Chapter 22

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Chapter Twenty-two

Hunter and Hunted

From his years in the Outlands, hunting, tracking, meeting with other lost souls, planning his future as he rebuilt the fragmentary memories of his past, John Fulgar had developed a certain sense for when things were not right.

That sense, as keen as his hearing and a good deal keener than his sight thanks to the efforts of the Cerberite hounds, was on red alert now. As he waded back across the marshes from his fruitless visit to the river, he knew every step was taking him closer and closer to confirmation that he had seriously underestimated David Tweed.

Deep down, he had known he was taking a huge risk leaving David with Creophas in the first place. He had not had any such doubts about Sarah. She was all bluster. She’d kick and scream against injustice, she’d sulk and pout when that didn’t work, but she would never really do anything. With her, winning was a habit. She had never really learned to lose, never really had to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do when the shit hits the fan and you’re down to your own resources to dig yourself out of the mess. One of life’s most important lessons was not how to win; it was how to lose and move on.

David, on the other hand, had learned that lesson and had probably spent most of what he considered a pretty miserable existence practising it. He was quiet, outwardly biddable, watchful, thoughtful. It was this latter that was dangerous; dangerous to Fulgar’s plan and even more dangerous to David himself. Thoughtful was not part of the vocabulary of this world.

The first part of Fulgar’s plan had gone like clockwork (even down to having his two charges declared ordinary Outlanders by Minos. There was a time back there that he seriously doubted that little scheme would come off.)

He had even managed to split them up and had, he thought, got each of them locked away where they could do no harm, either to him or to themselves.

But it was as he reached the bank of the river below Dis that the doubts began to niggle at him. He had still found no trace of the one they called Toby Mann. In the end it hardly mattered. From Torvos he learned that the boy had been this way, but was already up at the city gate. The Cerberites had been more efficient than even Fulgar had given them credit for in getting the third of the Travellers up to  Dis to await deportation.

Fulgar had stood for a good while by the river considering his options. He could still try to get to Toby (thereby keeping all three of them neatly contained), or he could abandon him to his fate on the Isle of Fortunates and let nature take its course. It was this that he eventually decided on. It was not perfect, but it served his purposes well enough. Toby would be destroyed, and no one would question the judgement in the process. The boy had never been more than an irrelevant inconvenience anyway. Toby was not the prophesy. If he had been, he would never have allowed himself to get caught so easily.

But he still had the other two to deal with.

It was more important than ever that he did not allow another of them to slip through his grasp. While he had no particular interest in Sarah for her own sake, she did have her uses, and right now it was she who was in the most immediate danger. Satyris would only take so long to process his new wife, then she would be lost in the labyrinthine hell of the Tower. Even if she could be retrieved, her mind would be so numbed and useless that she might as well have been just an ordinary Outlander. And if that were the case, he fancied David would be a good deal less easy to handle.

And there it was. Back to David. It always came back to David.

As he sat on the banks of the river, watching Torvos torturing his last remaining servant Mulligrub, he knew it always came back to David. He was the key to all this. He always had been.

He had hated the boy when he first arrived, had even suffered a momentary impulse to direct the first spear straight at him, rather than using it to save the lives of these two lost and pathetic outsiders. But as he walked with him, almost despite himself he had grown to respect him, maybe even like him. David thought of himself as weak; Fulgar knew differently. The boy had a power about him – a power Fulgar would never have doubted if the events of his life had not made faith such a hard thing to hold.

So Fulgar waded back through the stinking marsh with its tangle of traps and hazards and set off through the settlements for Creophas’s compound. With each step, that growing disquiet that he had made a fatal mistake grew. It was only mid-afternoon, but already he was sure that David would not be sitting with the fat man, chewing over the latest course and cracking ribald jokes. David would have found a way out. And that threatened to ruin everything.

He hammered on Creophas’s door, almost hard enough that there was no need to wait for the emaciated waif behind it to turn the key and open it. As soon as it was unlocked he strode along the corridor and this time did not wait for the mouse-fingered servant (who was even now only just getting back to his feet) to fiddle with the lock and let him into the banqueting hall. He heaved his bulk at the door and popped it clean off its not inconsiderable hinges.

