On the south coast of Tineag’l, the remnants of the Order of the Equinox discovered yet another abandoned town. The absence of any residents heightened Verain’s sense of fear.
They had to wade through the snow in order to get along its streets, which had so clearly and so recently experienced carnage. Streaks of blood were splattered across the facades of wooden buildings. The heavy layer of snow probably hid much of the gore below.
There was little wind today, and the sunlight was stronger than the far north of the islands, where the Realm Gates were located. It was warmer here too – just a degree or two, but enough to raise her spirits.
‘Tuung, why can’t I remember his name?’ Verain pointed to one of the other cultists who travelled with them, a young blond man who seemed physically fit and who spoke with an optimism she herself was lacking. ‘Did he accompany us when we left Villjamur?’
Tuung frowned. ‘Of course he did, lass. You honestly don’t remember?’
‘No.’ She felt she recognized his features, though searching beyond that yielded little. ‘It’s Todi,’ Tuung replied, his expression changing from one of amusement to something more serious. ‘We’re good mates, me and him.’
‘I’m sure it’s just the cold,’ she lied. ‘Yes, his face is very familiar. Todi.’
‘Good thing we’re stopping for the night, lass. If we can find a room that hasn’t got a corpse in it, we can maybe get a good fire going and get some food down. You look as though you could do with a good meal.’
Houses bordered the two main streets, which ran parallel to the coastline, and there were a few other lanes trailing out like vines into open country. The buildings had been painted garish colours: yellows, blues and greens, as if to brighten what was, otherwise, a desolate community.
A street backed onto a large harbour, one filled with towering industrial vessels with old fishing boats jammed between. This was a small port town, Verain realized, one used to export the ore that was the lifeblood of the mining island. It was probably once a bustling area, with stevedores and blacksmiths and enterprise.
Now it was a ghost port. There was no life here, no community, only the lingering sense of what once had been.
Though her memory was betraying her, she could remember that they had passed through settlements such as this on their way north in search of the Realm Gates. So many towns and villages had been cleared of their inhabitants. Farmed for their inhabitants, in fact – only the corpses of the very young and very old remained. Yes, I remember Todi now. He was the one who threw up when we found the corpse of an old lady in her bathtub. That’s right.
The recollection gave her some relief. Perhaps it really was the cold that was fogging her memory. The cultists had surveyed the town and, unlike the others, they found few bodies at all. The houses looked like they’d been vacated in a hurry, with doors open and food left on stoves.
From further along the docks, Dartun came marching towards them, effortlessly kicking up snow. A couple of the dogs bounded behind him. He looked so normal just then, simply a man walking animals by the sea.
‘I’ve found a good vessel,’ Dartun announced, full of optimism. ‘It’s ideal – a small, military longship, with ample shelter for us all. We might have to leave the dogs though.’
‘Did you see if there were any of . . . you know. Them?’ Verain asked. ‘They could be hiding somewhere for all we know.’
‘They don’t concern us,’ Dartun said coolly.
‘How can you say that?’ Tuung snapped. ‘You know what they’re doing to these people around here, and we saw it with our own eyes when we passed into their world.’
Verain’s memory sparked:
The cities beyond the gates were hideous. There had been meat factories through which naked humans were herded like livestock. Verain had seen men and women scream as they were forced through great, mechanical devices, never to be seen again. They were processed for their materials – flesh and organs were used for food, their bones were used for construction materials. Smoke filled the skies, leaving a chemical taint in the air, the sun barely seen through the pollution, and it was cold, colder than she had ever imagined . . .
‘They will leave us alone,’ Dartun replied, bringing Verain back to the here and now. ‘They have no interest in us.’
‘How do you know that?’ Verain asked. ‘They could be hiding behind any of these buildings’ – she waved to a row of abandoned houses – ‘waiting just to murder us.’
‘Nonsense,’ Dartun laughed. ‘If you remember, we walked away from the Realm Gates, right past those who are responsible for the harvesting of these islands.’
There was something accepting about the way he said harvesting. As if it didn’t seem at all cruel to him that there had been a mass genocide.
‘And why was that, Dartun?’ Tuung demanded. Verain held her breath waiting to see what their Godhi would make of such boldness. ‘Why did they just let us stroll back from their world?’
The other cultists had gathered behind Verain and Tuung now, all facing Dartun and waiting for an answer. Whilst they were relieved to have escaped that other world, they wanted answers to why they were free. Why they had been permitted to leave when so many others had not.
‘Not only that,’ Tuung pressed, ‘but how come you’re enhanced? How come you’ve got a fancy new arm, the one you used so well when you murdered a whole other band of cultists?’
