocence. 'Nobody lives for ever.'
'That's a cliche.'
'It's true. All of us, we're privileged. For a short space of time, we've been given something that no one else gets to have. That connection with something big. Knowing that we've got a part to play. That we mean something. That we're not just here to work and earn and eat and drink and die. That's a big thing.' His eyes blazed. 'There's a price for everything. That's one of those hidden rules you lot keep banging on about. And if the price for that is you give up your life, I reckon it's worth paying. And I bet that lot do too. Once you've tasted it, nothing else compares.'
Tom waited on the edge of the Army of Dragons' camp, smoking furtively. 'If you've finished with your morning constitutional, there's something you ought to see,' he said. He gestured towards a vast expanse of rolling grassland.
'What?' Church said.
'Why isn't Shavi here?' Tom snapped. 'He's the only one of you with any sense. Look!'
Church, Ruth and Veitch looked again, and this time they saw a faint wavering in the air over the plain, like a heat haze.
'More glamour?' Church said.
'Break out the cakes and ale.' Tom strode ahead. 'An additional layer of camouflage, as much to protect the delicate sensibilities of mortals as anything. Follow me.'
The sensation of the heavy curtain passed again before they emerged into a cacophony of song and music, bellows, roaring laughter, incessant chatter and the clatter of weapons, followed a split second later by an exhilarating blaze of colour and movement.
Sprawling for several miles was a tent city comprising numerous camps merging into one chaotic mess. Banners flew above the largest tents, marked with runes or symbols — dragons, birds, lightning bolts.
Ruth involuntarily put her hands to her ears at the volume. They were all mesmerised by the sensory assault: the rich aromas of roasting meat and campfire smoke, spices and perfumes, the sulphurous blast of furnaces, oiled leather, mead.
Everywhere people surged, talking, wrestling, arguing, fighting, having sex, drinking, laughing, barking orders, calling for aid.
Not people, Church thought. Gods.
The camp nearest to them belonged to the Aesir. Now recovered from the wounds he had received in Norway, Tyr engaged Freyja in sexual banter before winking and moving on through a cascade of sparks where a blacksmith worked an axe-blade on an anvil in the entrance to a smoky tent.
'These are all the gods who've joined the fight?' Ruth asked.
'From every Great Dominion bar one — the Egyptians, which you appear to have decimated,' Tom replied. 'That Hunter has an annoyingly flamboyant personality, but he makes a convincing argument. These gods have barely communed since the beginning of this cycle of Existence, yet here they are, cheek by jowl. And more importantly, they are not killing each other, as one would expect. What you have achieved here is huge, and only the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons could have done it.'
'I don't understand why they listened to us,' Veitch said.
'That's because you're an idiot. They respect you, God knows why. They see things in you that you don't see yourself. They see in you themselves as infants.'
'You mean humanity is going to end up like them?' Ruth said. 'How depressing.'
'No, you'll be better, because you've got the Pendragon Spirit. You're Existence's new, refined model.'
A tremendous clamour drew them to a large tent filled with Aesir swigging from flagons of mead as they cheered and argued around a large oaken table where two men arm-wrestled, the veins on their foreheads standing out, faces like stone from the concentration, sinews bulging. Most were so drunk they could barely stand.
'They have been locked in struggle for two hours, neither of them gaining the slightest advantage.' Freyja appeared beside them, her potent sexuality making their heads spin.
One of the men was Thor, his wild mane of hair a fiery red, his eyes as grey as the skies over the northern wastes. The other was Chinese, his body just as strong, his features marred by a ragged scar that necessitated a patch over his left eye. He was bald with a long, black ponytail. A silver axe etched with red Chinese characters rested against the table next to Thor's hammer, Mjolnir.
'Lei-Gong.' Church recognised the figure from the assemblage of gods beneath the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
'Stop now!' Freyja called. 'We have honoured guests. Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.'
Reluctantly, Thor and Lei-Gong broke their grip.
'This pretender lays claim to control of the storm and the lightning and the thunder,' Thor bellowed.
'You are the pretender,' Lei-Gong said.
'And so it begins.' Tom sighed.
'Do not heed those two,' Freyja said. 'They are both hot-headed. The rest of my brothers and sisters, and my cousins, have experienced a revelation during our brief time here-'
'A rude awakening,' Tom interjected.
'Do not diminish us, True Thomas. During all our time, we have — each family group — believed ourselves to be the pinnacle of Existence. To accept that we have equals is…' A shadow crossed her face. 'Crushing.'
'Tough,' Veitch said sardonically.
'Yet also liberating,' Freyja continued. 'I have found much in common with my cousins, and a greater understanding of our place within Existence. We all, ultimately, seek wisdom, do we not, and that is its own reward?'
'Will that make you any less manipulative?' Church asked.
Freyja smiled. 'It is the nature of all living things to have their own agenda. And to have their own flaws.' She gently took Tom's hand, and the others were all surprised to see him flinch. 'How I admire your ring, True Thomas. Andvarinaut. Why, is that not cursed to bring destruction to all who possess it?' Her smile felt like the wind across a frozen plain. She gave a slight, ironic bow, and left.
'What's going on with you two?' Church said. 'When you said Freyja gave you that ring to help us find what we were looking for, you didn't say it was cursed.'
'Though your arrogance tells you otherwise, I do not answer to you.'
'What's the curse? What have you done, Tom?'
A terrible, haunted quality sparked briefly in Tom's eyes, and then he almost ran from the tent and lost himself in the throng outside.
Entranced, Church, Veitch and Ruth moved amongst the camps of the tent city, each one with its own particular flavour, each wild and untamed.
They avoided the gaze of a snake-haired woman and were mesmerised for almost half an hour by the mercurial tongue of Hermes, speaking what at first appeared to be nonsense as he addressed a small crowd. More snakes slithered in streams from a black tent where Damballah watched them with burning eyes. Birds flocked around the beak-faced Tangata-Manu. Ishtar ignited barely controllable erotic desires as she attempted to summon the three of them to her tent, and the Shichi-Fuku-Jin travelled in a boat that floated a foot above the ground, offering Church good fortune for the coming battle.
Finally, they could take no more. In the midst of the gods, every sense was forced to operate at its most heightened, and they began to feel queasy from the power that radiated off each of the beings. Despite the status of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, the sense of threat from many quarters was palpable, and on more than one occasion they remained unsure about the virtue of having the gods at their backs.
Emerging from the bubble of glamour, it felt as if they had escaped into a quiet room where they could finally catch their breath.
In the shadow of the walls, Etain and the other Brothers and Sisters of Spiders waited on their mounts, dead, unblinking eyes fixed on Veitch.
'Look, I'll catch you later,' he said to Church and Ruth uncomfortably. 'I'm just… you know… going to say a quick word.' He went over to the group and, for the briefest moment, Etain's eyes snapped onto Church, and then Ruth.
'I don't trust her,' Church said.
'I thought she was an old girlfriend of yours,' Ruth said tartly. 'Oh, wait… and what about Niamh, psychotic bitch and arch-manipulator? A lack of trustworthiness seems to be the defining factor. You certainly know how to pick the rotten apples in every barrel.'
'I picked you, didn't I?'
'A brief lapse in your bad taste.'
Acutely aware of the time for their departure drawing closer, Church led the way back to the city gates. 'So, are things all right with us?' he asked hesitantly.
'This isn't the time to have that kind of conversation,' Ruth replied, before adding, 'We're fine.'
'What about Veitch?'
'He needs me. And I've got to help him, because we all need him.'
Church set his jaw.
'I know that's not what you want to hear,' Ruth continued. 'Church, I don't want anyone else but you in my life. But I meant what I said to you in Norway.'
'Is this where you give me the Casablanca talk?'
'We don't amount to anything compared to what's going on around us.'
'I disagree with you so profoundly I can barely put it into words. You and me, what we have, is the entire reason why we do what we do. It's a symbol-'
'Don't start intellectualising just to win your argument.'
'I can't help who I am, Ruth. I think deeply about everything. Including you and me… and Veitch. I know he's trying to win you over, and I'm not going to stand back and let it happen.'
Her eyes flashed and Church felt as if he was looking into a deep well of Blue Fire. 'Okay, let's get one thing straight,' she said. 'I am not a ball that bounces back and forth between you and Ryan. I am not here to be fought over. It is not my role to be "the girlfriend". You love your archetypes, but I'm not playing that one.'
'I didn't mean that-'
'Accept that I love you. Deeply. And then give me space to find my own path to where you want me to be.' She didn't wait for a reply, marching through the gates and up the winding, cobbled street towards the Palace of Glorious Light. In every word and every movement, he saw the strength and sensitivity that had first attracted him to her, undiminished.
She was right, he knew that. And he hated his own insecurity, but he was more afraid of losing her than anything else. He wanted to claim that he'd accepted the hero's role for the sake of humanity, and Existence, and all the good, decent reasons that the storybooks liked to claim. But it was for Ruth. Always Ruth. And while he could rise above that for most of the time and do the right thing, if he didn't have Ruth he was afraid of what he would do.
The depth of his feelings was not only the source of his strength, but also his greatest weakness, and in them he could hear the first seductive whispers of the Libertarian. Sickened and afraid, he hurried into the city.
The sun was at its height when Mallory slipped into the room in the most secluded part of the castle. In a mood of intense, brooding silence, Veitch, Laura, Shavi, Hunter and Caitlin waited. There were no windows, and the only light came from two small lanterns in opposite corners.
'All here, then,' Mallory said, clearly expecting there to have been some non-arrivals.
'Ruth's a frosty cow, but I don't like it that she's not here. I feel like a back-stabber. I'm a lot of things, but I'm not that,' Laura said.
'It would not be fair to place this burden on Ruth,' Shavi said. 'She cannot be expected to make rational choices.'
'You're just afraid she might stop you before you go insane,' Laura muttered.
'So you're opposed to it?' Caitlin pressed.
'Nobody's opposed to anything yet, because we haven't come to any conclusion.' Mallory took a chair in one corner where he could keep an eye on the door.
'I've got an entire book of cliches just for this occasion.' Hunter remained standing, arms folded. Laura was convinced he had chosen the position so the lamplight would illuminate the best aspect of his features. 'But I'll select one or two choice ones to start us off. War demands that people do unpalatable things because war is all about winning, especially this one where the stakes are higher than anything I ever dreamed of back in my not-so-glory days.'
'What about moral purity?' Shavi argued. 'Our fight is meaningless if we are as bad as the Enemy.'
'You think the moral high ground will look so pretty when your family and friends and… everybody… have been raped and slaughtered, and the bad guys win for all time?' Hunter responded. 'If you don't win, nothing matters.'
'The Morrigan is telling me this is the right thing to do, and not to be sentimental,' Caitlin said, 'but as a doctor, and having sworn the Hippocratic Oath, I can't condone hurting anyone.'
'Which is rich coming from the psycho with the axe,' Laura said. 'But we're on the same side.'
'You know why a lot of military and Security Service people haven't got any time for the protesters back home? Because they're like people who eat sausages, but don't want to know what goes into them,' Hunter said firmly. 'People have the luxury of arguing about the moral high ground because they don't have to make any of the hard choices at the sharp end. They pay people to do that, so they can sleep in their beds and put it all out of their pretty, civilised minds. But let's understand some of the realities of war here. It's nasty and brutish and thrives on the worst of human nature. Nobody loves it, nobody wants it, but we have to do it, or we die, and everything we believe in dies. Once again: are we prepared to say that we sacrificed all of humanity, but we played fair?'
'This isn't some hypothetical Officer Training debating point,' Laura snapped. 'It's personal. That makes it different.'
'No, it doesn't,' Hunter said.
'Okay, you seem to be arguing a very clear point here-' Mallory began.
'This goes against everything we stand for,' Shavi pressed. His voice cracked and he was close to tears of frustration. In someone so placid, the sight was shocking.
'There's no black and white,' Hunter said. 'No good and evil choices, whatever thoughts you might like to comfort yourselves with. It's grey, it's messy. And that's my final cliche of the day.'
'Moral relativism underpinned the Holocaust, and Apartheid,' Shavi said sharply.
Hunter bristled, and Mallory stepped in before he lost his temper, a first that would have been just as shocking as Shavi's desperation. 'Reviewing: events in the coming days are going to turn Church into the Libertarian. If that happens, Existence loses its champion and the Void wins. We all know that time, reality — everything is fluid. It shifts. New presents, subtle alterations to the past, anything to maintain the Void's control. If we can prevent the sequence of events that turns Church into our worst enemy, we stop the Libertarian existing and maybe… maybe… we win.'
'Maybe!' Shavi interjected bitterly.
'And if we can't prevent it happening, we kill Church. The Libertarian doesn't exist. The Void loses its prime agent.' Mallory looked around the faces slowly. 'You know we don't have a choice. We can't let Church become the Libertarian.'
Shavi looked away. Caitlin remained impassive. Laura nodded reluctantly.
'One of us has to be prepared to do it,' Hunter said. 'There's no point waiting until the crucial moment and then finding nobody is prepared to pull the trigger. So it looks like it's me. I've done it before. I can do it again.' A brief glimmer of self-loathing burned in Hunter's mind.
'No.' Veitch had remained so silent until now that the others had forgotten he was there, in the darkest part of the room between the two lamps. 'It's not right you should have to live with it, however much it needs to be done,' he said, stepping into the light. 'You know it has to be me. I've got nothing to lose. I'll kill Church.'
Mallory spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for that evening's ritual. An oppressive apprehension mounted with the fading of the light, and by the time night fell the feeling was so potent it appeared to have spread across the entire city. Fewer lights burned in the windows of the houses, and none of the familiar songs rose up from the inns and public squares. Beyond the walls, the war camps were silent. The Burning Man hung over all.
As Mallory looked out across the city from the window of his chamber, his attention was drawn by one particular light in the winding streets below. It was blue and moving from side to side in a manner that suggested it was signalling. After a moment or two, he became convinced it was signalling to him, although he knew how ridiculous that would have seemed to anyone else.
With little else to do until the ritual, he made his way down to the approach to the palace. To his surprise, the light still wavered gently in the street ahead. Intrigued, he headed towards it, only for the light to move away. He followed for a while, but when he stopped, the light stopped too, and that was when he realised it was leading him on. Remembering the Hortha in the palace loft, he let one hand fall to his sword and proceeded with caution.
Along winding streets, down alleys and across deserted courtyards, he pursued the light, always the same distance ahead. Just when he thought he really was taking an indiscriminate risk, he came to a part of the city he had never visited before, and an overgrown area in the centre of a square, fenced off by rusted, sagging iron railings. Stone monuments engulfed by ivy rose from the long, yellowing grass. It reminded Mallory of an abandoned Victorian cemetery. The gate hung open, and the blue light flickered amongst the statues and mausoleums.
'I've played the game this far. Time to own up,' Mallory said as he stepped through the gate.
'Brother of Dragons. Draw nearer.'
Mallory recognised the resonant voice. Relaxing, he pushed through the long grass until he encountered a towering figure waiting in the lee of a statue. A wild mane of black hair and a thick beard, coal eyes simmering beneath an overhanging brow. A belted shift of what appeared to be sackcloth. A thong fastened around his left forearm bore several cruel hooks. The blue light came from the dancing flame of a lantern.
'Caretaker,' Mallory said. 'You found your way to me again.'
Mallory recalled the first time he had encountered the mysterious stranger in Salisbury, and discovered that he was, if not a friend, then a benign guide through the dark places.
'I will always be near you, Brother of Dragons.'
'Why are you here, now?'
The Caretaker raised the lantern so the illumination picked out the strength in his features. 'My lamp. The Wayfinder. With this, I walk the boundaries of this world and all worlds. A light burning brightly in the long watches of the night.'
'I know the lamp. It's guided the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons on more than one occasion.'
'And so it shall again.' As the Caretaker lowered the Wayfinder, the flame moved with a life of its own. 'All there has ever been has been leading towards this time. Millions upon millions of interlocking events, grains of sand, one bumping into another, shifting the course of a mighty river. And I have shepherded them all. But soon my work will come to an end.'
'You work with the Puck?'
'The Oldest Things in the Land are agents of a higher purpose.'
'How do I know you haven't been manipulating me?'
'I have been manipulating you.' His eyes glowed. 'But that does not mean that I do not look on you and the other Brothers and Sisters of Dragons with fondness. Your road has been long and hard and I have shone the light for you whenever you needed to see your way. But soon your journey will be over.'
'I don't know if I like the sound of that.'
After a moment of silence, the Caretaker said, 'Remember, Brother of Dragons, that even terrible events, from one perspective, may lead to great good from another, greater perspective. The view across Existence is limitless, and within that all things have their place. Leave the deep sadness in your heart behind, and turn your attention to the distant horizon.'
The Caretaker's words reminded Mallory of something Ogma had said to him in his great library and, as then, they touched him on a level he couldn't comprehend. 'So you're here to show me the way?' Mallory asked.
'An old friend will show you the way.' The Caretaker smiled, and as he raised the lantern even higher, the blue flame leaped and grew.
Mallory took a step back as the flame jumped from the Wayfinder and surged into the crackling shape of a man. 'Hello, Mallory,' it said.
Within the Blue Fire, features flickered. It was Hal, Mallory knew, the fourth member of his team, who had sacrificed himself to the currents of the Blue Fire to help and guide the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons across the ages.
'Hal. Everyone says you're hot stuff.'
Laughter rose and fell as the flames danced. 'I like you, Mallory. I've been keeping a particular eye on you from the depths of my blue home. Pity we couldn't have hung out, you know, when I had a body.'
'Not exactly a bundle of laughs at the moment. Lot on my plate.'
'Which is exactly why I'm here. You're going to the Grim Lands… or the Grey Lands… why does that place get two names? It's a big place, Mallory. Infinite, in fact. The chance of you just stumbling across the Extinction Shears is… well, it's not going to happen.'
'We like our missions impossible.'
'I bet you'd like some help more. Say, a lantern with a flame that will point relentlessly to the object you're searching for.'
Mallory grinned. 'That might come in handy.'
'Thought you'd say that. Only one problem: the Blue Fire doesn't reach there. You couldn't have such a powerful force for life in a place of death, right? And that means the Wayfinder wouldn't work properly… unless you took your own powerhouse of Blue Fire with you.'
'Me. I have to detach myself from the flow, which will be a wrench. It's amazing in here, Mallory, like being in touch with everything, feeling everything, seeing how it's all interconnected, how it all means something. Can you imagine what that's like?'
The note of loss in his voice was powerful. 'But you're still going to do it?' Mallory asked.
'Of course. How could I not?'
'And… what? You get to be the genie in the lamp?'
'Yeah, that's me. I'll be able to help you out in a much more personal and direct way than I can now. But you're going to have to look after me too. Once I cut myself off from the flow of the Blue Fire, I lose so much power. In that form, I can be… I hate to use the term "killed" for a living flame, but that about sums it up. I die. I don't go back to the Blue Fire.' Again, that palpable sense of loss in his voice.
'We'll look after you, Hal. You can count on us.'
'Then it's done. Take the lantern, Mallory… and let's strike out for the great adventure.'
The figure flickered, faded and disappeared back into the lantern. The Caretaker held it out for Mallory to take. 'Be strong, Brother of Dragons, and trust the light to guide your way.'
When Mallory's fingers closed around the Wayfinder there was an electric burst and a feeling of well-being rushed through him. The flame engulfed his whole vision, and when he finally looked around, he was alone.
On the roof of the Fortress of the Enemy, amidst the smell of rotting meat and the thick, greasy smoke, the Libertarian watched the stars.
'How I hate them.' He sighed.
Niamh took his hand. 'Not long now.'
'Yes. Nearly there.' He turned his attention to the crackling outline of the Burning Man, now half-filled with fire.
'Tell me how it happens,' she said with a note of glee.
He cast a dismissive glance her way. 'A bitter desire for revenge is not a very attractive quality, you know.'
'You must feel it too. Hatred for him, for all of them, and everything they stand for.'
'Actually, no. They're misguided. Poor lambs who have lost their way. Unfortunately, once they are back on the path, they become sheep to the slaughter.'
'Tell me how it happens,' she repeated.
'Only I get to know that. This whole business is… hmm, let me select a cliche for your enjoyment… a house of cards. So fragile. A mass of subtle, interconnecting events. Change one and the whole thing falls apart.'
'Especially now. As we approach the end, everything is in a state of flux. So many variables. But do not worry, my bitter, twisted love. I intend to keep a firm hand on the tiller. If the currents try to push us away, I will steer us back into the flow of the blood-dimmed tides. Subtlety is the key. A shift in emotion can be just as effective as a slice across the jugular. More so, in fact.'
'But you wait here?' Niamh said. 'Why are you not influencing the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons?'
Because,' he said with a faint smile as he turned back to the stars, 'all goes to plan.'
After sharing the news about the Wayfinder, Mallory and Caitlin made their goodbyes in a bright manner that belied the nature of what they were about to endure.
They took themselves to Math's chamber where the sorcerer had already marked out a ritual space in the centre of the floor. He stood in one corner, quietly mouthing incantations that left the atmosphere charged. Veitch perched on the edge of a table, flexing his silver hand rhythmically.
'You ready?' he said.
'You're joking?' Mallory said. 'Dying is the biggest human fear. You condition yourself to spend all your life running in the opposite direction.'
'It's not an ending.' Caitlin's axe was strapped in a harness across her back. 'If anyone should know that, it's the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.'
'Easy for you to say, with the Morrigan riding you like a horse. This is home ground for her.'
'If it makes it any easier, I've been through it,' Veitch said.
'Why did you do it?' Caitlin asked.
'I wanted to break any control the spiders had over me,' Veitch replied. 'I wanted to be my own man again.' He paused. 'This is going to sound weird, but the Grim Lands are the only place I ever felt at home.'
'That's sad,' Caitlin said.
'No, it's weird.' Mallory cast a suspicious eye towards Math, whose incantation had grown louder. 'What's it like?' he added uneasily.
'Pain, just for a bit. Then it's like being on a roller coaster heading down the biggest dip. Queasy. And then… nothing. Next thing you know, you'll be waking up in the temple in the Grim Lands. Don't touch anything there, right? It's the Void's place. Get straight out.'
'And the dead?' Caitlin asked.
'Don't expect them to be friendly. They welcomed me with open arms… I don't know why. But they're not usually so happy about the living trespassing on their ground.'
'How do I know this isn't just one of your ploys to do me in?' Mallory asked.
'Look, mate, I know you don't trust me, and I know you don't like me, but honestly, if I wanted to do that, I'd just gut you in your room at night when you weren't looking.'
'You could try.'
'All right.' Caitlin sighed. 'Let's put the whole men thing behind us. This is serious.'
'Just… don't worry,' Veitch continued. 'I wasn't going to take any risks with this. I went out of my way to find a ritual that could take me over the barrier in one piece. I was primed and fully charged when Church got me down in Cornwall. Half an hour after they carted my body off, I was in the Grim Lands. And here I am. I look okay to you?'
Mallory took a deep breath and looked to Caitlin. 'Okay, then. We've got a job to do.'
She took his hand and led him into the ritual circle.
'It's the ride of a lifetime, Mallory. Imagine how much more you're going to appreciate life when you've died and come out the other side.'
'How do you know I haven't died and come back already?' Mallory said. Caitlin fixed him with a quizzical gaze, but he didn't respond.
Math's voice grew louder, the rhythmic chanting taking on a hypnotic quality. The atmosphere became more intense. Strange shadows flitted across the room.
'Here.' Veitch handed them each a goblet of dark liquid. 'So you won't feel a thing.'
'How are you going to do it?' Mallory asked.
Veitch held up a long silver knife, the handle carved with symbols.
Mallory eyed it for a moment, then downed his drink in one. 'Death, here we come,' he said with as much bravado as he could muster.
Night was falling as the thick smudge of black moved across the entire span of the Great Plain. Storm clouds boiled above it, throwing out jagged bolts of lightning that turned the darkening sky white, and with it came the deep, resonant heartbeat in the ground. Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.
The Enemy had arrived.
With a mounting feeling of dread, Church watched from the battlements of the great wall. Even with the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders and the Burning Man, he had never really comprehended the true scale of what they faced. 'How many of them are there?' he breathed.
'Perhaps a million.' Beside him, Lugh remained phlegmatic. 'Perhaps more.'
'How can anyone survive this kind of battle?' Church said.
'We do what we can. As do you.'
Lugh's faith was touching, but Church had a more immediate concern. 'How are we going to get past the Enemy lines?'
'There may be another route.' Math's eerie, echoing voice rose up behind Church, where the sorcerer had just arrived with Veitch and Tom.
'All done?' Church asked.
Veitch nodded, but wouldn't meet Church's eyes. The killing had clearly affected him.
'What other route?' Church asked.
'There are paths that cross lands and time and everything we know. One only needs to locate the correct door,' Math replied. 'Through Winter-side, which shimmers just a breath away from this land, stories tell of many routes.'
'You can show us the way?'
Math shook his head. 'There are only stories. One speaks of a door in the Halls of the Drakusa, which exists, like this Great Court, in both Summer-side and Winter-side.'
'Then we could get into Winter-side here, and back out again there,' Veitch said.
'How do we find it?' Church asked.
'There are only stories,' Math repeated.
Tom sighed. 'All you great heroes, and as usual, you're at a loss. It's a good job I'm here.' He showed them the ring Freyja had given him. 'One of its more pleasing abilities is to guide the owner to their heart's desire. That led us to Ruth, so you know it works. I suppose, if you ask me nicely, I can accompany you to Winter-side and show you the way.'
'Woo hoo,' Veitch said with weary sarcasm. 'Us and the old git on the road again. Just like old times.'
Thoom-thoom-thoom. The walls shook as the Enemy neared.
The Halls Of The Drakusa
In the centre of an unremarkable cobbled square stood the Gateway to Winter, a stone arch marked with a leafless tree on the keystone. Around it, a still, black pool reflected the glittering stars so that it appeared as if what was above also lay below.
Gathered before the arch, Church and the others were dressed in thick furs despite the summery warmth.
'Winter-side has many dangers,' Lugh said to Church, who was carrying out a last-minute check of provisions. 'My people have always avoided its desolation, but the stories of the terrors that lurk there are rife. Some say it was the original home of the Fomorii, and anywhere that could birth that foul race cannot be a good land.'
'We're not complacent,' Church replied. 'We know the Void is going to do everything it can to stop us reaching the Fortress of the Enemy. It's worried that we might be able to stop it, and that means we stand a chance.'
'Despite all evidence to the contrary,' Laura muttered as she passed, tugging with irritation at the furs.
On the fringes of the group, a tearful Mahalia quietly but intensely confronted Jack, but he remained resolute, if sad. Church was impressed by how the teenager had risen to the responsibility of being one of the Two Keys, as had Miller, who shuffled awkwardly nearby, trying to ignore the outpouring of emotion. Crowther watched the two with fatherly concern, but did not interfere.
'I can understand how Mahalia feels,' Ruth said. 'It's awful to feel so powerless when someone you love goes into danger.'
'I bet you've never felt powerless in your life,' Church said.
'That shows how much you know.'
For the last ten minutes, Tom had been sitting on the low stone wall surrounding the pool, smoking and talking intently to Shavi. As it had been for several hours, most of the conversation was about the Caraprix and the meaning of their sudden evacuation from the Tuatha De Danaan to Doctor Jay's lab where Jerzy still lay. Since then, no one had been able to gain access to the room to find the reason for the light blazing under the door and the constant jarring noise.
Shavi saw Church looking and came over. 'I have a question,' he said to Rhiannon and Lugh. 'We are searching for the Halls of the Drakusa. Who are the Drakusa? Tom has spent a lifetime amassing knowledge of the Far Lands and he has never heard tell of them.'
'The Golden Ones do not talk of them,' Rhiannon said. 'We rarely acknowledge they existed, even amongst ourselves.'
'The Golden Ones have survived and found strength in self-delusion,' Lugh began cautiously. 'That we are the first and that we are the last. That we are at the heart of Existence. That we are the strongest.'
'We are not,' Rhiannon said. 'And we might have climbed higher on the ladder of Existence if we had found the wisdom to recognise the truth earlier.'
'The Drakusa came before you?' Church asked.
'They, and others,' Lugh replied.
'What happened to them?' Shavi queried.
'No one knows. The footprints of those lost civilisations can still be found across the Far Lands, if one looks carefully,' Rhiannon admitted. 'In ruins, so overgrown they have almost become part of the landscape, in artefacts, in rumours and prophecies and stories where their existence is clear in what is not said, rather than what is.'
Veitch and Hunter arrived with Virginia Dare, who was wrapped in a cloak so thick there was only a hint of the pale moon of her face. Her head was bowed, her arms wrapped around her, locked so deeply within herself she appeared oblivious to her surroundings.
'I'm not sure she's up to this,' Ruth whispered.
'We don't have a choice,' Church said. 'She's been traumatised. Her mind keeps shutting down to protect her from what she's been through and that's going to make her a burden for us when we hit danger.' He paused. 'And I know how cruel it is to take her back there. If I could think of any other way to do this, I would.'
Within a quarter of an hour, they were ready to make the journey to Winter-side. Shavi cast his eyes over the group. 'Ten of us,' he said. 'Six Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, Tom, Miller, Jack and Virginia. Nine would have been better.'
'Great. Nine potential sources of irritation,' Laura said. 'It was bad enough when there were only five of us.'
A moment after Lugh and Rhiannon said their goodbyes, Church passed through the arch and found himself in the same square, only now foot-deep in snow. An unearthly stillness lay over the normally bustling city.
Once the others had joined him, they made their way along the winding cobbled streets, through the eerily deserted city, noting how the street-plan and the buildings echoed their counterparts on Summer-side, but were subtly different. A sense of menace pervaded the court, engrained in the distorted proportions of the architecture, or the odd way shadows fell, or the occasional sound that echoed through the stillness: a dog's howl, snow suddenly falling from a roof, something that sounded like a baby crying, but was clearly not.
The high buildings protected them from most of the elements, but when they ventured beyond the gates onto the Great Plain, they were blasted by a bitter gale that propelled snowflakes into their flesh like burning needles. Bowing their heads, they drove on through the knee-high snow, Tom guiding them with every subtle tug on his ring-finger.
When the pink glow of dawn finally warmed the horizon, their faces, fingers and toes were numb and snow encrusted the front of their furs. Laura complained vehemently and Tom, Miller and Jack found it hard going, but the others maintained the pace. Of all of them, Hunter appeared to be thriving on the hardship.
It took most of the day to cross the arc of the Plain that took them to the foothills. They made camp on the gentle slopes, in a hollow filled with spiky gorse bushes and rocky outcroppings. Hunter lit a fire with remarkable speed, and soon they had four tents pitched around it, with water boiling for a warm drink. They ate their dry biscuits in two of the tents, clustered together for warmth, and soon fell asleep from exhaustion.
Church woke in the middle of the night, unsettled without knowing why. Crawling out into the bitter darkness, he found that the snow had stopped falling and the stars glimmered icily. It was Veitch's watch, but something was wrong. Church could see him prowling the edge of the camp beyond the red embers of the fire, his sword drawn, occasional flickers of blue amongst darting black flames.
'What's up?' Church followed Veitch's gaze to the snow-covered lip of the hollow.
'Something out there.'
'An animal? Or worse?'
'Dunno yet. I caught sight of it against the skyline, just a flash. It was big. Don't know if it was looking down here, or just prowling around. You'll be able to smell the smoke from the fire for miles.'
'Maybe the campfire wasn't the smartest move.'
'Nah, we needed to stay warm. Besides, we've not seen any sign of life since we got here. As far as we knew, this was a dead place.'
'I see you didn't wander up there to investigate.'
Veitch laughed quietly. 'Right, 'cause I'm a total no-mark, stumbling into the night to investigate a noise. My big slasher-pic moment.'
'There's two of us now.'
'Still not a good idea. There's no cover. Best I just sit down here and keep an eye.'
'I'll keep you company.'
'You don't need to.'
'Four eyes are better than two. And it gets lonely on your own.'
Veitch eyed Church curiously for a moment and then nodded. They sat on the leather provision bags while Veitch stoked the fire until the flames licked up again. As they warmed, conversation came easily and after a while Church realised how much it was like the early days of their friendship. He could see that Veitch felt it too, but neither of them spoke of it.
When dawn broke, they roused the others, who emerged stamping their feet and complaining to fight for space around the fire. They ate a quick breakfast of more dry biscuits, and then Veitch and Church ventured up to the ridge. The snow was disturbed and large tracks led off across the landscape.
'What do you reckon?' Veitch said.
'I don't get it,' Church replied. 'The tracks change. See here — these look like some kind of animal print, these are more like a reptile and these…' He paused at a series of circular holes in the snow disappearing into the distance, unable to find the words. 'Whatever, it looks like it was watching us.'
Veitch peered towards the horizon. 'It's not here now. Maybe it thought we were too much trouble for a snack.'
'Those black clouds look full of snow,' Church noted. 'We'd better get moving before it hits. We're going to freeze to death out here if it gets any colder.'
Church slid down the bank to the camp. Veitch inspected the tracks for a moment longer, casting his gaze across the expanse of snow, and then he followed Church, troubled without knowing why.
At noon, the storm struck with a ferocious force that battered them this way and that, making any progress difficult. The blizzard was so intense that the ground and sky merged into one sheet of white that left their senses reeling. Laura was worst hit by the white-out-induced vertigo and she pitched forwards into the deepening drifts at regular intervals, cursing loudly as her frustration and anger grew.
Each time Hunter helped her to her feet, only for her to shake him off furiously. 'I'm a hothouse plant,' she shouted. 'I'm not meant for these conditions.'
'Yeah, you're just a frail little flower,' he said lightly, but he was worried about her. The strange state imposed upon her by Cernunnos was still a mystery and he had no idea how the cold would affect her, although he was concerned by the blue tinge growing around her mouth and eyes.
He struggled over to Church and said, 'I'm worried about Laura. She's not coping well with this weather. We need to get to shelter.'
Church pulled the scarf from his mouth and shouted over the gale, 'Okay, if we can find somewhere, but it's impossible to see anything in this. At least we're moving uphill. There might be more shelter when we get into the mountains.'
'If we do,' Hunter yelled back. Frustrated, he turned towards Laura and noticed that he could now see only seven other black smudges in the swirling white. 'Someone's missing,' he called to Church. 'Get everyone huddled together, now!'
Once the group had packed into a tight knot, they realised it was Jack who was missing. 'He was right next to me a minute ago,' Miller said as he hugged Virginia close to him.
'If he wanders off, we'll never find him,' Tom snapped. 'Why can't you organise things better?' He wiped the snow off his spectacles.
'If we all start looking for him, we'll never find our way back together,' Hunter said. 'Let me go. I've experienced worse than this in Nepal.'
'How are you going to find your way back to us?' Church asked. 'The footprints are filling up quickly.'
'I'm like an animal — I have an unerring sense of direction.'
'Don't be an idiot,' Laura said, but before she could stop him, he disappeared into the blizzard.
Rapidly, he followed their footprints back and then searched for Jack's outlying track. Church was right — their trail was already becoming a ghost, and he guessed he would only have a few minutes before he lost his way back to the group.
He called Jack's name, but the wind stole his voice only a few feet from his mouth. After a moment, he came across a set of tracks that peeled off from the main body of the others. Keeping his head low, he pressed on into the face of the gale.
He hadn't gone far when his senses picked up movement nearby.
'Jack,' he called again. Even as the name left his mouth, he realised any movement he might have perceived came from something much larger than a teenage boy.
Another shape loomed and was gone in the blink of an eye. This time he glimpsed something black, dense and powerful before the white folded around it.
A second shape, this time to his left, though blurred as if in a state of flux. Another, and another. They were all around, but they didn't appear to be circling him. Perhaps they were as snow-blind as he was.
How many? he thought.
Stock-still, he listened and watched for any sign of movement. But then his attention fell on Jack's rapidly blurring footprints, and he realised he would lose the trail if he waited too long. Without a second thought, he drove on, fast and low.
He'd barely gone twenty feet when the ground shook with a thunderous approach behind him. Without looking back, he threw himself to one side, burying himself deep in a drift. He had the impression of something almost eight feet tall crashing by, a glimpse of gleaming, oily black skin, and then it was gone.
Hunter moved quickly back onto the trail. More of the beasts converged upon the location, the ground shaking from their movement, their shapes passing through the intense whirl of white like massive ships in a sea fog.
One of them came out of the blizzard directly at him. A sword-like limb with a serrated edge slashed, but he ducked just beneath it and kept running. It turned rapidly and pursued — too late, for the snow had already swallowed him.
The footprints he was following were more defined: he was closing on Jack. If, by some slight chance, he was still alive. The rising ground crested a ridge and descended into a hollow filled with boulders. Scree shifted under the snow beneath his boots. The rocks allowed him some cover as he ducked and raced amongst them. Occasionally, the black creatures loomed over him, sparks flying as their limbs scraped against the stone. Each time he glimpsed one, his perception changed: he thought they were giant insects, then lizards, then something resembling a crab crossed with a piece of machinery.
