Chapter 16

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Chapter sixteen

Into the Dead Zone­

A little over twenty-four hours after the Cerberites had regained their prisoner and set off for the walls of Dis, David and Sarah looked out at its monumental blackness from the tunnel exit.

Below them the streets were teeming with people. Men, women and children scurried through the narrow streets between shanty buildings. No one paid any attention to the new arrivals.

'Welcome to Exdis,' Fulgar said.

Neither David or Sarah could reply. After the eerily deserted Orbis and the reverential silence of Minos's court, to be confronted by so many people was suddenly terrifying. So far they had only needed to deal with this world's inhabitants a few at a time. Now they were about to be led right into the heart of whatever passed for civilisation out here.

Fulgar led them down the shallow slope and into the crowd.  

They walked through a series of straight streets off which a myriad of alleys led to ramshackle huddles of shacks, tumble-down buildings and mountains of rubbish. Along some streets the original buildings had been extended and added to, room by room, until they almost met in the middle, often forming a near-complete bridge over the narrow passage below. In other places new routes had been carved, literally, through existing buildings, the old paths now clogged with detritus that was half barricade and half midden heap. As in Orbis, the foundations on which this chaos was built were old pre-war buildings in various states of disrepair and dereliction. While some of these older buildings appeared to still be used, most of the newer shacks and shelters had grown like a festering scab over the remains of the old world.

It was raining, it was cold, and it was filthy. Sewage ran in the gutters and formed bubbling pools wherever something obstructed its free flow. Even the rain was ash-grey and stank of old fires and decay.

And there were the people: a lot of them. Some carried bundles of limp vegetables, piles of ragged clothes, boxes, timber or crates of junk, but most simply rushed from house to house with no clear purpose. They swarmed, not with the aggressive inquisitiveness of ants or wasps when their nest is disturbed, but with a kind of aimless haste. This was movement without purpose.

They paid no attention whatever to the three strangers who carved their way through the midst of this chaos. Fulgar led his captives like reluctant dogs.

Through a gaping hole in the wall of one of the shacks, David had a clear view of two children fighting. They lunged at each other with long iron bars. The boys clashed blades, and more than once landed blows on each other. The smaller of the two children caught his friend on the head and the metal bar rang like a bell. He laughed. His friend staggered against a wall with a grin on his face and blood pouring from his scalp.

Just before the two boys disappeared from view, David saw the older one lash out and catch his little friend square in the stomach with the make-shift sword. The sound of only one childish laugh followed them down the muddy street.

'So what is this place?' Sarah said.

'Exdis?' Fulgar said. 'Think of it as the beginning of the end. The outlying settlements that lead to Dis itself. It was carved up into districts after Firestorm, each ruled by a Baron appointed by the Keeper. Stay close: some of the barons don't care much for Outlanders.' He yanked their chains to underline the point.

Fulgar stumbled. He had been marching just quickly enough that David and Sarah had to trot behind him to keep up, but he had not been paying attention to where he was going. He regained his balance and rounded on the child now cowering in the gutter behind him.

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