Their leader didn’t respond with his usual confrontational statements, nor did he inspire them with his passionate rhetoric. He just ignored them. ‘We rest tonight,’ Dartun said finally. ‘I’ve located a house with a dormitory. We can shelter safely together, light a fire, and be warm and relaxed.’ He reached down to ruffle a dog’s neck, and the animal sat up excitedly. ‘It’s around the corner, a white two-storey building with a green double door. I’ll be in there if you need me.’ And with that he tromped away through the snow.
The remains of the Order of the Equinox looked at each other, and in their silence waited for someone to say something, anything.
Tuung muttered, ‘Since when has he been so concerned with our safety, eh?’
‘You’re thinking of splitting?’ Todi asked, a worried look on the young man’s face.
‘Well, I mean he marches us up to the top of the world just to march us back again. Into hell and back out again. I’ve no complaints with where we’re going now. I just want to get home to Villjamur. If he wants to keep us warm and safe all of a sudden then . . . well, that’s fine with me. I’m not going anywhere, but I don’t like the stuff that’s going unsaid. What about you, lass? You’re closer to him than anyone else.’
All eyes turned to Verain. ‘Maybe I can have a word with him tonight, and find out what’s going on.’
Although she didn’t hold much hope. Dartun had changed. And not just physically. She wasn’t sure there was anything left of the man she had once loved.
They sprawled in a school room. It was the first night that they had not all huddled together in one large, canvas tent. All six cultists sat around a wood-burning stove, staring into the flames, letting the heat bring them back to some kind of conscious state and, for a long time, no one said a word. This was luxury.
After witnessing the horrors of the otherworld, Verain felt surreal looking at the crude and innocent paintings that adorned one wall. There were brightly coloured toys and books at one end, and a few tables at the other, everything muted by the soft orange light of the fire. Tuung had located well-preserved provisions in a kitchen. They had eaten ravenously. They had not seen so much food in . . . she didn’t know how long. Two men were in a blissful state of satiation, in a deep state of slumber, and Dartun simply stared into the flames, barely moving. There were questions she wished to ask, but not here, not in front of the others.
She wandered upstairs into a tiny, decrepit library. The light of the moons passed through shutters and slanted across the desk. She had spent the last few days with five other men around her, where even simple tasks such as urinating became an embarrassment. Alone, finally, she could gather her thoughts. If she was honest with herself, she wished Dartun would join her up here, just so she could see if there was any slight chance she could do something to make him change back to how he had been.
Using a drawstring, she opened the shutters fully, and gazed through the murky glass. That’s odd . . . The horizon to the east revealed a strange line of light, a thin orange glow pressed into the dark distance, and now she felt – very slightly – that the room was shuddering.
Was this some geological phenomenon? It didn’t look like it.
The line of light was shifting. It must have been some way off, but it was definitely moving, and drifting towards the coast. She allowed her eyes to adjust over a few minutes, but nothing more could be gleaned from the sight.
Footsteps up the stairs . . .
She spun back, her heart beating furiously, as Dartun pushed open the door.
A sigh of relief, a surge of adrenalin that she could now press him further. I care for him – I’m not going to let him grow into some . . . monster.
‘I trust you will be better company than those downstairs,’ he said, more gentle than she’d heard him speak for a long time.
‘They’re well fed, for once, and very tired.’
‘Yes, I forget just how exhausted the human body can get.’
‘That implies you don’t have a human body,’ she suggested, tracing the scars on his face, the exposed metal. ‘I saw what happened with Papus – we all did. That wasn’t normal, Dartun.’
Now that she had voiced her concerns, she feared what might happen. Silence stretched out before them. He seemed quite inert, as if he was incapable of formulating an answer.
‘Dartun, what happened in that other world? We were lovers before we went away, and now we’re back I don’t even know where we stand. But I’m not saying this for me – I care about you.’ She took his hands in her own. In the moonlight, his scars muted by the dim light, his face regained much of its handsomeness. His expression was contemplative. ‘What happened, Dartun? What did they do to us . . . to you?’
‘I can’t remember, Verain. I really can’t.’
‘You’re lying. The rest of our order was wiped out – I remember that. The specimens of the undead you took with us – they’re gone. There’s just a few of us left now and you’re dragging us halfway across the world without any explanation. You must tell us something, Dartun – you can’t force people just to follow you again without some reason to.’
His face darkened and his breathing quickened. ‘I wanted immortality,’ he said, ‘and I think I’ve found it. You remember the cages in which we were kept?’
‘As if I could forget.’
‘We were there for weeks, Verain – it was days here but weeks there. We were kept alive, we were special. They found us more intriguing than average human stock – we knew how to use aspects of their technology and it mystified them.’
‘Can’t you remember? You just said you couldn’t forget being in the cages.’
‘I remember being in them. That’s all.’ She wondered if she had forced many of the horrors from her mind of her own will, or whether there was something genuinely wrong with her head.