And then the footprints ahead disappeared.
He ranged around, hearing the beasts crash closer amidst low, rumbling noises that he guessed was some form of communication. He had convinced himself that Jack had already been killed when he heard the boy's quiet voice: 'Hunter.'
Ducking down, Hunter found Jack pressed into a crevice in the rock wall, beneath an overhanging boulder. The boy's face was as white as the snow, his eyes ranging with a deep-seated fear. Hunter quickly pressed himself into the crevice, shielding Jack's shaking body from the roaming creatures.
'Nice spot — room with a view,' he whispered. 'Don't worry. We're going to be all right.'
'What are they?' Jack said.
'Whatever they are, they're not the smartest or they'd have methodically tracked us down by now.'
One of the beasts tore past their hiding pace. Jack flinched, then calmed himself. 'I'm all right.'
'I know you are.' Delving into his pack, Hunter found the silver-scaled, brass-taloned Balor Claw.
'What's that?' Jack hissed.
'You can't use it here! There are too many of them. You won't last a minute.'
Hunter couldn't tell Jack he had it ready for a last stand, to take one or two of the creatures with them. 'I'm just keeping it where I can see it,' he said with a grin.
'I can't feel my feet,' Jack said.
'Just a little while longer. They'll move away soon when they realise they can't find us.' Hunter tried to sound reassuring, but he knew if they stayed in the crevice much longer they'd freeze to death; and they wouldn't stand a chance if they ventured out amongst the hunting creatures. Beyond that, the tracks back to the rest of the group would probably have been lost.
Jack's lips were already turning blue, and the familiar signs of hypothermia were evident in his skin and breathing. Hunter pulled the boy close to him and wrapped his arms around him. 'Forget the whole "men don't hug" thing,' he said. 'This is about staying warm. We'll be fine. We'll be out of here in no time.'
The Court of the Soaring Spirit felt empty without Mallory, Caitlin and the others. Decebalus stood outside Doctor Jay's lab for long minutes, mulling over his new role as leader of the Army of Dragons, happy to accept the responsibility, although missing the camaraderie of his friends. He barely spared a thought for the gently pulsing light and the noise grinding out from the sealed room. The Caraprix were not a threat, he had decided, and so they were an irrelevance.
Weighing his strategy carefully, he sought out the sorcerer Math in his shadowy rooms.
'I have never met a sorcerer who has not deserved to be hacked into bloody chunks,' the barbarian said as he watched the slowly turning mask. 'You will be happy to know that in this matter I have learned some restraint from my good friends. But only some. So hear me out.'
The mask turned. Math said nothing.
'The Enemy approaches. My forces are strong, but a good general always keeps something in reserve. I need… something. Possibly magickal. And I want it to be a response that will take their breath away to such a degree they will never return.'
Math contemplated for a moment, and then said, 'How far do you intend to go?'
'Should we go after Hunter?' Ruth ventured.
'There's no point doing anything until this blizzard lifts,' Church replied. 'We could be stamping around in circles and getting nowhere.'
Laura's face was emotionless. 'He'll be fine. He's tougher than you bunch of wimps.' She turned away from them quickly.
Shavi suddenly became animated, involuntarily clutching at his alien eye.
'What's wrong?' Veitch asked.
'Hurry! We must leave this place immediately!' Shavi said urgently. 'Something is coming!'
Church peered into the blizzard as faint tremors ran through the ground, growing stronger. 'Okay, let's move on.'
'What about Hunter?' Laura snapped. 'If we leave here, he'll never find us.'
'He'll find us. He's good.'
Tom grabbed Church's arm as they struggled up the slope. 'I don't like this. There have always been terrible things in this place.' The words died in his throat as one of the beasts emerged from the snow behind them. Inky black, at first glance it resembled a giant spider, rising up above them on long, sharp legs that looked as if they were made of iron. It wavered for a second so they felt they were under the scrutiny of a cold, alien intellect, and then it began to change. Armoured plates resembling an insect's carapace unfolded out of the black body and locked into place. Spikes and a horned ridge emerged, along with other razor-sharp appendages.
'Bloody hell!' Veitch gasped. 'Fomorii!'
The others scrambled up the incline as fast as they could, but Miller continued to gape. Veitch hit him like a runaway train and propelled him away. 'Stand still, you're dead,' Veitch hissed. 'They're killing machines.'
The way became much steeper, littered with outcropping rocks and huge boulders that made it difficult to advance. Behind them, the Fomor raced only feet away. Breath burned in their lungs as they wound around the obstacles.
Echoing through the howling gale came the sounds of more Fomorii joining the pursuit, a haunting, deep call and response that became more frenzied, as though the creatures recognised their prey.
They came up hard against a cliff rising high over their heads. A path wound around the foot of it, barely wide enough for one person, with the ground plummeting away steeply.
As Veitch and Miller passed the last boulder before the path began, they caught a glimpse of someone crouching out of sight. When the Fomor pounded up behind them, Church jumped out at the last and swung Caledfwlch in an arc, a trail of Blue Fire sizzling through the snow. Sparks flew as the blade hacked into one of the creature's front legs. As the creature half-rounded on Church, it lost its balance. With a roar, Church rammed into it with the sword, bracing against the boulder and levering it onto the slippery, snow-covered slope. The Fomor hovered for a second and then went crashing down until it was lost in the swirling snow.
'Nice one, mate!' Veitch called as Church caught up with the group.
'Let's not start cheering yet,' Church shouted back. 'The others are coming up fast behind.'
With the wind lashing them, they pressed their backs against the cliff face and edged around the path. 'We're still going in the right direction,' Tom said, 'as long as we don't fall to our doom. This path, in such a deserted landscape, is here for a reason.'
'What are they?' Miller asked again, struggling to cope with the terror surging through his system.
'Race enemies of those golden-skinned bastards.' The flickering black flames of Veitch's sword were a stark contrast to the snow. 'We fought them before. Beat 'em, too, at the Battle of London.'
Miller glanced back and almost lost his balance. 'It changed shape.'
'They do that a lot.' Veitch looked to Church. 'You think there's just a handful of 'em?'
'All of them disappeared after the Battle of London. What if they came here, to lick their wounds?' Church paused. 'What if this is the Void's secret army, just like we have the Army of Dragons and the gods?'
'You stopped them once, right?' Miller said hopefully. 'You can do it again.'
Looking out into the blizzard, Veitch had the odd sensation of a sea of white in which they could float.
'They're coming!' Church said. 'Let's move this along!'
Behind them, the call of the Fomorii echoed off the cliff-side; it contained a note of jubilance, perhaps that their old enemies were finally in their grasp, and it was followed by a metallic grinding that set their teeth on edge — the beasts' limbs dragging on the rock-face.
From the rear, Church urged them to move faster, but the path soon became more precarious as it crawled up and around the lower stage of the mountain they knew was hidden above their heads in the blizzard. As they rounded a bluff, they became more sheltered from the buffeting gale and visibility improved. They could see the path dropping down towards a horseshoe-shaped area enclosed by the towering rock. A single, twisted, ancient hawthorn stood in the centre.
'Bleedin' great,' Veitch said. 'No way out. We can't go back. You old bastard — you've led us to the perfect place for a slaughter.'
'Shut up!' Tom snapped. He examined his ring and Church could see from his face that he feared Freyja had planned this all along.
The hunting cries of the Fomorii rang out through the blizzard, ten joining twenty, more each second, echoing from out across the Great Plain as they converged on the mountains.
'You know what — I'm starting to think you're right,' Veitch said. 'All the Fomorii are here in Winter-side. We're screwed.'
After they'd skidded down the path into the horseshoe-shaped area, Church and Veitch moved quickly around the rock walls looking for any sign of a hidden passage or footholds that would help them climb to safety.
'Do you see anything here?' Ruth asked Shavi. He turned in a slow arc, letting his alien eye focus on everything. After a moment, he shook his head.
'Fucking brilliant!' Laura blazed. 'First you lose Hunter, now this!' Tears stung her eyes.
The low hunting calls grew louder. From out of the blizzard emerged the Fomorii, some descending the winding path, others clinging to the rock-face, still more rising up on the edge of the horseshoe-shaped area from where the land fell away precipitously.
Church and Veitch faced them, drawing their swords so that blue and black energy sparked between them. Ruth joined them, Blue Fire crackling around the tip of the Spear of Lugh.
Laura brushed away her tears to take a flank, but when she saw Shavi joining them, she urged him back. 'Let's face it, Shavster, you're about as useful as a wet towel in a fight like this. Go help Team Loser find a way out of here.'
'We have travelled the worlds together and you are all more dear to me than anyone else in my life. We have truly lived together and we should die together,' he replied.
She set her jaw. 'We're not about to die, because Hunter's going to come over that hill with the cavalry and crush these bastards dead. Now, go!'
In Shavi's look of sad fondness, they both accepted the lie in Laura's words, and then he turned and hurried to Tom and Miller who were scrambling around the foot of the cliffs. Virginia watched them blankly.
An oily flow of Fomorii washed into the horseshoe area until they stood ranged from cliff to cliff. It was like looking into a haze as their edges blurred with the constant shape-changing: armour plates snapping into place, human forms becoming insectile, cruel spikes and horns bursting from the hard skin.
'I've not missed them,' Church said.
'You know what makes me sick?' Veitch said. 'There's nobody here to write about how bleedin' brilliant we'll be when we go down fighting.'
Ruth smiled to herself. 'That's all you've ever wanted, isn't it? To be seen as one of the heroes.'
'Yeah, I want my name up in lights, why not?'
'Not going to happen, you tattooed psycho.' Laura crouched down and buried one hand in the snow until she was touching the ground. Concentration darkened her face, and after a second a row of bramble crawled slowly from the frozen ground along the ranks of Fomorii. With a gasp, Laura sagged back onto her behind. 'God, this place is too frozen. I'm as useless as Shavi.'
'You tried,' Church said. 'Drop back with the others.'
The Fomorii held back for a second, and then they broke like a wave at the shore.
'No,' Ruth whispered defiantly.
A sound thundered at the base of Church and Veitch's skulls. Ruth had uttered a word of power, her eyes rolling back to reveal the whites. She appeared greater than the mere dimensions of her form, magnificent, and with each passing second, more terrifying.
The wind roiled into a fist and slammed into the approaching line of Fomorii, smashing them back. Bullets of snow and ice tore into them and lightning crashed from the sky, leaving charred circles in the snow and the twisted remnants of bodies. In a trance, she levelled the Spear of Lugh, and Blue Fire surged from the tip. The Fomorii recoiled from contact with it.
Only one of the creatures made it through Ruth's assault, but Church and Veitch were ready for it. They attacked from either side, hacking and thrusting. Screeching, the Fomor lashed out, its limbs changing shape as it moved to find the most lethal aspect. One glancing blow sent Church sprawling, but Veitch was already in the space Church had occupied before he hit the ground, preventing the Fomor from delivering a killing blow.
At the cliff wall, Miller and Shavi were drawn by the furious battle, but Tom continued to search furiously, Virginia observing him. With angry frustration, he took a step back and shouted at Shavi, 'Something's here. You're supposed to be a saviour of the universe. Find it.'
'I see nothing,' Shavi responded. 'No hidden door or path-'
'Wait.' Miller pointed hesitantly to the lifeless tree. 'That stands in such a perfect position in this space… is it natural?'
Shavi ran his hands over the bark.
'Yes,' Tom said. 'Yes! Symbolic. It's a sign. A message-'
'Here, in this desolate, frozen, rocky place,' Shavi continued with a smile, 'is life.'
As he moved his hands over the rough bark, he felt the faintest pulse deep within. Resting his forehead against the trunk, eyes closed, he held it, fanned it, drew it out from the sleeping core. Miller's hand went to his stomach where he felt an involuntary connective warmth.
A faint blue light appeared on the trunk. Breathing in the smell of burned iron, Shavi concentrated, forcing the long-dormant power to grow stronger. The light became a single flame that appeared to die in the cold breeze, until suddenly it erupted along the length of the trunk and the entire tree blazed with the Blue Fire, each shimmering finger now a leaf on the once-dead branches.
At the foot of the tree, the earth energy crackled into the snow, moving in a rapid, dizzying spiral until it sizzled in a direct line towards the cliff wall and up the rock face where it illuminated the sign of a dragon eating its tail.
'Here!' Tom yelled. 'Here, now!'
Shavi raced towards it and slammed his hand into the centre of the symbol. A flash dazzled them all for a second, and then with a judder that threw them from their feet, the rock tore itself open to reveal a door into a dark space.
'Church! Ryan! Ruth! Come, now!' Shavi called.
Church and Veitch continued to whirl around the remaining Fomor, their swords leaving fiery trails in the air. They were both covered with cuts that spattered blood onto the snow. But Ruth was almost unrecognisable. She hovered six inches above the ground, arms outstretched, head back, the blue light from the Spear washing around before driving out intermittently at the storm-tossed ranks of Fomorii still closing in. She held them back, though just barely. To Shavi, she looked like one of the gods, as frightening and enigmatic as a force of nature.
He ran to her, but when he placed his hand on her side, her head snapped around, her face filled with fury and he was thrown ten feet back with a blast that left him close to unconsciousness.
Church's cry shocked Ruth from her trance, and she crashed to the ground. Still dazed, she was at first unable to comprehend Shavi's smoking form as he staggered to his feet, but gradually realisation dawned on her. Her devastation was clear in her face.
'Ruth!' Church called urgently.
The lines of Fomorii gradually recovered and prepared to attack. Although they held their enemy at bay, Church and Veitch could not find an opening to escape towards Shavi. Gathering herself, Ruth dived beneath the attacking beast and rammed the Spear of Lugh up into the creature's belly. Amidst a burst of blue light, the Fomor exploded. As the body parts rained down, Church and Veitch grabbed Ruth and half-dragged her towards the gaping hole in the cliff-face where Shavi beckoned urgently. Behind them, the howls of the approaching Fomorii echoed.
Diving through the open doorway, they had one last look at the horde of shape-shifting beasts bearing down on them before the door slid shut and they were plunged into darkness.
As they caught their breath, Tom struck his flint and found a cobweb-festooned lantern hanging on a hook next to the door. The flame guttered, then leaped. They stood in a vast entrance hall amidst blocks of fallen masonry and discarded swords, spears and shields as if a final battle had been fought there. Columns soared up into the dark and ahead of them a few cracked steps led up to a towering archway beyond which lay only shadows.
Tearfully, Ruth hugged Shavi. 'I'm so sorry. I could have killed you.'
'A slight singe here and there, but I am fine.'
'We'd all be dead if not for you,' Church said.
'You're a scary woman,' Veitch added. 'Where did all that come from?'
'The power's been growing in me for a long time.' She ran a shaking hand through her hair. 'Back on our world, I could feel it, but didn't really know how to get to it. Here…' She chewed her lip. 'I'm afraid I might not be able to control it.'
'It's always about you,' Laura snapped. 'Hunter's still out there. And Jack. We can't leave them.'
'We can't go back out,' Veitch said sharply.
Sensing the mounting tension, Church stepped between the two of them. 'Hunter's one of us and we don't abandon anyone. And we can't go on without Jack. We need him. Maybe if we wait until the Fomorii have dispersed-'
Shavi shook his head. 'I can find no way to open this door from the inside.'
'There's got to be,' Laura insisted.
'You are right,' Shavi replied, 'but there is no source of Blue Fire in here. There must be a different mechanism for opening it.'
Cursing loudly, Laura booted a rock furiously into the shadows where it bounced off walls with a series of echoes that was unnerving in the stillness.
'What is this place?' Miller scraped his boot through the thick, white dust on the floor. 'It doesn't look like anyone's been here in centuries.'
'These,' Tom replied, 'are the Halls of the Drakusa.'
In the narrow view of snowy ground from the crevice, Hunter counted the passing Fomorii as they ranged by, their resonant call and response rumbling through the rock itself. He estimated at least twenty were still hunting for him and Jack, and they were drawing close to their hiding place. Even with the Balor Claw, he guessed he wouldn't last more than a moment or two out there. Beside him, Jack shook violently from the cold and Hunter could barely feel his own feet. As far as he could assess, he had only two options: freeze to death or get torn apart by the beasts.
As he turned his head away from the opening to whisper more words of encouragement to Jack, he felt a current of air move across his face. Instantly, he registered that it had come from within the crevice.
He urged Jack to move to one side so he could crawl to the back of the crevice, where he found a dark hole leading in and down, barely big enough for him to squeeze inside. He motioned to Jack and said quietly, 'There's a draught. That means it leads to a cave system with some kind of egress.'
'You're insane,' Jack hissed. 'Look how small it is! We'll get stuck in there and die. Horribly.'
'We're going to die horribly if we stay here and that's the truth. You need to take my lead on this, Jack.'
Jack examined the hole anxiously. 'Look at it, Hunter. If we get in there and find it's too small to go on, we're not going to be able to back out. We'll be trapped in a space about as big as a coffin. I think I might go mad.'
'I know I'm asking a lot of you, Jack, but this whole business is asking a lot of all of us. We've got to rise above our fears, because everyone is depending on us. If you die here, the hope that Church is fighting for dies with you.'
'Have you done anything like this before?'
Without missing a beat, Hunter replied, 'In the former Yugoslavia, I was buried alive in a mass grave. About one hundred dead Muslim villagers on top of me. I had to work my way through the bodies and then dig myself out with my bare hands. I rate this as slightly better odds.'
Jack's terrible fears fought on his face. After one brief glance back at the Fomorii, he nodded. 'All right.'
'Good lad. I'll go first. It's going to be pitch black in there, but if you can feel my boots ahead of you, you'll be okay.'
Hunter manoeuvred himself and then wriggled his head into the hole. The air smelled of deep, wet places. He forced his shoulders in. The granite above dug deep into his back, and for a moment he feared he was wedged. Jack was right: there would be no coming back out the same way. Pressing hard, he constricted his breathing and ignored the burning compression in his back and chest. After a second, he had forced his way under the lip of rock into an area that allowed him little more than an inch on every side. Jack wriggled in close behind him, occasionally reaching out to his boot-heel for reassurance. Hunter was overwhelmed by the boy's bravery; few others would have been able to suppress such a basic human fear for the greater good.
There was only room to reach out ahead and use his fingers to drag him down the slight incline, with a gentle push from his boot-tips for a little extra thrust; it was going to take a long time to get wherever they were going — and he refused to entertain any other thought than that there was a definite destination ahead.
Breathing was difficult and increasingly painful. He had to take small, regulated gasps to prevent hyperventilation; in between gulps, he instructed Jack to do the same. His fingers were numb, but he was convinced they were tearing from the exertion against the hard rock; he was sure he could smell blood.
The fissure continued down a little steeper. Their body heat in the confined space eased the freezing temperatures, but water regularly dripped and ran under their fingers. Another fear: drowning in an enclosed space.
Hunter came to a halt at a sharp right turn. Jack called out in a panicked voice, worrying that Hunter had reached a dead end. It took several moments to calm him, and then a further fifteen minutes for Hunter to edge, squeeze and twist halfway around the bend. Once again he was convinced he was wedged in place, twisted at right angles, in complete darkness, with barely a chance to breathe and listening to the whimpering of a traumatised boy behind him. Heart pounding, the blood thundering through his head, he closed his eyes, thinking of Laura and the last night they had spent together. Gradually, his breathing regulated and he eased and pressed forwards a fraction of an inch at a time.
Once around the turn, the fissure broadened and the incline became steeper so he could drag himself faster, which eased Jack's anxiety. Ten minutes later it became steeper still, and before he had time to think the slope was so sheer he began to slide. He called out to Jack to hold fast, but by that time he was speeding out of control, cracking bones and tearing skin. He went over an edge and into free fall for a split second before hitting icy water. It was barely five feet deep, and his arms protected him from the worst of the impact, but he sucked in a mouthful of water before he managed to surface.
Feeling around, he discovered that the fissure continued horizontally again, but most of it was filled with water. Only a tiny air space remained, and he had no idea how long that continued in any useable form.
Jack was calling his name frantically. 'It's all right — I'm here,' he called back. 'It's only a short drop, and there's water at the bottom. Yell when you're coming and I'll try to catch you — or at least try to stop getting brained.'
When Jack was next to him, relieved at the prospect of standing upright with room to breathe, Hunter broached the news about the almost-submerged tunnel. Jack's mood changed instantly and he released a couple of wracking sobs before he calmed.
'I can't do it,' he whimpered.
'You said that about the crawling and the squeezing, but look at what you did there.'
Distantly, but unmistakably within the fissure, came the teeth-jarring rumble of the Fomorii.
'Sounds like they've found out where we went,' Hunter said. 'We can't hang around here.'
Echoes of scrabbling in the fissure, drawing rapidly closer. Hunter was unnerved by how speedily the Fomorii moved.
'You've got to trust me, Jack. We'll get through this.'
'I do trust you, Hunter.'
Hunter flinched, unsettled yet oddly moved by this new experience. 'Hold on to my jacket, and give a tug if anything's wrong.'
Taking a deep breath, he ducked under the water. Jack followed closely. In the floating dark, the claustrophobia and fear of suffocation were even more intense. Hunter measured his pace to Jack's endurance, pausing regularly to grab a breath from the tiny gap against the tunnel roof.
At one point Jack began to thrash as if he were drowning, and Hunter was forced to grab him and hold his head up tightly. In Hunter's arms, Jack relaxed, still trusting.
The journey felt as if it was taking an age, and just at the point when Hunter started to fear hypothermia would set in, they emerged from the tunnel into what felt from the air currents and echoes like a large cavern. Hunter dragged Jack from the water onto a flat rock surface and held him tightly until he had warmed.
'I never knew my father,' Jack said after a moment.
Hunter didn't know how to respond.
'The Tuatha De Danaan stole me from my mother when I was a baby and took me to the Court of the Final Word where they put the Wish-Hex inside me. They made me into a weapon. Then they kept me prisoner till Caitlin and Mahalia set me free.' He wiped the snot from his dripping nose with the back of his hand.
'Doesn't sound like you've had much of a life, mate.'
'That just makes me want to fight for it even more.'
Hunter was impressed by the determination in Jack's voice; it reminded him of himself, before the sourness took hold of his life. 'Keep hold of that thought, kid, because now we need to find a way out of here before those things pop up out of the water.'
Following the air current, they moved tentatively away from their resting place, feeling into the dark ahead of them in case there were any gaping pits or more sudden inclines. Hunter put out of his head the possibility that the breeze came from a tiny fissure and that there might be no way out of the cavern.
Progress was slow and the fear of the Fomorii emerging from the water behind them grew. But then the texture underfoot changed from hard rock to smaller items that rolled and crunched, in some areas several inches deep. Harder objects lay amongst them.
'What is that? Dry wood?' Jack asked.
'Down here?' Hunter knelt to investigate. His fingers ran over dry, fragile things, some tubular, some sharp, some curved, and what were clearly metal artefacts scattered amongst them. 'I think there's a sword here. And a… shield?' he ventured. 'A helmet?'
They continued treading tentatively over the cracking, shifting surface for several more minutes until Jack's foot caught something that clanged and bounced. He felt around for it in the dark and raised it, letting his fingers see the surface. 'A lantern!' he said.
With his flint, Hunter lit the wick. The flame was weak, but held on to life. The shadows rushed away, dancing back menacingly with each flicker of the light.
'Oh,' Jack said as he looked around with mounting uneasiness.
Hunter followed his gaze in a wide arc across the cavern. 'You can say that again.'
Human bones lay everywhere. The vast sea of dirty yellow and brown was a civilisation in essence, skulls smashed, limbs torn apart, ribs broken, the clothes that had contained them long since rotted away with only the metal remnants of weapons and armour still remaining.
'What the hell happened here?' Hunter said.
The scale of the Halls of the Drakusa spoke of grandeur. Ceilings soared cathedral-like overhead and huge chambers that could have accommodated a small army rang with their hesitant footsteps. Church led his group past pillars of marble and extensive murals that must once have gleamed with colour, but were now faded and barely visible, the most obvious symbol of the decay and great age that shrouded the Halls. A desert of white dust interspersed with piles of shattered masonry and discarded everyday objects covered the stone flags. Only darkness and shadows remained in a place that had once thronged with life.
Shavi examined some of the murals as they passed. 'Who were the Drakusa?' he asked.
'Every race has the arrogance to believe they were the first and best,' Tom said, joining him. 'The old stories hint at others who came before. Races that rose up, established civilisations and were then wiped clean and forgotten, through their own hubris or at the whims of angry gods.'
'You don't really think that could happen to us?' Ruth said. 'With all our technology, our learning-'
'You think these people didn't have their own technology, different from ours, maybe more powerful, their own wisdom?' Intrigued, Tom brushed away some of the dust and cobwebs that obscured the mural.
Shavi saw what Tom was seeing, and joined him. From beneath the grime of ages, faint images emerged of oval shapes, giant in scale compared to the human figures prostrate before them. Some of the egg shapes appeared to be spouting tentacles, or were in the process of becoming something else.
'Those,' Shavi said, puzzled, 'are Caraprix.'
His expression troubled, Tom studied the mural.
'Never seen any that big,' Laura said.
'It's symbolic,' Tom muttered.
'So the Drakusa knew of the Caraprix, long before the Tuatha De Danaan.' Raising the lantern, Church looked around the walls in a new light. Images of Caraprix were visible everywhere, on the walls behind the dust, in mosaics on the floor and carvings on the marble pillars, emerging in part here and there, barely recognisable in isolation but taken together presenting a temple to the shape-shifting creatures. 'This place implies that they're gods or something.'
'Whoever did all these pictures… why are they making such a big deal out of them?' Veitch asked. 'The Caraprix are just pets, right? Those golden-skinned bastards have them around for entertainment.'
'I think we have been a little blind and stupid,' Tom began. 'All the time the Caraprix have been before our eyes, and we have misjudged them. We have not seen their true nature.'
A flicker of Blue Fire sizzled randomly at the tip of Ruth's spear and they all jumped. 'What do you mean?' Ruth asked.
'We have been told many, many times that the closer things are to the heart of Existence, the more fluid they are,' Tom replied. 'And these are the most fluid things of all. They have no fixed shape, no definable purpose. They can be anything they want. What, I wonder, are the limits of that? What could they really be?'
Church indicated another image, a figure with arms outstretched, strings connecting his fingers to a row of dancing marionettes. 'The Puppeteer,' he said. 'I've seen him before. In Venice, back in Elizabethan times. And in the court. So he existed before the current Age, before the Tuatha De Danaan? Why would he be painted here?'
'It's not that I don't find your noodling and navel-gazing so, so fascinating, ' Laura snapped, 'but what say we forget all this and move on before those Fomorii find a way in here and hunt us down like rabbits.'
'She's right,' Veitch said. 'This isn't important. We need to find the gate to Summer-side, and this place is so big we could be searching for years.'
Tom glared at Veitch, about to launch an angry comment, when Church dropped a hand on his shoulder. 'This isn't the place for a fight.' He nodded towards Miller and Virginia, who were sitting together on a piece of fallen pillar. Miller had a reassuring arm around the frightened girl's shoulders, but his fixed expression revealed his own repressed terror. 'We forget they're not like us,' Church continued. 'They've not seen the things we've seen, and they're not built to deal with what they've found here.'
'They're not like you,' Tom said pointedly.
Their unease mounted as they continued through the empty, ringing halls. The scale of the place, the silence, the darkness, the decay combined to create a thick, oppressive atmosphere that was profoundly unsettling. Though none of them gave voice to it, they all felt as if they were being watched by hateful eyes from the shadows just beyond the extent of the thin lantern light.
The stillness was so intense that even the slightest sound was magnified, and all their senses were heightened. After an hour, they heard a short, dull grind that could have been a door opening. It was so faint and distant that they would have dismissed it at any other time, but in that place it sounded like a tolling bell.
'I don't think we're alone in here,' Church said.
They all turned to look at Virginia, who had thrown off her hood and was smiling. It added a macabre cast to the desperate terror glittering in her eyes.
'The Fomorii?' Church asked.
Virginia shook her head. 'Worse than that.'
Claustrophobic darkness, and hard stone all around. The ragged heat of his breath. Pain, fading quickly, flashes of images in his memory so terrifying that his consciousness recoiled at their touch. Thankfully, the images subsided as Mallory came round.
He choked back bile at the abiding recollection of the touch of hard steel at his throat, the sensation of what followed and the scream of his mind as it wound down into darkness, and knew that it would haunt him for as long as he lived.
But he was alive. The ritual had worked. Everything was subsumed beneath the rush of wonder and relief, and he began frantically to feel around his environment. He was in a stone box, as Veitch had told him to expect.
Pressing his hands against the lid, he lifted. The lid ground to one side and flickering torchlight added another level of relief. Dank air rushed into the dry, dusty interior of the box.
Once he had clambered out, he found another stone box on a plinth next to him. Scuffling sounds came from within. He eased the lid off and helped Caitlin out. She clutched the Wayfinder to her chest, the blue flame providing welcome relief in that gloomy place.
'Look after me,' Caitlin said in the fragile voice of her Amy personality.
Mallory hugged her to him. 'Course I will.'
He held her until she released herself. 'It's okay — she's gone back to Brigid and Briony now.' She forced a wan smile, her eyes dark and limpid.
'Is waiting.' She stared into his eyes for a moment longer, and her gaze was briefly filled with all the powerful emotions she kept repressed. She broke off when she realised what she was revealing, although she knew he understood. 'Come on — we've got a job to do.'
When she held the lantern aloft, it revealed a huge chamber built from cyclopean stone blocks beyond the ability of any human to carve or move. Wall paintings also beyond human scale soared up into the shadows, incomprehensible and troubling, and here and there were effigies of squat, misshapen figures or tall, spindly beings. Not human.
'A temple,' Mallory said.
'Here? What do the dead worship?'
Mallory couldn't answer.
With a shudder, Caitlin turned her attention to the lamp's flame, which was bending unnaturally to point away from them. 'So Hal's in there somewhere? How do we talk to him?'
'If we call on him, he'll come,' Mallory said. 'But we've got to protect that lamp with our lives. Hal can die here, though die might not be the right word.'
'He'll be fine. We just put our heads down, follow the flame and we'll be at the Market in no time.'
'I like your optimism.'
As they searched for an exit, they found an area where a foot-high egg of swirling sapphire and emerald stood on a waist-high stone column. Every instinct told them to move on, but it drew them in nonetheless.
'What is that?' Caitlin said. 'It feels electric. Is it pulsing?'
Mesmerised, they stepped onto the dais surrounding the column; when they got within three feet of the egg they passed through some invisible boundary where everything became green-tinged and all sounds from the chamber beyond were muffled.
Cautiously, Caitlin reached out towards the egg, every warning instinct suppressed. When her fingers came within an inch of its surface, there was a shimmer and they found themselves standing in a three-dimensional view of a dark hall where Church and the others stood around Virginia.
'It's some kind of viewing thing, like the Wish-Post in the Great Courts,' Mallory said. He paused. 'Where's Hunter and Jack?'
The scene shifted to reveal the cavern of bones. 'Now why are they not with the others?' Caitlin asked.
The scene shifted again, this time unprompted. Mallory looking younger, happier, standing in Salisbury Cathedral. Caitlin standing in the rain, crying, covered in clay. Stonehenge in the morning sun, Blue Fire flickering above each trilithon. Church on his knees before the Libertarian, covered in blood. Someone reading a book, looking directly at Mallory and Caitlin.
A bolt of pain struck Mallory between the eyes, and instead of looking into the egg, something was looking out at him. He had the overwhelming sensation of a crushing consciousness focusing the full extent of its power upon him. It sizzled into his brain, crawling into his thoughts, turning over every aspect of who he was and what he wanted. Flames flickered around his perception and the image of the Burning Man began to fall into relief around them.
Caitlin grabbed Mallory and propelled him out of the active zone around the egg. He cried out as the consciousness was painfully torn from his mind. 'The Void,' he gasped. 'It was looking into me. It recognised me.' He sucked in a breath of air. 'It knows who all of us are, every human. It knows our strengths, and our weaknesses. Our desires.'
'I think we make a vow not to touch anything else in this world,' Caitlin said, helping Mallory to his feet. 'Nothing good's going to come out of anything here.'
As Mallory recovered, they heard a noise coming from the direction of the two Rebirth Boxes. Creeping back to the chamber, they saw an arm of twisted blackthorn rise from one of the boxes, and then another. The Hortha rose up and turned its crumpled-paper face towards them.
In that briefest contact, Mallory had a premonition of his own death. Chilled, he guided Caitlin quickly away. While the Hortha adjusted to the transition to the Grim Lands, they moved quickly through the dark chambers until they found the exit tunnel that Veitch had described. It led out into a fissure in the rock in which the temple had been carved. Overhead, a slate-grey sky was occasionally revealed by gaps in the constantly drifting mist. Black shapes moved across it; birds, they guessed, although the perspective suggested something much larger. Every sound was dampened, the rattle of a kicked stone so muffled it could barely be heard six feet away.
They scrambled up a scree-slope onto a bleak, featureless terrain of hard rock and shale, though the mist made it impossible to see too far ahead. Although there was no breeze, the mist continued to fold and twist, licking at them, enswathing them until they moved on rapidly to leave it behind.
'Nice place,' Mallory said. 'Reminds me of a day I spent in Harlow.'
'I guess the dead don't need much in the way of scenery.'
The timbre of Caitlin's voice had changed subtly. Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Mallory was always struck by the slight physical alterations that came over her when one of her personalities took over. This one he recognised as the Morrigan, not in full control, but far back in her head, slackly taking the reins.
'We got out of that temple just in time,' he said. 'We're not leaving a trail here. That should make it difficult for the Hortha to follow us.'
'No trail you can see,' Caitlin corrected.
'You're not going to let me hide away in my all-is-right-with-the-world fantasies, are you?'
'That won't benefit us. We need to be aware, to keep moving. If that thing crossed the barrier into the Grim Lands, it's not going to give up easily.'
'The worst thing about that lantern is that it gives no indication of distance. What happens if we've got to follow that flame for thousands of miles?'
'I'm not sure distance or time mean much here. It just… is…'
Caitlin's voice dried up as the first feature emerged from the mist: a pair of iron gates in a Victorian style, one of them hanging askew from a broken hinge. They were supported by two stone columns on which black gargoyles perched. In the centre of the wrought-iron arch above the gate was a skull resting on crossed bones. On either side, rusted iron railings stretched out until they were lost in the shifting mist. Beyond sprawled a graveyard: markers, mausoleums, tombs, statues of weeping angels, some of them sagging at angles or broken, suggesting great age. The lichen-covered stone glowed spectrally in the strange, diffuse light. Ivy grew up some of the monuments, obscuring their meaning, and long, yellowing grass grew amongst the graves, along with wild flowers that were splashes of queasy colour in the grey.
Apprehensively, Mallory and Caitlin halted at the gate, but the Wayfinder continued to point directly ahead.
'You're just asking for trouble going through a place like that in a place like this,' Mallory said.
Caitlin followed the line of the railings into the mist. 'I have a horrible feeling this graveyard goes on a long, long way. I don't think we'll be able to go around it.'
Mallory sighed. 'Yep. Makes perfect sense.'
Standing before the gate, he glanced up at the arch and briefly thought he saw his own face on the skull. The illusion passed quickly and he took hold of the sagging gate, which emitted a protesting, resonant scream from its rusted, long-unused hinges. It was the only sound that carried any distance, and seemed to go on and on and on into the mist.
'I'm living in a really bad horror movie,' he said, his palms unbearably sweaty. If the Hortha was on the move, it would have heard that metallic wrenching.
Once again they came to a halt, on the threshold. Every sense told them not to enter the graveyard, but the Wayfinder continued to urge them on.
'Come on — don't be scared!'
The voice startled them. Mallory exchanged a glance with Caitlin and then drew his sword. The Blue Fire around the blade was barely evident. Caitlin reached behind and removed her axe from its harness.
'What fine weapons! What a sword! What an axe! But that sword… yes! One of the Three Great Swords of Existence, if I am not mistaken. And I am rarely mistaken, unless I am in my cups, which, admittedly, has not been much of an option in recent times.'
The deeply theatrical voice hid any true emotion. Mallory had an impression of some old stage ham, living on past glories. 'Who's there?' he called.
'A friend. Nothing more.'
'Somehow I doubt that.'
As Mallory and Caitlin crossed the threshold, they felt a sudden tingle of uneasiness as if the barrier had been real and not just imaginary. Whoever was there was hidden amongst the clutter of mausoleums and grave markers.
'Don't worry! I won't bite! Indeed, I am utterly desperate for invigorating human conversation. Why, we are social beings. We are not meant for this dreary, unstimulating place — where, I might add, I should not be. But enough about that travesty for now, lest I find myself carried away on a wave of bitterness, which will only wash me up on the bleak shores of despair.'