‘Where is he?’ he bellowed.

‘Fulgar, my dear Mr Fulgar,’ Creophas burbled from the head of the table. ‘Join us. You are early.’

‘Where’s the boy?’ By now he knew David was not still at the table; he had walked the length of it, either by stepping on or kicking clear the mass of scurrying servants, and now stood almost face to face with Creophas.

‘Fulgar, please sit. Your boy has gone on an errand. We were short of food…’

‘He’s what? You let him out?’

‘In the company of one of my boys. They will be back.’

‘Have you any idea what’ll happen if they get caught out there?’

‘Mr Fulgar, I would caution you to remember to whom you are speaking. You are mortal despite some evidence to the contrary, and I will not tolerate rudeness in my home.’

‘Very well, I’m leaving. My guess is they’ve gone to Satyris’s tower, yes?’

‘Indeed. But you are welcome to wait. They said they would be back before night-fall. Just time for a snack?’

Fulgar did not dignify the invitation with an answer he might regret. He knew Creophas could do little by himself, but the Barons were powerful and becoming more so, and the satisfaction of giving this pointless, gluttonous waste of space a piece of his mind now would be more than paid back by the trouble the Barons could cause him later. He snatched a khat stem from the jar on the end of the table and marched out of the banqueting hall. Breaking his stride only to kick the doorman back down the hall, he slammed the front door behind him and stood seething in the drizzle.

Even now there was a slight glimmer of hope in this rapidly unravelling situation. David might still be at Satyris’s tower. He might even still be alive.

Fulgar actually ran the mile or so from Creophas’s compound (something he had not condescended to do even on the Isle of Fortunates) and quickly established from the guard that David had indeed paid Satyris a visit.

While Fulgar was not particularly surprised that David had given Creophas the slip so easily, he was astonished that not only had the boy had the guts to go to Satyris’s tower, but he had managed to kidnap Sarah. He had, it seemed, simply walked in and taken her. And Satyris was beyond furious. The only reason he did not tear Fulgar apart on sight was that he wanted Sarah back, and Fulgar was his only realistic prospect of getting her.

But Satyris’s ire was nothing compared to the problem that now faced Fulgar. If David was found by the wrong people and the Prophesy fulfilled, the gates of Hell itself would open.

He had been so careful. He had planned this operation, thought he had plugged every possible gap. But as he had guided his charges through Orbis and up into the mountains, he had fallen into the trap of seeing David as David saw himself – as weak, indecisive and frightened. Fulgar cursed himself that he could have been so stupid. That stupidity threatened to deliver David right back into the hands of Seyyal and her half-witted brother. From there, the future looked bleak for them all.

David was back with Sarah, and Fulgar knew the boy drew a special strength from her. Though they had not yet fully realised it, together they formed a unit far more powerful than the sum of their parts. They also had help now from someone who was born in the filth and squalor of this place and who, it seemed from Satyris’s brutal interrogation of his doorman, had a special bond of his own. He was born of the Barons and although that would cut no ice as far as saving them if the Cerberites caught them, it did give him a special knowledge of how things worked.

David and Sarah were out there, they were free, and they had inside knowledge.

And it seemed they had stolen all his money!

For the first time in a very long while, Fulgar was pretty much out of ideas. There was no way of knowing what this rag-tag band of newly-wealthy fugitives would do next. Would they move on to the walls of Dis to try to get Toby, or would their experiences so be far be enough to convince them to cut their losses and get back to the Machine on the other side of Mormo?

He had no idea. And that was a problem. He had to stop them, but he could only go one way: Dis or Mormo (assuming he could get back through the mountains at all).

Darkness began to fall and the streets were busy again. He saw a crowd up ahead and slipped down a side alley to avoid them. The commotion seemed to be concentrated on one particular house, and Fulgar stopped. Could it be that a certain group of misfits had aroused suspicion and were being detained? He doubted it, but his mind was at a point where it was clamouring for any positive sign.

He could see a group of about seven youngsters, boys and girls, inside the house. They were wrecking the place, tearing out the support struts with such ruthless efficiency that it was not long before the roof began to cave in. With a final jab from below, it slipped all the way into the street.