‘Our captors comprised of many races, bizarre creatures – much worse than the shell-based life forms we passed on the way in, and only a few of them could communicate with us in anything more than grunts. Some individuals knew our tongue, and our culture was vaguely understood. And we few – we survived. We managed to negotiate. We’re heading back to Villjamur with a message, to visit our rulers and negotiate.’
‘What, exactly, are we negotiating?’ she asked, eager now she gleaned some information.
‘They wish to enter our lands. They wish to occupy our islands. You must not yet tell the others – I will do this in my own time.’
Verain gestured to the window. ‘Is that them, out there? Is that their armies?’
Dartun took a cursory peek, before returning his gaze to her. There was a tenderness to his voice now. ‘Indeed it is.’
‘Who are they?’ she breathed.
‘They are part of the Akhaio'i. Do you remember their war? Those military machines that were constantly droning in the distance?’
She shook her head.
‘They have been seeking access to our world for years, and they will take it by force. But to minimize loss of life, I am to . . . negotiate with the powers in Villjamur. That’s why I have been modified. They’ve given me augmentations so we can travel safely back to Villjamur. I only know half of what I can do. And I’m struggling to cope, if I’m honest.’
He had never been this candid in all her years of knowing him. His vulnerability touched her. She moved in closer and held his forearm tenderly. For a long while it seemed he had forgotten what to do, but eventually his arms closed in around her.
The dormitory was vast but minimalist, with little in the way of decoration. The beds were too small so they had to be pushed together in order to be of any use, but, still, this was opulence compared with what they had gone through recently. A night spent under a solid roof was more than a relief.
The rest of the order dozed off, eventually finding a deep state of rest, but Verain could not sleep at all. She had been thinking long and hard about the consequences of what Dartun had told her earlier. One detail didn’t sit right in her head: why were the other cultists not killed with the rest of the order?
The army passing on the horizon also prompted her concern. Where exactly was such a large body of beings heading? Images flashed again, of the other world, her intermittent memory teasing: vast columns of troops marching across decimated landscapes. Hideous beings covered in blood.
She pushed herself up and out of bed. Dressed in thick layers, she headed down to the kitchen, the stairs creaking beneath her cautious, night-blind steps. Clouds had obscured the moons, which left the kitchen quarters in utter darkness. The musky smell of cooked food seemed more prominent as she sensed her way by touch, her eyes gradually adjusting to the oppressing gloom.
She wanted to make herself a drink, something warm, so after stumbling about for several minutes, she eventually lit the stove and the fire seemed to heighten the blackness at the edges of the room. For a moment she thought she could see eyes looking at her, but it was a decorative metal handle on one of the cupboards. Other items glimmered, thick blades and whisks and ladles.
She heard something outside. A faint movement, snow crunching underfoot, the rattle of a stifled breath.
Verain felt afraid and alone. She had no relics with her, so she moved across to the other end of the table, grabbed a massive knife from a rack, shut the door of the iron stove and pressed her back against one of the walls. From here she had a view of two windows either side of the kitchen, one of them being right next to the door. There were no shutters here – just thick, cheap glass.
Something brushed against the outside of the building: she heard it clearly. Perhaps one of the dogs had escaped? No, this was a much slower noise, like something scraping down the wall.
Her heart froze.
Moonlight came, and through the facing window a silhouette was defined. It was . . . human. Yes, definitely human, just standing there a few paces back from the door, in the middle of the street, peering in.
Cautiously, she stepped across the room and flipped down a hatch on the wide door to the building; a rush of cold air followed. Outside, the man was facing her, silent and still, arms by his side – he reminded her of the undead humans that Dartun had reanimated.
‘What d’you want?’ she whispered.
‘You speak . . . Jamur,’ he stuttered. He stepped forward presenting his hooded face, long stubble and haunted eyes. His accent was heavy on the vowels. ‘You’re not one of them?’ He seemed desperate and breathless.
‘One of whom?’
‘You . . . know who. Those . . . those things that came here.’ He was freezing, rubbing his arms vigorously and shivering in his thin, ragged clothing.
‘No, I’m not one of them,’ she replied.
Behind him, the street was deserted, but he kept gazing about him, scanning the area.
‘How did you survive?’ Verain asked, debating whether to invite him in. ‘We’ve been through several settlements and we never saw a soul.’
‘We’ve been hiding in a tavern cellar – seven of us, and we have been surviving with next to nothing. I came out to see if they have gone . . . Where are you from? How did you get to the – ’ he searched for the word in Jamur ‘ – educational facility?’
‘Thank Bohr! I never thought I would be relieved to see a magician.’
We’re not magicians, she wanted to say, but it seemed pointless. Was she even a cultist without her relics? ‘We’re only passing through,’ she replied. ‘We’ll be gone in the morning.’