Mallory pushed through the long grass, searching all around. The mist hid objects, then revealed them, then hid them again, so they quickly lost all sense of direction. They could no longer see the gate, although they had not gone far.
'But as the great Shelley said,' the speaker continued, ' "Some say that gleams of a remoter world visit the soul in sleep — that death is slumber." So perhaps I… perhaps all of us happy breed… are only sleeping.'
As Mallory and Caitlin rounded an ivy-clustered mausoleum they finally found the speaker, sitting cross-legged on a tomb. He was a strange figure. Though in his mid-forties, he had long, silver hair and a gaunt face. He wore a black suit, shiny from wear, offset by a flamboyant red brocade waistcoat. His boots were worn and holed on the soles.
'What are you doing here?' Caitlin asked.
'Just resting my old bones.' He chuckled, revealing a gap between nicotine-stained teeth.
'Who are you?' Mallory asked.
'Who am I? The great existential question. Who. Am. I. There are many possible answers-'
'Who are you?' Mallory repeated fiercely.
'I am the bard of the hedgerows, the king of the open road, alley sloper, gourmand and wit.' He held his arms wide. 'My name is Callow.'
Death At The Groghaan Gate
The Halls of the Drakusa were endless, and silent. The tip of the Spear of Lugh burning with Blue Fire to light her path, Ruth led the way through chamber after chamber where the shadows pressed hard against them and the oppressive sense of threat grew by the moment. More energy burned at the rear of the column where Church and Veitch had their swords drawn to defend the group from any attack.
'This place is a bleedin' maze,' Veitch hissed. 'We could be going round and round in circles.'
'Shavi seems to have his bearings, or at least his eye does.' Church paused to listen intently as he had done so many times since Virginia had warned them that they were being pursued.
'Anything?' Veitch asked.
Church shook his head.
'Maybe she was just spooked by the dark. She's only a kid.'
'Echoes. Stones.' He wasn't even convincing himself. 'Let's close the door on this room. Barricade it. If there is anything behind us, it might slow them down.'
Church agreed, and they called on Ruth to stop the column while they ran the length of the huge chamber. The doors closed easily and quietly, and there was a heavy oaken bar to lock them in place. Then they dragged numerous chunks of shattered masonry against the doors to add to the barricade.
Veitch wasn't impressed. 'Wish we could booby trap it as well. Blow the bastards up.'
Church laughed. 'I don't know how I survived without you, Ryan.'
'Neither do I.' He grinned to himself before growing serious once more. 'We're doing all right, aren't we?'
'We've not killed each other yet.'
'Yeah. After recent times, that's a definite success story.'
Halfway across the chamber, Church's eye was caught by a disturbance in the dust off to one side of the path they had taken. They'd been careful to obscure their tracks as much as possible, but here an arrow had been drawn with a symbol he didn't understand, and a serpentine squiggle that he guessed was meant to signify a dragon.
'Ryan,' he called quietly.
Veitch skidded to a halt and ran back. When he saw the mark in the dust, he snarled, 'We've got a snake in the group. Or a spider.'
Church nodded. 'They're marking the way for whatever's coming up behind. I didn't see anybody do this, but then we were always looking back.' He glanced towards the group, who were all looking his way. 'And now they know we're on to them.'
Veitch scrubbed out the sign. 'Bollocks. I'm going to carve it out of them.'
'We can't torture everyone until we find out who it is.'
Veitch still appeared to consider this a viable option.
'We might be able to use it in our favour,' Church said.
'Play it cool, screw with their heads a bit?'
'Something like that.'
Veitch nodded. 'Works for me.'
Church looked back at his friends' faces. 'I know we were warned there was a traitor in the group. I just can't believe it.'
'It's the girl — Virginia,' Veitch whispered. 'Got to be. Look at it logically. How the hell did someone that young get away from the Enemy Fortress? Come on — millions of the worst things there are all around and she manages to wriggle out, travel God knows how many miles and then just hooks up with Decebalus?'
Church eyed the fragile girl. 'They let her out?'
'Sent her back, primed to explode right in the middle of us.'
'I've spoken to her, Ryan. I believe what she's saying.'
'She believes it — that's the point. You know how clever all these bastards are at manipulating us poor humans. She doesn't know she's set up to do us all in.' He paused. 'Same as I didn't know back in the Battle of London.'
A moment of tension passed quickly, dismissed by Veitch with a quick smile. 'Don't blame you, though. Not any more. Nobody could have known.' A pause. 'You couldn't have saved me.'
When they returned to the group, Ruth asked what they had been inspecting, but they brushed her off with a comment about feeling for vibrations of pursuit in the floor. She didn't believe them, but said nothing. Church carefully watched the others' faces, but no one showed any suspicious sign.
Two chambers on and Shavi brought them to a halt. He was rubbing his eye as if it was causing him some discomfort. 'There is something around here,' he said hesitantly, before pointing tentatively to a room off to their left that they had all missed.
'What's in there?' Laura asked.
'I see… connections,' Shavi began. 'Places where the Invisible World interacts with our own. Something in that room calls to me.'
They all hesitated until Ruth pushed her way through them to the chamber's door. 'We can't ignore anything that might help us,' she said.
'And we can't ignore anything that might, like, kill us,' Laura added tartly.
The chamber was more intimate than the others, with a series of runic symbols painted on the walls in an oily black that had not become obscured by dust like the many murals they had passed. As Shavi ventured into the chamber, one of the symbols began to glow faintly. Virginia buried her face in Miller's chest. Shavi looked back and forth with urgency, seeing things that no one else could.
'Shadows,' he whispered. 'Rising from the stones. Locked here for an age.'
Suddenly he grew stock still, his eyes fixed on a place far beyond the four walls. A droplet of blood trickled from his nose. His mouth opened and his lips moved, but no sound issued for a full five seconds, and then it came with a boom that made their ears ring: a word of power.
Gradually, the shadows became visible, faint smudges in the air coalescing on one form standing in a proscribed circle etched into the stone flags. In the shimmering air, a bearded, long-haired man appeared, more than six feet tall, wearing furs and chain mail, a shield strapped to his back, swords and axes hanging from him, and a spear with a silver tip clutched in his right hand. He wore a horned helmet of black and silver that protected his cheekbones and nose, so that his eyes lay deep in shadow. He appeared grainy, not wholly there, like a bad hologram.
'The Age of Warriors has passed,' he said in a deep, rasping voice that did not sound human. Behind him, in the air itself, images of what he described played out in vivid colour. 'Since time before time, the Drakusa have been the greatest race. Our forges produced weapons that could bring the stars down from the heavens. Our armies scourged the Far Lands and the fields and hills ran red with blood. No one could stand before us, and our battles became legends, sung over fires in the long nights, reducing the women to tears at the wonder of our courage. And yet the Drakusa are no more.
'From our victories we forged a peace based on blood and iron — a warrior's peace, in which no man or woman lived in fear, a golden age of prosperity for all. And yet the Drakusa are no more.
'How could we fall so far, so hard? Here, then, is a cautionary tale, people-yet-to-come. Here is our gift to you, the race of warriors that lies beyond the sun. Know your enemies. Do not look for the iron raised against you, the sword or the axe or the spear. Do not seek out eyes that promise hatred and death. The true enemies are cleverer. They pose as friends. They pretend to be part of your dreams, and to offer you your heart's desire. They stand at your side, and then move to your back when the time comes.'
In the air around him, the shifting scenes of carnage and warfare became mellower. Autumnal hues painted deep forests and a low sun behind mountaintops.
'Seasons turn. Nothing abides for ever. Even the greatest can be laid low in the blink of an eye.'
Across the image, shadows flitted, their shape changing as they moved. Familiar glints of silver flashed like the sun.
'Caraprix,' Church said.
'The Drakusa were torn down by the ones we raised highest,' the warrior continued. 'Know this: the Caraprix cannot be trusted. They are the enemy of all there is. Their purpose is to wipe clean, like the maggots in a corpse leaving only bones behind. When they turned on us, we could do nothing. Our weapons meant nothing. Our courage meant nothing. One thing we created in the final days to prevent our destruction, but time slipped through our fingers like the sands of Far-el-Quah. It waits here still. In the end, everything we had achieved in our great age was wiped away. Nothing remains. Know the terrible sadness of the Drakusa, warriors-yet-to-be, and despair.'
The warrior bowed his head silently for a moment. The flickering images behind him died away.
When he looked back up, he spoke quietly, but his voice was filled with emotion. 'If the Caraprix still infest this place, flee. Now. Go to the Groghaan Gate. Return to the Land of Always Summer and fill your heart with hope that you can run far enough and fast enough. Go to the Groghaan Gate and seek the Heart of the Drakusa. But beware: the way has been made treacherous to slow the vile beasts. Courage will prevail.' A pause. 'The Age of Warriors has passed.'
The warrior winked out and the room returned to normal. Reeling from his trance, Shavi staggered back until he was caught by Church.
'Bloody hell,' Veitch said. 'The Caraprix… back at the court.'
'So… what? They're just going to wipe us out?' Laura said.
'Like the spiders did on Earth,' Church said. 'Wipe everything out and start again.'
'What can we do?' Shavi asked.
'You can't do anything,' Tom snapped. 'This is bigger than you! You're just little cogs in a vast machine, turning slowly, not even knowing what you're doing. Following the pattern someone else has set for you.' He gnawed on a knuckle, long-stifled desperation breaking through his carefully devised exterior.
'Did you know the Caraprix were a threat?' Church asked.
'I don't know anything either, you idiot! I just see flashes of what's to come. Do I have to explain it to you again?' he said with bitter sarcasm. 'Disconnected images like the views from windows as you climb a tower. Who knows how they all link together? Who knows what it all means? Meaning can only be divined by a true perspective, and neither you nor I have that. We live in ignorance, and do our best as we fumble around in the dark.'
'What are the Caraprix?' Church pressed. 'Are they just the equivalent of the spiders-'
'I don't know!' Tom marched out of the chamber, a forlorn figure.
'I thought he was supposed to be our guide,' Laura said.
'He does his best,' Church said. 'We just don't do our best for him.'
The warrior's message hung heavily over them as they continued their journey, worming its way into their thoughts and infecting them with a mood of hopelessness.
'I thought the Caraprix were supposed to be close to Existence,' Ruth said to Church. 'Does this mean we've been lying to ourselves all along? That we're on the wrong side? Maybe the Libertarian is right — people don't want the torment of trying to be better than they are. All that insecurity and worry and struggle and pain. The things we've had to face. They just want to live in stability, with as much happiness as they can grasp before it all falls apart. The Mundane Spell might actually have been a blessing.'
Church had no answers for her questions, but her words struck a chord and he pondered them in silence as they continued through the gloomy halls.
Decebalus had risen with the sun, climbing the highest tower of the Court of the Soaring Spirit to get the clearest view across the Great Plain to the mountains and the sprawling Forest of the Night that bordered it. What he saw left him with a chill that even the warmth of the sun couldn't lift. Only the white-streaked mountaintops were visible, the forest not at all. The army surrounding the city was so large he had the impression of standing on a lighthouse on an island in the centre of a black, turbulent ocean. War machines belched out thick black smoke to fill the sky, mingling with the odd purple mist clinging to some of the enemy. Three Riot-Beasts came and went, their roving eyes revealing their idiot power that blasted out in a directionless fury that occasionally hit their own forces. It was like no army Decebalus had ever faced in his lifetime of battle. In his mind, he felt as if he was looking at a seething anthill, but what his eyes saw was even worse and his consciousness squirmed and skittered across it, refusing to accept the reality.
'They know we are not defenceless.' Lugh had joined him silently. 'They fear the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in our midst, and they wonder what other powers we have at our disposal. As well they should. But they will attack soon enough.'
'What makes my blood boil is that this is no true battle. Its outcome is meaningless to the Enemy. It is simply a way of harrying and distracting the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons until the Void has claimed its place in this world. And yet we must fight, and we must die. And what do we gain?'
'Survival.' Lugh's face was drawn, yet to Decebalus he appeared to have grown in stature since the barbarian had first encountered him. 'All things under Existence are in peril. Extinction waits for Fragile Creatures and for gods. When the Void remakes this place, we will no longer be in it, replaced by supine peoples who will live in peace within the Mundane Spell, and never challenge the will of the Devourer of All Things.'
Decebalus nodded. 'You make sense, for a slippery manipulator of men. For all time, until this time, there was always a chance the Void could be deposed, however slim that chance might be. If this war is lost, there will never be a chance again. The Void rules, for all time.'
'And we play our part here, by distracting the Enemy and deflecting the bulk of its forces from hunting Jack Giant-Killer and his fellows. There is little glory in any victory here.' He smiled wryly. 'But we play a part, and sometimes that is enough.'
They were interrupted by a Sister of Dragons with dyed red hair. Her name was Sarah Mazzarella, a thoughtful and intuitive woman to whom Decebalus had given the onerous task of liaising with the gods. 'They're ready,' she said, her voice weary. 'They've agreed to accept your orders in the battle.' She glanced at Lugh. 'But no other.'
'As it should be,' Lugh said. 'We would only fight amongst each other if one of us tried to gain ascendancy.'
'You are an irritating and troublesome kind.' Decebalus sighed. 'It would be easier to herd cats with a stick and a flute.' He nodded to Sarah. 'Tell them we march onto the field of slaughter within the hour.'
'I may reword that,' she said as she left.
'You have a strategy in place?' Lugh asked.
'Yes. Run hard at the enemy and see if they fall down.'
Lugh eyed Decebalus, unsure if he was joking.
'I have a plan,' the barbarian said with a grin. He glanced towards the tower where smoke belched from the windows and lights flashed mysteriously. Math was hard at work.
As they made their way down towards their troops, there was a loud disturbance at the gate. Soon after, the chief of the guards ran breathlessly to them. 'The Enemy has sent an emissary to talk,' he gasped.
'We are not going to surrender!' Decebalus said.
Lugh caught his arm. 'Let us listen to what he has to say.'
At the gate, a skeletal figure in black robes with a sly smile and staring yellow eyes waited with three Redcaps who could barely contain their bloodlust. They all stank of rotting meat.
'Perhaps I should cut you down here, and save time,' Decebalus mused.
'What would it profit you?' The skeletal man nodded mockingly. 'I am Lorca, charged to speak for the one your kind knows as Seth, sole survivor of the Great Dominion of the desert lands, who commands this mighty force.'
'Ah. He seeks revenge.'
Lorca gave a chittering laugh. 'Revenge is for equals, Fragile Creature. We come here to…' With a wry expression, Lorca searched for words that Decebalus might understand and finally settled on, 'Save trouble.'
'Save trouble? Why, I have been looking forward to this fight for a long time. I have organised my week around it.'
'You wish to die so soon?'
'If needs must. But I have a bet on with the drinkers down at the Hunter's Moon. How many of you will I take with me? That is the question.'
Lorca nodded, patronisingly.
'Say your piece and then we can get down to the sport,' Decebalus said.
'Give up the Caraprix.'
Taken aback, Decebalus shared a glance with Lugh.
'Give them up now, and we will leave you in peace here to live out the rest of your days, however long that may be,' Lorca continued.
'Why would you want those silver rats?'
'Why would you? They are no use to Fragile Creatures.'
'They were no use. Now that you have raised the matter, I think they may well be of great use indeed.'
'Then you do not know their true nature. You harbour the seeds of your own destruction, Fragile Creature. The Caraprix are not benign. They are a force of destruction.'
'Ah. So you are doing us a favour by taking them off our hands. I had the same proposition in the market this very morning. A ducat for my axe. To save me from cutting myself.'
Lorca nodded and smiled, but his eyes were filled with a deathly cold. 'Understand that you may make a gift of the Caraprix, or we will take them. The only difference is the life or death of everyone in this city.'
'Run along now. I am tired of talking.'
Lorca held Decebalus's gaze for a moment, before giving another contemptuous nod and retreating with the Redcaps.
'An interesting development,' Decebalus mused.
'Then the Enemy has a reason to be here,' Lugh said.
'There is a reason for everything. The question, then, is of what use are those shape-shifting rats to the Army of Ultimate Destruction?'
'They must be of great value indeed.' Lugh pondered for a moment and then said, 'And why did the Enemy not simply crush us and take the Caraprix? There is something here, I think.'
'There is something, indeed!' Decebalus gave a pleased grin. 'If the Enemy wants the Caraprix so badly that they are prepared to wheedle for them, our course of action is decided. They shall not have them!'
Hunter and Jack spent the better part of an hour searching the reaches of the cavern for an exit. Far behind them in the dark, the Fomorii hunted through the field of bones, drawing closer with every passing minute.
The sign would have been easy to miss if Jack had not been resting his forehead against the rock to calm his mounting panic. Faint vibrations rippled through the wall, a steady, rhythmic beat. He called Hunter over, who pressed his ear to the damp rock.
'You can hear it,' he whispered. 'Boom-boom-boom, like machinery.'
'In here? What could it be?'
When Hunter edged along the wall in a particular direction, the beat grew fractionally louder, until he could hear it clearly. At that point, he spied handholds in the rock leading up to a small, dark opening about ten feet off the ground. Boosting Jack up, he followed him into a tunnel large enough for them to stand upright, cut through the rock. The beat emanated from somewhere ahead.
The tunnel wound steadily upwards, presenting occasional rough-hewn steps for them to climb, the beat growing louder the closer they drew to the source. Soon it was ringing off the stone walls and vibrating beneath their feet.
They entered a large hall that smelled of sulphur and coal, with enormous furnaces along opposite walls, still black with soot, the tools of the smiths protruding from the dead cores. Half-completed swords and chain mail rusted on the ground amidst anvils and scattered hammers.
'Looks like we've found the back door into the Halls of the Drakusa,' Hunter said.
'If the others got in, we could meet up with them.' Jack's eyes gleamed with hope. 'I was afraid we might have to go back the way we came.'
Beyond, another chamber was given over to industrial production, but here its purpose was less clear: a faint chemical smell hung over benches covered with glass bottles and jars. Bones had been swept into the corners. Mysterious implements lay abandoned on the floor and on the benches, as if the occupants had been rudely disturbed.
The floor of the following chamber was covered with runes and ritual marks, and contained an overwhelming atmosphere of threat. Hunter and Jack couldn't bear to tarry in it for too long.
Finally the booming was so painful they had to cover their ears. The source was a huge iron door set in the wall of a long corridor, but the moment Hunter grabbed the handle with both hands and dragged the door open, silence fell.
Jack futilely urged his friend not to venture into the room, but Hunter's curiosity had got the better of him.
The chamber was lit by a shaft of natural sunlight falling from an incredible height overhead. Stone steps wound around the walls up the dizzying stretch to whatever lay in the dim upper reaches. The floor of the chamber was occupied by a giant with a brutish, bare, heavily scarred torso, its head covered with a leather hood, its arms outstretched and fastened to the floor by shackles. It was stock-still, head cocked, listening.
'How long has it been here?' Jack whispered.
'The Drakusa disappeared long before the Tuatha De Danaan arrived on the scene… an age ago.'
'All that time? What does it feed on?'
'What does it feed on?' the giant repeated.
Jack started. 'It heard me. It can speak.'
Hunter pushed Jack back towards the door. As they stepped out of the chamber, the giant wrenched at its chains again and again, creating the deafening booming sound they had followed.
Hunter took them back into the chamber and it stopped, waiting.
'It's been trying to break free all this time,' Hunter observed.
'It's been trying to break free,' the giant repeated.
'Why is it mimicking what we say?' Jack asked.
'I don't think it is,' Hunter replied thoughtfully. 'Let's forget how it survived all this time. Why did the Drakusa imprison it here?'
The giant continued to listen intently.
'I don't like it,' Jack decided.
'One hundred and ninety-three cried like a baby,' the giant said.
'What's it talking about?' Jack asked before he saw Hunter staring, mouth open.
'Sixty-seven spilled blood and urine on the tiles,' the giant continued.
'Get out of my head!' Hunter shouted.
'What's it saying?' Jack asked. 'What's one hundred and ninety-three and sixty-seven?'
'Never you mind. Let's get out of here.'
The door slammed shut. A lock fell into place.
'You're here now,' the giant said.
The thunder of the barricaded door being torn open echoed through the halls, and was followed by a grinding, metallic sound of something being dragged over the stone flags.
'Dammit,' Church said under his breath. They were only three halls away from where he and Veitch had discovered the sign in the dust.
'Did you really think you'd be given a free run right up to the gates of the Enemy?' Tom mocked. 'They're going to be hunting and harrying you at every turn. The Void won't want to risk you getting anywhere near enough to do any damage. Everything at their disposal will have been put in place long ago to keep you away — spies, traitors, hunting parties, the kind of sentinels that can't be avoided, that never stop.'
'Why didn't you say this before?' Church said sharply.
'What was the point? You never had any chance of getting through. Better to let you keep your hopes up to the last.'
'And now you've decided to get my hopes down?'
Refusing to answer any further questions, Tom moved away, but Church was already wondering if he'd made the wrong decision to suspect Virginia. Was Tom's comment about spies and traitors a cry for help?
The grinding metallic sound drew closer. 'They're outpacing us,' Veitch said, glancing back. 'We could barricade each door we pass through, but I don't reckon it'll do us much good.'
'Better hope we get to the gate back to Summer-side pretty quick, then.'
'You think they're going to stop at the gate? We've lost any advantage we had crossing through this God-forsaken place. They're going to be straight on us the minute we crash back into the Far Lands.'
Ruth had overheard their conversation as she helped Miller and Virginia, who were flagging. 'We have to stop them here. It's the only way.'
Ahead, Tom and Shavi conferred intensely. 'We both feel we are near to the gate,' Shavi said, 'but we cannot find the way.'
'The warrior said we had to find the Heart of the Drakusa if we wanted to get to the Groghaan Gate.' Church peered around the gloomy chamber, but it appeared to be as bare and forlorn as all the others.
The line of sight through the great doors of the chambers revealed flickering lights in the distant dark.
'Now would be a good time for inspiration,' Laura said.
Everyone except Church rushed to search the chamber with urgency, dragging blocks of masonry aside, brushing the thick grime and cobwebs from crumbling murals, sweeping away the dust covering the flags. The echoes of the metallic grinding filled the room.
'The heart of a warrior,' Church mused aloud. 'The heart. Brave. Fearless. Aspiring… no, no, reaching… for greatness…' A connection was made. Quickly, but methodically, Church began to investigate the walls, trying to see into the shadows that clustered overhead.
As Church moved the lantern, it brought a subtle shift in slivers of shadow on the stone near him: revealing protrusions only a few inches wide. Broadly spaced footholds wound up into the dark, invisible to the casual eye. He called the others over as the lights drew into the adjoining chamber.
'I'll go,' Ruth said, handing her spear to Church.
'No, you'll break your neck.' Veitch tried to pull her back. 'No one's gonna get up there.'
Ruth threw him off. 'I'll go,' she said fiercely. 'I'm lighter, more agile-'
'And if anyone's going to break their neck it ought to be her,' Laura said.
Pressed flat against the wall, Ruth put one foot on the lowest step and reached for the next. She had to stretch her fingers to find even the flimsiest handhold, and then, with a shaky, precarious step, she leaped to the next stone. When she almost fell from the fifth step, now well above their heads, Veitch had to look away.
'Get underneath to break her fall,' he said to Laura as he turned to join Church facing the approaching lights. 'We're going to have to fight.'
'If we can hold them off, at least the others can get through.'
'We're doing this all the way to the Enemy?'
From the shadows emerged a figure, eight feet tall with rusty iron plates on chains at the front and back of his body, muscular arms smeared with blood. He wore a helmet of smaller iron plates bolted together haphazardly. The now-deafening grating came from an enormous sword that he dragged behind him. Church and Veitch recognised the Iron Slaughterman from the description Mallory had given them of his encounter with the being in Ogma's library.
In the flickering torchlight, twenty figures swarmed around him, keeping low. They had the heads of wolves and rats but the bodies of men, snapping at the air in a hunting frenzy. Behind them, Church could just make out further movement, like clouds of smoke unfolding towards him.
'How are you doing?' Church called out.
'Still clinging on, if that's what you mean,' Ruth shouted back.
Without slowing his step, the Iron Slaughterman began to swing the sword, which was as big as he was. Veins bulged on his straining sinews and the rusty, bloodstained sword began to gather speed in an arc.
'He's never going to hit us with that big bleedin' thing,' Veitch mocked.
The sword swung round and round over the Iron Slaughterman's head as he ran. At the last he lowered the angle so it drove towards Church and Veitch, who leaped out of the way. The sword hit the flags with such explosive force that chunks of stone hurtled through the air. Church and Veitch were thrown from their feet, and a massive fissure opened in the floor.
Snapping and snarling, the wolves and rats attacked. Church rolled back to his feet, bringing Caledfwlch up sharply to bisect one from groin to shoulder, and then taking the head off another. Veitch had already despatched three, but the others were darting and retreating, trying to get past Church and Veitch to their more vulnerable companions.
Heaving his sword off the ground and whirling it in another slow, powerful arc, the Iron Slaughterman attacked again. Church ducked beneath the whistling blade at the last second and it crashed through a marble pillar, bringing down part of the ceiling in a cloud of billowing dust.
'Bastard's going to bring this place down around us.' Veitch coughed as he and Church took the opportunity to retreat a few paces, unseen. When the dust cleared, Church saw a figure floating a foot in the air behind the attackers. Bone-white skin framed by black hair, becoming black skin and white hair, and back. Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings, raised his golden key and ironwood stick, one to open the path, the other to drive away those who had no right to cross the threshold.
'Brothers of Dragons,' he said in a scraping voice. 'Your doors shall be closed for ever.'
Above them, they heard a cry of exultation from Ruth, and then a door ground open in the wall behind them.
'You see, that's irony,' Church said to Janus.
'This place is winding down, and all places joined to it,' Janus continued. 'The lamps are going out. The doors are closing one by one by one. You cannot hold back the dark.'
'We're the ones who carry the light,' Veitch said defiantly. 'A little blue spark, and that'll never go out.'
As the rats and wolves circled, Church said to Janus, 'You're a god. You're not controlled by the Anubis Box — you've still got free will. Why did you choose to side with the Void and the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders?'
'I am not just a god. I am Divom Deus, the gods' God. The first. I am one of the Oldest Things in the Land.'
Before Church had a moment to reflect on what Janus had said, one of the rat creatures darted under his guard and flung itself into the newly opened doorway to block their retreat. It had only backed a few paces into the space beyond the door when the tubular corridor began to revolve and axes swung like pendulums at intermittent spaces along the way. One blade planted itself firmly in the rat creature's chest. With a strangled, bestial cry, it fell to the floor in a gout of blood and began to revolve and fall, revolve and fall.
'That was a spot of luck,' Veitch said.
'The warrior told us the path to the gate had been booby-trapped.' Church retreated with Veitch to the door. 'This might only be a part of it.'
Ruth joined them in the entrance to the revolving corridor as the Iron Slaughterman launched another attack. The sword ripped through wall and floor, bringing another deluge of masonry from the precarious ceiling.
'Let me go first! Follow my steps!' Ruth shouted above the roar of falling stonework. Darting into the revolving corridor, she performed intricate steps to dodge and duck the pendulum axes while fighting to keep her balance. Church held his breath as more than one came within a hair's breadth of her, but then she was through to the other side, urging Shavi, then Laura to follow.
The rat and wolf creatures leaped, snarling, only to be cut down by Church and Veitch. Another assault by the Iron Slaughterman tore through the walls on either side of the door, forcing Miller and Virginia to fall to their knees screaming as Tom dived into the revolving corridor.
Resonant creaks and groans warned them that the entire stone ceiling was about to come down. Once Tom, Miller and Virginia had made it through the axes, Church and Veitch followed, dancing amongst the blades with such balletic skill that they made it appear effortless.
Ruth waited at the foot of a winding stone staircase. She held up a hand to halt Church and Veitch, then jabbed her spear up the stairs. Blades shot out from both walls and snapped back into place; they would have sliced off the legs of anyone climbing them.
With the sounds of pursuit drawing closer along the revolving corridor, Ruth yelled, 'See the gaps in the walls from which the blades extend? If you're careful, you can go over and under.'
'We haven't got time to be careful,' Veitch barked. 'Move!'
Almost rigid with fear, Virginia was helped by Ruth and Miller. The others followed as quickly as they could. The ka-ching of the blades became a steady, terrifying beat as they worked their way up the steps. A cry rang out as one clipped Tom's boot and he sprawled, narrowly missing another blade. His stream of abuse told everyone he was all right.
A quaking at the foot of the steps warned Church that the Iron Slaughterman was close behind, the sound of shattering blades revealing how he was putting his sword to good use.
Freezing air, brilliant white light and the dying blizzard greeted them as they stumbled from the top of the steps onto a stone terrace on the side of the mountain. Across a dizzying gulf, on another rocky slope of the range, they could just make out what had to be the Groghaan Gate, a soaring arch of gleaming gold. A bridge had once spanned the gulf between the two peaks, but it had been shattered at intervals so that sections were suspended on either side of columns that dropped down into the white wastes below.
'We're never going to get across there,' Veitch said, peering over the lip of the first section of bridge. Vertigo made him wobble and he took a step back from the edge.
'Then we make our stand here,' Church said.
In the chamber in the depths of the Halls of the Drakusa, Jack frantically wrenched at the door handle, but it remained resolutely closed.
Standing his ground before the chained giant, Hunter's face revealed the strain of keeping the creature out of his thoughts.
'Who are you?' Hunter asked.
'Who are you?' the giant said.
'Okay, we could keep doing this all day, but it's already getting old.'
Wiping away a dribble of blood from his left nostril, Hunter continued, 'Clearly the Drakusa saw you as too much of a threat to leave you wandering around. Are you responsible for all the bones in the basement?'
'Of course, if that's what remains of the Drakusa, it doesn't explain who chained you up here.'
Hunter became aware that Jack was no longer rattling at the door in panic. The boy now watched Hunter with hooded eyes, his body held in an odd posture with one shoulder slumped. Before Hunter could ask what was wrong, Jack attacked in a murderous rage, screaming and attempting to tear at Hunter's flesh, throat, eyes.
It was an effort even for Hunter to hold him off, but as he wrestled Jack back, an insidious darkness crept into the back of his head. He saw himself pressing his thumbs into Jack's throat and squeezing the life from him before tearing off his skin, ripping out his eyes, brutalising his body beyond all recognition. His head swam with the last, desperate expressions of all the people he had killed, their fear of what was to come on the other side of death, their grief for the ones they were leaving behind, the terrible sight of the intelligence winking out in their eyes. And then he was hanging himself from a short rope in the corner of the room, his face turning black, the skin decaying, the insects moving in.
For anyone else, the creeping infection of morbidity would have destroyed them, but death had been Hunter's companion for too long. He wasn't scared of it; nor did it revolt him. It was simply a necessary if distasteful part of life. He snapped himself back from the flood of oppressive images and forced his thoughts to right themselves.
Jack rolled on the floor, gasping for air, his throat still bearing the red marks of Hunter's fingers. The death-images assaulted his mind, driving him slowly insane.
The giant cocked his hooded head towards Hunter. 'I am El-Di-Gah-Wis-Lor, the final judgement of the Drakusa, the dark at the end, the breath of the grave,' he began. 'I am death, and I bring death. Brought into being for one purpose, to end the plague of the Caraprix, I was not allowed to fulfil my destiny. And so I have waited, and waited, and my urge for death has risen with each season. And now you are here, and I will have my way.'
Blood flew in droplets as Hunter shook his head to clear his mind. 'All well and good, except you're unfortunate to have the wrong person in here. You see, I am death, and I'm a bigger, badder death than you.'
Hunter tore open his bag and rammed his hand into the Balor Claw. It sang eagerly when it bonded with its master. 'Now we'll see. Skull for skull and bone for bone.'
From beyond the door, he could hear the low, rumbling sound of the approaching Fomorii. Jack whined, spat blood, drawing them closer.
Bounding at the giant, Hunter tore off the hood. Red eyes that had not seen in an age rolled in a devastated face that resembled a melted candle. When they fixed on Hunter, he saw within a monstrous intellect, unknowable, uncaring, whose sole purpose was to destroy him, destroy every living thing. For the first time in his monstrous, debased life, he shuddered.
And then he brandished the Balor Claw in front of the giant's face and said, 'This is worse than death. It can reduce you to nothing in an instant. Do you understand?'
Hunter wanted to look away when those hideous eyes revolved back to him. 'I have learned your words. I know your mind. We are death.'
Despair washed through Hunter when he heard his worst fears given voice. 'Leave the boy alone,' he said.
The red, staring eyes focused on Jack, then snapped away as if they were removing a hook and line. Jack rolled onto his back, gasping and crying.
The door throbbed with a ferocious pounding that would rend it open within seconds. Hunter glanced at the stone steps winding around the chamber walls, but then a notion struck him.
'You can control minds,' he said. 'Can you control them?'
'The Nightwalkers. They nested here in recent times. I have felt them scurrying and searching. Directionless. Hopeless.'
'Can you control them?'
The answer was clear in the giant's red eyes.
'Then open the door.'
The blizzard blasted across the terrace again, limiting visibility to one little world of brutality and strife. Bodies of the rat and wolf creatures were scattered all around in shocking Rorschach blots of colour on the blank canvas, but the Iron Slaughterman remained impervious to Church, Veitch and Ruth's attacks. His skill and speed with the sword belied his enormous size, a wall of iron that deflected their attacks and forced them on the defensive. Only the limited space on the terrace prevented the Iron Slaughterman from destroying them, but they all knew it was only a matter of time.
'Find a way to get across to the next part of the bridge!' Church yelled to the others as they shielded their heads from the raining chunks of rock in the far corner of the terrace.
'Does he expect us to fly?' Tom snapped.
'At least Janus has not ventured this far,' Shavi said. Peering over the edge of the terrace, he could just make out the next section of shattered bridge through the blizzard. 'If only we had a rope,' he said.
'If we don't hurry we won't even be able to see where it is,' Miller whined.
'I might be able to help.' Her voice filled with uncertainty, Laura joined Shavi at the edge and showed him a handful of seeds she had retrieved from her pocket. 'I brought these from the court. Thought they might come in handy some time, you know, with my freakish ability to make things grow.'
Shavi smiled at her. 'That shows excellent foresight.'
'Yeah, well, I only did it so I could hear that lovely patronising tone in your voice-'
A boulder dislodged from the cliff face by the Iron Slaughterman's sword crashed so near it almost flung them over the edge. With a scream, Virginia buried her head into Miller's chest.
Laura cursed loudly. 'We've got to try this now. But here's the deal — it's too cold. I can't keep things alive here for more than a minute or two. I might be able to get something to reach across the gap, but there's no guarantee it won't wither when you're halfway across. And… especially with all this…' She glanced anxiously at the furious battle. 'I don't know if I can keep my concentration. If that goes… you go.'
Shavi took Laura's hand. 'I trust you. We all do.'
Laura's face fell, but she quickly hid it behind a mocking smile. 'God, you're such an idiot loser, Shavster.'
Placing one of the seeds in a crack in the edge of the terrace, she closed her eyes and bowed her head. The sight of the seed bursting into green life, unfolding and extending rapidly, still left her breathless with disbelief and excitement. Who was she to have these kinds of abilities? She restrained the part of her that didn't believe she deserved to be special, and concentrated so that the strand of dense, twisting vine thickened and spread across the gap.
'Go, Shavi, go!' she urged.
Without a second thought, Shavi leaped onto the vine, wrapped his legs and arms around it and shimmied across. It swung wildly with his exertions, the wind threatening to tear him off. Fighting to maintain her concentration, Laura held the vine together, but in the bitter cold the leaves were already blackening as fast as they had grown and the strand began to unravel and die. Through the wall of snow, Laura glimpsed Shavi scrambling onto the shattered edge of the next section of bridge. Grinning, he gave her the thumbs-up before the snow obscured him.
Sagging back with a gasp, Laura let the vine fall away. The strain was already telling on her, but she was determined not to let them down. Ignoring the rocks falling around her, she placed another seed in the crack and grew it quickly. 'Go on, old man — you're next,' she said. 'I just hope your arthritic joints hold out.'
'If I fall, let it be known she did it on purpose,' Tom said to Miller.
With surprising agility, he shimmied across the vine and disappeared into the blizzard. When Laura felt the vine grow less taut, she let it fall away.
'Your turn, Miller,' she said.
'I'll carry Virginia. She can wrap her arms and legs around me.'
'It'll be too much for you.'
'Laura, she'll never make it on her own.'
The girl kept glancing at the dizzying drop, her face as white as the snow. Laura's heart went out to her. 'Okay,' she said hesitantly. 'I'll try to make the vine stronger. Just… just be quick.'
But before she could use the third seed, a cry rang out. The Iron Slaughterman had struck Ruth a glancing blow, propelling her into the mountainside where she slumped, unconscious. Her injury had distracted both Church and Veitch. Laura called out as the great sword hurtled towards Veitch and while her warning came in time for him to take one brief step back, the blade still ripped across his chest, releasing a spurt of blood. Veitch staggered backwards into the snow.