A fiery glow appeared from within the shack. Flames quickly took hold and smoke billowed up through the open roof. An old man shouted something, but Fulgar had seen enough.

Almost enough.

He was about to move on when, through the smoke, he saw a very familiar figure. He froze. He had not been noticed, but could he get through the crowd before he was?

He moved quickly. He rounded the back of the flaming building and began to push through the crowd. Like a cat stalking a bird, he got as close as he dared, then used speed and raw strength to close the last few paces to his quarry.

‘Gotcha!’

He dug his fingers into Namir’s shoulder and span him around. In the instant before Namir recognised his assailant he kicked out with his heel, making contact with the side of Fulgar’s knee. The big man buckled but his grip only tightened.

‘Fulgar!’ Namir said.

‘Yeah, Fulgar.’ He straightened himself up and tested his weight on his leg. The knee would give him hell in a day or two, but for now it was holding. ‘Didn’t expect to find me here, did you?’

‘I had hoped…’

‘Seyyal always was the brains of your little operation.’

‘You’ve no idea.’ Namir looked at Fulgar properly for the first time. ‘Hey, where are they? They’re still with you, right?’

‘They’re safe.’

‘Good. Look, let’s just get out of here, OK?’

‘My thoughts exactly.’

Without letting go of Namir’s shoulder (he had an idea that this much younger and fitter man might not find it too difficult to give him the slip, especially among this many people) Fulgar steered him away from the burning house.

They moved beyond the crowd and out into the darkness.

‘So where are they?’ Namir said, shaking Fulgar’s hand from his shoulder.  

‘They’re close. What are you doing out here?’

‘I came to warn them. Word’s got out.’

‘About?’

‘They’re the real deal, Fulgar, as if you didn’t know.’

‘So who else knows?’

‘The Council got nervous after you’d left with them. They began to think maybe you’d try to hide them, use them as a kind of bargaining chip to get something from the Keeper, so they sent a message on ahead with the Cerberites.’

‘How far ahead?’

‘Certainly as far as the city.’

‘No. I’ve been as far as the river; the Cerberites are not there.’

‘Don’t be naive, John. They weren’t going to waste time waiting for the boatman, were they?’

‘They sent the machines through the tunnels? That means G4 knows,’ Fulgar said.

‘And you can bet it goes higher than that. If G4 knows, Tithonus knows.’

‘No, I doubt that. Tithonus isn’t quite the force he used to be.’

‘We can only hope not. He’s waited a very long time for this. If he gets hold of David he’s finally found the key that’ll take him right into the heart of Malebolge.’

‘Oh, this just keeps getting better!’

‘Well what did you expect?’ Namir said. ‘Turns out the Council were right to be nervous, didn’t it? You took them to Minos! I know damn fine that wasn’t your end-game, but I can’t think what you have got planned. What were you thinking, bringing them here?’

‘I had to keep them safe. I had to slime them with the filth of this place long enough to get Toby too, then get all three of them out of here. Before G4 found them.’

‘Out of here? You’re going to send them back? You could name any price you like of you took them to the Keeper yourself.’

‘The Keeper has nothing I want,’ Fulgar said, ‘not any more.’

‘So, what are you doing? You got Toby, right?’

‘No. He’s up at the Gates. He’s lost.’

‘But the other two are still safe.’

Fulgar exhaled slowly.

‘You lost them too,’ Namir said.

‘Yes and no. They’re still in Exdis. I know they haven’t gone across the river, and I’m guessing since you must have come through the mountains, they haven’t gone that way either.’

‘Unless they went back through the labyrinth.’

‘If they did, they’re as good as dead already, but I don’t think David would do that. On his own, maybe, but he wouldn’t risk taking Sarah through there.’

‘OK,’ Namir said, ‘so they’re probably still in Exdis. Question is, what do we do about it?’

‘What’s this we?’ Fulgar said.

‘By the look of things, you need help. You know as well as I do that together we’ve got a much better chance than apart. So do we do this together, or do we wander around getting in each other’s way?’

‘OK,’ Fulgar said. ‘We find them, but when we do, don’t get in my way.’

‘Fine,’ Namir said. ‘We can negotiate the details later. So where do we start?’

