Their ship ran into trouble: the seas were rough, rolling at four times the height of their vessel, and none of them had the skill to sail or navigate.
Dartun was forced to steer them to the western edge of the island of Folke, and it took them some time before they found a stretch of coastline that satisfied their needs. They had run out of provisions and were desperately hungry. Verain was so exhausted, physically and emotionally drained, that nothing in her life seemed to matter any more.
Eventually, they ran their ship into a wide estuary, surrounded by high, snow-smothered valleys, with a scattering of buildings nestled into the nooks and crannies of the landscape. Smoke drifted up from chimneys, a sight that generated some optimism in Verain’s heart: here was a signal of domesticity, an indication that life was perfectly normal for some people.
Up ahead was a reasonably large port. A few dozen boats of various sizes were moored, most of them equipped for fishing. Slick slate roofing and grey granite structures created a dreary ambience, but at least this side of Folke was untouched by the invaders pouring from the Realm Gates.
Snow and winds buffeted them as their craft approached the quay. A local harbourmaster strolled out in a thick coat and hat to meet them as they alighted on the quayside. Verain’s determination to survive had somewhat diminished since they’d left Tineag’l, but it felt good to be on land again, to have something solid beneath her. She did not have the legs or stomach for sailing.
‘Sele of the day, strangers,’ the harbourmaster called out loudly in heavily accented Jamur. ‘Not from these parts then.’ A declaration more than a question.
Dartun strode forward to meet him. ‘Morning, sir. We were passing through, on our way to Villjamur. We seek lodgings for the night.’
‘You, uh, got a licence for that vessel of yers? ’Fraid we’ve a tax for those who ain’t registered with our community, like.’ He had small button eyes, narrowed tight against the weather. His skin was sun-blemished by years of working outdoors, his close-cropped beard was grey.
‘We’re cultists,’ Dartun announced.
‘I see . . .’ the harbourmaster replied. ‘Well, I’ll let it be known to yer, we don’t welcome the likes of magicians here.’
‘Sir,’ Dartun continued, ‘we will be no trouble. We need simple lodgings, that is all. We’ve little in the way of money, but I’m sure I can lend my hand to something that requires fixing in exchange.’
The harbourmaster appeared to think about it. Seagulls called out across the distance, and boats rattled against each other in the water behind. ‘After last night’s storm, a wall on one of our churches has collapsed, four streets away,’ he said. ‘Road’s blocked and we ain’t any spare horses to clear the rubble. Whatever magic yer have, keep it hidden – but if yer can clear our mess, I’ll guarantee lodgings.’
Dartun nodded curtly. ‘Consider the road cleared.’
The roads were very narrow, the houses tall, so the rock was piled not just over a wide area but high, too. Dartun worked with his bare hands, tossing aside boulders as if he was playing a game and eliciting admiration from the gathered locals. Verain wondered what they’d feel if they knew the truth: that he had transformed, that he was inhuman.
While he single-handedly hauled chunks of granite, more locals congregated. But awe soon changed to fear, and soon Verain could hear sinister accusations about them being cultists, people of magic. Most didn’t trust cultists: they thought they were abnormal, artificial, ghosts, monsters, whatever – anything other than welcome guests.
A grunt drew her attention to Dartun once again, as he laboured with a hunk of granite the size of his torso. Verain could only watch in awe: she knew what he was doing was not possible for a human. Rock by rock, Dartun slowly cleared the street, piling the rubble neatly alongside the remains of the church, and eventually traffic could now flow along the cobbles with ease.
Having lost interest the locals drifted away, resuming their routines. In the distance a pterodette’s cry rose above the sound of the sea.
Dartun sat on a rock and his cultists gathered around him. He was breathing heavily, showing that the labour had, at least, required some effort. Verain threw his cloak around his shoulders, whispering, ‘You’ll need to keep warm.’
‘Thank you,’ he replied, and gave her such a look of tenderness that she almost hoped him capable of returning to normal again.
‘We could’ve helped you,’ Tuung muttered.
‘You wouldn’t have been able to lift any of this.’ Dartun gestured to the stone. ‘The locals couldn’t, and you don’t have any relics.’
‘But why do this on your own?’ Verain asked, laying a hand to his shoulder. ‘At least you could have let us try.’
‘No. You each need safe accommodation for the evening. You need food and warmth if you’re to survive the journey home.’
Tuung didn’t seem satisfied by that, and if she was honest with herself, neither was Verain. Their exchanged glance revealed that they weren’t buying Dartun’s reasoning, but she knew better than to press him.
They were rewarded with cheap lodgings in the local tavern, which was more like an impressive drinking warehouse overlooking the harbour. A large and spacious building, with several rooms available for rent, the group were the only guests – although the word guests implied an element of hospitality, whereas their stay was negotiated in one swift, urgent conversation between the harbourmaster and the landlord.