'Miller, you're going to have to heal him,' Laura shouted.
The Iron Slaughterman drove Church back against the wall where Veitch lay. When the giant sword pounded into the rock near where his head had been, the resultant explosion of shards of stone laid him flat.
Despite the threat, Miller scrambled towards Church and Veitch, but the Iron Slaughterman rounded on him instantly.
'This is it,' Laura gasped.
So fast was the attack on the Iron Slaughterman that Laura barely saw it. A second or two had passed before she realised he was battling furiously with a pair of Fomorii, their oily black shapes snapping and changing, claws and spikes and horns tearing through the Iron Slaughterman's defences before they clung onto him, their snapping jaws darting. His arm fell away, and in his frenzy to throw off the Fomorii, he careered to the edge, and over, taking both beasts with him.
As Miller ran to help Veitch, Laura scrambled to the edge, but the Iron Slaughterman had already been lost in the swirling blizzard.
'I hope you were expecting me.'
Laura whirled at the familiar voice. Hunter sauntered up jauntily, Jack creeping out from the top of the stairs behind him. For once, Laura gave in to honest emotion and threw her arms around Hunter, kissing him passionately on the edge of the precipice, oblivious to the drop, the cold, the wind.
'I take it from that greeting that you weren't expecting me,' Hunter said with a grin. Behind him, a soft blue glow rose up as Miller healed Veitch, who was unconscious from the shock of his wound and the blood loss.
'You're always full of surprises,' she said.
'Here's another one: I've got my own giant. He's roaming around in the hall down there. Turns out he can control those shape-shifting things.' His grin was swaggering, but his eyes told of a deeper emotion that made her ache. 'So, did you miss me?' he asked.
'I'm sorry,' she said.
He pulled back, puzzled. 'For what?'
Laura placed her hands firmly on his chest and pushed. For only the briefest moment she had to bear the searing look of betrayal in his face before Hunter went over the edge and was lost to the snowstorm.
'Laura!' His face torn with horror, Miller raced towards her. 'What have you done?'
With a flourish, Laura flicked one of the seeds into the air. Green shoots burst from it, rippling and extending rapidly until they lashed around Miller, holding him fast. Laura grabbed the other end of the vine and yanked him towards her. Aghast, he tried to force out a question that would make sense of her devastating actions, but she elbowed him sharply in the face, and as he reeled in a daze, she propelled him over the edge after Hunter.
Jack and Virginia were rooted and though they struggled briefly, she was too strong and too determined.
Church and Ruth came round as Laura returned from the edge of the terrace. Dazed, they struggled to their feet, not yet noticing who was missing. Laura helped Veitch up, his wound already healed, thanks to Miller. Although still weak, the Pendragon Spirit would soon have him back to full strength.
'Church, it's terrible,' Laura said when she saw the questions start to surface in his face. 'That bastard with the sword…' She choked back a sob. 'He killed Hunter. And… and he took Miller, Jack and Virginia over the edge with him.' Tears streamed down her face.
The others stared in abject shock until Ruth stepped forwards to comfort Laura with a hug.
'Hunter? Shit.' Veitch looked to Church, who already understood the implications.
'Not just Hunter. We've lost the Two Keys, and our way into the Enemy Fortress,' Church said. 'It's all over.'
In the timeless Grim Lands, only seconds had passed. Mallory and Caitlin watched as the flamboyant Callow did a little jig on top of the tomb.
'You've got a lot of energy for a dead man,' Mallory said.
'Ah, but then I am not like others you will find in this dismal place. When I walked the world, I was filled with more life than any of the grey, workaday drudges I encountered on their morose treks into the coffin they called the office. I drank deeply of the heady cup of life! I imbibed all there was to offer. And more!'
Mallory and Caitlin exchanged a glance, but if Callow noticed, he didn't appear to care.
'And then it was all so cruelly snatched away!' Callow added.
'I'm betting one or two others here would say the same thing,' Mallory said.
'No! I was not meant to die. It was an error of cosmic proportions. And if proof you need, it is the simple fact that I am still here.'
Caitlin eyed him curiously. 'What do you mean?'
'I am not allowed to continue. The Grey Lands is simply a waiting room. The vast majority of shades you find here are in the process of moving on. To where, I do not know. Heaven? Hell? Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Perhaps back into the innocent foetus, with all the possibilities once again lying ahead, to do right, or wrong, learn, or not, and find their way… where? Back here!'
Mallory began to grow weary of Callow's chatter and prepared to head off. Callow instantly read the signs and leaped in front of him.
'Some of the shades get trapped here, true, for reasons I have not yet discerned. But you can tell their type instantly. Consumed by bitterness, infected with despair, none of them exhibit the joy you see here in my humble form. No, I am a true anomaly — neither dead nor alive. Caught in a web not of my own making, and no one prepared to throw up their arms and admit to their mistake.'
'We can't waste time here,' Caitlin said with irritation.
'Take me with you!' Callow pleaded, grabbing hold of Mallory's jacket.
Prising him off, Mallory said, 'Nice story, but I'm pretty sure you're meant to be here, and I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of whoever sets the rules in this place.'
'Please!' Callow started to cry. 'You don't know what it's like here!'
'Mallory,' Caitlin pressed. When she held up the Wayfinder to examine the direction of the blue flame, Callow stopped crying instantly and his eyes narrowed.
Mallory noticed the sudden change in his demeanour and asked, 'What's wrong?'
'That lantern. I have seen it before. In the possession of my very good friends.' Callow slyly watched Mallory's interest grow. 'The remarkable, the astonishing Jack Churchill. And Ruth Gallagher. And the lovely Laura. Shavi. And the other one.'
'You know Church and the others?' Caitlin asked.
'We were travelling partners for a time, during that age of upheaval, that Age of Misrule. Oh, how they mourned my passing! Oh, how they would celebrate joyously if I returned to the land of the quick!'
The resonant creak of the cemetery gate echoed through the mist. Callow started, and ran to the edge of a mausoleum to peer uneasily into the grey, where he plucked at the fraying sleeve of his jacket. Mallory and Caitlin left him there and tried to pick a path through the cluttered mass of monuments to the dead, but within a moment he had joined them again.
'Let me guide you,' he said. 'You'll never find your way through this sprawling city of the departed without my help. There are many hidden dangers, and sometimes a slight detour could save you a limb or a life. You really would not want to be permanent residents here.'
From behind them came the dull sound of something dry and scratchy being drawn across stone. 'Who's there?' Mallory asked.
'I saw no one. I would not expect the dead to be passing through here at this time; unless, of course, they have learned of your arrival. Then it would be a time to beware. They are jealous of the living, and their bitterness drives them to extremes. And unpleasantness.'
'Bring him along,' Caitlin said. 'It won't hurt.'
'All right. But any sign of deceit and you'll wish you'd stayed in your tomb,' Mallory said bluntly. 'And don't get any ideas about coming back with us. This is a short-term deal through this God-forsaken place.'
'Of course, of course,' Callow said slyly, 'but once we are firm friends on the road of life… or death… who knows?'
'I know,' Mallory said firmly. 'Move.'
With a bow, Callow swung one arm out flamboyantly to guide them on their way. They were soon lost amongst the mausoleums and grave markers and leaning, ivy-covered statues, and though Callow whistled jauntily a few yards ahead of them, they were left uneasy by the constant morbidity of their surroundings.
'Is this what death is,' Caitlin asked, 'one never-changing bleak landscape that goes on for ever?' Hugging her arms around her, she fought off the creeping desolation imposed by their surroundings.
'Don't start asking me about the afterlife,' Mallory said. 'I never used to think there was one. For me, life itself was enough of a purgatory.'
'I didn't use to think that. I was arrogant. Everything was just a big sweet-store where I could pick and choose until I grew fat. Then life slaps you around the face and shows you what it's really like.' He caught himself. 'Now I sound like a pathetic, self-pitying loser. I don't really believe that. There's a lot of good. It's just that once you've experienced the worst there is, it's impossible to see the world in that totally innocent way any more.'
'But we still have hope, don't we? That's what keeps us going. It would have been so easy to give in when Grant and Liam died, but if I had I'd never have met you.' It was Caitlin's turn to catch herself, afraid she'd said too much. She added hastily, 'What happened to you?'
'In my arrogance, I attracted the attention of a particularly nasty bunch of people. I thought I could control them, beat them, until I realised there are people in this world who are capable of harder, more terrible things than you can ever dream, and if you come up against them, you can't match them. You always lose. They gave me a choice that no person should ever have to make. I killed someone, and it destroyed me. I couldn't live with it. And then I tried to kill myself.' He paused. 'I did kill myself. Don't ask me how I ended up here. Maybe there are just a whole load of successive lives. You die in one, you get bumped up to the next.'
'But there's a reason you came here,' Caitlin pressed. 'If you hadn't killed yourself, you wouldn't have been here to try to save this world and we'd have lost long ago. Out of that awful thing, something good is happening.'
'It'd be nice to believe that.' Mallory clearly did not believe. 'But it still sounds naive to me.'
'It's like Shavi kept saying — the pattern, the hidden pattern,' she said. 'It's all too complex, so everything seems random and punctuated with all these bleak, horrible events, but the big picture… it could be something beyond our dreams.'
'I can see the pattern here. You've been sent to make sure I don't turn into a miserable, grumpy old git that the children throw stones at in the street.'
'It's mutual, Mallory.'
With a sudden urgency, he caught her arm. 'There's someone here.' He tried to pinpoint the direction of the noise he had heard, but with the deadened sound of the cemetery, it was impossible. Oblivious, Callow punctuated his progress with bursts of whistling.
Caitlin became darker, her posture more aggressive. The Morrigan drew forwards.
A faint rasp away to his left. Mallory turned, sword drawn, but there was nothing to see. Then a whisper of movement ahead, just beyond the visibility the mist allowed him.
Circling, he thought. Looking for an opening.
Though they were both on their guard, neither were prepared for the silent figure rising up beside a tomb they had just passed. The Hortha gripped Caitlin across the mouth with a twisted blackthorn hand, spun her around and extended the index finger of its right hand to drive it between her eyes and into her brain.
With a muffled snarl, Caitlin drove her axe down into the Hortha's thigh. Dry blackthorn shattered as the blade almost severed the limb. As the Hortha lurched to one side, his attack was thrown off-balance, and the finger-spear tore open the flesh along the side of her temple.
Wriggling free, Caitlin flipped back to land on her feet, axe ready to attack, pausing only to watch with disgust as the Hortha raised its finger to drop a minute amount of her blood into its paper mouth.
The axe crashed into the Hortha's torso, but as soon as Caitlin withdrew it, the blackthorn was already growing back into place with a snap and a pop.
'I taste your thoughts,' it said. 'There is nowhere to run now.'
Caitlin and Mallory attacked together, but the Hortha evaded them with a speed that made it a blur. It used the folding mist to hide itself before coming at them rapidly from another direction. They cut off chunks here and there, a hand, half a leg, but it regrew just as quickly, and their sense of futility mounted with their unease.
Hailing them from the cover of a mausoleum, Callow beckoned frantically. Mallory signalled to Caitlin with his eyes, and when the Hortha withdrew into the mist, they both ran.
'We're just wasting our time,' Mallory said breathlessly as they moved away through the cemetery. 'We're never going to stop him like that.'
'How did he follow us here from the temple?' Caitlin said. 'We left no trail.'
'No time for that now,' Callow said. 'The great Lord gave us brains to use in situations like this. Brute strength is all well and good, but it pales behind the advantages of the grey matter, used well and wisely.'
He led them on a fast, winding path through the grave markers until he came to a mausoleum that had been marked with a red cross on the door.
'What's so special about this one?' Mallory asked.
'These are all houses of the dead,' Callow replied, 'but some are home to worse things than the dearly departed. Once I open the door, venture no further than the light reaches into the dark. Stand on either side of the door, and when your friend enters, emerge victorious!'
At first Mallory wasn't convinced, but when he read the repressed fear in Callow's face as he wrenched the stone door open, he stepped in with Caitlin right behind.
Callow had been right. The light died unnaturally quickly and sound was deadened close to the source. Beyond the few inches of grey illumination around the doorway, the darkness swam like oil. It had dimension, and texture, and gave off a quality that made them feel dread.
As they stood on either side of the door looking into the dark, their skin prickled and they had the unmistakable sense of something looking back at them. Their fears were confirmed when a faint voice whispered, 'Closer.' There was nothing inherently threatening in the tone, but it chilled them nonetheless.
The Hortha was in the mausoleum before they realised, moving low like an animal, rapidly searching the dark depths. Caitlin planted her axe in its back to disable it while they both darted out. Callow slammed the door shut the moment they were in the light.
The sounds that emanated from the mausoleum were chilling: a high-pitched shriek, a frantic rustling, something crashing from wall to wall and a wild thrashing noise. Then an unnerving silence.
Callow gave a deep bow. 'No more will your enemy trouble you.'
'What was in there?' Caitlin asked.
Callow blanched and held up a hand. 'Speak of the devil and he will appear. In some aphorisms, there is a deeper truth. Trust the wisdom I have learned in hedgerow, field and forest: there are times when it is best to speak, and times when silence must rule. Shall we?' He swept an arm to guide their way. 'And, perhaps, a word of thanks?'
Caitlin, who had once again lost the dark sheen of the Morrigan, said with a smile, 'Thank you, Mr Callow, you were a great help.'
'And I intend to carry on in that manner. Indeed, it is my hope to make myself indispensable to you, my travelling companions. Oh, the joys of being part of a band once more! Let us walk on and not look back!'
But Mallory couldn't resist one final glance at the silent mausoleum, and at the others that lay all around, and wondered what other threats lay hidden in the mist.
The blizzard continued to tear its bitter path between the mountain peaks as Laura became the final surviving member of their band to make the precarious journey from the last section of the shattered bridge to the terrace that lay before the Groghaan Gate. The mood was desperate. Church, Veitch, Ruth and Shavi stared into the middle distance, while Tom sat in a nook in the rocks, smoking.
Veitch extended a hand to help Laura up onto the terrace. 'I know we've given each other a hard time,' he said awkwardly, 'but you saved us here. And I wanted to say, you know, thanks.'
'All right, tattoo-boy — don't get all misty on me. Just doing my job.'
They exchanged a moment of silent communication before Shavi came over. 'I am concerned about Church,' he whispered. 'The loss of the Two Keys, Virginia and Hunter has hit him hard.' He glanced back at Church, who had one hand on his forehead, deep in thought. 'I am afraid that despair might be setting in. He fears the mission is already lost. And-'
'And you're worried this might be the point when he stops being Church and starts becoming the Libertarian,' Veitch continued.
'That's awful,' Laura said. 'I mean, if one thing had to tip him over the edge, it would be this, right? But still… God.' She looked away, chewing a lip.
'I'll keep an eye on him,' Veitch said, 'and if I see anything dodgy…' He steeled himself. 'I'll do what I have to do.'
Hugging her arms around her for warmth, Ruth called them over. 'We can't stand around here talking — we'll freeze to death.'
'Mate, you want to carry on?' Veitch said to Church.
Church inspected the Groghaan Gate arching up at least twenty feet above their heads, the top lost in the snowstorm. It was constructed of some unknown material that sparkled like the sun, and from it came a feeling of electricity. 'What else can we do? Go back and die? Go on and die?'
Behind him, Shavi, Veitch and Laura looked at each other uneasily.
Church reached out to the shimmering arch, his fingers tingling as they brushed the warm surface. 'This is marvellous. The Drakusa must have passed through here every day, between Winter-side and Summer-side. Such an amazing thing to do, moving between worlds. They must have thought they owned everything. Kings of the world. And now they're gone.' He turned back to the others defiantly. 'We might not be able to win, but that doesn't mean we give up. We're going to make life a misery for the Enemy. We're going to show it what it means to stand for Existence. What it means to have the Pendragon Spirit. What it means to be a Fragile Creature. We're going to tear the whole damned thing down. From this point on, this is a suicide mission. As long as we know that, we're not going to be disappointed how it turns out.'
The others nodded without a moment's thought.
'No happy endings,' he said, before turning back to the gate. 'Let's go.' He stepped through the arch and with a shimmer he was gone.
In the blistering morning sun, the sands beyond the jungle's edge shimmered in a heat haze that gave an illusory quality to the rolling, golden world. From the shade of a canopy on the terrace, Church watched the barrens, deep in thought, smelling the dry desert wind as he sipped the hot, spicy drink brought to him by the scaled cafe owner.
Through the haze, the figure of the Burning Man glowed like coals in smoke, still there, always there, but closer now, looming so large Church was convinced he would soon be able to feel the heat.
From the moment they had stepped through the Groghaan Gate, the journey had been hard, but at least the exhaustion and the strife had left little space for black thoughts. The Halls of the Drakusa on Summer-side had been reclaimed by the landscape an age ago. They rested beneath a grassy mound in the northlands beyond the foothills of the mountains, a few crumbling stones all that remained on the surface to mark the glory of the once-mighty Drakusa, and even they were so weathered that they were easily mistaken for an outcropping of natural rock.
They spent an hour in the halls mourning their dead. Though she tried to hide it behind her flinty exterior, Laura's devastation at the loss of Hunter was clear, and she had to be persuaded by all to continue, in Hunter's name. Never once did she cry, though for a while she disappeared into an antechamber to be alone with her emotions; she sat silently in the centre of the room, her head bowed, her features hidden.
All of them felt grief for the deaths of Miller, Jack and Virginia, far beyond what their loss meant for the mission. The others were surprised to see that even Veitch was touched, particularly by the passing of Miller, whom he considered a friend, he said, even though he had never expressed it. At the end of the hour, their hearts were still heavy, but they found the strength to go on.
Following the deep, lush river valleys that offered dense tree-cover and deep shadow, they moved steadily north, across the stinking, haunted marshlands where the insects were bigger than fists and carried a poisonous punch that could paralyse and kill; into the tropical jungle where the night was filled with drums and the howls of hunting beasts. They avoided the mysterious tribes who worshipped brutish idols and came and went from the dense interior like ghosts, just as they had avoided the war-bands of the Enemy that roamed across every part of the land, harrying and slaughtering. After the death of the Iron Slaughterman, they knew Janus would have despatched others with the specific task of tracking them down and destroying them, and on one occasion they had seen something terrible silhouetted against the moon on a ridge, but nothing had located them. It was only a matter of time.
And finally they had come to the Court of Endless Horizons, abandoned by the Tuatha De Danaan as they raced towards sanctuary at the Court of the Soaring Spirit. Now it was filled with hundreds of thousands of refugees from every part of the Far Lands, dwarfish mountain-dwellers and the willowy, silver-eyed hunters of the western plains, the lizard-skinned people from the river deltas, and other, stranger beings that rarely ventured from the shadows. All swarmed on the streets, or crammed into buildings in the sweltering heat, race upon race sharing the same space, begging for food, sweating, fighting, haggling for transport or the promise of safe passage; all of them united by their fear of an Enemy that was alien to them in every aspect, a threat that exhibited no compassion, not even the slightest empathy, who could not be cajoled, or pleaded with, or flattered; who slaughtered with a devastating dispassion. Even in the Far Lands with its extremes of emotion and distorted motivations, this was an anomaly.
The city itself was a gleaming monument to the glory of the Tuatha De Danaan. Soaring towers of brass and gold reached far above the steaming jungle that surrounded it on three sides, kept at bay by walls of beaten copper and steel, a sculpture of grace and beauty in the heart of a primal setting. A sleek futurism in the materials and design of the buildings was set against an almost medieval confusion of tiny, twisting streets and alleys leading off the broad, leafy main thoroughfares, yet somehow the incongruity worked. The quarter nearest the gate through which they had entered was still rich with the scents of the spices that used to be stored in the warehouses along the wall, and the heavy, ornate incense-burners that swung from the lamps along the streets suggested the entire court would once have been filled with beautiful aromas.
In its time, it must have been a breathtaking place, Church guessed; now it stank and seethed, filled with the hollow hopes of desperate people who knew death was always a step or two away.
After struggling to live off the land for so many weeks, they thought they would have even more trouble obtaining food in the overpopulated city, but they encountered enough people who were aware of the growing legend of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons to guide them to a place of shelter. Veitch was stunned that their reputation could earn them free food and drink in the rooftop cafe when so many were starving, everything they required given freely, and without obligation.
Irritable in the heat, Tom joined Church and was instantly presented with a cup of the hot, spicy drink. The waitress, a tall, willowy woman with a forked snake-tongue, bowed. 'True Thomas,' she lisped. 'Your presence here is recognised and welcomed.'
Tom nodded grumpily. 'It grates on me to be treated like an elite,' he said when the waitress had gone. 'All those people out there suffering and we get free drinks.'
'It makes them happy,' Church replied. 'They believe in us, and want to hope that we can make things better for them. If that's the least we can do, then it's something. Everyone deserves a little hope to make them happier.'
Tom snorted. 'Hope is meaningless if there's no chance of it being effected. Otherwise it's just delusion.' He fixed a cold eye on Church. 'Are you losing hope?'
'I'm not planning the victory party, if that's what you mean. I'm waiting for a sign that there's still some way we can make a difference. The Puck has helped me more than once. Why hasn't he appeared since Winter-side? Because there's nothing we can do?'
'The universe gives you a helping hand when you put some energy into the process yourself, not when you're sitting back hoping something will just turn up.'
'We are doing something. The others are out gathering information about the Enemy, the Fortress — they call it the House of Pain around here. What we need right now is a way into it.'
'And what are you doing?'
The Morvren had gathered on every treetop around the city; often silent, they were now cawing as if filled with an insatiable hunger. Their number had increased rapidly, and Church didn't know if it was because they were breeding, if the possibility of death that attracted them had grown more intense, or if it was symbolic of the level of threat now facing him. From the rooftop, it looked as if a black shroud had been laid across the steaming jungle.
'My mistake,' Tom said, blowing on his drink. 'I thought you were doing nothing.'
'Why hasn't the Libertarian been hounding us?' Church asked.
'We have been a little elusive.'
'He's me. He must know what I've done, where I've been. So why doesn't he just turn up out of the blue, slit everyone's throats, dump me in a cell and be done with it?'
'Time and memory are slippery things,' Tom began edgily. 'We can't trust ourselves. We never quite remember things how they actually were. And time itself is not fixed, you know that. On every occasion you go back, something subtle alters. It might not be enough to change the big events ranged through history like tent-poles supporting the whole damn canvas of everything. Or it might. The Libertarian has to be extremely cautious. He won't want to risk doing anything that might stop him coming into being, so that he winks out like a star at dawn.'
'It makes my head hurt thinking about it,' Church grumbled.
'That's because you see things in a linear way, and in terms of simple cause and effect. I've lived with my ragged view of the future for a long time, and I can tell you that nothing is clear, everything shifts and changes like the grains of sand on the beach, and you can never predict which way one will go.'
'He must think like me, so I've been trying to put myself in his head,' Church continued. 'What does he want? For me to change and become him, I presume. If I don't, he doesn't get to exist. You're right — this whole screwed-up timeline thing is a mess, but if the Libertarian is still around, then what lies ahead guarantees I become him. Things are panning out just as they should, from the Libertarian's point of view, like clockwork. But he's not going to take any chance that I might change events, or that the Puck might push me down another path or something, so he's going to keep manipulating me into situations that will make me become him. Basically, if he's not around, things are going badly. If he is, there's a chance I might be able to put things right.'
'I don't think it's wholly wise to put yourself into the Libertarian's thought processes. That alone may be leading you towards that destiny.'
Church sipped his hot drink thoughtfully. 'Another thing: the Blue Fire exists all over our world, if you look closely enough. It's here in the Far Lands, certainly, but not to the same degree. And why isn't this place swarming with Fabulous Beasts? You'd have thought of all places, here would be their true home, where they'd thrive.'
A hint of a smile flickered on Tom's lips before he wiped it away. 'Yes, I wonder why that is.'
'I suppose you're not going to tell me.'
'Where would be the fun in that? Especially when you're doing so well with your thinking,' Tom added caustically.
'When did things become so difficult?' Church asked after a moment's reflection. 'It used to be so easy, in our world, with the Blue Fire everywhere. Seeing the magic in the world. The choices were clear.'
Tom's brief glance revealed an unusual hint of tenderness. 'If the choices are clear they are usually false choices. Life is muddy and complex, without any easy answers.'
'But these days I'm not even sure we're on the right side. I don't know what I'm fighting for any more. I don't know why I'm having to make all these sacrifices.'
'You've been on the road a long time. You're weary-'
'It's beyond that. What if the Libertarian is right? People aren't in the world for long. They just want a little security, a few home comforts, time to spend with their loved ones. Is that so bad? All I want is some time with Ruth, to enjoy what we have. Why should I give that up to keep fighting for something I don't understand any more?'
Tom made to speak, then caught himself, his expression registering a deep concern. Church was distracted by the sight of the Morvren suddenly taking wing as one, a black cloud that blocked out the sun and cast the whole city into shade.
What's disturbed them? he wondered.
The crowd smelled of lime and vinegar and allspice, woodsmoke, bitumen and sulphur, and the hot odour that came off skin on a summer's day. From a feverish dream or a nightmare drawn from nursery storybooks, the inhabitants of the court came in a vast wave, sweeping in eddies around obstacles, fallen bodies, sleeping beasts, surging off each other, too-fast, too-slow, with everywhere and nowhere to go. It was impossible to see more than a couple of feet on any side. Some begged for food, or board, or information, others ran with the hope of a destination or fled some unrevealed threat, fear burning in their faces. Some had murder in their eyes, or the sly desire to make gain from misfortune.
'Jesus Christ, this is worse than Oxford Street just before Christmas,' Veitch complained as he and Shavi pushed through the throng. Overhead, people hung from windows, two or three crammed into the gap, wailing or yelling to people across the way. The din made his ears hurt.
'You can almost smell the desperation. These beings have known nothing but always-summer, and now they sense the twilight coming in.'
'There you go again, feeling sorry for a bunch of people you don't know.' Veitch roughly thrust aside a man rippling with rolls of fat, his clothes sodden with sweat. 'I've missed you. You're my conscience.'
'And I have missed you, my friend. More than you might know. We were all bereft when we thought you dead after the Battle of London, but I felt as if I had truly lost a brother. A brother more than the brothers of my own family, who disowned me when I failed to follow their path.'
'Don't go getting sentimental on me. I can't be doing with that… Hey, what the bleedin' hell's that?'
Veitch pushed through the dense flow to one side where a puppeteer was performing a show in the shade of an inn. He was at least eight feet tall, with long, black robes that Veitch presumed obscured his stilts, and he wore a white mask with a curving nose like a bird's beak. He looked like the wall painting in the Halls of the Drakusa. But it was the dancing puppets that caught Veitch's eye: they resembled Church, Shavi, Ruth, Laura and himself. The Church and Ruth puppets were hugging, while the Veitch one stood off to one side, holding a sword, before turning to attack. Veitch experienced a brief burst of anger moderated by the knowledge that he was surely imagining the resemblances. He took one step towards the puppet-master, and was sent flying by a woman weaving frantically through the crowd.
Cursing underneath the figure sprawling on top of him, Veitch was shocked to see she was human, wearing modern clothes, and gripped by such terror that her eyes barely saw him.
'Calm down.' He caught her shoulders as she prepared to throw herself off him to run again. 'Where the hell did you come from?'
His words cut through her fear and she gradually focused on him. 'You're from Earth? Oh God, oh God, what's happening to me? Where is this place?' Sobbing fitfully, she collapsed into him.
Veitch helped her to her feet. After her fugue, she was now shaking uncontrollably. Awkwardly, Veitch tried to calm her. 'I'm Ryan. What's your name?'
'R-R-Rachel,' she stuttered. 'Something was chasing me! Making me come this way. I–I remember… a grin, like it couldn't decide if it wanted to eat me up or kiss me… and those eyes… and… and…' The memory slipped from her and she shook her head in frustration.
'How did you get here?'
Before she could answer, a column of smoke soared up above the rooftops accompanied by a boom that echoed off the metallic walls. Sizzling, coloured lights arced out from the direction of the explosion.
The crowd responded with panic, and in the melee Veitch and Rachel were torn apart. Already forgetting her, Veitch fought his way to Shavi and said, 'Let's get back to Church till we know what's going on.'
'No. If we can help, we should.'
Veitch set his jaw. 'I bloody hate you, Shavi.'
When the blast happened, Ruth and Laura had been quietly questioning the occupants of one of the overcrowded inns, but few had any knowledge of the Enemy Fortress itself, and those that did were too afraid to discuss it. Only one street away, the explosion shook the building so furiously that tankards flew from tables, spilling ale and wine across the sawdust-covered boards. Fearing the worst, the anxious drinkers flooded from the inn into the screaming mob outside, leaving Ruth and Laura to edge through one of the vermin-infested alleys to find a view of the blast site.
'I can do the reconnaissance,' Ruth suggested. 'Why don't you head back?'
'You don't have to keep treating me like I'm a baby,' Laura responded with undue harshness. 'Hunter's gone. I'm dealing with it. I'm not going to collapse in tears at the first sign of trouble.'
'Sorry for thinking of you.' Ruth bristled.
At the end of the alley, rubble and twisted metal were strewn across the street along with the bodies of several passers-by caught in the blast. Flickers of flame and thick, acrid smoke rose up from the ruins of a demolished building.
As the smoke shifted, they caught glimpses of a giant figure strapped to an X-frame in the wreckage of the building.
'He couldn't have been there before,' Ruth said. 'There'd be nothing left of him. He must have been brought in after the explosion. Why?'
'Maybe it's his place, and someone wants to make an example of him,' Laura replied. 'You know, like tar-and-feathering. He probably sold some gangster a knock-off watch.'
The shifting smoke revealed wild black hair and a beard. Ruth's tart response to Laura died in her throat. 'I know him! I saw him, back in London, when the Void had me living that fake life. He's the one Mallory said gave him the lantern… the Caretaker.'
'What's he doing here? And… who did that to him?'
As the smoke finally cleared, the extent of the Caretaker's plight was revealed. Wounds gaped on his arms, his head sagged and more ragged cuts marred what skin was visible on his face. Jagged twists of barbed wire held his wrists and legs to the X-frame, and another had been fastened around his neck.
'Poor man!' Ruth said. 'It looks like he's been tortured.'
'He's not a man, is he, though?' Laura replied. 'He's… something else.'
'That doesn't mean he can't feel pain.' Ruth brushed away a stray tear. 'We have to help him. He's going to die there.'
Wrenching his head back painfully, the Caretaker said in a booming voice that would have carried three streets away, 'Brothers and Sisters of Dragons! If you can hear me, stay away! My time here is nearly done, and there is nothing you can do to aid me!'
'Did he hear me?' Ruth whispered, before realising, 'The Enemy must be nearby. He's saying it so loudly so they won't realise how close we are.'
The Caretaker sucked in a juddering breath of air. 'The Enemy knows you are here,' he continued. 'They wish to draw you out. You will not be allowed to get any closer to your destination. They fear you, Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. They fear the power that burns in your hearts.'
Ruth began to cry silently at the Caretaker's suffering. 'He needs our help,' she said desperately. 'We can't just leave him to die.'
'You must forget me,' he continued. 'The Oldest Things in the Land have attempted to help you as best we could during your long struggle. But that aid may well be coming to an end. We face our own battles, with our own kind, and now, as the great plans fragment on both sides, only chaos beckons. The outcome is uncertain.' Wincing, he took another deep breath. 'Your lessons are not yet complete, but this desperate time has brought the teaching to an end. We must all hope that you have learned enough to defeat the Enemy.' He paused, then repeated wearily, 'The outcome is uncertain.'
'You think we should risk it?' Laura asked. 'Whip out there quick, drag him down and bring him back? We might be able to get away with it.'
'We have to listen to him,' Ruth said dismally. 'He's right — there's too much at stake.'
A deep shadow fell across the ruined building, though the source was not visible from Ruth and Laura's vantage point. As they craned to see, a noise behind them alerted them to the approach of Veitch and Shavi.
'The lights are going out all across the lands,' the Caretaker intoned, 'and I will no longer be there to keep the last lamp lit.' His eyes flickered, and his head slumped forwards onto his chest.
As Ruth stifled a cry, Veitch put his arms around her to comfort her. 'If even they're dying…' he began, before catching himself.
An intense blue light burned where the Caretaker had hung from the X-frame, and when it finally cleared his body had gone.
The deep shadow remained, however, and grew stronger. Across the rooftops, something feline darted, its shape altering as it moved into an almost-human form. A mirror glinted in its hand. As they tried to perceive what it truly was, darkness folded around it and briefly blocked out the sun. Cold fingers of dread touched them all.
'I do not think it wise to stay here any longer,' Shavi said.
Although none of them knew the Caretaker, they all felt a deep grief at his death. Instinctively, they recognised that something good had passed and the universe was a worse place for it.
For a long hour, they had sat in a shady spot on the cafe terrace where they could not be seen by the other clientele, drinking cups of the hot, spicy drink and trying to make sense of what had just occurred. Ahead of them, the setting sun turned the desert the colour of blood.
'This is a right bleedin' mess. You don't know who to trust,' Veitch said.
Laura fixed a knowing eye on him. 'Very true.'
Veitch glared at her.
'I can't believe the Caretaker's dead.' Ruth's knuckles were white on her spear. 'Something so powerful, destroyed by the Enemy.'
'Janus is one of the Oldest Things in the Land,' Tom reminded her, 'and he has joined the Void.'
'So… what? This is a civil war?' Laura said.
'Could be.' As Church listened to the soaring dusk song of one of the many sects now occupying the city, he remembered a similar moment in Cairo, sitting on the edge of mystery in a hot, sprawling city, looking into the night and wondering what the future held for them. Would there ever be a chance for rest, or was this as good as it got — a brief interlude in the chaos of life before it wound down to failure and death? 'The Caretaker said the Enemy knew we were here. How?' He looked around the group carefully.
'The most obvious answer would be that someone told them,' Tom said.
Veitch sneered. 'You're saying one of us? Nah.'
'You would say that,' Laura said.
Church saw Veitch bristle and stepped in quickly. 'I'm not saying anything, except it's something we need to keep at the back of our minds.'
'That we can't trust one of us?' Veitch continued, growing more incensed. 'That defeats the whole point of the Five. A team, all together when it's backs-to-the-wall time.'
'That didn't stop you when you sold us out first time around,' Laura said.
'That wasn't me!'
'Will you two stop it?' Ruth snapped. 'Don't you get it? The Enemy knows we're here — they're not going to sit back, they're going to come looking for us… with something powerful enough to kill the Caretaker.'
Accepting the magnitude of Ruth's words, Veitch and Laura fell silent.
'So, should we leave the city tonight?' Shavi asked.
'And go where?' Church said. 'We came here to try to find a way into the House of Pain. We shouldn't leave till we've got the information we need. And it's a big, crowded city — the Enemy's going to take some time to find us. If we're smart.'
'I agree with Church,' Tom said.
'You don't get a vote, old man.' Laura swung one booted foot onto the table and stretched out, hands behind her head. The others remained tense.
Veitch sat up sharply, remembering. 'I forgot… I met a girl.'
'Did you hold hands and skip?' Laura asked.
'A girl from Earth.'
'You're sure?' Church asked.
'Looked like she'd just arrived. She was in a right panic. Being chased by something, she said.'
'Impossible,' Tom snorted. 'You know all the gateways to the Fixed Lands were closed by the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders.'
'She just got here, I tell you.'
Church thought for a moment, trying to contain his mounting excitement. 'That means there's another path back to Earth that we don't know about. We can go home.'
Ruth couldn't hide her concern. 'You're thinking about running away?'
His mind racing, Church ignored her, and the uneasiness the others were starting to exhibit. 'Drop everything else and turn this city upside down. We need to find that woman.'
The song of the cult reached a crescendo as darkness fell across the overcrowded city, stinking of sweat and misery and desperation, and filled with voices that never stopped. But with the fading of the light a new degree of misery was added. From the shadows, where nothing had been, shapes moved out into the population. No one saw them pass, but they felt them in their hearts, and the fear began to rise.
'Stand firm!' Decebalus bellowed as the Army of Dragons faced into a ferocious wind beneath a darkening sky. Amongst the roiling black clouds, the Riot-Beasts advanced, their eyes roving insanely. Bolts of lightning crashed randomly from them to sear the green plain.
'Sir. How are we supposed to get a bead on those things, if you don't mind me asking, sir?' Ronnie shouted above the gale. He'd polished the buttons of his army uniform ready for the battle and now wore the tin hat that had seen activity in Flanders.
'The Enemy hope to break our ranks with their war engines. They do not yet realise what weapons we wield, and neither do you. Watch.'