‘We don’t start, not yet. We hole up for the night. They’re with one of the locals, and I’m guessing that even if he’s figured out they’re not Outlanders, he won’t have much idea just how valuable, or dangerous, they are.’

‘And no local would move at night.’

‘Exactly. Wherever they are, they’re there for the night and they’re probably well hidden. My guess is that they’ll try to move at first light. Either they’ll go across the river to get Toby, or they’ll try to get back through the mountains. So we split up. I’ll go and try to head them off at the river,  you go back towards the Court. It’ll only take them a few hours to cross back through Exdis and get up the mountains, so if there’s no sign of them by this time tomorrow, carry on down to Orbis and I’ll try to flush them through to you.’

‘There was a lot of activity in Orbis after I left.’

‘Cerberites?’ Fulgar said.

‘Yes, twenty-five, maybe thirty, heading out of town for the mountain path.’

‘Twenty-five or thirty? Which was it?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Yes, it matters. The Orbis platoon was originally thirty-six strong. I know they lost four, maybe five. So it matters because we need to know whether the entire platoon has been directed to finding them in the mountains, or if there are any left in Orbis itself.’

Namir thought for a moment.

‘Twenty-six,’ Namir said. ‘I’m sure it was twenty-six. They were in square formation, with one at the head of the column. Five by five, plus the leader. Twenty-six.’

‘So they’ve got the mountains well guarded, but they’ve not exactly abandoned Orbis.’

‘Four or five – six if the leader goes back to Orbis – we can avoid them, surely.’

‘You got any idea who gave the orders?’

‘No.’

‘OK. At least we know. If they’re stationed outside the court, we’re sunk. Will you get back through all right?’

‘Sure. Seyyal and I’ve worked with the drones for years. Not something I’m proud of, but it can work for us now.’

‘Good. Now, let’s find some cover for the night.’

He and Namir were not so different from any other Outlander. They too needed to get off the streets before the Cerberites came to sweep up the stragglers and the Erinnys flew from their eyries above the city.

Fulgar knew where he was going, and it was away from here. He knew they were on the edge of Pelf’s district and experience had taught him that this was not a place to linger. Of all the Barons in Exdis, Pelf was perhaps the most unpredictable. He could be as hospitable as Creophas when the mood took him, or he could slit your throat for a pair of shoes that wouldn’t even fit him. The other Barons killed pragmatically; Pelf killed for the fun of it.

He and Namir would move to the far edge of the district where they might be far enough from Pelf to be reasonably safe, and where he could get a quick getaway at first light. Fulgar needed to get to the river before the boatman began his day’s work.

Yet among all this careful planning, Fulgar missed something. As he and Namir crept along the deserted streets, they came across one house that did show signs of occupation. A faint light flickered in the windows.

Fulgar tapped Namir on the shoulder and pointed at the house. Namir nodded and the two of them crept closer. With Namir keeping an eye out for anything that might mean them harm (which now that it was dark was more or less everything), Fulgar peered in through the window. The fire was small, weak, probably going out, so he did not investigate thoroughly. Whoever had been here, Fulgar assumed, had moved on.

He threw the remains of the khat stem he had been chewing into the fire and watched for a moment as the sparks danced in the darkness.

Fulgar withdrew and he and Namir moved on. They found a half-finished house on the border between Pelf’s and Malverso’s districts, a house past which David, Sarah and Limivo would pass the following morning.

The last in a line of fateful mistakes that Fulgar made was to assume that the fugitives would move at first light. Everyone moved at first light; it was the only time the servants really had the freedom and safety to do so. He did not know, however, that where David and Sarah came from, first light was something experienced only by a few Druids, milkmen and those who had more in common with Pelf than they would admit. Few others saw it, and these two travellers from another world were certainly not among them. Given the trouble and delays that Pelf was to cause them, even if they had got an early start Fulgar would still have been hours ahead of them.

So, as dawn crept tentatively across the leaden sky, John Fulgar watched Namir make his way back towards the mountains then he himself limped off one more time for the river. He considered that since the death of his wife and daughter he had not cared so much about anything as he did about finding those two Travellers. Since that time, all those years ago, nothing else had really seemed that important. And this time it was about a whole lot more than just the lives of the two people he was trying to save.

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