‘Take us with you,’ the man pleaded.
From the other side of the house came a sudden raking noise, harsh and staccato. Verain turned to the wall and then back at the man, into his wide brown eyes. Days of dirt and tears and snot had turned his grimace into something entirely primitive, and she could smell fish. ‘Let me in, please.’
‘I’m not sure I should. Tell me where you’re staying and we’ll come and find you in the morning. It’s probably safer if you—’
A stifled wail, the man vanished from the door, thumped on the ground and was dragged around the corner of the house. Moments later she could hear a terrified scream from further along the street.
Guilty now that she had not let him in, Verain grasped the knife more firmly and hurried in the direction of the man’s wails.
Moonlight gave an odd texture to the scene, highlighting the snow along the main thoroughfare, though leaving the buildings in utter darkness. Anyone could have been looking out from behind shutters or windows, and she would not have been able to see them.
A trail cut through the snow, an erratic path of blood. She staggered on and then she saw it, in the doorway of the adjacent building: a creature several feet tall, a glistening, bulbous shell, hunched over the corpse of the man.
It faced her. She froze, her fear rooting her to the spot.
‘Verain!’ Dartun’s voice, from behind. ‘What the hell are you doing out here? You’re too valuable to put yourself in danger like this.’
She couldn’t take her eyes off the gruesome-looking shell-creature. It was like the others they had seen on their way north.
‘Get back to the house,’ Dartun commanded.
Just then, the thing moved towards them, abandoning the corpse and leaving it splayed across the steps.
‘What is it?’
‘Cirrip,’ Dartun breathed. ‘It’s only a Cirrip.’
Another flashback: that was their name in the otherworld, these foot-soldiers of the Akhaio'i.
‘It’s not connected to their hive-mind,’ Dartun said. ‘This stray shouldn’t be out here alone. It should not have killed this man either, it should have taken him back with the others through the Gates.’
The beast staggered with an awkward yet strangely fluid gait towards the two of them. She could see it clearly now, its hideous claw-hands, the intense musculature beneath the armour, the flaring tendons, the deep black gloss of its skin.
Dartun moved forwards, cautiously manoeuvring so he stood between Verain and the creature. He tried speaking to it in its own language, something that she found profoundly bizarre, but it was to no avail – the thing lashed out with a claw. Dartun held up his arm to block the blow; the contact producing a brittle crack. At first she thought his arm had broken, but, instead, Dartun was rising from the ground, two feet up, four feet, then above the rooftops, his arms held outstretched for balance, his body slowly rotating on a vertical axis.
The Cirrip, still on the ground, began to click and hiss, craning its head as it watched Dartun proceed ever higher and then – like a bolt of lightning trailing purple light – Dartun dropped to the ground feet first and drove his boot into the head of the creature.
A jet of blood spurted out of the Cirrip’s eyes, and it toppled backwards to the ground, its face imploded. Dartun tumbled forwards over its spasming form.
‘Your knife, Verain,’ he demanded, regaining his poise.
She stumbled over to offer the blade. Dartun took it, and slit its throat.
‘It must have broken free from their pack,’ Dartun said, quite calmly, wiping the blade in the snow. ‘They possess a connected sentience. They tend to swarm.’
‘How could you talk to it?’
‘Something I gleaned from their world,’ he replied sharply.
‘The army is marching down to raid another island, isn’t it?’ Verain gestured to the alien corpse. ‘These things are going to continue until they wipe out every city on the continent, aren’t they?’
‘Which is why it’s vital we get to Villjamur so that we may establish a more peaceful resolution.’
‘You could always fly there,’ she suggested, ‘given this apparent new ability.’
‘I didn’t even know I could until recently. I wonder how far I can go?’ He paused momentarily and scanned her face. ‘No, I must ensure you’re all protected.’
He trudged through the snow to the remains of the man who the Cirrip had been toying with moments earlier. Verain followed him.
‘He’s dead, all right,’ Dartun announced.
The man’s body was broken in two, his torso no longer fully connected to his legs. Bones jutted from the open wounds.
‘He told me there were more people in a cellar under the tavern,’ Verain said. ‘He was looking to see if we could help them.’
Dartun shook his head. ‘The best thing for them to do is stay in that cellar.’
‘But we can take them with us – escort them to another island.’
‘We haven’t got the time,’ Dartun replied.
‘At least help them to a boat—’
‘We haven’t got the time,’ Dartun repeated forcefully, and she knew when to stop.
She understood that they needed to get to Villjamur as quickly as possible but regretted that this necessitated leaving these innocents to fend for themselves. She only hoped that Dartun knew of some way to stop the ongoing bloodshed. Otherwise, she feared, this was just the beginning.