Decebalus raised his eyes to the heavens, ignoring the heavy rain. Despite numbering almost a hundred and fifty, the Army of Dragons was a small knot of resistance compared to the seemingly never-ending ranks of the Enemy. The Dacian barbarian was proud of his troops, huddled together in the face of such overwhelming opposition. They came from more civilised times than he knew, and he had feared their softness of muscle would hamper them in the coming struggle, but they had shown a deeper seam of hardness than he could ever have hoped. Warriors, tacticians, mystics and magicians, they were individuals with a group mind and a spirit that could never be broken. In their eyes, he could see their fear, but still they stood firm. Heroes, he thought. No wonder the Devourer of All Things was afraid of what they could achieve.
Under the clouds, the day became like night. Forty feet away, a bolt of lightning raised a shower of burned earth, and although he could feel its heat, he did not flinch. Instead, he started to laugh heartily, celebrating the storm.
'Pardon me, sir,' Ronnie said, 'but the boys and girls will probably think you've gone mad. Madder.'
'Let them! Mad, yes! Mad with joy at the horror the Enemy will feel when they see how they have underestimated us! See!'
As if on cue, the glamour disappeared and the ranks of the gods were revealed. All around the small clump of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, like a sunlit mirror at the heart of the storm, the powerful beings dazzled their mortal comrades.
'Crikey!' Ronnie exclaimed. 'Is that why you wouldn't let us see them before?'
'The gods exist to make mortals mad,' Decebalus replied. 'The less you have to do with them, the better it is for you.'
Two gleaming figures ran from the ranks at speed, arching their backs as they threw themselves into a glide just above the ground before soaring up on the air currents. One appeared to Ronnie to be flipping back and forth between two forms: a man with an ornate gold helmet and a coiled beast that appeared simultaneously to be bird, serpent and something constructed of lush foliage.
'That one goes by the name of Quetzalcoatl.' Decebalus rolled his tongue around the syllables as though it had taken him a long time to learn the word. 'All those gods are strange, but he was the strangest of all. Until the last, I could not tell if he even understood me.'
The other figure began to glow like the sun as he flew upwards. His hair was wild, like a beggar's, but he wore golden armour that gave him majesty.
'And that one also hails from the Great Dominion of the southern Americas. His name is Viracocha,' Decebalus continued. 'His melancholy is breathtaking to see. And also irritating. He claims that his tears will wash away the world. But then they all say something like that.'
Caught in the turbulence near the Riot-Beasts, the two gods fought to maintain their stability. Lightning flashed around them as the three monstrous creatures drifted towards the figures they dwarfed.
'They won't stand a chance!' Ronnie said.
When a lightning bolt finally found its way to Viracocha, he lit up like a star. It took Ronnie a second or two to realise that the flash had actually invigorated the god. Sparks fizzed from his fingertips and every follicle of hair until a corona surrounded him. From nowhere, he summoned a micro-weather system. Rain lashed like bullets at the nearest Riot-Beast, and winds buffeted it so it drifted untethered across the plain; and yet still Viracocha burned like a sun, the light growing more intense with each passing moment.
In contrast, Quetzalcoatl swooped like a raptor on a Riot-Beast, raking with claws and beak that came and went every time Ronnie could see him past the glare of Viracocha. Finally, with a sound like shattering glass, the Riot-Beast careered into another before crashing down, those dumb eyes rolling upwards one final time.
Before the creature fell onto the plain, the blazing sun that had been Viracocha threw back its arms and a blast of the purest, hottest light seared the Riot-Beast that had been throwing lightning at him in a ceaseless rain of crackling energy. The light tore through the Beast and continued across the plain to explode in a starburst over the heads of the Enemy, for the first time illuminating their dark ranks. Burning chunks of the Riot-Beast rained down onto the plain, setting the grass ablaze.
'Holy Mary, Mother of God,' Ronnie gasped. 'If we'd only had those at Flanders, sir, the world would be a happier place.'
At an unheard summons, the third Riot-Beast turned and drifted back towards the Enemy lines. Their energies spent, Viracocha and Quetzalcoatl swooped down to the gods, amidst the cheers of the Army of Dragons and a tumultuous welcome from their fellows.
'And that is what two of the gods can achieve,' Decebalus said with a grim smile. 'At our backs we have more than a hundred. The odds have evened considerably.'
On a day hotter than any they had experienced so far, the Court of Endless Horizons reflected a brassy light that made eyes ache and turned the streets into furnaces. The sluggish diaspora sought out the shade of alleys and porches, fanning themselves with the fronds of jungle trees, praying for dusk to fall but dreading it just as much. In the inns and markets, there had been talk of several slayings during the course of the night, beyond the usual bloody results of arguments caused by too many people with too little in too hot a place. Some of the bodies looked as if they had been mauled by a jungle beast; others wore expressions of outright terror frozen into their features at the final moment. Most agreed that something had arrived in the city that would only heap more misery on their suffering.
Aware of the rising tension, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons moved efficiently from group to clump, beggar to prince, quietly asking about the female Fragile Creature who had last been seen racing through the streets in fear.
In the marketplace, amidst the smell of dried fish and charcoal-grilled meat and the din of people haggling for supplies from dawn to twilight, Church and Ruth debated leaving a note on the enormous wooden post where refugees separated from their loved ones tacked pleas for information regarding their whereabouts, or notes for clandestine meetings that were rarely attended.
'We could search this city for weeks and never stumble across this woman,' Ruth said. She was uncomfortable in the heat and wore a white cotton scarf on her head fastened in a Middle Eastern style with a gold band, which served the dual purpose of keeping her cool and obscuring her identity to casual eyes. 'If you really want to find her, we have to make some waves.'
'If we do that, we're going to draw the Enemy straight to us.'
'I don't understand why they haven't just descended on the city in force, anyway, if they know we're here.'
'This has the Libertarian's fingerprints all over it. He has to play a careful game. He can't risk me getting killed, or badly hurt, but he has to stop us doing anything that might change the established pattern.'
'He's not going to be so concerned about killing the rest of us.'
'You know, it's weird how you talk about the Libertarian as if he's a completely different person.'
'He is.' The fleeting disbelief in Ruth's face stung him. 'All right,' he accepted, 'there's a continuity. But something's broken in him, and until I know what it is I can't do anything to prevent it.'
'But you think it's something to do with you and me.'
'In that flash of precognition I had in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Libertarian suggested I threw everything away because of my "pathetic, doomed love".'
'Why would you do that?'
'If you died-'
She rolled her eyes and grabbed his arm tightly. 'Sometimes you need a shaking. All this is bigger than you and me-'
'I'm not so sure it is.'
'It is. Love is a weakness, Church… all right, maybe not a weakness, but a luxury for people like us. We've got a terrifying responsibility. Everybody, literally everybody, is depending on us.' She saw the touch of hurt in his face and softened. 'You know how much I love you. You and me… we were always meant to be together. But we're expected to make sacrifices.'
'That's all we do. Sacrifice our lives, our homes, our friends who die. We deserve something.'
'No, we don't,' she said gently. 'And that's the awful thing. We have to do the job we've been given without the hope of any reward.' She kissed him, and that made her words feel even harsher. 'Everybody says men are tougher than women, but they're not, certainly not when it comes to emotions. Men spend all their lives putting them on one side and when they rear their ugly heads, men can't cope with them. They sting you harder than us. We're used to the pain. We can feel it and put the emotion to one side, get on with the job we've got to do. I'm sorry. I know how this must feel to you. But you've got to listen to me: if I die, you've got to carry on and finish this. If we're torn apart, like we were before, you mustn't give in to despair. All right?'
He gave a convincing nod, but he couldn't tell her his biggest fear: that the failure of their love was a fait accompli. As Ruth searched for the roots of the Libertarian within him, her fears of what he would become would drive her away from him and towards Veitch, thus pushing Church further down the path towards becoming the Libertarian. How could he break that cycle?
'I've seen things inside myself I'm not happy about,' he admitted. 'There's a darkness.'
'There is in all of us.' A shadow crossed Ruth's face.
'That's one of the reasons why I accepted Ryan back so readily. I understand him more now. I'm not sure that's a good thing.'
'We're not pure,' she pressed. 'We're not heroes. We're just trying to do the best we can. It's because we're all friends that we can count on each other to get past our flaws.' She hesitated, then added, 'If people start going off on their own, we're lost. We're Five for a reason — a whole that's bigger and better than the individual parts.'
The market suddenly felt too crowded and too noisy, and Church longed for the intimacy that had been missing since they had left Earth behind; longer; it felt like an age since he and Ruth had been alone in the hotel room in Norway.
But the moment had passed, and Ruth was already moving to question a likely stallholder who was gossiping with every person within feet of his pitch. The explosion hit a second later. Deep in the centre of the sprawling marketplace, a column of black flame sent stalls, produce and bodies hurtling upwards with a boom that would have been heard across the entire city.
Thrown wildly by the blast wave, his head ringing and his hearing momentarily gone, Church was buried beneath a rain of vegetables, jewellery, votive ornaments and the heavy tarpaulin stall covers. His first thoughts were for Ruth and he quickly clawed his way out, only to find her helping badly injured survivors; some had lost limbs, others were so severely burned it was clear they would not last long. But Ruth moved quickly amongst them, helping to staunch the blood, bowing her head and muttering words of her Craft where they would help, offering a simple prayer where nothing would.
Church joined in, but the trickle of victims from the centre of the market had become a torrent, and the latest arrivals were consumed by a more immediate panic, glancing over their shoulders in fear as they staggered away from the blast zone.
Behind them lurched survivors who had been transformed by whatever magic lay within the explosion. The flesh had been ripped from their heads to leave bloodstained skulls, the eyes still intact and roving crazily as they attacked anyone who came near them, snapping and snarling with the ferocity of cornered wolves. One badly wounded man moved too slowly, his throat torn open by the bite of one of the skull-faced pursuers.
As others fell and the panic spiralled out of control, Church rushed to help. Blue Fire sizzled from Caledfwlch as he attacked. He could see there was no hope of the skull-faced victims recovering; indeed, there appeared to be nothing left of their personalities in their insane eyes. They had been turned into weapons and Church had no choice but to meet them head on to save the lives of others.
The primal savagery of the skull-faces slowed him a little, but his athleticism and skill with the sword served him in cutting them down before they could harm anyone else. When the last one had fallen, he ran back to Ruth and pulled her away from the survivors. She resisted, insisting on helping the wounded until Church said forcefully, 'The Enemy did this to draw us out. They'll be here soon, and if we hang around more innocent people are going to get hurt.'
Reluctantly, Ruth allowed him to lead her into the maze of alleys that led away from the market. When they were sure they had put enough space behind them, they rested and allowed themselves to contemplate the horror of the blast.
'They killed and injured all those people to get at us?' Ruth said.
'Come on — are you surprised? They know we're not going to sit back while innocents get hurt, so they'll keep attacking them until we act. And then they've got us.'
'Terror, pure and simple. And if we try to resist, the people will give us up sooner or later. This is the Libertarian, isn't it?'
Church nodded uncomfortably. Ruth wouldn't meet his eye.
'And you're convinced we need to find this woman?'
'So we can run away?'
'Do you really think I want to run away?'
'No,' she replied, unconvincingly. 'It's just hard to see where this is going.'
Another blast punctured the silence that followed her comment, somewhere on the far side of the city. Screams followed, distant but not diminished, followed by the shrill, dismal cries of the Morvren as they took flight, the portents of death they carried with them now inescapable.
On the eastern side of the city, in the shade of the great brass wall, Veitch and Shavi kept their heads down to avoid recognition as they pushed through the crowd. In the stifling heat, the smell was choking: excrement baked in the gutters and the bitter reek of urine mingled with the vinegary sweat that rose from every too-hot body jostling for space in the slow-moving flow. Occasionally, from some darkened space drifted the sour-apples stink of decomposition.
The only breathing space came where people had fallen, overcome by the heat, hunger, thirst or illness, sprawled on the burning cobbles, their chests rising and falling too slow, and slowing. Shavi attempted to help the first three they encountered, but without water or food or medical supplies, there was little he could do; and the simple act of stopping to offer comfort halted other passers-by who wondered if there was a chance of aid. The desperation in their eyes was almost too much to bear. Now Shavi and Veitch stepped over the prone forms like all the other people, but Veitch could see the tears glistening in Shavi's eyes.
As they edged into a narrow street filled with the shops of silversmiths and jewellery-makers, a gang of dirty children in torn clothes and blankets scrambled forwards and began to beg. Some were human in form, though their faces contained the familiar, sly touch of the Far Lands, but others were covered with thick hair, or had golden triple-lidded eyes or facial contusions that could have been natural or caused by malnutrition and the constant filth. Swarming around Shavi and Veitch's legs, they tugged at their clothes, some surreptitiously trying to slip their hands into pockets until Veitch slapped them away.
'Food, please,' one of them said. 'Just a crumb. My mother is dying. A crumb will keep her spark alight for another hour.' It sounded like a line to elicit sympathy, but the savage emotion in his face offered an unbearable proof.
'We haven't got any food,' Veitch said too harshly. 'Clear off and bother someone else.'
'A coin, then. It does not matter what kind. One coin will buy us a day more in the Far Lands.'
'I am sorry,' Shavi said. 'We do not carry money.'
'Don't bleedin' engage them in conversation. We'll never get rid of them,' Veitch said with frustration.
His feelings already rubbed raw by the misery he had witnessed, Shavi was touched by the children's plight. Bending down, he tried to offer words of advice and support, but it only encouraged more children to cluster around, hands grasping the air for any sustenance he might be offering, and that brought the attention of passing adults who kicked at the children and rolled them into the gutters to get first chance at any offerings, the crowd pressing harder and harder so that Veitch and Shavi were trapped at its core.
'From now on, you do nothing until I say so,' Veitch grumbled. 'You're a bloody liability.'
A man who towered a good two feet above everyone else, his barrel chest bare, thrust his way through the cluster with arms so muscular they appeared to be made of wood. He loomed over Veitch and Shavi, peering at them with blinking, piggy eyes.
'It is!' he exclaimed. 'Two Brothers of Dragons!'
'Bleedin' great,' Veitch said, trying to push through the tight knot without much luck.
'Here, here!' the ox-like man announced to the entire street, beckoning wildly. 'We are saved! The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons are here, in the Court of Endless Horizons!'
Veitch's protests only drew more attention. The crowd around them swelled from one side of the street to the other, and the words Brothers of Dragons could be heard rising from awed whispers to jubilant shouts.
A woman in a black headdress with a third eye in the centre of her forehead clutched Shavi passionately. 'Brother of Dragons. You will free us from the yoke of the Enemy. You will deliver us to salvation.'
'You will ensure that the prophecy of these Last Days does not come to pass,' another woman cried.
Veitch was stunned into silence by the sudden ignition of hope he saw in the faces gathered around him. Fingers brushed his clothes with the awe one would reserve for a great leader or a religious figure. Struggling to comprehend, he stared blankly at one outstretched hand wavering before him, and then gently took it. Someone else took his other hand, and within a moment he was forced to reach out and touch hand after hand, shocked by the relief he saw rise up in everyone he graced with a fleeting contact.
'We will do what we can,' Shavi began, to try to curb expectations, but the cries only rose up louder: 'They will help.' 'The Enemy is doomed.' 'We are saved!'
'How do they know about us?' Veitch asked Shavi.
A bearded man in white robes answered. 'We have always known of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, in the oldest stories of the Far Lands, in the tales of all peoples from all places. The champions of Existence who will rise up to become the greatest heroes of all-time, all-place. In the earliest days, they were whispered by mystics, and then told to children for the entertainment of young minds, but few truly believed. And then… oh, wonder of wonders!.. Jack, Giant-Killer, stepped into the Far Lands and began his exploits, and the truth became known, and the legend of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons spread from mouth to mouth.' His voice grew shriller as his passion grew. 'And the tales of other Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in the Fixed Lands reached our ears, and we realised there was hope for us… the great prophecy of the Devourer of All Things could be averted.'
Caught up in his passion, the three-eyed woman continued, 'And so when the shadow of the Enemy began to spread across the Far Lands, we offered up our prayers, and our incantations, and we wished… oh, how we wished… for the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons to be sent to us to help us in our darkest hour. And our calls have been answered. You are here! We are saved!'
Veitch was dragged from the adoration by a glimpse of Shavi's shattered expression. 'All right, we're trying to keep a low profile here!' he shouted. 'This isn't helping.'
But his words were drowned out by the cries, which were growing louder by the moment as more people herded into the street. Soon the commotion would attract more unwanted attention.
Finally, Veitch put his head down and rammed a path through the crowd, no longer caring if he bowled people over. Shavi followed in his wake, the wave closing behind them, attempting to turn in their direction. For a moment, it appeared they would be dragged down, but then Veitch broke through the ranks of those who had recognised them and they were running and dodging back through the flow, not slowing until they were two streets away.
In the shade of a warehouse that smelled of beer, Veitch gripped Shavi's shoulders tightly, desperately wanting to drive away the upset expression on his friend's face.
'Look, mate, so they trust us to do the job, so what?' he said.
'How can we meet those expectations?' Shavi replied. 'Destroy the Devourer of All Things? Change a prophecy of final destruction that has been around since the beginning of time? They are treating us like some kind of messiahs, but we are only human.' He shook his head. 'So much hope invested in us. They offer up their lives to us, to save, because they know they cannot save themselves.'
'Of all of us, I never expected you to give in to despair.'
'I am not giving in to despair,' Shavi said adamantly. 'But I am pragmatic, Ryan. All our plans have failed. The chances of progressing are slim, and even then…' His voice trailed off.
Veitch gave Shavi's shoulders a brief, firm shake. Deep inside he felt something swell, growing stronger, bright with the energy of the Pendragon Spirit; he had never felt its like before, but he knew it was something he had wanted all his life. 'Listen to me — we're going to be the heroes they want us to be. We can't let them down. We don't have the luxury to be soft.' He planted his thumb and forefinger in an L on his forehead. 'To be losers. We've got to be hard, whatever the cost. And we've got to win, not for us, but for them, because that's the job we've been given. All right?'
Shavi smiled, but in his eyes Veitch caught a hint of pity at Veitch's naivety. That only made Veitch more determined, and for the first time he had a clear vision of his own role. Despair was starting to infect all of them, unsurprising given the scale of the threat they faced. It was down to him to stop that despair spreading, to turn them around and show them the right direction. This was where he could finally transcend the person he had been all his life. The swelling emotions grew so strongly, he thought he might burst.
A hubbub rose up from the end of the street and they realised word was spreading rapidly about the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in the city. 'They want us to save them, but they're going to end up getting us killed. That's… what?… irony, right?' he said with a note of pride at his use of the term. 'Come on, let's get out of here before we're hanging from a lamp post.'
With the shouts and cries drawing closer, they hurried down a deserted alley until they came to a secluded inn few would have known was there. The sign above the entrance to the Wolf's Surprise showed a man's face with unmistakable lupine qualities. Out of place amongst the sleek metallic lines, it was a squat building with a corbelled flint wall and small bottle-glass windows that caught flickers of lamplight within, but reflected only darkness. Veitch and Shavi ducked into an atmosphere of ale and smoke, sweat and damp, but the coolness of the interior was inviting. They kept their heads down and averted their eyes until they found an obscure spot at the end of a curving bar.
After a pause to take in the new arrivals, the clientele returned to their drinks, as sullen and dispirited as the crowds filling the streets. A few surveyed Veitch and Shavi as potential opportunities, but the glint in Veitch's eye and the hand on his sword deterred any advance.
Veitch looked around at the array of bizarre figures. 'Used to drink in a boozer in Camberwell just like this,' he muttered. 'Still, better than being out there with all those bombs going off. What do you want?'
'There's an old joke there somewhere.' Veitch grinned. 'God, I've missed winding you up.'
'You have missed trying.'
As Veitch ordered the drinks, the door crashed open and a voice boomed, 'There! I told you. Brothers of Dragons!'
'Not a-bleedin'-gain.' Veitch sighed.
Striding next to the bar was a man wearing furs despite the heat, with a wide-brimmed hat that had seen better days and a string of lizards round his neck. A blunderbuss hung from his belt. Behind him strode a painfully thin, extremely tall man in a dark suit, a huge stovepipe hat threatening to topple from his head, with darting eyes that had a silvery glint.
The hunter clapped a hand on Shavi's shoulder. 'I knew it! Even in the middle of a crowd I can recognise a Brother of Dragons. What do you say, Shadow John?'
Leaning down to examine Shavi and Veitch, the man in the stovepipe hat exclaimed, 'Bless my soul, you're right, Bearskin.' He pumped their hands furiously. 'How very wonderful to meet you both. We had the honour of making the acquaintance of one of your colleagues, young Hal of Oxford. A fine, upstanding fellow in the long tradition of your line. Mallory and Caitlin, too. The legend lives on.'
'All right, all right, nice to meet you and all that. Now clear off. We're actually trying to be incognito,' Veitch said.
'Very wise,' Bearskin noted, ignoring Veitch's urgings. 'This is not a time to be a Brother of Dragons. The Enemy must be hunting and harrying you.'
'We are hunting and harrying the Enemy,' Shavi said.
The clap of Bearskin's arm across Shavi's shoulders almost pitched him into the bar. 'That's the spirit, good Brother!'
Shadow John grew lachrymose. 'This is not a good time to be any living thing. How I regret fleeing the Court of the Soaring Spirit to seek sanctuary in a safer part of the Far Lands.'
'There is no safety anywhere,' Bearskin agreed.
'How I miss the Hunter's Moon.' Deep in maudlin recollection, Shadow John rested his hands on his silver-topped cane, rocking gently from side to side.
'Best inn in all of the Far Lands.'
'I miss that place like the Golden Ones miss their long-lost homeland,' Shadow John cried.
Veitch saw Shavi scrutinising the new arrivals closely and recognised the light of an idea appear in his face. 'You are a hunter?' Shavi said to Bearskin.
Bearskin tapped the edge of his right eye. 'Never miss a thing. I track through the thickest parts of the Forest of the Night, or across the desert out there. I can see a blade of grass move on a hillside on the distant horizon.'
'Then you could perhaps help us locate someone, in the heaving mass of this city? A woman?'
'A Fragile Creature?' Bearskin laughed heartily. 'Fragile Creatures are the easiest to locate. Why, I have tracked them across…' His words dried up when he caught Shadow John's anxious expression. 'Well, enough to say that I could sniff out a Fragile Creature anywhere in this forsaken place.'
As the barman laid a tankard of ale on the bar, Veitch eyed it longingly and sighed. 'Okay, let's go.'
Along the western wall of the city — though directions meant little in the Far Lands where west could become north in the blink of an eye — lay a walled-off garden containing rows of monuments: statues commemorating some great moment from the long history of the Tuatha De Danaan, pyramids and spires of less-obvious meaning, sculptures that contained some unobtrusive element that was alien to the human sense of proportion and which caused an involuntary increase in anxiety and flutter of the heartbeat, gargoyles, beasts, spheres that glowed with an inner light though made of stone, and other, more abstract designs. Some areas of the garden would have been a peaceful oasis in the crowded city, with works of great beauty dappled by the sun through a canvas of willow or yew. Tropical plants with long, spiky leaves grew here and there, some sporting strong, sweetly perfumed pink flowers, and stone benches were placed intermittently in the cool shade along the gravelled paths.
Laura scrambled over the spike-topped wall only to discover that she was not the first to gain access. Several men, women and children had managed to haul themselves in, hoping to find a cool refuge from the seething madness of the city. They had all died where they sat, huddled in blankets against the chill of the night, or fiercely protecting a morsel of food with a knife. Under the shade of one tree, a mother and two children lay as if asleep, their faces peaceful, no marks on their bodies.
Laura was not deterred by this macabre sight. She gave the bodies a cursory glance as she crunched along the path, her well-honed ability not to accept anything with which she did not agree coming into play; her ego defined her world-view specifically, a pleasant place that was always Laura-centric. She didn't even think of Hunter when she saw the images of death all around; she couldn't, for that left her mind recoiling and placed her at risk from the rising tide of guilt and self-loathing.
The sun was high overhead when she came to a quiet grove at the heart of the garden where she had been summoned. The trees were densely packed and it was impossible to see into their dark heart, but she knew instinctively that a presence waited there. Her heart beat faster as she approached, and a deep dread enveloped her so that she had to fight not to flee back to the comfort of people in the crowded streets.
Ten feet from the grove, she realised she could barely hear the once-deafening sounds of the city that droned constantly in the background from morning to night. It was as if an invisible cloak had been thrown over that part of the garden. The silence was so intense in her mind that it had a texture, soft and gluey, almost liquid. It was unpleasant and unnerving, and felt, in its own unnatural way, as if it was waiting to be filled by something terrible.
'All right,' she said, forcing the bravado into her voice as she had so many times, 'I'm here.'
There was no response. She could feel the pulse of her blood, so strong she was sure she could hear her own heartbeat growing steadily faster. Her stomach flipped queasily, the instinctive response to a hidden gaze moving slowly across her. The presence was so powerful it felt even larger than the grove hiding it, the electrical cloud of its inhuman intellect enveloping her, holding her fast. She had a mental flash of teeth, of talons, of being consumed, and she couldn't prevent a shudder.
For a long moment, she waited, too afraid to run away for fear it would pursue her, too scared to take a step closer in case it dragged her into the grove to a fate that she feared would be worse than anything she could imagine. And then, with such unbearable slowness that she felt she would faint with the dread of anticipation, a hand extended from the trees. At first she thought it was the paw of a big cat, sleek with black spots on white and orange fur, but within a flicker of her eye it changed to a desiccated, grey-skinned human hand clutching a rectangular hand mirror edged in silver with horns on each corner.
For some reason she couldn't explain, the mirror increased Laura's feelings of dread, pulling in her gaze until she couldn't tear her eyes away from it. The mirror glass didn't appear to be glass at all, but rather some kind of liquid with the silvery quality of mercury turning slowly to black as she watched; she was convinced she could plunge her hand into its depths. After a second, the mirror began to smoke.
'Sister of Dragons.' The voice rang clearly in the zone of silence, but it sounded unused to human words, each syllable ending with a hint of an animalistic growl.
Laura forced herself not to faint; hidden within the voice were hints of blood and torn, decomposing flesh, of graveyards and inhuman savagery. 'What do you want me to do?' she asked haltingly.
'The time has come for another to die,' the voice growled.
After the presence in the grove had issued its order, Laura muttered a feeble response, but her thoughts screamed in the echoing halls of her head. Before she knew it she was running back through the garden in blind terror, throwing herself at the wall, kicking and scrambling over and losing herself in the sweaty throng, desperate for human contact, devastated by what she had given up, appalled by what she would do next.
Whistling a jaunty tune, the Libertarian wiped the blood from his fingers on the clothes of the young man who had offered him a hand of friendship and the promise of shelter, and then slowly climbed the steps in the tallest tower of the Court of Endless Horizons.
Through his lidless eyes, the world always looked blood-red. He wore sunglasses as an affectation, one of the many he had adopted for the theatrical style he had chosen to present to the world, but they had increasingly become a necessity to prevent the unpleasant psychological side effects engendered by the constantly swimming colour. At times it was almost hallucinogenic, plundering half-memories from the never-touched depths of his mind, twisting them into what-might-have-beens, conjuring distorted faces of old friends, long-slaughtered, old emotions, long-crushed. He could not be the person he was if he was reminded of the person he had been. That was why he had created such a ludicrous public persona, pieced together from silent movies, vaudeville and comic books. He had never been theatrical in his old life, and now he was somebody else, somebody so completely different that he could believe in it implicitly.
But still the fragmentary locked-off recollections haunted him.
When they became too intense, he killed, for that was the ultimate denial of his past-life; enemies, random strangers, even those who dwelled in the daily sphere of his existence; he couldn't really call them friends for there was no room for warm emotions in his sleek, secure, granite world.
And he loved who he was with a manic desperation. There were no circumstances in which he would choose to go back. In the restrictions of his life, he was free, as were all who believed in what he believed. There was not the tyranny of choice, the sickening insecurity of hope, all the striving and failing, the never-being-content. The world under the Void was the best possible world under the circumstances of existence. Everyone had the peace to live out their brief lives as best they could, slotting into a familiar mundane rhythm that asked nothing of them; and so they too were free. And when death finally came, it made them freer still. He couldn't understand how the person he once was had never recognised the stark, comforting simplicity of that life.
Throwing open the door at the top of the tower, he stepped out into the baking midday heat. A small balcony ran around the tower providing him with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vista of the entire city. The noise and the stink rose up from below in a sickening wave, but he found it rather comforting. Distress was part of the Void's way of letting people know they were alive. How could they possibly appreciate the tiny jewels they were allowed to discover if they were not surrounded by a field of ordure?
Yet for all the reassuring things he told himself, he felt increasingly uneasy, and he hated his old self for ruining the clean lines of his existence. As the time neared the point of transformation when he — and the Void — would finally be secure for ever, there were too many potential vagaries, shifting nodes of possibilities and blank spots in his memory. Events were reaching a point of flux. It was a desperate time, and as he always told himself, desperate times bred desperate men.
He'd waited long enough, a touch on the rudder here, another there, subtle manipulations and nuance to guide his sheep to the place he needed them to be. Now it was time for grandiose actions, hardness, brutality and blood. He could not risk any further deviation from the true line. It was time to be bold.
Gripping the rail, he peered into the dizzying drop, hawked up a glob of phlegm and spat before looking out across the gleaming city. His heart beat harder with anticipation.
And then it came, at first feeling like a brief shadow across the eye, growing more intense by the second. The high sun, brilliant white, dimmed as though a cloud was passing before it. The temperature dropped a degree, and a wind rushed across the rooftops.
Down below, the din reduced a level, and as the city darkened, it faded to an eerie silence, stark and unsettling. How long had it been since this vile place was quiet? he wondered. In every street, heads turned up to examine the dimming sun. People hung from windows, craning their necks to search for clouds or flocks of birds. There were none.
Darker and darker still, until finally a deep, abiding gloom settled across the entire city. No sun was visible, no moon or stars. Fearful cries rose up as the inhabitants tried to make sense of the night coming down at noon. Frantically, torches and lamps were lit, but the quality of the dark was strange and intense, and their illumination only reached a fraction of its usual distance.
Then the shadows moved, and all across the great city, people began to die. Screams rose up. Panic swept through the streets as vast crowds stampeded for safety, crushing underfoot all who fell, desperately forcing their way into buildings to barricade the doors, killing anyone who impeded them.
The Libertarian smiled and nodded.
There was terror and there was blood and there was a night that would never end.
Night Comes Down
In the alleys and winding streets of the Court of Endless Horizons, the dark was impenetrable. Ruth and Tom were en route from a false lead of a distressed Fragile Creature hiding in the grand marble interior of the Hall of Records when the gloom descended on the city. As the temperature plunged and the sun disappeared from view, Tom dragged Ruth into one of the deserted side alleys that, from the vile stench, had clearly been used as a toilet. His quick thinking saved them both from the frenzied crush that thundered down the street. People crashed through windows or had the life squeezed from them against the walls or underfoot.
Ruth covered her ears to block out the agonised screams and dying calls of the victims, which somehow stood out from the panicked roar of the crowd.
Although Tom stood next to her, she couldn't see him until she brought up her spear — the Blue Fire limning the head was just enough to illuminate the Rhymer's worried features.
'What have they done?' she said.
'The Enemy decided killing the Caretaker and blowing up huge chunks of the city wasn't enough. They've made it their place now.'
Faint lights appeared in the main street, but they were so dim it took Ruth and Tom a moment to realise that their illumination was being smothered almost as much as the sun's rays. Figures felt their way hesitantly along the now-deserted street, searching for the path back to the place where they laid their heads. As the thin lights passed, Ruth occasionally glimpsed the outlines of those who had fallen.
'We should get back to Church,' Ruth began. 'Regroup, decide what we're going to do now-'
Tom silenced her with a sharp squeeze on her arm. 'Do you hear something?'
Feeling along the wall, they came to the end of the alley. Across the way someone was trying to light one of the streetlamps. In the silence that had not existed in the street for many months, the hiss of the oil resonated, but from beyond it came the measured step of several feet on the cobbles and the ring of metal catching against walls.
Unable to pierce the darkness that lay at the end of the street, Ruth and Tom watched, neither realising they were holding their breath in anticipation. In the distance, tiny lights bobbed like fireflies, the dim torches of people stumbling home. When one winked out, Ruth thought her eyes were tricking her. But then a second and a third disappeared, and when the fourth extinguished it was accompanied by a faint cry.
'The Enemy is coming,' Tom said redundantly.
He tried to pull Ruth back into the alley, but she resisted. 'I want to see what we're up against.'
The soupy darkness didn't give up its ghosts until they were almost upon Ruth and Tom's hiding place. Emerging from the unfolding black were figures that echoed the transformed victims of the blast Ruth had seen in the marketplace: the flesh had been stripped from their skulls, though the roving eyes remained, and into the bone had been embedded studs that created a mosaic effect; red and green feathers tufted from the back of a simple circlet headdress. They wore only a metal band across their shoulders that ended in a gold amulet, and a scarlet and orange cloth bound around their loins and fastened by a thick gold belt. A round shield fringed with feathers was strapped to their left forearm and in that hand they carried a wooden club. In their right hand they gripped a wooden spear with an obsidian blade.
'What are they — Aztec? Mayan? Incan?' Ruth whispered.
Though her voice was barely audible, the head of the nearest warrior cranked around in her direction. Tom pulled her back into the alley. Pressed against the wall and listening, Ruth could tell the warrior was poised to investigate. Before it could make any move, however, it was distracted by a man staggering towards the single flickering streetlamp. Instantly, the warrior ran forwards, driving his spear into the man's gut and up so that the shocked victim didn't even have time to cry out as he was lifted aloft. Thrashing wildly, he expired within a moment. The warrior dumped the body and continued after his comrades, the tip of his spear rattling across the cobbles.
Across the street others from the small band entered the buildings and brought screams within seconds. Though the warriors' numbers were small, their slaughter was systematic.
Levelling her spear, Ruth prepared to run across the street until Tom grabbed her forcefully. 'Take a break from being an idiot,' he snapped. 'There's one of you, and however good you are with that spear and your Craft, you won't last long out there.'
Ruth hesitated, then nodded. 'Let's find the others.'
As they set off down the alley, Ruth glanced back once, but the dark had already swallowed the street. The screams lingered, though, joining together to become one devastating cry of terror.
Church jerked awake from another searing image of himself lying on a table, as pale as death, ghostly faces moving around him. He had started to believe that the recurring dream was not a dream at all, but he refused to examine his nascent suspicions of what it really was. Every time he skirted it, he felt sick to the pit of his stomach; a part of him knew the truth, he was convinced. A part of him was truly afraid.
Exhaustion had left his head nodding as he waited in the rooftop cafe, but now he could see that the planned rendezvous would not be happening. He was alone in the chill dark with only the poor light from his sword for comfort. The sticky jungle smells and the dry desert wind still reached him, but he could see nothing beyond the edge of the roof. The constant screams and panicked cries rising up from the street made him feel queasy. All he could think of was Ruth still out there, trapped in the dark with the mob and, he feared from some of the sounds he heard, something deadlier.
It would have been more sensible to wait there for the others to find their way back to him, but his concern for Ruth overrode logic, and after a while pacing around the table anxiously, he made his way cautiously to the door.
His sword's Blue Fire gave him barely two feet of visibility. He was little better than blind in a sprawling city filled with danger.
Inside the building it was still stifling despite the temperature drop, and deafening with the cacophony of the many, many people crowded into every square foot of the ten floors, with only the cafe level kept out of bounds by the brutal guardians employed by the owner.
Trailing his left hand down the dry plaster, Church slowly descended the stairs to the next level, the stink of sweat and other bodily fluids increasing with every step. Each floor was a single room, used for some public function — a library, a meeting place — but their previous purpose had been almost obscured by makeshift beds and ramshackle tent-homes. The disturbed-hive drone of voices had increased considerably from the last time Church had passed through, the result, he guessed, of news of the descending darkness being passed on to those who were inside when it fell.
Reaching the next floor, he steeled himself for the arduous task of picking his way through the cluttered mass to the next flight of stairs against the opposite wall. Tiny lights bobbed here and there — candles, lanterns — small comfort to their owners but no use to him.
His very first step brought a squeal from someone underfoot, igniting a ripple of panic across the room and cries of, 'What's wrong?' and, 'Who is there?' Holding Caledfwlch before him like a torch, Church picked out his steps carefully, but the flickering blue light was a beacon of hope to any it fell upon. Soon pale faces caught in its glare were drawing up and moving in, curious and desperate. And as hands grasped him and pleas for assistance were issued, the desperate yearning for help swept across the room like fire.
Within minutes, bodies pressed against Church on every side, spinning him around, shaking his sense of direction. Fingers tore at his clothes and his skin, growing harder and angrier when they received no response. At first, he entreated people to allow him passage, but it proved hopeless and he quickly realised his only option was to put his head down and drive himself through the dense wall of bodies.