This was the only tavern in town, so the place remained packed with mouthy locals until late. Not that it mattered: they ate well, and Verain was sitting so close to a log fire she thought she might burn. That was all that mattered, to feel some heat in her bones, to feel . . . human again.
The landlord didn’t let the locals get near them. The harbourmaster had said that they should keep their heads down. A line had been drawn with the fug of weed smoke and ale, and Verain was fine with that. Dartun slumped silently in the corner of the tavern, in the lantern light; and, as he impassively regarded this vast hall, which was an excellent opportunity to discuss their plans, Verain remained too scared to say anything. Now and then the locals would direct fierce stares at Dartun, but when he returned their gaze without response, they quickly looked elsewhere. Two citizens even spat on his table as they passed, but he did not move an inch. Dartun’s inertia disturbed her.
In between sips of the strong, local ale, Tuung whispered to Verain, ‘I don’t know about you, lass, but I reckon your fella is up to something.’
‘He’s not my “fella” any more,’ she replied solemnly. ‘I just want to get back home.’
She longed for Villjamur again, for the comfort of the ebb and flow of the city.
It wasn’t until they were about to go to bed that the trouble started.
A group of locals loitered just beneath their window. Songs broke out, crude and vile lines. Raucous, they began throwing stones, little pebbles at first, and then larger rocks that clattered against the wall and eventually broke a window. Cold air and bitter voices washed into the room. Verain huddled on the floor along with the others, next to the fireplace – no one spoke about their situation, as if they might be able to ignore it completely.
A firecracker smashed through their window, landing by her foot; she leapt up and kicked it against the far wall before it exploded. Everyone in the room cowered back in shock. They turned as Dartun suddenly stood.
Without looking at them he calmly walked out of the room, closed the door and they heard as he walked down the stairs. A few moments later, a quarrel erupted outside.
Verain tiptoed to the window, navigating her way carefully around the broken glass. She peered down to see Dartun had emerged down below, and the crowds began surging towards him. There must have been nearly a hundred people there, packed in along the quayside, where boats gently moved against each other in the strong breeze.
A few at the head of the throng steered towards Dartun and began hurling abuse at him. He moved out of sight, back towards the tavern, but a gurgled scream followed – then another.
‘What’s going on?’ Tuung asked, grabbing her elbow and trying to glimpse past her.
She tugged herself away from his grip, threw on her wax coat, ran out and rushed downstairs to the front door which was still open, but it was too late . . .
A dozen bodies already sprawled at Dartun’s feet, their forms bent awkwardly, limbs severed in places. Blood was pooling on the wooden veranda, glinting in torchlight. Still people came at him, brandishing swords and maces. Someone fired an arrow, which pinged off Dartun’s chest, he caught another in mid air. The locals gasped.
Verain screamed his name, but he ignored her.
She stepped outside but slipped on the spilled blood, collapsing uselessly to the ground. Looking up, she saw Dartun heave his arm into someone’s stomach, their eyes bulging as they hunched over, more than winded. Another man tried to hit him with an axe but Dartun grabbed it at the handle, pulled the attacker forwards, and smashed the weapon backwards into their own face – cracking their skull with a simple ferocity.
Two, three more bodies fell, six, eight, ten – it was hideous, but she was too scared to move. This was beyond her control, beyond her scope of understanding. Why would these people not move away from him?
Eventually the immediate crowd dissipated. Someone hurled a firecracker by his feet but he didn’t flinch. Where it exploded, it should have ravaged his leg. She followed his still-emotionless gaze to a line of townsfolk, who were standing by the corner of a street, each carrying a bow. They fired at him and he stood there, arms out wide as the arrows rained down.
Verain clawed at the door frame as she scrambled back inside, shuddering as the arrows impacted on the tavern wall. When silence came she peered around the corner. Moonlight broke through the cloud, revealing the massacre in full. Dartun was standing still, arrows imbedded in his body – he strode forwards, plucking them out one by one, happily gesturing for the archers to try once again, but they looked at what was approaching them and retreated around the corner.
Verain joined him outside, where under the light of both moons she surveyed the scene. Her hand across her mouth, she gazed on the wreckage of the community: the corpses and dismembered limbs were everywhere. Where bodies were still moving, she longed to do something to help them, to call for medical attention.
Dartun began to hover then, as before, raising himself above the ground.
‘Dartun, what the hell are you?’ she screamed. ‘Just . . . This is your doing. You killed all these innocent people.’
‘Verain . . .’ He looked down at her, his face twitching. ‘I’m discovering something . . . new.’
Dartun’s arms fanned out wide, and a gentle trail of purple light radiated below his toes. He drifted away from her, many yards above the harbour and – in a sudden burst – he rocketed skywards, becoming an arc of light ascending to the heavens.
It wasn’t even midnight when people began returning. Verain feared for her life, feared for all of their lives. Dartun had suddenly abandoned them to face the aftermath. They held a rapid meeting in their room.
