There was some kind of military operation under way – she could at least be certain of that. Thousands of red-skinned rumels were massing on the snow before her, all garbed in alien clothing, carrying banners with bizarre insignia, and ranked in eerily precise rows. Orders were being issued in that base, guttural language of theirs, and then the sound of marching muted by the snow.
But in the distance she could see thousands of those . . . things.
Verain shuddered. She cringed at their ragged movements, at their monstrous insectile appearance. Those shells and claws. Though some distance away, they still put the fear of Bohr or indeed any other god into her. Each of them seemed to loom above their nearest rumel counterpart, yet despite the physical dominance, they were somehow subordinate to the red-skins.
Verain and the other cultists – what few of them that were left by now – stood dumbly examining this movements of a civilization across the landscape, through the Realm Gates. This was the tail end of an invasion force and she knew, without knowing how, that they were making war on the cities on the next island south. From what she had seen of their work already, she felt remorse for whoever would have to oppose them.
Dartun’s words were mumbled sentences at first, until the wind died down. He urged them on, his strong voice calling out for them to hasten their progress. Dogs barked and tugged on their reins, their four sleds skidding forwards, the brightness of the light now like some vision of a heavenly realm, but no sooner had they moved through the thick flakes of snow when they came to a halt.
She could feel her pulse in her throat. I just want to get out of here, please . . .
A few of the red-skin rumels approached them on horseback and for some reason she could not get used to the fact that this variation of the race could exist in another dimension. Three sentries examined Dartun in the blinding light of the Realm Gates. She observed the matrix of tiny purple lines within a much brighter glow – that was where home would be. That was where she longed to return.
There came orders from behind, and in harsh tongues, there appeared to be an exchange between silhouettes in the Realm Gates’ light, and the rumels before them.
Presently the cultists were all ushered forward, free to go now, finally, with nothing but sleds and dogs. The cultists of the Order of the Equinox set out across the snow and back into their home-world.
Later, much later.
And from the sanctuary of her hood, Verain peered back over her shoulder, but thankfully could no longer see the gates. Snow stormed around their small group, vicious spirals of whiteness that obscured both the horizon and the foreground. Moments of calm revealed rolling hills or ice sheets, blackened trees that clawed the grey skies. Everything here seemed identical to the moment they left, the same vistas, the same terrain, the same forests and villages.
And the ceaseless snow . . .
They paused, their sleds sliding to a stop. Strands of her coal-black hair wafted before her eyes and she tucked them behind her ears. She appeared to be, and felt like, a mess. She was slender before she had come all the way out here, but now she felt dangerously malnourished.
There were ten of them. Ten, from the dozens who had journeyed out beyond the Realm Gates, trailing Dartun and his lust for answers and the knowledge to extend his life. Now garbed in thick clothing and furs, they had little sense of where they were headed. A couple of dogs barked, a bizarre tinny edge to their cacophony. They, too, had been altered – she knew it, though her mind wasn’t clear as to how or why.
Her mind was not clear at all.
Dartun S'ur stepped out alongside her. There was a silvery sheen to his face, and patches of some substance could be seen beneath where his skin had been ripped along his neck. If she stared hard enough she could see that his eyes were glowing red, his movements fluid – yet it was still him, the leader of their order, the man who had dominated the culture of the cultists in Villjamur. A man who pushed for progress and had great visions for the future.
A man she loved.
Only now he bore the marks of having been . . . there.
His cloak was now frayed along the edges, his clothing worn in places. His musculature had been enhanced. He now possessed the posture of a hardened soldier, not hunched from studying ancient relics well into the night. He seemed ragged yet powerful. Dartun S'ur had led them to another world in search of eternal life, and he looked like he had found it.
Images flooded back to Verain – impressions of that other place, beyond the Realm Gates.
Memories slammed into her mind:
A world enveloped by night. Dust-storms and eternal thunder. A landscape littered with the remnants of cultures, of shattered cities and of bonescapes. War raged in pockets of wasteland, creatures she had never imagined, or those that she thought originated from prehistoric cultures, clashed with ferocity.
Verain attempted to piece together what had happened. She realized she had no sense of time – Bohr, her mind was a mess. How long had it been since they’d first entered the gates? How much time had passed exactly? In her mind, it seemed months had gone. It seemed important to make sense of her presence here. The Order of the Equinox had followed Dartun in his quest and they had found that their relics, their pieces of ancient technology, were quite useless against this highly evolved culture. And they had been captured, imprisoned and tortured. Yet why was she here, relatively unscathed from these events?
She shuddered and erased the thoughts from her mind, and hoped the scars would leave her memory. What was important now was that she survived; because she would not have escaped merely to perish so uselessly. I will not let myself die out here.