The next flight of stairs was located more by luck than judgement. Careering down them two steps at a time, he almost fell out of control in the dark, landing roughly on the next floor. The crush of people drawn to him began almost immediately.
Choking with the smell of bodies and the heat, Church continued to drive his way through the mass. Halfway across the room, amidst the pleadings and cries, a familiar, ironic voice broke through at his left ear: 'Don't you just hate them? Stupid, witless sheep.'
Church whirled, but all he saw were troubled, pale faces and grasping hands. The Libertarian had retreated back into the dark.
His heart pounding, Church renewed his efforts to press through the crowd. Faces came and went in the tight circle around him. Rough hands at his back became threatening. However fast he searched around the constantly looming bodies in the limited area of visibility, he knew he would never be able to see the Libertarian until the killer was on top of him.
He resorted to throwing people roughly out of his way, but that only increased the crowd's anger and made his passage even more difficult. Soon they would be attacking him instead of pleading for help. He forced himself to calm down.
The next two floors passed in a blur of tension. Church knew the Libertarian would not have departed; he was sickened to realise he was starting to know him as well as he knew himself. There was a thick vein of sadism in the pacing of his torment: how long could the Libertarian hold off before moving in to strike?
'Why don't you kill them?' The sly voice appeared at his right ear.
Church whirled again. A glimpse of red eyes disappearing into the dark. 'Come closer and see what you get, you bastard!' Church yelled.
The crowd grew more agitated. As he pushed forwards, the flat of his blade clipped a woman's head and she shrieked as if he had stabbed her. Angry shouts deafened him. Someone punched his back; another tried to grab Caledfwlch and he had to throw the man to one side, brandishing the sword as a threat. It only maddened the crowd further.
Stay calm, he told himself. Any more and they'll rip you limb from limb.
Buying time, he apologised to the woman and placated those near to him, before moving on. Three more floors passed slowly, but as he entered the eighth floor down he caught a wisp of smoke.
You bastard. It was all Church had time to think before the panic started. Off to his left a dim light flickered, growing larger by the second as the blaze spread swiftly through the tinder-dry building, the jumble of possessions, bedding and shelters. Deafening shrieks became one voice as the entire floor moved as a single entity towards the stairs, crushing and trampling. Church was carried along in the flow, choking from the thick, acrid smoke as the temperature in the room intensified rapidly.
Soon even the supernatural darkness could not contain the inferno, and it blazed brightly as it raced across the room, consuming people, bringing down roof timbers in a cascade of sparks, raising a wall of heat that felled the young and the old as soon as it touched them.
'You don't have to kill them all!' Church raged impotently, torn between fury and bitter guilt that an entire building filled with people was being slaughtered just to get at him.
'Oh, but I do.'
Church turned, and there was the Libertarian, his eyes as red as the flames that formed an infernal halo around him.
'Almost like looking in a mirror, isn't it?'
Before Church could raise Caledfwlch, the Libertarian jabbed a finger into a pressure point on Church's neck and he slumped to the floor, unconscious.
For once the streets of the Court of Endless Horizons were empty. Through the maze of dark alleys, side streets, squares and gardens, Bearskin and Shadow John led Veitch and Shavi at a breathless pace. Occasionally, Bearskin would stop to sniff the air or examine the dusty ground. To Shavi, there was never anything to be seen, but Bearskin would always nod and move on confidently.
It was Shadow John who forged the way, ensuring no obstacles lay in their path so they could advance at speed.
'How the bleedin' hell do you do that?' Veitch asked him as they moved quickly through another square packed with market stalls.
Smiling, Shadow John leaned in and tapped the side of his left eye. 'I am more at home in the shadows than I am in the light,' he said. 'That is where my true nature becomes clear. Best not to look too closely.'
Shavi closed his ears to the screams that regularly punctured the dark, but his alien eye would not allow him any respite. It had taken to showing him a constant procession of the spirits of the recently departed as they made their way towards the Grim Lands. In the grey stream, he saw the echoes of the terror of their final moments, and the dismay, and the confusion about their current state, so rapidly had they been snatched from life. The stream was becoming a flood. He wanted to look away, but could not.
'The Enemy are using the darkness as cover to slaughter in their search for us,' he said.
Veitch was enough of a friend to catch the hint of distress in Shavi's words, and he gave Shavi's arm a comforting squeeze. 'We all knew it was going to get a lot worse, mate,' Veitch said quietly. 'Keep your head up. We're going to make the bastards pay for what they're doing.'
Though he could not ignore the ghosts, Shavi responded to Veitch's words and refocused on the search.
Bearskin came to a sudden halt. 'I smell smoke,' he said suspiciously.
'Here!' Shadow John had disappeared into the gloom a few paces ahead, but he raced back excitedly. 'I think I have found what you are searching for. But we have company!'
Hurrying close behind him, they came to the stone wall of some impressive building, its shape and identity lost to the dark. A small pitched-roof porch protruded from the wall, with Doric columns flanking a gate of iron railings. Three of the Aztec warriors were using their spears to try to break the gate's padlock. Round, staring eyes roving in their mosaic skulls, they turned and brought their spears up sharply to attack.
'What are they?' Shavi asked.
'Don't bother getting into details,' Veitch said. 'Two categories — friend or foe. And they're not friends.' He drew his sword, the blue and black flames fighting for space along the blade. Shavi thought obliquely that there was more of the Blue Fire than he had seen before.
With astonishing speed, Bearskin loaded the blunderbuss that hung from his belt and fired. Flames and a cloud of black smoke exploded from the broad barrel and the head of one of the warriors disintegrated. The body took a couple more steps before realising it was dead.
Coughing, Bearskin wafted the smoke away. 'Apologies, friends of the hunt. I must find myself a better gun.' He shook his head. 'The number of times I have been left with a few flecks of fur and a morsel of meat-'
'You never learn,' Shadow John agreed.
Veitch hacked the head and an arm off the second warrior, but the third was causing him some difficulty. It moved rapidly, ducking beneath his attacks and jabbing with the spear. The razor-sharp obsidian blade sliced through Veitch's clothes and drew blood.
As Veitch lunged, the warrior whirled the spear's blunt end against Veitch's calf, upending him. The spear whirled again, ready to plunge into the prostrate Veitch's chest. Shavi grabbed the warrior's arm. As the warrior prepared to drive his wooden sword into Shavi's face, Veitch brought his own sword up into the warrior's gut. On his feet in an instant, Veitch rapidly made sure the warrior was dead.
'What are you doing, you mad bastard?' Veitch raged at Shavi. 'Don't ever get involved in a fight again. You'll get yourself killed.'
'Sorry. I thought I was saving your life,' Shavi replied wryly.
'Well, don't. It's my job to get hacked to pieces. It's your job to be all smart and mystical and bloody Confucius-like.' Taking a deep breath, Veitch cleaned his sword. 'But thanks anyway.'
Shavi grinned. 'Perhaps I could get a sword.'
'Don't push it.'
A loud clank echoed as the padlock dropped to the flags. Shadow John gave a flourish and swung the gate open.
'What's in there?' Veitch peered into the interior. It was even darker than the surrounding city.
'Why, the Labyrinth of the Court of Endless Horizons, of course,' Bearskin replied. 'It lies beneath the queen's palace. Every year the court would have a challenge with a prize of unimaginable value for any who could navigate the Labyrinth and defeat whatever foul thing the queen had let loose down there.'
'You've entered it?' Veitch enquired. 'You know your way through?'
'Entered the Labyrinth?' Bearskin exclaimed. 'I am no fool.'
'No one has ever survived the Labyrinth,' Shadow John explained.
'And now you're trying to get us to go in there.' Veitch glanced at Shavi. 'Is it just me or is there a pattern to our lives?'
'The scent of the Fragile Creature was rising up from the catacombs along our way. It could only be that somehow she has found her way into the Labyrinth through one of its many entrances,' Bearskin explained.
Shavi nodded towards the three corpses lying next to the gate. 'They were trying to get in there. The Enemy must be after the woman too.'
'Looks like Church was right — she is important,' Veitch noted. 'Not that I doubted him. All right, we haven't got a choice — in we go.'
Shadow John shifted uneasily. 'But no one has ever survived the Labyrinth.'
'The Enemy are right behind us,' Veitch said, ignoring him.
'It's what lies ahead that worries me,' Bearskin said, fingering his beard. 'Still, challenges make us stronger.' He clapped Shadow John on the shoulder and propelled him through the gate. 'Don't worry, brother — I will look out for you.'
'And we look out for ourselves,' Veitch said to Shavi before following them into the cold dark.
Time seemed to stand still in the constant darkness. Ruth and Tom crept along alleys and down side streets, feeling their way, constantly listening for the sound of any approach. Occasionally they would come across groups of the Aztec warriors searching the empty streets or raiding a building to slaughter the occupants, and then they would be forced to retrace their steps and find another route. The warriors were everywhere and progress was excruciatingly slow.
'They're just running us around like rats,' she snapped. 'We need to take control.'
'Perhaps you should conjure up some of that scary Craft,' Tom said sardonically. 'Draw a little attention to us.'
Ruth glared at him. 'I wasn't suggesting that. Besides, I choose the moments when I use my Craft. It's not like some sword you whip out whenever you need it. There are repercussions for every use.'
Tom's eyes glinted in the sapphire light from the tip of her spear. 'Always a price to pay.'
Ruth hoped he didn't notice the shadow cross her face. If she allowed herself a moment's introspection, she realised she was afraid: of what the Craft would do if it was unleashed; of herself, of what she was becoming. Once before, the power had consumed her and she had almost destroyed everyone she loved. She could not let that happen again.
'I smell smoke,' Tom said, distracted. 'A fire in this situation could be devastating.'
'God, I hope the others are okay,' Ruth said. 'I hope Church was smart enough to stay put.'
'He wasn't, and it saved his life.'
Ruth and Tom jumped as Laura emerged from the dark at the end of the alley.
'How did you find us?' Ruth asked incredulously.
'Blind luck.' Laura glanced at Tom. 'All of it bad.'
'What are you saying about Church?' Ruth pressed.
'I just met him back there. The idiot couldn't sit tight. Massive city, total darkness, everybody split up — the first thing you do is wander around, calling out names, right? Still,' she added acidly, 'love makes you do stupid things.'
'Come on, what are you waiting for?' Ruth was embarrassed by the eagerness in her voice.
'Okay, Jesus, keep your pants on till we get there.' Laura strode back down the alley, with Ruth and Tom stumbling behind.
'Is he all right?' Ruth asked.
'Yeah, got out just before that cafe building burned down. I bumped into him while I was trying to stay one step ahead of those Aztec freaks. Persuaded him to sit still for a while.'
'Why did he let you go off wandering?' Tom asked suspiciously.
'Because, grandpa, my plant eyes work better than human eyes. So shut it.'
Ruth noted a harsher edge in Laura's mockery; the stress was telling, she thought, though Laura would never admit it.
Laura led them down a side alley to a small courtyard surrounded by three buildings. As they moved cautiously around the edge, they came across Church squatting on his haunches against one wall; he was holding something in his right hand that Ruth couldn't make out.
'Thank God,' she said. 'I was starting to get worried.'
Church stood up to accept Ruth's hug, but as she fell into his arms, Tom called out, 'Wait! There's something wrong!'
Church spun Ruth and clamped an arm around her throat; one flex of his muscles and he would crush the life from her. As she struggled to free herself, Church craned his head around to peer into her startled eyes and she could see then that though he looked like Church down to the smallest detail, it was not him; his eyes were filled with cruelty, and his breath against her cheek smelled of raw meat. She was overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of dread so strong it almost made her faint.
'What's going on?' Laura exclaimed.
Tom held her back. 'Show yourself!' he urged.
The one who was Not-Church held out his right hand, and Ruth could now see that he clutched a smoking mirror. A glimmer of half-recognition crossed Tom's face.
As he turned the mirror, the hand and arm holding it became that of a jungle cat, black spots against white and orange fur: a jaguar, Ruth thought. And then it changed again, into a human hand, but with grey skin stretched tightly across bone. Afraid to look at the face but unable to prevent herself, Ruth glanced back and was convulsed with fear. It was like looking into the face of a corpse, the skin hanging in tatters from decomposing flesh, unmistakable feline qualities in the shape of the eyes and the tufts of fur clinging on to the skull-like pate. Black lines pulsed beneath the surface of his form, the sign of the controlling power of the Anubis Box; another of the gods the Void, and Janus, had chosen.
'In the Age of the Sun, your kind knew me as Tezcatlipoca,' he said. 'Three spheres do I bestride.' He raised the mirror skywards. 'The night.
Death, in all its forms.' And then he directed a lop-sided grimace-smile towards Tom and Laura. 'And temptation.'
'I've heard of you,' Tom said, unable to hide his fear. 'A shape-shifter. You killed the Caretaker.'
'I hold this city now in my grasp, as I have held so many others in times long gone. This night will never lift. Death will never leave this place.' He tightened his grip around Ruth's throat, forcing her to the brink of blacking out. 'And soon one more will join Death's long parade.'
Church came round tied to a chair in a hot room filled with scores of sputtering lamps. Together, they just about held back the dark that swelled in the corners of the room. It was spartan, with bare boards, plaster walls and only an empty chair across from Church. His head ached and his throat was unbearably dry; it took him a second or two to recall where he had been when he was last conscious, and another second to recognise where he must be now.
'Where are you?' he called out.
The voice came from behind him. Slowly the Libertarian sauntered into view, his sunglasses reflecting the glittering points of lamplight. He spun around the empty chair and sat astride it.
'I must have seen a lot of bad eighties movies,' Church said.
The manufactured flamboyance evaporated and for once the Libertarian stared at Church with cold contempt. 'I am not you.'
'That's not what you said in Beijing.'
'I'm better. Right now I'm what you could never dream of being. In the same way that I could never imagine being you.'
The Libertarian continued to stare. Church was puzzled by the barest hint of emotion in a voice that previously had been all role-playing, and he had the strangest impression, although he did not know why, that behind the Libertarian's sunglasses there were tears in his eyes.
'So you've brought me here to debate our different philosophies?'
The Libertarian laughed; the facade returned. 'Oh, what's the point in that! Any difference will be over very shortly.'
'Not going to happen.'
'Yet here I am. And if there was even the slightest chance of you continuing down the primrose path with your unrealistically idealised world-view, I would not be standing before you.' He waved a finger slowly at Church to emphasise his words. 'Thousands of threads over thousands of years are finally tying together. Oh, if you could only see the full extent of the tapestry you would marvel at the wonder of it all! The rich complexity! I have the luxury of standing on the mountaintop and seeing how a stitch here and another there can create the world we want, while you are mired in the swamp, swatting away insects and wondering when the rain will come.'
With as little obvious effort as possible, Church strained at his bonds.
The Libertarian smiled. 'I know what you're doing. I remember that quite clearly, as I remembered exactly where you would be this day when my agent brought down the darkness. I find I'm remembering more and more the closer we get to the point of transformation.' His lips quirked as if he was tasting something unpleasant. 'A small price to pay, I suppose, for being able to interact with you at these vital junctures.'
'But there are still a lot of variables, aren't there? Or you wouldn't be bothering with me. These x-factors… the little pushes and shoves I'm getting from the Oldest Things in the Land-'
'Forget about those deluded creatures,' the Libertarian snapped. 'Their days are numbered. As you are aware, we have already eradicated one of them. The rest will follow. You cannot understand the magnitude of what we have achieved. The Oldest Things in the Land! Playing their little games since your world was built out of shit and piss. Always a part of everything, always powerful, and now they are falling before us, one by one by one.' He stood up and bowed. 'Our brilliance, incarnate. I thank you!'
'What killed the part of you that cared?' Church asked, sickened.
'You think I am the villain of the piece. I am not. There are no villains in life, my young Jack Churchill. Nor any heroes. There are only people who want the things you want, and people who want the opposite. At the moment, you are caught up with your vision that people would be happier if they were completely free. That, in itself, is a trap. The choices, the striving… they only bring misery. No, better to be happy with your lot. To be content, and at peace. The Mundane Spell… the lack of meaning in everyday existence… surely that is a small price to pay for being content.'
'War, corruption, abuse, sickness-'
'All small prices when seen from the view of humanity as a whole. They do not affect everyone. Most people have steady lives.'
Church thought for a moment, then said, 'Don't you miss Sinatra?'
Pausing, the Libertarian appeared to be struggling to recall something just beyond his grasp. A shadow crossed his face.
' "Fly Me to the Moon"? How about your parents' faces, on a summer day, when you were a kid? Don't you miss Ruth?'
'No!' The Libertarian whirled, his features fixed with anger. 'I thought I had already strangled the life from her in Greece, that's how little I care!'
'Don't you miss the magic, Jack?' Church said quietly.
In a rage, the Libertarian threw the chair to one side with such force that it shattered into pieces. Hurling himself at Church murderously, he pushed his furious face so close that it filled Church's vision. When he spoke, each word had the stab of an assassin's knife. 'I know how much you love her. I know she is the prop that holds your fragile life together. And I know that she is the thing holding you back from reaching your destiny. Which is why I now have her.'
Church flinched as if he'd been hit.
'Do I miss Ruth? I'll show you. First I'm going to torture her till the pain blooms in her face and she can see no good in life. And then I'm going to murder her, slowly and agonisingly, and I'm going to dump her body somewhere you will never find it. No chance for mourning. No closure. Your ravens will peck away at her flesh, and then her bones will yellow, and crumble, and she will be gone, as if she never existed.'
Tears stung Church's eyes. 'I'm going to kill you.'
The Libertarian smiled. 'That's the spirit.'
When night fell across the Great Plain before the Court of the Soaring Spirit, the Enemy began its advance. Lost to the gloom, the first sign that Decebalus had of their movement was mounting vibrations in the ground, growing stronger, like the first tremors of an earthquake. The weather had worsened — something to do with the abilities of the remaining Riot-Beast, he guessed — and now torrential rain lashed their ranks and turned the ground around them to a sea of mud.
'They will try to overwhelm us by sheer numbers,' he said as he peered into the dark. 'I am surprised they did not try it before.'
'Perhaps they wisely fear your ultimate deterrent,' Lugh responded. Behind him the silent, unmoving ranks of Tuatha De Danaan warriors glowed a dull gold.
Decebalus eyed him askance. 'You know of that?'
'I am a master tactician, after all. It is what I would have done.'
'But would you have been prepared to use it?'
'Thankfully, I will never have to find out. That is now your burden, Brother of Dragons.'
As a low, mournful call rolled out across the great plain from somewhere in the vicinity of the city walls, Lugh started and looked around hopefully. 'My brother, one of the most powerful of the Tuatha De Danaan. Missing for so long. Is he joining the fray?' When he saw Decebalus's puzzled look, he added, 'In the time of the tribes, he was known as Cernunnos, but your kind have a great many names for him, as befits his status. The Green Man. Jack o' the Green. He walks in the beating heart of nature, and pulses with the lifeblood of Existence.'
'Of course I have heard of him,' Decebalus said. 'He has helped the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons many times. Though, I must say, he has never seemed quite like you Golden Ones.'
'My brother is like us, and is also greater than us. His influence straddles many Great Dominions, as befits one of the Oldest Things in the Land.'
'He is one of those strange creatures, and also one of you?'
'The Oldest Things in the Land are a higher force, and they draw to them those who can help shepherd the ways of Existence.'
'A force for good, then.'
'A force for a plan that transcends the concepts of good and evil that Fragile Creatures love to clutch to their breasts for comfort. The universe is not simple, Brother of Dragons, and its pattern is lost to all of us.'
The mournful howl rolled out again, but was subsumed by the rising tramp of thousands of feet and the pounding of the downpour.
Rain sluicing from his head, Decebalus said, 'Nearly here now.' Flickering lights could now be made out in the dark — the torches of the enemy — stretching as far as Decebalus could see in a horseshoe formation from foothill to foothill around the city. 'Closing in. Nowhere to run.'
'You are a strange being. You sound as if you are almost enjoying this desperate situation,' Lugh said.
'We only truly find out what it means to be Fragile Creatures when we are closest to death. Your men are ready for the assault?'
'Of course. This will be as glorious as the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, when I slew the great Fomorii god, Balor.'
'Then it is time to engage the Enemy.' Pulling his sodden cloak around him, Decebalus strode back to his own ranks where a bonfire hissed and crackled, and pitch-soaked torches struggled to stay alight in the storm. The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons sheltered patiently in the tents, looking out of the huge unfurled doors towards the Enemy. As Decebalus moved past them, nodding to the leader of each unit, he saw how alike their expressions were, all of them laced with fear, all trying to hide it, preparing themselves mentally for the battle, knowing that death was likely. Through it all, the Pendragon Spirit blazed in their eyes.
Next to the fire, where everyone could see him, he announced loudly, 'The time has come! We go now to meet the Enemy. Our job is to harry down the middle. We strike fast, retreat, regroup, strike again. We have speed and skill on our side. On your left flank will be the Tuatha De Danaan, well-drilled, relentless. They will find their line and hold it until they or the Enemy are gone. On your right flank will be the brute force we need to blow the Enemy asunder. The Asgardians have more power than sense-' a laugh ran through the group '-and we will use that, along with a few surprises to keep the Enemy on their toes.'
Raising his sword high, he shouted, 'We are Brothers and Sisters of Dragons! Though we die, we live on in the Pendragon Spirit. What we fight for can never be destroyed. This day… this battle… is the reason for our existence. Two thousand years of history leading to this point. Our Brothers and Sisters who are not here are counting on us to drive the Enemy back, to buy them time to save all Existence. We shall not fail. Do you hear me? We shall not fail!'
His voice became a roar that soared up to the heavens, and it was joined by all the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, one voice of defiance carrying out across the plain. As he turned, they strode out from the tents behind him, those who had taken the role of cavalry to the horses, the others forming ranks for the ground battle. The fear was gone as if it had been washed away by the rain. There was only determination, come what may.
Decebalus summoned one of the Brothers of Dragons, Andy Cairns, a Scottish archer with black wavy hair and a sword scar on his right cheek. 'Andrew, prepare your archers.'
A moment later a hail of flaming arrows soared across the plain, igniting a liquid that Math had prepared in his tower and which Decebalus had spread in a huge defensive arc around their forces. A wall of fire rose up twenty feet into the air; Math had told him it would burn for at least an hour.
Within fifteen minutes the first lines of the Enemy attempted to break through the fire. Some continued aflame for several paces before they collapsed. Others fell in the midst of the inferno. But wave after wave followed, reminding Decebalus of the red ants he had seen in the forests of Dacia when he was boy; nothing would deter them. Soon the bodies had piled so high they covered the fire-liquid, and the ranks behind rolled over the top of them.
With a roar, Decebalus signalled the attack. To his left, the Tuatha De Danaan washed out in a golden wave, silent, focused, frightening in their intensity. The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons were only a step behind. At the heart of them, Decebalus swelled with pride, swinging his axe with abandon as he forced his way to the front.
Within moments they crashed against the rocks of the Enemy, and Decebalus was hurled into such a frenzy of flashing weapons and flailing bodies that it was impossible to see anything beyond a zone of a few square inches. Noise filled his world, the endless shriek of metal on metal, the grunts of exertion, battle cries and the screams of the wounded and dying. Tossed around by a heavy swell, he never rested for a second, swinging his axe into heads, shoulder-blades, arms. Bodies crushed tight on all sides. No thoughts came; there was only time for instinct.
The ranks of the Enemy in front of him comprised the Lament-Brood, dead beings from numerous races with swords, axes and spears rammed into their limbs so that they themselves became weapons that could not be killed, for whom wounds meant nothing; the only way to stop them was to dismember them.
Gradually, his thought process adjusted to the blistering pace of battle, a sublime state where everything slowed and he floated amidst the chaos, able to examine the rich detail, and reflect. Blood sprayed in beautiful arcs. Raindrops on armour glittered like diamonds. Blades caught the torchlight as they whirled, trailing gold. Underfoot, the ground churned, became liquid, a swamp of gore and mud sucking at his legs.
His axe removed the top of a skull, then spun and came down to split the face below. As the Lament-Brood warrior dropped to his knees another was already taking his place.
To his left, Decebalus saw a Sister of Dragons battling furiously, glistening black hair slick from the rain. As she was dragged away by the flow of battle, he tried to remember her name. An unusual name. It was important that everyone was remembered, and seen as individuals sacrificing all, not as a resource to be used up to win.
Demelza, he recalled. Monfries.
He nodded, happy that he had marked her place in his mind. To his right, three Lament-Brood warriors surrounded a Brother of Dragons, his ringletted hair and beard plastered with blood. He had no chance, but he kept fighting to the last.
Decebalus struggled to recall the name, cursing himself furiously until it came. 'Stephen,' he said aloud. 'Harding.'
And then Aula was at his side in the white and silver armour of one of the Tuatha De Danaan courts, her blond hair darkened by the rain.
'Here?' he bellowed. 'You are no warrior!'
With her short sword, she hacked off the arm of one of the Lament-Brood as it attempted to drive a spear into Decebalus's chest. 'Answer enough?' she said.
'Not quite, but it will do, for now.'
'Even an uneducated barbarian like yourself deserves someone at your back.'
They exchanged a brief look that said more than they ever had, or ever would, and then the battle sucked them in once more.
For fifteen minutes of furious exchanges, it appeared as if the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons and the Tuatha De Danaan were making no headway against the constant stream of the Enemy; for every one that fell two more took their place. Decebalus saw Redcaps with their clothes of human skin, unrelenting machines of muscle, gristle and bone that exhibited tremendous power and endurance. There were the Baobhan Sith, shrieking spectral figures that shifted shape before attempting to tear out the throats of those nearby; and the Gehennis, shades flapping like sheets in the wind but with more devastating substance than they presented to the world. Towering giants swung clubs that reduced a man to a red mist, while other grotesqueries that he did not recognise ripped apart with claws and teeth.
The explosive bolt of lightning crashed into the Enemy ranks at the point he had planned, when overconfidence had taken the edge off their fighting skills. Body parts rained down from a blackened circle inside which everything had been incinerated. More bolts blasted down at random, bringing fear to the disrupted Enemy ranks.
Decebalus caught the briefest glimpse of Mjolnir smashing through bodies before returning to the hand of its owner, who brought down another lightning bolt before directing the storm towards the Enemy.
Decebalus grinned: the gods had arrived.
Laughing like a madman, his scarred, hairy body completely naked, Tyr waded through the ranks chopping down the Lament-Brood like saplings. Beside him, the Slavic god Perkunas wielded a throwing axe that sent heads flying in unison, while Ares, lost to his bloodlust, had to be continually redirected towards the Enemy so that he did not attack his own side. On a murderous rampage, the Aztecs' Huitzilopochtli tore out the hearts of the living Enemy by plunging his hands into their chests, and the Caribbean war god Ogoun concentrated on the Lament-Brood with his machete, reducing them to quivering chunks of decomposing flesh.
The gods were a whirlwind of fury and righteous vengeance, and every time Decebalus thought he had seen the last descend into the fray another dropped from the skies or drove a wide, bloody path through the ground troops.
Hundreds of the Enemy were falling by the minute, and despite their numbers they were in disarray and being driven back step by step. Lugh was at the forefront of the Tuatha De Danaan, serious and dedicated, and though covered in gore he still glowed like the sun. Behind him, the Army of all the Courts fought on, shoulder to shoulder, for the first time since they had left their four fabled homes.
About a third of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons had fallen, but the rest drove on with renewed energy, faces alight with the Pendragon Spirit.
For the next half-hour, as the Enemy was decimated, Decebalus finally began to believe that despite the odds they could win.
The first sign that events had begun to change was a sudden retreat by the Enemy that left aV of unoccupied ground. Decebalus signalled for the Army of Dragons to proceed with caution; it looked to him as if the Enemy was encouraging them to pursue with abandon, and he never did anything any enemy wanted.
Silence fell across the Enemy ranks, the only sound the beating of the rain on the sea of mud.
'What are they doing?' Aula asked.
'Waiting,' Decebalus replied.
After a moment, the Enemy ranks parted and a ten-foot-tall figure stepped through, his identity at first cloaked by the storm. As he neared, Decebalus recognised him from the description Church had given during one of the numerous briefings: brutish features, part pig, part ass, added an incongruous aspect to the elegant clothes of the ancient Egyptian ruling class. Seth, god of evil and the desert, raised a staff mounted with a single golden eye and a flurry of snow swirled around him.
'Fragile Creatures!' His booming voice sounded like a boulder dragged across gravel. 'My people were great and wondrous, shining stars in the vast firmament of Existence. Yet you destroyed them, and in your arrogance you thought you could do it with impunity.'
'He is talking about the devastation wrought by Church and the others in the Great Pyramid,' Aula whispered.
Decebalus barely heard her. Already his tactician's mind was racing ahead, weighing potential options as he tried to evaluate what Seth would do.
'Get back,' he said loudly after a few seconds, before bellowing, 'Retreat!'
The word had barely left his mouth when Seth raised his other hand to reveal an object that radiated a brilliant white light. There was a second when all the sound appeared to have been drained from the world, and then a shimmering, glassy wave washed out from Seth and the entire battlefield lit up, growing brighter and brighter until it felt as if the sun had crashed to the ground.
And that was the last thing any of them saw.
In the Grim Lands there was little to mark the passage of time. Sometimes the quality of light would be a shade darker, sometimes it would have a silvery glint, as though night and day were coming and going beyond the constantly rolling mists. Everywhere was grey, all the time. It left the spirits dampened, and gradually leached the energy from both Mallory and Caitlin. Each incline became a little harder to climb, each graveyard navigated with an increasing number of rest stops, until they started to fear that the mood of the place would eventually bring a critical lethargy that would leave them drifting and aimless like the land's regular inhabitants.
Sitting on the dusty gravel with her back to a tomb marked with the legend Et In Arcadia Ego, Caitlin examined the flickering blue flame of the Wayfinder and tried to ignore the feeling that if she closed her eyes she would sleep for ever.
'I wonder if Hal is aware of what's happening,' she mused.
Sitting beneath a carved skull on an adjoining tomb, Mallory lazily drew a cross in the dust with the heel of his boot. 'That was quite a sacrifice he made. Imagine being a part of the Blue Fire — a part of everything there is and was — and then giving it all up to lock yourself in that little lantern to guide our way. It must have been like being God, and then quitting to become an ant.'
'You wouldn't expect anything less. He's always been one of us… of our Five.' She winced and corrected herself: 'Our Four. I wish we'd got a chance to know him better.'
'It's even more of a sacrifice than that,' Mallory continued. 'He can be destroyed while he's in the Wayfinder. He'd escaped from death, and now he's put himself back in the game. That's brave.'
The flame continued to point the way across the last few yards of the graveyard and out into the wilderness beyond, where Callow was on reconnaissance.
'Does this place make you think of your husband and boy?' Mallory asked.
'I've never stopped thinking of them. Not in a morbid way. I remember the good times, and what they meant to me, and I know we're going to be together again some day. Have you ever lost someone you love?'
'Yeah.' He paused before realising, 'I just don't know who.'
The thought clearly troubled him so much that Caitlin didn't press. Chewing on his lip absently, he slipped back into a deep reflection.
In the silence that followed, Caitlin became aware of the presence of her other selves deep in the back of her head. Their whispering always ebbed and flowed like the pulse of her blood, but now she could hear Brigid's voice growing more insistent. Listening intently, she absently spoke the words the second they came to her: 'He's coming! Run!'
Mallory started. 'Who's coming?'
'I… I don't know.'
They were surprised to see Callow watching them from the shelter of a nearby mausoleum. 'How long have you been there?' Mallory snapped.
'No time for that now,' Callow replied obsequiously. 'Listen carefully and I think you'll hear to whom the little miss is referring.'
Dimly, the scrape of feet on gravel filtered through the blanketing mist. Moving quickly and silently, Mallory and Caitlin kept low, using the tombs and mausoleums for cover. As the mist shifted across a wide expanse of statuary, they saw the Hortha stalking steadily in their direction.
'What does it take to stop him?' Mallory said incredulously.
'He doesn't look like he's been hurt at all. Yet that thing in the mausoleum was…' Caitlin's words dried up as she considered the implications of her notion. 'How are we going to stop him, Mallory?'
'There's no point thinking about it now. We just need to keep a few steps ahead of him.'
'But we'll have to rest some time.'
'Maybe we'll think up a brilliant idea on the way.'
Returning silently to Callow, they motioned for him to follow as they left the graveyard behind, heading down the rough shale into a bleak landscape of boulders and stones that reminded them of photos they'd seen of the surface of Mars.
After what they estimated to have been an hour, but may only have been a quarter of that time, the going became harder with sheets of shattered slate underfoot that they had to travel over carefully to avoid turning an ankle or cutting themselves on the razor-sharp edges.
This sloped down to an area of towering rock formations that merged until they were moving along the bottom of a deep chasm over large fallen rocks. Through the mist, they could just make out holes cut into the walls above their heads — more tombs, Mallory guessed.
Caitlin thought she glimpsed a head looking down at them out of one of the holes, but the mist closed over it before she was sure. A little further on she definitely did see a figure pulling itself out of one of the dark spaces to watch them pass.
'Yeah, I see them too,' Mallory whispered to her before she could warn him.
'The dead are an inquisitive bunch,' Callow said. 'They half-remember what it was like to be alive and always want to recall more.' He glanced at the soaring rock walls. 'Probably best not to get caught by them down here. They're not at all like me — witty, vivacious company. They can be a little jealous of what you have, and they have lost.'
'How long till we get out of here, then?' Mallory asked sharply.
'Only forwards, just a little way now. If we are lucky,' he added.
'I'm starting to question your value as a guide,' Mallory said.
A thud resonated behind them, and another: the dead dropping to the rocks from their resting places. Soon the steady tramp of feet followed them. Now whenever Caitlin glanced up she saw the grey, desiccated bodies of the dead levering themselves out of their holes on skeletal arms, some plummeting directly down, others climbing slowly and steadily on near-invisible handholds.
'Let's pick up the pace,' Mallory said.
By then the footsteps behind them suggested a small crowd. Others loomed out of the mists on either side as they passed, their hands grasping for the mercurial life. Men, women, children, some naked, others in rags or shrouds or worm-eaten funeral suits. Caitlin was most disturbed by their gaze, heavy, unblinking, not intelligent, but not stupid either — they were the eyes of animals, with instincts for survival, some quicker than others.
She started to wonder about the mythology of the place. Did everyone pass through when they died? The dead she saw around her didn't appear pleasant. Was this instead some kind of purgatory? If so, what did that imply for a system of judgement, for God? The religious teachings of her childhood came back, haunting her with the mystery, troubling her as much as they comforted her. Could Grant and Liam be somewhere in this world? If not, where were they?
As the dead began to crowd along the walls on either side of the chasm, Caitlin grew more anxious. They had the look of wary dogs about them, docile to all appearances but capable of turning savage at any moment.
Mallory kept them moving at a rapid pace, but increasingly she felt hands on her clothes, fingers flexing as if preparing to grab, the dry-wood touch of dead skin brushing her arms. Goosebumps ran up her back. The path between the rows of the dead was growing narrower as they drew in on either side.
And what then? Would they move in on all sides, driving those fingers through her pink skin to investigate the mysteries that lay beneath?
One woman with lank brown hair and a head that lolled onto her chest lunged suddenly and grabbed Caitlin's wrist, but the grip was weak and she shook it off easily. Yet it was a warning sign.
'Mallory, I think we have a problem,' she said.
'How much further, Callow?' Mallory barked.
'Oh, not far now. A hundred yards, perhaps,' Callow said without looking back. Caitlin wondered why that was: he usually underpinned every line with a studied expression demanding sympathy.
Pushing through a flurry of mist, they came up hard against a dead end. Trapped in a cleft as the rock walls converged, Caitlin looked back fearfully at the dead slowly advancing.
'Oh dear,' Callow said. 'I appear to have missed a turning.'
'You idiot.' Mallory faced the shambling figures. As he drew Llyrwyn, they stopped and stared dumbly at the faint blues flames sputtering and fizzing along the blade.
'Back off,' Mallory said. 'Is there any point talking to them?'
'Oh, yes,' Callow replied. 'They hear. They understand, though it might take a while for their long-dulled senses to flicker into life. See, here.' Callow edged behind Caitlin and shouted, 'Look at them, pink and alive! They make a mockery of you! Stop them!'
Mallory rounded on Callow, but by then he had one arm around Caitlin's throat and a razor blade plucked from the turn-up of his dirty trousers gripped between the fingers of his other hand.
Deep in her head, Caitlin felt the Morrigan unfurl her wings and a surge of darkness sweep forwards. Caitlin elbowed Callow in his gut. He let out a pained gasp of air, but instantly slashed her cheek with the razor and then pressed it to her jugular.
Caitlin cried out as blood washed down from the wound, but Callow only dug the razor deeper. 'You'll be dead before you can release what's inside you,' he whispered in her ear. 'I cut one of your kind before, and I am quite prepared to do so again. My shiny friend here can conduct a nice dance across your face and still slit that white throat before you have time to move. You will die ugly, and that thought will eat away at you in this dismal afterlife.'