‘We’ve nothing but a few clothes,’ Tuung said. ‘No weapons, no relics, no food, nothing.’
‘The townsfolk will be wary of us at first,’ Todi replied. ‘It might permit us an opportunity to get out.’
‘Aye, the lad’s right,’ Tuung said. ‘If no one objects, I say we get our stuff, get on our boat and move up the coast.’
‘It’s pitch-black,’ Verain observed. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m not optimistic about our chances of navigating at night.’
‘We’ve got no choice, lass. Either that or get lynched.’
They packed, then crept through the darkness of the tavern, seeking a back window or door to get through. Verain heard wailing and crying from the front of the building, where families must have been picking through all the flesh in an effort to find loved ones. She felt sick because there was nothing she could do.
Unobserved, deliberately or otherwise, they managed to make their way through the narrow streets to the boat. They set off.
Moonlight glittered across the water up ahead, broken up by the waves. For a long while no one spoke or didn’t know what to say. Their purpose was as before, simply get to Villjamur, only now there was no one driving them like cattle.
They might have been sailing for an hour – maybe two, Verain couldn’t be sure – when there was a trail across the night sky, a purple jet of sparks and, moments later, there it was again, except moving the other way. Is that him?
‘Tuung,’ she called.
‘What is it?’ he replied from his position at the tiller.
‘Come and look for yourself.’
‘You come here and tell me.’
Verain stepped cautiously across the deck towards him, then pointed up past the sails. ‘There was something up there. It was moving across the sky.’
‘Meteor?’ he asked.
‘It could be, but there – no look! There it is again.’ Sure enough, there was another trail, this time curving much closer: it zigzagged then hovered, approaching the boat very slowly, like some inquisitive firefly.
Then, a final rush and it clattered aboard the boat, rolling and skidding to a stop at the far end.
‘Dartun!’ Verain called, and instinctively rushed towards him before remembering what he had just done. She paused, waiting for his reaction to define the following engagement.
Dartun brushed himself down and limped around to face her. His face was bizarrely pale, even in this light, and his clothing was almost non-existent.
‘The moon,’ he declared, ‘is not a moon.’
‘What the fuck?’ Tuung called out. The others had stirred from their rest now, and sluggishly moved to Tuung’s side. Verain was between her order and Dartun, uncertain which way to go.
‘What do you mean?’ she said.
‘One of the moons,’ Dartun replied, as if nothing had happened. As if he had not just slaughtered dozens of people. As if he had not just flown around the sky like a human comet.
‘What about it?’
‘It isn’t a moon!’ he replied again, exasperated. ‘It’s an immense city. Or rather, it was an immense city – however long ago.’
‘You aren’t telling us you’ve just come back from there?’ Verain enquired in disbelief.
‘I am,’ he said, watching them now with great sorrow.
‘Why did you go up there?’
‘Because it is in my nature, Verain. You of all people must know my tendencies to push the boundaries of knowledge. I . . . I could not help myself. I found these new abilities and, perhaps selfishly, I simply flew higher, and higher, until all I could see was the moon. I’m sorry I abandoned you.’
‘Never mind that,’ Tuung spluttered, ‘what the hell was up there?’
Verain glared at him.
A groan of wind passed through, and in the following silence Dartun continued. ‘It was one long, sprawling city. Metallic street after metallic street, all abandoned to time. There were immense numbers of dwellings, small units, large units, all of an equal mass. There were burn marks . . . charred elements, blackened zones around the edges of structures, as if a fire had engulfed the place.’
‘How big was it?’ Tuung asked excitedly, and for a moment Verain thought they could just forget everything, just blank out what had happened, and return to their old state of happy exploration of sciences and the unknown.
‘A thousand metal Villjamurs, all bleeding into one another,’ Dartun replied. ‘It was not a moon, most definitely not. Whatever it is, it was designed by no civilization that I know of. The closest I had seen was the architecture of the M'athema, but it wasn’t quite right. It is artificial. There were substances I’ve never seen, fabrics I cannot even begin to comprehend. With the aid of my transformation, I stood on the highest level of their tallest structure and stared out. All I saw was lane after lane, road after road, spiralling around each other with precise symmetry. There were lattices, grids of sunken metal streets. It shimmered so greatly that, as I flew invigorated across the crest of our world, the detail caught my eye. It reflected the light of the sun as strongly as the other moon, which seems quite real, and did not possess the appearance of streets or cities.’
Tuung was evidently in awe. ‘What do you think it was built for?’
Verain was on the verge of breaking down. This is what we’ll do then. We’ll ignore his brutality. We’ll ignore that he just slaughtered a crowd of innocent people. We’re tired and need to return home. That’s fine with me.
‘I do not know,’ Dartun replied. ‘Perhaps our cultures sought out to live among the stars. The project did not, it seems, end well.’
And neither will ours, Verain thought.