'Let her go.' Mallory ignored the dead gathering at his back. He raised the sword towards Callow's throat.
'Oh, the bravado of the heroic man. So false. What can you do? I am already dead. Make me more dead? It is the fault of your sickening brotherhood that I am here, and I have nurtured the desire for the dish best served cold for a long, long time. Give me the lantern.'
'Don't, Mallory!' Caitlin cried. She saw him waver. 'You need it to carry on. You don't need me.'
'Oh, but he does,' Callow said slyly. 'I've seen it in his eyes as we journeyed together, knights of the road, shoulder to shoulder. He loves you. Perhaps not with the romance of a sexual partner, but with the deeper love of a kindred spirit, a friend you would support to the end. And this, most certainly, is the end.'
'Mallory, no!' Caitlin could now see in his eyes the same thing as Callow, and she recognised the same rich depth of feeling in herself. A friend to the end. A deep and complex love. Why did that have to be the weapon that ruined them?
Mallory slowly held out the Wayfinder for Callow to snatch with his free hand. 'My little ears hear all sorts of things,' he said. 'About the genie inside this thing, for one. A vulnerable genie, whose destruction would strike to the heart of the sickening Brothers and Sisters of Dragons.'
Caitlin winced at the devastation in Mallory's face. In a cold, murderous tone, Mallory said: 'If you hurt him I'll find some way to make you suffer.'
'Of course you will.' He smiled mockingly. 'Now, I know how sly you people are, and I see that pigsticker you're waving around, so…' With a flourish, he slashed Caitlin again, missing the vein more by accident than design, but cutting her deeply enough that the blood gushed. Thrusting her towards Mallory, he gripped the handle of the lantern between his teeth and leaped up the wall, clutching on to barely visible handholds before propelling himself through a tunnel that lay half-hidden in the mists just above their heads.
Catching Caitlin in his arms, Mallory desperately tried to staunch the flow of blood. 'Not again,' he muttered, without really knowing why.
The dead shuffled forwards, their eyes gleaming at the sight of Caitlin's lifeblood. Mallory levelled Llyrwyn at them. 'I'll cut you to pieces,' he said, trying to keep the emotion from his voice. 'Do you understand that? I'll cut you to pieces!'
The voice echoed from further along the floor of the chasm, though Mallory knew who it was before the mist unfurled. A wall of the dead separated the two of them, but the Hortha simply grabbed the one nearest to him, extended his finger of blackthorn and rammed it through the temple into whatever remained of the brain. The dead man slumped to his knees, and the Hortha moved on to the next.
Caitlin found herself slipping to the edge of consciousness as the Morrigan fell back into the dark, but she could see Mallory fighting with his dilemma: the Hortha was unbeatable, but too close for them to make an adequate escape in her severely wounded condition.
'Leave me,' she croaked.
'No. Never, ever again.'
As he searched around for a solution while trying to hold the dead back and keep Caitlin from bleeding out, his eyes gleamed with a dawning notion. 'See him — he's destroying you!' he yelled at the dead. 'He hates you. He laughs at what you've lost. He's going to make you suffer even more than you already have. Is that fair? You have to stop him.'
The dead paused and turned as one, fixing their unblinking stare on the Hortha as he punctured another head and discarded what remained, not caring whether they saw him.
'He wants to make you suffer more!' Mallory shouted.
The dead moved, tentatively at first but with gathering speed as Mallory's words lit up their sluggish minds. With grasping hands, they pressed towards the Hortha and although the creature tried to drive through the flow, there were too many of them. They began to tear at his form, ripping away the blackthorn as fast as it could regrow, searching for the mystery of his life. Finally, the Hortha went down under a frenzy of tearing.
Mallory tied a handkerchief across Caitlin's wounds and slung her over his shoulder. Grunting with strain and exhaustion, he clambered up the rock wall and stepped into the tunnel, sparing one quick backward glance at the churning pool of grey, dead flesh.
The tunnel was only short, the pearly mist gleaming at the end.
'You love me, and I love you,' Caitlin said dreamily. 'Platonic. Deep. You're a sensitive soul, Mallory, a good man-'
'Save your strength,' he said, embarrassed.
'That's why I love you.'
He shifted her weight into his arms to carry her more easily, and she could see the worry in his face. 'Am I dying?'
'Not yet. I'm going to sort out that wound when we get out of here. But after that…' Shaking his head, he looked away. She knew what he was thinking: how could they find Callow and save Hal in this terrible, bleak land? How could they find the Extinction Shears?
Stumbling out of the tunnel mouth, Mallory came to a sudden halt. Her head spinning, Caitlin craned her neck to see what had brought him up so sharply. Waiting a little way down the slope on the backs of their strange mounts were the Brothers and Sisters of Spiders, their dead expressions grim.
'We've been waiting for you,' Etain said coldly.
Caitlin had slipped into unconsciousness. Laying her still form on the rocky ground in the tunnel mouth, Mallory prepared for what he fully expected to be his last fight. He had heard enough about the ferocity of the Brothers and Sisters of Spiders to know he stood little chance of defeating the four of them on horseback.
'Sheathe your sword,' Etain said in a low, grating voice. 'Ryan Veitch sent us back to this dismal place to give you whatever aid we could.'
Mallory tried to read her dead face, but even looking beneath two thousand years of scars and burning it was impossible to read any emotion in her features. 'I thought you couldn't talk,' he said.
'Here, in the Grim Lands, amongst our own kind, we are at home.' Her voice suddenly came alive with a shocking bitterness. 'We are allowed some small comforts to endure this place.'
Branwen climbed down from her mount and approached in a jerky manner, as if consciously forcing her limbs to move. 'Let me help the Sister of Dragons.'
Reluctant at first, Mallory eventually allowed her to treat Caitlin's wounds with herbal creams from a bag at her waist, which she applied liberally until the blood flow stopped. 'I tended Ryan Veitch's wounds many times across the great gulf of the years,' she said. 'He cared for us when we were abandoned by all, and we cared for him.' She swivelled her head creakily towards Etain. 'Some more than others.'
'I don't trust you,' Mallory said. 'I heard how you helped Veitch kill all those Brothers and Sisters of Dragons-'
'We were Brothers and Sisters of Dragons before we sided with the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders,' Etain interrupted. 'Indeed, we were the very first to carry the Pendragon Spirit into your lineage.'
'We followed Ryan Veitch wherever he led, even into the ranks of the Devourer of All Things,' said Owein, his muscular, thick-set frame badly scarred. 'He would have died for us. We were his only friends.'
Mallory didn't think it wise to point out how tragically pathetic it was that a man could only count a bunch of dead things as friends. Instead, he searched for some sign of the direction Callow had taken. 'If you're here to help, we need, firstly, to get away from here as quickly as possible because I have this sickening feeling that even a collection of George Romero extras are not going to be able to stop the thing on our trail. And secondly, to find the bastard who did that to Caitlin and took the Wayfinder. '
How long would Callow wait before he decided to destroy the lamp and Hal? A while, he guessed. Callow was cowardly and would want to put a lot of distance between himself and Mallory in case the dead were only a temporary setback.
Tannis, who had a warrior's build and a leader's demeanour, said chillingly, 'Nothing escapes us.'
'Then let's get moving. I want my hands around Callow's throat and I want it now.'
With Caitlin's arms tied around Tannis's chest to prevent her slipping, and with Mallory behind Etain, they set off into the mist. After a mile or so, a gentle, stony incline gave way to a steaming, foul-smelling marsh, the brackish water gleaming with oily rainbows. Here Etain slowed her mount to pick a careful course along grassy ridges bordered by thick yellow reeds. Occasionally lights glimmered briefly away in the mists.
'What are they?' Mallory asked. The mood had become even more oppressive.
'Ignore them,' Etain responded. 'Trapped here are the spirits of those who dedicated themselves to work instead of humanity. They are as jealous and bitter as anything else in the Grim Lands, and they would like nothing more than to entice you into the sucking bog.'
Bubbles burst intermittently on the surface of the pools. 'Deep?'
'Bottomless. And filled with razor-worms that will feed on your flesh and bones for eternity.'
Mallory studied her for a while and tried to imagine what she had been like when she was alive. 'I'm betting you'd rather be with Veitch than here with me.'
'His affections have turned to another. And why should he not find interest in one of his own rather than a dead thing?' she added pointedly. 'Here he was king, worshipped by the inhabitants of the Grim Lands because he understood them. And he cared. Because he has died, and returned.'
'That's not as rare as you might think.'
'He understands what it is like to be an outsider.'
'You're saying that's a good enough motivation to follow him into a life…' He paused, couldn't think of a better phrase: 'Of mass-murder?'
'I would follow him to the end of the world.'
'Which is pretty much where we are.'
'He is a good man, whatever you might think of him. But he is as flawed as all mortal beings, and sometimes flaws get the better of us. Of you. It is a constant battle, and judgement should not come easy.'
'We judge ourselves. And we do what we can to make amends for our failings, even when there isn't a hope in hell of righting the balance.'
'You speak from experience.'
Mallory didn't respond.
Pointing to the path ahead, Etain said, 'The one you call Callow has passed this way, and recently. We will soon be upon him.'
'Good.' Mallory glanced back, half-expecting to see the Hortha close behind. 'Sometimes you can run as much as you want and never get away,' he said to himself.
They rode in silence for another fifteen minutes while Mallory cast an uneasy eye towards the swamp. Every now and then he thought he saw things moving in the black water.
Eventually, they came to a halt. For several minutes Tannis searched the narrow paths amongst the pools before returning to the group. 'The trail has faded,' he said.
'I thought you said you could track anything,' Mallory protested.
'We can, given time. Sometimes the trail can be lost, but by careful scrutiny of the surrounding area it can be located again.'
'We haven't got that kind of time.' Frustrated, Mallory jumped down and paced the area of solid ground until Caitlin summoned him over.
'We'll find him,' she said hoarsely. Some of her strength had already returned.
'Before he destroys Hal? This is all my fault. Why did I trust him?'
'We both trusted him. Don't blame yourself.'
'He hurt you-'
'I'll be fine.'
'Your face…' Mallory traced the line of the wound across her cheek beneath the dressing Branwen had applied.
Caitlin grabbed his hand and held it tight. 'A battle scar. There's a part of me that will enjoy having that.'
In her eyes, Mallory saw a deep shadow start to grow.
'She's coming, Mallory,' Caitlin said quietly. 'And she's not going to see a sister treated so badly. There'll be a price to pay, trust me on that.'
The shadow filled Caitlin's eyes and moved out into her face. The Morrigan smiled.
Deep in the heart of the forbidding swamplands, Callow finally paused and removed the lantern from inside his jacket. He was afraid of retribution — his knowledge of the persistence of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons was extensive — but he was filled with an eager glee for his own retribution.
Sitting cross-legged next to the soupy water, he examined the Wayfinder's blue flame. 'Oh, the wonder of it all — a genie in the lamp, and a Brother of Dragons to boot. Can you hear me, little man?' He roughly rattled the lantern in front of his face. 'Sadly, I am a mortal like any other, and prone to the melancholies of all men. And yes, the desire for a touch of revenge for being so badly treated. And I have been, oh, how I have been! During that terrible Age of Misrule I was manipulated… possibly brutally coerced… into helping those misshapen monsters, the Fomorii.
'And did the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons forgive and forget? Did they respond to my plight, and offer a friendly hand in answer to my humble admission of my wrongs and my plaintive desire for redemption? No. They punished me, and brutalised me, and eventually took my sad, sad life. And these are Champions of Existence! How ironic. It is through their cruel machinations that events have conspired to keep me trapped in this hideous place.' He paused slyly. 'Or should I say your machinations? It is unfortunate that you will have to pay the price for their sins.'
Callow did an excited jig before calming himself. 'Now how should I do it? Fling the lantern into one of these sucking pools and watch it disappear for ever? Then you would understand the kind of purgatory I have experienced for so long. Or should I smash it and watch the flame flicker and die?' He considered this for a moment, and smiled triumphantly. 'I think that would set my world alight.'
Drawing one of the many razor blades he had secreted about his person, he attempted to carve his name into the lantern, but he could make no mark on the shiny surface and the razor blunted within seconds. He tossed it angrily into the water where something snapped and spat.
'I was just a humble knight of the road when I met that overinflated Pecksniff Jack Churchill,' he muttered to himself. 'No harm to man nor beast. Lover of the byways, lover of people, a helping hand to all I met on my way. And look what he did to me.'
Callow laid the Wayfinder on the ground, took a running jump and slammed both booted feet upon it. A peal of thunder was accompanied by a fizz of blue sparks. He repeated the assault three times before examining it again. The lantern was dented and the glass on one side was cracked.
'Once more,' he muttered. 'This may well look like a lantern, but I know its true shape is different from what I see. Yet here in the Grim Lands it is as vulnerable as anything from the places where the living roam. Yes, I think once more will do. I'll say goodbye to you now, oh genie. Enjoy the great hereafter.'
Laying the lantern down once again, he paced out a long run-up and then, with a grim smile, hurled himself at the Wayfinder. At the point when Callow hung above the lantern, a column of Blue Fire engulfed him and hurled him back to the edge of the swamp water. Callow let out a high-pitched, shocked scream.
It was only when he picked himself up that he realised the flames were cold, and had done little more than propel him away.
'So it's a fight you want,' he said, drawing up his sleeves. 'We'll see how long you can keep that up in this place.'
The blue flash lit up the swamplands even through the mist, followed closely by the echo of Callow's scream across the black water.
Caitlin broke off her examination of the myriad paths through the swamp and removed the axe from its harness on her back. Etain, Tannis, Owein and Branwen were already climbing into their saddles as Mallory growled, 'With any luck, something's eaten him.'
'That flash — it was Blue Fire,' Caitlin said coldly.
Mallory didn't respond.
Another blue flash filtered through the mists, but this time it was accompanied by a shout of gleeful anger.
Callow was so engrossed in his vigorous attempts to destroy the lantern that he didn't hear their approach until the last. With a girlish shriek, he booted the lantern towards the deep water and ran.
Diving at full run, Mallory's fingertips skimmed the Wayfinder before it splashed into the depths, spinning it upwards where it threatened to escape him again. Scrabbling wildly, he eventually snagged it and hugged it to his chest.
'Sorry, Hal,' he whispered. 'I won't let you out of my grasp again.'
With powerful strides, Caitlin caught up with Callow in seconds, brutally kicking his legs out from under him. His frightened pleas quickly turned into sly attempts to explain his actions, but when he saw the dark fury in Caitlin's eyes his voice faded away.
'I bleed, you don't,' she said, 'so how do I get my revenge against a dead thing?' She pressed the blade of her axe against his face. 'I could chop you into tiny chunks, but would there be any conscious thought left in them to suffer?'
'Being in this place is suffering enough, m-m-m-ma'am,' Callow stuttered.
'But it doesn't make me feel any better. Where's the justice in that? Where's the lesson learned?'
'Please,' Callow called out to Mallory, 'have a heart! I made a mistake, that's all. You are Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. You celebrate all that is good about life.'
Distractedly, Mallory polished the lantern. 'True. But unluckily for you we're not Church's group. They've got compassion in spades. Existence brought us together with specific qualities in mind. They're the good guys. We're the hard bastards.' He gave Callow a brutal smile. 'All except Hal, and I'm betting he's not feeling very sympathetic towards you right now.'
Callow let out a small whimper. Caitlin dragged him to Etain and retrieved a rope from her saddle. His searing cries echoed across the entire swamp as Caitlin bound his wrists tightly behind his back, looped the rope around his ankles, then threw the other end over the branch of one of the spindly trees overhanging the swamp. With a jerk, she whipped Callow's feet out from under him and suspended him an inch above the water, where snapping shapes swam hungrily just beneath the surface.
He cried and pleaded until his throat was raw, and when he finally stopped, Caitlin said, 'I think the best thing would be to leave you here where you can't do any more harm. With a few friends for company.'
Another jerk of the rope plunged Callow's head into the water up to the bridge of his nose. The water boiled around him as the razor-worms plunged into his eyes and ears, burrowing and eating for what could be eternity.
Half an hour later they could still hear his terrible screams as they made their way out of the swamp and onto a barren plain, once again following the lantern's blue flame.
In the hard, silvery gleam of dawn, Decebalus came round deep in the mire of the battlefield. The storm had ended, and a strained quiet lay across the great plain, punctuated by the occasional cry. All around were scattered dismembered corpses of both allies and enemy. It took a second or two for Decebalus's thoughts to flicker into some semblance of cohesion, and then another few seconds to realise he was alive and intact. His first thought was how Seth had been prepared to devastate his own side to achieve a minor advantage.
The remnants of the once-enormous Enemy force trailed across the battlefield towards the city in small pockets, pausing occasionally to slay a survivor. They skirted much of the area where the gods had fought. Decebalus guessed that if he lived, most of the gods would have survived too. Seth would want to achieve his aims before they returned to the fray.
Drawing his strength back into his shaky limbs, Decebalus was gripped by a flash of memory. Keeping low, he desperately searched amongst the fallen, overturning bodies to peer into blood- and mud-stained faces. Finally he located Aula buried under a heap of dismembered Lament-Brood. She was deathly pale, her eyes closed, her blond hair matted with gore. Decebalus muttered a brief prayer before taking her wrist and locating a thready pulse. Relief flooded through him; the Pendragon Spirit would work its magic; she would survive. Bowing his head to her chest, he closed his eyes and remembered Dacia, so far away in time and space. He wished he could have shown Aula the beauty of the forests on a summer's twilight, the great river at dawn with the sun glinting off the water and the smell of a new day rising. Gently, he kissed the back of her hand. So many things unsaid, so many emotions buried deep in his heart that in his rough ways he had never been able to express. But she knew, he was sure.
Kissing her on the lips, he re-covered her with the bodies to protect her from the Enemy's sight. As he prepared to crawl towards the city, he caught sight of a small group of Redcaps moving his way, emitting their deep, throaty growl as they tore chunks of flesh off dead limbs. If he stood and fought, it would attract other enemies to him, and he would not last a moment, but there was no way he could escape the Redcaps' advance without being seen.
Crawling on his belly, he rounded a larger pile of corpses to find better shelter where he could gather his thoughts. Nearby, two Brothers of Dragons slumped together, bleeding heavily from fatal wounds. Decebalus had nursed high hopes for both of them: Jim Davey, softly spoken and with Shavi's empathic nature, and Michael Koefman, a messy-haired former musician. Decebalus crawled over to them.
'What kind of thing destroys its own side to get at us?' Blood leaked from the corner of Michael's mouth as he spoke. Neither had long left.
'Something that does not care in the slightest about life,' he replied. 'I have to get to the city before the Enemy's bastards reach the Caraprix. Yet there are Redcaps nearby who will see me when I move…'
He let the words hang. Understanding what he was asking, the two Brothers of Dragons exchanged a fleeting glance of acceptance for their fate, and then Jim said quietly, 'You can count on us.'
'You are good men, both. I will make sure you are remembered.' Decebalus's farewell nod couldn't begin to convey what he truly felt and he crawled away quickly. Not long after he heard them both begin to shout loudly. The roar of the Redcaps followed instantly, and when he heard their savage attack, Decebalus ran for the city.
The remnants of the shattered gates hung raggedly from the twisted hinges. The city beyond was still, the residents cowering in their rooms. At the entrance, Ronnie darted from a hiding place. His wounds were superficial, but his face had a haunted expression as the devastation across the Great Plain ignited memories of his terrible experiences in Flanders during the Great War.
'I was going after that bastard, sir,' he said. 'He's on his way to the palace and the Caraprix.'
'You will not be able to stop him. He is too powerful,' Decebalus said.
'And you will? Excuse me, sir, but we're both of a kind.'
'Not so much, Ronald. You are a better man than me. My experiences have better prepared me for what is necessary.' Decebalus silenced Ronnie's protests. 'I have more important work for you. You must find a way to raise the gods.'
'To help you?'
'No. The game here is almost played. You must leave this place immediately, do you hear me?'
Ronnie looked unsure.
'Do you hear me?' Decebalus gripped Ronnie's shoulders forcefully until Ronnie nodded, unsettled. 'Bring together our own survivors quickly.' He told Ronnie where Aula was hidden, and then added, 'You must strike out for the Enemy Fortress, to offer what support you can to Church and the others. Time is short. Make haste. Do not wait here a moment longer than necessary.'
Decebalus raced through the gates before Ronnie could argue. A brief detour took him to the Hunter's Moon where Crowther and Mahalia waited behind a barricaded door. The teenage girl had been a shadow of herself since Jack's departure, but now her old fire flashed in her eyes.
'Let me help.' She drew the small switchblade she carried with her at all times.
'I have greater work for you two,' Decebalus said. 'You must save an entire city.'
'The Enemy's broken inside?' Crowther asked.
Decebalus nodded. 'Sound the alarm. God knows, we have practised the escape enough times in recent days. There will be fear, panic. You must show leadership to calm them, and then take them to safety in the foothills. Can I count on you to do this?'
Crowther's heavy-set face glowed; as Decebalus had anticipated, the gift of purpose had brought him alive. 'You can count on us.'
Within moments of Decebalus leaving the inn, the first tolling bell echoed across the silent city, joined soon by another, and then an entire host. People were already creeping from their hiding places as Decebalus ran up the winding cobbled road towards the Palace of Glorious Light, where he could hear the Enemy advancing. His relief freed him to concentrate on the trial ahead.
In the courtyard before the palace, Seth waited with a few ranks of Lament-Brood and Redcaps. The god's head hung to one side as though he was listening, and then he nodded and forced his way through the palace doors.
Once Seth and his troops had entered, Decebalus slipped in behind and followed one of the many secret passages and hidden stairways that would put him ahead of the Enemy. Math's chamber was silent, but Decebalus sensed the sorcerer was near.
He rapped on the door. 'It is I, Decebalus. The time has come.'
The door swung open, though there was no one on the other side. Math waited in an adjoining chamber so gloomy that his presence was only revealed by the glint of his mask as it revolved a quarter-turn.
'This is it, then. The end, or the beginning of it.' Math's voice was a low rumble. 'The Golden Ones always feared that if Fragile Creatures rose up they would destroy what they set out to attain. It is in your nature.'
'Be thankful it is. If Existence was left to your spineless kind, the Void would have wiped us all out long ago, and would now be feasting on our bones. Where is it?'
Math took a step into the shadows and returned holding a small iron casket in the palm of his hand.
'That is it?' Decebalus queried.
'Size is no definer of power.'
'That has never been an issue for me, in any case.' Decebalus took the casket, unnerved by how it hummed beneath his fingertips. 'I expected more resistance from you.'
'All roads have been leading to these End-Times since the beginning. It is futile to try to avoid it.'
'That is another area where I am thankful that we differ. We do not bow down to futility.'
'Oh, yes. Hope,' Math said with a note of mockery.
'Make peace with yourself,' Decebalus said.
He sprinted along the empty corridors towards Doctor Jay's laboratory. As he neared, he could feel the raw power of the Caraprix pulsing through the stone walls.
Seth stood before the broken door of the chamber, bathed in an eerie white light that emanated from within. With the shifting tones playing across his face, the god appeared mesmerised by what he saw in the laboratory, and that, in itself, troubled Decebalus: what power could instil wonder in a god? Behind him, the Redcaps shied away, refusing to look. The Lament-Brood stood in their dumb ranks, unmoved.
'You cannot have them,' Decebalus said.
Seth's dark-ringed, unblinking eyes snapped towards him. 'You do not know what they are,' he said. 'If you did, you would not be so quick to defend them.'
'I know that you and your master want them, and that is enough for me.'
'I have destroyed many Fragile Creatures today, and gods, and beasts. Yet you stand here alone?' Seth fought to stop his gaze being drawn back to the pulsing white light.
'You have never faced anyone like me.'
Ringing with more than bravado, Decebalus's words gained Seth's full attention. When he noticed the small iron casket his mood became darker, as though he knew instinctively what lay within. 'What is that?' he said.
'This is the end of you, of me, of everything here. It is the weapon I kept in reserve, the one I did not want to use until you drove me to it.' The light from the open door changed in quality as if the Caraprix too were aware of Decebalus's intent.
Seth stared at the box.
'I am only a poor, muddy-arsed barbarian from the wilds of Dacia with no schooling and only my common guile to keep me alive, but wiser men tell me that what lies within this box is a Wish-Hex.'
A shadow crossed Seth's face.
'This weapon was devised by the bastards in the stinking bowels of the Court of the Final Word. It has the power to bend reality, to ensnare, if you will, or to destroy, and to destroy on a massive scale, or so I am told. This is only a little baby of a Wish-Hex — not like the one those bastards embedded in the boy, Jack, who accompanies Church. But still, I think it will suffice.'
'You would not use it. You would not survive.'
Decebalus pretended to consider this point, then said, 'You gods do not live in the shadow of death, like Fragile Creatures do. It is the thing that defines us. An encounter with death changes us for ever, the passing of a loved one, a parent, like the stones the alchemists used to turn lead into gold. We become something sadder, but greater for the experience. Death is a companion to us, and sooner or later we must make our peace with him. I did that a long time ago.' He held the box up to eye-level and examined the carvings around it. 'I have been told that wish is an old word for soul. Now what do you think that means? Is this a small part of Existence, with all the power that lies in it? I think perhaps it is.'
'If they are destroyed too, then so be it. At least your foul lord will not use them to ensure his unending rule.'
There was movement in the room. A shadow emerged slowly from the brilliant light: Jerzy, not conscious, was suspended a few inches above the floor. The light wrapped around him and entered him through eyes, mouth, ears and nostrils.
Seth lunged for the box, and without a second thought Decebalus tore open the lid. His defiant battle cry was drowned out by a deafening roar that made his ears bleed. A brilliant blue light flooded the corridor, and for a second, that was all Decebalus could see, until, strangely, he was walking hand-in-hand with Aula through the forests of Dacia. He was at peace, for the first time. Aula smiled at him, and that was all he knew.
Into the Great Plain wound a column of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, gods and inhabitants of the Court of the Soaring Spirit, stragglers racing from the city to join the tail end. When the soundless blue flare lit up the sky, they came to a halt and glanced back only to see that the city and part of the mountain behind it were gone.
Aula stared at the barren, blackened zone for a long moment, and then wiped away a stray tear. Holding her head proudly, she nodded to Ronnie who waited with Mahalia and Crowther, and the column continued slowly on its way.
Rough hands dragged Callow's head from the water. He was briefly distracted by the sensation of the wriggling razor-worms disengaging from his empty eye sockets, and then he cried, 'Oh, thank you, oh, thank you! I knew you'd come back for me. Forget about the eyes! They'll grow back in no time, and I'll be as good as new! I forgive you. I accept my punishment for my minor misdemeanour-'
'You encountered the Brother and Sister of Dragons?'
The voice was low and rustling, and inhuman. 'Who are you?' Callow asked hesitantly.
'Ah. And what is a Hortha?'
'You should know. I have been a step behind you your whole life.'
'I think perhaps I would have noticed.'
'No. Your kind never notices.'
'Perhaps, kind sir, you could help me down from this undignified position, and then we could talk as old friends-'
'My nature is a paradox for all living things,' the Hortha said. 'Some cross my path at random. Some call me to them, consciously or otherwise. And some I pursue. Once I have been encountered I can never be stopped. It is only a matter of time.'
'Why, this sounds like a riddle! What am I? I do like riddle games. Perhaps if I guess correctly, you could reward me in the age-old fashion? In this case, by bringing me down to earth.'
'Random or purposeful, that is usually the question that follows me,' the Hortha continued. 'There is a pattern. There is always a pattern. You can beg and plead, make a bargain with your gods, you can try to bribe and cajole me, or run faster, or hide, or wish, but the pattern can never be changed. And I am bound into the very fabric of it, into the weft and the weave. I have all faces and I have two faces, and in the end I have only one. I am both a being and a symbol.'
'Good! Good! I like this. I think I am almost there! Give me another clue.'
'Tell me what you learned from the Brother and Sister of Dragons.'
'I learned that they are vicious beasts, and that everything they say about their own nature is a lie!'
The Hortha began to lower Callow's head back into the water.
'Wait! Wait! You want information! I understand. A valuable nugget, something that will help you to find them, perhaps? Or… Ah, I have it! Something that will give you power over them. Knowledge is power! Yes, indeed.'
'They carry a lantern that is not a lantern. Within it is one of their own kind, a genie in the lamp, one who has two faces like yourself — a man and a blue flame! And he is the key to everything they do. Not just their guide, but also a manifestation of that sickening Pendragon Spirit,' Callow gabbled. 'Is that the kind of thing you want?'
'Yes. It is.'
'Then bring me down, my good man!'
Once again, the Hortha began to lower Callow into the water.
'Wait! My reward!'
'You have your reward. You have crossed my path and still you survive. Others, in a similar situation, would not have survived. On this occasion, the great forces of all there is have shifted around you and moved on.'
'No!' Callow shouted.
'You still do not understand your good fortune. That, in itself, is unfortunate.'
Allowing Callow's head to drop back into the water, the Hortha moved on. The razor-worms returned to their eternal task, and Callow to his screams.
Alone in the stifling heat of the room, Church worked at the rope around his wrists fastening him to the chair. Blood slicked the fibres and a deep ache jabbed towards his elbows, but he ignored the pain, focusing instead on Ruth and everything she meant to him.
The Libertarian had grown bored with tormenting him long ago, but that only made Church more anxious, for now his other self might be with Ruth, exacting his promise of torture. Church couldn't think about that, nor his other doubts: did the Libertarian's departure mean his future-self knew Church would not escape, or was this another of his memory blank spots? Where was his sword? Was Veitch already saving Ruth, while he was trapped there impotently? Was that a scream he had heard echoing through the wall, or just his imagination? If he allowed himself, he could get lost in the questions and the infinite permutations.
Focus on the now, he told himself. He used the pain in his wrists to clear his head.
The lamps and candles fizzed as they attempted to keep the dark at bay. Sweat coated his body. But still the rope would not give.
'Shouldn't we have a rope or something, or chalk so we can scribble some arrows, or some other shit like they have in all those old stories?' Veitch asked uneasily as they picked their way through the twists and turns of the dusty tunnels beneath the queen's palace. Bearskin and Shadow John had found two torches to light their way, but they revealed no distinguishing features on the stone walls.
'My nose will lead us back out,' Bearskin said, before adding with a hesitance that masked a touch of distaste, 'Fragile Creatures have a distinct aroma.'
'You can smell the woman?' Shavi asked.
'Not yet. But when our paths cross…'
Shavi's hand jerked to his alien eye.
'Seeing things?' Veitch asked.
'Just flashes… flickers on the edge of my vision. It happens like that sometimes. I cannot tell what they are until they come into focus.'
Bearskin held up a hand to bring them to a halt. 'I smell… something. ' He listened intently. 'The beast still roams this place, but not near, not yet.'
As if in response to his words, a low, mournful growl echoed along the tunnels from deep within the Labyrinth, but Veitch understood that the odd acoustics of the place could mean it was much closer than it sounded. He drew his sword in readiness. 'How do we know it hasn't already eaten the girl?' he asked.
'We do not,' Bearskin replied.
Stooping to avoid scraping his top hat along the tunnel roof, Shadow John peered nervously into the dark. ''Pon my soul, this place is dismal. Can you smell the rotting bodies of the recently departed, Bearskin? How far am I from the parlours I usually inhabit. How very disturbing this all is. At least we have two Brothers of Dragons to save us.'
Veitch and Shavi exchanged a don't count on it look.
For the next hour they stumbled around the maze of branching tunnels and dead ends, clambering over piles of rubble or wading through ankle-deep pools of water. Occasionally blasts of warm air threatened to extinguish their torches and Bearskin and Shadow John fought to shield them with their bodies. The origins of the air currents were unknown, but suggested some shift in the Labyrinth's structure, or the opening and closing of doors to the outside.
At every junction, Bearskin's nostrils flared as he searched for telltale scents, and at one he let out a low growl. 'More of those skull-headed warriors have entered the Labyrinth,' he said, one hand unconsciously going to his blunderbuss.
Their journey was repeatedly punctuated by the low, mournful sound of the beast that lived there, sometimes so distant it was barely audible, sometimes unnervingly close at hand making Shadow John jump and shiver, his long fingers folding into claws.
Finally the endless blur of grey tunnels gave way to a hexagonal area about twenty-five feet across. In the centre of the space was a pile of yellowing human bones arranged in a circular pattern with a hollow at the centre.
Bearskin plucked a thighbone from the heap and gave it a cursory examination before tossing it over his shoulder. 'A nest,' he said.
Shavi spun swiftly. 'Something is here.' He came to a halt before one of the six tunnels that led away from the nest. 'Gone now.'
The mournful growl of the beast issued from another tunnel, so close it raised the hairs on Veitch's neck.
'Hurry, now!' Bearskin insisted. At a rapid pace, he led the way into the opposite tunnel, before a crash of bones and the sound of pursuit echoed behind them. Though the echoes were disorienting, Veitch was sure the beast moved on four feet, but it occasionally issued a rasping laugh that was eerily human. It was fast, drawing closer.
'We're going to have to stand and fight,' Veitch gasped.
'Not advisable,' Bearskin shouted back. The flames of his torch trailed behind him as he loped, and to Veitch he now looked more animal than man.
Somehow they avoided dead ends as they ducked this way and that down the many tunnel options presented to them, but the beast at their back never slowed. The rasping laugh came faster, accompanied now by the gnashing of teeth.
'Get set now,' Bearskin roared furiously, 'and run as fast as you can!'
As they raced past the point where another tunnel crossed their path, Veitch glimpsed the pale forms of the Aztec warriors approaching from their left. A moment later the tunnel reverberated with a terrible rending and tearing accompanied by the beast's human laughter as it attacked the warriors.
By the time Bearskin brought them to a halt, the beast no longer followed. Resting his hands on his knees, Veitch filled his searing lungs, but Bearskin was already pacing around, sniffing the air.
'We are nearly there. Yes, I think we are!' he exclaimed. He set off again, and after a few more minutes they proceeded down a short stretch of tunnel that ended in roof-fall. Crouched at the foot of the rubble, hugging her knees and whimpering, was Rachel. Her tear-stained face was streaked with dust and her clothes were dirty. She cried out as Bearskin approached her.
'Let me,' Veitch said.
Her blinking eyes recognised on some level that they were the same species, but the fear held her in thrall for several moments.
'You,' she said weakly. 'I saw you… when I first arrived in this… in this…' She gulped a mouthful of air. 'Awful place.' Breaking into wracking sobs, she collapsed into Veitch's arms.
He held her tightly until her crying subsided. 'Yeah, this place can be a nightmare until you realise how it works. But we'll soon get you back on your feet.'
'Home,' she said. 'Take me home. Please.'
'First thing, we need to get you out of these tunnels. Can you walk?'
Nodding, she appeared to see the Labyrinth for the first time. 'I don't know how I got here. It's all a blur since I last saw you.'
Helping her to her feet, he briefly introduced her to the others, though she shied away from Bearskin and Shadow John and refused even to look at them.
'Understandable,' Bearskin said. 'Fragile Creatures find it difficult to adjust to the wonders of the Far Lands, if they ever do.'
'I do not understand how she got here,' Shavi whispered to Veitch once they were back in the tunnels. 'Only those with the Pendragon Spirit can cross to the Otherworld without paying a price, and she cannot be a Sister of Dragons.'
'That's something we can work out later, if we actually get out of this hole,' Veitch said.
Whimpering intermittently, Rachel stumbled along close to Veitch, occasionally reaching out to touch his arm for comfort. He was moved by how quickly she had placed her faith in him.
Following Bearskin's nose, they cautiously retraced their steps, senses attuned for the approach of the Labyrinth's guardian. At the junction of the two tunnels, the half-eaten remains of the Aztec warriors were scattered. Once the nest was far behind them, their spirits eased a little, but the beast's occasional echoing growls still troubled them and sent Rachel into paroxysms of sobs.
It felt as if they had walked miles when Bearskin announced, 'We near the exit. This is the most dangerous time of all.'
The words had barely left his lips when he pitched forwards to the ground, unconscious.
Shadow John let out a cry of alarm. 'Something rushed by me!' He whirled round and round, but his torch revealed nothing.
Veitch prised Rachel's fingers from his wrist and drew his sword. A moment passed as they all waited tensely, and then the staccato laughter rolled out of the dark only feet ahead of them. Shadow John held Rachel tightly against him to prevent her from fleeing back along the tunnels.
'Right, you bastard,' Veitch growled, raising his sword above his shoulder, 'let's see what you've got.'
Veitch only glimpsed a flash of the beast as it erupted from the dark into the tiny, flickering circle of torchlight: a human face, distorted across a broad head, slanting silver eyes, and then the long, lean body of a jungle cat ending in a thrashing, sinuous tail tipped with sharp quills. As it bore down on him, the mouth wrenched open to reveal three rows of snapping teeth.
'The Manticore!' Shadow John cried.
A weight crashed into Veitch's midriff as he prepared to swing his sword, slamming him into the wall and then down onto the flags, winded. It was not the Manticore, for the beast passed over him a second later, turning fluidly mid-leap to rake him with its enormous claws. Instinctively, Veitch rolled out of the way as the creature crashed to the flags, so close he could feel its hot, meaty breath on his cheek.
Disoriented, Veitch heard Shavi shouting, but his words were drowned out by the sound of Rachel's screaming. Scrambling to his feet, he had a split second to search for whatever had knocked him down before the Manticore leaped again. His legs went out from under him before he could even raise his sword. Through his shock, he just heard the last of Shavi shouting, '… something else here!' and then the Manticore pinned him down. The distorted human face pressed close, made worse for the lack of any intelligence in the wild eyes. Deep in its throat, the laughter rumbled and then it tore its jaws wide.
Veitch's vision was filled by the rows of teeth. Suddenly the Manticore convulsed and turned on Shadow John, whose fingers were hooked into cruel claws. The Manticore's side had been raked open.
Stepping in front of Shadow John, Veitch said, 'Thanks for the help, mate, but stay back. Protect the girl.'
'I see it!' Shavi called.
Veitch only had a brief impression of Shavi wrestling on the floor with something he couldn't see before he was surrounded by the Manticore's snapping jaws and rending claws. Rolling to one side, he let the sword dance instinctively, the flames painting a sizzling blue mandala in the dark.
The Manticore's laughter turned to shrieks, and it fell to the floor in a frenzy. Veitch hacked until it was dead.
Shavi continued to roll around the floor, welts and scratches mysteriously appearing across his face and hands. Shaking the daze from his head, Bearskin lifted Shavi with one hand and with the other wrenched out whatever invisible thing was clutched in Shavi's grasp. One snap of his wrist brought the struggle to an end. In his hand materialised a lifeless thing that resembled a small ape.
'The queen of the Court of Endless Horizons needs a lesson in fairness, ' Bearskin growled. 'Two beasts instead of the one she told her contestants they faced. And invisible to boot.'
Attempting to staunch his wounds, Shavi said, 'So, this eye does have its uses.'
Veitch clapped an arm around his friend's shoulders. 'Good bit of teamwork there, pal.'
'Just like the old days.'
Rachel's cries ebbed away, and she looked on Veitch with the wonder only reserved for a true saviour. As he helped her to her feet, she asked with breathless respect, 'Who are you?'
'South London's finest, darlin',' he replied.
Within fifteen minutes they were out of the Labyrinth. The city was still gripped by the darkness and the intermittent screams had not diminished, but now there was a new element: a slow drum-beat rolling out across the rooftops. It felt like a call to ceremony, but there was something in the quality of it that left them all inexplicably chilled.
After long moments of circling with not a hint of prey, the bird swooped down from the grey sky to land on a slab of granite jutting from the white slopes. The bitter wind ruffled the bird's feathers and whipped up a whirlwind of recently fallen snowflakes that was the only sign of movement on the lonely wastes.
From the niche in the rocks where he had waited with inordinate patience for the better part of half an hour, Miller made a desperate lunge. His fingers almost closed on the bird before it took frenzied flight amidst the high-pitched koo-koo-koo call that Miller had come to know so well during the last few weeks.
It had been there! His fingertips had brushed the grey feathers! And now it was gone.
He collapsed onto the granite slab, sobbing silently, his frozen fingers blue, his eyebrows and hair encrusted with snow. Miller allowed himself one moment to wallow in the despair of his failure, and then he picked himself up, brushed the snow from his trousers and trudged back up the hard-packed track to the cave. It lay on the leeward side of the mountain, protected from the worst knives of the wind, the interior contracting into a tight tunnel before opening out into a larger rock womb. The refuge served the dual purpose of containing the warmth from the small fire he kept alight with kindling from the leafless trees that scattered the lower slopes, and providing protection from the Fomorii that relentlessly prowled the entire mountain range, their oily black forms always visible against the white background.
'Sorry, guys, we'll have to delay dinner,' he said breezily, warming his hands near the embers.
There was no response; Miller had only heard his own voice since the terrible plunge from the shattered bridge leading to the Groghaan Gate. Hunter, Jack and Virginia lay around the edge of the cave, their broken bones and burst organs now healed by the ministrations of Miller's hands, but still only a whisper away from death. The rise and fall of their chests was barely visible. Their eyes didn't move. Their skin felt as cold as the rock.
Once the life had returned to his fingers, he moved from one to the other, checking their vitals and, where necessary, placing a hand on their heart to let some of the thin blue glow leak out of him and into them. The healing energy was diminishing as his own strength flagged. A lack of food, the ever-present chill and the constant need to offer up the regenerative force was taking its toll. How long could he keep it up? Death tugged at Hunter, Jack and Virginia and he fought daily to keep them on the right side of life, but he only had enough energy to keep all their hearts beating, not enough to give them vitality; unless he let one of them die. Only then would he have the reserves to save the remaining two. But how could he choose? Who should he choose? If he didn't make a decision soon, his abilities would be depleted and they would all die.
'Turned out cold again!' he joked brightly before investigating the heap of bird bones for any that had not already been picked clean. He was not rewarded.
Lying down next to the fire, he added, 'I'll just grab forty winks before I head out again. Don't worry. Everything is going to be fine.'
For Ruth, only one horizon now existed in the Court of Endless Horizons and that was in the dimension of pain. It had gone on for so long, with such intensity, that it had become the medium in which her body existed, as much a part of life as the air she breathed. She occasionally found herself examining it with a Zen-like detachment, although she knew that was a response to the natural analgesics her brain was flooding through her system. Occasionally, she found herself looking down on her body from high above, seeing her arms yanked over her head and back so that the joints were in permanent agony as she lay stretched across an oaken table, now puddled with her sweat and the blood that had flowed from the thousand tiny cuts made by the obsidian knife. Some went deeply into the muscle tissue, and though she knew the Pendragon Spirit would heal them rapidly, she also realised that Tezcatlipoca would not give her that opportunity. Death would be coming soon.
From her vantage point, she saw Tom, tearful at her suffering, held with a knife at his throat in one corner of the large hall near the top of one of the city's highest buildings, and Laura beside him, her face pale and blank, a spear levelled at her side.
Don't be sad for me, she thought, obliquely. I can survive this. I can survive anything.
Vast windows ran along all four walls, which would once have offered a great vista across the entire city and captured every sunrise and sunset. Now only black lay without. The hall was filled with ranks of the Aztec warriors, their spears banging against the stone flags with each beat of the drum. Ruth knew the beat matched that of her heart, steady, but soon it would be slowing. Soon it would stop.
Where's Church? The notion floated up, detached from any context, and then, Where's Ryan?
In a rare moment of clarity, she realised her instinctive use of the Craft had pulled the essential part of her from her body. A flash of pride came and went: she had never before achieved that state without her ritual and her herbs.
Is this what I'm capable of? From thought to action in the blink of an eye? Is this what we all could do? All that potential in every person. It's a shame I'll never find out.
It didn't matter; in her spirit-form she always had a different perception of what was important, of life and death, and the part all the elements played in what she had heard described as the Great Mystery.
This is what Shavi meant about the patterns, she realised. Rise above it and it all makes a different kind of sense.
Beneath her, Tezcatlipoca raised the obsidian knife again. Ruth was pleased she could no longer smell his decomposing flesh, and she had no desire to witness her body put under more duress so she took her previous thought literally: Rise.
Up to the ceiling, she floated, and then through it into the chamber above, and up until she was inside the dense darkness that enveloped everything. Part of her wanted to keep rising, up past the darkness, past the sky, to search for that welcoming tunnel of light she had heard of so many times, and to see again all those people she missed so dearly.
But she couldn't allow herself to do it, and instead she swooped down so fast that the buildings passed in a blur. When she reached street level, she moved along inches above the cobbles, enjoying the familiar exhilaration. At speed, she ranged through the city, seeing Tezcatlipoca's warriors prowling the deserted streets, slipping into buildings where their victims lay in a jumble and feeling a surge of guilt that she had been indirectly responsible for their deaths; then investigating the other homes and shops, towers, halls and warehouses still packed with the trembling, fearful mass of people who had no idea what was happening around them, but who knew that death was creeping closer. Their faces burned through her dreamlike state and ignited a fierce desire to protect them. She could never give up while a single one remained alive.
The others, she thought. Where are they?
And then the streets and buildings of the Court of Endless Horizons passed in a blur as she searched every corner at speed. Finally she came across Veitch, Shavi, Bearskin, Shadow John and Rachel weaving through an alley to avoid an Aztec patrol as they made their way back to the cafe where they had arranged to meet Church.
As she floated above them, her hazy mind accepted the futility of what she was doing, for in that state she could neither touch nor be heard or seen. Yet to her surprise, Shavi's head snapped up when she came lower and he stared into her face with a shocked expression.
Veitch looked at him askance. 'Are you on the mushrooms again?' 'You can see me?' Ruth asked.
Holding off Veitch, who was urging him to move on quietly, Shavi smiled and pointed to his eye. 'This thing is proving a better investment than I ever hoped. What are you doing?'
'You have to come quickly,' she said. 'He's killing me.'
'The god who's taken control of the city. He's been trying to flush us out.' She glanced at Rachel. 'And, I think, find her. He said he used to be known as… Tezcatlipoca?'
Worry underlined the recognition in Shavi's face. 'One of the most important gods to the Aztecs. This darkness makes sense now — he ruled the night, and death, and he loved tempting people to do great evil.'
'He's got me, and Laura and Tom in one of the tall buildings in the middle of the city. If you can follow me, I can take you straight there.'
With every beat of the drum reverberating through the walls and floor, Church felt his anger ratcheting up. From the moment it started, he knew it was counting out the remaining moments of Ruth's life, each thoom bringing a flash of the woman he loved in pain; he saw each cut, each beating, each agonised expression as if he were standing next to her. The images seared into his mind and pushed him towards the brink of madness.
With his exertion in the heat of the rows of lamps and candles, he had sweated himself dry. He could no longer feel his wrists. The constant drip-drip-drip into the puddle on the floor matched the drum's steady rhythm.
Occasionally his dread for Ruth shifted into blind, red hatred for the Libertarian, who swayed before his mind's eye with his sickeningly mocking grin, and his lies and his contempt, the architect of all his misery. Church knew he could kill the Libertarian without a second thought, the realisation no less troubling than the conundrum of whether it would be murder or suicide.
Thoom. Ruth. Thoom. Ruth. Thoom.
Finally the combustible mixture of dread and hatred exploded in uncontrollable rage. He half-stood, the chair rising with him, and raced backwards, crashing the seat against the wall. The force of the impact jarred every bone in his body, the wood of the upright smashing into his back, but still the rage did not diminish. In a fury, he did it again, and again, falling to the ground, struggling to pick himself up, once knocking himself unconscious.
When he was in the kind of pain he imagined Ruth was experiencing, he heard a loud crack. Barely able to think straight, he slammed into the wall one more time and the chair shattered into several pieces. Stepping through his bonds, he ignored the tattered mess of his wrists and tried the door. It was open. Caledfwlch stood outside.
Stupid, he thought. Do you really think that little of me?
Working the rope against the blade, he was free within a moment and lurching quickly down the corridor towards the drum-beat. His head spun and every fibre of his body ached, but his hatred kept him going.
A maze of stairs and corridors passed in a blur until he found himself stepping out into a small gallery overlooking a great hall filled with several ranks of Aztec warriors. All else faded into a mist when his gaze fell on Ruth, bound to a table on the other side of the hall, either unconscious or dead, her body leaking blood from numerous wounds. The boom of the drum reverberating in the pit of his stomach only added to his queasy despair.
A twitch of Ruth's hand allowed his rage to surface once more, and though the Libertarian was nowhere to be seen — Coward, he thought — his attention fell on what appeared to be a decomposing corpse now looming over Ruth with a black knife.
At the same time, the door into the hall burst open. With a fierce yell, Veitch began to chop and hack at the Aztec Warriors.
Without a thought for his own safety, Church threw himself from the gallery into the midst of the warriors. Several fell beneath Caledfwlch before the warriors realised they were being attacked from behind, and by then Church was cutting a path through them towards Ruth.
In the enclosed space, the warriors' obsidian-tipped spears were useless, and their wooden swords were no match for Caledfwlch. The Blue Fire blazed around the blade with more ferocity than Church had ever seen before, filling his gaze, his mind.
In the chaos of battle, he caught only glimpses of the grotesque grey figure holding the knife above Ruth. His feverish prayers appeared to work, for the knife did not fall. Instead he caught sight of a mirror that appeared to smoke, and then the figure was gone and the Libertarian stood in his place, mocking Church silently.
The sight of the one he hated most in the world drove the last of his rational thoughts away, and then there was only a red haze of blood and bone and flesh as he cut through the final warriors and leaped onto the small dais where the table stood.
Despite the extent of her wounds, Ruth had already come round. She mouthed his name, other words he could no longer hear, and he had no idea why the concern in her face became fear. Slicing through her bonds, he lurched past the table towards the Libertarian.
'You're not going to hurt anybody any more!' he roared.
With a devilish grin, the Libertarian held the smoking mirror towards him, and as the smoke cleared, Church saw what could only have been the reflection of another world. In it, a hellish figure covered from head to toe in blood stared back at him, wild-eyed, in its hands a sword of Black Fire, remarkably like his own. The truth of the reflection did not touch him, or if it did, he did not care, for he advanced on the Libertarian with a renewed rage.
Behind him, he heard one of Ruth's words of power. A flash of lightning and a furious gale assailed the remaining warriors.
Oblivious to the turmoil behind him, Church advanced on the Libertarian. 'I'm going to kill you,' he snarled.
Someone called his name. He ignored it.
From the side of the room, another Libertarian appeared to knock the mirror from the hands of his twin where it shattered on the floor. A look of abject betrayal filled the face of the first Libertarian, but then his features began to swim.
Church was too consumed by his passions to comprehend what was happening or to wait for an outcome. As the second Libertarian darted towards the window, Church attacked his prey, even as his features began to alter back to those of Tezcatlipoca. An inhuman shriek made his head ring as the blade bit deep, the blue flames a consuming inferno. No cries for mercy would make him relent.
A troubling calm came over him, so he did not hear the thud of the sword that matched the beat of the now-silent drum. Thoom. Thoom. Thoom. The Libertarian was gone, but still Church did not stop. Whatever was before him was now an unidentifiable mass that had to be reduced to the smallest parts possible. So he continued, chopping and hacking and slicing, even when there was only a slurry spread across the dais, and a voice told him that he would never stop, because he could never be sure he could eradicate the foulness he would become. He could never change things, or make them better. He could only destroy.
Rough hands grabbed him, and by then he was too weak to resist. Caledfwlch clattered to the floor and he turned to face Shavi and Tom. Shavi was crying openly, and for some reason Tom would not meet his eyes.
Reeling, his gaze was drawn past them to Ruth, finally worried about her now that his rage had burned itself out. Suddenly he wondered if it was too late, for him, for them, for everything. Veitch held Ruth tightly, comforting her, and they were both looking at him as if he were the monster he had seen reflected in the smoking mirror.
The Warp Zone
In the ample shade of the roof garden, the ferns, olive trees and date palms swayed in the hot desert wind and the shocking pink and electric-blue tropical blooms released a luxuriant perfume that attracted bees and enormous butterflies. A sense of peace enveloped Church for the first time in weeks. Sipping the hot, spicy tea the grateful citizens brought him, he turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes.
'It's so good to have it back.' Rachel sat opposite him, sheltering beneath a large parasol. She, too, had found her first degree of peace in the Far Lands.
'We take too many things for granted until they're gone.'
The darkness had risen from the Court of Endless Horizons the moment Tezcatlipoca had been defeated. Church wasn't wholly sure that the god was dead — the vile slurry remaining after he had hacked the body to pieces had vanished shortly after, along with the fragments of the smoking mirror — but it was clear they had bought themselves some breathing space.
The city's diverse inhabitants had gradually emerged blinking into the light, barely able to believe that the immediate crisis had passed, while recognising that the larger one remained; at least the dark had hidden the Burning Man's fiery glare. Soon the streets were packed to the brim once again, despite the numbers slaughtered by Tezcatlipoca's followers.
While the city had quickly returned to the chaos that passed for normal, the tensions amongst the Five had not gone away. Church had found his equilibrium quickly, but Ruth was understandably taking longer to recover from her ordeal, and had insisted on resting alone in a room, refusing all Church's attempts to talk with her. Veitch, Shavi and Laura had been caught in numerous intense discussions, the conversation drying up whenever Church approached, and he had felt their eyes on him wherever he went, as if he would somehow pick up his sword and attack them all with the fury he had shown Tezcatlipoca.
'I am not the Libertarian!' he had shouted at one point, but that only appeared to make them more unsettled, and his inability to show any regret for his brutality or to temper his desire to kill the Libertarian only compounded their suspicions.
Tom had attempted to offer advice and guidance, but Church was not in the mood; time was running out and he was more intent on departing the city and completing his plan as soon as possible.
'This place is unbelievable,' Rachel said, her face set, her eyes hard; a great deal of anger was locked inside her. 'It's like a dream and a nightmare wrapped up in one. All this beauty, and so much horror at the same time.' She focused on a flower, which moved slowly before lunging for a passing bird. 'I keep feeling I've been here before, when I was a child.'
'Everyone feels that way when they come here for the first time. I don't know why that is — maybe children dream of this place, or they've got some innate connection to it that we lose as we get older.'
'Thank you for helping me.' Askance, she eyed him, weighing his nature, still not wholly sure. 'The elderly man… Tom?… he told me all about you. I'm not sure how much I believe. But thank you anyway.'
'No problem. The next thing we need to do is get you home.'
'You can do that? I was afraid I'd be stuck here for ever.'
'We can try. How did you get here?'
'I don't know where to start.' She tugged at the fibres of her dirty jeans for a moment, and then said, 'I'm twenty-eight. I've had more jobs than you'd possibly believe — dog groomer, checkout girl, waitress. I'm just one of those people who doesn't feel at home in anything. Always out of sorts. An outsider. Do you know?'
Deep in thought, she remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time, and then pointed to a scar near her eye. 'You see that? I was living in London with this guy. Scott. He used to knock me around, usually when he'd had a bad time at work, or when the car broke down. Or when his team lost. I kept making all these elaborate plans to leave him. Sometimes that's all I'd do — dream up different scenarios, night and day. And I never went anywhere. How pathetic is that?'
'It's more complex than that.'
'Maybe I deserve this place,' she said to herself.
Church leaned towards her sympathetically. 'Please-'
She pointed a finger at him aggressively. 'Don't patronise me or pity me.'
'Okay.' He sat back.
'One day I started to notice all these weird things happening. Spiders everywhere.' She shuddered. 'It was like I couldn't turn around without seeing them. I started to think I was going crazy. All the stress with Scott and the worry had pushed me over the edge. Then this homeless guy came up to me in the street. Filthy, like he was covered in engine oil. And he reeked! He started to rant at me. I can't remember what he said…' A hand involuntarily went to her forehead. 'It's all foggy. Whether it was that, or the spiders, I just flipped. I went back to the flat, packed a bag and ran out, there and then. All that time planning and I did it on the spur of the moment.'
'Where did you go?'
She laughed bitterly. 'More proof that I'd gone nuts. Do you believe in coincidences?'
'For days, everywhere I went, Salisbury kept popping up, along with the spiders. Turn on the TV — something about Stonehenge, an archaeologist being interviewed in Salisbury. Somebody stops me in the street, asks which station for trains to Salisbury. I get a pamphlet through the door for double-glazing — the head office is in Salisbury. This is going to sound stupid, but at the time it felt like-'
'The universe was giving you a message.'
'Some people are receptive to that, some aren't.'
'So, you're saying the universe was giving me a message?' she said mockingly.
Church recognised the flicker of uneasiness he saw behind her facade, and recalled the mounting panic that had risen on the day he realised the universe was not at all as he had imagined. 'Something else strange happened to you in Salisbury?'
She shook her head, embarrassed now she was verbalising things that had made a half-sense in her head. 'Dreams… some exactly the same, some with the same sort of feel. There was always a little Afro-Caribbean boy in there. He never spoke, but he always acted like he knew me. Then, one day, I saw him in the middle of town. It was like he was watching me. Yeah, it spooked me. I looked away, and when I looked back he was gone. I was already on edge in case Scott rolled in looking for me, though there was no real way he could have found me.
'After that, the boy kept turning up everywhere, and the dreams kept on going too, and I was starting to feel really creepy. It was in my mind all day, and I was worrying about going to sleep every night. So I decided to confront him — get it out of my system once and for all, and prove there was nothing supernatural about it.'
The realisation of what that decision had cost her brought a queasy expression. Church poured her another hot drink.
'Turned out he was a nice kid, told me his name was Carlton. He didn't know anything about the dreams. Pretended he didn't. But he knew lots of things about me that he couldn't possibly have known, and he said he needed to show me something. I gave him a grilling, said I wasn't going to go, but he was just a kid, you know?' She looked out across the desert where the Morvren were circling. 'God, it feels like all that happened to a different person, and it was only a day or so ago. I drove him a little way out of town to this place… Woodhenge? Not the stones. It was just a few concrete posts in a field as far as I could see.'
Church nodded. 'It doesn't look like much, but it's one of a series of pointers that the entire area around Stonehenge and Woodhenge was a massive ritual site, one of the largest in the world.'
'I never had much interest in that kind of thing.'
'There's a theory that Stonehenge was a place where people conducted rituals of death, and then processed along the river to Woodhenge for a celebration of life. An archaeologist called Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University led a massive study there called the Stonehenge Riverside Project. He found evidence of a huge temporary living area not far from Woodhenge and lots of animal bones that suggested feasting. It's an important place.'
She shrugged, dismissively. 'You an archaeologist, then?'
'Once. In a past life.' He wondered briefly if the patterns Shavi was always considering extended to everyone, and if, for some unseen reason, everyone was led towards the jobs they were meant to do. He loved archaeology, but after Marianne's death it had felt so unimportant. Yet many of the things he had learned during his studies had helped him in his struggles as a Brother of Dragons. Random or pattern? Meaningless or meaningful?
'I admit, I had a bit of an odd feeling when I got out of the car. The sky looked funny, and there was this sort of swirly mist away over the fields. Carlton pointed to where I should be going and I set off… only he didn't come with me. I called him over, but he told me to keep going — that I'd find it soon. So I walked a bit further, and when I looked back he was gone. And so was the car. And the car park. And all those concrete posts. Except, you know, the landscape looked exactly the same, all the hills and fields.' The memory was still potent, and she unconsciously hugged her arms around her. 'It looked like it would have done hundreds of years ago. I totally lost it, running around and screaming like an idiot. And then all the fields went too, and I was in that mist I'd noticed. And then…' Her glass fell and shattered on the floor as she started to hyperventilate. Church gave what comfort he could, but the tears still burned in her eyes. 'I don't know what I saw! I don't know how long I was there! I just remember being aware that this thing was after me… this thing with a big grin, and horrible eyes, and it was moving low along the ground, and it had this sort of brown skin like a seal…' She caught herself, and took a deep breath. 'It chased me out of the mist, and suddenly I was standing in the heat out there.' She pointed into the desert where the haze shimmered. 'It kept coming after me, and I ran as fast as I could. I thought I was going to die. And then I ended up here.' She started to pick up the pieces of broken glass, and then hurled them across the roof terrace.
'Do you think you can find your way back to where you first appeared in the desert?' he asked.
'I don't know. Maybe. Do you think there's a way back?'
'Could be.' He didn't want to raise her hopes, but his own heart was beating faster.
Leaving her there recovering in the sun, he found Tom and Ruth sitting quietly on another, smaller terrace. Ruth looked paler than he had ever seen her.
'How are you feeling?' he asked her. He hated the uncomfortable space that lay between them, and the way her eyes didn't quite meet his.
'Better, thanks. The Pendragon Spirit works wonders if you let it.'
'So what wisdom have you discovered now?' Tom said acidly.
'That boy you saw on the train, Carlton, is working with the Oldest Things in the Land. Maybe he's one of them.'
Tom sucked on his roll-up thoughtfully for a moment, then said simply, 'Interesting.'
'The Oldest Things in the Land conspired to get her here. The Puck chased her into the city. They wanted us to find her, because she can lead us back home. There's some kind of way that isn't one of the regular doors that the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders blocked.'
'You're sure you're not reading into this exactly what you want?' Ruth asked.
'With her, we can find our way home!'
Ruth flashed a brief, disappointed look that stung him. 'You still want to run away?'
'It's not like that… oh, forget it. Why don't you just trust me?'
Tom exhaled a cloud of blue smoke. 'It's a good job I'm not embarrassed by your pathetic domestic issues-'
Ruth and Church turned and snapped at him at the same time: 'Shut up!' He shrugged, unmoved.
'Let's get the others together,' Church said. 'We're moving out within the hour.'
In the dead heat of the morning, they departed the Court of Endless Horizons, past the steady stream of refugees seeking shelter in the city. After the packed, sweltering, noisy streets, the blank, rolling wastes were a welcome relief, stilling the tense chatter of the mind and allowing them all to breathe a little easier.
Casting a threatening shadow across the ochre sands, the black cloud of the Morvren followed them, their cawing a jarring sound in the stillness that lay all around whenever the wind dropped. Lest they be lulled into a false state of overconfidence by the peace of the desolation, the scarlet, orange and gold shape of the Burning Man loomed up ahead of them against the silver-blue skyline, the outline now smudged black with greasy smoke. The closer they got to it, the more charged with dread the atmosphere became.
'What do you think it will look like when the Void fills the space?' Ruth was surprised to realise she was whispering.
'I do not think we should worry about that,' Shavi replied. 'Once the Void materialises, everything is over.'
Soon the gleaming towers of the court and the dark line of jungle disappeared from view, and there was only the rolling dunes scarred with the line of their footprints. They sipped sparingly from their water bottles, all of them aware of the dangers of getting lost.
Leading the way, Rachel pointed to a formation of glassy volcanic rock rising from the sands about three miles distant. 'I remember seeing that. I came through somewhere near there. I think.'
Laura sighed loudly, eliciting a cautionary glare from Church.
Veitch joined Church shortly after, his gaze fixed firmly on the horizon. 'You sure this is the best plan?'
'Have you been talking to Ruth?'
'It's just, none of us can see where this is going.'
'You could trust me.'
A pause. 'I do. Course I do. But everything that's happened since we got here has pushed us all to the limit. I know I'm not thinking straight.'
'I hear what you're saying, Ryan. So did you draw the short straw to come and get me back on the rails?'
'It's not like that.'
'Because that's a little funny. Not so long ago they were all afraid you'd kill them in their sleep. Now you're the voice of reason, and I'm the bad guy.'
'That's not fair.'
Church regretted his words instantly. Veitch had been trying his best to make up for his past actions when he had been destabilised by the Void; he deserved better than that, and Church had to do better if he was to be the leader they needed.
'You're right, I'm sorry,' he said. 'I don't want to tell any of you what I'm planning. In the Halls of the Drakusa, when we discovered that one of us is helping the enemy, that really hit hard. Once we got back together, I never thought we'd have to deal with a traitor in the group again, even after Tom got his warning from the boy on the train. Now I'm not taking any chances.'
'Even though Virginia's dead?'
'I'm not sure it was her.' Veitch's silence was pointed. 'I'm not saying it was you. I'm not saying it's anybody. I'm just thinking it's wise not to allow any opportunities for our plans to leak out to the enemy.' He added, 'I don't like to think this way. Mistrust is corrosive. Maybe that's all part of the Enemy's plan — letting it eat away at our relationships and the ties that make us stronger as a group. But I can't see another way to deal with it.'
Veitch appeared satisfied with this, and they fell silent again as the heat began to take its toll. Skidding down deep dunes and then climbing up through the shifting sands on the other side made their leg muscles burn and for a long while the rock formation appeared to be drawing no closer. But then they crested a steep incline onto a hardpan plateau scattered with boulders where a stronger wind blew and they saw colours shimmering in the sky like the aurora borealis. Here and there drifted strands of the pearly mist that Rachel had described.
'This is it,' Rachel said, turning slowly.
'What now?' Laura asked. Everyone looked to Church.
'We go home,' he replied.
From a distant dune, the Libertarian watched them make their way across the plateau into the mist. With the Morvren swirling overhead, they had been easy to follow, but with each step his anxiety had grown. More than anything he didn't want them to pass through those mists, although he did not know why: another of those annoying blank spots in his memory. He had been so sure that his manipulation of Tezcatlipoca and Church would reap the final rewards he desired, but now his control of events was slipping through his fingers like sand.
When the heat haze shimmered and Church and the others disappeared from view, he broke into a desperate run, stumbling and sliding down the dunes. Cursing, he vowed to let them know that the more desperate they made him, the more he would make them pay.
On the plateau, he didn't slow his pace and plunged into the mists after them.
'Stay close together,' Church ordered as they moved through an area of bright, swirling colours.
'Wow, trippy,' Laura said. 'This reminds me of… okay, you had to be there.'
Aware of the fear in Rachel's eyes, Shavi took her arm reassuringly. 'Is this how you remember it?'
'I don't remember much at all, but it feels familiar.'
'Do not fight the sensations you are experiencing,' Shavi said. 'If you allow yourself to go with them, it is not unpleasant.'
'That's easy for you to say.'
'Tom, what are you thinking?' Ruth asked, seeing Tom's serious expression.
'I'm finding this both familiar and unfamiliar too,' he replied, anxiously twisting the ring Freyja had given him. 'I have moved through the medium of the Blue Fire many times, across our own world between nodes of power, and between the worlds, but this is different. Yet the same.'
'Yep, you lived through the sixties, old man,' Laura said.
For once, Tom ignored her. 'I've heard talk of this. Somewhere that bleeds around reality, around all the worlds and the connective tissue of the Blue Fire that joins them. Some occultists I encountered in San Francisco believed if you could find a way to this place you could access all places and all times.'
'You could run away for ever,' Ruth said, eyeing Church askance.
'Or you could fight a constant guerrilla war,' Church countered. 'No one would know when or where you'd pop up.'
'What's that?' Veitch pointed to a place where the colours appeared to have thinned so that it felt as if they were looking through a gauze onto the world. The sun was just disappearing below the horizon, casting its dying golden rays on a stone circle surrounded by trees. Beyond were well-tended fields. Figures moved in the circle, hazily coming into view.
'That's Caitlin!' Ruth exclaimed. 'But she looks younger. More… innocent?'
'And that teenage thug Mahalia,' Veitch noted. 'And Crowther.'
'The past,' Shavi said. 'Perhaps when she was just beginning as a Sister of Dragons?'
Tom and Rachel hung back, but he flinched and stepped forward when he glimpsed the young boy he had encountered on the Last Train who Mahalia had sworn was dead. Eerily, the boy appeared to be looking directly at him, and smiling knowingly, as if he was aware of all that was to transpire.
Caitlin looked directly at them too, but didn't recognise them, and then the colours swirled back in and the scene was lost.
'I have a feeling we could have gone right there if we'd carried on walking,' Church said.
'Caitlin wouldn't need us,' Ruth said confidently. 'Whatever happened back then, I bet she dealt with it, no problem.'
They moved on through an environment that felt both timeless and placeless, the hallucinogenic colours giving the sensation that they were floating. For the briefest moment, Church once again felt as if he was lying on a table, locked inside his own mind, with the odd belief that a group of people were observing him.
'Don't investigate that notion,' a voice deep in his head told him. 'What you have is better. It will always be better.'
Scenes came and went: Celts fighting a furious battle, a World War II pilot standing beside his downed Spitfire, a thick, semi-tropical jungle through which barely glimpsed beasts moved, a castle under siege, a Victorian funeral.
Several times Veitch witnessed himself committing some atrocity in service to the Void and turned away, unable to look. Once he had to be restrained by Church from leaping through the veil to right the wrongs he saw there.
When Laura glimpsed Hunter fighting a furious battle with the Lament-Brood in a past time, she broke down in long, juddering sobs. Nothing the others did could console her.
'I'm concerned we might get lost in here for ever,' Tom said.
The Rhymer's voice sounded oddly distant and when Church turned, Tom was fading into the swirling colours. It felt like only a step or two away, but when Church dashed back, Tom and the others were nowhere to be found.
There was little point searching in a place that appeared to have no dimension. Putting his trust in fortune, Church continued to walk in the direction he had been following; if they were meant to reunite in the world, he was sure it would happen. If this was a road he had to walk alone, that was fine too. Go with the flow, Tom would have said, followed by some rambling tale of the West Coast in the sixties, but Church felt it was an important lesson he had been taught many times during his long journey.
In the colours, any sense of time passing was lost. It could have been five minutes or an hour when he heard a voice saying, 'What is the point of the world?' It was the same voice Church had thought came from deep in his head when he had the impression of lying on a table, but now it appeared to be coming from all around him.
'Where is the meaning in life?' the voice continued.
'Who are you?' Church asked.
'What is real?'
'You don't sound like Tom, but you've mastered his degree of irritation, ' Church muttered.
'These are the only important questions,' the voice said. 'Once you consider them, all else flows from them. The answers may seem impossible to find, but it is the same as with any story: the author embeds keys in the text to help the careful reader decipher the true meaning. The rules that apply to the tiniest thing also apply to the greatest. The flower dies, but grows back the next season. Energy cannot be destroyed; it simply changes shape. What does this say for death? And is man a random collection of atoms, like a tree, or a rock, even though his nature is so very different from everything else in the world? In that nature, the key is writ large for all to see if they will only look. The nature of a being is the purpose of a being. If man has the capacity to find meaning, then there is meaning to find.'
'Is this for my benefit, or is everybody getting the travelogue?' Church recognised a quality to the voice; once again it appeared to be coming from within his head.
'Is reality a model of a town laid out on a table-top, with each house representing an adjoining world? Is each world a school for souls as John Hicks proposed, and as it was taught to the Knights Templar in the Fortress of Salisbury? How is a world created? By a powerful being? A god? Or in the head of a man, lying on a table, in the last seconds of his life?'
Church flinched. 'What are you saying? That all this is my dying dream? That it's all meaningless?'
'And so I return to the three questions: what is the point of the world? What is the meaning in life? What is real?'
Church fought his annoyance at the barrage of questions and considered them for a moment. 'A long time ago, I was told that I couldn't be given all the answers — I had to earn them, because only by doing that would I become the person able to utilise that information. Is this part of that? More teaching, but work out the damn answers for myself?'
He walked on a few paces in ringing silence, and then the voice said, 'Nothing is fixed in the Fixed Lands. Everything is fluid.'
'Yes, I changed reality. I brought Tom and Niamh back.' What is real? he thought. He made a new reality. And then: energy cannot be destroyed; it simply changes shape.
Other voices began to echo all around, some familiar, some unrecognised. 'We are all stars.' That sounded to him like Niamh. 'Love turns Fragile Creatures into gods.' Niamh again.
'So this is a puzzle?' he said, before adding, 'Everything I've been through is a puzzle, right? Like those complex traps that guarded the four great artefacts — the Sword, the Spear, the Cauldron, the Stone. We had to solve them before we got our reward.' The rules that apply to the tiniest thing apply to the greatest. 'So the keys are embedded in the text of life. Of my life. There's another story behind everything I've been experiencing.'
The colours shifted, and for the briefest moment he felt as if he was in a room with opposing mirrors so there were images of him reaching out to infinity; yet each was slightly different — in dress, or in whatever action they were engaged in. It was swallowed up by another flash of him, lying on the table.
'What is real?' he muttered again. 'What is real is what's on the inside, not what's around us. That's where the truth lies, where the meaning can be found. Is that what you're saying? We can create our own realities, which are as real as what we perceive to be real around us. We are all stars. We are all gods. So we don't look to the world for answers, because it's fake… and it's real at the same time. It's just… not important. We look inside.'
A transcendental sense of revelation overwhelmed him, and while he still couldn't grasp the immensity of what he was discovering, he was sure there was enough there for him to piece it together later.
He was rocked from his contemplation by the sound of running feet. Out of the colours emerged his time-looping double that he had first witnessed in Edinburgh and most recently in the Great Pyramid in Cairo.
As on their previous encounters, the future-Church wasn't shocked to come into contact with his old self. 'Is this it?' he said. 'Is this the right time? You have to listen to me. This is a warning.' Confused, he looked around. 'Is this the right place? Am I too late?'
Frustrated, Church said to his future-self, 'You're not giving me enough information,' even though he knew his double was locked in some constantly repeating cycle in the Warp Zone that made him appear at various points in Church's life.
'When you're in Otherworld and they call, heed it right away. They're going to bring him back. They're-' The future-Church became gripped with fear. In panic, he yelled, 'Too late!' and raced away into the colours.